Three seasoned politicians pulled out all the stops to convince voters to choose their parties during the second Eastern Eye election debate in front of a 200-strong audience in Harrow last week.
Barry Gardiner, Labour candidate for Brent North, Shailesh Vara, who is seeking re-election in North West Cambridgeshire, and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Navnit Dholakia were grilled by BBC Asian Network presenter DJ Nihal and the guests last Monday (20) in the final EE hustings before voters go to the polls next Thursday (7). They debated issues including immigration and the EU referendum at the Dhamecha Lohana Centre in south Harrow.
Conservative Michael Gove, Labour’s Ivan Lewis, and Lib Dem peer Baroness Susan Kramer took part in the first EE debate two weeks ago. Highlights from both debates will be broadcast on Thursday (30) and Friday (1) on Zee TV (Sky channel 788) at 6pm.
Nihal: A worry in the Asian community is about the tone of the debate around immigration.
Shailesh Vara: The tone from the Conservative party is not as friendly as it could have been – I have made that abundantly clear in my public statements on the subject.
Under David Cameron, the modern Conservative party takes a completely different view to that taken by the party, say a generation ago, when many of you came here and indeed, my father came here. When he came here in the early 1960s, it was very straightforward. If you were non-white and an immigrant, you gravitated towards the Labour party, and to be fair, that party was a lot more welcoming. But, as times have changed, the Conservative party, likewise, has changed.
David Cameron has made more visits to India than any other country in the last five years, other than Brussels (Belgium). He was the first national leader to telephone and congratulate Narendra Modi on his magnificent victory when he won the overall majority in India.
It was under him that we set up the British Conservative party premise on India, it was under him that we have seen a huge effort to interact with the non-white community; in particular, the Indian community.
Nihal: The Conservative party have said they got some things wrong and you yourself have said so. What do you think about those Home Office vans that went around this part of London, saying ‘Illegally in the UK? Go home or face arrest’. Go home – that’s something our parents had to see. What do you think about those vans?
Vara: The vans were there and immigration – we have to recognise – is a very serious issue. The tone, I think, could have been better, and I was not consulted as to that message. It was something that lasted a very short time and the vans disappeared very quickly.
Lord Navnit Dholkia: One of the difficulties we have, the politicians who lead the country seem absolutely entrenched in the argument in playing the numbers game.
What we should be talking about when talking about immigration is the contribution minorities have made to this country. A small community like ours has contributed over £12 billion and continues to make that contribution into British politics and the British economy.
Instead, what we see is this hysteria with the numbers game.
Every country has a right to determine its immigration policy. What it does not have a right to do is base its policy on people from certain countries. That’s unacceptable. If you look at the reality of the situation of students who come to this country, there has been a 20 per cent drop from the Indian subcontinent. They no longer want to come here because of the hassle they face from the British high commission. They would rather go to Germany or Australia.
Immigration policies are designed to kick out of the country those who are not entitled to stay here. [You] put people who are entitled to come here in the same process as those who are not entitled, and in doing so, you have completely broken the whole argument of immigration. I’ve been in this country for over 55 years and quite often people still ask me where have I come from, and when am I going back.
Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative party in the last election, he would make one speech praising the immigrant community when he was in an area with a high immigrant population and then he would condemn immigrants in the white majority areas.
Politicians must not get involved in this xenophobic idea propagated by UKIP and give them any voice ever in British politics.
Nihal: So were the vans xenophobic?
Lord Dholakia: Of course they were xenophobic. Having been in British politics for 50 years and then to see a van saying, ‘am I an illegal immigrant? and if so I should go home?’, this is utter nonsense.
I’ll be the first one to say that if you haven’t got the right, you shouldn’t be here. In the last general election, Cameron he said he wanted to reduce immigration to 100,000, but the figure now is still 200,000.
Barry Gardiner: I don’t remember ever before this incident when vans were sent around my constituency saying ‘Go Home or face arrest’. I spoke to the home secretary immediately after the ad vans ran and said, ‘Tell me, the 130 people who had already been ‘arrested in your areas in the last week’, please define for me your area, because they are in Brent, Harrow, north London.’ Eventually the Advertising Standards Authority ruled it was not a fit and proper advert. It was racist. We all know it was racist and it was done under this government.
I wholly accept we got it wrong on immigration. And it took us until 2010 to set up a points-based, Australian-style system where we would then get it right.
The point is this. This government came in and said they would get the figure down to tens of thousands within this five-year period – it’s now standing at 298,000.
What Lord Dholakia said is important. We are undermining Britain’s biggest export – education. We are undermining the colleges and universities in this country. We are undermining the future business and trade relations with India and China, with all the other countries. Why, because if you go study in a country, the chances that in your professional career you would want to do business with that country goes up by 600 per cent. And those people are not being allowed to stay. Why? Because they count under David Cameron’s net immigration figure, and he doesn’t want them in the statistics because they would be added on top of the 289,000.
Vara: We welcome as many overseas students as want to apply, providing they speak English and providing they can pay for themselves. They can stay here and after qualification, if they have a job that is suitable, then they can stay in this country. But I don’t think it’s unfair that people who are not citizens of this country, who do not have a job and who have fulfilled the purpose for which they came, namely education, they should then be expected to go back to their home country. Anyone who is a student, who has a job at a particular salary, can stay here. That is the truth and the fact.
Lord Dholakia: One point I have to make clear – it’s not simply education, when you go back to your own country, those students are promoting Britain. There is no amount of money you can spend in terms of promoting diplomacy other than giving them an education.
Vara: After 13 years of a Labour government, when we came into power in 2010, there was a backlog of 450,000 people whose cases had not been dealt with by the Home Office. The Labour home secretary John Reid said the Home Office was not fit for purpose.
That is one of the central causes as to why there is taking a huge amount of time to deal with cases. What is important is that a correct decision is taken at the outset and people do not come here to find themselves in a long queue. As far as non-EU immigration is concerned, we have to ensure that those are entitled to come, do, and those who aren’t, don’t. We welcome those who can play a role in our country and contribute and pay their way in our society.
There are a number of immigrants in limbo because their files haven’t been looked at by the Home Office. When we look at their file we should not say, ‘let’s give this person an interim status’, we should simply take the decision there and then. I’m not in favour of creating another tier for the Home Office to look at. People are either legal or illegal. Every other country has immigration policies, we are not exempt from having a policy that is almost universal in other countries.
Gardiner: There were people in a room in the Asian Business Awards (hosted by the Asian Media and Marketing Group, publishers of Eastern Eye) who have contributed more to the British economy, more in terms of jobs, more in terms of growth and business, than probably any group of the same number of people. We have parties who ramped up the rhetoric on immigration, but there we were celebrating some of the most entrepreneurial, wealth-creating people in the British economy and it really is wrong that this government is going towards the right. UKIP is pulling it further and further to the right. And they are having to come with an immigration rhetoric in different areas of the country and that is absolutely wrong. We should be celebrating what’s going on.
Vara: It is important we have an important and frank discussion about immigration. There has always been the charge from Labour that we are racist. It is not racist to talk about immigration. We are British citizens, we are talking about the future of our country. We are talking about our frontiers, so it’s important we talk about who is entitled to come here and who is not. The public out there want to have this debate. The key thing to remember is that it’s in a measured tone but we certainly can’t keep this under the carpet.