I entered Parliament 30 years ago among the first black MPs to sit there. Too little has changed
04 Nov 2017It is 30 years since myself, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz and the late Bernie Grant became the first black MPs in Parliament.
This was a historic breakthrough for black representation, for the black communities in Britain, and a moment of pride for the Labour Party.
The 1980swere a tumultuous time, with Thatcher and the Conservatives as emboldened as ever. The presence of black MPs in Parliament was provocative to the status quo as much as we were pioneering.
Reproduced below are some extracts from my maiden speech, which was delivered 30 years ago this month.
With Black History Month concluding this week, it is a timely reminder of how far we have come, but also, how far we yet have to go.
I made my maiden speech on an immigration Bill. Sadly the narratives have not changed. The idea of scapegoating migrants as a distraction from Tory cuts is shockingly as alive today as it was then. I rise to speak against the Bill.
I have the distinction of both being the daughter of immigrants and representing a constituency in north-east London which, for more than a century, has been a classic centre where immigrants have been welcomed.
My parents came to this country in 1950 as immigrants from rural Jamaica. Contrary to what Conservative members might have us believe, they came — a whole generation of black and ethnic minority immigrants came — not to sponge, not to swamp anyone else’s culture, not to provide objects of derision for Conservative members, but to work.
They came for a better life for their children. They also came with pride, as citizens of Britain and its Commonwealth, and believing in that citizenship.
In the quarter-century that has elapsed since 1950, to see what has happened to that notion of citizenship of Britain and its Commonwealth—that once proud ideal — is very sad indeed.
We have seen increasing restrictions placed on movement, related to what are, in effect, quasi-racial categories: new Commonwealth, old Commonwealth, patrial and non-patrial. We all know what those categories really mean.
We have also seen an erosion of nationality rights.
In my constituency, I have to deal every week with people who are frightened and confused by the new requirement to register.
The squalid fact is that that requirement to register, at £60 a time, has made over £6 million for the government.
There has been a shortage of forms, there has been confusion, and there has been fear. None of that has been helped by some of the speeches that I have heard from Conservative members this afternoon.
Above all, in the past quarter century we have encountered the notion that immigrants, far from being people who cross oceans in good faith seeking to work and seeking a better life, are a kind of plague or contagion.
No measure is too botched up, too legally illiterate or too racist to keep them out.
Immigration legislation in this country has a squalid and racist history, beginning with the first Aliens Act 1905, which was rushed into being, as some honourable members will know, to keep out the victims of anti-semitic persecution in Russia, the Jewish victims of murder and pogroms in Eastern Europe.
As immigration legislation started, so it has gone on, and the Bill is no exception to that tradition.
The government says: “We must see whether those people can afford to keep their families, and whether they have houses in which to put them.”
Far from African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian people rushing to bring their families in when they have no money to support them and nowhere for them to go, it is precisely because they are so anxious to give their families somewhere to live that so many Bangladeshi, African and Afro-Caribbean males have lived in one room and scrimped and saved for years.
There is no evidence that people rush to bring in their families when they have no home and no money. All the evidence shows that they have suffered and deprived themselves, that they have had two jobs and worked night shifts, as well as triple shifts, in order to be united with their families.
I have heard of girls attempting suicide because they have had to wait so long for entry clearance for their fiances.
Elderly people, who have worked all their lives here, have been unable to bring their children to this country because of the immigration laws.
I have seen parents who have had to face the fact that their children would be deported. Women have come to my surgery in tears because their husbands were to be deported.
The constant piecing together of incoherent and racist immigration laws that serve no real purpose apart from propaganda heightens tension and stress and makes people feel that they are unwanted.
It does more to create division than anything else that I can think of.
Since I was a child, immigration legislation has been used as a vehicle for people to air their racism.
This Bill was born out of racism and it will do nothing to improve community relations. It represents a breach of faith with a generation of people who came here with the best intentions and the highest hopes.
Their aspirations, their family life and their children are constantly denigrated in the kind of debate and argument that is used to promote legislation of this kind.
The Bill is a disgrace, and I urge the House to oppose it.
Looking back three decades later what struck me most is how, with a few edits to specific measures, I could just as easily deliver this speech today.
The situation facing EU nationals, uncertain about their status, rejected residence applications, and registration proposals, all heighten this notion.
The potential of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn is more important than ever.
We will stand up against the cuts, and the scapegoating of migrants and others, that has accompanied austerity.
We stand for reasonable management of migration, consistently prioritising growth, jobs, and prosperity, above bogus immigration targets.
Thirty years after entering Parliament, I can proudly say that as home secretary in a Jeremy Corbyn government, I would never propose draconian immigration legislation, and our immigration policies will always be shaped by enduring Labour values.
* From https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-8da0-I-entered-Parliament-30-years-ago-among-the-first-black-MPs-to-sit-there-Too-little-has-changed#.Whbe9zdpHIV