Education and Health
Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
Simon Wright (Norwich South, Liberal Democrat)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. I am pleased to follow the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and of many other Members who have spoken today with great pride in their constituencies and also a good sense of humour. I was pleased to learn of the farming background of the hon. Member for Stroud. As someone who grew up on a Norfolk farm, I am aware of some of the significant challenges facing agriculture, and it is good that someone with direct expertise in that area has been elected to this House.
I would like to start by paying tribute to Charles Clarke, the previous Member for Norwich South. Charles brought immense intellectual rigour to debates on policy, both locally and nationally. He worked very hard for his constituents, and while he was serving outside the Cabinet he also built a reputation as someone with real independence of mind, and with great confidence in speaking up when he felt his party was wrong.
Norwich has a tradition of rebellious tendencies. In 1381, it was a focus of the peasants' revolt; the city gates were forced open and the castle taken by the rebels. Within 200 years, my city experienced another great rebellion: Robert Kett led a three-week uprising against the enclosure of common land. His army seized the city, and defeated a Government army in battle. In 1793, Norwich's Bell hotel was the meeting place of a secret group hoping to spread French revolutionary ideals.
As I am probably not giving too much reassurance to my party's Whips about the value of having a representative from Norwich in their ranks, I shall move on to talk about some other issues that affect my constituency. It truly is a great honour and privilege to represent Norwich South. Norwich is a great city in which to live and work. Economically, politically and culturally, it is a very important capital within Norfolk and East Anglia, and we aspire to be, and do, so much more.
However, like the rest of Britain, Norwich faces its own challenges. Top of the list is the need to develop the infrastructure supporting Norwich's economy. One of the major issues is the need to improve the Norwich to London rail service, which has suffered from under-investment for many decades. As part of the Greater Anglia rail franchise, I want to see a genuine commitment to 90-minute journeys between Norwich and London, more reliable services, newer trains and improvements to capacity. Although new high-speed rail is, of course, to be welcomed, we must not distract attention from such routes, where investment is so desperately needed.
I also want to see the soonest possible completion of the dualling of the A11, a key road link connecting Norwich to London. Following a Government inquiry into this matter earlier this year, we are all now awaiting the inspector's report. It has been estimated that for every pound required to complete the dualling, the local economy would benefit by £5. It is a very strong and necessary investment, which would give Norwich and Norfolk a much needed boost. The state of the public finances means that there is real pressure on budgets supporting such infrastructure development, but it is vital that those parts of the county that have not had a fair deal in recent years do not lose out now.
Norwich is seeking to become the UK's first capital of culture, in 2013. My city has a fantastic cultural heritage. I am enthusiastically backing Norwich's bid, and I urge other Members to join me in doing so by signing up to my early-day motion. This would mean so much to the city of Norwich and the wider region, not only in terms of cultural growth, but through the economic and tourism boost a successful bid would provide. I fear that I probably will not have the backing of Paul Blomfield, however.
My city's culture and heritage includes a wealth of pubs and churches. Norwich was once famous for having a church for every week of the year, and a pub for every day, with the highest number of watering holes per square mile in the UK. It is also thought that Norwich's churches were so popular in part due to activities that resulted from the popularity of its pubs.
Norwich is also known for its world-class research in the field of climate change. As a low-lying county with a soft coastline, Norfolk is in many ways at the forefront of climate change in the UK. Many of the UK's leading climate change experts are based at research institutions in Norwich, including the university of East Anglia and the Norwich research park. This Parliament will prove to be of vital importance to the future of our planet, and the expertise in my constituency can play a vital role.
Another area I am passionate about is education. As a former secondary school teacher, I am committed to seeing that schools get the best deal possible. I am delighted that front-line school funding will be protected, and that the new pupil premium will provide greater support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Norwich is a university city, and my constituency contains the university of East Anglia. Like university students throughout England, its current and potential students are nervous about taking on the level of debt now required to study their chosen degree courses. I am one of an increasing number of MPs who has the misfortune of having a substantial debt to pay off. I passionately believe in the case for free higher education and, until the country can afford to deliver on that, I hope that we can at least work to address the issue of student debt. We also need to widen participation in higher education and increase the number of young people entering it from less well-off backgrounds. Education and aspiration are key to improving social mobility.
Building a better Norwich, or building a better Britain, does not come about simply by dropping Government legislation from a great height and hoping that it will bear fruit. It comes about through working the ground to enable it to bear fruit and working with the people whom it affects in order to harvest their ideas and experiences as to what works and what could be made to work. I am a local representative as well as a parliamentarian, so I know that we must connect the legislative process with our communities. As the Member of Parliament for Norwich South, I will spend the next five years and, I hope, many more thereafter, working with individuals, community groups, the police and council representatives-with everyone who has a stake in the future well-being of my city-to bring about the very best for Norwich. I look forward to working over the years ahead to raise, through Parliament, the concerns and issues expressed by my constituents in Norwich and to working with colleagues from all parties to deliver on the proposals outlined in this debate to the benefit of my community.