Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the honour of calling me to give my maiden speech, especially on this European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that has dominated our political life for years and will dominate and define our country for a generation or more. There could not be anything more important to speak about.
I start by thanking God, and I start as I mean to go on by thanking the residents of Putney, Roehampton and Southfields for putting their faith in me and for electing me to represent them. I also thank my family for all their support.
I pay tribute to my predecessor Justine Greening, who is held in very high respect for being a hard-working local MP. Many people told me during the campaign and before that she made their issues her own. She championed local causes and, nationally, she championed the cause of social mobility. She represented our views on Brexit, even when it cost her politically. We can always have a few more independent-minded female MPs, and I wish her and the Social Mobility Foundation all the very best.
Putney, Southfields and Roehampton are fantastic places to live and work. We have the best of urban London life, the river and brilliant green spaces. For any new MP looking for their London home, I cannot imagine anywhere better. Please come to Putney.
We have a strong community. We have faith groups, residents associations, great pubs to meet up in and community organisations that bring people together, including—I hope the House will forgive me for indulging a few local organisations—the Putney Society; Regenerate and Regenerate RISE; the Independent Food Aid Network; local food banks; Growhampton—doesn’t that sound fantastic?—Green the Grid; Abundance, which makes cider; the tidy towpath group; the Roehampton cultural centre; the over-60s lunch club in Roehampton; and over 20 rowing clubs and the most famous boat race in the whole world.
I have been running a local community centre for three years, so I know how important and how threatened community spaces are, and I will continue to champion them. Clement Attlee is one of Putney’s most famous former residents. He was born in Putney in 1883, when it was in Surrey, and he went on to be Labour Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. He also went into politics because of his experience running a London community centre, so we have much in common. His Labour Government founded the welfare state—both the NHS and the benefit system—which defines us a country. To this day, it is one of the jewels in our crown, which I will make it a priority to defend.
But the current welfare state is failing families in my constituency. One in three children is in poverty and 30% of families in Roehampton live in overcrowded homes, most of them hard-working families. More than 3,000 children in Wandsworth borough are homeless, living in temporary accommodation. The Alton Estate and Putney Vale include areas that are among the most deprived 10% in the country in terms of income and housing. It is not all about the boat race. Two of the most important marks of the Government’s success or failure in the next five years must be whether they reduce child poverty and end the need for food banks.
Before I turn to the subject of the debate—I know that we are talking about Brexit; I will get there—I want briefly to highlight some important issues for Putney and the country. The first is the environment. This must be the climate Parliament. I have worked with aid agencies around the world, and in Bangladesh I have sat down with communities of women whose jobs, livelihoods and ways of life have been devastated by rising sea water as a result of climate change. It is already happening. I have also met parents, like me, who know that our London children have permanently damaged lungs because of our air pollution. In both situations, it is always the poorest who are most affected. We need urgent action on climate change. We cannot wait five years.
Housing is a major issue. Overcrowding, uncertainty for private renters, leaseholders’ rights, lack of social housing and homelessness must be a priority for the next five years.
Youth services and youth centres are closing across our country. More than 700 have closed in the last nine years. Together with school cuts, that takes away opportunities for our young people. Roehampton youth centre was closed just last summer.
Adult social care is beyond crisis. It came up time and again in all my seven hustings during the election campaign. It needs urgent action. Joining up the NHS and community care services is essential. We do not need just a cross-party wish list, but urgent action. I know that that was in the Queen’s Speech, and we will have to see what the result will be.
The NHS, crime, transport, daily commuter misery, saving our high street, international development and saving the Department for International Development, not merging it with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, are all issues that I will return to in future debates.
And so to Brexit. It was the main issue of the election in Putney: 74% of Wandsworth residents voted to remain—an even higher figure than in Scotland. More than one in 10 constituents in Putney are from other EU countries and are a very welcome part of our community. I believe that Brexit is an act of monumental self-harm. In Putney, I have spoken to people who have burst into tears on the doorstep, not just from seeing me, but because of their heightened anxiety about their rights and status as EU citizens, no matter how many years they have been here. I have met NHS workers who are struggling to cope at work because so many other staff have left and returned to other EU countries, and people whose businesses have been damaged and even closed—and we have not even had Brexit yet. We know the risks. We know that Brexit will not be done for many years, so my mandate to protest against the harm that it will do is certainly not over.
The Government have made big promises over the days of the debate, which I do not believe, given their track record in the past nine years, but I hope they prove me wrong. For a start, there are promises that there will be no regression on environmental standards. We must have a UK version of dynamic alignment on environmental policies. I know that the Government do not want dynamic alignment because it means that we are in hock to the EU, but there must be a UK version, whereby we do not end up with zombie policies and stay backward while the EU moves forward. We must always vie to keep outdoing the EU on climate action. We must phase out diesel and petrol cars, bring in eco-friendly homes and achieve 100% clean energy. I hope that all those policies will be in the upcoming environment Bill. The measure must have teeth to match the European Court of Justice.
There have also been promises that workers’ rights will be retained so that we will not have a race to the bottom. I have worked with countries around the world on trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation and I have seen, time and again, how free trade fails communities and is especially bad for women. We need to know the impact, including the gender impact, of future trade deals.
There have been promises not to have a no-deal Brexit, but we could still face that at the end of the year. We are just pushing it down the line. There have been promises of rights to stay for EU nationals, with yet more paperwork and checks for pre-settled and settled status and issues that are not yet resolved.
There have been promises that the rights of vulnerable refugees—children, whose rights have been removed from the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill—will be enshrined in the immigration Bill. Why take reuniting children with their families out of the Bill? I am as flabbergasted and perplexed as everyone else on the Opposition Benches. Families belong together. The policy had cross-party agreement. It is not many children. I have seen the conditions in which young refugee children live and I have seen the traffickers circling and preying on them. Those children are amazing. My children often cannot find their way from the table to the dishwasher to put their plates away, but those children have found their way across Europe to other countries, desperate to return to their families here, who are just as desperate to see them. Yet we have closed the door on them. I do not understand why and I hope that it is not a sign of the kind of country we are going to become.
There have also been promises that the NHS is not for sale to the US. Well, we’ll see. The Bill is a huge power grab, with the Government running scared of scrutiny and transparency, yesterday rejecting all the amendments that would have meant that we as elected Members rightly saw the aims, objectives and progress of negotiations.
We are leaving, but our role now is to define what leaving means: what our values are and what nationalism means. There is a high risk that racism and discrimination will be given permission by the Bill. I have seen it happen. It happened straight after the referendum and it has happened since. It is therefore important to say here, in this place, that we may be leaving the EU, but we are proud of our place in Europe and the world. We must be a society that is ambitious for everyone, welcomes diversity and is open to all. We must both take pride in our country and define that pride as being more internationalist than ever. That will make us all stronger.
I thank the people of Putney again for electing me. It is such an honour. I promise that I will work hard every minute of every day to serve and represent you.