By Rithika Siddhartha
IMMIGRATION has been fantastic for Britain, Sajid Javid has said, as the home secretary – who is in the race to be the next prime minister – called for a sensible and flexible approach.
Britain’s first Asian to hold one of the great offices of state and the son of Pakistani immigrants said the UK had gained – not just economically – but also culturally, from migration and asserted that it had made the country stronger.
And in a marked departure from prime minister Theresa May’s views, Javid added that Britain must take a “sensible attitude” towards foreign students and make it an attractive country for them if they wish to stay on and work here after completing their education.
Javid’s comments came at an event last Thursday (6) in London, where he spoke at length at an event organised by British Future thinktank and Eastern Eye.
In a conversation with Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, the Conservative MP for Bromsgrove spoke about his experiences as the child of migrants, his views on integration, the dangers of “self segregation” in parts of the country and a fondness for bhangra dancing.
Javid is among 10 candidates who want to be the next prime minister, and the only Asian in the contest.
Immigration was a key factor in the EU referendum vote of 2016, with those who campaigned for leaving the European Union stressing that Britain could restrict the number of new arrivals once Brexit was delivered. Yet the views of Javid – who campaigned to remain in the EU, but is now keen to leave the EU – are in contrast to those of more hardline Tory MPs.
The Conservative manifesto pledged to cap migrant arrivals at tens of thousands instead of the hundreds of thousands.
Javid said: “We should not be obsessed by numbers. I would not have the [net migration] target. It’s nonsense to set a target that you know you can never meet.
“Immigrants help to create jobs, they don’t take jobs.
“It’s something that we can take a much more sensible, flexible attitude to.”
Indeed, among his first decisions when he took charge of the Home Office was to remove a cap on Tier 2 non-EU migrant visas, enabling the NHS to bring over doctors from India.
On Windrush, a scandal that led to the departure of Amber Rudd and his promotion as home secretary, Javid said the Caribbean migrants were wrongly and badly treated and that lessons were still being learned.
He added that were he to become the prime minister, he would retain Britain’s commitment to international development aid that stands at 0.7 per cent of the GDP and also carry on the UK’s refugee resettlement programme. Javid recalled how late last year Britain helped rescue some 100 Syrian refugees caught up in the conflict to the Midlands.
“I met a family who said to me, ‘we’d be dead without your action,’” he said, revealing it was the first time he could speak about it in public.
His own parents moved to the UK from Pakistan as economic migrants and Javid recalled growing up in a two-bedroom house with his parents and four brothers.
Money was tight, but his parents – like Asian parents of any generation – did everything they could to provide their children with opportunities they might not have had, back in Pakistan.
This meant going to the library every weekend and spending time reading books, “with my mum staring at me till I finished” and taking tuition classes in calculus so that a young Javid could sit his O levels in school – against the recommendation of his own teachers who he dismissed as being uninspiring.
“My dad had £50 to spare. I found someone who charged £6 an hour, and the tutor offered three or four lessons free of charge,” Javid recalled.
Not only did he pass his exams, but also went on to study at Exeter University before embarking on a successful career in banking. He became a politician when he was elected in 2010 from Bromsgrove.
As a young boy, Javid also accompanied his mum to the doctor’s surgery, so that he could translate for her.
“My mum didn’t speak English when she first arrived,” he said, but later, when she learned the language, it transformed her life.
Speaking English was key to integration, Javid said, and added that the focus must be on making it easy to help migrants learn it. There are too many parts across the country where little or no English has been spoken for 30, 40 or 50 years and Javid said learning language could be empowering, especially for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who have lower levels of employment than white Britons.
Non-speakers could not be forced to speak English, he conceded, rather mentored.
Reflecting on how Britain had done much better than other European countries on assimilating migrants, but that there were challenges still, Javid recalled visiting two schools in Rochdale, a mile part. One, where the majority of pupils were Asian and another where white students made up 95 per cent of the total, illustrated to him the problem of self-segregation, he said.
“It’s not good for both groups. We are all British and more must be done to bring them together.”
“There are things to celebrate in Britain, but there are also growing divisions and hate crime, which some are seeking to exploit,” he said. Javid’s colleague in the party and a frontrunner in the race to succeed Theresa May is Boris Johnson, whose previous comments in a newspaper column describing women in full face veils as looking like letter boxes drew fury among some party members, women’s groups and rights activists.
Asked to comment, Javid said Johnson’s views were wrong and politicians should not use language like that.
His own childhood was in marked contrast to that of his children, he noted, “like night and day”.
Javid and his wife Laura, who is English, are parents to four children; his daughter and wife were in the select audience at the Royal Society last week.
“I am English and proud of my Pakistani roots,” he said, “but I think it’s wrong to judge people on the basis of their ethnicity.”
And what Asian trait marked him out as being typically Asian?
“You haven’t seen me bhangra dancing!” he said.