Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the last time that you will be able to call me. It was a great privilege working with you when we were doing opposite jobs, as Chief Whip and Opposition Chief Whip.
I first saw inside the House of Commons in about 1972. In 1970, Cannock elected a Conservative Member of Parliament, Patrick Cormack, with one of the biggest swings in the country in that general election. Like any new Member of Parliament, he went round the local schools and invited us to come down to the House of Commons to have a tour. I came down in about 1972, and I remember it well. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere, the beauty of the place and the history of the building—so much so that I remember saying to one of my best friends at the time, John Beresford, “I’ve decided what I want to do in life.” He said, “What’s that, Patrick?” and I said, “I want to come back to the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament.” I will always remember him saying to me, “If I was you, I’d keep that a secret.” It was not the kind of place that a comprehensive schoolboy from Cannock would end up.
Leaving school at 16, I became involved in the youth wing of the Conservative party, and I fought my first general election in Wolverhampton South East in 1983. It was a great campaign but an unsuccessful one, when the Conservative party overall was doing incredibly well. I made several unsuccessful attempts at winning other seats, and I began to think that my friend John was right. But as we all know in politics, things happen suddenly. All of a sudden, a by-election was called in West Derbyshire, and I was selected as the candidate, when Matthew Parris, who has been a lifelong friend since then, decided to pursue a career in TV.
I would like to pay tribute to the officers of the West Derbyshire Conservative association in those days, particularly Geoffrey Roberts, who is sadly no longer with us, but his wife Josie still lives in Bakewell. They took a bit of a gamble in 1986, selecting a 28-year-old who was hardly a typical Tory—somebody who left school at 16, had not been to university and had gone through 12 months of a coal strike. With our successful campaign in that by-election, and with my charm and personality, I managed to take a very safe Conservative seat with a majority of 15,500 to one with a majority of 100 votes.
I came into the House of Commons on
That is how I came to represent one of the most beautiful constituencies in England. It is a constituency dominated, to a great degree, by the Peak District national park. The Peak district is within an hour’s drive of 60% of the UK population, and some weekends it feels like they all come. The Peak District national park is a very important part of our country. Obviously it has strict planning rules and regulations, but I want to see people living in the national park and not priced out of it. We must bear that in mind.
We have a number of important market towns in Derbyshire Dales, not least Wirksworth, Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock. They are thriving market towns, but at the moment their high streets are under tremendous pressure. I do hope that the new Government will think very carefully about how they can support our market towns and our high streets—that is incredibly important—and avoid putting extra unnecessary costs on them, or if costs are put on business, make sure they are across the board, including for the internet companies, which at the moment do not quite share their full burden.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to serve in this House with my right hon. Friend, but will he give the House a pledge that he will not write his memoirs, or if he changes his mind and does decide to write his memoirs, that he will make no reference at all to what happens in the Whips Office? Does he agree with me that whipping, like stripping, is best done in private?
I agree partly with what my right hon. Friend says. If he does not mind, I shall say something in a few moments about the Whips Office that may or may not get his approval, but let us see.
Less than a year after I entered the House of Commons, we faced a general election. I have to say that it was an unusual election as far as West Derbyshire was concerned because two parties got what they wanted. My Liberal opponent had posters up and down the constituency saying, “100 more votes this time”. I am very glad that he got his extra 100 votes, and I was even more pleased that I got an extra 10,000. Let us leave that to the side, but we should be careful what we wish for.
In 1989, I was invited by Margaret Thatcher to join her Government, and I went as a junior Minister to the then Department of Transport. One of the first issues that landed in the area I was responsible for, within a few weeks of my being at the Department, was the terrible Marchioness disaster on the Thames. As we have done in the previous debate, dealing with people who have suffered such tragedies is one of the more difficult parts of life in government, as it is when, as Members of Parliament, we have people who are hit by tragic circumstances and incidents that often cause the loss of life and the like. I think most Members of Parliament go out of their way to do whatever they can to help.
I served in several Departments before John Major appointed me to the Whips Office in 1995. I spent 17 years there, becoming one of the most long-serving and perhaps, as far as my party is concerned, long-suffering Whips. When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party in 2005, he made me the Opposition Chief Whip, and then he made me the Chief Whip in the coalition Government in 2010. There, I was really ably assisted by John Randall, who is now in the other place, as my Deputy Chief Whip—really a man of great and outstanding ability and high principle—and by Mr Carmichael. I see in his place Norman Lamb, who was also in the Whips Office.
I have to say that I never dreamed for one minute that I would ever serve under the right hon. Gentleman in any capacity in this place, but I found myself doing so and I found myself enjoying it and respecting his leadership, so I thank him for that.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think, with the problems we inherited, that there was a lot the coalition Government did of which we can rightly be proud.
I was Chief Whip for a considerable time, and I have to say that I was greatly assisted at the time by two people in the Whips Office to whom I want to refer—Sir Roy Stone and Mark Kelly. Roy Stone is basically the usual channels, as you well know, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is true that there have been only four people to hold the position of principal private secretary to the Chief Whip in the last 100 years, and Roy himself has been doing it since November 2000. The House, the Government and the Opposition have a great servant in Roy, and I really want to say a big thank you to him for the work he does. I think he would say that there is never a dull moment in what he does.
I would like to say a few things about the Whips Office, which I think is quite often misunderstood both inside and outside this place. Contrary to some of the wilder stories, it is the personnel department of any parliamentary party, dealing with a wide range of issues both personal and political.
Well, everybody is allowed to have their views. All I can say to my right hon. Friend is that she ought to have to deal with some of the people the Whips Office has to deal with.
I would like to say something to all people who come into this House of Commons. Whatever they think about the Whips Office and about the party system, very few people would get into this House on their own ability; they get here only because they belong to a major political party or a political party, and I think that is sometimes forgotten by them when they get here.
In 2012, David Cameron gave me the option of becoming Secretary of State for Transport. As Chief Whip, I was aware of the offer just a little time in advance of the reshuffle, so I had time to reflect on it. It was a big step to move from the back office of politics to the front office, or to the frontline, as it so often seemed, particularly in those first few weeks at the Department for Transport, where I had of course started as a junior Minister some time before.
I remember very well, Madam Deputy Speaker, you coming to me on that Monday afternoon, when I knew what was going to happen to me, and you told me that the Opposition day debate on Wednesday was going to be on rail fares. I did try to say to you that I did not think this was a very good idea and could you not find a different subject to take on. The next morning you realised why I might have suggested that, but as usual you stuck to your guns, and I found myself responding to such a debate that week.
I found my four years at the Department for Transport one of the most fascinating periods that I spent in government, and it was a huge privilege to be the Secretary of State and head of a major Department such as that.
I would just like to put on record that during the right hon. Gentleman’s spell as Secretary of State for Transport, a company—it will be unnamed—came to me in desperate straits over a problem that involved the Department for Transport and other countries, and it would have gone out of business within 10 days had it not been resolved. I took it to the right hon. Gentleman, we had a discussion, he did what was necessary and that company was saved, with about 120 jobs, and I would just like that to go on the record.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I said, it was an incredibly rewarding period.
Within a few days or weeks of being there, I found myself having to phone Richard Branson to explain why his company was going to keep the franchise for the west coast main line, although he had previously been told that Virgin had lost it; that conversation I remember well. I would like to say at this point that it is fair to say that people such as Richard Branson and Brian Souter have done more for rail passengers in this country than many Secretaries of State, and they have improved our railways in a very dramatic way. I hope that, whatever plans come in the manifestos, we do not lose the involvement of the private sector in the railways. They have transformed our railways, and I think that is partly as a result of the private investment we have seen.
I would like to take this opportunity, if I may, to pay tribute to some of the superb civil servants who supported me in my role. Among them, in my private office were Mark Reach and Rupert Hetherington, as well as Philip Rutnam, who was the permanent secretary for all the time that I was there, while Phil West was my principal private secretary for the entire four years I was at the Department. I had excellent special advisers—another often misunderstood role—in Ben Mascall, Simon Burton and Tim Smith, as well as a constituent of mine, Julian Glover, who knew more about the railways than anybody I have come across and would give me the history and everything else. He has written and had published not so long ago a book on Thomas Telford, “Man of Iron”, and it is great authoritative writing. People such as them who bring outside expertise straight into the political arena are really very important.
I was encouraged by the unswerving support of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, who were both great infrastructure enthusiasts—so much so that one of my problems as Transport Secretary was that, when visiting a construction site, I was always third in line to get a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat. In 2015 I was reappointed by the Prime Minister. I remember him saying, “Patrick, you’ve been going up and down the country promising all these schemes.” I pointed out that I had only done so after he had promised them in the first place, and that it would have been difficult to row back on promises made by the Prime Minister.
Talking about infrastructure, one of the fascinating aspects of returning to the Department where I began my ministerial career was that I could appreciate fully just how long and difficult these major projects are. Crossrail is a good example. When I was first in the Department, in 1989, I remember the then Secretary of State saying, “We’re going to build Crossrail.” It is now being built. It has been delayed and gone over budget, but it will make a tremendous difference to London once it is finished.
That brings me to High Speed 2. HS2 is not about speed; it is about capacity. It is about building a modern railway that is fit for our times and for a modern country. I could spend a long time talking about HS2, but I think that might try the patience of my right hon. Friend Sir David Lidington, which I do not want to do. I accept the problems that he and his constituents face as a result of HS2, and those concerns must be listened to. However, I will find it ironic if I can take a high-speed train from London to Brussels or Paris, but not to Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. It is absolutely essential that we increase our capacity.
As we prepare to leave the European Union, I well recall the Cabinet meeting on the Saturday morning after David Cameron had returned from the negotiations —given that he has written about this in his book, I can now break the rule not to speak about Cabinet discussions. I said in that meeting, “I would love to live in Utopia, but the trouble is that I would wake up and find that the EU was still there.” We have to be realistic about what we want from Europe. We are leaving the European Union, and it is right that we do so—we said that we would be bound by the result of the referendum, and I strongly believe that—but it is the European Union that we are leaving, not Europe. We must make sure that we get a good trading relationship with the rest of Europe as quickly as possible.
I will still be living in Derbyshire Dales. I shall miss tremendously being its Member of Parliament and being at the centre of things there. I am sure that I will still enjoy the company of so many good people, but it will be a different relationship. After 33 years, it is time to move on.
One of my greatest supporters and helpers has been my wife. It is fair to say that she has always been my strongest supporter in public—in private, she has often told me the truth, and I have been the better for it. I first entered the House in a by-election, and it was chaotic; after six weeks of campaigning, I arrived here in the thick of it. I decided only last week not to seek re-election, and I have to say that my departure feels the same. One of the best pieces of advice that my wife ever gave me was when she was helping me with a speech that I was preparing. After typing it up, she looked at me and said, “Patrick, I’ve never known you to make too short a speech.” On that note, I want to end by thanking everyone, including all the officers and staff, for their help.
I rise to make my final contribution after more than 36 years in this House. As I said when I announced that I was standing down, it has been the honour of my life to represent Rother Valley, a constituency that I first moved to at the age of eight, when my father, a Durham miner, moved to the south Yorkshire coalfields.
Having been elected in 1983, my baptism came very shortly after, when 4,500 miners went on strike for 12 months. With the Orgreave coke works in my constituency, I was kept on my toes. That was followed by three years as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Leader of the Opposition. I learnt quite a lot of things that I will not be sharing this afternoon—I am not even tempted to talk about the Whips Office, as Sir Patrick McLoughlin has just done.
The major work that I have done in the House is with Select Committees. When I was first elected, I served on the Energy Committee, and then for a short time, I was a member of the Environment Committee. I chaired the Health Committee for five years, from 2005 to 2010. One of the earliest things that Committee did was to secure a free vote in the House on bringing in a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places. Some people said at the time that it would be the end of the world as we knew it, but now people say that it is the most popular piece of public health legislation that the House has ever introduced. I spent eight years chairing the Committee on Standards, until September last year. We did not have quite as great a result as we did with the smoking ban, but my intention all along was to ensure that this place was better thought of by the people outside who elect and send us here. I think that to some extent we were moving along quite nicely on that, until something happened in 2016 that seems to have knocked us back quite a bit. Select Committee work is something that I have enjoyed.
With regard to local achievements, clearly there are many, but the main achievement that I and my staff have had over many years is dealing with individual casework, for the people who come along and need help, perhaps because they have been unable to communicate their concerns. I have always said that I have been a voice for the voiceless in Rother Valley, speaking up on their behalf. Another thing I have been involved with in the constituency is coalfield regeneration. The advanced manufacturing park is now in the Rotherham constituency, but it used to be in Rother Valley when it was first put in by a Labour Government. It shows that we are recognised as having some of the finest manufacturing anywhere in the world. That came out of the old Orgreave coke works and the coalmine site. Such developments have transformed parts of south Yorkshire, and my voice and that of the Government were there for that on many occasions.
Finally, I want to say a few words of thanks to some individuals. For the last eight general elections, my friend and colleague Alan Goy has been my political agent. All Members will know how important it is to have a good relationship with their political agent. I also want to thank the staff who have supported me during my tenure. I will thank, in particular, my current staff, Sheena Woolley, Jacquie Falvey and Natalie Robinson, who support me in the constituency, and Kate Edwards and Michael Denoual, who work here in Parliament.
As the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales said, your wife is a massive support in this job. Sadly, I lost my first wife Carol in 2008, but Andree, who I married a few years ago, has been a pillar of support. It would be difficult for anybody to do this job without that type of support at home.
I do not want to turn this into a full-scale Oscars speech, so I will end by thanking the people of Rother Valley, who I have been honoured to represent. Whoever wins the seat at the election, I hope that they will feel the same satisfaction representing it that I have felt for many years.
I am grateful to have an opportunity to take part in this debate and to pay tribute to so many colleagues who are moving on. It is a particular honour to follow my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin. Indeed, it was a telephone call from him that first heralded my appointment as a Minister. I could hear the deep reluctance in his voice, verging on disbelief, as he announced that the Prime Minister had appointed me. He then had a moment of fun at my expense when he told me—he obviously knew me very well—that I was off to the Ministry of Agriculture, before revealing that I was in fact going to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In fact, things went from bad to worse after that phone call, because my sole contribution, apart from irritating the Chief Whip during my first five years in this place while on the Opposition Benches, was to write a blog in which, with the oncoming age of austerity, I recommended that the first thing we should do as a Government was to get rid of Government cars. Straight after my right hon. Friend put down the phone, my new private secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport rang me—I felt tremendously important— and said, “Minister, would you like to come into the Department?” I said that, yes, of course I would. They said, “Minister, shall we send your car?” I paused for a moment. I thought of myself, as I have always been in this place, as a man of great principle and then said, “Yes, please send a car.” [Laughter.] Two minutes later, there was another phone call: “Minister, the Secretary of State has read your blog and he has cancelled your car.” I never had a car for the six years that I was in the Department.
My right hon. Friend’s speech also reminded me of my own glittering political career in this place. I have always wanted to do the Queen’s Speech address, so that I can recount to the House some of my great political successes. Standing in 1997 in Bristol East, I managed to turn a 5,000 Labour majority into a 17,000 Labour majority. Then, when I was selected to succeed Robert Jackson in the seat of Wantage, he and I worked hand in glove together for three years—father and son, Laurel and Hardy—with never a moment apart. After working with me for those three years, Robert Jackson turned around and defected to the Labour party.
I was lucky enough to succeed Robert Jackson in 2005 to become the Member of Parliament for Wantage and Didcot, and it is a tremendous privilege. I rechristened the constituency Wantage and Didcot, although I can never get that past the Boundary Commission. Didcot is the largest town in the constituency, which also includes Wantage, Faringdon and Wallingford. I sensed from my right hon. Friend’s speech that all of us in this House believe that we represent the best constituency in the country. The great advantage of Wantage is that it literally does have everything, from an ancient white horse to a 21st century space cluster with 90 start-up companies. It has Europe’s leading business park, Milton Park, a technology business park with life sciences, the European Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult, Williams Formula 1, farming, small businesses and a huge sense of community. I think the one thing we all learn in this place as Members of Parliament, if we did not learn it beforehand, is the tremendous power of community and social organisations in our constituencies. Again and again, we know the tremendous amount of work that volunteers do in every part of society in our constituencies to make things happen and to make them work, often with very little thanks or recognition.
My constituency—I hope this does not sound arrogant or come out in the wrong way—suffers in different ways from other constituencies, in that it suffers from the problems of success. The issues that come across my desk relate to economic success: concern about the growing number of houses and whether there is adequate infrastructure, such as roads and schools, to support it. There are other important issues, such as reopening a provincial railway station, Grove station, to provide better commuting for all my constituents, and sorting out the problems at Wantage community hospital. The biggest issue that faces us is how to cope with the impact of economic success in this area.
I just want to touch on two other topics before I sit down. I probably should not bring up Brexit—we were all having such a lovely time before I did—but I just want to put on record, as someone who has got into a bit of trouble on this issue, what happened. I supported the Prime Minister’s position when he first became Prime Minister, to leave with a deal, otherwise we would leave with no deal. Funnily enough, I thought the no-deal threat was better aimed at this Parliament, rather than at Europe. It was only the out-of-the-blue Prorogation that made me feel that Parliament should have a moment where it put in an insurance policy to ensure that we did get a deal, but once a deal came back I was very happy to support it. I was happy to support the programme motion, and I hope that if the Prime Minister comes back with a majority, he brings the deal back and rams it through. I would certainly support him in that. I am not a remainer or a remoaner; I am a leaver-with-a-dealer. I hope that that is what can happen after the election.
Although I lost the Whip, I am a fan and an admirer of the Prime Minister. I have known him for many years. Generally, every single political prediction I make is wrong, but I did predict two years ago that he would become Prime Minister. I also said that, looking at his record as Mayor of London, he would make a fine Prime Minister. I think he will. As I look at my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Duncan, I can see him nodding in agreement.
The final issue I want to raise in my speech is that, despite the then Chief Whip’s concerns, I was lucky enough to serve for six years as Minister with responsibility for the arts, telecommunications and technology. The telecoms part of the brief was a complete accident. It came to us when we were in opposition, because the then telecoms spokesman was Mr Clarke. When it was pointed out that he did not even own a mobile phone, my right hon. Friend Mr Hunt rather deftly stole the policy and took it over to DCMS. When I got that Department, the then Prime Minister had such faith in me that he tried to take the telecoms brief away from me and give it to my hon. Friend John Penrose. Thankfully, he was married to a woman who was the chief executive of a telecoms company at the time, so I held on to that fantastic brief, as well as that of the creative industries of film, television, advertising and video games. I just want to say two things about those two areas.
First, the arts are tremendously important. We have the most incredible arts ecology. That is a terrible word to use for such a beautiful subject, but we have the most incredible museums and arts institutions in this country. I think it really is only in this place that they are not appreciated. When I go abroad, people marvel at our museums and how we support the arts in this country. If only we could have a system similar to the system we have for international development, where the arts have a guaranteed budget—not 0.7%, but bigger than it is at the moment—we would get so much more from them. We already get such a tremendous amount.
On the creative industries, we perhaps like to mock luvvies but that is completely wrong. One of the reasons we have not dipped into recession in the past couple of quarters is the contribution made by the British film industry. I told the then Prime Minister that he had as much right to appear on the set of James Bond as at a widget factory, because it was making a massive economic contribution to our country.
On technology, we are the leaders of Europe in technology investment, start-ups and technology companies. As we move towards delivering Brexit, I urge all policy makers in this House, when Parliament returns, to look at technology as one of the key areas that will drive the 21st century post-European Union British economy.
When I see Mr Vaizey, I always recall my right hon. Friend Frank Field talking about seeing him in his nappies when he was young. Seeing again how young he obviously is, I am very sorry that he is leaving the House. One thing we have in common is the arts. A lot of Members spend their evenings in the very wonderful part of my constituency with the Southbank centre, the National Theatre and so on.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that he has to be re-elected, of course, but he is not retiring. [Interruption.] Now I am very unclear whether he is retiring or just putting himself forward for re-election—fine.
Like Sir Patrick McLoughlin, who spoke first in the debate, I came in at a by-election in 1989. I will not go through my whole history, but I just point out that it is very different being a Member of Parliament who is literally five minutes away from their constituency. He was my constituent in Kennington for a very long time and he took a great interest in many of the community events; I am very grateful for that. Coming in as a new Member in that by-election back in 1989 was very different: we had no television covering the house, no mobile phones, no emails, no 24-hour news—it all sounds wonderful now. Members who come in now probably do not really understand how different it was 30 years ago.
Some of the improvements have been wonderful. For example, I waited for an office for a very long time. All the things that are now done for new Members did not happen then and we were very much left to find our own way. I should also say that I do not like some of the changes. I am very pleased that we have a new Speaker who will be extremely fair and show the kindness—quite honestly, I am not a hypocrite—that the previous Speaker did not show to Members, and I hope that the new Parliament will realise that some changes from the so-called modernisation do not necessarily change the standard of the debate in this place or the way that people behave. I think we need to look at that very carefully, and I hope that the new Speaker will do so. There is not just the question of clapping. Practically every tradition in this House has been introduced over the years for a reason. I remember being one of those people who came in and immediately said, “Why are we wasting so much time in the Division Lobbies? Why are we not getting through right away? Why are we not able to not vote in a different way?” However, I would not dream of voting to get rid of the Division Lobbies now, because it is such a useful time to talk to people from both sides of the House—if someone is not always voting with their party, as I have not been a few times—and to see Members from our own party. I spent most evenings going over to Vauxhall to community meetings, friends groups and tenants associations, so I did not have the luxury of being able to stay around in the House and have lots of nice meals, with the wonderful catering staff and wonderful food. We need to be careful about modernising this place so much that it is treated in a way that loses the absolute value of history that we have in this place.
One part of my life that will be very unhappy about me leaving is my wonderful, old, traditional, original Mini, because it literally knows its way from the House of Commons over Westminster bridge and back over Lambeth bridge. Some days I would do the journey perhaps two or three times, so my Mini will get a great rest when I leave, and it will not know what has hit it now that it will not be doing that journey.
I want to say a couple of very important thank yous. This place is made up of people who work so hard for us all and who very often do not get the thanks and tributes. I thank all the members of the Royal Mail, for example—the postmen and women who have delivered our mail and have been so kind over the years. I thank Yiannis in the Travel Office, who has been fantastic. Most importantly for me, as someone who came in and was not in any way computer-savvy—I still do not really like technology—one person in the Digital Service, Balj Rai, has been just wonderful. He knows exactly how to be patient with someone like me, and I thank him.
Finally, I want to thank my personal staff. I have had Kathy Duffy working for me for 26 years—I must not get emotional; this is silly. I have had Max Freedman for 15 years; Lara Nicholson for 11 years; Ada During for six years; and my wonderful paralegal Ashleah Skinner, who has done a brilliant job, for four years. They have all made my life here so much better. I also thank all my constituents who have sent me such wonderful letters and shown kindness. I will not miss many of my party political activists, but I will miss my constituents, my community organisers and the people who really wanted to work with me to make Vauxhall a better place. One thing I said when I came in here was that my country would always come before my party—and it still does.
I was first elected to this place as the first Conservative for 25 years to sit for the constituency of Darlington in the north-east of England. I have never forgotten that particular weekend. I set off on a train on the Sunday afternoon down to London and the buffet bar was closed. Somebody must have told the steward that the new MP for Darlington was on the train—I had been on television a bit—and he suddenly appeared with a tray of tea and toast and said, “We can’t have the new MP for Darlington going off hungry to take on his responsibilities.” He then stood there, shook his head and said, “Mind you, what hope have you got with all those Tories?”
Along with my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin, who made the most splendid speech today, I had the privilege of serving—perhaps unusually—four Prime Ministers. I first served Margaret Thatcher as her Schools Minister and then John Major in the same capacity. With my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke, we set up the first proper independent inspection service of our schools, Ofsted, and we ensured that school exam results were published and available to parents. It is extraordinary to think now that the exam results of individual schools were locked away in the director of education’s safe and that parents were not trusted with that information.
I later had the equally unusual experience of working as deputy to two Liberal Secretaries of State, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Not only was that interesting, but it turned out to be quite a constructive experience. When the history of the coalition Government is written, perhaps we will see some of the benefits of that working together.
That period had a rather unusual ending. The day after the 2015 election, around lunchtime, I was called by David Cameron and reappointed as Secretary of State for Defence. As I was leaving the Cabinet table, he said the Secretary of State for Industry had handed in his resignation and the permanent secretary wanted somebody to be in charge for a couple of days while the rest of the Cabinet was assembled, so for a few hours I was Secretary of State for Industry. As I was picking up my papers, he added, “The Secretary of State for Energy has also handed in his resignation”, so I said, “Fine, I’ll have a look at that as well”. Then, as I was leaving, he said, “And the Secretary of State for Scotland has resigned”. So for a day or two I held those four portfolios together.
I then had the most enormous privilege of all: working with our servicemen and women at the Ministry of Defence for three and a half years, leading them in the campaign against Daesh, resisting the challenge of a resurgent Russia and playing an important role in NATO. There can be no greater privilege than serving in that Department with the many willing and brave servicemen and women who have committed themselves to the service of our country. I want to put on the record my thanks to them all.
I would just like to thank my right hon. Friend for all he did in that role, particularly the way he kept Members of Parliament on both sides of the House so well briefed. When the history books are written, they will show how seriously he—together with his colleagues in the armed forces and his ministerial colleagues—took that incredibly important role. I thank him for that.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. It seemed to me incredibly important to keep the confidence of the House, having won its support back in 2015 for airstrikes in Iraq and then for their extension to Syria. Of course, that we were able to keep that confidence was down in no small part to the precision of our pilots and their skill in difficult conditions in minimising civilian casualties.
My successor will inherit a thriving and prosperous constituency. My constituents enjoy a good quality of life, remarkably low unemployment, a wide choice of schooling, frequent rail connections to the capital and the protection of the green belt—over 90% of my constituency is green belt—but there is still work to be done, including on the regeneration of Swanley, one of the other towns in my constituency, especially through new investment and the promise of a fast link service from Maidstone and Otford through Swanley to the city of London.
We also need to ensure that boys in my constituency have access to grammar school places. Whether you like it or not, Kent offers an 11-plus system, but Sevenoaks was the only district in Kent that did not have any grammar school places. I was delighted that after a 15-year campaign we managed to establish a girls’ school annexe, which has been open now for a couple of years, but we still need to ensure provision for boys’ grammar school places alongside it. We also need to continue to protect our green-belt protections in Sevenoaks. The Government’s unrealistic housing targets will put pressure on that green belt, though I know that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are conscious of the need to balance the demand for new housing with our commitments to protect the green belt.
I hope that this election campaign will not ignore some of the longer-term challenges our country faces. We have spent an awful lot of time—perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly—debating the withdrawal agreement. In the end, that agreement only dealt with Ireland, our payments into the EU budget and the rights of EU citizens; we have not started yet on the major negotiation that really matters for business and jobs in my constituency, which is our future trading relationship, and I fear we have not yet started to explain to our electors some of the trade-offs that will inevitably be involved as we come to deal with the challenge to agriculture, financial services, the aerospace and automotive industries and our fisheries, and accommodating their legitimate right and desire to trade freely with the European continent with the views of our partners.
We will have to quickly put in place the security partnership that has long been promised in various documents the Government have issued—I fear we have spoken far too little about this—and make sure there is no cliff edge at the end of January or February in the policing and judicial arrangements that our constituents expect and in the way our agencies work with other agencies across the European continent to deal with terrorism and organised crime. We will also need to work with our former partners in the EU to continue to uphold the rules-based international order. We do not debate foreign affairs nearly enough in this House. When I first entered Parliament, in the ’80s, we had much more regular debates on international affairs.
We are dealing with a resurgent Russia that is in breach of many international conventions, whether on nuclear arms, chemical weapons or the protection of sovereignty under the Helsinki accords. We are dealing with a very ambitious China that is flouting the law of the sea convention, which it has signed, and continues to steal—there is no other word for it—the world’s intellectual property. And we are dealing with a mercantilist United States that is degrading the World Trade Organisation and slapping sanctions even on its friends in pursuit of a policy of “America first”. When it comes to holding the rules-based international system together, there really is a role for the leadership among the western nations, and particularly for our own nation here in the United Kingdom.
Let me end by thanking all those who have helped me so much over the last 31 years, particularly the staff in my office.
I am not able to contribute with a speech, but—with some licence from you, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for enabling me to intervene and express my strong personal view that he was one of the most effective and competent Ministers with whom it was ever my pleasure to serve. I think that that view is widely held on this side of the House.
Perhaps, through my right hon. Friend, I can express my personal thanks to the people whom I need to thank, not least my parliamentary staff, Jamie, Rosie, Ann Taggart and, in particular, Jill Brown, who is a parliamentary institution of her own. She came into this place in 1974, with my dad, and continues to go the extra yard on behalf of constituents, and for that she will always have my gratitude. Again, I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for letting me intervene.
I am very grateful too, for the opportunity to allow my right hon. Friend to put that on record. I am only sorry that he cannot do so more formally.
Let me finally echo the thanks expressed by others to the Clerks and the staff of the House, and, in particular, single out the staff of the Library. They are, perhaps, a dignified part of our constitution, but they are almost certainly one of the most effective parts, and we owe them a very great deal.
I wanted to allow others to go first, but thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was elected in the middle of a miners’ strike, in 1984, to the seat held at one time by Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour party. When he was the MP, it was called Merthyr and Aberdare, although people often leave out “Aberdare”. I am afraid it is quite likely that when the boundary commissioners get to work, my constituency will disappear altogether, but fortunately they have not got to work yet, and while there is still a Cynon Valley, I am very proud to have represented it from 1984 until today.
I am standing down at this election with a heavy heart, especially as there is so much that I would still like to do. I have a long shopping list, and I have not completed the shopping. I do hope that other people will carry on and shop on my behalf, because these are all issues for which I think we can all campaign.
One of the things that I am proud of is that when Tower colliery, in my constituency, was going to be shut by a previous Administration, I managed to sit down the pit for 27 hours. The Government of the day argued that the pit was uneconomic, but we kept it open for a further 10 years as a result of some of my efforts. The men who worked there, and the people in the community, were very pleased that that happened. I do not think that I have ever recovered after spending 27 hours down the pit.
When I was a journalist, before I became a politician, one of the things for which I campaigned was compensation for miners, and for those with pneumoconiosis in particular. I am very pleased that when Tony Blair came into government I was able to advance that cause far more; in fact, I reminded him every single week that miners’ compensation should be arranged much faster than it was, because miners were dying without getting the money. So I am very pleased we did that.
I was also concerned about coalfield regeneration, and one of the issues I am still concerned about is the reclamation of some land that was used for industrial purposes. The land in question covers 150 acres, and is a prime flatland at the bottom of a valley; there are not many valleys with so much flatland. On that site there was a Phurnacite plant that produced smokeless fuel, and when I was first elected it was one of the worst industrial polluters in the whole of Britain. We managed to get it shut down. Then there was a battle to get the toxic waste—tonnes and tonnes of it—taken away from the site and taken elsewhere. They wanted to bury it on site; I asked where else that was done and they said, “Nowhere,” and I said, “It’s not going to be done here.” So that toxic waste was taken away.
I am pleased that with the help of the present Secretary of State for Wales we are working on greening the site, because the people there have lived with the dirt and dust for all these years and they cannot use that land, even though there are two lakes there and wildlife is returning: there are swans and kingfishers, and there is foliage that was never there before. The people in that area really should be able to enjoy recreation on those lakes and on that land, instead of having to push themselves under a fence in order to get on to it. I am pleased that we are in the middle of working on that, and I would like to have seen that work completed.
I worked too on the north Wales child abuse cases, because children were abused in my constituency. One of my most harrowing memories is listening to the survivors of child abuse, some of whose lives never returned to normal. I hope all the child abuse cases are concluded fairly rapidly.
I feel strongly about improvements in the health service, because I think I am the only person still alive who was on the royal commission on the national health service, the only one there has ever been. I remember our chairman, Sir Alec Merrison, saying at the time that unlike other royal commissions, our report would not gather dust. It did gather dust and continues to gather dust, however, but some of its recommendations are so worthwhile that I commend them to the present Administration.
When I lost my husband seven years ago I had arguments with the health authority in Wales—it is a continuing argument—and I am grateful that David Cameron had the foresight, if I may say so, to ask me to run an inquiry into complaints in the NHS in England. I would like to have done the same thing in Wales, because I was very pleased to be able to do that, and pleased that all our recommendations were accepted. More cross-party work on such issues, which we all care about and all want to see improved, would be valuable.
I speak Welsh—rwy’n siarad Cymraeg. I took my oath in Welsh and English, and I hope that one day it will be possible for Welsh to be a language used as a matter of daily life in this place as well. In the European Parliament, of which I was previously a Member, we managed to get substantial sums of money to assist the Welsh language there. I was very pleased that when I first got there in 1979 Barbara Castle was our first leader. You learned a few tricks from Barbara Castle. The first was that you got on with the other nationalities, if you could. Barbara never did, actually. I remember the leader of the German Socialists turning round to her one day and saying, “Barbara, you’re not in your national Parliament now.” That did not stop her. I do not think she ever got round to the idea of being in the EU, but I was pleased and proud to be there. I learned a lot of things, including how to vote electronically, which, after yesterday’s experience is perhaps something that will be sold to other Members. It certainly speeds things up.
There are other reasons why I was pleased that I went there first, before I came here. I have to say that it was a cultural shock for me to come here, because I had not realised how delusional people here were. I will tell you why. It was because we gave the impression that we did everything better than everybody else, when in fact there were many examples of other countries doing things better than we did, and I was pleased to have had the opportunity of experiencing that.
I was sacked by two party leaders—[Interruption.] Not for incompetence! First, I was sacked by Neil Kinnock for voting against the defence estimates. Then I was sacked by Tony Blair for going to Iraq at a particular time, which is particularly ironic. I then became the special envoy on human rights to Iraq. I have to say that I do not have quite the same fond memories of the Whips Office as some colleagues on the other side.
As the right hon. Lady knows, she and I came into Parliament on the same day—I think it was
Thank you very much. Yes, I remember our first few days here. If you come in in a by-election, it is always more difficult to assimilate. I am glad that my hon. Friend is still here. I have not always agreed it with him, as he well knows, but I respect him for his diligence and persistence, because those are two things that a Member of Parliament needs to do: to be diligent and persistent, and not to give up.
One of the things I have been keen on doing is the promotion and protection of international human rights, and I have given my long-standing support to people in other countries, in the middle east, Turkey, Cambodia and East Timor. We always have arguments in this place about the arms trade, and I do hope that we are ultra-careful in future about who we sell arms to. One sadness for me is that we did not manage to get a report out in the last Session of Parliament on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A sustained and strategic use of the parliamentary mandate and platform is therefore crucial to furthering causes and ensuring that the Government of the day are being properly scrutinised. Parliamentary questions and debates are important, and I found out that I have spoken in debates in the House 2,200 times. That is a useless fact, but somebody produced it today.
A friend of mine in the House of Lords, Baroness Quin, phoned me a short time ago. She was in the European Parliament with me, and she reminded me of various things. She and I were in Senegal for a women’s rights conference—I do not know how many years ago—and suddenly there was a phone call for Joyce Quin to say that Captain Kent Kirk had landed on the coastline of her constituency to protest about fishing rights. Joyce was getting phone calls all the time from her constituents, who had no idea she was in Senegal. Of course, very often our constituents did not realise that part of our work was travelling to other countries and contributing to debates there.
I have been committed to cross-party scrutiny through my long-term engagement with the International Development Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Arms Export Controls. I have also chaired the all-party parliamentary human rights group for many years, which has allowed me to work with colleagues from all over the world from across the political spectrum to raise awareness of serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law, as well as giving victims a voice and supporting them in getting reform and redress. Human rights is thereby depoliticised, as it should be. Some colleagues have also worked on the executive of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
I have supported the work of the Inter Parliamentary Union. We do not talk enough in this place about the IPU, particularly the British group, which enables me and fellow BGIPU members to communicate concerns, including human rights, when countries sometimes have to be called out. We build greater consensus on big issues and crises facing the world, such as climate change, international development, poverty alleviation and the refugee crisis. I pay tribute to the staff and secretariat of the IPU and highlight the work of its committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, which I have chaired several times and of which I was a long-time member. My vision for the Cynon Valley, the UK and the international community is unfinished business, a lot of it, as far as I am concerned.
Most of all, I thank people in the House for their friendship, comradeship and support. I mean all sections of the House, particularly the doorkeepers, because when I was hobbling around on my new knee, I had great assistance from them. In fact, I got quite to rely on them. They gave me every help and they still do, even when I say “No, I'm all right now, thank you. I can get to the back row now, so you do not need to help me any more.” Particularly to all my colleagues and friends, I want to say that this has been a great place for building friendships. I thank you all and I am very sorry to be leaving you all.
I want to ensure that everybody gets a fair crack of the whip, so if colleagues could stick to about eight minutes, we can get everybody in and they would all have equal time.
As long as nobody heckles me, I am sure I will absolutely be able to stay to time.
I want to start by saying a massive thank you to, first of all, my office team, who are up in the Gallery. They have done an absolutely incredible job for so many Members here over many, many years. I have to point out particularly the long-suffering Kate and Nikki. Without their assistance and support and that of the rest of the team that I have got with me today, I would never have been able to do any of the rest of the things that I have been able to achieve for my community in this place.
Other Members have explained what it was like for them when they first entered the House. For me in 2005, winning back Putney from the Labour party was quite big news, and I found myself in the middle of a media storm from minute one of my time as an MP.
Michael Howard came down the next day to, as I thought, congratulate the brilliant team at Putney Conservatives who had helped me with that amazing victory. I stayed up all night organising his visit as the great leader, and he promptly turned up and resigned right by my side. Perhaps the best legacy from the few months that he had left in his role in 2005 was that he got back together a parliamentary party that had been in opposition for quite some time. He had us talk through different policy areas, and we discovered that, other than arguing about Europe, we had much more in common than that which divided us.
My time in this House has obviously been the greatest privilege of my life. I did not plan to be an MP, but I did it because I think people matter. I hope that I have always been a strong voice for people in Putney on the issues they care about, and I have simply sought to take their priorities and make them mine. My campaigning on Heathrow was perhaps an early indicator to the Whips and my party that I would stand my ground on local issues that matter to my community. I started my time here doing that, and I like to think that I have finished my time here doing that not only on Brexit, on which speaking up for local communities is crucial, but on a whole range of other issues, such as air pollution, quality of life, aircraft noise, and improving our transport. We were able to modernise Putney station and get improvements to Southfields station, and the lifts at both stations now mean that the whole public can access local public transport. I am particularly proud of those things, and I was on the case for getting a lift at East Putney station, and I very much hope that my successor will do the same.
I tirelessly campaigned on serious issues such as youth crime and policing. In fact, my very first Westminster Hall debate was on youth and youth crime, but I am sorry to say that things have not moved on as much as perhaps they should have done in the intervening 14 years, and this House still debates the very issues that I was debating as an incoming MP.
I want to reflect on the hugely important role that community groups and residents associations have played in my local community. Brilliant charities such as Regenerate, which works on the Alton estate in Roehampton, play an amazing role in inspiring young people to make more of their lives. There is the brilliant Putney Society—the ultimate residents association in Putney—and then, of course, there are incredible residents associations in Southfields, such as Southfields Grid, Southfields Triangle, and Sutherland Grove Conservation Area. All those organisations bring our community together and make it what it is, and I am so proud and delighted that I have been able to work with them for so many years.
I have had probably more roles than most in this House. I started my time in government in the Treasury team with the then MP for Tatton, George Osborne, carrying out an emergency Budget to ensure that this country’s finances did not go the way of Greece’s, and I have reflected on that as we have debated what a no-deal Brexit might mean for us. I quickly discovered as a Minister that I had the ability to make a difference way beyond even perhaps what people might have thought my brief was, so I got stuck into looking at the tolls on the Humber bridge, and I was delighted that I was able to get them reduced. I ended up with a beer temporarily named after me in that part of the country, and that meant a lot to me because I watched the Humber bridge open as I grew up. I was delighted to be able to make a change that meant that it can be a successful piece of infrastructure that joins two wonderful communities, rather than dividing them.
From there I moved on to the Department for Transport, where I had to make sure that transport enabled the 2012 Olympics and did not get in the way of them being the triumph they were. I worked with the then Mayor of London, who went on to do other things, including becoming Prime Minister. I am proud of that work, because hopefully we made the Olympics accessible to millions of people who did not have to worry about being suddenly stranded.
From there my journey took me to the Department for International Development, which often operates out of the sight of our country. I could not be more proud of the truly world-class team in the Department. We worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Defence on Ebola, and we did pioneering work to bring education to children caught up by the terrible crisis in Syria. We took a decision in DFID that we would do our level best to make sure those children grew up educated and able to read and write. So much of the Department’s work happens out of sight of the British public, but the British public should be rightly proud of that work, which stretches beyond that to girls’ education and responding to humanitarian emergencies such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. I am truly honoured to have had so much time in that Department.
After that, my final Cabinet role was perhaps my dream role: Secretary of State for Education and—perfect—Minister for Women and Equalities. I was the first LGBT woman in Cabinet and, of course, the first Secretary of State for Education to be educated at their local comprehensive school, and I am only too happy to have those two firsts and to have put something back into a school system that built me into being able to do anything with my life and to achieve what I have achieved.
It was brilliant to be able to work with the most inspiring teachers I could have ever hoped to meet. It is a fantastic profession, and I would say to anyone who is thinking about what to do to make a difference with their life that they should go into teaching, because that is where they can shape the future. It was a privilege to be able to work with people in that profession, and it is one of the reasons why I focused so much on their continued professional development.
I am very concerned and upset about my right hon. Friend’s departure, not least because somebody else will have to bring the jelly babies for us at Prime Minister’s Question Time. She has spoken at length about her extraordinary contribution to this House and to her community, but she has not yet mentioned one of her greatest legacies and interests, which I know she will continue outside this House, and that is her complete and utter obsession with social mobility. We all desperately want more to happen on that score in this country.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and he brings me on to why I am here today as a Member who is departing the House. I have served my community and my country in Parliament for 14 years, but the mission that drives me more than any other is social mobility. It has characterised my life, and it is crucial to the future of our country and to making it a country in which there is equality of opportunity so that everybody gets the chance, and indeed the right, to use their talents. Part of the solution to delivering that is in government and in Parliament, of course, but the other part of the solution is surely outside this place. Working with businesses and organisations is part of how we will get opportunities to more young people. Through the social mobility pledge, I will be continuing to work on social mobility and, indeed, scaling it up.
When I look to the horizon and where our country’s journey is going next, I recognise, understand and agree that this House will rightly remain obsessed with Brexit, but there will be a time after that. I want to make a constructive and positive contribution to social mobility, and I want to make sure that, when we get to that point, I am able to show that businesses are part of the solution for getting more opportunities to more young people. We must reflect on that and build on it further.
I rise to give my final speech in the House. I stress that, notwithstanding the difficulties of the politics and the role of Parliament at this moment, my reasons for standing down are essentially personal. I have been here for 19 years, but it does not seem a minute since I gave my maiden speech. My enthusiasm for politics is undiminished and my commitment to the values that have always driven my political activity is still there. However, my birth certificate and the fact that last year I had to have a second hip replacement are timely reminders that we cannot always take for granted that we will have time available to do everything else that we want to do in life that, unfortunately, being here precludes us from doing. I have therefore made the decision to move on.
Before I talk about more general issues, I would like to express a few thanks, as other Members have done. First, I wish to thank my constituency and its electors for re-electing me six times. I am a strong pro-Europe remainer. My constituency voted 70% for Brexit, but their undiminished support for me is both a reflection of the broadness of the views they have on many things and perhaps a salutary warning to the Prime Minister on his election strategy. I have been privileged to represent a genuinely multicultural constituency, one that is heavily industrialised. Behind those often unprepossessing facades, there are small businesses that are at the cutting edge of our manufacturing technology and drive the revival in our civil aviation and motor industries, which has made us the pride of the world and contributed a huge amount to our economy.
I wish to thank my family. I want to start by thanking my wife Jill for her unstinting support. As Sir Patrick McLoughlin said, such support is always there in public but it is often slightly more critical in private. Her support has always been valuable. I thank my stepson Danny, who always found me a complete embarrassment when he was a teenager. He is now a trade union organiser and a councillor to boot. I also want to thank my party for backing me all these years and the Co-operative party for its backing, too. I had a long spell as a Co-operative party organiser, and I have always been strongly committed to co-operative and mutual values. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity it gave me to work for the party and the backing it has given me here. In addition—not finally—I wish to thank Councillor Lorraine Ashman and Councillor Maria Crompton, who have been my assistants in West Bromwich for 19 and 18 years respectively. They are brilliant and their expertise is fantastic, and I know that, with the work they have done here for me, they have changed the lives of many individual electors in the constituency. I would like that recognised.
I said that my birth certificate told me it was time to go. That caused me to look back, and I realised that I have contested 10 parliamentary, one euro and five local government elections. I first worked in the 1964 election as a student Labour activist. I recall heckling Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Peter Walker, the father of Mr Walker—I keep reminding him of that—and Jeremy Thorpe. I will come on to more about him in a moment. I first contested a parliamentary election when I was just 24, in South Worcestershire, against a character that older Members may remember, Sir Gerald Nabarro. I went on to contest Nantwich a couple of times in the 1974 elections, and then the Wirral by-election. That brings me to what is possibly a unique niche I have in political history: I have contested two by-elections nearly 25 years apart and both on the retirement of the Speaker. It was Selwyn Lloyd in 1976 and, of course, Betty Boothroyd in West Bromwich West in 2000. I have to say that I remember the West Bromwich election a lot more fondly than the Wirral one, because 1976 was not a good year for Labour. It was even worse for the Liberals, though, because it was the height of Jeremy Thorpe’s problems. I remember exchanging pleasantries with him over a loudspeaker when he came to speak for the Liberal candidate during the campaign. I think I halved the Liberal vote and doubled the Tory vote. A week later, Harold Wilson resigned; I have always felt a bit guilty that I was perhaps personally responsible.
When I first contested an election at 24 years old, I thought I would get into Parliament as a fairly young man, but unfortunately I ran into a couple of problems. First, I have always been fundamentally committed to Europe, and at that time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Labour party was fundamentally opposed to it. Secondly, I was always a multilateralist at a time when the Labour party was committed to unilateralism. I realised that my parliamentary prospects were evaporating in front of me. However, I was then lucky to be employed by the Co-operative party. That movement gave me the opportunity to continue in politics, albeit in another capacity, to be my own person and to promote my own values and ideals, notwithstanding the fact that I could not do it in Parliament.
I remember an interesting occasion in 1981, during the big deputy leadership contest between Benn, Healey and Silkin. I was rung up and asked to go to Liverpool, Wavertree to speak on behalf of Denis Healey. Now, in common parlance, in political terms that is a bit of a hospital pass. The debate was dominated by Derek Hatton and the Militant Tendency. I was debating a representative for Tony Benn and a certain person by the name of Doug Hoyle, father of the current Speaker. I remember that my powers of oratory and persuasion enabled me to get exactly no votes—there were 12 abstentions.
I am running out of time so will move on and make a couple of quick observations. It has been an immense privilege to work here. I have seen how Parliament has become more powerful vis-à-vis the Government. My five years as Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee was one of the most rewarding things I have done, and I want to see the powers of Select Committees enhanced, because they not only hold the Government to account but give the Government the insight into just how their policies are playing out on the ground, without the—shall we say—translation that comes from the layers of civil servants who advise their Ministers. Select Committees are a tremendous enhancement and a really valuable part of Parliament.
I wish to thank everybody. Despite the sharp and confrontational exchanges that take place, there is an underlying comradeship and community feeling among those here that I have always found valuable. I wish my successor and everybody who comes after me all the best with the difficult decisions they are going to have to make. I will still be out there, campaigning to promote the values I have always promoted. Thank you, everybody.
I will be the frank with the House: it will be a great wrench to leave this place after 27 years. You know what they say, Madam Deputy Speaker: folks are often kindest when they know you are on your way out, and there have been occasions in the past week since I announced my intention to step down when I have felt that I have been granted the privilege of attending my own funeral oration without the need to arrive in a hearse.
This afternoon, I wish to say a few brief words of thanks and to offer an expression of some hopes for the future of this place.
My chief thanks must go to my constituents in Aylesbury who have returned me as their Member of Parliament in seven successive general elections. I have to say that, when I was first selected and then elected, I was somewhat taken aback to read and research the tremendous history of my predecessors from John Hampden to Benjamin Disraeli, but prime among whom was John Wilkes, that great champion of press freedom. His first term in Parliament was as the Member for Aylesbury, but it was said of him by Edward Gibbon that he was a
“thorough profligate in principle as in practice …
His life stained with every vice and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy.”
I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you would always ensure that none of us here these days conspired to follow John Wilkes’ example in that respect.
Despite the stereotype that I think does exist in parts of the country about leafy Buckinghamshire and quaint market towns, Aylesbury is a very diverse community. The town itself is one of the fastest growing urban centres anywhere in the United Kingdom, and although I will not cross swords with my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin on the subject HS2, I will say that with residential growth needs to go road and rail infrastructure and infrastructure that actually serves the local residents rather than infra- structure that bypasses them entirely.
Alongside that vibrant very diverse town—a town where in individual estates, such as Southcourt and Quarrendon, one finds in microcosm all the urban problems and challenges with which Members of the House who represent inner urban seats will be familiar—is one of the most glorious stretches of countryside of the Chilterns and the Vale of Aylesbury. There is the extra piquancy, as the Member for Aylesbury and, at different times, either representing or being very close to Chequers, of being able to pick up—usually within about a week of whichever Prime Minister has been visiting particular shops or beauty salons or hairdressers—exactly what the Head of the Government at any particular time has been doing at the weekend.
It is a constituency, which, like our country, has changed a lot in the past quarter of a century. That was somehow summed up for me by my final constituency engagement on Saturday evening. It took place in the deepest rural part of my constituency at Radnage village hall. The hall was packed for a fundraising dinner to aid Nepal, and was presided over and inspired by Navin Gurung, the Gurkha landlord of the pub in the next village of Stokenchurch. Somehow, what summed up the evening for me was the spectacle at one moment of a Nepali traditional dancer performing her dance in front of a table containing the familiar range of bottles for the forthcoming raffle, behind which was the millennium mosaic for the village of Radnage, depicting red kites flying over the Chilterns and the beech woodlands and horse riders and hikers crossing the fields. Somehow, that image spoke to me volumes about my constituency and about our country—a country that can be at ease with itself in its modern diversity, where it is possible for people to feel that they are citizens of somewhere, and that they are rooted in a particular place and a particular heritage, but are also open to embrace and to learn from the experience and the traditions of others who also make up our country.
As well as thanking my constituents, I want also to thank the staff of the House, as others have done. I learned, particularly as Leader of the House from 2017, how much we owe to all our staff. All of us as Members know of the service that is given to us by the Library staff, the Doorkeepers and Badge Messengers, the Clerks—the Clerks from whom I learned so much in particular about drafting and parliamentary tactics during my 11 years on the Opposition Front Bench—and the catering staff, particularly the staff of the Members’ Tea Room, who somehow always manage to remain calm and cheerful despite the pressure that we on these Green Benches often put them under.
My final point is about the future of this place. We speak often about restoration and renewal, and I think we need to look beyond just the restoration and renewal of the fabric and the services—important though I believe that to be—to the restoration and renewal of the culture of the House of Commons. For what is the purpose of this place? If it is anything, it is surely to provide the forum in which the passions, fierce controversies and conflicting opinions in our country are represented, reflected and resolved in debate and votes—both in the Chamber and in Committee.
I believe that the conventions that we seek to stick to here—the rules of unparliamentary language, the fact that we refer to each other by constituency rather than name, and even the rather murky understandings that govern the relationships between Government and Opposition usual channels—are all important in trying to provide a culture within which very fierce political disagreements can be expressed in a form that is civil and democratic, and actually shows to ourselves and to those we represent that we can and should resolve such differences democratically through debate, not out in the streets. And that involves respect between people of different parties.
I was told soon after I came here the old story of the new bright young thruster taking his place on the Benches beside an experienced elder colleague. The young man said, as the Opposition Benches filled up on the other side of the Chamber, “Ah, I see that the enemy is here in strength”, to which his senior colleague replied, “Young man, those are your political opponents; your enemies you will find on the Benches beside and behind you.”
I believe that the House of Commons at its best recognises that there can be the most serious and principled disagreement about both values and policies, but which does not see such political differences as tantamount to our opponent somehow being wicked or lacking in integrity. I think and hope that the next Parliament will make a deliberate effort to avoid the language of “traitors”, “betrayal”, “vermin” and “enemies of the people.” To overcome some of the ills that beset politics in this country at the moment will take more than an effort by Members of this House—there will be things to be done by editors and internet service providers as well. However, a start can and should be made here, and that needs to start with a recognition on all sides that restoring and renewing the reputation and standing of this place begins when Members on both sides—leaders and Members of all parties—manage to find a way again in which we can express vehemently our support for or opposition to the particular policies that we debate, while at the same time respecting the integrity and fundamental good motives of our opponents.
I very much endorse the remarks of Sir David Lidington about the nature of our political discourse and the importance of treating each other with courtesy and respect.
Sir Patrick McLoughlin talked about the truths that he was told by his wife in private and the very own special relationship that he had with his wife. I want to start by thanking my partner for life, my wife Mary, and our two sons Archie and Ned for the support that they have given me throughout the 18-plus years I have been in this place. There is no doubt that the work that we do here takes its toll on our families and our loved ones. We always have to remember that and acknowledge the enormous sacrifices that loved ones make as we try to do our work here.
I also want to thank my amazing parliamentary staff, in my constituency and in Parliament, who have shown such loyalty and dedication to me over so many years. I thank the Lib Dem party activists in North Norfolk who have shown me enormous loyalty throughout the time that I have fought there. I have spent 29 years campaigning in North Norfolk because it took me 11 years to beat that lot over there to win my seat the first place. So many people have stuck with me through that period, and I am enormously grateful for it.
I thank the teams that have supported me in my role as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee and during the time that I was privileged enough to be a Minister of State in the Department of Health. Everyone will understand that, as a Liberal, I did not imagine for one minute that I would become a Minister, and then suddenly I found myself responsible for something that I cared a lot about in the Department of Health. It was the most invigorating time of my professional life, but it was made possible by amazing people who showed great dedication and commitment in supporting me through that journey.
It has been an enormous privilege to represent the Liberal tradition in this Parliament over an 18-year period, but it has also been a particular privilege to represent the people of North Norfolk. Over that period, one builds up a special bond with the people one represents. They have shown me enormous kindness and generosity of spirit, even when not voting for me, and I have appreciated that.
One of the things that has concerned me and has been an enduring thought throughout this wonderful period in Parliament is the people who come to see me with stories of how they feel that they have been ignored by faceless bureaucracies. Too often, our public organisations do not treat ordinary people with respect—do not listen to them. I have always felt that my job was to give a voice to people who have no voice and always to fight for those people. We face a profound challenge in how we get public organisations to be more responsive to ordinary people. I am always left thinking that the articulate middle classes will find their way through to achieve a result, but what about the people who do not have an articulate voice and are not able to fight the system? It is our job to make sure that we represent them individually but also try to change the system so that they are not ignored as they too often are at present.
I do not want to spend any of my time talking about things that I have done here. I just want to reflect on three causes that I have cared a lot about, continue to care a lot about, and will continue to pursue outside this place. First, there is mental health. We too often treat people as second-class citizens. We trample over their human rights, locking them up when they do not need to be locked up, shunting them around the country and using force against them. I have had the case of a teenager in North Norfolk who had to wait a year for treatment, had her treatment stopped halfway through because she hit the arbitrary age of 18, had to wait another nine months for adult services to support her, and is now told that she has to wait three years for an autism assessment. We treat people like this appallingly. We are letting down someone at the formative stage of their life in a way that will have lifelong consequences for them. The support that we provide to children and young people with mental health difficulties too often falls way short. There is still a massive challenge for us to pursue to ensure that we provide better support, to stop the deterioration of health in the first place and to provide support through periods of crisis.
The second cause is reform of our drug laws. It is an unpopular cause in this place, but out there in the country there is now support—majority support—for sensible, evidence-based reform. I argue again that we need to legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis, so that we can protect our young people better. In the states of the United States that have legalised cannabis, use by high school-age teenagers has gone down. We leave teenagers open to the most dangerous, most potent forms of drugs, bought on the streets in this very city. We do not protect our young people with the prohibitionist approach that we take, and it is high time that we reformed those laws.
The final area that I want to touch on is assisted dying. Out there in the country, there is vast support for reform, yet this House continues to resist the case for it. So many other countries have recognised that it is time to give the right to an individual, not the state, to determine when they should end their life when they face a terminal illness. Surely, it is our right to decide, not the state’s. We leave families in an invidious position of not knowing whether they will be prosecuted if they help a loved one to end their life. This is not acceptable. It is not the hallmark of a civilised society.
Let me end my comments by saying that I have found the past three years extraordinarily difficult. This debate on Brexit is one where, unless we are in one or other of the extreme tribes, we find ourselves quite isolated. I have felt for a long time that we ought to be trying to find ways to achieve common ground and compromising to find a way forward. I feel passionately that there have not been enough people in our country trying to find ways to bring our country back together again and to heal the wounds, which have become very dangerous. I think we are playing with fire if we carry on in this way. As the right hon. Member for Aylesbury said, this country has a wonderful, diverse community that comes together in solidarity, but we have allowed ourselves to become divided. Now is the time to start bringing this country back together again.
A man walks into my surgery in Bury. I can see from his address that he comes from one of the poorest parts of the town—a council estate. He sits down, and I ask what his problem is. He says, “My front door has been broken for six weeks, and the council has done nothing about it.” I have a Labour council. I pick up my pen; this is something a young Tory MP can get involved in. “Tell me,” I said, “how does your front door come to broken?” He said, “Mr Burt, it was broken down by the police during a raid.” I put my pen down; there is more to this than meets the eye. I say to him, “What’s this got to do with the council?” He says, “It’s obvious. The police must have told the council, and if the council had told me, I’d have held the door open, and it wouldn’t have had to be broken down.” I look at him and say sternly, Mr So and So, “you must tell me: did the police find anything during their raid?” He looks all round the empty room and whispers, “Not what they were looking for, Mr Burt.”
It is a privilege to speak in this debate and follow some fine speeches. I associate myself with the support of Ann Clwyd for the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union, which I also had the joy of chairing and which does fantastic work. I associate myself with the remarks from my right hon. Friend Sir David Lidington about how Parliament should develop, the threats we face and what we will go on to do. They have been fine speeches all round.
It is 36 years since my maiden speech extolled the virtues of my home town of Bury and 32 years as an MP, so it is time to wrap up. I am grateful to The House magazine for giving me an extra 1,000 words this week to express a number of thanks, and I refer the House to my remarks therein; it covers a lot of my thank yous. I want to add one thank you to Chaplain Rose, who has done wonderful work and whose last engagement in the House will be as the vicar for the marriage of my son in the chapel fairly soon. We are really grateful for that. Rose has been wonderful to us all, and we love her and wish her well.
I have been exceptionally fortunate to represent first my home town and then North East Bedfordshire, where my wife and I settled post an election reverse in 1997, courtesy of T. Blair. As always with an MP’s thanks, mine are directed to those who elected me to eight terms in all—still, in my view, the highest honour and privilege of any citizen—and I say to all who have helped in those campaigns over the years, such as my chairmen in both associations, agents, canvassers and leaflet droppers, thank you to all.
My thanks to a family who supported me throughout: a father who, at a sprightly 97, still watches my appearances, and to a mum who always believed in me and watches from somewhere else now. In recent years, my mother—bless her—took to calling me “Your Excellency” when I came back from my frequent trips abroad. My thanks to my very long-suffering staff—currently, Sam, Amanda, Mandy and Katherine—and to all who have given way beyond their allotted hours to me and my constituents, I say thank you.
My thanks to a Young Conservative chairman in Hornsey who threw some leaflets at me during the Greater London Council elections in 1981, thinking that I was a Labour plant, because no Conservatives turned up in Haringey in those days, and that I would not return. However, I did return, and she became not just my wife, but my partner here, and a doughty defender of those spouses who did the same. She is a much-loved participant in the Christian community and the national prayer breakfast and a trainer and supporter of women in politics at home and abroad. To Eve, my children and granddaughter, the biggest of all thank yous.
I served not just my constituencies, but the Government over 11 years in six different roles for three Prime Ministers, and I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ken Baker under another—Margaret Thatcher. To those who gave me those roles, I say thank you, and to all those in the private offices and all who worked with me at home and abroad—in the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development —my deep appreciation of your public service and commitment to Ministers, regardless of our party or our ability.
From the touch on the lips of a deafblind man making out what I was saying to seeing a young optometrist use genius to measure a disturbed child’s sight, and from a refugee family in the humblest of homes in the desert to signing the arms trade treaty for my country at the UN—and being opened up to the wonders of north Africa and the middle east—I thank all those who have supported me during a lifetime of experience. I only hope that I gave back to Her Majesty’s Government something of what they gave me.
Like many of us, I am asked if I would recommend anyone to take up politics these days. My answer, I find, is rooted in being asked the same question in schools, when I have to say that the moment I begin to explain why I do the job, I find that I have exactly the same enthusiasm as I first had. When I became an MP in 1983, apartheid ruled in South Africa and the iron curtain divided Europe and the world, so who says things do not change?
I came into politics because I am a child of the ’60s. I was excited by the space programme, when it seemed we could achieve anything and the world came together, and stopped and held its breath as man stood on the moon. I had grown up with a sense of security and gratitude that my generation was spared war in Europe, which was so graphically presented in regular documentaries such as “All Our Yesterdays”. Then Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, and I learned of Alexander Dubček and Jan Palach. Here was my Europe under attack. I joined the Conservative party as a 15-year-old, when Ted Heath was leader, with his passion for Europe born out of his wartime experiences.
When I became an MP, I spent many years as a friend of those in the German Christian Democratic Union, hearing them talk about removing the inner German frontier, which seemed implausible, and sharing their enthusiasm when the wall fell, as well as being an election monitor in Berlin for the first free elections and seeing free nations—sovereign nations, just like the United Kingdom always has been—joining the EU for peace, their defence and security.
I hope colleagues will therefore forgive me when I say that the gradual but never dishonest movement of my party towards Euroscepticism and then a determination to leave the EU has hurt me more than I can possibly describe. However, that is not the reason why I am leaving. I have a chance to take all that I have been privileged to learn and experience here into new areas and to leave with friendships with colleagues and opponents—they are often the same people—still intact and in good shape, and wishing my party and the Prime Minister well for the future.
Let me therefore leave with the following requests. First, be kind to one another. Kindness is an underrated virtue. No one understands an MP’s role except us and those close to us, so if we do not help each other, no one else will. Make sure that MPs and Ministers have a serious development programme, not just an induction. Secondly, I have a couple of local matters to raise. I ask the Leader of the House please to ensure that the A1 is moved eastward from its current position, to save Sandy, and that trains do not keep skipping Arlesey station. Thirdly, I have a national request. After the inquiry, please make sure that the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, whose tie I am wearing today, receive justice for all that they have endured, as their sadly dwindling number contained some of the most decent people I have ever met. Perhaps the legislation that went through just before this debate is a measure of what could be done to help them.
In my maiden speech, I referred to Mrs Thatcher’s Government as having received much, and of us much was expected. The same applies to us all: where I have not lived up to it, forgive me; where I have, I thank those who helped me achieve it; and for what I am going to do, wish me luck. I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the new Speaker and all colleagues the best of luck.
Am I still idealistic? Oh, I do hope so. Somewhere beyond the barricades, there is a world I long to see. We all want to see that world; we are just going to be working for it in different places.
May I begin by apologising, Madam Deputy Speaker, because there has been so much Northern Irish business over the past week that I have made my farewell speech 15 times? I am now known as the Dame Nellie Melba of west London. If anyone wishes to say any nice things about me, please let them not feel constrained by the fact that they have been said a few times already.
I leave this House with great sadness. I have to say that what tipped me over the edge was a text message from the Argyle surgery in my constituency, inviting me to attend an end of life seminar. I thought, “Maybe my time has come.” Having listened this afternoon to right hon. and hon. Members describe their glittering careers—this great cavalcade and cornucopia of achievement—I am now looking back over my years in the House with a certain sadness.
I came into the House as one of Blair’s babes in 1997. I was immediately appointed to the Broadcasting Committee, along with Sir Roger Gale, and we decided to set ourselves the task of ending broadcasting of the House of Commons. I was swiftly removed from the Committee, and the right hon. Gentleman was knighted—I make no comment on that.
I was then made Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, who is a marvellous man. Unfortunately, I chose to vote against my Government on the part privatisation of the NHS and so had to step down. However, I was rescued from the ignominy of the outer darkness when I was made PPS to Hazel Blears, who is an amazing woman. Sadly, I had to vote against my Government on the renewal of Trident and so once again fell into silence and desuetude. However, Tony Blair, a man of sound Christian principles, knowing that God loves a sinner who repents, gave me another chance. The fact that every time I appear in the Chamber my Whip has to sit next to me reveals that, sadly, not everyone believes me. I was then appointed to be PPS to the then right hon. Member for Tooting in the Department for Transport. Sadly, High Speed 2 was going to be run through my constituency, like a great steel snake slamming through the suburbs, so I felt it necessary once again to resign.
Quite clearly I have achieved very little, but one thing that I have achieved is a knowledge and understanding of this place, and a recognition that structure is a function of purpose. It is so easy to be intoxicated by the beauty of this place. When I was first elected, Tony Blair set up something called the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee—because, frankly, most of us needed modernising. After a few months, the members of that Committee had gone completely native and were saying, “No, this is how things have always been done.” He then had to set up a modernisation of the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee committee. After four weeks, our Committee reported. We then installed a tights machine in the corridor just outside Annie’s Bar—what else could we possibly have done?
I think of this building as the corporeal embodiment of the ship of state. This is a great, glorious galleon sailing across storm-tossed oceans. We have the sketch writers—Crace, Letts and people like that—up in the rigging. We have the galley, with our marvellous cooks who bring us steak and kidney pudding and duff on a regular basis. Not mentioned in all the tributes to the House staff are the Doorkeepers. They are wonderful people. The Library—amazing people. I must visit it one day. The Admission Order Office. If only they would tell me where it was, I would go there. And there are so many other incredible things. The bar has not been mentioned. In my day, there was more than one. The Strangers’ Bar! What more welcoming sight could there be than that cheerful face behind the bar, with the cheerful comment, “The usual, Mr Pound? But not all at once, I trust?” It is wonderful.
We have a firm hand on the wheel—it is marvellous to see, Madam Deputy Speaker. The captain for most of my parliamentary career was, of course, Tony Blair. He had a slightly tempestuous relationship with the first mate, or the purser, the man responsible for the purse strings. It was not so much like Aubrey and Maturin; it was more like Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, to be perfectly honest—not to imply that the great Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was anything like Captain Bligh.
This great ship of state will be docking in another berth before too long. I would like to think that people realise that what is important about this place is not the gorgeous neo-Gothic surrounds, the Pugin beauty or the wonder of the place; it is what happens here and the people within it. I have to say that I do not know a single person who has come into this House with ignoble motives. I do not know anyone who has come into this House not wishing to make the world a better place. In many ways, we have failed to get that message across. If anyone had been here earlier on for the debate on historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland, they would have realised that this place is a powerhouse. It is a place where major change can take place. If we do not do it, then who does? If we do not give that political lead, then who does? If we do not set that standard and if we do not seek to protect our nation, then who will do it? As far as I am concerned, the miracle of this place is how much we do achieve. The tragedy of this place is how little we make that case.
I could not have survived all these long, lonely years out of office without the team in my office. I would particularly like to thank Sue McLeod and Diane Wall, who between them have been here for the whole of my time here. I would also like to thank my wife, who has been sitting in the Under-Gallery for four and a half hours. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Above all, I would like to thank my fellow parliamentarians. I have made friends across the political divide. I have actually spoken at a fundraiser for Jim Shannon on the Ards peninsular.
Even when I was making my speech to the Strangford Democratic Unionist party, he wanted to intervene on me! On that particular occasion I said, “Is there anything to drink?” He said, “Yes, orange juice.” I said, “Any particular sort?” He said, “Bitter orange juice.” And then there is Mr Evans, with whom I bonded in Hong Kong.
There are people on both sides who have taught me one thing: it really is not the colour of the rosette that we wear that matters. It really is not the mast to which we nail our flag; it is what is within us. It is what is within our hearts. The decency and honesty that I see all around me in this place is something that makes me bitterly regret that I will be leaving you, but it makes me immensely proud of the fact that even for a short time, for 22 years, I have been a Member of the finest legislature one could ever imagine, peopled by some of the finest personages. I would like to thank every one of you. I thank my constituents in Ealing North, and I thank this House for being such a marvellous Parliament for all the people.
Thank you so much for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an honour to follow Stephen Pound, who has entertained the House for many years; I enjoyed his speech very much. Today was the new Mr Speaker’s first appearance in the House and this will be my last appearance, but another date that we should recognise today is
I have been very lucky to represent the Bosworth constituency for 32 years, covering Hinckley and Bosworth —over 100 square miles. It has changed dramatically. It was originally part of the Leicestershire coalfield—a mining constituency. Desford pit was running when I first went there. We had steelmaking at Desford—Desford Tubes—a great hosiery and knitwear industry, and shoes being made at Barwell.
Yesterday, when I was clearing out my office, I found my maiden speech from back in 1987. I wanted to make some kind of an impact. Colleagues who listened to Kate Hoey will have heard her talk about how different it was then. We had no television in the Chamber; we aspired to get a couple of inches in The Times or perhaps be on Radio 4, but we had to say something of significance. I had a problem in my constituency about which I wanted to make a serious speech: the importation of cheap Chinese clothes, and more specifically, Chinese underwear. I had to attempt to dress this up in a way that would be eye-catching, but not too eye-catching, and the next day, one of the newspapers reported: new MP says, “Knickers to Cheap Chinkies…Lovely lassies are queueing up to support new MP David Tredinnick in his battle to give cheap Chinese panties the push”. This took some explaining in some quarters of my constituency.
Many colleagues have spoken of the importance of staff. I am pretty confident that I have the longest-serving staff in the House, and I want to thank them by name. Matthew Williams, who started work for me in February ’96, has worked for me for 23 years on the complementary and alternative medicine desk and has given great service. My parliamentary agent, Stuart Swann, has worked for me for 21 years and has taken me through all those general elections. Pippa Way has been a brilliant PA and is still working for me after six years. Her predecessor, Thurza Rowson, who was also brilliant, worked for me for 25 years. Jill Burge worked for me in support for 10 years. These are outstanding staff. I caution anybody coming into the House against having inexperienced staff—these are very experienced staff and they have helped me enormously.
I also thank my family. My partner, Carolyn, has been a terrific support, going around the constituency with me. We share most of the meetings and it is great to have triangulation when it comes to what people are saying—sometimes she tells me things that I was not expecting. I thank Rebecca, my former wife, who supported me while child-rearing and did a fantastic job, and my wonderful children, Sophie and Thomas, who still have not forgiven me for pushing them around in a supermarket trolley wearing t-shirts that said, “Vote for Daddy”—they are now 32 and 30.
I have worked with some fantastic officers in my constituency. I want to thank the presidents, some of whom are no longer with us: Jim Davenport, Geoffrey Stokes, David Palmer, Derek Crane, Rosemary Wright and Reg Ward. The chairmen I have worked with include Jack Goulton, Anita Wainwright, David Brooks, Carol Claridge, David Palmer, Derek Crane, Janice Richards, Mary Sherwin, Peter Bedford and Betty Snow. Betty was the treasurer of the Bosworth Conservatives for very nearly 40 years.
I echo the thoughts about the staff of the House. I thank the brilliant Library staff, the catering staff and the Doorkeepers. I also thank Postman John, who retired a day ago, not only for his service—for delivering the post—but for watering my plant, which some have seen; it has grown all the way around my office over the last 20 years.
Above all, I thank my constituents for voting for me and electing me eight times in the last nine general elections that I have stood in. I remember David Lightbown, my Whip, saying to me, “Never forget your constituency is everything”. Even though I voted to remain, when my constituents voted out—60% to 40%—I regarded myself from that moment onwards not as a representative but as a delegate, and I have voted faithfully ever since to get my constituents out of Europe under both the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister.
I rather regret that I am addressing retiring Members and not new Members. If I had any advice, I would quote Seneca: “A man should choose his enemies carefully.” That is very important in politics. I have tried not to have any enemies, and I hope I have not got any in my constituency—I have people in to talk to me if they do not like what I have said. I would also reference Bevan: “Stay out of the bars and specialise”—very important too. I have specialised in a couple of fields, which I will touch on if I have time. Finally, I would quote David Lightbown again: never forget your constituency base.
I did a lot at the end of the cold war. I met President Gorbachev in Moscow and President Yeltsin. President Gorbachev, who was on the news a couple of days ago, said to us young politicians, “Politics will find your every weakness and test you in every way”. I thought at the time, “I don’t think this makes any sense”, but I now know he was absolutely correct.
I have long championed alternative and complementary medicine. I have backed the homeopaths right the way through. I remember saying to my former right hon. Friend, the late Lord Spicer, “Should I keep going with this subject?” He said, “David, all a Back Bencher can hope for is to be remembered for something”. I have championed that cause ever since. So I say this to the House as I finish: we have carbon footprint problems, but a real problem is the carbon footprint of medicines. It is not being addressed, but it is hugely carbon intensive.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it has been a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I am sorry you did not make it to the speakership in the election yesterday, but I congratulate Mr Speaker on his success, and I thank again my constituents, my staff, my family and my friends in this House. I shall miss it, but life goes on and I have a brilliant successor on the way in the Conservative candidate, Dr Luke Evans. I encourage my constituents to vote for him.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As this is my first and last point of order, may I seek your guidance? Is it in order for me to record my thanks to my constituents and volunteers in South Ribble, my friends and family, my wonderful teams here in Westminster and in Longton, the many fine civil servants I have served with in three Departments and the staff of the House? Is it also in order for me to wish a civil and good-tempered campaign to the many friends of all parties I have made in my four and a half years in Parliament, and to wish a happy retirement to those who, like me—I cannot believe I am 45 and retiring—are leaving this unique and most special of workplaces? Finally, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope it is in order for me to pay tribute to my beautiful boys. Their unstinting love and support have given me depths of courage I never knew I had. They mean the world to me.
To answer the hon. Lady’s point of order, no, none of that was in order, but I am delighted to have been able to give her the opportunity to make the tributes she wanted to make. I am sure the House will appreciate that because she holds a ministerial position, she cannot take part in this debate. Perhaps that it is a part of our procedure we ought to look at.
It seems only the blink of an eye since my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and I arrived here as wide-eyed innocents in 1997, hoping to change the world—an idea of which I, certainly, was quickly disabused when I tried to get on to the Education Committee, and made the terrible mistake of telling the Whips why I should be on it. I had been a teacher, I had a Master’s degree in education, and I had practised educational law. Of course they said, “No chance—absolutely not!” They sent me to the Catering Committee, possibly owing to some subliminal association with school dinners.
Many of us found that we were going to spend much of our time on the Back Benches. In fact, it took me 11 years to become a promising newcomer, when the Prime Minister was so desperate that he finally made me a Whip. Since then I have had a number of jobs here in Parliament, and I want not to enumerate the things that I have done, but to thank the people who have supported me in that time.
First, I thank my husband Mike and my son Chris. I met my husband when he was my parliamentary agent, and I followed that useful advice: “If you have a good agent, you should hang on to him.” My son was only seven when I was elected, and throughout his childhood had to endure the terrible embarrassment of having a mother who was an MP and who was also frequently absent. I turned up early one week, and was there when he got home from school. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I live here; have you not noticed?” Clearly not.
I am very grateful first to the staff of the House who have supported me throughout those years. It is invidious to single out anyone, but I particularly thank the staff of the Tea Room, who have fed me, watered me, anticipated my needs and cheered me up through all that time. Secondly, I thank my office staff, past and present. MPs’ staff work incredibly hard, and the public often do not realise that. They work far more hours than they are paid for—IPSA please take note!—and, very often, the things for which constituents thank me are things that they have done. In fact, we decided long ago that the right response when people said, “Thank you for your letter” was “It was the least I could do”, because we did not know whether I had solved a problem for them or written to them because their mother had died.
Thirdly, I thank the staff of the Petitions Committee, past and present. It is an extraordinary privilege to chair a Select Committee, but it is a particular privilege to chair a new Committee and to be able to shape it, and I think that the Petitions Committee has been one of the successes in the House in the past few years. We have managed to pursue inquiries and not just become a clearing house for petitions, and we have pioneered new ways of communicating with the public. I could not have done that without the support of the wonderful staff who often work under extreme pressure, and also without the support of members of the Committee, who have shown that it is possible to look at issues with a clear, unprejudiced eye, and to reach common ground on how to deal with them.
Lastly, of course, I want to thank the wonderful electors of Warrington North, who have returned me in six general elections—thus proving that they are people of impeccable taste and judgment—and who have shown throughout a real decency that has supported me in difficult times. Most of my constituents are what I would call the “respectable working class”. They pay their bills on time, go to work, and keep their houses and gardens tidy. They are far too often ignored in politics, because they are not the noisy people; they are not the shouting people. In an age when there are lots of people shouting on social media, it is perhaps time we remembered that most people are decent people, and it is to them that we should be addressing ourselves.
Our politics has, I am afraid, become mired in a way of speaking which appeals to the worst in people. We hear talk about war, surrender, and so on, but politics ought to appeal to the best instincts of people, not their worst. If the House is to move forward in the future, it is the best instincts of people to which we need to appeal, because most people are common-sense people who will look for a compromise.
When I was growing up, I never expected to be an MP. I am the daughter of factory workers and the granddaughter of a miner, and I grew up on a council estate. When I was growing up if someone had said that one day I would be an MP that would have seemed as remote a possibility as my flying to the moon. It has been an incredible privilege to be here over these years and it will be a wrench to go, but we all have to go at some point and it will be a wrench whenever we decide to retire.
I have been very lucky to have a number of roles in Parliament after my 11 years on the Back Benches. I have been in the Whips Office, and I have had different Front Bench roles, including local government finance. In fact I once said to the current Opposition Chief Whip when I was doing that, “It’s very interesting,” and he said, “Helen, local government finance is important, but it is not interesting.” I found it interesting, however, which perhaps says something about me. Most of all, I am grateful for the friendships I have made here, for the comradeship that people have shown me, and for the support I have had from my colleagues in difficult times.
When I was first elected local council officers were told not to bother too much about responding to my letters, because I would only be a one-term MP. I am now the longest-serving MP in Warrington’s history, so I think I have made the point now.
“it’s been a privilege flying with you.”
It is a great honour and privilege to attend one’s own obituary. It is a little bit like attending a group meeting within The Daily Telegraph, and it is also bringing back happy memories: happy memories of something I have not done for a long time—having to sit through interminable speeches waiting to be called, as one did 22 years ago when one was first called.
Unlike some of my colleagues and friends here, I suppose I was a bit of a political anorak. I began canvassing aged eight in the 1959 general election. My formidable grandmother ran the local Conservatives—my grandfather merely drove the Morris Minor—and I delivered leaflets. That, of course, was for the general election for Mr Macmillan, and in those days the Conservative parliamentary party only had 70 old Etonians as Members; now there are many fewer, although we do have an old Etonian as the leader and Prime Minister, and an old Etonian who is Leader of the House.
I think all of us who are leaving have mixed feelings. To be somewhere for 22 years is not just about being a member of an institution; if we are a good MP, we are absorbed into it, and we must get the balance right between our constituency and this place—and if we are a shadow or Government Minister, all of that—and that has become more difficult and more challenging.
I have been very fortunate in that I have represented, with differences in boundary changes, Mid Norfolk and then Broadland, which is the Norfolk broads. My 96-year-old mother still lives in Norwich, and she will phone up late on a Sunday morning, having watched Andrew Marr, wanting to cross-examine me on the debate that has been going on. I am lucky, as it is a beautiful constituency; there are social problems, but not on the scale of many who represent urban areas.
I have been lucky, too, in that I survived the great wipe-out of 1997; I felt like a young officer at the end of the first day of the Somme when all the officers and most of the other ranks had been killed. I was elected with a majority of 1,336. Those of us in the ’97 intake were enthusiastic, but so many friends and colleagues had been wiped out. Over the ensuing years we worked hard and, with the aid and support of our activists, we built up our majorities, and at the last general election, in 2017, I had a majority of 15,800. However, I would emphasise that that was at the last general election. Whoever takes over from me could get a bigger majority or a smaller majority.
I have loved being a Member of Parliament for my constituency and I could not have continued without the support of a number of people. Many hon. Members have made a similar comment today. First and foremost, there is my family. My wife Pepi, who is sitting under the Gallery, has given me some pretty firm advice behind the scenes and in her own way had a brilliant career. For 20 years, she was a commissioned officer in the British Army and spent most of that time serving with the military police. When she was first commissioned in 1973, it was all about deportment and flower arranging. Now, of course, it is completely different. My son, George, attended Conservative party functions from a very early age, handing the raffle round and eating as much food as he possibly could. My parliamentary secretary, Katy Craven, worked in No. 10 and then for my predecessor, Richard Ryder. She now works for me and is wondering, like a lot of our staff, what is going to happen to her when a new member of the association is selected to be the parliamentary representative on Wednesday.
I had a variety of jobs in Parliament, and let me tell you that being an Opposition spokesman is hard work with very little reward, as those now on the Opposition Benches know. I had two and a half years in the Opposition Conservative Whips Office when my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin was the Deputy Chief Whip. He is a robust man. Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, you were also there. You are a woman of great refinement, and I was your dresser. It was like a 19th century film, because you would go into the little room at the back and eventually your head would appear round the door and you would whisper to me, “Will you zip me up?” As many of you know, moving a zip up a lady’s back takes a steady hand—a warm hand—and if you do it too quickly, you will probably rip the dress. If you do it too slowly, the zip gets stuck. I have to say that I learned a lot from doing that.
Of the two things I did as a Member of Parliament that have given me the greatest satisfaction, the first was being nominated by the then Deputy Chief Whip to be one of the two Parliamentary Commissioners on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on which I served with my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. We made a great deal of difference, not only in helping to reorganise the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but in representing it here in Parliament. Like many things we do on the margins of politics, I have had more compliments from constituents on that than virtually any other thing I have done. Secondly, for the last three years I have been lucky enough to serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I will not go into the details, but I made my views known in the urgent question that we had earlier today.
So when I leave this place, I will remember that we are in a Chamber that was rebuilt after the war, that Churchill and Attlee stood at the Dispatch Boxes and that on the Back Benches there are many Members of Parliament of all parties who work hard for their constituents. My final thought is that this has been a horrible Parliament, in the sense of the dreadful, robust debate on Brexit. I do not believe those who say that our Parliament is wrong, because we represent the divisions that are in our associations and in the country. I am a pessimist, in the sense that I do not believe those divisions are going to end with the general election. Brexit will continue over many months, if not years, and it will depend upon the quality of the people who get elected in five weeks’ time to ensure that the debate, which many hon. Members have already spoken about, is done in a civilised way. They can be emotional about it, but some of the dreadful things that we have seen MPs calling each other is a national disgrace.
I will think of you all during the general election. When it is snowing in November I shall be sitting in the TV room watching “The Crown”, drinking a large glass of whisky and watching my magnificent marmalade cat, Mr Pumpkin. He would have made a great leader of my party, on the grounds that he is beautiful, highly intelligent and a ruthless killer. God bless you all.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Simpson; I will miss him at breakfast time.
My late father’s birthday was on
I want to talk about the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I have been a member since 2015. Since 2017, it has shown Parliament at its best. It has worked across parties to produce work that I believe is world-leading. Twitter announced last week that it is stopping paid political advertising. I believe that that process was commenced by the DCMS Committee and its report on disinformation last year.
I am afraid that I am now going to change the tone of the debate, because I want to place on the record some information that I have concerning disinformation and the Government of the day. Sitting opposite me in this debate, I have seen many wonderful Conservative MPs for whom I have huge respect, people I have learned to respect since I came here in 2001. When I came to Parliament, I did not understand how Parliament worked so well on a cross-party basis. I know that now, and there are many, many noble, good and very skilled Conservative MPs. Unfortunately, they are not running the Government at this very serious time.
I want to draw the House’s attention to the serious position that exists on the cusp of a general election, because we have laws in place that are completely inadequate to deal with that general election. I want to quote the words of Dominic Cummings in correspondence that he sent to the Electoral Commission. He said:
“Overall it is clear that the entire regulatory structure around national elections including data is really bad. There are so many contradictions, gaps, logical lacunae that it is wide open to abuse…There has been no proper audit by anybody of how the rules could be exploited by an internal or foreign force to swing close elections. These problems were not fixed for the 2017 election, and I doubt they will be imminently. The system cannot cope with the fast-changing technology.”
The main adviser to the Prime Minister is telling us that the current legal structure for elections is unsound. We are going into a general election that is going to be fought online and we are already seeing the way in which that is affecting the campaign.
Absolutely I agree. I fundamentally believe that we should implement all the recommendations of the ICO and the Electoral Commission, because the legal structure under which we are fighting the election is open to electoral fraud. That is the position in which we are going into the general election.
On electoral fraud, I want to refer to some correspondence that Dominic Cummings sent to another person in the referendum campaign in 2016. He was talking about breaking spending limits in the referendum, and that led to an offence for which Vote Leave was fined. Dominic Cummings said:
“We’ve now got all the money we can spend legally. You should NOT send us your 100k. However, there is another organisation that could spend your money. Would you be willing to send the 100k to some social media ninjas who could usefully spend it on behalf of this organisation? I am very confident it would be well spent in the final crucial 5 days. Obviously it would be entirely legal.”
The truth is that it was not legal at all, and Vote Leave was fined in connection with that campaign. As a result, the matter was referred to the police and has now been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and the investigation is ongoing.
Furthermore, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Prime Minister were both aware of the fact that offences had been committed and were both heavily involved in Vote Leave. This document also has a statement from Dominic Cummings, which he wrote and sent to the Electoral Commission. He said:
“with either of them (before the referendum) and to the best of my knowledge neither did anybody else and they were wholly unaware of this issue until after the referendum.”
So, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster were aware of Vote Leave’s offences, but they have not come clean to the House of Commons or to the DCMS Committee by producing that evidence. Furthermore, Dominic Cummings has refused to come to the DCMS Committee to speak about these matters. Even worse, the Prime Minister will not tell him to come to this House to speak to the Select Committee to explain himself and to give evidence. I have secured these documents through the Committee, and I am placing them on the public record, because they relate to something that should be known by the public before we vote in a general election. That information has been withheld from the British public, and it ought to be known.
What the British public also need to know is that, apart from the honourable Conservative Members facing me at the moment, we have a Government whose leadership includes a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is in charge of electoral reform and who is not divulging his full knowledge of the 2016 referendum, his role in it, and the offences committed at the time. If this House is to regain the respect of the public, Select Committees need real powers to compel witnesses to attend. We should never again be frustrated by a Prime Minister who prevents a witness from giving evidence to a Committee.
It has been a real honour to be in this place. I have loved every minute. I love this House of Commons, and I will be sad to leave. We need to respect each other more in this House but—to go back to my mother and my father—we must have basic honesty. There is nothing complicated about that. Telling the truth and straight- forwardness are the principles that we should stick to, but I am afraid the Government do not have them at the moment.
I start my contribution, as so many colleagues have done, with thanks to my constituents for sending to me to this place and for putting their faith and trust in me. Serving my home community—the town where I grew up and the school I went to—has been the greatest privilege of my life. Of course, like so many other Members, I want to thank my staff who have helped me so well, so efficiently and so kindly in all the work we have achieved together for my constituents.
Like my right hon. Friend Sir David Lidington, in the few minutes available to me today I will not talk about what I have done in this place. I want to talk about something for the next Parliament to think about.
Blazoned across the walls of Parliament today are banners promoting Parliament Week with the slogan, “It all begins with you.” Our democracy begins with, and indeed depends on, engaged and well-informed citizens. For citizens to make informed choices, they need easy access to accurate and impartial information about the work of their elected representatives in Parliament, including their voting record. Although our work in our constituencies is just as important as our work in this place, it is the actions taken here in this Chamber and in Committee that have the greatest impact on our national life.
We arguably live in an age in which it is easier to access information than ever before, but the owners and editors of media channels, including the social media platforms from which many people gather information and shape their opinions, have no responsibility or incentive to provide accurate and impartial information about our work and voting records. There are no real deterrents to misrepresentation.
Citizens often base their opinions about MPs on how they vote on particular issues. We all know that not all votes are equal and that some of the most important decisions taken in this House have been taken without a Division, but most people simply do not know that. As there are few adverse consequences for authors, publishers and social media platforms, there is widespread misrepresentation of MPs’ voting records. I believe that is contributing to the poisoning of our politics, corroding people’s trust in MPs and threatening the very foundations of our parliamentary democracy.
We have all been on the receiving end of communications from constituents that misrepresent the facts, derived from the far from perfect reporting of our voting records on websites such as TheyWorkForYou. Democracy does begin with the citizen but, right now, there is no trusted source of impartial, accurate information about the voting records and actions of MPs in Parliament to help citizens make informed choices.
In his passionate speech to the House yesterday, Mr Speaker said:
“I hope that this House will be once again a great, respected House…
I hope that once again it is the envy of the world.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 667, c. 619.]
We all share that hope, but action will be needed to turn that hope into reality. I would like Mr Speaker to take one action today and agree to work with Hansard to develop a new service, in addition to its excellent verbatim reporting of parliamentary proceedings, to provide impartial contextualised information on MPs’ voting records. This will need careful consideration and cross-party support, but I hope it will be a challenge he accepts. Based on my conversations with Hansard, it is up for it. If Mr Speaker takes up this challenge, he will do a great deal to shore up the foundations of our parliamentary democracy and, over time, restore trust in our politics.
I thank the thousands of volunteers who, over the next few weeks, will participate in the forthcoming general election campaign. They play an immensely important role in our democracy, too. I thank three particular volunteers, the three chairmen of the Truro and Falmouth Conservative Association who have worked hard to support me over the years: Nick Straw, Bob O’Shea and Alan Davey.
Finally, my most heartfelt thanks go to my husband, Alan, and our three wonderful children, Emily, Harriet and James, who have enabled me to be in this place and have the best job in the world.
It is an honour to follow Sarah Newton, with whom I worked well when she was a Minister. She has a strong interest in Durham. Although he is not in his place, I wish to pay tribute to Alistair Burt, who was a brilliant and dedicated Minister, and this House will really feel his loss. I wish at the beginning to put on record my congratulations to the new Speaker and to pay tribute to former Speaker Bercow for all he has done in recent years to uphold the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
Without doubt the greatest privilege of my life has been to serve as the MP for the beautiful City of Durham, and I want to thank all the House of Commons staff, including the Library staff, for the huge help they have given me over the years—they are definitely the unsung heroes of our democracy. My life here has also been hugely helped by my friends, those in the Chamber today, colleagues in the north-east and, in particular, my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I have made long-lasting friendships that will endure beyond Parliament.
Of course, I also want to thank my fantastic staff over the years. I thank those in Westminster—Richard, Emma, Georgie, Rafi and Robyn. I also thank those in Durham—Paul, Nick and especially Christine, who has been with me since the beginning. I simply could not have done the job without them. In an age of increased automation, they are the kind, helpful voice on the end of the telephone, and they have done so much to sort out the problems for my constituents over the years.
I also want to thank my family—Tim, Maeve, Tom and Albie, and my many brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and extended family—for their help and encouragement over the past 14 years. I intend to have more time to see them now, and I just hope they think that that is a good idea.
In Parliament, I have worked closely with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the all-party group on the United Nations to improve our development policies and ensure that the world, not just this country, is better governed. Again, I think that the work of the staff in the CPA and IPU often goes unrecognised, and we should thank them. In here, I have relentlessly raised a number of issues that emerge from my Durham constituency: the need for more money for education; the need for universal free school meals—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West for all the work she has done and will continue to do on that; the need for better licencing and planning policies; the need for prison reform and to look at how the penal system affects women; and the need for a greater recognition of the value that universities bring to our society and economy. I hope to continue that work beyond Parliament.
I just want to say how much I enjoyed working with the hon. Lady in that mission, both when I was a shadow Minister when her party was in government and then as a Minister. She has done outstanding work in that regard and I shall miss her contribution to the House, as well as our professional relationship.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those lovely comments. He, too, was a great Minister, especially in education, where I worked closely with him.
Most importantly, I want to thank my constituents. Those at my constituency Labour party, like the rest of Durham residents, are wonderful and have been hugely supportive over the years. I hope they all know that I have fought hard to try to improve and protect our public services, to improve access to education and employment and to enhance Durham’s amazing architectural and cultural heritage. I will of course continue to champion the incredible cathedral, our world-class Durham University and the Durham Miners Association. But I want to give a note of warning to my successor: Durham is a very busy constituency, with lots of issues emerging from the city centre as well as the surrounding ex-mining villages, and my successor will need plenty of stamina.
“Why, it’s wonderful—a perfect little city…
If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.”
The major issue of our time, which I hope the next Parliament will address—in addition to sorting out the small issue of Brexit—is that of climate change and the climate emergency we face, so in 2019 I say, “Go to Durham, go there at once, but please don’t take a car. Get the train.”
I will of course hugely miss being the elected representative of all the wonderful communities that make up Durham. It really is a special place and deserves to be extremely well advocated for and cherished.
In winding up, I wish to pay tribute to Sir David Lidington, who gave an amazing speech. He was right that in this Chamber we need to celebrate the diversity of this country, and we also need to respect those who have a view different from ours and to treat each other with courtesy. My experience of parliamentarians, regardless of their party, is that they work really hard—relentlessly—on behalf of their constituents. It is a pity that that is not better known in the country and not better represented in the media, because our democracy would be stronger for it.
I am really pleased that I have been able to give this speech today, and I look forward to the new opportunities that lie ahead.
I might have guessed, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will, of course, abide by your strictures.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow Dr Blackman-Woods, who made a typically thoughtful speech. It is great to follow a Member with a double-barrelled name; I fear there will be too few of us after the forthcoming election.
It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, because we are part of the south-west mafia. There is a group of MPs from Somerset, Devon and Cornwall who have worked closely together to push forward on what we need for our region, and my hon. Friend has been front and centre in that proper and very successful campaign, but it is a work in progress, and I just want to take a few minutes on this, my last day in Parliament, to talk about some of the things that we have been able to achieve, as well as some of the unfinished business that still needs to be addressed.
We have had success since 2015 in putting North Devon on the Government’s radar and on the political map in a way that it simply has not been for too long. We have achieved an investment of nearly £100 million for a vital new road link in North Devon. People have heard me bang on about the North Devon link road enough in this place, and it would be silly for me not to do so on my last appearance. It is a vital bit of infrastructure investment, and I am so pleased that we have secured it.
We have also secured the future of the Royal Marines base at Chivenor in the constituency. There was a huge community campaign after the Ministry of Defence said that it was earmarked for closure. The community got together and said, “Up with this we will not put.” I am delighted to say that not only is Chivenor now safeguarded for the future, but that even as late as today I have been talking to the Ministry of Defence to make sure that we can do more there with the unique environment and the service personnel.
North Devon has a commitment to a brand-new district hospital, which is so welcome. Even though I will no longer be the MP, I am going to ensure that we stick to that commitment and that the Government continue to deliver on their promises for the NHS.
All those are things we have achieved, but I mentioned some unfinished business, and I wish to cover three subjects briefly. First, just like, I am sure, Members from all parties, I continue to be concerned by the state of mental healthcare for our young people in particular. It is an absolute shock to realise that the most common cause of death among young men aged between 18 and 35 is not an accident or an incident, or a drugs overdose or a physical illness; it is that they take their own lives. That is a mental health condition that we must tackle, and all Governments of all colours must do so urgently. I have done a lot of work on social care and the regulation and inspection of care home, and that needs to continue.
I really do not want to go down this road too controversially, but I worked for the BBC for many happy years. The BBC and the Government of whatever colour must ensure that the over-75s continue to get the free licence fee concession. I have spoken about that at great length, and I do not intend to rehearse all those arguments now.
As we are on the subject of the media, may I just say a few words about social media, which was touched on by other colleagues? The pressure that MPs find themselves under because of social media is something that has not been sufficiently addressed. I am fortunate in that I have not suffered the sort of threats, abuse or intimidation that many other colleagues in this House have, but none the less—I think that you only get this if you have been an MP—the constant low-level incoming does start to chip away. I do not think that this House, the social media companies or our legislation has caught up with what can be done about that. This happens, as has been said earlier, during election periods. We need to ensure that the role of social media during this and all future elections is more tightly controlled under law and under regulation.
I want quite properly to thank people without whom it would not have been possible for me to do this job. First, the North Devon Conservative Association has been a huge support to me ever since I was selected to do this role at the beginning of 2013. May I just mention the three chairs of the North Devon Conservative Association: Jeremy Smith-Bingham, David Barker and the current chair, Chris Guyver, who I have put in a pickle having to reselect a North Devon candidate in the space of a few days. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt know him by any chance. It sounds like he might. I want to thank all the Ministers and officials and the special advisers who I worked with when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary at two Departments—the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice. It was a pleasure to serve them and to serve the Government in that role.
I thank my colleagues, the south-west MPs, including my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, who I am glad to see in her place. All of us, across the region, have worked really hard since 2015—there have been a lot of us since 2015 and long may that continue—to promote the south-west and its interests. I also thank my absolutely brilliant staff in the constituency and here at Westminster. Let me just mention by name my four current members of staff. Thank you very much indeed to Matt Cox and to my three members of staff who have been with me since the beginning in 2015: Marianne Kemp, Dan Shapland and David Hoare, who have all been brilliant in helping me along.
Finally, I thank the people of North Devon, who did me the privilege and honour of electing me not once, but twice to be their Member of Parliament in North Devon. Helping them, assisting them, meeting them, and sometimes having animated conversations with them really has been an honour and a privilege, and I wish my successor in the role all the very best. I clearly hope that they will be sitting on the Conservative Benches, but whoever they are, I truly wish them all the best. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the staff of the House as well. It is now time to get Pexit done!