Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Tessa Jowell (Baroness Jowell) in the House of Lords on 23 May 2016.
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this debate on the Loyal Address and to be doing so for the first time in your Lordships’ House. I thank the noble Lord for his kind introduction. This place throngs with noble Lords who have for years been my heroes and my heroines, as well as my very dear friends, so it is an honour to be able to listen to their speeches and to learn. What a pleasure to have been able to listen to the valedictory speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, who I think is a woman with more than one more adventure inside her.
I extend particular thanks to my two sponsors, my long-standing and dear noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and my noble friend Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, who has been a heroine of mine for many years and has deserved all the acclaim she has received as a campaigner against racism and for social justice. If only it had not been as a result of such a terrible personal loss. I also thank my mentor and dear noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington. There are so many more to whom I would like to pay tribute, but for the sake of your Lordships’ time and their blushes I will stop there. Of course, I would particularly like to thank all the staff of the House who have been so kind, welcoming and helpful since I arrived here. The doorkeepers, those in the Dining Room and those who welcome guests at the Peers’ Entrance have made me feel so welcome and have been so helpful.
As I was preparing my contribution to the debate today, I consulted my noble friend Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield—who, in turn, recalled asking the late and much-loved Lord Peston in advance of his own maiden speech what happened here. “Gossip and the discussion of ailments”, came the reply. These topics no doubt do get their occasional airing, but I have been so impressed in the short time I have been a Member by the important contribution made by this House in confronting with uncompromising humanity some of the most difficult issues of this time. The campaign led by my noble friend Lord Dubs showed that a confident, optimistic country can indeed distinguish between the fear of a free-for-all in immigration and the chance to give back to a small number of unaccompanied refugee children who have suffered unimaginable trauma their childhood.
Tax credits, support for disabled people and social housing are all causes that will change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. They were all taken up by your Lordships in the short time that I have been a Member. So I would say to the Prime Minister, in the light of the proposals in the Loyal Address, that, however thwarted he may feel by this House, bad and unfair laws are not improved by curtailing the power of scrutiny in this place.
I sat for 23 years in the other place, both as a Back-Bencher and in government. I do not think there was a single day in my 23 years as a Member of Parliament when I did not feel awe at the responsibility of representing 80,000 people and trying to meet their expectations of me. My former constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood, now so ably represented by my successor, Helen Hayes, represents all I most admire about our country—its diversity, the endless ingenuity of its people, their optimism and their belief in the possibility of change. All my constituents, rich and poor, benefited equally from the dedicated staff at King’s College Hospital. Over all those years we campaigned together with community organisations such as the Brixton Soup Kitchen, Centre 70 and 4ALL, along with many others, and with local parents, for secondary schools which are transforming the ambition of young people so often written off.
My own first job was as a social worker in Brixton, tramping the same streets that I was later lucky enough to represent in Parliament and supporting families who had so much stacked against them. I hope that I will never become inured to what poverty smells like, nor forget the look of disappointment in a young person’s face when they realise that the great opportunity of London seems to be for others and not for them. Our new mayor, Sadiq Khan, carries on his shoulders such high expectations from those dispossessed. I congratulate him so warmly on his victory and pledge to help and support him in every possible way to be, as he wishes, the mayor for all Londoners.
The great issue before this country today is, of course, our membership of the European Union—the focus of so much of today’s debate. I devoutly hope that we will remain in it as fully engaged partners, but with the self-confidence to continue to negotiate change. So a vote to remain is not a vote for the status quo. Amid the daily salvos from warring economists and the claims and counterclaims of the partisans, it is too easy to forget that the European Union is a union of 28 nations, in a continent that saw the deaths of 70 million from wars in the last century, that have bound themselves together by common commitments to standards of human rights, rights at work, democracy, the rule of law and peaceful coexistence. We should never take that for granted.
Of course the EU institutions need to be improved. In many ways, this forthcoming referendum is a reproach to their slow response to public concern about this. Of course the EU faces enormous challenges, but we are not alone in wanting to shake up its inadequate institutions. But the founding optimism, its vision and its purpose are noble ones. We should stand up for them. Of course I respect the sincerely held views of those who want to leave, but behind the go-it-alone rhetoric I detect a deep pessimism. Those who wish to make this leap in the dark discount our importance to the rest of the European Union and the fact that our active engagement is a force for stability and good sense. It is a matter of vital national interest and it is a view which betrays a lack of confidence in our own country, in our ability to lead and win the argument for reform.
Personally, I feel I have been here before. When I proposed that we bid for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I was told by all sides, “I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Even if we try, we won’t win. The French have it all sewn up—and, if we do win, we won’t be able to host it properly”. “Best not get involved” was the general advice. Here I pay particular tribute to my dear friends, the noble Lords, Lord Coe and Lord Deighton, who always believed that we could do it and did so much to make sure that we did.
And indeed we did. We did make a world-class venue out of a wasteland. We did inspire our young people not just in this country but around the world through International Inspiration. We did lead the world in sport after sport, and in that summer we found a renewed sense of our national identity, of who we are: self-confident and diverse. I think it took us a little by surprise. In those summer weeks four years ago, to recall Abraham Lincoln, we found,
“the better angels of our nature”.
I hope that in that same spirit the people of this country will renew their commitment to the European Union as an optimistic community of nations in which proud and distinct national identities are also the foundation of collective solidarity and open trade.
What I wish for my country, I wish for my own beloved Labour Party. I hope it can embrace the energy of its new and growing membership, who all share a belief that we should help people achieve more together than they can alone. But my party can do that only when it governs. It fails when it becomes a sect of the elect, turning its back on those who are not true believers, and becoming obsessed with rooting out heresy.
My Lords, I am truly honoured to join you. I hope to be useful and constructive, to learn from you and to offer help where I can. The great Seamus Heaney’s last injunction to his wife was, “Noli timere”—“Do not be afraid”. In holding the Executive to account, in defending a just cause even when it is unfashionable, in defending the weak against the strong and in forging our future proudly and confidently in a prosperous, peaceful Europe—in all these endeavours, we need not be afraid.