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My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this extremely important debate. The tragedy of Grenfell makes us all weep, all the more so because it should not have occurred. However, before I talk about Grenfell, I should like to use my maiden speech to express some thanks.
First, I thank the great staff here in the House of Lords. They are attentive, polite and very helpful. For two weeks now, I have been constantly getting lost around the Westminster estate. A member of the Lords staff said, “Lord Woolley, you look a bit lost. Can I help?” I replied, “Yes, sir. Could you tell me where the Chamber is?” Back came the reply, “Yes, my Lord, it’s behind you”. I also want to thank the police. I met two black police officers, to whom I spoke briefly. I had a casual rapport with them. One said, “Yeah man, respect. It’s good to see another black Lord in the House”.
Equally, I want to thank noble Lords. They have made me feel very welcome in their—now, our—House. I spoke to my noble friend Lord Hogan-Howe before I came in. He was going to leave half an hour earlier but said, “I heard that you are speaking, so I’m going to stay”. That is the type of generosity that I have encountered.
I particularly want to thank my supporters and friends, the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Hussein-Ece, my noble and learned friend Lord Judge, the noble Baronesses, Lady Warsi, Lady Lawrence and Lady Chakrabarti, my noble friend Lord Hastings and the noble Lord, Lord Morris. I follow in their footsteps.
It is also right that I thank the right honourable Theresa May, the former Prime Minister, not only for appointing me to this prestigious role but for having faith in the idea of a race disparity audit. That leadership role has meant that we have established a policy framework that lays bare the uncomfortable truths about racial disparities: the educational underachievement of some white working-class boys and girls; the fact that youth incarceration of black, Asian and minority-ethnic individuals is at a staggering 45%; and the simple fact that too many people of African, Asian and Caribbean origin are born into poverty. All that data has been laid bare, with the former Prime Minister establishing the mantra, “Explain the inequality or change through policy and collaboration”. The model has been applauded by the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said that it is an exemplar framework for migration analysis.
Lastly in my list of thank-yous, I want to thank my mother, who fostered and then adopted me. On the St Matthew’s council estate in Leicester, where we lived, my mum taught me to have good manners and respect, to fight for myself and to fight for others. I think that she knew I would be a disciple of Dr Martin Luther King and Bernie Grant—this is still Black History Month, by the way. They both had a dream but also a plan, and step one of that plan was voter registration. They said, “Don’t ask for justice; demand it. We don’t beg for equality; we vote for it”. That is how we started Operation Black Vote nearly 25 years ago with Rita Patel, Lee Jasper, Dave Weaver, Ashok Viswanathan, Audrey Adams, and Meena Dhobi.
Back then, we had four black and minority-ethnic MPs. Now, there are over 50, with a number of city mayors, many from Operation Black Vote, including Mayor Marvin Rees of Bristol, Lord Mayor Anna Rothery of Liverpool, Tan Dhesi MP, Helen Grant MP, Marsha de Cordova MP and Clive Lewis MP. However, we have also nurtured BAME magistrates— more than 100 who have collectively completed more than 1,000 years of public service. Voter registration was, and still is, our bedrock. You give people a voice by ensuring that they have political power. It is our duty to ensure that we get all our citizens registered to vote and engaging in our democracy. It takes three minutes to register to vote and we should ensure that everybody has a voice.
I hope that noble Lords are getting a picture of what I care about—social and racial justice. My view is that there is potential talent in every street, in every city and in every corner of Great Britain. I put it to the House that it is our task to ensure that there are real pathways for that potential talent to flourish. This is not a zero-sum game, by the way. We all benefit by unleashing talent. We become more creative, more dynamic and more comfortable with ourselves.
Noble Lords should also know that I care deeply about some of the most vulnerable and, often, voiceless in our society. They are the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. Both here and right across Europe they are among the most persecuted peoples. My message—our message—to them must be, “Your struggle is our struggle”.
My other challenge is for us to have an adult conversation about drugs policy. It is heart-breaking to read about young men, many of whom are black, murdering other young men, often in drug gang rivalry. Equally, I am saddened when I hear about those with a drug addiction overdosing when I know that their deaths might have been prevented. If we have an adult conversation—a grown-up discussion—about drugs policy through the prism of public health, I promise that we will save lives, and actually we will save money too, as well as heartache.
My final point concerns the tragedy of Grenfell. We owe it to those who have lost their lives, to the survivors and to the families and friends still grieving, to lay bare the most uncomfortable truths not just around that day but around broader contributory elements, including poverty and powerlessness. This is not a party-political point; I am just imploring noble Lords, from their position of privilege, to give voice to those families. How do we challenge the systemic structural failures?
My final, final point—for today at least—is that we should be a beacon of hope, even more so than we probably are now. More than ever we must rise above what is often the very tribal nature of British politics and seek common ground. Right now, our society and our nation are crying out for leadership: strong, decent and collective.