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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Celebrating Black and Minority Ethnic Communities

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

A reception was held at the House of Commons to celebrate Black History Month organised by the Women and Equality Unit. Meg was one of the speakers - her speech is below - along with Hope Powell, coach of the English women’s national football team, and Adeeba Malik, Chair of the Ethnic Minority Business Forum and a member of the Women and Work Commission.



I’m very pleased to be here to celebrate Black History Month. This event has been observed in the UK for nearly twenty years now, and there’s numerous events around the country all celebrating the contribution of black and minority ethnic men and women.


I hope you enjoy your visit to this building, the Palace of Westminster.  Over the centuries decisions made here have had an enormous impact on parts of the population barely represented within its walls.  Has the situation got better - yes but not by nearly enough.


We now have 127 women MPs in the House of Commons. Women comprise just over 50% of the population - that’s 90 years of women standing for Parliament to get 20% representation. So, whilst acknowledging that the numbers have improved in the recent past, we still have some way to go.


Society needs women active in prominent roles to encourage daughters to believe that they too can be high achievers. Society also needs more representatives, men and women, from black and minority ethnic communities. In 1997 the Labour Government appointed the first ever Black Minister of State, Paul Boateng, who became the first Black Cabinet Minster and subsequently the UK’s High Commissioner to South Africa. The current Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Amos, is the first Black Woman Cabinet Minster.


But this is not enough. We do not have one Asian women MP.  We need black and minority ethnic political representatives to be part of the norm, not the remarked upon exception. We need the same across industry, business and the professions. It is important that children have role models they can look at who inspire them to think ‘one day I could do that’. Black History Month is part of that process.


As one of the Ministers with responsibility for women’s role in society, you won’t be surprised that I concentrate on the role of women.  Many of you will know of Harriet Tubman who founded the Underground Railroad helping slaves pass through America into Canada and safety. This courageous woman received an honour from Queen Victoria - a Stirling silver Jubilee medal. Queen Victoria was so moved after reading her biography that she felt compelled to issue this award for her bravery and courage.


A name left out of the history of nursing until modern times was Mary Seacole, who was recently voted the greatest ever black Briton in a BBC poll. One of the new Home Office buildings is named Seacole after Mary. Born 200 years ago in Jamaica, she went to nurse soldiers alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war. The War Office, the army medical department, and the Secretary of War all refused her request to be allowed to go and tend to the sick and wounded. Undeterred, she made the journey independently, risking her life to bring comfort to the wounded and dying.


When Mary wrote her autobiography in 1857, “The Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many Lands”, WH Russell - the first modern war correspondent provided the preface. He wrote 'I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead'.


But of course England did exactly that and Mary died in relative obscurity, forgotten for a long time.


Fortunately, individuals and small groups worked to collect and bring alive many of the different stories of black people who through their lives and selfless work provide inspiration - to black and white alike. I would like to pay tribute those involved in finding the stories of the women - and the men - who slipped, or were pushed, into obscurity. 


Harriet Tubman and Mary Seacole are inspiring figures from the past. But we have Black and minority ethnic men and women today who inspire us. William Morris for instance - better known as Bill. Elected leader of his trade union - an outstanding figure in the movement. We have Gloria Mills, recently elected the first black women president of the TUC. Both of these people achieved much after dedicating so much of their lives to promoting equal opportunities. 


Simi Chowdhry, who has spent over 25 years working to empower and develop South Asian communities - women in particular. Helping them escape social and economic deprivation. Amongst her achievement is the establishment of the first South Asian youth service, the initiation of the only Sikh cultural centre, the Elderly Asian day care centre and currently the only South Asian community safety and development service.  


Simi is currently dealing with subjects that South Asian communities have historically shunned - domestic violence, victim support, drugs abuse and forced marriage.   Issues that affect so many women and need to be dealt with sensitively and with great care.  


We have Maggie Semple, the CEO of The Experience Corp.  Maggie has pulled together an organisation of 250,000 volunteers, most aged fifty plus.  These people are making a positive contribution to the community.  2005 is the year of the Volunteer, I can think of no better place to celebrate it then here.


And we’ll be hearing later from Hope Powell and Adeeba Malik. Hope is the coach for the England Women’s Football Team. An important job, not least because women and girls’ football is the fastest growing sport in the UK. I’ve been meeting some of the 8 & 9 year old girl players - so keen on their football. What could be more important than developing the role models of the current England team that will inspire the young players of the future to continue to craft their skills.  


And Adeeba Malik, who not only has the good sense to come from Yorkshire, but is a formidable businesswoman. Adeeba is Deputy Chief Executive of QED-UK, that’s Quest for Economic Development. She is also Chair of the Ethnic Minority Business Forum, and has made a very important contribution to the work of Yorkshire Forward, the Regional Development Agency.  


I know when people from black or minority ethnic communities are asked who they most admire; they often mention their parents or grandparents. They had to forge a new life in the UK, facing great hardship, struggling to make a better life. Every family has a story of parents who gave up much to ensure that their children had the best possible future.


These are also the people who we are celebrating this month. Not just the names of heroes and heroines with their names in books - though we should celebrate them - but also the many who just kept on doing what needed to be done.


Whilst celebrating the past and the present we need to think about the future. What do you want the Black History Months of the future to celebrate? A tolerant society where achievement is on merit only? A society where children from all racial backgrounds have the opportunities to achieve the best? They would be mine.


But when events like the recent riots in Birmingham happen, they distort the views of people who see the news through the TV or newspapers. We know that the efforts of all those working for a just and tolerant society have to be re-doubled. Here, I want to pay tribute to my friend and colleague, Khalid Mahmood, the local Member of Parliament. He spoke out against violence and intimidation, and made it clear that the riots are the responsibility of the few people who wish to create trouble.


Throughout this country we have communities where people of all backgrounds work together to create better places for people to live. As Government we have a responsibility to try and ensure that everyone has the possibility of making the choices of how to live their life. We understand that people from the black and minority ethnic population want opportunities, choices and support just as the white majority.


It would be remiss at an occasion like this not to mention the passing of the mother of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks.  In 1955 she was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, when a white man demanded her seat. Rosa Parks refused and was jailed and fined. Her actions triggered a boycott of the bus system, led by Martin Luther King, and marked the start of the modern civil rights movement in the United States.


The courage and conviction of women like Rosa Parks can still inspire us today. Martin Lither King, who organised the bus boycott after her courageous stand, said: “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world a better place.”


Seeing you all here today, realising the contributions you make to the UK every day, no truer words could be said.


Thank you very much for coming to celebrate this important month, I now hand over to??

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