Crash

We receive our first letter, written on thin lined prison issue paper. “Ha!…Daddy is such a girl!”. Is Tala’s response when I tell her that Rob has, under the experienced guidance of J and L next door, managed to rig up a temporary cover over the loo and a sheet over the window. “Only girls do that kind of thing mamma, boys are really messy!”. I don’t point out that covering the stinking, seatless object in the corner less that 2 metres away from your head at any time, will be a vital aspect of surviving the induction wing experience.

He is hungry and still doesn’t have a pillow.  Sheets and bedding were only awarded after a major diplomacy effort.  Also requiring careful management is how to retain a modicum of privacy with no access to any loo other than the one in the middle of a cell shared by two men.  Everything about this situation is designed to take away your humanity.  Transported like a carcass in a faceless white van to which you are handcuffed, it is clear that you are now a number in a filthy, litter covered, numbered cell.

Apparently in the trauma wards at A and E there is a calculation made by staff which assesses the likelihood of survival in serious car accidents called the “tat to teeth ratio”. The closer this ratio gets to 1:1, i.e. One tattoo for every tooth, the greater the chances of survival. 5:1 tat to teeth sounds like a more accurate description of the prison population: If you can survive prison, head on collisions are a walk in the park.  By all accounts the other inmates from all nationalities are kind.  They are all in this together, and most of them have been in and out of prison all their lives so they make the best of it.

Back in the free world Tala and I finally crash ourselves and what starts out as an unsolicited conversation from way out in the left field about getting a new puppy(!), becomes a full throttle assault from Tala.  This is a child born to be a hostage negotiator and I’m in no state to procure any kind of sensible outcome.  In the end I pull the “poor me” card and confess that the last thing I could possibly do with right now in my life is a bloody puppy! I have no idea where we will even be living in 6 months, or whether there will be a garden, added to which the thought of vets bills, puppy training, more poop to scoop and the inevitable destruction of furniture and carpets is frankly unappealing.

I am the worst mummy in the world and I never say yes to anything apparently.  The conversation continues on a downward trajectory until I make the bizarre decision to allow my legs to buckle under me and lie on the kitchen floor in the middle of peeling the potatoes.  Tala is unimpressed. “That’s really weird mummy, but I know you aren’t dead because I can see you breathing”. I continue to breathe, as deeply as I can, eyes shut until I decide I can cope again, but my little stunt has wobbled Tala from anger to despair and she repairs to the living room to cry privately.  I feel awful.  I suggest we write our postcards to Daddy.  This is what she writes:

“Dear Daddy. Mummy is being so mean to me, she started shouting at me when I was just talking to myself and when I talked to her she wouldn’t answer.  I miss you so much and I wish you would come home.  I don’t know what to do when Okha’s not around and mummy is mean to me. I miss you so much. I love you so so so so so much.  Love from Tala.”

We eat supper together and start to feel better.  We realise that we are both exhausted.  Okha comes home and true to her word when she sees the state we are in, cleans up the kitchen.  By 9pm I am in bed, drifting off to sleep, feeling guilty about my double pillow, wishing for all the world I could send one to Rob.  From downstairs I can hear the clatter and bang of inexperienced washing up.  Tala, bathed and hair plaited is whispering things about writing in ancient Norse.  The dog has snuck into the bed too.  I check out, off to a dreamworld where none of this is happening and everything seems more likely than my reality.

By | June 29th, 2016|

HMP Hewell

Unwisely perhaps, not having verified the images before hand, I suggest to Tala that we google Hewell online. We have just awoken on our first AD (After Daddy) day and are feeling somewhat bereft.  An image of what appears to be a stately home or a hotel comes up and I think I must have mistyped, but surely enough an article appears underneath the picture entitled “Hewell, Britain’s’ poshest prison?”. We can’t believe it!  Trust Rob to fall on his feet! Then I spot a second less optimistic article underneath this, unpromisingly headed with the tagline “Hewell prison the worst in Britain: murder, suicide, bungles and escapes”. As I scroll down I see that the tenor of this second piece is more typical. “Rise in violence and drugs at Hewell”, “Hewell prison staff frightened”.  I click off the search engine.

Having managed to miss not one but two calls from Rob, I finally get with the program and carry my phone with me everywhere like normal people.  I am infamous for being unreachable on the blower, and now it has come back to bite me on the arse.  He has probably queued for hours each time to get to the phone so the least I can do is pick the damn thing up, besides which I am aching to hear from him.  On Sunday morning the Redditch area code flashes on the screen and at last I have him on the line all the way from HMP Hewell.

I have only had one other communication on his first night when each new arrival is given one call.  I spent most of it searching for a pen to take down the all important prisoner number and after exactly two minutes during which the only thing I have ascertained  is that he is in a madhouse but is as yet unharmed, we are cut off.

Fearing that this call will be equally as brief, I rush through how much I miss him and the fact that we are all doing well and try to get as much information from him as quickly as possible. We ask him if he has been awarded any of the contents of Prisonbag yet or whether he is wearing an orange jumpsuit, which the girls, (listening on speaker phone), think is a hilarious concept as Rob is notoriously stylish in a raggedy kind of a way. “I’m not in Guantanamo” he replies and describes the grey and navy joggers and T shirt he was initially issued with.  It seems that he has been given a substantial proportion of his limited possessions.  They have withheld the yoga mat and the radio, but wonderfully for him, he has his books, writing materials, wash things and clothes.  This is a coup, as often prisoners don’t get access to their affairs for days or weeks.

It is noisy.  I can hear slamming doors down the line. Tala tells him he is that he is in a really posh place.  He explains that whilst it might look good from the outside, the inside is a little different.  It’s a classic slammer, with 3 floors, a central well and cells like cages, (which the initiated call pads) around the edge. You can’t go more than a few metres without a door needing to be unlocked.  He says that it is “fucking crazy” in there, earning a swift reproach for swearing from Tala.  He sounds like our Robbie, but more “street” already.  I’m pleased to hear that he is sharing with Keith, but Charlie is on another wing.  It seems that after induction into the prison, you are pretty much just thrown into your cell and left there, with no idea how things work, or where anything is.  Everything from going to church ( a very good plan if you want to move through the system quickly), to visiting orders, to library access requires a form.

The guys stick out like sore thumbs.  Rob has couple of (what uncle Tim would call executive – i.e. not full body) tattoos, but the convict look involves multiple tats, shorts and shower shoes worn with socks. “We are a long way from London are we not Mr Darcey?”. People keep commenting on how nice Rob’s teeth are.  I am relieved that this is not a thinly veiled suggestion that they will soon be knocked out, but rather genuine admiration.  Most of the inmates don’t have many teeth and those that have clung to the gums for dear life are in terrible condition.  Halitosis must be a key component of the various odours contributing to the infamous prison smell.  Rob is doing his bit though and has located the showers. He didn’t bend over and the visit concluded without incident.

The guys in the next door cell have been really good to them, helping them to navigate their new home.  From what Rob can gather they are both permanently stoned. He is stunned by the ubiquitous availability and use of drugs.  The whole place is totally chaotic, with many prisoners there on remand and not yet sentenced, so that contrary to what we were led to believe about there being no violent offenders in Cat B prisons, the place is teaming with people who may well have committed violent crimes. I’m not overly worried: Rob has been training in street fighting for years, he’s a big guy and people generally like him.  Also he much older than most of the inmates which tends to help reduce antagonism and confrontations.

His biggest worry is as anticipated the food situation. He confesses to being starving after passing on most of breakfast.  After 6 minutes his credit is almost gone and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to call back, or get more credit or use the shop as he hasn’t yet eared these privileges.  We all chorus our love and encouragement until he cuts off.

By | June 26th, 2016|

Road Trip

We wait in a coffee shop for the lawyers to come back from the bowels of the court house with information on where the men have been sent.  It is with great relief that we learn that they are to go to Hewell rather than the infamous Winston Green.  I am told that Rob is in good spirits – anything else would have astonished me. The QC’s then say something incredibly kind which is that it is extremely rare in their line of work as defenders that they come across someone who changes their lives for the better as Rob has done.

I quiz Cyril about the other people in the visitors gallery and find out that two men sitting in the front row (blocking my final glimpses of Rob) were nothing to do with the case at all.  They were in fact groupies who follow the judge from trial to trial, feeding from schadenfreude, living their lives through the failings and misfortunes of others and delighting in the masterful edicts of the judge.  Also present were two large balding HMRC women (honestly, you couldn’t make these people up) and then of course the legal teams including our lawyer Jim.

He confesses to feeling as if he is at Rob’s funeral.  He will get more access to Rob than I will in the years that are to come, so it is a comfort to me that they have become great friends through this bizarre process. There is a constant derogatory banter between them interspersed with moments of kindness and compassion for each others trials and tribulations, possibly the worst of which in Jim’s case are his fasting days on the 5:2 diet.  There is no press.  Brexit has just happened and every journalist in the country has bigger fish to fry.  I may be the only sane person in England who can find relief in the result!  After lots of sad farewells people peel off home, back to their lives.

The long journey home through the Friday night traffic is the first chance I have had to really take stock.  I am grateful to settle back into the comfy leather seat in a car much more luxurious than I am used to and let Tim negotiate the route and the road. We soon fall into a road trip mentality, talking deeply about things that have been unsaid for many years.  It feels good.  We both love Rob so much that there is no need to talk about it.  We finally arrive home, bladders bursting.  Tala can’t wait to hear the news and sits on the bath whist I relieve myself, plaguing me for details.

She literally jumps for joy to hear that the sentence was under the minimum.  If a small girl who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world is able to be happy with this situation then so can I.  Okha and I had spoken on the phone from the courthouse so she already knows.  She is working long hours and babysitting on the side and looks tired and fragile.  She feels suddenly older than her 18 years.  It will be her birthday next weekend. Neither of us have even thought about it.  Once again people peel away until there is just me and my constant little friend Tala.  She has decided that she is sleeping in with me and though I slightly dread the inevitable nocturnal kicks and starfish position that will without doubt leave me clinging to the outer edges of the mattress, fighting for duvet, I am glad of her.

It is almost 11 and terribly late for her as we have been up since 6, but still we can’t sleep.  Just as she begins to drift off there is a knock at the door.  I run down to find a slightly bewildered looking man, smelling strongly of kebab, asking for Rob. I correctly deduce that he is from the tagging company, assure him he is in the right place and usher him in to collect his equipment.  He is dismayed that he won’t be able to retrieve the tag, but my explanation that Rob needed his leg this morning to get to sentencing seems to suffice.

I ask him if people tell him their stories as he goes about his work.  He never asks apparently, but is always happy to listen when they do.  Then he contradicts himself immediately by asking about the sentence. When I tell him 9, he assumes it is months and not years.  Appalled, he gingerly asks about the charge and when I mention HMRC he looks disgusted and tells me that he holds no truck with them.  It is a kind thing to say: He sees the reverse side of the prison system day in day out when he goes into the homes of the broken families it creates in its wake.  He enters all sorts of places from the severely underprivileged to the extravagantly luxurious, but reports that he has never had any issues.

I ask him if the whole tagging thing is a sham…Apparently Keith forgot about his curfew one night after a not insubstantial amount of wine and carried some folding chairs that had been used for a dinner party back to the shed at the end of the garden. Contrary to the dire warnings that the tagging box would self detonate precipitating a cascade of consequences, nothing happened…! He assures me that the equipment is entirely functional but confided that it depends on where the box is positioned and the thickness of the walls as to how far you can get.

I return to bed.  My little bedfellow is still awake.  I climb in beside her.  She is sweating profusely and adorably in the way only small children can in the “She Brings the Rain” T shirt Rob has left to remind her of him.  She is also wearing a shawl which smells of the sweet combination of his aftershave and “essence de Rob”.  I remove the damp T shirt from her and then follow her lead, donning another of his scarfs.  We lie there together in nothing but our neck ware, looking like misplaced snowmen melting into the bed, waiting for sleep to come and end this bizarre day.

By | June 26th, 2016|

letter bomb

Rob is in Hewell Prison.

His prisoner number is A8003DT

If you go to www.emailaprisoner.com you can sign up and email him.  Each email costs 35p and you have to buy at least £5credit, but the service is widespread and so even when he moves, your cash should be good ’til the end!

He would really love to get letters – anything – it doesn’t have to be words of support or anything profound, just some news from your own lives would be wonderful.

You can also write (or draw!) to him:

Robert Bevan A8003DT

HMP HEWELL
Hewell Lane,
Redditch,
Worcestershire,
B97 6QS

 

By | June 25th, 2016|

How low can you go?

Something awful happens.  I wake up with a huge spot centre left on my forehead.  My dreams of waving Rob off and leaving him with a vision of beauty end abruptly.  Added to that I awaken with my tongue feeling as if it is layered with shards of glass.  This turns out to be the result of tiny ulcers.  To add insult to injury I glance down at the hairbrush I’m using to see that it looks like a small puppy, full of hair.  Oh Lord! Lock up my husband, damage my children irreparably, but please PLEASE don’t take my hair!  I can cope with many things, but female pattern baldness is not on that list.

Prisonbag is ready and waiting for its maiden voyage in this particular incarnation.  It is literally bursting at the seams as Rob has been advised to put as much stuff in as possible.  Initially it is unlikely that he will get given very much from it at all, but in time, as he moves through the categories from B through to D he will be able to access more of its contents.

The cab arrives to take us to Euston, dropping Tala off at school on the way.  We must look like a family off on a trip somewhere nice, with prisonbag posturing as normal luggage.  It is before 7 and yet Oki comes down to say goodbye which is very touching as ordinarily the early morning is to her as the sun to a vampire.

The moment Rob has been dreading arrives and he has to say goodbye to the girls.  Tala is full of anticipation as she has a date with her teacher for tea and toast in the classroom before school, (an unrivalled coup amongst her classmates) and the moment of separation is mercifully brief before she is passed from one set of arms into another and propelled gently away towards the awaiting breakfast. It is the truth that reality is a pale shadow of fear.

At the station we see members of the various legal teams all looking sombre and saddened by how things have turned out.  Suddenly I spot Cyril; the one who got away.  How he can bear to make this journey again and sit with us looking into the dock in which he had previously taken his place for all those months I’ll never know.  Whenever I see Cyril it makes me suddenly tearful, his face somehow synonymous with mercy and sense.  We sit together on the train, but don’t talk much and if we do, its just about the shock Brexit result, yet another indication of the folly of giving power to the people.  As we walk up from Birmingham New Street station to the court house we all declare that we hope never to set foot in the city again.

Sentencing is gruelling. The four QC’s make their case for clemency and character references and mitigating circumstances are read until midday at which point the judge kindly bails the convicts for lunch.  Getting another 40 minutes together seems unprecedentedly wonderful, but soon we are back inside for the death blow.  I have wisely decided to forgo both breakfast and lunch, not trusting my body to behave itself with any input at this juncture in the proceedings, but still adrenaline is cursing through me and my cheeks are embarrassingly hot and red.

The judge precedes to go through the details of the case. It is horrible.  I find out afterwards that he is obliged to talk through it from the perspective of the guilty verdict and therefore as per the crowns arguments as if they held water.  What the judge actually thinks is neither here nor there: he has a certain role to play and he rises to it gamely.  Finally he is ready to hand down the actual sentences.  My heart is thumping hard against my chest as he categorises the offence as being at the top of the sentencing guidelines due to its scale.  I try to prepare myself for the 16 years I know are possible, but then he begins to knock years off for good character, for the intentions behind the business and for other technicalities and pronounces a sentence of 9 years for Rob, Keith and Charlie.

It is good.  Very good.  We had been told not to expect anything below 10 years, the minimum sentence under the new guidelines and so I am delighted and wave surreptitiously at Rob and draw air hearts across the dock.  The thing is that if the sentence had been any lower there was a risk that HMRC would have appealed again and that the case would have gone to the court of appeal where they could have imposed God only knows what kind of sentence and so he has gone for a number that should satisfy them, but is also as kind as it could be under the circumstances.

Then comes the sentence for Norman.  His wife sits alone behind me, her face streaked with tears and lined with pain.  I desperately want to reach out and grasp her hand but it is as if she has constructed a psychic wall around herself and I don’t dare to intrude. Suddenly something wonderful starts to happen.  The judge is taking half of the sentence for the architects of the scheme as his starting point for Norman’s tiny role in its administration.  Then he takes into consideration his age, his heart condition and deafness, and finally the awful fact that this poor couple have lost a child and still the years are coming off.  I can hear the gulped breath behind me slowly turning into sobs until all at once our whole little row consisting of Keith’s wife Amanda, Rob’s brother, Cyril and myself are weeping as the judge announces his intention to suspend the sentence.

Norman, in total shock and looking utterly bemused, picks up his prisonbag and walks the other way, the right way, the free way, out of the dock into his wife’s arms.  A small miracle has been performed here today.  I was not its direct recipient, but I feel so overcome with relief that I might as well have been.  Outside we hug Norman and his wife (who are still not sure what has happened) until we risk embarrassing them with this overt display of affection from total strangers.  Our boys are gone now, but at least someone has been given the proverbial “get out of jail free card”.

By | June 25th, 2016|

Time

So this is it.  The last day is over and by this time tomorrow he will be gone. My stomach has been turning tiny flips all day, involuntary spasms of nerves, imperceptible almost, but devastatingly effective at provoking the same violent ejection of contents as on that first night in hell.

We had planned a final roast dinner together, but none of us really have the heart to eat anything celebratory, let alone cook it and wash up afterwards.  It pours with rain, we cuddle up on the sofa with cups of tea and watch Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, which is a kind of family tradition as it always makes Rob and Okha cry. I join them today.  Rob would be horrified that this guilty pleasure has been broadcast, but as he is unlikely to be reading this for several years I think I’ll risk the disclosure.

“I feel really sad today because it is the last day”, Tala says matter of factly to me. “I really want to cry but that would just make Daddy feel worse so I’m not going to.” Her stoicism astonishes me.  I have to stay deadly present to survive the day.  There is a sense in which I want to save myself the suffering of the parting by starting to mourn him already, as if I can get some of it out of the way; as if there is a finite amount of pain.

He is steadfast as always, joking and cuddling us, never faltering.  At bedtime Tala delays infuriatingly.  I want to hurry her: it will be an early start tomorrow, but how can I take this time away from her? She tosses and turns, finally putting the light back on to read and I hear the soft rustle of pages from where I type this, waiting as one of us always must for her to sleep.

I fuss over what to wear tomorrow. I think about looking “right” for the court: I want to look dignified, perhaps even elegant, but nothing that will fit over this raw distended stomach fits the bill and I opt for my favourite dress, a long vintage hippy affair that is much more in keeping with both my waistline and style (or lack thereof), and how I would like Rob to remember me.  I pack Tala’s lunch for school, finish some laundry: Just everyday stuff that ought to stop on compassionate grounds but doesn’t.  Okha gives Rob a final hug before bed.  He holds her for a long time, longer than he has done for a long time during these tricky teenage years. They whisper things to each other which I can’t hear and don’t ask about.

Everything has come together somehow. Rob and Tala have been reading Stuart Hills ” Ice Mark” trilogy and they finish the final chapter today, the book Rob has finally decided on arrives, Okha is sent home from work early, the rain stops whilst we walk the dog for the last time.  There is one final episode of the box set left and we will watch it whilst we wait for the (de)tagging lady to come.  It is time.

By | June 23rd, 2016|

The Hour Glass

The clock is ticking.

There are lots of “last times” happening now.  The Last weekend together is gone.  Last chance to trim of the hedge, last time that T shirt will come through the wash, last time we will change the duvet cover together. I am starting to plan things for “after”, things to disguise the emptiness that I worry will creep through the house.  Tala has coped so well since that first shocking leap into the real world, but I see her face drop when she gets a party invitation for a date that falls after the sentencing.

It reaches out for me too sometimes: the fear of the loss and the dreadful powerlessness to change it.  An image from my childhood returns vividly to me, a seminal moment after which nothing was ever the same again.  I was reading a Joan Aikin children’s book that ended with an image which terrified me.  A phoenix was watching the grains of sand running through an hour glass.  When the last grains passed through the narrow waist of the glass and hit the pile of sand already spent, its life would end.  This image of the bird, fully conscious of the inevitable end horrified me and I was unconsolable.  It was not death itself that scared me, but the moments of life preceding it.  What I missed in the image however was the significance of the phoenix…This legendary bird dies and is reborn.  I know that Rob will be taken away from us on Friday, and sometimes the knowledge of this impending loss catches me unawares and panic surges in me but the truth is that this isn’t and cannot be an ending to anything.  It will be a new life for us all and we either fight it and suffer or accept it and live.

Even in these final days life continues despite what is coming.  We shop, we do the school run, we go for a picnic in the park.  The mundane is so precious. Strangely these have been some of the best weeks of my life.  We have done little, but lived it totally.  If I worry about anything it tends to be about Okha.

She is working hard and trying to forge her life, but we are both aware that when she drinks she cannot stop, and this is getting worse. She comes home one morning as I am waking up, her shoes covered in what appears to be tomato sauce, smelling literally like something pickled.  One of her arms has stopped working – She can’t lift anything with it. We can’t see bruises, but anything could have happened and she might not have remembered it, or tell me if she did.  London can be an unforgiving place to a pretty, inebriated girl in the night.

Still sleepy I put the kettle on as I watch her cook a lamb chop, a pot noodle and a chicken pie.  How can a girl that small eat so much or look so good on it?  The next day I will find a defrosting Shepherds pie wrapped in a tea towel on top of the fridge.  She has no recollection of why that is.  It’s sort of funny, and probably normal really, but she looks so vulnerable to me.  I know precious little about what is going on for her underneath all of this except for what spills out in blatant self destructiveness.  If we talk, it’s about other things.

In her unimposing way she includes herself in the family again.  It’s heaven for me to be all together.  Tala adores her unconditionally, deeply impressed by everything about her.  The age gap between them coupled with Okhas’ unique style has given her legendary status amongst Tala’s peers.  She has been almost another parent since the beginning, but that isn’t an easy role.  I can’t bear anymore tragedy or drama.  A friend once told me that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child.  I am fighting this observation, but I’m not sure I’m winning.

Love of all kinds is a risk.  You control no part of it: not your own feelings nor the actions or fate of the beloved. You have to love regardless of outcome and despite futility.  As the tin man said, “I know that I have a heart, because I can feel it breaking”.  The most over ridding sensation I have is of being so very lucky.  I have so much to loose.

By | June 22nd, 2016|

Silks and Wigs

Our QC is fabulously bright – a brilliant legal mind whose arguments to the judge have been erudite and effective. Intelligence, learning and sheer hard work are all prerequisites for a job at the bar, but I fear that these qualities are such a far cry from the ordinary world that the entire process has flown over the jurors heads. I prayed for someone to stand up and tell it how it is in plain English, but no-one did, because that is not the way the system works, and not our amazing lawyer who has sweated blood for us and whose whole family wept when we lost this, not our dedicated QC and not even the judge really question it. It is a glitch of a system that they are intrinsically part of, a system that has worked for hundreds of years.

I know that I can’t change it either. I also know that there are scores of countries in the world where if you piss the government off this much you don’t live to tell the tale. I have counted my blessings many times on this front, but what has happened here is a travesty, and as we haven’t yet been buried in an unmarked grave, I am telling this tale, for whatever it is worth.

Apparently, In 2005 HMRC gathered together the top accountants working in film. They were told that what had previously been considered tax avoidance was now going to be considered tax evasion, and thus illegal. No legislative change had occurred, but a whole new approach was to be adopted. It is in this spirit that this case has been prosecuted. HMRC spent millions of taxpayers money flying around the world, extorting statements from all the producers who had received development money. (This backfired on them later when the prosecutor couldn’t get any of the producers to stand by their statements in court and he was put on notice by the judge for bullying his own witnesses), but still, some of these statements were instrumental in bringing this case to court in the first place.

Luillo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican producer of considerable standing in his country explained what had happened when HMRC interviewed him: They spent several days questioning him about all of his connections to IFC and Rob’s company Salt and afterwards sent a statement to him supposedly based on the information he had given them. After reading it through he declined to sign it, as they had omitted everything from the document that made any sense of the true nature of their business relationship, but he helpfully sent them an amended signed statement of his own . They didn’t seem to want this statement however and Luillo was not called as a witness for the prosecution.

This same scenario was repeated over and over with a number of different producers. How many more might have felt more intimidated by the heavy hand of the Revenue on their shoulders and signed a similarly incriminating document? The fact that not one producer would give any incriminating information was key in the original dismissal of the case, and is a damning inditement of the way the “investigation” was carried out. It is also a testament to the solidarity of the industry and something for which I am deeply grateful. None of this mattered of course and four men are still going to jail. HMRC must be delighted with the result.

Am I making this sound personal? I’m sure it isn’t really…The prosecutor, a small aggressive Welshman with an exceptionally dishevelled wig has made it sound personal to the jury – that is his job. He is strangely reminiscent of a terrier, and I imagine him snapping at the ankles of his quarry in the witness box. Apparently in legal circles it is the thing to have a raggedy wig: In the same way that buying your own furniture is considered new money, a pristine wig cannot boast of a family tradition at the bar.

From my position in the visitors gallery I was seated behind him and watched as he browsed fine wine and Spanish holidays on his laptop whilst Rob’s QC eloquently pleaded our case. His indifference puzzled me. It was so other to my own desperate hopes. It strikes me now that what has happened to us, and what is to come is not personal: Tax breaks for film were an initiative from one arm of the government and keeping the public purse strings as tightly drawn as possible is the priority of another.

In any case, who really cares about the fate of apparently comfortable, privileged people of means? The prosecution went out their way to draw attention to the earnings of the defendants. The sums of money being banded about in this case are substantial, however HMRC make no mention in their press release that the monnies were effectively taken over a long period of time and that although money was received as income (and taxed!) a good chunk of it went into paying salaries, office costs and development expenses related to the various film businesses that were part of the fabric of the film partnerships. Money however was not the issue in this case in legal terms at least… The earnings of accused were not part of the indictment, and financial success is not yet legally a crime, but in this case legal issues and evidence were eclipsed by how things were made to appear. “Smoke and mirrors” the prosecution screamed. “No smoke without fire”. “Smoke them!”. And the jury did.

By | June 20th, 2016|

12 Good Men and True

In the four long weeks that the jury were out deliberating the fate of the accused, the defendants sat in Birmingham Crown Court waiting.  After a week or so, partly as a way to pass the time and partly out of interest in a world that he still knew very little about, Rob began sitting in on various trials that were taking place.  He was astonished by how different his jury looked to the jurors he witnessed in these other trials. These short trials were being heard by jurys that appeared to be composed of a true cross section of people across ages, classes and income brackets. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you get a bit of an idea…

The concept of trial by your peers is what our justice system is founded upon, but in this case I would argue strongly that this was not the case.  Here’s the thing: It was estimated that this trail would take 9 months.  If the defendants had gone on to give evidence, which they had always assumed they would and for which Rob had prepared an 1000 page proof setting out every conceivable thing about the business, movement of money, films made, services provided etc, the trial would certainly still be running now and would probably have lasted for a year.  Who can sign up for a nine to twelve month trial?  Certainly not anyone who runs their own business.  We don’t know much about the jurors on this trial, except that they could read.  One potential juror was unable to read what was on the card she was given during the swearing in and so the judge passed on her, but that was where the bar was set… They had to be able to read.

I want to make it quite clear from the start that I don’t blame the jury for what happened, but I will say this.  A system that asks 12 random people, all under the age of 40 (this may be slightly generous), and most in their 20’s, to decide on complicated tax arrangements that the top legal minds in the country argue about, needs to be questioned.

The judge certainly questioned it by throwing the case out.  He knew beyond doubt that this was not a criminal case, but sadly the Court of Appeal is known to have a vested interest in decisions being made by jury.  The image that comes to mind is a class of five year olds in an undergraduate neuroscience lecture.  The prosecution knew this of course, which is why they did everything they could to get this in front of a jury (more on this another time) because it is a fact that you never know what a jury will do or why they do it, or how in this case they constructed whatever it is that they imagine happened here.

I would love to speak to someone from the jury about how they came to their decision, because to this day no one knows their rationale for the conviction.  They are not required to give one.

I honestly have no idea what went on in that court room where it was decided that these men had planned and executed a huge fraud, because that is what has to happen for a verdict of fraud to be returned… You can’t commit a fraud by accident. You have to set out to commit a crime – you have to have intent. In a criminal trail such as this was, it is also for the prosecution to prove that the defendants are guilty of the offence upon which they have been indicted and not for the defendants to prove that they are innocent, and this was a key factor in why the accused never gave evidence.

How the jury got to a place where they could make this call based on the relevant evidence, (or lack of it) in front of them is a mystery.  I do know this though, because I was there: IFC was not just a business but also dream over which my husband agonised and to which he gave his life for many years.  He is a born entrepreneur and this was a brilliant idea, or so it seemed at the time.

I do feel genuinely sorry for the jury.  When you are asked to do jury service you hope for a nice juicy case: A Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick kind of affair, so to have to sit day after day, listening to the kind of dry legal jargon that is a feature of any kind of tax case, being constantly sent out of the room whilst the lawyers and judge debate what can and cannot be said or presented must be more than tedious.

I understand therefore that what made the most impression on them was probably the opening week when the prosecution made their allegations. The fact that this was not backed up by relevant evidence (as we know for certain because of the case’s half time dismissal), was perhaps understandably lost on them, and the closing statements of the prosecution followed the same line.  I find it extraordinary that a QC can get up in court, present documents out of context and talk about circularity in funding, arms length control of funds and off shore companies as if they are illegal when in fact, they are not.

Can I blame the jury for not knowing this? I didn’t know it before I was forced to take this involuntary crash course in tax law and why should they? What is more difficult to understand is why they were not told that the judge had thrown the case out, and that they were not party to vital information such an opinion from any tax expert.

I went up to Birmingham only once, to hear Robs QC deliver his closing speech.  It was the only thing the jury had heard directly on Rob’s behalf due to the fact that he didn’t give evidence.  I watched in dismay as two jurors slept, totally out for the count on their benches, throughout the entire day.  Others looked around the room, fiddled with their courtroom iPads, and did nothing to conceal their general disinterest as vital information which they had not yet heard was relayed about how the schemes worked, why they complied with tax law and the efforts made to ensure this etc. Again, I don’t blame them for this – for all I know the sleeping jurors may have genuine medically diagnosed narcolepsy, who knows? Whatever the reason, they slept, then they convicted.

I don’t blame them for being bored and only listening to the hype.  Perhaps there was someone, even a few people, who fought for us in that locked room.  Someone who knew what they didn’t know, and was prepared to admit it.  Perhaps they looked at these handsome, arty looking men from London and presumed them to have perfect lives with perfect wives in mansions and assumed they were righting some social wrong.  Perhaps they wanted to send a message to the huge corporations out there not paying their taxes and thought that the men whose lives they had in their hands were all part of the club?

In fact the very business that HMRC destroyed by informing every one of the producers involved in the film collective that Rob and the others were being investigated for fraud, was aimed at supporting independent film makers: ordinary men and women scrabbling around in this apparently glamourous, but actually very difficult and mostly financially unrewarding industry.  They did not damage a big corporation and they did not just take a bulldozer to our lives, but also those of many others, trying to make good films that would inject cash into the uk.

Despite the best efforts of HMRC, the scheme provided development money that helped to make films which generated many more millions for the economy than would have been lost if the investors had been paid out, which they weren’t, so there was never any loss to the tax man in any case…Confused? The jurors certainly were.

By | June 20th, 2016|

Blood out of a Stone

I quickly run into a problem with the blog.  Despite being initially excited about my idea to write our story down so that it can serve at the very least as a document of what has happened and what is to come, I soon realise that getting Rob to talk me through any of the details that I would like to be able to present here for anyone who is interested is not going to happen, or at least that there will be a price to be paid for it by both of us. “Can we just stop talking about this?” he says sharply when I attempt to get him to talk me through the key ideas and the fundamental structure of the business.

I feel stung and he is immediately sorry.  The difference between us is that for me, getting all of the circulating thoughts and injustices and inconsistencies and downright crazy unfairness of what is happening out of my head and onto the page is a form of downloading.  If it is on the page it is no longer in my head, but for Rob he simply cannot bear to spend one more minute talking about this.  The biggest solace of the jail term awaiting him is that he won’t have to talk about this, or justify himself ever again.

He tries to explain it to me again.  He has been dealing with this every day for over seven years as a legal battle, and for many more years prior to this when he set up the original scheme in 2003 and so running through it again with me now, in one of the ten remaining days of freedom left to him is nothing short of torture.  I feel terrible. I know he is done with this. Anything that excited and interested him in the idea or in its execution has been cremated a thousand times over and hounded out of him and yet here I am wanting to rake through the ashes, so what follows is just my understanding of the facts from my position on the sidelines.

At the time the idea was simple.  In 1997 Chris Smith, the then secretary for Culture Media and Sport had introduced legislation in a bid to “increase the number of films made in Britain and double the percentage of the audience watching British films”(Independant, March 1999). In short he wanted to build a British film industry that could do more than bash out the odd gritty British drama for the awards season.  Smith described the scheme as “a really significant step in getting more British films made and in attracting more overseas film-makers here to use our facilities and our craftsmen and actors, who are the best in the world”.

However huge uptake of the tax breaks from all sides and abuses of the system due to the fact that it was cost effective to make even rubbish films, led to changes in the legislation, which was a great blow to those in the industry who genuinely wanted to see it thrive.  The facility to use the breaks to develop projects however was still in place.  Traditionally finance for film had focused around bankrolling an entire film, but what the industry really needed was an injection of funds in the initial stages of production so that producers could get out of the starting blocks and develop their projects into a state where they perhaps had cast attached or art work or any number of vital elements of their choosing that would make their particular project into an attractive proposition for subsequent investors who could then finish the film.

The other advantage to getting funding in at the beginning of the process was that it would actually benefit British producers and companies as they would be able to hold onto their rights and we could actually keep the money in the country.  The “British” films that are much lauded as evidence that our native industry is thriving, like the Harry Potter franchise for example, may be shot and made in this country, but the rights to those films are owned by big American studios and so the money is all being made by? That’s right…America!

The only way to get a proper industry off the ground in this country is to empower British producers.  This was the nub of the idea: Private investors looking to reduce their tax liabilities could invest in a film scheme which would provide development money to producers and the subsequent increase in the number of British films made would simultaneously inject cash into the economy.  This is basic entrepreneurship.  It is one of the most lucrative and important aspects of our economy in the present day.  Charlie raised the money from the investors and was paid a percentage, Keith was the primary architect of the structure, and took a percentage for his role, and Rob dealt directly with the producers and ran the businesses that provided the services that would help get their projects into production and thus make the scheme profitable and ultimately self supporting.  He was also paid a percentage for this role.

Working out the fine print of the above, the running of the scheme, the structuring etc was arduous work.  Each stage of it had to be examined and signed off by top QC’s who understood tax law a thousand times more better than the film producers who conceived of it, and this is the point:  The architects of the scheme were genuine film people, used to ducking and diving and getting things done – no film is ever made without that spirit – there are just too many people and personalities, and too much money involved for it to be anything other than a scramble past all the hurdles along the way.  This scheme was complicated and was made even more complicated by the fact that in 2004 the legislation was changed so that that it could no longer operate in the way in which it had been designed, but it was conceived of and operated as a genuine business.

What is more, HMRC are more than aware of that.  They agreed in court that the scheme was “trading with a view to profit” which means that they understand that it was a genuine business.  The scores of producers who took the stand also confirmed that beyond all doubt.  This scheme was signed off by eminent QC’s at its inception, a top film account in the business was engaged to ensure that the scene complied with tax legislation and a further tax expert verified the entire scheme and was fully prepared to evidence this at the trial, though ultimately he was not permitted to give evidence.  There are documents which show where every piece of money went when it entered the scheme up til the present day. Nothing has been hidden here as there is nothing to hide.  To commit fraud you have to have intent – you can’t do it by accident: You have to set out from the beginning to steal money and this simply did not happen. So why are we here, waiting for sentencing?  I really wish I knew.

By | June 20th, 2016|
Load More Posts