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Phil Woolas: lifelong fight against racism inspired limit on immigration

Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester | Saturday, 18 October 2008 Source: The Times

When Phil Woolas was growing up in Lancashire his grammar school was entirely white until the Ugandan Asians arrived. “The first Asian boy who joined my school was nicknamed Banana,” says the new Minister for Borders and Immigration. “The teachers called him Banana, the boys called him Banana. He even called himself Banana. I thought it was appalling.”

It was, he says, fighting racism that got him into politics. At sixth-form college he joined the Labour Party and ran a campaign against “Paki-bashing”. He chose to stand for election as an MP in the Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency, which has a high Pakistani and Kashmiri population. “It's had a race riot, it's had a huge BNP [British National Party] presence and it's a marginal seat. It's a complete crucible,” he says. “But we've never had a BNP councillor - I hope I've had something to do with that by getting in and getting dirty.”

Mr Woolas describes dealing with immigration as “my lifelong purpose” but he is not going to be pandering to what he calls Hampstead liberals.

“I've been brought in to be tougher and to change perceptions,” he says. The Government must, he insists, face up to voters' concerns about the level of immigration - particularly as a recession looms. The economic downturn changes everything, he says. “Clearly if people are being made unemployed, then the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny.”

Employers should, he believes, put British people first, or they will risk fuelling racism. “In times of economic difficulties, racial stereotyping becomes stronger but also if you've got skills shortages you should, as a government, attempt to fill those skills shortages with your indigenous population.”

This is not about colour. He uses the example of the high level of unemployment among the Bangladeshi community in Britain, many of whom he believes could be retrained to fill a shortage of chefs. “Britain has to get working again. The easiest thing for an employer to do is to employ an immigrant. We need to help them to change that.”

He adds: “We need a tougher immigration policy and we need to stop seeing it as a dilemma. It's not. It's easy. I'm going to do my best to help the British back to work. The message to them is, if you want less immigration you're going to have to respond with helping us get everyone working who can.”

Mr Woolas admits that more and more people will want to come to Britain as a result of the global downturn. “We're the fourth-richest country. Even with a recession we're still going to be attractive to people from poorer countries. The urgency [to sort the system out] becomes greater.”

It is clear that he wants to reduce the number of immigrants. “It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and it's going to get harder,” he says. “As we stand we don't know how many foreign nationals there are. I want to end up in a situation where we know and the public know how many people are coming in and going out of our country.”

Although he does not think it is practical to talk about a cap on the number of new arrivals, because the Government cannot predict how many people will be emigrating, he says: “We have to have a population policy and that means at some point we will be able to set a limit on migration. This Government isn't going to allow the population of this country to go up to 70 million. There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving.”

Extremists such as the BNP exploit the perception that immigrants receive unfair benefits. Mr Woolas wants to tackle them head on. “I don't believe that we are a country of Alf Garnetts but there's a large element that is discriminatory in its attitude,” he says.

The problem, according to the minister, is that “the perception that immigrants jump the housing queue is very strong, even though the reality is very different. We must cut back on the few cases of abuse so people see that the system is fair.”

He is appalled by stories of immigrants being given £1 million houses at taxpayers' expense. “These are council decisions. They shouldn't do that kind of thing. I just think it's wrong, even if it is rare.”

Nor should the NHS accept health tourism. “If you're here legally you should have access to the NHS. If you are here illegally, or - what's the word we use? - clandestinely, you shouldn't. It's a national health service - it's not an international health service.”

He opposes an amnesty for people who are already here illegally because he thinks it would encourage more to come. “An amnesty... starts with a discussion among politicians and ends with dead bodies in the back of a truck in Calais.”

He believes passionately, however, that those who do become part of the British workforce should be treated with far more respect. “Since Windrush [the Empire Windrush - the ship that carried the first large group of West Indians to Britain in 1948] we have, compared to other rich countries, been liberal in our border controls, but when immigrants get here I think we're cruel to them as a society and I want to turn that around.”

Rather than being segregated they should be encouraged to join in. “The immigrant community itself is the strongest advocate of fair and firm immigration rules and the strongest advocate of obeying the law - yet the perception is not that. We have allowed people in here and not helped them to help themselves. Translation [of official documents into other languages] ghettoises people. A Bangladeshi friend told me you can't get a good job in Bangladesh if you can't speak English. You don't need to convince them that they need to speak English - of course they do.”

The hijab can, in his view, be divisive. “People wear veils for different reasons: some out of religious conviction. some because they're forced to. It should be up to them, but at school you shouldn't wear one. It's harder to get a good education if you wear a veil as you're more cut off.”

Women in Muslim communities should be encouraged to work, even if that goes against their culture. “My guiding light is that we have to talk about these things. It is important for everyone.”

Mr Woolas wants to make it difficult for people to bring in very young girls from abroad for an arranged marriage. “I am about to increase the age limit of entry by a spouse from 18 to 21. The way in which our society treats some of these boys and girls is a crime. If someone so young from a rural area marries and is brought in to an area that is predominantly of one culture and never goes out, that doesn't help them or society.”

He is also concerned about the number of marriages between first cousins in Indian and Pakistani families. “Anyone who knows my community knows there are higher proportions of physical disability amongst the children of first-cousin marriages. It's a cultural issue. The morally right thing is to raise awareness of that. The risk of disability is 4.7 per cent - that's double the average. If your grandparents were first cousins, too, it goes up to 52 per cent. I don't say you shouldn't marry your first cousin, I say if you do, be careful and be screened.”

He supports the principle of Muslim faith schools, although he insists “you have to use schools to help break down segregation. They should learn about all faiths - there shouldn't be exclusive access. Children from other faiths should be allowed in.”

But he also warns Christians that they need to be more accepting of other faiths. The Church of England will, in his view, be disestablished in the end. “It will probably take 50 years but a modern society is multifaith.”

His last words are inspired by his old classmate. “I think it [the immigration system] has been too lenient and I want to make it harder, but I also want to be nice to people who do come to settle here. That's what I have wanted to do all my life since the boy came to my school and was called Banana.”

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