It is with a deep sense of humility and responsibility that I rise to make my maiden speech as we debate the economic parts of the Queen's Speech. I congratulate all new Members who have made their maiden speeches today.
I begin by paying tribute to my predecessors as hon. Members for Wolverhampton, South-East, Bob Edwards and Dennis Turner. Bob Edwards was elected for what was then the constituency of Bilston in 1955. He was an extraordinary man; a true international socialist whose life and career in politics mirrored not only the struggles of the Labour movement, but the great European conflicts of the past century. A member of the Independent Labour party, he played his part in the slow and often difficult marriage between that organisation and the Labour party. More famously, he fought alongside Jack Jones, George Orwell and many other brave men as a captain in the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Bob said of the conflict that
As well as taking part in that epic struggle, Bob claimed a personal acquaintance with, among others, Mao Tse Tung and Leon Trotsky. Those of us who grew up, politically speaking, in the Labour party in the 1980s sometimes felt that we were developing a personal acquaintance with Leon Trotsky, but none of us could match Bob's put-down of one enthusiastic follower, when he replied, "Well that's not what he said to me."
Bob is still remembered with great warmth and admiration in the constituency. When he stood down in 1987, he was succeeded by Dennis Turner. Dennis is a true Black Country man. He was born and bred there and has lived there all his life. In 1991, he joined the Opposition Whips Office, where he served as education and health Whip, West Midlands regional Whip and defence Whip. In more recent years, Dennis was best known as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), and as Chairman of the Catering Committee. With his characteristic good humour and his conviction that an army marches on its stomach, he set about ensuring that the best possible facilities and quality of food were available for Members and staff alike.
It is rumoured that Dennis literally knows the names of the dogs in the street in the constituency, and after campaigning alongside him during the recent general election, I can well believe that. He is regarded with great love and affection in the area, and I am conscious that I walk in large footsteps as I attempt to succeed him.
The constituency of Wolverhampton, South-East is centred around the Black Country town of Bilston and stretches through the wards of Ettingshall, East Park and Blakenhall towards Wolverhampton City Centre. It is a place with tremendous warmth, strength of spirit and a deep sense of pride. I record my thanks to the people of Bilston and the whole constituency for the welcome and friendship that they have shown to me as a newcomer to the area in recent months. Their spirit and friendship has redoubled my resolve to serve them as best as I possibly can in the years to come.
Since Labour was elected in 1997, real progress has been made in the constituency. Economic stability, low inflation and low interest rates have helped to reduce unemployment by more than 30 per cent. There are 1,600 more doctors and 4,500 more nurses in the area's strategic health authority. There are hundreds more police in the West Midlands police force; 16,000 pensioners receive the winter fuel payment and more than 5,000 receive pension credit. That is all progress, but the challenge for politics and government is not only meeting the problems of today but how we respond to the challenges of the future.
The whole Black Country once pulsated to the rhythm of production as countless factories and mines poured forth their products for use around the world. Coal, steel, chains, enamel and every type of machine tool was made there. A flavour of the area's proud history and deep sense of community was brought home to me by the wonderful series of collections of photographs of Bilston, Bradley and Ladymoor produced by Ron Davies, the latest of which he sent me during the campaign. Today, many of the old factories and mines have gone, but it would be a grave mistake to say that manufacturing was a thing of the past in the Black Country. There are still world-class manufacturers in Bilston and the surrounding area. Companies such as Mueller Europe, which I visited last Friday, are investing in modernising their operations, and praise what they regard as a first-class local work force.
Wolverhampton is fortunate in being a well-led city, with good councillors working hard for local people, and many inspiring people working for the local community. I was honoured to meet some of them during the election campaign. They include Jan Barlow and Pauline Bird, whose work with Sure Start has been a huge help to young mothers, Ann Reaney and Biddi Patel, who have set up a city-wide pensioners link line to reach out to elderly people living alone, and Raj Bansal, who is working to give young people the skills to find a job. They and many others bring life to the idea of community. They help us to achieve more together than we ever could alone.
Over the years, Wolverhampton has welcomed immigrants from every corner of Britain and, indeed, from across the world. Today, my constituency is a diverse community, with almost 30 per cent. of its population made up of ethnic minorities. The vast majority of that population are Sikhs, but there are also many Hindus and Muslims. Out of many communities has emerged one, made richer by its different strands, which combine to make the city a better place—not person against person, or community against community, but one community living and working together. During the election, I had the privilege of taking part in the celebrations to mark the Sikh festival of Vasaikhi in the city's West park. It was a wonderful open-air event attended by thousands of people. This annual event has become a vital part of the city's cultural life, and is testament to the warm bonds between people of different faiths and cultures in Wolverhampton.
I believe that Wolverhampton, South-East can look forward to the future with confidence. Manufacturing will remain vital to the area's economy, but there must and will be diversification into services, information technology, distribution and other industries. The Bilston urban village, a new development on old industrial land, will bring vital new housing, leisure facilities and employment opportunities to the area. But more than anything, the area's future must be built on education, skills and opportunity for its people. In this, the Government have done a tremendous job, providing more investment per pupil, more computers, more staff and more modern buildings. I know already, from visiting schools such as Graiseley primary school and meeting head teachers such as Wendy Briscoe, that there is excellent leadership in local schools. This primary school already has a twinning agreement with Wolverhampton university to introduce children to the aspiration towards higher education from the moment they start school.
For all the progress, however, there is still much more to be done. This Government's work and this party's work are far from over. There is more to be done to ensure that no child is held back by lack of means, more to be done to ensure no child is held back by lack of ambition, more to be done to ensure that if an adult loses a job, they get the training that will give them a second chance. There is also more to be done to get rid of the outdated, misplaced notion that anyone should know their place or that certain paths in life are for some but not for others.
The liberating power of education should mean that every child should be stretched to the utmost of their ability, that they may reach their full potential. We still have a long way to go to make that goal a reality. Just one generation ago, my mother and father went to the same small school, at Meenderry, in the hills of Donegal. For them, there was no chance of further or higher education. The pressures of the times—the pressure to work, to earn and, indeed, to emigrate—closed in all too soon, but they raised seven children and gave all of us a passion for learning. It has served my generation well, and it is a big part of the reason I am standing here today making this maiden speech.
The belief in using the collective power of all to enhance the individual opportunity of each is at the core of what we stand for as a political party. So if there is one thing I commit myself to in this maiden speech, it is to serve as a champion of learning and opportunity for the people of Wolverhampton, South-East. The means by which that goal will be achieved will change over time, and we on the centre left must embrace that change, as we have already had the courage to do in recent years. Nothing—no barrier and no interest—should stand in the way of our mission to spread opportunity. It is only by doing so that we will realise our ambition that people, whatever their means, may realise their full potential in the years to come.