I congratulate the right honourable—I am sorry, the honourable, although he might become right honourable in time—Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) on his maiden speech. I admire him for wading in on the detail of the Bill, but I see it clearly as a supplementary credit approvals Bill and wonder at some of his detailed remarks. I was more pleased to hear about the history of his constituency and delighted that he has been able to celebrate Magna Carta in that way.
It is also appropriate that I am making my maiden speech during a debate on local government finance. In Bristol, West, local government funding—or rather cuts in funding, together with the unfair and overly complex system of distributing rate support grant—was high on the agenda during the general election campaign. Even capital funding was questioned when, with a backlog of repair needed for Bristol's schools, the local education authority was given an allocation for this year of £17,500. However, more specific to today's debate and of widespread concern to my constituency is the fact that Bristol has the highest number of homeless people outside London, most of them in Bristol, West. In addition, a recent survey showed that one in eight houses in Bristol is unfit and in urgent need of repair, so the case for this Bill is clear.
Homelessness and poor housing are not the images of Bristol, West that most visitors and many residents would recognise. It is a city which is a centre of commerce, especially banking, with a prestigious university and hospitals with excellent regional specialisms. The Clifton area, with its fine Georgian crescents and terraces, rivals the architectural prowess of Bath; and I could go on, citing the Downs, fringed with the large, comfortable Victorian houses of Henleaze. The fact is that Bristol, West, with an electorate of more than 86,000—making it the second most populous constituency after the Isle of Wight—is a microcosm of the world, divided south-north between the have-nots and the haves.
That gap has widened in recent years in respect of jobs and opportunities as well as housing. Fortunately, Bristol, West has a centuries-old tradition of bridging gaps, both literally and between peoples. There has long been support for people with enterprise and initiative, especially those challenging the norm and refusing to accept that something cannot be done—even at election time, I am glad to say. Brunel's suspension bridge and his iron ship, the SS Great Britain, are both testimony to that vision and pioneering spirit. A smaller wooden ship—the replica of John Cabot's The Matthew—is even now crossing the Atlantic, celebrating an enterprise that reached Newfoundland 500 years ago. Just 50 years ago, Bristol extended a hand of friendship to Hanover, which in 1947 was an unusual twinning, as have been more recent links with Tblisi in Georgia and Beira in Mozambique.
Bristol, West is cosmopolitan and although it has been impoverished by divisions, it can and will be enriched by its diversity. To quote the Financial Times survey of the city earlier this month, there is in Bristol a "new spirit of co-operation". Partnerships between the city council, commerce and industry are ensuring important new developments at Bristol international airport; and the harbourside area, with millennium and, we hope, Arts Council funding, will be transformed to include an eyecatching Centre for the Performing Arts. Planning for that is going ahead, with the local community and the regional community in mind, to provide local employment and a cultural base for local children.
Over the years, politicians have also made their contribution. Under the statue of Edmund Burke in the city centre are these words:
I want to be a Member of Parliament to have my share of doing good and resisting evil.
All Bristol Members of Parliament since then have, I am sure, shared that objective, albeit some with a more radical agenda than others. My immediate predecessor, William Waldegrave, gave this House, his party and the Bristol, West constituency committed service for 18 years. During that time, he held office in a wide range of Departments, including Education, the Environment, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Health; he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and most recently served in the Treasury—no mean achievement and one that I suspect some of today's leadership candidates might wish they had. He and I often disagreed fundamentally, not least over our reading and understanding of the Scott report, but it was always in a courteous manner. In the constituency, his office had an enviable reputation for efficiency and I know that the many people who have received his help and support over the years would want me to record their appreciation.
To return to the subject of the debate, I assure hon. Members that Bristol has already taken steps to reduce the number of homeless people. The Hub centre brings together in one building and mainly for single homeless people the housing department, social services, the health authority, the Department of Social Security and the Employment Service offices and the voluntary sector. It is a model of good practice. A foyer centre is being built and the money from the initiative for those sleeping rough will be well spent. However, more has to be done and I recognise in the Bill another step towards healing the gap in Bristol, West and throughout the country between those who do and those who do not have a home. I commend the Bill.