Economic Affairs and Work and Pensions

Part of Speaker's Statement – in the House of Commons at 7:06 pm on 8th June 2010.

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Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay 7:06 pm, 8th June 2010

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak here today for the first time. I am delighted to follow Jonathan Edwards, and I share his determination to secure a Robin Hood tax on international financial transactions. As it happens, I had the pleasure of knowing his predecessor from my time studying in Aberystwyth, and I am sure he will be a worthy successor.

St Austell and Newquay is a new seat that stretches from coast to coast across the heart of Cornwall; it is a unique constituency. It includes many places that hon. Members will have visited. St Austell and Newquay are Cornwall's largest towns, but they are sharply contrasting, and the villages at the heart of my constituency could not be more different from those along the coast. It is a diverse seat: rural, urban, coastal, industrial and agricultural. I was born and bred in the constituency and I am proud to call it home.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced a boundary review. It seems that as well as being the first Member of Parliament for St Austell and Newquay, I may also be the last. In the context of today's debate-I say this tongue in cheek to the Conservative Whips-perhaps it is only the sizes of our constituencies that will be increased by the Government rather than cut. However long I am in this place, it will be the privilege of my life to represent the people with whom I went to school and grew up, and with whom I live and work.

Members will be familiar with the picture postcard image of Cornwall, but they may be less aware of what lies behind that. We have by far the highest water bills in the country, yet some of the very lowest incomes. We do not have enough jobs, and those we have tend to be low- paid and seasonal. Thousands of people cannot afford a place to live in the communities in which they grew up. Indeed, I may be the only Member who was still living with his parents when he was elected.

Those are the challenges that face the people whom I represent, and my predecessors-Matthew Taylor, Colin Breed and my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson-made a huge effort to tackle them. Matthew Taylor's review of affordable housing is the best route map out of the housing crisis that we face in rural areas; my hon. Friend's work to secure the Walker review on water charges has led to a real-terms cut in water bills in Cornwall; and Colin Breed helped to develop the tax policy that will be implemented by this Government and will lift millions out of poverty. All three of my predecessors have shown a record of action in the best tradition of the first Liberal MP for Truro and St Austell, David Penhaligon. If anyone in this place doubts the impact we can have, they should knock on doors in my constituency and hear people talk about Mr Penhaligon almost 25 years after his untimely passing.

I do not mind admitting that that is a lot to live up to-as with other hon. Members, the bar in my seat is very high-but I welcome the opportunity to continue to tackle the problems we face in Cornwall from the Government side of the House and with the principles that underpin the Government's agenda: freedom, fairness and responsibility. People who are trapped in poverty cannot be free. The need to work day in, day out just to make ends meet erodes the freedom to have a quality of life to which we should all be able to aspire.

I therefore welcome the Government's commitment to raising the threshold at which people pay tax to £10,000 over the course of this Parliament. That will take many thousands of my constituents out of tax entirely and give hard-earned money back to everybody else. It will increase the freedom of those I represent, and by spreading the tax burden more evenly across our society, it will be fairer. I also welcome the re-establishment of the link between pensions and national average earnings. That is the fair thing to do and it is a step towards ending the pensioner poverty that blights Cornish communities.

The first step towards people being able to lead a responsible life is for them to have a place of their own in which to live, so I welcome the moves the Government will be making to bring empty homes back into use. There are 8,000 empty homes across Cornwall, and 1,400 in St Austell and Newquay alone. These homes should not be standing empty while so many people are in housing need.

I welcome the scrapping of the absurd regional spatial strategy, which would have led to so much of Cornwall's countryside being concreted over with little gain for those in real housing need. Other measures, such as the promotion of shared ownership and community trusts, will do much to ease the housing crisis in Cornwall. I would like this Government to go further, however, by allowing local authorities to set a limit on the number of second homes in a community. Local needs should come first. Following recent announcements, councils now urgently require clarity about the criteria they will use to determine future housing provision.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I went twice. Statistically, I should not be here. My grandfather was a clay worker, my parents are separated and my secondary school was in the state sector. I am a gay man from an average working-class Cornish family. Access to education changed my life chances, and I have come to this place to extend to others the social mobility and opportunities that have so benefited me. If we are to tackle the poverty that bedevils parts of Cornwall, we have to give people the chance to make the very best of themselves. We cannot have a fair society if people do not have the chance to make the most of their talents, and it will not be a free society if people cannot use their abilities to achieve their dreams.

The community I grew up in and now represent understands the values this Government are promoting; indeed, they are summed up in Cornwall's motto "One and all". However, the people who sent me here will be keen to make sure that the burden of addressing the problems facing Britain, which were caused by the Labour party, falls on those most capable of carrying it.

This debate has highlighted some of the difficult choices we face. We in Cornwall have been let down by successive Governments, and in playing my part in making those difficult choices I will never forget that we need a fairer funding deal for Cornwall. I hope that now my party sits on the Government Benches, the issues I have touched upon this afternoon, and that my predecessors have campaigned on for decades, can finally be addressed, not "drekley", as we say in Cornwall, but today.