Patricia Hewitt – 1997 Maiden Speech to the House of Commons


Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Patricia Hewitt in the House of Commons on 3 July 1997.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech during the debate on the Budget. It has been a pleasure to listen to such fine maiden speeches this afternoon. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). Having spent many a pleasant weekend with friends in his constituency, I was sorry to hear that “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” remains disgusted. I hope that he will make good his offer to assist my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer by ensuring that Asda, the company with which he has had such a long association, participates enthusiastically in our welfare-to-work programme.

This is, above all, a Budget for jobs and families, which is why it is being so warmly welcomed in the constituency that I have the honour to represent. I know that my pleasure in this Budget will be shared by my predecessor, Greville Janner, whom many right hon. and hon. Members will remember as an effective Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment.

Greville Janner is remembered and known more widely for his lifelong opposition to racism in all its forms, for his distinguished presidency of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, for his sponsorship of the War Crimes Act 1991, and for his relentless pursuit of the secret repositories of Nazi stolen gold. In the constituency, however, he is remembered above all as an outstanding constituency Member of Parliament.

I remember last year knocking on the door of one elderly woman, who told me most movingly how her grandson had died many years ago in a tragic accident swallowing the top of a biro pen, which, in those days, lacked the tiny hole that would have enabled him to breathe sufficiently to remain alive. It was Greville who led the successful campaign for that safety measure in product standards. It was that sort of campaigning on behalf of his constituents for which not only he but his father—his predecessor in this House—is remembered.

Greville was one half of a unique father and son team, who between them represented my constituency for 52 years. Greville’s father, who subsequently became Lord Janner, did not announce his decision to retire until after the 1970 general election had been called. Greville used to tell the story of his selection with great amusement. He claimed—I am sure quite wrongly—that he was assisted by the fact that the election posters, “Vote Labour, Vote Janner”, had already been printed. I am sure that he would have been selected under any circumstances. He will no doubt forgive me if I say how grateful I am that his son decided not to follow in his footsteps.

I also want to pay tribute to three other outstanding public servants who served my constituency. Councillor Paul Sood was one of the most outstanding fighters for the Asian community, not only in Leicester, but throughout the country. Tragically, he died last year, just a week after being re-elected to serve as the city councillor for Abbey ward in my constituency. It was an enormous loss, but I know how proud he would be to see his widow, Mrs. Manjula Sood, now serving in his place.

All of us in the constituency were sad to hear last month of the death of Councillor Martin Ryan, who for many years was leader of the Labour group on the county council. He served, among other capacities, as the county councillor for the Mowmacre ward in my constituency. Just two days ago, I was also extremely sorry to hear of the death of the former councillor, George Billington, who had only recently retired as my predecessor’s parliamentary agent. I will do my best to live up to the extremely high standards of public service which they and my predecessors have set.

I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) will agree when I say that Leicester is a wonderful place in which to live and to learn. We are Europe’s first Environment City. We are home to two first-rate universities. Many of their students, especially those at De Montfort, live within my constituency.

Although it may distress some right hon. and hon. Members to acknowledge this, now that Leicester holds the triple crown of sporting achievements in football, rugby and cricket, we are indeed Britain’s sporting capital. I am delighted to say that, now that the Millennium Commission has chosen the project for the national space science centre, to be sited within my constituency, as the landmark millennium project for the east midlands, we will shortly be the space capital as well.

Leicester, West is a constituency of captivating variety. It stretches from the old industrial buildings along the banks of the River Soar and the Grand Union canal, which form part of the border of the constituency. It takes in a small part of the city’s old mediaeval centre—although, less happily, we also take in some of the inner-city ring road, built in the 1960s with a distressing lack of sensitivity for that old mediaeval heritage. It extends down the Belgrave road, which marks the border between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, where the red brick cottages of 19th century weavers are now the heart of Leicester’s Asian community, and from there across to the new estate of Beaumont Leys and the longer-settled communities of Mowmacre, Stocking Farm, New Parks and North Braunstone.

I know that residents, especially on those estates, will warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that he would rapidly begin the release of council house receipts, which will make possible desperately needed repairs and renovations to their homes.

Above all, Leicester is rich in its people. We are well known, and rightly so, for our cultural and racial diversity. By the year 2000, half the young people of our city will come from the ethnic minority communities. Leicester is fortunate to be home to many thriving businesses and to a variety of churches, temples, gurdwaras and mosques that are at the heart of the communities they serve. It is home also to a number of theatres, festivals and arts performances from a variety of different traditions.

Like many of my constituents, I am a citizen not only of this country, but of another—in my case, Australia. In this Parliament, I am the only Member also to be an Australian citizen. Like many of my constituents, I know what it is like to have families in two countries, so I know how much many families in my constituency warmly welcomed my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s early decision to abolish the odious primary purpose rule.

I must mention also the parks and open spaces with which my constituency is so richly endowed. Perhaps suitably for Europe’s first Environment City, Western park in my constituency is home to one of the country’s leading green charities and consultancies, Environ, along with the flourishing city farm on Gorse Hill—both of which will, I hope, play a considerable role in creating the environmental task force within the east midlands.

I regret to say, however, that our enjoyment of some of our open spaces is all too often spoiled by the arrival of unauthorised travellers, who themselves have too few authorised sites to which to turn. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be sympathetic to the case that I will be making on behalf of my constituents for a badly needed review of the previous Government’s law and practice in this area, which has proved so disastrous.

Perhaps too often neglected in my constituency and others like it are the outer-city estates. Almost half of my constituents live on such estates. Listening to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State this afternoon, I found myself thinking in particular of families struggling to bring up children in communities where anything up to one in four of working-age men are officially unemployed—and where, in reality, far more are out of work.

Young men all too often turn to destructive or criminal activities, because no creative outlet is offered for their energy. Children are growing up, as one grandmother said to me in fury and frustration, to believe that the only way they can earn a living is to sign on for a giro.

Those are the people whom the last Government locked into unemployment and poverty, and then derided as an underclass. The people I have the privilege to represent are no underclass. They want a chance of a job, a chance to earn a living, a chance to bring up their families decently, to live in safety and to retire with dignity. They want the same respect and opportunity’ as other people. That is what the Budget will begin to give them.

Listening to today’s speech by my right hon. Friend, I thought of Betty, for example, who is a parent governor at Wycliffe community college, which is located on one of the estates in my constituency. Recently, Wycliffe community college was inspected by the Office for Standards in Education. One member of the inspection team asked Betty how the school coped with local parents and with families living on income support—”you know”, he said, “with the underclass.”

Betty said, “I’m one of the people you’re talking about.” She told him, “I live on benefit—not because I want to, but because my husband lost his job and hasn’t been able to get another one, and because we bought our council house, just as the last Government encouraged us to do. Now we find that the only way we can pay the mortgage is to stay on income support.”

Betty left school at age 15 with no qualifications, returned to school, through Wycliffe college, and got herself five O-levels, which in itself is no mean achievement. She would love to train and work as a classroom assistant, and that school would love to give her the job. She cannot take such a job, however, for the simple reason that, as things stand, her family would no longer be able to afford their mortgage. It is such poverty traps, which were created by the previous Administration, that force families such as Betty’s to choose between the job they need and the home in which they live.

I know how much Betty’s family and families in a similar position will welcome the announcements made in the Budget, and today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, about the Government’s welfare-to-work programme and their longer-term objective of creating a benefit system that will at long last reward rather than penalise hard work and effort.

I thought also of Bill, who is a manager at one of the employment projects on a local estate. Bill was a construction worker—a roofer—until he was injured in a fall from the roof on which he was working. He now says, however, that that accident was the best thing that ever happened to him, because it gave him a chance to discover within himself gifts that he did not know that he had. He is now running an employment advice project, into which he has introduced some wonderfully sophisticated software that, with his guidance, enables people who are lacking not only a job but the most basic confidence to start exploring their own real aptitudes and aspirations before taking that first step into training or a job.

Bill said, “I know how hard it is to change. But I also know that people can do it, because I’ve done it myself.” I believe that the Government’s welfare-to-work programme will mobilise community groups such as Bill’s, marrying the bottom-up energy and potential of millions of people across the country to the Government’s top-down strategy and vision.

I thought also of the lone mothers in my constituency who began another group, which they called Turning Point, because that is what it was for them. Originally, those lone mothers met to support one another over a cup of coffee around a kitchen table, but now they are running their own thriving voluntary organisation.

I thought also of the staff and parents—fathers and mothers—who run creches and playgroups that have been starved of funds, sometimes to the brink of closure, because of the previous Government’s local council budget cuts. They are able to offer not only child care places but—in response to yesterday’s very welcome announcement—training places for young unemployed people who wish to work with children.

I am sure that, like me, those parents hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that lone parents under the age of 25 who have spent six months or more out of work and on income support will be able to access the opportunities created by the welfare-to-work programme in the same way and on the same terms as other young people who have been on job seeker’s allowance.

After listening to yesterday’s Budget and to today’s debate, I thought also of the teachers working and living in my constituency. Their dedication was scorned by the previous Government. Our new unitary council shares the new Government’s determination to ensure that all our children have a chance to fulfil their potential, whether they live in inner cities, in suburbs or on outer estates.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not be at all surprised if I say that several Leicester schools—including Dovelands junior school and Bendbow Rise infant school, which is in my constituency, and recently did its best to celebrate an anniversary while the rain poured in through the roof—will be early in the queue for the very welcome new capital funding and private finance initiative announced yesterday.

Finally, I thought of the hundreds of women and men, many of whom are retired, who are now volunteers in so many community organisations, such as social clubs, youth sporting groups, children’s bands and other organisations. I thought also of the sometimes wholly unrecognised individuals who, in their own homes, are looking after children and other relatives with profound disabilities. Our social fabric is woven from all their efforts.

Those men and women, and many others like them, are the heroes and heroines of my constituency. They and thousands of other people across the country will be the heroes and heroines of the new Britain that we were elected to build, and for which the Budget lays such a magnificent foundation.