Mr. Parmjit Singh Gill (Leicester, South) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I do so with great pride and honour. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the people of Leicester, who have given me the privilege of representing them. When they elected me they sent a powerful message to this country that they want to restore trust in politics and trust in our politicians. It is a challenge for me and for all hon. Members.
Leicester, South was last held by a Liberal Member of Parliament, Ronald Allen, in 1923. It is interesting to note that in the same year, the right hon. Sir Winston Churchill also stood as a Liberal in Leicester. I am therefore honoured to be elected the first Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament in my constituency for more than 80 years. I am further honoured to be the first Sikh Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament in
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British history, and the first Liberal Member of Parliament from a black minority ethnic community for more than 100 years. My victory in July came 112 years after the election in July 1892 of Dadabhai Naoroji, the first British Member of Parliament from a black minority ethnic community, as the Liberal Member for Finsbury, Central. He was known as the "Grand Old Man of India", and both Mahatma Ghandi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah played a key part in his election campaign. They went on to become the leaders of India and Pakistan.
I would not be here today but for the sad and untimely death of my predecessor, the hon. James Marshall MP, to whom I wish to pay tribute. I knew Jim Marshall, who was respected both by his constituents and by hon. Members. In paying tribute, I want to refer to his maiden speech of October 1974, which contains the following words of wisdom:
"Finally, I refer to that section of the Gracious Speech opposing racial discrimination at home and overseas. Those who know Leicester well probably realise that within our city we probably have one of the highest percentage immigrant populations of anywhere in the country, and I should be foolish to deny that there are real social problems. There undoubtedly are, and in the long term they can be solved only by an ample injection of central Government funds, a point which I hope my right hon. Friends will again bear in mind for future reference."[Official Report, 29 October 1974; Vol. 880, c. 180.]
Those were his words 30 years ago. Over time, as the Home Office has resettled more and more refugees in Leicester, there has not been an adequate injection of central Government funds to help with the costs of integrating new communities and Leicester has been left short-funded by millions of pounds in real terms. Like my predecessor, I hope that my right hon. Friends will bear that in mind for future reference.
In my constituency surgeries, I am inundated with people suffering from misery and hardship as a result of immigration rules and long delays by the Home Office in processing casework. That leaves husbands and wives and mothers and children separated and traumatised. That is happening now, with a Labour Government in office, but it was equally the case when we had a Conservative Government.
I am proud to say that I was born in the constituency that I now represent, in the royal infirmary. It has a significant problem with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is one of three city hospitals, and more than 5,000 people are waiting for much-needed operations. I shall fight hard to put patients first and help cut the unacceptably long waiting times. Many of those patients are older people. Leicester, South contains more than 14,000 people of pensionable age, who are a particularly vulnerable group. Not only must they suffer the indignity of poor pensions and face the long-term prospect of paying for personal care and unfair council tax, but more recently they have the added difficulty in my constituency of travelling to find a post office, following the inconsiderate closures that took place despite strong opposition from the local community and the Liberal Democrats.
My constituency also contains two large universities, De Montfort and Leicester. The city's educational strength is a major attraction, with approximately 40,000 students making up about 14 per cent. of the city's population. Students from more than
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100 countries are enrolled at Leicester university, which has Britain's only five-star rated research facility in genetics. It was the birthplace of DNA fingerprintingor profiling, as it is now knownwhich is an invaluable tool in the fight against serious crime. That is in sharp contrast to the proposed national identity card scheme, which relies on untested new technology and is unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. However, it will cost in excess of £3 billion, money that would be better spent on the police service, which is already warning that it may have to cut police officers due to a lack of central Government funding.
Forty years ago, the textiles industry employed 140,000 of Leicestershire's population of some 800,000. It now employs around 28,000 people, and that figure is expected to halve by 2012. The industry, in which my mother, Gurdev Kaur Gill, worked for much of her life, has declined catastrophically. De Montfort university has played an active role in helping the local economy to survive the textiles industry's decline by focusing its energies on design and technology-led niches through the innovative business development centre.
However desirable Leicester is as a place to study through its connections to the outside world, this House cannot ignore the fact that undergraduate students face a real and severe financial burden from top-up and tuition fees. Concerned young people repeatedly make that point to me, and I shall continue relentlessly to support them.
Leicester has a population of about 284,000 and is among the 10 largest cities in the country. According to the 2001 census, 40 per cent. of its population belong to ethnic communities other than white British. The city celebrates its diversity, which is reflected in the Government's award of beacon status to Leicester City council in 2002 for its promotion of racial equality and in 2003 for its work on community cohesion. I welcome the proposal to establish a commission for equality and human rights and look forward to examining the detail. In February 2001, The New York Times ran the headline, "British city defines diversity and tolerance". The article referred to Leicester and recognised it as a model for diversity not only in the UK, but throughout Europe and across the world. Leicester was the first city to be twinned with an Indian city.
Those who have settled in Leicester have come from all over the world, and it is home for religious practice for, among others, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, and it contains the only Jain temple in Europe. That is a far cry from the early 1970s, when large Asian populations were evicted from east African countries and when the Labour council placed advertisements in Ugandan newspapers, warning:
Most of all, credit must be given to the majority white population of Leicester, without whose help, tolerance and understanding the great social integration of so many ethnic minority communities could not have taken place. That population has proud roots. Leicester is known as the birthplace of the modern English
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language, which developed there from a mixture of Norse and Anglo-Saxon at the turn of the first millennium. The BBC's nationwide IQ quiz, "Test The Nation", in which 95,000 people took part online, revealed that Leicester folk were the brightest city dwellers. Given my by-election result in July, I can confirm that that is true.
The Leicester, South constituency is also the sporting capital of Britain: Leicester City football club, Leicester Tigers rugby club and Leicestershire county cricket club all have their homes there. It is also at the forefront of initiatives such as "Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football"; and in a survey by Men's Health, Leicester was described as the healthiest place in Britain for men to live.
During the by-election, many hon. Members and political activists from all parties got to know Leicester railway station. At this year's national rail awards, it was highly commended in the "station of the year" category as one of the three best in the country. I was particularly pleased at this accolade for the staff there, who, for over 30 years, included my father, Mohinder Singh Gill.
Leicester, South is a vibrant constituency, and people from the ward areas of Aylestone, Castle, Eyres Monsell, Freemen, Knighton, Stoneygate and Spinney Hills share similar concerns and desires: good education, good housing, locally available health care, a low crime rate and jobs for all. They want a better future for themselves and their children, and they want a concerted international effort to be made on environmental and climate issues. They recognise the principled stance that the Liberal Democrats took against the war in Iraq, and they want progress to be made on the middle east peace process.