Ugandan Asians

Part of Backbench Business – in the House of Commons at 1:55 pm on 6th December 2012.

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Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 1:55 pm, 6th December 2012

It is a privilege to speak in this debate from the Front Bench, as what started out as a humanitarian catastrophe has turned into an amazing human success story. This has been a celebratory debate, which we do not often have in this Chamber, and it has united the whole House this afternoon. We have heard a number of very moving speeches, but I want to pay particular tribute, as others have already, to Mr Vara for his tenacity in securing the debate. As we know, it was replaced by the discussion on the Leveson inquiry and I am pleased that he persevered and succeeded in bringing the issue before us this afternoon.

We have also heard passionate and heart-warming contributions from my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), Simon Hughes, my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, Sir Peter Bottomley, my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra and Paul Uppal. It is a mark of how far we have come that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West represents the seat that was once represented by Enoch Powell.

Despite my youthful appearance, I remember the terrible events of 1972, when General Idi Amin decided to expel the Asian Ugandans after, I think, the British refused to provide financial support. I heard a documentary earlier this year that reported that Idi Amin had subsequently apologised for that decision—rather late, it must be said. One of the consequences of that decision was that it was catastrophic for the Ugandan economy. It had a damaging impact on Uganda, and perhaps that was one of the reasons Idi Amin recognised the error of his ways and apologised for his actions.

Edward Heath’s Government tried to negotiate with Idi Amin, but unfortunately did not get anywhere. As we have heard, the Ugandan Asians were told they would be imprisoned in concentration camps if they did not leave the country within 90 days. After the events of the second world war, which were relatively recent history, it was appalling to hear about concentration camps and putting people into them. We were faced with a humanitarian crisis. The Heath Government looked to settle people in other countries but they found that very difficult, as many refused, so they offered the Ugandan Asians the opportunity to come to Britain. It has to be said that that was one of Ted Heath’s finest hours.

The Ugandan Asians who came to Britain had few, if any, possessions, and many were robbed by the Ugandan authorities. Those immigrants went through a terribly traumatic experience. We have heard that the mass migration was very controversial at the time, and it came just a few years after Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech. Edward Heath was worried about Enoch Powell and that that speech could increase racial tensions. We know that that led to the introduction of a new immigration Act, whereby the right to British citizenship for Indians in other countries, such as Kenya, was revoked.

On arrival in the UK many Ugandan Asians were bussed to Strandishall in Suffolk and put into temporary accommodation until they could be settled across the country. The migrants subsequently relocated to various parts of the UK, as we have heard today. The legacy of that migration has been extremely positive. Again, we have heard many examples this afternoon. Many of the Ugandan Asians were skilled and educated workers and so were able to integrate into society successfully. It is worth acknowledging that although Leicester city council at the time took out advertisements, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East pointed out, urging Ugandan Asians not to settle in Leicester, a third of the Ugandan Asians did settle there and have made a huge and positive contribution. Leicester is now an exemplar of how a diverse and cohesive community can form over time.

The story of Britain’s response to the plight of the Ugandan Asians is an illustration of what makes Britain such a great country. It illustrates the sort of actions that make all of us in the Chamber today and, I am sure, the rest of the nation proud to be British.