Guest Columnist Tasnim Sheikh offers his views
At the end of the Blair era and the commencement of the Brown premiership, Tasnim Sheikh explores the headline achievements of the past and the challenges that lie ahead for the future.
Much was expected in May 1997 when Anthony Charles Linton Blair swept into Downing Street, but in reality and behind the negative headlines of the Iraq war there are domestic achievements which we, as the Asian community, enjoy the fruits of.
Education – With vast sums ploughed into schools, the availability of Nursery places and voucher schemes to many, this freed up adults to go out to work, earn a living or engage in business activities – thus raising their standards of living. At the other end of the scale there are the controversial University & Higher education tuition fees which in reality discouraged the half hearted “drop out” candidates and encouraged those determined to succeed and graduate. Further to this, the policy was warmly welcomed by the Higher Education sector providing them with finance to expand and conduct research.
Welfare benefits – In the eyes of the Asian community this sector is the mechanism which transformed Asian communities. Millions of children have been raised out of poverty with the increases in Child Benefit, the Child Tax Credit, The Working Families Tax Credit and the Child Trust Bond. As one of the ethnic groups which tend to have large families therefore the entitlement to such benefits is the greatest. But we as British Asians should be using these resources wisely to invest in our childrens’ future and planning that of our own.
The National Health Service – Most of the progress here may be questionable when compared to the vast sums of money that has been poured into the NHS, but walk into any Coronary Care Unit or Cardiac Recovery wards Asians receiving treatment from heart related illnesses out number the white masses by 3:1. Waiting lists may still be there, but no one can doubt the quality of the care provided and the dedication of staff in the NHS to their patients. The challenge now facing Mr Brown is how to use the vast resources already ploughed into the service, to the benefit of those who need it most without ploughing yet more money into it.
Personally I feel Gordon Brown needs to take a step back and adopt the Independence Policy he so successfully applied to the Bank of England giving it sole control over setting UK interest rates. A model mirroring that would result in having a Governor of the National Health Service together with a NHS Committee which would meet on a monthly basis setting targets and measuring success. The committee could even have the power of deploying experts from areas where efficiency savings and high quality is provided to areas where waste and poor quality is rife. Its remit would also include making representations to the government with supporting evidence, the case for more money as well as the distribution of it after holding meetings with local regional health committees. This would not also free up the service from becoming the political football at every general elections thus far, it would also provide a greater element of continuity of policy by enabling patient participation at a local level. The government could also implement the model of the BBC as a Health Service Public Corporation with a Director General and Commercial decision makers yielding greater levels of efficiency.
The government also needs to consider radical measures which may include taxing those individuals classed as obese. By setting an ideal height, weight age and waist size ratio if an individual is far above that ratio or indeed their children are then they could be ordered to pay more to visit the doctor and/or to benefit from NHS treatment caused as a result of their obesity. – Lets face it we do not have to travel too far to find a “heavily pregnant looking” Asian male around 50 years of age!
The Economy – There are mixed views as to the success of the economy in that we may be heading towards having a generation that will not have experienced a recession. Yet to balance the argument there may also be a generation living the whole of their lives in personal debt. Interest rates may have been low providing a stable foundation for businesses to invest and grow, but as house prices are 3 times what they were 10-12 years ago we have to take out larger mortgages, with the result that the net percentage of our incomes spent on servicing mortgage debt is rising relative to that spent a decade ago. We have had in the past and still have today generations who are educated in every conceivable topic at schools and colleges except that of personal financial planning as we’re left with no guidance whatsoever as to how to plan for our future or given knowledge of financial products on sale today. Mr Brown would do well to bring this subject into our schools to gear us up for the long life ahead. On the plus side many Asians enjoy the fruits of property ownership, high net worth due to rising house prices and prosperous businesses due to stable economic and business conditions.
Lastly but not least I comment on the subject of Iraq. No doubt being a member of a government that led us to war it would be difficult for Mr Brown to wash his hands from it and walk tall. Having said this, the new British government owes a huge responsibility to design a coordinated framework which would result in the eventual withdrawal of our troops and those of the United States. The Iraqi people, especially Insurgence and violent factional groups also need to recognise that Iraq is a country with a future and its people have an equal right to life, education, health and security which their invader’s citizens take for granted. The situation in Iraq could to some extent be compared to the previous conflict in Northern Ireland with that of the Republic of Ireland in that until there is no dialogue and a real desire for peace and prosperity which the Iraqi people so desperately deserve. With International Support on their side, there will never be a better chance to rebuild one of the most culturally rich, dynamic and beautiful countries of the world.
To conclude, there is one fundamental point which centralises the whole argument of British Asians. This is that it’s the British way of life that has given us the opportunities to be educated, prosperous and inclusive – for instance there are now laws against racial hatred protecting all ethnic communities designed to give us all an equal start n life as our white counterparts.
At the end of the Blair era, compared to the Conservative years British Asians have far more opportunities. It is now up to the British Asian community to make use of and appreciate the many chances it has today which were not present 10 years ago and it is our job to present ourselves as one of the majority rather than one of the minority.
One of the biggest challenges that Britain and indeed the government faces today is the lack of integration by the Asian community into the British way of life. The fact that Asian children mix and socialise with other Asians, watch Asian television channels then fly to the Asian continent for holidays and not integrating whatsoever gives cause for alarm. Worryingly some Asians spend the whole of their lives in the UK without coming across a white person at all! How can we therefore expect the government – now with Muslim Ministers – to accept us as decent law abiding, hard working citizens if all we do is live segregated and isolated lives? This is as much a challenge for British Asians as it is for our new Prime Minister.
The author is an active reader in Government at the University of Central England and a Director of Sheikhspeare & Co. Limited.