(Maiden Speech) My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to stand before you today for the first time as a Member of this House. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of Members on both sides of this House as they have supported me in taking my seat here. I would also like to thank the doorkeepers who, on various occasions, have found me on red-carpeted corridors going in the wrong direction and have simply turned me around and pointed me back in the right direction. I thank too my noble friends Lord Freud and Lord Farmer, who introduced me to the House as my supporters. I have worked with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for five years in the Department for Work and Pensions, and have known the support of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for eight years at the Centre for Social Justice. I cannot think of two better men to be my supporters and I thank them.
There is a line in the Queen’s Letters Patent to each of us which says:
“I give you a seat, a place and a voice”.
To have a place and be able to sit in this House is nothing short of a privilege, but to have a voice here is nothing short of a responsibility. It is my desire to use my voice in this House to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
I first became convinced that it was possible to see those in poverty completely turn their lives around when I left university—a few more years ago than I care to admit to. I went to live in Hong Kong. I lived in a place called the Walled City, a slum area rife with drug trading and prostitution. I worked with drug addicts to take them off drugs and see them completely rehabilitated. It was not the drug withdrawal process that really astounded me, however: it was the life change that followed—the rebuilding of learning to work again, of family relationships, of learning how to manage one’s finances and deal with one’s mental health problems. This is where the true courage of those who I worked among really lay. This is when I became convinced that true personal change was absolutely possible.
I came back to the UK to see if the same transformation was possible here too. Working with those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions and those with mental health problems, I started a night shelter, then a hostel, then a rehabilitation house and a halfway house back into the community. We saw lives transformed here too and it taught me not to sell anybody short with a maintenance culture, but to support the innate human desire of individuals to fight their way out of poverty and to take every opportunity available to them.
After 17 years of front-line poverty fighting I had built organisations that cared for 50 people for one night and another 50 for another night. But I found that down the road there were another 50—and in the next town another 50, and in the one after that. So I started asking: how do you translate up on to a national level the lessons that we had been learning on a local level?
It was at this point that I met Iain Duncan Smith and founded the Centre for Social Justice, which was all about translating solutions to poverty from local levels up on to a national level. It was about tackling the root causes of poverty and not just the symptoms. If we were to get ahead of the curve and start addressing the real problems, we needed to turn off the tap and not just pick up the pieces. We identified family breakdown, the failure of our education system for the poorest, addiction, debt and worklessness as the key drivers of social breakdown. It started with the understanding that if you are born into a family who love you and care for you, if you go to a good school, do not get involved in drugs or get into debt and have a job, your chances of being poor are really remote. But if one of those drivers turns—you lose your job, say—or a second turns so that you lose your job and get into debt, your life begins to destabilise. If you lose your job, get into debt and experience family breakdown, things become really tough for you. If all five of those pathways reverse, you become entrenched in poverty and without some other external intervention, you are unlikely to see the life transformation which you as an individual long for.
These five pathways, developed at the Centre for Social Justice and informed by front-line poverty-fighting organisations from all over the UK, have become the building block of the Government’s life chances strategy. This is a life chances measure, which is about saying, “Let’s actually tackle the reasons why someone is poor. Let’s support people by removing the obstacles that confront families so that they can take responsibility for their own lives”. It is about saying: let us challenge the risk of future poverty, by narrowing the educational attainment gap, and challenge current poverty by ensuring that children grow up in working households—preferably full-time working households. But let us ensure that the entrenching factors of family breakdown, mental health, serious personal debt and addiction are challenged, too.
Since I arrived in this House I have been deeply moved, in listening to the debates from all sides of the House, by the genuine care, compassion and commitment that exists in this place for disadvantaged people. It is my wish to add my voice and experience to support those who are the most vulnerable, and to ensure that every life chance is given and every obstacle torn down.