Madam Speaker, I congratulate you on your election.
In this my maiden speech, I pay a warm tribute to my predecessor, Dr. John Gilbert, who represented the Dudley, East seat for 27 years. He represented the people of Dudley conscientiously and, when I was campaigning, he was often mentioned by people who came up to me in the street and commended him for the help that he had given them. I congratulate him on his recent appointment as Minister of State and on his imminent appointment as a life peer.
I now also represent two wards that were represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson)—indeed my friend as well—and I pay tribute to him. At a national level, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. This country is fortunate in having such a bold, dynamic and visionary leader, and the extent of my party's victory turned on his leadership. It also turned on the efforts of many others, including my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with his robust good sense, his background in the Labour movement and his energy, and many ordinary members, including the members of the Labour party in my constituency. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons on her appointment. The House is fortunate that the initiative for its reform is in such good hands.
I have the honour to represent Dudley, North. It is a tremendous privilege to have been elected to serve the people of that part of the black country. The region is replete with history, which dates back to prehistoric times. Castle Hill and Wren's Nest contain a unique collection of prehistoric fossils and an application has been made for world heritage listing on that basis.
As you well know, Madam Speaker, the name "the black country" derives from the time of the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, the region was a powerhouse of economic activity. It is a history of a great people who take pride in their contribution to this country's modern development. Much of that 19th-century industry has gone, but my constituency can look forward to the new millennium with confidence under a Labour Government, who are prepared to provide support for local initiatives. The Castle Gate project is just one example. The site, designed for high-tech industries of the 21st century, will now go ahead.
We should not forget that the past 18 years have not been kind to many of my constituents. Older people have suffered in particular and unemployment, especially among young people, is far too high. I therefore welcome the Government's commitments to improve public services, the national health service and social housing, and, in particular, their undertakings on the training and employment of young people. The Labour party believes that services provided publicly, by the community, are a way of ameliorating inequality, which has been so accentuated in the past 18 years.
Before the House adjourns, I should like it to consider a number of matters. The first relates to the Government's policies to address crime. When I was campaigning during the election, I found that youth crime was of particular concern to many ordinary people. In some cases, they may misperceive the problem, but crime is an objective reality. In his recent pronouncements, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has built on the well-accepted criminological truism that certainty is as important as severity in deterring crime. That is why fast-track punishment is important. Offenders have to be sure that they will be caught and punished quickly—it is as important as what happens afterwards.
Several years ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister coined the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The causes are many. Government policies on employment generation for young people are linked to our crime prevention policies. People without hope, or a future, or who are alienated from society, are more likely to commit crime.
A number of points have struck me as I have sat in the Crown court as an assistant recorder, and now a recorder, for the past six years, although I hasten to add that my experience is limited. The first is the complexity of matters. The former Home Secretary traded in simplicities. He also rejected the findings of research, even research from his own Department. It is no wonder that those at the coal face of the criminal justice system—the judiciary, including the higher judiciary—have resoundingly rejected his approach.
Secondly, I was struck by the fact that so much crime is drug and alcohol related. A number of hon. Members have said the same and mentioned the irresponsibility of some parts of the drinks industry. I agree that something must be done.
A third point that has struck me is that many people who appear before me in the Crown court have not had a decent start in life. We see that in the pre-sentence reports. That certainly does not absolve them from responsibility for their acts but it means, as the Prime Minister has said, that we must tackle the causes as well as the manifestations of crime.
Before the House adjourns, I should also like it to consider the recent pronouncements of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. One announcement concerned the operational independence of the Bank of England. The main Opposition party has taken issue with that on the basis that the decision was taken without parliamentary debate or statement, but it is in the nature of such things that events move quickly. In fact, it was an astute move. It back-footed the markets and richly deserves the praise that it has won. It is consistent with international developments in the operation of monetary policy and it also puts us in a position to comply with the Maastricht treaty should we decide to be part of the European single currency. There will still be accountability through the Monetary Policy Committee and a more representative Court at the Bank. More important, the Government will continue to set the inflation target.
I was gratified to hear the Governor of the Bank of England say last week:
What we are about is growth and employment, but we are about that in the medium and longer term. Low inflation with steady growth is what we are on about. An inflation target is not an end in itself but very much a means to an end.
I welcome that statement; it is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is seeking to achieve.
I have been fortunate to serve on several International Monetary Fund missions to central banks in Asia and eastern European countries. I have to confess that sometimes the Governor's realistic appraisal of goals was rather lost in the concern for price stability. In countries with rampant inflation, price stability must be an overriding factor but, as the Governor has rightly said, and as the Chancellor has also made clear, the central goals must be growth and employment with stability, as the Chancellor has said, a platform to those ends.
I hope that before the House adjourns it will take into account the various matters that I have mentioned.
It is a pleasure and an honour to follow the eloquent and detailed maiden speech made by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston). I hope that my contribution will match his in eloquence and content.
It is a privilege to represent the beautiful constituency of Oxford, West and Abingdon. I am the first Liberal to sit for Oxford since a certain Mr. Frank Grey, who won in 1922 and 1923. On both occasions there was a two-party contest between the Liberals and Conservatives—a luxury that we can no longer enjoy. Unfortunately, Mr. Grey was unseated after an election petition, the charge—or at least the allegation—being that he tampered with the signals on the railway to prevent a train carrying Conservative voters from arriving from Oxford and disgorging its contents. It seems that 70 years later, the previous Government found an even more effective way to stop people going about their business on the railways through their privatisation programme.
In representing Oxford, I am also following the late Evan Luard who was latterly a member of the Social Democratic party, which I also joined. We therefore share not only a relatively rare first name, shared as far as I know in political circles only by the son of the new Prime Minister, but our political beliefs. He was followed by my immediate predecessor, the right hon. John Patten.
John Patten was considered a controversial Member of Parliament, yet he was and is well respected in the constituency for his courtesy to his political opponents and his constituents and for the effective and prompt way in which he dealt with constituency matters. Although I might not agree with much of what he said during the years that he served the constituency, I pay full tribute to his record as a constituency Member of Parliament and his record of standing up for what he believed in, even though it might court controversy. I hope that in also making a stand on things that matter to me, I can follow in his footsteps.
Oxford, West and Abingdon has many claims to fame. Because of its old and beautiful university, it has perhaps more libraries than any other constituency, more chapels and, of course, more bars and pubs. Indeed, I served my political apprenticeship 10 years ago among those chapels, libraries and bars. That allows me to note now the colleges of Balliol, Brasenose, Corpus Christi, Christ Church, Exeter, Hertford, Jesus, Keble, Kellog, Lincoln, Linacre, Lady Margaret Hall, Mansfield, Magdalen, Manchester, Merton, New college, Oriel, the Queen's college, Regent's Park, St. Anne's, St. Antony's, St. Catherine's, St. Edmund Hall, St. Hilda's, St. Hugh's, St. John's, St. Peter's, Trinity, University, Wadham, which is my own fondly remembered alma mater, Wolfson and Worcester.
The risk in that recitation of the oft-travelled canvass trips is that I may have missed some out, but I must pay due respect to the voters of those colleges—first-time voters at that—who, in large numbers, decided to return a Liberal Democrat. Partly it was because they recognised the importance for the future of this country of investment in education, not only in school education from which many of them benefited in the state sector, as I did in Liverpool, but in higher education.
Before the House adjourns, it is important that we consider the future of higher education. The university sector is under great pressure with the unit of funding having been reduced serially since the expansion of numbers, which was welcomed by all, but which was significantly underfunded. The threat of the end of free education for a first degree, for young as well as adult learners, should be treated with grave concern.
Access to higher education is already restricted to those well enough off to ensure that they can get through their university days without descending into poverty or those perhaps able to take out loans contingent on the fact that they are entering professions for which the remuneration will be sufficient to pay off those loans. The concern is that we not only damage access for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, such as people who went to my own comprehensive school in Liverpool, some of whom I know had to drop out of university education because of the cost, but close off access to higher education for those pursuing careers that are less well paid. In many cases, young graduates find that they cannot consider entering a career in the caring professions or in public service.
Hon. Members have expressed great concern about the recruitment levels of those entering the teaching or nursing profession, entry to which now usually requires a degree. Labour Members will be interested to know that, in my own profession, the starting salary for junior hospital doctors for out-of-hours work is around £3.50 an hour. They should be concerned that those who are treating, out of normal working hours, the sick and the most vulnerable in society are among the lowest-paid in the country.
I was proud to represent junior doctors in my trade union—the British Medical Association—not only in Oxford, West and Abingdon, but across the south-east. The BMA has pressed for due consideration of not only terms and conditions of employment but the work load that has fallen upon those who are working in the acute hospital sector. I include in that sector the legion of managers who now work in the health service. When I started on the wards, one would never see a manager beyond the normal working day on the wards of my local hospitals, the Radcliffe infirmary or the Oxford Radcliffe hospital. Even managers, however, are now pressed into action, when patient waiting times become too great. Managers, rather than junior doctors, are working hard to find beds—which are often in short supply—in which to place patients until an appropriate management plan can be made.
Before the House adjourns, I hope that we resolve to tackle the problems of the acute hospital sector, for the benefit not only of patients—who are feeling the effects of the excess work load placed on those working in the profession and of shortened hospital stays—but of those working in the hospital sector, on whom the national health service, which is under great pressure, must rely. Those people are doing ever more overtime and working ever harder, for seemingly less and less reward.
It is a pleasure for me to represent not only my fellow trade unionists within the medical profession but all my constituents in Oxford, West and Abingdon. People in my constituency have an outlook that extends not only to their own city and country. My constituency is the home of the Oxfam charity, and its university is the home of several third-world organisations. They look beyond our shores to think of people who are less well off than ourselves.
During the general election campaign, I made a pledge—which I hope to implement—to ensure that, when considering how to redistribute our country's resources, we not only think of the people of these islands, but consider how we can ensure that the world in which we live can be a fitter place, in which resources are shared more fairly between the first world and those in less developed countries. If I have a part to play in achieving that goal, I shall have served my constituents proud.
It is an honour to have been elected to the House, and I hope to be able to raise all these issues in this Parliament.
I congratulate both you, Madam Speaker, and the President of the Council. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on their maiden speeches. I hope that I can follow in the same, successful vein.
I pay tribute to Den Dover, the former hon. Member for Chorley, who represented the constituency for the past 18 years. He worked hard in the general election campaign, and one must always remember that he was a dedicated Member of Parliament. Before him, George Rodgers—a Labour Member—served Chorley well. From 1945 to 1969, Clifford Kenyon—a renowned name in the Chamber—served Chorley as one of the greatest ever Members of Parliament. His knowledge of farming was unquestionably renowned.
I should also like to thank my father, Doug Hoyle. He was a Member from 1974 to 1979, representing the old Nelson and Colne constituency. He then went on to serve, from 1981 to 1987, as the hon. Member for Warrington, North, where my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) represented the adjoining constituency. My father has since been elevated to the House of Lords. I wish him well, and I thank him for all the support that he has given me.
It is a privilege to represent Chorley, the town of my birth. Perhaps uniquely among hon. Members, I was born in my constituency, and I have always lived and worked in it. I am therefore very proud to have been elected to the House to represent my home town.
Chorley is an historical market town. It comprises more than 50,000 acres—from lowland, near Southport, to the west Pennine moors—and 23 parishes, and it has a population, which is rising, of 96,000. We had much manufacturing, from textiles to such famous companies as Leyland, Royal Ordnance and Horwich Locomotive Works. Although the latter was in Bolton, West, it still employed thousands of people from all over the area, including Chorley. Almost all those companies have now gone.
Royal Ordnance was most recently in the news as a dumping site for bovine spongiform encephalopathy infected animal offal, thereby serving as a double symbol of Tory failure. The borough unemployment rate now averages 4 per cent.—which is very low—but it is low only because more than 50 per cent. of the working population travels outside Chorley to work, as most of our manufacturing has been destroyed.
Other areas have severe unemployment, which is sometimes 12 per cent. or higher. Recent job losses have included those at NORWEB, GPT, Perrite and John Willman. Well-known companies across the country are still shedding jobs, and that is the danger. I am confident that the Government will deal with the danger.
A recent survey in Chorley showed that more than half the job offers in our jobcentre were for part-time employment. The average weekly wage for those jobs was £103, and one job was advertised at £1 per hour. Such a situation is disgusting and unacceptable in a modern society. We will be a modern society, and we will redress that imbalance. A minimum wage is crucial to achieving our goals.
How personal and national economic security can be obtained under current economic circumstances is inconceivable, and I await the Government's establishment of a commission to examine a minimum wage. Some private utilities earn in a few seconds as much as some people earn in a lifetime, yet they refuse to contribute—as detailed in the Government's finance plans—to the effort to put young people back in work. Our Government have a mandate to achieve that goal.
I was chairman of Chorley borough council's economic development and tourism committee, and I helped to bring investment to Chorley, by working with businesses and showing them the attractions and benefits of what we have to offer.
The Royal Ordnance site, which is now essentially derelict, once employed 30,000 people. Now it offers a few dozen jobs. By maximising the site's potential, we are finally returning investment to our area. We are delighted that the Computer Science Corporation has chosen a redundant building on the site as its base, thereby creating 400—mainly highly skilled—jobs. Over the next four years, Latham, Crossley and Davies, a major Chorley accounting firm, plans to expand, thereby creating 200 new jobs. An extension is also planned to Ackhurst business park, which should create another 130 new jobs.
Those developments were aided by the economic development unit, which plays an active, interventionist role in Chorley business. It does not tell business how to run itself—it works with business to create the economic conditions that business requires. Every week, we visited firms to talk and listen to them and to provide them with contacts with councillors and officers, with whom they could deal directly in the council. As the hon. Member for Chorley, I shall maintain those links and work hard for business and for the local authority. For many years, it has been a revelation in Chorley to have a public-private partnership—which is one basis of the Government's industrial strategy—instead of pitting one sector against another.
I also helped to found the Chorley partnership, to join businesses and community leaders in working together for the town's social and economic development.
Chorley has lacked support from central Government. To have a progressive Government who share our aims will give a major boost to my area. The creation of regional development agencies will be a massive improvement. Chorley's economic development unit dealt with 442 inquiries last year. Most people were seeking advice on sites, on property available in the locality and on potential sources of financial assistance. Little assistance has been available, however, because the previous Government did not believe in it. It is a crying shame that the previous Member of Parliament thought that assisted area status would do nothing for Chorley. I hope that we can redress the balance and put Chorley on a level playing field with neighbouring areas so that we can improve it for the benefit of the people who live there. My experience of Chorley's economic development unit has shown me that development support is exactly what business wants and needs. The creation of a regional development agency will meet that objective.
It is appropriate that Europe should be dealt with at the same time as the economy; they are inextricably linked—one cannot have one without the other. The previous Government did not believe in Europe, so we profited little from the support available while every other country in the European Union did. KONVER is available to areas such as Chorley, which has seen a rundown in its defence industry, yet because of the previous Government's lack of belief and interest, we received hardly any aid to which we were entitled.
What was more shocking was the fact that the rules that applied to parts of the midlands and the south-east were different from those applied to the north-west. There could be 50 per cent. funding in the south-east, but only 35 per cent. in the north-west. There is something tragically wrong about being able to divide the country so easily. If one was cynical, one would assume that it was a political decision.
KONVER money has always been important to us. In 1996, we put in for a £3 million grant from KONVER II—which was a continuation of the old peripheral areas programme—under the auspices of the Chorley business technology centre, to assist with an £8 million development scheme for part of a 1,000 acre site in Chorley which is contaminated, but which can be used for business. We received little support from the Government. The bid was scaled down to £1 million and then to £500,000, concentrating exclusively on managed workshop facilities at the Chorley business technology centre. It will do little to regenerate the massive Royal Ordnance site, but if we get the money, we shall at least have some start-up units for new businesses.
It is pointless to be a member of the EU when so much of what is available from membership is going begging because the previous Government's ideology was opposed to its positive aspects. By maximising our return from the EU in terms of grants such as KONVER, we can invest in sites, such as the Royal Ordnance site, which have massive potential. Those sites are existing industrial areas that can be developed without damaging the environment or contributing to urban sprawl. That must be of benefit to everyone.
I am delighted that we now have a Government who are committed to getting the most out of the EU by working with their partners and taking all to which we are entitled. I shall lobby Ministers hard to ensure that Chorley's case is heard and to support the early creation of regional development agencies, which will do so much to improve the economic success of regions such as the north-west.
I hope that the Royal Ordnance site will become a flagship for the whole of the north-west. It must be one of the biggest brown-field sites in the UK. It will benefit the whole of the north-west, it is well placed between two major motorways and it has a railway line running through its centre. We have a great opportunity to save green fields and to create new jobs for the north-west as a whole.
It is a great honour to follow three splendid maiden speeches. Together with my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), I find myself having to respond to all the maiden speeches although I am not able to speak twice on this occasion. I will, however, deal with the three maiden speeches that we have heard so far.
These occasions should be special for hon. Members who are speaking for the first time. As the House knows, maiden speeches are the only occasions on which Members are listened to without any interruptions. It is a great occasion when people who have worked hard to be returned to the House speak for the first time.
I greatly enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston). It is clear that he feels passionately about issues in his constituency and I am sure that his constituents will not be disappointed by his plans to raise matters on their behalf in the years ahead. I am sure that he and his supporters are proud of his efforts today.
We then heard the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). It was a most fluent speech and it is clear that the hon. Gentleman has great knowledge of many issues. I know that the whole House will look forward to hearing from him in the future.
I, too, pay tribute to the former Member of Parliament for Oxford, West and Abingdon—John Patten—and my hon. Friends and I greatly appreciated the tribute paid to him by the new hon. Member for that constituency. The hon. Gentleman referred to John Patten as "controversial" although I am not sure what that means these days. I believe that John Patten came to the House because he believed in things: he was a conviction politician. Every Member of Parliament is entitled to express his or her views. John Patten is a great loss to this House. He added something to all our debates—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members may disagree, but I believe that he is a great loss to this House and I am delighted that he will still serve in the Palace, albeit in the other Chamber.
With regard to the splendid speech by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), the hon. Gentleman's father had not alerted me to the fact that his son would be following him to the House. I knew the hon. Gentleman's late mother, who would have been proud of him, and I am sure that his father is proud of his speech today. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about the area that he now represents. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey and I also greatly appreciated his tribute to our defeated colleague, Den Dover. Den was a friend of mine and in the 14 years during which we were together in the House I saw that he worked very hard on behalf of his constituents. He raised constituency issues on every possible occasion and I believe that he is a great loss to this House.
I praise the three splendid maiden speeches this morning. The Leader of the House may smile, but the tradition is that maiden speeches should be uncontroversial. I normally do not have a good word to say about either the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats, but on this occasion I will honour the tradition and will not comment in any shape or form on the points made in those maiden speeches. I wish the three hon. Members well and I wish every success to those who have still to make their maiden speeches.
I wish to raise a number of points. The first concerns all the nonsense about Myra Hindley. I hope that the media will not waste days on end arguing the merits of whether she should eventually be released into society. There are many more important issues about which our constituents are concerned. I hope that this issue will pass in a day because I would regret our spending a great deal of time on it.
Secondly, there was an impression that the Labour party campaign was to a certain extent financed by the trade unions. In the course of this Parliament we shall find out the truth of the matter. I am, however, very concerned about a newspaper that is being distributed. I shall not name the source of my information or the name of the company concerned, but within two weeks of the election a newspaper has been distributed among workers in a company which is a very large employer. The newspaper talks about "the workers' fight" and says that big business is backing Downing street. It refers to Labour's drive against the poor and goes on and on about how the Labour party has already sold the workers out. We can argue about the merits of that later, but it would be a great mistake for individuals in the work forces of some of our large employers to stir up trouble within two weeks of the election—they should compare the state of the British economy in 1997 with how it was in 1979—so I hope that we shall hear no more of that nonsense.
My third point concerns my constituency. I pay a warm tribute to the former Member of Parliament, now Lord Channon, who represented the constituency for nearly four decades. I know him very well. Whatever anyone says about him, I discovered during the election campaign that even if he did not court great publicity he was highly regarded by his constituents. Like people in every other constituency, the people of Southend, West have every right to be represented by the Member of Parliament whom they choose. He was a splendid Member of Parliament and I am delighted that he will still be serving the country in the other House.
I want to raise some brief issues concerning the constituency. The first relates to houses in multiple occupation. In parts of Southend, West, particularly Westborough and Chalkwell, many large properties have been turned into houses in multiple occupation. Last year I served on the Standing Committee considering the Housing Bill, which gave local authorities the power to set up proper registers and to deal with matters relating to houses in multiple occupation sensibly so that licences are no longer handed out in the cavalier fashion in which they had been given in the past. During the election campaign, I found that some properties were not fit to be determined houses in multiple occupation. The situation has caused great upset to many neighbours.
Southend council has 18 Conservatives, 14 Liberal Democrats and seven Labour members. At least in the local elections there was a swing to the Conservative party. At first we were told that the Labour and Liberal Democrat members would work together, but the latest news is that the Labour party has apparently decided to pull out of the arrangement and will determine its stance on each matter as it comes up. Whoever is prepared to run Southend council, I hope that the Housing Act 1996 will be honoured and that there will be careful determination on houses in multiple occupation.
The next issue that I wish to raise relates to the cockle industry. I am honoured to represent Leigh-on-Sea and the cockle industry is important to my constituency. The fishermen played their part in the second world war, using their vessels to defend their country, and they are an important influence in the local community. The Leader of the House will not have time to deal with the matter in this debate, but I hope that she will ask her officials to find out what is going on.
Before the general election I met the then Minister with responsibility for fisheries, and we are particularly concerned about the Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 1994. I am told that the Kent and Essex Sea Fisheries Committee is implementing the order, but honouring that legislation is causing great distress. The Leigh-on-Sea Shellfish Merchants Association has always recognised that the local fleet is more than capable of outfishing cockle stocks and it has always tried to co-operate with the KESFC on sensible measures to preserve the fishery. Since the order came into effect, however, the KESFC has increased the number of licence holders by granting licences to applicants with dubious track records—or even no track record at all—and the business of law-abiding cockle fishermen is being damaged. I hope that the Leader of the House will find time to get her officials to investigate that.
The penultimate issue that I wish to raise concerns schools. I do not want to start a row in the Chamber about education—I shall save that for another occasion—but in my area we have many grant-maintained schools and selective schools. As I understand it, the Labour party fought the election campaign on the express promise that if local residents wished to continue to have selective schools, their wish would be honoured. I also understood that the new Government would do nothing to damage grant-maintained schools or, more importantly, the education of children. I have already had one or two letters from head teachers. They do not wish to argue, but simply ask for clarification—I do not believe that we have yet had a debate on education—about what will happen to grant-maintained and selective schools in Essex.
My final point concerns private care homes. You are a fellow Essex Member of Parliament, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My constituency has nearly 100 private care homes. We can argue with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats about the whys and wherefores of private care homes, but we have a crisis at the moment in Essex. I hope that the Leader of the House, through her officials, will be able to tell us what is happening about that issue.
We have a crisis of bed blocking and rapidly increasing numbers of elderly people. There are many people in local hospitals who should not be blocking beds there, and there are many empty beds in private care homes which would cost less than caring for those people in the public sector. More than 80 beds are blocked in Southend hospital. Essex county council is controlled not by the Conservative party, but by a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition. We have a Labour Government as well, so for goodness' sake let us sort the matter out. Some 90 per cent. of those people in hospital are awaiting social services funding for long-term care or community care packages. Half of the surgical wards are blocked with medically fit people awaiting discharge.
Whatever the arguments about the whys and wherefores, the situation is not good enough for the relatives who love those people who are in hospital at the moment. This is not the time to argue about the political merits of the matter. Those people may not be with us for much longer. I am simply asking that the new Government get in touch with the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties on Essex county council and do their best to sort the matter out, because there is a crisis. When relatives get around to finding out what the doctor recommends, they eventually get what they want, but it is taking an awfully long time. Many have already come to my surgery saying, "Our relatives are getting on in years and may not have much longer; we want to ensure that they are treated properly." The problem of bed blocking should be addressed urgently.
Finally, I congratulate all those who have made maiden speeches today or whose maiden speeches we shall hear shortly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on their fine maiden speeches—they have made my job all the more difficult. I also thank the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for his kind remarks.
It is a great privilege to make my maiden speech at this early stage and I am delighted to be here as the first Labour Member of Parliament for Erewash. I hope that the electorate's new practice of returning Labour Members will continue for many years to come.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Angela Knight, who represented Erewash from 1992 until this year. She was an extremely doughty campaigner who worked with commitment and enthusiasm to serve local people. During her last two years in the House she was a Treasury Minister. I wish her well.
In the short time that I have been attending Parliament, the two most frequent questions that I have been asked are, "What constituency do you represent?" and, when I reply, "Erewash," the inevitable supplementary is, "And where exactly is that?"
Erewash is in south-east Derbyshire. It lies between the cities of Derby and Nottingham. At either end of the constituency are the principal towns of Long Eaton and Ilkeston. In between, there are several villages and some very pretty countryside. The economic base of the area was founded on traditional industries—notably mining, heavy engineering and lace-making. Those industries have contracted over the years and the necklace of 12 coal pits which surrounded Ilkeston is no more.
Erewash was therefore a suitable case for widespread industrial inertia, but people have not permitted that to happen and there is extraordinary diversity in the local economy. Light engineering and textiles—including lace—are still major industries, but they operate at the cutting edge of modern technology. Furniture-making, information technology, service and distribution industries are all to be found there.
Stanton Ironworks is an excellent example of an industry that has moved with the times. It has a proud heritage going back more than 200 years, yet today it is Britain's largest manufacturer of ductile iron pipelines. I understand that Yorkshire Water placed a bulk order with the company last summer and I suspect that several other water companies will become familiar with its range of products in the coming months.
The wider site has been subject to reclamation and offers considerable potential, with improved rail and motorway access—a development that I support.
Many successful local firms export widely in Europe and welcome the Government's intention to complete the single market and to be at the heart of Europe arguing in the best interests of British jobs and business. They agree with Adair Turner that our constructive membership of the European Union is vital to their well-being.
I pay tribute to the local partnership, which is an exceptional example of its kind. It has co-ordinated many effective initiatives by pulling together the public, private and voluntary sectors and maximising local resources. Its current project—Erewash learning community—puts learning at the heart of local economic development policy. Recently, it came close to winning the prestigious Local Government Chronicle award for the business partnership of the year.
There are, however, factors in play which have not supported local prosperity. They include the boom-bust climate of the past few years, red tape, late payment, lack of investment, poor work standards, low pay and skills, and long-term youth unemployment. I am pleased to support a Government who find those problems unacceptable and are committed to their improvement through forthcoming domestic legislation and by signing up to the social chapter.
I particularly welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to education as the Government's first priority. Having taught for nigh on 25 years, I know that education, like no other process, develops high self-esteem and a sense of empowerment that allows the learner to play a full part in society. I applaud the raft of Government proposals to raise the quality of education for all our children and stress the importance of consultation in that process. Teachers are desperate for a constructive dialogue and I take the view that to listen first is a strength and not a weakness and leads to better decisions.
An increasing number of disaffected pupils attend our schools and I had the responsibility for working with some of them. Teachers need support to meet that challenge, not only for the sake of those children, but for those who are more predisposed to learning and for society at large. I also pay tribute to the many excellent schools and teachers in my constituency who do well by their pupils despite grappling with large class sizes and crumbling surroundings.
When I was on a public platform during the recent election campaign, I was asked by a local councillor to define poverty. He had written down the figure that he wanted to use to challenge my anticipated response. In my definition, I talked about the inability to take advantage of opportunities to make progress and a sense of hopelessness. His face went blank as it became apparent that those concepts were completely beyond his understanding.
Good skills, a decent job and the ability to plan for the future are shared goals. They allow people to feel part of society and play a part in it. Achieving sustained economic prosperity built on the proposals outlined in the Gracious Speech will sow the seedcorn for an inclusive society. I support the Government's proposals because they will allow our country and its people to prosper in the widest sense of the word and I look forward to playing a small part in delivering a programme that I know will benefit the people of Erewash.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). I understand her difficulty in constantly having to explain where her constituency is. When I explain that Hazel Grove is in Stockport, people say, "Yes, I went there once for a holiday, but the sea is rather a long way away, isn't it?" I then have to explain that it is not in Southport but in Stockport, so I share the hon. Lady's problem.
It is a privilege to represent the constituency of Hazel Grove, which stretches from the centre of Stockport to the boundary of the Peak District national park. It has a number of small communities which were founded on water power and then on coal power. Some people are surprised to learn that until recently it also had a major steel works. The area has had to undergo a sometimes painful transformation from a series of small industrial towns to a commuter district for Greater Manchester.
Paradoxically, although my constituency includes a number of small towns and is called Hazel Grove, it does not include half of Hazel Grove. It contains Marple, Marple Bridge, Romiley, Woodley, Bredbury and part of Offerton, but only a small part of Hazel Grove, including the railway station. I therefore have the problem that not only do people outside the constituency not know where the Hazel Grove constituency is, but people in Hazel Grove do not know where it is either. They are all united, however, by their support for high-quality education.
Stockport borough council, on which I am privileged to serve, has a deservedly high reputation and is high in the league table of examination results at primary and secondary school level. One of the issues that I shall be putting to the House is that Stockport should receive extra funding for education and be the subject of a review by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in due course.
Hazel Grove is a commuter area, so a great deal of attention is focused on the problems of travel, public transport, road transport and rail links. Some of us have been campaigning for additional rail links to complete the rail network. I intend to focus on road schemes, the problems of public transport and the need to balance more effectively central Government investment in transport. Commuter areas also face environmental problems caused by air pollution, vibration and traffic noise. My constituency has one of the first fully automated air quality monitoring systems in the United Kingdom on the busy urban A6 that passes through Hazel Grove. The results of that monitoring, which have now been available for some six months, show scientifically what my constituents have known intuitively for some time—that air quality in the area is well below the standards set both by the United Kingdom and by the European Union.
My constituents also have concerns about the national health service. We have problems with the dermatology unit, on which I have been able to work with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey). There is a shortage of intensive care beds. Hon. Members may remember the tragic case of Nick Geldard, a young boy for whom an intensive care bed could not be found in the whole of Greater Manchester. He was driven by ambulance to Leeds, some 52 miles away, where he was declared dead on arrival.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) had to say about blocked hospital beds. I am happy to report that the issue does not face us in Stockport at the moment. However, we should bear it in mind that our social services department has had to take cuts of £4 million in this financial year and that one of the predicted outcomes of that was an increase in bed blocking simply because assessment procedures could not be carried out in time. Those cuts were brought about not because of the Liberal Democrat-led administration, nor as a result of the votes of the Labour opposition, and certainly not because of the votes of the two remaining Conservative councillors, but due to the reduction in central Government funding for social services in Stockport—a matter that I shall certainly wish to bring before the House in due course.
In making his maiden speech, the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) referred to development agencies and opportunities to boost employment. That is certainly a concern, and one that I shall wish to see supported. It is a matter of regret to me, however, that we have only a development agency and that there has not been a real transfer of power and decision making to democratically elected representatives in the north-west, which is what we believe is necessary.
I have outlined briefly some of the key concerns of the constituents who have sent me to the House to represent them: education, the problems of the NHS, and issues relating to public transport and employment. I hope that the House will not mind my mentioning briefly—so that the Leader of the House can hear—one of my concerns. Having entered the House as one of a greatly enlarged number of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament—in fact, more than 50 per cent. of the Liberal Democrat Members are new to the House in this Session—I should like to mention briefly one or two of the difficulties encountered by new hon. Members on both sides of the House in seeking to represent our constituents effectively.
I am happy to report that I now have a desk and an office, but I am not so happy to report that I cannot have a telephone for another week or 10 days. That is just one aspect of the way in which, in considering not just the impact of a new Government and a new Parliament but the effectiveness of democratically elected representatives entering the House, we can in future take more care and put in more preparation to ensure that Members are able to take up their duties promptly and effectively.
In representing Hazel Grove, I have the privilege of following two very distinguished predecessors. Dr. Michael Winstanley, a Liberal, represented the constituency briefly in 1974. He later became Lord Winstanley, and sadly died last year. From October 1974 onwards, the constituency was represented by Sir Tom Arnold, who gave twenty-two and a half years' service to the House. Courtesy of the Library, I discovered what he said in his maiden speech during a debate on the European Community in April 1975. He made a very strongly pro-European speech. Those who remember his later days, supporting an alternative Conservative leadership bid last summer, may be a little surprised to hear that. Things change—the teller for the Ayes at the end of that debate was Madam Speaker herself, while one of the more prominent Noes going through the Lobby was the present Deputy Prime Minister. We must therefore recognise that, in politics, things change over time.
Sadly, Sir Tom has been very seriously unwell over the past year and had to stand down before the election. It is a privilege to represent Hazel Grove. I hope very much to follow in the tracks of my two distinguished predecessors. I hope that I can show the care, compassion and persistence of Michael Winstanley and repeat the tenacity and length of service of Sir Tom.
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate during which there have been so many impressive maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has already dealt with the maiden speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I associate myself with the remarks that he made about those speeches, which were all very impressive. I should like to refer to the two fine maiden speeches made subsequently.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) represents an area not too far away from North-East Derbyshire. He mentioned that the Peak district is on the boundaries of his constituency. The Peak district extends a short distance into north-east Derbyshire, too. It is a beautiful area in which we both have considerable interest. He stressed environmental concerns. The environment in the area is very attractive, yet he identified environmental problems in his constituency, as I certainly do in mine. Although I was politically active in my constituency when I was first a candidate and then its Member of Parliament, I was surprised to discover the depth of environmental problems that were impressed on me. I have always played a very active role in such matters, so the hon. Gentleman and I may well find ourselves with various common interests.
The House always takes well to kind remarks made about predecessors such as the immediate predecessor of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, Sir Tom Arnold, especially when hon. Members realise that the remarks are genuine and not merely a form of words.
I must also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) on her maiden speech. It is quite appropriate for me to compliment her since I am a fellow Derbyshire Member of Parliament. The kind words that she said about Angela Knight are appreciated. No one more than myself would argue and dispute many of the positions and lines that Angela Knight took. We all recognise that Angela Knight was a serious hon. Member representing serious interests on behalf of her constituents.
The interests of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash and I directly linked on environmental matters when she referred to Stanton plc. I have a Stanton plc unit in my constituency. We have had problems with dioxin in the area, which was traced to the Stanton unit. Investigations in the Erewash area revealed similar problems. The problems were tackled, which shows that serious investigations into environmental matters enable us to discover what action is needed to correct such problems. They were corrected in both cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash also mentioned her experience in education. We have serious concerns about education in Derbyshire. In North-East Derbyshire, we have 45 primary schools, 41 of which—four small village schools apart—have a problem with class sizes. Those schools have classes of more than 30 pupils, and some have 40, 42 and 44. Therefore, Labour's commitment to tackling class sizes is very important. The other key to tackling education problems in Derbyshire is the future of the standard spending assessment and its calculation. Both my hon. Friend and myself are greatly concerned about that, and I am sure that we will unite to press the Government to correct the formula for Derbyshire.
All the maiden speeches have been fine speeches. In debates with short speeches, most hon. Members do not usually pay attention to what others are saying because they are waiting to say their own bit and get away. On this occasion, some fine maiden speeches have grabbed the attention of established hon. Members. Many of us feel that we need to look to our laurels with so much talent around and displayed in those speeches.
I wish to speak on a matter that I raised at the end of the previous Parliament, and I wish to continue to press the issue. Electoral registration involves a massive shortfall and we need a new, up-to-date system. On that issue, I am a Labour party moderniser, although some might dispute that title in connection with some of my other ideas. If we had had a modern electoral registration system for the election, many of those enfranchised would have been more likely to vote for Labour than for the previous Government. Our victory at the election would have been even more astounding if we had had an effective electoral register.
I was disappointed that it took so long to get hold of the figures for the numbers registered in each constituency at the end of the last Parliament. That information was provided only the day before the Parliament ended and I sought an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20, because the figures were as bad as in previous years. The problems that I had highlighted in the House on many occasions still existed.
People may think that the urgency has gone from the issue because the election has passed, but it is still important, not least because of the debate that we will have this afternoon. If we are to have referendums for Scotland and Wales, we should ensure full registration. If, as some people suggest, thresholds are to apply to the referendums, the percentages should take account of the fact that the registers contain many redundant names.
The new Government need to clarify their position. The 1993 Plant report, which was presented to the Labour party, argued for a modern, rolling electoral register. I have explained the principle behind a rolling register to the House on previous occasions and, when we were in opposition, my colleagues on the Front Bench made some commitments to that idea. However, the rolling register and modern electoral registration techniques were not part of the "Road to the Manifesto" and were not in our actual manifesto. I was disappointed that those ideas were not discussed in the constitutional talks that were held with the Liberal Democract party before the election. I was also disappointed that the Liberal Democract party did not press the issue, because it had given solid support to my proposals for a rolling register.
I hope that we can now begin to prepare the ground for a new electoral registration system. I have often argued that 3 million to 4 million people are missing from the electoral register. We now need some investigation and research to check out that claim. I hope that the Home Office will undertake a thorough investigation of the arrangements for the general election, including registration. I would like the Home Affairs Select Committee, when it is appointed, to instigate a report to investigate the issue.
In 1991, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys produced a report which has been very useful to me in my arguments about the numbers missing from registers. I hope that the Office for National Statistics will now update the work that was done in 1991.
I have asked Members, through The House Magazine, for any information that they have from canvassing returns that shows how many people on the registers have died or moved, how many are not registered and whether any other problems were discovered. I will deal with the information in confidence if necessary because I am interested only in the global figures. That evidence could form part of the investigations by the Home Office and the Home Affairs Select Committee.
I am convinced that the evidence will show the need for a rolling electoral register that puts people on the register when they move into an area and deletes their names when they are no longer there. It is nonsense that people who have died are left on electoral registers. Unless we take great care, we send electoral communications—even special postal shots on specific issues—to people who have died. However, councils receive regular weekly information from the registrars of births, deaths and marriages so that people can be excluded from council tax and housing benefit. The changes could also be made to electoral registers, if we kept rolling registers.
We also need to begin to register homeless people. The legal definition of who can be included on a register is a problem because people must be residents. Residents have to have a residence and, by definition, a homeless person does not have a residence. Homeless people should be included on registers even if they have to use accommodation addresses, hostels, benefit offices or other places as their residence. The Home Office could make a difference by issuing an early circular to returning officers to make a liberal interpretation of the current law, but the wording of the law will need changing in the future.
My hon. Friend intends to increase opportunities to register, but does he agree with the proposition that no one should be forced to register? If he does, we have a problem in defining how many people are missing from the register. Those who do not wish to be registered are still counted in the some 4 million who are unregistered. Is there any way to distinguish between those who are not on the register through lack of opportunity or being thwarted by the system and those who do not wish to register?
I want to do everything possible to give people the opportunity to register. Information about people moving could be made available to returning officers and requests to be registered could be fulfilled. As the law stands, a person can be fined £1,000 for failing to register. The offence is dealt with fairly leniently; I do not remember the last case in which a charge was brought—and I would not encourage that to happen. On the other hand, the fact that the provision remains may provide an extra pressure towards ensuring that people register.
Certainly there should be plenty of imaginative publicity about the need to register, and the importance of registration. People cannot even exercise an abstention, or show their abhorrence of politics in general, if they do not register, so as to show that they are among the genuine people who have not voted on a particular occasion.
The other electoral matter that needs tackling is access to polling stations for disabled people. I hope that that, too, will be taken up during the investigations. Scope and other bodies have produced valuable information about that problem. When I raised the subject during business questions, the Leader of the House pointed out some problems caused by the size of the ballot paper. In North-East Derbyshire the names on the ballot paper for the parliamentary election were in very small print, and it would have been problematic for a partially sighted person to read them.
Action must be taken. I have presented to the House many measures, such as ten-minute Bills and other private Members' Bills, both on the rolling register and on access to polling stations, although not yet on provisions for the homeless. I hope that the Government will give such matters serious consideration, so that by the next general election all the problems will have been resolved.
It is a great honour and privilege to be making my maiden speech, and to be following a parliamentarian of such distinction as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). He invited the Liberal Democrat party to support his views on registration, and although it would probably be inappropriate for me, as a new Member, to commit my party to that view, personally I saw a great deal of sense in what he said. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman made, and will wish to pursue them.
I represent the people of Somerton and Frome, a constituency that forms a large part of Somerset, stretching from the northernmost tip, at Norton St. Philip, just outside Bath, to Beercrocombe, just outside Taunton, at the other end. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mark Robinson, who served his constituents as an assiduous Member of Parliament, supporting them in dealing with their personal problems and doing all that he could to help them.
Mark Robinson also demonstrated over many years a genuine commitment to overseas development. He was parliamentary private secretary to Lady Chalker for many years, and although his commitment to the cause was not always reciprocated by his Front-Bench colleagues, it was notable and praiseworthy.
I also offer my sympathy to my predecessor and his wife in that we had such a tight vote in my constituency; the majority was 130. No human being should have to go through three counts. Whether one wins or loses, it is a tiresome occasion, and one is pleased to come out at the other end.
Historically, Somerset is a radical county. Some have described it as a county of revolting peasants, but that is a calumny. None the less, we have a tradition of independent thought and nonconformity, and of questioning the establishment wherever that may be, especially when it resides in the home counties.
We demonstrated those characteristics in no small degree in 1685, in Monmouth's rebellion, the last major rebellion on English soil. Many people in Somerset, myself included, are the direct descendants of rebels who took part in that rising.
Nowadays Somerset is a rather more peaceful place. Somebody once described it as characterised by cheese and churches, cider and smugness. I do not disavow the first three, but as for smugness, if we are smug it is simply because we have so much to be smug about in the beauty of the western counties.
I could indulge in a travelogue about the constituency, but that would take a long time because it is so large. Moreover, the names of many of the villages that I would encompass would be unintelligible to the Hansard reporters. Kingsbury Episcopi, Isle Abbotts, Charlton Horethorne and Wyke Champflower are all lovely villages, and I could go on at length about their merits.
However, suffice it to say that the constituency that I represent has an interesting history, because of the many events that have taken place there. It also has an industrial history. For instance, it is a coal-mining constituency. Labour Members may not readily recognise that fact, but Somerton and Frome was a coal-mining constituency until 30 or 40 years ago, when the mines were closed.
Frome, the major town in the constituency, was a wool town, much despised by a former parliamentarian, William Cobbett, as the "Manchester of the south". Wool was a significant trade there in its time.
My constituency also once contained many islands, although now the levels have largely been drained, and one can get from island to island while staying relatively dry. However, once one had to take a boat, and there are still times when the Somerset levels revert to their previous condition and become the great mere of Somerset again.
Current industries range from quarrying—something that we have in common with the Derbyshire Members who have spoken this morning—to agriculture, and to the high-tech defence-related industries in some parts of the constituency. There is an enormous diversity of approach across the area.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) made his maiden speech the other day, he told us much about the merits of the city of Colchester, but as he sat down he said, sotto voce, that he had omitted to mention Queen Boadicea. Let me mention her now, because hon. Members will know that there is a statue of Boadicea, or Boudicca, on Westminster bridge. That statue was cast in Frome, and is a lasting mark here in Westminster of my constituency.
Over the centuries there has been a Liberal tradition in my part of Somerset. I am certainly not the first Liberal to represent at least part of the present constituency of Somerton and Frome. Indeed, there was a famous by-election victory in 1910, when Lloyd George spoke in the Wesley chapel in support of the candidate, who went on to win and take part in the great reforming Government of the early years of this century. Let us hope that that Government, and the 1946 Government, which many will remember, will not be the last reforming Governments in this century.
Thomas Hughes was once the Liberal Member of Parliament for Frome. He is famous for having written "Tom Brown's Schooldays", but he went on to become one of the founding members of the Co-operative movement, and so forms part of that radical tradition that informs west country politics.
New Members will all have listened with great interest to the debate on the Gracious Speech. As we demonstrated during that debate, there is much in the speech that Liberal Democrats can commend. But there are also gaps, which we shall seek to fill as the Parliament continues. For my constituents, one of the great tests will be not the intention—the intention is demonstrably good—but the outcome. We want to see whether the measures will actually make a difference for the people whom we represent.
Let me illustrate a few of the areas in which we shall make that test. The first, which has already been mentioned many times, is education. I am a former chairman of the Somerset education committee, and I do not believe that Somerset schoolchildren have been given a fair deal over recent years. This year's county council budget8—set a few months ago—is the first for eight years without a real-terms cut in school funding. The reason for that is that Somerset was one of those rare authorities that felt unable to meet the demands of the capping regime of the previous Government. Here is an early test of the new Government's commitment to education. Will they impose a Conservative cap that will result in 90 teachers being sacked in Somerset?
Somerset is not an extravagant authority—historically, it is a low-spending authority—and it can demonstrate beyond peradventure the efficiency and effectiveness of its education service. Its education service boasts the lowest administrative costs of any authority in the country, and it delegates more money to its schools than practically any other authority. It has the lowest number of surplus places in its primary schools of any county in England, and it tops up the Government's standard spending assessment by taking money from other areas in the council's work—for example, road repairs, some of which are badly needed—to a greater extent than any other county authority. That will be a test of whether the Government are committed to "education, education and education" and whether the money that they intend to release from the assisted places scheme will make any difference in a county such as Somerset, which is already so near the bone as far as education expenditure is concerned.
We will be looking for capital expenditure. Somerset maintains 267 schools, but last year was permitted to spend only £2 million on their upkeep. What commercial business would dream of running an estate of that size with that amount of capital reinvestment? It is a nonsense in education and business terms.
Let me move to the police. I served for a time as chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority, and I remember regular visits to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary. I do not know whether he was engaged in "semantic prestidigitation" at the time, but whenever we asked for 100 extra officers—the minimum the chief constable required to police the rural areas of Somerset properly—the answer was no one year, the next year and the third year. Again, this will be a test for the new Government. Will there be more police officers on the streets of Somerset as a result of the change in Government, or will their rhetoric mean nothing?
The third test will be the environment, which was strangely absent from the Gracious Speech. Why was that? Is it no longer to be a priority? If so, we Liberal Democrats will have a great deal to say about that. One environmental test will be the Government's housing allocations and whether they wish to see the continuation of the proposed suburbanisation of Somerset. I have the greatest regard for my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and his constituency, but Surbiton and Somerset are different places and we do not want to see Surbiton replicated in our rural county.
Finally, I refer to the health service. We shall be looking for an NHS dentistry service. There is no longer such a service in Frome, as we have lost the last dentist offering NHS treatment. Will the service be restored? I am an optician by training, although I am not practising. Will free eye tests—a single preventive measure that would make a real difference to the health of a great number of people—return? Incidentally, free eye tests would save the health service a great deal of money in the long term by preventing diseases such as glaucoma by catching them early, rather than in their operative stages. Will we see a commitment to local hospitals—such as those in Wincanton which are currently under threat—and to acute services?
In a maiden speech, it is nice to be able to range over a wider area than is normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown)—my constituency neighbour—has, for my sins, asked me to speak on Europe in the next few months. When I do so, I shall be arguing for a radical reform of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, and for the informed consent of the peoples of Europe to any changes resulting from the Amsterdam summit. I shall argue for a genuine commitment to subsidiarity at all levels—European, national and local—and for greater accountability within the structures of Europe, but that will wait for another day.
Suffice it to say today that I am proud to represent my constituents in Somerset. I am a Somerset man, and I will unashamedly support the interests of the people of Somerset in this House. I look forward to an interesting time over the next few years in the hope that the great expectations raised by the election are not disappointed by the performance of the Government in attempting to realise their intentions.
May I start by paying tribute to the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who reminded me of a previous Liberal Member of this House, Clement Freud? We could perhaps adopt the hon. Gentleman as a Lancashire man because of the similarities between his constituency and mine. I did not know about those similarities before he made his maiden speech, but they are amazing—the Co-operative movement, wool and cotton provide a bond between us, although not a party political one.
I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who referred to electoral registration and access for disabled people to democracy. Those two issues came up time and again during the general election campaign and, as a new hon. Member, I will be looking forward to the Government taking a keen interest in them. Although we had a wonderful turnout in Rochdale among young people and first-time voters, it is clear that much work has still to be done on the issue of electoral registration.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire also referred to the sincerity of tributes. I should like to talk about three previous Members for my constituency, as they are the three who have represented me since I was born and brought up in the Rochdale constituency—Liz Lynne, Sir Cyril Smith and Jack McCann. First, I should like to pay a sincere tribute to Liz Lynne. Although she was not Rochdale born and bred, she showed in her five years as our Member of Parliament that one could have an impact nationally and locally as a new Member of Parliament. Liz did a lot of pioneering work, especially on one of her dear subjects—disabled people. I hope to continue locally and nationally the good work that Liz did in that area, and in many others. Many people felt fondly about Liz, and I wish her well.
There is a joke in Rochdale—a polite one of course—that any public occasion to which I am invited with Sir Cyril Smith is a bit like "The Little and Large Show". I know that it is meant with great affection for Sir Cyril, who is an incredible act to follow. There are many ex-Members of Parliament, but Sir Cyril has a place in the history books and an honoured place in the history of Rochdale. The reason he was successful—bar party politics in Rochdale—was that he was a man of the people. Some criticised him for staying in Rochdale, but it meant that there were not many there whom he did not help in his 20-year career. If, in my time as a Member of Parliament, I can help as many people as Sir Cyril did, I will feel that I have done the job that the people of Rochdale sent me here to do.
A quarter of a century on, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the debt of thanks that I should pay to the last Labour Member of Parliament for Rochdale, the late Jack McCann. Although Jack was the first Member of Parliament for my constituency I knew—I am fibbing really as I was a tad too young really to have known him—I got a full picture of Jack McCann the man and the politician on the doorsteps. Lots of Rochdalians—generally older people—truly remembered the man and felt proud to have known him. They loved him—they loved his honesty and felt that he truly worked for Rochdale. That is what I hope to continue.
Rochdale has a proud tradition of what I would call quirky characters as its Members of Parliament and I hope to follow in that tradition in some way—although I am only 5 ft tall, I do not need a microphone. One of the most moving occasions during the election campaign was just before my adoption meeting, when I received a telephone call at our campaign headquarters. I was asked, in an agile voice, "Can I speak to Lorna Fitzsimons please?" The caller introduced herself as Alice McCann, Jack McCann's wife. She was bright as a button at the age of 83 and raring to go, asking, "When can I come and help? We've got to make sure we return a Labour MP this time. Twenty-five years on, it's about time." She painted the most beautiful picture of Rochdale when Jack won his by-election. She said that it was amazing; it was two weeks after the Munich air disaster. One can imagine what it was like in Rochdale. God bless Rochdale football club, but the majority of people actually support the Reds. The tone in the town and the country was very sombre and we were knee deep in snow in one of the worst winters, but the atmosphere after the by-election was electric with hope and optimism—the real attitude that Rochdale and true Rochdalians embody. That is what brought home to me the character and spirit of Rochdale.
I have the greatest pride in representing my home town. Under the new boundary changes, my village of Wardle and that of Littleborough have been brought into the constituency. Being able to say that I was born in a local hospital, Birch Hill, went to one of the new local schools—Wardle high school—and then worked in the constituency gives me a great heritage and an advantage in understanding the needs of the constituency.
Rochdale has a rich tapestry, whether in textiles, in which I am proud to be a skilled labourer—I did a degree in textiles and followed in my father's footsteps as he worked in the mills—or in brass bands. A little-known fact about me is that I am a secret horn player, or was when I was at school. I am proud to say that at the car boot sales in Rochdale there are one or two copies of the LP to which my name is attached. There is also the attitude of the people. They have warm, open hearts and they are honest. We might be a bit blunt now and again, but we are honest, warm and welcoming. The people are vibrant and colourful.
At the heart of the town—in the centre—we have a huge Asian population. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) mentioned the curry mile in his opening speech on the Loyal Address; we have our own curry street in my constituency. Asian small businesses are at the heart of rebuilding Rochdale.
Rochdale has many expectations of this Government, and quite rightly. In the past 18 years, it has paid the price for the lack of investment, especially in our manufacturing base and our young people. The textile industry has been decimated. There is now a new drive, with a new Member of Parliament, a new leader of the council and a new team forming to put Rochdale back on the map where it should be, right at the heart of the economic and industrial revolution. I want to be known as the person who helped Rochdale to be the economic gateway to our liberation.
The other travesty of the past 18 years that Rochdale has had to witness is youth unemployment. The people of Rochdale are talented and hard working but, sadly, they have not had the opportunities—especially the under-25s—that they should have had. As a new constituency Member of Parliament, one of the big challenges for me is to provide opportunities through the much needed welfare-to-work programme outlined in the Gracious Speech. I will be working with my colleagues to ensure that all the needy young people in Rochdale get a chance at a real job or training opportunity to change the cycle of despair. On some of our estates—the Kirkholt estate, to name one—there is now much hope.
Everyone might think that The Sun or Alastair Campbell coined the phrase, "The Blair babes". Rochdale would like to think that it got there first, because we have a group of women called the Brimrod babes. They do not know that I am mentioning them in my maiden speech. Much has been made of the number of women Members in this new Parliament. I want to pay tribute to my Brimrod babes—the women who live on one cul-de-sac on a council estate. They are grandmothers, mothers and daughters—three generations—who have never had any formal education, by which I mean further or higher education, or been involved in politics. They were captivated. I do not know what happened precisely to their awareness, but watching my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the run-up to the general election, they decided to get active. They taught me many lessons about not presuming things about people. They liberated themselves and they helped me to get elected. I would take anyone who is in any doubt about the importance of this Parliament to their cul-de-sac and their homes. The way in which they have learnt that they can change their own lives and that we can help them is amazing. If, in my time as Member of Parliament for Rochdale, I can show the courage that they have shown to overcome their inhibitions and lack of confidence and get involved, I will be proud of what I have done.
Rochdale has a lot to offer economically, socially and culturally, such as in helping and guiding our quest to ensure that everyone in the world has access to human rights. Hon. Members who know that we have a large Pakistani community will understand the importance of Kashmir to the people of Rochdale. Our history is one of wide openness and of welcoming people of all races, creeds, countries and colours to Rochdale. That means not only that charity starts at home, but that we must remember that we cannot settle unless our sisters and brothers in Kashmir and elsewhere have access to democracy and human rights. The commitment to human rights made by my right hon. Friend the new Foreign Secretary and in the Gracious Speech was welcome to my constituents.
The other welcome commitment in the Gracious Speech concerned health. Like many other constituencies, Rochdale has a health care crisis. It is a crisis not in terms of bed blocking, but in that we have a mortality rate 10 per cent. above the national average. That is a travesty. The people of Rochdale, therefore, welcome the new Government's commitment to health care. For the first time, there is a Minister with responsibility for health in the community, who can tackle some of the problems that are causing deaths in Rochdale.
The crisis is such that we desperately need the private finance initiative to work. The people of Rochdale need accessible health care, and one of the most exercising points of the campaign in the past six months and beyond was the future of Rochdale hospital. I shall work alongside the new Front-Bench team and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the private finance initiative works.
Because of the way in which the country has been run over the past 18 years, there is not enough money in the public purse to make the investment that we know is needed in our health service. The people of Rochdale have journeyed to the practical conclusion that they therefore need a successful partnership with the private sector; that has not been easy for some of them, but they have been courageous and know that all solutions must be considered. I hope that in this Parliament I can show the same ingenuity in seeking solutions to problems in my constituency and further afield.
I pay tribute to the people of Rochdale who voted for me as one of the younger new Members of Parliament, proving that young people have a voice right at the heart of Government and can effect change. If I can in any way emulate the history of those people who have worked in Rochdale for a better Britain, I shall truly have been a good parliamentarian.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak so early in this Parliament; with so many new Members coming in at the general election, I had visions, or perhaps nightmares, of making my maiden speech some time around Christmas, so I am delighted to get in.
It is an honour to serve in the House, with the tradition and history that it oozes—I thank first the members of the Jarrow Labour party who nominated me and the constituents who voted me into this splendid House to represent their interests—but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take on board some changes that could be made to improve its functioning. I draw attention to the voting system in particular. I read recently about schools being failed after a visit from a group of inspectors; if that group studied our voting system, we would certainly be failed automatically. That should be considered, but I leave it in the hands of the Leader of the House.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Don Dixon. I am in a good position to do that, as I am a good friend of his and have known him for many years. Many hon. Members will know Don; he certainly stamped his authority on the House in his role as Opposition Deputy Chief Whip. He came from a traditional, humble background in Jarrow. He had a basic education; worked in a shipyard; came up through trade union politics; became leader of Jarrow council; and was elected to Tyneside council, transforming the whole of south Tyneside with his vision of council housing. He was then elected to the House in 1979, and served it well.
The great thing about Don was that he set great store by loyalty; he has shown loyalty to all those who know him, to the Labour party and, as I know for a fact, to the House. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties respect the job that he did, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for recommending his early elevation to the House of Lords; we in Jarrow see that as a tribute to Don, and we take it as a tribute to the people of Jarrow.
It is customary for new Members to speak about the constituency for which they have been elected. Once again, I am in a fairly good position, as I was born, bred and educated in Jarrow and know the town very well, but the constituency contains not only the town of Jarrow but the town of Hebburn; the villages of Boldon, Cleadon and Whitburn; and the new ward of Wrekendyke, which was transferred in the recent boundary changes.
My constituency is, of course, very famous in Labour history. It was built over the past century on a heavy industrial base on the Tyne. Sadly, that base declined through the 1980s. The last coalfield in Jarrow has closed, as have the steel industry and most of the shipping industry. With those closures, I am sad to say, many good, hard-working, decent people were discarded and told, "We no longer need your services, thank you very much." That is and always will be a tragedy and a message about what happened in the 1980s.
If there is one message that I would like to get across in this maiden speech, it is the need for jobs in Jarrow. It is very sad that, last Monday, yet another Jarrow march set off, this time on the way to Europe, nearly 61 years after the first Jarrow march, when Ellen Wilkinson and 200 men from Jarrow walked to London in the search for jobs.
At the meeting to see the marchers setting off for Europe on Monday, I expressed the hope that it would be the last march to have to leave Jarrow in search of jobs. Remember that the marchers who left on Monday left with exactly the same principles as those who left in 1936: they were after not handouts or charity, but real jobs, because unemployment affects people as individuals; it affects families; and, if there is mass unemployment, as there is in the north and in Jarrow in particular, it affects the town. It is no wonder that there are social divisions throughout the country.
It has sometimes annoyed me over the past decade or so—I hope that Ministers will take this on board—that unemployment is spoken of in percentages, with this per cent. in Jarrow, that per cent. in Liverpool and so on. Percentages are no good, because an unemployed individual is 100 per cent. unemployed. It is important to remember that.
Old habits die hard: I was reading Ellen Wilkinson's book, "The Town That Was Murdered", and found some interesting parallels between the 1930s and the 1980s. For example, she said that in the mid-1930s unemployment in Jarrow was about 70 per cent., while in the neighbouring town of Hebburn it was lower, so the Government decided to merge the figures and came up with a figure of 35 per cent.: they cut unemployment overnight. There is an interesting parallel with the 30 changes in the way in which the figures have been calculated.
Ellen Wilkinson also provided some interesting parallels concerning youth unemployment, which was rife then as now in Jarrow, and about people being thrown on the scrap heap at 40 and left to go stale and vegetate at home, wasting all the skills and promise that they showed in early life.
As Member of Parliament for Jarrow, I want to press the claim for jobs, which I consider to be imperative. That is why I welcome the Government's jobs package to get 250,000 youngsters nationally from welfare into work and to give the long-term unemployed the chance to get back into work, financed by a windfall tax on the privatised utilities.
Of course, we would be kidding everybody if we said we could build utopia overnight, but we must remember that the Labour party's pledges are a commitment and an indication of our priorities. The unemployed are of central importance to our programme. We are making a start, and I am sure that we will do more over the coming Parliament.
It is not as though the people of Jarrow and the surrounding area were lying back through the 1980s. Both councils in my constituency, South Tyneside and Gateshead, have been working actively with the private sector to try to generate jobs in the area. In particular, South Tyneside, which covers most of my constituency, has drawn up many innovative schemes to try to rejuvenate the area, in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors through an organisation called STEP, the South Tyneside Enterprise Partnership. Schemes include extension of the metro, provision of a second Tyne tunnel through a private finance initiative project, and preparation of green-field sites for industry.
I make no bones about the fact that I will press the Government on jobs for my area. I hope that we will get positive, urgent decisions on matters such as the second Tyne tunnel and STEP's single regeneration budget bid, which covers Jarrow and Hebburn. We need early decisions because those matters are vital for the area. There is much hope in my constituency. I make no apology for pressing the case for jobs in Jarrow, as other hon. Members will for their constituencies. I will often repeat the same message. I hope that we will be able to deliver for the people of Jarrow.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons), for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), among others, on making their maiden speeches.
I am the first ever Labour Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. Against all the odds, we won the seat, but we also won the argument. It was Labour, not the Liberal Democrats, who fought the Conservatives. It will be like that for ever more. We shall continue to win because people will back new Labour as they need a good, hard-working constituency Member of Parliament and a good new Labour Government.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Derek Conway, who gave the constituency great public service for 14 years. I pay tribute also to his predecessor, Sir John Langford-Holt, who was held in great affection and high regard for 38 years before Mr. Conway. As I am only the third Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham since the war, I trust that the precedent for such longevity of service will continue. I pledge that I will fight for the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham with great heart and vigour.
I thank the Palace of Westminster staff, who have been so kind and helpful not only to me but to other new Members. They have set a standard in friendliness and in always being able to help us out. I also thank the voters who voted for me and my campaign team, who worked so tirelessly. I must thank my wife, Shelly, and my son, Alexander, who sacrificed much family life so that I could be here. I ask the powers that be to spell my wife's name correctly. I do not want to incur her wrath; in a choice between her wrath and the wrath of the Whips, give me the Whips' wrath any time. To those who warn that I would not want to incur the wrath of the Whips, I say, "You don't know my wife."
Last week, I brought my son, who is only 18 months old, to the Commons. One problem was that I had to explain that the television sets around the House cannot yet be tuned to Postman Pat or the Teletubbies. However, I might push the Finance and Services Committee to consider the possibility. My other problem was that my son is so young that he did not know the ways of this great Palace. When he could not get his own way, he decided to lie prostrate in the corridors of power, kicking and screaming. I was a little embarrassed until I found that that was not too unusual in the Commons.
To echo other maiden speeches, I hope that the House will become more family-friendly. I know that great strides have already been made but, as a father, I shall support measures to make it more user-friendly to families.
It is a great honour to serve the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham. The constituency's history goes back thousands of years. The village of Wroxeter, which is near Shrewsbury, was a Roman city—in its heyday, the fourth largest in Britain. Acton Burnell, another small village near Shrewsbury, held the third Parliament of Edward I.
Some might disagree, but I truly believe that Shrewsbury is delightful—the finest town in England. It is dominated by its 15th-century black and white Tudor housing and narrow cobbled streets. It is the birthplace of Charles Darwin. The surrounding villages account for my constituency's name. Atcham represents the quarter of its voters who live in rural areas. It is some of the most beautiful countryside to be seen. Hon. Members may recall that we have an annual flower show. I do not want to cause a dispute with the Minister for sport, but it can hold its own with any in the country.
Shrewsbury does not rely only on the past. It has a great future. It has a thriving business community with great plans for expansion. I trust that I can play a part in bringing more investment to the town and surrounding areas. I hope that our Challenge 2000 bid to try to create a new business venture in the north of Shrewsbury, which will bring up to 2,500 much needed jobs to the town, will be successful. Youth unemployment is especially bad in some deprived areas of Shrewsbury. People may say, "What deprived areas in Shrewsbury?" However, there are such areas. Many towns and villages around Britain have, like some parts of Shrewsbury, suffered over the past 18 years. I hope that our pledge to put 250,000 youngsters back to work or into training will help up to 200 young people in the Shrewsbury area. I shall work in partnership with councils, businesses, the voluntary sector or whoever else to help to bring more jobs to Shrewsbury.
I mentioned the Acton Burnell Parliament of 1283, the main purpose of which was to provide for the recovery of debts. I welcome the measure in the Gracious Speech that will ensure that, at long last, large companies pay their debts on time. Small businesses have suffered much: one has gone out of business every three minutes since 1992. We need to help them quickly. Those entrepreneurs will help us to forge ahead and create more jobs.
The new Labour Government have set a new direction and offer new politics for Britain. For business circles, one of the Government's main attributes will be the creation of private-public partnerships and agreements. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale. The public purse cannot fund everything in future. We must take the social conscience of the public sector and work with the dynamic, efficient private sector to come together as one to provide the services that the country needs.
On business, I look forward to the information technology opportunities that lie ahead, especially for rural areas. Many young people in rural areas in my constituency could work from home, the village hall or a communal area using information technology.
It was a great travesty to see Shrewsbury Town football club relegated last season. Of course, that occurred under my predecessor, so I look forward to the football club rightly being promoted in the coming seasons so that it can become a centre for the town.
Farming is of key importance in my constituency and farmers there have been devastated by BSE. The handling of the BSE crisis was terrible and I welcome the Foreign Secretary's pledge to work with Europe and to be at the centre of Europe in order to ensure the lifting of the beef ban as quickly as possible. I cannot stress enough how hard the crisis has hit some of those beef farmers, especially those on small farms. They have had to endure not just the financial hardship but the mental stress that has been inflicted on themselves and their families. I trust that things will improve quickly.
We need a reform of the common agricultural policy and it must be linked to enhancing the environment. We must ensure that in future we do not pay farmers to do nothing with set-aside. We should ask them and pay them to enhance the environment.
I should like to say a quick word about our terrific hospital, the Royal Shrewsbury. It has had to undergo incredible hardship and cuts over the past 18 years and I pay tribute to all the staff, the doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and consultants, who have worked so hard to provide such an excellent service in spite of financial difficulties.
I want to extend a warm invitation to any hon. Member to come to Shrewsbury to taste the delights of such a wonderful area and take in the beautiful countryside.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) on his maiden speech and on being the first Labour Member for that constituency. I want to begin with a denial—I am not 27. It came as a great shock to me to see in The Observer after my election that I was down as one of the new young intake. It has never been more true that one should not believe all one reads in the newspapers, even the quality ones.
It is a great privilege to be elected to represent the constituency of Bolton, South-East, which comprises parts of the old Bolton borough along with villages such as Little Lever and Kearsley and the former mining community of Farnworth. It is a mixed rural and urban community with a large Muslim population.
We made history on 1 May by returning for the first time three Labour Members representing the great town of Bolton. We have a Labour Member of the European Parliament and we have a substantial Labour council. Together, we shall put great pressure on the shakers and movers in this place to bring benefits to the people of my constituency and the rest of Bolton.
Burnden park, the former home of Bolton Wanderers football club, is in my constituency. I say "former" because that great football team is on the move—it is going up to the premier division following an extremely successful season and is moving to a new stadium at Horwich, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly). Before that great football team leaves my constituency, I want to place on record my congratulations on its past success and my best wishes for its future success.
The former member for my constituency was David Young, a Scotsman born in Greenock. He became a teacher in the midlands before entering Parliament in 1974 as the Member for the Bolton, East constituency. I helped David fight that 1974 election, so I have known him for a long time, and I was his constituency chairman twice. From 1977 to 1979, David served as the parliamentary private secretary to the then Secretary of State for Defence, Fred Mulley. As hon. Members will know, David had a keen interest in foreign affairs and was well travelled. He was an excellent constituency member and was in touch with all the electorate of Bolton, South-East, including the large Muslim community.
Bolton has suffered badly over the past two decades. Its textile and engineering industries have been decimated, with the loss of thousands of jobs. The miners have all lost their jobs and there is no longer a single pit left in the north-west following the recent closure of Parkside colliery. However, because of the robust nature of Boltonians and a keen interest by the local authority in creating new jobs, Bolton has picked itself up and adopted new skills.
I encourage anyone who has not visited this great town to do so. Outside Manchester it has one of the finest shopping centres in the north-west and our markets are a tourist attraction. It has a strong cultural tradition, with several fine museums, including the Hall-ith-Wood museum where Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule. Arkwright also worked in the town. They were the pioneers of the industrial revolution. More recently, Sir Harry Kroto, educated at Bolton school, won the Nobel prize for chemistry. As a fellow chemist, I should like to add my congratulations to him. I should also mention Susan Isaacs, who was one of the pioneers of nursery education. I am pleased to learn that the Government have a keen interest in promoting such education. It has been revealed in the past few days in the Bolton Evening News that even my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a family tree that goes back to relatives in our town.
Two things propelled me to seek election to this place. First, as a chemist, about once a month for the past 29 years I have travelled Europe and visited nearly every university and polytechnic in the land presenting a show called "The Magic of Chemistry". It is an attempt to communicate science to the general public. One of my interests at Westminster will be to promote a public understanding of science. I am still a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and will remain so. I take a keen interest in the teaching of chemistry and in the chemical industry.
I have been a member of Bolton council for almost 20 years and served for 10 years as its chairman of housing. That is my greatest interest, and I shall be following up housing issues in the House. The housing committee in Bolton has been extremely innovative and there are some examples that we should promote for the rest of the country.
We began a dispute service between neighbours, called the Bolton neighbourhood dispute service. It is run by a superb organiser, Sue Parry, and employs 42 volunteers to mediate between neighbours who often have not spoken to each other for several years. I am pleased to say that the success rate for cases referred to it is over 80 per cent. We were the first local authority in the land to start such a mediation service and it is now being modelled by authorities throughout the north and, I hope, soon, throughout the country. I shall be promoting such services for other local authorities.
That service recently expanded into something else, which is extremely novel. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of the problem of bullying in schools. In Bolton, we are now training young people to mediate to solve the problem of bullying, and I commend such a service to other hon. Members for their areas.
When I was chairman of housing, I hit several problems, one of which was a rapidly escalating housing waiting list. It had been about 5,000, but suddenly it started to escalate and reached a peak at 8,000. I felt that I had to do something about it, so one day I walked into the office of the director of housing and said to Mr. George Caswell, "I want a partnership between this council, the Housing Corporation and some of the leading housing associations in the town." I have to pay tribute to Mr. Caswell, because within six months he had created an organisation called Bolton Community Homes Ltd., which has been one of the finest examples of partnership in housing across the land.
In approximately three years, we delivered 1,700 homes to cure the problem of the escalating waiting list. We did not build just ordinary homes for ordinary people. We built specialised homes for the disabled and other people with special problems. Indeed, the architects went to the very people who were to live in those homes—especially disabled people—and asked them what facilities they would like, and where they should be situated in the house. In other words, the people themselves helped the architects to design homes for them to live in. I recommend that approach to other people.
The old cotton towns of the north have a serious problem. They have row upon row of old, terraced houses well over 120 years old, the fabric of which is crumbling. That is the towns' biggest problem. I shall be pressing the Minister of State, Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), who has responsibility for housing—very hard on the matter. We have 23,000 unfit homes in Bolton. The environmental health officers consider that about 5,000 to 6,000 of them are irredeemably unfit and should be knocked down—and this is 1997.
Since 1979, we have lost more than 70 per cent. of our housing funding and we have not been able to tackle the substantial problems as we wanted. The Conservative Government reduced the grant for private sector improvements from a high level of 95 per cent. in 1979 to a low level of 60 per cent., where it remains today. That means that local councils have to borrow 40 per cent. of the money needed to improve private sector homes, and that is while their total expenditure is capped. It has been absolutely impossible for any local authority in the country, especially Bolton, to tackle that serious problem.
The Conservative Government bragged about spending the same on housing as the Labour Government spent when they left office in 1979. That is true, but the difference is that in 1979, the Labour Government were spending most of their housing money on bricks and mortar, whereas the outgoing Conservative Government spent most of their money on housing benefit, in pursuance of a dogmatic belief in market rents. Incidentally, they were never able to define market rents.
It is a scandal that so much money is spent on housing benefit. We must direct housing money away from benefits and into renovation and new homes for the homeless across Britain. Under the Conservatives, the housing benefit bill rose from about £3 billion when the Labour Government left office in 1979 to a rapidly escalating £13 billion today. The new Labour Government face an enormous problem even in halting the growth in housing benefit, never mind reversing the trend.
It will be a privilege to represent my constituents in Bolton, South-East. In my election campaign, I promised that in the House of Commons I would do my best for them, and I will.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak this morning on my first occasion in the House, in what has been a veritable confetti of maiden speeches. I stand in the shadow of some great speeches. I first refer to my right hon. Friend—I am sorry, I am elevating my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) far too soon. First, he is too young and now he has been here a long time. I was struck by the similarities between his constituency and mine as he talked about the weaving industry and his experience in housing.
Likewise, I am delighted to hear that the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) came to the House at the age of 18 months, beating my own record of early interest in politics. I became interested at 14. I hope that my hon. Friend's son follows in his great footsteps. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) made a moving speech about his constituency, with its great and sound history. I know that his constituency will have a great fighter in him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) has now left the Chamber. Her name rang around the debating halls of this country long before she became a Member of Parliament. I know that her great voice, embodied in a small body, will add a great deal to the House. It will be difficult for me, standing in the shadow of those wonderful speeches, to deliver my own maiden speech.
It is normal in the House to follow certain traditions. Those traditions were taught to me at the age of 14 by my teachers of history, government and citizenship. They are two great sisters who, I am glad to say, wrote to me yesterday. I was touched to receive their letter. I have remembered them all these years as an inspiration and I am delighted that they have noticed that I have arrived here at last after 30 years. They would be embarrassed if I named them, but I have to say that good teachers who inspire a person and whose teaching takes people through life are worth more than gold. Those two teachers were worth more than gold to me.
What my teachers taught me about the traditions of this House was the importance of democracy. We had some talk of democracy earlier today and I was delighted that there were parties of schoolchildren in the Gallery at the time. I hope that although the House is fairly quiet this morning, they will have been inspired by this great place. Democracy is nothing if we do not take part in it.
The thing that I learned when I was taught government and citizenship by those two great teachers was that we as a people have to take part in our own state—the state of the nation and the state of our democracy. I hope that the new Secretary of State for Education and Employment will take that on board as we examine the standards of education for the future. It is all very well to have basic standards of education, but I have met people in my constituency who do not know the difference between local government and Parliament, and who do not know how or where to vote, and people who do not know that they can vote or how to put their name on the electoral register. It is a sad indictment of a democracy if its people are not actively involved in the process.
I shall return to the traditions of the House, because I do not want to let my teachers down. I want to talk about my constituency of Colne Valley. It is often confused with other constituencies because it is named after the River Colne. Make no mistake, there are two valleys in the constituency—the Colne valley and the Holme valley. It is in the Colne valley that one finds great traditional industrial heritage. It has those oft-sung-about satanic mills nestled in its great splendour and rugged hillsides.
To the south is the Holme valley, with its beautiful picture-postcard elegance—those green and pleasant pastures. The contrast of the two valleys has attracted the television and film industry to my constituency. I am pleased about that because the television and film industry has an income equal to that of the oil industry. It is an importer of great wealth into our country.
The three programmes that I want to talk about should be well known to hon. Members. The first is "Last of the Summer Wine", with Compo, Clegg and Foggy, those three great characters. The programme may mislead hon. Members into thinking that the people of Colne Valley are quite elderly. In fact, they are younger than the national average for any constituency. So please do not be misled by that great programme.
Two new television programmes have appeared on our screens, "Where the Heart is"—my heart is certainly in the Colne valley—and "Wokenwell", which those of us who live nearby know is actually filmed at Marsden. "Where the Heart is" is filmed outside my house in Slaithwaite, so I am extremely proud.
I particularly want to talk about the film and television industry, because it embodies technical skills and the great talents of producers, film technicians and the actors we all know. That industry is dependent on high-quality products, high-quality skills and well-paid jobs. That is the foundation for a proper strong, key economic base, the sort of economic base that I support.
In his maiden speech, my predecessor, Graham Riddick, referred to "Last of the Summer Wine", and also eulogised about our beautiful constituency. I agree with him on both those counts. Alas, I do not agree with very much else that he said in that speech, nor with very much else that he said after that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree, however, that he was a man who argued valiantly for the things in which he believed, often in the face of great opposition—indeed, some hon. Members on his own Benches did not always agree with him. He always stood up for what he believed in and the people of Colne Valley recognised that.
In his maiden speech, my predecessor spoke up for the demolition of one of our local mills, which he described as an eyesore and which he said should be razed to the ground. I am pleased to inform the House that that mill has now been restored to its former magnificent splendour. Kirklees council, a good Labour council which I am happy to support, formed a joint venture company to achieve that transformation. That venture brought together the skills of the local construction industry, which was so short of jobs, and the need of the community for good housing. It has been a magnificent success. The former mill now provides 122 new homes for the people of Colne Valley. It also provided high-quality, good, well-paid jobs for architects, joiners, builders, plumbers and many, many more.
I approve of that type of marriage between industry, its needs and the needs of the community. I am delighted that the Labour manifesto, which has now been translated into a wonderful Gracious Speech, includes such partnerships.
If we were able to release the £30 million of housing capital receipts now held by Kirklees council, imagine how we could spend that money to invigorate our local economy. Despite the imagination of Kirklees council, which established the joint venture company to redevelop Crowther mill, there is still much to do.
Colne Valley does not suffer from the same type of housing shortage as elsewhere, but some of our housing stock is dilapidated, particularly that in the private rented sector. I am extremely worried about one family in my community whose house is so wet and damp that both their children suffer greatly from asthma. One child, born just in January this year, is already taking eight steroids a day. Her doctor has told her mother that that is because of the damp condition of her home. How wonderful it will be to renovate social housing and build it anew so that such families have the opportunity of a decent home. That development will also benefit the construction industry, which we need in Colne Valley.
Let us also consider the implications of the windfall levy and our plans for how we might use it in Kirklees. We aim once again to bring together the skills of our community and the needs of the population. If we develop the construction industry, and we shall, it will provide a great opportunity to train more people to have the very skills that will be needed in that expanding industry. In my area we are already looking at ways in which we could use the windfall levy to create the opportunities to learn those new skills. That would also enable people to gain the new jobs that will be created as a result.
The former Labour Member for Colne Valley, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), will be pleased to discover that part of our plans for the windfall levy includes the introduction of a new environmental task force. We have a great need for that force in Colne Valley because of its canals, rivers and dry stone walls, which need to be renovated. Those environmental needs are also social needs when we consider the need for environmental improvements to homes on our estates. Again, overcoming those problems will involve a partnership between the needs of our community and the skills of our population.
When my right hon. Friend made his maiden speech, he made great reference to the environment. On a visit to Scapegoat Hill school in my constituency, I saw some trees that my right hon. Friend had planted 25 years ago. They are now growing vigorously despite harsh conditions, which may offer a parallel to the Labour party and its development in recent years.
I am sure that when my right hon. Friend referred to the importance of the environment, he envisaged that the environment of Colne Valley would be improved by measures such as those contained in the Gracious Speech, which we supported so strongly yesterday.
I am also pleased to recognise the contribution made to my constituency by Richard Wainwright, who was the Member until 1987. In his maiden speech, he referred to the traditional industrial heritage of Colne Valley and spoke about the local mills. We now need to diversify our economy, because too much dependence on the traditional industries of the mills will mean that our local economy will die on the vine. We cannot allow that to happen. The use of the windfall levy, capital receipts and the great progress made in welfare-to-work programmes will give us the opportunity to make our local economy as diverse as the many villages and people who reside in Colne Valley. That is the right way forward. We cannot once again depend on one industry, because that would lead to the death of our local economy. I want Colne Valley to have a strong and vigorous economic future.
It has also been a tradition for the Member for Colne Valley to talk about our great history, and I do not want to let my predecessors down on this occasion. Let me take the House back briefly to 1907, when the first socialist Labour Member was elected for Colne Valley—Victor Grayson, who subsequently mysteriously disappeared. I agree with my predecessor Graham Riddick that that is one tradition that I do not want to follow. Heaven knows where he ended up, but I am glad to have ended up here. Other great names, such as Philip Snowden, were also referred to by my predecessors, and who can forget that Harold Wilson was born in my constituency.
What a great tradition for any new Member to follow, and I am glad to do so. In the shadow of the many speeches that I have heard this morning and of the great politicians who came before me, as the first woman Member for Colne Valley, I hope to achieve at least half of what they achieved.
I am grateful to be called just before the Leader of the House. I pay tribute to those colleagues who have made their maiden speeches today, which have all been excellent, particularly those from the new Members for Colne Valley (Ms Mountford), for Bolton, South-East, (Dr. Iddon), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons).
The issue that I should like to raise this morning is the future of Oldchurch hospital at Romford in east London. That hospital was on the previous Government's hit list of those under threat of closure in Greater London. A huge campaign to keep that hospital open has been run for about six years. If Oldchurch was closed in the long term—I know that the new Government have announced a moratorium on hospital closures, which I welcome—that would have an enormous impact on east London.
My hon. Friends the new Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), who has long been involved in the campaign, for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) and I have fought to keep the hospital open. I also know that my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham (Ms Church) and for Barking (Ms Hodge) have long been involved in that campaign. The closure of that hospital would have an enormous impact not only on Havering, the borough which I represent in Hornchurch, but on Newham, West Ham and many other London boroughs where the provision of health care is already a great problem.
The plan is to replace Oldchurch hospital with an accident and emergency department at Harold Wood hospital, which is far less accessible, particularly for people in the south of the constituency. Reaching Harold Wood hospital's A and E department would be difficult. It would involve a two to three-hour trip on public transport. It would be particularly difficult for older people, who might not have their own cars, and young mothers—there are many single mothers in my constituency.
The decision to close Oldchurch hospital was wrong in the first place, was mistaken and can be reversed. The new A and E department at Harold Wood will be built under the private finance initiative, which I regard as mistaken, but the PFI contracts have not been signed, so the plan can be reversed without any spending commitments having been given. We can reverse the closure of Oldchurch hospital, keep it open and continue to maintain a service to people in Hornchurch, Romford, Upminster and many other constituencies in east London.
This has been a somewhat unusual debate, not only because of the empty Conservative Benches, but because of the many maiden speeches that have been made. I do not think that this three-hour Adjournment debate has ever been used for that purpose. It has been extremely useful and the time been well used by a wide range of Members, who have learnt quickly what opportunities can be provided in the House to those who want to raise issues affecting their constituents.
In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friends who had to start the debate, going in at the deep end without any experienced Members opening the way. I recall the relief of getting my maiden speech out of the way. Members who have spoken should be feeling not just relief, but much collective pride at the quality of their contributions. They have clearly shown the quality of debate that we can expect from new Members who entered at the last election.
May I say a few words about each of the issues that have been raised? I hope to be able to have time to deal with all of them today. The debate was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), who said that he wanted some change and reform in the House. Needless to say, I welcome that comment. We will be looking for some good ideas from new Members, who may not yet be bogged down in our old ways and therefore may not be as resistant to change as some of us who have been here for longer—although I am quite an enthusiast for change. I hope that we can have some support from new Members, and from old and new Members working together.
My hon. Friend showed that his work as a recorder is valuable experience, which he now brings to the House. I am sure that his background will be extremely helpful. He highlighted in particular drug and alcohol-related crime, and I am sure that what he has seen in practice will allow him to contribute to debates on those issues. I hope that we can use his expertise there.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a confident maiden speech and was very amusing on occasions. He gave some history of his constituency. It was the first that I had ever heard of railway signals being used to prevent people from voting, but we all learn, which is partly what these debates are about. With his background in the medical world, he was able to give us his informed concern; again, we will appreciate and listen to that in future. Giving us a full list of Oxford colleges was brave and I hope for his sake only that it was a complete list; otherwise, we will have to hear from him very quickly to repair any omissions.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), whom I have known for some time. He mentioned his father, who was known to all of us in the House, but he failed to mention his and his father's connection with Bolton Wanderers. However, as that was put right by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I can forgive him that on this occasion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley showed that he knew his constituency very well, having been born and brought up there and having worked there. He clearly knows the problems it faces and intends to be a strong voice on its behalf. He talked about the many difficulties that it has faced in recent years, not least because of the previous Government's inability to get the best out of the European Union. I am sure that he will be lobbying new Ministers hard, and he proved today that he is prepared and able to do that.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is not a new Member, but one of those Conservative Members who has changed constituencies. He is not in his place at the moment, but he dropped me a note to say that he had to go to a constituency engagement. I was going to say to him that I welcomed his comments on party funding. I hope that they will be consistent. The fact that he has raised the issue today shows, I hope, that he will support our desire to have a Nolan or a Nolan-type inquiry into party funding, and to change the rules in the not too distant future.
The hon. Member for Southend, West raised some specific points about the cockle industry in Leigh-on-Sea. I have an admission to make: I am not an expert on that industry, so I intend to ask the relevant Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to write to him about those concerns.
I do know something about the situation in care homes and in the national health service. The comments of the hon. Member for Southend, West about blocked beds and the need for change were somewhat rich. He was pretending that a problem that has been there for many years had suddenly arisen in the past 18 days of the Labour Government and had never materialised in the 18 years of the Conservative Government. Again, I will pass his comments on to the Department, but he should have acknowledged that his own Government bore some responsibility for the problems about which he was complaining.
In her maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) spoke about her constituents' concern—particularly, that they have lost out because of the previous Government's negative approach to Europe. She also used her own experience as a teacher to make some pertinent remarks about education, the need for consultation and the need for people in education to work in partnership. I welcomed her contribution on that. It is important that the House consists of Members with a wide range of experience. I am sure that she will have much to contribute in education debates. She said that, if her constituents were to prosper as individuals as well as a society, education had to be a priority. That is clearly a Government concern.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) talked not only about the local problems of his constituency, but about the practical problems that some new Members face and that his party faces, having almost doubled in size in a short time. He said that he had a desk, an office and a telephone, although the telephone was not yet working. I have to issue a disclaimer to start with because those items are not a matter for the Leader of the House, but he is extremely fortunate. When most of us arrived as new Members, we were told not only that we should not expect an office too quickly, but that we should not even perch in the wrong places to use telephones. I was glad that one of my hon. Friends acknowledged the fact that the arrangements made by the House authorities this time have been far better and more helpful to new Members than ever before. The fact that we now have rooms with banks of telephones and information points is a remarkable breakthrough.
The hon. Gentleman might be concerned about the difficulties, but I ask him to sympathise with those of us who experienced far greater difficulties. That does not mean, however, that things could not be improved. The scale of the changeover is so great that it has taken everyone by surprise. If the hon. Gentleman accurately predicted the result of the election, I wish that he had told the rest of us, because we might all have been better prepared.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) talked about class sizes and the standard spending assessment for education, but also returned to an issue that he has mentioned many times—the need to improve electoral registration. It is something that he has brought to our attention many times by being a persistent Back Bencher and not letting the issue go.
I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is here. I do not expect that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire will let Home Office Ministers off the hook, but I am sure that they will try to responsive. Ministers might not take the precise path that my hon. Friend wishes, but I am sure that they will consider the problem and try to make improvements. All of us believe that improvements can be made.
While my hon. Friend the Minister is here, I must point out that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire also mentioned the need to revise the design of the ballot paper. As that is an issue of great concern to me following my experience of elections, I hope that I can lobby as well as Back Benchers. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire in highlighting the need for disabled people to have full and proper access to polling stations. It was partly due to the lead he gave before the last election that many of us were able to explore the problem in our own localities, and I hope and believe that some changes were made as a result.
We then heard a speech from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is a Liberal Democrat. He made a very confident contribution, and I am sure that we shall hear much more from him. He challenged us to be a reforming Government; I hope that we do not disappoint him. I am sure that he will continue to make valuable contributions to debates on education, the police and the environment, which he highlighted today, and that his constituents will be pleased that he has spoken so forcefully on their behalf. In passing, he sympathised with his predecessor for having three recounts. As someone who has a four-figure majority for the first time in five Parliaments, I sympathise with anyone who has to go through so many recounts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) did not have as narrow as a majority as I had when I started. She showed that she not only knows but understands her constituency but said one thing that I found very hard to accept. She said that she was a secret horn player. I am not sure that there can be such a thing as a secret horn player; perhaps she will tell us about that some other time. She proved that she is well qualified to follow what she described as the trend to have quirky characters represent Rochdale. She is extremely competent, and I am sure that her bouncy contributions will be welcome in the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) also made his maiden speech. He began by saying that he wanted changes to the voting system in the House, and we can all sympathise with the delays involved. He went on to say what a good friend he was of his predecessor, Don Dixon. To those of us who have been promoting change in the House, there is a certain contradiction in my hon. Friend's two statements. I just hope that the friendship is not spoiled by my hon. Friend's contribution. However, I am sure that his sentiments about the need to campaign for jobs in Jarrow will be shared by his predecessor and appreciated by other hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) pointed out that he was only the third Member to hold his seat since the war. That is quite-a record these days. I hope that he will be here for a very long time. He mentioned the House's lack of family-friendliness. I have been here for many years and have often been asked what impact having a lot of new women here will make, so I was glad that a man showed that it is not simply a female issue, but that we should all attempt to ensure that the House of Commons responds to everyone's needs, including all those with family responsibilities. I hope that we can take such issues on board when it comes to modernising the House.
I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents will appreciate the concerns that he expressed about bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the need to reform the common agricultural policy. The Government are of course committed to that.
I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for more than 20 years. He might have mentioned Bolton Wanderers because he knew that it would elicit favourable comments from me. However, on this occasion he was not asking for anything, so perhaps he was right to save his comments for another occasion. He has been renowned for his knowledge of chemistry for many years. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and I both have sons who have seen my hon. Friend's "The Magic of Chemistry" show. I hope that the House will find ways to use his expertise. He also demonstrated expertise in housing, and those of us who have known him for many years know that to be a genuine concern of his.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Ms Mountford) also made a maiden speech—one old friend of mine following another. She is also a near neighbour of mine in constituency terms. She made an excellent contribution, which I am sure her constituents will appreciate. I share her concern to ensure that young people get involved in the democratic process and understand how government and Parliament work. I also share her desire to see some movement on the issue of capital receipts, because we are all aware of the housing problems that many local authorities are facing and have faced for many years. I look forward to examining various issues with her in the House and in our constituencies for many years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) had already made his maiden speech, so he used this occasion to raise an important constituency issue, which is a traditional use of such debates. He showed his strong local knowledge. I understand why he is concerned about Oldchurch hospital. He also said that other colleagues shared his concern. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the problem. Although I do not share his views on the private finance initiative and its possibilities, I will ensure that the Minister replies to the details of the issues that he raised.
The purpose of debates on matters to be considered before an Adjournment is always to allow hon. Members to raise a wide range of issues, and that is what has happened in this debate. Several hon. Members have mentioned some common concerns, such as education, youth unemployment and crime. The fact that such common concerns have been expressed shows that the Government were on the right track when we determined our priorities for inclusion in the Labour manifesto and for action.
Today, in excellent speeches, new Members have expressed their concerns, and it augurs well for the House's future, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire said, that hon. Members are willing to debate. I congratulate all the new Members who have made their maiden speeches in this debate.