Simon Hughes – 1983 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Simon Hughes in the House of Commons on 21st March 1983.

I hope that it is significant that I utter my first words in the House on the first day of spring. The occasion may be doubly significant in that I follow not only to these Benches but in this debate a Member for the borough of Croydon. In 1949 Fenner Brockway wrote a biography of one of my most eminent predecessors, Dr. Salter, whom I believe you met, Mr. Speaker, before you were called to high office or had started on your journey to this place.

The borough from which my constituency takes its name was described by Fenner Brockway in 1949 as a backwater in the life of the metropolis”. I shall deal with the economics of the matter in a moment, but politically one thing seems sure. Not only is Bermondsey no longer a political backwater; it is arguable that today there runs through it the strongest current in British political life. That may be because over many years, and particularly since they have been closed, massive pressure has built up behind the dock gates that have represented the industry and the economy of that part of south-east London, and that pressure has found its escape at last.

In 1884 the Bill to establish separate parliamentary representation for Bermondsey was introduced in the House by the Liberal Adminstration. The issue which concerned the first Member for Parliament for the area was one that is as commonly discussed on these Benches today. It was the issue of electoral reform. Seventy-five years ago my Rotherhithe predecessor, Mr. Carr-Gomm, argued for the representation of workers on the Port of London Authority. The demand for the proper representation of workers on the seat of management has not been heeded as it might have been in the intervening time.

Sixty years ago, in 1923, in an address to the electors of Bermondsey before a campaign that was successful, but—perhaps I know the feeling—not originally expected to be so, a Methodist minister and Liberal candidate, Rev. Kedward said: The enemies are in front of us in plain sight: unemployment, poverty, sickness, bad housing; let us attack them with courage. He continued: There is no easy road to victory over such foes, no magic word which when uttered will banish cares for ever”. In the same year Dr. Salter made his maiden speech, calling for a national minimum wage and decent treatment for the people who start at the bottom of the heap. He said that in a civilised society every worker has a right to a living wage. That has been a principle, though not a practice, endorsed by Governments since then. He added that wages have now sunk for millions of our people below the subsistence level”. I use his words because they are no less appropriate today. He added that it is grossly unfair that the whole burden of that depreciation of the standard of life should be borne, as it is, by one class, and that the most helpless and the weakest class. If the country has to submit to a reduction of the standard of living, that should be universally applicable.”—[Official Report, 7 March 1923; Vol. 161, c. 627–36.] I listened to the Chancellor’s Budget statement last week, and I ask him this: where are the reforms of justice and the social progress of sympathetic and progressive economic management? Why will he not consider giving the security and hope that his long-suffering fellow citizens in the inner cities need to hear from this place? Why could he not promise that they, when qualified adults, would not be left behind in the struggle for survival, and often not just left behind but also left out? Why, after 60 years, could he not ensure that people received a decent minimum wage? If he wants to see a monument to his four years of economic policy, let him come and look at my constituency. The Chancellor’s Budget last week and the examples given by his colleague today reminded me, in a phrase that came to mind last Tuesday, of a Chancellor fiddling while Britain groaned.

My predecessor gave 36 years of distinguished service to the House and for much of that time served all the constituents whom I now have the honour to represent. He was joined in that task for a short time by my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), until my right hon. Friend’s seat was taken away by the process of democracy. In that election, in which my predecessor first stood as a candidate at Rotherhithe, there was one thing in common with my own—his Conservative opponent, like mine, lost his deposit. In a local election in Bermondsey two weeks after my own election, the Conservative vote fell yet again—this time to 3.6 per cent. The message is firm. The deserving people of the inner city are saying loud and clear that they have no trust in the Conservative Government.

In the words of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), there is a rumbling of discontent. I, too, rumble with discontent. I come here to share that anger and discontent. As in the city of Cardiff, which I know well, as do you, Mr. Speaker, and as does the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), male unemployment in my constituency is very high. In Southwark it is no less than 18.6 per cent.; yet the Chancellor holds back for a further seven months the restoration of the unemployment benefit abatement for those who need that money to live. Of all London’s ratepayers, the residents of Southwark pay the highest inner city rates. Non-domestic ratepayers pay 245p in the pound and, as in Cardiff, are daily being driven out of business. The borough has the worst record for empty properties and hard-to-let accommodation of any authority in London. The Opposition can take no comfort in that, as it is the Labour party which is responsible locally.

Just before I took my seat in the House there was a pensioners’ lobby here. One out of five of my constituents was represented by those who rightly came here to ask for a better deal. What do they receive in the Budget? The answer is a mean-minded and ill-timed administrative alteration in pensions that will lose 70p for a single person and 110p for a married couple every week. They receive no help with heating or standing charges and are still penalised if they receive income which is additional to their pension.

At the other end of the age scale, the young, with whom I have worked for a long time in this city, are job-starved, often educationally deprived, having left school before the statutory age, and look with little hope at the future of communities where they want to stay. Therefore, as in the past, they are soon forced out—and will continue to be so, whether it be on bicycles or whichever other form of transport the Government have not seen fit to provide.

Yesterday’s papers told us that the low-paid have lost at least £45 a year in real terms over the period of the past five Budgets. It is no benefit to them to know that people who earn £30,000 now get an extra £3,500 each year.

The economy of the past four years has done nothing for the inner city. That area is as bare, empty and lacking in progress as it was in 1979. Our people refuse to believe that there cannot be a better way. They also refuse to believe that they do not deserve a better way. I hope that I am not arrogant, but I am angry on their behalf. I am not only the newest but I am the youngest Opposition Member of this House. I am here to tell the House what people said by electing me three weeks ago. This waste and mismanagement of our resources, both human and natural, is, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East, not only unacceptable, but immoral too.

The people of Bermondsey and Southwark are, however, spirited and have not yet given up the fight. The spirit that led them to resist some of the worst attacks that the city knew during the second world war has led them, in peace, to resist the destructive attacks of politicians in their turn. However, they cannot resist for ever. They have already been generous. They were generous when my learned predecessor made the mistake of saying that the docks would close only over his dead body. They forgave him for that. They were also generous to the Leader of the Opposition when he made similar statements about an election not many weeks ago. They spared him from that. However, they cannot be generous for ever. They have turned to me and I, above all, now turn to the House to remedy their problems.

William Wilberforce died 150 years ago this year. It was his part as a reformer to liberate the people who were enslaved abroad. At home, Gladstone and Lloyd George followed that tradition, as did others who turned their attention to inner cities where the work was done and where the workers remain. My politics are to be those politics of liberation. I am anxious to liberate our people—those whom I can help—in little ways as we are allowed to do, from enforced idleness, unjustified discrimination and harmful dogma.

I have news for the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). He seems to think, to judge from his comment when I took my seat, that I shall not be here for long. I can tell him this. I shall be here for as long as is necessary to work for those people who sent me here to get them back to work.

I conclude with a quotation from a small guide which my library provides for those who want to know about the history of the constituency which I now have the honour to represent. It says: People are right to be proud to say ‘I am from Bermondsey’. This little area has a great history. In the old times it was the place of Chaucer, Shakespeare and, later, Dickens. It continues: In Victorian times it was at the centre of London’s trade and industry. Later, it took a lead in social reform. Now is a time of change when Bermondsey, like its neigbours in North Southwark and Rotherhithe, awaits new developments. The tide of economic welfare has flowed out far enough and for long enough as well. Although there may be an appropriate analogy between my arrival here and the quiet, timid and, as yet, inexperienced first cuckoo of spring, I hope that the Government will listen and learn that it is still not quite too late to turn the tide and to come to the rescue of the people who, at the moment, are beached and waiting for help.