I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being a little late; I had to respond to a rather urgent call. I start my maiden speech by expressing my warm personal congratulations to you for being appointed to your present office. I am sure that I have the support of all right hon. and hon. Members in offering you our best wishes in executing your duties in the House. I am sure that you will distinguish the office tha7 you hold.
Today is something of a double whammy—to coin a phrase that was extensively used during the election campaign—for me. It is not only the day on which I am making my maiden speech—all right hon. and hon Members know that that is a day that one never forgets —but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) has just told me, it is my birthday. I have something important for which to cherish this day, and cherish it I certainly shall.
I shall continue my maiden speech by conforming to a time-honoured tradition of the House and congratulate hon. Members on both sides of the House who have made their maiden speeches today. I had the pleasure of listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who made a distinguished and excellent speech, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall), who also made an impressive maiden speech. Unfortunately, I missed the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), but I look forward to hearing him speak in the Chamber on many other occasions.
I gladly comply with another tradition of the House in acknowledging the work of my predecessor in the constituency of Barrow and Furness—Cecil Franks. It is beyond dispute and doubt that Cecil Franks took a particular interest in and paid particular attention to the affairs of the constituency. He was and is a courteous and civilised man who showed great dignity and good humour in his defeat on 9 April. Sadly for him, he is now experiencing some of the difficulties caused by the sudden loss of employment: he shares that experience with far too many of my constituents. I wish him well for the future in his new career outside the House.
I express my admiration and respect for the previous Labour Member for my constituency, Albert Booth. He was a fine Member of Parliament who not only rose to high Cabinet office, where he distinguished himself with rare excellence, but who is fondly remembered in my constituency for his attention to the personal problems of my constituents. Without doubt he will be a tough act to follow on both counts, but I look forward to the challenge of representing my constituents in the House.
Barrow and Furness is a great industrial constituency. Along with other towns and cities of northern Britain, it was once famous for being the workshop of the world. We are the home of Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. which is, without doubt, the world leader in the design and construction of nuclear submarines. VSEL is also a magnificent centre of engineering excellence.
The constituency is also host to many other leading industrial concerns such as Glaxo chemicals at Ulverston and Scotts, the paper manufacturers, in Barrow. There are many other small and medium-sized companies in the constituency which are recognised leaders in their fields. I think especially of Oxley's Developments in Ulverston, Camille Simon in Barrow, and Furness Engineering and Technology Ltd., to name just a few. I am proud to say that the list is long and it provides Barrow and Furness with one of the most skilled and highly trained industrial work forces to be found anywhere in Britain.
Barrow and Furness is also a very beautiful constituency which nestles at the foot of the Lake District, with a wonderful coastline and rugged hills. However, the real asset of my constituency is its people. They are a warm and generous community, and that is especially true of the people of Hindpool where I lived during the general election campaign. They made me and my family extremely welcome, which is an experience I will never forget.
The work force of VSEL have served the nation's interests with great distinction in both war and peace for many generations. We have built up a rare and precious collection of skills and talents, an asset for Britain which is far too important to see frittered away. Sadly, thousands of my constituents are now being forced to live and work under the constant threat of losing their jobs.
More than 5,000 jobs have been lost at VSEL in the past two years and thousands more have been lost outside VSEL. My constituents deserve better treatment. We look to the Government especially to take some of the urgent measures which will help us to get through the next few difficult years. Unless the Government act quickly and decisively, they will experience and he responsible for an industrial catastrophe which will rip the guts out of what is left of the British heavy engineering industry. As we are a manufacturing nation with a proud history of shipbuilding and marine engineering, it is incumbent on the Government to act without delay to rescue my industrial constituency from the catastrophe that I predict.
There are three urgent measures which we look to the Government to act on. Barrow and Furness urgently needs assisted area status and we call on the Government to redraw the maps of assisted area status which have not been changed for almost nine years. It is imperative that the Government look again at the assisted area status maps. My constituency needs a healthier climate for business activity, and such a measure would make a decisive contribution to securing that.
We also urgently need improved transport and communication links with the rest of Britain. I am thinking especially of the A590 and the Furness line. On looking at the Gracious Speech this morning, I and many of my constituents were very concerned about the threat to the Furness line posed by the privatisation of British Rail. We remain to be convinced that privatisation will improve the passenger services to my constituency. Indeed, we are deeply suspicious that the exact opposite will result.
Perhaps most importantly, the VSEL yards in Barrow urgently need support, new work and new orders. We especially want—and ask—the Government to think carefully about accelerating the ordering of the batch 2 hunter-killer submarines. During the lifetime of this Parliament and I hope, with the support of my electorate, beyond the lifetime of this Parliament, I will continue to press the Government on all three counts.
The Government's other policies—on health and education, for example—continue to have a negative impact on the lives of my constituents. Many schools in my constituency are struggling to make ends meet under the local management of schools regime created by the Government. It is becoming increasingly difficult for many schools in my constituency to balance the books, to pay the staff, to maintain the fabric of the buildings, and to deliver the national curriculum which the Government have created. The one simple measure which many of us wanted to see in the Government's legislative programme was a commitment that they would revive the LMS scheme so that the actual salary costs of teachers, as opposed to a notional average, formed a part of the budgetary element. In my constituency, and, I suspect, in many other constituencies where there are schools with an established staff who have reached the top or near the top of the salary scale, it is becoming increasingly difficult for schools to manage effectively the budgets that they have been given.
The Gracious Speech appears to me and to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends to be more an attempt to satisfy the ideological fixations of various sections of the Conservative party than a serious attempt to address the economic and social difficulties facing Britain in the 1990s. Many of my constituents will be disappointed, but probably not surprised, by the contents of the Gracious Speech. In particular, there is nothing in it which holds out the prospect of an early end to the years of unemployment which started in my constituency with the publication of the defence review, "Options for Change".
There is nothing in the Gracious Speech which offers the hope, not only to my constituency but to many others that are dependent on defence-related work, that the Government are seriously addressing the problems faced by such communities. We know, understand and welcome the Government's commitment to review and reconsider Britain's defensive posture and capabilities, but we do not understand the Government's desire, which we condemn, to leave those communities to face the full brunt of market forces.
Communities such as mine, which have worked consistently for the Government for almost 30 years—all the work we have had in shipbuilding and engineering has been defence-related—need the assistance of the Government to make the necessary changes. We need the Government to understand that we cannot simply make that change on our own. If my constituents are left to face the full force of market forces, there will be carnage in my constituency. The Government must recognise and take responsibility for that. My constituents will not forgive the Government if they continue to sit on their hands and to do nothing.
The one question I put to Conservative Members is to ask what kind of management of our economy we have if the Government are prepared to sit on their hands while skilled men and women in Barrow and Furness are turned on to the dole. My response to the question is simply this: a Government who are prepared to see that happen are a Government who are taking the British economy in the wrong direction. We need the skills of my constituents. We need the contribution that they can make to a revitalised British engineering industry. Unfortunately, however, that commitment is lacking on the Government's part.
Let me end my maiden speech by recalling a conversation that I had recently with one of my constituents, a man in his late nineties, who, on 9 April, had made the particularly painful trip to the polling station to vote in person. He had the option of voting by proxy but he chose to vote himself. My constituent reminded me of the very first Labour Member of Parliament elected to represent Barrow. Charles Duncan was elected to the House in 1906. It gives me a measure of pride in my constituents to think that mine was among the first constituencies in Britain to return a Labour Member of Parliament. When Charles Duncan was elected, there were only 29 Members on the Labour Benches. In that respect, my constituents were some years ahead of many of those now so ably represented by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
The point of my recollection of that conversation is this. My elderly constituent stopped me in Dalton road in Barrow and told me how proud he was that, nearly 90 years later, Barrow had elected a socialist—a new Labour Member—to represent it in this House. My constituent had lived to see the day, and I have the privilege of being that Labour Member of Parliament. As all right hon. and hon. Members know, it is a rare and great honour to be in the House. For me, it is an even greater honour to represent the people of Barrow and Furness, and I look forward to speaking up for them in the House in the years that lie ahead.