Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech. Today’s debate on Northern Ireland is an appropriate one, reminding us how important our democracy is and our role as Members in defending the rights of our citizens.
Hon. Members will know the circumstances of my election, but I want to place on the record that my predecessor, Fiona Onasanya, made a great difference to the lives of many of my constituents through her hard work.
Just as my predecessor was a black woman when there are too few here, I know that my working-class background is all too unusual too. In researching for this speech, I found that since 1918 Peterborough has had six Conservative MPs. Between them they had five peerages and three knighthoods: there were three barons, two baronets, a marquess, a viscount, an earl and a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George—like our football team, they could simply be known as The Posh. One of my predecessors also achieved an Olympic gold medal, inspiring a famous scene from the film “Chariots of Fire”. I suspect that my chances of achieving that are about as good as my chances of receiving any of those other titles. I do hope that anyone growing up in Peterborough today can look at me and my predecessor and know that, whatever their gender or class, race or religion, they deserve the opportunity to succeed, because we are a diverse city and our representation should be so, too. That word is important to me; it is our duty to represent and to understand the lives of our constituents and to change them for the better. That is politics at its best.
It was back in 1790 that Parliament legislated for an Improvement Commission for Peterborough, responsible for paving, cleaning and lighting the streets. Now we are centuries on, yet, after a decade of austerity, we face similar challenges. Research from the Library shows that, in the decades since 2010, our city has lost more than a third of its Government funding. Austerity has gone further and faster than ever before. Even the Thatcher Governments never dared to cut the police, yet now residents tell me of cases where crimes are not investigated, so short of numbers are the local police.
As a Member of this House, it is my job to make the law, but what use are those laws if they are not enforced? I campaigned on local issues, but these are national issues too. How can any of us rest easy knowing that there are families without homes, children without food and services without proper funding? Even working people are forced to use food banks or survive on zero-hours contracts. I represented working people as a trade unionist, and I intend to do so again here, because, despite the damage that austerity has done, Peterborough remains a city that I am proud to represent.
We have a rich history: a Norman cathedral with the finest medieval painted ceiling in Europe. Part of our international links go back to the Romans, who settled the Nene Valley in the first century, to the Saxons who settled Meadow Homestead, to the monks who built the abbey and to the Danes who arrived to plunder it and later settled themselves. Over centuries, we have made and traded products from bricks to wool, built a cathedral and buried Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine of Aragon. We then became a new town with new industries.
I worked in a travel agency—another trade that gave the city many of its jobs. Now we have a mix of the agricultural, the industrial and the new services of our time. A Labour Government built social housing for the people on a grand scale and ensured that houses were available at a reasonable price. The Peterborough Development Corporation planned for the health and welfare of local people who benefited from community schools, the country park at Ferry Meadows and a public library. We need to rediscover our country’s ability to make things and to make things work, because, beyond our history, geography or industry, it is above all the people of Peterborough who will be my great passion.
Of all the speeches I researched, I was struck by Keir Hardie’s in 1901 in which he said that
“the true test of progress is not the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, but the elevation of the people as a whole.”
I, too, promise to work for the people as a whole, and I will do everything in my power to succeed.