I am grateful for the opportunity to offer my first contribution to the House in this important debate on the Consumer Credit Bill. I am also pleased to follow my hon. Friends who also made their maiden speeches—my hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge). I was interested to hear the description of Southend by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East as my birthplace happens to fall within his constituency. I shall probably have a few discussions about Southend with him in the months ahead.
The debate is important. The impact that debt has on so many people and families is profound. While the majority are able to manage their financial affairs effectively and make informed decisions in taking out debts and loans, many, unfortunately, are not. Often it is the most vulnerable members of our communities who are most affected by debt, and hon. Members on both sides of the House spoke about the problem.
Before I address specific points in relation to the Bill, as this is my maiden speech I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my immediate predecessors, who served the constituency of Hornchurch well. I am sure hon. Members will agree that they have been a great credit to the House.
John Cryer was elected as the Member of Parliament in 1997. As many Members will know, John can best be described as independently minded, not necessarily following the line of his leadership or his party and being prepared to trust his own judgment and principles where he thought that appropriate and necessary. In the eight years that John served as Member of Parliament, he carved out a reputation in the constituency of being well respected and hard working, a real campaigning constituency MP. That reputation is well deserved. John led many campaigns in support of local residents and community groups, and his approach is one that I intend to follow.
The thing about John is that he is a very engaging, likeable character, and although we may disagree on a number of issues of policy, during the election campaign we always managed a courteous, good-humoured and good-natured relationship. That is a reflection of the character of the man and the way he conducted his politics. On a personal note, I wish John and his family the best for the future, and I am sure that Mrs. Cryer will keep us well informed of his progress.
I should also like to pay tribute to Robin Squire. Robin served the constituency for 18 years, from 1979, and I am pleased to say that he is still serving his local community in his role as secretary to the Cleanaway Havering Riverside Trust, providing grants and other money to many valuable community projects in the area. Although independently minded in a different way, Robin served in government, as a Minister in the Department of the Environment, the Department for Education and the Department for Education and Employment. In the constituency, he was closely involved in a number of issues, particularly the rerouting of the A13 to ensure that it did not pass close to an important part of Rainham village. Robin was also instrumental in framing and developing freedom of information legislation, so he was a good parliamentarian as well as a good constituency MP. Robin has been a very good friend to me over many years, and I value the support and guidance that he has offered to me during that time.
Hornchurch is a fantastic seat to represent, and I am honoured to have been elected to serve the communities of Hornchurch, Elm Park, Rainham and Wennington. The constituency is located on the eastern reaches of London, bordering on Essex, and although it falls within the London borough of Havering, it has a very Essex feel to it. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am pleased to see so many hon. Members from Essex here this afternoon. As an Essex boy, I am very proud to take on the responsibilities of serving the area.
The history of Hornchurch can be traced back to Saxon times, when the manor of Hornchurch was owned by successive English kings. The area was reputedly a favourite resort of Edward the Confessor. The origin of the name "Hornchurch", however, is somewhat unclear, with tales of the king hunting a stag near the church and of a bull killing a wild boar that was being hunted by the monarch. I hasten to add that there is not much chance of that happening on Hornchurch high street now. What is clear is that the church remains an important part of the local community, and the parish church of St. Andrew's, rebuilt in 1222, is a striking focal point, as it looks down from the hill overlooking the main area of the town.
Against that backdrop it is hardly surprising that there is a strong sense of tradition. There is also a strong sense of patriotism and national pride, with St. George's day being celebrated across the constituency. That, too, is grounded in a strong historical context. During the second world war, RAF Hornchurch played a central role in defending this country from attack and in securing a victory in the battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. During that period, Spitfires from 54, 65, 74, 222, 266 and 603 Squadrons defended the skies of southern England, and the names of many of the fighter pilots involved are commemorated to this day in a number of roads in the area that made up the old airfield.
It is not just the history; we are also blessed with so many parks and open spaces which help to create the character of the area. Rainham marshes lie to the south-east, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds maintains a significant nature reserve. Close by is the village of Rainham, with its conservation area full of character, and Rainham hall, which was built in 1729 and is maintained by the National Trust. From a cultural perspective, Hornchurch is a centre for the arts in Havering—based around the popular Queen's theatre, which provides local access to plays and other productions.
This is however an area with some challenges and some significant problems, too. Although we are lucky to have the Thames running through the southern edge of the constituency, it is in many ways marred by heavy industry, waste-transfer stations and polluting users. A recent study of the possibility of opening up Rainham creek to the north of the Thames for greater leisure and recreational use for local people revealed high levels of phosphates and a severely restricted ecosystem, making redevelopment much more difficult to achieve. Gravel extraction, landfill sites and other recent proposals involving industrial processes have highlighted an urgent need to regenerate and re-characterise Rainham.
That could happen through the redevelopment of the Thames gateway, which covers a significant part of the area concerned, but the vision proposed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of high-density housing along the Thames riverside is not shared by many of my constituents. They are looking for a different type of development in that area. I will certainly be arguing from the Opposition Benches and taking forward in the House a very different vision for that area of my constituency.
Although I have talked about the sense of tradition in the community, what has unfortunately become all too prevalent is yobbish behaviour, which has made the lives of many of my constituents a misery. Statistically, Hornchurch is one of the safest places in the country. Unfortunately, for many of my constituents, it does not feel that way. It angers me that so many people feel that they cannot go out at night because it is not safe to be on the streets after dark.
Most recently, we had the threat of industrial action affecting the District line service covering part of my constituency, after a driver ended up with glass in his eye because somebody lobbed off a bridge a brick that struck his carriage. Graffiti and vandalism are also all too common, and the local police have told me that they have found traces of cocaine and other class A drugs in virtually every public house in Hornchurch. I have little doubt of the need for more police on the streets and a much tougher approach to people who think that they can get away with anything they want. That is simply not acceptable, and I shall be arguing forcefully from the Opposition Benches for the need to tackle such offences.
Some of the problems to do with drugs are driven by despair and a lack of hope. That leads me back to the issues being debated this afternoon. I welcome the fact that this Bill strengthens the protection for debtors by expanding the concept of an unfair credit agreement. My hon. Friend Charles Hendry mentioned the impact that that has on constituency case loads and on the issues coming across our desks. In the short time I have been a Member of this House, I have already seen the impact that crippling debt can have on families and individuals.
A father and son attended my very first surgery to highlight the despair that they felt for the son who was struggling to make ends meet. On benefits and having been unemployed for a considerable period, he was finding it very difficult to make payments on some of this indebtedness. He had taken out a further re-financing loan at a higher rate of interest and, unfortunately, that had merely compounded the problems that he faced. It was moving to hear the story that was given to me by the father, who told me that he had used his life savings to help his son get out of difficulties. He spoke of the stress and strain of that relationship and the effect on his physical health. The narrative made a lasting impression on me, given that the physical and mental distress of that family were evident during the time they spent with me in my advice surgery.
I have no doubt that greater protections need to be afforded to people who are in vulnerable situations, particularly with refinancing transactions of the sort to which I have alluded. I welcome the intentions behind the Bill, particularly the provisions relating to unfair relationships. I share a number of the concerns that have been expressed in terms of the breadth of the definition. That goes to what is meant by an unfair relationship. As a lawyer—[Interruption.] I suppose that I had to declare an interest one way or another in the debate.
As a lawyer, I have always interpreted legislation on the basis that we must have as much certainty as possible. In this instance, we are dealing with advising the debtor or the creditor. As drafted, the Bill relies much on the development of case law. John Battle, who said that that in itself might deny justice to people who have got into problems, made a powerful contribution. I am sure that the issue will be taken further when the Bill is considered in Committee.
I was interested in the right hon. Gentleman's concept of a non-exhaustive list. Perhaps that is something that can be explored and examined in greater detail. There is a consensus on what we are trying to achieve. I fear that the way in which the Bill is drafted may prevent this. I see that the Minister is nodding. I hope that what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will be considered carefully and reviewed as we consider the Bill.
It is an honour and a privilege to serve as the Member for Hornchurch. One of my local priests, the Reverend Bob Love, said to me that hope is one of the most valuable things that we can offer. In a small way, I will try to provide that sense of hope to my constituents, by standing up on the issues that matter to them, by listening to those who think that no one is prepared to be interested in their concerns, and by giving a voice in the House to those who have none. This is the challenge to which I look forward with great relish.