Women (Government Policies)
Opposition Day — [17th Allotted Day — First Part]
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South, Labour)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a tremendous privilege, and perhaps a little daunting, to have this opportunity to speak in the Chamber for the first time, not least because this is a debate on women and Government policy, and I do hope that I do not turn out to be the token male in the debate—although as a father of a two-week-old baby girl, and as someone who has just returned from paternity leave, I feel slightly more confident about speaking in it than I might have done a fortnight ago.
As is the custom, I start by paying tribute to my immediate predecessor, Sir Peter Soulsby, who stood down from Parliament to contest the election for Leicester’s first directly elected mayor—which, indeed, he won. Sir Peter was much admired in the House for his independence and integrity, and although I make no criticism of those who remain in this House while seeking election to other bodies, it is testament to Peter’s devotion and commitment to the city of Leicester that he resigned his seat before seeking election as Leicester’s mayor, not after. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will wish him well—and look on enviously at his 37,000 majority. I look forward to working closely with Sir Peter in the years ahead.
I also want to say a few words about Parmjit Gill and the late Jim Marshall. Parmjit Gill served briefly as Member of Parliament for Leicester South. He was also very briefly my opponent in the recent by-election. I and many others were sorry when he withdrew as a candidate, as he is respected across the constituency, but I know he has a young family and I wish him well for the future. I never knew Jim Marshall, but throughout the by-election campaign I met many who did. Jim served Leicester South for nearly 25 years in total, with an unfortunate four-year break thanks to the will of the electorate. Many still speak warmly of Jim’s compassion and commitment to social justice. He is hugely missed across Leicester South.
I am privileged to represent a constituency of huge diversity, vibrancy and tolerance, and while we must never be complacent, our communities generally live harmoniously together. We are part of a city renowned across the world for welcoming incomers. Families have come from across the globe to make their home in
Leicester South, such as our Asian communities from Gujarat, Punjab, Pakistan, east Africa and Bangladesh, as well as our Caribbean community, our communities from Somalia and, most recently, those from elsewhere in Africa, the middle east and eastern Europe. Our diversity enriches our cultural, social and civic life, and contributes immensely to our economy, too.
For many of my constituents, faith is important. A sightseer on a tour through Leicester South would no doubt visit our cathedral and beautiful churches, numerous mosques, gurdwaras, Hindu temples, synagogues, and the Jain temple. We are all proud that all our faith groups promote mutual understanding and solidarity, focusing on what unites us, not on what divides us. There can be no greater example of this than what happened when the English Defence League came to Leicester last October in an attempt to stir up hatred and division. The people of Leicester—all faiths, all cultures and all backgrounds—united in rejecting the EDL and what it stands for. Our community leaders, our city council leadership, the police and, most importantly, the people of Leicester should be commended for what we have achieved in Leicester. Although my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz is not in his place, I also want to pay tribute to him for his outstanding contributions on these matters over many years. As the Member for Leicester South, I will play my part in celebrating our diversity and promoting mutual understanding in the years ahead as well.
Many people from across the world and the UK come to study at our two great universities—Leicester and De Montfort—both of which are situated in Leicester South. Our universities help to make Leicester the dynamic city it is today, while our student population is considered so significant that just over 12 months ago the Deputy Prime Minister visited the campus of De Montfort university to make a certain pledge on tuition fees, to much student acclaim. My by-election campaign was boosted by no less than three visits from the Deputy Prime Minister, but on each occasion he seemed somewhat reluctant to return to the campus he visited a year ago; I can’t think why.
My constituents rightly take the NHS very seriously. Many of them hope that the Prime Minister will drop his proposed changes to the NHS, and are deeply worried about his “top-down reorganisation”. Although Glenfield hospital is in Leicester West, many of my constituents have told me how strongly they feel that the children’s heart surgery unit at Glenfield should remain open, and I agree with them. My hon. Friend Liz Kendall has, along with the Leicester Mercury, been at the forefront of the campaign to keep the unit open, and today I want to make clear my support for that campaign and assure my constituents that, alongside my hon. Friend, I will do all I can, locally and nationally, to back efforts to maintain the children’s heart surgery unit at Glenfield.
My constituency boasts much cultural and sporting heritage. The ’60s playwright Joe Orton grew up on the Saffron Lane estate, and I believe that the singer Engelbert Humperdinck—the legend who made the song “Quando, quando, quando” so popular—grew up in Leicester South too. As a sports fan, I am lucky that my constituency contains the grounds of Leicester City football club, Leicestershire cricket club and Leicester Tigers rugby union club. I look forward to visiting them all regularly
in the future—on constituency business of course—although I hope Tigers fans will not hold it against me that I was brought up a Salford rugby league fan; I know you will approve of that, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Although there is much to celebrate and we are proud of our achievements, many families are, as I heard in the by-election campaign, uncertain about the future. My constituents—and women in particular—are feeling the brunt of the coalition’s fiscal policies. As my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper so eloquently outlined in her opening remarks, many women are feeling the effects of the tax credit changes. In the by-election campaign I met a family living off Aylestone road who are feeling the squeeze thanks to a VAT increase, rising inflation and tax credit changes, and who are now worried about their jobs as well. They told me they were “doing just nicely” until this Conservative-Liberal Government came along.
We have many Sure Start centres in the constituency. Thankfully, because of our Labour council, they are being saved, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West outlined in an earlier contribution, the Government are cutting the early intervention grant. I heard many heart-breaking stories from younger people—many of them young women—from poorer backgrounds who are doing well at school but now think university is not for them. Many of my constituents hope that the Government will think again and introduce a fairer and more equitable way of funding higher education.
Our jobless rate is too high; it is the highest in Leicester. Traditionally, Leicester has had a good record in employing women, but with the public sector cuts set to hit us, many women in my constituency face a precarious future. Tackling our unemployment problem will require the Government to implement a strategy for growth, with investment in skills, training and work-readiness schemes. I especially hope the Government will reconsider the cuts in ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—which will have a detrimental effect on the ability of many of my constituents, particularly women, to move into work.
Pockets of my constituency too often show up in annual surveys of high deprivation. Poverty and lack of opportunity too often blight lives in St Matthew’s and parts of Highfields, Spinney, Saffron Lane and Eyres Monsell. Many of those will be women. It is a matter of great shame that in Leicester we have one of the highest levels of child poverty in the UK. With the changes to the tax and benefits system that have already been discussed, I fear things will get worse. Pushing for measures to tackle child poverty in Leicester will be a priority of mine, as I know it is for my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West, as well as our mayor, Peter Soulsby, and his able deputy Rory Palmer.
However, the people of Leicester South, whether living on those estates or living elsewhere—in Aylestone, Knighton, Stoneygate or Castle—are a proud people. We are at our strongest when we are united in supporting one another, and we are proud that we can boast of countless voluntary organisations that do just that—the Sharma women’s centre, the Pakistan Youth and Community Association and the Bangladesh Youth & Cultural Shomiti, to name just a few—or when we celebrate together, whether at a religious festival or a
community event such as the one held this past weekend, celebrating national family week, at Eyres Monsell’s “picnic on the park”.
I come to this House from a modest background. My mother and father, when they had work, were employed in low-income jobs—they might be described as the modern working class—but I was lucky in life. I did well at my comprehensive school and I am the only one in my family ever to have made it to university. Before I was elected to this House I worked within it for a previous Prime Minister and for the current Leader of the Opposition. I also worked briefly for my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman—which perhaps explains why I chose to speak in this debate.
I am honoured to have been elected as the Member for Leicester South. I will dedicate myself to representing all my constituents, to fighting for those across Leicester South whose voices too often go unheard, and to playing my part in articulating the concerns and aspirations of those in my constituency, many of them women, who know that there can be and must be a better way.