I spent some time before Christmas at a hospital in Leicester at the bedside of my father-in-law, who was seriously ill. He died on 29th November. He was 81.
My father-in-law was born in Nairobi and settled in Leicester as an immigrant in 1972. When he arrived he and his family and many others were faced with the same hostility, prejudice and discrimination that my father faced when he settled in Leicester as an immigrant in 1939. The only difference was my father came from an Irish family and had migrated from Newcastle and my father-in-law was from an Indian family and had migrated from Kenya. The same response has heralded the arrival of every generation of immigrants throughout our history, irrespective of their place of origin. I was then secretary of a campaigning group that worked to develop a better understanding between different communities and I witnessed the hostile reception first hand. I also witnessed the ways in which these prejudices can be overcome to create harmonious diverse communities.
The rhetoric is only too familiar – they take our jobs, they take our homes, they change our culture, they do not contribute to society. These are obviously the sanitised versions of the comments, and it is depressing to hear them again as immigration is debated once more. Time has shown that there is very little evidence to support these myths and that each generation of immigrants proves that the fears expressed are wrong. Anyone who has worked and lived in diverse communities and witnessed the positive aspects of immigration knows this to be true. In the 40 years he lived in Leicester my father-in-law contributed much to the local economy and community, as did my father before him. They were not special, except to me and my family of course, they were just ordinary people who lived ordinary lives, just as the vast majority of immigrants have done throughout history.
I believe that much of the immigration debate is a shadow play for deeper held prejudices and fears that are often driven by racism. As the indigenous population changes with each period of immigration these fears and prejudices are focused on the latest arrivals. It is when these fears and prejudices are allowed to influence decisions and behaviours that discrimination takes place. This is when racist tendencies that exist in some if not all of us take over. Those in the housing sector are not immune.
Many housing associations were established in the 1960s to house immigrants who were then as now often living in deplorable conditions. Racism and discrimination were rife in both the public and private sector. These organisations did much good work but the problem grew. In the 1980s I was a member of a working party that wrote the first guide to race and housing in the sector. This found that racism and discrimination existed at all levels both in the provision of housing and employment. The guide helped to introduce ethnic monitoring to the sector that not only strengthened the evidence of direct and indirect discrimination and racism it also enabled organisations to develop ways of overcoming it.
Many housing organisations responded to the challenge and implemented good practices but the evidence continued to show that discrimination took place and that new immigrants suffered disproportionately. In the 1990s I was a member of the CRE/Housing Corporation Enquiry into Race and Housing that found further evidence of discrimination and introduced the business case for diversity. Until recently this continued to be part of the regulatory process.
We have come a long way in this area so much so that there is a danger of complacency. While there continues to be evidence in this and other sectors of discrimination and racism, we need to be on our guard. I am currently a member of the Housing and Migration Network that has shown that new migrants are still housed in the worst conditions. This is at a time when the immigration debate attempts to give a veneer of respectability to the questioning of good practice and standards. It enables people to raise fears of so-called preferential treatment and the apparent unfair distribution of scarce resources. It enables politicians and others to blame and demonise just as they have done before, in their search for votes. The pattern is familiar, those in receipt of benefits, and those living in social housing and now immigrants. It allows people to mislead when they talk about treating a symptom and not the cause of the current housing crises. Stop immigration and the problems will go away appears to be the message. That was never true in the past and it is not true today.
In these circumstances I believe that housing associations should do more to address the issues of immigrants and the spectre of racism and discrimination. No one is immune. During my career I disciplined and dismissed a number of managers and staff for serious breaches of diversity and equality codes. They often took their cases to tribunals and I am pleased to say that they always found in our favour and often awarded costs. Given my history and values I was very saddened but not surprised when any incident of this type took place. They served as a reminder that all of us need to be ever vigilant on these issues. The immigration debate allows people to say things that should always be challenged. The challenge for the sector is not only to be on its guard against the possibility of racism and discrimination and to challenge it in all of its forms. It is also to remember our history of helping those in the greatest need many of whom are often newcomers, just like my father and father in law once were.
My father-in-law’s name was Jayantilal H. Pujara, Jay to his friends and family, of which I am proud to be a member. I felt privileged to be given the honour of carrying his coffin with my son at his funeral. He was an ordinary man who lived a good life and he once was an immigrant. Just as we all were.