Nihal: What would you do to ensure my children will have a future in this country?
Lord Navnit Dholakia: I became the first-ever Asian councillor to be elected in a predominantly white area of Brighton in 1959. I don’t take any pride in saying that I was the first. What bothered me is that we compartmentalise our community in such a way that our priority has always been our work first. The second thing was building our temples, mosques and gurdwaras. The third is we got invol-ved very late in politics. I do congratulate people like Shailesh Vara, I don’t care what party he is from. What’s important about the democratic process is that we are part of a process within which you take a decision.
Politics is about law and it shapes the lives of people. The generation that is growing up – they want to break away from the compartmentalised community in which we live. I have great faith in the second, third, fourth generation of children who are growing up in this country. They are part and parcel of society and no longer interested in calling themselves Indians or Pakistani, though they are all very proud of their culture.
Nihal: The Conservatives – if they win – could quite possibly have more ethnic MPs than the Labour party.
Barry Gardiner: I would be delighted if they ever catch up. But the facts are that when this parliament dissolved in March, the Labour party had more MPs from black and minority ethnic groups than the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, the Welsh Nationalists, the independents, and UKIP put together and we always have had. Let’s see what happen in May 7.
We have said in our manifesto that we will set up a commission which sets targets for the boardroom, where people from businesses can work out what to do if targets are not set. We are not talking about private businesses, we are talking about directors on the board.
There’s also a point about the over-representation of black and ethnic minorities at the bottom of society. The two go together. Why is it that half of the Bangladeshi people in this country are on minimum wage? These are things we have to address. That’s why Labour’s policies for increasing the minimum wage, for talking about the living wage, are really important. Disproportionately that will affect and improve the lives of Asians in this society because they will be getting more money, because at the moment they are getting very little. We have had a strategic look at all the policies from the view of ethnicity.
Shailesh Vara: The facts are as far as my party is concerned, we have 11 black, Asian and ethnic minority members of parliament at present. There are 38 retiring MPs. Usually, if that’s the case, there is a good chance the same party will return a member of parliament for that party. We have eight BME candidates who are taking over [seats of] retiring MPs. If they all get elected, we will have the largest number of BME MPs than any other party in parliament. We have an additional 45 BME candidate in other seats.
I believe that we need equality and opportunity. People from BME communities, given that opportunity, do rise to the top. As justice minister I have had regular meetings with Lord chief justice marshals to see what could be done. What’s abundantly clear is that at the lower echelons of the judiciary, real talent is coming through from the BME community.
At the moment, there are still barriers to get to the top. I will say those barriers are crumbling fast, but we must not ease up on that.
In 2005, I was selected as the candidate in North West Cambridgeshire, in a constituency that is 98 per cent white. Since then, I’ve risen to be a minister, others are rising fast as well.
What I’m determined on is that we must have people of the right quality and right ability. None of us in this room, would be served well if we have targets which are filled by people who can’t do the job. There is a historical case on this issue. When people came here in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, their priority was not to get into politics, in the upper echelons of the judiciary service and so on. Their priority was to come to this country and get jobs, secure a roof over their heads.
The second and third generations are now coming through the system. As I now look around the country, I see the next generations ranking alongside the mainstream community of this country and I have no doubt they will get to the top of their respective fields.
Lord Navnit Dholakia: Quotas don’t take into account the ability of an individual – they simply count number and colours of people. We require targets, and targets are not unlawful. If the population of women in this country is over 50 per cent, why don’t we have more than 50 per cent of women in top jobs in this country?
One of the tragedies of the country is that we tend not to distinguish between discrimination and disadvantage.
Many of our communities are in very disadvantaged situations. If you take the 86,000 people who are in prison in this country, around 25 per cent of those in women’s prisons is black. Around 16 per cent of the prison population is black. Nine per cent of the population in British prisons is of Muslim origin. The figures are higher than the representations of the community. So something is going wrong.
Question: Will we see an Indian prime minister in the UK in your lifetime?
Barry Gardiner: I think we will see a British prime minister who well may be of Indian origin.
Question: Half a million pensioners who retire to their country of origin [in the subcontinent] don’t benefit from the annual uprating of their pension. What will MPs be doing for them?
Shailesh Vara: There are no immediate plans to deal with that particular issue, but it is one that certainly needs to be looked at. Given the economic climate at the moment, it’s not something that is foremost to be dealt with if we were to be returned to government.
Lord Navnit Dholakia: It’s not fair, it never will be fair, it is discriminatory and should not be allowed. Can I congratulate Eastern Eye for leading the debate on this issue.
Barry Gardiner: Pensions are simply wages deferred and to change the basis upon which you get your pension is actually to change the terms and conditions that were agreed when you were employed. You should get what you expect to get. The uprating is done in line with the uprating of the cost of living in this country. If someone is not living in this country, it actually does not make a lot of sense to say we will uprate the pension there by the cost of living in the UK. We have not committed ourselves to uprating the pension.
Question: What are your views on the EU referendum promised by the Conservative party?
Barry Gardiner: I believe that Britain is better off in Europe – given that we do 50 per cent of our trade with the EU, we should stay in Europe. I don’t want to waste time asking people whether we should do something that I think would be bad for business in this country.
“If there is a fundamental change in the constitutional relationship between the UK and the EU, of course there should be a referendum.
Lord Navnit Dholakia: It was a great error on the part of David Cameron to go for a referendum in 2017. It has destabilised many industries, look at the Institute of Directors, look at the CBI. The government is elected to govern, not to say ‘we don’t know what to do so we’ll go back to the public’.
Shailesh Vara: I trust the British public, and so does the Conservative party – that’s why we are having a referendum. If the European leaders actually want to do something, they can because they are the decision makers.
Question: What are the party’s plans for India?
Shailesh Vara: We need India more than India needs us. India is going to be a powerhouse this century and it is important that we are all there with them. We have been slow at making sure that we make face time for India because other countries were out there with businesses. We have caught up now. We want to make our links with India even closer.
Question: Caste discrimination has upset our community. What should you be doing to correct this injustice?
Lord Navnit Dholakia: Nobody in our community would tolerate discriminating against anybody on any grounds whatsoever, including caste. What I am against is to use a legislative process: instead, bring in community leaders and let these people look into it if there is an issue.
Shailesh Vara: It is there to be legislated upon if parliament takes that decision. There is a consultation, and I think it’s important where the community feels strongly about something, it should make its voice heard.
Barry Gardiner: We will say yes to pass legislation against discrimination whenever we are asked because it’s in our bones, it’s what we believe in, what we stand for. The Labour party will always fight for your right as an equal person.
Question: What are you doing for young people to help them get into work?
Lord Navnit Dholakia: The coalition government has created over two million apprenticeships in this country. There is a danger with cuts to public ser-vices that education will suffer. We have reduced unemployment at a time when the country went through the worst recession, that is something that should be commended.
Shailesh Vara: We are pledging that we will create another three million apprenticeships. The levels of employment for a population as a whole are at record levels, we will make sure that continues. We are making sure when people are at school they are doing the subjects that employers want.
There was no time for Barry Gardiner to answer the question. However, the Labour party has said it will cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year and will also introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee, paid for by a bank bonus tax. In addition, it will provide a paid starter job for every young per-son unemployed for over a year, a job which they will have to take or lose benefits.