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International Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 27th November 2003.

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Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 2:40 pm, 27th November 2003

It is with great pleasure that I rise to make my maiden speech, especially as I follow Mr. Dismore, who is almost a parliamentary neighbour of mine. As I speak for the first time in the Chamber, I am reminded of election night. I have the same sense of awe and honour that I had that evening.

I am proud to be the first woman to represent Brent, East or, as it used to be known, Willesden, East. I am also the first Liberal Democrat Member to represent the seat, though it has a proud Liberal history. Gladstone used to stay at Dollis Hill house, which is in a park that was renamed in his honour. It is in the centre of my constituency.

As a young woman, I am often asked about the problem of the lack of women in this place and what we should do about it. I have always been interested in the idea of all-women shortlists. That is probably because as a woman who is almost always the shortest, I would be guaranteed to win under such a system. Mercifully, I was elected without the aid of such mechanisms. As the newest and the youngest Member of this place, my overwhelming sense as I speak is one of privilege. It is a huge privilege to be here. It was a huge privilege to be elected to serve the constituents of Brent, East. It is also a huge privilege to walk in the footsteps of so many great men and women who have debated in this place before me. However, privilege is not enough. Politics is about changing things, and at the end of the day I will be judged on my ability to influence change on the issues that are important to my constituents. I owe them a debt of thanks but also a debt of work. I will work extremely hard to repay that debt over the forthcoming years.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that I stand here today only because of the sad and tragic death of my predecessor, Paul Daisley. I never met Paul, but he was widely liked by my colleagues on Brent council and by politicians across the political divide at all levels. Those who knew him spoke of him as a giant of a man. They said that his determination and courage were matched only by his compassion and his concern for others. He made a huge contribution to Brent. His national political career was cut short but his local legacy lives on. As leader of the council he worked tirelessly to turn round a failing authority, which at that stage was pilloried by Private Eye. He is rather flippantly said to have put back the "r" into Brent. He will be a tough act to follow. I hope that in time I may be able to prove myself to be a worthy successor to him.

I wish Lesley—Paul's wife—well. She has launched the Paul Daisley memorial trust in his memory, and I think that it will do great work in trying to improve the quality of life of people suffering from cancer and to raise awareness of that illness, which affects so many people and kills an enormous number.

As I speak about my predecessors, perhaps right hon. and hon. Members will remember that a well-known political refugee lives in my constituency. I am terribly concerned about that constituent because I understand that he has some serious money worries ahead in the new financial year. He has real problems with housing, transport and even crime. I say to him, as I would say to all constituents, that should he ever want any advice from his local Member, he is welcome to pop into one of my local advice surgeries. As a Liberal Democrat, I am always willing to see any of my constituents, regardless of the party to which they may be affiliated.

It is conventional on these occasions to speak a little about one's constituency. I am lucky because most Members of this place went canvassing in my constituency during the summer, so I know that many Members are familiar with it—almost too familiar. It is said that there was a veritable economic boom at Willesden high road and Walm lane among the restaurateurs and fast-food outlets. It worried me that one shop took on extra staff to cope with the load; I hope that it does not now fear a recession.

Those Members who visited my constituency will know a little of it. It is a constituency of great vibrancy and diversity but also one of great need. The wealthiest and the poorest live side by side in some of the most densely populated areas in the country. The crime rate is very high. The incidence of burglaries and violence is almost twice the national average. The incidence of robbery is six times the national average. Yet, despite the huge and real fear of crime, I have found in Brent a sense of community, welcome and openness that I have never come across anywhere else in London.

It is said that 130 languages are spoken in Brent schools. There is a kaleidoscope of religions—Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Jewish. There is a large Irish population. The ethnic minority community is about 50 per cent. of the local community. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that I should speak in a debate that has the theme of international affairs. I often comment that when I visit local community groups, I am as likely to be berated on international issues—be it Kashmir, the middle east, Iraq or the Eritrean-Ethiopian situation—as I am to be asked about local issues. Today, however, I want to talk about other things.

Despite the debate to which I have referred, which is often heated and controversial, the different communities co-exist happily. The constituency is a model of tolerance and acceptance. I shall never forget my experience only last month during the Diwali procession in the borough. I watched young children from a local primary school, who were dressed in the most beautiful costumes. They were proud to wear them. There was lots of bustling and excitement. Nor was it only the Hindu children who took part in the procession: all the children from the local community took part—white, black and Asian. To me, that is a model of multiculturalism.

I hope to champion many issues during my time in Parliament, which I hope will be very long. Among them are the closure of local post offices, funding for local schools, the need for more police and general practitioners, and the need to campaign to ensure that councils are more responsive to local need.

I shall touch on another issue that is of huge importance in Brent—it was raised with me regularly on the doorstep—and that is tuition fees and top-up fees. I hope that hon. Members will not think that I am being too controversial in raising that issue in my maiden speech. The Opposition side of the Chamber may be united on it, but as there is a huge debate throughout the House, I feel that it is not strictly a party political issue. The matter is dear to my heart. As the youngest Member, I dare say that I am the only Member still paying back a student loan. However, I am aware that I am extremely lucky. When I went to university, I received a full grant. Tuition fees had not been introduced. Students who are studying for GCSEs and hoping to go on to university face extraordinary levels of debt. The Barclays bank survey shows that the debt per student will be £33,000 by 2010. That is more than my parents' mortgage; it is more than the mortgage of most students' parents. It is a huge amount.

I feel immense frustration when I hear talk about widening participation while we are debating the introduction of a policy that will deter the very students we are trying to attract. Fear of debt is just as real as debt, and that is why this is such an issue in my constituency. It is likely to deter students from lower-income backgrounds and ethnic minority communities—particularly the Muslim community, which is very large in my constituency—who often have very different attitudes to debt.

My concern is that this debate is really about whether we want a world-class education system or whether we are looking to move back to a class-based education system, in which students choose universities according to their ability to pay, and universities are judged on the level of their fees. That is not a system that I would look forward to, and I hope that Members from all parties will unite in opposing it when the time comes.

In conclusion, I hope that I have convinced the House of the uniqueness of my constituency, and of not only its wealth of diversity but its social need. There is much work to be done, and I look forward, now that I have made my maiden speech, to being able to raise the issues in Parliament. I thank the House for welcoming its newest Member.