It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and it is a real honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who made a passionate and pertinent speech. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing today’s debate, and for her superb opening speech.
Three of my four grandparents were Irish, and my much-loved brother-in-law is of Jamaican descent. Without him, I would not have my very beloved niece. Migration is central to who we are as a family, and it is also central to who we are as a nation. Only by understanding where we come from can we truly understand where we are going and where we are now. Including stories about migration in our history lessons is a central part of that, and I am proud that Labour has committed to creating an emancipation educational trust to support that work.
It is hardly news to many of us that migration has shaped our country for centuries, because we have grown up in diverse communities and have ourselves been shaped by that history. However, the history of different types of migration is not taught as widely as it should be. So many people do not know that there were hundreds of free African people living and working during the Tudor period, and some were even at Elizabeth I’s court. We seem to think that migration is only a very recent thing, but that is a nonsense. We need to embrace and understand our history much better than we currently do.
I am going to take a different approach from that of the other Members who have given speeches so far, because I will talk about West Ham. In my maiden speech in 2005, I talked about one example of how migration has helped in Newham. In the 1980s, we were suffering from the dying docks and the ravages of Thatcherism. Green Street was dying on its feet; the only two things that were doing well were West Ham United football club—which had its best ever season in 1986—and, sadly, the local jobcentre. However, a few traders got together, who were overwhelmingly Asian and African-Caribbean, and took a risk. They got some money together and started rejuvenating the area through their businesses. First they sold food, then fabrics—things that the big chains would not touch—and then businesses focused on designer fashion and jewellery came slowly on to Green Street.
Now, Green Street is a one-stop wedding shop, serving not only the local community but people from all over the country and, indeed, much of Europe. Without migration, those community-spirited and canny traders would not have been in Newham, and our local economy would have suffered an even worse decline. My kitchen would have certainly declined, because there was nowhere that I could buy turmeric, chillies, coriander, cumin or the other exotic items in the new cookbooks that were stocking my shelves at that time. On Christmas day, I remember having to pop out a number of times to grab that thing that I had not managed to put in my basket before. That is a recent history, but none the less an important history, and one that risks being lost unless we make an effort to ensure it is remembered and celebrated.
Whenever I think about stuff like this, I think about Eastside Community Heritage, led by the redoubtable Judith Garfield. Eastside has always been clear that letting people own and tell their stories is the best way of collecting testimonies and engaging communities in their past, and that is exactly what they do. Unsurprisingly, many of their projects are focused on the contribution of migrants—people such as Kamal Chunchie, who was born in Sri Lanka and served in the Army’s 3rd Middlesex Regiment during the first world war alongside members of my family, witnessing horrifying conditions in the trenches. He was gassed twice and shot once, and served right up until the end of the war. After the war, he came back to Canning Town and served that community for the rest of his life. He established the Coloured Men’s Institute and provided solidarity and means of support for black and Asian families living around the docks. Disgracefully, racism was common at that time, and many living in and around those docks were denied a home and a living. Kamal’s institute became a community centre that served all the poor and needy in Canning Town, providing shelter, regular meals, Christmas celebrations and toys for children. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, his work prevented destitution, alleviated poverty and built solidarity. For that, he was greatly and rightly loved.
Eastside has created a number of projects, including those on the Ugandan Asian community; on the role of nurses from the Caribbean in building our NHS, such as my brother-in-law’s mum, Lucy; and on historic communities in Newham, such as the Chinese and Bengali communities. I have attended lots and lots of Eastside’s events, which are wonderfully informative, telling stories that would otherwise be simply forgotten. Several of those projects have been created in collaboration with our schools, including Sarah Bonnell and Forest Gate, so that our children understand the rich diversity of their history. Students helped create exhibitions about African and Caribbean fashion and the role it has played in the local economy, our culture and our lives. I would have loved to take part in projects like that, growing up; I was always really excited by the beautiful clothes that my Asian friends wore, and I remember learning how to dance in the sixth-form common room. Such projects bring our history alive for children from all backgrounds, and help us to understand the current social problems that we have.
One pressing social problem today is that across the world, we are witnessing a resurgence in far-right politics—a politics of hatred and division, which offers only scapegoats, not solutions. All too often across the world, migrants—even asylum seekers, the most vulnerable of us all—have been targeted. I do not have to remind people in this Chamber about Trump, whether it is his nonsense about Sadiq Khan, his attempt to enforce a Muslim ban, or his constant scaremongering about central American families fleeing to safety. I do not have to remind people in this Chamber about Netanyahu, who describes African refugees as,
“illegal infiltrators flooding the country.”
Brazil’s Bolsonaro described the residents of a black settlement as,
“not even good for procreation.”
It happens in so many ways in so many places, and all of it is linked. It is more important than ever that our young people understand the bits of this country’s history that we do not celebrate enough and the rich diversity of our home’s past and future. We need all of our citizens to understand the contributions and the lives of the people that migration has brought, and we have to build solidarity among the different parts of our communities, just as Kamal did in the 1920s.
In my constituency, Newham Council has done wonderful work to counter and prevent the rise of the far right. It has done it for decades and it set up a holocaust memorial exhibition as a response to the rise of the far right in the 1980s and ’90s. It celebrates Black History Month and still makes sure that the children’s education focuses on Holocaust Memorial Day.
The work of the council continues today. As we all remember, the theme for the previous Holocaust Memorial Day was “Torn from home”. Schools in Newham not only used it to reflect on the experiences of the Jewish community who were forced to leave everything behind, incredibly important as that absolutely is, but used it as a theme for creative inspiration—for the writing of poetry, performances of plays and the composing of songs about the lives of their families and the communities that they had come from, which, in many cases, had also been torn from home. Their experiences today are reflected sadly in our history.
Many have forgotten that Irish migrants were subjected to terrible xenophobia and discrimination during the 19th century and into the 20th. We forget that Jewish migration was represented as a real threat. We have learnt not to think of the Huguenots from France as refugees. The world did not come to a stop when those communities joined us; our world was enriched instead. What I am trying to say is that we sometimes fail to make the connections that we should because we have simply forgotten our history—or our geography.
Constituencies such as mine have been blessed with diversity. We include Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Africans, Caribbeans, Irish and many others in our number. When we hosted the Olympic games—it was not a London Olympics, but a West Ham Olympics—we believed that we had a resident representative from every participating country living right there in West Ham. Many in my community have immigrant backgrounds, as do some of my closest and dearest family. It simply would not be the place that I love so dearly without them; and we would be much poorer, not only economically but creatively, in terms of the ideas and perspectives that we can draw on. We would be able to communicate so much worse if we did not have those communities living with us, talking with each other and learning from perspectives. Imbibing the cultures and the stories helps us to communicate so much better as a society. That is why it is really important to me that children are taught to see migration for what it is—not just economically beneficial and not just a charitable act, but unreservedly good for our communities and absolutely essential for our future.