“The government must step up to end homelessness” – Abena Oppong-Asare’s maiden speech

Abena Oppong-Asare
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Below is the full text of the maiden speech made by the recently elected MP for Erith and Thamesmead, Abena Oppong-Asare, in parliament on January 29th.

I start by praising my predecessor, Teresa Pearce. Many in this House will know her as a fighter, a socialist and a feminist. She served our community with passion and distinction first as a councillor and then as a champion in this place. Many of my newly elected colleagues have big boots to fill, but none more so than me. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing her a very well earned and happy retirement. I also pay tribute to Teresa’s predecessor, John Austin, who has given me fantastic support. He now spends time with his family and his allotment. John, if you are watching this, I am still waiting for my jam.

Each of us has travelled our own path to represent our constituents in this House. This morning, I travelled by tube and train — just in case you were wondering, madam deputy speaker. In all seriousness, I stand here along with my hon. friend the member for Streatham as the joint first female MP of Ghanaian descent. My journey into politics has not been easy. I did not come from a political background.

I remember telling a careers adviser that I wanted to get into politics and learn more about working for an MP. I was laughed at and literally told that the chances of someone like me getting a job in parliament were very slim, and to not even bother trying. I will not misuse parliamentary privilege by naming him, but I hope he is watching me now. When I see injustice, I always turn anger into action. That feeling of unfairness drove me to challenge the barriers that I faced as a black woman. I became the first ever black chair of the Labour Women’s Network, and I mentor and train many women like me, who do not normally get a chance in politics. It is also why I became a Unison grassroots trade unionist.

I am able to represent my community in part thanks to the trailblazers who came before us: Lord Boateng, Bernie Grant, Baroness Amos and, of course, my right hon. friend the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Their legacy in the House can be seen throughout the chamber today, and they remain an inspiration to those of us who follow them. I also stand here on the shoulders of a century of sisters who came before me, and I am delighted that the Parliamentary Labour Party now reflects the gender breakdown of the ​country — 51% female.

As the chair of the Labour Women’s Network, building on the work of my predecessors Liv Bailey and Jo Cox MP, I could not be prouder of the role that the Labour Women’s Network has played in training hundreds of women for public office, introducing and defending all-women shortlists, tackling sexual harassment and abusive language in politics, ending the scourge of all-male panels, and introducing parental leave arrangements for councillors and MPs.

My constituency of Erith and Thamesmead is diverse, beautiful and fascinating. Erith pier offers stunning views of the Thames. Crossness pumping station, built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, is a Victorian engineering masterpiece that is described as “a cathedral of ironwork”. The ruin of the abbey at Lesnes is a scheduled ancient monument that is haunted by the ghost of one of its former monks.

Why not come for a visit, madam deputy speaker? I will treat you to a fry-up at Zehra’s Café in Plumstead, some chips from a from the Frying Pan in Belvedere, or a cheeky cake from Crumbs bakery in Northumberland Heath. You can come to see the mighty Erith Town football town, and I will bring along some Ghanaian jollof rice — accept no imitations. There is one thing that I admit my constituency is sadly lacking; it contains one of the only parts of London without a train station. Simply put, that must change. I will be campaigning with local people to ensure that Thamesmead is put well and truly on the transport map.

I am here today to debate homelessness — an issue that, sadly, all too many of my constituents have experienced at first hand. Across the country, the numbers of people forced to rely on temporary accommodation are stark, but it is the stories behind the statistics that are truly heartbreaking: the family placed in accommodation two train journeys from their children’s school, travelling for hours to and from, desperately trying to ensure that their children can make it to school while they try to get to work; the mum and her infant daughter placed in a hotel that has no fridge for her to store milk; and the family with a young child placed by another borough in a shared property with someone on the sex offenders register.

All of us in this place will have our own litany of examples — each harrowing, and each a stain on the reputation of this government. The government must step up to end homelessness, rather than stepping over the homeless to get into this place. The housing crisis is one of the great injustices of our time. The people of Erith and Thamesmead have put their faith in me, and I will always fight to ensure that they have a safe and secure place to call home. When I see injustice, I always turn anger into action.

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