My Lords, it is with the greatest of pleasure that I speak to you for the first time today, having had the honour of joining your Lordships’ House. Noble Lords from all sides of the House have given me the warmest of welcomes, for which I am most grateful. It is a particular joy to become reacquainted with former colleagues of all parties from the other place, as well as noble Lords with whom I have worked in different parts of my life and career. I thank the staff and officers of the House for their ever-present professionalism, guidance and often literal direction as I get used to this remarkable place. I thank not only those we see in person but those who go about their work behind the scenes to keep the wheels turning, particularly in these times of Covid pandemic restrictions and requirements.
I was advised early on to put aside all that I know about the ways of the other place. I am secure in the knowledge that, should I transgress, I will be gently and firmly put back on track to the way of the Lords. At my introduction, I was blessed to have as my supporters my noble friends Lady Smith of Basildon and Lord Knight of Weymouth, with whom I served as an MP. I am grateful to them for ensuring that a newly ennobled heel did not catch in the hem of robes that your Lordships will recognise as somewhat tricky to negotiate.
My mother’s advice, so as not to offend, was never to talk about religion or politics. However, we can safely say that I have made an art form of talking about both subjects, as evidenced throughout my career as a local government officer in Derby enhancing the lives of those on benefits, as a senior union official speaking up for low-paid, part-time women workers across the east Midlands, and as MP for Lincoln for 13 years, during which time I served as a senior Government Whip and as a Minister in five departments. As Minister of State for Public Health, I was particularly proud to legislate to protect young people from cancer and to pioneer anti-smoking legislation and practical help to support better health for children and the hardest to reach.
I have also had the privilege to serve as chief executive of the esteemed representative body of the Jewish community, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. My parents grew up in the East End as children of Jewish immigrants forced to flee to Britain by pogroms that murdered Jews and destroyed communities. I reflect, with feeling, that if my grandparents, who I was born too late to know, had been told that their granddaughter— not even their grandson—would serve as a member of Her Majesty’s Government, as the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and as a life Peer, they would not have believed it. It would all have seemed too remarkable.
For myself, I could only have dreamed that it would ever be possible to have the honour of a life peerage bestowed on me. My journey to this place, in the very heart of the British establishment, is not one that was expected. I am, as the film says, made in Dagenham. I had opportunities afforded by social housing, education, employment and the NHS—all contributors to a fair and decent society.
Our destiny should be shaped not by the conditions into which we are born but by what can be. We sit in this House with that responsibility on our shoulders. Through my years of public service, I feel I am repaying the debt to this country that gave my grandparents refuge and life for future generations, including my own. I hope that in taking my place in this House, I will do justice to their memories.
I turn to the debate. In my experience, good legislation always hits the target, but regrettably the target of the electoral integrity Bill will be those already on the very edge of our society who find it hard to exercise their democratic right to vote. Anyone who has campaigned in an election will know that the real scandal is the low levels of turnout, particularly among marginalised groups.
I recall a young woman in my former constituency of Lincoln who was embarrassed to say why she would not be voting for me. She confided that she had never voted, because she simply would not know what to do if she were to go to a polling station. How will this unnecessary Bill help her? Adding more hurdles to deal with a non-existent problem will simply drive her further away.
I look forward to making further contributions in this House on matters that speak to the reality of people’s lives, and I thank your Lordships for the patience and support given to me today.