"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'
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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