I offer you my congratulations on your election, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also congratulate all those who have made maiden speeches this afternoon, not least my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, who spoke eloquently about his constituency and, like many others this afternoon, on the subject of football. As someone whose wife-who is in the Gallery today-is a fan of Liverpool football club and has, in my opinion, a rather worrying keenness on Steven Gerrard, I, like my hon. Friend Jason McCartney, will be trying to make the early acquaintance of Steve Rotheram.
I am proud to address this House for the first time as the first Member of Parliament for Central Devon. My constituency was formed from parts of five others, so it could be said to have five predecessors, two of whom I am pleased are still Members of the House. First, there is my hon. and learned Friend Mr Cox, who has set the highest standards in looking after his constituents-standards to which I aspire. Like most lawyers, he has never been slow to offer me wise counsel, but unlike most lawyers he has very graciously never charged me a penny for it. There is also the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend Nick Harvey. Although he is not a member of my party, he is often held by my constituents who were previously represented by him to be a bit of a Tory at heart. I am sure that that will be a good qualification for his new role as a Minister in our coalition, and I wish him well.
There are three other predecessors who are no longer Members of the House, the first of whom being Anthony Steen, who served as the Member for Totnes. I have found him to be immensely courteous always and sometimes marvellously eccentric. He is a compassionate man who has done a great deal of good, not least through his work addressing the dreadful situation of human trafficking, and I am sure that he will be missed by the House. Secondly, Richard Younger-Ross was the previous Member for Teignbridge, and a very hard-working and assiduous local Member of Parliament.
Lastly, and for me most importantly, I pay tribute to Angela Browning, the former Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who was held in great affection on both sides of the House. She could not have been more supportive, generous and helpful to me. She was hugely respected by her constituents, regardless of their political leanings, and I am delighted that she has now been elevated to the other place. In the coming months, I shall try to live up to these illustrious forebears, to be inspired by their example and to contribute to the House as they have done.
Central Devon is one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country. It is also one of the largest, covering some 550 square miles, including a third of Dartmoor national park, numerous beautiful and scattered villages and several fine market towns such as Okehampton, Hatherleigh, Chagford and Crediton, where, some Opposition Members might be pleased to learn, Ernest Bevin was schooled. They are welcome to come and visit, but strictly out of election time if they do not mind. Other market towns include Buckfastleigh, Ashburton, Bovey Tracey and Chudleigh.
My constituency is steeped not only in beauty but in history. In my home town of Ashburton, a once important stannary town occupied with the trading of tin, there still exist two venerable and ancient offices-portreeve, the representative of the monarch, and master bailiff. Both of those offices stretch back to the early 9th century, well before even your illustrious office had been conceived, Madam Deputy Speaker, and indeed to a time when the ground on which we now stand was little more than a marshy outcrop of the River Thames. I offer my congratulations to Mrs J. Distin, Ashburton's newly elected portreeve, who is the 1,189th holder of that office, and to Mr W. Shapley, our master bailiff.
Although Central Devon is an area of outstanding beauty and interest, it is not without its challenges and hardships. It is a constituency in which agriculture matters, so events that hurt agriculture have a major impact upon my constituents. In 2001, the foot and mouth outbreak was centred around the market town of Hatherleigh, with devastating effects. The pall of smoke that hung over that part of Devon from cattle being burned on their pyres will never be forgotten. Today, there is the challenge of bovine tuberculosis, which costs 30,000 cattle a year in this country and causes untold misery to Devon's farmers. I am pleased that this issue is receiving the vigorous attention of our Government.
Many other serious issues affect my constituency, including the underfunding of our schools compared with other parts of the country. Devon is ranked 148th out of 151 local education authorities in terms of central Government funding. There are many reasons why that position is too low. I will continue to press on this matter for the sake of our local children, who have a right to a fair share of education funds.
In this debate I wish to focus on schools, not least because I have a strong belief that the greatest gift that any young person can receive, after a loving family, is that of a good education. For those who choose the vocational path, it is vital that education be provided with the same energy and vigour as that afforded to the more traditional academic routes. I welcome the statement of my hon. Friend the Minister of State responsible for skills and lifelong learning that there will be an extra £50 million of capital expenditure for further education and an extra 50,000 apprenticeships. He should be congratulated, as we should remember that education and skills are important not just in and of themselves but to the life chances of our young people.
Education is the great highway of social mobility-for individuals to move on and up, in many cases escaping poverty and deprivation in the process. I say that as someone whose mother and father left school at ages 15 and 14, and whose life was transformed by the winning of a free place at a grammar school. The greatest opportunity ever provided to me, that school became the foundation on which the rest of my life was built. I would like to see others have the opportunity that I was privileged to receive.
I have long admired the ideas and the reforming passion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and my hon. Friend the Minister of State. They have fully understood the force for good that education and skills can represent, but they have done more than that. They have truly understood the disgraceful and inhumane waste that is represented by continued educational failure-the appalling destruction of life chances, especially among the least advantaged. It is they who have understood the extraordinary power of choice: that choice will drive up standards; that parents know better than bureaucrats; that giving power to those who otherwise just have to take what they are given is the key to raising up the less advantaged; that future generations must be sustained not just by hope but by taking control of their destinies; and most importantly of all, that there is an age-old truth that the quest to create a stronger and better society cannot be left to the planners, to the bureaucracies, to the well-meaning architects of the state, but must be gifted to those by whom the consequences of success or failure are most keenly felt.
The Government's radical agenda for education and skills will represent a vital journey-a true quest for equality, of a kind not that seeks to push down to some lowest common denominator, but that seeks to raise people up by providing choice and opportunity for every young person, irrespective of wealth, colour, race, creed and social background.
I thank the House for its indulgence and wish the Government every success in their vital endeavour.
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