PoliticsHome | Only the latest five entries on the PhiWire are visible to non-subscribers
- Sign up to see last 24 hours
Dont have an account?Sign up here
Thursday 14th June 2012 | 20:00
Words: Tony Grew
Twenty-five years ago this month, Britain had its very own Obama moment. The 1987 general election saw four MPs from ethnic minorities elected to the House of Commons – Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz (pictured below, with Vaz between Neil Kinnock and Diane Abbott). In his spacious Commons office, Keith Vaz recalls that “important moment” and the steady progress that has been made since.
“Ethnic representation in the Commons had been missing since 1922. Our election was pretty important for the community. I was the only one elected out of London, from Leicester, the only person of Asian origin and the only one who had to win a Conservative seat.” There are now 72 black and Asian MPs and peers in Parliament, but Vaz says there continue to be issues with ethnic candidates being selected.“I think we can find people of talent in the black and Asian communities but clearly there is a problem because they are not able to get through the party system and party structure,” he says.Vaz praises the A List effect in the Tory party, a system which allowed the election of “very talented MPs who represent seats that are not ethnic minority seats” in the last general election.His sister Valerie was also elected in 2010. Back at the 1987 general election, Keith won Leicester East and she lost Twickenham.
“It has taken her 23 years to get here, in between having a baby and all that sort of stuff, and I suppose it shows how difficult it has been for Asian women because when she got elected, along with the three others, she was the first Asian woman ever to serve in Parliament.
“I am extraordinarily proud of her, but it is very eerie arriving and seeing your sister in the chamber because of course she knows everything about me and just to warn her, I know everything about her. So all the childhood rows I can remember, where who beat who at tennis.”Born in Aden in 1956 to Goanese parents, his family moved to London when he was nine. Vaz was the first person of Asian origin to become a minister, serving as a junior minister in the Lord Chancellor’s department and then as Minister for Europe from 1999 until 2001.
It was a turbulent time, and he faced allegations that he had broken the ministerial code. He resigned on health grounds after the 2001 election and served a short suspension from the Commons.An effective debater and campaigner, he was appointed as a Privy Counsellor in 2006 and a year later he became a chair of the Home Affairs select committee.
Vaz has been a constant media presence ever since, clashing with Gordon Brown over police pay and leading investigations into the Met’s relationship with the Murdoch press.Vaz’s effective chairmanship of the committee and his high media profile has undoubtedly kept its work in the headlines.
Later this month they will hold a pre-confirmation hearings with Tom Winsor, Theresa May’s controversial choice to be the next Chief Inspector of Constabulary.
Vaz says the committee will “take him in, we will test him to see whether or not he is the right choice, and we will make our decisions based on fairness”.
In February Vince Cable appointed Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access despite over the objections of the Business, Innovation and Skills committee, and Ed Balls likewise ignored advice in 2009 when he made appointed Maggie Atkinson as Children’s Commissioner for England.
Vaz stops short of calling for select committees to be given a power of veto over appointments, but thinks ministers should have to explains their decisions to parliament. “If a select committee says no, I think a minister should stop and think very carefully. And the next stage should not be to just go off and appoint the same person, but to actually come before the committee and defend their views. I think in the cases we have seen in education, of course when Ed Balls just made his decision and in Vince Cable’s case where he made his decision without anyone stopping him, I think there is probably another hoop to go before we get to that. If a select committee feels that really this person is not up to standard, whoever that is, I am not talking about Tom Winsor because we have not seen him yet, there should be something in the middle where ministers should come along and say ‘well why did they chose him, what do you want to do, what is your vision behind all of this?’”
He adds: “Whether you should do that before the hearing or after is another matter, but this is a parliamentary democracy, not a Downing St democracy or a Marsham St democracy; we talk about parliamentary democracy so at the end of the day it should be up to Parliament to decide.”Vaz says that Lord Leveson is doing “a first class job” in his investigation, he is not so confident that the “two-stage” inquiry he is leading will get round to fully investigating the relationship between the police and the press. “Simply because if there are criminal proceedings they are going to take many years and by the time you get to the end of that, there may not be an appetite for people to have another inquiry.”Vaz, who once gave Michael Jackson a tour of Parliament, laughs when questioned about his reputation for bringing a bit of glamour to Westminster.
“I think probably the most talked-about visitor was not actually Michael Jackson but Shilpa Shetty, when she came out of the Big Brother house, because it was an issue in parliament.“I raised it and Tony (Blair) replied – racism is a very important subject and the whole country was talking about it.”
He adds: “I would not want people to think they (celebrities) came in every five minutes, but if people indicate to me they would like to come in then I obviously think that they are entitled to be here.”
The former Europe minister says he has always been in favour of having a referendum on EU membership.
“We have to have this in/out referendum and we will win easily, because the three party leaders will all be on the side of staying in,” he predicts.
He calls David Cameron “a natural European” and has some advice for the Prime Minister.
“I don’t think we should concede political leadership to Angela Merkel. I don’t think we should concede it to Hollande either. The French/German axis which we have had running Europe for many years, because of the personal chemistry, did not happen when Blair was there. David Cameron is a natural communicator and he needs to be out there telling his ministers to go out there and actually engage. You can’t win the battle of Europe unless you lead Europe and I think we are the natural leaders of Europe.”Vaz is planning a party next month to celebrate his quarter century as an MP. “Tony is the guest of honour, which is great, and I have invited all colleagues on the 24th July because we thought we should celebrate. You never know if you are going to be around for the 30th, so you might as well celebrate the 25th.”
Be briefed for £1.50 a week...PoliticsHome PRO Find out more