I am most grateful for the chance to address the House for the first time. It is a pleasure to follow John Bercow, who is known throughout the House for his independence of spirit, which we have seen on display again today, and which I am sure would be welcomed on these Benches. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) for their maiden speeches today, and to all hon. Members for their eloquent contributions.
In preparing my own speech, I looked back at the maiden speeches of my predecessors, and was struck by that of the radical reformer, Richard Cobden, who opened his account in the 1841 Queen's Speech debate. He told Members that it was not
"his desire to trespass long upon their attention"— but it is hard to deal briefly with the case against the corn laws. Cobden's speech, in its abbreviated form, stretched over 13 columns of Hansard and was estimated to have lasted at least 50 minutes. There is no record of how many Members remained in the Chamber at the end. The time limit on our speeches today means that I shall certainly not be emulating his precedent.
By custom and, more importantly, out of respect, I want to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Kevin Hughes, who sadly retired from the House because of illness. For 13 years, following his service as a miner, he served the people of Doncaster, North with great distinction, fighting for the place he came from and the people he grew up with. He served for four years in the Government Whips Office and, while I gather that it is hard to be a popular Whip, I know that many Members will miss his frankness, his integrity and his friendship. I thank him for the kindness that he has shown to me. In my constituency, too, there is the highest regard and warmest affection for Kevin and for his wife Linda, who so brilliantly assisted him with thousands of constituency cases. I promise my constituents and this House that I will try to live up to the standard that they set. I also pay tribute to Mick Welsh, Kevin's predecessor for 13 years, who served first in Don Valley and then in the newly created Doncaster, North.
Unlike Kevin, Mick or their predecessors, my roots do not lie in Doncaster. I am the son of two immigrants who met in London after the war, who had strong political beliefs, to which I refer because it helps to explain why I am here today. Ours was a socialist household, in which we were brought up not just to think that the injustices of society were wrong, but to believe that through political change, something could be done about them. Of course, as we grow up all of us make our own way. But it is right to recognise that it is this upbringing and that belief which brings me to this House to represent Doncaster, North.
Mine is a constituency that surprises those who visit it. Far from being an urban seat, as many assume, it is composed of a series of villages to the north of the town. It is a place with great and sweeping countryside, including Sykehouse, the longest village in England, the Thorne and Hatfield moors, renowned for their natural beauty, and Askern lake. We are also home to Saxon churches and the Norman church of St. Mary Magdalene in Campsall, where it is said that Robin Hood and Maid Marian were married. As strong believers in redistribution, people in Doncaster, North are happy to reclaim his roots.
And yet, despite our picturesque scenery, the lifeblood of my constituency was, until the 1980s, the mining industry. When Mick Welsh rose to make his maiden speech 26 years ago yesterday, four major pits dominated our landscape—Askern, Bentley, Brodsworth and Hatfield—directly supporting many thousands of families. All are now closed, although we are working for the reopening of Hatfield, which could not only provide access to half of the accessible coal reserves in England but offers the prospect of a new clean coal power station. That is an endeavour in which we hope to secure financial as well as moral support from the Government. We therefore face the challenge of massive industrial transition, with all that that entails for both the economy and the community.
Our advantage is that Doncaster, led by an elected Labour mayor, is a town—in fact, a city in all but name—on the up, experiencing the economic prosperity that is returning to the north of England. We have a new international airport, which was opened last month, one of only three UK airports with a runway large enough to accommodate the new Airbus A380. The airport is already expanding horizons, as shown by the eloquent letters that I have received from class 4 at Toll Bar primary school, which I shall visit on Friday. Our new education complex, Education City, when it opens next year, will, we are confident, become a university with several area-based campuses, including one in my constituency. We are also well served by local newspapers, although during the campaign my recognition factor suffered a bit of a setback when one campaign profile mistakenly substituted for a picture of me a photo of a brick wall.
As Doncaster revives, we in the northern villages will not necessarily share in the prosperity without the right sort of intervention by national and local government. Doncaster, North has great attributes, with pit traditions of community and fraternity, countryside, and most of all the people—honest, fair and hardworking—but at the same time the scars of the last two decades run deep. Therefore, as befits the representative of a progressive party, I come to this House not to talk about the gains that there have been, important though they are, but to say that we still have a long way to go to create the society that we seek. Despite progress in the past eight years, Britain is still a country too unequal, too divided by class and status, too distant from the goal even of equality of opportunity.
Therefore, what are our needs? Above all, we need a Government who will keep investing in our social and economic infrastructure. If my constituents are to get to the new jobs that are being created at the airport and elsewhere, we need investment in rail, road and bus services. In addition, people often ask me why, if the Mayor of London can regulate London's bus service so that it serves the people, we in Doncaster cannot do so?
To tackle disadvantage at its source, we need not just our three new Sure Start centres but such centres in every area, not just because of the services that they provide but because they represent a new focus for the community. I congratulate our secondary schools on their progress in GCSE performance, but we are still a long way behind the national average, and we need the most modern facilities not just in our new academy in Thorne but in every school. And to raise participation in higher education—still less than half the national average—we need not just the new Doncaster university, but to raise the sights of young people and to keep expanding university places.
The message that I received loud and clear in this campaign was that as we seek to revive our spirit of community, youth services must become a higher priority. What many young people on our streets told me is that there was nowhere for them to go and nothing for them to do. The young people whom I met are not yet cynical, nor are they without hope, nor are the vast majority troublemakers, but many feel that nobody really listens. They are tomorrow's voters—or, regrettably, non-voters. Respect is a two-way street. Many older people feel that young people do not show enough respect, but young people feel neglected by our society. If we can show them that we are listening and will respond to their needs, I am convinced that it will make an impact far beyond the immediate provision of youth services. That will be a priority for me as I try to serve my constituency in this House.
I want to end by referring to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government, who is winding up the debate tonight. It is daunting, on such occasions, to have members of one's family watching in the Public Gallery—but worse, I feel, to have them sitting in the Chamber. As the House will know, he and I are now the only brothers in this place, although there are two sets of distinguished Labour sisters. I quickly offer this reassurance to the House: there are no more Miliband brothers to come. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that two is more than enough.
I also want to put on the record, however, how much my family owes to this country. Our father left Belgium in 1940 on the last boat to Britain, the evening before the Nazis arrived, and would have perished without the welcoming arms of a country that recognised its duty to help those fleeing from terror. I hope that I and my brother, in the service that we give in the House, can in some small way help to repay the debt that we owe to this country. In my contributions in this House, I will strive to reflect not only the voices of the constituents who put me here this month, but the humanity and solidarity shown to my family more than 60 years ago, which led my family out of the dark times of despair to a place of hope, and me to the Floor of this House today. I thank the House for listening.