Constitution and Home Affairs
Oral Answers to Questions — Education
Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian, Labour)
I thank Nicola Blackwood for an eloquent and elegant contribution. I also single out my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson. It is so good for the House that women with her experience have been elected to serve.
It is customary to pay tribute to one's constituency in a maiden speech. I am pleased to say that I am not in the position of my hon. Friend Stephen Pound, who appeared to have to work hard in 1997 to find something interesting to say about his constituency. However, he managed the story from June 1889, when a giant circus elephant collapsed and died on Castlebar hill. I quote from his maiden speech:
"The great pachyderm, with its last few breaths, bravely staggered forward, and is, to this day, to be found beneath the road-unfortunately, just over the constituency border in Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush."-[ Hansard, 10 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 608.]
I am delighted that, for me, the task is entirely easy and pleasurable. East Lothian is, without doubt, a constituency blessed in almost every way imaginable. It positively drips with scenic beauty. Not only is it blessed with breathtaking natural beauty, it has a continuous golden thread of historical significance. Those golden colours are reflected in the wonderful art of local artist John Bellany, who grew up in Port Seton. The constituency's natural beauty ranges from magnificent beaches, through agricultural farm land to rolling hills, and features everything from Cistercian monks to the resting place of Concorde.
Even with that embarrassment of riches, I have not mentioned its greatest asset: its people. East Lothian is blessed with genuinely close-knit and vibrant communities. It is a part of this country that has a real and thriving sense of self. Its strong sense of identity means that, even in these most difficult times for the newspaper industry, it is served by three local newspapers. The existence of the East Lothian Courier, East Lothian and Musselburgh News and the Evening News is not a leftover from a past age but the reflection of a community with deep roots and a strong sense of social justice.
The communities of East Lothian range from former mining and fishing villages through to castles and keeps, from the market town of Haddington to the fiercely proud mining-built communities of Prestonpans, Tranent, Wallyford, Macmerry, Ormiston, Elphinstone and Whitecraig. At the east end of the constituency sits Musselburgh-the "honest toun"-which now has one of the top five race courses in the country.
The constituency's people have a long history of not being easily pushed around and not tolerating social injustice. Those battles have not been fought only in this country. The men who left East Lothian to fight against Franco's fascists in the Spanish civil war have their names inscribed on a plaque in Prestonpans.
As well as brave men, East Lothian also has a proud history of brave women. My predecessor, Anne Moffat, was the first woman to represent East Lothian. She began her working life as a nurse and went on to become president of Unison. Becoming the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend Alan Johnson when he was Secretary of State for Health was a real source of pride to Anne. She cared deeply about the NHS and her first-hand experience of working in the wards equipped her well for that post.
The House will be aware that Anne has suffered poor health in recent months, and I am sure all hon. Members will join me in wishing her good health and happiness. Anne paved the way for other women to represent East Lothian-I am sure that I will not be the last-but she was not the first woman to stand up for working people in my constituency. There is a statue in Tranent, by sculptor David Annand, of Jackie Crookston beating her drum with a small child at her side, to commemorate the massacre of Tranent in 1797. Women from mining communities across the county beat their own drums to protect their communities during the miners' strike of 1984. That dispute and those months of hardship almost tore those communities apart as some men returned to work. Fiona Hunter, then aged only 12, wrote a poem called, "Hang on Dad" for a school project:
"Don't go down the mine Dad
Where some of them have gone
Hang on a little longer Dad
Don't let them think they've won
I know it's hard to feed us Dad
But we've hung on so long
It can't go on much longer Dad
Much better times must come."
It is hard to believe that those are the words of a child of 12.
The common endeavour of the miners, their families and the communities of East Lothian bound them close together, so my constituency is clearly one that does not easily lend itself to dissection, the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries and the random consequence of arid mathematical formulas dreamt up in Conservative central office and breathed into life in Whitehall. The coalition Government cannot take a community such as East Lothian, with its sense of self, its sensible and natural boundaries and institutions, and its hundreds of years of organic community development, and simply apply the chainsaw of narrow party advantage in the way that has been proposed.
As I was campaigning, I was proud to mark Labour's record, and I now want to make a pledge to the people of East Lothian: Her Majesty's loyal Opposition will fight to stop the Government's proposals to weaken democracy and my role in representing you. I thank the House.