Health and Education
Nicholas Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam, Liberal Democrat)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech, which I do with what I hope is forgivable trepidation and some jangling of nerves, emotions that are only made more acute by the excellent fluency of the maiden speech by Mr. McGovern.
I like to think that at least I will make this maiden speech with greater confidence, and that I will make myself more clearly understood than the last time I gave a maiden speech as a new parliamentarian, which was back in 1999, when I had just been elected as a Member of the European Parliament. In my maiden speech in that place I made a joke that was, thankfully, good enough that the English speakers in the audience laughed immediately. Those who received the translation through their headphones in languages that are rapidly translated, such as Italian, French and Spanish, also laughed. I then moved on to a much more sombre point, in the middle of which the German speakers burst out in raucous laughter because, as those hon. Members who speak the great German language know, the verb comes at the end so the punch line is deferred. I cannot vouch for the quality of what I say today, but I hope at least that I do not encounter those problems again.
It is customary of course to praise one's predecessors, and I have been deeply impressed by the rhetorical dexterity with which other hon. Members have made maiden speeches in which they have lavished praise on individuals who, I assume, were until very recently their bitter foes and opponents. Thankfully, I do not face that dilemma because I stand here as the successor to Richard Allan, the previous Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield, Hallam, who I know was as liked and admired in the House as he was in his constituency. I am sure that I speak on behalf of many hon. Members when I say that he was a Member of Parliament who discharged his duties with a unique mix of integrity, modesty and talent. He won the seat in 1997 with an extraordinary swing of 18 per cent. in his direction, and the generosity and sincerity with which he then became the MP for Sheffield, Hallam was rewarded with an even bigger majority in 2001.
Richard Allan's generosity was my good fortune in the two years in which I shadowed him as the parliamentary candidate for the constituency. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude not only as a close friend but, latterly, as my campaign manager in the election. I am sure that, again, I speak on behalf of many here when I say that I hope his voluntary withdrawal from the political scene will prove in time to be a temporary interruption rather than a permanent departure.
Sheffield, Hallam is unique. It has the city centre just moments away, yet it flows deep into the Peak District national park. Where else can one go rock climbing one moment and attend some of the best theatre outside London's west end the next? Poets have waxed lyrical about Sheffield, Hallam. John Betjeman famously said about Broomhill, a particularly beautiful part of the constituency, that it was the "finest suburb in England". Although I know that many of my constituents might bridle a little at that characterisation and certainly are rightly anxious about the relentless and often insensitive over-development of properties in Sheffield, Hallam, they would still recognise Betjeman's accolade.
There is an unusually heavy emphasis on education in the constituency. I saw a statistic somewhere showing that the percentage of school leavers in Sheffield, Hallam who go to university is among the highest in the country. The two universities, Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield, are the two largest employers. The commitment to our great public services is extremely strong, with over 40 per cent. of all people employed in the constituency working in the education and health sectors.
I have heard it said that those who work in those public services are most likely to resist any change, however merited, in the reform, development and evolution of the sectors. Having spoken to countless nurses, doctors, researchers and teachers in Sheffield, Hallam, I flatly reject that characterisation. My view is that my constituents are perfectly aware that change is an inevitable and often healthy discipline for large public sector organisations, which are often quite cumbersome. What they object to is change driven by whimsical political fashions that change from month to month. It is worth recalling that our public sector workers are those who need to pick up the pieces when new schemes that might seem plausible when invented here in Westminster or Whitehall go awry in practice in our schools, our universities and our hospitals.
I have also heard it said that general elections are times when voters will not lift their eyes to the larger international scene, times in which everyday bread-and-butter issues will always predominate. Again, my experience in Sheffield, Hallam challenges that. I was very encouraged by the number of times that international issues, particularly the plight of many countries in the developing world suffering from grinding poverty, were raised with me on the doorstep.
As someone who is inured to the almost relentless daily diet of antagonism to all things European in much of our national public and media discussion, I was also quite encouraged by the number of times that my constituents raised the great unresolved and vexed issue of our place and our future in Europe in a manner that was measured and driven by sincere concern and interest. I would certainly like to play my part in advocating an approach to the future of Britain in Europe which emphasises a balanced and unprejudiced approach.
I do not mean to say that we should be uncritically in favour of everything that emanates from the European Union—it is as flawed as any other political and economic institution—but I have always believed that it is perfectly possible to be pro-European and, at the same time, in the forefront in advocating far-reaching improvements to the EU. However, our approach should be one that states and restates, in a forthright and unflinching manner, that we should always remember the wider benefits that will accrue to this country from our continued commitment to our European vocation.
I am only the 10th Member of Parliament for Sheffield, Hallam since the constituency's creation in 1885, but it has exported well in excess of its quota of politicians. Joe Ashton, Sir Irvine Patnick, Angela Knight and Spencer Batiste are only some of the more recent politicians from the constituency who have made their presence felt in the House, and I am acutely aware that I have my work cut out to honour the tradition that they have set. On the day of the election, with Richard Allan I visited all 19 of the polling stations in the constituency—