"I could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching. I should have thought the saving of souls a sin, if it had not been done in a church".
We sit here now very much in our own place of worship, closeted away from the outside world. We talk between ourselves, quoting statistics and observing our customs, yet often, like Wesley, we seem hesitant to reach out into the local communities and neighbourhoods that matter and to understand the language that ordinary people speak. As a new Parliament, we have the opportunity to make ourselves relevant, to restore people's faith in us and to create a new relationship with those who need our help-a relationship that looks outwards, rather than inwards.
Over the past few days, I have sat through many speeches, many of which have been excellent. That is testimony to the talent that many hon. Members bring to the House. However, I have been struck by how many hon. Members opposite have felt the need to blame the present problems facing our nation on the events of the 1980s. What we need is not a history lesson, however inaccurate. The past, whatever our respective views upon it, will not provide us with an answer. We need to look forward and to understand that now, in this the second decade of the 21st century, we still do not have all the answers and solutions needed to tackle the desperate poverty still afflicting many areas of our nation.
We will only begin to find these answers if we begin to seek to ask the right questions: how is it that, despite billions of pounds spent, in the past 13 years, the gap between the richest and the poorest has widened? How is it that, despite the state taking an ever interfering role in the lives of local neighbourhoods and communities, local people feel increasingly powerless over the decisions
that matter in their own lives? And how is it that those men and women who once believed proudly in the value of work and the life-affirming capacity that it brings are being forced to stay at home and claim benefits for fear of losing the welfare on which they have become dependent?
It is clear that the state and its money are not always the best solution. Poverty cannot simply be measured in pounds and pence. Those in desperate need cannot be measured by a line on a graph. Each has their own problems and concerns that cannot be met unless we, in the tradition of Whitefield and Wesley, reach out beyond our confines and not just listen, but hear, what they have to say. I do not have an answer to the complex problems that I know the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) will attempt to tackle. I merely know that the direction of the previous Government has not worked.
"Press forward. Do not stop, do not linger in your journey, but strive for the mark set before you."
Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I am grateful to the House and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to speak here for the first time. I have listened carefully to the debate, and I extend my congratulations to the hon. Members who have made varied, interesting and eloquent speeches.
This is the first maiden speech by a Member for Erith and Thamesmead, as my predecessor, John Austin, made his maiden speech, in 1992, as the Member for Woolwich, before my constituency was formed for the 1997 election. John Austin is a man who served his community for more than 40 years, first as a councillor, and then as mayor, leader of the council and, in this place, Member of Parliament. During his time here, he took up many causes, fighting tirelessly against injustice and, in particular, for women's rights. I commend especially the work that he did in the Council of Europe on human trafficking. John Austin is one of the handful of men I have met whom I could truly call a feminist.
Like many other urban areas, Erith and Thamesmead has a long and proud multicultural tradition. It is an area where people come to settle. One of our primary schools is called Windrush, in honour of those who came from the West Indies in the '50s and '60s to help Britain rebuild after the war. Many Vietnamese boat people also put down roots in the area in the 1970s. Erith is also the place where Alexander Selkirk, the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe, landed in 1711, when he returned home after many years on a desert island. My constituency is truly a place of homecomings. Over the past decade we have also had a fast-growing African community, which has settled here and intends to make the area its home-so much so, that during the forthcoming World cup, I am sure that the people in that community will be cheering just as loudly for England as they will be for their native Nigeria or Ghana.
The area also consists of places such as Abbey Wood, Belvedere, Lesnes Abbey and Plumstead, where during the late 19th century we had a wonderful football club
named Woolwich Arsenal. The team played there until just before the first world war, when Woolwich was dropped from the name and they moved north of the river. I am not quite sure what happened to the club after that. In the north of the constituency, we boast a grade I listed building that has been described as
"A masterpiece of engineering-a Victorian cathedral of ironwork,"
which is a lovely way to describe the Crossness sewage works. Crossness houses the Victorian beam engines, which have been lovingly restored by the Crossness Engines Trust, a registered charity that since 1987 has overseen the restoration project.
In the mid 19th century, Crossness was part of the visionary work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built the London sewer network that cleaned up London and wiped out the cholera epidemics that had previously killed hundreds of Londoners every year. It is ironic that Sir Joseph's great grandson is Peter Bazalgette, the TV executive who brought the phenomenon of "Big Brother" to Britain. Whereas Sir Joseph spent much of his life trying to get rid of unwanted waste from the homes of the nation, some might say that his great grandson has done quite the opposite.
I have lived in Erith and Thamesmead for more than 30 years. As for my political motivations, the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) said that she was inspired to enter politics by Mrs Thatcher, and I have to say that I was too, albeit for what I imagine were completely different reasons. I was born in 1955, a child of the welfare state. That welfare state helped my family and millions of families like us to have opportunities that previous generations could only dream of: a free health service; a right to education; and a national insurance system that people pay into when they do not need it, but which is there when they do. The welfare state gave me a ladder, which I fully used and which, in turn, has enabled my two daughters to achieve their full potential.
All those things were Labour developments of which I am proud, just as I am proud now of Sure Start, the future jobs fund and the national minimum wage, which are all key building blocks in the fight against poverty. If there is to be dignity in work, poverty pay has no place in the 21st century. In my previous career, tax, national insurance and the national minimum wage were my fields of expertise. I came across no end of imaginative ways that employers would try to get around paying the minimum wage, but who really pays when business pays poverty wage rates? It is the rest of us-the taxpayers-who pay, subsidising the low-paid through the benefits and tax credit systems, while the employers pocket the profit. As we have heard here today, the best way out of poverty is through work, but it must be work that pays a living wage.
Now is a crucial time economically. The economy is beginning to grow and borrowing is falling. To put that at risk by cuts to the public sector and to job opportunities places us in grave danger of having a double-dip recession. Anyone who, like me, has sat in a jobcentre week after week will know that cuts to services such as the future jobs fund will cut not waste, but opportunity, hope and life chances.
The coalition seems to promise so much change, yet its cuts preclude the change that my constituents need. Indeed, the only change the coalition will bring to Erith
and Thamesmead is a change for the worse, by cutting the jobs programme, which, along with Sure Start and the national minimum wage, has brought the first effective reduction in poverty in Erith and Thamesmead for a generation.
I know that the job of government is to govern for all the people, not just for those I consider to be my natural constituents. Contrary to some, however, I believe there is such a thing as society and no matter what people's income or voting tendency, we all live within it. Policies that help the weak, the vulnerable, the unemployed and the disadvantaged thus add to the quality of life of all of us. There is no point at all in paying less tax if someone lives a life with bars on their windows and a personal alarm in their hand.
I also understand that government is about making tough choices. Life is about tough choices, but by tough, I mean strong and durable, not cruel or severe. It is vital for the recovery that we keep people in work. Unemployment reduces national wealth and tax revenues. To insist that we protect jobs is not socialist sentimentality; it is economic common sense.
People in Erith and Thamesmead earn below the average wage and have higher unemployment. One of the reasons for that is that their transport connections are poor. Thamesmead was built in the 1960s and the Jubilee line was meant to run there, but that never happened. Thirty years later, there are 30,000 residents without a station. West of Tower bridge, there are 24 crossings and to the east, just two Victorian tunnels, a ferry and a toll bridge at Dartford. It is not difficult to see that that makes accessing the work and business opportunities in the city all the more difficult for people who live where I do.
I am pleased that the London Mayor and I seem to agree on something, which is that the Abbey Wood line of Crossrail must go ahead. People living in Thamesmead can see the bright lights of the city three miles across the river, but to get there they must travel by foot, by bus, by train and by the docklands light railway, and it takes over an hour-the same amount of time it takes the business traveller from Paris or Antwerp to get to City airport, flying close over the heads of Thamesmead residents.
The people of Erith and Thamesmead are not without pride or without aspiration. They band together to run voluntary and community groups: they run local history projects, they clean the canals, they mentor young people, they serve meals at the pop-in parlours and they help the disadvantaged and elderly through their temples and churches. They are a true coalition, a coalition of the willing who just want to be given a chance.
Finally, I would say that a place such as Thamesmead will be a test of the Prime Minister's big society. This is the big society that is meant to re-localise the economy, re-capitalise the poor and re-democratise power. If the big society is to mean anything other than a slogan, the Government need vision-and a vision of a cross-capital rail link is vital not only to the economy of London, but to that of the UK as a whole. The vision of a living wage, upgraded year on year, is vital to the fight against poverty. I hope to be a strong voice for Erith and Thamesmead residents, making sure that they are able to access the opportunities that should be available to them, living in the south-east corner of a world-class city.
Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate you on your new post, and I congratulate all other Members who have spoken for the first time this afternoon.
I have listened to a number of maiden speeches over the last two weeks, in which a number of Members have wisely mentioned their local press. I would like to follow suit. In the week that followed the election that saw the constituency of Warwick and Leamington change hands for the first time in 13 years, the front page of our local paper kindly announced that a cat had been rescued. I shall display this front page in my new office to reassure me that there are issues of great importance that happen outside this House.
I want to take this opportunity to praise my predecessor. He was an honourable Member who developed a great reputation for being an outstanding constituency MP. I hope to follow his example, and I wish him well for the future. In his maiden speech 13 years ago, he observed that Members had heard little or nothing about our constituency for the past 75 years. He offered a quick briefing, and I wish to continue that tradition.
My constituency is steeped in history, from the magnificent castle in mediaeval Warwick to the elegance and splendour of our spa town of Leamington. We have a third and important town in Whitnash, and an array of Warwickshire villages with all their charm. We are diverse in age, ethnicity, occupation and belief, and we have a great deal to be proud of. We have excellent front-line services, outstanding schools, and a large population of students studying at the well-respected Warwickshire college and University of Warwick. We have household names and independent retailers. We have Aga Rangemaster, Calor Gas, National Grid and Wolseley, with its sustainable building centre. We have agriculture and manufacture. We are an oasis of opportunity. We are middle England, in terms of not only geography but demography. With a fantastic array of charities and voluntary organisations, we are a tightly bound community that has proved time and again that we can unite in challenging times.
As many will know, one name on the list of my predecessors in the House is that of a former Prime Minister, and my constituency has often been referred to as the garden of Eden. A visitor walking down the parade in Leamington, wandering around the marketplace in Warwick or driving along the Myton road, which connects the two towns, might be forgiven for thinking that we do live in a paradise, and very wonderful it is too.
However, as with all constituencies, not everyone in our community is as fortunate as a quick tour of our area might lead people to believe. We have a magnificent heritage of industry and manufacture, but the loss of that industry has been a source of rising unemployment and, indeed, poverty. Warwick and Leamington has many pockets of deprivation, and that is why I would rather make my maiden speech in this debate than in any other.
In 2005 the jobseeker's allowance claimant count was 884; it is now 2,166. The story of one of my constituents sums up the unfairness that many see in the current system. Having been made unemployed, she claimed jobseeker's allowance, council tax benefit and housing
benefit. As someone who wanted to work, she did the responsible thing and sought new employment, and after much searching she found a job in a nearby constituency, just over 10 miles away. She earned about £120 for a 20-hour week, and with rent of £30 a week and council tax of £12 a week to pay, she was left £11 a week better off. Unfortunately, travelling to work cost her £18 a week, which meant that, unbelievably, she was made worse off by trying to do the right thing.
At a time when people speak of the need for higher pay and bonuses to attract people in top jobs, surely it cannot be right for people at the bottom to be given no encouragement to move into employment when they see that they will receive no financial benefit from their labours. We need to create new jobs locally. That is easier said than done, but there are reasons for great optimism. Warwick and Leamington has massive potential to attract new and diverse industry and create new jobs, not least in the thriving video games industry and the green economy, which are our particular strengths. Once we assembled parts for the automotive sector. What is to prevent us from using the same skills to assemble solar panels? The seeds of future growth are here, and we must create the environment in which they can flourish.
The example of my constituent shows that it is not a question of people being unwilling to work; those who refuse to work can be penalised for not doing so. It is a question of making it financially beneficial to people who understand the benefits of working in terms of self-confidence, self-belief and social standing. Last Friday, I visited both the jobcentre and the citizens advice bureau. We must do all we can to reduce their work load and to reduce the anxieties that have been brought on by spiralling debt and crushing welfare dependency.
I am aware of the enormous expectation that the people of Warwick and Leamington have of our new Government and of me as their representative in this place. I know that our Prime Minister is as ambitious for the country as I am for my constituency. What better way to start realising that ambition than by reforming the welfare system and creating the big society that the Prime Minister has spoken about-a fairer society in which those who can work have the opportunity to do so and those who cannot get the help they need?
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): It is a real privilege to follow the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), whom I congratulate on his maiden speech. I congratulate him also on his real and obvious passion for tackling the problems of poverty that still exist in this country, as that is a passion I share.
I wish to draw attention to a series of decisions that have been made by the Government that are either very serious mistakes or a damning indictment of their commitment to tackling poverty that we heard earlier. Before I came to the House, I worked in the children's charity sector. Many charities such as Barnardo's and Save the Children are still, despite a great deal of Government support and intervention, grappling with the terrible problem of child poverty. The roots of that problem run very deep, as we have heard. I want to draw attention to one issue in particular that I think has been overlooked.
Many of the children who are growing up in poverty have parents who work, as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington has discussed. If we are serious about tackling poverty, we have to make work pay. Will the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), consider adopting a living wage policy in her Department and urge her colleagues across government to do the same? Will she also commit to making sure that we have a definition of a living wage outside London in constituencies such as mine where people are also really struggling and would benefit strongly from such a policy?
I want to talk a little about the households living in poverty in which people have not worked for generations. Many hon. Members have talked about this today. We have heard a lot about the legacy that this Government inherited when they took office, but what about the legacy left to the Labour Government? Young people who left education in the 1980s and 1990s and were unable to find work have since had children who have grown up in households where nobody has ever worked. I know that because I have seen it on the front line in my work for the Children's Society. Supporting families to change that situation takes time.
I am concerned by what we have been hearing about the Sure Start programme. One reason why Sure Start has been an important innovation is that it unites families from across the social spectrum. It brings children and their parents into contact with other children and their parents right across the income scale. It helps to build confidence for that reason without any of the social stigmas that can become attached to services that are reserved simply for the poor. I have seen that for myself in the Beech Hill and Ince Sure Start centres in my constituency; it could not be more important to those two communities to have those services that unite people. In his opening remarks, the Minister talked about visiting communities and seeing for himself where people face these challenges. Well, some of us live in them and some of us represent them, and our message to the Minister is that he should not restrict those services but preserve them, as they are hugely valuable to the whole community.
For the same reasons, I also want to discuss the future jobs fund. I have heard today that the Government have, as well as deciding to axe the future jobs fund, announced that £750,000 is to be taken out of the working neighbourhoods fund in Wigan. Together, those two things will cripple my constituency. Despite its relatively short life, the future jobs fund has already brought real benefits to the young people in Wigan. I know that because, yesterday, I received a letter from the chairman of my local Age Concern, writing in a personal capacity. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) referred to it earlier. I shall briefly read out the comments because they do much more justice to his real anger than I can with my words. He says: