BBC BLOGS - Barling's London

Tales of slavery in modern London

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Kurt Barling | 12:52 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

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Pastor Lucy Adeniji has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be sentenced to a total of eleven and a half years in prison after being found guilty of trafficking children into Britain for domestic servitude.

Some years ago on BBC London I broadcast the story of Tunde Jaji, raised in domestic servitude in north London and then abandoned to his identity paper-less fate when he rebelled against his condition.

I managed to secure proof he had been in London for more than 14 years and he went on to get his status regularised and a good degree from University. He is now settled.

At around the same time I met a group of seven women in similar circumstances who all agreed to speak to me after consulting with their lawyer. For legal reasons I am only now able to tell their story four years on.

One of their biggest frustrations has been getting the authorities to believe their stories of domestic servitude and to act upon their allegations.

So while the perpetrators of these acts of inhumanity go about their business freely, their victims count the cost in psychological as well as welfare terms.

One of the girls, whom I shall call Jenny, finally got her day in court in February. Pastor Adeniji, was made to face the allegations against her and the jury, having believed Jenny's testimony, convicted her.

In short Adeniji could not account for the fact that Jenny had no legitimate papers despite being in her care from the age of 11 (Jenny left Adeniji's home after eight years in 2006).

Nor could she account for the fact that Jenny had not been at school for three years after coming to London from Nigeria in 1998.

Jenny's evidence of beatings; pepper in the eyes and genitals, stabbings and all round brutality beggar belief. Speaking to neighbours of the family in a quiet cul-de-sac in Beckton there was genuine disbelief and anger that this had been going on right under their noses.

Part of the problem, it would seem, is reluctance by the authorities to intervene and question families when they are seeking to rely on the testimony of a child over an adult.

In the cases of the women I met in 2007, including Jenny, nearly all approached the police to complain, once they had left the homes where they had acted as domestic servants for years, to be met by a wall of disbelief.

Debbie Ariyo runs a lottery-funded charity, Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA). She believes that many of the perpetrators of this type of crime deceive the authorities by claiming that the children are related in some way or even that their way of raising "privately fostered" children is culturally specific.

Practitioners, she points out, need to listen first to the child, then investigate and conclude before dismissing serious allegations as the figment of a child's over fertile imagination.

This was the kind of grave failing that led to the murder of Victoria Climbie by her great aunt back in 1999. Things were supposed to have improved.

The Met Police set up operation Paladin in 2004 precisely to look into the reasons behind the rise in the numbers of unaccompanied minors entering the UK.

Detective Inspector Gordon Valentine was responsible for investigating Jenny's case and believes that unfortunately it represents just the tip of the iceberg. He also says public authorities and the public themselves need to be more aware of the signs that a child is enslaved.

A young person regularly bringing children to school, a child more bedraggled than other children in the same "family". No parent's attending school functions or even GPs being visited by minors without their parents.

In Jenny's case a regular school bus used to pick up Adeniji's wheelchair bound daughter every day. But no one appears to have thought to question why Jenny (a young child) was handing over the wheelchair bound child in the morning and taking in the same child on her return.

The authorities are mostly playing a game of catch up. Unless they can get to these victims quickly the evidence is often historic and the perpetrators elusive. There is also no incentive for the victim to cooperate if they face the prospect of deportation on being found out. This is often the fear instilled in the child by their abuser.

The prospect of being effectively without status for years can push these young victims over the edge. Another of the women I met, I'll call her Sarah, described how desperate things can become, to the point where committing suicide is a release from a fate many of them consider worse than death.

Four years after first meeting these seven women, only Jenny has seen here perpetrator investigated and prosecuted.

Jenny and her children have no permanent status still in the UK. Sarah has been given a visa for five years. Two others have indefinite leave to remain whilst the remaining 3 still are in visa limbo unsure of their future.

Some immigration judges accept that this situation runs counter to Britain's international treaty obligations enshrined in the Human Rights Act. This says if you want people to cooperate to stamp out trafficking you must first ensure their security.

As Pastor Adeniji begins her prison sentence Jenny sees some cause for optimism. She personally feels free from her abuser at last. She also hopes that it will give other children who find themselves in similar circumstances the courage to come forward.

The rest of us will just have to face up to the fact that when we suspect something is not right we may have to raise our concerns more quickly. We will often need to believe the unbelievable.

The residents of Ray Gardens in Beckton certainly wish they had.

Should errant councillors stay or go?

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Kurt Barling | 17:43 UK time, Tuesday, 22 February 2011

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The London Borough of Southwark is the latest council to face an embarrassing electoral conundrum.

For different reasons three serving Labour Councillors have within the space of a few months had their legitimacy questioned because they have either allegedly or actually fallen foul of the law.

All three councillors have been asked to resign; only one has. In theory the other two can remain in post until the next local elections in 2014.

John Friary, a councillor since 1994, was arrested two weeks ago by the Metropolitan Police's paedophile unit. It's alleged that he was involved in the internet grooming of teenage girls and police are continuing their investigations.

Councillor Friary resigned from his position straight away and there will be a by-election sometime in March. Council Leader Peter John moved swiftly to encourage Friary's departure and told me the councillor had done the right thing.

It's just as well because it is very difficult to remove a sitting councillor as Southwark leaders had already found out shortly before this case came to light.

Councillor Keadean Rhoden was convicted of housing benefit fraud in November and was immediately suspended from the Labour Group. Despite being sentenced to 200 hours community service Cllr Rhoden is perfectly within her rights not to stand down from office and has so far elected to stay on.

And as if all that wasn't enough to give the Labour Group a nasty headache, I discovered councillor Stephen Govier have failed to declare a six year conviction for a serious crime he'd committed in California in 1997.

Initially councillor Govier defended his decision not to tell the Labour Party selectors about his conviction because he says he didn't think it was relevant. Then he argued, correctly, that because the conviction was more than 5 years before he put himself forward as a candidate, he was not disqualified from standing.

Finally he acknowledged his crime but suggested that he had shot an intruder who entered his home.

Let's get the facts straight. According to Los Angeles County court records, Councillor Govier was initially charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to supply cocaine.

Stephen Govier shot an acquaintance of five years, who he had previously supplied cocaine to, whilst he himself was under the influence of a cocktail of cocaine and vodka.

His victim was shot in the head with a handgun and remained in hospital for 27 days.
Govier spent from June 1997 until June 24th 2002 behind bars on a serious felony charge of assault with a firearm.

This charge was negotiated as part of a plea bargain in turn for pleading guilty. Govier was deported from the US the day he was released from prison.

If Govier's crime had been committed in the UK he would have a permanent criminal record registered here. He would always have to declare his conviction because any offence which carries a custodial term of over 30 months can never be spent.
It raises the question of why someone with a serious conviction overseas would be allowed to stand for election.

The reality is that there is no adequate vetting procedure for candidates and the whole system depends on truthfulness.

When individuals like Stephen Govier return from overseas and are less than truthful, there is little that can be done to flag up overseas convictions. In fact there is no vetting for councillors full stop.

And if, as in Councillor Govier's case, an errant councillor is belatedly found out, there is very little in law that can be done to remove them from elected office.

He's been asked to resign. He has refused. Despite repeated attempts to reach Cllr Govier to ask him about why he thinks he should given the gravity of his crime and the failure to declare it he has not responded.

In a previous statement he told us:

"Over recent years I have committed my life to working in and for the community, and I believe in a fair and equal opportunity and future for all. The better to achieve these ideals it is my desire to continue to work conscientiously and in the interest of my constituents to create a fairer future for all in Southwark."

Southwark Council has now written to the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) asking for the law to be reviewed to make it absolutely clear when someone should declare an overseas conviction and asking for local authority powers to remove someone from office when they are in clear breach of selection rules.

DCLG have told me they will be urgently reviewing the law.

The Local Government Minister Bob Neill added:

"There is a strong argument for this councillor to resign, as he would be disqualified if the crime had been committed in Britain."

Until then only councillors Govier and Rhoden can decide whether to stay or go.

Who rules the roost?

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Kurt Barling | 17:58 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

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We return to the vexed question of the social and economic impact of football clubs.

Over the past week BBC London has been trying to get to grips with just how Londoners feel about the future of the Olympic Stadium and who should inhabit it after the fun and Games are over.

The whole Olympic stadium bidding process is beginning to feel like a rushed job. West Ham United's joint bid with Newham has raised questions about who exactly would be liable if their bid was successful for the £40m loan from the Treasury to a 'Special Delivery Vehicle' if West Ham can't pay their bills.

At the moment no one will answer the question. But presumably it will be some of the poorest taxpayers in London. Whilst it's easy to spin lines about the wonders that a loan could achieve, it's Newham Council's responsibility to know who is going to pay if the dream sours. There's been silence from the club and council.

I've also spent time in and around Tottenham High Street. All around the White Hart Lane ground of Tottenham Hotspur are boarded up properties. The reason they are boarded up, is because THFC have bought up the land as part of the Northumberland Park Development.

Anyone who believes the Spurs board's original intent was not serious is barking up the wrong tree.

But now that chairman Daniel Levy has clarified that in all probability the football club will have to look elsewhere for new premises even if they don't secure the Olympic Stadium potentially creates a whole new problem of blight.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that if Spurs now prevaricate about what they are going to do, it is going to take longer for any other investors to decide if they want to be part of regeneration plans in Tottenham.

In the mean time Tottenham residents will have to live with the bigger eyesore of boarded up premises without the prospect of any serious development on the horizon.

There are those who think that a football club like Spurs or West Ham are entitled to locate wherever they like. It is a commercial decision which should be dictated by what is in the best interests of the club and its fans.

However, in the case of West Ham it's not purely and simply a commercial decision. Newham argue 49 councillors out of 60 voted for the loan. The question remains whether they were clear about the public liability issue.

Over in Tottenham the club cannot argue for years with local businesses to support their case for redevelopment and then suddenly expect those same people to be happy as Larry when they change their minds and make it clear they want to up sticks because years of talk have led to an unviable plan, which by the way was viable two months ago.

The Olympic Park Legacy Company has now said it will delay its decision.

After our survey suggested that an overwhelming majority of Londoners want athletics to be at the heart of what the Olympic Stadium offers perhaps its time for the football community to listen to what non football addicts think.

At least Londoners now have time to broaden the argument again.

It seems that some people think the public are mugs and don't need to be involved in decisions which inevitably have a dramatic impact on their lives.

People in Haringey and Newham should be forgiven for thinking they live in a country where they can make their opinions heard.

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