Guest blog: My Visit to Iain Duncan Smith's Country Mansion

Posted on Sat 11th May 2013, 6:11pm

My Visit to Iain Duncan Smith's Country Mansion by Dom Aversano

On Saturday 13th April I joined UK Uncut and DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) in a visit to Iain Duncan Smith's country mansion.

I met a member of UK Uncut the morning of their planned action. "This is the target," he said passing me what he had just written "IDS Country Mansion". It was the destination that I had hoped for.

A few escalator and tube rides later I found myself on a train to Milton Keynes newly joined by DPAC.

I sat at a table opposite a blind man who was being interviewed by a video journalist. He complained about disabled people being referred to as vulnerable, arguing that since they were doing more than anyone else to fight the cuts, they were the strongest members of society. His words echoed through my mind for the rest of the day.

At Milton Keynes we waited for three taxis to take us the last part of the journey. Half of the group, who were previously unaware of the 'target', had it disclosed to them, which was then followed by a quick briefing on the planned action. Minutes later there was a gentle scolding, as more than one person had reflexively tweeted, risking the secrecy of the action.

The three taxis arrived.

On the journey I spoke to a woman who was having her benefits cut. She had been abused physically and sexually as a child; in her own words she had been "tortured". Now half way through a second degree, she described trying to make up for a lost youth, whilst struggling with regular hospitalisations, as previously repressed traumatic memories paralysed her mentally and physically. Despite the horror she had been through she was one of the most inspiring and uplifting people I have ever met.

We left the taxis and made our way to Iain Duncan Smith's residence. There was no sign that they knew we were coming since the gate to the driveway was open. Until then I was unaware that the plan involved entering private property; I spoke to the legal team about the implications, but their answers were difficult to unravel; it seemed like a legal blur.

Ordinarily this would be a step too far for me, but considering this was the house of the standard bearer for a movement currently driving people to suicide, stressing the sick to get sicker, and evicting poor people and the disabled from their homes, I thought it justified, but agreed to myself to go no further than the driveway following the footsteps of a normal visitor.

The long white gate was swiftly opened and we walked and wheeled up the gravel pathway. It appeared he was not home, but there was no real way to tell, since there were several acres and countless rooms to comfortably hide in. The entire grounds had an almost palatial feeling, perhaps amplified by being set in a picturesque slice of the countryside.

The two hours that followed involved putting up an eviction notice on the house, getting the message out into mainstream and non-mainstream media, and the usual speeches and rituals of a protest. We discussed the subtleties of welfare policy, the merits and downsides of the various petition websites, and the management and organisation of large scale actions.

I shared time with some of the most informed and experienced veterans of direct action, people set on making tangible changes to society, and challenging the collective psychological framework through which we perceive the world. As I stood in the driveway of a seemingly vacant mansion, the bodies around me began to shiver in the cooling air and newly falling drizzle. There was a gentle breeze of hope. The atmosphere was positive, friendly, and constructive, the movement had a sense of confidence.

So what drove us to such action?

For me it would be cases like that of Stephen Hill who died from a heart attack 39 days after being declared 'fit for work' (for the second time, the first having being successfully appealed against) by Atos Healthcare. His son said "I've lost my best friend, (the) person I could talk to."

Or 29 year old Colin Traynor, who was told he was fit to work but appealed against the decision. He died from an epileptic attack. Five weeks later his family learned the appeal verdict had been successful. His father said: "I firmly believe - 100% believe - that the system this government introduced has killed my son".

It is currently impossible to know the precise number of people whose deaths may be linked to welfare policies of this government, since there has been no formal enquiry. So we must demand for an enquiry into the deaths related to welfare, asking that they be counted and investigated.

With a few noble backbenchers excluded, Labour has acted with consistent cowardice in the face these welfare assaults, as if they were challenging the Liberal Democrats to a contest in unprincipledness. In the currently hostile atmosphere, born of a calculated souring in the attitude to welfare recipients, few institutional allies can be found, either political or charity, which helps to explains the prolific emergence of direct action groups, and the large number of internet protesters and dissenters, both of whom have chosen to act outside of the traditional forms of representation.

There are, however, exceptions that should be celebrated:

The British Medical Association voted unanimously that Atos's Work Capability Assessment "... should end with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society".

Amnesty International UK has also recently stepped in, treating the welfare cuts as a human rights abuse. At its AGM on 14 April a resolution was passed saying "This AGM calls for urgent action to halt the abrogation of the human rights of sick and disabled people by the ruling Coalition government and its associated corporate contractors". It described the cuts as "(a) regressive & lethal assault on our rights".

But while valued and respected as allies, they do not yet comprise a large enough coalition to halt the government's policies, and this is why direct action is playing such a powerful role, and why UK Uncut and DPAC decided to take the matter, quite literally, to the doorstep of power.

The day came to an end, the drizzle had turned to rain, and it was time to leave. The police had come shortly after we had arrived and a mutually agreed departure time had been set. Perhaps it is my imagination, but as the cuts have gone deeper, the police have seemed more sympathetic, after all, they are suffering too.

Once back at the Milton Keynes Station I ran down the stairs and hopped onto my train, and in doing so completed a series of seemingly simple actions that would be the envy of many of my companions that day. I reflected on the words of the man on the train that morning, he was right, the vulnerable were being the strongest, for without any pretence they had risen to defend the hard won rights that our ancestors gifted us.

Despite the physical and mental barriers that many had to go through, they were surmounted them with strength and grace, and were doing more to protect the comfortable than the comfortable were doing to protect them.

That day had created an unsettling juxtaposition: the most disenfranchised and honourable people in society, taking the fight to the airy and vacuous house of a pious plutocrat, who repeatedly, and incredibly, refuses to engage with the people his policies affect.

In the years since the banking crash there has been endless talk about our economic crisis. Growth in economics, as in nature, cannot be limitless if it is to be sustainable. Our current resources if carefully and generously carved up are, for now, plentiful enough to go around. However beneath the economic crisis lurks a larger one, less often articulated: a moral crisis.

While much broader than this current government, their particular response to the recent economic problems highlights this perfectly: at the slightest hint of lessening materiality, the rich man's hand grasps at the poor woman's purse.

The situation is desperate, but reversible. It requires the comfortable to join hands with those who are vulnerable, if for nothing else, since if they do not, they will be next.

Follow Dom Aversano on Twitter:

Dom started a now famous petition calling on Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week which gathered almost 500,000 signatures

The Great Tax Robbery

Posted on Wed 17th Apr 2013, 10:21pm
One Uncutter's review of the book The Great Tax Robbery by Private Eye journalist Richard Brooks.

Back in late 2010, UK Uncut began with a discussion between friends in a pub. Someone had brought a copy of that week’s Private Eye. Buried in the back of the satirical magazine was a short article about a deal that HMRC had recently made with Vodafone, settling an ongoing tax dispute. Although the rest of the media had ignored the complex deal, Private Eye had realized the significance: at the same time as the government was announcing unprecedented cuts to public services, they were letting Vodafone off paying a £6bn tax bill. It was an article that got us angry, inspired the first UK Uncut action and sparked a movement that eventually pushed tax avoidance by rich corporations and individuals to the top of the political agenda.

That initial article was written by investigative journalist Richard Brooks, who this week published his first book The Great Tax Robbery, a scathing attack on this government’s collusion with high level tax avoidance by the super wealthy. Brooks is better placed than anyone to expose the dodgy dealings at the top of HMRC – because he used to work there. A former tax inspector, Brooks personally knew Dave Hartnett (architect of the cosy deals with big companies) and understands from first hand experience the often torturously complicated wheezes that the super wealthy come up with to hide their money.

Tax is complicated and most journalists are too lazy to crunch numbers. Richard Brooks is different: he’s painstakingly followed the money to discover the dodgy deals HMRC are cutting with big businesses. He’s also savvy enough not to be fooled by George Osborne’s recent rhetoric about clamping down on tax avoidance. He understands that it’s a sleight of hand – as Osborne pretends to be getting tough on the tax dodgers, he’s actually making it much easier for his friends in industry to stash their fortunes offshore.

The Great Tax Robbery is a must-read expose of the grubby underbelly of the UK tax avoidance industry. It’s a world in which corporate barristers advertise offshore scams, where corporate CEOs devise entire business plans around tax dodging, where high level collusion between government and tax dodgers results in ‘business-friendly’ laws that cost the country billions. It’s a complicated subject but, as you’d expect from a Private Eye journalist, Brooks is never dull to read. He writes with pace and conviction, a wry sense of humour and a sharp eye for the dark absurdity of the tax avoiders’ desperate tricks.

The book is also a trenchant defense of taxation as a tool for ensuring a just society. Brooks begins his book with a quotation from Oliver Wendall Homes: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” And Brooks is clear to outline just what a fantastic bargain this deal is: “For every pound I earn I will pay around 7 pence for immediate access to professional healthcare for my family, 5 pence for my children’s education, 2 pence for living in relative security and 11 pence for pensions and social security for my compatriots.” Brooks shows that tax represents a cheaper and more efficient way to provide basic services than any private system ever devised. “If it were a club,” he writes, “only a fool would not join.”

But the super wealthy are enjoying the benefits of the club without paying their membership fee. These spongers include not only rich individuals like Philip Green, Lord Rothermere (owner of the Daily Mail) and virtually every Premiership footballer, but also countless corporations that make money in our economy: Apple, Starbucks, Vodafone, Cadbury, Google, Boots, Nike, Barclays and too many others to name.

In an age of phone-hacking and tabloid celebrity obsession, Brooks' tireless work to expose some of the most scandalous corruption of our age is a beacon for what good investigative journalism can look like. It’s fair to say that without Brooks there would have been no UK Uncut and the secrets of the tax avoiders, and the government’s collusion with their mucky schemes, would have remained firmly in the shadows. The Great Tax Robbery is a call to arms for a tax system where we all pay our fair share: a reminder of what we’re fighting for, and who the enemy is.

UK Uncut stages bedroom tax protests at Lord Freud and Iain Duncan Smith’s million pound mansions

Posted on Sat 13th Apr 2013, 1:15pm
UK Uncut stages bedroom tax protests at Lord Freud and Iain Duncan Smith’s million pound mansions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE For more information and interviews, please call 0741 506 3231/ 0779 303 1984

Hundreds of people are protesting over the bedroom tax and benefits cap at Lord Freud’s £1.9million home and 20 disabled activists are staging a protest at Iain Duncan Smith’s country mansion in Buckinghamshire worth more than £2million.

The protest was called by UK Uncut, the anti-cuts direct action network, who promised that they would ‘bring resistance to the homes of high profile politicians pushing the cuts’. Lord Freud, the Tory peer and former investment banker, has spearheaded the bedroom tax, cuts to the Welfare State and the introduction of the Universal Credit. He also has an eight-bedroom mansion in Kent.

The disabled activists, from Disabled People Against the Cuts, have presented Iain Duncan Smith with an eviction notice at his five-bedroom, 16th century house which includes a swimming pool in Swanbourne. IDS has presided over the implementation of unprecedented cuts of the Welfare State which are hitting disabled people particularly hard. It’s recently emerged that 17,000 blind people will be hit by the bedroom tax. Houses are likely to have been specially adapted and blind people are particularly isolated if they are forced to move to new areas which they do not know how to get around.

At the London protest at Lord Freud’s house, an estimated 400 people attended the protest where children were read a Freudian bedtime story, a removal van unloaded sofas and an eviction notice was served. UK Uncut supporter Sarah Knight whose mother is losing money because of the Bedroom Tax said: “My mum has just found out that she will have to pay the bedroom tax. My family is terrified about what’s going to happen. People’s hearts are being broken as this government is turning Thatcher’s wildest dreams into a nightmarish reality. But this protest is not about Thatcher’s death, it’s about the ongoing assault on the welfare state.

“I am too young to remember Thatcher as a Prime Minister but people like me are having our childhoods and now adult lives decimated by this government that continues to punish poorer people to improve the lives of the rich – the bedroom tax is the latest example of this. And that’s why I’m here today – it’s made me really happy that we are resisting these devastating cuts, showing we will not stand for it.”

From outside Ian Duncan Smith’s country mansion Disabled People Against the Cuts activist Eric Robson said: “This month sees the latest round of government attacks on disabled people. Two out of three homes affected by the bedroom tax have disabled people living in them, the beginning of the end for DLA, council tax changes, no legal aid for benefit appeals and the ongoing discredited WCAs mean millions of disabled people will be poorer – and still have the same barriers to work and society. There is no strategy in place to address this except forced labour and sanctions. Yet hundreds of millions are handed to profiteers like Atos and Capita to make this happen.

“We are calling on this government to stop this war on benefit claimants, public services and low paid workers. We are calling on our communities, disabled and non-disabled people, workers and claimants, unemployed people, single mothers, pensioners, students and everyone who cares about social justice to oppose these cuts. We will not be written out of the story of our own lives.”

Isabel Young, who works with vulnerable women said in a speech to the crowd “A room for foster children or teenagers or a disabled partner might be spare for people who live in mansions but not for anyone else. People are being forced to pay £14 a week for having this room, again this may be spare cash in the pockets of millionaire politicians, but it is the difference between adequately feeding a family and staying warm, and for some it will mean choosing between a hostel or the streets.“


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