The maiden speech made in the House of Commons by Anna Firth, the Conservative MP for Southend West, on 10 May 2022.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey). I hope the eloquence with which he made his speech is infectious. It is also a pleasure and a privilege to speak in the same debate as the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). He is sadly not here, but I had hoped to tell him that he sets a fine example and that I am looking forward to addressing this place in 2070.
It is the honour of my life to be the first MP to be elected for the new city of Southend—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Yet I will never forget that the circumstances that brought me here are truly horrific. Sir David was, and remains, a legend across the whole of Essex. An outstanding MP for Basildon for 14 years and for Southend West for a further 24, quite simply, Sir David embodied all that is good about our parliamentary democracy. He had a gift for building bridges across this House, and I think everybody here misses his decency, his kindness, his smile and his wicked sense of humour.
Here in Westminster, it is already obvious to me how easily one could become disconnected from normal life and from the constituents we serve. Yet in nearly 40 years as an MP, that never happened to Sir David. He always remained absolutely dedicated to the people he represented. From his successful private Member’s Bill on fuel poverty—still relevant today—to eliminating cruel tethering, Sir David championed causes close to his residents’ hearts: animal welfare, the incredible Music Man Project, endometriosis and, of course, making Southend a city.
There are others I would like to mention. The life of an MP is clearly demanding, but there are rewards and recognition that go with that. One group of people, however, share many of the pressures of our journey, but little of the recognition. So I want to pay tribute to Lady Amess and her five children. No one—I repeat, no one—has paid a higher price for our democracy than they have. As we continue on with our lives, theirs have been shattered forever. The dignity, love and spirit of reconciliation that they have shown has been an inspiration to me, and I know the whole House would wish to join me in telling them that their sacrifice and their contribution to our democracy will also never be forgotten. I would also like to pay tribute to the other mainstream parties, which chose not to contest the by-election, proving once again that attacks on our democracy will only ever bring us closer together.
Southend West is a wonderful constituency, containing award-winning beaches, the earliest recorded woodland in Essex, an international airport, nationally important wetlands and the beautiful town of Leigh-on-Sea, where I was born and love living. Arrive from London by road, turn right towards the sea and there spread out before you is, in my opinion, the most captivating view in the south-east. It is the view that Admiral Blake would have seen in 1652 when he bought the crippled English fleet back from the Anglo-Dutch war to Old Leigh for refitting. Spurning instructions to go to Medway, Blake knew then what we all know now: the only way is Essex. Two months later, Blake left Old Leigh with the biggest and best equipped fleet the nation had ever set to sea.
There is much more: delicious shellfish and cockles are still fished daily in my constituency; and our picturesque high streets sport a wealth of independent businesses, including the internationally renowned Rossi’s ice cream and the best fried doughnuts in the country. It is no wonder that The Times recently announced Leigh-on-Sea as one of the best places to live in the country, proclaiming it:
“fresh air and funkiness in buckets and spades”.
We also have a very proud tradition of sea bathing in Southend West. Indeed, we have had the largest collection of historic swimwear in the country. Changing facilities, however, have always been controversial. Historic reports from the 1900s detail men not queuing for bathing machines, choosing instead to rummage around in Mackintoshes to get changed. Men who performed this “indecent act” were fined five shillings, with the last man prosecuted in the 1950s. In court, he was told, “Surely it is time to give it up”. Purportedly, he replied to the judge that if he did not mind, he would, “Stick it out for a little longer.”
There is, of course, much more to Southend West than our beautiful seafront. Containing internationally significant heritage sites such as the Saxon “Prittlewell Prince” burial, a stunning medieval monastery, the 17th-century London shipwreck, Chalkwell’s famous rose garden and the Palace theatre, which previews many west end shows, Southend is absolutely worthy of being the UK city of culture in 2029.
Here we go!
My hon. Friend may think that calls for Southend to be a city have finished, but I can tell her that they have only just begun.
What makes Southend truly special is its people; they are positive, talented, hard-working and entrepreneurial, and I am so proud to represent them. Give a Southender a lemon and you will not just get lemonade; you will get limoncello, because Southend West is home to Tapp’d, an international cocktail success story, started in the founder’s kitchen during lockdown.
As a Conservative, I believe in equality of opportunity. After wartime service, my grandfather worked for Southend general post office for over 25 years. My grandmother was a dinner lady. Above all, they valued education. My mother, Dr Margaret Garrett, went to Westcliff High School for Girls. That was the making of my mother and of my family. I am delighted that they are here today, including my wonderful husband, Edward, and my son, Piers.
That is why championing Southend West’s great schools, including our world-beating grammar schools, is so important to me. It is also why I welcome this Queen’s Speech, with its commitment to turbo-charging school standards and school attendance, and to a register to ensure that we do not have invisible children in the system and that we have greater safeguarding and fairer funding. Ensuring that every child in our country receives a quality education is the only way to achieve true equality of opportunity for all.
That must apply to healthcare, too, which is why I also welcome this Government’s commitment to the NHS. Every 45 minutes a man dies of prostate cancer in this country, including my own father 18 months ago. His treatment by the NHS was exemplary, but there are now new and better ways to treat prostate cancer, particularly earlier screening. That is why I will be a loud voice for the brilliant Southend charity Prost8 and its ground-breaking work in this area.
As Disraeli once said:
“You could not have a softer climate nor sunnier skies”
than at Southend. I cannot hope to replace my predecessor, but I can promise to work hard every day to make the new city of Southend a beacon of enterprise, unity, kindness and opportunity.