It is such an honour and privilege to have been elected as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Edgbaston, a constituency that has returned a female MP in every election since 1953. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The most recent was my predecessor, Gisela Stuart. Before being selected as the Labour candidate for Edgbaston, I knew of and respected Gisela from afar. I may not have agreed with her on every single issue, but she was passionate, gutsy and a fierce defender of Labour values. [Hon. Members: “Hear, Hear!”] By the end of my first campaign session, when almost every house on whose door I knocked seemed to have a story about how Gisela had helped them, I knew just what a brilliant constituency MP I was following. Gisela’s contribution to Edgbaston will never be forgotten by the thousands of constituents she helped in ways both big and small.
It is also an honour to be the first female Sikh to sit on these Benches and to be here alongside my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, the first turban-wearing Sikh MP. Being the first Sikh female MP comes with a huge sense of responsibility. I and many others will be asked to raise difficult issues in the House on behalf of Sikhs, on matters such as hate crime, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Sikh ethnic monitoring in the 2021 census and an independent public inquiry into UK involvement in the 1984 Sikh genocide.
For many decades, Sikhs have lived in this country, paid their taxes, fought in world wars and contributed to society in every way imaginable. It is a historic moment for Sikhs in this country because Parliament is beginning to look more like the people it serves. Sophia Duleep Singh, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh—the ruler of the formidable Sikh empire from 1801 to 1839—and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, would have been immensely proud that the United Kingdom had elected its first female Sikh MP some 100 years after she, a prominent suffragette, had fought for women in this country to have the right to vote.
Having been born and bred in one of the most diverse cities in the United Kingdom, I am so proud of the vibrant and exciting multicultural society that we live in today. I walk through Birmingham and see Caribbean restaurants next to Indian dress shops, gurdwaras and mosques down the road from Catholic schools, Polish accents, Irish accents and even the occasional exotic twang of an, “Alright, bab” from one of our neighbours from the Black Country.
Brummies, whether first or 30th generation, live and work together to make Birmingham the unique and fascinating city it is today. I am delighted at the prospect of this great city hosting the Commonwealth games in 2022.
People are what makes a place special, and Edgbaston is certainly special. The constituency is made up of four diverse wards: Bartley Green, Quinton, Harborne and Edgbaston. Parts of my constituency are very affluent, but, equally, there are areas of deprivation. My constituency is home to the very beautiful botanical gardens, a silver sweep of reservoir, the University Hospitals Birmingham Trust, the very prestigious Birmingham University, the ever-growing Newman University, many excellent schools, the two towers that inspired JRR Tolkein to write “The Lord of the Rings”, an influential chamber of commerce and a world-famous cricket ground.
The University Hospitals Trust and Birmingham University are two of the biggest employers in my constituency, which is why today’s debates on the public sector pay cap and tuition fees are so important. The Government’s public sector pay cap has caused chaos for the NHS. The cap on pay has seen wages fall 14% below inflation since 2010. Nurses in my constituency are being forced to use food banks to make ends meet. The Government have created a workforce crisis in the NHS, which is causing misery for patients. Hospital wards and GP surgeries in parts of my constituency are chronically understaffed and the knock-on effect is waiting lists, which are spiralling out of control. For seven years, Ministers have balanced the books on the backs of NHS staff.
I spent a day in Birmingham’s children’s hospital this summer after an unfortunate incident involving my daughter and a trampoline. As ever, I was bowled over by the skill, courage, and dedication that NHS staff bring to their working lives.
On the rise of tuition fees, I am concerned that young people and their families are impacted by the hikes in these fees, which will further increase student debt. For a young person in my constituency to go to university to study a three-year course, it will cost £30,000. A five-year medicine course is £50,000, and that is not to mention the living costs. For young people growing up in normal households in my constituency where money can be tight, this is an astronomical and intimidating sum of money. Graduate wages are stagnating and student debt will only rise further. Everyone in society benefits from our graduates—they are our engineers, our doctors, and our social workers of the future. That is why, today, I will vote to revoke a rise in tuition fees.
Like all of us in this House, behind the history and the records sits an ordinary story of simple values. For more than 20 years, my father drove the No.11 bus around the constituency that I now represent. He worked every hour he could to make sure that my siblings and I had the best possible start in life. My mother and father provided my brothers and sisters and I with a simple set of values. Those values permeated through every aspect of our upbringing, and that is what brings me here today. First, that we all had to work to build something with our lives. The hours my father spent driving that bus, delivering community projects as the president of our local gurdwara, or resolving yet another squabble between us kids was never lost on me. It was simple dedication, hard work and a belief that he could make things better not only for us, but for all communities. He certainly achieved that and much more.
Secondly, my parents taught us that we should not forget about the people around us who were less fortunate. My parents both knew what it was like to start completely afresh, and to feel new, alone and lost. Ever since, I have passionately believed that one of the most important things we can all commit to is a simple act of kindness, whether it is a sympathetic ear or a hand-up to somebody desperate for a break. It is this last point that I would like to draw upon in making my maiden speech.
Issues around mental health and emotional wellbeing can make a person feel alone, confused, lonely, hopeless and lost. Such issues are cruel and indiscriminate; they can affect any one of us at any time. My constituency has a high proportion of young people. I have heard about the teenage girl suffering anxiety about her body image after seeing too many photo-shopped images on social media, the middle-aged man suffering from depression so overwhelming that he finds it impossible to make it out of the house in the morning, and the older person living alone, so worried about making ends meet that they cannot sleep at night.
The new “#StatusOfMind” report by the Royal Society for Public Health shows that
“identified rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the past 25 years.”
That is nearly 80,000 children and young people in the UK suffering from severe depression. The report also states that nearly nine in 10 girls are unhappy with their body shape, that
“Seven in 10 young people have experienced cyberbullying”,
and that no action was taken in 91% of cases in which cyber-bullying was reported.
As a parent of two girls, aged seven and six, this terrifies me. We need to do so much more to stop these trends and to make sure that our children are able to fulfil their potential. We should ensure that schools are given the time, opportunity and resources to make personal, social and health and economic education lessons a priority, not an afterthought, and we should work with social media platforms to identify users who could be suffering from mental health problems and signposting them to help. We need to support families to make sense of heart-breaking issues their children could be facing so that they can build a level of resilience.
For many people suffering with mental health and emotional wellbeing issues, these can both cause and, indeed, be caused by additional issues such as substance and alcohol misuse. The Reach Addiction centre at the Church of the Redeemer in my constituency does amazing work supporting people who, without it, would be completely lost and adrift from society. St. John’s church in Harborne and St. Boniface church in Quinton provide food banks and support to those suffering from homelessness and mental health issues. I recognise the vital support that these faith organisations, along with public sector workers in my constituency, provide. One of Britain’s finest hours was the creation of the NHS and the welfare state in 1946—a safety net for those who fell on hard times. To tackle issues such as alcohol and substance misuse, we need to rethink this safety net to make sure that emotional help and support is there for anyone who needs it, whenever they need it. It is time we treated the cause of these issues, rather than just the symptoms.
Finally, for those growing old in our country, retirement should mean a well-earned rest from a lifetime of hard work—an opportunity to put their feet up and focus on the things they are passionate about, rather than a destination to be dreaded. Unfortunately for some residents in my constituency, this stage of life is about trying to make ends meet and worrying about whether their pension will stretch to cover the whole month. They feel more and more isolated in their homes as more local community facilities are closed, and they are left counting the days since they spoke to someone who was not the checkout assistant at their local supermarket. The recent Channel 4 documentary, “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds”, was a wonderful reminder of the amazing ability we all have to make a difference to the people around us essentially by bringing people together. This will be my mission as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Whenever I walk into this Chamber, I will be here to fight for funding for the services doing incredible work supporting my constituents who are facing these and many other issues. I will speak up for the young people in my constituency whose voices need to be heard more loudly in this House. I will work with colleagues from all parties to bring all our communities and constituents closer together.
I will also be thinking back to my dad, driving that same No. 11 route—day in, day out. Through hard work, he was building the platform and opportunities for me and my siblings to succeed. It is that spirit which I will bring to this role. I am so grateful to the people of Edgbaston, and I will be restless in working and fighting for every single one of them.