In embarking on my maiden speech, I congratulate those for whom the ordeal is recently over, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Ms McDonagh). It is a far, far better thing that she has done than I might achieve in the next few minutes.
The traditions of this House are daunting—not so much the shuffling and sneezing in the Lobbies as the fact that this is the mother of parliaments. Fox, Pitt, Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan and others of their stature have sat, stood and spoken in the places that we now occupy. I should also mention the three hon. Members who in the last Parliament represented the communities that now make up the constituency of The Wrekin, which I am proud to represent.
For many years, John Biffen, now Lord Biffen, was held in great esteem by his colleagues on the Conservative Benches and by the then Opposition Members; he was also held in great affection by his constituents. As befits a man of his record, he has now gone, if not to a better place, at least to another place. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) represented for some years part of my constituency—the villages of Shifnal and Albrighton. He is a great advocate for Shropshire, even if he would like the county better if it could be further detached from Europe. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Mr. Grocott) is a true champion of his constituents. He is respected on both sides of the House and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an inspired choice in appointing him his parliamentary private secretary.
This is a crucial debate. Everyone recognises that we are living through a housing crisis of monumental proportions, although one would not get the impression, listening to Conservative Members, that they had presided over that crisis for almost two decades. It is ironic, albeit interesting, that they pray in aid Shelter—an organisation which vigorously campaigned against the policies of the Conservative Government for 17 or 18 years. As this is my maiden speech and I am therefore obliged to be charitable, or at least uncontroversial, I have to concede that it is refreshing to hear them now admitting the existence of a housing problem, even if they are quibbling about the solution.
There is a housing crisis. It damages the lives of individuals, families and entire communities throughout the country. Taxpayers spend millions of pounds on the costs of homelessness—on temporary accommodation and the associated benefits and social services that people in poor housing receive. Hundreds of thousands of construction workers are kept unemployed and on the dole when they could and should be at work, building or restoring homes for those who need them. The crisis is a testament to the record of the Conservative Government over the past 18 years. The record of the new Labour Government will depend to a large extent on what we do now, which is one of the reasons why the Bill is so welcome.
The Bill will be as welcome in the semi-rural constituency I now represent as in the inner-city ward that I represented for more than a decade. That ward is no more than a few hundred yards from the Palace of Westminster—Millbank ward, in which Millbank tower is situated, which is where our great election victory was planned. In the 10 years that I was a member of Westminster city council—it is important to my reputation to stress that I was a Labour member of that council—I saw what the Conservative local authority that out-conservatived all local authorities could do through housing and other policies to decent, honest, ordinary people. I saw the community I represented decimated by the dogma of Tory housing policy and I know how important it is to my constituents—then and now—that this Bill and future measures be enacted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) was somewhat extravagant in claiming that her constituency was a microcosm of the universe. I make a more modest claim for The Wrekin: the whole nation is contained in my constituency, from the factories at Hadley where GKN builds Warrior armoured vehicles for the British Army and all the British Telecom telephones on our streets, to the fields where Shropshire farmers produce some of the best beef and sugar beet in England. I have to admit that I am not sure how one judges one bit of sugar beet against another, but no doubt I shall discover the finer points of sugar beet production during the life of this Parliament. My constituency contains market towns such as Shifnal and Albrighton, Newport and Wellington; old mining communities, many of which originated in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice); the Army base at Donnington and the RAF base at Cosford; and hi-tech industries in new business parks all over the constituency.
We in The Wrekin enjoy all the nation's strengths, but also many of its weaknesses. Recently, the Henley centre reported that our district is sixth out of 459 local authority areas in terms of economic dynamism, but 296th in the poverty stakes. That is because The Wrekin is the nation's low pay capital: unemployment is low, if we trust unemployment statistics, but the price that too many people have to pay for a job is low-paid, part-time or temporary employment when full-time and decent, secure employment is what is needed. Employment rights are inadequate and business also pays a price because low pay goes with low skills. Not long ago, I met a business man who benefited from the incentives to locate and expand his business in The Wrekin, but who is now transporting it, lock, stock and barrel, to south Wales because he found that when he wanted sophisticated and improved production he could not find the necessary skills in the local economy.
In Shropshire, 13,000 people earn less than £3 an hour; and 3,500 earn less than £2 an hour. It is hardly surprising that 2,500 families in Telford are living on family credit, which tops up low wages and is paid for by taxpayers. Others have mentioned the real lives of the real people we represent, but I want to tell the House about one of them—a man I met in Arleston in the Wellington area during the election campaign. He is a young man with a young wife and family, who starts work at 5 am and returns home at 6 pm, six days a week. He works a 78-hour week for £150 take-home pay. He has to do that to keep his family and to pay his mortgage, because he does not want to be one of the 800 people a month who lose their homes after having fallen into mortgage arrears. He, and thousands of people like him throughout the country, will look forward to the introduction of a statutory minimum wage.
Then there is the young single parent whom I met in Newport, who desperately wants to work to keep her child but cannot afford to when the only child care available to her costs £3 an hour. She earns £3.60 an hour. She will benefit from the Government's commitment to helping people off welfare and into work.
Then there is the pensioner from Albrighton who was left in pain when his routine operation was cancelled three times because the local hospital could not provide him with a bed. I am glad to say that I received a letter from him this morning telling me that, although his recuperation was painful, at least he has now had the operation. He can look forward to a national health service being restored by a Government who understand the value as well as the cost of public services.
Next there are the 1,250 children between the ages of five and seven—38 per cent. of the children in The Wrekin, which is well above the national average—who are learning, or trying to learn, in overcrowded classrooms. At last, they will get the opportunity to learn, to grow and to prosper. The one in three people who have been victims of crime in the past two years will feel safer on their streets and in their neighbourhoods because the Labour Government will not just talk tough on crime, but act tough.
As for business in The Wrekin, it awaits with hope and a great deal of anticipation the private-public sector partnership for improving public transport infrastructure which will at last restore the InterCity link to Shropshire. That link was severed in the softening up process leading to privatisation of the railways, which in turn has cost our local economy a great deal in lost inward investment.
Our farmers, too, and the 800 people whose jobs were jeopardised in the past year by the BSE crisis look forward to the new Government's actions with anticipation. They also look forward to the lifting of the beef ban and a resolution, at last, of the BSE crisis. Their neighbours in the countryside are looking forward to the Government arresting rural decline. That will begin with the private sector restoring the lost bus services; rural post offices must be protected, too; and GPs must be encouraged back into rural communities.
Much that has happened in the first month of the new Labour Government has given us great encouragement and hope for the future—not least the ministerial announcement on 19 May, in an Adjournment debate, that minerals planning guidance note 3 will be urgently reviewed. It relates to opencast mining, and the review is probably more eagerly awaited in my constituency than anywhere else in the country. Once in place, it will provide relief to the communities of Muxton, Lilleshall and New Works Village, where lives and properties have been blighted for so long by the threat of opencast mining. I hope that the review will be swift and conclusive.
I also urge Ministers to take a look at planning policy guidance note 3 on social housing, because the planning system, besides housing policies, can deliver social housing of the type that our communities desperately need. Planning can be a great engine of social progress—a fact which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister has not overlooked.
In my district, 2,553 households are in housing need, and the wait for housing allocation is an average two miserable years. Fifteen million pounds is needed this year for repairs alone, and over the next 10 years about £45 million in further investment is needed to restore our housing stock.
The problem is as great in rural areas as it is in urban areas. It is just as widespread in market towns as in the more densely occupied parts of the constituency. Communities cannot renew themselves unless they provide homes for the next generation: they wither and die. Just as the community that I used to represent in Millbank has struggled long and hard, and with some success, against Tory housing policies, so rural communities have had their challenges to face.
It is time for the Government to act on housing. Council coffers are said to contain £6 billion; 100,000 families are in housing need; there are hundreds of thousands of unemployed construction workers on the dole. It does not take an Einstein to solve the equation and realise that those unemployed workers should be put back into employment, with money in their pockets to spend in the high street, making a contribution to the local economy and broadening the tax base.
Many brick producers in my constituency will directly benefit from kickstarting the sector and enabling it to build homes for the people who need them. There will also be a net saving to the taxpayer. The Bill will help to redress the balance: alongside the right to buy we must restore the right to rent. That is only common sense and common decency, qualities which have been in short supply these past 18 years. But they are the qualities that won us the recent election.
Let us recognise that without a permanent roof over our heads we have nothing and no chance in life. So let us give those without homes and those struggling to bring up their families in substandard housing both hope and life opportunities. This Bill begins that process, and I have been privileged to make my maiden speech during the debate on it.