Watch Thangam Debbonaire’s maiden speech in Parliament!
Thank you for calling me to make my maiden speech, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Vale of Clwyd (James Davies) and for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on making their maiden speeches. I am sure that everyone present will join me in congratulating them on their most heartfelt and eloquent statements of commitment to their constituents and constituencies.
Members will not be surprised to hear that I too am rather proud of my constituency, Bristol West, but I will begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Stephen Williams, for his diligent service to Bristol West and his constituents. I was particularly impressed by his commitment to equalities, human rights and fair trade, causes for which we both share passion. I wish him well in the future.
I would like to go further back and thank Valerie Davey, who was elected Member of Parliament for Bristol West in 1997. Her work in helping to establish the education maintenance allowance transformed the lives of thousands of young people, helping those from low and modest income families who would otherwise have found it difficult to manage financially to stay on at school or college. Sadly, this has now gone.
Even further back is Mr William Waldegrave, who was lobbied by many in Bristol West, including me, to take a stand in Parliament against the provisions in section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned what was then called “promoting homosexuality” in schools. This hated provision held schools back from supporting and protecting many young people, to the detriment of their mental health. To his credit, Mr Waldegrave listened to us, his constituents, and he acted in this place. As he was, as I am now, privileged to represent Bristol West, a constituency with a significant proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, I commend him for so doing.
My most famous predecessor, however, is of course Edmund Burke. A favourite quote attributed to him is that
“All that is required for evil to flourish is that good men do nothing.”
This quotation cannot be fully verified as Burke’s own words, and I hope that during my time in this House I, too, should be so handsomely misquoted.
My constituency of Bristol West is wonderful. People are buzzing with activity and activism on causes from gay rights to climate change, from food waste to renewable energy, and of course on the NHS. The vibrancy is palpable in business and enterprise, in creativity and music and the arts, new media and old, innovative restaurants and well-tended allotments. There is street entertainment, street stalls and street art of high quality. Do come to Bristol West, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will take you on a tour of the greatest works of Bansky and co.
Yes, Bristol is a fun city and a festival city, with festivals of one kind and another, from balloons to boats, pretty much every weekend in the summer. Thousands of people walk the streets for the sheer pleasure of looking around, and looking around is indeed a pleasure. From any stroll around my constituency of Bristol West, with listed buildings including Elizabethan almshouses, a well-preserved Norman arch, 17th century Christmas steps, John Wesley chapel, Brunel’s Temple Meads station and his suspension bridge, any visitor will know they are somewhere special.
Yet we also have poverty—poverty that can be seen in the streets less well-visited. There are rough sleepers. Some have been there so long I know their names. We try to look out for them and we want to see them better off. Others live in hidden homelessness on friends’ sofas, not knowing when they will be rehoused due to a chronic housing shortage and a lack of cash. In parts of Bristol West there is rising child poverty. In one ward, Lawrence Hill, more than half the children live in poverty despite the best efforts of their parents, who struggle to get by on low-paid, part-time or zero-hours jobs. This is shameful. Children growing up in poverty miss out for the rest of their lives. They are more likely to suffer poor health, with damp, unsafe and unhealthy housing, air pollution and other problems all contributing to shorter life expectancy.
As well as poverty, poverty of opportunity affects an entire generation of school leavers, 20-somethings and 30-somethings. These are young people from across the constituency who feel that they cannot get started properly. They tell me of insecure jobs, sky-high rents and little hope. Their parents—whether they are on low incomes or modest incomes, or are better-off—fear for their children’s future and wonder if they will ever have grandchildren. This will store up trouble for our health and social care systems when this generation of young people reach their later years. This is a shocking indictment of the extent to which we do, or do not, share our wealth in this country. In the 21st century we cannot and should not stand by and just wait for things to get better. Things only get better when we act. Why, if the nation gains in wealth, do we not all gain? Why is wealth so unevenly and unfairly distributed? In my time in Parliament, I hope to find out both the answers to these questions and the solutions to the problems, and I will play my part in solving them.
To return to one of Bristol’s most famous sons, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and his suspension bridge, if one stands on the bridge in a howling gale one can feel it move. Engineers tell me that this is safer than a rigid structure which would sooner or later snap. But Brunel did not know that—he could not be sure. So he over-engineered, just to be sure that all the people crossing the bridge would be safe. This principle, of building safety into a structure, is surely one we should all apply to protecting our health and social care and other public services, and to standing up for all the people in all our constituencies.
My father came to this country by sea in the late 1950s from what was then called Madras and is now called Chennai. My mother, who is here in the Gallery today, came from the working-class end of Oxford. Her parents were trade unionists, co-operators and lifelong Labour activists.
People can measure just how British I am by the fact that—sadly, and in common with so many of us born in this country—the only language I speak fluently is English. But in my constituency in the city of Bristol, 91 different languages are spoken and there are people from 50 or more different countries of origin, a quarter of whom are from black or other minority ethnic backgrounds. I am proud to be the first non-white MP in any of the four constituencies of Bristol.
I bring to this House a quarter of a century of experience in work to prevent domestic violence. I started out as a professional cellist and I have a personal interest in promoting the needs of people on the autistic spectrum. I look forward to contributing these experiences, knowledge and interests to the work of this House. I am proud that I help to bring the proportions of women and people from the global ethnic majority closer to making this place more truly reflective of the country we serve.
I seek to earn the trust of the 126,000 or so people in Bristol West, and to be measured by my contribution to ending poverty, tackling climate change and promoting equality, as well as by how hard I work for the people of Bristol West, who I will work for with care and determination.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your indulgence and I thank this House for its kind attention.