INSIGHT PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Phil Woolas MP

Recent weeks have not been kind to Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas. The expenses debacle and the Government's defeat in an opposition day debate over the Gurkhas' settlement have seen the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth given a rough ride in the media.

Critics in the media suggest that Woolas’ low point last week was his allegedly unscheduled and dramatic meeting with Joanna Lumley, captured on live TV at the BBC Westminster studios. However, those close to Woolas say the encounter was intentional – typical of the Minister who is known for his direct and occasionally confrontational approach, facing opponents head-on, regardless of the risk.

In fact, it is arguably this frankness and along with his ability and willingness to tackle difficult issues, that most strongly defines his approach to Government business, which explains why he has been trusted with sensitive briefs for community cohesion and now immigration – some of the toughest jobs outside of the Cabinet. This combative approach was particularly evident during his time as Minister for Community Cohesion when Woolas argued that a Muslim teaching assistant who refused to take off her veil in class should be sacked for sexual discrimination against male colleagues. He has also made clear his belief that arranged marriages between family members in the Pakistani community are to blame for disproportionately high levels of Pakistani children with severe genetic disabilities.

Born in 1959 to a family of steelworkers in Scunthorpe, Woolas grew up in the North Lincolnshire town before departing to study philosophy at Manchester University. He entered Parliament in 1997, representing the diverse constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth. In 2001 he became a junior Government Whip before promotion to Whip a year later. 2003 saw him move to become Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, a position he left in 2005 to take up the role as Minister of State with responsibility for local government in the Office of Deputy Prime Minister, later made the Department for Communities and Local Government.

2008 saw Woolas moved to his current role as Immigration Minister working out of both the Home Office and HM Treasury where he is responsible for all immigration issues including all financial aspects of the UK Border Agency. Inevitably one of the more sensitive ministerial portfolios, Woolas has by and large handled the brief with aplomb. Indeed, he was tasked with the brief – which falls between the MoD and the Home Office – by Number 10 specifically because of his pedigree in dealing frankly with sensitive issues, and because he is regarded by Downing Street as a safe pair of hands.

Regarded as a grounded, friendly and someone who gets on well with the press pack, he is generally well respected within SW1 and popular within his own party.

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