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Let me start by thanking you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to present my maiden speech today, and to thank your staff—and, indeed, all staff on the estate—for keeping us safe and looking after us so well and with such professionalism. I should like you to convey my more profound thanks, if that is possible, to Mr Speaker for the way in which he has signalled that he will carry out his office as Speaker of the House, in complete contrast to his predecessor. The conventions and integrity that he is restoring in such an unassuming way are having a much greater impact in restoring faith in our democracy than any commentators may be giving him credit for, which is why I want to do so today.
It is the convention to comment on one’s predecessor in a maiden speech. I shall do so, but not for that reason: I will because I want to. I am certain than many in this place will want to recognise Ian Austin for his integrity, and for the brave way in which he decided to stand up against antisemitism. There is not a person in my constituency to whom I have spoken who does not speak well of Ian, even when they disagreed with his politics. So I want to thank him for his efforts as a local MP, and for the example that he has set for many of us, on both sides of the House, in standing up to prejudice and hatred. I suspect that some of my colleagues on this side of the House—myself included—may wish to thank him for other reasons too.
I say with a degree of both pride and humility that I am the first ever Conservative Member of Parliament for Dudley North, the first ever Member called Marco, and the Member holding a larger majority than any of my predecessors in this seat. For that, I thank the people of Dudley, who, like the people in the rest of the country, decided to tell the House—yet again, at the umpteenth time of asking—what they wanted us to do.
The Dudley North constituency is made up of the town of Sedgley, the suburban areas of Upper Gornal, Lower Gornal and Gornal Wood, Woodsetton, and other conurbations around Dudley town itself. It has several attractions of national significance, including the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley Castle and Dudley Zoo.
Dudley has been a market town since the 13th century, and its fortunes over the centuries have ebbed and flowed with the economic cycles of the heavy industry that its coal-rich mines supported. This also means that it has suffered much since the decline of the traditional industries, which is why a focus on skills and future jobs is crucial if the economic prosperity of the area and the wellbeing of Dudley people are to be secured for the coming decades.
Dudley is also credited with being the birthplace of the industrial revolution, with the advent of smelting iron ore using coal instead of charcoal, which is manufactured by burning trees and therefore much rarer and more costly to obtain. Abraham Darby introduced this revolutionary method, which meant that iron and steel could be made in much larger quantities and more efficiently and cheaply. He effectively kick-started the industrial revolution, so Dudley’s heritage and legacy are second to none—notwithstanding what other people in this House might say! However, I will say that competing with Magna Carta and perhaps alienating a doctor might not be my smartest move. Abraham Darby was born in Woodsetton in 1678 and is reported to have lived at Wren’s Nest, which is now a site of special scientific interest—I had to practise that—and, since 1956, one of only two national nature reserves assigned on geology alone because of the variety and abundance of fossils found on the site.
However, although the new industrial revolution brought wealth, it also resulted in the area being named the most unhealthy place in the country in the mid-19th century, because of the dreadful working and living conditions. That led to the installation of clean water supplies and sewerage systems. Dudley had the highest mortality rate in the country. In the 21st century we are faced with the fourth industrial revolution, characterised by a range of new advancements in the digital and biological worlds, but with a different impact on human wellbeing.
Improving health and wellbeing and seeking to tackle mental ill health are some of the areas on which I wish to focus during my time in this House, for the benefit of everyone at home and in their workplaces. If we tackle the issue of poor mental health at its core and in its infancy, we can prevent crisis moments and the devastating consequences that they can have. That it is also why having an environment that we can all enjoy, which supports us in our own wellbeing and that we can leave as a positive legacy to our children and grandchildren, is so important. Mother Nature has been talking to us for some time, and it is time we did more than simply listen. It is time to take action as well, which is why the Bill is so welcome.
Mr Deputy Speaker, if you ever come to Dudley, the capital of the Black Country, you will be warmly welcomed, because that is the nature of Dudley people. You will also feel a sense of expectation—a feeling that change is about to happen, a feeling of optimism—and this is another reason why I am so privileged to represent the town and its people. In the near future, we will be seeing the demolition of the infamous Cavendish House in the town centre to make way for many new homes, the metro extension and I hope—subject to consent—a very light rail system.
Like many high streets around the country, Dudley’s has suffered much. Nobody has a silver bullet to fix that, but increasing footfall by attracting more people feels like part of the solution. If attracting more people into the town centre is part of the solution, and if the focus on skills for future jobs is key, I would like to see our plans for a university campus on the edge of Dudley town centre finally being delivered. I am pleased that the Prime Minister agrees with me on that. These game-changing plans were drawn up before my arrival, and some have been spoken about for many years. Now is the time to turn words into action and to deliver for Dudley. My pledge to all Dudley people is that I will fight every step of the way to make things happen and bring about the change that they want. It is Dudley’s turn now.