“Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this important debate on tuition fees—a subject that came up time and time again on the doorstep in Blaydon. I know this debate will be of interest to many constituents.
I would like to start by thanking the people of Blaydon constituency for electing me to represent them here. It is a great privilege. Some of you may first have heard of Blaydon through our local anthem, “Blaydon Races”, played proudly by many a brass band at the Durham miners gala. You will be glad to hear, Mr Speaker, that I will not be bursting into song in this Chamber—parliamentary decorum and a lack of musical talent mean that I should avoid that at all costs—but it does remain a theme and a constant symbol of our proud and sometimes raucous local history.
It is customary in maiden speeches to talk about your predecessor, and for me it is not just a tradition but a matter of great personal pleasure to talk about my great friend and comrade, Dave Anderson. Dave served Blaydon very well in the 12 years he was in this House, and was—and still is—a great champion of working people not just in Blaydon but throughout the trade union movement, working most recently on the Shrewsbury 24 campaign with Ricky Tomlinson. As a former Unison president, Dave spoke up for the public service workers who do so much to deliver the vital services that we all need. Dave will also be remembered here for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on muscular dystrophy—a campaign close to his heart as it affected his family, and for which he twice received charity champion awards in this place.
In this maiden speech, I want to talk about the communities that make up the constituency—a constituency that takes in rural areas, industrial sites and areas of great natural beauty, representing the traditions, past and present, of Blaydon. I start from Chopwell, in the west, separated from County Durham by another river, the Derwent. Chopwell, known as “Little Moscow” for its strong socialist links, is a community defined for many years by its proud mining history, and it retains its strong community links and boasts the Chopwell woods, which were thankfully saved from sell-off in 2011. Then I move on to Crawcrook and Greenside, where last Sunday I was proud to open the Greenside community picnic, part of the celebrations to commemorate the last shift at the local pit, and where on 8 July I marched with the local community and the band through the village on our way to Durham for the miners gala, banner flying high. And on to Ryton, where the beautiful Ryton Willows and the Keelman’s Way run alongside the River Tyne towards Blaydon itself. The old Blaydon horse races have long been replaced by a road race on 9 June each year from Newcastle to Blaydon. You can still see hundreds of people
“Gannin’ alang the Scotswood Road”,
not to see the Blaydon races, but taking part in them.
Then on to Whickham, where Dave Peacock and other members of the local community have recreated a lost garden, making a tranquil green retreat in the village open to all, and to Sunniside, another former mining community that is proud of its history, as well as to Winlaton and High Spen, where the red kite now flourishes after being reintroduced some years ago. It was magnificent to see them high overhead as we knocked on doors. Further south and east are the communities of Birtley, Lamesley and Kibblesworth, and the magnificent Angel of the North. Created by Antony Gormley, it looms over the A1 and the surrounding landscape, demonstrating the strength and endurance of our local communities. Sadly, I never managed to identify the Angel’s voting intention, but I think I could have a guess.
Blaydon is also open for business, taking in much of the Team Valley trading estate and the Metro Centre, representing manufacturing and retail. On the day we have seen the new polymer £10 note, I must mention De La Rue, which produces passports at the Blaydon site—and long may that continue.
These communities, and so many more I could mention, make up my constituency of Blaydon, but as in so many areas, the people of Blaydon have had much to deal with. They have felt the impact of austerity. Too many of my constituents have been hit hard—by the bedroom tax, by benefit sanctions, by reassessments for employment and support allowance or for the personal independence payment—and too many find themselves without money to buy the necessities of life for their family, like food or money to pay for gas and electric. It is fortunate for them that we have a well-established food bank in Blaydon, and I must pay tribute here to the Reverend Tracey Hume, who has worked with so many local volunteers in Blaydon to make sure that those who need help get it. What they do is magnificent, but this should not be needed in 2017.
Then there are the 1950s-born women, who told me on the doorstep how badly they have been hit by the equalisation of state pensions. This cannot be right or just. Mr Speaker, I must declare an interest as one of the 1950s-born women. Sadly, unlike me, most of them are not able to take up an apprenticeship in this House and must manage as best they can, but I intend to do all I can to work for them.
All of us come to this House with not just a passion for politics, but a personal history that influences the issues we care about, and I want to share a little of mine. Seventeen years ago, my husband, Charlie, ended his life by suicide. Many of you in this House will have been affected by suicide, but you only find out how many others have been affected when it happens to you. I do not ask for sympathy; I ask for your support for action to reduce the number of people who take their lives. I am glad to be a Samaritans listening volunteer, but we need deeds as well as words to prevent suicide.
In March, Samaritans produced a report, “Dying from inequality”. To put it bluntly, a rigorous academic study has shown that suicide risk increases when people face unemployment, job uncertainty and poverty. These are the very problems faced by the constituents I have talked about and by many others. Two weeks ago, I had the chance to ask the Secretary of State for Health what action he planned to take in the light of this report, and he told me that he always listens to the views of Samaritans. I give notice that I will be pressing the Secretary of State for Health and other Government Ministers to take real action to tackle the causes that lead to too many people taking their own life. As Samaritans chief executive, Ruth Sutherland, said:
“Each suicide statistic is a person. The employee on a zero hour’s contract is somebody’s parent or child. A person at risk of losing their home may be a sibling or a friend. And each one of them will leave others devastated, and potentially more disadvantaged too, if they take their own life. This is a call for us as individuals to care more and for organisations that can make a difference, to do so.”
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate. I will do all that I can in this House and in my constituency to speak up for the people of Blaydon and to represent them in the best way that I can.”