Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I offer my congratulations on your re-election. It is a privilege to follow Amanda Milling. I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have made their maiden speeches today and commend their excellent contributions.
For new Members like me, speaking in this Chamber for the first time is a deeply humbling experience. It is made all the more humbling for me by an awareness of the formidable predecessors who have represented the area that I call home and that I now have the privilege of serving in this place. It was on Blackheath in 1876, in an open-air meeting attended by 10,000 of his Greenwich constituents—“those rabid cockneys” in the words of Disraeli—that Gladstone first announced the Bulgarian horrors, and in so doing reforged his links with popular radicalism and set himself on a journey towards a second Ministry.
It was in Woolwich in 1903 that Will Crooks, the son of a ship’s stoker who had endured the privations of the workhouse, won a spectacular by-election victory over his Conservative and Unionist opponent to become the fourth ever Labour Member of Parliament. It was Woolwich in February 1950 that gave Labour’s greatest Foreign Secretary, Ernie Bevin, a final berth from which to serve out his days as one of the chief architects of our post-war world.
Over the course of 23 years of distinguished service, my immediate predecessor, the right hon. Nick Raynsford, more than earned his place among such illustrious company. I would like to pay tribute to him, not just because it is customary but out of a deep sense of gratitude and respect. Nick’s efforts over many decades helped transform Greenwich and Woolwich, and his contribution to our national life was no less impressive. As well as an effective Minister and a skilled parliamentarian, Nick was a diligent and caring constituency MP who fought tenaciously to better the lives of his constituents. He was, I know, admired on both sides of the House, and it is both an honour and an enormous challenge to take on his mantle.
Greenwich and Woolwich has an extremely rich history, as the millions of tourists who visit my constituency each year discover. The historical centre of Greenwich is a breathtaking blend of history, science and architecture. It has been the residence of Tudor kings, was the birthplace of classical architecture in England, is the spiritual home of Britain’s maritime past, was the place where the heavens were first comprehensively mapped out, and is where the world’s prime meridian runs across an ordinary London pavement.
Yet as imperceptibly bound to its maritime and monarchical past as my constituency is, it has another proud history—one that is far too often overlooked, but which is just as inspiring. It is a history of industry, innovation, progressive social change and self-organisation, and above all of people who have come from every part of these islands and beyond living together and looking out for one another in diverse and tolerant communities.
The area was once a great manufacturing hub that teemed with the noise of shipbuilding, engineering, Europe’s biggest glassworks at Charlton and the colossal Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, birthplace of both the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, which employed 70,000 people at its peak during the first world war. It has been a centre of research and discovery, which in the 1850s produced the earliest telegraph cables and the first to be laid across the Atlantic, by Brunel’s vast ship the Great Eastern. It has been a breeding ground of progressive politics, which gave birth to one of Britain’s first building societies, the Woolwich Provident, one of its first co-operatives, the Royal Arsenal co-op, and the first mass membership Labour party. It is a place whose people, confronted over the years by hardship, industrial decline, violence and sadly even terrorism, have none the less remained resilient, vibrant and optimistic for the future.
My constituency is now undergoing rapid change. Much of that change is extremely positive, but significant challenges remain, and not just how we get Charlton Athletic back into the premiership. Inequality, deprivation, poverty, endemic low pay, long-term and youth unemployment, strained public transport services and a chronic lack of genuinely affordable homes to rent or buy—all these issues will need to be tackled in the years ahead if we are to have an economy that is sustainable and works for all my constituents. I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that they are tackled in the years ahead, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity that I have been given by the people of Greenwich and Woolwich to be their voice in this place and the champion and servant of this great constituency.