Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. This is the first time I have been called a maiden, and it seems a little unusual as my children watch me from the Strangers Gallery. I assure everybody here that it is good that they are behind the glass—I can see them talking up there!
I am exceptionally proud to be one of the new women MPs elected to this Parliament, and to be one of the working parents elected—we have a lot to offer when deciding what is best for our country, which has not always happened. Like those of my predecessor, John Hemming, my roots in Birmingham, Yardley run deep. I know from reading his maiden speech that this was a source of great pride for him—and I feel the same.
A Brummie accent is a rare thing in this Chamber, and I look forward to changing that. Like so many Brummies, my nan and grandad from both my mother’s and father’s sides moved from Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders-famed inner city industrial areas in Small Heath, Ladywood and Winson Green to the estates of Yardley and Sheldon that were newly built in the ’30s and ’40s. They were proud of their new homes and raised all their children there.
My family benefited from decent council houses and good communities, and during my campaign I was proud to knock on the doors of three different houses where my parents had lived—on Garretts Green Lane, Frodesley Road and Gleneagles Road.
During the campaign, I visited Yardley Great Trust, a charity whose history in the area is even longer than mine. Originating in the 14th century, the Yardley Great Trust has helped to alleviate poverty and support residents in their sickness and old age, and it continues to do so today. In 1966, the Yardley Great Trust gave my mom a grant to help poor local kids stay in education, so that she did not have to leave school to help her single mother with the housekeeping before doing her A-levels. She went on to achieve a great many things and gave me and my brothers a good life and lots of opportunities. Birmingham, Yardley was good to my family, and I plan to repay this debt.
I requested to make my maiden speech in this section of the Queen’s Speech debates because, along with all things Birmingham, Yardley, I am deeply committed to improving our country’s response to victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse in all its forms. Having worked for years in a service that operated refuges, rape crisis, child sexual exploitation services and human trafficking services, I know that we need to do more. We need look no further than at the poor rape conviction rates to know that for very vulnerable victims our justice system is too often just another establishment that has failed to protect them.
For years before I sat on these Green Benches—and, I am sure, for many more after—there will have been calls for Government Departments to work better together to understand the multiple and layered effects that our decisions have on people’s lives. I can think of no better example than the interaction between the Department for Work and Pensions and our Justice and Home Affairs Departments. I have no doubt that the Home Secretary is committed to ending child sexual exploitation, and it is true to say that her Department has invested in improving services for victims of sexual violence. However, as a Government, it is no good to give with one hand and take away with another. This Government’s rumoured plans to remove housing benefit from people aged under 21 will be disastrous for these vulnerable victims. While I do not agree with this measure at all, I want to compel the Government to remove from this new legislation vulnerable people in supported accommodation. To make my point, I shall tell the story of Helen.
Helen was an 18-year-old girl I met in my first week in my old job, and she has stayed with me for the last six years. She had been abused by her father as a child, and had been in and out of local authority care throughout her—so-called—childhood. Between the ages of 15 and 18, she had been exploited by one “boyfriend” or another, all of them much older than her and none with her best interests at heart.
Helen had come to ask for support from our services following her abuse. She was being supported by an independent sexual violence adviser so that she could be helped to give statements to the police, and seek convictions and justice for her childhood abuse. However, following the breakdown of her relationship with her mother and, subsequently, her grandmother, she became homeless, and her life was difficult and chaotic. In the absence of a stable living environment, she again fell victim to those who abused her, and fell out of the justice system.
Eventually—after cycles of absconding and returning —we were able to secure supported living for Helen. I remember driving her to what is now my constituency to take her to St Basil’s, a brilliant youth homelessness charity. With the aid of housing benefit and the home she was given, she was able to learn to look after herself and, with support, seek justice in order to move on with her life and make a future.
Where will Helen go now, in a future that will not give her housing benefit? How many A and E visits will she make during this Parliament? How many custody suites will she block up? How many police reports will be filed for her by a stretched force? Worse still, how many other people will be abused by those who abused Helen while justice is not done? If that is not enough to alarm the justice and home affairs teams who are sitting opposite me, perhaps I should put it differently: how much will this cost their Departments?
In the last Parliament, the domestic violence lobby was able to ensure that victims living in refuges were exempt from universal credit and the benefits cap. Although the Government’s decision was an afterthought, it was the right decision to keep women and children safe. I urge this Government not to make the same mistake of making the most vulnerable young people an afterthought. I urge them to exempt young people who are at risk of homelessness, and those who are in supported accommodation, from their welfare reform. Last year,
25% of the victims who lived in Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid refuges alone were aged between 18 and 21. We must protect these victims.
Justice and security do not end in their defined Government Departments. In my constituency, there are lots of Helens, and it is my job to amplify their stories so that we stop finding it easy to look away. I will never look away. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the chance to tell that story, and I look forward to telling many more.