Jarrow Crusade (75TH Anniversary)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:49 pm on 31st October 2011.

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Photo of Stephen Hepburn Stephen Hepburn Labour, Jarrow 10:49 pm, 31st October 2011

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will come to points that I think he will agree with.

That is a brief history of the march to commemorate this great occasion. It would be wrong not to draw lessons from the great example of those men, because parallels may be drawn between those bleak times in the ’30s and today. First, there is no doubt that lifestyles today have improved vastly compared with the ’30s, but people today still live in fear of unemployment. Those without a job face a hopeless task in trying to find work; those with a job are worried sick about losing it. With nearly 3 million people out of work, and the economy becoming ever bleaker day by day as we read the newspapers and hear the economic news, people are becoming desperate.

In this day and age, people should not live in fear of the evils of unemployment. After the second world war, the country had massive debt and its infrastructure was in ruins. Soldiers who had fought side by side, with mutual respect, with people of different military ranks, different social status in society and different backgrounds, came back determined that never again would the country go back to the days of the Jarrow march, and the haves and have-nots. We built a welfare state that is the envy of the world, and we looked ahead to a future in which mass unemployment would be a thing of the past.

As it was then in the post-war era, the real challenge for the Government today is to have an economic policy in which the interests of the community and people, not the short-tem interests of the bankers and financiers, come first. In the wake of the banking crisis, when more than 90% of the people of this country are experiencing the same worries and fears about losing their house and savings, now is the ideal time to bring about change for the better, just as happened with consensus after the second world war. But no, instead we are returning to the same old Tory values of us and them, and a return to the pessimism of the ’30s when the Government’s only answer to people’s pleas for work was unemployment in a divided society.

As we have seen from the spirit of the St Paul’s protesters and the young people who today are marching from Jarrow to London in a replica of the Jarrow march, people will not sit back and accept from the Government the treatment that their ancestors received.

I take my hat off to those protesters, who have been criticised for their demonstrations. If anyone embarks on a peaceful protest or demonstration to highlight the plight of other people in the world, we should support them, as we did in various places through our foreign policy on Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi.

Secondly, it is little known that at the time of the Jarrow crusade there was a march by blind people, and it set off in October 1936 at the same time. Conditions for disabled people have improved vastly since the ’30s. Then, the fear was the famous—or infamous—and dreaded means test. Today, there is a parallel. The unfairness of the work capability test has been highlighted by disability groups throughout the country, and I am pleased that the Minister has commissioned a report into that. If that report identifies errors in the present system of assessing people’s mental and physical disabilities, the Minister should review all past cases assessed by Atos Healthcare when mistakes may have been made.

Finally, what is happening to the public sector now is what the cartels did to Jarrow in the 1930s. The public sector grew up following the Beveridge report when people in authority said, “Never again will we go back to the bad old days.” Public services were set up to look after people’s welfare, and they are doing a good job and delivering good services, whether in health, education or the police. Despite their success, they find themselves being carved up at the very time when the country’s top executives are receiving 50% pay rises, and a salary of £1 million is considered in some circles as low.

Being a “Jarra” lad—I was brought up and educated there, and have lived there all my life—I have always been inspired by tales of the Jarrow march. I was privileged to know some of the marchers before they passed away, and the lesson I learned from them is simple. The Government should heed the history of ordinary people standing up for their dignity because, as in the case of the Jarrow crusade, even if people’s pleas are ignored now, they will be heard in the end.