UP CLOSE - Hitchin MP Bim Afolami on racism, NHS, Brexit, lockdown, welfare, Marcus Rashford, MPs pay rises, Kier Starmer - and much, much more

  Posted: 20.11.20 at 19:04 by LAYTH YOUSIF in conversation with Hitchin MP Bim Afolami

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Hitchin Nub News: Many thanks for your time Bim, we know you’re a busy man, so we’ll crack on. Quoting Lenin in your prominent piece in The Times newspaper last week - you’re not turning ‘Red’ are you?

Bim Afolami MP: [Laughs] No! Not at all! Yes, I did quote him in my piece in The Times, but definitely not! But look, before I go onto talk about Lenin and what I was talking about in The Times, I think it’s worth saying, congratulations on your new role at Nub News.

I think what local news in Hitchin needs - and right across the country - is real rejuvenation and I think Nub News is doing a great job in doing that, both here and nationwide. I believe you’ve got around 60 different online newspapers with a lot more to come, so a very well done to you all. I’m a politician and of course I won’t like things that are written about me nationally, or in Nub News. And of course I’ll be irritated by it, but that’s the nature of politics. And if I wasn’t ever irritated by it you’d get left-wing Labour supporters having a go at you and asking why you’re not challenging me on certain things.

So a big well done to Nub News. Local news really matters because it’s really hard to communicate what you’re doing on a local level nationally. National newspapers aren’t interested in Hitchin, or Gosmore, or Offley, they’re only interested in national issues – that’s why, what Nub News is trying to do, in completely bringing local news into the 21st century, is so important.

I know you’re not just in Hitchin, you’re spreading like wildfire up and down the country – so congratulations on that.

In relation to quoting Lenin in The Times – before anyone chokes on their cereal – the quote I gave was that there are some weeks where decades happen and some decades where weeks happen. And that’s a quote to describe how, sometimes, in history and current affairs, things can move incredibly quickly.

Bim Afolami in conversation with Layth Yousif. PICTURE CREDIT: Tim Matthews

I think where we were a year ago just before the general election, and where we are now – what we’ve been through as a country and as a community with Covid – I think is extraordinary. And I think we’re going to see more and more changes happen over the coming years.

Hitchin Nub News: In terms of your Times article, you talked about a transformative private sector. Talk us through what that means?

Bim Afolami: My view is this: The only way we are going to get ourselves back to a level of prosperity and living standards that we had before the Covid crisis, is through the private sector recovering fast. Because if that doesn’t happen – if we don’t have the money for schools, the NHS and all the things that people pay their taxes for – then we’ll have to tax people more. Which means that you, and everyone will have less money in their pockets. Which makes for a much less successful country.

So, for me getting the private sector up and running, in Hitchin, and across my constituency, and all across the county is important. The nature of the growth is important too. People might talk about GDP but you could say, ‘well isn’t that going to all the rich people and big businesses?’ – and that’s a fair challenge. I think if we grow back and the only people who see that growth are people who own shares in Ocado, or Zoom or those who run Facebook or whatever makes money – then that isn’t good enough for me.

So, we’ve got to make sure the national living wage goes up. That people at the bottom benefit and low and middle earners benefit. People are really struggling at the moment and we need to be inclusive.

Bim Afolami in conversation with Layth Yousif. PICTURE CREDIT: Tim Matthews

Hitchin Nub News: You wrote that we need to grow our economy and not simply paper over the cracks by spending money. But isn’t that what Eat Out to Help Out was an example of?

Bim Afolami MP: It was part of that. Look, I supported Eat Out to Help Out because I think the hospitality sector really needed a boost. And if they did another version of it in the New Year....What we were doing - as this is a really important debate – is effectively giving a tax cut to encourage people to go to restaurants and pubs. And that will more than pay for itself by generating extra numbers on people going to restaurants - and therefore, not only pubs and restaurants would be better off, but that the Treasury would not be losing as much as well.

And I think that it worked. The difficulty is that you’ve got to set it at the right level. That’s the sort of principle we need to be looking at in lots of other sectors when we come to the Budget in 2021. We need to get people spending money again.

Hitchin Nub News: You talk about enterprise and entrepreneurship – and Hitchin is full of independent stores. So why are national chains such as WH Smith allowed to open during lockdown, but the majority of Hitchin’s independent stores are prevented from doing so?

Bim Afolami MP: Good question. And it is difficult to justify in business terms. The fundamental reasons, everyone understands. During this second lockdown - though it’s worth saying, this second lockdown isn’t the same as the previous lockdown – we needed to limit contact between people as much as possible. Now, you can’t shut supermarkets, because not everyone can shop online, or get Ocado, or Sainsbury’s to deliver to their homes. So you have to keep supermarkets open.

Bim Afolami in conversation with Layth Yousif. PICTURE CREDIT: Tim Matthews

And, with that, the real difficulty is that if a supermarket can sell socks, or shirts, then shutting down a store on Hermitage Road - the School Uniform shop, for example – then that doesn’t seem fair.

That’s why we’ve allowed ‘click and collect’. I know in Hitchin there are loads of independents doing click and collect. It is really difficult for those who didn’t have the technology to get ‘click and collect’ running in time, which is a shame.

There are discretionary grants available from North Herts District Council for anyone who isn’t allowed to open. For anyone who reads this and feels that they have been unfairly forced to shut they can get in touch with me at my office, and I will make sure they do get what is available to them at NHDC.

But the alternative with what we are able to do, is the alternative when we had that ridiculous situation in Wales, where they had supermarkets that were trying to divide on supermarket shelves exactly what was essential and what wasn’t. And you get yourself into an awful mess doing that.

Hitchin Nub News: Looking at your Twitter feed from October, you RT’d a post that said: ‘Labour calling for a full lockdown. Confirming reputation for inflicting misery and impoverishment on the country. Pathetic gesture politics.’ Two weeks later Boris Johnson imposes a second national lockdown. That was a bit of a U-turn wasn’t it?

Bim Afolami in conversation with Layth Yousif. PICTURE CREDIT: Tim Matthews

Bim Afolami MP: Yes. So, look. I do not think lockdowns are a good idea. I do not think the second lockdown is a good idea at all. I was on the BBC’s Westminster Hour around the time when the idea had been leaked, and the PM had to do his announcement before Strictly [Come Dancing] on the Saturday evening. What I said then and I stand by is that they are a blunt instrument.

But the PM was faced with his chief medical advisers saying to him: Unless you agree to a second lockdown, the following hospitals will be completely overwhelmed in the next four or five weeks. Now, put yourself in the PM’s position at that moment. I didn’t really think he had any choice.

However, what we now need to accept is – and people in the Conservative Party were very grumpy about this – is that we should never do it again. We need to quantify the losses from lockdown. People say, well: You might be saving lives in a Covid way. But what about all the other issues? What about the mental health impact? What about the job losses? They cost lives too? So, we’ve got to start to quantify the losses.

We know what the Covid losses are right? We can see the daily infection rates and daily death tolls. But what about the others? We need to be clear about what is a sustainable policy going forward. Because what we’re doing simply isn’t sustainable.

We can’t keep having ‘lockdown/non-lockdown/lockdown/non-lockdown’.

Bim Afolami in conversation with Layth Yousif. PICTURE CREDIT: Tim Matthews

Not just for businesses and the economy but for people. If you’re an adult, you can read things, you can process the news, but for kids, it’s really hard this time.

Or for the elderly, who might be fine, but they’re not necessarily up to date with everything. It’s a very bewildering time. We’ve got to minimise that.

So, to go to the heart of your question: No, I don’t like lockdowns. I think they are a bad idea. But we got to the point when we had no choice.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that in Hitchin, in this constituency, we had the lowest Covid rates in Hertfordshire. And this county was in Tier One.

So, across the county, we actually had some of the lowest in the whole of the UK. And so it’s really difficult to say to everybody, ‘oh look, we’re doing a national lockdown’ when comparative to the rest of the country, we’re in a reasonable state.

Bim Afolami in conversation with Layth Yousif. PICTURE CREDIT: Tim Matthews

Hitchin Nub News: Nub News has covered stories on your advocacy on the importance of good mental health and the importance of playing sport during lockdown – do you think you should be doing more in parliament to kick back against the situation at the moment where children can go to school but can’t kick a ball around with their friends in a football club, or throw a rugby ball around in a team for example?

Bim Afolami MP: Yes we should be doing more in parliament. The difficulty – and it’s worth people understanding this – is that because of the limited numbers of people who can go into the House of Commons chamber, it’s far more difficult to raise issues in parliament.

So whenever there’s a debate on Covid it’s always massively oversubscribed.

It makes it much harder for you to get in. Under normal rules you simply go in there and stand up and you get called. But the new rules mean that you have to go into a ballot beforehand where you may not be selected. So that’s one of the reasons why it may feel disjointed in terms of what I raise as a Hitchin MP in parliament.

But, yes, in terms of sport, I wrote a letter to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport - who’s a Hertfordshire MP, very influential, he was previously David Cameron’s chief of staff before he became an MP, and he knows how things work.

And in my letter, I wrote, let’s get socially distanced sport back outside. I think we should have allowed that.

So, from December 2, let’s get socially distanced sport back outside. Because it’s so important for people’s wellbeing. When people say to me I’m allowed to walk in a park with a friend but not on a golf course or hitting a tennis ball I can understand their frustrations. The situation strikes most people as being odd. And it is odd. So, we’ve got to get those type of sports back as soon as possible.

Hitchin Nub News: We’ll touch on Hitchin matters again shortly, but in terms of national stories around at the moment, what’s your take on warfare not welfare? How can that be justifiable? [The Conservative government agreeing to allocate £16bn to defence this week]

Bim Afolami MP: It’s a good point. I welcome the settlement of defence. Because any country’s prime objective is to secure the safety of their country and all the citizens in it. And defence over the last ten years has been cut back. That’s not to say that other departments haven’t been cut back too.

But the nature of defence is that the ‘stuff’ you need for it, is particularly expensive, and the nature of the industry means that there aren’t that many people making tanks, or planes, or guns or whatever it is that you need and the prices can be quite extraordinary.

I think it’s important to do that. I think most people would agree that the government has to back the armed forces. But, your point about how you match that up with the ‘domestic day-to-day’ – well I don’t think it’s an either/or situation.

One of my favourite phrases in politics is that you’ve got to be able to ‘pee and chew gum at the same time’ – meaning you’ve got to be able to do two things at once. And don’t forget the money we are spending will create new jobs in this country.

Look at RAF Henlow on Hitchin’s doorstep. In a town like Hitchin which doesn’t have a big military presence, there will still be people from RAF Henlow who contribute to the local economy here, and in the success of our community – and I think that’s important.

Hitchin Nub News: Another topic of the day. Pritti Patel. [The Home Secretary, who faced an official inquiry into allegations of bullying]You tweeted last night that she was ‘kind and caring’. By your friends you shall know thee…?

Bim Afolami MP: The first thing is that the report hasn’t been published. But my understanding is that there are some officials in the Home Office that allege she bullied them. If you know someone, it is possible that they could be sweetness and light – and then you see them in another context and they are the opposite. But it’s not common. In politics you do see people under pressure. You do see them when they’re tested, you see them having difficulties. And I’ve never seen her being anything other than courteous and polite.

But that department has had so many difficulties – be it ‘Windrush’ and others – and she came into that department with a goal to ‘sort things out’. Maybe that may have been interpreted by some as bullying. But I do not believe that is the sort of person she is. When you’re the Home Secretary you see a lot of things that most other MPs don’t. You’re dealing with MI5, with national security threats the country faces, international partners – the difference between her life and mine in parliament is quite big, and she doesn’t need me to ‘butter her up’.

I do think perhaps there has been an issue with her style. But I’m confident that Pritti is a really good egg. She is seen as someone who is on the ‘right’ of the Conservative Party, while, I’m seen as being on the ‘left’ of the Conservative Party. And you see people supporting her from all parts of the Conservative Party. Former Labour MPs have tweeted support too.

Hitchin Nub News: You gave an emotive speech in the House a short while ago on race, you wrote a strong article in the Mail on Sunday as well – but what’s your take on Black Lives Matter?

Bim Afolami MP: I think it’s a really important thing. Significant numbers of people in the country think racism is a problem. And the outpouring that we saw a few months ago was really quite extraordinary. My sense of it is twofold: I think we have to separate it out – the organisation called Black Lives Matter and the politics of Black Lives Matter are two separate things.

I don’t necessarily support the organisation - but then I don’t support Extinction Rebellion to support the environment.

The second thing is that I think we need to recognise the individual diversity within not just black people, but ethnicities. You’re not white, but you’re a different ethnicity to me. Should we be judged the same? Do you face the same things that I face? And we’re both men. I think we would argue that what we face is different. It may not be better or worse but it’s different.

Yes, I have had a privileged upbringing. My dad was a doctor and my mum was a pharmacist. We didn’t lack for basic things at home. We were sent to expensive schools. I know that I’ve had advantages that I know many millions of white people haven’t had in this country. Is it fair that you should look at black people as a block and say they’re disadvantaged? Or would you recognise, that, as in my case, I have been in a position of advantage – not just compared to white people, but, other black people as well. The point is we should recognise that individual diversity.

What I react against, is the idea that if you’re a black politician – or any profession really – and the assumption that you’re not truly black unless you’re regarded as disadvantaged. Or at the bottom. And I react against that, with the subtext being that in an insidious way, your place is at the bottom. And that’s where you’re meant to be. And I really react against that.

In the same way I would react if someone said that a top university should only have white people – because that’s where they’re meant to be, just as if you go to a poor school and that’s where black people are meant to be – I react against that.

Remember the famous Martin Luther King quote where he said he wanted his kids to be judged the content of their character not the colour of their skin.

Hitchin Nub News: You are seen as a role model to people, even in terms of your work with North Herts College in pushing apprenticeships for all - and many youngsters do look up to you in terms of your position of power. So, how do you square that with voting against a young, powerful, working-class black man in Marcus Rashford, in terms of his campaign to feed hungry children?

Bim Afolami MP: So, this is a really good example of where politics can run across the good intentions of what you are trying to do. The first thing I have to say is that I agree with Marcus Rashford: That kids whose parents – for whatever reason – can’t afford to feed them properly over the school holidays. Of course they need to be fed.

What we voted against was an extension of a scheme that we did earlier on in the year when the schools were shut. And the reason we voted against it was because the vouchers the schools issued last time around were wasted. By wasted I mean, the evidence was that during the first time we did that, a lot of the vouchers were simply not used. It wasn’t an efficient way, they weren’t spent.

The second thing, was that we prefer – and there were a lot of debates among the party in parliament and elsewhere about it – to give people more money.

We’ve increased money that is going into the benefits system in a really tough year. But, then, also, each county council was given hardship money that would be distributed. And that is what happened.

And since that whole debate, the amount that we’ve done since then, the amount we’re giving for Christmas and Easter, far outstrips in cash terms what that was.

So we’re actually supporting a wider group than simply free school meals – don’t forget we’re also including pre-school children for meals in addition.

But, and I don’t blame anyone for thinking that what the Conservative Government did, and what Conservative MPs did, was against poor kids getting fed – because the way we handled that was poor.

There were some colleagues that made poor arguments and said things that you would never hear me say. So, on some level we sort of deserved the hiding we got from it. But what I’m trying to say is that we are committed to this and we are showing the way forward in how to do it.

Hitchin Nub News: You’re right. People were angry about it. Do you accept that what you did was a humiliating climbdown?

Bim Afolami MP: Maybe it is. But you know what? It is much better to do the right thing and fix it, than to be stubborn. The alternative would be for us to say: This is too humiliating for us to change it. That, for me, is not a good outcome. I would rather be embarrassed about it and come to you and say: ‘Look, we messed up on how we communicated it, and now we’re changing it.’ Rather than say, ‘we’re far too embarrassed to change it’.

Hitchin Nub News: In terms of government U-turns, how many does that make it this year?

Bim Afolami MP: Probably quite a lot. Of course the government has changed its mind on certain things. I think of A-Levels, I’m sure you can think of others. The government has changed its mind on a lot of things this year.

Do you know why? Because this pandemic has changed its course. We didn’t think we would be in this position. Nor, to be frank, did many other countries around the world. So when a position changes, you’ve got a choice as a government – do you simply hold on to what you were saying before?

Or do you say things have changed, and that people have reacted very badly to what we’ve done? A-Levels for example. I would much rather change course if you got it wrong.

Of course, I accept there’s a broader point in people’s trust around the government, because you can’t change your mind every day. There is a balance to be struck. But, because we’re dealing with a global pandemic, you have to be more on the side of getting it right, even if you initially misjudged it in ‘people’ terms, or in policy terms.

Hitchin Nub News: You’ve come a long way since we were at the 4am count in in St Albans on election night in 2017, when you were elected as MP for Hitchin and Harpenden. Do you have any regrets? Brexit for example?

Bim Afolami MP: That’s a very good question. Let me just think about that. You start out and it’s always difficult. It was a time when Labour had done, to me, surprisingly well, maybe not to other people, but certainly to me in that election.

It was a hung parliament. There was a lot of pressure. But that’s fine. That’s what you sign up for. Looking at how the Brexit debate went. I would have liked to have communicated more effectively that there isn’t a contradiction between supporting a Brexit deal – the withdrawal agreement – and your own constituency having been a majority Remain constituency. I believe that and I still believe that.

Frankly, I don’t believe in ‘direct’ democracy. I don’t believe in referendums and I frankly hope that we never have another one again.

But we have a representative system, and I was elected on a manifesto which was to implement the result of the referendum.

But yet, some people felt that, because the constituency voted to Remain it was my job to effectively try and frustrate Brexit.

I understand why people feel that, but I reject that’s how you should behave. You’ve got to take a national view on things.

Brexit isn’t the Luton Airport expansion for a local audience. This was, and is, a matter of great significance for the whole country.

So, I think what I wish I had done more effectively, and maybe it’s because I was in my first term and still learning – because I know I’d be able to do it more effectively now – is to explain to people: Look, this is what I was elected to do. I was always clear about it. I never said that I was going to try and stop Brexit.

But what I am going to do is advocate for a type of deal that I believe would be in the best interests of the country as a whole.

And I think communicating that more effectively from the ‘get-go’ would have made things a bit less ‘hot’ in the six to nine months before the last general election.

Hitchin Nub News: Who do you fear in Labour? Nub News interviewed Kier Starmer when he came here and he was an impressive politician…?

Bim Afolami MP: There is no doubt in my mind that Kier Starmer is a much more effective leader of the opposition than any since they were last in office. So, I say to my colleagues who say: ‘There’s no way Labour can win’ - I say: ‘That’s what you said about Jeremy Corbyn.’

People can say what they like about him, but he got pretty close in an election where people expected the Conservative Party to land a big victory. And I think Keir Starmer is far more appealing to people in this area than Corbyn ever was.

And not just people in this area, but in big parts of the south east. So, as a Conservative Party, we have to be very wary of that. If you’re looking at it in a non-partisan way I think, frankly, it’s important that you have an opposition that is not led by someone, clearly, from a very extreme part of that party.

There will be people who disagree with that, but I think that is an important thing to have in order for democracy to work properly. However, I do think he is in a difficult position with the anti-Semitism issues and with managing the expulsion of Corbyn, and how its going to work – but, that’s internal Labour party politics and I won’t go into the detail of all that.

They have to show the country that Labour has changed and they don’t have people in their party that think nasty anti-Semitism is in any way ok. You know this about me, I have never said that is the Labour party. But I have said that is a part of the Labour party that was there when Corbyn was in control.

Kier Starmer has got a job on, but I do think he is more plausible than anybody since Labour was last in office.

Hitchin Nub News: Have you experienced racism?

Bim Afolami MP: Yes. But I’ve been lucky it hasn’t been as bad as many. I haven’t been attacked.

I have been abused for my name, with people saying ‘why don’t you go back to your own country’.

It was more when I was younger.

But I’m always mindful that I am blessed that I grew up in an area of the south east of England where there wasn’t much crime.

That there weren’t high degrees of community tension. I’ve been lucky I’ve never been accosted by the police.

So I know I’ve been lucky.

Which is why I’m always careful to not to ascribe my experience to say there’s no racism or anything like that.

But within my experience, I think the country has changed hugely in the last 20 to 30 years.

I’m 34 now, and when I think back to when I was a boy things have changed. I speak to my father a lot about this, him being an NHS consultant. The funny about hospitals is that you see the whole range of society. Because when you’re ill, it doesn’t matter if you’re a king or the poorest person, you’re still ill.

And you see everything – from the top to the bottom and everything in between.

And you really get a sense of people’s view of life and the world. And when I speak to my father - he started in the NHS in the 1980s – he says it’s a completely different place to what it was back then. And I just hope we’ll keep changing as a country in terms of a positive direction.

Hitchin Nub News: In terms of the NHS did you clap for carers?

Bim Afolami MP: Yes I did

Hitchin Nub News: Do you think NHS staff also deserve a pay rise as well as applause?

Bim Afolami MP: Yes, I think they do.

Hitchin Nub News: So why don’t they get one then?

Bim Afolami MP: My understanding is that they will be in line for one, I don’t know what level. The reason is that when you have a lot of staff, it obviously has an impact on public finances.

So, you’ve got to be proportionate and in the public sector, the more pay goes up, the more you’ve got to have taxes to balance that. But I do think, this year in particular, NHS staff do deserve recognition of that.

Hitchin Nub News: Are MPs worth their own payrise?

Bim Afolami MP: The difficulty with MPs pay rises, is that after the expenses story 10 years ago, everybody thought it would be a good idea for MPs not to be in control of their pay.

We are the people who pass laws right? We could have paid ourselves a million pounds a year or whatever, if we’d really wanted to. But we didn’t. What we did was pass that over to an independent body. But when you pass that over to an independent body you don’t get control of that decision.

So, we can’t have it both ways. If we think it’s not a good idea for MPs to control their pay, then you have to come up with a good idea in deciding what should be in place of that.

And what the independent pay body came up with, was to link MPs pay to a particular point in public sector pay.

So, if public sector pay goes up, MPs pay goes up alongside it. If public sector pay is frozen. And it’s not inconceivable that public sector pay will necessarily see huge increases in pay, then that will also impact on MPs as well. That’s the trade-off that we made. Either way it’s fraught with difficulty.

Hitchin Nub News: £59k is an awful lot to claim in expenses isn’t it?

Bim Afolami MP: What’s important with expenses, is that people appreciate that expenses are not money for me to go out to dinner, or lunch.

Expenses are largely to cover travel that is due to you regarding your job. And actually I don’t claim that much. Not least because my constituency is near London. If you’re a Scottish MP you’re flying to London every single week for example.

Expenses are mainly for my office in Westminster. My constituency office for printers, for computers. The salaries of my staff.

That all comes under expenses. I’ve always been very studious about it. Whenever there’s been an issue, I have always been clear with the regulator – who is very tough by the way - you’ll see every so often, an MP has to come to the House and apologise for something they’ve done wrong. And I’ve always been within the rules. It’s something I take very seriously.

See Hitchin Nub News soon for part two of our exclusive UP CLOSE, in-depth interview with our town’s MP, Mr Bim Afolami

With thanks to the Nye family, Anglia Country Inns (ACI) and Hermitage Rd for use of their meeting room
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