Like so many other hon. and right hon. Members, I begin by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for the way in which you have led us and conducted our business. It is many years since you and I first met over the Dispatch Box when we debated a piece of secondary legislation on European employment law. The House and our proceedings have been extraordinarily enhanced by the way in which you have presided over us, and I thank you for that.
I also thank the other officers of the House, who conduct their duties often without being properly recognised, including those who provide a service in the Dining and Tea Rooms, the Door Keepers who direct us and, of course, the formidable staff of the House of Commons Library, a facility on which I make far too many demands. I thank all of them very much.
I was first elected in 1992. When I became the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, as my constituency was called then, there were more MPs called John or Jonathan than all the women from all the parties combined. Why does that matter? It matters because the authority of this House is in crisis, which will no doubt be discussed and debated in the forthcoming general election campaign. As you so often tell us, Mr Speaker, this House should talk to the country and not to itself. The Westminster village can be a very comfortable abode, but it is not what we are here to serve. We need a Parliament that looks like, and that talks about the issues that matter to, the rest of the country, and that recognises the cost of child care, the shortage of decent homes and how difficult it is for an 18-year-old with very poor levels of literacy and numeracy to get a job. Dealing with these things is what inspires the confidence of people who live their lives with our politics as a low “brrr” in the corner most of the time. Those are the things that make them feel that we are worth it and worth engaging with.
I faced many challenges in my constituency, and the same is true of other London MPs in particular. The big issue when I was first elected was the number of elderly people waiting on trolleys for admission to the A and E department at King’s College hospital—the extraordinary hospital that serves my constituents. Another issue was the number of children who could not get into the primary school of their choice. There was an educational divide at age 11 whereby white and middle-class children went either to a private school or out of the boroughs. Now, however, with redevelopment at King’s and five new secondary schools in the constituency, the situation has begun to change, but the nature of our progressive politics, which Labour Members in particular hold so dear, means that the job is never done.
The great risk facing my constituency is that it will become a constituency of two types of life: that of the comfortable and well-off and that of the poor. Similarly, our capital city of London faces the risk of becoming two cities.
I am very sad that Sure Start, which was set up as an early nurturing programme by the Government of which I was a member, has been hollowed out. I hope we will never forget the optimism and ambition of the Olympic games, which, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, showed us the better angels of our nature