Blunkett sorry for ‘frenzy’ over Roma comments

FORMER Home Secretary David Blunkett has restated his fears about tensions between local people and Roma migrants in Sheffield – but admitted he was sorry it caused a “media frenzy” in his home city.

The Sheffield Brightside MP suggested in November that the tensions could escalate into rioting unless action is taken to improve integration.

He expressed fears for the future of areas like Page Hall/Fir Vale in Sheffield, which have seen an influx of Roma from Slovakia.

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The Labour MP said the Roma community had to make more effort to fit in with British culture and said he feared a repeat of riots which hit northern cities in 2001.

He was accused of potentially inflaming the situation further as TV crews and reporters descended on Sheffield.

In an interview for the BBC’s Inside Out programme, which airs tonight, he is asked by poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah if his previous comments were misjudged.

He begins by denying that he actually said there would be riots.

“If I meant to say there’d be riots I’d have used the word riot... I’ve always said things as I’ve seen them.

“But you look back and you think; Could I have foreseen that somebody would have picked this up and used it in this way? Possibly. So you look back and you think, well, in retrospect I probably wouldn’t have said that but actually I did mean what I said because I really do need to ensure that this community pulls together and works together and saying it as it is, is part of getting people to understand that somebody’s listening.”

Yesterday Mr Blunkett told the Yorkshire Post that he regretted that his comments had been “misused” and had led to the “media frenzy.”

“Things are very calm in Fir Vale at the moment thanks to the disappearance of the media frenzy over Christmas and the New Year. People are doing their upmost to work together and pull together, which I indicated was necessary way back in November when I did the walkabout with Radio Sheffield.”

He reiterated his calls for Government money to be put into areas with large numbers of new migrants.

“The Government need to reintroduce something like the Migrants Impact Fund so we can put resources into those areas of work already proven to be valuable, and to recognise where there are very substantial challenges because of the numbers of those over the last two to three years who have come into one very small area. This is very different to places like Manchester where we’re talking about a fraction of the number of families.”

The Inside Out programme hears from Ivan and Magdalena Pokuta, who arrived with their four children in Page Hall in 2007.

As a Roma family in Slovakia they say they faced hardship, poverty and prejudice. “Despite having qualifications I couldn’t live,“ says Ivan. “I had to go. We can be highly educated, it’s pointless. There is prejudice against Roma.”

After a month Mr Pokuta found a job in Sheffield, but says a workplace injury means he can no longer work. He says he has earned the right to claim the state benefits his family now survives on. “When a man finds work then he automatically gets some benefits for example for children, and it is quite normal.”

Zephaniah also spent time with a new residents association in Page Hall, which now meets at the Islamic Centre to talk about the issues surrounding the Roma. Complaints are raised about noise, youths out late on street corners and the negative impact on house prices. Two British Asian men say they want to move away from the area because of the Roma.

Zephaniah says: “It’s easy to say there is no quick fix for Page Hall. It’s run down and it’s tense. But it’s been a magnet for migrants for generations and will continue to be so. As the British-born child of immigrant parents I have to laugh when I hear my mother complaining about the number of Eastern European people there are in the country now. I find this urge to gently remind her that it wasn’t long ago when people were saying the same thing about her.”

Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire is on BBC1 this evening at 7.30pm.