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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today. It is a great honour to address the House for the first time and it is with some trepidation that I follow the excellent maiden speeches of so many Members.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Phil Willis, who served with great distinction for 13 years and built up a significant, thoroughly deserved personal reputation as a fine, hard-working constituency MP. I wished Phil a long and happy retirement, which may have been a little too early, because as soon as I had done so he was made Lord Willis.
I am only the fifth person to represent the constituency since it was created. One illustrious predecessor is the hon. James Ramsden, who became the MP nearly 60 years ago and was our country's last Secretary of State for War. James once confided to me that there were not many of "us Macmillan's Ministers" left now. I have not checked, but I think James is a member of a very small club.
Further back we had some rotten boroughs-the need to equalise constituency size goes back a long way-and over time they were represented by three Prime Ministers. However, the most famous political figure, if I may call him that, with links to my constituency is someone who played a big role in the history of this place: Guy Fawkes, who spent his childhood in the village of Scotton.
When I first arrived here, Members were introducing themselves to each other and asking where they came from. As soon as I said that I came from the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency everyone said, "Ah, lovely part of the world." They were right. The Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is Yorkshire at its very best. I am proud to represent such a beautiful area, with its mix of historic towns and villages and rolling countryside.
Knaresborough is by far the older of the two principal towns, and is a very pretty market town with a marvellous natural setting. It has a river and a gorge, a castle and a crag, and a fascinating history. Earlier this year, there were great celebrations on the 800th anniversary of the first award of Maundy money, which took place in the town. I am always struck by the real community spirit in the town, perhaps best exemplified by the annual Knaresborough bed race, which is organised by the Knaresborough Lions and took place only a few days ago.
Harrogate is a spa town, perhaps most famous for its gardens and tea rooms. A regular winner of the Britain in Bloom competition, it is true that the gardens are beautiful, and Betty's tea rooms are justifiably famous for their quality. They are a Yorkshire institution. I should perhaps confess that I have a lot of knowledge of that company, having worked for it, so there is a direct interest. But there is more to Harrogate than that. The quality of life there is very high, based on a robust local economy, which has a mixture of quality companies that operate in a diverse mix of sectors, including one of the UK's largest conference centres.
Many hon. Members will have visited conferences at Harrogate and so will have experienced the transport links, which are poor, especially the rail links. Only 18% of the 350,000 visitors per year to the conference centre travel by rail. More direct trains between London and Harrogate would be far more convenient for visitors to the conference centre, thus boosting business and having a beneficial effect on the broader business community. I will be working to highlight that and to fight for improvements, although I am under no illusion how difficult that will be, given the appalling state of the public finances inherited from the previous Government.
Our public services are good, with motivated public servants delivering quality health care, education and other services, yet over the past couple of years, I have started to receive calls from people who work on the front line of those services to highlight the bureaucracy that they have to endure and, interestingly, what they see as the waste of public money. Contributions from those who deliver services on the front line will be absolutely crucial in ensuring that we make the right decisions in the changes ahead.
One of the reasons for the high quality of life in Harrogate and Knaresborough is the quantity and range of community groups and social enterprises. I have been particularly impressed on my visits to social enterprises such as Paperworks, Claro Enterprises, Horticap and the Little Red Bus. Numerous voluntary groups do so much to add to the quality of life in our area, and there are 400 charities registered. I have seen the difference that volunteering and social enterprises make, and I welcome the Government's support for the third sector.
Harrogate is also the home of Army foundation college, where our junior soldiers train before being sent to their regiments. It is a fine organisation. It does great work with the 16 and 17-year-olds who join it from a very diverse set of backgrounds, yet all leave with pride and confidence in having made great achievements. I am always conscious that, whenever we hear of a casualty in Afghanistan, there is a high likelihood that that person spent some time training in my constituency. The junior soldiers whom I have met at the foundation college are a credit to our forces, and I strongly welcome the Government's support for our forces.
One thing that I often hear about my constituency is that it is very affluent-parts of it are, that is true-but there are pockets of poverty, which are sometimes overlooked: perhaps pensioners living on fixed incomes, or people who live in rural areas or who work in the hospitality industry, where incomes are often very low. It may surprise hon. Members to know that the average wage from jobs in the area is £440 per week. That is less than both the regional and UK average.
I mentioned earlier that Harrogate and Knaresborough is the best of Yorkshire. In my constituency, we have one of the most desirable areas to live, a successful and diverse economy and an engaged community, yet one of the lessons of the recent election was that people fear that what they have may be under threat. I heard comment after comment from people fearful of the scale of debts facing our country, knowing that the action to deal with them would not be easy. People have understood that the need to tackle the issue was urgent, but that there would be better times ahead when the consequences of the previous Government's debts are dealt with.
There is a lesson from Harrogate on the benefits of clearing debts. The local council has been active in repaying its debts, keen to clear liabilities and save taxpayers paying for interest. Paying interest does not appeal to Yorkshiremen and women-we are famous for liking value. Paying interest is using funds that could be put to better purpose. In this case, I believe that the money that is being saved will be used to expand the local recycling service. The contrast is stark: paying interest, or investing in environmental initiatives. In less than three years, the council will be debt free-the consequences of a good Conservative administration. It will take us far longer than that to clear the debts that we have inherited.
It is crucial for us all to get our economy moving, and I support very strongly the Government's efforts to create the right environment for businesses to thrive. The cuts announced yesterday in corporation tax rates, with the expansion of entrepreneurs' relief and the small business relief, mark a clear change of direction on business taxation, and that will be very welcome in Harrogate and Knaresborough.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that it was important to say that Britain is open for business. Well, I will be highlighting the fact that Harrogate and Knaresborough is open for business.
A further part of the right environment for business is the emphasis placed on education and skills. In Harrogate and Knaresborough, we have excellent primary and secondary schools. We also have Harrogate college, which is launching a business school tomorrow.
I have already met the representatives of rail operating companies and local education providers, because I know how critical it is to have a robust business sector, built on adding value. That is my background before I joined the House.
The trust placed in me by the people of Harrogate and Knaresborough is a great honour, and I take that trust very seriously. I pledge to use my time here to speak up for my area and everyone in it.
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