Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham, Labour)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech to the House. I congratulate Mr. Horwood on his excellent maiden speech, and I should also like to take this opportunity to thank hon. Members and the staff of the House for giving me so much help to settle into this role during the past few weeks. That help has been invaluable.

It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, as the House has never before been able to debate the legislative programme of a third-term Labour Government. This situation is not only historic, but provides us with further opportunities to improve this country for everyone.

At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Gerry Steinberg. Gerry served his constituents very well, and worked extremely hard to bring jobs and prosperity to Durham. He was for many years a diligent member of the Education Committee. I know that he will be missed, and the Public Accounts Committee, on which he also served, will be a less lively place without him. Right hon. and hon. Members might like to know that I have it as an aspiration to be as quiet and retiring as Gerry!

I also consider it to be an enormous privilege to be the Member of Parliament for my home, the wonderful city of Durham. Those of us who are fortunate to live there know of its extraordinary beauty and outstanding cultural heritage. In an effort to introduce the rest of the world to it, the travel writer Bill Bryson wrote:

"Why, it's wonderful—a perfect little city . . . If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It's wonderful."

I extend the same invitation to all right hon. and hon. Members.

I wish to return to the subject of Durham's amazing heritage. Durham's history is founded on the life of St. Cuthbert, a seventh century Northumbrian saint. He was noted for his fair and placid manner, for having a remarkable talent for athletics and a reputed gift for working miracles—so not much for me to follow there then! Durham cathedral was of course built as his burial place. The magnificent cathedral is still a place of pilgrimage and worship: it is central to the life of the city and I pay tribute to the work of the cathedral today.

The cathedral is also remarkable for its Galilee chapel where the Venerable Bede is buried. Bede, a religious scholar and early academic historian, became known as one of the most learned men in Europe. As the final resting place of one of the earliest academics, it is perhaps fitting that the cathedral is now surrounded by Durham university. Our university is considered to be one of the best in the country. It is renowned internationally and it too provides essential jobs and a valued contribution to our civic life. I think it must be one of very few universities to have a beautiful castle as one of its colleges.

Durham has another heritage that needs to be equally celebrated, and that is a heritage built on the city's mining industry and Labour inheritance. It is a joy to many of us in Durham that the miners gala is not only still held in the city every year but goes from strength to strength. It acts as a real focus for progressive politics in the city and involves a wide range of voluntary and community organisations. Long may it continue.

In his maiden speech, Gerry Steinberg admirably chronicled the problems facing the ex-mining villages surrounding the city centre. He pointed to the devastating levels of unemployment created by mine closures and de-industrialisation, and the absence of any policies by the then Conservative government to tackle them. So unemployment became an intergenerational experience because of the lack of jobs. It also created acute deprivation and the associated problems of poor health and the waste of human talent. Thankfully, I am able to stand here some years later and talk about the positive changes Labour has made in Durham. Unemployment in Durham city has halved over the past eight years, and that downward trend is continuing as new jobs come on stream. While many of those jobs have been created as a result of Labour's investment in the public services, Durham's private sector is also thriving. For example, the rate at which new firms are starting up in Durham has increased by 30 per cent. since 1997. That compares well with the north-east as a whole, which saw new firm start-ups increase by 11 per cent. over the same period, and both Durham and the region outstrip the national rate of increase.

That economic success depends on having a well-educated and skilled work force. Progress with raising educational achievement has been one of the Labour Government's most impressive achievements. Durham city has seen a 20 per cent. increase in pupils achieving five good GCSEs. Durham's quality of life is also much better than eight years ago. The burglary rate, for example, is down by 36 per cent. People are also living longer under a Labour Government. Durham city's death rate from circulatory diseases has fallen by a quarter since 1997 and from cancer by a fifth.

One has only to look around my constituency to see how investment in public services is making a difference. In Durham, we have a new hospital, a new state-of-the-art further education college, and we are shortly to have new buildings for Durham Johnston school. We have a Sure Start scheme with a children's centre already being built, and more children's centres on the way. And Durham is, I think, typical in that regard.

My job as an MP will be to ensure that progress continues. That will mean working with a range of agencies, businesses and the local councils to continue the regeneration of the urban areas and former mining villages. It will involve bringing schools, colleges and the university together to continue to improve educational attainment in the city, to provide innovative training models for the workplace and to promote Durham as an international centre of excellence for science development. My background in higher education means that I am simply passionate about education and its capacity to transform whole communities as well as individuals, and I will work to improve education at all levels in Durham.

It will also be necessary to continue to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour and local policing teams should help to reduce the fear of crime especially for the elderly. I want to continue to engage actively with communities in the city and listen to and act on their concerns. That includes establishing a mechanism for the voices of young people to be heard so they can see that democracy works for them too.

Finally, I return to the theme of heritage that I started with. Durham also has a tradition of reaching out to troubled communities throughout the world. I am very pleased that the Government have put the middle east peace process and reducing poverty in Africa at the top of their international agenda and I look forward to working with the many groups in Durham that have overseas development issues as their focus. I will of course be there to represent all my constituents and I will bring hard work and commitment to that task.

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