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'Brexit has made Britain more divisive': MPs clash at Big Debate

PUBLISHED: 15:16 12 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:00 12 February 2019

(L-R) Clive Lewis, Sir Henry Bellingham, Chris Starkie, Care Hedges and Chloe Smith. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography

(L-R) Clive Lewis, Sir Henry Bellingham, Chris Starkie, Care Hedges and Chloe Smith. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography

Richard Jarmy Photography

Business owners and managers met at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce's Big Debate, to discuss the most pressing issues facing the region's industry.

(L-R) Clive Lewis, Sir Henry Bellingham, Chris Starkie, Clare Hedges and Chloe Smith. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography(L-R) Clive Lewis, Sir Henry Bellingham, Chris Starkie, Clare Hedges and Chloe Smith. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography

Panel discussions saw MPs and enterprise leaders discuss issues from the perception of the East of England, to skills and education.

The third debate of the day focussed on diversity, and saw Jeanette Wheeler of Birketts joined by Fiona Ryder of TCD Media, as well as MPs Clive Lewis and Chloe Smith.

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(L-R) Stuart Rimmer, Chloe Smith, Norman Lamb, George Freeman. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography(L-R) Stuart Rimmer, Chloe Smith, Norman Lamb, George Freeman. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography

The county has made a pledge to up the amount of women in its boardrooms to 33% by 2020 – a percentage which is currently sitting at 26%.

“What’s important to remember about this is the impact on family,” said Ms Wheeler. “We need to wake up to the fact that lots of people want to be parents.

“There’s a perception in business that taking time out of work to have children is a career break – but it’s a very short period of time and men and women shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to give anything up to be parents.”

With that in mind, the panel were asked about whether positive discrimination has its place in the workplace.

An audience member submitting a question to the panel. Picture: Richard Jarmy PhotographyAn audience member submitting a question to the panel. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography

“I have some serious concerns about positive discrimination,” said Ms Ryder. “Yes, we need to facilitate rapid change in boardroom culture, but it’s about balance and trying to encourage boardrooms to see value in that balance. A board of all women is just as bad as one with none.”

She continued: “A board is a good board when it holds the management of a company to account – and balance is needed for that.”

Chloe Smith widened the conversation from the gender inequality issue, saying: “I think we also need to think about diversity in other senses. With my work with Norwich for Jobs, I work with a lot of young people with disabilities.

“Those with disabilities – whether physical or not, are just as talented and driven and they need to be given the opportunity too.”

The speakers at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce's Big Debate. Picture: Richard Jarmy PhotographyThe speakers at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce's Big Debate. Picture: Richard Jarmy Photography

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Clive Lewis brought the conversation around the problem of racial discrimination.

He said: “We live in a racist, sexist society. We can agree on that – we can just argue about the extent of it.

“Everyone has racial impulses but I think for a more balanced society we need to be able to check ourselves when we do have discriminatory thoughts.”

He continued: “It’s the idea of almost becoming more self aware of the people around you and how you are operating within that.”

The following and final panel was based on Brexit, which saw Mrs Smith remain on stage, joined by MPs Sir Henry Bellingham and Clive Lewis, with Birketts’ Clare Hedges and New Anglia LEP’s Chris Starkie.

The debate began with a question about a second referendum, which Mr Starkie said would be ineffective if based purely on a remain/leave revote.

“The first referendum didn’t work if we don’t actually know what Brexit looks like,” he said.

“A general election called with a view to establishing either remain or leave based on the outcome – all tied up in one simple question – would result in a single answer.”

Clive Lewis took to the stage after Sir Henry Bellingham criticised MPs not getting behind the current Brexit 
deal.

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“My constituency did not vote to leave,” Mr Lewis said. “And I will not support something which will see the UK made more divisive for my children.

“Brexit has made Britain more of a racist and discriminatory case. This is purely what I feel based on the experience of talking to constituents. One woman has lived in this country for 20 years and never faced racial slurs – after Brexit she was being told to ‘go home’ in the street.”

He continued: “Some people think that because of Brexit their divisive views are now more widely held and that it’s acceptable to say.”

The session ended with Clare Hedges saying: “No matter whether we voted leave or remain, we all just want to see something done.”

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