Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker for calling me to make my maiden speech. I pay tribute to the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today, all of which have been of a high quality. While I may be the last, I will try my best not to be least.
It has been a busy week for me. As well as the sittings of Parliament, I have attended two sittings of Leeds City council. If I get confused, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and refer to you as my lord mayor, I hope that you will forgive me on this occasion.
I am delighted to be in these new surroundings although, if I may dare say so, in some ways they compare less favourably with those of Leeds civic hall. The behaviour there is marginally better than here, from what I have seen so far; maiden speeches are always delivered to a packed Chamber; and, best of all, we always have a break for tea at about 6 pm. In addition, in the chamber in Leeds I have my own chair, in which no one else can sit, and I have access to an electronic voting system. Leeds has all the mod cons but, having experienced voting in this place for the first time yesterday, I am sure that the system here is at least more fun and certainly looks better on television.
If I may, let me take you back, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to my first visit to the House, back in 1987, as an idealistic A-level politics student. I vividly remember the huge excitement when the then Prime Minister swooshed in, followed by the Ministers and various MPs whom we recognised, and of course we were captivated for the 20 minutes of Prime Minister's Question Time. However, not knowing the procedure in those days—I confess that I still do not—we were very surprised when the Prime Minister and all the Ministers swooshed out again after 20 minutes, and we then had to sit through about an hour and a half of a forestry debate. An hour of a forestry debate may not have been enough to deter me from wanting to take my place in the House, but I have to say that none of my colleagues who were with me that day has shown any interest. All I can say is that if my party leader comes to me, asking me whether I wish to take up a spokespersonship on forestry matters, he might be surprised by the vociferousness of my refusal.
Luckily, in my seat of Leeds, North-West we do not have much in the way of forestry, but please do not be mistaken, as many people are, into assuming that it is therefore an urban seat. In fact, I am very proud to represent an extraordinarily diverse seat that consists of urban and suburban communities, as well as large amounts of farmland and beautiful countryside, which make up more than half of the constituency.
In Leeds, North-West we have inner-city areas, suburbs, villages and farms, and we have the delightful mediaeval market town of Otley, above which is the very fine hill of Otley Chevin, said to offer the finest view in Leeds. I was lucky enough to spend the new year's eve moment of this year on that spot, wondering what might happen to me this year, so obviously my dreams have been realised.
In Leeds, North-West we have a rather peculiar boast: we have one international airport and only half a railway station. That is because only half of Burley Park railway station lies in the constituency. Public transport is an issue, but not the railways; I will talk about that later. I represent Headingley ward both as a Member and as a councillor, and it is home to Headingley stadium. In that context, I must pay tribute to the Leeds Rhinos rugby league team, which in the past year was crowned as super league champions, winning the grand final and then going on to win the world club challenge. In the other code, we are very proud to have seen Leeds Tykes lift the Powergen trophy against Bath. It certainly has been a significant year of celebration for many of us in Leeds. All I can say is that perhaps I can be a little bit grateful that, unlike in the 1997 election, the mascot of Leeds Rhinos, Ronnie the Rhino, chose not to stand this time.
Unlike many of the big cities such as Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool, we do not use the name of an area for Leeds, North-West because there is no area that could claim to be the notable area of my seat. Indeed, the local Conservative association still has not worked out that the seat is called Leeds, North-West, and its members refer to themselves as North West Leeds Conservatives. But that is something of a faux pas, and one piece of advice I would give hon. Members today is that if they are sending a letter to anyone in Otley, the address is Otley, West Yorkshire—not Otley, Leeds, West Yorkshire.
In such a diverse seat there is really only one thing that unites it. People might say that there are two now that there is a Liberal Democrat MP, but what unites it is the A660, the trunk road that runs from south to north. It is one of the top 10 congested roads in the country and a problem for all of us who try to use or avoid it. That is why the need for the Leeds supertram system is so very pressing. At present nothing is being done to address the ever-worsening problems of congestion, because we are still waiting for a decision from the Secretary of State for Transport. I must use this opportunity to urge that he make a decision as soon as possible, and I hope sincerely that it will be a positive one.
The last Liberal MP to represent part of Leeds, North-West was David Austick, who won the Ripon by-election back in 1973. I pay tribute to David, who has since passed away. He was an honorary alderman of the city of Leeds and is still held in very high esteem. He did, however, hold his seat only until February 1974, so I am certainly confident that I can be the MP for the constituency longer than he was.
I must, of course, pay warm tribute to my predecessor, Harold Best. Mr. Best announced that it was his intention to retire at the general election some years ago—indeed, before I was selected to stand for election to the seat—and I would not have wanted to stand against Mr. Best, for he was an MP who had the courage to stand up for his principles and, indeed, to stand up against his Government on many occasions.
I have heard it said that, when Harold Best was first elected, his name featured on a list of newly elected MPs suspected of being possibly troublesome that was held at Labour headquarters at Millbank. I wonder whether I am on a similar list, and all I can say is that, if not, I will do all that I can to rectify that. Indeed, Harold obliged his reputation by waiting only until December 1997 before rebelling for the first time—in that case, against the lone parent benefit cuts.
Harold worked hard locally and campaigned on many of the same issues as my council colleagues in Leeds, North-West and I have done. In Parliament, he voted in the Lobby with my colleagues on several occasions. So it would indeed have seemed strange to oppose someone who consistently opposed the very things that I have been railing against: the great battles of the last Parliament—the war in Iraq and university top-up fees—and, of course, the great battle of this one, identity cards. I pledge to my constituents that I will continue those fights with vigour.
Harold Best's reputation was earned not in the House, but as a hard-working local MP, and I intend to emulate him in that and do my very best to represent the people of Leeds, North-West. Mr. Best did not lose the election in Leeds, North-West, and his reputation remains intact—a proud and distinguished one that I am honoured to follow.
Before I conclude, I wish to mention briefly a couple of issues that I have been charged by my constituents to bring to the House. There has been much talk in the Queen's Speech debate about the economy, but one thing that is abundantly clear in my constituency is that, although the economy is performing well generally, the prosperity that it generates is not being shared adequately or equitably.
First, for older people, we still have a pensions system that leaves huge numbers of the poorest pensioners without the money that they need to get an income that simply lifts them to the breadline. Free personal care is still not regarded as a right, despite the finding of the royal commission.
Of course, at the younger end of the spectrum, many sixth-formers in my constituency are being put off going to university through the fear of the huge debts that the funding system now inevitably involves. We have something like 20,000 students in Leeds, North-West. I have a duty to continue to criticise the decisions that have seen the Government pull up the ladder of opportunity that they themselves were privileged to use without being saddled with a huge burden of debt.
Although there are other local issues that I want to raise, I must mention my commitment to the cause of the global community and global justice. With my role as a campaigner for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and the wonderful umbrella organisation, TIDAL, which stands for Trade, Injustice and Debt Action Leeds, together in 2004, we were proud to make Leeds the biggest fair-trade city in this country. Indeed, I felt that I had to mention my commitment to international development, and I hope that the House and the Government continue to put that issue high on the agenda and to support the Make Poverty History campaign, particularly with the G8 summit coming up.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech today. The idealistic young man who came here in 1987 has indeed now entered the House as a Member of Parliament, and I hope that I have not lost the idealistic zeal that encouraged me to want to enter the House and play a part in its business. I pledge, both to my constituents in Leeds, North-West and to all hon. Members, that I will play my full part in being the Member of Parliament for Leeds, North-West both in my constituency and here in the House.