Keith Vaz joined an all-party Parliamentary group on Fiji
By Patrick Sawer
With more than 50 different nationalities and ethnic minorities Leicester is among the most diverse cities in Britain.
Its Indian population is one of Britain’s largest, there is a significant Afro-Caribbean presence and the local Polish community traces its roots in the area back to World War Two, when several thousand arrived as refugees.
Italians, Kenyans, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankans also contribute to the city’s melting-pot.
It is therefore understandable that Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East, should seek to broaden his understanding of his constituents’ roots by joining one of several All Party Parliamentary Groups set up to look at the problems of particular overseas nations.
What is a mystery is why, of all the APPGs available, he should choose to join one dealing with Fiji.
The group was set up by Patrick Mercer MP, after he took £4,000 from undercover reporters posing as lobbyists who said they wanted to overturn sanctions imposed on the country due to its poor human rights record.
Mr Mercer resigned the Conservative whip last week, after being exposed by The Telegraph and the BBC’s Panorama programme. He boasted to the undercover journalists that he had persuaded 18 MPs to join the APPG.
He said they included “several freeloaders that would like to go to Fiji” and one who asked to take his wife.
No doubt Mr Vaz had rather more serious reasons for wanting a place on the group, but the desire to understand the concerns of Fijians in his city is unlikely to have been high on his agenda – for the simple reason there are few, if any at all living there.
A recent study by Leicester City Council found that 34 per cent of the city’s residents were born outside the UK.
Of these nearly 40,000 were born in India, 12,392 were Asians born in South and Eastern Africa, primarily Uganda, with another 7,000 from Kenya.
In addition, almost 6,500 residents were born in Poland, more than 3,500 in the Middle East, 3,534 in Pakistan, 3,377 in Zimbabwe and 3,209 in Somalia.
Of Fijians there is no mention.
Indeed there is little evidence that many of the 3,500 Fijians known to live in Britain have ever shown any particular desire to move to Leicester.
There was certainly little sign of them when The Sunday Telegraph visited Leicester’s Golden Mile, the heart of Mr Vaz’s constituency
The area, straddling the city’s Melton and Belgrave Roads, displays an ethnic and cultural mix of a very British type.
Shops selling ornate gold jewellery prized in Indian families rub shoulders with a fast food outlet advertising ‘Indo-Chinese’ pizzas. A café offers Indian, Italian and Mexican food, while the Saravanaa Bhavan Indian vegetarian restaurant boasts branches in the US, Canada, Qatar, Germany, Kuwait and the subcontinent itself.
Nearby, a newsagent advertises phone cards with bargain rates for Afghanistan, Nepal, Philippines, Bangladesh and Brazil.
But of Fiji or Fijians there is no sign.
We popped into the UaeXchange bureau de change. Had they ever had any requests for Fijian dollars, from expats perhaps, preparing to visit their families back home?
“Never. It’s not a currency that moves,” said a cashier. “But I could order you a cash transfer to pick up on arrival.”
A tourist leaflet in the local library highlights the city’s Caribbean carnival, Diwali festival and Gay Pride weekend, but makes no mention of any Fijian celebrations.
In the nearby newsagent Gujarati language newspapers were stacked alongside Saudi, Bangladeshi, French and German publications. But again, nothing from Fiji.
Nagarjuna Lingala, a shipping broker operating from a small office on the Golden Mile, said he had never had recourse to send a parcel to Fiji on behalf of a customer.
“I’ve dispatched all over the world, but not there,” he said.
Perhaps the various travel agents along Melton Rd advertising multinational destinations and package deals could help?
But here too Fijian customers were thin on the ground.
Muhammad Faisal, the business development manager for Home and Away Holidays, said: “We book flights all over the world for people wanting to visit families they left behind, but I don’t remember having a single request for flights to Fiji.
“There’s really no Fijian community in Leicester that I can think of. I didn’t know our MP had a particular interest in that country. Do you think he wanted a free trip?”
Mr Vaz’s political opponents are equally sceptical about his sudden enthusiasm for the distant South Pacific island.
Ross Grant, the city’s only Conservative councillor, said: “Given the diversity of Leicester I would have thought he would more than enough on his plate from communities with a presence in his constituency, rather than concerning himself with a country that has no presence in the city.”
Lib Dem councillor Nigel Porter was just as puzzled. “It’s quite bizarre,” he said. “It sounds like a nice place for a jolly. I certainly can’t think of any Fijian interests in Leicester.”
In fact there is one such interest, and a rather special one at that.
His name is Vereniki Goneva, he was born in Fiji and he is currently one of the leading stars of Leicester Tigers rugby union club.
Goneva signed for the club last year and his thrilling tries helped them secure the Aviva Premiership title last month.
Gary Sherrard, the club’s press officer, said the absence of any other Fijians in the city had proved to be no obstacle to the 29-year-old, known as Niki to fans.
“Niki had spent two years in France before he came to us, so he was used to being away from his culture,” said Mr Sherrard.
“But we also had the Tuilagi brothers from Samoa, who have played for the Tigers at various stages in their careers, look after him and help him settle in and feel at home. He’s a great lad and the fans love him.”
Surprisingly, however, there appears to be no record of Mr Vaz meeting Mr Goneva, a minority of one in a city of so many other minorities.
A spokesman for Mr Vaz, the Labour chairman of the home affairs select committee, said: “Mr Vaz is a member of several all-party country groups. No visits were offered to him either in the email or subsequently and he refutes suggestions that this is why MPs join APPGs.
“He fully supports Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth which should remain until there are free and fair elections. This reflects the views of his Fijian origin constituents.”
Source: The Telegraph