May I be the first Liberal Democrat Member to congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to your new post. I hope that I shall be forgiven by other right hon. and hon. Members from the south-west for congratulating you on your new position on behalf of the south-west Now that we have no Minister representing a constituency west of Bristol, we must look to you as our principal guide and mentor, and I hope that you will ensure that those from the south-west—the wild west—are given the opportunity to speak. I hope that we shall have the opportunity to catch your eye on future occasions.
I have heard six excellent maiden speeches in today's debate. The last one—from the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton)—was particularly adroit and adept. It was also succinct—an especially admirable virtue to those of us who have been waiting to speak. The hon. Gentleman gave particular emphasis to employment—a matter to which I should like to return—and no doubt the points that he made about his constituents' employment difficulties would be echoed in many hon. Members' constituencies.
It is 18 years since I made my maiden speech from this Bench. It was a long time ago, and a number of right hon. and hon. Members were not even Members of the House at that stage. I well remember the difficulty that I experienced in catching the eye of the Deputy Speaker on that occasion, waiting throughout a long debate and trying to make the right speech for the occasion. Today, we have been admirably well served by the six hon. Members who have broken the ice.
When I made my speech all those years ago, I had the misfortune to be serving in one of the shortest Sessions of Parliament and to have one of the most minuscule majorities—a majority of only nine. I hope that, in this Parliament, I shall have improved on both. Several changes have taken place. Then, I represented the now defunct constituency of Bodmin. I now represent the constituency of Cornwall, North, which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, know well. It is a glorious constituency renowned for the character both of its people and of its places. It has been the popular holiday haunt of many famous Members of Parliament, including one very distinguished former Member of the House, the previous Prime Minister, who I suppose is now caught in limbo somewhere between this House and the other place, although I forget how we properly describe the purgatory between the two.
Sadly, when I spoke on that occasion 18 years ago, the situation was rather more propitious than it is today. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have remarked, the word "employment"—or "unemployment"—does not appear in the Gracious Speech. There are many hon. Members on both sides of the House who, while accepting the special requirements of inner cities, to which the Prime Minister referred in his speech, and which will be reflected in and addressed by the urban regeneration agency, are nevertheless concerned that concentration on the problems of inner cities may mean that insufficient attention is paid to the deep-seated economic problems of the more rural areas of England, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. I suggest that the hidden needs of many of those communities, rarely as newsworthy as those of the inner cities, also deserve special attention.
I will illustrate that point by referring to some of the circumstances which have changed since, as a very new Member of Parliament, I made my maiden speech just over 18 years ago. I referred then to housing waiting lists and to the homeless in my constituency. Today, repossessions stand at 16 times their 1974 level. In Devon and Cornwall there are more families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation than ever before, and the waiting lists for rented accommodation are simply impossible. Another change is that the mainstay of the local rural economy—the small family farm consisting mostly of livestock—has worse income levels today than it did before the war. That is not a political point—it is a point that has been intelligently and well argued by the special unit at Exeter university.
Thirdly, small businesses, which in comparative terms were thriving those years ago, are now in considerable difficulties. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) referred to the difficulty with the uniform business rate. We very much regret that the uniform business rate has not been pegged at last year's level and is still edging its way up. In parts of Cornwall, 50 per cent.
of holiday businesses are up for sale. That represents a vote of no confidence in what for them has been the last straw—the level and valuation level of the uniform business rate.
As I said, the starkest indicator of change in those 18 years has been the change in the employment pattern. This afternoon I asked the Library to give me the figures for North Cornwall 18 years ago and today. In 1974, a total of 800 people were on the unemployment register—2.5 per cent. of the population. That figure has risen more than sevenfold, to 5,621—nearly 17 per cent. of the total work force in the North Cornwall constituency. More than 3,900 men, or 23 per cent., and 1,600 women, or 9 per cent., are unemployed. Our problem is comparable with some of the worst problems of the inner cities to which the Prime Minister referred. That is a rise of more than 50 per cent. in the last six months, seasonally adjusted. In some journey-to-work areas in the constituency, up to one in three employable men are now without a job. Many of them are young and many of them are long-term unemployed. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said, rural areas are suffering deprivation—often hidden but nevertheless real—in terms of public services and opportunities for their citizens. While we recognise the case and welcome the special attention for the inner cities that will be effected by the new agency, we believe that in the far-flung areas of Britain which require special attention because of deep-seated economic problems and structural changes in the employment pattern we must have regionally based development agencies.
We take some comfort from the fact that the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who served his political apprenticeship close to your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to mine, is well known to be enthusiastic for the concept of locally generated development agencies. We hope that he will carry forward that enthusiasm in his new Department and use it to set up agencies that will be effective in turning the tide of unemployment in areas such as yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, and mine.
We must have areas with integrity and clear identities and with clear similarities of economic problems, opportunities and characteristics. They must have cohesion and a manageable size. They must also have a sense of identity. I hope that some guidance may be provided by the existing agency, the Rural Development Commission, which I had the privilege and pleasure to advise when I was not a Member of this place. The new agency must be deeply rooted in the local community.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I welcome the tone of constructive intervention which we believe may well be personified in the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That is surely a far cry from the high tide and heyday of high Thatcherism. We want to ensure that the tone which has crept into ministerial voices is now carried through into action. Words are not enough.