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Interview: Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham

30 July 2021

‘I don’t believe that we want to be led by people who repeatedly say things that are untrue’

I’ve been in Parliament for 27 eventful years. Some events have been unusual — for example, 13 continuous years of Labour government — but a term of that length at any time in parliamentary history will have included many unusual events.

Yes, I do think the Holy Spirit directs events,
even if the sense of this happening in current developments isn’t always clear at the time; but that doesn’t excuse us from trying our hardest to bring about changes we believe to be right.

Brexit has created a new dividing line in our politics, and made people rethink which side they are on,
which is no bad thing. I don’t see the interweaving of what were once party issues as either good or bad. It’s added new complexity to political service, and those of us who serve just have to get on with it.

Our system’s always been adversarial and binary
— arguably going back to the seating arrangement in the chapel where Parliament first met. At its best, it enables Parliament to hold government ministers robustly to account, and that is good for Britain.

I wanted to change things for the better in the community which I first visited as a student.
I was reading maths at Cambridge, and went to take part in a mission to the East End in 1976. We spent two weeks in Forest Gate, sleeping in an airless passage above a gospel hall and a railway arch, woken every morning by a milk train clanking past. For the first time, I had a sense of how what I believe could shape my life. There was a lot that needed to be done, and I wanted to be part of it.

I’ve experienced more encouragement than frustration in my work,
although the problems many local residents face now, like having insufficient food, are much more serious than was the case 40 years ago, when I was first involved.

I meet almost every week with a small group of Christian friends,
to report back and talk about the work I’ve been doing. I find it really helpful to think through things with them on the basis of our shared Christian commitment, and I’m also very encouraged by my constituents’ appreciation for my efforts.

I was contacted after an assault
[attempted murder “in revenge for the people of Iraq” during his constituency surgery in 2010] by a large number of Christians and Muslims who told me they were praying for my speedy recovery. I was a bit nervous on returning to my constituency surgery, but nothing untoward has happened since, and things quickly returned to normal. There was a recent deluge of internet abuse over my tweet in support of Jesus House, but I don’t get very much of that, and you can just switch it off.

Addressing poverty in the UK,
I chair the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which scrutinises the work of the DWP. We’ve called for an end to the current five-week delay between people applying for Universal Credit and their first regular benefit payment. That delay is forcing large numbers to depend on foodbanks and fall behind with their rent. We’re also examining the current steep rise in child poverty, and the stubbornly persistent disability-employment gap.

If I could do just one thing now,
I’d like to make permanent the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit, which was introduced at the start of the pandemic.

I oppose the Government’s decision to break its promise and cut overseas aid.
We must continue to honour our commitments to the world’s poorest, especially those who’ve suffered as a result of the pandemic. I recently joined some of my parliamentary colleagues on a virtual trip to Togo, organised by the Christian international development charity Compassion UK, and saw their UK-aid-funded Child Survival Project. The situation in Togo is desperate: the under-five mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, and one in 25 babies in Togo don’t reach their first birthday. Women have a one-in-58 chance of dying in pregnancy or during childbirth.

In the first year, the Child Survival Project reached over 4000 people living in extreme poverty,
and the number of full-term healthy babies delivered was 24 per cent above target: proof, if it were needed, that the UK’s development aid helps save the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. The cuts to the UK aid budget puts thousands of projects like those run by Compassion UK in Togo at risk, and I’m committed to fighting to reverse the Government’s decision.

When I was a minister in the Treasury, I worked closely with churches and faith groups.
They were crucial in securing a consensus, both at home and abroad, about the importance of international aid spending. It’s really important to recognise that the Churches — Jubilee 2000 and the Make Poverty History campaign — created a political climate which acknowledged that cancelling debts is the right thing to do. It’s an illustration of the Churches’ political influence in Britain.

Together, we secured the historic deal in Gleneagles in 2005,
in which G8 finance ministers agreed to write off $40-billion’s worth of the debt owed by 18 highly indebted poor countries. The idea of cancelling unpayable debts and setting people free is rooted in the teaching of the Bible. It united many groups, and had a dramatic impact on the lives of millions.

The Government has broken the consensus on overseas aid;
so that’s a deliberate, concerted repudiation for the position that the Churches were responsible for procuring.

Obviously, I’m a critic of the Government,
and there’s no shortage of things to criticise, most seriously the way communities have become very dependent on churches for providing food.

The All-Party Parliamentary Faith and Society group published a report about foodbanks in the pandemic,
based on research carried out by Goldsmiths College, showing that local authorities have been dependent on churches to a remarkable extent, and found setting up these partnerships has been a very positive experience. I hope the partnerships will last in the future.

Boris Johnson comes across as someone eager to court the churches and express support;
but I don’t see much sign of his agreement with church perspectives.

I had a contented childhood.
I grew up in Hampshire with my parents and younger brother and sister, and went to a local Crusaders class while I was at Farnborough Grammar School. I live in my constituency with my wife, whom I first met on that mission in 1976. We married in a Baptist church there, and had our wedding photos in the garden of the Anglican Franciscan house in Balaam Street.

I decided to become a Christian at that Crusader class
— I’m glad they have changed the name to Urban Saints — and that’s my primary commitment.

I’d like to write about the relationship between faith and politics.
There is a new phenomenon here — which is a bit Trumplike — with the Prime Minister saying things that are clearly untrue and seeming to get away with it. For instance, that there would be no checks at the Northern Irish border, when that’s what he’d negotiated. There was a pretty extraordinary by-election result in Amersham and Chesham, which did reflect, in part, a significant degree of disenchantment. And everyone expected the Conservatives to win in Batley, and they didn’t. I don’t believe, in the longer term, that we want to be led by people who repeatedly say things that are untrue. People won’t have confidence in politics if trustworthiness is absent.

Unfairness makes me angry.

I’m happiest when I’m helping solve a constituent’s problem.

I’ve been grateful for good health during the pandemic,
and though I’ve been unable to do many things I would previously have done, the upshot’s been that I have kept more on top of my workload than normal. I fear the change won’t be permanent.

The most reassuring sound?
Radio 4 in the morning.

I pray most for the well-being of friends.

I’d like to be locked in a church for a few hours with George Lansbury,
to understand better how his faith and his politics fitted together.

Stephen Timms MP was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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