Mr Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to thank the people of the Hexham constituency for allowing me to represent them in the House of Commons. I will never forget that they are the people who put me here. I follow on from Peter Atkinson, and I must say that one could not meet a kinder, gentler man. He served Hexham for 18 years with great distinction and I pay tribute to the work that he did. I will do well to copy his calm and effective representation.
The Hexham constituency is the second biggest in England, stretching from the outskirts of Newcastle to the Scottish border, and down to the far reaches of south and west Northumberland. The town of Hexham, with its famous abbey, may be the centre of the constituency, but it is surrounded by hundreds of beautiful villages and towns, Hadrian's wall, the Pennine way, Kielder forest and reservoir, and Northumberland national park. While I am on the subject of tourism, I should mention that we are showing the way, as our scenery and history are second to none; ours is the land of the Romans, St Oswald, the marcher lords, Harry Hotspur, the border reivers and George Stephenson. Our area is at the heartbeat of history, having survived historical Scottish raids and political Liberal raids-I am pleased to say that both those former enemies are now our friends. I invite any hon. Member who has not visited our area to do so. Its people are second to none, and I shall do everything that I can to promote such a beautiful part of the north-east.
However, this special place also has serious issues that need to be addressed. My area contains hospitals that need to be retained, military barracks full of soldiers who need to be supported and schools that, despite the best efforts of the amazing teaching staff, have been underfunded and poorly supported for years. I should also mention our wealth of small and medium-sized businesses that need assistance to get through tough times. My family has run manufacturing businesses for more than 100 years since coming to this country as immigrants, so I am acutely conscious of the fact that the creation of long-term jobs will be at the heart of my role as the Member for Hexham.
Farmers are struggling, hill farmers particularly so, and they all say that the Government of the past 13 years were totally disinterested in the rural way of life. However, our area's biggest problem is the chronic lack of social and affordable housing, which is having an impact on the local economy and schools. To put it simply, young people cannot afford to buy homes in my area. Some planners call this "Cumbriafication", whereby a community is simply priced out of its birthright as all the families have to move elsewhere to live. If we do not stop this process, we will see the ever greater loss of our vibrant rural communities. But there are answers to this problem, because what is a speech in this great House without hope, aspiration, and an ability to believe that one's reach can exceed one's grasp?
We face a simple choice between supporting either the British farmer or still higher profits for the big supermarkets. We in this House have to make that decision, because the farmer simply will not survive without support in this House. We have a simple choice to make, and we should provide local homes for local people, decided upon by local people. We have a simple choice: do we allow village communities to slip away or will we halt the closure of post offices, shops and pubs? Without such amenities, the rural way of life loses its heart, its soul and so much more,
I have chosen to speak in the home affairs debate because I have spent too long as a criminal and civil barrister watching while Home Secretaries meddle with the criminal justice system to little positive effect. There have been dozens of criminal justice Bills in the past 13 years, very few of which were any good. No one has introduced a prison reform Act since 1952. I, like others, have worked at the criminal Bar, prosecuting and defending in many murder trials, and I have seen enough of the inadequacies of prison life to know that wholesale reform is required. To fail to reform the Prison Service would be a crime, because we are simply not solving the problem of crime and punishment. We have doubled the prison population in the past 18 years, yet reoffending rates remain in excess of 70%. We send more people to prison than anyone else in Europe, yet we are not safer. I will campaign for a better focus on sentencing, rehabilitation, drug testing and simple education in prisons. It is often said that too often Governments consult but do not listen. I want to ensure that the victim has a voice in this House. I am proud of the fact that the previous Labour Government, in their wisdom, gave me two separate national awards, one for my help to victim support and one for my campaign to challenge the state on unlawful hospital closures. I expect no such generosity from my hon. Friends in this Parliament.
People do not expect government to solve everything; in fact, in my experience, people are amazed when government does anything good at all. But we have a fresh chance, after the dark days of economic meltdown and a broken political system, to establish a new beginning. I accept that it will not be easy, but I am ambitious for my constituents and for this country. You will probably have noticed that I have fallen in love with the constituency of Hexham and its people, Mr Deputy Speaker-that is easy to do, because it is a very special place. I hope to play my part, however small, in delivering success for all the people of my constituency-that is an ambition worth striving for.