An Epistolary Project

letters to a reader, unknown

Month: January, 2016

The Azure Card: a ‘failed’ policy tool?

A further instalment in my investigation of ‘cashless’ payment systems and their uses. For a multitude of reasons this didn’t get posted when I originally wrote it, but, given the current global refugee crisis and population displacement, I think it’s useful to be reminded what asylum policy in the UK means in practice.

Prepay systems have many iterations, but the Azure Card offers lessons in the punitive underpinning that accompanies their use in the context of ‘welfare’.

The Azure Card
The tale begins, or at least surfaces, at the beginning of the millenniumIn April 2000, The Guardian carried a report detailing Oxfam’s refusal to join the food voucher scheme for asylum seekers, set up by the, then, Home Secretary, Jack Straw. The report referred to the way contractors running the scheme, Sodexho, had offered potential retailers the change due to asylum seekers when they used the vouchers in their stores, as a cash incentive to join the voucher scheme’s retailers’ network. The inability for asylum seekers to receive any cash via the old vouchers or current payment card takes on a more callous interpretation. Sodexho (Sodexo since 2008) are one of the largest operators, worldwide, of stored value card systems, and describe themselves as ‘the reference brand in Quality of Life Services’.

The Azure Card, administered by Sodexo, put in place in 2009 by the UK Border Authority (UKBA) to police section 4 asylum seekers’ support payments, illustrates the way a smartcard system can be used as a policy tool. Section 4 (Immigration and Asylum Act 1999) provides short-term support for ‘unsuccessful asylum seekers’ while they ‘prepare to return’ to their country. Intended for the ‘destitute’, it provides no cash, ‘suitable accommodation’, usually dispersed across northern and western Britain, and receipt of a section 4 Azure Card. This is topped up automatically each week by the UKBA and, valued at £35.59 per week, half the over-25 rate for a single person on JSA. If full board is provided via a contracted provider, no money is provided at all. According to a Refugee Council Briefing (April 2013) people who fail to meet the tightly defined conditions for section 4 support are generally left destitute.

The Institute of Race Relations and the British Refugee Council have detailed the history and operation of the UKBA voucher and prepay card system. A voucher scheme was re-introduced at the end of 2005, but was abolished in late 2009, as, according to the UKBA, it was  ‘poor value for money’ and open to ‘fraud and abuse’. The UKBA was alluding to the actions of local charities and asylum support groups who would exchange vouchers for cash ‘to relieve the worst excesses of hardship’ (IRR report Dec 2010 –url). There was no pilot, yet the Azure card scheme was proclaimed as the ‘definitive solution to the ‘problems’ the UKBA had identified with vouchers.

The card can be used in the ‘Big 5’ supermarkets, and a small number of other major retail outlets, and cannot be used to obtain cash or to buy petrol or diesel. However, supermarkets are not the best value for money. Due to the restrictions on its use, and the inability to carry money over [until Feb 2015] to buy larger quantities of food more economically, users are unable to access cheaper fresh and local food from markets or through food cooperatives. Those unable to travel to a designated supermarket within the week, automatically lost £30 as only £5 could be carried over each week. Anything over this was recouped by UKBA, although families were allowed to carry over limited amounts each week in recognition of the need to save for essential items.  However, this will be monitored to ‘ensure excessive amounts of credit are not accrued’, although the UKBA have not specified what is meant by ‘excessive’. The UKBA has requested Sodex to provide weekly reports on a limit set in advance by the UKBA of those people who have ‘saved’ over this (unspecified) limit. UKBA state they will investigate trends and conduct spot checks that may lead to Section 4 support being withdrawn. [The Asylum Support Partnership (ASP) ] a ‘policy in practice’ model IDS may be following, with interest.

 A FoI request in 2010 disclosed that, as a result of card malfunction and deductions by Sodex, users were losing £10/week on average. Between June and September 2010 the UKBA recouped £86,000 in ‘capped payments’ on Azure cards.  Often cards do not work or are not accepted by a supermarket, staff do not recognise the card and refuse payment. A Refugee Council report  indicated that the commonest cause of refused purchases was due to lack of funds: if the amount purchased is over by as little as 1p the whole transaction is rejected. Even if users keep an accurate record of their spending the cards regularly malfunction and can register inaccurate fund availability. A Questionnaire carried out by the Refugee Council during 2010, tracking the 1st year implementation of the Azure Card scheme, indicated that 60% had experienced their card not working; 79% had shop staff refusing the card despite being in the specified supermarket; 56% described how using the card identified them as an asylum seeker and exposed them to racist behaviour and stigma.

This cashless system of support for refused asylum seekers was intended to increase returns from the UK, but has failed to deliver on this policy objective. For the majority of ‘failed’ asylum seekers condemned to section 4 support, it is actually impossible for them to return. Instead, it has created more poverty and hardship within the UK amongst an already deeply vulnerable group of people.

Following lobbying by asylum and refugee organisations, and a debate in the House of Lords in November 2014, from February 2015 there was no longer a limit on the carryover of funds. This is the only change.

What freezings have I felt

My winter reading has led me back to poetry; re-reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets prompted  memories of their discovery while exploring the book stacks in Newcastle Central Library, a building I visited  religiously on my journey home from school. It was startlingly modern, almost brutalist in its concrete mass, but I always felt it to be my intellectual womb, a place where I discovered Elizabethan poetry, Dostoevsky, Sholokov, Chaucer. It has, sadly, been demolished.


How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

A tribute to NIACE

I follow Ann Walker on Twitter & value her insights; re-reading her blogpost about NIACE reminded me of how much Adult Education has changed, been decimated by successive government policyshifts & neglect that has pushed it beyond the margins virtually into oblivion.
I’ve reblogged it for those of you interested & concerned about the future for UK Adult Education.

Lifelong Learning Matters

NIACE, the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education is merging with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion and its name will disappear after 94 years at the forefront of promoting adult learning. The Who’s Lobbying website describes NIACE as, “the main advocacy body for adult learning in England and Wales and probably the largest body devoted to adult education in the world.” Its achievements as an independent organisation deserve the utmost respect and many adult educators will regret the loss of its identity while wishing the newly merged organisation every success.

NIACE has been a source of practical and coordinated support, encouragement, inspiration and effective campaigning for adult education – and more specifically, adult learners – over the years. I have never been employed directly by the organisation, but I have worked alongside it throughout my career. I have felt a strong affiliation and found common cause…

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