Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in such an important debate. I want first to pay tribute to my predecessor, Douglas Alexander, who served the constituency for many years—I was only three when he was elected. It is for that reason that I want to thank him for all he did for the constituency. I especially commend him for the dignified way he handled himself on what must have been a very difficult election night for him. He did himself proud, and he did his party proud. I wish him the best for the future.
When I discovered that it is traditional for a new Member to speak about the history and legacy of their constituency in their maiden speech, I decided to do some research, despite the fact that I have lived in mine all my life. I am at the tail end of Scottish National party colleagues making their maiden speeches, and I have noticed that they tend to mention Rabbie Burns a lot. In particular, they have tried in their maiden speeches to own him for themselves by claiming some intrinsic connection between him and their constituencies. I feel no need to do that, because during my research I discovered a fact that trumps them all: William Wallace was born in my constituency, in Elderslie, which you will be familiar with, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Beyond the Hollywood film and the historic name, my constituency has a fascinating history, from the mills of Paisley to the industries of Johnstone and the weavers of Kilbarchan. It has a wonderful population with a cracking sense of humour and much to offer, both to tourists and to residents. But the truth is that things are not all fantastic in my constituency. We have watched our town centres deteriorate and our communities decline. Our unemployment level is higher than the UK average. One in five children in my constituency go to bed hungry. Paisley’s jobcentre has the third highest number of sanctions in the whole of Scotland.
Before being elected, I volunteered for a charitable organisation. There was a gentleman there who I grew very fond of. He was one of those guys who have been battered by life in every way imaginable—you name it, he has been through it. He used to come in to get food, and it was the only food he had access to and the only meal he would get. I remember sitting with him while he told me about his fear of going to the jobcentre. He said, “I’ve heard the stories, Mhairi. They try to trick you out and tell you you’re a liar. I’m not a liar, Mhairi.” I said, “It’s okay. Calm down. Go and be honest and you’ll be fine.”
I then did not see him for two or three weeks and became very worried. When he finally came back in, I asked him how he had got on. Without saying a word, he burst into tears—a grown man standing in front of a 20-year-old and crying his eyes out. What had happened was that in order to get to the jobcentre he had needed to use the money that he would normally have paid to travel to the charity in order to get his food. He needed to save the money, so he did not eat or drink for five days. He fainted while on the bus going to the jobcentre due to exhaustion and dehydration. He was 15 minutes late and was sanctioned for 13 weeks.
The Chancellor spoke in his Budget speech about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, but who is the sun shining on? When he spoke about benefits not supporting certain kinds of lifestyles, is that the kind of lifestyle that he was talking about? If we go back even further, when the Minister for Employment was asked to consider if there was a correlation between the number of sanctions and the rise in food bank use, she stated:
“Food banks play an important role in local welfare provision.”—[Hansard, 22 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 608.]
Renfrewshire has the third highest use of food banks, and food bank use is going up and up. Food banks are not part of the welfare state—they are a symbol that the welfare state is failing.
The Government, quite rightly, pay for me, through taxpayers’ money, to be able to live in London while I serve my constituents. My housing is subsidised by the taxpayer. The Chancellor said in his Budget:
“It is not fair that families earning over £40,000 in London…should have their rents” paid for
“by other working people.”—[Hansard, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 335.]
But it is okay so long as you are an MP?
In this Budget the Chancellor also abolished any housing benefit for anyone below the age of 21. So we are now in the ridiculous situation whereby because I am an MP, I am not only the youngest, but I am also the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing. We now have one of the most uncaring, uncompromising and out-of-touch Governments that the UK has seen since Thatcher.
I must now turn to those with whom I share these Benches. I have sat in this Chamber for 10 weeks. I have very deliberately stayed quiet and listened intently to everything that has been said. I have heard multiple speeches from Labour Members standing to talk about the worrying rise of nationalism in Scotland. Yet all these speeches serve to do is to demonstrate how deep the lack of understanding about Scotland is within the Labour party. I, like so many SNP Members, come from a traditional socialist Labour family, and I have never been quiet in my assertion that I feel it is the Labour party that left me, not the other way about. The SNP did not triumph on a wave on nationalism; in fact, nationalism has nothing to do with what has happened in Scotland. We triumphed on a wave of hope—hope that there was something different from and better than the Thatcherite, neo-liberal policies that are produced from this Chamber, and hope that these representatives could genuinely give a voice to those who do not have one.
I do not mention this in order to pour salt into wounds that I am sure are very open and very sore for many Labour Members, both politically and personally; colleagues, possibly friends, lost their seats. I mention it in order to hold a mirror to the face of a party that seems to have forgotten the very people it is supposed to represent and the very things it is supposed to fight for. After hearing of Labour leaders’ intentions to support the changes to tax credits that the Chancellor has put forward, I must make this plea through the words of one of their own, and a personal hero of mine. Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and signposts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they have to compromise. And then there are signposts, which stand true and tall and principled. They point in one direction and they say, “This is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why.” Tony Benn was right when he said that the only people worth remembering in politics are those who are signposts.
Yes, we will have political differences; and yes, in other Parliaments we may be opposing parties, but within this Chamber we are not. No matter how much I may wish it, the SNP is not the sole opposition to this Government—but neither is the Labour party. It is together with all the parties on these Benches that we must form an Opposition. In order to be effective, we must oppose, not abstain. So I reach out a genuine hand of friendship which I can only hope will be taken. Let us come together; let us be that Opposition; let us be that signpost to a better society. Ultimately people are needing a voice and people are needing help—let us give them it.