London women tell UN poverty envoy about impact of welfare cuts

Residents of deprived Newham describe domestic abuse and hunger to Philip Alston

Women in London have told the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty they are bearing the brunt of government welfare cuts, and described how austerity has left infants homeless and exacerbated problems including overcrowded housing and domestic violence.

More than a dozen women addressed Philip Alston at a highly charged meeting in Newham, east London, and urged him to tackle British ministers over the disproportionate effects on women of eight years of spending cuts.

A group including many immigrants told the human rights lawyer that as a result of austerity measures, some had been driven to sell sex, some had faced increased domestic abuse and others had been denied the ability to bring up their children properly.

One woman with a baby strapped to her back spoke through tears about how she fled domestic violence only to be made to wait for 20 hours at a social security office where she became so hungry she had to drink her child’s milk.

Alston arrived in one of the poorest boroughs in the capital on the eighth day of his tour of the UK, in which he has been examining extreme poverty, austerity, welfare changes and the impact of Brexit.

Reducing poverty was one of the specific legacy goals of the 2012 Olympic Games, which Newham helped host. Between 2010 and 2015, the borough rose out of the 20 most deprived neighbourhoods in England, but local activists say this improvement was not spread evenly across the borough, with areas directly around the sporting venues enjoying increased prosperity while others suffered.

Last year, child poverty in the borough was the third worst in the UK behind Tower Hamlets and Manchester. After housing costs, 43% of children were living below the poverty line, according to analysis of official figures by the charity End Child Poverty.

Among those who addressed Alston was Jane Williams of the Magpie Project. Her organisation has helped 215 of the estimated 2,000 homeless families with children under five who live in the borough. Williams said children had nowhere to play or be potty-trained, mothers could not sleep as several children shared a room, and some were spending one-third of their incomes on milk formula.

She read out testimony from one of the projects’ clients: “They have taken everything from me but my body. What do they want me to do? Do they want me to sell my body?”

Trinity*, a mother of a nine-year-old, told Alston: “A lot of women are forced into poverty and into prostitution. I have been destitute and homeless from one place to another.” She said she survived an attempted rape and had boiling water poured on her when she resisted.

Paula Peters, from Disabled People Against Cuts, described the difficulty of a a 54-year-old carer in accessing universal credit, including seven attempts to fill out online forms, as well as needing to borrow money to eat and at one point not eating for a week.

Another woman’s benefits were sanctioned, Peters said, “because she didn’t look happy” at a meeting with the welfare officer.

Another woman unfurled a banner in front of Alston with the names and photos of dozens of people said to have died as a result of benefit sanctions and austerity.

Alston told the group: “It will be interesting to me to ascertain the extent to which the authorities are really aware of the sort of issues you presented, the extent to which they have tracked those impacts of those policies.”

Alston will spend the rest of this week in London having meetings with Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, and John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury, as well as officials at departments including the Department for Exiting the European Union.

He will then draft a report to be delivered at a press conference on Friday. It will examine how the UK government, councils and devolved assemblies have been handling extreme poverty, the impacts of austerity policies and the roll-out of universal credit.

Alston is also expected to address Brexit and whether it might deepen poverty in some areas of the country, and will look at how the increasing reliance on computers to deliver welfare and even make judgments about benefit decisions using algorithms will affect people.

Several women described how universal credit could “facilitate economic abuse” between men and women, because it is normally paid in a single payment. Requesting split payments in violent households could escalate abuse, one woman said.

A mother of two who gave her name as Doris said she had lived in 40 places in the past decade as a result of welfare insecurity. “I have said to my sons: if you could come back as a woman, would you? They said no way, not the way you’ve been been treated,” she said.

*Trinity was one of the women from our centre at the hearing, she is a member of the All African Women’s Group.

Sammy Woodhouse: Rotherham ‘rapist offered role in child’s life’

A victim of child sexual exploitation has called for a change in the law amid claims a man who raped her was offered a role in her son’s life.

It is understood Arshid Hussain, who was jailed for 35 years in 2016, was contacted by Rotherham Council about care proceedings heard last year.

His victim Sammy Woodhouse told the BBC she was “shocked” when she was informed of the council’s approach.

The authority said it had “no intention” of putting a child at risk.

Urgent efforts would be taken to “address the failings in this case”, The MoJ said.

Ms Woodhouse described Hussain as “a danger to myself and to other children”.

In a video posted on Twitter she urged the government “to change the law to ensure rapists can’t gain access to children conceived through rape”.

‘What about my rights?’

Hussain, known around Rotherham as Mad Ash, was one of three brothers behind the grooming and sexual abuse of more than 50 girls, including Ms Woodhouse.

She was just 14 when she met him.

Read more and see video, where Sammy says that mothers are forced to face their rapists all over the country in family courts, at

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-46368991

Rape convictions: juries are not to blame, biased investigations and prosecutions are

MP Anne Coffey got a lot of publicity last week when she said in Parliament that juries in rape trials should be abolished, arguing that this is the solution to the low conviction rate. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-46288114

We strongly disagree. Juries are not to blame for the falling conviction rate. Negligent and biased investigations and prosecutions are. These are compounded by economic policies which have downgraded the whole justice process and made women in particular more vulnerable.

Abolishing juries for such a serious crime would be a dangerous precedent.

We have heard the argument against juries before from people who refuse to acknowledge or address the systemic prejudices built into investigations and prosecutions that result in so few convictions. We have said for years that the conviction rate reflects the criminal justice system’s refusal to prosecute rape and, when it does, to prosecute thoroughly. Juries are a convenient scapegoat to point the finger at.

The following changes are urgently needed:

– Thorough, unbiased investigations by police, ensuring all the available evidence is gathered and assessed. In our experience, this is often lacking. The John Worboys scandal is one glaring example: the investigation into the serial attacker was so negligent that his victims won damages from the Met under the Human Rights Act. (See more at Supreme Court today and ‘Why do the police deal with rape cases so badly?’)

– The prosecution case put to the court must also be thorough and unbiased, and any evidence of domestic violence must be included. In many cases, especially of domestic rape, evidence and charges are narrowed down, making cases less truthful and compelling. Charges of common assault used in DV cases cannot be brought after six months but investigations often take much longer – this limitation must be dropped as it weakens the overall case.

– Judge and prosecutor must protect the victim from unfair and irrelevant questioning in court, particularly about sexual history.

– The law must be changed to ban ‘evidence’ of a victim’s sexual history with men other than the accused. This is key as women’s credibility continues to be trashed by defence barristers cross examining on totally irrelevant sexual history. This sexist practice has been reinforced and extended this year as the authorities have insisted that police must trawl through victims’ phone and social media history. This is a disastrous step backwards, and we hope a legal challenge to it will help to protect the rights of victims.

Instead of addressing these very basic problems, and making rape a genuine priority for the criminal justice authorities, juries are being blamed. They are not the problem, the professionals who gather and present the evidence and direct the case are: police, prosecutors and judges were shown to be institutionally sexist for decades – they have not shifted as much as they are given credit for. They continue to downgrade investigations and prosecutions, and to find ways to excuse rape and domestic violence.

The proof that abolishing juries is not the solution is the family court. There are no jurors in family courts and judges there are some of the worst offenders when it comes to disbelieving women victims of rape and domestic violence. Reporting DV and/or rape more than once is routinely used to assume victims are lying; yet evidence shows that DV and domestic rape are serial crimes and that women who have been identified as vulnerable are more likely to be targeted again and again by the same man as well as by others.

Adding insult to injury, austerity cuts which have overwhelmingly targeted women and children are making us even more vulnerable to violence and cutting off our escape routes, including our access to protection and justice through the courts. Universal Credit which is paid to the head of the household was designed to ‘strengthen the family unit’ i.e. men’s power and control over women and children. These cuts must be reversed and women’s entitlement to justice reinstated.

Women on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood – “Release us and close this place down.”

For IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Over 40 women in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre have gone on hunger strike protesting against a charter flight (Tues 27 Nov) that will take traumatised women back to Nigeria.  Women from many different countries including, Bolivia, China, Ghana, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Romania, South Africa, Tanzania, Venezuela, and Zambia, have come together to take this action.

A case currently in court of people (known as the Stansted 15) who blocked a charter flight from taking off in 28 March 2017, has brought to light the terrible brutality of these pre-booked flights. People are scooped up, sometimes regardless of the status of their legal case, and forced onto planes to fill seats.

One of the women in the All African Women’s Group, a self-help group of women asylum seekers and refugees, was on the flight that was stopped by the Stansted 15 last March. She says:

I’ve lived in Britain for almost 30 years and have indefinite leave to remain – yet I was taken from my home to Yarl’s Wood and put on a flight within six days despite my lawyer’s protests to the Home Office – I was so thankful to the young people for stopping this flight, they saved mine and other people’s lives.”

Women in Yarl’s Wood are also protesting appalling conditions inside[1],[2]. A dossier[3] by Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) and Women Against Rape documented a decade of rape and sexual abuse by guards, much of which was covered up by Serco, the multi-national company which was granted a £70 million contract to run the centre. Christine Case died there in 2014 due to lack of medical care. [4]

Fidelia from Bolivia spoke to BWRAP, which is co-ordinating support for the hunger strikers, saying that she is severely distressed at being detained.

I came to the UK for safety as my life was threatened by drug gangs after I spoke out. I’ve been in the UK for over 11 years. I’m a cancer survivor and I need to see a specialist but all I’ve been given is paracetamol! I’ve been held here for seven months for no reason.”

Another woman commented:
We haven’t had the chance to have a proper legal process. The Home Office has been refusing evidence and documents and want to send us back without even looking at our cases. Being here is mentally disturbing – everyone is damaged, physically and emotionally.”

The chief inspector of prisons condemned Yarl’s Wood as ‘a place of national concern’.

Women inside Yarl’s Wood are demanding: an end to charter flights, the closure of detention centres, the reinstatement of legal aid for immigration cases, an end to mothers being separated from their children by detention and for rape and sexual abuse to be recognised as torture and therefore grounds for asylum.

Women are available for interviews – please call Cristel on 07456 525227

[1] http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-06-20/40860

[2]  Channel 4’s undercover documentary reveals racist, sexist and violent attitudes by some guards https://www.ein.org.uk/news/channel-4-news-investigation-raises-new-concerns-over-yarls-wood-immigration-removal-centre

[3] Rape & Sexual Abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration & Removal Centre http://www.womenagainstrape.net/sites/default/files/dossier_rape_in_yarls_woodfinaljuly15.pdf

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/mar/30/yarls-wood-immigration-centre-detainee-dies

 

Evidence to UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, 2018

We joined other groups in submitting evidence to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, ahead of his visit to the UK in November 2018.

This has now been published by the UN alongside other submissions: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/UKVisitSubmissions.aspx –
See submissions from Legal Action for Women and Single Mothers Self Defence & by WinVisible – both quote WAR on the effects of growing poverty on women’s vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Philip Alston who is an ’eminent international human rights lawyer called for submissions from anyone in the UK to establish “the most significant human rights violations experienced by people living in poverty and extreme poverty in the UK”. He is interested in the impact of austerity, universal credit, the advent of computer algorithms making decisions on welfare matters, and Brexit.’