Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the House for the first time. I have the considerable honour and great good fortune to have been elected to represent Torridge and West Devon. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear".]
It is an easy task to praise my predecessor, John Burnett. He was well liked in the House; he did not parrot party dogma; he did not blindly follow the party line. In fact, he proved that the expression "a Eurosceptic Liberal Democrat" was not just an oxymoron. He and his wife Billie worked indefatigably for the interests of my constituents. She supported him loyally and ably throughout the eight years in which he represented my constituency. I have noticed, in listening to maiden speeches in the House, how it is a curious trick of new Members to refer to their predecessors as passed away or gone to another world, but John and Billie Burnett are very much with us and they are regarded, and will continue to be regarded, on both sides of the party divide in my constituency with real affection, gratitude and respect.
My constituency is said to be the second largest in England. It encompasses a large stretch of the north Devonshire coast line, from the little white town of Bideford, via towns and villages such as Appledore, Westward Ho!—the only town in England with an exclamation mark in its title—Clovelly and Hartland all the way to Hartland point. It runs on its western boundary all the way down the Tamar river from the north to the south coast of the peninsula. Eastward is the scene of scattered villages and fine market towns: Holsworthy, Hatherleigh, Tavistock, Chagford, Great Torrington and Okehampton, each with their own historic and unique character.
If I paint a sylvan and utopian scene, as my constituency may present itself to the tourist's eye, I must say that it is not wholly true. Listening to the debate this evening, I have been struck between a real incongruity between the priorities of my constituents and this Bill. My constituency faces grave problems and the communities of which I have spoken are under serious pressure.
My constituency was the epicentre of foot and mouth, and the effect of the pyres still hangs over it. Livestock agriculture, which is the backbone of the rural economy in the area I represent, has suffered blow after blow. Dairy farmers have to manage on an average wage of £2.50 an hour. Job opportunities are dwindling, house prices are spiralling, and council taxes are soaring because—I shall risk being controversial—the Government fail to understand through their local government funding formula that the delivery of services to isolated communities costs more. But incomes are low. A disproportionate number of my constituents are on fixed incomes and they can ill afford to bear the soaring costs of the council tax and water charges, which are the highest in the country, because 3 per cent. of the population have to pay for 30 per cent. of that wonderful coastline. Bovine tuberculosis is another issue that weighs heavily on the farmers whom I represent.
As I contemplated the real and genuine concerns of my constituents, I was struck by the fact that not a single letter of the between 100 and 200 letters I have received since having the honour of being elected has said that the answer to their problems lies in the introduction of identity cards. I have spent 22 years on the front line in the battle between the state and the individual. Like Mr. Marshall-Andrews, I have appeared in cases before the courts where the state's hand has been raised and the finger of accusation pointed at an individual in the dock. I can say, after those 22 years, that the state does not always behave well and we who represent our constituents' interests should jealously guard their freedom and autonomy. It is only if a compelling case has been made for an invasion of that freedom that we should contemplate for a moment any surrender of any portion of it.
This Bill represents a vast expansion of the potential for control by the state over the individual. There has not been a time in peacetime when the state has been able to require an individual to notify the state authority of a change of address or to come to a specific place at a specific time, unless he was subject to criminal process and on bail. We should pause and reflect on that fact. Why should free citizens of this great country be subjected to the direction of the state merely in order to exist in our society?
I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have told us that there are practical arguments against the Bill. But even if those arguments were not so strong, I say that the arguments of principle are decisive and unanswerable. That is why, on behalf of those constituents whose real problems I hope to articulate in the coming months, I shall vote against the Bill tonight.