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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:16 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley 5:16 pm, 16th March 2020

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech during this debate; it is good to see you in the Chair as I do so. There have been a number of eloquent and thoughtful contributions today, and I hope that I do not change that too much.

On 12 December I made history in Burnley by being the first Conservative to be elected since 1910—109 years since the last. I thank the people of Burnley, Padiham, Hapton, Worsthorne and Cliviger for putting their trust in me and sending me down to this place. It is a huge honour.

I also pay tribute to my predecessor, Julie Cooper. Julie was a committed local politician, having served as leader of the council before taking up her seat here. She was committed to something else that I hope to carry on: ending hospital car parking charges. She campaigned vigorously on that issue, and I look forward to working with the Government to make that aim a reality, as we committed to doing in our manifesto and as the Minister mentioned earlier.

My constituency of Burnley has existed in various forms since 1868. It encompasses not only the urban centre of Burnley, which is the beating heart of the constituency—famous for a premier league football club and Burnley Miners social club, where, the House will be delighted to know, more Benedictine is consumed than anywhere else in Britain—but also the town Padiham, which has its own distinct feel and community spirit. That spirit has never been more important than in 2015, when the town suffered from severe flooding. Then there are the rolling green fields of the villages of Hapton, Worsthorne and Cliviger, where we have a thriving rural economy.

I have heard many colleagues speak of how their constituency is the best in the country, but I am confident that once they have all visited this gem of east Lancashire, they will agree that it is Burnley that takes that glorious title. Burnley is not a place of what once was, but a place of what will be. It has some of the most entrepreneurial people in the country, with more than 425 businesses starting up just last year, a college with a centre of engineering excellence and an Oscar-winning sound company. Above all else, it has a community that works hard every day—not just for themselves, but for each other.

When it came to writing my maiden speech, I asked the House of Commons Library if it could provide me with copies of those given by my predecessor, which it duly did. The only problem was that they only went back to 1918, which is eight years after the last Conservative was elected in Burnley. But I was not deterred. I went on and did my own research.

Gerald Arbuthnot was elected to this place in January 1910, the second Conservative for the seat. Although I could not find his maiden speech, I did find many of his other contributions. The topics of those contributions may sound familiar to those of us here today—improvements to the railways, furthering trade with other countries and reducing crime. So while the world may have moved on significantly over the past 100 years, the issues remain the same. Gerald Arbuthnot did not serve for very long as an MP, losing his seat at the second general election of 1910, in December of that year. It is a fate I am hoping to avoid—I say that as I look to our Front Bench. On leaving this place, Gerald Arbuthnot sadly lost his life in the battle of the Somme, but I was pleased to see that the Parliamentary war memorial was recently updated to include his name, which had been missing for too long.

Having looked back, I now want to look forward, at what I hope to achieve for the people of Burnley while I sit here representing them. I have already spoken about the entrepreneurial spirit we have in Burnley—the businesses that currently power our town, from Safran to Burnley football club, along with the new ones that are sprouting up all the time. In coming here, I want to do my bit to make their lives easier, encouraging even more to set up, drawing on the engineering prowess of the town, the digital skills that we are growing by the day and the fortitude of those who live there. The UK is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to start a business. My job is to ensure that Burnley is the best place in the UK to do so.

I also want to work with those who are already in Burnley, supporting them as they capitalise on the free trade agreements that this Government are negotiating, not just with our European allies, which is vitally important, but around the world. I am a member of the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, and the Government should know that I plan on scrutinising their efforts to do exactly that—making sure that, in delivering a free trade agreement with the EU, we also deliver on our promises to the British public.

I am incredibly proud that this Budget, delivered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last Wednesday, shows that we are still the party of enterprise. It provides the support that businesses in Burnley need to invest in new technology, to undertake the research and development that will keep us cutting edge, and to employ the people who will power innovations of the future. That is because we on these Benches know that the way to improve life chances and reduce inequality is to get business booming. But that also relies on equipping our young people with the skills they need for the future. As I said on the campaign trail, one of my aims as the Member of Parliament for Burnley will be to ensure that when our young people leave school or college, they have the digital skills they need for the 21st century, not the 20th century. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary can therefore look forward to me being a constant voice on this topic.

As I wrote in my weekly column in the local newspaper last week, sitting here as the Budget was announced, I felt incredibly proud to be the Member of Parliament for Burnley. It deals first and foremost with the significant challenge that we as a country and the world face as a result of covid-19. It is right that at this time we all commit to providing the NHS with whatever resources it needs to tackle the disease and protect life. The cross-party consensus on that shows that, when it is needed, this place can come together and do what is necessary. I hope that we will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

But the Budget also delivers for our other public services. The extra funding for our schools, increasing per pupil amounts, will make a real difference to the lives of children across Burnley, ensuring that people’s life chances are not shaped by circumstance, but by ability. The extra police funding will result not only in more officers on our streets, but in better equipment for those whose job is to protect us. Then there is the extra investment in our infrastructure, because it is that infrastructure that gets us to work or university, transports our goods across the country and gives us access to the digital world.

Mr Deputy Speaker, it has been a pleasure to speak in this debate, and in particular to give my maiden speech.