“Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I also thank the people of North West Durham for allowing me to be here at all. It is apt that I should be called in this debate because, before entering the House, I worked with schools, colleges and teachers for nine years and my predecessor, Pat Glass, dedicated her professional and then political career to education. If I can be half the friend and ally of schools in North West Durham that Pat Glass has been, I will be doing very well.
Pat Glass leaves a brand new secondary school as one important legacy of her time here. Even in opposition, she managed to prise funding for a school from the former Education Secretary, which took the energy of a lion hunting a gazelle. I and others are truly grateful for all that she did for the constituency, and I wish her well in her retirement.
North West Durham is the most magnificent of places, and I am truly blessed to represent such a beautiful part of our country. The green, lush countryside is simply breathtaking, peppered with arable, dairy and upland hill farms; the richness of our culture and history is astounding; and the people are hard workers, proud and strong. Some in here would have us in the north painted as uncultured and without finesse—as savages—but people only think that or say that because they do not know our communities or our people. My constituents are the real wealth creators, and they are people who make this nation great. If anyone wants to see one of the world’s finest cultural traditions, they should look no further than Durham miners gala, which, although not in my constituency, is an annual pilgrimage for many of my constituents and is the biggest trade union gathering in Europe. It celebrates the best of solidarity, born of struggle.
North West Durham has a long and proud tradition of industry and skilled work. Consett was dominated by steel production and became renowned for the thick red dust that covered the town—airborne iron oxide from the plant. At its peak in the 1960s the steelworks provided jobs for some 6,000 people. We had lead mines and hundreds of jobs in a thriving textiles industry in Crook. That industry was unfortunately left to decline. Jobs and communities were not invested in and unemployment rose exponentially. Many are still living with the scars of that period today.
TURNING TO THIS PLACE, THIS BUILDING IS INTIMIDATING. IT REEKS OF THE ESTABLISHMENT AND OF POWER; ITS SYSTEMS ARE CONFUSING—SOME MAY SAY ARCHAIC—AND IT WAS BUILT AT A TIME WHEN MY CLASS AND MY SEX WOULD HAVE BEEN DENIED A PLACE WITHIN IT BECAUSE WE WERE DEEMED UNWORTHY.
I believe that the intimidating nature of this place is not accidental. The clothes, the language, and the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination are symbolic of the system at large. But the most frustrating thing has been to sit opposite those people who tell me that things are better, and that suffering has lessened for my constituents. I would like them to come and tell the people who have been sanctioned that things are better. I would like them to tell that to the teacher in my constituency who was recently made redundant. I would like them to talk to the 16,500 people in County Durham in receipt of food parcels. I would like them to talk to the nurses, the junior doctors and the firefighters—come and tell them that years of austerity have improved their practice or their profession.
I will end with this: we can choose, in this place, to be self-obsessed, to perpetrate fear and greed, to be a monument to injustice, or this can be a place that elevates equality, facilitates the power of the people, and esteems and properly funds a rich network of public services so that nobody is left in the indignity of poverty.”