Our Lawyer of the Month is the barrister-turned-solicitor, Keith Vaz, who is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East and chairman of the House of Commons influential Home Affairs Select Committee, which examines the expenditure, policy and administration of the Home Office and its associated public bodies.
Keith was born in Aden, Yemen, on 26 November 1956. His parents were originally from Goa, India, and his father was a foreign correspondent for The Times of India. Keith came to Britain from Aden with his family in 1965.
He was educated at Latymer Upper School, Hammersmith and Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a BA in 1979. He went on to qualify as a barrister, later disbarred and became a solicitor. He obtained his MA in 1987, also from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.
Keith’s legal practice has been in the public sector. He was solicitor to Richmond Council until 1982, when he then became a senior solicitor for the London Borough of Islington, a position he held until 1985. Between 1985 and 1987, he was a solicitor at the Highfields & Belgrave Law Centre in his home town of Leicester.
In 1983 and 1984 consecutively, he unsuccessfully contested the Conservative safe seat for Richmond and Barnes in the General Election and Surrey West for the European election. In 1987 he was elected MP for Leicester East, defeating the right-wing Conservative candidate Peter Bruinvels and became the first Asian MP since Shapurji Saklatvala lost his seat in 1929. He was also the only Asian Member of Parliament until 1992.
During his time as an MP, Keith has held a number of shadow front bench as well as Government posts, including Minister of State for Europe (1999-2001); Parliamentary Secretary (a Minister) at the Lord Chancellor’s Department (May-Oct 1999); Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, John Morris and Solicitor General, Lord Falconer QC (June 1997-May 1999).
He previously served as a member of the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, as chair of the Sub-Committee for Courts and the Judiciary, and was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee from 1987 until 1992. Between 1993 and 1994 Keith was a member of the Executive Committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. He is a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee and is Chair of the Labour Party’s Ethnic Minority Taskforce.
Keith has also been at the centre of controversy surrounding financial wrongdoings and in 2001 a report by the Parliamentary standards watchdog cleared him of various financial wrongdoings, but he was accused of blocking investigation and two minor breaches of failing to declare business interests. In 2002 an inquiry concluded that Keith had “committed serious breaches of the Code of Conduct and contempt of the House (of Commons) and was suspended from the House of Commons for 30 days.
Ambitious and hardworking, Keith has campaigned against violent video games and is a strong anti-racism campaigner. In July 2007 he was appointed the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. He has been strong in his campaign for solicitors and has expressed his deep concerns about the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the “disproportionate number of investigations” it conducts into ethnic minority firms as well as its failure to act sufficiently quickly on claims that it investigates a disproportionate number of black and ethnic minority firms. He has called on Bridget Prentice, the Justice Minister, to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the SRA’s work. This appears to have stung the SRA into action and it now states that “black and minority ethnic (BME) solicitors are over-represented in its regulatory investigations, and is concerned to address this”. The SRA has accordingly set up a working party, chaired by Anesta Weekes, QC. Lord Herman Ouseley has been named as the Independent Reviewer.
Keith is married to Maria Fernandez, a solicitor and they have two children.
Below is our interview with Keith:
BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?
KV: I chose law because I felt that the knowledge gained through studying the subject would be useful for any career that I pursued.
BLD: What made you leave law for politics?
KV: I have been involved in politics from a very early age, my mother was the first Asian councillor in Leicester. I would say that politics is in my blood and I find it immensely fulfilling.
BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
KV: I haven’t received any bad advice – so far!
BLD: What is the best career advice you would give to others?
KV: To do what makes you happy and to ensure that you are doing something useful.
BLD: If you were to choose another job/role, other than what you are doing, what would it be and why?
KV: I would find it hard to suggest another profession, as politics is what I have worked hard at all my life. Perhaps I would return to law.
BLD: There have been extensive changes in the last 10 years, particularly on Legal Aid reform which has disproportionally and adversely affected ethnic minority practitioners and their vulnerable clients. What should Parliament be doing to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place when passing such legislations?
KV: I think that the changes made to Legal Aid were a disappointment and I tabled an EDM in July to express this. I would like to see better provisions made in the future.
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
KV: Defending a local Leicester shopkeeper against the City Council who wanted to remove it.
BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).
KV: I think being elected to Parliament would be the highest point. I am deeply honoured that the people of Leicester have chosen me to be their MP in four consecutive elections.
BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer and/or politician?
KV: Being a Member of Parliament is always a challenge but I would not be able to ever say that I haven’t enjoyed any of it.
BLD: How do you cope with the media attention?
KV: Media attention is part of being an MP. It can be very useful and raises issues that are important to my constituents.
BLD: The person you most admire (dead of alive) and why?
KV: My mother, Merlyn, who arrived in Britain as a first generation immigrant with three children, who was widowed and had to work as a teacher.
BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
KV: My family is the most important thing to me.
BLD: What are your dislikes/makes you angry?
KV: I never like it when my football team loses!
BLD: Any professional regrets?
KV: No, you can never talk of regrets because that would assume that you would act differently if you had another chance. I could never say that as I may not be the person that I am today otherwise.
BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what you change/do?
KV: I would let everyone have the day off.