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Party leaders put on the spot at Citizens UK assembly

05 May 2015


Intervened: Nick Clegg speaks at the Assembly, on Monday afternoon

Intervened: Nick Clegg speaks at the Assembly, on Monday afternoon

"WE are not here today for party-political broadcasts," said the first speaker at the Citizens UK Assembly on Monday. "We want straight answers to the questions we are posing."

As the party representatives took turns in the hot seat, in front of more than 2000 voters in Methodist Central Hall, it became clear that the fudges, equivocation, and prevaricating that drive Question Time audiences mad would receive short shrift.

A yes or no answer was required to the demands in the community organisers' manifesto, including an end to the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers and the Living Wage for care-workers.

Lending this no-nonsense approach extra weight was the presence on stage of those directly affected by the politicians' responses.

A man detained for ten months described being "chained to bed like a dog. People took photos on their phones." While a choir sang "Let my people go", a lone parent described the "sinking feeling of shame and distress" she felt after taking out a loan from a payday lender to buy new shoes for her daughter.

"I work full time, but I do not have enough money to live on," said a carer on the minimum wage. "My children ask for simple things, but I will always say no. Do you know how it feels as a parent to say no to a sweet? I am caring for other people's families, but I do not have enough to care for mine."

In an age in which politicians' interactions with the general public are often tightly controlled, it made for an electric atmosphere.

After Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, refused to agree to a time limit on detention, he was confronted, politely but powerfully, by Zrinka Bralo, director of the Forum, a migrant and refugee communities group, who described arriving in the UK after escaping genocide in Bosnia, sleeping with acid by her side in case her attackers caught her. When she arrived in the '90s, 300 people were detained per year. It is now 30,000. "Would you not agree that we need to sort this out?"

A time limit was "arbitrary", argued Mr Javid. It could encourage people to "delay and frustrate" the system.

"Detention is an important part of the immigration system. . . It is right that those who have no right to remain in the UK are returned to their country, and if they do not return voluntarily, then action must be taken."

While receiving applause for fulfilling previous demands - a cap on the cost of credit and an end to the detention of children - Mr Javid was pressed about Mr Cameron's commitment to Citizens UK. Organisers admitted earlier that they had been "disappointed" by the Prime Minister's failure to attend, despite promises made in 2010. The Culture Secretary repeatedly refused to promise that the leader would meet with them twice in the course of the coming Parliament.

The leaders of both the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties were present. Nick Clegg was thanked by the son of Waldemar, a cleaner in Whitehall, who had been helped by the Liberal Democrat leader after his hours were cut as a punishment for speaking out about low pay.

"He has taught me if something is wrong, that I should never keep quiet," said 13-year-old Enivalde Ventura of his father. "That I should show what is really happening behind the shadows." He thanked Mr Clegg for intervening on his Dad's behalf, before adding: "We need you to do more."

Mr Clegg was able to give his agreement many of the group's demands, including a national accreditation scheme for carers, an end to indefinite detention, and paying the Living Wage to everyone in central government departments and their agencies by next year.

The pay of carers was at the discretion of local authorities, who were, he admitted, being pressed to find "further savings".

Although the organisers stressed that they existed outside left/right divisions, the warmth with which Ed Miliband was received suggested that he was playing to a home crowd. There was huge applause as he took the stage, and as he talked about his campaign to become Prime Minister.

"Your fight is my fight," he declared. "Your struggle is my struggle. Your vision is my vision. Let's put working people first."

In addition to pledging to end indefinite detention, Mr Miliband vowed to end the "scandal" of 15-minute care visits, and said that the party wanted a single, named point of contact for each person being looked after. He would "seek to move towards the agenda you have set out", including higher wages in the sector. "It is one of the most important roles in our society and frankly we do not value it enough."

The atmosphere as the meeting drew to a close was celebratory. "Every time politicians come to an assembly, they are blown away by meeting people who really want to engage in civil society," said Andy Walton, churchwarden at St Peter's, Bethnal Green, and a member of the Citizens UK council. "This is how politics used to be done, in town halls. . . That is something that politicians really respond to, because it is not manufactured or sanitised politics."

The organisation now has thousands of members from faith institutions, workplaces, and community associations across the country. It exists "squarely in the tradition of the Chartists and suffragettes", he said, providing a space for those in faith groups to further their "exciting radical tradition".

In a corridor just outside the main hall, Bekele Woyecha, detained ten years ago after fleeing Ethiopia, and a campaigner against indefinite detention posed for a photo with his son. Even terrorists can be held for only 28 days, he said.

"It is wrong that a child should see his father detained and not know when he will see him again," ten-year-old Zefitret had told the audience. He said he would like to be Prime Minister one day.

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