International Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 1st July 1997.

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Photo of Ms Oona King Ms Oona King Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 7:34 pm, 1st July 1997

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I am particularly grateful for the forbearance of colleagues who have sat through two months of maiden speeches. I wish to begin by thanking the people of Bethnal Green and Bow for the privilege and honour of electing me to represent them in the House.

I am particularly honoured to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor, the right hon. Peter Shore, who returns to Westminster as Lord Shore of Stepney. Lord Shore represented his constituency for a remarkable 32 years, during which time he greatly distinguished himself and rose to the rank of Minister. He always used his elevated status to benefit his constituents. I therefore wish to extend their heartfelt thanks to Lord and Lady Shore, who are genuinely admired and respected in my constituency.

I also wish to pay tribute to Mildred Gordon, the former Member for Bow and Poplar. She has been a tireless campaigner on local issues, and continues to help me on such issues, most notably the Civilians Remembered campaign. We hope to get an adequate memorial for those civilians in London who suffered and died during the second world war. I hope to emulate the dedication and commitment that both my predecessors brought to the House.

There are four other hon. Members to whom I wish to pay tribute and in whose footsteps I tread—my hon. Friends the Members for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). These four black Members of Parliament, elected in 1987, have played a critical role in extending the representative nature of our democracy. I am also honoured to be the second black woman to take up a seat in this Chamber.

What gives me most pleasure is representing a truly multicultural constituency. Bethnal Green and Bow is one of the most multicultural constituencies in Britain. It has within it the heart of the east end, an area that has achieved almost mythical status in the minds of British schoolchildren. The east end's rich cultural heritage is unique. Since the 16th century. Tower Hamlets has witnessed a succession of immigrants, from the Huguenots to the Irish, the Jews, the Africans, the Chinese, the Somalis, the West Indians, the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis. I pay tribute to the Bangladeshi community who, despite suffering some of the worst deprivation in this country, continue to play a constructive and productive role in society, particularly in the business community.

I wish to pay tribute also to the east end's white community. Cockneys are legendary, as are their drive, ambition, courage and wit. I genuinely give thanks that my children will be born in the east end and brought up as east enders. I salute those who continue to bind our cosmopolitan community together with tolerance and respect. For me, racism is not an academic point. My father is black and my mother is Jewish. As a child in Newcastle, my mother was lined up against a wall and stoned because—as her schoolmates put it—she, as a Jew, was responsible for the death of their Lord.

My father has been in exile for 32 years from his country as a result of the racist practices of a racist state. I am "multi-ethnic", although I have also been called names such as yid, nigger, wog, half-caste and mongrel. Those are unparliamentary terms, but I hope that my background can be a bridge between two cultures.

I love the east end because it is Britain's answer to Manhattan's melting pot. It remains a remarkable place, only a stone's throw from Westminster. I might be slightly biased, but it is without doubt the jewel in Britain's urban inner-city crown—do not laugh, we actually have the Crown jewels in the Tower of London. There are also our hidden treasures, such as Spitalfields, which has just had a fantastically successful festival. There are more artists in my constituency per square yard than in any other place in Europe. Every name evokes a response: Victoria park, Columbia flower market, Whitechapel art gallery, Stepney, Bow, Wapping, Mile End, Aldgate. Anonymity is not an attribute with which my constituency is acquainted.

I confess to being hopelessly proud of my constituency. It is where hardship and deprivation gave birth to Britain's greatest social reforms. Let us not forget that William Beveridge and Clement Attlee both lived in the east end and worked at Toynbee hall. Both were surrounded by an east end infant mortality rate of 55 per cent. Their experiences led them to formulate the radical programme of social reform that led to our NHS.

The east end also has a celebrated tradition in the credentials of organised labour. It was where Ben Tillett led the dockers and where the match girls went on strike in 1880 to improve their pay of 30p for a 60-hour week. Those early trade unionists could have only dreamt of the "fairness, not favours" that the new Labour Government offer.

"Fairness, not favours" is the essential characteristic of this debate. Is it fair that in 1997 more than I billion people live in absolute poverty, or that the poorest 20 per cent. have seen their share of the global cake reduced to less than 2 per cent? That is truly crumbs scattered from the table. The answer, of course, is that life is not fair. But what if making life fairer also makes life more stable and sustainable? Those are things that big business holds dear to its heart. Educating Government and business to act in that way is the task of the new Department of International Development.

I applaud my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for putting development at the heart of government. I applaud her also for her fixation, as it has been described by a Conservative Member, on the eradication of poverty. I, too, have a fixation: an image that I can never wipe from my mind, of a young man of 20 or 25 lying on a railway station platform in Delhi. His moans were barely audible. When I looked closer, I saw that sores covered his entire body. Looking closer still. I saw that the sores were infested with maggots. I say that not for effect but because I witnessed that man literally being eaten alive. At the time, I felt that I could do nothing other than make the pitiful offer of water, which was a bit like offering a bandage to a terminally ill cancer patient. Eventually, I turned away from that man and got on the train. I have never been able to get that man's face and suffering out of my mind. There are millions of people around the world who are literally and metaphorically being eaten alive by poverty. That is why the Government's White Paper, the first for 22 years on the subject, is so desperately needed and so welcome.

There is no doubt that Britain's international development policy needs a new direction. The Secretary of State signalled a shift this morning by hoisting the British flag at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Another important shift in our policy is the refocus on tackling abject poverty and the causes of poverty. As the Government have outlined, there is a general acknowledgment that by 2015 we could halve the number of people in poverty if we can find the political will. People sometimes ask: "What do politicians do? What is a politician's job?' It is our job to find and ignite that political will, because, in the meantime, 35,000 children die every day from preventable diseases while we try to do our job.

On children's suffering, I would like to make the obvious point that children become adults. I have always found it curious that an abandoned child can make us weep for the sake of humanity but, once that child becomes an adult, we feel free to dry our tears. It is humanity that is in the balance, not just humanity's children. We must educate ourselves to recognise our global connections. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, we cannot privatise the problems facing the planet.

The most important factor for the countries of the south is not the aid, or development assistance, that they can receive from us in the north, but the harsh trading terms imposed on them by the north. We do not merely give with one hand and take away with the other; we give with one hand, then knock them over the head, beat them unconscious and rob them with the other. During the decade since the onset of the debt crisis in 1982, the poor countries of the south have exported to the rich countries of the north the equivalent of six times the aid under the Marshall plan, the programme agreed at Bretton Woods to help Europe recover after the second world war. Let us nail the lie once and for all: we are not net contributors to the poorest countries of the world; they are net contributors to us.

We must bring coherence to our strategy for eradicating poverty. That is what the Government set out to do. That means considering, in the round, the problems of globalisation and liberalisation. On that point, I thank Oxfam and the many other excellent non-governmental organisations that have done so much work to point out that globalisation is a double-edged sword. While opportunities open up, competition intensifies. Corporate directors are better able to protect themselves from the consequences of competition than those at the bottom of the pile. Without internationally agreed standards, greater competition is achieved at the expense of unacceptably low labour standards and environmental degradation.

The poorest people in the world still earn what the match girls in my constituency earned in 1880–30p a week. In Nicaragua, I worked with people who earned not much more than that. To lessen their inestimable suffering is the vast and unenviable task that the Government have set themselves. It will require a mammoth effort to educate ourselves, but we know the Government's commitment to education. In 1846, the French historian, Jules Michelet, said: What is the first part of politics? Education. And the second part? Education. And the third? Education. One hundred anti fifty years later, that has a reassuringly familiar ring to it.

Let us educate ourselves on the needs of humanity. This Government embrace one-nation politics, but we must go further: one nation, one planet, one future. That is the lesson that we must learn from this debate.