Orders of the Day — Export Control Bill
Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)
I am most grateful for the opportunity to make my first contribution in the House. I preface my remarks by congratulating the hon. Members for Redcar (Vera Baird), for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger on excellent maiden speeches. My only regret is that they chose today to make them before me, but excellent they were in their entirety.
I wish to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Bowen Wells. Bowen served his constituents for 22 years, first as the Member for Hertford and Stevenage, and after 1983 for the redrawn division of Hertford and Stortford. In addition to his roles in the Government, Bowen played an active part on various Committees of the House, culminating in the previous Parliament with his chairmanship of the International Development Committee. Members on both sides of the House have told me of his extensive knowledge of the problems of the third world and of his dedication in seeking their solution. I am pleased to report that Bowen remains as committed to that cause now as he was when he first entered the House and that he is continuing his work to help the poorest nations of the world.
In the constituency, Bowen's dedication to service was just as strong. He believed, as I do, that Members of Parliament have a duty to serve every constituent, no matter how they may have voted. Indeed, many people in Hertford and Stortford have told me that they felt lucky to have Bowen as their Member of Parliament; they described him as one of the last gentlemen in politics. I am not sure whether they will say the same of me. At school, I played rugby in the front row, as hon. Members can probably guess from my shape, where we do not take a genteel, subtle approach. Indeed, some would say that we take no prisoners. I therefore suspect that people will regard me as less of a gentleman and more of a player.
Hertford and Stortford is a wonderful constituency to represent. Situated in the south-east corner of Hertfordshire, it is in many ways the epitome of shire England. It has a combination of attractive market towns, historic villages and that soft, gentle rolling countryside that could only be England. I live in Much Hadham, in the heart of the constituency, and I know how lucky I am, as are many of my constituents, to live in such a beautiful part of England. However, in both the towns and villages, we are having to face up to new pressures and challenges.
Our towns are struggling to compete for shoppers and some local family firms such as Gravesons in Hertford have had to close. Our roads cannot cope with the traffic, but for many people their car is not a luxury but a necessity. Our public services are unable to recruit and retain the staff they need. Our health service is in debt, school class sizes have risen, and by Christmas our county could be short of 250 police officers.
Equally importantly, development at the edge of towns such as Bishop's Stortford, Hertford and Ware is draining the life away from the town centres, while putting a great strain on essential services. Without concerted and co-ordinated investment in our roads, our public services and our local amenities, our town centres, and those mentioned by the hon. Member for North Durham, could face a future of decline.
At the same time, our rural communities face the greatest agricultural crisis in a generation. Sadly, Whitehall seems to have other priorities. It seems determined to force us to build thousands of extra houses, many of them on our green belt. Those problems of town and country are interwoven, and I for one will fight and fight again to ensure that we breathe life back into our towns and that we defend our green belt from excessive development.
The Bill before the House today seeks to strengthen the controls on the export of defence equipment. No one doubts the need to improve the accountability and transparency of decision making in Whitehall, by Ministers and officials alike, and I take a direct interest in that issue, for two reasons.
First, the economy of Hertfordshire has a long and respected tradition in the defence and aviation sectors, and many of my constituents work for leading names in those industries. Secondly, I have a long-held interest in matters of defence and international security. Indeed, I believe that the first duty of Governments is to ensure the security of their people.
While it is right to try to keep military hardware out of the hands of tyrants and terrorists, it is also essential, as several hon. Members have pointed out, that we recognise the right of every nation, large and small, to defend itself. As Mr. Berry pointed out, that right is upheld in the United Nations charter. Without the means to deter and repel aggression, that right is worthless. Many small nations today—the names of which are familiar to us all—would not be enjoying their independence had they not had the means to defend their freedom.
It is freedom that has brought me to this House. I believe that personal freedom—freedom of speech, the freedom to be oneself, free choice, free enterprise, or simply the freedom from constant intrusion and interference in our daily lives—lies at the heart of a civilised society, but throughout my lifetime each of those liberties has been steadily eroded. There is always a plausible reason—always a good excuse—but every intrusion, ban and restriction tilts the balance away from us as individuals and local communities and towards the large lobby groups, multinationals or big business. Indeed, the Government are perhaps the largest lobby group of all.
Only an effective Parliament can restore that balance. Throughout this country's history, this House, more than any other institution, has been the champion of our liberty. We, as Members of this House, are privileged, for we are free to speak without fear or favour. We also have the opportunity to provide a voice for those who are rarely heard. That is why I say that we all have a duty to challenge Government—every Government—and to question and hold to account those in authority, not for ourselves but for those whom we seek to represent.
In recent years, I have been saddened to watch the status of this House diminish in our nation's affairs. The impact of the European Union, a burgeoning media and the development of semi-detached Government agencies have all served to undermine the role of this place; yet I still believe that this House can and should remain at the heart of our national debate. That is why, even though I am a new boy, I passionately believe that we must strengthen the House's Committees, extend the scope and powers of scrutiny and ensure that the career of a parliamentarian is as respected as that of a Minister: after all, it is likely to last somewhat longer. The recent Hansard Society report is an excellent manifesto for restoring the House as our national forum, and I strongly support its aims and conclusions.
To be elected to this House is an honour. I will do my best to serve my constituents as well as I can. I know that I will make mistakes along that path and probably upset some people in the process, but none of that will matter if I can make a small difference to the lives of some of my constituents.
To be a member of this House is also a privilege because it affords each of us the chance to speak freely and hold authority to account. It gives us the opportunity to provide a clear, distinctive voice for those values that we each hold dear to our hearts. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to make my first contribution, and to right hon. and hon. Members for listening to me with such patience.