‘This could have been me’
Snapshots of Keith Vaz’s political life cover the walls of his office overlooking the Thames: Vaz pictured with Nelson Mandela, Vaz sitting alongside a smiling Hugh Grant, Vaz with Lewis Hamilton, Vaz shaking the hand of Amir Khan, Vaz with the home secretary, Theresa May; all testament to an influential politician who enjoys basking in the limelight.
For the past year, Vaz has been equally omnipresent outside his Westminster domain. A politician who has bounced back after a ministerial career dogged by scandal and controversy, in his 25th year as an MP, he has put himself at the centre of many of the headline-making controversies, scandals and tragedies of 2012.The result is that he has been repeatedly in the spotlight, and that has not attracted universal praise. Many commentators have accused him of blatant political opportunism, no more so than in the role he has taken on as supporter, spokesman and confidant of the family of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who was found dead on December 7 after falling victim to a live radio hoax.
Yet the explanation of how he came to be part of the case, which has attracted worldwide attention, shows it is perhaps the least political and most personal of his career.
“My father committed suicide when I was 14 and at the time we didn’t ask questions, we let others arrange things for us,” he says. “I regret it and all I have wanted is to support this family to help them find out the facts, something we never did.”
It was the Mangalorean community in the UK who asked Vaz to come to the aid of Saldanha’s husband, Benedict Barboza, and, children Lisha, 14, and Junal, 17. “I got a call on the Saturday after her death from the president of the community in London who said that the family wanted to speak to me,” he said. “They said they wanted to see me. I think it’s a duty and a responsibility if people ask for help, to help.”
Vaz travelled to Bristol on a Sunday, 48 hours after Saldanha’s death. She appeared to have taken her own life three days after she was tricked live on radio into putting a telephone call from two Australian DJs through to the ward in the King Edward VII hospital in London where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for severe morning sickness.
When Vaz arrived at the Saldanhas’ house — an ordinary semi-detached in the Southmead area of Bristol — he says he felt a strong affinity between them and his own family, in each case Indian Catholics who arrived in Britain as immigrants. “When I walked into the house I was struck at how similar it was to the house in Twickenham that we had all lived in when we came to this country from Aden,” he said.
“My parents were from Goa, Dad worked for Aden Airways and later BOAC [the British Overseas Airways Corporation], and he found a house for us in Twickenham, a semi-detached three-bedroom house that was so absolutely similar to this one, with such a similar layout.
“Downstairs, as there was when my dad died, there was a gathering of people who were saying prayers with a picture of Jacintha in the centre of them — it was the first time I had seen her picture. Then I went upstairs and saw the family. My father died when I was 14 and I thought: ‘This could be me 42 years ago.’
“All the thoughts that took over then and things that happened — how do we tell people, how did we find out — came back to me as I was in that house. I could see myself answering a knock on the door all that time ago, and a police officer who asked if my mum or dad was in.
“I said my dad is not in. The officers came in and spoke to my mum. First they asked if her husband was at home — it is so crucial how you tell someone this: they wanted to make sure they had the right house. When she said no, they told her: ‘I’m afraid your husband is dead.’
“We were an immigrant family, officialdom intervened, our mother was a single parent who was working as a teacher and earning extra money working in Marks and Spencer, and although we did ask for help, no one helped us. And being in this house with this family brought it all back to me: why didn’t I do it a different way? Why didn’t I ask any questions? Why did I just leave it?”
Vaz says he has helped the Saldanha family reach the right people to ask questions. He met senior figures from the King Edward VII hospital and arranged for the Saldanhas to have a meeting with the chief executive, at which they handed over a list of questions. He asked a question in the Commons, eliciting a response from the prime minister that the “full facts” would help the family come to terms with what happened, and helped liaise with the Metropolitan police, who Vaz said had been “absolutely fabulous” with the family. “I am very keen not to speak on their behalf,” he said. “There will be a time when they do want to speak. I think they will want to speak when they have all the facts.
The Saldanhas are still pressing for answers to their questions, and the MP for Leicester East is still supporting them. He brushes off accusations of political opportunism. “It’s a personal connection with the family that I feel and I will be with them to the very end.”
Guardian News Service