First, let me say how delighted I am to see in the Speaker's Chair a neighbouring MP who has given me so much support over the years. I should like to pay tribute to other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today: Steve Rotheram and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and for Battersea (Jane Ellison). The last is a good friend; she stood in my constituency back in 2005, and she is still remembered fondly in the local area.
To stand here and make my maiden speech is a tremendous honour, particularly in the light of those who have previously represented the constituency of Pendle, or, as it was formerly known, of Nelson and Colne-men such as Sidney Silverman, David Waddington and, for the past 18 years, Gordon Prentice. In fact, while researching for my own speech, I learned that Sidney Silverman's maiden speech back in 1935 lasted 22 minutes and was on the merits of socialism. I am delighted to tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I can both make a maiden speech and dismiss the merits of socialism within 22 minutes.
It is traditional to start a maiden speech by paying tribute to one's predecessor, and despite the fact that Gordon Prentice was my opponent in the recent election, I have no hesitation in doing so. Gordon Prentice was a principled politician and committed to many causes. He was an independent thinker who rebelled against the last Government on issues such as tuition fees, the Iraq war and post office closures. He was an active Back Bencher and I feel that Gordon demonstrated to us newer Members that we do not have to hanker after ministerial office to achieve something in the House.
As I said in my acceptance speech just five weeks ago, it is the greatest honour of my life to be elected to represent Pendle. Located in the hills of the Pennines in north-east Lancashire, and some would say beyond, Pendle offers some of England's finest countryside, including Pendle hill, from which my seat takes its name, as well as beautiful villages and busy towns.
The area is rich in history, not only with the story of the Pendle witches, which brings many visitors to the area, but with our industrial heritage with the Leeds-Liverpool canal, numerous mills and other incredible feats of engineering. The old industries of cotton and textiles have now all but disappeared, but the industrious spirit of the area remains as strong as ever.
Next weekend, my constituency plays host to one of the biggest events in the UK's cycling calendar, with the national road race championships taking place through the villages of Roughlee, Barley and Newchurch. It is a great opportunity for us to showcase some of our award-winning villages and boost the local tourism trade, which is an increasingly important part of the local economy.
Pendle is a place of contrasts, where we have severe deprivation next to relative affluence. It is a place where mosques sit side by side with mills, highlighting the large number of my constituents who came originally from Pakistan or Kashmir. One of the first issues with which I had to deal as a Member of Parliament was the senseless murder of three of my constituents, the Yousaf family. They were gunned down while tending a family grave in Pakistan. Their killers are yet to be brought to justice, and I am committed to doing whatever I can to ensure that the family obtain justice through the Pakistani courts. On that issue as well as many others that affect my constituency, I will be at the forefront in pressing Ministers and holding the Government to account, so that the people of Pendle always know that they have a strong voice here in Westminster.
The M65 ends in my constituency, in effect creating one of the biggest cul-de-sacs in the country. As a result, most of those who wish to travel cross-country by road take alternative routes. We also lack rail connectivity. I pay tribute to the work of SELRAP-the Skipton East Lancashire Railway Action Partnership. That group's aim is to reconnect Colne and Skipton, Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the north-west and the north-east, and I applaud its efforts.
We have some of the lowest house prices in the country. There is a high rate of empty and unfit homes, as people have moved away from the area and absentee landlords have bought homes and sometimes entire streets. It is clear to me, representing as I do some of the cheapest streets in Britain, that regeneration work remains vital to the long-term sustainability of the area.
We lack an accident and emergency department since ours was transferred from Burnley to Blackburn-which is 15 miles away-under the last Government, despite the protests of local people. The local primary care trust now wants the children's ward to be transferred as well, but I am encouraged by the assurances of the Secretary of State for Health that NHS service changes are now subject to review. I look forward to him visiting Burnley general hospital tomorrow, along with my hon. Friend Gordon Birtwistle, who made an excellent speech a few moments ago.
The people of Pendle are hardy folk, and we face up well to whatever situation we find ourselves in. That is probably best typified by one of Pendle's most famous sons, whose memorial in Colne is close to where I live: Wallace Hartley. Hon. Members who are not familiar with the name will, I am sure, be familiar with the story: Wallace Hartley was a violinist, but he was also the bandmaster of the Titanic on her maiden voyage.
I am proud to represent a seat where a higher proportion of the work force are employed in manufacturing than in any other constituency in England, and I am delighted that manufacturing is back on the national agenda. I was also delighted to read in the coalition agreement that rebalancing the economy is a key Government aim and that the Government are committed to boosting the provision of workplace apprenticeships.
More than 8,000 people in my constituency are employed in manufacturing, producing everything from Silentnight beds in Barnoldswick to the biscuits that are sold in Harrods, which are produced in Nelson. It was a real pleasure for me, as a candidate, to visit so many of those firms over the past four years. It was a particular pleasure to take my right hon. Friend Mr Osborne, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, to visit Rolls-Royce and Weston EU-two great British companies, working in the vitally important aerospace sector, that also have fantastic apprenticeship schemes. They are real companies providing real jobs that generate significant value added for the United Kingdom. That brings me to the topic of today's debate: the need for us to build a high-skilled economy.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting Nelson and Colne college. The college has a long-standing tradition of academic excellence, and since 2005 it has twice been judged "outstanding" by Ofsted. It provides academic and vocational sixth-form education for about 1,700 people-the vast majority of young people in my constituency-but I believe that among the things that make it so special are its unique pre-professional programmes and its outstanding apprenticeship provision, with success rates well above the Lancashire and national rates. Its tailor-made employer provision includes 14 individual apprenticeship frameworks to meet the needs of local and regional employers.
It would be far better to address the current skill shortages in the economy by supporting colleges such as Nelson and Colne and fostering their links with business than by pursuing the last Government's attempt to ensure that 50% of students went to university. However, we must also recognise that four out of five people who will be working in 2020 are already in the work force. Given the damage done to occupational pension funds by the last Government and the probable increase in the state pension age, people are likely to be working for much longer than ever before. So we must have a strategy that ensures that training is not just focused on young people but provides incentives to employers to support lifelong learning and celebrates the good employers who are already doing that.
We also need a fair deal for British manufacturers, so that we can continue to be a world leader in sectors such as aerospace. British industry has been hampered by too much tax and regulation for too long. We know that tough times lie ahead because of the legacy left to us by the previous Government, and that will make building a high-skilled economy even harder. However, I look forward to working with the Government to address the challenges that we face, while never shying away from speaking out on behalf of the hard-working people of Pendle.
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