First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 7:46 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mike Hall Mike Hall , Warrington South 7:46 pm, 6th May 1992

Last week, I was privileged to participate in the election of Miss Betty Boothroyd as Speaker. As a new Member, participating in that vote gave me great encouragement. I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I am sure that you will preside over the affairs of the House with firm authority and that you will not overlook Back Benchers.

When I considered my maiden speech, I did not think that I should have the opportunity to deliver it on the first day of the debate on the Gracious Speech, nor that I should have to wait 30 minutes to do so, through the longest speech in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on excellent maiden speeches. I hope that my own will live up to the expectation that their speeches created.

It is an honour and a privilege to be here and to make my maiden speech in the presence of my wife, without whose complete support and encouragement over the past 13 years in politics I might not have been here. It is a pity that our son Thomas could not be here, but perhaps school is a more important issue for a boy of 11. It is also a privilege sincerely to thank my friends Harold and Ivy Edwards, who are members of the Warrington Co-op party and have supported my political career at every turn for the past 13 years.

In the finest traditions of the House, I pay tribute to the people who represented Warrington, South before me. My immediate predecessor, Mr. Chris Butler, was elected in 1987. At that time, I had been leader of Warrington borough council for two years and we immediately crossed swords over the poll tax. Mr. Butler was ardently in favour of the poll tax and I was totally against it. From that moment, we debated many national issues in the context of Warrington borough council and I pay tribute to Chris Butler for participating in those debates, thus allowing them to be aired in a local context. In one sense it would be hypocritical of me to pass favourable comments on Mr. Butler. We have been political opponents for the past five years and the House will know that in the recently fought general election I was fortunate to have 191 votes more than Chris. However, Chris was joint secretary of the all-party committee on drug misuse and I know that his work as a member of that committee was well appreciated. He also played a full part in the work of the all-party committee on AIDS and made a positive contribution to its deliberations.

Chris Butler's predecessor was Mark Carlisle, now Lord Carlisle of Bucklow. From 1979 to 1981 Mark Carlisle was Secretary of State for Education and Science. He was responsible for ensuring that the Education Act 1981 found its way on to the statute book. It was a far-sighted and important piece of education legislation in the context of the education debate since the turn of the century. The Act removed the stigma of categorisation from handicapped school pupils, replacing it with the recognition that individual pupils should have their special needs assessed individually and that provision for special needs should be based on statementing within the terms of the 1981 Act. It was a superb piece of legislation. It placed on the statute book the recommendations of the Warnock Committee, set up under a Labour Government by the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Shirley Williams. As I have said, it was a far-sighted piece of legislation. It looked further to the future and was far better than the onslaught on education that we have seen in the past 13 years while the Tory party has been in power. It should be remembered that Mark Carlisle left his job in Mrs. Thatcher's first reshuffle.

The House will recall that Mark Carlisle came to the House in 1964 as the Member for Runcorn. Following a Boundary Commission report, he became the hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South. That was the area which encompassed most of his constituency. He did an extremely good job.

It is traditional for a maiden speaker to say a little about his constituency. Warrington, South is a diverse and physically divided constituency. Running through the entire constituency are the Manchester ship canal and the River Mersey. To the north-east of my constituency are the two parishes of Great Sankey and Penketh. They are physically divided from the rest of the constituency by the ship canal and the Mersey. It is not possible to get to the rest of Warrington, South without passing through the constituency of a good friend of mine, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle), or taking a chance and swimming across the Mersey, which is not to be advised—even though there have been some major improvements in the quality of the water.

Two parts of my constituency, Latchford and Westy, form part of the old and famous Warrington constituency. The House will recall the 1981 by-election. The two areas are separated from the rest of the constituency by the Manchester ship canal.

The rest of Warrington, South is a prosperous area that is both suburban and rural. Attached to it are the 16,000 electors who live in Runcorn. Runcorn is not recognised in the name of the constituency and those people often feel left out. In fact, they played a major part in the election. I thank all those who live in the constituency of Warrington, South, including Runcorn, who voted for me, but I wish to stress that I am here to represent the interests of the constituency as a whole.

I listened to the Gracious Speech this morning in the House of Lords. I should say "in another place". I must get used to the traditions of the House. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I call you Mr. Mayor. Tomorrow I shall relinquish my position as leader of Warrington borough council, so perhaps I shall be able to break the habit quickly.

When I listened to the Gracious Speech, I was looking for a programme of legislation that would be relevant to the problems that we face in the 1990s. Unfortunately, we have been presented with a programme of legislation which seemingly will produce more of the same. The past 13 years of Conservative rule have been characterised by, first, the feverish accumulation of wealth in private hands. There have been tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor. Privatisation has removed revenues which the Treasury would have received from gas and electricity undertakings and the like. Those revenues are now finding their way into the dividends of private companies. We have seen wage increases for the bosses and price increases for the rest of us. It seems that that will continue if the programme outlined in the Gracious Speech is followed through and finds its way on to the statute book.

The second characteristic of the past 13 years of Tory government has been increases in poverty, homelessness and unemployment. It is a travesty that 12 million people live on or below poverty levels. There has been a 7 million increase since 1979. It is obscene that 3 million children are now living in poverty.

The parishioners of St. James, Great Sankey recently conducted a survey of homelessness. They found that, in Warrington, 600 16 to 18-year-olds were without a home. That stands to be condemned in what we call a modern industrial society. Nothing in the Gracious Speech offers hope to the homeless. There is nothing in it to regenerate the building of housing for rent under the control of local authorities. Local authorities should be able to use their reserves to build housing for rent and to change the accommodation already under their control to accommodate homeless individuals and families.

In Warrington, South, 3,914 people are out of work and claiming benefit. Nationally, 2·7 million are out of work. Those are the statistics after the figures have been revised' 30 times by the Tory Government. If unemployment had been calculated in 1979 by the method that the Tories have now adopted, there would not have been any.

One of the greatest problems in my constituency is that in the Runcorn area, where there are 16,000 electors, 1,418 are unemployed. That constitutes 16 per cent. of the active work force. That is a disgrace. There is not one reference in the Gracious Speech to the way in which unemployment will be tackled.

The third characteristic of Conservative government in the past 13 years has been an arrogant use of power. The Tories have undermined the democratic process. I am gravely concerned about the concept of democracy in Britain. The issue has been raised by several hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Before the general election the Conservative party used all the powers available to it to start a campaign to distort, misinterpret, misrepresent and undermine the policies that the Labour party was putting to the electorate. The Conservative party was aided and abetted by the tabloid press, which no doubt acted in concert with it. The Conservative party was able successfully to undermine the Labour party's message.

I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that democracy is about choice, but that choice should be well informed and accurately informed. That process was deliberately undermined during the general election. I am pleased, however, that we saw the green shoots of democratic recovery appear when we elected the then hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd) Speaker of this place. Having heard and read the Gracious Speech, however, I am doubtful whether we shall see the recovery continue.

The Government must accept their responsibility to safeguard democracy. After all, they exercise power in the House. It is their responsibility to ensure that we have a sound democracy. Therefore, they must use their power fairly and even-handedly. I hope that we may look forward to questions from my right hon. and hon. Friends being answered straightforwardly during Prime Minister's questions. More importantly, we need a code of conduct for the press similar to that which applies to television and radio. We must ensure that political debate is reported fairly, evenly and accurately. That will be a major measure to support democracy.

Reinhold Miebuhr wrote "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" in 1944. He made the following statement: Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. In this Parliament we need sound democracy, not lectures from the Government.

We know that a commission is about to tour the country to examine the prospects of introducing unitary authorities based on existing district council boundaries. That is a sound movement in our democracy as it transfers power to the people at the grass roots. I look forward to a speedy conclusion to the commission's work. I also look forward to a visit to the county of Cheshire in the near future, and to unitary government in the Warrington constituency that I now represent.

My deputy leader on Warrington borough council, John Gartside, promoted the idea of unitary authorities in Warrington 11 years ago. He said then that it would be useful for power to be transferred from the county councils to the borough councils, so that we could exercise power in Warrington on behalf of the people themselves. He was right, and I hope that the commission will reach the same conclusion soon.

An old Member of the House advised me to do three things after my election: to go to the Fees Office and get myself signed on; to make my maiden speech, because life would become a lot easier after that; and to get myself an office. I have done two of those three things—I wonder how long I shall have to wait for the office.