It seems fitting to pay tribute to the Bedfordshire Regiment whose men also fought at Passchendaele. Many did not come back home. It is not lost on me that the sacrifices made by those men 100 years ago led to the freedoms, rights and opportunities that I am proudly expressing today. I am deeply honoured not only to have been chosen by the people of Bedford and Kempston to represent them as their Member of Parliament, but to be the first ethnic minority candidate to do so.
I made the journey from Kashmir to Bedford in 1992. Soon I was married and working in a factory. Later I became a taxi driver, which I continued to do until my election to Parliament. I can honestly say that from the moment I arrived in Bedford, I made it my home—but ever since, it is Bedford that has made me. I am very thankful for that.
I wanted to do more for the community that had welcomed me, so I became a councillor for Queens Park ward in 2006. Earlier this year, I took the next step and was selected by my party to stand as Labour’s candidate. Many people said that I stood no chance and that Labour could not possibly win Bedford back. Bedford and Kempston proved them wrong. With the support of my friends and fellow councillors, and my wonderful family—I am so thankful to my wife, Shakila, my mother, my four children and my new grandson, Imad—we fought a campaign that delivered Bedford and Kempston back to Labour. I am immensely proud to be on the Labour Benches, whose shadow Cabinet has the highest number of ethnic minority MPs ever, which means that the population is more fairly represented than it has ever been before.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Richard Fuller, who has worked so hard over the past seven years for his community. The Bedford Community Business School set up by Richard has been a great success and is a legacy that he is rightly very proud of. I also thank Bedford’s previous Labour MP, Patrick Hall, for his 13 years of dedicated service.
People from more than 50 countries of origin live and have settled in Bedford and Kempston, which has made the area the most ethnically diverse town in the United Kingdom in proportion to its size. All kinds of people have settled there, from the eastern Europeans and Italians who arrived after the second world war to help rebuild Britain through work in the Stewartby brickworks, to others like me who arrived more recently. It is that which makes my constituency so very special.
Bedford is warm, welcoming, neighbourly and compassionate. Difference and diversity of faith, colour and creed is not only tolerated but celebrated in this town. Churches, mosques, gurdwaras, faith groups and charitable organisations throughout my constituency work together to build upon that diversity and to support those who have been affected by so many years of austerity and damaging cuts.
Bedford has a strong arts scene. Our cultural heritage is celebrated in Bedford’s many festivals, not least the biennial River festival that attracts quarter of a million people to the beautiful riverside. We are also a town of sportspeople, with the Bedford Blues, the Eagles, and the Queens Park and Kempston cricket clubs. We have rowing clubs, sailing clubs and our international athletics track. We have been proud to produce gold Olympians and Paralympians, and then there is Iva Barr, who was still running the London marathon at the age of 88. Bedfordians are amazing people.
People talked to me a lot during the election, about their concerns about schooling, the cuts to policing and, above all, the NHS. At the very heart of our town is Bedford Hospital, where my children and grandson were born. I want to make sure that the hospital stays at the heart of my constituency. Two years ago, Bedford Hospital saved my wife’s life when she suffered a heart attack. I can never repay the staff for all they did for us.
Let me say this now: the future of our hospital and its services have been in doubt for far too long. Since 2011, under this Government and the previous one, a string of expensive and inconclusive reviews have cast a shadow over the hospital, lining the pockets of management consultants while hard-working frontline staff have gone without pay rises. Threats to maternity, accident and emergency, and paediatrics make it hard to recruit and retain staff, and have caused much concern to the community.
As the MP for Bedford and Kempston, I will fight every day to keep the services that we need in our growing town so that my constituents do not have to travel 15 or 20 miles to access life-saving services, or 60 miles to access justice if plans to close Bedford courts go ahead.
I want babies to continue to be born in Bedford and Kempston, where they can grow up in a fairer society, access equal opportunities and realise their true potential in families that feel proud and part of their community.