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Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 29th November 1996.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle 1:12 pm, 29th November 1996

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). As I made clear in an earlier intervention, I share his concern about the imposition of the new tax on travel by children. That may seem a small point, but it is a serious matter if one is trying to take three or four children on holiday because the tax could add £80 to the journey. I hope that the Government will think again about that.

The hon. Member for Rotherham, a great and noted enthusiast for all matters European, dwelt on the exchange rate at length. I will not deal with that issue except to say that as the great value of England and Great Britain generally in terms of tourism is our distinctiveness, whether it is warm beer as opposed to cool refreshing beer or driving on the left rather than driving on the right, there is no point in allowing the European Community to acquire competence over tourism. I will not dwell on that; I make the point so that if the Minister wants to reply on that particular matter, he has the opportunity to do so.

I want to deal with a concept of national importance which is of particular interest locally to my constituency—I refer to the Mayflower 2000 project. It is a millennium project which has been conceived by the Southwark Heritage Association, a registered charity.

The project is important for tourism because the voyage of the Mayflower, which is one of the most famous voyages in history after that of Noah's Ark, has been sadly neglected. Some 22 million Americans claim descent from the pilgrim fathers, who sailed in the Mayflower and related crossings. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan), the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), among others, have mentioned Williamsburg. Americans are enormously interested in their colonial history and anything that we can do to encourage that interest through ideas such as the Mayflower project will be enormously beneficial in attracting American tourists to Britain.

The basic idea of the project is to reconstruct the Mayflower. However, it would not be a replica. A replica was built in 1957 as a gift from Britain to the American people. It is now the centre of a pilgrim fathers exhibition at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, which has already been mentioned in the debate and is a tremendous tourist attraction.

The concept behind the Mayflower 2000 project is to build a permanent memorial based in Britain. It will be a symbol of resistance to religious persecution. The Mayflower compact, which was signed in 1620 by the male passengers of the Mayflower, is considered to be the foundation stone of American democracy.

The idea of the project is to build an exact reconstruction of the Mayflower which will set out for America in spring 1999 and then return to Rotherhithe, the original spiritual home of the Mayflower, where it will become a visitor centre. It will have enormous importance educationally, not just in terms of tourism.

The project is not just about building a replica; it will also set up a pilgrim heritage trail that will involve parts of my constituency. Famous ports of call—particularly in the east of the country—were important to the pilgrim fathers. They include Rotherhithe, Boston in Lincolnshire and your constituency of Plymouth, Madam Deputy Speaker, which although it is not in the east of the country is an important part of Mayflower history. The Mayflower project has enormous tourist potential in encouraging Americans to our shores.

The project also involves my constituency. Gainsborough has a former congregational chapel—now a United Reform chapel—called the John Robinson memorial chapel. It was built in 1896 and earlier this year I was happy to attend its centenary. John Robinson was one of the original pilgrim fathers. Indeed, the Americans showed their interest in Gainsborough when the then American ambassador, T. S. Baynard, laid the foundation stone of the John Robinson memorial chapel in 1895.

John Robinson may have been born in Gainsborough, but he was probably born a few miles away, in Sturton le Steeple in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who also takes a close interest in the project. However, it is certain that on Sundays John Robinson and the other original separatists would walk to Gainsborough to worship at services conducted by the Baptist, the Rev. John Smythe. They were led by a marvellous character called Robert Trouble Church Browne.

Rev. Smythe had been sacked from his living in Lincoln for preaching "strange doctrines" and Robinson had been the pastor at Norwich before he had to flee to Gainsborough. When the authorities prevented them from preaching in churches, they met in the Old Hall in Gainsborough, which is an excellent tourist attraction. It was built in about 1480 and is probably a leading example of domestic architecture of that period.

When John Robinson and his friends were persecuted, he tried to leave for Holland from Boston in Lincolnshire in autumn 1607. He was arrested and imprisoned in Boston, but finally left for Holland, as did many of his friends. In 1620, as the whole world knows, they set out in the Mayflower. Robinson was either on the first or the subsequent trip and certainly some of the original pilgrims on the Mayflower who founded American democracy came from Gainsborough and the surrounding Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire countryside.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister is not in his place at the moment—I am sure that he will soon return—because I particularly wanted to direct the following remarks to him. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Whip will ensure that my remarks are passed on. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to reply to the point. The Mayflower was captained by a Harwich man, and, of course my hon. Friend represents Harwich. Indeed, I have in my hand a letter of support from him, as the Member for Harwich, for the whole Mayflower 2000 project. I hope that he will take a particular interest because his intervention could be absolutely vital to the project. Why do I say that?

One would think from what I have said—that the project is wonderful, it will promote tourism, it is important to our history and it is a sad and neglected part of our heritage—that it will surely go ahead and is bound to receive the Millennium Commission's support. Sadly, the Millennium Commission, of which my hon. Friend the Secretary of State is chairman, has turned down the project on the ground that it does not allocate funds for replicas. Of course, what would be built would not be a replica.

As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said in the National Heritage Committee to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it is not as if we want to build a model of a Viking ship to float on the Serpentine in Hyde park. We would reconstruct in exact detail the Mayflower. In replying to the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend said that she thought that the policy decision was taken before she became chairman of the Millennium Commission and undertook to report back to it the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

I very much hope that, since the matter has been raised in Select Committee, the specific point has been put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Mayflower was captained by a Harwich man initially, both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister will take up the issue and see whether there is any way in which we can revive the project and make funds available for this excellent concept.

If the Mayflower were built and berthed at Rotherhithe it would not need to stay there all the time. It would a sea-worthy vessel and could travel to Plymouth, Boston or even Gainsborough, and be a tremendous source of new tourism. Tourism in a rural area such as West Lindsey can be very important. In 1994, it is estimated that it raised about £24 million and supported 642 full-time jobs. With related and seasonal jobs it could support as many as 912 jobs.

If we can encourage tourists to come to Lincolnshire and other ports of call in East Anglia on the Mayflower trail, they will have much else to look at in the area. I have already mentioned the Old Hall in Gainsborough. Gainsborough was mentioned by George Eliot—it is called St. Oggs in "The Mill on the Floss". There are interesting towns such as Caistor and Market Rasen. Horncastle and Market Rasen are Roman towns and the latter is the site of a national hunt racecourse. There is all sorts of interest in which local tourists can get involved. It has become almost a cliche in this debate to say that we do not need any more tourists in London and that we must encourage them to visit the provinces, the Lincolnshires, of our country. We must also use our history creatively to encourage tourists to come to these shores in order to generate wealth, opportunity and jobs.