Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to address the House and make my maiden speech, and as a London MP I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate about the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.
It is an honour and a privilege to be elected to represent Lewisham West and Penge, the area that I love. I was raised and went to primary school in Sydenham, and I went to secondary school in Penge. I am now raising my own family there and I am proud to call it home.
Growing up, if anyone had told me that I would go on to become the Member of Parliament for my area, I would have laughed. Society never seemed to have much aspiration for girls from Cator Park School, and all too often we were written off, but I am here, and my sister, my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, is here, so as my former English teacher said during the general election campaign, Cator Park now has almost as many alumni in this place as Eton.
Our constituency is a collection of strong south-east London communities around Forest Hill, Bellingham, Perry Vale and Sydenham, within Lewisham. Since 2010, it has taken in the bustle of Penge High Street, the suburban calm of Clock House and the splendour of Crystal Palace park, including its legendary dinosaurs.
I am the 12th Member to serve either Lewisham West and Penge or Lewisham West, as it was before 2010. I feel privileged to be the first woman to represent the it, 99 years after it was created, in the same year as the Representation of the People Act and the first election in which women could vote. My predecessor Jim Dowd represented the constituency for 25 years and devoted more than 40 years of his life to public service, both in this House and on Lewisham Council. A lifelong resident of SE23, Jim stood up for our local services and good jobs, and he represented his constituents with conviction on national issues. He held a range of positions both in government and opposition, and effectively used his position to further causes that were important to him, especially animals, which he loved, and their welfare. Even his general election literature from 2015 included a picture of him shaking hands with a giant cat.
Previously a bellwether seat, Jim and those who helped to run the local party have helped to turn Lewisham West and Penge into a strong Labour seat, while never taking anything for granted. It is in part thanks to them and their hard work that I am able to stand here now as their representative in Parliament. Jim has been a good friend to me and my family. His support has been immeasurable, and I know that he will be greatly missed in this place.
The enormous loss of life at Grenfell Tower and the preventable tragedy of what happened there have cast a shadow over the first few weeks of this Parliament. Hearing stories of the events that night, it was hard to hold back tears. The unimaginable horror of a mother throwing a baby from a 10th-floor window still haunts me.
The inquiry must now happen quickly, transparently and with the full inclusion of the victims, but what seems clear to me is that what happened at Grenfell Tower and in the aftermath are symptomatic of a system that is broken; a system that neglects the poor and vulnerable; a system in which cost-effectiveness seems to have been put before health and safety; and a system that I have come to this place to change.
Around the time that Jim was making his maiden speech, I was at secondary school in the constituency. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, we had lessons in huts, class sizes of 35, and not enough books to go around. As the daughter of two teachers, I knew that teachers were undervalued and underpaid. My parents are here today, and I am thankful for the values and the support that they have given me.
It was my experiences, growing up, that made me want to stand up and fight to end inequality, and to make sure that every child gets the best chance in life, no matter what their wealth or background. I am saddened to say that all schools in my constituency face funding cuts, and our wonderful boys’ comprehensive, Forest Hill School, is £1.3 million in deficit. I made a promise to my constituents that I would fight hard for our schools and our young people, and that is exactly what I will do.
Another issue that I want to fight for in this place is defending workplace rights. Before entering Parliament, I was an employment rights lawyer for more than a decade, representing working people day in, day out. I know at first hand how many of our employment rights come from Europe, such as paid holiday, limits on working time and many of our discrimination laws. I will fight tooth and nail to prevent any compromise of those rights as we negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union, but we need to go further than that and create a secure workplace and decent wages by banning zero-hours contracts and raising the national minimum wage. I was at a food bank in my constituency on Friday, and it is an absolute travesty that people are having to choose between feeding their children and feeding themselves.
An issue close to my heart is maternity discrimination. After the birth of my son, I set up a business to provide pregnancy discrimination and flexible working advice to mums and families. I want to work to ensure that all jobs are flexible by default, and that all parents can take parental leave without fearing discrimination or the loss of their job.
I believe that a first-rate education, excellent healthcare, decent housing and proper employment rights are essential to the prosperity of us all. Rather than condemn our constituents to a race to the bottom, we must offer them hope and collectively ensure that our country is able to thrive, advance and progress, while no one is left behind.