Education and Health

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 9:21 pm on 2nd June 2010.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd 9:21 pm, 2nd June 2010

Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech this evening. I would like to congratulate Gordon Henderson warmly on his maiden speech. I share his passion and conviction in wanting to represent my constituents. He is right to say that doing that is a very great honour for all of us, and it is one that I hope to carry out to the best of my ability.

I should also like to congratulate all the other new Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I have listened to most of them-it has been a long day-and I think that many of them spoke with great conviction. They have been extremely accomplished, and I congratulate them on opening their accounts.

My predecessor as the Member for Pontypridd was of course Dr Kim Howells. Kim first entered the House in a by-election in 1989, and he served with what can only be called great flair and passion for over 21 years. His broad experience and interests-his hinterland, so to speak-allowed him to serve with great distinction in a wide range of Departments. At the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and as Minister for Higher Education, he spoke fluently and fearlessly to Members and media alike-so fearlessly on occasion, in fact, that many of us who know him well were deeply worried when we learned that he was going to be announced as the new Minister for the Middle East. However, Kim of course carried off that portfolio, like all of the others, with great panache, charm and purpose, as he did his role as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee when he returned to these Back Benches. I know that he will be greatly missed in this House and in my constituency, his former constituency. I wish him well, and I am sure that many others in the House will join me in doing so.

For my own part, I intend to carry on Kim's tradition of speaking without fear or favour on behalf of the constituents of Pontypridd, addressing the issues that matter to them and serving them by articulating their concerns both in and outside this great Chamber. I will do so with passion, and a conviction that I think comes easiest to those of us in this House who are lucky enough to represent the towns that made them. As a man of Pontypridd once naively hopeful of achieving the highest accolade his town might bestow on him-playing for the first XV at Sardis road, of course-I have no qualms in stating that standing here today is almost as proud a moment as it would have been to pull on the black and white jersey of Ponty.

I am sure that hon. Friends from neighbouring constituencies will forgive me for saying that Pontypridd is an iconic valleys seat. From the town of Pontypridd, bisected as it is by that most Welsh of waterways, the Taff, whose once coal-black eddies mix now with the Rhondda in the great park of Ynysyngharad, through to the former mining towns and villages of Beddau, Tynant and Tonyrefail in the north, to the farmland turned commuter communities of Pontyclun, Miskin and Efail Isaf in the south, it is modern south Wales in microcosm. Its past is also a near-perfect reflection of south Wales history. Ponty grew from village to market town, then county town, on the profits from coal. The rush for black gold in the 19th and early 20th century forged great architecture, culture, character and a frontier town attitude that would have been recognised in Abilene or Dodge City in the same era.

That period left us with our famous bridge, once the widest single span crossing in the world, and another by Brunel; a train station built to accommodate the great caravans of coal trucks, also at one point the longest in the world; boxing champions like Freddie Welsh, singers from the bass baritone of Geraint Evans to the Treforest tenor of Tom Jones, and rugby stars by the dozen-Glyn Davies, Russell Robins, Neil Jenkins, Martin Williams, Gethin Jenkins; the list is endless.

Pontypridd's present, too, mirrors post-industrial Wales: greener, cleaner, healthier and wealthier now, thanks to Labour investment. There is a new hospital, four new schools, a massive increase in quality housing and home ownership, and now a £40 million learning campus soon to be opened in Nantgarw, just one current testament to our ambition, the aspiration of our people and our faith in them.

However, questions remain about the future of Pontypridd. Though the last decade has seen my constituency, and others like it, start to close the gap in health, wealth and opportunity between them and more affluent parts of Britain, the distance is still unacceptably wide. It can be closed, in part, with effort and aspiration, but it requires sustained investment too, and although we live in much straitened economic times, principles of social justice and economic equity dictate that, whichever Government are in power, we must recognise the need to shrink that gap further.

That is why I chose to make my maiden speech during this important debate on health and education, because although a devolved Wales may be insulated, in part, from the policies currently proposed by the Tory coalition, other actions already undertaken will have a long-term impact on the ability of my constituents to improve their health and educational achievement. In particular, I refer to the so-called efficiency savings that the Government are achieving through abolishing the future jobs fund and axing the baby bonds, policies that were proving popular and effective in my constituency.

As a Welsh MP in a British Parliament, I make no apology for addressing the substance of the Government's proposed education Bill, which appears to subvert entirely the original intention of the academy system, transferring freedoms that were accorded as a specific stimulus to schools in challenging circumstances and with diverse intakes, and affording them instead to already successful schools, allowing them to float free from democratic and local control.

As for the notion of free schools modelled on their Swedish equivalents or US charter schools, I urge those on the Government Front Bench to examine the evidence anew. Already today we have heard that state education authorities in Sweden have decidedly mixed views about the track records and the segregating impact of the free schools there. From America, there is already a growing body of evidence that leading educationists such as Diane Ravitch are railing against them. She described them recently as a "free market construct" designed by

"right wing think-tanks for the purpose of destroying public education and the teachers' unions".

In that one phrase the true agenda of the new right-wing coalition Government shines through, and it is a vision that I and others on the Opposition Benches will oppose with vigour and conviction.

I have had a lot of advice since arriving here as a new MP, all of it well meaning and most of it entirely contradictory-speak early and make a name for yourself, or bide your time for a decade or two; frequent the Tea Room with regularity, or shun it like the plague; never show weakness to the Whips, and never cross them either. I would like to thank all the honourable and venerable Members for these pearls of wisdom. However, I believe the best advice I have taken was not delivered first hand, but in the pages of a newspaper by the former deputy leader of the Labour party, Roy Hattersley.

Lord Hattersley stated that

"it is belief that sustains MPs through the unavoidable days of doubt and disappointment."

I am not sure about the next bit, as he went on:

"The pay is ... moderate. The conditions, though improved, are still inadequate. The status is equivalent to that enjoyed by snake-oil salesmen. Without clear convictions, life at Westminster is a boring waste of time. With them, it is a great and glorious adventure."

I have my beliefs and my convictions, and I intend to hang on to them. I intend my time in this place to be a "great and glorious adventure," at the end of which I will have made real improvements to the lives of people in Pontypridd.