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Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech today. I follow distinguished speeches by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I do so with some trepidation, a feeling I am sure that they will recall from the time when they had to make their first speeches. It is an immense privilege to make a maiden speech in this great House, where so many extraordinary men and women have gone before. The sheer weight of tradition and history are overwhelming, and a reminder to us all of Parliament's ancient permanence, which is not to be tampered with lightly.
What a great honour it is to represent the people of South Dorset. The county is my home, and has been my family's home for generations, and I am proud to be elected to speak for it. I follow an almost unbroken line of Conservative South Dorset MPs, with occasional, notable exceptions. The most recent, of course, was my predecessor, Lord Knight of Weymouth-a title that will, no doubt, throw a few. I congratulate him on his ennoblement and on serving the people of South Dorset so diligently for nine years. Ironically, perhaps, fate threw us together before my political aspirations took hold. As a local BBC television reporter, I was, for some years, frequently sent to interview my former opponent. Little did we know then what lay ahead. Suffice it to say that his elevation to the peerage was splendid news to us all, and a relief to me.
My foray into politics ends a slight drought of Draxes here in the Commons. In an earlier deluge, six ancestors graced this place between 1679 and 1880-all representing the long-lost seat of Wareham. One, John Sawbridge Erle-Drax MP, spoke only once during the entire 32 years of his parliamentary career, and that was to ask the Speaker of the House to open the window. Unsurprisingly, he was known as the "Silent MP". After his death, he arranged for The Times to be delivered daily to his mausoleum through a specially built-in letterbox; mine is under construction. In view of his Trappist tendencies, for his descendent to be making his maiden speech a mere eight weeks into the parliamentary Session must seem like indecent haste.
South Dorset is a place of monumental beauty. The people are proud and fiercely independent. Years of history have forged this constituency, not least during the second world war, which saw its beaches, bases and ranges nurture tens of thousands of young men as they prepared to fight for our freedom during those dark days more than 60 years ago.
Today, the resorts of Weymouth and Swanage are home to a wide range of activities, from light industry and retail, to tourism and fishing. Farmers, the guardians of our countryside, and sadly neglected for so many years, have cared for the lush interior for centuries. Nor should we forget the quarries of Portland, which still offer up the stone for which the island is so famous. The island of Portland is also renowned by sailors for its huge tides, which offer great hope for future energy provision.
Another island in my constituency is worthy of note, not least because of its red squirrels. I am, of course, talking about Brownsea island, set in the middle of Poole harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world. The marshy southern reaches of those waters provide a spectacular haven for sailors, birds and wildlife, including the human variety, which occupies one of Europe's largest nudist beaches at nearby Studland. I have yet to arrange one of my surgeries there.
The entire constituency is dominated by our Jurassic coast, now a world heritage site. Dinosaurs once roamed the constituency-there is proof of it. Judging by comments made by opponents during the election campaign, people might think one was still out there. Maybe that is the case, but a strong Conservative heart beats underneath these scales, tempered for a moment with a dash of liberalism. I shall represent my constituents according to my conscience, without fear or favour.
On that note, and despite being at the bottom of the food chain at the moment, I sense a shift of mood in the House. The new intake, of which I am one, has brought with it a fresh perspective. While understanding the need for party cohesion, I believe that MPs should have their own minds and, above all, be mindful of those who put us here. That was very much my guide during my four years as a candidate, when I met a vast range of people who enriched my knowledge of the constituency. It was that experience that revealed to me that appearances can often be deceptive.
What do I mean? South Dorset may be lavishly endowed with natural gifts, but it has traditionally suffered from a lack of investment in its infrastructure. We have lost shops, pubs and bus services, and a shocking 50% of our post offices have closed over the past 10 years. Out of season, the hotels and guest houses fall silent. In Weymouth alone, we have six of the most deprived wards on the national index of deprivation. The fishing industry, quarrying, agriculture and the ports have all taken a knock during the recession, and although unemployment remains below the national average, wages are resolutely low.
We have two prisons in South Dorset, HMP The Verne and the young offenders institution. I have visited both on several occasions and work closely with the governors and the Prison Officers Association. The POA's plight has been ignored for too long. As in so many other areas, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. Today, officers feel powerless to do their job effectively as the prisoners appear to have more rights than they do. With 50% remission as the norm, it is difficult to apply meaningful sanctions to prisoners who do not toe the line. It is important to remember, in my humble opinion, that the Prison Service is just that-a service. Without proper support, officers will continue to feel, as they repeatedly describe themselves, a "forgotten army". I warmly welcome the Government's intentions on minimum sentencing and I urge them to look at the matter as soon as possible.
I also applaud the Government's interest in, and support for, our armed services. In South Dorset we have two major Army camps, Bovington and Lulworth. The courage and sacrifice of the families who live there cannot be overstated. Take, for example, just one of our county regiments, The Rifles. The regiment has now lost 53 riflemen in Afghanistan, and more than 200 have been seriously injured. That is the human cost of war. As a former soldier myself, I hold our servicemen and women in high regard. I am greatly reassured by the coalition Government's actions to ensure that the military covenant is properly respected.
As to the future, it holds great promise, with the Olympic spotlight well and truly focused on the best sailing waters in the United Kingdom. Already, top athletes are training for competitive events both this year and next in preparation for the 2012 games, all hosted by the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, the first Olympic venue to be ready and officially opened by the Queen herself. None of that would be possible without the co-operation of Portland port, the former naval dockyard now in private hands. Despite grim predictions at the time, the port now employs more civilians than it did in its heyday as a naval base. There are some exciting projects in the pipeline that promise hundreds more jobs.
I have entered public life because I could no longer sit on my hands and watch our beloved country lose her pride. There is so much to fight for. However, unlike my ancestor, who did not say a word for 32 years-I will not ask you to open the window, Madam Deputy Speaker-I have every intention of standing up for my constituents who put me here.
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