Monday, 31 December 2012

Chickens Coming Home to Roost Over Cosmopolitan Housing?

I understand that Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Housing Group have “experienced significant challenges” recently, so much so that they may only be rescued by a takeover by Riverside - another Registered Social Landlord (RSL), though this takeover is in itself now doubtful (see Inside Housing 7 December, 2012) . 

I believe that a certain Bill Snell recently resigned as Chair “for personal reasons”. I happen to have a letter from him which included a threat of legal action if I didn’t desist from making “spurious and false” allegations about impropriety in Cosmo, and suggesting that their board were less than perfect in their duty of scrutinising the staff’s activities. I had written to Mr. Snell in the hope that he as a new broom would sweep cleaner than his predecessors who had refused to deal with a complaint I had brought to them several years earlier. Their imperviousness had caused me to write a blog in frustration in 2009, one line of which now seems prescient: “...With scrutiny of this level of intensity, would it be unreasonable to fear that if one searches behind Marybone House's clean facades, one might find festering there much more malignant malpractice?“ I had written to every member of the board individually, suggesting that “ and your Board colleagues may want to satisfy yourselves that CHA’s “normal procedure” does not consist of intentionally sabotaging - without justification - the innocent and best intentioned efforts of ordinary professionals to provide decent affordable housing to the people of Sefton, while earning a decent return in the process.” I know the board never discussed the matter, and I never once received a response, until Mr. Snell’s dismissive letter, several years later.

An HCA official is quoted as suggesting that poor governance may have a part to play in Cosmo’s current troubles. I felt a long-overdue vindication for my lonely campaign when I read that, because it had long been clear to me that governance appeared to be a problem within the organisation. It is however also troubling to see how far this appears to extend beyond Cosmo into the regulatory sector. Having had no satisfaction from Cosmopolitan’s board, I appealed to the Housing Corporation and found them wanting. They were replaced by the Tenant Services Authority who were no more helpful. I am doubtful about at least certain sections and/or individuals within the current regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency, because as recently as this August, despite the proverbial brown matter hitting the fan at Cosmopolitan, someone from their regulatory department could write to me stating with apparent confidence that “... there was no evidence of a breach of regulatory standards in relation to the matters raised...”

This suggests that today, all these years later, there are several individuals and organisations who may have serious questions to answer about how effectively they have been regulating Cosmopolitan, and probably other RSLs. We have enough recent examples of victims of crime and malpractice being ignored by those whose duty is to protect the public and ensure justice for the maligned, oppressed and abused – the Hillsborough Disaster and Jimmy Savile Scandal revelations are just two. My own cries for help fell on deaf ears, and I now feel that I was a potential proverbial canary in the coal mine that was ignored right from the start. 

Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale and sing a different song, but I still consider it a shame that we are now watching the chickens coming home to roost for Cosmopolitan, when good governance within the group and in the regulatory system could have prevented this. I also read somewhere the HCA’s director of regulation is quoted as referring to Cosmpolitan’s troubles as a “one-off”. Let’s hope, for the sake of the social housing sector and their tenants in Merseyside and elsewhere, that he is right. 

Update: Podcast of BBC Radio 4 Programme, File on 4, "What Price Social Housing?" Broadcast 27 October. Puts Cosmopolitan's demise in a very worrying, larger context.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Ontario: A Safe Haven for All?

Passing through Ontario briefly recently, I was particularly pleased and proud to have made small headline news with the success of my play, Call Mr. Robeson at the London Fringe. I understand that positive stories about Africans are relatively rare front page items in Canadian papers, so I will always have good memories of Ontario.

Talking of recent stories of foreigners on these shores, people will be more aware of the Toronto Eaton Centre shooting from early June involving members of East African and Guyanese immigrant families, or, if we go further afield geographically and racially, of the gruesome murder of a Chinese student in Montreal, and the subsequent mailing of his dismembered body parts around the country by his killer.

Whilst the colour of the murder victim should be irrelevant to any discussion, these examples of White-on-Yellow or Black-on-Black violence are rightly front-page news. In the short time I have been here, there have been no reports, thankfully, of a White person being killed by a Black person, so I am pretty sure that hasn’t happened, for it would almost certainly be national news too. As for a White person killing a Black person, we need to cross the border and head all the way down to Florida to find such a well known case – the slaying of Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white man. What brought that case to the eyes and ears of the world was the fact that the killer was known to the police, but was not even arrested, and was able to enjoy liberty until protests all over America and elsewhere (including one by Black Law Students at University of Windsor) shamed the Florida authorities into arresting and locking him up.

It would be good to assume that this wouldn’t happen in Ontario. That wouldn’t be accurate, however, for on a visit to my Nigerian cousin in Kitchener/Waterloo, I heard of the sad story of Jany James Ruach, a 19-year-old boy from an immigrant Sudanese family, knifed to death by a White Kitchener resident. Admittedly, I have heard only one side of the story, but there are disturbing similarities between what I have heard and read in this case, and the Trayvon Martin one. First, the killer is free to walk the streets:  he was granted $2500 bail (with few conditions) the day after the killing. Second, what little press coverage there has been repeatedly mentions the victim’s criminal record (he apparently spent six months in jail for punching a hole in a wall during an argument with his girlfriend – seriously!) Third, the confessed killer’s protestation of self-defence has been accepted as reason enough for him not to be seen as posing a threat to anybody else.

Where the similarity ends, sadly, is in the fact that this case is not receiving the coverage that other killings have received. Protests by the local African community in Kitchener are being dismissed as playing the race card (again) and the white youths who come out in support of the victim’s family are being labelled as gang members. It is as though the taking of the life of a promising, ambitious young man is not serious enough, and the central issue here. It is conceivable that the story would be very different if the white boy had been killed by the African (if his six-month sentence for damaging a wall is anything to go by) but we all know that this should not be the case.

The existence of thousands of Canadians of African descent is testament to the kindness and bravery of hundreds of strangers (black and white) who conducted their forebears along the Underground Railroad to the safety of Ontario and other parts of Canada a few centuries ago. Their descendants, including those who have arrived here directly from the Mother Continent, whether passing through briefly or not, would like to be assured that Ontario remains a place of safety for all. A demonstrably transparent, fair and accountable justice system is one requirement for this. So are the interest of the general public and their outrage in the face of perceived injustices on their doorstep.

Facebook Page: Justice for Jany James