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I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech today in this debate on Government support for industry. I congratulate Dr Lee and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on their contributions. Over the last few weeks, I have listened to many maiden speeches and been very entertained-although probably not as much as I was today by the story of the cow-and taken on a descriptive geographical journey around many parts of this great nation.
It is a great privilege to stand here today in this wonderful place, having recently been elected by the people of North West Durham, the community that I was born into and grew up in. There is something very special in being elected to represent the people I grew up with, went to school with and still live among. I follow in the footsteps of Hilary Armstrong, who served North West Durham for 23 years and, before her, of Ernie Armstrong, her father. I have followed in Ernie's footsteps in more ways than one as he was a head teacher in Durham County and went on to be the assistant director of education in Sunderland, a job I followed him into many years later, before following him and his daughter as Member of Parliament for North West Durham. Both were first-class Members of Parliament, hard working and passionate about the north-east region and the North West Durham constituency.
Hilary is certainly going to be a very difficult act to follow. She was a social worker who brought practical skills and experience to this House. She was a strong, determined and persuasive female MP, at a time when there were even fewer female Members than there are today. She was immensely proud of her northern roots and a staunch defender of the north-east region. She had a long and distinguished career, holding several posts in government-not least Chief Whip-but it was her role as social inclusion Minister where she was truly in her element. Hilary was passionate about improving the lives of the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged in our society, and in that we share a common purpose.
For those who have never visited North West Durham, I can tell them that it is a hauntingly beautiful place and that they should plan to visit it soon. The towns of Consett, Crook and Willington are surrounded by small villages. The Durham dales and countryside surrounding that are categorised as an area of outstanding natural beauty. That contrasts sharply with the countryside as I remember it as a child, when it was black and covered with coal dust, but all that has now gone. I do not know why I should be surprised at that-given that it is sandwiched between north Yorkshire and Northumberland, it was always going to be beautiful under all that coal dust.
Durham has a long and proud industrial history. It was heavily dependent on coal mining, steel production and heavy engineering. Every village had a pit and Consett was a steel-making town. North West Durham, our industries and our people suffered terribly during the Thatcher years. The closure of Consett steelworks resulted in unemployment among the male population reaching almost 100%. We lost jobs and we lost industries, but there were some things that even the Thatcher Government could not take from us-our communities; our resilience; our fortitude in the face of unemployment, poverty and deprivation; the warmth of our people; and the way in which they care and work for one another. That may be linked to what the Prime Minister now refers to as the "big society", but we in the north-east think of it fondly as socialism.
North West Durham, like most of the post-industrial north, has undergone an economic and social revolution in the past 13 years, with the support of the last Government. Educational outcomes, which are very close to my heart, have been transformed. We now have some of the best schools in the country, with the best performances. Sure Start centres are ensuring that our children have the best beginning to their academic lives, and our young people now go on to further and higher education in much great numbers than was possible before. There are more good, sustainable jobs; people are better off; health and housing services are much improved; our local economy has been given the time and support needed to adapt and diversify; and the food and renewable energy industries and tourism now thrive. The biggest employers in North West Durham, outside the public sector, are International Cuisine and Derwent Valley Foods-a sign of the diversification of our industries and jobs. Renewable energy and green industries were being established in the north-east region with the help of the last Government, and I sincerely hope that they will continue to be supported by the new Government.
Like Ernie and Hilary Armstrong, I have spent much of my career working with, and supporting, vulnerable young people-in my case, specialising in special educational needs. I will be campaigning on behalf of these young people in the House and will speak on SEN and disability matters whenever I have the opportunity. I will be looking to Members from both sides of the House to support me in advancing the interests of this group of disadvantaged, and very often marginalised, young people. I will also be championing the cause of children living in poverty, because I have seen first hand too many times the links between poverty and educational under-achievement. It is simply unacceptable that children in receipt of free school meals-a clear indicator of poverty-on average do progressively worse at school than their peers, that young people with parents in manual occupations are far less likely than others to go to university and that only one in six students at top universities come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
With the recession and the return to power of a Conservative Government, backed by their Liberal Democrat friends, my people fear a return to the desperate situations of the 1980s and early 1990s. They fear for their jobs, their homes and their children's future. The public sector in my constituency employs 6,100 people, and I am especially worried about them, particularly given the Prime Minister's warnings about what he has in mind for the north-east. In order to grow, the north-east needs a work force who are highly skilled and possess diverse, adaptable and technological knowledge. There are real opportunities for us to seize, in tourism and the renewable energy industry, that have the potential to bring jobs and growth to the north-east, but to do this the Government need to show that they have faith and confidence in the region-the kind of faith and confidence that employers such as Nissan have shown and which the previous Government had in my region.
I will work ceaselessly as the MP for North West Durham-the constituency I was born into-and for the people I grew up with and whom I am proud to represent in the House.
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