Let me start by paying tribute to my incredible new colleagues, who have made some inspiring speeches and have set the bar so incredibly high. No pressure there, then!
There is only one word that sums up how I feel about being on these green Benches, and that word is “chuffed”. I am chuffed to be here, and to have been granted the opportunity to be the Bishop Auckland constituency’s champion. My predecessor served the constituency well for 14 years, and I thank her particularly for her good work on maintenance fees for new build estates.
All 650 MPs in this place are convinced that they represent the best, most beautiful constituency, and I am incredibly happy to be the one who is right. The home of the Prince Bishops, with over 70 communities across 365 square miles, we have a proud history of railways, mining, farming, and football. I hope to add to the latter by joining my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch on the parliamentary women’s football team. With 10 amateur cup wins, Bishop Auckland football club also stepped in to help Manchester United to fulfil its fixtures following the heartbreaking Munich air disaster in 1958, proving that when we work together, we work best. West Auckland, just down the hill from where I live, even represented Great Britain at the inaugural world cup in 1909—and in 1909, the Sir Thomas Lipton trophy was indeed coming home. As we will prove on the 31st of this month, that was not the last time we went to Europe and got the result that we wanted.
As in football, the Bishop Auckland constituency is a tale of two halves: the beautiful rolling landscapes of rural life to the west in Teesdale, and the grafting industrial towns and villages to the east. The diversity in landscape is matched by the diversity in the challenges faced by the different communities. In Teesdale we need to protect our rural communities, with an emphasis on the farming heroes who help to feed our nation and preserve our environment. I will work even more closely with Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services to be a true champion for our farmers and to create a thriving rural economy.
I will also be campaigning to improve our rural broadband and 4G coverage, and I am delighted that the Government have committed themselves to eradicating notspots. Connectivity, in every sense, is at the centre of my local plan, and at the centre of Government.
In the east of the constituency, in an all too familiar story, our high streets are under pressure, but the Government are listening, and I am chuffed once more that Bishop Auckland will benefit from both the towns fund and the future high streets fund. Local transport is also an issue, and I have been nagging my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport incessantly about the long-awaited Toft Hill bypass. We must also secure the repair work that is needed on Whorlton Bridge, not least because the community faces a dramatic detour which has forced the closure of the local pub, but also because of its cultural value in being the oldest suspension bridge in Britain that still relies on its original chainwork.
One issue that unites the whole constituency is our local healthcare provision. My local priority is fighting for improved health services at Bishop Auckland Hospital, with the ultimate goal of restoring our A&E. I have been banging that drum here in Parliament non-stop since I was elected, and I have no plans to let up just yet. So I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care: I am sorry, but he will be seeing an awful lot more of me. Despite the rhetoric from many Opposition Members, the NHS is at the very heart of the Conservative party, and I welcome the record NHS funding from this Government and the bold step to enshrine that funding in law.
The NHS has a special place in my heart, although unfortunately my best experiences of it were in times of great sadness. It was the incredible NHS staff who helped to bring smiles to my nan’s face during the last days of her battle with cancer, and it was NHS paramedics and doctors who fought valiantly to save my dad’s life. If any of those staff are watching today, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I was 13 years old when a man who later admitted to being high on drink and drugs walked across a pub and ended my dad’s life in seconds with one single punch. As a result, I spent my early teenage years in and out of court cases, tribunals, and meetings with lawyers and the police. While I was insistent that I would not let a dark event in my past negatively determine what happened to my future, that is a life that I would not want other young people to have. Here in this place, I want to champion policy that helps to reduce violence by educating disadvantaged young people, rehabilitating offenders and giving our police the resources they need to do their job. The police officers that I encountered as a young teenager were exemplary, particularly Karen Cocker, our family liaison officer, who I am proud to say I am still in touch with today.
Losing my dad had a profound impact on me. He was an incredible source of inspiration. In many ways, he was the very embodiment of blue collar Conservative values. He was a grafter, a self-employed stonemason who taught me the value of small enterprise as a force for good. He was incredibly aspirational, often jokingly citing Del Boy’s great line:
“This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires!”
He believed that, above all else, a person’s duty was to leave a better world for future generations, delivering that through nothing short of hard work. Growing up with my dad’s values, I became the first in my family to go to university and, weirdly enough, the first in my family to take a seat in this place as well. I was one of the lucky ones, but a child’s opportunities should not be determined by luck or by their postcode.
I am proud to be a member of this Conservative party, which has levelling up and spreading opportunity at the very core of its ethos. Improving social mobility is not only a passion of mine; it feels to me that it is my very duty to my constituents and to my country. That is why one of my key local priorities is improving job opportunities by setting up a youth employment champions scheme. A wise man called Dumbledore said:
“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”
Grafting as hard as I can to help my constituents to grow to their full potential is not just a priority; it is my duty.