Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Paying tribute to my predecessor is a task that I find very easy. Ann Widdecombe was a high-profile and eminent MP who worked very hard for the people of Maidstone and The Weald. She is a woman of great integrity, honesty and sincerity, and a lady I am very proud to call my friend. Ann has been one of our most colourful and controversial politicians, and I know that her pragmatic contributions will be sadly missed in this place. Happily, her clarion voice will continue to be heard in the media and beyond, and, on behalf of the House, I wish her well in her future endeavours.
The constituency of Maidstone and The Weald is the perfect mix of rural and urban life. The rural aspect of the seat stretches some 20 miles to the south of Maidstone, encompassing vibrant communities such as Cranbrook and Marden, and picture postcard villages such as Benenden. In the north of the constituency, we have Maidstone, the county town of Kent, which is also the home of the 36 Engineer Regiment. I should like to pay tribute to the bravery of our engineers and to remember their losses in Afghanistan. May God bless them, their families and their loved ones.
I must declare an interest in our armed services, as my eldest son, Ben, is a Royal Marine training in Devon. As a forces Mum, I am gaining an understanding of the tremendous pride that families feel, but also of the emotional rollercoaster that they ride each day. I hope that what I learn from my son's service will translate into something useful for our many military families.
I want to say something about social mobility. One of the greatest attributes of the British people is their belief in fairness, and it is that sense of fairness that supports the notion that whatever your starting point in life's marathon, it does not have to be your personal best for the rest of the race. If you try to move up the field, or even get into the leading pack, you should have the opportunity to do so. Aspiration, family and enterprise have been essential elements in my own personal journey. They are also fundamental in a society in which mobility can flourish and not flounder. I should like to say a few things about each of them.
I believe in opportunity and aspiration, and in the ability of individuals to achieve, progress and reach their full potential, whoever they are and wherever they are from, if they choose to do so. I came from a pretty humble start, but I was allowed to progress in life because I had the good fortune to engage with people who instilled in me the importance of working hard and aiming high, and values such as individualism, self-empowerment, choice, freedom, free enterprise, self-reliance and self-esteem. I hope that we, as politicians, can advocate and reinforce those values, because if we do we may be able to help many, many people to rise beyond the circumstances of their birth, and if we do that, society as a whole will prosper.
I also believe in the power of the family. I believe that the family is a fundamental and vital tool in holding society together. It can provide security, stability and commitment. In the family we learn how to give, how to share, how to be kind, how to care, and how to build relationships. Those are the foundations that people need in order to progress. Yet for many years the family has been badly neglected as an institution, although it is also key to dealing with issues such as gun crime, knife crime, teenage pregnancy, truancy and antisocial behaviour. I hope that we, as a Parliament, will do all that we can to support the family.
As for enterprise, it enables aspiration to become reality. It can also create wealth, independence and choice. I set up my first business when I was 11 years old, digging up old bottles from a Victorian dump in Carlisle and selling them at an old curiosity shop. I know that that sounds like something out of Dickens, but it is absolutely true. At one stage I was making about £2 a week, which was a lot of money in those days. I have always loved business, and I have always been enterprising.
In our country it has nearly always been possible to aim high, work hard, be resourceful, take a risk and make money, but that is changing. Over-regulation is strangling enterprise. Every accident is someone else's fault, and people are quick to talk about rights-but what about responsibilities? Even our employment legislation has become so potentially onerous that people must be very careful about whom they take on. Any redefinition of a job description can be construed as constructive dismissal, and any criticism of performance may equal "harassment". I often feel that I cannot give a bad but honest reference without fear of litigation.
The combined effect of all that is a massive disincentive to enterprise, which is bad for business and bad for Britain. I hope that, through this coalition Government, we can get rid of some of this nonsense, replacing it with a much more common-sense approach. In order to do that, however, we may need to promote and recruit Ministers and Government officials who have at least some direct experience of wealth creation, and who understand the importance of cash flow and the working environment in which we must all operate.
Our country is facing very difficult times. The House is debating an emergency Budget and the effects that it may have, but however we choose to rectify our financial position, we must strive to preserve the things that underpin our chances of success: aspiration, family and enterprise.
I thank the House for listening to my speech, and thank the fine people of Maidstone and The Weald for electing me and sending me here.