Controversial veteran MP discusses the family tragedy that has helped drive his latest campaign
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 appears to enjoy 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.
From supporting the family of the murdered Indian student Anuj Bidve to interrogating the leadership of the UK Border Agency, putting senior police on the spot over child sexual exploitation and pressurising the Independent Police Complaints Commission over Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked the 2011 riots, in his role as chair of the home affairs select committee Vaz has presented himself as part inquisitor of the powerful, part champion of the underdog.
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 7 December after falling victim to a live radio hoax. The columnist Richard Littlejohn was among those who condemned him for thrusting himself front and centre of the unfolding tragedy, asking: “Who does Keith Vaz think he is, Tony Soprano?”
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.
Until now Vaz has remained silent about why he became involved for fear of upsetting his sisters, Valerie, a fellow MP, for Walsall South, and Penny, a lawyer. He explains: “My father committed suicide when I was 14 and at the time we didn’t ask any questions, we let others arrange things for us, we didn’t ask anything. And actually I regret it more now than ever and all I have wanted is to support this family to help them find out all 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, in the immediate aftermath of her death. “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 about the case,” he said. “They said they wanted to see me. I said that is fine, people ring me up all the time about issues. 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 by hanging. 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.
Her death thrust an ordinary family into the centre of a controversy that played out across the world. As members of the south Asian community in Britain, the family turned to Vaz for help as an individual they had seen on television and who they hoped would be able to provide them with support.
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, Ben and Lisha, who is 14, and Junal, who is 17. 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 police officers came inside 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.’
“It all happened so fast and we were totally unbelieving that this could have happened, then with the best will in the world, people, family came and took over and did things for us. They viewed the body, they told us not to worry, told us we didn’t need to ask any questions. I don’t think we even went to the inquest.
“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 spent time grieving with the family and talking to them about what they would like him to do to help. “Like anyone in grief, they couldn’t understand, and we wept together even though I didn’t know her, I cried because they got me crying, sitting upstairs in a room so similar to my parents’ room in a house so similar to the one I had grown up in.”
The family were already determined to put their lives on hold and travel to London to try to find out what had happened to Jacintha. They had not been aware of the hoax, and were contacted by the hospital via a letter informing them of her death.
Vaz says he has helped them to 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.
“What has been remarkable about this family is the way they have wanted Jacintha to be at the centre of everything they do. My advice to them was to go and do everything that they had to do themselves, to go and ask all the questions they have to ask, because only then can you really get closure.”
There is a sense that closure for Vaz as a young man growing up was never fully achieved, but the years have done their bit to heal over the wounds. As a child, he says, he and his sisters made up stories about their father in an attempt to fill the vacuum of knowledge.
“We really thought he was still alive,” he said. “And we thought maybe he was a spy and that they had faked his death, and that he was now working for MI5 and couldn’t reveal who he was. That was how we tried to explain it.
“I was aware of my dad’s death. I wasn’t aware of the circumstances, I never went to the inquest, I never knew whether it was decided it was suicide or accidental death. I put it away to the back of my mind somewhere and left it there. People whose parents commit suicide feel that they have let them down. The biggest question is: ‘Why did you leave? Why did you do it?'”
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. “The criticism of members of parliament is that they don’t do enough for people,” he says. “I believe they are up against established bodies that have a lot of access. It is not a level playing field for them. It’s a personal connection with the family that I feel and I will be with them to the very end because I like them, I have a great affinity for them and it is a maze out there.”