Backbench Business - Christmas AdjournmentBackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:02 pm on 16th December 2021.

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Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:02 pm, 16th December 2021

It is a pleasure to follow David Johnston; I now know so much more about the roads of Wantage. All joking aside, having campaigned on the dangerous smart motorways that we see being rolled out across our country, I know how important it is for many of our constituents that representations are made in this place about the safety of our roads, and I commend him for doing that. I also praise Bob Stewart for his immensely passionate and informed speech; I am grateful to him for his expertise in that area. My hon. Friend Fleur Anderson mentioned the Putney Scrubbery; my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins and I were able to deliver scrubs to the Luton and Dunstable Hospital that were produced in her constituency.

We know that these last two years have been incredibly dark times, but I always think that we must look for the light in the darkness, and that is what I want to focus on today. One of the darkest times has already been mentioned by many Members on both sides of the House, and that is what we saw in August in Afghanistan. Sixty-nine families in Luton North contacted me and my team, desperate to get members of their family, their loved ones, their friends, to safety. We were able to get some people back home, but not all. I echo, and put on the record my support for, all the calls that have been made from across the House for the Afghan resettlement scheme to get started and for those people to be given hope in the darkest of times.

I want to start where many Members finished their speeches, by thanking my team, who worked 24/7 to get people back home to safety and to give them hope. Now my team are asking for details about the Afghan resettlement scheme so that they can pass that hope on to the people who remain in danger in Afghanistan. I thank Mohammad Qudri, Francis Steer and Georgia Marcantonio—members of my team. We all know we cannot do our jobs without them. I want to put on record a special thanks to Jamie Ali, whose last day it is working for me. Jamie has worked for nearly four years for different Members of Parliament, and he embodies everything you would ever want in a member of your team—diligent, hard-working, caring, and incredibly smart. I hope that at some stage we can tempt him back into the world of politics.

As I said, this is a focus on the light. In what has been the worst possible year for many, we have seen the best of some of our people, and that is incredibly true of the people of Luton North. They are people who step up when the Government step back; people in organisations like Discover Islam, Luton Town football club and Sundon Park Baptist church, who provide breakfast boxes for our community—for our children. They went above and beyond to ensure that no one went without over the past year. But what country have we become when we have to rely on these fantastic charities to feed children to ensure that they do not go hungry to school? I praise incredibly loudly, and I am shamelessly proud of, the fantastic community spirit of the charities and organisations that we have in Luton North, and the hard work that they do, but it should not be up to charities and good will to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society do not go without.

I get to meet those children every day I go to a school, an early years centre or a nursery, where you not only get covered in glitter but get challenged and questioned about the decisions that we all take in this place by young people who are concerned about their future. I am so pleased to say that we have an award-winning team from Chantry Primary School—the green team, who are tidying up their community, not just for themselves but for future generations to come.

Many small businesses have joined in the charitable work that went on over the past year to help to feed children in Luton North when the Government said no to feeding children during school holidays. We have countless small businesses. We recently celebrated Small Business Saturday nationally. About a year ago, I started visiting small businesses across the town, and I decided that there are enough fantastic small businesses in Luton North to do that every single Saturday, so since then I have been doing that, promoting their fantastic work, diversity, ingenuity and innovation. We should be backing them. I am so proud that Labour has put forward measures to really back small businesses. People say that they are the backbone of our British economy, so we must show that they are. We must praise them and give them the credit and support that they deserve.

There are fantastic charities such as Age Concern. We all talk about the isolation that we felt. I am so pleased to be back in this place, and to be able to go and do visits and see people face to face. Zoom many have been very useful, but my goodness, it is very miserable being sat behind a screen. We all do this job because we love people. But imagine if that was your only lifeline or if you did not even have that. Organisations and charities like Age Concern in Luton have been going above and beyond in making sure not only that nobody went without but that nobody went without a conversation, because that is such an important lifeline to so many.

Active Luton was one of the most fun and energising events that I went to. It had activities for children throughout the school holidays. I did not really imagine when I took on this role that I would be playing dodgeball with a bunch of children and having numerous balls thrown at me, but I think that they were even more shocked that a Member of Parliament threw the balls back. The children definitely won.

I also never imagined that I would be joining the Luton Lions for a 10 km race, but they were very persistent and it was for a very good cause. I also did not think that we would be doing it in a torrential downpour. I want to put on record my thanks to every person who was involved in that race. There were marshals, organisers and runners, and there were also people clapping and cheering us on from their homes and their windows and even from underneath their car boots, taking shelter from the rain. That is the kind of community spirit we have in Luton to get people through and bring them together to raise money and support fantastic organisations such as the Curry Kitchen.

Covid affected everyone. It affected our lives in ways that we could never have imagined, but it is true to say that people who are poorer or from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background were more likely to be affected. Over the past two years, the inequality that has been allowed to run rife throughout our country has been exposed for everyone to see, and it is on us to ensure that that does not continue. Alongside that inequality, we have also seen an increase in hate crimes, especially during the pandemic. I have had constituents write to me about the increase in the Islamophobia and Sinophobia. I was interested to listen to the earlier debate about the Online Safety Bill, and I would like the Government to bring forward measures to ensure that online hate crimes and racism are tackled in legislation.