My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak for the first time in the House. I understand that it is customary in one's maiden speech to say how warm and welcoming the House is. However, I think I took that reputation a little too literally. Soon after I was introduced I entered the Chamber on my second day and cast around for somewhere to sit. I saw no one on the Labour Benches who I recognised. Sensing my rising panic, the right reverend Prelates on the Bishops' Benches smiled at me with encouragement. I mistook that for an invitation to sit with them. No sooner had I sat down than they all rose to their feet with a speed of which I did not think them capable.
Clearly, the Church of England in recent years has undergone much modernisation, but I think that a woman Bishop, certainly of the Catholic variety, was a step too far. However, I am sure all noble Lords will want to join me in congratulating them on the recent appointment of John Sentamu as the new Archbishop of York. We wish him well in his mission.
It is a great honour for me to serve in this House. For nearly all my adult life I have worked at the other end of politics, trying to make the Labour Party electable and then to get it elected. My ambition went no further than wanting to see Labour win and then be re-elected for a second term. I cannot tell noble Lords how pleased I am that that narrow ambition has now been surpassed.
Before I entered this House I was General Secretary of the Labour Party. Now that I have arrived in this House I am pleased to see that I am not alone. Indeed, with the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Sawyer and Lord Triesman, on these same Benches, I am somewhat concerned that now that we have replaced hereditary peerages, ex-general secretaries of the Labour Party now form the largest grouping.
I am also pleased that my sister is here today to witness my first speech. She comes from another place. I should like to tell noble Lords that that is something our parents have known all along. It was a great thrill for me to see her first elected in 1997 and then re-elected in 2001 and 2005. I was recently told that this is the first time that two sisters have sat in each House respectively. We both believe that this has nothing to do with our talents but has a great deal to do with the progressive policies of the Labour Party in increasing the number of women representatives. We consider that that has enhanced public policy making in recent years.
As noble Lords will know by now, I am very proud of the Labour Party—a party I joined while still at school—and of what the Labour Government have achieved in the past eight years: economic efficiency coupled with social justice. I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the House agree that economic stability, low inflation, low interest rates, decreasing unemployment and rising standards in schools are all great achievements. However, one common theme in all these achievements is that they match the concerns of those we seek to serve. What we discuss in these Houses is what the public discuss at home. Unfortunately, that cannot be said for our European institutions. They seem to be unresponsive to public opinion and to speak a language that is not understood by the public in any of the member states.
I am proud to call myself a European; the vision of the EU is one with which I strongly agree. We all understand that with globalisation we rely on one another more than at any time in our history. But before you can begin to rely on any individual organisation or institution, you must be able to trust them and to have confidence in them. To make the decision about whether we can do that, we all have shortcuts. We ask ourselves—how will they react at times of crises? Do they run from difficult decisions? Will they reform and modernise if required? The public, not just in our country but recently also in France and the Netherlands, have come to the conclusion that the EU is not ready to take difficult decisions. Its failure to find a permanent European Parliament in one city is just one decision that it has failed to make. Consequently, trust in the euro and in Europe in general is now at a low ebb. Those are the symptoms, not the cause of the problem. For example, the problem of high unemployment in many member states is not the euro, but it is failure to reform.
The euro was introduced at a time and in economic circumstances that were not appropriate for Britain. That is why we chose not to enter in the first phase. I believe that was the right decision by the Government, and I also believe that the tests of when and whether we join the euro are right. I know that they will be applied rigorously by the Government. That is the minimum of what is expected of us by hardworking families, whose lives we know we can hurt if we make the wrong decision. As Pope Pius XI said:
"Economic power is headstrong and vehement, and if it is to prove beneficial to mankind it must be securely curbed and regulated with prudence".
I thank noble Lords for this opportunity to speak, and I look forward to participating in future debates.