I am grateful to the House and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to speak here for the first time. I have listened carefully to the debate, and I extend my congratulations to the hon. Members who have made varied, interesting and eloquent speeches.
This is the first maiden speech by a Member for Erith and Thamesmead, as my predecessor, John Austin, made his maiden speech, in 1992, as the Member for Woolwich, before my constituency was formed for the 1997 election. John Austin is a man who served his community for more than 40 years, first as a councillor, and then as mayor, leader of the council and, in this place, Member of Parliament. During his time here, he took up many causes, fighting tirelessly against injustice and, in particular, for women's rights. I commend especially the work that he did in the Council of Europe on human trafficking. John Austin is one of the handful of men I have met whom I could truly call a feminist.
Like many other urban areas, Erith and Thamesmead has a long and proud multicultural tradition. It is an area where people come to settle. One of our primary schools is called Windrush, in honour of those who came from the West Indies in the '50s and '60s to help Britain rebuild after the war. Many Vietnamese boat people also put down roots in the area in the 1970s. Erith is also the place where Alexander Selkirk, the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe, landed in 1711, when he returned home after many years on a desert island. My constituency is truly a place of homecomings. Over the past decade we have also had a fast-growing African community, which has settled here and intends to make the area its home-so much so, that during the forthcoming World cup, I am sure that the people in that community will be cheering just as loudly for England as they will be for their native Nigeria or Ghana.
The area also consists of places such as Abbey Wood, Belvedere, Lesnes Abbey and Plumstead, where during the late 19th century we had a wonderful football club named Woolwich Arsenal. The team played there until just before the first world war, when Woolwich was dropped from the name and they moved north of the river. I am not quite sure what happened to the club after that. In the north of the constituency, we boast a grade I listed building that has been described as
"A masterpiece of engineering-a Victorian cathedral of ironwork," which is a lovely way to describe the Crossness sewage works. Crossness houses the Victorian beam engines, which have been lovingly restored by the Crossness Engines Trust, a registered charity that since 1987 has overseen the restoration project.
In the mid 19th century, Crossness was part of the visionary work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built the London sewer network that cleaned up London and wiped out the cholera epidemics that had previously killed hundreds of Londoners every year. It is ironic that Sir Joseph's great grandson is Peter Bazalgette, the TV executive who brought the phenomenon of "Big Brother" to Britain. Whereas Sir Joseph spent much of his life trying to get rid of unwanted waste from the homes of the nation, some might say that his great grandson has done quite the opposite.
I have lived in Erith and Thamesmead for more than 30 years. As for my political motivations, Ms Bagshawe said that she was inspired to enter politics by Mrs Thatcher, and I have to say that I was too, albeit for what I imagine were completely different reasons. I was born in 1955, a child of the welfare state. That welfare state helped my family and millions of families like us to have opportunities that previous generations could only dream of: a free health service; a right to education; and a national insurance system that people pay into when they do not need it, but which is there when they do. The welfare state gave me a ladder, which I fully used and which, in turn, has enabled my two daughters to achieve their full potential.
All those things were Labour developments of which I am proud, just as I am proud now of Sure Start, the future jobs fund and the national minimum wage, which are all key building blocks in the fight against poverty. If there is to be dignity in work, poverty pay has no place in the 21st century. In my previous career, tax, national insurance and the national minimum wage were my fields of expertise. I came across no end of imaginative ways that employers would try to get around paying the minimum wage, but who really pays when business pays poverty wage rates? It is the rest of us-the taxpayers-who pay, subsidising the low-paid through the benefits and tax credit systems, while the employers pocket the profit. As we have heard here today, the best way out of poverty is through work, but it must be work that pays a living wage.
Now is a crucial time economically. The economy is beginning to grow and borrowing is falling. To put that at risk by cuts to the public sector and to job opportunities places us in grave danger of having a double-dip recession. Anyone who, like me, has sat in a jobcentre week after week will know that cuts to services such as the future jobs fund will cut not waste, but opportunity, hope and life chances.
The coalition seems to promise so much change, yet its cuts preclude the change that my constituents need. Indeed, the only change the coalition will bring to Erith and Thamesmead is a change for the worse, by cutting the jobs programme, which, along with Sure Start and the national minimum wage, has brought the first effective reduction in poverty in Erith and Thamesmead for a generation.
I know that the job of government is to govern for all the people, not just for those I consider to be my natural constituents. Contrary to some, however, I believe there is such a thing as society and no matter what people's income or voting tendency, we all live within it. Policies that help the weak, the vulnerable, the unemployed and the disadvantaged thus add to the quality of life of all of us. There is no point at all in paying less tax if someone lives a life with bars on their windows and a personal alarm in their hand.
I also understand that government is about making tough choices. Life is about tough choices, but by tough, I mean strong and durable, not cruel or severe. It is vital for the recovery that we keep people in work. Unemployment reduces national wealth and tax revenues. To insist that we protect jobs is not socialist sentimentality; it is economic common sense.
People in Erith and Thamesmead earn below the average wage and have higher unemployment. One of the reasons for that is that their transport connections are poor. Thamesmead was built in the 1960s and the Jubilee line was meant to run there, but that never happened. Thirty years later, there are 30,000 residents without a station. West of Tower bridge, there are 24 crossings and to the east, just two Victorian tunnels, a ferry and a toll bridge at Dartford. It is not difficult to see that that makes accessing the work and business opportunities in the city all the more difficult for people who live where I do.
I am pleased that the London Mayor and I seem to agree on something, which is that the Abbey Wood line of Crossrail must go ahead. People living in Thamesmead can see the bright lights of the city three miles across the river, but to get there they must travel by foot, by bus, by train and by the docklands light railway, and it takes over an hour-the same amount of time it takes the business traveller from Paris or Antwerp to get to City airport, flying close over the heads of Thamesmead residents.
The people of Erith and Thamesmead are not without pride or without aspiration. They band together to run voluntary and community groups: they run local history projects, they clean the canals, they mentor young people, they serve meals at the pop-in parlours and they help the disadvantaged and elderly through their temples and churches. They are a true coalition, a coalition of the willing who just want to be given a chance.
Finally, I would say that a place such as Thamesmead will be a test of the Prime Minister's big society. This is the big society that is meant to re-localise the economy, re-capitalise the poor and re-democratise power. If the big society is to mean anything other than a slogan, the Government need vision-and a vision of a cross-capital rail link is vital not only to the economy of London, but to that of the UK as a whole. The vision of a living wage, upgraded year on year, is vital to the fight against poverty. I hope to be a strong voice for Erith and Thamesmead residents, making sure that they are able to access the opportunities that should be available to them, living in the south-east corner of a world-class city.
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