Mr Nick Harvey (North Devon)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the debate on privatisation. As the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, I view with interest the somewhat predictable measures on the privatisation of British Rail proposed in the Gracious Speech. As the Member for Devon, North, I know that my constituents are concerned about the future of the Exeter to Barnstaple line—with which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a Devonshire Member, will be familiar—under any future regime that might operate on the railways.
I am glad that the Government are forsaking for the moment the wholesale privatisation of British Rail in favour of access to the network. However, the Liberal Democrats share the worries of the Community of European Railways, of which British Rail is a member, on open access and privatisation. It states that competition to drive down costs and make railways viable is the way forward. But if the Government continue to refuse to give all modes of transport the same treatment, British Rail will operate at a disadvantage. I wonder whether some of the private companies that it is envisaged might bid to operate the rail network will look forward to paying in full the infrastructure costs, as British Rail has to. Their competitors in the air and on the roads pay only part of the costs of airport and road facilities.
It is a strange twist of fate that the Government's plans for British Rail's future are being proposed now, at the end of a full and comprehensive, sweeping reorganisation of British railways known as "Organising for Quality". It is popularly known in British Rail's executive circles by the abbreviation "O for Q"—not an abbreviation to be used in a hurry.
The privatisation of British railways is not in the public interest now. We need a Government with the foresight to see the business, environmental and human consequences of their actions. We need sustainable investment in the railways, as in other public transport sectors. If British Rail is to compete with private companies, it needs the tools to do so.
We have heard today from the Secretary of State that the private sector will have capital investment in the railways through franchising, but it is clear that British Rail needs access to borrowing and leasing, as the SNCF has in France. We look forward to the Government introducing a White Paper in the summer, perhaps when they have worked out the answers to questions such as that posed by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor).
We also look forward to seeing the Government's proposals for the future of the railways, a subject dear to the heart of my predecessor. One of his proud achievements was to introduce in 1981 private Member's legislation on the reopening of old railway lines. He, like everyone in north Devon, will be disappointed that that legislation did not lead to the reopening of the Torrington loop or the railway lines to Ilfracombe and Lynton, both of which are beautiful. I pay tribute to the hard work undertaken by my predecessor on behalf of north Devon, and on promoting the cause of alternative energy. He went about his business in an energetic and unique way, and his memorable comments will be missed.
In his maiden speech my predecessor paid generous tribute to his predecessor, a distinguised member of the Liberal party, and I shall do likewise. Many right hon. and hon. Members will remember him as cutting a dashing style and being a formidable performer. I cannot aspire to match his panache, but I hope to fight for the area the same tenacity. In his maiden speech in 1959 he spoke in shocked terms of the 9.3 per cent. unemployment rate in the town of Ilfracombe, and argued for the district to have development area status. Today, the unemployment rate in Ilfracombe is 22 per cent., and at times youth unemployment is as high as 50 per cent. Once again, the community of Ilfracombe is fighting to obtain development area status.
Within months of Mr. Thorpe's speech, the Conservative Government granted that status—if only we could look forward to that again. Such status served the area well from 1959 to 1984, since when no significant new employer has moved into the area. My constituents have high hopes of regaining assisted area status for the district, and of seeing the building of a downstream bridge over the Taw river in Barnstaple—a vital piece of local infrastructure if the town is not to grind to a halt and deprive businesses to the north of Barnstaple and the holiday industry of important income.
My constituents had hoped that more might be done about the state of the beaches around the north Devon coast. The south-west has a small population, but it has responsibility for many miles of coastline. When South West Water was being prepared for privatisation, it was given a green dowry to help to plump it up for the process. It now needs green alimony or, perhaps, green child maintenance to ensure that it can continue to bear the heavy burden.
In a few months' time, the Landkey primary school in my constituency will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the acquisition of the site for a new school. Unfortunately, the existing school has a leaking roof, damp exercise books and open drainage for its outside facilities. I am 30, and the site was acquired in the year that I was born. When I was shown around the school by the chairman of governors, he pointed out the very rail where, as an infant, he used to swing. We hope that, in their education proposals, the Government will ensure that local education authorities have the resources to put right that problem, and many others.
The hopes and needs of north Devon are manifold. Like many other new Members, I was struck by the weight of my mailbag, which was phenomenal. This week, I went to the Post Room to ask for my mail. Nothing arrived for some time, while many right hon. and hon. Members received their mail. For a brief moment, I allowed myself the hope that perhaps my mail had dried up. A plump thud came from above and I was handed a bigger bundle of mail than anyone.
No doubt I shall become used to the strange ways of the House. One of the most surprising things that happened to me was when a party of school children from my constituency visited the House soon after I was elected. One of them had brought as a gift a bottle of champagne. It was not allowed through the security device, but was handed straight to me by the policeman, with the reassuring words, "You had better hold that—it might be a bomb." It had occurred to me that the security arrangements here might be thorough, but I had not thought that suspect devices would be given to Members for safekeeping.
I also managed to get lost in my early days here. Having entered the labyrinth of corridors, I noticed that the carpets had changed from green to red. I had promoted myself, somewhat prematurely, to another place. Unkind cynics might say that when one loses one's way around the Corridors of this place, it could be time to move on there. But I hope to have the honour of representing the people of north Devon for many years before any such thing should happen.