Tuesday, 15 December 2009


A new payment card – known as Azure – given by the Home Office to people seeking sanctuary in London failed a Which?-style consumer test run by an alliance of faith, citizen and refugee groups on Monday.

A twenty-five minute wait, participating stores declining the card and incorrect balance information were just some of the problems encountered on a ‘Shop for Justice’ organised by London Citizens as part of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign. The card was launched without trial in late November and was rolled out to London on the 7th December, as an alternative to cash.

An Assumptionist Priest from Bethnal Green and a Catholic nun from Ealing were among the community leaders who took part in the ‘Shop for Justice’. They shared the experience with a person who has to live on the Azure card and provide for their family without cash, and tested the new card’s effectiveness.

Citizens around the country – who, as taxpayers, will pay for the new scheme – are alarmed that the card has not been properly piloted and has been introduced with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The problems with the card worried Gillian Howarth, who lives in Westbourne Park. “We waited for 24 minutes in Tesco to try and buy some food with the card. It was outrageous – and in the end the card didn’t work. The staff hadn’t been informed about the system, so we had to call the head office. Even if the card did work, there wasn’t even any halal food available!”

Tom O’Brien, from Our Lady of the Assumption in Bethnal Green, explained some of the other difficulties: “We are concerned that the Azure card will condemn a very vulnerable group of people to a cashless existence, denying them access to public transport, haircuts and other essentials such a phone card to keep in touch with their families abroad.”

Even store mangers were sceptical about the card. Nisar, from a Tesco in West London explained, “I’m worried about security. Anyone could take the card and just swipe it to pay. Are we meant to ask for I.D.? We haven’t been told anything about the card”.

The UK Border Agency argues that the cards reduce the stigma of the previous voucher system. Yet in every Boots, Asda, Tesco and Peacocks the monitors visited an I.D. or a signature was demanded and in two shops they had to explain their status as people seeking sanctuary in the UK. “It makes me feel very ashamed”, said Alain, who fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought sanctuary in the UK. “I have to explain why I am carrying the card and sometimes I have to put back a full trolley of shopping when it doesn’t work. When I then have to walk one hour to the next nearest shop I feel very bad.”

Other issues such as travelling to the shops, saving and the price of products in supermarkets concerned the citizen monitoring teams.

The Azure card is now used for people seeking sanctuary in London who qualify for ‘Section 4’ support. Section 4 support is given to people who the Home Office recognise cannot currently return to their country of origin. The Azure card is a plastic payment card which can be used to buy items in a limited range of supermarkets. Azure users are topped up with £35 per week but will not be able to access cash, receive change, or use the card outside of the limited number of participating stores.

London is the third of nine cities across the UK where CITIZENS for Sanctuary teams have organized a ‘Shop for Justice’. They have written to the Home Secretary requesting a meeting to share the findings of their research and ensure that nobody is denied access to cash.

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