I hope that hon. Members will be patient and kind for a few moments while I quote from the language of Eden:
"A nich labhairt san a tha e a toirt toileachas dhomhsa an diugh m'oraid a thoiseachadh ann an cainnt m'oige, caint a thug m'athair dhomh is san tha mi a nis fior thaingeil gu robh e daigeann a deanamh cinnteach gum biodh canan mo sgire agam.
Si Gaidhlig an cainnt Cheilteach a rinn Alba na dhuthaich air a bheil sinn eolach an diugh. Se na Gaidheil a tha againn oirnn fheinn ach chuir na Romanaich Scotti oirnn mar a chuir na Iriquois 'Eskimo' air na h-lnuit.
Thug Gaidhlig is da channanas iomadh buanachd dhomhsa. Tha i a deanamh ceangal ri mo charaidean bhon Chumrigh—ged nach tuig an da chainnt Cheilteach a cheile agus tha i a'cuimhneach dhuinn ceangalaichean ri Eilean Mhanain is ri Eirinn."
I thank hon. Members.
In translation, it gives me great pleasure to begin my speech in Gaelic, the language taught to me by my father, and I am grateful for his determination, and my mother's support. Gaelic is the language that made Scotland a distinct entity. We Gaelic speakers call ourselves the Gaels, and have done so throughout history. The Romans called us the Scotti, however, in the same way that the Iroquois named the Inuit Eskimos. Gaelic is now spoken by only about 60,000 people in Scotland and I am glad to be one of them. Being bilingual has given me many benefits, not least an empathy with the Welsh, although the two Celtic languages relate to each other in the same way as the Germanic languages of English and German. My sort of Gaelic, however, is closely related to that of the Isle of Man and Ireland.
I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Calum MacDonald, whom Labour Members in particular remember fondly, I am sure. Calum, a highland gentleman and a very nice man, was most gracious after my election, and I thank him for that.
Na h-Eileanan an Iar stretches for 200 miles. Last week, as I flew from south to north, I experienced three different types of weather. Clearly, the new BBC weather forecast, as every fisherman told me at the fishing exhibition in Glasgow last weekend, is totally inadequate for our needs. I am pleased to say that the BBC sent me a letter, which I received yesterday, indicating a change of heart on the tilt of the map, which had rendered Scotland, 40 per cent. of the land mass of the UK, down to 10 per cent. of the screen area. I welcome the BBC's responsiveness to the needs of my many constituents. The BBC now needs to ensure that we have wind speeds, with directions and isobar charts, on all bulletins. I would like to thank other Members, from many parties, who signed my early-day motion calling on the BBC to think again.
Lewis is the biggest and most populated of the islands, with almost 20,000 people. Fish farming is now the largest employer, although Harris tweed remains an important industry. Travelling south, one reaches Harris, which is currently suffering the loss of around 70 jobs from the closure of the salmon processing plant on Scalpaigh—a problem that, in per capita terms, is far worse for the area than the closure of the MG Rover plant is for the midlands.
Off the west coast of Harris is Taransay, where, as many Members might remember, the television programme "Castaway" was filmed. Over the sound of Harris is Berneray, where the illustrious Prince Charles once spent a spring gainfully employed planting potatoes. Berneray is linked by causeway to North Uist, which in turn is linked to Benbecula, South Uist and on to Eriskay. There has been concern throughout Uist that the linking of the islands with fixed links, leaving no gap for tidal flow, exacerbated the effects of the storms on
To get home to Barra from Uist, I can take the second ferry that links the constituency. The ferry leaves from Eriskay beside the silvery white beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie started his epic and, sadly, failed adventure. On Barra is the famous cockle strand, the Traigh Mhor, which in famine times 150 years ago fed many hundreds. The beach is now Barra's airport, and when one is there, places such as London or Glasgow can feel quite remote, as one can only get to them at low tide. Transportation, and its associated costs, is a pressing problem for the islands and one of the main reasons for depopulation. Sadly, the finest scenery in the UK cannot retain people on its own. In the past 10 years, my constituency has lost 11 per cent. of its population—more than any other in the House, I believe. That is caused not by geography, but by politics. Ireland is gaining population. Iceland's population grew over the 20th century, as did Norway's. The Faroe Islands trebled its population in the 20th century. Scotland generally suffers from not being an independent country; our Parliament does not even have the powers of the Isle of Man.
In the short term, beyond a constitutional change, there is a pressing need for road equivalent tariff to lower our ferry fares and give our islands the same chance, opportunities and success as those in western Norway. For our air services, we need public service orders on the Benbecula and Stornoway routes to complement the Barra route, to make fares more affordable to the general public.
A former governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George, once said that unemployment in the north was a price worth paying for economic stability in the south. As Ireland to the west has shown, however, it is possible to benefit what were once considered to be the political and economic fringes, as long as we are not all stuck with the "one size fits all" economic politics of the sterling zone. Irish independence has been an economic win-win situation for both the United Kingdom and Ireland, as has Norway's independence for Norway and Sweden.
The sentiments of the former governor of the Bank of England make me proud as Punch to be a member of the Scottish National party and to be here today—although that is tempered by the fact that on my first day I was taken to Westminster Hall and reminded of the fate of an earlier Scottish nationalist in these parts, William Wallace, who was hanged, drawn and quartered for his politics 700 years ago this August. I am not sure that I can match that courage; in fact, I am certain that I cannot—just in case some Members are getting ideas.
In 1900, there were about 50 independent nations on earth. With the decline in imperialism, there are now about 200. I say to my fellow Scots that independence and progress travelled hand in glove during the 20th century, and will continue to do so.
There is much more that I could have said about my constituency, my Labour predecessor and the need for Scotland to choose independence. Let me end, however, by pointing out that my majority at the election was 1441. It is not the first time that that number has troubled some in the House, and I wonder whether it will be the last.
I am delighted to follow the maiden speech of Mr. MacNeil. This is my first opportunity to mention the name of his constituency in the new Parliament. My surname may be McIsaac, but the McIsaacs—pronounced differently—originally hailed from the isle of Eriskay. While I may not share the hon. Gentleman's Scottish Nationalist politics, I am sure that we will continue to share a love of the islands of the west of Scotland. I pay tribute to his maiden speech, which highlighted problems that I know exist in the islands, and I hope that he does well in the House.
Being called today made me cast my mind back to my own maiden speech, which seems a long time ago. On that day I focused on education, and particularly on primary school class sizes, a subject to which I want to return today.
During the general election campaign, North East Lincolnshire council, which covers the constituencies of Cleethorpes and Great Grimsby, announced controversial school closures. I am inclined to go for the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history, but many residents of Grimsby and Cleethorpes sense a very fishy aroma wafting from Grimsby town hall. The Liberal Democrat leader of the council stood against my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell at the election, and two of my opponents were Liberal Democrat and Conservative cabinet members. Although I do not think that that was deliberate, many people in the area do.
Having announced the closures in the middle of the election campaign, the council has now given a closing date of
Another reason why the proposed closures are completely wrong is the fact that the information used by the council is out of date. Its net capacity figures relate to 2002 or thereabouts. Since then, many of the schools in question—not just those threatened with closure, but some that are threatened with amalgamation or a reduction in the number of classrooms—have taken steps to deal with the problem of surplus places. The paper produced by the council does not recognise that. The fact that the figures are out of date and wrong must be addressed as a matter of urgency before any decision is made to close a school.
The schools themselves are challenging the figures. One of them, Bursar primary school in Cleethorpes, is close to my home. The council says that it has capacity for 243 admissions, but its limit is actually 210, and there are currently 198 children on its roll. That could not be described as an excessive number of surplus places. Elliston infants school and Elliston junior school are also in Cleethorpes. One of those schools is above capacity and is one of the best-performing schools in the borough, yet it too is being earmarked for closure.
The council has come up with predictions of the size of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes population in 2009. It asserts that the population in the borough is declining and that the number of births is falling. It claims that there will be 400 or 500 fewer children each year. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of live births in the area is increasing, and it predicts that the number of children of primary school age will also increase over the next few years. If the council proceeds with its plans, up to 2,000 primary school-age children may be without places because of its severe underestimate of future numbers.
I am deeply worried by the council's failure to announce alternatives to the closures. It simply announced in the press, in the middle of an election campaign, that schools would have to close, and told parents to come up with alternatives. Surely it would have been better practice to liaise with parents, with the schools involved, with head teachers and with unions in a co-operative way, with a view to identifying alternatives and to see what the schools themselves could suggest. Some of those earmarked for closure have no surplus places at all, and it is entirely wrong for over-capacity schools to be closed as a first step in the process of dealing with surplus places.
My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, with whom I have sparred on many occasions—I remember doing so on the issue of compensation for distant-water trawlermen when he was doing one of his earlier jobs—knows that once I get my teeth into an issue, I will not give up. I shall use every opportunity to harangue Front Benchers to establish whether there are any measures that they can take. I realise that it is for the council to come up with a solution to the problem of surplus school places, but I must seriously say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe the guidelines are clear enough to councils. Because they are unclear, councils such as North East Lincolnshire can come up with controversial proposals that worry parents and teachers and, in this case, create a great deal of uncertainty.
Now that the council says that schools will have to close, parents are wondering whether to risk sending their children to a particular school in September, and teachers are wondering whether they have to start looking for new jobs. Indeed, if there is a vacancy, how will head teachers recruit staff if a school is going to be open for only three or four more months? The situation is a recipe for disaster. I tell the Minister again that we need far clearer rules on how to deal with surplus places, and I shall try to arrange a meeting with education Ministers to make that point.
Ultimately, the most serious political reason for my raising this matter before the
This opportunity to raise matters of importance to our constituents recurs at regular intervals through the parliamentary calendar before the rather too regular Adjournments of the House. It is an important chance for Back-Bench Members to raise issues that they would not otherwise be able to raise properly and in order during discussions on legislation or, indeed, on the rare Government debates on matters of interest. Members present are clearly aware of the value of the exercise, not least those seeking to make their maiden speeches—this is yet another opportunity to do so after the Queen's Speech. However, all Members should be aware that this a chance to play a valuable role on behalf of their constituents and I find the empty Labour Benches astonishing. One can only assume that all is sweetness and light in every Labour constituency other than Cleethorpes.
It was a pleasure to hear an accomplished maiden speech by Mr. MacNeil—I hope that my pronunciation was reasonable. Those of us who served in previous Parliaments will still, I am afraid, think of the constituency as the Western Isles, because that is the limit of our linguistic prowess. I am jealous of the fact that he is bilingual. That is a great attribute and certainly opens doors. His accomplished speech on behalf of his constituents showed his deep knowledge of his constituency and I welcome him to the House. I suspect that he will form part of an exclusive ginger group of Members representing islands, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for St. Ives (Andrew George).
And Canvey Island.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that Canvey Island might be included in that group. Remote though it may be, I am not sure that it qualifies. The villages on the levels of Somerset revert to islands for only a few months every year and are considered to be inland most of the time. I welcome the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar to the House and congratulate him on his maiden speech.
Shona McIsaac rightly used this opportunity to draw attention to a concern in her constituency. I have no idea of the rights and wrongs of the case that she mentioned. I hope that it will not be necessary for the Deputy Leader of the House to intervene in local authority matters, whichever authority that may be and whatever it may be engaged in. Having been a leader of a county council and chairman of a local education authority, I can say that there is never a right time to go about school reorganisations and there is never a way of presenting a case that does not cause a great deal of controversy locally. A wise local authority will listen carefully to the cases put on both sides and come up with the right solution to provide education for the people in its area.
If I may abuse my position slightly, I will first raise two matters of concern in my constituency. The first is a serious matter that I will have to return to repeatedly over the next few months: the future of the new Frome Victoria hospital. We have been waiting since 1998, when it was announced that a new hospital would be built for the town. We were promised that it would be built by 2000. Although it benefited from huge fundraising efforts in the town—£500,000 was raised towards the costs of the new hospital—the situation has becalmed because the private finance scheme to fund it appears not to have sufficient money to get it built.
That is a matter of huge concern in Frome. We have a green field where our new hospital should be. We have an excellent hospital, but it was built in Victorian times and cannot provide the necessary facilities for the people of Frome. The town has every right to expect something to be done to break the logjam and to ensure that the hospital is built. So often we hear glowing reports from hon. Members about the wonders of investment in the national health service and what that has provided for their constituencies, yet we in Frome still have a decaying Victorian hospital and an expectation that has so far not been met and we still lack a modern facility in Frome. I asked during the previous Parliament for Ministers to look into the problem and I will continue to do so in this Parliament.
My second point is on a rather happier note. Tomorrow, I shall visit St. Louis VC Roman Catholic junior school in my constituency, where the pupils have recorded a CD, songs from which they will sing to me, in support of the Make Poverty History campaign. The fact that children are engaged in that huge issue for our time, along with a large part of the population and the Government and Opposition parties, will, I hope, result in action when it comes to the summit and the British presidency of the G8 and the European Union. I hope that we will be able to make a difference on one of the most crucial issues facing the world, and that we can begin to change the world for the better by reducing the intense poverty that besets so many people in so many parts of the developing world.
My principal point is, as I mentioned during business questions, that I find it extraordinary that it is the unelected House that today is having a debate
"To call attention to the workings of the British electoral system in the 2005 general election",
but that this elected House does not have the opportunity to say how it was for us, during an election that was widely felt to have fallen far short of what we would hope of the democratic system in this country. I do not say that from a partisan point of view, because there are people of no political persuasion or many who feel exactly the same way. They feel that it cannot be right to have an electoral system in which a Government can be elected with a substantial majority in this House with just 22 per cent. of the electorate supporting them. It cannot be right for the Conservative party to gain more votes in England than the Labour party, yet have fewer seats. It cannot be right that Her Majesty's principal Opposition party in terms of numbers has no representation in any city outside London. That is an extraordinary position for our electoral system to be in.
I am not arguing the case purely from the position of my own party, even though it is clearly disadvantaged by the current system. Rather, I argue that, if we want people to have confidence in our democracy, questions must be asked about the present position. At the very least, we should examine whether a system that has, I accept, done perfectly well for the country in previous centuries and decades is now adequate to the task of reinvigorating our democracy for the future.
My party has a clear line on its preferred system of voting. The Leader of the House argued that we wanted it purely on the basis of self-interest, but that is not the case. The alternative vote system mentioned earlier would be the best for us in respect of the number of seats that we would secure, but we happen to believe that it is not proportional so we do not accept, in principle, that it is the best solution.
We also understand the arguments that people often make about the important link between Members and their constituencies. I agree that it is a very important consideration and I would be loth to lose it. I continue to be unhappy with the system used to elect Members to the European Parliament—the closed list system, which effectively puts all the power to decide who represents a particular area in the hands of the party machinery.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and I am personally experiencing the frustration that follows from being a member of a party that won the popular vote in England, yet remains a long way behind in the number of seats. Does he agree with the strong rationale that the links between an individual working in a community and that community itself must be the bedrock of our democratic system? Does he accept that what he proposes inevitably means moving away from that link?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point, as I have already said that the link between the Member and the community is important. I also recognise, however, that the 22,000-odd people—I use the term "odd" in the mathematical rather than the pejorative sense—who voted Conservative in the Somerton and Frome constituency at the last election have not elected anyone to represent them on the basis of the votes that they secured. There has long been trench warfare over seats in Somerset and roughly similar numbers voted Conservative in the previous election and the one before that. The trick that we need is something that unites the sense of community with a sense of fairness, which is what I believe the British public want.
I am grateful for the opportunity to press the hon. Gentleman on that. I gain the biggest buzz of all in my constituency when someone approaches me and says, "I could never vote for you; I could never vote Conservative; but I am really grateful for the job you are doing." I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must have experienced the same feeling and that he would accept that it is possible for every MP to do a good job for every single constituent, regardless of how they vote.
Absolutely. One of the greatest compliments that I was ever paid came from a teller in a blue rosette who stopped me at the polling station during the previous election—not this one—and shook me warmly by the hand. He said, "Mr. Heath, I am a Conservative, as you can see, but I want you to know that you are, in my opinion, the best Member of Parliament that we have ever had". I was grateful for that; it meant something to me—[Interruption.] Not everyone would say that, but this gentleman did. I nevertheless believe that there are electoral systems that unite the crucial principle of being connected to a community with fairness across the country.
I recognise that there are both strongly divided and partisan views and some non-partisan views, and that all are equally strongly held. Surely, however, we have a duty, as the elected House in this country, to examine the issue on behalf of the people out there who believe that the system is not working properly or who have simply walked away from the whole process, as evidenced by the degree of abstentionism in this country's elections. There are far too many who feel that democracy is just not delivering for them, which is a very dangerous thing.
To move on from the electoral system itself, I want to mention the integrity of the voting system and problems with postal voting. I share the view that postal voting is, in its place, a useful addition to the opportunities available to the public. There were experiments in my constituency with all-postal voting for district council elections. It had an interesting effect and marginally increased participation, although there were, equally, problems on the other side of the fence. The difficulties that we experienced were clearly identified in our debates on pilot systems for the European Parliament before the whole electoral process started. The Government's insouciance and indolence meant that the proper safeguards that should have been put in place were not put in place, even though the Electoral Commission had said that they were necessary. That is why so many people felt that the system was being abused.
It is surely critical to our electoral process that people feel that our system has integrity. We preach the lesson abroad all the time when we monitor elections in other countries, yet there are systems in this country that would never pass my scrutiny as a member of the parliamentary delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. If I were monitoring an election abroad, and saw some of the abuses of electoral processes that have taken place in this country, I would write a damning report. We must revisit those problems, together with the engagement of the general public and voting opportunities, as a matter of urgency. For example, we could reflect on the possibility of voting at weekends. It is common in many other countries and it may be right for us now in an age when everyone works through the week. As we all know, having knocked on many doors over recent weeks, it is rare to find anyone in on a weekday, yet it is a weekday on which we call an election. Does that make sense? I do not believe that it does.
Finally, we need to connect all those issues with constitutional reform. The Government must get to grips with the job that they have botched. They started to reform the upper Chamber, but have not completed it, yet such reform is integrally connected with what happens in this Chamber. It is not possible to define the form and functions of the revising Chamber until the primary Chamber can do its work of scrutiny effectively. I do not believe that it functions well at the moment. As a result of the application of guillotines and the refusal to allow enough time for important Bills on Report, far too much legislation passes through the House with only cursory examination. We should remember that Report is the only time when hon. Members on both sides of the House can raise important issues on the legislation of the day. Legislation can sometimes be critical to the life and liberty of their constituents, but if hon. Members do not have the opportunity even to speak to, intervene on or debate critical amendments, the House cannot be said to be doing the job that it is elected to do. Once again, I view that matter as critical to our electoral process.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which theoretically allows a party to win less than 51 per cent. of the vote in every seat yet win every seat in the country. However, I could not support a proposal to hold elections over a weekend, and especially on a Sunday, as that would cause many of my constituents difficulty.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and applaud him for intervening so soon after making his maiden speech. That shows great confidence. I understand the sensitivities in parts of Scotland and Wales—and, indeed, the west country—about holding an election on a Sunday. Similar problems arise in parts of London, Manchester the other cities about holding an election on a Saturday. However, a slightly prolonged voting period would allow people with deep religious convictions not to vote on a Sunday.
In conclusion, we must address the electoral question as a matter of urgency, and we must do so in this elected House. The country needs to begin a process of democratic renewal. If the word did not have such bad connotations, I would say democratic rearmament because we need a crusade to get the democratic system back on track. Those hon. Members who think that this discussion is academic or merely dreamed up by Hampstead liberals in their drawing rooms are wrong because it is not. I have set out what people around the country are thinking. They believe that the system no longer works, that this House is irrelevant, and that neither Government nor Opposition parties listen to them. If we accept that with equanimity, we do both House and country a grave disservice, as the alternative is an awful lot worse.
I thank Mr. Heath for putting me out of my misery. I have had a long and nervous wait on these Benches and I shall try not to bore the House to tears over the next 10 or 12 minutes, but it will be difficult to follow such oratory.
I have visited the Scottish isles, and regularly go to Islay and Jura. I know that they are in the south, but if the constituency of Mr. MacNeil is as beautiful, he is indeed a lucky man. I have said that I will try not to bore the House, but Conservative Members cannot yet be deselected for making a bad speech. For that, I am grateful.
I follow Dame Marion Roe as MP for Broxbourne. She was well known to the House as a wonderful woman who made a wonderful contribution to the work done here. Her curriculum vitae is three pages long, but merely reading that for 10 minutes would put me in great trouble, so I shall pick out the highlights. She was an Environment Minister when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and was also Chair of both the Health Committee and the Administration Committee. She was also joint vice-chair of the 1922 committee, and I am sure that she would like to be here today in that role.
The most important thing, however, is that Dame Marion gave 22 years of fabulous service to the people of Broxbourne. She is much loved and admired—and much missed. I want to thank her for the great kindness that she showed me and my young family when I was selected to fight the seat. Her husband James Roe, who was by her side for all those years, also deserves my gratitude for his kindness.
I am sure that the House will be interested to hear that Broxbourne is wedged between Essex and London. It is ringed by the M25 and the A10, and I thought that I would break with tradition and give hon. Members a brief tour of my constituency.
Waltham Cross lies to the south. It has a thriving Italian community of 10,000 people, many of whom came from Sicily to work in our greenhouse industry. Indeed, the town is twinned with Sutera in Sicily. It is well known for having an Eleanor cross, raised by King Edward I in 1292. Thirteen of those wonderful crosses were made in memory of the King's dead wife, whose body he trundled around London for 13 days. I hope that he got to us early in his journey, as I imagine that, by day 12 or 13, people would have known that she was on her way at least two days before she arrived.
I turn now to the historic town of Cheshunt, home to Cedars park, at whose gates Charles I was proclaimed king. Unfortunately, the story goes downhill from there. Cedars park was razed to the ground in the civil war, and we all know that Charles I unfortunately had his head cut off. Subsequently, Richard Cromwell, the Lord Protector's son, retired to Cheshunt on his return from his travels, when a new king was in place.
Given the streak of republicanism in Cheshunt, I am surprised that Labour is not better entrenched there. I am glad that it is not, but I should like to take this opportunity to thank my Labour opponent in the election, Jamie Bolden. He is 23 years old, a remarkable young man and a great credit to those on the Labour Benches. I believe that he is a future leader of the Labour party, or a future Cabinet Minister. He fought a hard and clean campaign, and the good-natured running joke in the constituency is that his mum is very proud of him. However, she has every right to be.
We move now to Broxbourne, which straddles the New river. That wonderful river was built in 1650 to take water from the chalk downs into London. It is home to a wide range of wildlife, including kingfishers and herons, as well as enormous pike. I am a very keen fisherman, but the drawback is that one is not allowed to fish in the New river. When I come to the end of my time in Broxbourne—and it might be sooner than I think—I hope on my last day that I might be able to nip down to the river. Many young men and women in my constituency find time to hide under a bridge and try and catch fish. I shall join them, and I shall cheer them on.
Broxbourne is home to a wonderful school that has three stars. It is highly rated by Ofsted and—more importantly—by the children who attend it. Many of them go on to do great and fabulous things. Another school in my constituency, the John Warner school, has just been awarded a charter mark, and students at the Sheredes school this week opened a garden at an old people's home that they had spent their free time repairing and making look beautiful. They are to be lauded for that, as young people make a massive contribution to society. We need to praise them for that, and encourage more people to get involved.
I hope that the House is not too tired with this journey around my constituency, as it is time to get back in the car and visit the attractive market town of Hoddesdon. It has a beautiful town centre that I am afraid needs some work. It could be a fantastic facility for my constituency and the surrounding area. We need to reinvigorate and revitalise Hoddesdon town centre. I shall work with all my colleagues on the town council and in local groups to ensure that we get the right business to go there, and that the town becomes a place people want to visit and spend time in.
The international pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp and Dhome is located in Hoddesdon. It is a major employer in my constituency, and it is at the forefront of finding cures for today's diseases. Again, I look forward to working with the company to bring more investment to my constituency, as I do with Tesco, which also has its headquarters in my constituency.
Last, but not least, is the Cuffley and Northaw ward in the borough of Welwyn Hatfield. It is an extremely beautiful area of rolling countryside and little villages. It is a wonderful part of the green belt and many people from London come to enjoy that part of my constituency. I urge Labour Members to press the Deputy Prime Minister to do a little less building on our bit of the green belt, as the present proposals worry many people.
Despite the leafy picture that I have painted, Broxbourne is not all roses. There are significant pockets of poverty, and we have many of the problems that one equates with London. Despite the best efforts of our schools—we have wonderful head teachers—our young people simply do not do as well as others in more prosperous areas. I urge the Government to work with me and other interested parties to try to improve the performance of our young people and give them the life opportunities that I and so many other Members had. The amount of new build is putting increasing strain on our schools and hospitals. I have parents crying in my surgery because they cannot get their children into any of the schools of their choice, let alone their first choice.
To be a little controversial for a moment, I understand that for every £60 spent by the Government in the north of England, only £35 is spent in my constituency. I do not want to see an increase in tax—in fact, I would like to see taxes reduced—but the cake should be cut a little more fairly. My constituents need good public services, and they need good schools and chances to improve their lives.
I shall conclude with the three things that matter most to my constituents. The first is the protection of the green belt. The East of England regional assembly is a totally unaccountable body, but it is placing hundreds of thousands of houses in the area. My constituents are confused, because 250,000 houses in the north of England are being pulled down—houses that would cost £30,000 to renovate, but £117,000 to replace. I will work with all parties to bring planning back to local people and to make elected politicians accountable for it.
I shall not rehearse the problems that Chase Farm hospital faces. It is a wonderful place where many good people work and we are lucky to have them, but it is in desperate need of more funding. That funding was promised eight years ago, but it still has not arrived. My constituents deserve a first-class health service. After all, they are paying for it. The people who work at Chase Farm deserve to work in a state-of-the-art hospital. My fear is that, if we do not see more investment, we will lose many of those good people and the problems afflicting Chase Farm will only worsen. I would hate to see that happen.
The final issue is crime. We are told that Broxbourne has 84 police officers, one per 1,000 of the population, but there are lies, damn lies and statistics. What with shifts, weekends, holidays, training and sickness, that number is radically reduced. Indeed, on some evenings, there can be as few as eight police officers covering those 84,000 people, which is only one per 10,000. Police stations are shut and calls go unanswered. I have huge respect for the brave men and women who patrol our streets, but we need to give them more support. I cannot go on telling my constituents, as the Government would like me to do, that they have never had it so good, because the reality does not match the rhetoric. We need more policemen and more visible policing before my constituents lose confidence in the service.
This is a daunting place, but I take comfort from the fact that, in the last century, 3,000 Members of Parliament came before me and in the next century, if we still have a Parliament, 3,000 will come after me. Only a very few make a lasting contribution—Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and, although it pains me to say it, the present Prime Minister, because he will be recorded in history. I have been awarded a tiny walk-on part and I am hugely grateful for that. I hope to be a courageous Member of Parliament who puts his country and constituency before his personal career. Wherever I see unfairness or injustice, I hope to challenge them. Whether I am here for four years or 40 years, I hope that my constituents will say, "He did his best for us, and that is all that we could ask."
I am grateful for the opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to make my maiden speech. It is a pleasure to do so immediately after my hon. Friend Mr. Walker, who is a constituency neighbour. I know that he was concerned about making his first speech, and I congratulate him on a tremendous maiden speech which I thoroughly enjoyed.
My predecessor in Welwyn Hatfield was a Labour Member and a Minister in three different Departments. Although politically we did not agree on many issues, she did her job, despite facing a serious illness during her time in the House, and did it very well.
I have spent some time trying to become a Member of Parliament, standing for the first time in 1997. Unfortunately, I was selected in the not very promising—for a Conservative—seat of North Southwark and Bermondsey. At the time, my political mentor was Sir Rhodes Boyson. He was then the Member of Parliament for Brent, North and I am sure that many of my colleagues will remember him. After my selection, I phoned Sir Rhodes excitedly to tell him. He replied, "That's very good, Grant. You've been selected for a safe seat." I said, "No, Sir Rhodes, I was selected for North Southwark and Bermondsey." He said, "Yes, and now you'll be safe in the knowledge you can spend another five years in your printing company." He was absolutely right.
When Simon Hughes was returned after the election in 1997, he said that I had received the lowest Conservative vote in the country. I have waited eight years to be able to correct that statement on the record: the hon. Gentleman was wrong because I had the third worst result for a Conservative candidate. I am glad to be able to put the matter straight.
I am Hertfordshire born and bred and now have the privilege of representing the Hertfordshire seat of Welwyn Hatfield. I went to a state school, Watford grammar, and to Cassio college in Watford. Then I went to Manchester Metropolitan university, then called Manchester polytechnic. I was always anxious to go into politics and, in addition to starting a printing business, I was selected to fight Welwyn Hatfield for the first time in 2001. I made an impact on the result, but I did not have the killer benefit that I had in the election a few weeks ago when the Chancellor—I am sorry that he has now left the Chamber—was kind enough to visit the constituency and assist me to a 6,000 majority.
Welwyn Hatfield constituency contains two new towns, Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne did, I shall give the House a quick tour of my constituency. There are several villages on the outskirts of the two towns, including Welwyn, Woolmer Green, Oaklands, Essendon, Brookmans Park, Welham Green, Lemsford and The Ayots, where George Bernard Shaw lived and wrote. The constituency is a nice area with many contrasts. It has some lovely open spaces, such as Stanborough park and lakes and the King George V park, which the concept of the garden new towns allowed for. On the other hand, we have significant difficulties and problems, with many neighbourhood shops that suffer from antisocial behaviour by so-called nuisance youths who hang around.
When I surveyed the residents of Welwyn Hatfield last year, their No. 1 concern was antisocial behaviour, which topped the list by a long way. That is significant, and I fought the election on that issue. I am sure that it is shared with other hon. Members and I intend to focus my attention on it.
Another issue that loomed large in the election concerned the Queen Elizabeth II hospital, particularly the closure of children's accident and emergency at night time. As a local father of three, I find it unacceptable that I am now expected to drive my children in the middle of the night perhaps during some emergency to the Lister hospital in Stevenage, as do many of my constituents who are equally angered by this. I intend to represent them intensely on this.
The university of Hertfordshire, in Hatfield, has grown large over the past few years. I welcome it and am pleased that it has made Hatfield its home. However, in many ways it is rather like a large elephant: it has a particularly big footprint. It is a friendly animal but when it puts its foot down, it does not realise what it is crushing. Many long-term residents have found themselves forced out of their own areas by the increased population of students. I do not blame the students. Insufficient accommodation on the campus is provided for them. There are huge problems in Hatfield of overcrowding, parking and properties rented by students falling into dilapidation.
My constituency, like many others, contains many wonderful people—constituents who work selflessly. I am thinking of people like Brenda Beach. For the past 30 years she has run the Gateway club for people with learning disabilities with no recognition and unpaid. Then there is Sean Cox MBE. He spends his entire time raising funds so that on Christmas day 100-plus elderly and otherwise lonely people can have a wonderful lunch and take a present home. His entire year is spent doing nothing else. He is in many senses a hero of our community. For the past 30 years, Barry Clark has run the Breaks Manor youth club in Hatfield, helping to find constructive activities for children. He has done so through thick and thin—through changes in policy on youth services, this that and the other—which could otherwise have knocked him off course. I pay tribute to such people who make Welwyn Hatfield such a pleasant place to live.
Finally, I am one of the few Members of the House who has the privilege of travelling home to my constituency each and every evening. It is a wonderful place to live and I look forward to being a strong voice for Welwyn Hatfield in Parliament.
First, I take the opportunity to praise both new Members who have made excellent maiden speeches. Mr. Walker, who showed us his energy and humour, is welcome in this House. He rightly praised his predecessor, Dame Marion Roe, who was a great parliamentarian and a good Minister. Of particular interest to me was her work on domestic violence and the like, long before such matters had come on to anyone else's agenda. The hon. Gentleman was right to praise her. He demonstrated that he will follow that hard act well in his own inimitable style.
Grant Shapps delivered a confident speech, which was most impressive. He did not appear to have a single note—unless, perhaps, he had notes written on some secret part of his anatomy. He, too, displayed a great deal of humour and, rightly, praised his predecessor, Melanie Johnson, who was an excellent Minister and, indeed, had difficulties to contend with. At this early stage, the hon. Gentleman has already demonstrated a close knowledge of his constituency—its people and its problems—and that he intends to campaign strongly for it. Both Members are very welcome to the House and I congratulate them both.
I wish to speak for a short time about an exciting development project facing my north country constituency of Redcar as well as the Tees valley, for the achievement of which we may need some Government help. Teesport is the second largest port in the United Kingdom. It lies in my constituency and north-west of Redcar seaside town. Since its foundation in 1852 it has served the Tees valley. The Tees was the principal artery for the export of iron and steel in the industrial revolution. Iron was originally mined in Eston in my constituency and turned into steel at Grangetown and South Bank in my constituency and in Middlesbrough. Indeed, the amazing development of towns such as Middlesbrough during the industrial revolution was based on their closeness to the North sea and the availability of an excellent port. There continues to be a strong link between the river, the port and the steel industry.
Last December I was privileged to attend the celebration for the export of the 1 millionth tonne of steel through Teesport from Redcar steel works. It was going to South Korea to be part of a ship being built by a company called Dongicuk. Now my steelworks has a 10-year contract to export all of its 3.5 million tonne capacity, much of which will go through the port to a foreign consortium. This is part of the reason why Teesport has developed rapidly to become the United Kingdom's second largest port, handling 54 million tonnes of cargo a year.
Teesport is second only to Grimsby and Immingham and in 2002 it overtook London. It is significantly bigger than the fourth, Southampton, overall and, surprisingly for the north-east, the port of Tyne—which people would probably think of as the biggest port there—is small in comparison. It deals with about 2.8 million tonnes of cargo a year, and the other ports are very small indeed. There are 530 direct employees at Teesport now.
Teesport goes back to the industrial revolution and has gone through privatisation and a series of owners, but it started to kick off in 2000 when it was taken over by Nikko, appropriately described as venture capitalists; then there was a sale in 2004 and a flotation on the stock exchange. It has developed through that series of steps, increasing container traffic, for example, from 20,000 units in 2001 to 90,000 units in 2002. It has dynamic, ambitious management. In 2003 there was a need to open a second container terminal. It was opened by the Duke of York and, with additional secondary handling capacity, Teesport can now cope with 200,000 containers a year. It is the container traffic development opportunity on which I want to focus.
The United Kingdom container market is expected to grow by about 5 per cent. a year to reach over 10 million TEUs—20 ft equivalent units. That is obviously a standard measure. The world container shipping market is growing rapidly and over the past few years has been fuelled by manufacturing in the far east, particularly in China. In the United Kingdom this deep-sea increase in volume is growing fastest. The major existing United Kingdom container ports are Felixstowe, Thamesport, Tilbury, Southampton and Liverpool. In 2003, 74 per cent. of all deep-sea UK traffic went through Felixstowe and Southampton.
Teesport is ambitious to share in the increase in the market. I want to emphasise that there is not a collision of interests between this northern port and the southern ports of Felixstowe, Harwich and London because we are talking about a share of a growing market. Teesport is keen to invest £300 million to expand its deep-sea container terminal to bring freight, essentially from the far east although also from elsewhere, into northern England and the distribution centres, which would be engines of job creation before the goods are sent by rail and road elsewhere.
Interestingly, more than 2 million of the current units of deep-sea container trade that come into the country through the southern ports of Harwich, Felixstowe and London are destined for Birmingham and further north. According to the Government's figures, 60 per cent. of all freight traffic that comes through the southern ports is bound for Birmingham and the north. As road haulage costs, fuel prices, congestion and climate change increase significantly, there is obviously a great deal of interest in trying to change logistical patterns of that kind.
Teesport estimates—this is music to the ears of anyone who comes from my part of the country—that this investment could generate up to 7,000 jobs in Tees valley, where although the steel industry is now doing well and the chemical industry is thriving, our unemployment is still twice the national average. Teesport also estimates that it would take millions of lorry miles off the roads if northern goods were driven from northern ports rather than offloaded in the south and taken north. It would go some way to close the £29 billion economic output gap between the south and the north. It would improve access to the North sea ports. It would help end the capacity shortage at UK ports generally and it would stop what we in the north call southern discomfort, by cutting congestion on already over-congested roads and rail. It would also develop hundreds of acres of brownfield land, much of it left over from the steel industry, which I have mentioned, in my area, whereas in the southern ports some development on green belt is likely to occur.
Sounds wonderful—so what is the problem? Teesport will put in a planning application—known technically as a harbour revision order—very soon. The potential problem is that there is not currently a national ports strategy to look at strategic development of all the ports, and the implications of development in different regions and sub-regions, although such a strategy is promised soon. There are currently well-advanced applications to expand immediately the three southern ports that I have referred to as the major container importers and exporters, because for overall capacity needs to increase.
Let me emphasise again that there is not really any rivalry here; there is no intent to steal jobs—we are simply talking about coping with an expansion in container traffic. However, Felixstowe south has applied to increase its capacity by 1.8 million units—a very large amount indeed—and has had a public inquiry. Bathside bay, which is the other side of Felixstowe, has also had a public inquiry; it has an ambition to expand to a similar capacity. It has some problems, in that parts of it would be on a greenfield site. Shellhaven, which is in London, has also put in an application to expand by 3 million units. It will have some dredging and connectivity problems.
I am delighted to do so.
I am following the hon. and learned Lady carefully and she is speaking a lot of sense. Shellhaven is a new application, on which the Minister has just put off his decision; we are waiting for that. Part of the Government's difficulty in taking these strategic decisions about the capacity of container ports across the country is the absence of an overall comprehensive strategic plan for the development of container traffic in this country. However, such a plan is very necessary. Will she join me in calling for the Government to develop such a strategic plan, so that we can minimise the number of road miles that this container traffic travels?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It seems to me imperative that, rather than looking individually at the three current applications and responding to them on the semi-local basis on which they would normally be dealt with, the Government should put them aside for the time being while a comprehensive strategy emerges. It needs to emerge fast, so that they do not, as it were, hijack the agenda and the strategic development of ports by just granting or not granting individual applications. So I definitely would welcome the hon. Gentleman's support because I intend to ask the Government to look very quickly at the formation of a national ports strategy.
There has been some resistance to expansion in the locations of the southern ports. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in Shellhaven there have been complaints that no more jobs are needed there, and complaints about threats to nature reserves and important historic sites elsewhere. It makes an interesting contrast to my own cry in my local press, where the potential of 7,000 new jobs was offered to Teesside, that this is capable of almost putting an end to our very local unemployment problems—so we have it in a nutshell why some development is urgently needed. It is a rational way to expand ports without having the whole proposition jump-started by the granting of ad hoc consents.
The Northern Way, a strategy backed by £100 million of development cash, recommends that we introduce a national ports strategy and take the opportunity to expand the share of cargo using the north's ports. Clearly, PD Teesport's planned expansion directly supports that important policy.
The purpose of my speech this afternoon is to say how excited we are in my constituency and in Tees valley by this proposition; to point to the need for a strategy that will permit the careful consideration of where the development emphasis should be; and to put the Government on notice that I and my four colleague MPs in Teesside intend to campaign forcefully for a national ports strategy soon. Because we believe that the business case for Teesport is absolutely clear, our aim is to ensure that this great development—which can reverse, even more fully than the Government's economic stability over the last seven years has done, the decline that my part of the country suffered under the preceding Government, and can be a huge contributor to making the economy of Tees valley much more dynamic—comes about. We shall be campaigning on that for the next few months.
It is a particular pleasure to be able to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on extremely fluent and excellent maiden speeches. We all remember the horror and the trauma of having to sit around waiting to make our maiden speeches, but the fluency and effortless ease with which both my hon. Friends spoke suggest that they were either on pills or have nerves of steel that I did not have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield will clearly be a strong voice for that constituency and I am sure that, over very many years, his constituents will benefit from his advocacy of their causes in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, in a very interesting speech, was perhaps a little too modest—characteristically so. He said that there were 3,000 Members of Parliament before he arrived here and there would probably in the next century be another 3,000, and that he would play a small part in the life of this parliamentary system. I think that that is characteristically modest of him because I am sure, from the way he spoke with affection and vigour on behalf of his constituents, he will represent them excellently in all our debates in the coming years.
I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate because I believe it is important, prior to the beginning of the Whitsun recess, that we consider the issues behind a report that was published last week, and which received some notice but not that much. I refer to the Office of Fair Trading report on care homes for older people in the United Kingdom. For every hon. Member, the care of the elderly is of crucial importance and concern.
We all believe, rightly, that elderly people must live with the dignity, respect and help, where it is needed, that they rightly deserve. Conservative Members also believe— although, certainly in our debates in the last Parliament, certain uncharitable Health Ministers would not give us the credit for it—that the most appropriate type of care should be given to our elderly citizens, and I am sure that Labour Members believe that, too. For many elderly people, domiciliary care in their homes, with a care package, is the most appropriate form of care.
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will relay to the Department of Health the fact that I am disappointed by the latest figures, which were published today. Despite the Government's fervent claims that they are committed to providing domiciliary care, those figures show that although the number of hours of domiciliary care given to individuals has increased, the number of individuals receiving that care has been reduced yet again. That is of concern.
The OFT report raises a number of interesting and important issues that relate to transparency. For many individuals who require residential care, their needs come all of a sudden, possibly as a result of a stay in hospital, and many of them may still be in a confused state or recovering from illness and waiting to leave hospital. They are not always best able to cope and to take what are extraordinarily important decisions about their future life. What they must decide about is the home that they will live in for a number of years—we hope many years—and they and their families may not be in a position of ease and understanding to take the right decision at the time. That is why is it important that as much information as possible is provided to help them—of course, with advice from social services departments and the care homes themselves—to take the decision that is in their best interests for their long-term well-being.
The recommendations in the OFT report must be considered seriously. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction where we must accept everything that is proposed, but we must certainly consider such proposals carefully. We must strike a balance between the nanny state—the immediate instinct of any interfering Government to throw legislation, rules and regulations at everything that is proposed—and what would be a genuine and helpful improvement in the situation that would facilitate people gaining access to more information, so that they could take rational decisions when they have to do so. That is why I urge the Government not to jump on any passing bandwagon and immediately say, "We've got to do this; we've got to do that".
Heaven knows, most of us should have learned during the last general election campaign, when we were communicating with our employers, that the care home sector has been so overburdened during the past eight years by petty regulations and rules and by the need for Ministers to be seen to be doing something that it has crippled the ability of many homes to continue to exist and to provide the services and high-quality care that our elderly population deserves.
During the past eight years, more than 80,000 beds have been lost in care homes throughout the country. That is a disgrace. It is all right for Ministers to huff and puff, but it is deeply offensive to care home owners and their staff, who work day in, day out to provide the finest quality of care and quality of life for individuals, to hear people such as the former Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Milburn, making accusations about elderly people being banged up in care homes, and for a previous junior Health Minister, now the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Dr. Ladyman, echoing his master's voice in the same derogatory terms.
Care home owners are not keeping their client group banged up in care homes; they are seeking to provide the highest quality of care. I am glad that the Deputy Leader of the House nods in agreement. Given that he agrees with that statement, perhaps he would like to have a word with Health Ministers to ensure that such unfortunate slurs on those people who are doing so much good for our elderly population stop being made from the Dispatch Box, so that we have no more of the clap-trap that the right hon. Member for Darlington and the hon. Member for South Thanet echoed from the Dispatch Box during the last Parliament.
In one respect, the OFT report represents a missed opportunity. Sadly, when the OFT announced its investigation, it used very narrow criteria, although the official Opposition urged the OFT to widen its scope at the time. Part of the equation involves looking at how residential care is funded. I do not suggest that we should consider how much residential and social care is funded to the levels in such a report, but we should consider the mechanics because there is a serious problem.
The problem is twofold. First, throughout the country social service departments use, to put it crudely, their bulk purchasing power to tell care homes what price they are prepared to pay per week, per client, and they do so on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. One often finds—particularly with small, family-run homes or medium-sized homes—that what is offered is, at best, equivalent to the actual cost of the care and, at worst, below the actual cost of the care. That does nothing to encourage and enhance the quality of care for those residents. It is wrong that local authorities can adopt that attitude because I should have thought that, among other things, it would be anti-competitive.
We know that the Competition Appeal Tribunal in Belfast looked into this issue two years ago, and it believed that such practices were anti-competitive. Unfortunately, I am not a lawyer, so I do not understand how English Health Ministers can tell me that the decision of the Belfast Competition Appeal Tribunal has no relevance and cannot be translated to mainland England. Something must be done to look into the matter because it is apparently a clear case of anti-competitive practice.
The other problem, which causes considerable confusion and misunderstanding, and which I cannot fathom properly, is that in those areas where social services departments own their own homes, they are more than happy to pay themselves infinitely more money per week, per client than they will pay the private provider to care for a client. The situation in the city of Birmingham is a classic case in the extreme. The latest figures that I have, which relate to last year, show that Birmingham social services department was prepared to pay its own residential care homes £775 per resident, per week, but was prepared to pay the independent residential care homes in Birmingham only £310 per week, per resident.
Those figures are extreme, but they are reflected throughout the country, although the gap elsewhere is not so great. However, in Birmingham there is now the wholesale closure of care homes that just cannot continue to provide care at the prices that they are forced to take—or leave, which means closure—because of the decision of Birmingham city council's social services department. That seems odd. There is a shortage of beds in the city in any case, but it has been grossly exacerbated in the past four years because of that policy. How is it that a local authority can find the money to pay its own homes so much, yet claim poverty and refuse to pay more to other care homes? That leads to an even more disturbing knock-on effect, which was highlighted in an editorial in The Times.
Both of the anti-competitive practices that my hon. Friend is outlining apply to my constituency in the Cotswolds. My constituents who go into care homes pay more and are subsidising the local authority patients in those homes.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and I am pleased to see so many of my new hon. Friends in the Chamber because they have just seen a classic example of how perspicacious my hon. Friend is. He made the very point that I was about to raise from The Times editorial.
As my hon. Friend has rightly drawn to my attention, the practice has another knock-on effect, which is, as The Times editorial of last Thursday so succinctly said,
"the concern that the fees of people who pay for their own care"—
in residential homes—
"may be rising to make up a shortfall left by local authorities not paying enough to cover the costs of the residents whom they are supposed to support."
If the state, through social services departments, is not prepared to pay an acceptable level of fee per person, it is morally wrong that the fallback position, to stop the homes going out of business, is that people with assets of more than £20,000 have to pay their own fees and that their assets are thus diminishing every year. There is a double whammy, adding insult to injury, as they have to subsidise the local authority-paid clients because the local authority will not pay a realistic fee. That is morally wrong. That situation must be looked into and addressed, because it should not and must not continue.
It is for those reasons that I welcome the opportunity to raise these issues. I hope that, through the Minister, my concerns and those of my hon. Friends can be translated to the relevant Minister at the Department of Health, so that we can have an intelligent investigation and discussion of the issues rather than a knee-jerk reaction. For eight long years we have found that whenever anything goes wrong, whenever there is a problem, it is everybody's fault except that of the Ministers on the Treasury Bench.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my first speech in this Parliament. I congratulate other hon. Members on their maiden speeches, which were highly entertaining in many cases, earlier in the debate.
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor, Adrian Flook, the previous Conservative Member for Taunton, who was a diligent and hard-working Member of the House during the last Parliament. His predecessor, Jackie Ballard, was the first woman to represent Taunton and the first Liberal Democrat this side of the second world war. Her predecessor was another Conservative, David Nicholson. I am in fact the fourth person to represent Taunton in the last four Parliaments and I think that I am the representative of the only constituency where the incumbent has lost at each of the past three general elections, so I hope that there will be widespread support in the House—although I do not necessarily expect to find it—for my campaign to bring some much-needed electoral and representative stability to the people of the Taunton constituency in the years to come.
Taunton is a somewhat misleadingly named constituency; it is much wider than the county town itself. The constituency stretches to the Somerset levels to the east; to Exmoor in the west, where there is some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, including Dulverton and the surrounding villages; to the Blackdown hills in the south, which afford a magnificent view down to Taunton and beyond; and to the Quantock hills in the north. It includes some beautiful and picturesque villages with evocative names, such as Lydeard St. Lawrence, Combe Florey, Langford Budville and Sampford Arundel.
The constituency is diverse. The town of Taunton is big enough to have some urban characteristics, while at the other end of the scale there are remote, rural communities which see the affairs of the nation somewhat differently from people in towns and certainly the bigger cities. Also in the constituency is Wellington, a proud and independent-minded town, which is overlooked by the famous Wellington monument. Our hope and expectation is that Wellington will become the venue for the new Taunton Deane livestock market at Chelston on the edge of the town and that that will bring great benefits not only to the agricultural community in my area but to Wellington itself.
Taunton is the county town, the business and administrative centre of Somerset and the home of the county council. I have the good fortune to live right in the middle of Taunton, little more than a muscular, Bothamesque six from the county cricket ground. Next month Somerset will be the host for our Australian visitors for a one-day match at the ground, and I hope that I do not sound too churlish a host when I say that I confidently expect Somerset to inflict on our guests a humbling experience that will set the tone for the remainder of the summer.
Taunton is also the home of several important public, civic organisations, one of which is the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, which maps the seas and oceans of the world on behalf of the Government, commercial organisations and friendly Governments with whom we want to share such information. It is a sign of Britain's historical role and also of our current global ambitions that the UK is one of only three or four countries that aspire to that task on a global scale.
Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton serves a community that is wider than the constituency itself, including many people in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Heath. There are two pressing projects at the hospital that I hope will be completed during this Parliament, if not sooner. The first is the building of a multi-storey car park to ease chronic congestion and parking problems at the hospital. The second, more important, project is the completion of a cancer centre. At present, people in the Taunton constituency who suffer from cancer often have to travel, with their families, to Bristol for treatment, a round trip of about 100 miles at a time of difficulty and stress. It is immensely important that the new cancer centre at Musgrove Park is completed. It will make a large difference to the people I represent.
I have a personal ambition: to ensure that school standards in Somerset remain high and rise further. I have the great honour and privilege to be a governor at Ladymead community school in north Taunton. Other contributions to the debate have touched on the fact that Somerset currently receives less per pupil than the national average, yet we manage to achieve in our schools better results than the national average. I hope that we can continue to raise standards, because opportunity, ambition and aspiration are important qualities in an advanced and advancing society. I want to bring those attributes to children in Somerset and beyond.
I finish by making a slightly wider point about the Government's legislative agenda. I share the view expressed earlier that antisocial behaviour is a very important problem; it is the most commonly raised issue with me when I knock on people's doors. I welcome the fact that the Government have placed such emphasis on it and on what they call the "respect agenda" in the Queen's Speech and their programme for the Parliament as a whole. Politicians can make a number of differences in this regard. I have been very impressed, for example, by the role of the community support officers with whom I have been out on patrol in Taunton, Wellington and some of the surrounding rural areas. As long as they are not a substitute for the regular police but are an additional resource for the regular police, I would like to see their numbers expanded further to cover the other communities in my area where they do not currently serve.
A matter that is closer to home rather than having a wider application is the consideration that I would like to be given to Somerset having its own police force. At the moment, we have an artificial construct whereby Somerset is in the same police area as Bristol, which has very different policing requirements—the policing requirements of a large city whereas Somerset is a predominantly rural county. There is a widespread feeling particularly in west Somerset that the crime requirements in Bristol and the need to reduce crime on behalf of Avon and Somerset police mean that priority is not always given to Somerset and west Somerset. In time, I would like the Government to consider that issue as well.
There are a number of issues associated with crime and antisocial behaviour that it is not possible for politicians to tackle directly through legislation. We cannot pass laws here automatically making people good mannered and considerate, but we can try to address the underlying causes of crime and antisocial behaviour. Yes that is about education, good parenting and what the Government call "respect" and I may call "civic mindedness", but it is ultimately about making sure that people in Taunton and the country as a whole not only enjoy a good standing of living but a good quality of life. That may be something that we can all aspire to achieve and advance in our time in Parliament. That goes very much for me.
I am grateful to hon. Members on all sides for their indulgence over the past 10 minutes, and I have enjoyed making a contribution in this debate. I hope to make and enjoy making many more speeches in my time in Parliament.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak so early. I appreciate that.
I rise with some fear and trepidation not only because the House is full of hon. Friends and Members who have served it with distinction and who are renowned for their thoughtful and eloquent speeches, but because so many new Members—namely, on this side, my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps)—have made excellent speeches. I also include Mr. MacNeil, who is no longer in his place. I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the western isles, to Scotland and to Hansard for my pronunciation of his constituency. I also include Jeremy Browne.
I pay tribute to the eight years of public service that my predecessor gave to The Wrekin constituency. His philosophy on life and politics remain different from my own, and his approach to matters of public policy and personalities is also somewhat different. However, I recognise that he committed eight years of his life to public service in this place and, for that indisputable fact, I pay him tribute here today.
Public service remains a great privilege and honour, and I am grateful to my constituents in The Wrekin for allowing me to serve them in this place. Indeed, I am the first Conservative MP to be elected for The Wrekin since the major boundary changes of 1997. With the attractive market towns of Wellington, Newport and Shifnal, with the pretty villages of Albrighton, High Ercall, Sheriffhales and Tibberton and with the dominating geological feature of The Wrekin itself—it is an area of outstanding natural beauty that towers 400 m over the rest of Shropshire—The Wrekin is rural England at its very best.
Those Members who have visited my constituency know that, in geographic terms, it is mostly rural. That means that for many of the people whom I represent the success of the rural sector and Shropshire's rural way of life is of paramount importance if The Wrekin is to continue to thrive not just in terms of rising living standards, but culturally and in self-confidence. That is why I hope that the Government might recognise that the success of urban England is inextricably linked with the success of rural England. Yes they are different, but they should be treated equally.
Manufacturing also remains a key sector, and I hope that the Government will do more to ensure no further demise in the UK manufacturing sector, not least in the defence and technology manufacturing areas of the country and, indeed, in The Wrekin. In my area, that sector provides employment to hundreds of my constituents, which, in turn, creates demand and spend for The Wrekin's market towns.
The defence sector is a key employer in The Wrekin, with RAF Cosford being one of the largest operational RAF stations in the world. It encompasses the defence college of aeronautical engineering, and there is also the defence repair, supply, logistics and procurement facility at Donington, with its numerous local suppliers of support services. That means that forthcoming decisions by Ministers over matters relating to defence spending and rationalisation—not least, the Government's review of the Army's supply and logistics capabilities—will be of great interest indeed. The Wrekin has a proud history of working alongside the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty's armed forces, and long may that continue. This country faces many challenges, not only in domestic policy but in international affairs. Therefore, my responsibility as a new Member, despite my fresher status, is both a sombre and challenging one.
Britain today, as many Members have mentioned, is a world in which authority is undermined every hour of every day. It is as if "authority" is an unattractive word—a word that dare not mention its name. We have seen authority taken away from parents, from teachers, from police officers and, perhaps as concerning, taken away from the very institution of collective government and the role of this Parliament in bringing the Executive to account. That is why I welcome Mr. Speaker's comments on the first day of this Parliament, and dare I be as bold as to paraphrase them? This House is justified in its expectation that key Government announcements should be made to Parliament first.
The domestic challenges that face us, many of which require urgent attention, might lend themselves to hasty legislation and quick law, but decisions made in haste do not usually stand the test of time. On important issues such as health and welfare reform and pensions reform, it is time, valuable time, that many of my constituents do not have should the Government fail to get things right. That is why I have concerns about some of the Government's proposed Bills, as set out in the Gracious Speech. However, I defer to convention, and hope to raise these concerns on another occasion. Suffice it to say that the Government's "apologesis" of limited funding inputs from past Conservative Administrations cannot continue as a credible rebuttal given that they have been in power for eight years.
I also hope that, in seeking to curb incitement to religious hatred, the Government will not forget to balance this worthy aspiration with the rights of an individual's freedom of speech, which British subjects have enjoyed for hundreds of years. In a free and fair liberal democracy such as ours, rigorous debate, challenge and scrutiny of all religions and beliefs, and indeed the right of people to have no belief, are surely signs of society's strength, not its weakness.
Let us not forget that many people left these shores several hundred years ago for a place across the pond, arguably because of the Government of the day's interference with freedom of speech and religion. Indeed, some might suggest that the Government need to tread carefully with their necessary continuation of promoting equal rights so that they ensure that they do not create special rights that might serve only to produce intolerance and misunderstanding of the very sections of British society that they are rightly trying to protect. In nobly seeking inclusivity, the Government should be cautious not to create a new exclusivity. I have a large Sikh and Muslim community in my constituency, as well as a vibrant ecumenical movement among churches, and have committed myself to trying to protect any diminution of the right of freedom of speech. For the record, that includes political freedom of speech and the right unashamedly to promote the British national self-interest, however politically incorrect that might be today or in the future.
During my time in this place—however short or long—I hope that the Government will ponder the attraction of better law, rather than more law. In so doing, I hope that they might engage the whole House, including, dare I venture, even the occasional Back Bencher from a beautiful constituency in Shropshire called The Wrekin.
I want to speak about the threat to our local hospital in Hammersmith and Fulham: the Charing Cross. First, however, I congratulate my hon. Friends who have made their maiden speeches during this debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I am also known as something of a polyglot, so I shall try to offer my congratulations to the hon. Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) and for Taunton (Jeremy Browne).
I want to say a few words about my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Hammersmith and Fulham, Iain Coleman. It would be fair to say that Mr. Coleman made most of his impact in the constituency. In fact, his surgeries became something of a legend locally as he seemed to spend his entire time in an almost perpetual surgery at all times and for all hours—except during Arsenal games. Mr. Coleman has not been well for a year and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in wishing him a full recovery and a return to politics as soon as possible. His predecessor as MP for the Fulham part of the constituency was Matthew Carrington, who was a popular, respected and effective MP for 10 years. He was enormously supportive and helpful in my efforts to win back the seat on
It was rather more difficult to find out about the previous Conservative MP for Hammersmith, as distinct from Fulham, because I am the first Conservative MP for Hammersmith since 1964. Probably the most famous previous Hammersmith MP was one William Bull. Mr. Bull represented the area for 37 years between 1892 and 1929. He had the unusual and tragic misfortune to lose his wife to pneumonia after she had been out canvassing for him. For someone who died of pneumonia, Mrs. Bull is ironically commemorated with a sundial in Ravenscourt park in my constituency.
Mr. Bull won his first election by only 19 votes. While he was an MP he became a senior partner of his law firm. That is an impressive sounding achievement, until one discovers that the firm was called Bull and Bull. He was a man ahead of his time as he was in favour of votes for women and the Channel tunnel, although these days I expect that the latter is more controversial than the former. Most bizarrely, my predecessor was ordered out of the House by Mr. Speaker's predecessor for calling the then Prime Minister a traitor—which these days is perhaps more in tune with east London than west London politics.
In truth, the constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham is more famous for its elections than its MPs. I cite the East Fulham by-election of 1933, the battles of Barons Court of the 1960s and the Fulham by-election of 1986. All those have the common characteristic of being won by the Labour party. However, I believe that one of the most significant Hammersmith and Fulham election results was the one just a couple of weeks ago on
The Labour party barely got started in the campaign. It was barely seen, barely heard and had little positive to say about its eight years in government. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems ran a candidate from Tunbridge Wells under the slogan, "Give Peace a Chance." Perhaps they were more the surreal alternative.
Hammersmith and Fulham is one of the smallest constituencies in Britain, but it is none the less one of the most diverse. It is also one of the closest to Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield mentioned, it is quite possible to get back to Hammersmith and Fulham from the House at the end of each evening. In fact, I am probably one of the few Members with a direct door-to-door bus route from just outside Big Ben to just outside his house. That sounds fantastic, until one considers that given traffic in London, it can take up to two hours to complete the journey.
Hammersmith and Fulham is also distinctive for having more tube users than any other borough in Britain and the greatest number of single women compared with single men in the United Kingdom. It is also the home of the Olympia exhibition centre and part of Earls Court. Its largest employer is the BBC, and it is the home of what is reputed to be Europe's busiest road interchange at Hammersmith Broadway. It is also the London home to dozens of hon. Members, which can make canvassing in certain streets straightforward. Many hon. Members from both major parties have cut their teeth in local Hammersmith and Fulham politics.
The election in Hammersmith and Fulham was all about the dreaded congestion charge extension, the fact that eight out of nine muggers in my constituency go unpunished, the fact that a quarter of the borough's secondary schools are on special measures, the appalling state of the District line and high council tax.
Perhaps the greatest concern, however, and why I wanted to speak in the debate, is the threat to the Charing Cross hospital. On the very day that the election was supposed to be called—a good day to bury bad news, one might say—on
Charing Cross is a marvellous facility—the centrepiece of a three star-rated hospital trust. It is a global leader in cancer care, vascular surgery, neurosurgery, plastic surgery and much else. It is the trauma centre for the whole of west London and is ideally situated just off the A4 for any major incident at Heathrow. Most of all, it is also a local hospital, serving the needs not only of Hammersmith and Fulham, but of other parts of west London, and is easily accessible by tube, bus or car, which Hammersmith hospital is not.
The proposal suits nobody other than the management of the trust, who are in turn driven only by meeting Government targets, which have led to huge deficits in both the local primary care trust and the hospitals trust. In classic new Labour fashion, spin doctors were deployed to deny the initial press reports in The Observer that the Charing Cross site would be sold off. Interestingly, however, there was no denial of the plans to move all or most of the specialised services to the Hammersmith site. I expect that more will be heard on the topic in the House, and I look forward to winning the battle with the Government to leave Charing Cross services on their current site.
In conclusion, many people have asked me and others why the Conservatives did so well in Hammersmith and Fulham and elsewhere in London. The answer is that people in London are overtaxed and face declining public services. I predict major changes in the control of London boroughs in next May's election.
I am delighted to become the first Conservative MP for Hammersmith since 1964 and the first-ever Conservative MP for the combined seat of Hammersmith and Fulham.
I have not spoken in the House for some time and it gives me great pleasure to make a contribution.
I begin by complimenting some of the previous speakers. My hon. Friend Mr. Burns made an excellent speech on issues that affect constituents across the country. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends who made their maiden speeches. I am not in that envious position, but I will pay tribute to my predecessor shortly.
There was a passionate and enthusiastic speech by my hon. Friend Mr. Walker and a confident and articulate speech from my hon. Friend Grant Shapps. I look forward to working with both of them on some of the issues they raised. My hon. Friend Mark Pritchard made a thoughtful speech, which detailed some of the problems facing his constituency under the Labour Government. My hon. Friend Mr. Hands gave us a valuable historical insight into the facts of his success and some of the issues that concern him in his London constituency. Jeremy Browne spoke with kindness about his predecessors in a seat that we shall all watch closely at the next election.
I wanted to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech earlier this week, but was not successful. I want to put on record my concerns about policing in Norfolk. Before I do so, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Baroness Shephard. She worked tirelessly for South-West Norfolk. As a constituent said to me during the campaign:
"She was a standard bearer for all that is honourable, has a razor-sharp mind and a brilliant intelligence to match the best."
Those words perfectly sum up my right hon. Friend. The other place will be enriched by her wisdom and experience. It is said that any person one meets in South-West Norfolk knows someone whom my right hon. Friend has helped. I hope, by the work that I undertake in the constituency, that I can aspire to achieve some, if not all, of what she has achieved over the years.
Baroness Shephard rose through the ranks of the Conservative party faster than I can account for here today. Her dedication and diligence resulted in the reward of holding some of the greatest offices of state. She achieved so much by listening to people and reacting to them with energy and enthusiasm. One of the things that she championed was the right for people to feel safe in their homes. Over the years, she has led many debates and tabled many questions on law and order in rural areas.
My constituency covers more than 1,000 square miles of open countryside. As my right hon. Friend said in her maiden speech some years ago,
"Such a . . . diverse constituency is bound to have its problems"—[Hansard, 23 October 1987; Vol. 120, c.1040.],
but the people of Norfolk look to their representatives to articulate their concerns and come up with some solutions. That is why the Conservative party made specific commitments on law and order at the election.
My right hon. Friend debated in the House the lessons learned about rural crime and policing in the aftermath of the Tony Martin case. Like my right hon. Friend, I am of the view that police resources are too thinly spread because the Government have focused on the wrong things. The Tony Martin case revealed people's attitudes to policing in rural areas and their ability to protect themselves in their own homes. The Government's centralised control of the police has sapped officers' morale in Norfolk and elsewhere, increased bureaucracy and undermined confidence. It is time that we change direction.
There is no doubt that we must recruit 5,000 extra police officers each year. We must radically cut paperwork and introduce genuine local accountability through elected police commissioners, giving local people a say over police priorities. That will lead to genuine neighbourhood policing, with officers based in the locality and clearly focused on zero tolerance.
Although recorded crime in Norfolk is down, certain categories of offences have witnessed increases. The total number of offences against the person rose in 2004–05 from 11,526 to 12,920—up by 12 per cent. Offences of criminal damage have also increased. Such increases are above the national average, as the Norfolk regional press has noted. The Home Secretary has a seat in the county that is not too far from mine, so that should cause him enormous concern. Given my constituents' real concerns about violent crime, he should display to the House in the coming weeks whether he is confident that the violent crimes Bill is not just more legislation, but will really make a difference. I am not so sure from what I have read about it that it will do the job.
Those problems are compounded by the fact that annual detection rates in Norfolk have shown a consistent decline since 1998–99. In that year, the percentage of detected crimes stood at 37 per cent. By 2003–04, that fell to a mere 26 per cent., suggesting that such crimes remain undetected and that the figures are going in the wrong direction.
The Conservative party made a pledge at the last election that the Norfolk constabulary would receive an additional 457 police officers over the next eight years, of which the South-West Norfolk constituency would get an extra 63 officers. I hope that the Home Secretary will come to the House in due course and give a pledge to my constituents that the Government will increase police numbers in Norfolk to match Conservative plans.
We also made it plain at the election that criminals who are caught should be punished properly. Therefore, we must end the Government's early release from prison scheme and provide 20,000 extra prison places. We must introduce honesty in sentencing so that criminals serve the full sentence handed down by the court and so that we deliver in open court the minimum time that they will serve behind bars.
Will the Government confirm that the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill, proposed in the Queen's Speech, will contain a provision to enable the Sentencing Guidelines Council to have regard to prison capacity? If it does, will the Home Secretary put on record whether he believes that sentencing should be determined by the crime and not by the number of prison places available?
Nationally, 4,500 crimes have been committed by criminals let out on early release by the Government and 500 of those were violent crimes. That figure is an outrage and must be stopped. Will the Government abolish the early release scheme? What do the Home Secretary and his Ministers have to say to the victims of the 4,500 offences, including 500 violent crimes, committed by persons on early release since 1999?
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard said recently:
"We must stand up for the silent law-abiding majority who play by the rules and pay their taxes."
I support his sentiments. People think that the position we are in is absurd and they must be able to feel safe in their own homes. If a criminal breaks in, people must be able to defend themselves and, in doing so, must have no fear of the law.
In the last Session of the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer, the shadow Minister for homeland security, proposed a Bill to give greater protection to householders who use force against burglars in the prevention of crime. My hon. Friend said that the fear of imprisonment or physical harm lay with the householder and that the intention of the Bill was to reverse that, because those fears should lie with the burglar. It is a pity that the Bill was not successful and was not supported by the Government.
In The Daily Telegraph on
I should like the Home Secretary to address another problem. Does he think that the guidance issued to householders earlier this year on the use of force is sufficient to resolve their doubts? Do the Government intend to revisit this issue and consider changing the law to give householders greater protection?
The Government promised that 5,000 antisocial behaviour orders would be issued every year. We have not reached that figure after six years and, of those issued, nearly half have been breached. They are effectively worthless. We need proper policing by officers on the street who are not tied down by paperwork and bureaucracy. I must ask the Home Secretary whether the Government accept that ASBOs are no substitute for real policing.
Speaking as someone who was himself a retread, I welcome my hon. Friend back to the Chamber. Is not the point about ASBOs that when they are breached, the courts should hit those yobs hard, generally with a custodial sentence? Only that will send out the message to these people that they must respect the ASBOs and stop their offending behaviour, which is destroying our communities, and stop attacking innocent and often elderly people.
If my voice holds out, I will agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I believe that the best way to tackle crime effectively is to put more police officers on the street, free of the burden of red tape and political correctness and actually dealing with the Government's failures on crime. I hope that the Home Secretary will address my concerns and those of my constituents.
I have tabled various questions over the past 24 hours or so and I look forward to the answers in relation to policing in places such as Norfolk, because security in one's home, feeling safe and what one can do as an individual without facing the law in an unjust way are issues that have to come to this House in a timely manner. I hope that the relevant Bills in the Queen's Speech will address those matters and that the Home Secretary will ensure that all people in Norfolk—his constituents as well as mine—are better off because of the Government's plans, and not worse off.
I congratulate all those who have made their maiden speeches before me, and particular credit goes to those who did so without notes. I look forward to working with new Members on both sides of the House for at least the next four to five years and, I hope, for longer. It is a great honour to make my maiden speech in such impressive surroundings and in such impressive company, in a place with so much history. I should like to claim my own small place in history today as I am the first female Member of Parliament for Cardiff, Central and the first Liberal Democrat woman in Cardiff. There has only ever been one Liberal woman MP in Wales, Megan Lloyd George, who later joined Labour. I can assure the House that history will not be repeating itself.
This year, we had the highest ever Liberal Democrat vote in Cardiff and victory has been a long time coming. The Liberals last won in 1923 when Sir Harry Webb was the MP. But in the year of the Welsh grand slam in the millennium stadium, in the heart of my constituency, the Liberal Democrats have won the grand slam in Cardiff, Central, winning 100 per cent. of the seats at every level of politics. I am proud to be elected to represent the heart of Cardiff in 2005, the centenary of Cardiff becoming a city and the 50th anniversary of Cardiff becoming the Welsh capital.
While I am not staking a claim so early on in my political career, Cardiff, Central has an impressive history of its Members of Parliament becoming Ministers. My immediate predecessor, Jon Owen Jones, was Welsh Health Minister in the run-up to devolution in 1999 and his predecessor Ian Grist was a Conservative Minister in the Welsh Office from 1987 to 1990. I believe that Ian Grist's predecessor, Michael Roberts, was a Conservative Minister in the 1970s.
It is a long-standing tradition of maiden speeches that the new Member of Parliament should say something nice about their predecessor. It must be difficult losing a seat that one has represented for years and, although Jon Owen Jones and I did not see eye to eye, there were a number of issues on which we agreed and I pay tribute to his work on them. During his time in this House, he introduced a ten-minute Bill to ban the sale of junk food in school vending machines. Given the current trend of increasing childhood obesity and the associated health problems, Jon took an important stand on this issue—he was, I suggest, the Jamie Oliver of Parliament and I salute him for it.
I also agreed with Jon about his opposition to the war in Iraq and commend his courage in standing up against his own party on this point of principle. Jon dedicated 13 years of his life to being the Member of Parliament for the people of Cardiff, Central, and I am sure that many would want to thank him for that.
Cardiff, Central is a very diverse constituency, with some of the wealthiest areas in Wales as well as some areas of significant deprivation. It ranges from the prosperous suburbs of Cyncoed to the estates of Pentwyn and Llanedeyrn, and the inner-city area of Adamsdown, which is an EU objective 2 area owing to the levels of deprivation there. Cardiff is an amazing city that is becoming progressively younger, increasingly ethnically diverse, and more and more vibrant. My constituency has five mosques, two synagogues, numerous churches and chapels and two Sikh gurdwaras, and an amazing choice of food in the local restaurants and shops as a result.
There are four universities in Cardiff, three of which are in my constituency. Cardiff, Central has one of the largest—if not the largest—student populations in the UK. It has almost 16,000 students, who significantly enhance the economic and cultural life of Cardiff, Central, particularly with the Royal Welsh college of music and drama at its heart.
Not surprisingly, Cardiff, Central covers the city centre, with all the economic and cultural opportunity that that brings. I am fortunate in that, unlike some Members before me, I do not have to talk about the interesting sights just outside my constituency. In Cardiff, Central, we have Cardiff castle and Cathays park, representing Cardiff's history, and the jewel of Roath park, with its magnificent lake and memorial to Captain Scott. Unusually for a city seat, we are also fortunate enough to have a ribbon of parks running for miles, almost from one side of the constituency to the other.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have impressive new modern buildings in the city centre. They include the Millennium stadium, which has brought huge economic and social benefits to the city. As many will know, the FA cup final was held there last weekend—probably for the last time for a while, unfortunately. One of the biggest advantages of hosting such sporting events is that they encourage people who would otherwise never come to Wales to visit Cardiff. I have lost count of the number of times that friends and acquaintances, following trips to the Millennium stadium, have said to me in tones of great surprise, "Cardiff's really nice, isn't it?" A unique selling point that sets Cardiff, Central apart from every other constituency in Wales is the fact that it does not have a single sheep in it.
Looking ahead, I am passionate about campaigning on the issues that matter to my constituents and, as part of the official Opposition in Wales, I hope to be able to make a real difference. The rebanding of council tax has hit many residents of Cardiff, Central extremely hard. More and more people want to live in my constituency—presumably because it is now Liberal Democrat—and house prices have risen disproportionately. Nine out of 10 people in the area in which I live have seen their houses go up by at least one council tax band—indeed, my house has gone up by two. Seven out of 10 people in my constituency will have to pay significantly more tax, just as a result of the rebanding. I will do all that I can to raise the concerns of my constituents on this issue and to work towards a fairer alternative, namely the local income tax.
One of the other great concerns during the election was the state of the local health service. We have some of the longest waiting lists in Europe and the hospitals in Cardiff are creaking under the strain. Recently, the main hospital in Wales—the Heath hospital in Cardiff—had to close the doors of its accident and emergency unit for 14 hours. Ranks of ambulances full of waiting patients are not an uncommon sight outside the A and E. The situation has worsened over recent years, primarily as a result of the introduction of the Care Standards Act 2000. Over the past five years, almost every nursing home in my constituency has closed, leaving Cardiff with 200 too few nursing home beds and 200 too many people in hospital beds. The local council is working hard with the local health board and the Welsh Assembly to secure investment in new nursing homes, and I will do what I can to help them.
As we would expect in a constituency with so many students, tuition fees and top-up fees are a huge issue, and not only for the young people themselves. Many parents, grandparents and employers have expressed their opposition to fees, and I only hope that the Welsh Assembly Government take on board the majority view among Assembly Members, which is opposed to variable fees.
I have been given lots of pieces of advice over the past few weeks, some more helpful than others. One letter from a constituent really struck a chord, however. People in Cardiff, Central have long memories, and the letter harked back to Jon Owen Jones's predecessor, the Conservative MP Ian Grist. One paragraph read:
"If you are half as good as our old MP, Ian Grist, then that will do for me. Ian Grist was a wonderful MP for Cardiff. He made himself available 3 Saturdays out of 4, and he got things done. Put yourself about in Cardiff and you won't go far wrong."
That is a good piece of advice, and one that I shall endeavour to remember over the next four to five years. If all else fails, I can always fall back on the advice that my mother used to give me, and which is taken from a prayer:
"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
That is as true in politics as it is in the rest of my life. I can only do my best to follow that advice and, in so doing, I hope to make Cardiff, Central proud.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to deliver my maiden speech before the Whitsun recess. I am particularly pleased to follow Jenny Willott, because she was one of the first new Members from the other parties whom I met when I came to the House. It is especially pleasing to follow her.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for various other constituencies, who delivered their speeches today. I am sure that the House will be much the better for the return of my hon. Friend Mr. Fraser. It is an honour to serve as the Member of Parliament for Putney, because Putney is my home. Before I talk about the area, however, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Tony Colman. Both as a candidate and now as an MP, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He has been extremely successful not just in politics—he was leader of Merton council before becoming Member of Parliament for Putney—but in business. He helped to found the Topshop chain and certainly did his bit to push forward the UK economy during the '80s.
Tony Colman also delivered a huge amount to the House of Commons. He was a member of the International Development Committee, and he played a key role in ensuring that international development rose rapidly up the political agenda in this country. He spent a great deal of time touring countries to see for himself the issues that people face. Locally in Putney, Tony Colman was an assiduous campaigner on aircraft noise, which is something I shall talk about later. It is of great concern to many constituents, and to my fellow residents who live near the Thames in Putney. He did a huge amount for the constituency, and I wish him well in his future career.
It is perhaps particularly fitting that I deliver my maiden speech today, because we have spent a fair amount of time discussing electoral reform and proportional representation. Many hon. Members will know that Putney was the site of the Putney debates, which took place at the time of the English civil war. Oliver Cromwell and his generals camped in Putney for a while, and they used that time to talk about the future shape of the country and how Parliament should operate. They had a decapitation strategy in place long before Mr. Kennedy came up with the idea and, dare I say, it was a lot more successful.
If the House will indulge me, I shall talk wistfully about my constituency of Putney. In many respects, the constituency name is a misnomer, because Putney comprises many communities, and like many constituencies in London, it is full of vibrant communities and residents' associations. In summary, Putney can be classed as Putney, Roehampton and Southfields. Putney itself sprang up as a crossing point on the Thames to get from Putney to Fulham, and a vibrant business community has developed on the Upper Richmond and Lower Richmond roads and Putney high street ever since.
I encourage Members to join me in attending the university boat race, which starts in Putney every year. We are blessed with some of the most wonderful open spaces in London on our doorstep. I am delighted that I have about half an acre of Wimbledon common in my patch. We are bordered by Richmond park, so I took a keen interest in the Queen's Speech when the Queen noted that there will be legislation to improve and update the management of common land. As Member of Parliament for Putney, I shall be keen to participate in discussion of the legislation to ensure that it safeguards the open spaces that people in my constituency value so much.
Elsewhere in Putney, we have Southfields, which was established by the Quakers. The Southfields grid is an amazing network of roads that criss-cross one another built many years ago by the Quaker community. An extraordinary sense of community lives on in Southfields today. Earlier this week, I attended the Southfields Grid residents association annual general meeting, which was well attended. It shows that, even now, when people are switching off more and more from politics, at the grass roots, people still want to get involved with their local community and to do everything that they can to fight on its behalf. I look forward, as a Member of Parliament, to joining the Southfields Grid residents association for its yearly carol singing outside Southfields tube station. We raised £300 for the Trinity hospice last year, and I could not decide whether people were giving us money so that they could walk away quickly, or whether they appreciated our carol singing—probably the former rather than the latter.
In my constituency, Roehampton faces perhaps some of the greatest challenges. Although many Members might think that Putney is a leafy London suburb, and in many respects, I believe, it offers the best of London living, combining close proximity to the centre of London with a leafy suburb that is amenable to living in, it contains one of the country's largest council estates. I make the pledge today to residents on the Alton estate that I will work tirelessly with them to address the growing concern of drugs and antisocial behaviour. None of the estates in my constituency are sink estates, and I will make sure, if I do one thing as MP, that none of them become sink estates. We need the Alton estate to be an estate of which people can be proud, and many residents have lived there since it was built in the 1950s. I will work with them to make it a place that they can remain proud to call home.
There is much of which to be proud elsewhere in my constituency. In this time of much protracted discussion about health care reform, I have on my patch a world-class hospital, the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in West Hill, which has done incredible research and provides outstanding care to patients with some of the most challenging neurological and physical medical conditions in the country. It is an independent hospital providing outstanding treatment to NHS patients, of whom its staff take so much care. We should therefore be conscious that local health care can deliver an amazing service outside of the NHS but working with NHS patients. If for no other reason, we must get rid of the political dogma that people who care about health care work only in the NHS. There are many such people in this country who work in independent trusts and charitable foundations such as the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability.
I and my constituents are extremely concerned about many issues, however. Although I recognise that there are now police community support officers across the country, and increasing numbers of fully trained officers, that is not the case in my area of Wandsworth. Over the past eight years, since the current Administration came to power, we have seen fewer police. It is vital that we work together to put more trained officers, who can arrest people, back on the streets of my constituency, and above all, in places such as the Alton estate, which is increasingly blighted by antisocial behaviour.
The District line also raises issues, which Mr. Hands has already discussed. As the only tube line feeding my area, on which many of my constituents depend to get to work every day, it is vital that it runs safely and reliably. It is also vital that something called public transport, which, clearly, the District line is, is accessible to the public. I always joke that one must practically abseil down the steps into Southfields station in winter, but it is impossible for women with prams and the elderly to use the steps. We must address that as a matter of urgency.
Finally, aircraft noise is an issue, which I have mentioned. My predecessor worked assiduously to help to ban night flights and I will continue that fight and work with other Members who are similarly affected by the issue. It is high time that we recognised that, as with the development of the green belt, a balance needs to be found between quality of life and the noise with which people who live close to airports must put up day to day. We simply cannot continue to develop Heathrow until it bursts at the seams. At some point, we must draw a line in the sand and say, "Thus far and no further." I believe we have reached that line and, in many respects, crossed it.
When I became the candidate in Putney, I was told that it was a bellwether seat. Perhaps I am living proof that that may not be true, as I am the first Opposition Member of Parliament for Putney for several decades. One of the things that I have already learned during my time in politics is that, although people may be on different sides of the political fence, no political party in the country has a monopoly on good intentions. I will therefore do my best to contribute to the House through strong debate, which I think produces strong legislation that will deliver for people outside the Chamber—people in the country who depend absolutely on the quality of the work done here every day on their behalf.
I hope that I can play my full role here over the coming years, both in the Chamber and in the Committees that support it. I will do my utmost to be the very best constituency Member that I can be for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, and I look forward to the coming years of debate with Members who are present today.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I begin by congratulating my fellow Members who have already made their maiden speeches so well today. The first was Mr. MacNeil, who made an excellent contribution. Fortunately, the constituencies of those who followed him were somewhat easier to pronounce. We heard from the hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), my hon. Friend Jeremy Browne, the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), Mr. Fraser—who, unusually, had the opportunity to make a second maiden speech—my hon. Friend Jenny Willott, and Justine Greening. I enjoyed listening to all of them.
It is a great privilege for me to represent East Dunbartonshire, where I was raised and where I have lived for most of my life. The seat has many distinguished constituents, not least the Speaker of this very House. I am looking forward to getting to grips with my constituents' inquiries and problems. Mr. Speaker has welcomed new Members to the House, helpfully offering advice and a listening ear. I am in the fortunate position of being able to reciprocate. Whether the problem is antisocial neighbours, harassment at work or difficulty with a landlord, my door is always open.
East Dunbartonshire stands out among constituencies for electing women in their 20s. The last young woman to represent it was Margaret Bain. Her maiden speech was described by William Hamilton, then Member of Parliament for Fife, Central, as
"a rare treat highly charged with non-controversial subjects."—[Hansard, 6 November 1974; Vol. 880, c. 1144.]
Perfect, I thought: no doubt it would be a helpful guide for me. Imagine my surprise when, reading the speech, I came across Mrs. Bain's call for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Nigel Griffiths may be pleased to learn that I plan to be less controversial today.
The current boundaries of my constituency contain much of what was formerly Strathkelvin and Bearsden, and part of the old Clydebank and Milngavie seat. Tony Worthington, who stood down at the recent election, gave long service to the community of Milngavie. I pay particular tribute to his hard work on international development. John Lyons was also active in promoting international issues. As Member of Parliament for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, he kick-started a local campaign for East Dunbartonshire to pursue fair trade status. I know that John will be pleased that his efforts are paying off and that a steering group is working towards making East Dunbartonshire a fair trade zone by 2006.
Both those former Labour Members should also be congratulated on their principled stance in opposing the Iraq war. The ability to put conscience and constituency views before the view of the party is valued by members of the public, even if it is less popular with the Whips.
Having mentioned Labour and SNP former representatives of my constituency, I should point out that the Conservatives also held the seat: it was represented by Sir Michael Hirst in the 1980s. In the Scottish Parliament, the Independent Dr. Jean Turner represents Strathkelvin and Bearsden. It was about time that a Liberal Democrat was elected. I am delighted to be the first Liberal Democrat to represent East Dunbartonshire, and also the first Liberal Democrat Member in west central Scotland since Roy Jenkins represented Glasgow, Hillhead.
East Dunbartonshire sits just to the north of Glasgow, stretching from the city boundaries to the foot of the beautiful Campsie fells. I may be accused of bias, but I believe that it is a fantastic place to live. The distinct areas that make up East Dunbartonshire retain a strong sense of community spirit. Situated just 20 minutes from the bustling cosmopolitan city centre of Glasgow and a similarly short distance from the lush beauty of Loch Lomond, it really does enjoy the best of both worlds. Hence it is a lovely place to visit, and I encourage hon. Members to do so, though perhaps not with the purpose that several right hon. Labour Members had when they visited earlier this year.
People have been visiting for centuries. In 141 AD, the Romans arrived. They found the place so pleasing that they thought there was no need to go further north. Indeed, they built the Antonine wall through the constituency with forts in Bearsden, Cadder and Kirkintilloch. Bearsden was even treated to a Roman bathhouse.
The retention and protection of the vibrant community spirit in East Dunbartonshire will be a high priority for me. Central to strong communities are good local services, which is why I have been particularly concerned at the recent closures of post offices in local areas such as Bearsden, Westerton and Auchinairn. In Bishopbriggs, the main post office has been under threat, although I am now optimistic that, thanks to the support of thousands of local people, the facility will be kept in the town centre. Post offices often act as hubs for the community and a trip to the post office is about so much more than just making a transaction. Such social contact forms part of the glue that binds communities together.
Economic regeneration can also support communities. Kirkintilloch, part of which is in my constituency, is looking forward to a multi-million pound regeneration project that will deliver a state-of-the-art leisure centre by 2007, an arts and culture centre, a health centre and better access to the countryside. A new marina on the Forth and Clyde canal will help to cement Kirkintilloch's reputation as the canal capital of Scotland.
My home town, Milngavie, attracts visitors from all over the world keen to embark on a challenging and dramatic long-distance walk. The west highland way begins in Milngavie and finishes 95 miles further on in Fort William, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr. Kennedy. I was delighted to welcome him last month to the start of the west highland way, where we spoke with one of the many active local community groups, the Bearsden and Milngavie ramblers. Next month, the west highland way is celebrating its 25th anniversary—it is almost as old as I am.
Although I may, just, be older than the west highland way, I follow my hon. Friend Sarah Teather in being the youngest Member of this House. I am delighted that among the new faces in the House there are several young MPs. It is a strength that the elected Members span a spectrum of 55 years in age. A more representative House can help to make politics more relevant to the electorate that we serve.
Many people feel disconnected from politics, and nowhere is that more apparent than among young people. Addressing that will take a bit more than baseball caps and text messages. I argue that there is not a general lack of interest in politics, but rather a lack of faith in the political process and in us politicians to address the issues that people care about. People want to know why millions are dying from treatable diseases in Africa, and they want the world to stop sleep-walking into future environmental disaster. Britain's leadership of the G8 later this year will be a key test for many people who are still prepared to give politics a chance.
I am thrilled and honoured that the voters of East Dunbartonshire have chosen to give me a chance as their elected representative. I am determined to represent all of my constituents tirelessly, whatever their politics and even if they do not happen to be the Speaker of this House.
May I first say how much I enjoyed the speech by Jo Swinson? Age is obviously no barrier to being a successful and fine speaker in this House, but it is something of a surprise to follow someone many years younger than one's children. She made a fine speech. I have only ever been to Kirkintilloch in her constituency and that was a brief visit.
That is enough.
A fellow Scot speaks from the Back Benches.
Other new Members made equally trenchant and interesting speeches, some laced with humour as well as intelligence. I did not agree with every point raised but, surprisingly, I agreed with quite a few, even though they were made by Opposition Members.
I made a late entry into the Chamber this afternoon, but not just to avoid having to pronounce the name of that wonderful constituency in the west of Scotland, which I shall have to learn before too long. I was fortunate in arriving late for that reason, but my main purpose is to deliver the speech that I wanted to make in the Queen's Speech debates but was unable to do so, largely because so many fine new Members were making their maiden speeches. It was enjoyable and interesting to hear them yesterday. I want to raise some fairly serious points about the economy, so my remarks are addressed mainly to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is one of his close friends, so perhaps he will put in a good word for me after he has heard my speech.
Support for the Government has rested largely on our success with the economy. We have had strong and steady growth for eight years and unemployment has fallen to astonishingly low levels. We have had buoyant house prices and rising public spending, all of which has brought dividends and contributed to two further substantial election victories. We must ensure that our economic record continues in order to win fourth and perhaps even fifth terms in office. The benign economic environment has meant that voters, particularly Labour voters, have forgiven the Government for other less popular policies. Even I have disagreed with Ministers and the Government on some issues. The Iraq war has already been mentioned, but when people came to vote, they put the pound in their pockets, their jobs, their secure homes and their schools and hospitals first in their reckoning. That is precisely what they did at the last election.
In Luton, North, my support depends strongly on my constituents' reaction to what they experienced under the Conservative Government 12 to 14 years ago. That is because my constituency was then the epicentre of negative equity and repossessions. It was the No. 1 constituency in that respect, and my constituents have not forgotten it. That folk memory continues to this day and will serve us well in future years, though I do not want to rest only on the bad record of our Conservative predecessors. We need to be proud of the good things that we do, too.
We must keep the economy strong. The truth is that we are now facing rather more difficult times. Forecasts have been made in the newspapers both today and yesterday of the difficult times that lie ahead unless we take appropriate action. Growth has long been driven primarily by consumer spending and economic demand. That has been based, in turn, on rising asset values. Since the collapse of the exchange rate mechanism in 1992, house prices have risen and there has been a surge in stock market values. Growth was so strong that it accommodated a substantial appreciation of sterling in the late 1990s—much to my surprise, I must say, because I had thought that such an appreciation would damage economic growth. That did not happen and we sailed through it, just as we sailed through a sharp fall in the stock market subsequently.
Such events may have been expected to throw us off course, but the economy has continued to grow. House prices have been the basic reason for that. As they have continued to rise, so have the asset values that matter to most people—their own homes. Particularly for working people, the price of their house is more significant than the state of the stock market. That is not true of other countries, but it is certainly true of Britain. House prices have now reached a point at which the ratio between earnings and house prices is twice that of 10 years ago. Such a surge cannot continue indefinitely and demand must derive from other sectors.
The Government—the Chancellor, in particular—have done well in driving public spending ahead, especially in health and education. That has brought benefits in employment as well as economic growth. I urge the Chancellor to continue with his public spending programme to ensure that we have not only social benefits, but the economic benefits of full employment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main consequences of the incredible inflation of house prices is the lack of affordable housing in this country? Does he also agree that it is now urgent for hon. Members on both sides of the House to find some methodology whereby new entrants to the housing market could afford to buy their properties? Perhaps we should also revisit the opportunity to increase the stock of rental housing in the council sector.
I largely agree with that, and I and other Labour Members who belong to the parliamentary council housing group have urged the Government to build council houses in the traditional way, to provide decent homes for working people who cannot—or who do not choose to—own their own homes.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but I am sure that he will agree that the rate of construction of affordable housing fell dramatically after 1997. Had this country continued to build affordable housing at the pre-1997 rate, our housing stock for people who cannot afford to buy their own homes would now be several hundred thousand greater than it is at present.
Even before 1997, the rate of house building was too low. Over decades, Conservative Governments provided heavy subsidies for council house sales, which led to a depletion of the housing stock that has caused terrible problems in my constituency. I have urged the Government to put a brake on council house sales in Luton, but so far without success. I think that such a brake is essential, and that council house sales must be conducted according to their market value rather than their subsidised value. Even then, the proceeds should be used to provide other houses for renting in the same area.
The housing crisis is serious, as the Government now recognise. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has talked about how the problem might be tackled, but helping more people become owner-occupiers without increasing the housing stock is not the solution. The result of that might only be still further house price inflation, when what we really want is more stock, as Chris Grayling rightly said. We need more houses in the right areas, and more in the public rented sector available for people who cannot afford to buy.
The only way to make houses more affordable is to build more, so that people have more choice. Does my hon. Friend agree that those hon. Members representing the Government's allocated growth areas who do not mind about having more houses elsewhere, but who do not want them in their constituencies, are not seriously addressing an issue that is as relevant to their constituents as it is to ours?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, whose constituency is in the same county as mine. I am aware of the problem that he describes. In the borough of Luton, we are running out of land suitable for new housing. We will have to expand if we are to provide decent homes for the thousands of families in my constituency who need them. That is the number one crisis in my area, as is evidenced every week in my surgery.
I did not want to be sidetracked into a long debate about housing, but rising house prices—
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I want to sidetrack him in a slightly different direction. He suggests that we should build more council accommodation, which would require a significant increase in Government borrowing unless other areas of public expenditure were to be reduced. What is his assessment of the likely impact on the economy of that increase in borrowing?
Borrowing for investment is separate from borrowing to finance the economic cycle, which goes to pay for unemployment and so on. As long as the borrowing can be funded—from rents, or possibly Government subsidy—there is no problem. Gross borrowing is at very low levels, and long-term interest rates are low, which makes borrowing cheap. A difficulty might arise if the economy and the construction sector were to overheat, as that might cause the building of more houses to lead to prices being bid up. We must therefore ensure that houses can be built without overheating.
The reputation of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is built on his fiscal rules. The sustainable investment rule, which deals with borrowing for investment rather than for current expenditure, is universally recognised to be very tight. Would not an increase in borrowing risk breaking that rule, and pose a challenge to the Chancellor's reputation?
I do not think so, but I might have a debate with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about it. We should perhaps have a higher level of gross borrowing. We have low levels by international standards, and provided that he borrows for investment and it is fundable—in the sense of the return on the borrowing—it would not be a problem. If one simply wanted to borrow for current spending, it might be a problem and could lead to budget deficits and even inflation. One has to keep current spending at an appropriate level. However, borrowing for investment in the long term, provided it can be funded, is not a problem. It is important to separate current spending and capital spending when it comes to borrowing limits.
The house price surge has started to reach its limits. People are warier about borrowing against the rising value of their houses, and that is inevitable. We pull in our horns when we think that house prices might not rise much more. We say, "Well, we'll put off buying the car this year and we won't have so many meals out." We can choose not to spend, but if we all did that, we could quickly move into a recession or at least an economic slowdown. That is what we have to avoid, and we should look to the instruments of macroeconomic policy to ensure that economic demand is sustained in the long term at an appropriate level to maintain employment levels and growth. Those instruments are monetary policy, fiscal policy and the exchange rate.
On monetary policy, the chief economist at Capital Economics said that the Bank of England will soon have to cut rates below the 2003 record low of 3.5 per cent. to ensure that monetary policy is not too tight. I was a little concerned when the Chancellor chose to reduce the target for the RPI(X) measure of inflation from 2.5 per cent. to 2 per cent. I see nothing wrong in raising that target to 2.5 per cent. again as a 0.5 per cent. inflation difference is not significant compared with the inflation rates that we have had in the past. If the economy would be damaged by keeping the target at 2 per cent., but would be healthier if it were 2.5 per cent., I would choose a 2.5 per cent. target. The record of interest rates since 1997 shows that the average level of inflation—the RPI(X)—over that period is about 2.5 per cent. It is certainly nearer 2.5 per cent. than 2 per cent. We have had a strong economy in that period and there is nothing fundamentally wrong in having a slightly higher inflation target. We became terrified of inflation because of high rates, but the era of high inflation is long past. The economy is not now naturally inflation prone and we could easily adjust the tight inflation targets slightly.
The second instrument is fiscal policy. As the economy moves into recession—if we are approaching that part of the cycle—it is natural to spend more. Indeed, one has to spend more if unemployment starts to rise and tax revenues start to fall. It is a natural tendency to spend more during that period, but I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to use public spending, as we have traditionally done in the past, to ensure that the economy keeps growing and unemployment stays low. We have been petrified of public spending because it did get out of control when we had high levels of unemployment in serious recessions. We had two such recessions during the period of Conservative Government and, inevitably, public spending got out of control. It is inevitable because the unemployed have to be looked after and tax revenues collapse. We are not in that situation now and I urge the Chancellor to use public spending wisely as a tool to ensure that we keep the economy growing.
Finally I come to the exchange rate. Fortunately we are not in the eurozone, so we can adjust our exchange rate to meet the needs of our economy. The exchange rate is too high. The evidence for that is our structural trade deficit. If it is permanent and goes on year after year, something is wrong with the exchange rate: the price at which we sell our exports and the price we pay for our imports. We have reached the point when we should think seriously about intervening in the markets to bring down the exchange rate relative particularly to other developed nations.
There is much talk about competitiveness. It can be affected by many factors, but above all by the exchange rate. If the exchange rate is, for example, 20 per cent. too high, clearly one is less competitive. I believe that it is too high and we should now intervene. There are techniques of intervention that could bring down the exchange rate, which were suggested by, among others, Gerald Holtham, former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, such as intervening in the bond markets.
Our great advantage in fiscal policy, monetary policy and the exchange rate is that we have control over our own economy. That is because we are not a member of the eurozone. The Chancellor has been wise to steer us clear of it for eight years. During the general election the Prime Minister said that he thought it unlikely that we would join during this Parliament. Even he has accepted that it is not sensible. It is certainly not possible because people will never vote for it.
Our economy is relatively strong compared with that of Germany, which has the opposite problem. It cannot control its economy because it has no control over its macroeconomic levers. If it could disentangle itself from the euro and operate those levers, it could recover and perhaps even build a healthy economy like ours, with full employment and strong growth. Indeed, if I were a Back-Bench social democratic member of the Bundestag, I would urge the Chancellor to disentangle Germany from the euro and re-establish the deutschmark. It would be a sensible policy and can be done.
Currencies can be separated. There is evidence for it. When the Czech Republic and Slovakia were set up as separate countries, they established separate currencies. They varied their values with each other. A closer example is the Irish punt. It used to be tied rigidly to the pound, but then it became a separate currency and now Ireland has the euro. There is absolutely no reason why the German economy could not disentangle itself from the euro. Understandably, there would be certain political ramifications. It would cause a few shockwaves round Europe, but the policy would be a sensible one. If Germany had a strong economy again, the whole of Europe would be stronger economically. It might even have an economy as strong as that which has been built on the good sense of our Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker for calling me to make my maiden speech. I pay tribute to the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today, all of which have been of a high quality. While I may be the last, I will try my best not to be least.
It has been a busy week for me. As well as the sittings of Parliament, I have attended two sittings of Leeds City council. If I get confused, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and refer to you as my lord mayor, I hope that you will forgive me on this occasion.
I am delighted to be in these new surroundings although, if I may dare say so, in some ways they compare less favourably with those of Leeds civic hall. The behaviour there is marginally better than here, from what I have seen so far; maiden speeches are always delivered to a packed Chamber; and, best of all, we always have a break for tea at about 6 pm. In addition, in the chamber in Leeds I have my own chair, in which no one else can sit, and I have access to an electronic voting system. Leeds has all the mod cons but, having experienced voting in this place for the first time yesterday, I am sure that the system here is at least more fun and certainly looks better on television.
If I may, let me take you back, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to my first visit to the House, back in 1987, as an idealistic A-level politics student. I vividly remember the huge excitement when the then Prime Minister swooshed in, followed by the Ministers and various MPs whom we recognised, and of course we were captivated for the 20 minutes of Prime Minister's Question Time. However, not knowing the procedure in those days—I confess that I still do not—we were very surprised when the Prime Minister and all the Ministers swooshed out again after 20 minutes, and we then had to sit through about an hour and a half of a forestry debate. An hour of a forestry debate may not have been enough to deter me from wanting to take my place in the House, but I have to say that none of my colleagues who were with me that day has shown any interest. All I can say is that if my party leader comes to me, asking me whether I wish to take up a spokespersonship on forestry matters, he might be surprised by the vociferousness of my refusal.
Luckily, in my seat of Leeds, North-West we do not have much in the way of forestry, but please do not be mistaken, as many people are, into assuming that it is therefore an urban seat. In fact, I am very proud to represent an extraordinarily diverse seat that consists of urban and suburban communities, as well as large amounts of farmland and beautiful countryside, which make up more than half of the constituency.
In Leeds, North-West we have inner-city areas, suburbs, villages and farms, and we have the delightful mediaeval market town of Otley, above which is the very fine hill of Otley Chevin, said to offer the finest view in Leeds. I was lucky enough to spend the new year's eve moment of this year on that spot, wondering what might happen to me this year, so obviously my dreams have been realised.
In Leeds, North-West we have a rather peculiar boast: we have one international airport and only half a railway station. That is because only half of Burley Park railway station lies in the constituency. Public transport is an issue, but not the railways; I will talk about that later. I represent Headingley ward both as a Member and as a councillor, and it is home to Headingley stadium. In that context, I must pay tribute to the Leeds Rhinos rugby league team, which in the past year was crowned as super league champions, winning the grand final and then going on to win the world club challenge. In the other code, we are very proud to have seen Leeds Tykes lift the Powergen trophy against Bath. It certainly has been a significant year of celebration for many of us in Leeds. All I can say is that perhaps I can be a little bit grateful that, unlike in the 1997 election, the mascot of Leeds Rhinos, Ronnie the Rhino, chose not to stand this time.
Unlike many of the big cities such as Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool, we do not use the name of an area for Leeds, North-West because there is no area that could claim to be the notable area of my seat. Indeed, the local Conservative association still has not worked out that the seat is called Leeds, North-West, and its members refer to themselves as North West Leeds Conservatives. But that is something of a faux pas, and one piece of advice I would give hon. Members today is that if they are sending a letter to anyone in Otley, the address is Otley, West Yorkshire—not Otley, Leeds, West Yorkshire.
In such a diverse seat there is really only one thing that unites it. People might say that there are two now that there is a Liberal Democrat MP, but what unites it is the A660, the trunk road that runs from south to north. It is one of the top 10 congested roads in the country and a problem for all of us who try to use or avoid it. That is why the need for the Leeds supertram system is so very pressing. At present nothing is being done to address the ever-worsening problems of congestion, because we are still waiting for a decision from the Secretary of State for Transport. I must use this opportunity to urge that he make a decision as soon as possible, and I hope sincerely that it will be a positive one.
The last Liberal MP to represent part of Leeds, North-West was David Austick, who won the Ripon by-election back in 1973. I pay tribute to David, who has since passed away. He was an honorary alderman of the city of Leeds and is still held in very high esteem. He did, however, hold his seat only until February 1974, so I am certainly confident that I can be the MP for the constituency longer than he was.
I must, of course, pay warm tribute to my predecessor, Harold Best. Mr. Best announced that it was his intention to retire at the general election some years ago—indeed, before I was selected to stand for election to the seat—and I would not have wanted to stand against Mr. Best, for he was an MP who had the courage to stand up for his principles and, indeed, to stand up against his Government on many occasions.
I have heard it said that, when Harold Best was first elected, his name featured on a list of newly elected MPs suspected of being possibly troublesome that was held at Labour headquarters at Millbank. I wonder whether I am on a similar list, and all I can say is that, if not, I will do all that I can to rectify that. Indeed, Harold obliged his reputation by waiting only until December 1997 before rebelling for the first time—in that case, against the lone parent benefit cuts.
Harold worked hard locally and campaigned on many of the same issues as my council colleagues in Leeds, North-West and I have done. In Parliament, he voted in the Lobby with my colleagues on several occasions. So it would indeed have seemed strange to oppose someone who consistently opposed the very things that I have been railing against: the great battles of the last Parliament—the war in Iraq and university top-up fees—and, of course, the great battle of this one, identity cards. I pledge to my constituents that I will continue those fights with vigour.
Harold Best's reputation was earned not in the House, but as a hard-working local MP, and I intend to emulate him in that and do my very best to represent the people of Leeds, North-West. Mr. Best did not lose the election in Leeds, North-West, and his reputation remains intact—a proud and distinguished one that I am honoured to follow.
Before I conclude, I wish to mention briefly a couple of issues that I have been charged by my constituents to bring to the House. There has been much talk in the Queen's Speech debate about the economy, but one thing that is abundantly clear in my constituency is that, although the economy is performing well generally, the prosperity that it generates is not being shared adequately or equitably.
First, for older people, we still have a pensions system that leaves huge numbers of the poorest pensioners without the money that they need to get an income that simply lifts them to the breadline. Free personal care is still not regarded as a right, despite the finding of the royal commission.
Of course, at the younger end of the spectrum, many sixth-formers in my constituency are being put off going to university through the fear of the huge debts that the funding system now inevitably involves. We have something like 20,000 students in Leeds, North-West. I have a duty to continue to criticise the decisions that have seen the Government pull up the ladder of opportunity that they themselves were privileged to use without being saddled with a huge burden of debt.
Although there are other local issues that I want to raise, I must mention my commitment to the cause of the global community and global justice. With my role as a campaigner for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and the wonderful umbrella organisation, TIDAL, which stands for Trade, Injustice and Debt Action Leeds, together in 2004, we were proud to make Leeds the biggest fair-trade city in this country. Indeed, I felt that I had to mention my commitment to international development, and I hope that the House and the Government continue to put that issue high on the agenda and to support the Make Poverty History campaign, particularly with the G8 summit coming up.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech today. The idealistic young man who came here in 1987 has indeed now entered the House as a Member of Parliament, and I hope that I have not lost the idealistic zeal that encouraged me to want to enter the House and play a part in its business. I pledge, both to my constituents in Leeds, North-West and to all hon. Members, that I will play my full part in being the Member of Parliament for Leeds, North-West both in my constituency and here in the House.
I congratulate all the Members who have spoken in the debate, especially those who gave their maiden speeches today. They brought to life the places they represent in a way that almost makes me want to visit those areas, but I am happy with the constituency of Bedford and Kempston that I have the honour to represent. The maiden speeches we have heard showed a remarkable balance of clarity, humanity and intelligence. We have certainly heard generosity, too, from several speakers, including Greg Mulholland in his remarks about Harold Best, who was one of the kindest people I met in the House and will be much missed.
I apologise for not being in the Chamber from the beginning of the debate. Prior business prevented me from being in my place, but I have listened to several speeches during the last hour or so.
I had hoped to make the contribution that I am about to make during the debates on the Queen's Speech, although it is understandable that I was unable to do so due to the need to give priority to maiden speeches. I want to talk about council tax, an issue of considerable and growing concern to most of the people I represent, and one that the Government are determined to tackle.
Although specific legislation was not brought forward in the Queen's Speech, I have no doubt that in the months ahead the House will spend much time talking about council tax, revaluation and the recommendations of the Lyons review of the financing of local councils. I am sure that I am not the only Member who is eagerly awaiting a special Christmas present—the publication of the Lyons review. I understand that it is on schedule to report, as required, by December.
Although concern about council tax is expressed throughout the country, it is understandably acute in Bedford and Kempston and throughout Bedfordshire. Band D council tax in Bedford is now £1,323.71, having risen 81 per cent. from £731 in 1997. Despite the fact that Bedfordshire county council has received a real-terms increase of 33 per cent. in Government grant since 1997, in stark contrast to the real-terms cut of 7 per cent. during the last four years under the Conservatives, it has managed to become the third-highest taxing authority in the country. To compound that felony, the council has been found consistently to be the worst performing. From being judged "poor" in the comprehensive performance assessment, it has now made some recovery to "weak". Its children's services have been placed under special measures and a few days ago Ofsted found that its youth services were unsatisfactory on all counts.
As I am from the same county, my hon. Friend's remarks are of interest. Does he agree that Luton was extremely wise to separate itself as a unitary authority?
As a former member of Bedfordshire county council, I confess to some sadness when Luton took that step eight years ago, but I can understand why it did so. For people living in Bedfordshire, that draws attention to the potential advantages of unitary authorities rather than to the situation we face at district and county council level.
The county council is run with a rod of iron by the Conservative party. For the past eight years, until the recent elections, the ruling Conservative group had only a small majority, yet it refused to allocate places on the executive and other structures to the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups. The poor performance and high taxing of Bedfordshire is thus entirely down to the Conservatives. They can blame no other group, and certainly not the council staff. The Conservative group in Bedfordshire bears full responsibility for what is happening, so guess what happened at the county council elections three weeks ago? The demonstrably failed Conservative group, which had increased its overall majority from one in 1997 to three in 2001, was gratefully rewarded by the people of Bedfordshire for being pretty useless by an increase in its majority to 20.
Surely that is one of the most bizarre election results of all time. Perhaps Bedfordshire Conservatives could let us into their secret. Do they have a Blarney stone hidden in the bowels of county hall, or do they perform the darks arts in some way to mask what they have really done to the people of Bedfordshire? I add in haste, however, that the people of Bedford and Kempston did not come under that spell to the same extent as those elsewhere in the county. In the constituency that I have the honour to represent there are only three Conservative county councillors out of 11, and six of them are Labour. The residents of Bedford and Kempston understand that the council tax is a Tory tax made worse by a Tory council. They also understand that a Labour Government are most likely to bring about the necessary changes in the funding of local councils and to make funding fairer, more transparent and more effective.
Although a high-taxing authority such as Bedfordshire county council puts an added burden on local residents, it has to be said that there are systemic weaknesses with the council tax itself, and I shall now turn to those. First, it is inherently regressive and that is reflected in the fact that although a person on band H pays three times more than someone on band A, the band H property is valued at eight times more than the property on band A.
Secondly, there is the gearing effect due to the fact that the council tax raises about 26 per cent. of local council budgets. That means that if a council wishes to raise its budget by an extra 1 per cent. from the council tax, the tax has to go up by about 4 per cent. Above-inflation increases are very difficult to avoid and will always tend to make the council tax stand out as a big tax unless we make radical changes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the gearing problem could, to some extent, be overcome if the Government chose to return a business rate to local authorities?
Indeed, I am just about to come to that, because it follows logically from what I have just said. My hon. Friend picked that point up instantly. The business rate is the one area of radical change that we could consider and make. I hope that the Lyons review will come up with a careful assessment of that possibility.
The business rate was nationalised by the Conservative Government in 1990, and that leaves the domestic council tax payers as the only significant source of revenue open to the decision of local councils. Even that is constrained by Government capping powers, and I would like to mention them. I was a councillor in the past, but I would not attempt to be a councillor and a Member of Parliament at the same time. That is a matter for the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West to resolve in the weeks and months ahead. Good for him if he can do it.
I am uncomfortable with capping. I believe that decisions about locally raised revenue are best taken locally and that, if levels of local taxation are judged to be excessive by local people, the local electorate should cap the councillors by booting them out of office. That is the best way to deal with the issue. However, in exceptional circumstances, I accept that there may be a need to use reserve powers and that what I have said does not appear to apply to the people of Bedfordshire as a whole who continue to return Conservatives to the county council.
When the business rate was nationalised, it was pegged to inflation, but the council tax was not. Therefore, over the years, the share of local council budgets carried by businesses and local residents has shifted significantly on to the shoulders of residents. While the business rate contribution has dropped from 29 to 22 per cent. over the past 12 or 13 years, that from council tax has increased from 20 to 26 per cent. In effect, that means that the council tax payer is subsidising the business ratepayer, a situation that is unfair and unsustainable. We need to address that.
It makes sense to return the business rate to local councils if we want a fair share of the cost of local council services to be paid and to reduce the gearing effect, although that would not be an automatic panacea.
My hon. Friend's argument is a little inconsistent. Surely the problem with the business rate is that it has been pegged to inflation. It would not be necessary to abolish the unified business rate because we could simply urge business to pay its proper proportion to achieve what he wants.
It would be difficult for a centrally determined level of business rates to take account of the varying conditions throughout the country with which locally elected councils deal. If we want councils to play a strong role in our civic society, there must be some scope for variation because otherwise they lack the power to do what we want them to. I am not in favour of a nationally applied rate because it leads to the situation in which we demonstrably find ourselves, with the burden unfairly carried.
Re-localising the business rate would not be an automatic solution to the problems of the council tax. There would have to be understanding and support from the business community. I also think that a measure of protection would be needed because although residents have a vote, businesses do not, so they could reasonably argue that such protection would be needed because there would be no immediate electoral kick-back from a council's decisions to increase the local business rate, as there would be from a council tax increase. We would certainly need to retain a national equalisation mechanism to redistribute business rate yields because they might be high for some councils and low for others. None the less, on balance there is much to commend in the re-localisation of the business rate.
If property tax is to remain as the source—or indeed a source—of locally raised revenue, which is likely even if we consider the possibility of adding a local sales tax or indeed a local income tax to the armoury as a result of the Lyons review, it is crucial that it is based on accurate information about the value of property. Such information must then be fed into a robust system that can be regularly updated so that revaluation exercises are sensible and effective. The Government have made it clear that the revaluation exercise for England that is about to begin will be revenue-neutral. The value of the council tax bands will be uprated to reflect house price inflation, but that should result in the overwhelming majority of properties remaining in the same band. However, achieving that will pose difficulties due to not only strong regional variations in house prices, but large variations within regions.
I understand why people in England express fears about the possible effects of revaluation because the experience in Wales was that 40 per cent. of properties ended up at least one band higher. We must make it clear that revaluation is not about raising revenue, learn from what happened in Wales and approach the process in a more measured way than was the case there. We have time to get the system right before the new bills hit the doormats in April 2007. I am delighted that the Lyons review is on the case and that it will advise Ministers on this crucial matter.
I ask the Government to be open-minded about options for funding local council services. I hope that they will be prepared to consider changing the number of bands and the possibility of introducing regional variations for both the number of bands and the payment proportions among them. Although it will be controversial, I hope that the Government will be open minded about the re-localisation of the business rate, for the reasons that I mentioned. We also need to ensure that we learn from the Welsh experience and deliver an English revaluation that is revenue-neutral.
Finally, we all need to be clear about the overall purpose of the reform of local council funding. It should be about underpinning and strengthening local government to create a framework in which local government and local democracy flourish and should make a difference to our towns and communities throughout the land. Councillors should be able to respond to the wishes of residents and to have freedoms and responsibilities. That will make the job of being a councillor worth while and, therefore, more likely to attract new people who want to serve their communities in that way, as well as perhaps achieving a higher turnout at local elections. To achieve all that, the way in which councils are funded must be fair and easily understood and funds must be easy to collect.
Surely, if we are to retain a property tax, the aim should be that householders with comparable incomes pay roughly the same local council tax if they live in broadly similar house types anywhere in the country, and there should be a reasonable span of bands nearly everywhere, with band A, for example, applying to houses that are cheap by local rather than national standards. If we do not do that, we will end up keeping and reinforcing the current situation in which 60, 70 or 80-plus per cent. of properties in many northern towns and cities are in band A.
Those are important issues for the Government and Parliament. They are certainly important to my constituents, whose message to me is clear: the current situation cannot be sustained and council tax must be reformed.
Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to raise a number of points. First, however, I want to deal with the maiden speeches.
You and I made our maiden speeches in the same year, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sat two Benches back from the Dispatch Box, on the Government side of the House. On that occasion, it was not possible to find a place to sit, whereas nowadays it is hard to find a Member of Parliament who is available to sit on the green Benches. I also note that the usual courtesies in debates no longer seem to be entirely observed, which is disappointing. No doubt that has all happened via the Modernisation Committee and perhaps I need to understand it a bit more. The best way to deal with that would be to put it on the agenda of the next meeting of the Chairmen's Panel.
The first maiden speech today was by Mr. MacNeil—I shall not pretend to pronounce his constituency correctly. When he began speaking, I did not understand anything he said and thought that it was the usual speech by a colleague. It eventually dawned on me that he was not speaking in English. When he reverted to English and I could understand him, I thought that he made a splendid speech. I am sure that the House looks forward to his contributions.
My hon. Friend Mr. Walker also made a splendid speech. He has a loud voice, and my hon. Friends will be in no doubt as to how he stands on things. I am delighted that he paid such a warm and generous tribute to our former colleague, Dame Marion Roe. My hon. Friend Grant Shapps made a remarkable speech without a piece of paper in his hands. I was impressed by his command of the constituency that he represents. He paid a generous and warm tribute to Melanie Johnson, his predecessor, who used to sit on the Labour Benches.
We then heard a speech from Jeremy Browne, who again spoke with no notes, although technically he had a piece of paper in his hand. He made a splendid tour of his constituency. It was a shock to most of us when he said that there had been four different Members of Parliament in four elections, but we will not dwell on that.
My hon. Friend Mark Pritchard spoke about the normal courtesies of the House, and I very much agreed with what he said about the supremacy of Parliament. I look forward to his contribution on that subject in the years to come. My hon. Friend Mr. Hands is someone I know well: he happens to be a member of the same dining club as myself, the 1912 club, and he has earned his spurs in winning a place in this House. He will prove to be a splendid MP.
My hon. Friend Mr. Fraser is a retread—we were together in one Parliament. As ever, he spoke splendidly. I say to my hon. Friend Bob Spink that there is nothing wrong with being a retread. I go for economy in motoring and most of my tyres are also retreads.
Jenny Willott made a splendid speech. Inadvertently, I have become a regular visitor to Cardiff because the various football teams with which I am associated keep turning up at the millennium stadium. I shall refer later to Saturday's match, but so far, we have had no success. Having listened to the hon. Lady's speech, perhaps we will be successful on Saturday.
My hon. Friend Justine Greening made a stunning speech. When we saw her face on the television on election night, Conservative Members were all greatly cheered up. I noted that she said that she sings carols, and there is an effective group in the House of Commons for her to join. I am sure that, in every sense, she will make a great contribution to the affairs of the House.
Jo Swinson made a splendid speech and paid a warm tribute to her colleagues. Greg Mulholland comes to this House with great experience—no one could accuse him of taking a short cut to the House of Commons—and we look forward to hearing from him in the years ahead.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, what a joy it is for you and I to listen to new voices. It is a privilege to listen to maiden speeches, as some of us get fed up listening to the same voices. I get particularly fed up listening to my own voice and if my family were to take a vote, they would very much agree.
Traditionally, these debates are about local matters. I am puzzled that, having fought a general election campaign, so few hon. Members are here to raise constituency points. I should have thought that now was the time to deliver on the promises made on the doorstep. I intend to do as is traditional and raise constituency points.
I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Nigel Griffiths, to his new position. He and I know one another very well: he once borrowed my eldest daughter to introduce her to the leader of his party at the Brit awards, but I shall not hold that against him. He also led her astray by getting her an autograph from the leader of his party, but I shall not hold that against him either.
When the Minister really gets into his job, he will be briefed by his officials that I have continually raised the case of Majid Narwaz. He is one of four British citizens detained—or should I say "banged up"?—in prison in Cairo. The other Members of Parliament who have constituents there are my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, and the hon. Members for East Ham (Mr. Timms) and for West Ham (Lyn Brown). I must tell the Minister, although this is not directed towards him personally, that my patience on this issue has now run out.
My constituent has now been in prison in Cairo for three and a half years, so he has already done three and a half years of a five-year sentence. The members of the Foreign Office team who have been dealing with this case are very courteous and, no doubt, when the Minister responds he will reassure the House that Ministers have done everything that they possibly can on the issue. Well, I am no longer convinced that they have been terribly effective. Considering the relationship between the Labour leader and President Mubarak, I am certain that, with a bit more tenacity, we could get some real movement on the issue of these four detainees.
When I visited my constituent in prison in Cairo, I found the conditions grim, to say the least. Some of my colleagues would doubtless say that that is as it should be, but I believe that the detainees are not guilty of the crimes of which they are accused and that there has been a great miscarriage of justice. Majid Narwaz is a young man, and his mother came to see me at my surgery on Friday. She advised me that inmates from the prison's criminal wing—not the four British detainees—had smuggled in a mobile telephone and that, as a result, all the inmates had been punished. They were not allowed out of their cells to exercise, and food from their families was not allowed into the prison. The situation is very grim indeed. My constituent is allowed out of his cell for only two hours.
The detainees' families would very much welcome a further meeting with the Foreign Secretary to discuss their welfare, and I urge the Minister and his ministerial colleagues to make representations to the Egyptian Government, so that Majid and the other detainees can return to the UK as soon as possible. This morning, I was delighted to receive a letter from the Egyptian ambassador. I shall not read it all out to the House because I understand that a number of my hon. Friends have received similar letters. The ambassador congratulates me on being re-elected, then goes on to say:
"While I am looking forward to meeting with you soon, I would like to assure you of my readiness to cooperate fully with your goodself in order to enhance further the already excellent existing bilateral relations between our two countries."
Marvellous! We are going to get some action on this issue, and the Minister is obviously pushing at an open door.
The next issue that I wish to raise is that of law and enforcement. So many of my colleagues are parroting the chorus that we need 5,000 more police officers. However, it will do no earthly good to have even one extra police officer patrolling our streets unless they know what they are doing. It is ridiculous for people to call for more and more police officers—I know some of my colleagues will grimace: fancy a Conservative Member of Parliament saying that!—when what is needed is a well-managed police force. I am less than reassured that that is the case at the moment. We also want a properly trained police force.
A number of my friends and relatives joined the police, although some of them have left the force. When I learn at first hand about what is happening in the police force, I am very concerned because it seems that whenever an Opposition Member makes a criticism, the fault is always thought to lie with the last Conservative Government in the previous century. However, we have lost too many experienced police officers, who for all sorts of reasons have taken early retirement. That has happened not just in the police service but in the teaching profession and among health professionals. We have lost a huge number of experienced policewomen and policemen, and we are now paying the price for losing all that experience. I suggest to the Minister and to my colleagues that we need more police officers, but we also need common sense. Our police officers should be properly trained.
I do not think that any Opposition Member would disagree with my hon. Friend. We want to ensure that police officers do the job that they are supposed to do in the force, but the bureaucracy put upon them by this Government has prevented them from doing so. As the Conservative party said at the election—and Conservative Members have said the same since—although we want more police officers on the streets, we also want the officers who are there to do the job that they are paid to do.
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. The Government's strategy is to have many people in uniform, and the public regard some of them as police officers. Those people's powers of arrest, however, are no more than anyone else's: they can talk to someone and detain them for about half an hour. Such things trouble me greatly.
Recently, I was privileged to attend a charity hair and fashion show in my constituency. Before hon. Members make any jokes, it was organised by "2 Smart 4 Drugs", and led by a police officer called Victoria. I support that strategy absolutely. I unashamedly use this opportunity to persuade the Government that we should invest more in such policing. Drugs misuse is the biggest challenge that we face in this country. The problem is everywhere. One of the causes of offending is undoubtedly the misuse of drugs. When the Labour leader spoke on the first day of the debate on the Gracious Speech, I was appalled by his response to the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr. Evans, who asked about cannabis. If any hon. Member feels that it is all right to take cannabis, I challenge them to sit with me at one of my surgeries, where more often than not I will meet someone or hear about a family member whose life has been destroyed by their taking cannabis. It was a huge mistake by the Government to reclassify cannabis. If their Back Benchers are honest, I think they also feel that way. However, the Labour leader told my hon. Friend that we will wait for an expert report. We are always waiting for reports and consulting people, and I hope that all hon. Members will acknowledge the common-sense notion that taking cannabis is not a good idea.
I therefore very much support "2 Smart 4 Drugs", led by a lady called Pam Withrington, whose aunt, Jo Robinson, tragically lost her son as a result of drug misuse: he was found dead in a flat under terrible circumstances. I challenge Ministers who are not convinced on this point to talk to the victims: people who have lost loved ones as a result of drug misuse. "2 Smart 4 Drugs" has a programme aimed at 11 to 13-year-olds, which has three elements: a game show format packed with drug information; an upbeat current song adapted to have drug information lyrics; and an open discussion session about peer pressure and how to handle a situation in which a mate says that it is all right to take drugs. I applaud that initiative. The organisation is short of funds, and reaches out to the whole of Essex, including the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Castle Point and for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), as well as to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk. I hope that the Minister will try to persuade the Home Office to give more funding to that organisation.
We were told that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; in fact, the real threat is from Iran. I want to take this opportunity to persuade the Minister that we need to engage with the good girls and good boys in Iran on this issue. The Iranian regime's lethal cocktail of brutal oppression of its people at home, its export of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism abroad, including to Iraq, and unwavering pursuit of nuclear weapons, represents the real and present threat to the middle east and wider world. What are the Government doing to address that challenge? In a speech in the European Parliament just before Christmas, the charismatic and courageous president-elect, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, whom I recently had the privilege of meeting in Paris, stated that
"the common equation of 'either a military invasion or appeasement' is an exercise in political deception. Appeasement is not the way to contain or change the regime. Nor is it the path to avoid another war. Appeasement only emboldens the mullahs. The answer to fundamentalism is democracy."
She went on to explain how a third option was within reach:
"The Iranian people and their organised resistance have the capacity and ability to bring about change."
It is to the Government's shame that the People's Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran, which, as far as I am concerned, is doing nothing but good, is still on the proscribed list. In the previous Parliament, more than 300 members of this House signed an early-day motion to get the organisation removed from the proscribed list, and I hope that the Minister will do what he can to persuade colleagues to do so.
In June 2003, Southend experienced a disaster whereby land slip occurred on four sites, all of which were located along the frontage to the Thames estuary, set back from the water line behind the main road frontage. The largest of those occurred at a location known as the bandstand, which resulted in the ground slipping some 14 m and the destruction of buildings in the vicinity. Dealing with that cost £8 million. We need a retaining wall, and to provide that and sort out the remainder of the cliff would cost £35 million, so we are talking about huge sums of money. Because of the current crisis resulting from faulty census figures, the council does not have the money. So far, through the Thames gateway initiative, the Government have given the town £500,000 to strengthen a short length of the cliff near Royal terrace, but I urge the Minister to try to find out whether any other source could be tapped.
I was the member of the Health Committee who suggested an inquiry into obesity. I told my then colleagues that there was no short-term fix; what was required was a 10 to 20-year strategy. I am delighted to say that my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford, a fellow member of the Health Committee, was instrumental in the inquiry. A conference was held on
On Sunday, I was privileged to be a guest of the Essex Wildlife Trust on Two Tree island. One of my constituents, Andy Wray, is attempting to break the record for running from Lands End to John O'Groats. The current record stands at nine days, two hours and 26 minutes. Andy Wray will raise money for the British Heart Foundation and the Essex Wildlife Trust. I hope that if anyone wins the national lottery on Saturday, he or she will give some of the money to him.
I end where I began, with the millennium stadium. I shall be back there on Saturday, but before then I shall be at Aston Villa early tomorrow morning. I shall be privileged to watch the finals of the girls' 13-and-under school competition. St. Bernard's secondary school in Westcliff, in Southend, beat 2,800 teams to reach the finals. My youngest child just happens to be playing in the team. Given that I nearly had a heart attack last night watching Liverpool play, I hope the House will support me when I say that I hope the best team wins tomorrow, and will be advised that the best team happens to be St. Bernard's.
When I return to the millennium stadium for the umpteenth time on Saturday to watch Southend United—I pay tribute to its manager Steve Tilson and chairman Ron Martin—the team will be playing Lincoln City in its bid to be promoted to the first division. Again, I hope I take the House with me when I say "May the best team win"—this will be our third attempt. May the best team on Saturday happen to be Southend United.
Stunning, staggering and spectacular—that is how local papers will report the 11 maiden speeches that the House has been blessed with today. As my hon. Friend Mr. Amess has trawled through them each in turn, I will not do so. Stunning, staggering and spectacular was how my local paper described my election result on
I have known defeat as well as victory, so I hope that the House will allow me to send our best wishes to each of our colleagues, from whatever party, who stood and lost in the election on
I will certainly not be complacent in my constituency after my victory. I will redouble my efforts and work for our third road and improved infrastructure across the constituency, including at Saddlers Farm and Hadleigh. I will fight for a return to the old, traditional and comfortable Hadleigh village centre atmosphere—we must return that vibrant village atmosphere to that part of my constituency. I will fight to stop the ruin of our borough by overdevelopment. I will also fight to stop the rot of post office closures and for a new post office to be opened for the Canvey Island shopping centre, where one was closed. Thankfully, the Post Office has agreed to try to find a new location for that post office, and that cannot come soon enough.
I will be fighting to safeguard the interests of our special educational needs children and our special schools, particularly Cedar Hall moderate learning difficulty special school in Thundersley. It is a wonderful school that needs to be protected and to have a sound intake of pupils who can benefit from the services that it offers, particularly at primary stage, rather than only at secondary stage, when it is often too late to build the foundations that special pupils need. Early intervention is good and more cost-effective. When parents want to choose special schools, we should make them available.
I welcome the charming and appropriate clock that was recently erected in my constituency by Councillor Wendy Goodwin in memory of Bernard Braine, who was like a father to me. He was my predecessor and represented Castle Point for about 40 years. Imagine following a man who was here for 42 years; it was a difficult job. He was a wonderful, courteous constituency MP—the epitome of what a constituency MP should be. He ended up as the Father of the House, and those Members who knew him will, I am sure, remember him fondly. He was a true gentleman of the old school.
Bernard would have agreed with me that we should formally celebrate our patron saint, St. George. I shall be working with like-minded colleagues—I see some in their places today—to bring that about.
Bernard would also have supported the campaign for fair funding for hospices, which has been taken up by local newspapers. I congratulate them on that and I also congratulate hospice staff, carers, volunteers and fund raisers on their excellent contributions to keeping our hospices going throughout the country. I also want to mention the Hadleigh, Canvey Island and Benfleet Conservative clubs, which do so much to raise money for all charities, but particularly for the Little Haven hospice in my constituency. I pay tribute to all the good people who are involved in that.
About 20 per cent. of adult hospice funding and about 5 per cent. of children's hospice funding comes from the public purse, but less than 2 per cent. of public funds went to the Little Haven hospice last year, which is simply not good enough. I will keep on the backs of the Government to tackle that problem. They cannot pass it down by saying that it is not their business, but only that of the primary care trusts. The Government must take action and I shall hound them at every opportunity on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall to force a proper resolution of the problem. The Conservative party believes in 40 per cent. funding both for children's and adult hospices, and I hope that we shall repeat that winning policy in our next manifesto. We are going to win the next election, building on the fantastic foundation that we have now, so I hope that it comes sooner rather than later.
Lo and behold, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I received a letter this week from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which provides a sign of hope. It states:
"I know you are a keen champion of the work of hospices, both in your constituency and nationally, and I applaud the initiative you took in bringing the funding difficulties faced by hospices to debate in the House last autumn . . . Your speech in the House referred to 'Treasury Rules'. I believe you were referring to Treasury guidance on the question of Full Cost Recovery for voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations . . . My officials are currently working with the Department of Health who, in turn, meet regularly with representatives from the hospice sector in order to clarify what the above means for hospices, with two aims. Firstly, to arrive at a common understanding of how Government should fund those crucial services which hospices deliver. And secondly, to improve individual funding relationships between PCTs and hospices, which is what we would all like to see."
I look forward to the officials writing to me again in greater detail, as promised, to advise me of what conclusion is reached. It certainly seems like light at the end of the tunnel for hospice funding and it will be welcomed by the hospice movement. I hope that the Chief Secretary will not mind me putting that on the record.
During the election, two local issues were often raised. One was overdevelopment, which I shall not touch on now, and the other was law and order. Let me make it clear that Castle Point is a safe constituency with low levels of crime. Indeed, the only significant crime is the street crime of kids. It is annoying and it increases the fear of crime among residents. Let me also make it clear that we generally have great kids in Castle Point. There are wonderful kids who do much to help the community—kids that we can all be proud of—but their reputation is spoiled by just a few yobs. We must do all that we can to tackle the behaviour of those yobs, but Labour's hands-off, politically correct attitude towards crime and punishment and the failure of tough parental control have created a yob culture in my constituency. I do not want to talk only about the negative side today. I shall take a positive approach instead, as we need that as much as we need tough deterrents. We must give people pathways away from crime and especially from crime driven by addiction to drugs.
I see that John Mann is in his place, as always. He is an assiduous Member of Parliament and he has always emphasised the need to tackle the drug culture by providing rehabilitation places. Although he sits on the Labour Benches, I am pleased to see him. He has fought for that cause consistently for many years, and I congratulate him on his work.
Last weekend, I attended Thundersley Congregational church, where Teen Challenge UK was making a presentation entitled "The Evidence". I wanted to learn from people who do not sit down and grumble about the drugs problem but get up off their backsides and do something about it. I also wanted to learn from people who had left crime and drugs behind so that they could rebuild their lives.
The Government must find better ways to convert people—and some of them really are the scum of our streets—who, driven by addiction, prey off innocent people and businesses. Such people need to be helped to become decent, tax-paying citizens who give something back to society. We all accept that the Government must find better ways to rescue these addicts, whose every hour of every day is focused on finding money, usually by nefarious means, to get their next hit. However, the solutions will be complex: what works for one person may not work for another. Therefore, we need a range of solutions, in a range of areas.
Prison is often part of the problem, rather than the solution, for drug-driven crime, although I accept that it is a very good form of prevention, as it takes users off the street. Teen Challenge UK rescues and redeems the saddest cases, the people who are at the bottom with little hope. It does a fantastic job and succeeds where other remedies have failed. It is less expensive than Home Office rehabilitation residential places. In fact, it raises one third of its money from voluntary contributions, often from Christian organisations, and that is to be welcomed.
Teen Challenge UK has a success rate of 76 per cent. That is remarkable enough in itself, but I am not talking only about people getting off drugs and crime. The organisation's success lies in the fact that it gets people back to work. That means that they pay tax and reconnect with their families—a very important element—and that they contribute again to society.
Teen Challenge UK has 80 of the worst addiction-driven criminals waiting for a bed place, and that is just in its centre for men in south Wales. The people who are waiting for those places are sad cases. They are gagging for a chance to get their lives and families back, and simply to be decent again. Some of the men are self-harming and at the very end of their tether. They know that they will commit several crimes every day, which brings innocent people into the equation.
Why on earth, therefore, has Teen Challenge UK's priming funding of £700,000 been withdrawn? Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, and that is the case here. The organisation's grant was removed essentially because it has Christian roots and is run by Christians. Teen Challenge UK is in no way discriminatory in its work: most of its clients are not Christians and will not become Christians as a result of getting off drugs and out of crime.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, are you thinking what we are thinking? I think that you probably are. It was the Welsh Assembly that decided to remove the grant, and I think that it is bonkers for doing so. I do not know whether "bonkers" constitutes unparliamentary language, but I should be happy to withdraw it and replace it with "insane" or "mad". I would even go so far as to say what all of us think—that this is an example of political correctness gone mad. The politically correct approach has been driven to an absurd extreme, to the extent that what is being done is evil in itself. No right-minded person would think it sensible to take away that funding and prevent that very good and cost-effective attempt to address that complicated and difficult problem.
The grant was withdrawn by the Welsh Assembly, on which Labour and the Liberal Democrats must have some influence. The media certainly has some influence and I hope that the matter will be taken up. Teen Challenge UK went to judicial review of the decision and the judge thought that what had happened was outrageous. He found for Teen Challenge UK and the Assembly has agreed to look again at the matter. I encourage every right-minded person to press the Assembly to make a good decision. For the sake of all those sad addicts and for society at large, let us hope that political correctness is dropped and that Teen Challenge UK has its funding replaced, so that it can help hurting people, which is its slogan.
I recommend the organisation's presentation, "The Evidence", and I thank all who work there for taking the trouble to get off their backsides and do something about what is a serious problem for society.
It is a delight to be able to take part in this debate and especially to follow my hon. Friend Bob Spink, who is an excellent and assiduous Member of Parliament. He was self-effacing, but he should not be, because he speaks with such passion for the constituents whom he represents so well.
It has also be a great pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches today. It does not seem so long ago that I made my own maiden speech, but time passes quickly as one gets older. I look into the mirror and no longer see the same slim young man of eight years ago. He has been replaced by this rather grizzled figure. I am also made to feel old by how young the new Members look, although we also have some more senior Members. I was impressed by the enthusiasm of those who made their maiden speeches and their passion for being here. I hope that that stays with them, because after eight years as an Opposition Member, I have to say that a certain cynicism sometimes creeps up on me. I have been invigorated by that enthusiasm and I hope that I can recapture the fresh-faced enthusiasm that I had all those years ago.
These debates are one of the better kept secrets of Parliament, and I hope that the new Members who have taken part realise that. The secret has been almost too well kept today, but it is good to see the same faces here. Such debates are a regular occurrence and I am delighted to be able to take part. As my hon. Friend Mr. Amess said, we have been in our constituencies during the election and this debate gives us a great opportunity to raise some of the matters that were brought to us as we went around.
I do not wish to detain the House too long—there is only so much it can take—but I do wish to raise a couple of points, linked by a transport theme. My hon. Friend Justine Greening mentioned Heathrow and the noise suffered in her constituency. I pay tribute to her predecessor, Tony Colman, who was assiduous in raising matters that affected those who live closer to the centre of London than those who live in Uxbridge and the borough of Hillingdon. Heathrow is in our borough and while it brings benefits, it also brings many problems. Alongside the current plans for a third runway, I notice that a sixth terminal is now creeping, worryingly, into the discussions, even though the Government have said that that is not in their plans. Anybody who knows the situation will realise that a third runway would mean a sixth terminal. That worries many people because in many instances it would destroy some villages, as would airport expansion wherever it is. That is why I have never in this House advocated not building at Heathrow and favoured somewhere else. We have to look seriously at our aviation needs.
I was concerned earlier this week when a new lobby group was launched called Project Heathrow. I do not have a problem with people creating lobby groups. That is their right and I am pleased that they do it. This group is headed by a former Member of this House, now Lord Soley. I was concerned that the Secretary of State for Transport went to the meeting. I know this because on television I saw a cream cake land on him thrown by someone who was not too impressed by the idea of expansion. I do not condone that behaviour. My concern was caused by a lack of even-handedness. Many organisations that are opposed to further expansion of Heathrow and I have been trying to meet the Secretary of State to express our views, but unfortunately we have not been granted the same access as the lobby group was on Monday. The Minister is a fair-minded gentleman and I ask him to pass that on, so that when I write asking for a meeting it is borne in mind that even-handedness is a good thing at this level.
We have a few problems with buses. I will not blame the Government for that because it is not their responsibility, but many of my constituents are concerned. By raising this on the Floor, I hope that those with responsibility will realise how seriously I and others take the matter. The London bus service has unquestionably improved greatly. People are using the buses more and more. In fact one of the problems results from more people using the buses—larger buses have been introduced. Two buses cannot pass each other in some of the smaller roads in my constituency, particularly Cleveland road in Cowley and Wise lane in West Drayton, without mounting the kerb, which they do regularly. Obviously that is a great danger to pedestrians. Many students go along Cleveland road to Brunel university and schoolchildren go to Uxbridge high school and Bishopshalt school. That causes great concern to residents. We do not want to lose the bus service, but something must be done.
These debates are for local issues and my next item narrows the debate down to one particular bus stand in my constituency. It has caused more justifiable complaints than many other issues in the past few months. Because Hillingdon hospital has redeveloped and built houses on what was part of its site, the buses can no longer stand in order to stop and turn round where they used to. They now go down past residential homes—the very homes that were newly built. This has happened since Christmas. Other houses are also affected by this problem. You can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that from the early hours of the morning until late at night, just outside the houses, not only are buses stopping and going—before anyone says that this happens everywhere, I should say that there is a bus stop outside my house and I do have that noise but it moves on—but engines are left running, so the residents suffer from fumes as well as noise.
The residents also have something that I never thought about until I looked into the matter. It is a practical problem that should be looked at, because the bus drivers do not have proper facilities for relieving themselves after driving for some time. I want to discuss this with the union because I am sure that the union would want such facilities for its members. As you can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is not exactly enhancing the area, and one of the places that the bus stand affects is actually a residential home. The noise and all these other activities are causing a great deal of distress.
At first we thought that we could get this problem sorted out fairly easily. We have been trying to get various people together, including the hospital, Brunel university and the London borough of Hillingdon—and Transport for London, which seems a little elusive in spots; I understand that that is not uncommon, but I am working on it and I hope that we can get it to resolve this matter. Meanwhile, the residents have become increasingly frustrated, and have started to mount peaceful protests. I have noticed that the buses have been delayed, shall I say, for 10 minutes or so, causing problems. I do not know whether there is such a thing as a normal protester, but if so these residents could not be described as such; they are just so frustrated by what is going on.
We hear a lot, have heard a lot and are going to hear a lot more about respect. That theme has come up recently and I think we have all noticed that it is lacking in society. I read somewhere, and I think it is probably a better word, that what is actually lacking to a large degree in today's society is consideration for others. That may show itself as antisocial behaviour in a community, as described by many hon. Friends and hon. Members, or lack of consideration by a company, which I would say is what we are seeing in this case. The company does not particularly want the problem but it is not moving fast to remedy it.
I am raising this matter, which is of great concern to my constituents, on the Floor of the House today, in the hope that we will be able to speed up the process and get the problems sorted out.
I congratulate Mr. Randall, who is now leaving the Chamber, for the brevity and balance with which he outlined his local issues. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the fact that I could not be present for the whole debate. I also apologise to other Members, but especially to those who gave their maiden speeches this afternoon. I understand that there were some excellent, even bravura, performances. I apologise to all those whose speeches I was not able to hear.
I did manage to catch the maiden speech of Jo Swinson, who tells us that she is the youngest Member of the House. She gave a very mature performance, which I think will serve her well for the future. I also heard Greg Mulholland. Listening carefully to the content of his speech, I would not be surprised if he receives an invitation to become an honorary member of the Campaign group of Labour MPs on the left of the party.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall), I had originally intended to speak in the Queen's Speech debate, but for obvious reasons—because of the large number of new Members—was unable to do so. I wanted to raise an issue from that speech that has ramifications locally. What triggered it in my mind was the introductory speech by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Heath. I have heard much about the impact of the election and the issues and concerns that have been raised in various quarters, but I want to explain to the House the experience of my constituents and the concerns that a number of them have raised about the election.
I shall deal first with the national debate that has been going on for some time. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to postal voting, about which great concern has arisen because of the recent case in Birmingham. Although my view is that the judge who heard that case rather over-egged what had happened in his comments about a banana republic, there are serious concerns for democrats and we need to look carefully at them. The judge was more rightly criticised because he extrapolated the limited investigation in part of Birmingham to the rest of Birmingham. He even made comments that could be extrapolated to cover other parts of the country.
We must be careful to set in context what happened in Birmingham and how we put that right, but I want to draw a comparison with what happened at the election in my constituency, where 76 per cent. of postal voters actually voted and about 58 per cent. of others voted. There seems to be a great advantage in providing people with the option of postal voting. I hope that, in whatever we do to strengthen the postal voting procedures, people will not lose the ability to make use of postal voting to increase turnout at elections.
The second issue that has been raised nationally—The Independent has been running a campaign on this—is, of course, proportional representation, and it does not surprise us that that issue has been raised by the Liberal Democrats. I happen to have just a little sympathy with that issue, but when people start to talk about a democratic deficit—although some issues relate to that—they should also consider some of the other existing deficits that are as important. Indeed, I should like to talk about those deficits in relation to my constituents.
When I was out and about knocking on doors during the election—we do not get the opportunity during normal times to knock on as many doors as we do during a general election—I discovered that in some of my polling districts up to 20 per cent. of houses had no one on the electoral register. Indeed, in some streets in my constituents, every second house had no one registered to vote. When I worked out a total, I realised that about 5,000 houses in my constituency had no one on the electoral register. That is the first democratic deficit that existed at the election.
The second democrat deficit is that a lot of my constituents who thought that they were on the register and had voted at previous elections found that they were not on the register at the last election. Of course, they had been removed because they had not filled out and signed the form that they now need to return. That legislation was introduced by this Government. I accept the need for that safeguard, but we need to look carefully at ensuring that people understand that that is what they must undertake to secure their registration to vote at elections.
The third deficit is that a lot people in my constituency have come to live in this country. After they have been here for a period, they become citizens and therefore have the right to vote. Most of them come from European countries, but others come from all parts of the world. When they received their electoral registration form, it asked whether they were from various other countries, and quite a lot of my constituents innocently ticked that box and were therefore not considered to be British citizens. When they turned up to cast their vote they discovered that because they had said they were Greek or German they had no vote and could not vote in national elections. That applied to quite a large number of people.
I was not entirely surprised by some of those things. Before the election, because of my concerns about the failure of the registration process to reflect the people who live in my constituency, I contacted the Library for information. From the research that the Library undertook, I discovered that a comparison of the 2003 register, the latest edition at the time, and the 2001 census showed that about 9,650 people were missing from the register. My local authority told me that those people could not vote because they were from another country or were not British citizens. As my constituency is part of the Greater London area, a significant number of people are in that situation. The Library also told me that between 1996 and 2003, 6,200 electors were lost from the register in my constituency. That is a significant democratic deficit for a large number of people.
Why did that happen? There have been a number of reports on the subject. Recently, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued a report on registration and turnout. I shall take London boroughs as an example, but I will come on to others. The report showed that although the mean expenditure per elector on electoral registration was about £1.60, the figure varied across London boroughs from just over £4 at best down to 35p at worst. There seems to be a failure in that regard. As a capital city, London has particular difficulties compared with local authorities in other parts of the country, so it spends more on electoral registration than almost anywhere else—but we need to look into the organisation of electoral registration throughout the country.
My local authority is no different from those in other London boroughs or other parts of the country. When I asked how it ensured that everyone was included on the register, I was told that only 77 per cent. of my constituents had been personally canvassed—so no one knocked on the door of 8,730 homes in my constituency and asked the occupants to fill out a registration form. In the most disadvantaged area of my constituency, 61 per cent. of homes did not receive a knock on the door.
I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying. Indeed, from work I have done in my constituency I found that electoral registration is much lower in the most disadvantaged areas. Such areas have higher problems as regards literacy, so it is vital that councils carry out not just one canvass, but two or possibly three to ensure that as many people as possible in disadvantaged areas are registered to vote.
I entirely agree.
To conclude the point that I was making, the number of doors knocked on rose as the area became more affluent; indeed, in the most affluent part of my constituency the number reached 95 per cent. The net effect is that there is an inverse relationship between the numbers missing from the register and the number of doors that are knocked on. To return to the point made by my hon. Friend, the opposite should be the case. It is critical that we knock on doors in disadvantaged areas for the reasons that she gave.
I am not drawing conclusions solely about my local authority because I think these things happen across the board, but when I asked my local authority why that situation had come about I was told that it had difficulty in getting people to canvass and often canvassers receive abuse on the doorstep. When we look more closely, however, we find that canvassers are paid less than the minimum wage for the hours they work—significantly less in the case of my local authority. Furthermore, the payments that they receive are based on the number of people that they put on the register. Therefore, there is an in-built incentive to canvas in affluent areas where registration is high. There is an absolute disincentive to go into the areas where the canvassers are needed most. If that is taken together with poverty pay and the perverse incentives of the system, one can understand why it is difficult to get canvassers.
That brings me to the issue at the core of the debate. The Electoral Commission and the Opposition parties tell us that we need to move to individual registration. I asked the Electoral Commission and my local registration officer what would happen to the register under current circumstances if we moved to individual registration, and I was told that it would decimate the register. I appeal to the Minister to take back to the Department for Constitutional Affairs the view that we need to stand firm against individual registration. We need the maximum number of electors on our electoral registers.
I would also like to make a number of practical suggestions that are important to the discussion on how we overcome the democratic deficit. I know that a Bill will be heading to the House in the near future, so I would like to make some suggestions as to what should be included in it. First, we must be much more transparent. It is a devil of a job to find out how much money a local authority spends on electoral registration and, of course, they are always stuck for money. We must ring-fence the money. If the money is ring-fenced and endorsed by the Electoral Commission, any political interference with the registration process will be minimised.
Secondly, we must ensure that we have best practice. Electoral registration offices and officers are often parked at the back of a building or in an outhouse. The officers are left entirely to their own devices and communicate with no one. They need to communicate with each to ensure that we have best practice. Copies of the best practice must be made available so that we ensure that everyone follows it. It is also necessary to ensure that the implementation of best practice is taking place, and one of the ways to do that is through performance review. Carrying out such a review would be an ideal role for the Electoral Commission, which would be able to ensure that things are done properly.
An issue that has caused contention in the past is the advertising of elections and encouraging the idea that it is important for the public to vote. I suspect that all of us would say that we should do that, but electoral registration officers and departments often feel that such activity falls into the grey area between what is political and non-political in the election process. Any Bill that comes forward should make it clear that urging people to vote is not a political act, and the sponsoring of higher turnouts should be a permanent feature of electoral registration departments.
A slightly more controversial issue is that of tapping into the information that undoubtedly exists at a local level about who lives where. A number of databases are held at local authority and other local levels that would assist in ensuring that all the people qualified to vote are on the electoral register. I understand that data protection safeguards are necessary, but we should make better use of local information,
It is, and has been for a long time, an offence not to return an electoral registration form. However, how many prosecutions take place as a result of that? A report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says that there have been one or two—that is the extent to which that happens. I understand why local authorities might think that it would not be terribly good publicity to prosecute people for not returning electoral registration forms, but it is important for someone to take responsibility. If we do not think that returning the electoral registration forms is a good idea, we should do away with them, but if we think that that is sensible, we must make arrangements to ensure that a prosecution will proceed if the requirement is flagrantly breached.
Elections in the UK are safe and secure, despite the recent publicity, and they are certainly fair. I hope that they are accurate, although I have cited problems today. The challenge from the last two elections is not about postal voting or other worries that have been raised, but to address the fact that only 59 per cent. of the electorate turned out in 2001. Although we edged that figure up to 61 per cent. in 2005, none of us can be proud of the fact that we are still at the lowest level for the past 100 years.
Of course there is an even greater challenge. We often talk about the Americans getting a turnout of less than 50 per cent. in their elections, but that figure takes account of not only those who did not turn out, but those who were not registered. If we included the people who were not registered in this country when calculating the turnout, we would get a much greater surprise, and the shock would lead us to take action. That is where the real democratic deficit arises. When the electoral administration Bill comes forward, I hope that the Government will accept that we require action to start to deal with such problems.
I wish to speak about something that needs to be a key theme for the Government over the next three, four and five years and will certainly be a key aspect of my work in my Bassetlaw constituency: raising aspirations, especially those of young people. Over the past four years in my constituency, the foundation blocks that allow aspirations to be raised have been laid. We have the top health facilities and services in Britain, according to the Government's audited statistics. No other constituency in Britain can match our 11 out of 12 health star ratings. However, we need more, and following what has been promised I anticipate that we will get more, including four new health centres, the building of which is due to be started this year.
Bassetlaw has some of the best housing stock in Britain. The former Coal Board housing is extremely good and the new housing that has been built over the past 10 years, with a range of sizes and prices, is good, popular and gives people a varied choice. The £62 million that we have secured to achieve the decent homes standard for public housing will consolidate that position and give us an above-average housing stock compared with the rest of the country.
On education, starting at the end of the year we will get more private finance initiative money per pupil than anywhere else in Britain to rebuild our secondary schools as new, which will provide another vital block to build aspirations.
The final block is employment. When I made my maiden speech four years ago, I was faced with the 4,500 redundancies that had taken place in the six months before the election. I am now facing the problems associated with full employment and a labour shortage. The problem is not so much a skilled labour shortage, although there is some of that, but an unskilled labour shortage. We have not had to tackle such problems in my area for generations, so I welcome tackling them because they are problems that are due to a successful economy.
Those bedrocks of success, however, will not in themselves increase people's aspirations. A culture of low aspirations goes back many generations in mining communities. Until recently, our education systems defined people's ability in two ways: for males, the choice was to work underground in the pit, with a job for life; for females, it was to be a housewife and sometimes a textile worker. Those were the choices. Educational standards and success were often perceived in terms of the school that had the best football team and best culture of sport, rather than the one that produced pupils who were capable and able to move onward and upward in life, with a wider range of choices.
In terms of tackling the deep-rooted problem of low aspirations, the key thing that Parliament and Government can do is to consider ways in which a wider world is brought to people. There are simple and basic ways of doing that, such as the twinning of schools. One small sub-theme of the new plan for Africa is to twin schools in traditional white communities, such as mine, with schools in Africa so that they have an exchange of views. Over time, in this technological age, that exchange will take place via electronic communication and the schools will learn from each other. That could make a great difference in communities like mine.
I thank the Holocaust Educational Trust, which this week agreed to take six pupils from my constituency to Auschwitz. That will be a tremendous learning opportunity for them. Such an opportunity has not been offered to people in my constituency before. EDF Energy, which owns the two big power stations in my constituency—West Burton and Cottam—has excelled itself in taking primary school children—from year 6 in particular—to the Palace of Westminster over the past four years, and it has agreed to do so again. When I took those young people around the Houses of Parliament, I found to my surprise not how few of them had visited London, but how few had been on a train or to the south of England. Just the visit from some of my schools to London is one small step in raising aspirations. I commend that company for being far-sighted.
This March, we had another big breakthrough with Provident Financial, which took a group from one of my most underprivileged schools to a youth hostel in the Peak district for an outward bound course. Again, that gave a group of young people opportunities that they had never considered before, and those opportunities will increase the life chances of some of them. They will realise that different options are available to them and that life does not begin and finish on their estates, but can be much wider, wherever they choose to go in their lives. That has to be an undercurrent of the debate.
I commend the Youth Hostel Association, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It was established precisely to allow working-class young people to get to understand, enjoy and benefit from the wider world outside their work and home community. It remains as relevant in its ethos and work today as it did when it was first established in the 1930s. I am delighted that this summer the Government will provide finance to allow those from less-well-off backgrounds the opportunity to take a break outside their community and for the outdoor pursuits arena to be open to them. I hope that that will be a recurrent funding stream from the Government during the four or five years of this Parliament.
Another theme that I hope to see emerging is a plan on which we have been working on for some time in my constituency, and that is beginning to come to fruition. We are looking to build the equivalent of the first teaching hospital, but a teaching hospital for sport. We would like to replace one of our pupil referral units as a whole with a teaching sports academy, where not just those who have been excluded from schools, but those who are doing well and those who are beyond school—such as their younger siblings, parents and grandparents—can come. It will be funded on an economic model using the social enterprise that is now well developed in the east midlands through the East Midlands Development Agency.
Any money made will go back into the community. We will be running the equivalent of a leisure centre, but with everyone within it striving to become sporting coaches and leaders, and we will be looking at the vocational routes that can come from that. This model can create an option of bringing higher education into Bassetlaw for the first time by linking with one of the universities that has degrees in sports and leisure. We hope that it will be a model for providing facilities to the community as well as increasing aspirations, and it is a model that will succeed.
The project goes further than that in its uniqueness. We are looking not simply at sport but at health and education simultaneously. Money has been spent in my community on healthy living, but this is precisely the kind of vehicle that can create healthy living. That is why I am pleased to see the primary care trust, the LEA and the police contributing to the thought processes as to how we will develop this project into something sustainable.
The other strong aspect is the voluntary sector and I am delighted that the Prince's Foundation for the Built Community, the Prince's Trust, the Coalfield Regeneration Trust, Sport England, Sporting Chance, the Football Association, the Football Foundation and many other groups have contributed towards creating what could be a beacon for other areas in the country to copy in terms of raising aspiration and improving the health of the community.
Some of our definitions of neighbourhood renewal are rather bureaucratic and we need to liven them up in a way that provides vision and ownership. As well as fusing together health, education, employment and vocational training, it is young people who are taking the lead. The consultation on the project is not by me or by aging professionals paid by the Government to consult. It is the young people—the teenagers—who are showing the enthusiasm and drive. They recognise that the fusion is important and that whatever is created needs to be cross-generational.
The example those young people give most strongly is their desire to have a dance studio, which they point out can be recreational and educational, can lead to vocational skills, and can be part of a healthier living programme. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, babies and toddlers can go to a dance studio.
That encapsulates the model we are taking forward. I hope that, in the next two or three years, I can come back to this House and outline our successes. We need some new models for raising aspiration and this is something on which we must succeed.
I am delighted to have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to Radio Gloucestershire for alerting me to a matter concerning the merger of the Gloucestershire, Avon and Wiltshire ambulance services, which was put out to consultation by the Government and put to consultants by the strategic health authority. I am told that there is to be a meeting tomorrow morning in the Forest of Dean. This will be the first public meeting to review the consultants' recommendation that a full-blown merger should take place. That recommendation is causing great anxiety to my constituents and to the people of Gloucestershire.
"I want local people to produce the best strategy for themselves and to decide how best to improve services throughout the area and not only in one part of it."
I wish that that were true. It was quite clear from the tone of the Minister's reply to my debate, and from my meeting with the chief executive of the Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire strategic health authority, that the Government and the SHA had already embarked on a course of action that would lead to a full-blown merger of the three ambulance trusts.
I believe that this exercise is all about improving the efficiency of the Avon ambulance trust in particular. Gloucestershire is a two-star trust; the Avon and Wiltshire trusts have no stars at all. I believe that this is about trying to bring those two services up to the standard of the Gloucestershire service. At the end of his speech, the Minister also said:
"The status quo is still an option, as is rationalising the management organisation"—
that is, merging the management—
"rather than an outright merger of the three trusts."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 9 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 450WH.]
I believe, however, that the Government had already embarked on an agenda that would lead to a merger.
That is particularly stupid because, 18 months ago, the Government initiated a project involving a tri-service site in Quedgeley, just outside Gloucester. This involved having the police, the fire service and the ambulance service all on the same site, at a cost of £6.3 million. If this proposal goes through, that site is likely to be scrapped. So £6.3 million of public money will have been completely wasted. This follows the Government's decision to regionalise the fire service; we already know that the fire service is being taken away from the site.
I should like to illustrate the fact that my constituents feel that this proposal is putting their lives at risk. I know that we are always urged not to use pejorative language in the Chamber, but I believe that my constituents' lives could well be put at risk by the proposal. In the short time available to me, I should like to quote a report from The Citizen in Gloucester.
"Fran Stevenson's three-year-old son, Zak, woke up with a bad chest on a snowy Saturday morning. By the afternoon he had developed a wheeze which got increasingly worse. Mrs Stevenson, of Woodedge Road, Lower Milkwall, said: 'I began to get worried at about 5pm, and probably a bit more worried because it was a Saturday.' Mrs Stevenson phoned Coleford Health Centre"—
"and was put through to the out-of-hours service. She explained Zak's symptoms, asked if she could talk it over with a doctor and was told one would ring back within the hour. 'But when it got to 7.15pm, I was torn between ringing 999 or ringing the out-of-hours service again,' she said. 'I rang the out-of-hours service and sat Zak next to me so they could hear him breathe. Once they heard him breath they put us through to 999.'
Mrs Stevenson was stunned by the swift arrival of the ambulance within 10 minutes. 'They were just superb and incredibly professional,' she said. 'They came into my home and helped Zak get dressed so we could get him to hospital.' It was a dark and snowy night and 10 minutes into the journey the ambulance got into difficulties. 'We were sliding, the ambulance wasn't able to move forward,' explained Mrs Stevenson. 'I could hear them talking about not being able to get up Cinderford Hill.'
The ambulance service was not able to get hold of a four-wheel drive so another ambulance was sent. But while they were waiting for it to arrive, the Stevensons were shown more kindness by a Good Samaritan. Local off-duty GP Dr Raj Bhageerutty,"—
I hope that I have pronounced his name right—
"who was on his way to have dinner with his wife, stopped and came on board the ambulance. 'He said he would stay with us and make sure Zak got to hospital. He was very kind,' said Mrs Stevenson. 'When the second ambulance crew took over, we soon started skidding so a gritter truck which had been out salting the roads went in front of us and we were able to get into GRH"—
the Gloucester Royal hospital.
"'They did everything possible to make us feel reassured, they were wonderful,' she said. Zak stayed in GRH for two days after doctors said they thought he had an underlying viral infection which may have been made worse by an allergic reaction."
The point of quoting that story is that local ambulance trusts know the local area backwards. They know exactly the best routes to get people to hospital.
If the merger takes place, the organisation will be based in Bristol. It will look after 2.2 million people, rather than 500,000 people at present. I do not believe that the same local knowledge will be employed. There is also a further fear that if the number of ambulances in rural areas is cut and a paramedic in a car is sent instead, that will not be the same as a full team of ambulance drivers arriving to help somebody with a possible cardiac arrest and able to help them in difficult circumstances.
I should like to emphasise how good the Gloucestershire Ambulance Service NHS Trust is by quoting from a speech that I made on
"It is one of the country's leaders in some of the new treatments. For example, in pre-hospital thrombolysis treatment, modern IT enables the electronic kit to be attached to somebody's body and the information to be transmitted to a specialist sitting in a hospital, who can then see exactly what phase the heart is in and administer the drug at precisely the right time. That saves lives. Not only does it save lives, but it is an example of how people might be kept out of hospital, thereby saving the NHS even more money. An efficient ambulance can treat people on the spot. They do not necessarily have to go to hospital; it might be more suitable for them to go into a nursing home, or even to stay in their own home with proper treatment from an occupational nurse.
Running down the ambulance service makes no sense. Apart from the pre-hospital thrombolysis initiative, the Gloucestershire ambulance service is one of the most innovative in the country in forming partnerships with other first-responder groups, such as the fire brigade. Indeed, the protocol with the St. John Ambulance brigade was so good that that brigade is now using it nationally.—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 9 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 444WH.]
That is an enormous tribute to the people who work in the Gloucestershire Ambulance Service NHS Trust and other brigades, who drive ambulances in often difficult conditions.
There is a further twist in the argument. We are having great difficulty in Gloucestershire with the out-of-hours service at night and at weekends. I have already had a constituency case in which somebody has died because they have not been admitted to hospital in time. There is no doubt that given the problems with the out-of-hours and weekend service, more and more people will rely on a swift and efficient ambulance service. I believe that the only reason for this merger is financial. That is an appalling way to run our national health service. My constituents want to be reassured that at some of the most difficult times that we may unfortunately have to face we can get an ambulance fast and efficiently. The drivers and ambulances in Gloucestershire currently provide that service, and there is great and deep unease about the Government's proposals.
My hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown made a powerful contribution to the debate, and I hope that his campaign is successful.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. It has been a debate of two halves. In the first half, we heard a series of maiden speeches from new Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, and indeed from a new Scottish National party Member, which were of the highest quality. We will all take away from the debate the view that the House will be all the richer for the people who have arrived to serve in it during this Parliament. In the second half of the debate, the contributions from Government Members have been sparse, with a hint of filler in the afternoon's proceedings. One interesting feature of proceedings since our return after the election is that, day after day and in debate after debate, the Government Benches have been empty. The Government have not had enough speakers to keep the debate going. Mr. Love said at the start of his speech that he had hoped to make a contribution during the debate on the Queen's Speech, but had been unable to do so. He clearly missed the two days when the debate finished early and collapsed because of a lack of Government Members who wished to speak. If he had been here, he would have had more than enough time to contribute to the debate.
Some of us would say that in a debate where there were five, six, seven or eight Opposition speakers in a row, there were not quite enough Government Members to take part. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has a different perspective on life from me.
As the hon. Gentleman has directed disparaging remarks at Labour Members, perhaps he would like to have a word with his Whips who requested through the usual channels that those of us speaking late in the day curtail our contributions to allow him to begin speaking at 17.20.
I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman's contribution was shorter than his normal rhetoric.
The debate this afternoon has taken us from the islands of Scotland to the lowlands of Somerset, from the origins of King Charles to the origins of the plot to chop off his head, from the city to the countryside. We have visited league champions in three different sports, including the city of Leeds and Chelsea in central London. Members have raised a range of issues and subjects of concern. Many of those stories from different parts of the country and different Members, however, were similar— stories of health services under threat, antisocial behaviour and a lack of policing, and transport problems.
Of course, maiden speeches are by tradition less tied in to the cut and thrust of this place. They are more measured, and therefore give a truer snapshot of the situation around the country. The Deputy Leader of the House should therefore suggest to his Government colleagues that they would do well to listen, as they were elected with well under 40 per cent. of the popular vote—the lowest such vote in history. He and his colleagues know that things are going wrong, and we have had an indication of that this afternoon.
We started with an immensely powerful contribution from Mr. MacNeil—I am safe in pronouncing the name of the constituency, as he is not here to correct me, although Shona McIsaac, who talked about her common ancestry in that part of the world, will no doubt know if I am well off the mark. He talked about the impact that he has already had in the House—not too many new Members can make a major impact in their first couple of weeks, but clearly, he has managed to change the BBC's weather forecasts in that time. I wish him good luck, as there have been many complaints from Members and people outside, with Scottish connections or from Scotland, about the way in which those weather maps diminish the size of their country.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar also set out a powerful case for the independence of Scotland and explained how he believes that that would change things in his constituency. My message to him and other Members seeking the independence of their country is that they should remember the situation faced by many constituents in other parts of the country, where the level of funding from central Government is much lower than in Scotland. In the case of my county, Surrey, one of my local government officials told me recently that if we received the same level of Government grant as Scotland, we would not have to charge a council tax. There are issues that those who seek to break Scotland away from the United Kingdom might not have considered.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes told us of her journey from the Scottish isles to that doyen of resorts, her constituency. She talked about the threat to schools there. What a shame that she has not sought to join the Opposition in arguing for schools to have greater independence, the freedom to set their own admissions policies and the freedom to decide their own destiny, free from the interference of bureaucrats centrally and locally. If we had that kind of change, the difficulties faced by her constituents and their children might be less of a problem.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. However, my main concern was the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition council announcing controversial school closures in the middle of an election campaign. I was calling for a moratorium on such announcements so that everybody in our community can work together in the best interests of all children.
As the hon. Lady will well know, if schools had the kind of freedom that we would wish them to have, the situation that she has experienced could never arise. That would make a major difference, especially in rural areas, where small schools have been under threat despite the fact that they are wanted by parents.
Mr. Heath was among those who spoke about the problems in his local health service—a hospital project becalmed, a victim of what in his area, I suspect, and certainly in many other parts of the country, is a financial crisis in the national health service. As the Government begin their third term, they will have to get to grips with the fact that all around the country, primary care trusts and hospital trusts are on the verge of bankruptcy if not already beyond it. Doctors are saying that they will lose the ability to refer patients to hospitals later this year because the money is not available to pay for treatment. There is a lurking crisis in the national health service, which as the year goes by will cause more and more problems for patients throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his plan to visit local school children tomorrow. They have made a CD in support of the Make Poverty History campaign. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, the children and all involved in the campaign that their aspiration is shared by Members in all parts of the House. We must work together as a Parliament over the next few years to ensure that this country makes a proper contribution to improving the lot of people in the developing world. I have to say, however, that if the children choose to sing to the hon. Gentleman tomorrow and if his singing voice is anything like mine, I hope that he is not invited to join in.
Well, we will not test that this afternoon.
We heard a powerful maiden speech from my hon. Friend Mr. Walker. I congratulate him on his first contribution. He paid generous tribute to his predecessor Dame Marion Roe, who I think will be much missed by all Conservative Members and, I hope, by members of all parties. It was clear from his speech that my hon. Friend will be able to provide an ample alternative for his constituents, and will do them proud when representing them here.
My hon. Friend talked about a number of places in his constituency. I remember just one, Hoddesdon. I used to go there as a student in my proudest days when, as captain of the Cambridge university tenpin bowling club, I led it to its first victory for nine years in the Hoddesdon bowling alley.
We heard a much more serious, much more important speech from my hon. Friend Mr. Burns, who is one of the leading authorities in the House on care homes and care for the elderly. He rightly drew attention to the real problems that are occurring in the sector today. We are nothing as a society if we do not provide proper care for the elderly. My hon. Friend was right to say that what is going on in the care home sector is not acceptable, right to identify ways in which the Government have contributed to the problems, and right to emphasise to Ministers the need for something to be done, and done quickly.
I must apologise to Jeremy Browne for not being here for his maiden speech. I had slipped out for some lunch, but I am told that he made a powerful contribution. He spoke of antisocial behaviour affecting even areas well away from our major city centres, and called for autonomy for Somerset enabling it to provide its own police force. This is my message to the hon. Gentleman. My constituency is in a county with a relatively small police force, and even with such local controls the problems do not disappear, especially when—as is the case in many counties—the police are so badly underfunded.
What can I say about the speech of my hon. Friend Grant Shapps? It was a brilliant maiden speech, made without a note. My hon. Friend will clearly make a major contribution to his constituency. He too paid a generous tribute to his predecessor. Although when I shadowed her I had big political differences with her, I think that all of us in the House admire the way in which she managed to overcome very serious illness to continue her job as a Minister and make a contribution here during her eight years in Parliament. I hope that we all wish her well for the future.
From Vera Baird we heard something of a rerun of her speech earlier in the week, but she is a distinguished figure on the Government Benches. She is a powerful orator, and her contributions are always welcome.
We heard another maiden speech from my hon. Friend Mr. Hands. He too will clearly be a highly effective representative of his constituents. As he said, he is the first Conservative representative of the constituency for a number of years, and he is the first Conservative Member of Parliament for Hammersmith for a rather longer time. I wish him well as he works to represent the area—although I must add that the past few weeks have been a time when, as a supporter of Manchester United, I have not been entirely happy to see the streets of his constituency bedecked in blue. I rather hope that they will not be bedecked in blue again until the next general election.
We heard another very effective and thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard. He, too, will be an effective defender of his constituents. He did well to remind the Government that, after eight years, they cannot always blame what happened before they came to office for the things that are going wrong in his constituency. He talked with great effect about the rural nature of his constituency and the importance to town dwellers of maintaining the fabric of our countryside.
I was delighted to hear the contribution by my hon. Friend Mr. Fraser. I was not in Parliament when he was here previously but I know of him and I know that he will be welcomed back to the Conservative Benches. That said, we are disappointed, and I am sure that he is too, that his predecessor has left this place. She was a tremendous contributor to the House of Commons, and a distinguished member of the previous Government. I was personally very disappointed when she left the Front-Bench team; she was a great loss. She has moved to another place, where I have no doubt she will continue to make distinguished contributions. She has been one of the major political contributors to this House and to this country over the past 20 years, and will be much missed.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk picked up on one of the themes that has been consistently discussed this afternoon: the absence of adequate policing in too many parts of our country, and the prevalence of antisocial behaviour. Too many police officers are not able to do their job properly because they are tied down by paperwork and by the lack of numbers on the streets on a Friday and Saturday night in particular.
I speak with passion about that matter because, in my constituency on a Friday and Saturday night, there are just not enough police officers out on the streets. If a couple of police cars are covering the whole area, we are lucky. That is the absurd situation even in a city such as Manchester, where perhaps only a dozen officers are on duty at any one time on a Saturday night. It is simply not good enough and the Government have to get to grips with the problem over the next four or five years.
I particularly welcome Jenny Willott to the House because we have much in common. She is the sixth councillor from the London borough of Merton to be elected to the House in the past few years. She and I were both newly elected councillors in Merton in 1998. We were perhaps not as assiduous in our council duties as we might have been, as we moved quite quickly to new political lands—she to Cardiff to fight the Cardiff, Central constituency in 2001, I to Epsom and Ewell. Merton has been an effective starting point for the political careers of many in the House. Her generous tribute to Jon Owen Jones was appropriate. Although we had our differences, as we all do, Jon Owen Jones, whom I knew from serving on many Committees, was an excellent Member of Parliament. I regret his departure. I enjoyed his company and I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central can live up to the precedent that he set. It was probably a wise choice to move on from Merton to Cardiff as West Barnes ward, which she served, is Conservative again. There are no Liberal Democrat councillors in the London borough of Merton and, of course, Wimbledon has a Conservative MP again, so I suspect that she is better off where she is now.
On the subject of Merton councillors, my congratulations go also to my hon. Friend Justine Greening, both on her maiden speech and on her success at the election. She was instrumental in reducing the number of former Merton councillors in the House by defeating Tony Colman, who was leader of Merton council. Rightly, she talked generously about him, but I am tremendously pleased that she is now in the House. She carved a name for herself on election night and I am sure she will continue to do so in the years ahead.
My hon. Friend took us on a fascinating tour of her constituency and talked about some of the charitable, voluntary and community work that she has been involved in. In that connection, she brings valuable experience to the House and I am delighted to see her here. She will also be an important champion for the District line, which, as she knows, and as I know as a former Wimbledon resident, needs some effective champions.
Jo Swinson is the youngest Member of the House. She has two things in common with her party leader: he was the youngest person in the House when he was first elected and, as she said, the west highland way links their two constituencies. I am disappointed that she did not follow in the tradition of representatives of her constituency by calling for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Scotland. She urged us all to visit her constituency and hoped that we would not go for political purposes.
I suspect that there will be some who seek to wrest the seat back from her, and when they come knocking on her door, it will not be entirely to see the sights in her constituency, but I wish her well in the House. She is absolutely right to talk about the importance of engaging young people in the political process and of having hon. Members of different age groups in the House. It is clear from the results of the election that age diversity in the House is increasing, which can only be for the better.
Kelvin Hopkins made an interesting speech, which I interpreted as the first frost. When a Labour Member rises to express concerns about the economy, to call for the relaxation of inflation targets, to declare that the era of high inflation is long past and that we should intervene in the currency markets, I take that as a sign that Government Members are beginning to get a little jumpy about what has happened in the last eight years. They built on the foundations provided by the last Conservative Government and it seems that the economic tide may not be as one way as Labour Members have claimed in recent years.
Greg Mulholland provided the last maiden speech today. He spoke effectively about his constituency and how he came to be here. His point about his involvement in the business of the House through its education programme was telling. It is beholden on us all to support the education programme and to encourage young people who are interested in politics to visit and see what we do. We should be open in explaining how it all works and try to make it more transparent than it can sometimes appear. We also need to encourage the next generation, which will come on behind us, to be as active and interested in politics as we have been ourselves.
Patrick Hall spoke about the problems and unfairnesses in the council tax system. We have received mixed messages from the Government about what they propose to do with the council tax system. I do not believe that the alternative offered by the Liberal Democrats is the right one—[Interruption.] Indeed, we do not really know what their policy is nowadays. I certainly believe that we have to reduce the burden of council tax on our pensioners, which is what Conservatives sought to do at the general election. I hope that the Government will listen to that message on local government finance and act to help our pensioners in the years ahead.
My hon. Friend Mr. Amess made a characteristically powerful speech about a variety of issues in his constituency. I offer him my best wishes for Saturday and my best wishes to his daughter for tomorrow. I have a son who is an active football player and I know how proud parents can be on the touchline. I wish him well. My hon. Friend Bob Spink also made some powerful points about Teen Challenge UK and I hope that he is successful in securing funding.
My hon. Friend Mr. Randall spoke in broad terms about the challenges facing his constituency. When he described himself as "grizzled", I thought that he was being hard on himself. We in the House simply regard him as timeless. He speaks as the voice of Uxbridge in more ways than one, as anyone who tuned into local radio stations over London in the past few months will have heard. He talked about the challenge that the growth in demand for travel will present in his constituency. It will be difficult to achieve the right balance in this country over the next few years. We must be wise and listen to the voices of caution about the need to strike the right balance between supporting our economy and recognising the interests of residents in constituencies such as my hon. Friend's and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney.
We have had a good debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which many issues have been brought to the fore. It has revealed to the House how much commonality there is across the country in the challenges that we all face over policing, the future of the health service and transport services. There is an important lesson to be learned from this afternoon's debate. Although the general election led to the loss, either through retirement or defeat, of many valued colleagues on both sides of the House, our new intake of hon. Members has enriched this place with clear, articulate and effective contributions to our proceedings.
As Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, it is a pleasure to be able to respond to the excellent contributions that have been made today. There have been some maiden speeches of the highest quality, and quality contributions from both sides of the House.
I want to pay tribute to Mr. Heald, the former shadow Leader of the House, for his work, courtesy and co-operation. I wish him well in his new post, as I do the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Woolas.
I begin by associating myself with the generous tributes paid to former Members of the House who have now left: Harold Best, Peter Bradley, Iain Coleman, Tony Colman, Adrian Flook, Melanie Johnson, John Lyons, Calum MacDonald, Jon Owen Jones, Marion Roe, Gillian Shephard and Tony Worthington. Each made a significant contribution to the House, as they did to their constituencies.
Ten impressive maiden speeches were made today, the first of which came from Mr. MacNeil. He spoke with great feeling about the avoidable deaths of some of his constituents, and about his attempts to improve transport and other links to ensure that that does not happen again. He reaffirmed his and his party's solid commitment to independence. I think that that is a bit of a relic in Scotland in this century, but one has to admire the hon. Gentleman for being true to his convictions.
Mr. Walker spoke with passion about the great sport of fishing, a passion that he shares with many hon. Members, not least among them my hon. Friend Mr. Foster. My hon. Friend is a former champion at a pastime that is probably Britain's most widely practised sport today. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about poverty in this country. His constituency is home to Britain's largest private-sector employer, and I look forward to working with him to improve educational opportunities and to eliminate poverty in the UK.
Education was also the theme adopted by Grant Shapps, who highlighted the issue of town versus gown. That is a perennial issue among hon. Members representing university constituencies. The hon. Gentleman also showed his knowledge when he conjured up the memory of the great George Bernard Shaw—a GS praising a GBS. He was eloquent in his praise of the voluntary work done by local people in respect of learning disabilities, the area in which my own background lies. He also stressed policing matters and antisocial behaviour, and I am pleased that, since 1997, the force servicing his constituency has acquired 376 extra officers.
Policing was a common theme, and it was adopted by Jeremy Browne in a highly impressive and effective maiden speech. He strongly supported the community support officers who complement the work of the local force, and I am sure that he will want to congratulate the local chief constable—if not the Home Secretary—on supplying a further 410 officers to his force since 1997.
I welcome Mr. Fraser back to the House. His predecessor was, like him, a person of special ability and great courtesy in her dealings with hon. Members of all parties. She always put across her point of view, on behalf of constituents and party alike, with considerable effectiveness.
Mark Pritchard spoke about the need to link respect for authority with society. He stressed the need for better laws rather than more laws. As a former DTI Minister championing the cause of business, I agree with that. Indeed, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has learnt the lesson from the 51,699 regulations that were brought in between 1979 and 1997, and that we can work together on a common agenda.
I welcome also the contribution from Mr. Hands. It was an historical tour de force on his constituency. It was not just the Cook's tour, but almost a Doctor Who style speed through time. He spoke, as several right hon. and hon. Members did, about the need to improve transport and in particular, in his case, the tube. He also spoke about a threat to a local hospital, and I am sure that that will have been noted. Mr. Heath echoed that theme and also spoke about electoral reform, which was mentioned by other hon. Members, too. He spoke about how to strengthen democracy, an important theme to which we will no doubt return.
Care homes were the main theme for Jenny Willott in an impressive maiden speech, although she touched on other themes. The issue of care homes was also taken up by Mr. Burns, who spoke of the frustration that many hon. Members feel on behalf of their constituents when care homes have funding problems. Relatives find that heavy pressure hard to bear.
Justine Greening made health the key issue of her speech. She praised the world-class service that the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability provides, and I praise her for her work in raising money for a hospice. That was also emphasised by Bob Spink. On a personal note, when I took time out during the election to visit a hospice in my constituency, the Marie Curie clinic on Frogston road, I met a constituent whom I had canvassed some years before. She was bravely fighting a disease that will by now have claimed her life. It was a sobering meeting for a Member of Parliament for a marginal seat. Some people lost their seats on that Thursday, but many others were bravely fighting diseases such as cancer and lost the ultimate fight. That puts into perspective the difference in importance of the battles we have in this House and elsewhere. I was delighted that my constituent also praised the staff of the national health service, and I join her in that.
Like Mr. Randall raised the issue of aircraft noise, which was reinforced by Mr. Clifton-Brown. It is a serious issue and hon. Members made balanced points, accepting the importance to Britain of commercial airlines and their business.
Jo Swinson spoke impressively on fair trade, a subject close to the hearts of many hon. Members, including mine. I helped to found Scotland's first fair trade organisation many years ago and I was delighted that that issue has also been taken forward in Leeds, North-West. I praise Greg Mulholland on his work for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.
I also praise the work of the local government service. On
I praise Mr. Amess for his speech. He raised, as he assiduously does, the case of a constituent detained abroad. He knows that this poses particular problems in particular countries. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is personally aware of the case and I believe that he has raised it with the authorities more than once. He will want to study the additional information that the hon. Gentleman gave us today.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the threat that he sees posed by Iran. I am not sure what action he was urging, but doubtless there will be plenty of time in this Parliament for that subject to be debated so that we can hear his views. I join him in congratulating St. Bernard's school on coming through a competition of thousands of people of talent. The talent of young people is important. My hon. Friend John Mann used the word "aspiration" and spoke of how we all try to drive up people's aspirations to give them the job, the education, the apprenticeship or the opportunities that they deserve and, indeed, need.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not let it go unnoticed that today is learning at work day? Learning at work representatives have encouraged tens of thousands of people at work to improve their skills and confidence, and the Government have backed that initiative. Does he agree that there is more to be done on that constructive theme?
Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to reinforce his message. I praise the work of the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry in driving the skills agenda forward in the work place and encouraging people to ensure that they have the skills and personal confidence necessary. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw for raising the initiative of schools twinning with Africa. James Gillespie's high school in my constituency has done so successfully, and I commend the experience that my hon. Friend and we in south Edinburgh have had.
More experienced hon. Members raised other issues. My hon. Friend Shona McIsaac talked about school closures. She will join me in wondering how, when providing 28,000 extra teachers, one is faced with unnecessary school closures—some of course are necessary—during an election period. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will note her points. In all honesty, I am not sure that any moratorium of the type she suggested is practical or could be enforced. If she has further thoughts on that, I know that she will communicate them as effectively as she always does.
My hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird spoke with detailed knowledge of the ports authority issue. She will know that the Department for Transport announced the Future of Transport White Paper. Its intention is to examine carefully the national framework of ports policy once decisions have been taken on outstanding applications for major container port development. She will track that with considerable interest.
My hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins raised the issues of housing investment and of the economy. I know he will welcome the fact that we have tripled investment in housing capital from £1.65 billion in 1997 to £5 billion now, and that that has helped reduce the number of non-decent houses by 1 million in that time frame. None the less, it is clear that he has some advice for the Chancellor on how to run the economy. The Chancellor always welcomes such advice and I am sure that my hon. Friend will find a way during debates and Treasury questions to raise his views with the Chancellor, and have the Treasury specialists pore over them and see what might be gleaned and gained from them.
My hon. Friend Patrick Hall raised the issue of local government funding. I have lived through several local government funding crises as well as the revaluations—indeed, my maiden speech was on that very subject, which allowed me to take a seat from the Conservatives for the first time in 100 years. That was, of course, the council tax, more popularly known as the poll tax—
The community charge.
The community charge; indeed. There are no easy solutions to this issue; if there were, they would have been adopted. The Liberal Democrats are thinking seriously about the policy that they put forward and I shall not criticise them for that, but it shows the difficulty of formulating a policy and getting it to stick for a length of time. Obviously, we await the outcome of the Lyons review with considerable interest.
My hon. Friend Mr. Love said that the key to democracy was more effective participation of citizens in elections. I very much agree with what he said about our duty as democrats, and I agree that the agencies that are responsible for ensuring that every citizen can vote must register all voters. I hope that his message will be communicated to the appropriate Ministers as effectively as he communicated it to us. It is important that we do not continue to hear the tales, which I think all Members have heard, of people who should have been allowed to cast a legitimate vote at a polling station finding that they were not on the electoral register, in spite of being UK citizens.
Mr. Clifton-Brown raised the issue—pending recommendation, as I understand it from him—of the Gloucestershire ambulance service. It will of course be studied in some detail. I hope that Zak has made a full recovery, but having heard the hon. Member's account of what happened under the present system, I must tell him that if he thinks it satisfactory that two ambulances should be skidding around, and that an off-duty GP who was merely passing was able to intervene and perhaps sustain life and certainly help, I can understand why a review has been taking place. I hope that he will not pray that example in aid, but will muster the evidence once he has had a chance to read the report, rather than pre-empt its judgment. I am sure that that is what he will do.
I shall ensure that my ministerial colleagues are aware of some of the issues that I have been unable to cover. I know that the speeches made here today will be the subject of debates both in the House and outside it. I believe that we are all here to serve. We all have an aim to create a better society, and certainly to leave society better after our modest contribution in this legislature than we found it. May I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wish you and all hon. Members a relaxing Whitsun recess? I look forward to seeing people return a week on Monday, reinvigorated after that recess.
It being six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.