It is a great privilege to make my maiden speech as part of this special and important debate. Many people—especially me—were completely stunned on the morning of
Before I speak a little more about my constituency, I want to mention the so-called “trolling” of my, mostly female, colleagues over the summer. I have already experienced a fair amount of trolling myself. This ranges from ill-informed, badly researched articles published as fact to unpleasant personal messages late at night, and vile, vitriolic insults from a small, but persistent, handful of activists from other parties posted online.
I acknowledge the efforts being made by the inspirational women in Parliament who are working hard to raise this issue and are fighting against it even though that usually results in much more abuse being thrown their way. I want to make special mention of my friend, the Newham councillor Seyi Akiwowo, who has endured, fought back against and now campaigns against the lowest form of racial abuse; and, of course, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, who has shown incredible dignity and remarkable strength in the face of the most unacceptable and disgusting abuse over her decades in this House.
Groups such as Glitch UK and Reclaim the Internet, led by my colleague my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and many of my other friends and colleagues in this House, are deserving of our support. We must continue to fight against this and highlight the problem; it is entirely possible to engage in passionate political debate without resorting to name-calling, death threats and abusive language. Let us restore respect and manners to our online behaviour.
As the first woman ever to have been elected in Canterbury and as a single mother, I want to be a champion for equality not only for women, but for the disabled, people of every ethnic and racial background, the young and the old, the LGBT community and people of all faiths and none. It is a scandal that in this day and age there is still inequality in pay and discrimination in many forms. All such prejudice has no place in our society; I will challenge and fight it wherever I find it.
My constituency, Canterbury, is famous as a place of pilgrimage. It is also known as part of the garden of England. Today, as we sit here in the Palace of Westminster, the farms surrounding my constituency are filled with apples, hops and plum trees. In some ways, nothing has changed since Chaucer and his pilgrims went walking through those same fields, but in many ways, everything has. In those fields today, many of the fruit pickers are European. Every day, in the streets of my city and the nearby seaside town of Whitstable, we hear European languages being spoken by schoolchildren visiting from France, Spain, Germany and Belgium.
At the top of the hill that overlooks Canterbury city lies the University of Kent, which prides itself on being the UK’s European university, and standing outside the nave doors of Canterbury cathedral, you are closer to Paris than you are to Sheffield. This is just my way of emphasising how much the Canterbury constituency has benefited, and continues to benefit, from economic and cultural exchange with our European neighbours. It is undoubtedly true that the Kent economy has benefited from immigration and tourism from across the channel, and we hope to continue to do so well into the future.
If there must be a Brexit, I want only the sort of Brexit that protects the rights of EU nationals to work in the UK, that promotes trade across borders and that is proud of our many students and academics who come here to study from across the world. For example, we want to continue to welcome the foreign doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who have worked in our hospitals. There is real anxiety in the constituency I now represent about the future of our local NHS and, in particular, the Kent and Canterbury Hospital. Over the past decade, it has lost vital services. We now have absolutely no A&E, and the maternity unit, which gave me such wonderful care when I had my two boys, has gone. Only a few months ago, the K and C lost three major services—those covering heart attacks, stroke and pneumonia.
But let us remember that the threat to our hospital is not happening in isolation. The problems facing our NHS arise from Government policies affecting the whole of England. The first of these is budget cuts. Our local hospital trust does not have a deficit of £40 million because of overspending; it is caused by underfunding. Putting the shackles of austerity on to an already weakened NHS is a deliberate political choice made by this Government.
I must speak up to save our nation’s sickest patient, because that is what the NHS is. Our NHS is the nation’s sickest patient, and the Government must be careful that, while burying their heads in Brexit, they do not leave her to die. Yesterday, I was out in Parliament Square supporting NHS staff and other public sector workers who are having to resort to protest in the face of the ongoing pay cap. Some nurses I speak to regularly are having to rely on food banks. What sort of country is this, when we cannot look after the very people who look after us?
In around 1370, long before he wrote “The Canterbury Tales”, Geoffrey Chaucer was sent to Italy by the King to negotiate a trade agreement between Genoa and England. Historical documents show that it was a very successful trade agreement indeed. I can only wish that our current Brexit negotiations with the EU will be as successful. You would think that after nearly 650 years, we would have picked up a tip or two! I hope the current Government are listening to the whispers of history, and indeed to today’s shouts from up and down the United Kingdom. People want a good deal. They do not want no deal; this is not a television game show with a snappy title. We must come out with a deal that does not send us back into the economic dark ages.
As is the tradition in maiden speeches, I would like to thank my predecessor, Sir Julian Brazier, who served the people of Canterbury well as their Member of Parliament for 30 years—some 10,955 days. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will acknowledge what a remarkable act of dedication and service that was. He and I fundamentally disagreed on many issues, such as equal marriage, Brexit and a woman’s right to choose, but I sincerely wish Sir Julian well for the future.
I love Canterbury. I love her surrounding villages such as Littlebourne, Chartham, Blean and Bridge. I love the working harbour of Whitstable and the pebbles of the surrounding Kent coast. I am humbled by the people of my constituency putting their trust in me, and I want to work hard for all the people in my area. I believe in unity and togetherness, and that love and trust can transcend borders. I believe in progressive and thoughtful socialism in which we work for and think of our neighbours without prejudice. Thank you for listening, Mr. Speaker, and for allowing me to have my first moments fighting for the people who elected me. I will not let them down.