I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Standing Order No. 33 provides that on the last day of the debate on the motion for an Address to Her Majesty, the House may also vote on a second amendment selected by the Speaker. I have selected the amendment in the name of Angus Robertson for that purpose. The vote on that amendment will take place at the end of the debate after the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been disposed of.
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“endorse the successful steps taken by the previous administration to return the economy to growth, to keep people in their jobs and homes, and to support businesses; note the need for a clear plan to bring down the deficit; respectfully believe that securing the recovery and robust future growth should be central to that plan; further believe that such a plan must be fair and protect front line public services; therefore oppose your Government’s measures to cut the support provided by the Future Jobs Fund for tens of thousands of young people out of work, to damage growth in the regions by scaling back regional development agencies, and to cast uncertainty over support for key low carbon sectors like the nuclear supply chain and lower carbon vehicles; further note that a rebalanced British economy must be built as the UK emerges from the recession; and therefore urge your Government to reconsider the removal of investment allowances which support manufacturing businesses seeking to grow.”
I congratulate all those Members who have made their maiden speeches over the past few days, and commend the speeches that we will hear from new Members during the debate this afternoon.
Before I turn to what I suspect will be the main focus of the debate—the economy—I want to mention a number of Bills in the Gracious Speech on which the Chancellor might want to respond in the course of his speech, which will follow mine. The Government want to bring before the House several measures on which the Opposition can offer complete support or, I hope, can be constructive in their support. The first is the terrorist asset-freezing Bill. That piece of legislation is necessary as a result of a recent decision by the Supreme Court and we will certainly support the Government in getting it on the statute book as soon as possible. I am grateful for the co-operation I received when I was Chancellor from the then shadow Chancellor and his Liberal counterpart.
I appreciate what the Chancellor said a few moments ago about the Office for Budget Responsibility currently operating on an extra-statutory basis, but I hope that the principles on which it will operate—with as much openness and transparency as possible and with us being able to look at the deliberations of the budget responsibility committee and understand its reasoning before it reaches a recommendation—will be part of its practice now and will be in the legislation when it comes before the House. I welcome the fact that Sir Alan Budd, who has been appointed acting chairman of that office, has made it clear that he is willing to speak to all hon. Members. That is important, as the office will work only if it is seen to be non-partisan.
On Equitable Life, all of us know that the process has been long and drawn out. I think the Government may have already found that the process is not straightforward and that the ombudsman’s ruling was not as clear-cut as some people thought. We therefore commissioned Sir John Chadwick to investigate the matter, and I am glad to say that he will report in July. I had thought he was going to report at the end of May, which is what he had told us, but it may be that he has had further discussions with the Treasury. [Interruption.] The Chancellor is saying from a sedentary position that it was at his request. That is fine, but I wonder whether he will make provision for whatever Sir John recommends in his June Budget, or whether the fact that Sir John is reporting in July means we will have to wait for a further Budget to see what provision is being made.
On the financial services regulation Bill, we had many exchanges across the Floor of the House in the last Parliament on this matter, but I simply say to the Chancellor that it would be helpful if he could perhaps tell the House exactly what the coalition agreement is in relation to who has responsibility for regulation. We have read conflicting reports in the newspapers about whether the Financial Services Authority is to be brought within the responsibility of the Bank of England and whether it is the Governor or Lord Turner who is to be responsible for the regulation of the financial services industry. Other reports say that no decision has been made and the decision has been parked. It is important that we have some certainty about that, because the very nature of such things means it is inevitable that some problem may arise quickly. It is therefore important to know who is in charge, as we do not want the FSA and its staff to be concentrating more on their future than on what is happening in the financial services industry.
On the point about banking regulation, the shadow Chancellor will remember the closure of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and the Bingham report. That report was commissioned by the previous Government and its conclusions mentioned an independent regulator. It is important that we look carefully at the issue of regulation and that we do not hand back to the Bank of England all the powers for regulation. In his conclusions, Lord Bingham recommended that that should not happen.
My right hon. Friend will know that I have always had reservations about transferring responsibility for regulation to the Bank of England, as I am not sure that it is the best body to deal with it. Certainly, for much of the past 10 years, it has had a good and distinguished record on monetary policy, but I am not so sure whether it should have widespread responsibility for regulation.
My right hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the Bingham report. The Chancellor will no doubt recall, or I am sure his officials will remind him, that Lord Bingham produced two reports—one was published and one was not. I strongly advise him to read the second, unpublished report, because it sheds considerable light on some of the problems that arose. Perhaps after such a length of time, it might be possible to reconsider whether that report should be published, because I think many of the people concerned would not be so badly affected.
On the Bingham report, if the shadow Chancellor has read the confidential parts, why did he resist the publication of that second report? That is something that some of us who have been concerned about the liquidation of BCCI for 20 years have urged him to do.
I think it was providing a response to a parliamentary question from my right hon. Friend that obliged me to read the report. I remember spending two days reading it and giving my decision. However, I do not have the benefit of the advice I received, which I now need to remind me why I refused his request at that time. All I can say is that I refused his request for entirely the right reasons but, 10 years later and in the spirit of freedom of information, I am not saying that it definitely should be looked at, but the present Chancellor or whoever is dealing with the issue should look at the matter and perhaps 10 years further on someone else looking at that report might reach a different conclusion. I reiterate, whatever decision I reached was right for the reasons I gave at the time.
May I also tell the Chancellor that it would be helpful if he took the opportunity to spell out the Government’s policy on the banks in which the Government have shareholdings—Northern Rock, Lloyds, the Royal Bank of Scotland—because that is a matter of interest, especially now that RBS is talking about disposing of its Williams & Glyn’s branches and others? I believe it is the view of both main political parties that there ought to be more competition in the system, so a clear statement on Government policy on how we do that would be helpful. We do not want to end up selling a tranche of banks to another big UK operator, because that would mean that we would not get the competition we want.
I was interested to re-read last Friday the Business, Innovations and Skills Secretary’s criticism of the banks’ failure to lend, but it is not entirely clear to me what the new Government are doing to increase bank lending. It would be useful to hear from the Chancellor, or at least one of his colleagues, in the fairly near future on that.
However, the main focus of today’s debate is, inevitably, the economy, as it was in Treasury questions for the past hour or so. Yesterday, predictably, the Prime Minister, as the Chancellor did today, sought to lay the blame for everything the new Government plan to do on the previous Government. There is nothing new in that: new Governments frequently blame their predecessors and it is the easiest thing in the world to do. It is equally unsurprising that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor should go around the country and other parts of the world and say, “The situation is much, much worse than we thought. It’s all terrible and we will have to do terrible things.” By a stroke of good fortune, they have the Liberal Democrats to front up some of the difficult decisions they must take.
Did not the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), rather than the new Government, reveal the desperate state in which the shadow Chancellor left the country’s finances?
Forgive me if I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but throughout the three years when I was Chancellor, I do not think that I ever, on any occasion, concealed from anyone the difficulties that we and other economies would face as a result of the deepest global downturn in the past century. There can be no doubt about that.
However, I should tell the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that by 2008, it was clear that this country, and every other major developed country in the world, faced the catastrophic consequences of the failure of the banking system. Had we not taken action to stabilise the banking system—many of those decisions were opposed by the Conservatives—and to ensure that we supported our economy when private sector investment dried up and died away, we would have had a situation in which recession tipped into depression. That is why we took the action that we did. We were right to do so, and the Conservatives were wrong to oppose us. Our economy is now growing, and as I said earlier, unemployment is half that in the downturn of the 1990s, and borrowing is coming down, because of the action we took in 2008 and 2009. We took that action along with most developed countries.
Will the shadow Chancellor explain why, if he was so open about the state of the economy, he would not hold a comprehensive spending review, and why he would not publicise the impending debt payments of £70 billion that the people of this country must pay for his profligacy?
First, I said on many occasions that the right thing to do was to hold a spending review this year, before the end of the current review period ran out. There is still a lot of uncertainty, as I shall explain later, and the hon. Lady would do well to remember that at present, while we are coming out of recovery, our growth is modest. I hope we will see recovery secured, but what is happening in continental Europe and other parts of the world shows that we are not out of the woods yet and there is still a lot of uncertainty around. On the hon. Lady’s main point, however—which I dare say her colleagues will make too—our borrowing and debt levels rose for exactly the same reason as they are rising in America, Japan, Italy, France, Germany and just about every other country in the world: because we went through the deepest global recession in modern times. The hon. Lady might also want to remember that until well into 2008 the Conservatives, far from condemning our spending, were supporting our spending plans. They are therefore in no position to say now that they were opposing all this in times past. That is simply not right.
Will the shadow Chancellor join me in recommending Sam Brittan’s article in the Financial Times last week entitled “Now is the time to ask: ‘What crisis?’”? He is a Conservative and he supports the coalition Government, but he says that it does nobody any good to exaggerate the state of the British economy, which he believes is much stronger than that of most of our competitors.
I think it is necessary for anyone charged with responsibility for the British economy to take a measured approach. If things are difficult, they have a duty to speak out, even when that causes them some problems, as I found out myself a couple of years ago. I think it is better that we do that, than not. Equally, however, it does no good to go running around saying the situation is absolutely terrible and dire, because sooner or later we may find that the markets call our bluff; we may find that one day they say, “Whatever you do, it isn’t enough.” I believe that that approach is as irresponsible as saying nothing about a difficult situation.
We must discuss these matters in a reasoned and rational manner, because while it is important that we identify the things that need to be put right, equally we must not give an impression counter to the fact that, fundamentally we have an economy that is coming through this period, that we can get through it and ensure that we have growth, which is absolutely critical in the future. Running around scaremongering and raising all sorts of fears could have the perverse effects of turning market sentiment against us, which we do not need, and of dampening consumer and investor confidence, which is simply not necessary.
The shadow Chancellor says that Government Members are scaremongering by pointing out that the Budget deficit is 13%. We are not scaremongering; we are scared, as the position is extremely serious. The recession was so deep in the first place because the right hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—who has not been seen of late—ran things so badly that the money ran out, which meant that we were more exposed before the recession. The shadow Chancellor should therefore be apologising to the House for the mess that his right hon. Friend and the previous Government have left behind.
Does the shadow Chancellor agree with this statement by the Governor of the Bank of England:
“I don’t think you can compare the UK with Greece. There are big differences”?
I suggest that not the least of the differences between our countries is that our debt-to-GDP ratio is about half that of Greece.
The Governor was making a very fair point, as he does on many occasions. It is interesting that even in the past couple of days Government members—the Prime Minister yesterday, and one or two of his ministerial colleagues—are rowing back from direct comparisons with Greece because that may have been very convenient to them in opposition, but it might not be such a good idea now that they hold office.
Our economy is experiencing growth at present, and that is because of the action we took over the past couple of years. I do not intend, as the Chancellor said, to fight the last general election again or to go through everything that happened over the last two or three years—that is, perhaps, for another occasion—but I do say this about the action we took. The fiscal stimulus we put in place—the VAT reduction; the decision to bring forward capital spending; the measures we took to protect people’s jobs and ensure that if people were out of work for a short period we could get them back into work as quickly as possible; the time to pay scheme, which is still helping hundreds of thousands of businesses throughout the country; the car scrappage scheme; and the action we took internationally—have all come together to make sure we came through this recession. Interestingly, although the predominant position of the financial services industry in this country meant that it took us longer to come through into recovery than it took some other countries, Britain has had two quarters of growth whereas other countries, particularly those in continental Europe, have seen their growth slip back and, in some cases, they have slipped into recession. What that tells me is that had the previous Government not taken the action that they did over the past couple of years we would not now be in a position to say, “Yes, our economy is growing.” Equally, our action has meant that although our borrowing is still very high and needs to come down, it is coming down faster than many people believed, even a few months ago.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for accepting what is obvious: the fact that during a recession Governments do have to borrow in order to support their economies. However, I should remind him that during the earlier part of the previous decade the Conservative party supported our spending programmes, saying that they would stick to our spending levels. The Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, said that as recently as 2008. The hon. Gentleman was not here during the previous Parliament, but I can assure him that I do not recall any Conservative standing up to say, “Don’t build a new school in my constituency. Don’t build more housing. Don’t open a new hospital.” Conservative Members were not saying that at all; they wanted more spending in just about every area. So the idea that the Conservative party was behaving in a way that would have meant that there was no borrowing and that the Conservatives would have behaved any differently is absolute nonsense. The hon. Gentleman just has to accept that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the measures that have now contributed to the deficit were being demanded by manufacturing industry in order to sustain the corporate manufacturing base needed for us to grow out of recession, the car scrappage scheme being one case in point?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The new Government will find that for every industrialist or manufacturer who says that public spending needs to be cut, in areas that benefit from such spending people take a rather different view. The car scrappage scheme is an example of that, and it made a huge difference to the car industry and the motor vehicle industry in general. As the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said, the action that we took did involve more borrowing and it does result in increasing debt. However, the point is that the cost of failing to act would have been far greater.
The Chancellor was talking about the international consensus. I know something about that, and I can tell hon. Members that over the past three years it was very much in favour of our continuing to support our economies; of course, as we come through to recovery we have to get the borrowing down. Nobody disputes that, and at least two of the parties that fought the previous election were absolutely clear about it—it was never clear what the third party was in favour of, and its position remains something of a mystery even today.
The shadow Chancellor rightly says that there was an international consensus, and I supported many of the actions that he took. However, in this financial year, when recovery is not secure, why did he leave the economy without a fiscal stimulus? Ours is one of only two countries in the G20 without a fiscal stimulus, and I still believe it was absolutely necessary for us in order to secure recovery and prevent our slipping back into recession.
What economists call the “automatic stabilisers” are still operating and are still supporting the economy. I have always been clear about this, and I believe that the deficit has to be reduced. One of the reasons why I wanted to halve it within a four-year period was that I wanted to get it down in a way that did not damage the economic or, indeed, the social fabric of the country while that was being done. Obviously I do not know what the new Government are going to come up with, but I suspect that they will not go too far before they start seeing that when they want to reduce expenditure quickly that sometimes has severely damaging consequences. We shall wait to see what happens, but I believe that that is a substantial risk.
Before I leave this point I should say something further because a number of hon. Members mentioned our spending in the earlier part of our Government. It is not just about what we did during the recession; it is about the fact that over the relevant 10-year period, there was an unprecedented decade of growth such as this country had not seen before, as well as low interest rates, low inflation and falling unemployment. Gross domestic product per capita grew faster in this country than in any other G7 country even after one takes into account the effects of the financial crisis. The economic environment was one that this country had not had for many years. Of course, we had to deal with the effects of the banking crisis and the downturn that followed, which had a very severe effect on our public finances as well as other public finances.
My right hon. Friend did a phenomenal job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The measures that he has just outlined and the success were considerable, but is it not also true that back in 2002 his Government, and my Government, finally paid off the second world war and post-war debt that was run up with the Americans in 1947? The final bonds were paid off not by the Conservatives in the 1950s, 1960s or 1980s, but by the Labour Government in 2002. [Interruption.] That is absolutely true.
My right hon. Friend is right. No doubt there will be another occasion to revisit the lend-lease arrangements that the then Government entered into in the 1940s, although I commend to the House Lord Robert Skidelsky’s excellent third volume on Keynes, which deals with this matter quite extensively. Some people thought that we got a pretty bad deal in 1943, but there you are.
No, I do not think that was the main problem. The system of regulation that we introduced in 1998 brought together about eight or nine different regulators—self-regulators, as the Conservative party used to be very keen on self-regulation. The problem in relation to the Financial Services Authority, the American regulators and most other regulators was that they simply did not understand the systemic risks that arose in the previous decade or the consequences of the failure of one bank for another. The system in this country was not the problem, but there was undoubtedly a failure on the part of regulators right across the world, including in our country. The FSA’s inquiry into what went wrong in Northern Rock demonstrated that the FSA had spotted problems in Northern Rock in February 2007 but had not taken action. I shall say this in the nicest possible way to the hon. Gentleman: he might want to have a word with one or two of the people who were running Northern Rock—members of his party—who might have had a better look at what they were supposed to have been doing when they were running that bank.
I thank the shadow Chancellor for giving way. May I say that as a bystander, rather than a participant, in the last Parliament, I was always struck by his excellent manners? As a mother of three children, I am very hot on manners. In particular, when my children make a mess that I have to clear up, I encourage them to say sorry. Would the shadow Chancellor like to apologise to the Government and the people of Britain for the mess he has left for this Government to clean up?
I shall not give way. I want to make some progress, because I know that many hon. Members want to make their maiden speeches, and I do not want to be blamed for not allowing them to do so. I might give way before I finish, but not just now.
As I was saying, borrowing has clearly increased, but that has to be put into perspective. Our deficit for this year is broadly similar to that of the US. All other major countries have had the same problem.
We went into the recession with the second-lowest level of debt of any of the G7 countries, but IMF projections for this year show that our debt is lower than that of France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Yes, we have to get our borrowing down and make sure that we start to bear down on debt, and I agree with everyone who says that it is far better to spend money on things other than debt interest. However, it is worth making the point—because it is one that the present Government never do make—that this problem does not affect our country alone. It has affected all countries, and certainly all the developed countries.
It is not a surprise that borrowing and debt went up, because our tax revenues fell dramatically in 2007 and 2008. Our spending on unemployment and social security went up because tax credits were there to help people who lost their jobs. Yes, that was increased expenditure but, if we had cut then, the risk was that we would turn a recession into a depression. That was a cost that I was certainly not willing to contemplate.
We made an active choice to allow borrowing to rise to support the economy. As I said, that policy was supported by the then Conservative Opposition right up until 2008. It was not as though they were saying anything different immediately before that, but I fundamentally disagree with the analysis that the Chancellor made when he was shadow Chancellor. He said:
“Even a modest dose of Keynesian spending”
“a cruise missile aimed at the heart of a recovery.”
He said that in 2008, when the banking system and the world economies were close to collapse. That seems to me to be complete nonsense. Of course we will have our arguments about how and at what rate we reduce our deficit, but I simply do not accept the argument that by implication he seems to be advancing—that somehow the previous Government should have been cutting spending just as we were going into a recession. I know of no other Government who were doing that.
The construction sector is one of the most important barometers of the national economy, and I was privileged to serve as construction Minister. If that spending by Government had not taken place in the last two years, would we not have had a massive increase in the level of unemployment in the construction industry? That would have opened up the horrific prospect of having 3.5 million people unemployed—a level that we reached twice under the Conservative party.
That is indeed right, and many people in the construction industry say that an already difficult situation would have become much worse if we had not done what we did in 2008-09. Not many Conservatives or Liberals—we must include the two together—now stand up and say, “Actually, in retrospect, we shouldn’t have been supporting the construction industry.” I rather get the impression that they are telling local industries in their constituencies something entirely different.
Will the shadow Chancellor clarify his party’s position on our proposed spending reductions? Before the general election, it was my distinct impression that the Labour party was planning public expenditure cuts of up to 25% across some Departments. In my constituency of Stourbridge, we were extremely concerned when the results of a freedom of information request on the NHS in the west midlands revealed plans for significant cuts to doctors, nurses and beds in our area. By anyone’s definition, they must be front-line services.
No, I am not going to give way. I want to draw attention to one of the biggest problems that I see in the future. I know that Governments in countries right across the world have to get their borrowing down and reduce their deficits. However, I am particularly worried that, if we do not have some countervailing pressure to support growth and measures to get growth in our economy, we run the risk of having many years of it merely bumping along the bottom, sometimes growing and sometimes not. That will inevitably mean that we will have higher unemployment and that aspirations and sentiment will be affected.
I see that especially in the EU at the present time. The EUROSTAT figures published last Friday went almost unreported in this country, but what is worrying is that we see that Germany’s growth in the first quarter of this year was 0.2%. We see France’s at 0.1%. We see Greece not surprisingly, back in recession. We know that Spain has unemployment of more than 20%. I am glad that the Chancellor enjoys going to ECOFIN so much, and long may he enjoy that. I am fascinated that the Conservatives now find so much succour in Europe. All I can say to him is that I worry that rather too many finance Ministries, yes want to get their deficit down, but are not concentrating on the structural reforms that are necessary within the EU or on measures to achieve growth in the future. That is a real threat.
It worries me that the present Administration here in the United Kingdom also fall into that camp. It is interesting that in the past six months the Prime Minister has made only one speech on growth. It flickered into life in November just before the CBI conference last year. We do not hear what measures the Government intend to put in place to get the rebalancing of the economy that we want to see—measures to encourage private sector investment to come back. It is not coming back yet in sufficient volume to take the place of the public sector investment that the Chancellor wants to take away. We have to have a clear, strategic look at this to make sure that we can get growth in this country as well as in the EU, which after all is our major export market.
I do not want to disappoint the shadow Chancellor, but I am much more interested in the reasons why, when he was Chancellor—despite the tissue of self-justification that we have just heard—he was never prepared to refer to the true level of debt. He said that no Conservative raised it, but a number of us raised the true level of debt from 2008 onwards. Does he deny that the true level, according to the Office for National Statistics, is £3.1 trillion and not the amount that he has been describing over the past few months?
When comparing the judgments that we make about what is necessary fiscally, I do not think that bringing on to the main balance sheet PFI, Network Rail and everything else particularly helps. However, if that is the course of action that he has managed to persuade the Chancellor to take, we will look with great interest at the Budget in a couple of weeks. I just do not think that it is a particularly accurate or informative way of looking at the accounts. I have said that before to the hon. Gentleman.
I think that the word “savage” was used by the Deputy Prime Minister, of whom the hon. Gentleman now finds himself a great admirer. It was not a word that I used.
It is important in the task that confronts the whole country and the Government that we do not get ourselves into a situation of almost competitive austerity, in which Governments and countries become blind to the need to secure growth. There is a substantial risk, as I have said for a long time, that if the Government take action prematurely without considering its consequences as a whole, they will choke off the recovery. We have to get borrowing down, but we also have to get growth and recovery firmly established.
No, I will not. If we are to maintain jobs and ensure that borrowing does indeed come down, we need to have growth. Policies to achieve that are notable by their absence both in this country and the rest of continental Europe. It is no use Government Members citing what happened in Canada and Sweden. Yes, Canada reduced its structural deficit, but it did so at a time when its next door neighbour, which happened to be the biggest economy in the world, was growing strongly. So the Canadians benefited from a strong US economy. Equally, when Sweden was going through its retrenchment, Europe was starting to grow again. So the comparisons are not entirely appropriate.
We must realise that we need to put in place policies that ensure growth, get our borrowing down and, critically, equip this country to compete in the markets that are going to be opened for it and take advantage of the opportunities that will be here.
As I said during the election campaign and have said since, I believe that the Conservative party remains a risk to the recovery. I believe too that no matter how they dress it up, and how they seek to blame other people, even if they use the Liberal Democrats to cover their true intentions, what they are about is ensuring that they cut exactly the same expenditure as they have always wanted to, and they are using this as an excuse for doing so.
I believe that action does need to be taken, but crucially I believe that we need to ensure that we secure the recovery, and I hope that this Government have got the sense to see that now, before it is too late.
I enjoyed what sounded very much to me like a valedictory speech by the shadow Chancellor, going through all the decisions he took and explaining to the House why they were all right. Of course, I paid tribute to him in Treasury questions for the work he did during that period, which was clearly a very stressful one, but it was pretty extraordinary that he did not once accept that he had made a single mistake during those three years—that for all his good manners, he did not once apologise for the fact that he has bequeathed to the incoming Government the worst inheritance that any British Government have faced since the second world war.
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I would like to make some progress first.
I guess that the shadow Chancellor is entitled not to apologise. I would only say this to the people who are standing for the leadership of the Labour party. As far as I can tell from their contest at the moment, they seem to think that they just did not speak enough about immigration and Europe in the campaign. Let me tell him: I have done that campaign and I did not get the medal. Perhaps the leadership contenders will at some point turn their attention to the very serious economic problems that this country faces, and tell us what they would do—what they would cut. The amendment that we are being asked to vote for tonight—tabled by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—states that we need
“a clear plan to bring down the deficit”.
I agree with that; I would happily vote with the shadow Chancellor if he could perhaps tell me exactly what his clear plan to bring down the deficit is because, as far as I could tell, he opposed every single decision that we have taken to try to reduce the deficit.
In The Sunday Times, the Prime Minister said that the cuts would be unprecedented in their severity and would change Britain. In The Observer, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the cuts would not at all be as serious as in the 1980s and ’90s, and would be progressive in nature. Can the Chancellor tell us—which is it?
It was the shadow Chancellor who said—and we were reminded of this—that the cuts would be deeper than anything that Margaret Thatcher had undertaken, and that was the proposal from the Labour party when it was in government. It is unfortunately an economic fact that the budget deficit that this country faces is higher than at any point in our peacetime history, and whoever forms the Government of this country has to deal with that budget deficit and cannot ignore it. Indeed, there is a rather striking fact about the Labour Government’s proposals, which they left in their Budget book—the shadow Chancellor has a copy in front of him. There are £50 billion of cuts built into the Labour Budget produced in March, and not one single pound of those cuts has yet been identified by the Labour party.
Many congratulations to my right hon. Friend on taking up his position. Was not one of the greatest weaknesses of the last Government, which the former Chancellor avoided mentioning, the fact that the number of people in non-taxpaying employment rocketed up and the number of those working in productive jobs that produce taxes drifted down?
My hon. Friend is right. There was a profound imbalance in the economy. We heard the shadow Chancellor saying, “What are the Government going to do about the unbalanced economy?” He seems to forget that he has been running the economy for the last three years. His Government have actually been in charge for the last 13 years. If there is an unbalanced economy, the people responsible are sitting on the Opposition Benches.
I want to make progress, as I know that a lot of people want to make their maiden speeches; I was talked out of my maiden speech on the day I wanted to give it by over-long Front-Bench speeches. However, I want to give way to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), because I want to know where his Friend the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) is.
This morning, we all read the Prime Minister’s comments telling us that the cuts would affect every family in the land, and that no one would be exempt from the deep pain that those cuts would cause. Given that we are all in this together, can the Chancellor tell me which public services he and his family rely on, and which they will miss the most?
I want to make a little progress because a lot of Members on both sides of the House want to make their maiden speeches. I will give way in a little while, perhaps, to Members who stood up.
Of course, the economic situation is the backdrop to the Queen’s Speech. Our country is borrowing £156 billion a year. Our national debt has doubled and is set to double again. Those Opposition Members who think that this is some abstract problem should pay heed to the warning noises from the European continent. Countries that cannot live within their means face high interest rates, greater economic shocks and larger debt interest bills.
Let us consider this one fact, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), which the previous Chancellor refused to publish. The only reason she can deploy that fact in the Chamber is that this Government published it. It is that, on the spending plans that we inherited from the previous Government, British taxpayers are going to pay £70 billion a year in debt interest by the end of this Parliament. That is higher than the education budget, it is higher than the defence budget, and it is far higher than the policing budget. That figure was kept secret from the British people, but we will publish it because people need to know where their money is going.
A lot of brickbats will be thrown across the Chamber today. Surely all hon. Members, on both sides of the House, as people who care about the long-term future of our economy, agree that cuts are necessary, but is it sensible to cut widely and deeply before private investment has recovered?
At least the hon. Gentleman acknowledges—it is the first time, either in this debate or in Treasury questions, that we have heard this from those on the Opposition Benches—that cuts have to come. [Hon. Members: “The shadow Chancellor said that.”] I am sorry, but we have just listened to a speech by the shadow Chancellor in which he explained why we should not be trying to accelerate the reduction in our structural deficit, despite the advice of the Governor of the Bank of England, the European Commission, the OECD, the G20, virtually every international investor in the UK economy and virtually every business organisation that represents businesses in this economy. The hon. Gentleman acknowledges at least that there have to be cuts. The offer that I make to him—he may take this up; I am not sure that his colleagues will—is to engage in a proper conversation in the Chamber over the next three or four months about the decisions that will obviously have an important impact on the way the Government function over many years to come.
I want to extend to the right hon. Gentleman the courtesy of asking the question that I asked previously, because he did not do me or my constituents the courtesy of answering it. If his judgment is wrong and the cuts are either too soon or too deep so that there is not sufficient economic growth to deal with the cuts that will be imposed, will that not mean that my constituents will suffer all the pain of the cuts and have none of the gain of the growth?
If the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to trust my judgment, let me read out what the Governor of the Bank of England has said:
“The most important thing now is for the new government to deal with the challenge of the fiscal deficit. It is the single most pressing problem facing the United Kingdom; it will take a full parliament to deal with, and it is very important that measures are taken straight away to demonstrate the seriousness and the credibility of the commitment to dealing with that deficit.”
That is the judgment of the Bank of England Governor—appointed, by the way, by the shadow Chancellor—and the judgment that we have taken in order to protect the prosperity and the livelihoods of the people whom the hon. Gentleman represents, and the people represented by everyone else in the House of Commons.
I will make a little progress, and will give way later on in my speech, if Members will allow.
Of course, the backdrop is that our economy has become deeply unbalanced. There is deep imbalance between different parts of the country: the wealth gap between regions widened over the past 13 years. There is imbalance between different sections of society: the gap between the rich and the poor widened in our country over the past 13 years. There is imbalance between different parts of our economy: the public sector boomed to take almost half our national income, while the private sector struggled with the deepest recession that we had seen since the war. This Queen’s Speech, with its landmark reforms of welfare and education, begins the task of righting those wrongs. Later in this debate, we will hear from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has done more than anyone to highlight the trap of low aspiration, poor education and welfare dependency that our fellow citizens do not deserve and our country cannot afford any more.
However dismissive the Chancellor may be, those of us who have been here since 1979 and who saw what the last Tory Government did saw only too clearly that the burden of the cuts that were made then fell on those least able to bear it, and the rich and prosperous did very well indeed. That is why we are so sensitive about the people whom we represent, and why we are so suspicious of what the Chancellor is saying, no matter what sort of qualifications he makes. I am afraid that it is our people—the people who sent us here to sit on the Labour Benches—who will suffer the worst of the burdens.
The similarity is this: in 1979, a new Conservative Government also had to deal with a terrible economic inheritance from the Labour party. If the hon. Gentleman is so affronted by what Margaret Thatcher did during her premiership, perhaps he could explain why, every time there is a new Labour Prime Minister, virtually the first person they invite round for tea is Margaret Thatcher.
I will make a little progress.
The Queen’s Speech contains five Treasury-sponsored Bills, and I should say something about each of them. There is the national insurance contributions Bill to stop the jobs tax that Labour would have imposed. Like every post-war Labour Government, the previous Government left office with unemployment rising, and their answer was to increase the cost of employing low-paid people. I have not yet heard from the shadow Chancellor, or anyone else, whether that is still the official Opposition’s policy. Our reforms to national insurance will not just stop the most damaging part of the jobs tax but will, by raising employer thresholds, reduce the cost of employing people on lower incomes. The Budget will also contain further measures to stimulate private sector employment and to proclaim to the world that Britain is open for business.
There is the financial services regulation Bill to fix the previous Government’s system of banking regulation. To respond to the question asked by the shadow Chancellor, next week I will set out in more detail the content of that Bill and how we propose to take the matter forward. I find it somewhat baffling to be told by him that he is unsure who is in charge of banking regulation at the moment. That was the question posed by the Treasury Committee in the last Parliament—a question about the system of regulation that his predecessor as Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, created in 1997. That system meant that no one was in charge of looking at the growing levels of debt and the systemic risks building up in our banking system.
I believe that it is still the Opposition’s policy to oppose our decision to introduce a bank levy; they claim that they want every country in the world to have agreed to such a levy before Britain goes ahead with it. Our decision is to proceed with it, because the banks should pay some contribution to clearing up the mess that they helped to create.
We are working urgently on a problem that the shadow Chancellor correctly raised, but to which, of course, he found little solution when he was Chancellor: the problem of getting credit to small and medium-sized businesses that still face a credit crunch out there in the country.
I welcome the shadow Chancellor’s support for the terrorist asset freezing Bill, which, of course, has bipartisan support. Then there is the Bill that should have been introduced by the previous Government years ago—the Equitable Life payments scheme Bill to help those who lost everything and were given nothing by the Labour Government.
I warmly welcome the fact that the Chancellor has introduced that Bill, which is an important piece of legislation, and I hope that compensation arrives for those who lost an awful lot of money. However, may I urge him to learn one thing from the miners compensation scheme, which ended up putting an awful lot of money into lawyers’ pockets—unscrupulous lawyers in many cases? Will he make sure that it is a simple, transparent scheme that does not require us to pour taxpayers’ money into lawyers’ pockets?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. What happened with the miners compensation scheme was a tragedy, and we will certainly seek to learn the lessons of what went wrong. He is more than welcome to correspond with us—I am going to volunteer, if he wants, a meeting with one of my colleagues to discuss the issue—because we are determined to introduce the legislation and help those people who lost everything. We hope that that will command support on both sides of the House.
Finally, we will introduce a Bill to give the independent Office for Budget Responsibility statutory authority and to bring transparency and honesty to our nation’s finances. I cannot work out whether the shadow Chancellor now supports that proposal, which he opposed in government, but it is a revolutionary step in budget making, removing forever the historic power that Chancellors have had to make the official forecasts. It is based, however, on a very simple idea—perhaps completely alien to the thinking of the previous Government—that in future, we fit the Budget to fit the figures, instead of fixing the figures to fit the Budget.
With the help of Sir Alan Budd, we have established the Office for Budget Responsibility on a non-statutory basis. Today I am publishing in a written ministerial statement the terms of reference that I have agreed with Sir Alan. With his consent, I can confirm in the House for the first time that the office will produce its independent assessment of the growth forecast and other forecasts next week, on Monday 14 June. The Budget will be presented just over a week later, well within 50 days of the election, as we promised.
On the figures, the Chancellor will remember that in February last year the unemployment rate was 2.5 million. Independent forecasters and economists were predicting that unemployment would now be between 3.5 million and 4 million. Does he accept that we do not have those levels of unemployment because of the fiscal stimulus from the previous Government? Furthermore, he will know that the cost of an extra 1 million unemployed is £6 billion, which would wipe out the savings that have just been announced. Will he therefore be extremely careful not to make cuts that will undermine the economic capacity for growth in future?
Unemployment is rising. We have the highest youth unemployment in Europe. We have the highest proportion of children growing up in workless households of any country on the European continent—that is not a record of which I would be particularly proud if I were a Labour MP. We are going to introduce a comprehensive work programme, and reform welfare to create genuine incentives to make work pay. One of the issues that came up time and again in the general election—for me at least, and perhaps for other Members—was the frustration felt by working people on low incomes who go out to work every single day and find that their next-door neighbour has been sitting on out-of-work benefits for years. That is going to be part of the reform that we introduce in our welfare Bill.
I was discussing the Budget, which needs to address the immediate debt situation that the country faces. However, it will also begin the long-term task of moving an economy based on debt—too much consumer debt, too much banking debt, too much Government debt—to an economy in which we save, invest and export in future. If anyone needs to be reminded why the immediate debt situation we have inherited is so serious, I suggest that they read the report on the UK produced by one of the world’s three credit-rating agencies today, which warns of
“a rise in public debt... faster than any other AAA rated sovereign”
country, and points to
“the largest cyclically-adjusted budget deficit in Europe”.
The rating agency says that the previous Government’s plans to reduce the deficit are “distinctly weak” and lack “credibility”. It says that we are the only European economy set to run a budget deficit above 3% in five years’ time. That is all at a time when, as it points out, the fiscal crisis in Greece and other eurozone countries has caused a major shift in investors’ attitude to sovereign risk.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He spoke earlier about judgment. Is he not concerned about the outbreak of competitive austerity across Europe? Does he not think that that may well lead to European economies all bumping along the bottom because we cannot get international trade up and running again to sort out the difficulties of our economy?
But the reason why European economies, particularly those in southern Europe and in the eurozone, are having to take the measures that they are taking is that there are concerns about sovereign credit worthiness. Of course they must deal with their situation, but, in the month that I have done the job, I am very aware when I sit down at ECOFIN or at the G20 that I represent the country with the largest budget deficit at either of those gatherings. That is the situation that we inherited—[Interruption.] For two years we had to listen to all the lectures about how the European Union, the G20 and the OECD disagreed with what we are saying. Now they agree with what we are saying. The G20 communiqué signed in South Korea stated:
“Those countries with serious fiscal challenges need to accelerate the pace of consolidation”.
That is the situation bequeathed by the previous Government to Britain.
I thank the Chancellor for giving way. I have some simple questions. Were we right to save Northern Rock? Were we right to recapitalise the banks? Were we right to go for fiscal stimulus? Can the Chancellor be frank with the House about the decisions that my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor made?
Let me make some progress.
It is striking that the Opposition do not have a single positive idea to propose about how we sort out our nation’s economic problems. They are still talking about decisions taken a year previously or in 2008. I am happy to debate them; I debated them on television with the shadow Chancellor during the general election; I debated them in the House on many occasions, but what I am now interested in is sorting out the country’s economic problems and getting Britain working again.
I have given way a great deal, and there are Members on both sides of the House who want to make their maiden speeches.
Let me say this to Labour Members: their response in this debate and in Treasury questions is pretty striking. The credibility of our country is put at risk by their borrowing decisions, and they do nothing. Higher debts threaten higher interest rates, and they do nothing. Every single measure that we have taken they oppose. They sign up to every pressure group complaint. They agree with every trade union protest in order to gobble up votes in their leadership contest. They now find themselves in the ridiculous position whereby the reductions in spending for this year are applauded by the G20 but opposed by the shadow Chancellor who used to attend it, and our clear commitment to accelerate the reduction in the deficit is supported by the US Treasury Secretary but opposed by the shadow Chief Secretary. Let them lurch off leftwards into the comfort zone of opposition, while the rest of us work together in the national interest to fix the problems that they left behind. Let me explain how we propose to do that.
Alongside other measures to support the recovery, the Budget on 22 June will set out the overall mandate for bringing the deficit under control, against which the Office for Budget Responsibility will judge the Government’s fiscal policy in future. It will set the overall envelope for spending, but it will not allocate spending between Departments. That is what the spending review will do this autumn.
Today I am placing in the Library of both Houses the document that explains how the review will work. The shadow Chancellor complained that he received the document only as he was coming into the Chamber. That was about an hour before I used to receive any document from him in the debates in this place.
Given the scale of the spending reductions required, the review needs to be quite different from any that this country has seen in recent years. For the past 13 years, spending reviews have not exactly been collegiate affairs—more of a one-way process. The Treasury told Departments what they were getting and precisely what they would do with the money—no room for innovation, no acknowledgement that some of the best ideas for doing things differently might come from the front line and not from the centre. The result of this top-down, centre-knows-best approach was falling public sector productivity and that large budget deficit—less for more. We cannot afford to continue in that direction.
As has been said in the Chamber today, we need to look at Canada and its experiences in the 1990s, when it too faced a massive budget deficit. It brought together the best people from inside and outside government to carry out a fundamental reassessment of the role of the state. They asked probing questions about every part of Government spending. They engaged the public in the choices that had to be made, and they took the whole country with them. That is what we will seek to do. We are committed to carrying out Britain’s unavoidable deficit reduction plan in a way that strengthens and unites the country.
The spending review will be guided by the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility. It will deliver on the Government’s commitment that health spending will increase in real terms in each year of this Parliament, and we will honour the promise that we as a British people made to the developing world on overseas aid. It will limit as far as possible the impact of reductions in spending on the most vulnerable in society and on those regions heavily dependent on the public sector. It will protect as far as is possible the spending that generates high economic returns so that we build the economy of the future while cleaning up the mess of the past.
The Chancellor mentions those areas heavily dependent on the public sector and the impact on different regions of the United Kingdom. I welcome that commitment, but in order for it to be real, as opposed to simply rhetoric—he talks about the Finance Ministers quadrilateral meetings discussing the spending review—will there be a robust resolution mechanism, so that it is not just the Treasury that decides what happens with regard to the devolved Administrations, which, after all, have their own independent administrations, budgets and economic settlements?
The devolved Administrations have to be part of the wider spending review. With the best will in the world, we cannot let the three devolved Administrations simply determine what they will spend, particularly when most of them do not have significant tax-raising powers, but I give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that we will engage in an open and frank way and that we will listen to the concerns from Northern Ireland. I am well aware that one of the big challenges in Northern Ireland is how we can stimulate the private sector in Ulster, and we want to work with him on that. As I am sure he knows, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has some ideas in that area. We will engage not just with the Administration in Northern Ireland but with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly and its Administration. For us, this is genuinely about trying to bind as many people as possible into a collective discussion which I hope other Opposition parties will be part of, even if the main Opposition party does not want to be.
Let me explain to the House how the review will work. First, we will build on the in-year savings that we have already made in order to drive for efficiency and value for money. We are creating a new efficiency and reform group at the heart of Government, which brings together a variety of bodies that are separate across Departments in order to try to bring to one place expertise on renegotiating contracts, maximising collective buying power and the like. We will ask for administrative spending in central Whitehall and quangos to be reduced by at least a third. Each Secretary of State will appoint a Minister with specific responsibilities in their Department over the next three months for driving that value-for-money agenda across their Department, and we will place a new obligation on public servants to manage taxpayers’ money more wisely by strengthening the role of the departmental finance director.
I strongly support the Chancellor in his drive to have more transparent budgeting, in particular the obligation on Departments to announce every item of expenditure over £25,000. Will he be legislating to make that a statutory obligation? Will he explain the slight incongruity between the obligation on local government to publish items of expenditure over £500 and civil servants getting away with a little bit more at £25,000? Does he think that merits him reducing that bar?
We chose £25,000 because, quite frankly, the US model suggested that that was an appropriate sum. I am very willing to consider moving to a lower level of disclosure in central Government, once we get the system up and running and working, but I did not want to make the sum so small that it stopped the thing working in the first place. Local councils have much smaller budgets, of course, relative to central Government, and that is why we chose a lower threshold. However, the £25,000 threshold is perhaps just the first step. The big IT challenge is to make the system work, but in the United States they have done so, and they call it “Googling your tax dollars”. Barack Obama, when he was a senator, helped to sponsor the Bill that introduced it, and we are absolutely committed to introducing such a measure here in the United Kingdom.
Secondly, the spending review will challenge Departments, local government and others to consider fundamental changes to the way they provide public services. As part of that process, every part of government and every spending programme will have to answer a series of probing questions. Is the activity essential to meet Government priorities? Do the Government need to fund that activity? Does the activity provide substantial economic value? Can the activity be targeted on those most in need? How can the activity be provided at a lower cost? How can the activity be provided more effectively? Can the activity be provided by a non-state provider or by citizens, wholly or in partnership? Can non-state providers be paid to carry out the activity according to the results that they achieve? And can local bodies, as opposed to central Government, provide the activity? The answers to those questions will inform a fundamental reassessment of the way in which government works.
The Public Accounts Committee will, I hope, be very involved in the process, and I want to involve the expertise not only of its current membership, but of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who chaired the Committee with such distinction during the previous Parliament. I served on the Public Accounts Committee when I first entered the House, and it is perhaps our most effective parliamentary tool for dealing with some of the big issues of public expenditure and value for money. One has only to read its reports on, for example, the big Ministry of Defence procurement contracts over recent years to realise that it has identified a very serious problem and, with the National Audit Office, brings a considerable expertise to solving those problems.
At Treasury questions some time ago, I was concerned about items of expenditure that might have met the tests that the Chancellor has set out in the spending review. On some of those tests, will the Chancellor now go where the Chief Secretary to the Treasury could not and say whether he has any plans to means-test child benefit? Many people are quite worried about that.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the House, but I shall not be drawn down the path whereby new, eager and young—or no longer so young—Members jump up with every cherished item of Government expenditure and pose such questions. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the spending review and Budget for a discussion of the whole Government programme, but he should not assume anything from that answer.
The next thing that we will do is bring together, from within the Government and outside, the best people in their fields. We want the best civil servants helping us in that collective effort, not defending their Whitehall Departments. We want the inspirational head teachers, the chief inspectors in the police service and the nurses with new ideas to have their opportunity to put their ideas to us. The remit will be to innovate, to challenge entrenched ways of doing things and to identify the best ideas from throughout the world; and, in order to ensure that the resulting reform programme is achieved, we will establish robust mechanisms to ensure accountability to the public.
Thirdly, the spending review will cover the large, cross-cutting areas of Government spending. We will set out our plans to reform the welfare system and restrain the cost of public sector pay and pensions, and for capital spending we will undertake a fundamental review of spending plans to identify the areas of spending that will achieve the greatest economic returns. Opposition Members should know that we have inherited a capital budget that is set to halve.
My right hon. Friend has been quoted talking about having a Star Chamber to oversee public spending. For years, have we not had an elite clique of Treasury officials doing precisely that? Somehow, no Executive quite manage to rein in the executive as planned. Why not in addition try a radical solution and give the newly liberated Select Committees powers to curb departmental spending? As well as fixing our finances, that might give Parliament some purpose.
I am probably going to regret this, but I am quite attracted to the idea that my hon. Friend has proposed, not just in the Chamber today but to me privately; I think he has also written about it. The key thing that he proposes is that Select Committees should be able to recommend reductions, rather than increases, in Government Department budgets. I would certainly welcome that if we were ever to proceed in that direction.
I honestly mean it when I say to my hon. Friend that I am attracted to his idea. I will come back to him and see whether we can take it forward. Obviously, it would be the collective decision of the Government, rather than mine alone. My hon. Friend is right to say that we are trying to get away from it simply being the Treasury that conducts the spending review, imposing its decisions on everyone else.
I believe that when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath would simply agree a total. Every Secretary of State would then receive the number in an envelope, before it was announced to the press about 20 minutes later. We are going to have a more collegiate approach and we are genuinely seeking to engage as many people as possible—the brightest civil servants across all the Government Departments and the best people from the devolved Administrations, pressure groups, independent think-tanks and front-line public services. There will be a Cabinet committee to chair and oversee the process and its membership will be restricted to those Cabinet Ministers with very small budgets of their own. Other Cabinet Ministers will be eligible to be members of the committee once they have settled their departmental allocations. That will create an incentive structure within the Cabinet.
Finally, over the summer we are going to conduct a wide public engagement exercise so that the whole country has a chance to get involved. We have already begun to implement the most radical transparency agenda that the country has ever seen. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and I were talking earlier about the £25,000 disclosure limit for central Government expenditure. The previous Chancellor refused my freedom of information request to publish the Treasury’s combined online information system, or COINS, database of public spending. But the current Chancellor of the Exchequer has accepted that request and the raw data in the COINS database are now available online.
I will give way on this point, if the hon. Gentleman likes, but just let me say this. We have published the database as quickly as we have been able to. By August, we will be able to publish a more user-friendly version of the data; the current version is quite difficult to operate. We need a couple of months to get the computer software to enable people to search the database.
In his list of those who would be consulted on the budget cuts, the Chancellor omitted to mention manufacturing industry. Will he undertake to talk to representatives of manufacturing industry about his proposals on investment allowances, as portrayed in the run-up to the general election?
My team and I are in regular discussions with manufacturing industry, representatives of which were vocal supporters of our proposals during the general election to avoid the jobs tax.
Let me conclude by saying that all parts of government and society—and all parts of this Parliament, if they want to take the opportunity—will have a chance to make their voices heard. This is the great national challenge of our generation. After years of waste, debt and irresponsibility, we have to get Britain to live within its means. It is time to rethink how the Government spend our money. We did not choose the terrible economic situation that we inherited; the Labour party chose that for us. But we can work to put it right—deal with our debts, set our country on a brighter economic course and show that we are all in this together. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Order. I must at this point remind the House that Mr Speaker has placed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now on. Obviously, anyone who can speak within that limit and spare us an extra minute will earn the gratitude of nervous hon. Members who are waiting to make their maiden speeches.
I shall endeavour to adhere to what you have requested, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am standing to defend the record of my Government, not to traduce it. I am proud of those 13 years—proud of the new schools, the jobs that did not previously exist, the environment that has been improved, the houses that have been completely refurbished, and the complete transformation of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. I say that because I am little worried about people who are now looking over their shoulder, some of whom are competing for the leadership of my party, and who are in a 1930s denial situation whereby they have to pretend that they had nothing to do with the decisions that were taken. I did, and I am proud of the decisions that we made, some of which were about investing in communities that had been neglected for years.
When I hear Conservative Members saying, as has the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the media and this afternoon in this House, that we are all in this together, it makes me want to be sick, because those Members across the aisle know, and we know, that we are not all in this together. It will be the people we on the Labour Benches represent, and some Liberal Democrats represent, who face the greatest difficulty, because they cannot buy their way out of deteriorating public services, and they do not have the alternatives that those with resources, including capital assets, have.
That is why the decision to do away with the child trust fund is one of the most heinous things in this £6 billion package of cuts. It takes away the future assets of young people who would be able to stand on their own feet, and it reduces the propensity to save, which the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has extolled over the past fortnight. He is right to do so. In the next breath, however, his Government are cutting at a time when the subsidy from the public purse for tax relief on individual savings accounts is twice as much as the amount that it would cost to maintain the child trust fund, which has a 100% take-up, involving 5 million children, compared with a 30% take-up for ISAs among the adult population.
In the end, we have to ask ourselves three questions. First, who got us into this mess? Was it politicians and politics, or was it the international financiers and bankers, and international capital, that created the situation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to place on the shoulders of the outgoing Government? Of course, it was not the Labour Government’s doing but a result of the problems that we have had to deal with over the past three years in terms of saving ourselves from the banks and avoiding the collapse of our economy.
That brings me to my second point. If we should be doing more, more quickly—cutting faster and more deeply—is it because we need to mirror what is taking place in the rest of Europe and the world, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has enunciated? If that is true, how is it that all these other countries that we should be emulating came to be in the mire in the first place? I presume that it is the Labour Government in Britain who have brought Spain, Italy, Greece and the Republic of Ireland to their knees. That is why public sector workers are having their pay cut; that is why the Chancellor in Germany is cutting £65 billion; and that is why, across the world, we are seeing this retrenchment: it is all down to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor. Everybody in this country who has a brain knows that that is nonsense.
Thirdly, if we are not careful, we will exacerbate an existing problem. Of course we know that there are going to be public expenditure reductions. We do not need to be told that—we had agreed it before the general election—but we wanted growth, an increased tax yield and a reduction in outgoings on benefits and unemployment to help us to bridge that gap. If we are not careful, then Sir Alan Budd, with the difficult job that he has been given in the Office for Budget Responsibility, will predict lower growth to the point where the Chancellor then tells us that because lower growth is projected, we will need to cut services and investment still further to take account of that. If we do that, we reduce the likelihood of growth and of tax yield and redemption without having to cut the essential services of the people we represent. Fourthly, we need to think imaginatively about how we can combine services nationally and locally, so that we do not have to make draconian cuts. We can genuinely reduce the cost of providing the same services.
Under the current shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Cabinet Office produced an excellent document that I recommend to the new Government. That document showed what is being done around the world and I wish we had given it greater publicity and made more of it at the time. We can use what is now called the Total Place initiative and engage local people. However, we cannot do that if massive draconian decisions to cut centrally are made and local government and local people are blamed for the cuts being made and the pain being inflicted. I shall give one example: aggregate external funding for local government. In the Prime Minister’s Oxfordshire constituency, there is 1.7% of unrestricted expenditure, but that figure is 18.5% in my city. We know perfectly well that the cuts will fall on those who are least able to bear them, and that is why we should oppose them.
It is a strange feeling to be standing here today—not only am I on this side of the Chamber, but I am speaking on Government proposals that incorporate the vast majority of policies that we, the Liberal Democrat business, innovation and skills team, produced as part of our general election manifesto. I know that many of those policies were in the Conservative manifesto as well, but it would be churlish to quibble about who thought of them first.
Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats see themselves as being the party of business, so it is unsurprising that many of our policies chime together. I want to speak briefly about my hopes for the implementation of some of those policies, but first I want to mention two policies that did not make it into the agreement. Access to capital has been a great problem for business for some time, and with the banks taking a more cautious—ultra-cautious some might say—approach to lending, we thought up a couple of creative ideas to use equity as opposed to capital as a mechanism to fund growth. For start-ups, we devised a policy of local enterprise funds, which would be a tax-efficient way for local companies or individuals to plough capital back into their area in return for equity. They could also have offered added value by offering advice if appropriate.
In order for established companies to fund growth, we looked at the idea of having regional stock exchanges, which would be based on the same principles as national ones, but would be localised and geared up for smaller companies. They could use the regional stock exchanges to get cash for equity without the long-winded and exacting due diligence that would otherwise preclude them from entering the big boys’ national stock exchange league. I hope that the new coalition will still consider those ideas at some point.
There are great things in the agreement that, if properly implemented, will make a huge difference to the ability of business to do what it wants and needs to do, which is get on with the job. On regulation, I am greatly looking forward to seeing a system of one-in one-out, sunset clauses and an enforcement regime that seeks to help business meet regulatory requirements in a speedy and efficient way. I am glad to see that the Government will create a Star Chamber to bring those policies into being. Having been a member of the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform for three years, I know how easy it is for civil servants to focus on the smaller issues, and for the regulators and the regulated to cosy up in mutual congratulation. The star chamber must work on the plank, not the mote, in the regulatory eye.
Other welcome policies are simple but very important to those they affect, such as IR35, which has been an issue for micro-businesses for a long time. We will not let business avoid tax, but we will make the system simpler and more straightforward, and take away the anxiety of someone not knowing whether they are covered by the rules or not. We welcome the automatic rate relief for small businesses, as it will bring relief to the very businesses that will benefit most: those least conversant with the system.
One coalition Government policy—our plan for local enterprise partnerships—has been met with dismay by the regional development agencies, but RDAs that have done a good job can continue to work for enterprise in their regions. However, the policy will mean that we will have a form of organisation that is more accountable to the region that it serves and more flexible to its needs. Obviously, there are cuts in the proposals, but business knows what it means to cope with changing, more difficult circumstances and has been dealing with those since the beginning of the recession. RDAs must now deliver service to business more efficiently than ever before.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely mistaken. In fact, the policies of the two parties were almost identical. They were so similar, I wondered whether someone had been talking to someone else. We are at one on that.
Procurement is a big issue affecting the ability of businesses to survive and grow, and it was great to hear in the debate on the Humble Address the aspiration to contract 25% of Government procurement to small business. That will take some enforcing, and we must first get the bodies that spend our taxpayers’ money to take account of the size of companies from which they procure. While they are doing that, would it not be great to get them to have a look at whether the people from whom they are procuring look like the people they supply? Are we utilising the rich diversity of supply that we could utilise, including businesses owned by women and ethnic minorities?
I come from the west midlands, which is possibly the UK region that has been hardest hit by the recession. However, we in the west midlands do something special, and we do it well: we make things. We are very clever at making highly technical, high value-added products, many of which we export to the world. Although our car industry has suffered badly, not only do we produce two of the most iconic marques in the world—Jaguar and Land Rover—but they are thriving, both in the export and home markets.
I shall conclude on this point: for far too long, financial services—I understand that they are important—have held the Government in thrall. If I have anything to do with it, that will no longer happen. Despite the fact that manufacturing has been allowed to wither, the UK is still the sixth largest manufacturing country in the world. The time has come to talk manufacturing up, create a climate in which it can thrive, allow it access to finance, which is the lifeblood of business, and create a fair regulatory playing field. Then, we should get off the pitch, and let team Great Britain compete on the world stage.
At the recent general election, the Tories gleefully asserted that under the Labour Government, inequality had increased. That was true, and it was a major embarrassment to Labour candidates and supporters, but in fact, the gap widened despite the Government’s introduction of the national minimum wage and tax credits, and their targeting of health, education and pre-school resources on the most deprived areas and families. The gap widened not because the Labour Government ignored the plight of the worst-off, but because the best-off kept paying themselves more and more.
The Prime Minister has said that his Government’s proposals will change our way of life, but they are very unlikely to reduce inequality. His Tory-Lib Dem Government are positively drooling at the prospect of slashing public services, when we all know that the living standards of the poorest in society are, as they always will be, the most dependent on public funds and public services. Cutting pay and pensions and slashing public services will not narrow the inequality gap, but widen it.
As we all know, increasing the share of national wealth going to the worst-off is not of itself sufficient to narrow the inequality gap. We must at the same time reduce the share going to the wealthy. The principal target for such a reduction must be the bloated finance sector, which has been taking an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth while devoting a great deal of talented effort on tax avoidance to benefit the people who work in it. Indeed, in the recent banking crisis, far from being a wealth creator, the financial sector proved to be a wealth destroyer. Its record was deplorable. Today, KPMG has given us the benefit of its wisdom on how to improve efficiency in the public sector. I do not know why we give any credence to KPMG, however; after all, it was the auditor of HBOS and Bradford & Bingley and it did not spot that anything was going wrong when those outfits were going bust, even though that was its primary task.
Banks are supposed to act as a conduit between savers and borrowers, providing capital for individuals and firms who want to produce useful goods and services for the rest of us. Over the years, that function has increasingly taken a back seat to speculation that is referred to, in deferential terms, as “the market”. These markets, both national and international, often have nothing to do with supply and demand, however. Fluctuations in the price of oil are a good example. In July 2008, the price of Brent crude reached $146 a barrel; by December that year, just five months later, the price had fallen to $36 a barrel, almost exactly a quarter of its top price. That was not the product of changes in supply and demand; it was the product of speculation.
The price of rice shot up from about $280 a tonne to $1,015 a tonne in April 2008. Apologists for “the market” denied that that was the product of speculation. They said it was because the Chinese were eating more rice. If so, the Chinese must have started eating something else since then, because the price of rice has halved to $500 a tonne today. Such speculation always hurts the worst-off and lines the pockets of the people who are already rich. The G20 should be taking concerted action to tackle such speculation, because while it does not do so everybody else in the world will be vulnerable.
Of course, the main sources of wealth for the finance industry are the costs it imposes on the rest of us for its services—its handling charges and transaction costs, or what would be referred to in any decent above-board casino as the “croupier’s rake-off”. All large financial transactions involve a host of advisers, consultants, lawyers, fund managers and the like, all pocketing a percentage. Let us consider the recent abortive effort by the Prudential to buy part of AIG at an original estimated value of £25 billion. If the scheme had gone through, the transaction costs had been expected to total about £1 billion, or about 4% of the value. Although the proposal has fallen through, it has still cost the Pru approaching £500 million, including a lot of fees for expensive City advice—presumably bad advice.
The current proposal to sell off the channel tunnel rail link and St Pancras station illustrates how the finance industry failed in its self-proclaimed task of providing private capital yet is now creaming off some of the value. No City institutions were prepared to invest in the channel tunnel link, so the taxpayer had to step in and take the risk. Now that it is operating successfully however, the private sector is sniffing a profit, and it is to be sold off. Citigroup and UBS are involved. They did not design the link, transform St Pancras or manage the building project, and they certainly did not take any of the risk, but they are now advising on the sale and will pocket substantial fees for that advice. One can only hope, on behalf of taxpayers whose assets are being sold off, that those two firms will do a better job than they did in the banking crash, when Citigroup lost $55 billion and UBS lost $44 billion. We need to ensure that the drain of finance and of talented graduates into the City is stopped, so that the money can be devoted, and those people can devote their lives, to doing something a lot more useful and promoting British industry. That is what we all want to see.
This is my first opportunity to make a contribution in this Parliament, and it is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), although I will not go down the same route as him. I wish to say a little about the work and pensions side of this debate, but before I do so may I deal with a subject that is somewhat associated with it: the proposal in the Gracious Speech for a limit on economic migration from outside the European Union? I warmly welcome that sensible proposal. Strangely, it was part of the Opposition amendment to yesterday’s motion, although it was not mentioned in the speech of any Opposition Member, including the Front Benchers. One can only speculate as to the internal problems in the Opposition on that matter.
Although I welcome the proposal, I note that the coalition agreement says that it is to be subject to consultation on the “mechanism” by which the limit is achieved. I urge my hon. colleagues to bear in mind that an important consultation has just taken place; call me old-fashioned, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I think that the most important consultation takes place when the voter goes into the voting booth and puts his or her cross on the ballot paper. Therefore, I respectfully invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to take account of the considerable concern expressed about immigration during the campaign.
It is right to engage in some consultation about implementation and, doubtless, the Government will have a queue of employers come before them. When I served on the Select Committee on Home Affairs we examined this very question. We heard from restaurant owners, farmers and people involved in the IT industry, and they seemed to be under the impression that the resident working population of this country was incapable of working on a farm, in a restaurant or in the IT industry. I suggest to my hon. Friends that when they hear such submissions from employers they gently point those employers towards the unemployment statistics, particularly those relating to young people in this country.
Those statistics show one of the most baleful inheritances from the previous Government. Given the speeches that we have heard today, Labour Members seem totally oblivious of the plight that they have left so many young people facing. We have heard a lot about child trust funds, but we have not heard so much about the lack of opportunities for young people who are about to enter their working lives and find themselves facing the prospect of the dole queue. After 13 years of a Labour Government, almost 1 million young people are out of work and there is a structural problem of youth unemployment. I say that because the level of youth unemployment was rising long before the recession took hold. All that has occurred under a Government who had promised at their outset to reduce unemployment among young people by 250,000.
A further 1.5 million older workers are out of work, and standing behind them, although not of course recorded in the formal unemployment statistics, are the many millions of people of working age who languish on out-of-work benefits. We cannot expect some of them to work because of the nature of their condition, but many of them are capable of work and indeed want to work but under the current system they are not receiving the help that they need, be it medical help, encouragement or training, to enable them to work.
In many cases—this is an important part of the problem—such people also lack the incentives to work. We talk a lot about providing incentives for better-off people to work—I am all in favour of that, because I support enterprise and hard work, seeing it as the way forward, unlike some Labour Members, whose view is to rely on the state for everything. However, we must consider also providing incentives for poorer people on benefits to get into and remain in work. All too often, the poorer person on out-of-work benefits, who may not have many skills and may have a patchy previous employment record, can find only low-paid employment. Under the current system, a large part of their money—their housing benefit and council tax benefit—is withdrawn from them the moment they start work. The moment a poor person who has been on out-of-work benefits gets into work they, in effect, face a marginal tax rate of 80% or 90%. They then find that out of the meagre proceeds left for them they have to pay the normal costs involved in getting to work, being prepared for work, dressing for work and so on. In addition, they have the fear of not being able to rely on the benefits system in the future for housing and all their other needs.
Will the hon. Gentleman recognise that the previous Government implemented a proposal that meant that people could move into work from receiving benefits and still retain for two years their right to move back to receiving benefits? He is misrepresenting the current situation.
I am not misrepresenting it in any way. Labour Members were prepared to have a system in which 80% or 90% of income was withdrawn from people who went into work, through the withdrawal of council tax and housing benefit, and not very much has been done about that. I recognise that some Labour Members were aware of the problem, including the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and some who have now left the House such as James Purnell and John Hutton. They were aware of the problem, but I suspect that they were blocked when they wanted to do something about it. The result is that 2 million people now say that they want to work but are on out-of-work benefits and are not included in the formal unemployment statistics, which amount to 2.5 million.
Labour Members have presided over a welfare system that is incredibly effective at trapping people on benefits once they get on to them, and it is a challenge for my hon. and right hon. Friends to devise a better system that will get people off welfare and into work. They are having to undertake radical action on this front at a very unpropitious time, when we are facing, as we all know, the appalling deficit that has been inherited. I urge them to turn their hands to this task, because it is too important to fail or to put in the drawer marked “too difficult to undertake”. It has to be undertaken, particularly for the sake of the younger people who are languishing on out-of-work benefits and are formally recorded as unemployed. This is a challenge for the future for my right hon. and hon. Friends; it is a challenge that has been neglected by the Labour party and so left for us to take up. It will contribute to solving the problem of the deficit, but we have to take the bold action that has not been taken for far too long—for 13 years of wasted opportunities, which have led to wasted lives and people who have been left, after a Labour Government, languishing on unemployment and out-of-work benefits.
I am hugely proud to be giving my maiden speech this afternoon as the new Member for Stretford and Urmston. I think that mine is the first maiden speech today. My constituency is, of course, very special. I am deeply privileged to represent it and I hope to serve my constituents well.
My first act in Parliament must be to pay tribute to my predecessors, starting with the right hon. Beverley Hughes. Hon. Members will be aware of Bev’s tremendous contribution to public life as a Minister, and I especially want to acknowledge her contribution as children’s Minister and her achievement in bringing forward the implementation of the Sure Start programme. Bev was immensely respected locally as a first-rate constituency MP, and I think that mattered more to her than anything she achieved as a Minister, despite her many successes in that role. I am delighted, as I know all hon. Members will be, that she is to remain in Parliament as a Member of the House of Lords.
I should also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd). He first entered the House as the Member for Stretford in 1983, and he retains the great respect and affection of my constituents to this day.
My constituency is special for many reasons. It typifies what is best about our country, such as hard-working, neighbourly people who are determined to do their best for their families and their community—people who are down-to-earth but who have ambitions, hopes and dreams. Old Trafford is world-famous well beyond the constituency boundary as home to both Lancashire county cricket club and Manchester United football club, whose stadium will be known to many hon. Members as the aptly named “theatre of dreams”. To us locally, Old Trafford is just as exceptional for its success as a vibrant, friendly, welcoming and supportive multicultural community. I believe that it is a real showcase for the strengths that we gain from different cultures and communities living, working and enjoying life together, celebrating their distinct identities, values and cultures but in doing so creating an exciting, caring and diverse neighbourhood where people live in harmony and peace.
The local neighbourhoods of Flixton, Urmston, Stretford, Partington, Ashton on Mersey and Carrington are also well settled, stable and tight-knit. They too foster dreams and aspirations and share pride in local success. Just the other day, Urmston resident Danielle Hope was chosen as the BBC’s new Dorothy, to the delight of local people who had cheered her on.
The constituency has a proud tradition of public service. It was to what is now Trafford general hospital in Davyhulme in the heart of the constituency that Nye Bevan came in 1948 to announce the birth of the NHS. That bold and unapologetic commitment to our public services remains important in the constituency to this day.
We are pleased too that the Imperial War museum has its northern base in the constituency—a reminder, as our troops show great courage today in seeking to bring peace in some of the most troubled parts of the world—of the proud tradition of military service.
Importantly too, the constituency has a proud working tradition as the home of Trafford Park, once the largest industrial estate in Europe and still home to many local and global businesses, and the Trafford Centre, with its many retail jobs. My constituents are proud of the contribution that we make to the UK and the regional economy, and they know the value and the dignity of work.
In the thousands of conversations that I have had with local people, they have repeated the importance of young people gaining the skills that they need, and getting into good jobs, as they start out in life. I was proud to be able to answer that, thanks to Labour’s investment in employment and skills, unemployment in this recession has up to now been lower than in the past two recessions, and that our future jobs fund would guarantee every young person training for a job.
Some hon. Members are perhaps a little younger than I am, and they may not have experienced growing up with the fear that there would be no work. My grandfathers knew that fear. My generation began our adult lives at the beginning of the 1980s facing the same fear. I am deeply concerned to prevent young people from facing the same fear today. A robust economy, a thriving business sector and an enabling welfare state are certainly part of the answer, but if work is to be a secure route out of poverty, we must both protect jobs and pay attention to dismantling the barriers that prevent people from taking up paid work.
My challenge to the Government, as they take forward their welfare reforms, is that they must guarantee that there will be adequate support. If they want to ensure that work pays, my challenge is that they must lead the way in the public sector, where a quarter of low-paid workers are employed, by adopting the living wage.
I ask the Government now to invest in the future. Good jobs, investment in our young people, a sustainable recovery and fairness in the economy are what my constituents want. I am determined that I will always speak out for them, and I hope that they will hold me to that.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. I speak with a particular sense of humility after so many hon. Members have given such admirable maiden speeches, including that just made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
I have some worthy predecessors. My immediate predecessor was Miss Julie Kirkbride. She was first elected in 1997, and she was a fine constituency MP. I will never forget the spontaneous tributes that people paid to her, when I knocked on their doors during the campaign, for all the work that she had done on their behalf. I should also like to express my gratitude to her two most recent predecessors, Mr Roy Thomason and Sir Hal Miller, who both helped me in my campaign with great advice.
Bromsgrove is a beautiful, traditional beacon of middle England. I know that many hon. Members have described their constituencies as beautiful, but Bromsgrove truly has breathtaking countryside. It is an old market town which was originally a bit of an industrial hub for the west midlands industrial complex. It still has a very active, traditional court-leet, with lovely traditions.
In the east of the constituency we have many beautiful picture-postcard villages, including the glamorously named suburb of Hollywood.
Over the centuries, we have had many heroes from Bromsgrove. I should like to pay tribute on this occasion to two of the most recent—both teenagers, both soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment. The first, Private Robert Laws, was aged 18 when he lost his life fighting for our country in Helmand province last year. He had passed his training only six months previously. The second, Private Alex Kennedy, also aged 18, earlier this year became the youngest soldier since the second world war to receive the military cross. He fought hard to save the life of his commanding officer during a fierce battle with the Taliban. We must never forget the sacrifices that our soldiers—those who have served and those who are currently serving for us—make on our behalf.
A notable person from Bromsgrove was A. E. Housman, whose stirring prose reflected the rural beauty of the heart of England. In Bromsgrove we have a wonderful heritage in the English countryside, and that is why I want to make sure that it is the people who are most affected by planning decisions who make those decisions. That is why I welcome the recent announcements of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on that issue. They have been most welcomed by my constituents.
Perhaps at this point I should say something about my own background, as hon. Members may be able to tell from my appearance and my name that I can hardly be of traditional Worcestershire stock. My parents were both born in British India. Although my father was just six years old in 1947, he remembers full well the tragedy that occurred upon the partition of India—12 million people were displaced and almost a million lost their lives. If we need an example of how political failure can lead to great human tragedy, surely that is one of the most heart-wrenching, and an example of how politics can really make a difference. That is what I say to people who ask me why I gave up a lucrative career in finance to enter this House.
To the dismay of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), I have to tell him that for 19 years I have been an investment banker. In my case, this is one brain that was sucked up by the City and has now come to serve the people in this Parliament. I worked in London, Singapore and New York. I readily admit that being seen as an investment banker was not the most useful thing on the campaign trail, but it helped prepare me for a profession not well liked by the general public. Let us hope that all of us, on both sides of the House, can work together over the coming years to help restore the nation’s respect for our great Parliament.
In view of my background in finance, I am particularly pleased to give my maiden speech during this debate on economic affairs. There are many global economic uncertainties at the moment, and they have potentially grave consequences for our economy. First, the euro is only just beginning to have problems. It was always a political contrivance that had virtually nothing to do with economics. Secondly, the world’s largest emerging market economies, which have buttressed global demand since the onset of the credit crisis, are about to go through a period of monetary tightening, and we can no longer rely on them for global growth.
Thirdly, industrialised nations, including our own, that have issued vast amounts of sovereign debt over the past three years in particular can no longer go on that way. We have to make sure that when we look at these issues, we never forget the traditional disciplines that have stood Britain in good stead—sound public finances, low and simple taxation, and light and flexible regulation. It is when we forget these disciplines that we put our future prosperity at risk.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity, and thank you to the people of Bromsgrove for allowing me to serve them in this Chamber.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me speak in the House for the first time. I would like to say well done to the previous speakers, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid). Both made excellent contributions.
Today I want to talk about three things: some of my predecessors from Blaenau Gwent, my constituency in south Wales; what a visionary place it is; and why the constituency needs a fair deal from the Government, to provide the economic growth that our people deserve.
It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. If you are the MP for Blaenau Gwent, that is definitely the case. It was one of my predecessors, Nye Bevan, the former Labour MP for Ebbw Vale, who set up our national health service. Michael Foot also represented the constituency. Just before he died, I told Michael that I would do my very best to win the constituency back for Labour at the general election. I am proud to have fulfilled that promise. I will do my best to continue the Welsh Labour tradition of Nye and Michael, to serve in my own way with communities for whom they did so much. I also pay tribute to my immediate predecessor in this place, Dai Davies. Mr Davies is a strong trade unionist and a long-standing advocate for modern, high-quality apprenticeships.
I am honoured to be the MP for a wonderful valleys constituency such as Blaenau Gwent. We are Welsh radicals who put our values into action. I was born in Cardiff, and my family are long-standing valleys people who worked in coal and steel. Tredegar, the valleys town where I grew up and went to school, is the cradle of the national health service. The Tredegar Medical Aid Society was Nye’s model for the health service. In 1948 he said:
“All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more.”
His politics were based on the vision of local men and women—a combination of radical debate and a determination to run things themselves, and provide better services for local people.
Blaenau Gwent also played a vital role in the development of British democracy. It was from the villages and towns of north Gwent that the Chartists marched on Newport in 1831.
Blaenau Gwent is a proud constituency. While not rich in money terms, we have a very rich environment and culture. Our choirs and town bands have won national awards down the years; in a few weeks, the acclaimed blues festival takes place in beautiful Abertillery park; and now, in the digital age, film making has taken off too. Indeed, a recently produced local film called “A Little Bit of Tom Jones” won best picture at the BAFTA Cymru awards. I recommend it. This July, we will celebrate this creative contribution when the Welsh National Eisteddfod comes to Ebbw Vale.
Over the past 13 years the Labour Government did an excellent job rebuilding the local economy and infrastructure in Blaenau Gwent. Transport links have been improved, with the new train line from Cardiff to Ebbw Vale. The foundations of a new, splendid valleys learning campus are in hand, and our brand new hospital, named after Nye Bevan, is about to open.
But no one coming to the constituency can ignore our industrial legacy. There is still much, much to do. Too many of my constituents are unemployed. In Blaenau Gwent, unemployment stands at 11.8%. In Witney, the Prime Minister’s constituency, it is 1.9%. Also, life is too short for many. Average male life expectancy in the constituency is just 75.3 years. In Witney, men live nearly five years longer—an average of 79.4 years. In the Queen’s Speech there were fine words about fairness and reducing health inequalities. My constituents will be measuring the new Government closely on these policies.
Unfortunately, I believe this Government have got off to a very bad start. The cuts announced for the future jobs fund and child trust funds are not welcome. I deplore the cuts that slash the numbers of young people able to go to university. As I know from personal experience, one of the best routes out of poverty is a good education.
I am a former director of policy for the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists and campaigns manager for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I will use my campaigning skills to stand up for families whose children suffer from communications disability. Our Speaker and the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), showed great leadership on that topic in the previous Parliament. I would like to help take forward that important work.
In his maiden speech in 1929, Nye Bevan warned of
“collusion between the Tories and the Liberals”.—[Official Report, 16 July 1929; Vol. 230, c. 338.]
Nothing changes, does it? He called for Labour to have its eyes on the needs of people. Our needs are for more jobs, and a reduction in poverty and health inequalities. There are huge issues of inequality in my constituency. The chronic diseases of the legacy industries of coal and steel must still be overcome; heart disease and lung cancer in particular must be reduced. Public health should be at the centre of our investment and policy changes. Unpopular though it may be with some, I support the campaign for minimum pricing for units of alcohol. Although health is now an issue for the Welsh Assembly, as a local MP I will concentrate on that.
Employment must be another priority. The confidence and aspirations of young people must be supported. The new learning campus in our valleys must be delivered, so that good, well-paid employment is their future. We are a constituency that helped build this country. The railways and factories were made with our steel, and fired with our coal. Now though, we must invest in tomorrow's jobs. Alongside manufacturing, we should nurture green jobs as well as jobs based in science and the digital economy. We must get over the country’s massive digital divide. We must have fast internet access in Blaenau Gwent.
To boost the economy of Blaenau Gwent, our generation must build on the vision of my predecessors, learn from the socialist history of Blaenau Gwent and invest in industrial, education and transport infrastructure to boost our economic regeneration. I will pour my energy into that work. I will do it with a smile on my face, as working well with people usually gets the results needed. I will pursue our jobs, health and anti-poverty agendas with tenacity, too. My constituents deserve nothing less. I thank the House for listening to me today.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech during this debate, which is addressing a critical part of the new Government’s future programme. I congratulate the previous speakers, particularly those who have made their maiden speech and set the bar very high for the rest of us.
It is an honour to speak as the first female Member of Parliament for the Loughborough constituency. I pay tribute to my two immediate predecessors. One, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), is still a Member of the House. Unsurprisingly, I have been researching previous maiden speeches and it would appear that he made his maiden speech during the Budget debate following the 1979 election. Little did he think that one of his successors, 31 years later, would be speaking as the Conservatives were preparing another emergency Budget after a change of Government.
My immediate predecessor, Andy Reed, worked tirelessly for his constituents following his election in 1997. He was respected as a man of principle and resigned as a Parliamentary Private Secretary over the Iraq war. He was a committed Christian and—I hope that he will not mind my saying this—a well-known sports fanatic. Several Members on the Government Benches have already asked me whether I am going to take his place on the parliamentary rugby team. For the record, the answer is no. I hope that I will be able to serve the people in the Loughborough constituency as well as he did.
Loughborough is a wonderful mix. It sits, as my two immediate predecessors said in their maiden speeches, between Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, and that has clearly not changed. Loughborough is a town of about 50,000 people but it expands by 12,000 or so during term times thanks to our world-famous university, which is back on the map, as the football to be used at the forthcoming World cup was designed there.
Just across the M1 is the town of Shepshed, which, as I have discovered since the beginning of my candidacy six years ago, feels ignored by every tier of government. I hope that I will be able to put that right during my time as its Member of Parliament.
Finally, a number of smaller villages make up the constituency, including Hathern, Sileby, Quorn, Barrow upon Soar, Mountsorrel Castle, and some picturesque Wolds villages. The fact that I have villages in my constituency raises interesting rural issues that I hope to be able to take further forward in the House.
We have a sizeable ethnic community, and it has been my pleasure, in my six years as a candidate in the constituency, to meet and learn more about them, and to visit the Shree Ram Krishna centre, the gurdwara, the Geeta Bhawan and our two mosques.
At one time, Loughborough was renowned for its textiles and hosiery manufacturing. Now, we are known for pharmaceuticals, research and engineering, and for manufacturing bells—Taylor’s is one of the last remaining bell foundries in the country. The bells have been exported worldwide, and even hang in St Paul’s cathedral here in London.
I want to touch on the importance of supporting the manufacturing sector, as other Members have done. Much has already been said—and, I am sure, will continue to be said—about spending cuts and tax rises, but more needs to be said about supporting private sector businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. We rely on our private sector businesses to provide employment, to train apprentices, to give people skills and, of course, to supply exports.
In March in Loughborough, just before the election campaign started, we received the devastating news that AstraZeneca is to close its Charnwood site, with the loss of at least 1,200 jobs locally. I hope that I will have the opportunity in future debates to raise a number of issues relating to the closure. I am proud to be part of the taskforce, of which my predecessor Andy Reed was a vital part, that is working to fill the site and plug the gap. I hope that we will end up not with a black hole in the middle of Charnwood, but with a site that new businesses and many other industries can use, so that we can still have a full manufacturing sector in the town.
We need to support strong manufacturing businesses, particularly with regard to research and development. Although manufacturing accounts for only about 20% of our economy, it accounts for about 75% of research and development in this country. The services sector is important, but manufacturers take on apprentices and give people new skills in a way that the services sector does not necessarily do. We need both. I am delighted to see that, in the coalition agreement, the Government mentioned the need for a more balanced economy; in fact, that was mentioned earlier today, too.
With a background as a solicitor advising companies large and small on raising finance both in the City of London and outside, I hope that I will be able to use my time in the House to ensure that we have a truly business-friendly environment in Britain. That would be good for my constituents, for Loughborough, for the east midlands, for Leicestershire and for the country. I hope that we can replace the jobs that have been lost, and can ensure a burgeoning manufacturing sector by the time that this Government leave office.
We have heard some wonderful speeches; there have been four very good maiden speeches today from my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), and from the hon. Members for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). I congratulate them, and I am sure that we were all impressed by the rich quality, the powerful confidence, and the wit and humour of all their contributions. I am sure that we will hear a great deal more from all of them.
More than once in his speech, the Chancellor threw down a challenge on how the deficit issue should be handled, and in seven short minutes I want to try to take up that challenge. The Prime Minister, in a speech yesterday, said that the whole way of life of Britain’s entire population would be drastically disrupted by the most severe spending cuts for a generation, but the Government have also made it clear that they want to have a debate on how the matter should be handled. I welcome that, because I do not believe that the issue of spending cuts—or the alternatives—has yet been systematically explored.
Nobody doubts that a budget deficit of £156 billion is far too high, and of course it has to be reduced, but that still leaves open three fundamental questions: the timing, who should pay and, most importantly, the mechanisms for reducing the deficit. On timing, as has been repeatedly said, and as was said again today, making drastic cuts this year, when the economic recovery is so extremely fragile, is surely taking far too great a risk of precipitating a second collapse—a double-dip recession. Nothing that the Chancellor said today gives me much confidence that that will be avoided. That was exactly the experience of Japan in the 1990s, and of the US in the 1930s. We should learn from historical experience, not repeat it.
As for the question of who should pay, it is monstrous for any Government to shift the burden of the financial crash away from the perpetrators—the banks—on to its victims: public services and public sector jobs, perhaps 100,000, or even, as the papers have said, 300,000. It is outrageous that the banks whose greed and recklessness caused the crash—I do not think that anyone doubts that—should be let off virtually scot-free. They are not subject to a levy to pay back all the bail-out moneys, nor have they been made to restore bank lending to small businesses and homeowners to pre-2007 levels, which was the ostensible reason for the bail-outs in the first place.
The really big question is why so much emphasis has been put exclusively on public spending cuts, when there are alternative ways of cutting the deficit, which would be much fairer, as well as economically more productive. Those alternative mechanisms are economic growth and taxation. The Government’s latest growth forecast for the next year is a modest 2%, although it is expected to rise slightly in future. However, even Sir Alan Budd, the new head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, has said that he expects growth in the next year to be at least 2%. On that basis, as Britain’s gross domestic product is about £1.5 trillion, a minimum 2 per cent. growth over the next four years would increase the country’s income by about £120 billion. If, as usual, Government tax revenues take 40 per cent. of that, the Government will have available an extra £50 billion over that period, without any cuts or increases in taxation.
If the goal now, as for the previous Government, is to halve the deficit within four years, that means that there is still a gap of about £28 billion. I believe that this debate, which the Government want to encourage, should focus far more closely on how that remaining gap could be met by a mix of taxes on the banks and on the hyper-rich—a group that accounts for less than 1% of the population, and whose wealth has risen staggeringly over the past decade. While the average real incomes of the rest of the population in this country have remained flat over the past half decade, the wealth of the super-rich—and I am talking about just 1,000 multi-millionaires, who are listed in The Sunday Times rich list, issued only a few weeks ago—has almost quadrupled since 1997. In money terms, which is what matters, their wealth has apparently grown by an eye-watering £337 billion. In the last year alone, when the rest of the country has had to pull in its belt pretty tightly, their wealth grew by a cool £77 billion—a 30% increase in a single year.
Against that background, the banks, many of which are turning in record profits, and, above all, that rich elite, to whom the director general of the CBI referred as an alien class apart, because of their excessive executive pay, should certainly be expected to make a contribution proportionate to their increase in resources in the nation’s time of need, particularly as many of them were directly involved in causing the crash in the first place. The Chancellor no, less, is on record as saying at a recent party conference:
“We are all in this together.”
If that is true, and the rich are not a race apart, exempt from the privations of the rest of the population, I certainly think that they can contribute at least £7 billion a year over the next four years—a minuscule fraction of their recent increase in wealth.
I welcome this debate, but there are alternatives, which the Government need to take seriously. The question that I want to ask is: are the Government seriously listening?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech in the House. May I compliment preceding speakers from across the country who have given their own maiden speeches today? The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) did not make his maiden speech, but I compliment him on a speech he made in the House some time ago on post offices, and on speaking against the then Government.
I begin my speech by acknowledging and paying tribute to my predecessor, Tom Levitt, who was MP for High Peak for 13 years from 1997. In my seven years as a candidate in High Peak, he always treated me with the courtesy befitting a Member of the House. A steadfastly loyal Member of Parliament, and an assiduous attender of debates, he took the decision late last year not to stand for re-election—an action to which he referred in his maiden speech 13 years ago as “the chicken run”.
I am especially proud to represent High Peak, not just for its beauty and its many attractions, but as someone born and bred in the area. As we move towards the summer recess, I would like to recommend High Peak to fellow Members as a wonderful place to take their summer holidays. It is a large constituency covering over 200 square miles and containing some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. I have listened to many maiden speeches over the past few days: everyone proclaims that the represent the most beautiful seat in Britain, but they are all welcome to challenge for second place.
In Buxton, we have numerous architectural delights, including the crescent, the Devonshire dome and the renowned Buxton opera house, which is a fabulous example of a Matcham theatre—one of the finest in the country—and the venue for the Buxton festival, which is an opera and literary festival to rival anything Glyndebourne has to offer, and one graced only last year by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Buxton is also the home of the world famous water, which is oft seen being consumed at major sporting events across the world, and more recently by President Obama. If he continues to consume Buxton water and benefit from all its life-giving properties, he may well live up to his election slogan, “Yes we can.”
In the north of High Peak, the town of Glossop has a different character from Buxton, but it is its equal in every way. With its industrial architecture, it shows a different face of High Peak, and one that tourists all too easily miss. The neighbouring village of Tintwistle gave us Vivienne Westwood. It has distinct problems with traffic—something to which I shall return before I conclude. Glossop has the proud distinction of being the smallest town to have a team in the highest level of English football. At the time, Glossop North End—last year’s Wembley finalists in the FA vase championship—was owned by Mr Samuel Hill-Wood, a former member of the House and predecessor of mine, who eventually left the town to concentrate his efforts at Arsenal, where his family still retain a considerable interest.
I would add at this stage, for those Members who are fans of “The League of Gentlemen”, that that television programme is filmed in Hadfield in my constituency, so therefore I assume I am by default the member of Parliament for Royston Vasey. The Hope valley covers a large area, arguably the most beautiful area of all, against very strong competition, all of it contained in the Peak District national park, which is the oldest national park in the country, and reputedly the second most visited in the world after mount Fuji.
The caves of Castleton, which are the source of Blue John stone—unique to those caves and mined since Roman times—and the southern end of the Pennine way in Edale are particular delights. It is an area in which the farming community plays a crucial part in making High Peak what it is. They have suffered much in recent years, and they are a group whom I hope to stand up for in the House. I could go through High Peak village by village, as they all have their own attractions, but the tradition is to be brief—I am conscious of that, and there are lots of other nervous people trembling in the wings—so I will just mention that my home village of Chapel-en-le-Frith is the birthplace of Ferodo brake linings, and that New Mills is the home of Swizzels Matlow, which makes the famous loveheart sweets. Containing messages such as “Want you”, “Need you”, and “Be mine”, they are very much the flavour of the new coalition.
It would not be right to mention High Peak without reference to its famous limestone, which is quarried in great quantities in the south of the constituency, providing jobs and economic benefit for the whole community. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions remarked on the vastness of the quarries on his visit to the constituency several years ago.
As we move into the stormy waters ahead caused by the deficit left by the Labour party, I commend to the House the actions of the local High Peak borough council which, when it entered a strategic alliance with the neighbouring Staffordshire Moorlands district council, has driven out over £1 million of saving, yet managed to maintain and improve front-line services for its residents. The strategic alliance continues to make strides forward under the leadership of Councillor Tony Ashton, together with his team of Conservative councillors and supported by the excellent and determined staff of that council. This small borough council has shown the way to us all. The savings are there to be made, and we should heed its example.
As the coalition embarks on this Parliament, and as I embark on my first but I hope not last term as the Member for High Peak, we are aware of the tough times ahead. I am and always will remain aware of the problems facing my constituents. In Glossop and Tintwistle, the Tintwistle bypass is an issue that has meandered on for many years. It was promised by my predecessor 13 years ago but has still to be built. It is a difficult issue. There are difficult environmental consequences to be considered but something needs to be done to alleviate the traffic problems suffocating Glossop. Tintwistle shudders and resounds to the thundering of wagons as they cross the Pennines. I know that money is tight and will be for some time, but if money becomes available a workable solution may be achieved.
Both Buxton and Glossop have health service issues. In Glossop, where the Tameside and Glossop primary care trust prevails, my residents are reliant on Tameside hospital, the subject of much debate locally. In Buxton and the remainder of the constituency, Derbyshire County PCT is responsible for provision. I will meet the PCT to discuss provision for hospitals in Buxton and care outside the hospital in the central area.
I shall deal quickly with another issue—pensions. I have made many efforts over several years to help the members of the Turner and Newall pension scheme and I will continue to make those efforts, as it is still in assessment for the Pension Protection Fund. I have met the PPF and will meet the independent trustee, and I hope to get the best result for my residents.
In summary, the High Peak is a beautiful place to live, and I hope that I can make the residents of the High Peak as proud of me as their MP as I am of them and the constituency.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I thank hon. Members for their speeches beforehand—including the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham). We look forward to visiting High Peak as a holiday destination. If we go to all the places that hon. Members have spoken about in the House, we will not have to go abroad this year to get the sun. I thank the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) for his comments on the social politics. There are many bread and butter issues there to interest us. I thank the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). We have something in common. I am a Leicester City football supporter and have been for umpteen years. I do not know whether that is a good or a bad thing, but it shows how loyal I am anyway.
One of the things that I wished to speak about in the Chamber was my Ulster Scots. I did get permission to do this, so I hope hon. Members will bear with me.
Thaur is monies a guid thang at A cud sae aboot tha fowk o mi Baille-Wick bot yince an firmaist A coont it a muckle oaner tae spake oot oan thair ahauf in tha Hoose O Commons. Tha Strengfird fowk ir tha satt o tha grun, an in thenkin thaim fer thair support A wud promis thaim at A’ll wrocht an dae fer thaim aa at A caun.
For those who did not understand me, and there may be some here who did not, I will translate that for them. There are many good things that I could say about the people of my constituency, and first of all is that it is a great honour to speak on their behalf in the House of Commons. The Strangford people are the salt of the earth and in thanking them for their support, I also assure them that I shall work and do for them the best I can.
A hard-working MP is nothing new to the people of Strangford. My predecessor, Iris Robinson, was known for years as a conscientious worker. John Taylor was the MP for many years before that, and I had my first meeting with him and his wife Mary in the House of Commons some 20-odd years ago. Before that we had Jim Kilfedder, who represented the area of Strangford within North Down. We have been blessed over the years to have a number of good MPs. I can remember placing my X for the first time ever next to Jim Kilfedder’s name many years ago.
Those former MPs all had one thing in common—a love for Strangford and its people. I represent a new constituency of Strangford as the boundaries have changed. Whether it be from Portaferry to Carrowdoor, from Comber to Crossgar, Ballynahinch to Ballywalter, Newtonards to Grey Abbey, I would urge any of those in the Chamber to see the unparalleled beauties of my constituency and I defy them not to fall in love with it, as I have.
Today’s debate focuses on the economy and on work and pensions, and I wish to outline a number of opportunities to build the economy of Strangford and the whole of the United Kingdom in areas such as tourism, manufacturing and agriculture. Since 2008, unemployment in Northern Ireland has risen by 18,000 and too many able-bodied people are out of work. I urge the Government to do something about that. The solution requires a cross-sectoral and cross-Government approach.
Tourism offers a first clear opportunity. It is my belief that Northern Ireland will be able to carve out a niche in the global scene in tourism. The Lonely Planet tour guide praised Northern Ireland as
“abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating . . . and the people”—
the people are very important—
“the lifeblood that courses through the country, are in good spirits”.
Ulster, and Strangford in particular, has the unique combination of a beautiful landscape and coastline, a land steeped in history and a welcoming and diverse people who cannot help but draw others to our shores. Yet it seems that the only people who are fully aware of all that Strangford has to offer are those who are blessed enough to have been born there or passed through it. This is a loss not only to the people of my constituency, but to the people of the United Kingdom. I am in the business of changing that impression.
If Strangford was marketed to its full potential it could deliver significant benefit to local and visitor alike. For the cyclist, the walker and the nature lover, there is abundant bird and wildlife along the coast and lough shores. Short-break visitors can shop, be pampered and enjoy our excellent restaurants and entertainment. Strangford is the perfect base for those who wish to explore towns, the countryside, the coast or all of them together.
One sector which clearly demonstrates this is country sports. The game fair at Ballywalter attracts a record number of people, and this is an area in which Strangford has the potential to excel. For example, five American shooters came to the constituency on a five-day trip to Northern Ireland. They spent some £50,000 in the local economy—high-value tourism. I understand that country sports in Northern Ireland employ some 3,000 people. Again, there is opportunity. When I was elected, the people of my constituency were glad to have me in the House of Commons to work for them. It is also rumoured that the pheasants and the ducks of Strangford were looking forward to at least two free days a week when I would not be about. That is probably good news as well.
Northern Ireland’s private sector is underdeveloped but at its core is the manufacturing sector. It contributes around 25% of the gross value added to the Northern Ireland economy. Therefore, the Government’s recent commitments to bolster regional economies and manufacturing are of deep interest. However, the lack of detail is concerning, especially in comparison with their clearer plans to cut public expenditure. I want to put my concern about that on record.
The urban and rural mix of my constituency also means that the farming and agri-food sectors are a key component, possibly more so than in other parts of the United Kingdom. I am well aware of the push that there has been to encourage local Northern Ireland businesses to compete on the global stage. We have various international exporters in the constituency. I want to plug the humble Comber potato and the Portavogie prawn, because they are world leaders. Many people enjoy them as delicacies.
The family farm is important to us in the constituency. There are those who have diversified into the ice cream business or adapted unused barns and land for quad bikes and crazy golf, all of which are advertised in our local paper, the Newtownards Chronicle. Commercial fishing is also important, a once proud industry. Fishing boat numbers have been halved, due to EU regulation and scientific information. The common fisheries policy needs to be right for the people of my area. It needs to restore confidence and give people viability and jobs. I hope the Government will work towards that.
In conclusion, Winston Churchill is one of my heroes and always has been. He had a good grasp of the English language, and he was a good historian and also a good soldier. He said:
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
I stand in this place humbled and honoured at the fact that the voters of Strangford have elevated me from the Northern Ireland Assembly to the House of Commons. The Assembly was my beginning, but my election to the House is certainly not the end of the matter. That quote from Winston Churchill reminds me of another of his. I have made it to the end of my maiden speech with no heckling from Irish Nationalists or anyone else, something that I am exceedingly grateful for. I hope this will be the first of many speeches in the House.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. After sitting in the House for seven hours yesterday, I can say that there is only one thing more nerve-wracking than being called upon to make a maiden speech—sitting on the Bench for seven hours and not being called to make a maiden speech.
Before I pay tribute to my constituency, Aberconwy, I must say that I am proud to stand here as the first elected Member for the constituency, which is a new construct for this Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House came up to Aberconwy during the election campaign to offer me support. I am sure that hon. Members from both sides of the House have had the experience of a senior politician coming to support them. We were walking along the promenade in Llandudno, which is the most beautiful promenade in Wales, and probably in Britain, and my right hon. Friend asked me about the arithmetic in the constituency. When I informed him that Aberconwy had 44,000 electors, he immediately said, “Oh well, your seat will be abolished, won’t it?” That was before I had won the election. If that is how prominent politicians are supposed to help candidates, then I am not sure that was the case in that instance. He left me dumbfounded and went off on the cable car that takes people up from the promenade to the Great Orme, a visit that I would recommend to anyone.
Aberconwy is built upon two constituencies—the Conwy constituency and the former Meirionnydd Nant Conwy constituency. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my two predecessors in those constituencies. Mrs Betty Williams was the Member for Conwy and she served the constituency with distinction for 13 years. Even though I stood against her in 2005 and disagreed with her time after time, on every doorstep in Conwy I was told that if I was as good a constituency MP as Mrs Williams, I would do well. I will aspire to ensure that I do serve the area as well as Mrs Betty Williams did.
More importantly, Mrs Betty Williams has recently published her memoirs in Welsh, and, being a first language Welsh speaker, I have had the pleasure of reading them. What shines through is the fact that she embarked upon a political career for the right reasons. She was a quarryman’s daughter, and she served local communities on district and county councils and stood for Parliament on four occasions before she won. Throughout, her commitment was for the right reasons. She wanted to serve her people and she wanted to make sure that her Labour party views were expressed in the House. For that, I respect her very much indeed, and I hope that I will be able to do as good a job on behalf of my constituents as she did.
The Meirionnydd Nant Conwy part of the constituency was extremely well served by the now hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). Despite the fact that we have had our disagreements—viewers of Welsh language television can attest to that—I would also like to pay tribute to him. When I canvassed in the Conwy valley, people said that Elfyn Llwyd was always approachable and always served his people very well, and, again, I would hope to do the same. I follow in the footsteps of two hard-working Members and I am aware of the responsibility and privilege that I have in serving.
Aberconwy is a diverse constituency. It is dependent on tourism, with Llandudno, which I have mentioned, the queen of Welsh resorts, in the centre of the constituency, and locations such as Conwy with the castle of Edward I, Llanfairfechan and Betws-y-Coed in the Snowdonia national park. There is no doubt that tourism is an important industry within the constituency. Agriculture, on the other hand, has seen a decline during the past 10 years. The agriculture industry, which is centred on the market town of Llanrwst in my constituency, is in need of support. While I am in the House, I will try to support the tourism industry and ensure that it is not seen as a Cinderella industry. In our part of Wales it is crucial to creating employment and retaining young people in the area. In the same way, we need to develop the food sector and the food industries by working with farmers and the agriculture sector. I would like to see the development of real opportunities for businesses to be created in the food sector in my constituency.
The other thing that I need to say about Aberconwy is that it is an historic constituency. I have already mentioned the castle in Conwy that was built by Edward I, but in many ways the history of Wales is apparent in Aberconwy by the fact that we have Conwy castle on the coast, but we also have the castle in Dolwyddelan, which was built by the Welsh princes. Those two castles are a snapshot of the history of Wales. One thing that causes me immense regret is that the history of the building of Conwy castle is well known to most people in the House, but the history of the Welsh princes and the castle at Dolwyddelan is not as well known. Our education system should deal with that, because it is important to know our history—British history and Welsh history.
The Welsh language is a living, breathing language in Aberconwy. Around 40% of my constituents are first language Welsh speakers, and the Welsh language still survives basically because of the work of two people who are associated with my constituency. The first is Bishop William Morgan, who was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to translate the Bible into Welsh in 1588. He created a work of literature, which is much better than the recent Welsh Bible translation. I suspect that the fact that I prefer the old version shows that I am a natural conservative in many ways.
The other individual associated with my constituency is Wyn Roberts, now Lord Roberts, who served the Conwy constituency for 27 years. In his time in this House he played a huge part in ensuring that the Welsh language had the opportunity to survive into the 21st century. Wyn Roberts was in many ways responsible for ensuring that we have the fourth television channel in Wales, S4C. He was responsible for the Education Act 1986, which ensured that the Welsh language had a proper place in our education system, and, just as crucially, he was responsible for the Welsh Language Act 1993. He is a hard act to follow.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to give my maiden speech.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate, particularly as employment was one of the central themes of my campaign.
It is an amazing privilege to be standing here as the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, a place described as the heart and soul of this great country, of which I am incredibly proud to be a citizen. I feel just as proud to be one of the first three Muslim women MPs ever to be elected to this Parliament, and the first person of British-Bengali heritage to be elected to this House.
I thank the people of Bethnal Green and Bow for giving me the honour of representing them. At a time of great national scepticism about this institution, I can assure the House that for millions of people in Bangladesh, where I was born, this Parliament has always been a beacon of democracy and self-determination. The power of this House to inspire and to do good is undimmed.
It is customary to pay tribute to one’s predecessor—in my case, the inimitable George Galloway. Where do I begin? Perhaps I should begin with his long service in this House, and his rather shorter stay in the other house. His great oratory was admired by many, even when they passionately disagreed with him. While the people of Bethnal Green and Bow chose unity over division, and while my politics could not be more different from Mr Galloway’s, we have one thing in common, which I know that the House passionately shares—a deep commitment to a lasting settlement in the middle east. For me, that is impossible without ending the blockade of Gaza and a viable independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
I would also like to pay tribute to my Labour predecessors. Oona King was a hard-working, dedicated MP for almost a decade, who fought for people who suffered enormously from the appalling housing conditions in the east end of London. She fought relentlessly to tackle poverty and inequality, both in this country and in developing countries.
We remember the late Lord Shore of Stepney who worked tirelessly for the people of my constituency. He has a special place in the hearts of Bengalis, especially among my parents’ generation, for the way in which he led Members on both sides of this House to speak up for the fight for democracy in the war of independence in 1971 in Bangladesh. I am only sorry that he is not here today to see someone born in the country he supported, brought up and educated in the constituency he represented, elected to this Parliament.
My passion for Bethnal Green and Bow is about the place, the people and our political heritage. I would urge hon. Members to go east and visit places such as the Whitechapel gallery, Columbia Road flower market, and Spitalfields market near Brick lane. Brick lane has iconic status in this country, both for its vibrancy and cultural activity and for its extraordinary history: for being the place that provided a home for many waves of migrants, including the Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Somalis and many others, manifested poignantly in the Brick lane Jamme Masjid, which was built by the Huguenots for Christian worshippers, later became a synagogue and is now a mosque, reflecting the different contributions of so many to our great country.
In other parts of my constituency I come across people who remind me of the courage and determination of so many in the east end. I think of the elderly lady who survived the blitz but overnight lost her family, and the many other stories of sacrifice and loss, such as the Bethnal Green tube disaster, when 173 people lost their lives seeking shelter from air raids in 1943.
We owe it to those east enders never to forget that freedoms are never easily won. For me, it is an honour to stand here, as a successor, I hope, to the great social reformers of the past, who took ideas born in the east end, developed them and changed this country for the better. It is no exaggeration to say that the east end inspired men and women to make history and fight for social justice. I think of the trade union movement, the suffragettes and the welfare state.
My constituency sits between the glittering towers of the City of London and Canary Wharf and is a stone’s throw away from the Olympic village. The Olympics have the potential to deliver huge opportunity and a sea change in attitudes towards our country, our pride and our sporting ability, yet many in my constituency remain unconvinced that they will benefit. I hope that the job opportunities and the legacy that we wish to create will benefit them, and I am acutely aware that it is an extraordinary opportunity for an historically poor part of London.
I want to speak on behalf of those who face the rough few years ahead. Already, unemployment is incredibly high in my part of London. The east end has been in that situation too many times before, and for us wasted talent is never a price worth paying. In the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s I saw families, friends and neighbours lose their homes, jobs and livelihoods overnight. That was the time when the Liberals controlled the council and the Conservatives ran the country. Any community that does not provide useful work for its people risks falling apart.
It is not that people in the east end lack resourcefulness; on the contrary, it is impossible to walk the streets without seeing the energy, dynamism and drive that take whatever resources are available and turn them into success. But when programmes such as the future jobs fund are shut down, the Government send a message to thousands of people, saying, “You’re on your own. We wash our hands of you.” That is why I shall fight to create jobs in the east end and work hard and tirelessly to serve the people of this great constituency.
I am very grateful for this opportunity to address the House for the first time. Today’s debate and the excellent speeches of so many hon. Members have done nothing to reduce the awe with which I approach this task, and I commend the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for her passionate speech and associate myself with her views on the blockade of Gaza and the importance of creating employment. I share in the salute of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) to the brave soldiers of the Mercian Regiment, who have laid down their lives for our country.
My first thanks are due to the electors of Worcester, who have sent me to this Chamber, and I am conscious that I shall be forever in their debt. I intend to repay that debt by working tirelessly on their behalf and being Worcester’s man in Westminster. I must thank also my predecessor, the former Member for Worcester, Michael Foster, who for 13 years was a fierce advocate for his party, a tireless campaigner for animal rights and a distinguished supporter of his Government. As a Whip, a Parliamentary Private Secretary and a Minister, he did much to further the interests of peace in Northern Ireland and international development, and for that he deserves the approbation of this House.
It would be remiss of me not to mention some other former Members for Worcester. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is now an Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, served the city well until boundary changes took him from us. He is a friend and a mentor, the first MP for whom I ever had the privilege to vote, and now one who has the dubious privilege, shared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), of having voted for me. I know that every Member will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire success in providing the best possible equipment to our gallant armed forces over the years to come.
Before my hon. Friend’s time there was, of course, another Member for Worcester with whom I am very familiar, but as my hon. Friend spoke so eloquently on his behalf in his maiden speech, I shall say only that, as many thousands of constituents have reminded me on their doorsteps, he is a hard act to follow. I owe that Member, my father, my lifelong knowledge of, and deep love for, my constituency and its history, not to mention my support for the once and future premiership rugby team, the Worcester Warriors, and my support—shared with the Governor of the Bank of England—for the cricket team, which has the most beautiful ground in the country.
The task of representing Worcester, made so enjoyable by those factors, is made all the more daunting by the fact that the city has been represented in Parliament since the 13th century. Empires have risen and fallen and royal houses have come and gone in the time that MPs have spoken for Worcester, but I do not intend to go on for that long. The city, of course, played its own major part in the civil war. The first shots of that war were fired beyond the boundaries of my constituency, near Powick bridge, and its last slaughter took place at the Sidbury gate, now in the heart of modern Worcester, as Cromwell finally crushed the King’s army and took the faithful city. That war started after an arrogant Government had overspent and oppressed the people of the country with unfair taxes.
At the end of the battle of Worcester, the parson of the parliamentary army addressed the troops and said to them:
“Say you have been at Worcester, where England’s sorrows began, and where happily they are ended.”
I hope that, given the alleged role of Worcester woman in bringing Labour to power over the past 13 years, the same might be said again today.
The civil war was one of the historic events that gave us the evolved constitution that we have today. Respect for that constitution is one of the things that inspires me in politics, and, despite much tinkering over the past 13 years, there is still much to be defended: the unique position of the Crown; the privileges and stature of this mother of Parliaments in holding the Government to account; the powerful ties that bind Members to their constituencies; and a system of election that is simple, effective and allows for the removal of failed Governments. All those are worth fighting for with the same passion with which our ancestors fought on the battlefields of Worcester.
As I am passionate on that subject, so also I am passionate about opportunity. My party has always been the party of opportunity. In the Gracious Speech and in this debate, we have set out plans to support opportunity for British businesses, for young people, and for those on welfare to escape the traps of unemployment and dependency. Opportunity in business, and that unleashed by the national insurance reforms that we propose, will benefit Worcester Bosch and Yamazaki Mazak, innovative manufacturing companies that, between them, employ thousands of people in my constituency.
The coalition Government have set out exciting plans to support green technology, and I support those initiatives. I believe that they will benefit companies in Worcester, but I am concerned that there has so far been no mention in Government statements of the renewable heat incentive. Given that homes are responsible for 21% of the carbon emissions generated in this country, and that 73% of energy in the home is used for heating or hot water, supporting renewables for heating should be given as high a priority as support for the renewable generation of electricity.
Worcester has a range and diversity of businesses, great and small, that reflects the range of topics covered in the Gracious Speech. The breadth of our economy ranges from engineers to health care companies, industry associations, recyclers and housing associations. I have visited firms, such as Craegmoor Healthcare, Skills for Security, the Remarkable recycling company and Sanctuary Housing, which are all headquartered in Worcester and, as an MP, I want to ensure that Worcester remains a place to which businesses want to come, maximising the opportunities for my constituents.
To maximise opportunity, we need the best education to be available to all, and that is why I welcome the exciting reforms proposed by the Secretary of State for Education. We have already seen how academies can turn around the fortunes of failing schools and, in Worcester, the Tudor Grange academy is a shining example of that trend, so I welcome the decision to open up the opportunity of freer education to more schools in the area.
Supporting opportunity means careful nurturing of further and higher education. I shall support both, and I am very proud that Worcester boasts the country’s fastest-growing university. The university of Worcester, which I congratulate on its recent Ofsted report, was rated “outstanding” for its training of teachers at primary and secondary level, and the principal of Worcester college of technology was recently elected president of the Association of Colleges.
For opportunity to thrive everywhere we need fair funding in education. Today the average pupil in Worcestershire receives £370 less than the national average and a staggering £762 less than children in the neighbouring authorities of Birmingham, despite the fact that some parts of my constituency are among the 10% most deprived areas in the country. I have high hopes for the coalition Government’s pupil premium policy in addressing that issue.
The last Walker to speak for Worcester began his maiden speech by saying,
“I hope that if, in the course of my remarks…I make what are considered to be constructive criticisms of the Government’s economic policy, this will not be considered indicative of a person representing a constituency noted throughout the world for its production of sauce.”—[Official Report, 20 April 1961; Vol. 638, c. 1433.]
I shall be equally ready to make constructive criticisms and to place my constituency at the forefront of my parliamentary career. In the interests of Worcester, I commend the Gracious Speech.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. At half-past 6, you will leave the Chair for the last time. May I endorse what Mr Speaker said earlier and, on behalf of the whole House, thank you for your impartial, firm but courteous service over 13 years?
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I add congratulations and warm support from this side of the House. We are grateful to you for your many years of kind consideration for all Members of the House, Back Benchers and Front Benchers, and for your fairness over the years.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I add congratulations from the Liberal Democrat Benches on your service to this House? Perhaps your early education in my constituency contributed to your excellent and impartial service to the House.
I hope that the clock has not yet started, Mr Deputy Speaker; as the last person whom you will call to speak in your current role, I want to pay tribute to you. You have always been extraordinarily kind and generous to those on my party’s Benches.
Mr Temporary Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to follow two totally different maiden speeches, one from the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) and the other from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). They are different people from different constituencies and different backgrounds, but they have a shared determination to see an end to the blockade of Gaza. Many in the House share that determination, and I hope that we will see proper progress in the middle east during this Parliament.
Today’s debate is fundamentally about the economy and I am delighted to take part in the debate on the Gracious Speech today. I should like to comment on much of what the Chancellor said. His description of the economy left to the new coalition Government is well known and the numbers that back it up are equally well known. The deficit was forecast last year to be £173 billion, but this year it is forecast to be £156 billion—still 11%-plus of gross domestic product. UK national debt is sitting at £1.2 trillion on the treaty calculation and is forecast to rise to £1.6 trillion, approaching 90% of GDP by 2014-15.
We know the last Labour Government’s response to this recession—to make real-terms cuts of £500 million for this year to the Scottish budget, before recovery was secured. Against everything that they professed in public, they began cutting the budgets early and weakening the ability of the Scottish Government and others to secure the recovery.
I am delighted to confirm to the right hon. Lady that she seems again to fail to understand what real-terms increases and real-terms inflationary costs mean over the period of the Scottish Parliament. There have been real-terms cuts to the Scottish budget this year.
The Chancellor also confirmed that tackling the deficit and debt was the most urgent issue facing this Government, and they have started with £6 billion of in-year cuts. I am delighted that the Scottish Government have taken the opportunity to defer those cuts this year to avoid in-year cuts, which are extraordinarily damaging as they require budgets to be ripped up and jobs to be shed. What have worried me, however, are the comments and criticisms from Labour’s Scottish Parliament finance spokesman, who criticised the decision to postpone the cuts. Clearly, Labour will condemn the Tory Government here while its finance spokesman in the Scottish Parliament seems to want the Tory cuts this year in Scotland. That is wholly wrong.
The new coalition Government said in their programme that they would
“significantly accelerate the reduction of the structural deficit”
in this Parliament and that the main burden of deficit reduction will be borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes. I question the logic of that whole approach. The previous Government promised cuts that were deeper and tougher than Margaret Thatcher’s. They promised to take £57 billion out of the economy in a single year—2013-14. They also promised £20 billion or so of tax rises and £40 billion or so of cuts. The accelerated attack on the structural deficit and the smaller contribution made by tax increases clearly indicate further public sector cuts—cuts well in excess of the £40 billion that the Labour Government planned to take out by the time we reached 2013-14.
Labour’s plans for taking £57 billion out of the economy represented approximately 3% of GDP, but this Government’s plans are likely to go very much further. I was concerned that reducing consumption in the economy in a single year to the tune of 3% of GDP would tip the economy back into recession, but I am more concerned that stripping yet more consumption out of the economy and doing it more quickly—before we have properly secured the recovery—would be even more damaging than Labour’s plans.
Remember that at the time of the last Budget, it was only Government consumption, up 2% on the year, that kept the economy afloat. Household consumption was down by 1.9%, business investment was down by 24% and gross fixed capital formation was down by 14%. Even now, following the statement today, we know that household consumption is down by only 0.5% on the year, but business investment is still down by 11% and gross fixed capital formation is down by half that, at 5.7%. This is not the time to cut Government consumption, given that it was up by 3% over the last 12 months and kept the economy afloat.
I do not want anyone to misunderstand me. I was a critic of the deficit and the debt before the recession. I am arguing about how we tackle it now and I believe that we should not go down the route of the Canadian model, which involved 20% cuts in public services over three years. We should look again at the New Zealand model, which gave the flexibility to tackle the deficit and the debt over the medium term. That way we could at least benefit from the huge £50 billion-plus medium-term savings from scrapping Trident and its replacement. I am delighted that Mr Speaker has allowed our amendment covering that matter to be put to a vote later today.
There were, of course, a number of other matters economic in the Gracious Speech—the financial services regulation Bill and the plan to introduce a bank levy, for example. Although it is self-evident that there must be depositor protection and that we must protect against systemic risk from bank failure, not least through the application of proper capital ratios, that is what pillar 1 of the Basel II accord was meant to do. Given that the banking crisis commenced in summer 2007 and that Basel II is not meant to be fully implemented until October-November 2012, I would have thought that it would have made more sense for the incoming Government to push for the early international implementation of Basel II rather than unilaterally implementing a domestic banking levy now. The consequences of such a levy are not at all clear.
The coalition’s programme also said that they would reform the regulatory system and give the Bank of England control over macro-prudential regulation. But that would leave the Financial Services Authority fundamentally in place, and I remember many criticisms from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers about the FSA. Surely the Government will continue to recognise that failure of supervision by the FSA was as important as the weakness of the underlying regulation.
There were many other matters economic in the Queen’s Speech and the programme for government, and we will come back to them. I have one final question, and it is about the decision to scrap the child trust fund. Between 2004 and 2008, savings ratios were half those when Labour came to power in 1997. Why are this Government planning to scrap a savings scheme with a 71% voluntary take-up rate?
It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) and to be able to speak for the first time in this Chamber as the Member for the new seat of Rugby. I often have to explain to people that I represent a town, rather than a sport. As an enthusiastic former player, it seems appropriate to have joined today the all-party rugby union group. Rugby is unique as the only place to have given its name to an international sport. It already receives many overseas visitors, particularly from rugby-playing countries, who make their way to the close at Rugby school, where William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran. Much work has already taken place in the town to capitalise on our association with the game, and I look forward to a new visitor attraction in time for the 2015 world cup.
The seat of Rugby includes villages to the north and west of the town, including Binley Woods, where I grew up and attended primary school. It has since become famous as the location of Hyacinth Bucket’s bungalow in the sitcom “One Foot in the Grave”. The constituency also includes the village of Bulkington, which was familiar to the author George Eliot, who referred to it as Raveloe in her book, “Silas Marner”.
I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the immediate past Member for Rugby, who is at my side and has been returned as the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). Having made a very big impact here in his first term, he has now taken the sensible option of a safe seat.
Previous Members include Andy King and, before that, someone well known to me, since that person is my father—James Pawsey, who was first elected for Rugby in 1979. I know that it is not unusual for a son or a daughter to follow their father here, and there are many examples in the current intake. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who spoke just before me, as a son following a father into the same seat. My father still has an excellent reputation in Rugby as a hard-working constituency MP. Throughout the time that I was seeking to be elected, many potential constituents spoke to me about how much he has done for the people of Rugby. I have heard many similar tributes from people here since I arrived—colleagues and staff who remember his contributions, particularly in the field of education. Like my hon. Friend, I feel that I have a very tough act to follow.
I am a product of Rugby’s grammar school, which was founded by a locally born grocer, Lawrence Sheriff, who, when he established Rugby school, set aside a sum of money for the education of boys from the town. From an intake of 90 boys at that school in 1968, two of us sit here today; my former school friend and now my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), was also elected in May.
Rugby changed significantly in the 19th century with the coming of the railways, and our station is familiar to many; it is on the west coast line, with a journey time to London Euston of just 50 minutes. In Rugby, we welcome the Government’s commitment to new high-speed rail lines but are anxious to ensure that fast services will remain on the original network once the new lines are in use. Indeed, Rugby’s transport links are the most important feature of our town. Rugby is at the heart of the UK’s motorway network. That makes Rugby an attractive location for business in general, and for freight and logistics businesses in particular. Despite the current pressure on the public finances, we believe that it is vital to continue true investment in our network in order to continue to improve it.
Rugby has also had an impact in the field of communications through the Rugby radio site, the masts of which have for many years been visible from the M1. Almost all those masts have now been removed in preparation for a massive housing development, which will be the most important issue facing the town over the next 20 years.
Rugby has experienced major growth before. In the early 1900s, heavy engineering came into our town and Rugby became a major industrial centre. We have a history of producing gas and steam turbines at a company known as British Thomson-Houston, which went on to become GEC and AEI—now amalgamated to form Alstom, a leader in power generation. Rugby is also home to Converteam, a worldwide specialist in power conversion that is building electric engines for the new Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers. Rugby had a pioneering role in other forms of propulsion. In 1937, Frank Whittle built the world’s first prototype jet engine in Rugby. I have a personal connection with Whittle’s work, because I established a small business in Rugby in a rented unit adjacent to where Whittle carried out his work.
I have spent 25 years starting, running, managing and building up a business, and I have a good understanding of the challenges that businesses face. We need to recognise more effectively those who create wealth and jobs. Small business is ready to make its contribution, but it needs a work force with the skills and the attitude to roll up their sleeves and play their part. Too often, regrettably, there is insufficient incentive for jobseekers to do that, and I welcome the changes in our welfare system that will put incentives to work firmly back in place. I make no apology for putting the case for manufacturing and for business, particularly small business, and I look forward to doing so in the House over the coming years, in addition to representing all the electors of Rugby, with whom I believe I have a special bond.
I would like to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and other new Members of this House, who have done their constituencies proud today.
It is a huge privilege to have been elected as the Member of Parliament for Leeds West and to succeed John Battle, who represented us here for 23 years. John’s work for Leeds West touched the lives of so many people: fighting for, and getting, compensation for the victims of asbestos poisoning in Armley; supporting the Kirkstall festival in the grounds of our beautiful 12th-century abbey; and working with West Leeds debt forum and Bramley Credit Union to drive loan sharks out of our community. It is those, and John’s many other achievements—I have mentioned only a handful—that are his legacy.
At a constituency surgery recently, a lady took my hand and said that as long as I was half as good as John Battle, she would be happy. I later received a letter from a constituent who asked that I only be a quarter as good. I hope to exceed both their expectations, but I know that in John Battle I have a fantastic role model and a very tough act to follow. I will fight tirelessly for my constituents to be the champion for local people that John was before me.
Most of all, I will fight for jobs, growth and prosperity—the subject of our debate today. Leeds has a proud economic heritage. Leeds West was built on engineering and on textiles. From my home in Hawksworth Wood, people used to be able to hear the hum of the Kirkstall Forge Engineering plant at work. The forge, originally set up by the monks of Kirkstall abbey, continued in operation until 2002. The industrial revolution transformed Leeds, as well. The Leeds-Liverpool canal brought to our city wool spun at the mills that still stand tall in Kirkstall, Armley, Bramley and Rodley. Of course, Leeds was the birthplace of Montague Burton and of Marks and Spencer—a proud industrial, and retail, heritage. The economy was transformed once again under the previous Labour Government. The city centre is now packed with new businesses, shops, museums and galleries.
More than all that, however, under Labour every single person—most of all, every young person—has been given opportunities to recognise and fulfil their potential. It was my own experience of education under the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s that motivated me to get involved in politics. When I was at school, there were never enough textbooks to go round. There was no money for new school buildings, so our sixth form was a prefab hut in the playground and our library was turned into a classroom. It is therefore with immense pride that I tell the House that my old secondary school is now a specialist college with two new, modern buildings.
Such investment has been seen up and down the country, in all our constituencies. In Leeds West, every single primary school has been rebuilt or refurbished since 1997. In September last year, the new Leeds West academy and Swallow Hill community college opened their doors—proud achievements, transforming lives and communities.
In his maiden speech in 1987, John Battle spoke of his visit to the Bramley jobcentre. Back then, there were just six jobs on offer in the window, with wages ranging from £2 to £2.28 an hour. No parents can bring up a family on £2—not in 1987 and not on today’s equivalent—and no one should be made to work all hours of the day and night and yet remain in poverty. It was that belief and sense of justice and fairness that brought the national minimum wage—one of Labour’s proudest achievements—to the statute book.
Throughout the recession, Labour has not abandoned its commitment to social justice. The future jobs fund helped more than 8,000 young people in Yorkshire to get back to work during these challenging economic times and, under Labour, a generation of young people were not condemned to the scrapheap as happened in the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. However, the economic recovery is fragile and cannot be taken for granted. We need the passion, enterprise and determination that built the Leeds economy of the past to build the economy of the future. For that to happen, the people of Leeds will look to the Government to be on their side and build a future for Leeds based on high skills, new technologies and new industries, with better transport links—including high-speed rail—and a banking sector that supports industry and small businesses, rather than just being out to make a quick profit. The new Government are right to make the budget deficit a priority, but that must not be at the expense of the recovery that Labour has secured.
I started my career as an economist at the Bank of England and focused on Japan at a time when its economy had been in and out of recession for a decade. Today, debt in Japan is 190% of gross domestic product, which is 2.5 times the level in the UK. Japan’s debt is so high precisely because its Government did not take swift action to ensure that its economy emerged from recession with strong growth. I urge this Government to learn those lessons from history, because the very worst thing for Leeds West and for Britain would be another recession caused by hasty and unfair spending cuts. I fear that the Government are making those mistakes and putting the recovery at risk. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is reducing industrial support for businesses and universities, watering down the regional development agencies and abolishing the support that Labour introduced to get young people back to work. If the Government really are serious about ensuring the recovery, they must put in place policies for jobs and growth.
We know that the causes of this crisis are global, but the pathways out must be local and regional, so I will fight for Leeds West with determination, and I will do so in a responsible way. It would not be responsible or sensible to oppose every spending cut or tax increase. I will encourage this Government when they get it right and acknowledge that, but when they get it wrong and put the economic future of my constituents and the country at risk, I will hold them to account. John Battle showed us that politics can make a difference and that the right values and policies can transform people’s lives. Today more than ever, we need the ambition for justice, equality and fairness that drove John. It is a real honour to serve as the Member of Parliament for Leeds West and, in doing my duty to my constituents, I will act with the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Leeds West as my guide.
It is a great honour to be called and to follow so many fantastic maiden speeches: when the bar is set so high, it is often easier to duck under it. It is a great honour to serve South Staffordshire. It is traditional for hon. Members to pay tribute to their predecessors, and that is easier for some than it is for others.
It is easy for me to pay tribute not only to my predecessors for previous constituencies, such as Cannock and Brierley Hill—for example, Sir Fergus Montgomery and Jennie Lee, who were great parliamentarians—but to my immediate predecessor, Sir Patrick Cormack, a great parliamentarian whom we all greatly admire. Sir Patrick believed in and fought passionately for his constituency and constituents, but he also believed passionately in this House—in its traditions and its importance in our national life. He also believed in the importance of a strong House of Commons in holding the Government to account and ensuring good government. Those principles were close to Sir Patrick’s heart and will be close to mine.
Over the weeks following my selection, Sir Patrick and I became good and close friends. We enjoyed spending a great amount of time campaigning together, and although our styles were sometimes a little different, that made it all the more enjoyable. I remember campaigning in the former mining village of Great Wyrley, where many constituents rushed up to Sir Patrick to wish him well in his retirement and thank him for the work he had done for them. They shook his hand and said, “Mr McCormack, Mr McCormack.” After about the 10th person had done so, I said to Sir Patrick, “Don’t you ever correct them?” He said, “Dear boy, after 40 years, it hardly seems worth bothering, don’t you think?” It is an honour to step into Sir Patrick’s very large shoes, but I hope that, over the years, I will gain some of his panache and style, which graced this Chamber, and that I will be an asset not only to the people of South Staffordshire but to this House.
South Staffordshire is one of those constituencies about which so many people say, “Where is it? Which town is in it?” People probably travel through it many times when they go up the M6 or up the west coast main line. It is a beautiful constituency that does not have a single major town, but is built up around many small, and some large, villages scattered across the South Staffordshire countryside. Many of those villages were born out of the industrial revolution and coal mining traditions, and have settled in some of the most beautiful, pretty and gentle English countryside that one can imagine.
The people are straight talkers, which, as a Yorkshireman, is comforting to know. As a straight talker myself, it is nice to have it blunt from others. South Staffordshire is a beautiful constituency that is criss-crossed by many canals and beautiful fields. However, it has its problems and issues. In South Staffordshire, compared with the national average, twice as many people work in manufacturing. That is important to me, because I have worked in manufacturing since I left university. I think it is fair to say that I am one of the few potters who sit in the House today. It is that experience of manufacturing that I hope to bring to the House, because far too often Governments of all colours have believed that we can build a strong, stable and vibrant economy on the twin pillars of financial services and coffee-shop economics. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who works in coffee shops and I even grudgingly admit that we might need bankers, but we cannot have a vibrant British economy without a strong and vibrant manufacturing sector.
Far too often, young people who go into manufacturing or engineering are seen as taking a second-class career, whereas we reward and sing the praises of people who go into accountancy, the law or public relations. We do not sing enough the praises of our designers, engineers and manufacturers. We need to change that ethos and have a similar one to that of Germany or Japan. We will have a truly vibrant economy only when we recreate the Victorian spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness that made Britain such a vibrant country, as I am sure it will be again.
I truly welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about the importance of manufacturing and I hope that the Treasury team listen well to his comments and do not spend all their time listening to bankers. They should also listen to manufacturers, because we often have a lot more common sense than bankers. I hope I can play my part in representing South Staffordshire and the people of a beautiful and lovely constituency, and that I can ensure their voices are heard loud and clear in this Chamber.
Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on his excellent maiden speech, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to make mine in this debate. The way in which we respond to the longest-lasting recession since records began, and the support structures we put in place to deal with the human cost of the recession, will be the overriding domestic issues of this Parliament. I will close my contribution today by talking about an issue that is of huge importance to me—fuel poverty—but first I should like to use this opportunity to talk about my home constituency, which I now have the ultimate honour of representing as Member of Parliament.
Carmarthen East and Dinefwr consists of four valleys. Two rural valleys—the Teifi and Tywi to the north—are based on two majestic rivers that provide among the best salmon and sewin fishing in the British isles. Agriculture provides the backbone of the economy, and I am committed to fighting to preserve the traditional Welsh family farm and the traditional Welsh rural way of life.
There are also two post-industrial valleys—the Amman and Gwendraeth. As a son of the Amman valley, I can claim without any prejudice that the anthracite coalfield there contains the best coal in the world. The industrial half of my home communities—a producing economy—has suffered at the hands of a UK macro-economic policy obsessed with financial services and the negligence of manufacturing.
My constituency is probably most famous for its production of Welsh sporting icons. Some of the greats of Welsh rugby come from the area—Carwyn James and Barry John—and current Welsh and British Lions greats Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones and Shane Williams are sons of Carmarthenshire. Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is also famous for its many castles, some of conquest, some of defiance. The three Deheubarth castles—Dryslwyn, Dinefwr and the imposing Carreg Cennen—are symbols of Welsh resistance, and of our determination as a people to preserve our identity and defend our freedom.
The north of my constituency was the home of a real life Robin Hood. Twm Sion Cati earned his fame by robbing from the rich to give to the poor. I consider myself a redistributive politician very much in the same vein. His arch-enemy was the sheriff of Carmarthen, a post I once held—although I must admit it was somewhat confusing for a Welsh nationalist such as me to hold that office. I look forward to campaigning for a tax on international currency transactions in honour of Twm.
Carmarthenshire is the home of great Welsh political radical minds. Llandybie born DJ Davies formed the Independent Labour party in Ammanford before the first world war, but then became a founding member of Plaid Cymru in the 1920s. He began working in the mines at the age of 14, served in the US navy, and was a formidable boxer. He lived in Denmark, and became convinced that the advancement of the Welsh working class could be secured only in a free Wales. Heavily influenced by the syndicalist movement, he wrote the masterpiece “The Economics of Welsh Self-Government” in 1931, which formed the basis of the decentralist socialist vision that guides my party to this very day. His vision of a mutual approach to economic development is one that I believe areas such as Carmarthenshire must embrace if we are to meet the challenges we face.
Jim Griffiths was a son of Betws. A Labour politician, he was the co-architect of the modern welfare state with Aneurin Bevan, and helped to deliver the first measure of Welsh devolution with the creation of a Minister for Wales. That political victory for the first time enshrined Wales as a political nation, and set in motion the chain of events that led to the creation of our own Government and legislature.
Carmarthenshire was also the constituency of the greatest Welshman of our time, Gwynfor Evans. His historic victory in 1966 marked the election of the first Plaid Cymru MP. Gwynfor’s legacy has been to inspire generations to the cause of our country.
I should like to say a few words about the man I replace, Adam Price. After less than a decade in front-line politics, he has already established himself as one of the greatest figures in the history of the nationalist movement, and one of the most significant political figures of our time in Wales. When he returns from his studies in the USA, his destiny is clear: to serve our people in our own Parliament in Cardiff, and to lead our people to our political freedom.
Adam will be remembered for unearthing the Mittal scandal and for leading the opposition in this House to the invasion of Iraq. He was a local champion in fighting for compensation for miners suffering from terrible respiratory diseases and securing a pension compensation fund for steelworkers who had seen their life savings disappear. Wales can ill afford to lose politicians of the stature of Adam, and I hope he returns ready to continue his work on behalf of our people and our communities.
In the time that is left, I should like to talk briefly about an issue that is very close to my heart: fuel poverty. In a modern country, it is a disgrace that more than a quarter of all Welsh households live in fuel poverty. It is one of the greatest failures of government that people in Wales and throughout the UK must continue to make daily choices between heating and eating. In the last year alone, average heating bills have increased by 33%, leaving people on fixed incomes terribly exposed, and energy prices in Wales are higher than anywhere else in the UK.
We need action at international, UK, Welsh and local government level if we are serious about eradicating the blight of fuel poverty from our communities. First, international oil prices must be stabilised to avoid price fluctuations. That could mean a long-term agreement between oil producer and consumer countries, as advocated by the French Government, and—arguably—the use of a more stable trading currency. The UK Government need to raise incomes and ensure that available benefits and tax credits are claimed by those who are entitled to them. That package should include the extension of winter fuel payments to all vulnerable groups. Secondly, energy-efficiency measures should be targeted primarily at the fuel-poor, and, thirdly, we need greater regulation of the energy market, and in particular a mandatory social tariff for the fuel-poor so that they are removed from a competitive market that simply does not work.
The Welsh Government must ensure that Wales gets its fair share of the UK Government’s energy efficiency schemes and create a package of support and advice for people living in fuel poverty. They must also promote off-grid, decentralised local energy systems, backed up with smart metering, so that communities can develop their own solutions to the twin challenges of global warming and energy poverty. I would also like a statutory duty on Welsh local authorities, which could include the retrofitting of vulnerable homes with the latest air-to-heat technology.
I have little doubt that the social justice agenda and the growth of Welsh political democracy and sovereignty are intertwined. During my time here in this place, I look forward to working with those across the political divide who believe in building a modern, just and prosperous Wales. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak here today for the first time. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), and I share his determination to secure a Robin Hood tax on international financial transactions. As it happens, I had the pleasure of knowing his predecessor from my time studying in Aberystwyth, and I am sure he will be a worthy successor.
St Austell and Newquay is a new seat that stretches from coast to coast across the heart of Cornwall; it is a unique constituency. It includes many places that hon. Members will have visited. St Austell and Newquay are Cornwall’s largest towns, but they are sharply contrasting, and the villages at the heart of my constituency could not be more different from those along the coast. It is a diverse seat: rural, urban, coastal, industrial and agricultural. I was born and bred in the constituency and I am proud to call it home.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced a boundary review. It seems that as well as being the first Member of Parliament for St Austell and Newquay, I may also be the last. In the context of today’s debate—I say this tongue in cheek to the Conservative Whips—perhaps it is only the sizes of our constituencies that will be increased by the Government rather than cut. However long I am in this place, it will be the privilege of my life to represent the people with whom I went to school and grew up, and with whom I live and work.
Members will be familiar with the picture postcard image of Cornwall, but they may be less aware of what lies behind that. We have by far the highest water bills in the country, yet some of the very lowest incomes. We do not have enough jobs, and those we have tend to be low- paid and seasonal. Thousands of people cannot afford a place to live in the communities in which they grew up. Indeed, I may be the only Member who was still living with his parents when he was elected.
Those are the challenges that face the people whom I represent, and my predecessors—Matthew Taylor, Colin Breed and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)—made a huge effort to tackle them. Matthew Taylor’s review of affordable housing is the best route map out of the housing crisis that we face in rural areas; my hon. Friend’s work to secure the Walker review on water charges has led to a real-terms cut in water bills in Cornwall; and Colin Breed helped to develop the tax policy that will be implemented by this Government and will lift millions out of poverty. All three of my predecessors have shown a record of action in the best tradition of the first Liberal MP for Truro and St Austell, David Penhaligon. If anyone in this place doubts the impact we can have, they should knock on doors in my constituency and hear people talk about Mr Penhaligon almost 25 years after his untimely passing.
I do not mind admitting that that is a lot to live up to—as with other hon. Members, the bar in my seat is very high—but I welcome the opportunity to continue to tackle the problems we face in Cornwall from the Government side of the House and with the principles that underpin the Government’s agenda: freedom, fairness and responsibility. People who are trapped in poverty cannot be free. The need to work day in, day out just to make ends meet erodes the freedom to have a quality of life to which we should all be able to aspire.
I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to raising the threshold at which people pay tax to £10,000 over the course of this Parliament. That will take many thousands of my constituents out of tax entirely and give hard-earned money back to everybody else. It will increase the freedom of those I represent, and by spreading the tax burden more evenly across our society, it will be fairer. I also welcome the re-establishment of the link between pensions and national average earnings. That is the fair thing to do and it is a step towards ending the pensioner poverty that blights Cornish communities.
The first step towards people being able to lead a responsible life is for them to have a place of their own in which to live, so I welcome the moves the Government will be making to bring empty homes back into use. There are 8,000 empty homes across Cornwall, and 1,400 in St Austell and Newquay alone. These homes should not be standing empty while so many people are in housing need.
I welcome the scrapping of the absurd regional spatial strategy, which would have led to so much of Cornwall’s countryside being concreted over with little gain for those in real housing need. Other measures, such as the promotion of shared ownership and community trusts, will do much to ease the housing crisis in Cornwall. I would like this Government to go further, however, by allowing local authorities to set a limit on the number of second homes in a community. Local needs should come first. Following recent announcements, councils now urgently require clarity about the criteria they will use to determine future housing provision.
I was the first person in my family to go to university. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I went twice. Statistically, I should not be here. My grandfather was a clay worker, my parents are separated and my secondary school was in the state sector. I am a gay man from an average working-class Cornish family. Access to education changed my life chances, and I have come to this place to extend to others the social mobility and opportunities that have so benefited me. If we are to tackle the poverty that bedevils parts of Cornwall, we have to give people the chance to make the very best of themselves. We cannot have a fair society if people do not have the chance to make the most of their talents, and it will not be a free society if people cannot use their abilities to achieve their dreams.
The community I grew up in and now represent understands the values this Government are promoting; indeed, they are summed up in Cornwall’s motto “One and all”. However, the people who sent me here will be keen to make sure that the burden of addressing the problems facing Britain, which were caused by the Labour party, falls on those most capable of carrying it.
This debate has highlighted some of the difficult choices we face. We in Cornwall have been let down by successive Governments, and in playing my part in making those difficult choices I will never forget that we need a fairer funding deal for Cornwall. I hope that now my party sits on the Government Benches, the issues I have touched upon this afternoon, and that my predecessors have campaigned on for decades, can finally be addressed, not “drekley”, as we say in Cornwall, but today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). My family has spent many holidays in his constituency, and I think VisitBritain could do worse than collect together all the maiden speeches of the past few days and use them to promote some of the most wonderful parts of our country—indeed, there are bits of our country I would not have recognised at all from the descriptions. I congratulate all Members who have delivered their maiden speeches. I was going to say that my contribution would be an older maiden speech, but one of those adjectives would not quite be appropriate. I shall now launch forward while leaving Members to work out the meaning of that remark.
First, I want to welcome the comments of the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the principles that will underpin his approach to welfare reform. He said in a recent article:
“Tattooed across my heart is that I didn’t come here in any shape or form simply as a cheeseparer.”
That is a robust comment to make, certainly for a Conservative Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and, frankly, it would not be at odds with many of the comments of previous Labour Secretaries of State.
I am also delighted that the new Secretary of State had his road-to-Damascus moment on the road to Easterhouse in Glasgow. I know the area well as I grew up there and my father represented it as a councillor during some of the worst periods of the Thatcher era, when a large community that was essentially made up of aspirational working-class people found itself in an economic desert. It was a period in which intergenerational unemployment and the poverty that the Secretary of State saw took root, and the aspirations of individuals and communities alike were crushed by the lack of jobs. There are similar examples to that in my constituency, where the mining industry was destroyed. Frankly, these communities started on the road to recovery only as a result of the massive investment in economic renewal by Labour Governments in both Westminster and Holyrood.
The absence of any detail in the Secretary of State’s programme so far—apart from the loss of the future jobs fund, which has already been dealt with by others—means that I could refer only to the coalition programme for government to see if any further light could be shed on the new approach. We should have some sort of cross-House consensus on how we move forward on welfare reform. Indeed, one of the new Ministers has strongly promoted a consensual approach, and I will be interested to learn whether he sees that consensus being continued now that he sits on the Government Benches.
The coalition wants to have a single work programme, and I think there is some room for rationalisation, subject to the demands, which have changed over a matter of years. I am not yet convinced, however, that a single work programme is necessarily the way forward. We have also heard much from the coalition about “decentralisation” of decisions and “individualisation” of provision. How will a leviathan single work programme respond to the specific needs of individual unemployed people? How will such a programme respond to someone who has a fluctuating mental health condition or a physical disability, or who is a carer or a recently unemployed bank worker? Some may require minimum support for a short time between jobs, but others will require a significant amount of longer-term help. There is no detail of how the initial assessment for support will be made. I assume that the programme will be cash-limited in spite of the Secretary of State’s ambitions, so how will the initial financial decisions about who needs more support and who needs less be made? Will Jobcentre Plus continue to have a significant role to play in this, or will people have to refer themselves to some other local or national organisation? If someone is disabled and needs additional help, will they have to compete with others on the programme?
Where does the access to work programme, which daily supports thousands of disabled workers in employment, fit into the new uniform approach? I know that the coalition has said it will reform access to work and I welcome that, but will the coalition Government commit themselves to doubling the access to work programme as the previous Government did, or will this just be rolled into a single approach that is not ring-fenced and that becomes a victim of cuts? On realigning contracts, will that be 100% output-based? In short, how is the whole thing going to work?
Perhaps the Secretary of State can provide answers to questions on his own sanctions policy. What will the level of sanctions be? Who will enforce them? What will happen to children if benefits are taken away from their parents? Where are the safeguards? Will people be forced to take any job, or will there be flexibility within the programme? Will the unemployed people in my constituency be taken off benefit if there are no jobs, or no valid opportunities?
May I briefly comment on the “work doesn’t pay” issue, which the Secretary of State repeatedly mentions? I understand and appreciate his sentiments. The coalition document says that it supports the national minimum wage, but I have to ask this question: in terms of the “work doesn’t pay” issue, is the Secretary of State proposing to increase individuals’ incomes through a mixture of benefits, credits and earnings or, as many of my hon. Friends and constituents fear, to go back to the old tried and tested Tory solution of salami-slicing benefits?
The two Ministers currently sitting on the Government Front Bench—the Exchequer Secretary and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—can smile knowingly to each other if they want to. However, given the history of welfare reform, which causes a shudder through many communities, certainly in Scotland but also in many other parts of the country, these are serious questions and the coalition must answer them before its welfare reform programme will have any credibility among Opposition Members.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the debate in response to the Gracious Speech, and it is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire). I congratulate the Ministers on their appointments and look forward to supporting them in tackling their challenges between now and the next general election.
I wish to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor as MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, John Smith. His campaigning efforts, which were primarily on tackling deep vein thrombosis and latterly in favour of the defence technical college proposed for St Athan, were recognised by those on both sides of the House. I strongly support his approach on both issues, and he is very much respected in the constituency. I also recognise the contribution of the previous Conservative Member for the constituency, Walter Sweeney, who will be remembered for, among many things, having the smallest majority in the House of Commons following the 1992 general election—it was a majority of 19. Thankfully, I am not in that position, but I do not take any vote for granted and I aim to keep my majority somewhat larger than that.
I also take pleasure in referring to the late Sir Raymond Gower, whom many senior hon. Members will recall with great fondness. He served the Vale of Glamorgan’s constituents from 1951 until his untimely death in 1989. His reputation for responding to and serving constituents is still recalled affectionately in the constituency, and his prolific letter writing to and on behalf of constituents came long before modern technology made such communication relatively straightforward. His efforts were extraordinary. I hope to be able to follow the principles of Sir Raymond’s approach to constituency work with passion and conviction, and to stand up, here in the Chamber, for equality of opportunity irrespective of background. It is ironic that Sir Raymond Gower’s maiden speech was about devolution to Wales and his call for greater “home rule”, as it was referred to then, because a commitment to such a referendum has been made by this Government.
It really is a privilege to represent the Vale of Glamorgan, my home constituency. It contains rich farmland, three main towns, numerous villages and hamlets, and a magical coastline. It has a fantastic history and I am confident that, with the Government’s support, it has a great future. It contains areas of prosperity and pockets of deprivation. I am confident that the policies announced in the Gracious Speech will go a long way to help overcome the deprivation, to meet the need for regeneration and to help to protect the fantastic environment.
The constituency’s three prime towns are Cowbridge, Llantwit Major and Barry. The Romans built a small fort in Cowbridge in the 1st century. In 1254, Sir Richard de Clare, the Lord of Glamorgan, granted the town its first charter and in 1886 Cowbridge was the last recipient of a royal charter given by Queen Victoria. David Lloyd George and Iolo Morganwg have strong links to the town, which was the birthplace of Sir Leoline Jenkins, who was the principal of Jesus college, Oxford. He endowed the town’s grammar school and formed its long-standing association with Jesus college.
Llantwit Major came to prominence with the foundation of a monastery, which was established by St Illtud in the late 5th century. It became a seat of learning and religion, attracting royalty and St David himself. It is the nearest town to St Athan, with its significant RAF base which is the proposed site of the £13 billion defence technical college—I strongly support that policy.
Barry, too, has a great history. The name derives from St Baruc, who was drowned in the Bristol channel and buried on Barry island. The rapid expansion of the town dates back to 1884, when a group of colliery owners built a railway line and a dock, but interestingly the original Barry Dock and Railway Bill was defeated in Parliament in 1883. By 1913, Barry had become the largest coal-exporting port in the world, and the railway line also brought millions of tourists to Barry island to enjoy one of Wales’s most spectacular beaches.
Latterly, the town has become well known because of an Essex boy and a Barry girl —Gavin and Stacey. Even a former right hon. Member of this House, John Prescott, has appeared in an episode with Nessa, Smithy and the other characters. Stacey and Uncle Bryn live on the steepest road in my constituency, and the Essex home in the programme is actually located in Dinas Powys, in my constituency. I apologise in advance, Mr Deputy Speaker, should I ever ask, “What’s occurring?” or should I thank you by saying, “Tidy”. The new interest in the town, combined with the regeneration efforts of the local authority, mean that Barry has an exciting future ahead of it.
Although the Vale of Glamorgan’s gross domestic product is at or slightly above the UK average, there are great differences between its communities. The overall headline masks the deprivation, which has its roots in the change from the former industries, and because the GDP of other parts of Wales is lower, areas of deprivation in my constituency are left wanting. I want to fight for equality of opportunity. I was contacted last week by a constituent who had been made unemployed and did not qualify for training support to enhance his prospects because he lived in the Vale of Glamorgan. Had he lived in the neighbouring authority area, he would have been eligible for projects that receive European aid.
I wish to conclude my remarks by returning to the issue of the proposed defence technical college, which is the largest private finance initiative scheme. I recognise that the strategic defence review needs to take place and that the Government also face financial challenges, but this project would use money that is already committed and is already being spent by the Ministry of Defence, and it would spend it more efficiently and effectively. We owe this to our armed forces; it is important to Wales and the Welsh economy, but it is most important for our brave men and women who serve in our armed forces, because it will give them the world-class training that they most desperately need and deserve.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my first contribution in the House, especially as today’s debate has particular resonance for me and my constituency. I shall talk about that shortly, but before doing so I must congratulate all hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today, because they were all excellent and are a hard act to follow. In particular, I am delighted to follow the maiden speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) who, like me, is one of the first Muslim women to be elected to this House. As we are joined in that achievement by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), I can only remark that Muslim women in the Commons are rather like buses: there are none for ages and then three come along at once.
My predecessor, Clare Short, was very well known for being unafraid to speak her mind. When making her maiden speech in 1983, Clare said:
“I intend to follow tradition and speak about my constituency. However, it is impossible for me to follow the tradition of not being controversial”. —[Official Report, 29 June 1983; Vol. 44, c. 623.]
That was a sign of things to come, but it was also indicative of her honesty. Clare had a distinguished career as a Labour MP but following differences over the Iraq war she ultimately resigned the Labour Whip in October 2006, choosing to sit as an independent MP. She was not the first Labour MP from Birmingham, Ladywood to have disagreed with the Labour party over policy, because our predecessor, Victor Yates, who held the seat from 1945 to 1969, had the Whip withdrawn from him twice. That meant that he, too, sat as an independent in this House for a period of time. This is not a Ladywood tradition that I hope to continue, but I will strive to emulate the passion and fearlessness of my predecessors in standing up for the people of my constituency. In every part of Ladywood, Clare is remembered with pride, warmth and gratitude for her hard work, and that is the best and most fitting tribute that I can give to this most outspoken of MPs.
I am a Brummie born and bred, so the fact that I now represent a constituency that is the heart of Birmingham is a source of great honour and it is a privilege. My constituency consists of four extremely diverse and different wards: Aston, Ladywood, Nechells, and Soho. Between them, they are home to the Grade I-listed Aston hall, the historic Jewellery quarter, the Star City entertainment complex and the Grade II-listed Soho house, home of the manufacturer Matthew Boulton. I am also lucky to have both Aston Villa and Birmingham City football clubs in my constituency, but as both are in the premier league I will have to learn new skills of football diplomacy when the two sides play each other.
Birmingham, Ladywood is one of the most multicultural areas in the country. More than 50% of our population is non-white and we have a proud multicultural tradition. I have been privileged to meet many people from all race and faith backgrounds during my time as a candidate and now as a Member of Parliament. Each such meeting has reiterated to me that while the people of my constituency might have come from different places, the destination they seek is the same—a place of greater opportunity and the same chance as everyone else to succeed.
That brings me to why it is so important to me to begin my parliamentary career by speaking in this debate and focusing on the labour market. My constituency has the devastating and unwanted distinction of having the highest rate of unemployment in the country. Our figures for unemployment have been too high for many decades. In researching my maiden speech, I noted with dismay that unemployment was a theme in the maiden speeches of many of my recent predecessors. My constituency is particularly blighted by long-term intergenerational worklessness, which is the legacy of previous recessions which devastated my constituency so much that it has never really recovered. I was pleased, therefore, when the Labour Government announced in December 2007 that £1.5 billion would be provided through the working neighbourhoods fund specifically to tackle the problem of long-term worklessness, and allocated more than £100 million of that money to Birmingham.
I wish that action had been taken earlier in our term in office. However, I have real concerns about the effectiveness of the working neighbourhoods fund in Birmingham, where the partnership tasked with delivering the fund is controlled by Birmingham city council, which has been run by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in coalition since 2004. To date, the fund has not been adequately used for the express purpose for which it was created by the Labour Government—to help to reduce unemployment in Birmingham’s most deprived communities such as my own. Two facts are evidence of that. First, mid-way through the three-year programme, of the £30 million that had been spent, only £2.5 million had actually been spent on projects to tackle worklessness. Secondly, and just as controversially, £14 million of working neighbourhoods fund money was diverted to help to bail out the Tory-Lib Dem council’s budget overspend on social services. I believe that cash for jobs should be spent on jobs, and I hope that what is left of that money is spent in the way intended by the Labour Government—to support the long-term unemployed in areas such as mine in getting the skills and confidence that they need in order to get and retain a job so that they can transform their lives.
I wish to make a related point on youth unemployment. In 1983, Clare Short warned that school leavers in Ladywood in the 1980s faced unemployment not only in ever greater numbers, but for ever greater periods of time. In 2010, I find myself warning that the children of that generation might be in the same boat, because of the new Government’s plans to cut the future jobs fund. That fund created 200,000 jobs and arose from our guarantee of a job, or training or a work placement, for anyone who was under 25 and out of work for six months. I am disappointed that the new Government are getting rid of the fund. Once again, a Conservative Government—this time helped by the Liberal Democrats—are walking away from the young unemployed in our country. I implore them to change course. When we damage our young people, we damage us all, because they are our future. If the Government walk away from them and break their hearts and spirits, they truly will create a broken Britain.
I conclude on a personal note and with a pledge to the people of Birmingham, Ladywood. My grandfather came to this country from Pakistan in the 1960s. He worked long hours on a low wage and made sacrifices so that his family could access greater opportunity. He died when I was six years old and did not live to enjoy the fruits of his labour. He could not have known that his decisions and his hard work would one day lead to his granddaughter being elected to this House. I pay tribute to him and to the successes of the Labour party and the Labour Government, who created the opportunities that made my family’s journey and that of so many ordinary hard-working families possible. I believe that opportunity and the chance to fulfil one’s aspirations is the birthright of every one of our citizens, and I pledge to the people of Birmingham, Ladywood that I will devote myself to eradicating the misery, hopelessness and sheer waste of long-term unemployment so that my constituents can have what they deserve—the same chance to succeed in life as everyone else. For however long I am their Member of Parliament, I will never settle for anything less. I thank the House for listening.
Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is an enormous privilege to address the House for the first time. The trepidation that I had already has been greatly enhanced by having to follow so many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members.
I begin by expressing my appreciation for my predecessor, the right hon. Michael Mates. On his election in 1974, as MP for the then Petersfield constituency, he was about the age that I am now, but he had already served Queen and country for 20 years in the Army. He went on to serve in the House for a further 36 years. His well deserved reputation as a champion of the people of East Hampshire and his service as a Minister of the Crown and as a Select Committee Chairman cast a very long shadow, in the penumbra of which I stand rather hesitantly today. If ever, in this House, I can be half as good as he was, I shall be not half bad.
I very much hope to emulate Michael Mates’s long and close relationship with the people of East Hampshire, and there are many people whom I have the privilege to represent now who have been transported into my constituency, courtesy of the Boundary Commission, having taken no decision of their own to do so. They have been served well by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). The House will be familiar with his exemplary service and so I shall not affront his modesty now. Suffice it to say that I aim to ensure that the residents of Bordon, Liphook, Grayshott, Selborne, Headley and Headley Down will not be found gazing wistfully across the constituency boundary. I shall do my best to serve them as well as they have rightly come to expect.
The constituency of East Hampshire is England at its very best, with its varied and enchanting landscape, historic market towns and many beautiful villages. One such village is Chawton, where Jane Austen found such inspiration and created most memorable characters and images that show our country at its most cherished. But that tranquillity has at times been rather violently disrupted. Should I ever require a reminder of the need to remain in harmony with my constituents, it is there in the bullet holes in the door of St Lawrence’s church, close to our family home in Alton, for that was the site of the civil war battle of Alton. On that occasion, it took 5,000 parliamentarians to match up to the local men.
Today, East Hampshire is, I am pleased to say, once again a harmonious place, but challenges still exist. We need houses that local people can afford, but we need to resist the sort of overdevelopment that can spoil the character of an area. It is vital to provide jobs locally and to keep the micro-economies of our towns and villages vibrant for our local heart and soul. Looking forward, the opening of the Hindhead tunnel, the various options for the future of Bordon and the advent of the South Downs national park all present both new opportunities and new challenges.
In my constituency, particularly in Bordon, we are proud to be home to so many who serve in our armed forces. They are a constant credit to our nation and our commitment to them in this House must measure up to their commitment to serve our country. I welcome the Government’s pledge to renew the military covenant and I look forward to seeing that as a priority in the business of the House.
After the defence of our country and our security, perhaps the biggest battle we face is ensuring that we further define and bolster Britain’s place in the new world economy. As the new powerhouses of China, India, Russia and Brazil loom ever larger, we must rise to the challenge they set. Fundamental to that must be ensuring the very best education for every child to enable them all, regardless of background, to fulfil their potential. That is a theme that many hon. Members have touched on already. Striving for excellence is not just about bringing all up to scratch or setting the bar at an acceptable standard. It must be about encouraging all to stretch themselves, from wherever they start, to be all that they can. That should be true both for schools and for the students in their care. In education, as in industry, when people feel ownership, empowerment and responsibility, they are much more likely to go the extra mile and make a success of their venture—hence the great attraction of the academy model, even for schools that are already very successful.
Those same principles need not mean going it alone, as they can extend beyond the school gate, with schools working in partnership with others. In my constituency, the 44 schools and colleges already work co-operatively, choosing to pool resources in the pursuit of shared goals. The potential advantages of that kind of approach are manifold. It can enable smaller village schools, which we value very highly in my area, to derive scale benefits that they otherwise would not have. It can provide new stretch opportunities for particularly gifted and talented youngsters, and also a forum for governors to share best practice.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has outlined bold plans to help tackle the problem of people being trapped in the welfare system, but I am sure that he would agree that even better than cure is when we can go for prevention. The oft-quoted number of NEETS—people not in education, employment or training—is such a bland statistic, but it masks so much wasted potential. It is often said, too, that one can spot the people likely to end up adding to that statistic from a very early age. That is too often remarked on, but too rarely acted on.
We must have ambition for all our young people, and the pupil premium that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is putting forward will be a big part of that. I hope too that more areas will follow the model of the East Hampshire Partnership, for which a key focus is identifying the people who may be at risk of falling into that group, and working together across the age groups for their benefit.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me the chance to speak.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to make my maiden speech in a debate about economic affairs, and in particular about the services and assistance that we provide for our most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens. It is an honour for me to follow the hon. Members for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood).
The subject of today’s debate is one close to my heart, not least because until very recently it was part of my responsibilities as the Minister for Social Development in the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. In addition, concern for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable has always been top of my political agenda and that of my party. The Social Democratic and Labour party is here to serve.
No one better personifies dedicated public service and a lifelong desire to improve the lives of fellow citizens than my predecessor Eddie McGrady. He has been an exemplary contributor to making Northern Ireland a better place for all its people, across a career spanning 50 years of steadfast public service. Unlike others, his leadership style has not been bellicose or loud. Instead, he is a member of that elite group of statesmen and politicians who make progress for everyone through their wisdom, dedication, patience and hard work. For me personally, he has been a role model and a true friend. I am proud of what he has done for the constituency of South Down. The evidence of his endeavours is there for all to see throughout that beautiful constituency.
I said that South Down was beautiful, and it is. Located in the south-eastern corner of Northern Ireland, it boasts at its heart the magnificent Mountains of Mourne, which play host to Northern Ireland’s highest mountain peaks and cradle the crystal-clear waters of Silent Valley that sustain our capital city of Belfast. South Down also has an extensive and charming coastline, stretching from Carlingford lough at the Irish border to the south, through the bustling harbour towns of Warrenpoint and Kilkeel and on to Newcastle where, famously.
“the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.”
The coastline curves northwards beyond that again, to the historic town of Downpatrick—the place that I call home.
Although there is some vibrant manufacturing industry and commerce in the area, the main industries in South Down are agriculture, fisheries and, increasingly, tourism. Regrettably, South Down also has its own pockets of deprivation. It is a very good example of a place where, if the kind of welfare-to-work initiatives envisaged by the Government are to have any success, there needs to be an accompanying concentration on job creation. For the House can rest assured that there are very few people I know, especially in South Down, who do not want to work.
As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I told the previous Government that a policy of pressing people into work when there are few jobs to go to could not prosper, and I repeat that message to the new Administration. I share the Government’s desire to help more people enjoy the dignity and self-sufficiency that comes from gainful employment but, in Northern Ireland, a policy of hounding people away from benefits when there are few new opportunities for employment will cause only hardship and resentment.
But let us be positive: I believe that we in Northern Ireland have it within us, now that all the pointless violence has ended, to make our economy take off for the first time in generations. We are attracted to the possibility of devolving tax-varying powers to the Stormont Executive—powers that will allow us, for the first time, to compete as equals in the quest for foreign direct investment. I very much welcome the indications from the Government that they will help us harmonise corporation tax on the island of Ireland.
We can do more for ourselves in many other areas, too. Northern Ireland has potentially a very rich renewable energy resource. It can be at the centre of our plans to develop the green economy. We also have huge potential in our agriculture and food industries to drive for higher added value. We have a well-educated and trained work force, and a world-class broadband infrastructure that can be the platform for the growth of our tradable sectors. We must get all of this moving if we are to be credible in offering work to everyone.
I also think Northern Ireland can harvest a major expansion of its tourism industry. We offer a well-priced and absorbing tourism product that is enhanced by high-quality hospitality and a genuinely friendly and welcoming people. The potential for tourism development is, I believe, at its most enticing in my own constituency of South Down.
In the Downpatrick area, we hold the authentic heritage of our national saint, Patrick, and that is something very special. The whole world celebrates his anniversary on 17 March, yet that same world has limited understanding of his story. It is a powerful and compelling story of bringing Christianity to Ireland and allowing it to blossom in a land of saints and scholars at a time when it was threatened with extinction in Britain and the rest of Europe.
Patrick transcends all our historic quarrels in these islands and in particular within the two traditions in Northern Ireland. He is a unifying figure and his message is one of reconciliation. He was a Roman Briton, and as such was our greatest ever import. He is, and can be even more, our greatest ever export. In special parts of South Down, we hold the sites where Patrick first landed in Ireland and where he built his first church, the healing wells where he bathed, the place where he breathed his last, and the grave where he now rests.
I am confident about the future and the ability that we have to improve the economy and the living standards of our people. I will work positively here to achieve those objectives, but each week I know that I will be returning to a special place. I invite all Members here to visit South Down, and Downpatrick in particular, where they can walk in the footsteps of Patrick.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, and may I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on her passionate advocacy of the economic development of her constituency? I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on his advocacy of the importance of education programmes.
I am very grateful to be called in today’s economy debate, as I believe that addressing the deficit and powering economic growth are the two most important things that this Government can do. I believe that South West Norfolk, and Norfolk as a whole, have a lot to offer in helping us to achieve those objectives.
The people of South West Norfolk are not afraid of hard work. Indeed, we are a forward-looking and self-reliant county. We are part of the east of England, which is one of the three regions in the country that puts more in the tax pot than it takes out of it. To carry on being a net contributor, however, we need to make sure that we have the necessary infrastructure and skills in our county, and that is what I am going to talk about today.
My predecessor, Christopher Fraser, worked hard on those issues—to secure further funding for the A11 and to protect Swaffham community hospital. He spoke out frequently on the issue of flood defences, which are important for members of our community, some of whom can use their road for only 200-odd days in the year because at other times it is closed due to flooding.
South West Norfolk is famous for some strong characters. Thomas Paine was born in Thetford—a man who started off revolutions on two continents. Boudicca was reputed to have had her base in Thetford as well. She led an uprising against the Romans. Sadly, when she left the county of Norfolk and moved on she was strategically outmanoeuvred at the battle of Watling street. That is not a fault that afflicted one of my other predecessors Gillian Shephard, now Baroness Shephard, who successfully steered many reforms through this House as a Minister for Agriculture and as Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
Agriculture is a huge part of the economy in South West Norfolk. We have the world’s biggest sugar factory in Wissington; we also have some amazing arable production and pig production, and we are still enjoying the bounty of the asparagus crop. I have just been enjoying asparagus in the Tea Room and I hope that it was Norfolk asparagus. If it was not, I will certainly be working to make sure that it is in future. Agriculture faces problems, not least the Rural Payments Agency, which I want to work to reform, particularly the mapping exercise, which has caused many farmers in South West Norfolk utter consternation.
We have two other key market towns in South West Norfolk—Swaffham and Downham Market. I do not know whether hon. Members have heard of the pedlar of Swaffham. He came to London to look for treasure, but he found out that the treasure was in Swaffham all along. I can tell the House that there is much more treasure to be unearthed in Swaffham—its tourism industry and its energy industry. Downham Market is another fine town that used to boast orchards. It is still a centre for agriculture, and now has a number of commuters living in the constituency, who travel to Cambridge, Kings Lynn and London. I shall be wanting to make their lives easier by seeking improvements to that train line.
The constituency stretches from the fens to the brecks and right down to the Suffolk border. In all those areas various business are tucked away. We have innovative businesses producing fuel from cooking oil, high-tech lasers and airport scanning equipment. It is amazing the things one finds. All those businesses tell me the same thing. They are frustrated with dealing with too many Government agencies, a plethora of initiatives, and too much red tape. They also want action on the creaking infrastructure in Norfolk and say that we need more specialist skills. That is why, together with my Norfolk colleagues, I shall be fighting for dualling of the A11 from the fiveways roundabout to Thetford.
I notice that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor mentioned earlier that he wanted to put money where there was a high-level economic return. I can tell the Minister that there is a benefit-cost ratio of 19 for this project, so it is of high value. It will unlock more growth in Norfolk. We also want to see a successful conclusion to the train franchise agreements, and of course broadband rolled out across the county.
The other thing that I will be pushing for is an overhaul of our qualifications system. Like everywhere else in the country, the economy of South West Norfolk has changed. With increased automation, we now have more highly skilled jobs. A typical farm now employs an eighth of the employees that it did 40 years ago, but those employees are in highly technically skilled and business management roles. We need to ensure that we educate people for those jobs. That is why I want to look to our great universities to lead on academic qualifications. I have previously called for maths and science to move from geek to chic. Never has this been more important, and I will be pressing for that.
I also want to see employers lead in on-the-job skills, because people get a passion for work and a sense of craftsmanship from watching someone who cares about it doing the job. I will be fighting for that to make sure that those people, not bureaucrats, are in charge of setting our qualifications.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I am truly grateful. I know that we have the right policies and that the will is there among those on our Front Bench. We can make not just Norfolk a powerhouse but the whole of Britain a powerhouse for the future of our economy.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I congratulate other hon. Members on their maiden speeches. I have learned a lot; I have enjoyed them much, but I particularly look forward to a supply of that asparagus.
After 30 years living in my constituency, I am proud to be an adopted Teessider, and even more proud to represent the people of Billingham, Norton, much of Stockton and the surrounding villages. My Stockton North constituency has a long history as an industrial hothouse, with engineering, chemical manufacture and shipbuilding. Work with metal for building ships and some of the world’s most famous bridges has always been at the centre of our community. Even just two weeks ago, we saw the world’s largest marine pipe-laying machine loaded on board a ship and exported to the far east. Built in my constituency by IHC Engineering, it will subsequently be deployed in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Brazilian coast, laying pipe lines for, among others, BP, Exxon-Mobil and Shell.
The metal work also has its links with the Houses of Parliament. Every time I hear Big Ben strike, it reminds me of home. The original bell was cast in Calf Fallow lane, just 400 yards from my back fence. The history books say that the people of London cheered the bell through the streets, but sadly it never took its place in the Clock Tower, as it cracked under testing. I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the same does not happen to me.
We have seen many changes in our local economy. Substantial investment by the regional development agency One NorthEast has helped business and industry in Stockton not just to play to its strengths but to diversify into all manner of things from financial services to 21st-century digital businesses. Investment in education and training has also brought big dividends, and I only hope that the investment continues, and that the new Government’s plans to change the RDA do not render it useless.
My constituency is famous for many other things. Stockton is home to one end of the world’s first railway line. The town boasts the widest high street in England. John Walker invented the friction match in his high street shop, and the town is home to one of Europe’s premier arts festivals, the Stockton international riverside festival. We are also celebrating the 700th anniversary of our market charter this year.
Billingham developed from a small village to a large town during the ICI era on Teesside. It also boasts a festival of its own—the international folklore festival, now in its 46th year. The people of Billingham are also famous for taking on the might of the nuclear industry in the shape of Nirex, which wanted to dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of medium-level radioactive waste under their homes in a disused anhydrite mine. Their campaign “Billingham against the nuclear dump” was successfully led by my predecessor Frank Cook, then a new MP himself. It was the biggest constituency campaign he was involved in during his 27 years as the Member of Parliament for Stockton North. Many hon. Members will remember Frank Cook as a Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall, and for his work with NATO. I will remember him as a dedicated champion of genuine asylum seekers, helping to protect many of them from torture or death, which they would have ultimately suffered if they had returned to their home country.
Education is my particular interest, and I am extremely proud of the success of many schools in my constituency. They have delivered outstanding success for our children and young people. Much has been achieved, but much remains to be done. As Stockton borough council lead member for children and young people, I was privileged to oversee the work to develop the Building Schools for the Future programme across the borough. Opposition Members share my anxiety that the biggest single investment in education ever is now subject to review and could be cut. I remain hopeful, however, that the new Government will soon end the speculation over BSF and help us transform teaching and learning in the kind of facilities of which we can all be proud.
A co-ordinated approach to delivering integrated services for our children and young people is essential as we go forward. The safeguarding of our children must be central to that work, yet there has been little mention of it from the new Government, except for a statement promising a review and a cut in bureaucracy. We have seen the high-profile cases of recent years, and they illustrate the need for safeguarding of our children to remain one of the highest priorities for national and local government alike. While every failure is a disaster for a child or a young person, we must not lose sight of the daily work of our local authorities and social workers, often working against the odds to deliver success in the most difficult of circumstances.
Much of our talk these days is about reducing spending, but I hope the Secretary of State for Education and the Chancellor will deliver real resources in developing education in our schools on budgeting. It is a critical area in which support is needed for young people and many families, to help them manage their income and not fall into the hands of loan sharks, both legal and illegal. There are people in my constituency who pay for their television £1 at a time through a slot meter, and end up paying for their television several times over. There are others who, believing that there is nowhere else to go, take out loans with extreme interest rates, and often struggle just to meet the interest payments. I will work here to put an end to that “legal loan shark” practice, which devastates so many lives, and help people find affordable credit through credit unions or other means.
Higher education is also important to my constituency, and Stockton boasts of being a university town. Durham university on the south bank of the River Tees falls in the Stockton South constituency. I know, however, that the university harbours an ambition to expand student numbers and move across our new Infinity bridge and on to the north shore and into Stockton North. I hope that ambition is realised.
I firmly believe that a healthy community can be a learning and economically vibrant community that can achieve great things in developing an exciting future. In recent times, we have seen improvements in the health of some of our neediest communities across the country, and in my own constituency. I hope we will see that improvement continue, with our planned new hospital given the go-ahead. I also hope that the new Government will recognise the huge benefits that continued investment in integrated education, social care and other services for children and young people can bring. Many children and adults in my constituency still face the toughest of circumstances, and could suffer most under the cuts proposed by the Government. I hope I can serve them well by highlighting the issues affecting their lives, and persuading all who will listen that people like them need us in their corner.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and for giving me the opportunity to address this House for the first time. I start by congratulating hon. Members who have just concluded their maiden speeches. I hope that, after six hours here, they enjoyed the experience, and I hope the House will forgive me if the microphones pick up the mild rumbling of my stomach at this late hour in the evening.
I should like to thank my predecessor, Quentin Davies, for his long record of service. He worked hard for the people of south-west Lincolnshire, and played a crucial role in securing the future of Grantham hospital when it was under threat. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I report to the House the shocking truth about Mr Davies’s recent ordeal. Three years ago he was kidnapped by a brutal and unscrupulous gang. As a political prisoner, he was spared no indignity. He was even forced to sign a statement hailing the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as
“a leader, who is entirely straightforward, who has a towering record, and a clear vision for the future of our country”.
Last week, Mr Davies suffered the final humiliation—exile to the House of Lords. We can only imagine his anguish as he protested his belief in a fully elected second Chamber and his scorn for titles and other baubles. I hope that the House will join me in sending our condolences to the newly ennobled Lord as he starts his life sentence on the red leather Benches.
I feel immensely lucky to be representing south-west Lincolnshire in Parliament. Nowhere in the country is there a town more lovely than Stamford, but living in a place of ancient beauty creates its own challenges. Stamford’s residents have to work out how to preserve their town for future generations, while finding a way to live and work and have fun in the 21st century. I would not presume to tell them how to strike that balance—but I can think of no place better equipped to run its own affairs without interference from regional commissars in Nottingham and planning gauleiters in Bristol.
North-east of Stamford is Bourne, a small town that boasts two great secondary schools, Robert Manning technology college and Bourne grammar. Together, they demonstrate that selective education, where it is well established and accepted by parents, can provide children of all abilities with superb teaching. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has also invited outstanding selective schools to become academies.
At the northern tip of the constituency is Grantham. The first thing one sees on approaching the town is the magnificent spire of St. Wulfram’s, but it is not church architecture that has made Grantham world famous. It is not even Sir Isaac Newton, who grew up nearby in Woolsthorpe manor and discovered gravity while snoozing in its orchard. Grantham achieved global celebrity because of Margaret Thatcher. Thirty years ago, she smashed through the glass ceiling in this House, and gave us all a master class in true grit. I pay tribute to her today.
Traditionally, Grantham was an engineering town. I believe it can be so again if we learn from the mistakes of the past. In 1905, Richard Hornsby and Sons of Grantham invented the revolutionary caterpillar track. By 1914, Hornsbys had only sold one caterpillar vehicle, so they transferred the patent to the Holt Manufacturing Company of California for $8,000. Thanks in part to this patent, Holt became Caterpillar Inc. and went on to dominate the global market in construction and mining equipment. What haunts me about that story is that none of us is surprised by it. We have ground-breaking research, brilliant design, even watertight patents, yet the conversion of that technological potential into orders and jobs often passes us by. If we are to restore our economic fortunes, we must change that. I spent the best part of 10 years running a small business, making paintbrushes and rollers. I will not pretend that I made a huge success of it, but it did help me understand the challenges facing modern manufacturing. I am determined to help others who make a living by making things.
Thank you for your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would like to conclude with a few words to Labour Members. We disagree about much and will have fierce battles in the years to come, but I will never forget what they, and their recently departed colleagues, did for gay women and gay men such as me. I would not be standing here today if they had not passed legislation to extend full equality and respect to everyone in Britain—and thereby entrench a change in culture and attitudes that my own party has now embraced. This was the Labour party at its best: brave, principled and humane. I thank and salute it, and hope that some day in this place I will have the chance to do something as good.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am honoured to address the House for the first time, on behalf of my constituency of Belfast East, where I have lived all my life. I want to thank the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) for his speech, particularly his words about the importance of equality and respect, and I congratulate all those Members who made their maiden speeches today. I only wish that they had set the bar slightly lower for those of us who have to follow.
In preparing for today I read the maiden speech that my predecessor, Peter Robinson, delivered here in 1979, when the troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height—a fact that was reflected in his remarks to the House on that occasion. While our political perspectives are distinctively different, I want to pay tribute to him for his 31 years of dedicated service to the constituency as Member of Parliament, and particularly for his contribution in recent years, as First Minister, to making Northern Ireland an immeasurably more stable and peaceful place than the one to which he referred in his maiden speech. I wish him well as he continues in that important role.
It is a convention to introduce one’s constituency to the House in a maiden speech, but perhaps I could also briefly introduce my party, as the first Alliance party member to be elected to the House. Alliance was formed in 1970 by people from across the traditional religious and political divide who were committed to healing the deep-seated sectarian divisions in our community. They recognised that there was much more that united the people of Northern Ireland than divided them; that any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland required the consent of those who live there; and that power sharing would ultimately form the basis of any political agreement.
Unfortunately, it was an idea ahead of its time and the past 40 years have been marked by failed attempts to realise those aspirations. However, now, with a functioning Assembly, based on those same principles and endorsed by the overwhelming majority of people, the quality of the original idea has been proven. Importantly, however, those people also offered a vision of a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland. In doing so, they gave hope to people such as me, growing up in circumstances where both vision and hope were in short supply.
The work of tackling prejudice in all its forms is still critical if we are not only to maintain progress but to create an open, welcoming and diverse community in which diversity is respected and celebrated, and in which we can fully realise our potential, both economically and socially. I thank my constituents for endorsing that commitment to a shared future when they elected me. I look forward to serving them in this new role and will endeavour to live up to the trust that they have placed in me.
Stretching from the River Lagan, through the terraced streets of the inner city of Belfast East, outwards to the suburbs and the beautiful Castlereagh hills beyond, my constituency is home to Parliament Buildings and so has provided the backdrop for many dramatic moments in political life in Northern Ireland. It is also a constituency with a rich cultural, sporting and industrial heritage and, as a result, there are many famous names associated with it, such as C.S. Lewis, Van Morrison and George Best, to name only a few.
Perhaps the most famous name of all associated with Belfast East is not that of a person but that of a ship, the Titanic, the ill-fated White Star liner that was at the time the largest and most luxurious ship ever built, and is surely now the most renowned. She was constructed at a time when Harland and Wolff was the largest shipyard in the world. Gustav Wolff was a partner not only in Harland and Wolff but in the east Belfast-based Belfast Rope Works, one of the largest rope works in the world. Among his other enterprises, Gustav Wolff also found time to serve as a Member of Parliament for East Belfast, so I have quite a lot to live up to.
That industrial heritage marked out the east of the city for many years, but with the decline in shipbuilding and manufacturing it also cast a huge shadow over my constituency. Our experiences in that respect were not dissimilar to those of many industrial cities. However, our difficulties were compounded by the ongoing violence and political instability, which hampered the economic rebalancing that was required. Thankfully, with the changed political fortunes of Northern Ireland, there are huge opportunities for regeneration and growth and the site of that shipyard remains a significant economic driver. Once fully occupied by the shipbuilding industry, it is now the largest waterfront redevelopment site in Europe: Titanic Quarter. When completed, it will transform the 185-acre site into a new mixed-use maritime quarter, with the potential to create upwards of 25,000 new jobs over the next 15 years. The Titanic signature project, set to open ahead of the centenary of the Titanic in 2012, will allow east Belfast to showcase and celebrate its linkage with Titanic to the growing number of tourists visiting the area. That anniversary offers my constituents something more significant than merely an opportunity to reflect on past glory—it offers inspiration and opportunity for a future generation.
What made the constituency a world-class centre of industry, innovation and imagination was not its factories, its rope works or its shipyard, but its people. Their creativity, resourcefulness and hard work remain our most important resource today and are the key to unlocking the potential of the constituency, particularly for those young people growing up in disadvantaged communities.
Today's debate about economic issues and challenges is a fitting context in which to introduce my constituency to the House, as it was once an economic powerhouse, which I believe it has the potential to be again. The challenge that faces us is how we realise that potential in the current economic difficulties. A very sizeable proportion of my constituents are employed in the public sector and severe cuts to public expenditure will have a disproportionate effect there. That is of concern not only to those directly employed in the public sector but to the many others whose small businesses depend on it to stay afloat.
The Government have indicated that they do not want to divide the country or to target the most vulnerable with the cuts that are ahead. However, to a degree the country is already divided economically, with regions such as Northern Ireland lagging behind others, despite our best efforts. To avoid widening that gap, we must be sensitive to regional differences, and to the particular challenges faced by Northern Ireland as we emerge from years of conflict. To do otherwise would risk the best opportunity for growth that we have had for a generation. If the proposed cuts are too deep and too swift, and are not balanced by job creation, there is a serious risk of simply moving many of my constituents out of productive public sector employment into the welfare system, which will do nothing to protect public services for the vulnerable, to generate growth in the private sector or to raise aspirations, dignity and confidence.
In closing, I fully recognise the enormity of the challenges ahead. I believe that my constituency has the potential to play a significant role in the economic recovery not just of Northern Ireland, but of the UK as a whole. I simply ask that the Government, as they formulate their plans, exercise caution and wisdom, so that we in Belfast East have the necessary support, space and opportunity to play that role to the full.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to give my maiden speech. Some Members may know that I am a skydiver. I am happy to tell the House that this is far more terrifying than two miles of air and a hardstop.
I congratulate those hon. Members who have spoken before me. I was particularly encouraged by the words of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). When I served in the Royal Air Force, Belfast was a name perhaps to strike terror into our hearts, but I am very encouraged that today, with the Alliance party, the hon. Lady is healing divisions and has a positive story to tell.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) on a very charming speech, and I am sure that he suits his constituency very well. Having lived there for a number of years, I know that it is a charming place and I congratulate him on his win.
It is a great honour to enter this House and I am grateful to the people of the historic constituency of Wycombe for sending me here. I very much look forward to serving them. Throughout my campaign, I was strictly forbidden to quote Disraeli, as he fought the constituency at least three times I think, and lost. Today, as we are in coalition, it is my great pleasure to use this perhaps well known quote from a campaign speech in High Wycombe:
“I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.”
In representing Wycombe, I well understand Disraeli's sentiments and his reasons for writing “Sybil or The Two Nations”.
Wycombe is a constituency of astonishing diversity and contrast and yet unity in adversity. From the wealth and beauty of the Hambleden valley, through the tougher areas of the town—some Conservative Members do represent constituencies with pockets of severe deprivation—to the affluence of Tylers Green and Hazlemere, from the stoic Buckinghamshire traditionalists of old Wycombe to our large ethnic communities, Wycombe is a microcosm of contemporary Britain. I am proud to represent an area that defies expectations and encapsulates contemporary Britain.
The most consistent theme of my candidacy was, above all, the tribute to my predecessor, and I feel I can scarcely do him justice. Paul Goodman enjoyed the respect and admiration of all sections of the community, his parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House and his party. He set out aspiring to Sir Ray Whitney's qualities of shrewdness, courtesy, unselfishness and kindness. I know that Paul surpassed his own aims and that this House will miss him. Paul’s top priority was Wycombe hospital, and I have to say for the benefit of the Bucks Free Press that it will be my top campaigning priority. I mean that sincerely; no other issue compares to it, in terms of its ability to create anxiety and concern.
As a trustee of a charity for economic education, I would like to give what is perhaps an alternative perspective on the cause of the banking crisis; I hope that Members will indulge me. I should like to put to them a proposition that is uncontroversial: around the world, the system of money is a product of the state. Our monetary system is characterised by private banking, with a fractional reserve controlled by a central bank, which determines monetary policy and has a monopoly on the issue of legal tender. A Monetary Policy Committee sets interest rates.
The banks have the legal privilege of treating depositors’ money as their own. In the words of Irving Fisher,
“our national circulating medium is now at the mercy of loan transactions of banks”.
In the other place, in the Banking Bill debate of 5 February 2009, the Earl of Caithness explained eloquently the base of 19th-century judicial decisions—and yes, our system of money has evolved since then—that enabled that situation to take place. He called it
“the fault which has led to every major banking and currency crisis during the past 200 years, including this one.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2009; Vol. 707, c. 774.]
The Bank Charter Act 1844 ended the practice of banks over-issuing notes, but it left them virtually unmolested in their ability to issue deposit currency to be drawn by cheque. That loophole haunts us today. Unlike the situation in respect of any other commodity, in the case of money, price controls do not drive the product off the market. Artificially lowered interest rates increase the demand for credit, and decrease the supply of savings, but the legal privilege granted to banks means that they can meet demand by extending credit that is unbacked by real savings. There is a good argument to say that that causes the boom-and-bust cycle, the misdirection of resources in the capital structure of production, and over-consumption by consumers. That is the biggest problem that we face today.
We could talk about the moral hazard of having a state-backed lender of last resort and state deposit guarantees, and of the socialisation of the cost of failure; I only wish that I had time to touch on the accounting rules on derivatives. Perhaps that is for another day. My political hero, Richard Cobden, spoke on the subject. He held
“all idea of regulating the currency to be an absurdity”,
but I see that time is short; I shall have to save the rest of the quote for another day.
Today, money is a product of the state. The Bank of England controls the price, quantity and quality of money. Perhaps if we were talking about any other commodity, there would be far less confusion over and questioning of the cause of the crisis. If money is a product of the state, we should ask ourselves, “Is this a good idea?”
In the coalition, we have a Government ideally suited to be conservative to preserve what is good, but radical to change all that is bad. If we are to have a once-in-a-generation, fundamental review of the role of government, let us also examine government’s role in the system of money and bank credit.
Congratulations on your tenure in your post, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on his lesson; I am sure that those in the financial services across the world will read Hansard with interest tomorrow. I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). The equality issues that he raised at the end of his speech are ones on which the House is stronger when it works together, and I will welcome the opportunity to take those matters forward with him.
It is an honour and a privilege to stand in this great Chamber of democracy and represent the people of Edinburgh South. My constituents have placed tremendous faith in me, and I will certainly be putting their views, hopes and aspirations forcefully.
Edinburgh South is a diverse constituency stretching from the old mining villages of Gilmerton to the leafy suburbs of Morningside and beyond. Some literary geniuses that hon. Members may recognise live in the constituency—Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and, of course, J.K. Rowling lived but a stone’s throw from each other in the heart of the constituency. Those literary geniuses are complemented by a large student population, people in academia, public service workers and people in the professions.
The southern part of what is called the Athens of the north was represented in this House for over 100 years by the Conservatives. The area has had many distinguished Conservative Members of Parliament, including Sir William Darling, the great-uncle of the shadow Chancellor. The seat was last held for the Conservatives by the right hon. former Member for Devizes, the Earl of Ancram, who, in 1979, defeated a certain Gordon Brown.
The Earl of Ancram lost Edinburgh South to my predecessor, Nigel Griffiths, and I am delighted to be given this opportunity to pay tribute to him. Nigel was without doubt one of the most hard-working constituency MPs in this House. His dedication to serving his constituents was second to none, and his mantra that everyone knew someone he had helped is certainly true. He leaves behind a long legacy of how a Member of this House should serve, and a couple of other things, too. If anyone has had the unenviable pleasure of campaigning with Nigel and his infamous megaphone, they will know legendary megaphone phrases such as, “Don’t leave it to the folks next door,” and “We are knocking on your door now,” the latter said just as his finger reached the bell. Those are aspects of campaigning that I hope Nigel will continue to employ for many years to come. Nigel was also well known for championing the cause of the disabled and the most vulnerable, and I know he will continue to do that outside this House.
Edinburgh was one of the major centres of the enlightenment, led by world-famous institutions based in south Edinburgh. One of them was the university of Edinburgh, a research-led university with an international reputation. It has long held a principal place in science and engineering research, which is based in King’s Buildings. It has world experts in biological science, chemistry, engineering, geosciences, informatics, mathematics and physics. The university of Edinburgh and the other fine academic institutions in Edinburgh hold much of the intellectual property for what could be a modern enlightenment in science, innovation and green technology, and that must be wholeheartedly supported by Government. The Chancellor’s announcement that he will cut 10,000 university places as part of his £6 billion of so-called efficiencies will do nothing to help our universities to flourish and our economy to grow. There will be a significant knock-on effect for universities in my constituency.
The royal observatory in Edinburgh South houses the UK’s national centre for the production of state-of-the- art astronomical technology. I recently visited it to see the people there making lenses for the most technologically advanced telescopes in the world. They are training them now on the Liberal Democrats to see if they can find anything left of the principles that they stood on in the election.
Edinburgh South also boasts the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, a state-of-the-art teaching hospital built by Labour, and now the centrepiece of plans for the largest biomedical park in Europe. For 150 years, the Royal hospital for sick children has been caring for children in Edinburgh and beyond.
This week is Erskine week. Erskine has provided nursing and medical care for former members of our armed forces for over 100 years, rebuilding shattered lives, restoring dignity and providing first-class care to ex-servicemen and women, both young and old. The Erskine facilities in my constituency are well worth a visit.
I am fortunate to have been elected Member of Parliament for a constituency that boasts some of the best state schools in the country, with the most dedicated and dynamic head teachers and staff. Added to that, there is a plethora of faith and charity groups, which contribute so much to our community.
My constituents are well informed by the wonderful Edinburgh Evening News, a bastion of all that is truth in the Edinburgh journalistic community since 1873. I know that because one of their journalists wrote this paragraph for me.
Many of my constituents work in financial services—banking has been part of Edinburgh’s economic life for over 300 years. The devastation to the Edinburgh economy if our banks were left to collapse, as championed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would be incalculable. Time after time, issue after issue on the economy, the Tories called it wrong, and put my constituents at risk. The intervention by the Labour Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), laid the foundations for a worldwide economic turnaround that saved many thousands of jobs for people in my constituency while protecting their savings. The Conservatives have been in government only a matter of days, but we have seen a massive £6.2 billion cut—what they describe as efficiency savings.
Ultimately, this is not a real Tory-Lib Dem coalition; this is a personal relationship between the Prime Minister and his deputy. The coalition is held together by the unnatural empathy and their deep, deep comfort in each other’s personalities, politics and background: two peas from the same pod. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher claimed that the Liberal Prime Minster William Gladstone would have felt very much at home with the dominant ideology of the Conservative party. I am convinced that the Deputy Prime Minister would fit in very well, too.
I would like to conclude by paying tribute to my mother, who taught me the values that I hold dear. I was born and brought up on the Wester Hailes council estate in Edinburgh. When my father died suddenly at the age of 39 from a brain haemorrhage, my mother was left with my 13-year-old brother and me, aged just nine. She was written off by the Conservative Government of the day. My mother and many others like her who lived around us were left to fend for themselves, through no fault of their own, when they needed their Government most. I saw first-hand communities ripped apart to the resonance of cheap political soundbites. The first few weeks of this Conservative Government show that they have not changed, and I will fight tooth and nail to ensure that the communities I represent in Edinburgh South do not suffer the excesses of Tory ideology again. I owe that to them, and I certainly owe it to my mother.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for his considerable knowledge of the banking industry. I cannot wait to hear more about that in future debates. It is slightly difficult for me to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray)—we are starting to become slightly Edinburgh-centric, with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) hopefully still to make a contribution this evening—because I can no longer mention the Edinburgh Evening News. The journalist mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South wrote the same paragraph for me.
My predecessor, John Barrett, is taking a well-deserved rest after more than quarter of a century of public service, having represented the many people of Edinburgh West on community councils, city councils and, latterly, as its MP for nine years. He was a local business man and entrepreneur. In that spirit, he sold this job to me as being the best in the world. It has certainly been the most exciting in the first four weeks—even more exciting than my first few weeks as a green probationer in Lothian and Borders police.
In his time, John met many interesting people, including the Queen and Dolly Parton. I will let the House into a secret—it was the photograph of Dolly Parton that hung on the wall in the office. The seat has a well-established Liberal history, and I join a select but growing group, including my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) by being a third—or perhaps even more—generation Liberal MP. We are joined, too, by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). That Lib Dem legacy is established through the quality of service given to our constituents, in my case in Edinburgh West, and an absolute commitment to them.
I have deliberately chosen this debate on economic affairs in which to make my first contribution. My constituency is immensely diverse, taking in areas of great affluence as well as areas of great poverty. Historic villages such as Corstorphine, Davidsons Mains and Cramond are now subsumed in the Edinburgh sprawl, as well as modern housing estates such as Muirhouse. Residential Barnton as well as rural Ratho and Kirkliston. The constituency is a key player in the powerhouse that is the Edinburgh economy, boasting within its boundaries some of Scotland’s most iconic and important brands and businesses, which have brought prosperity to Edinburgh and, indeed, to Scotland. Some of them, however, have been at the centre of the catastrophic events of the past two years and that has resulted in many thousands of people losing their jobs in Scotland.
There are many, many community groups in Edinburgh West, from those conducting community litter picks in South Queensferry or on Cramond beach to those fighting to protect the integrity and boundaries of Corstorphine hill. The Carrickvale community centre provides services to older and young constituents, and the Gylemuir Community Association does a similar job. Thousands of people are actively improving their communities all over Edinburgh West.
I am in the middle of the summer gala season—for the benefit of the English in the Chamber, I should explain that is a fête. On Saturday, along with thousands of others, accompanied, surprisingly for Scotland, by the sun, I attend the Corstophine fair—the largest community-run event in Edinburgh, and perhaps in Scotland. In it was a programme bursting with entertainment, kids’ activities and community displays, as well as the usual stalls to give people a chance to meet those behind the many community groups across the constituency. At the end of that, I officiated at the tug-of-war event, where two teams battled it out for victory. There was much name calling, shouting and huge efforts in blood, sweat and ultimately tears before both teams claimed a moral victory, at the very least. It reminded me a great deal of the past four weeks on this side of the House.
Edinburgh West is also a centre for many varied Scottish, British and internationally renowned companies. I have already found that across the business sector too, there is unity and solidarity in the adversity that we face, and I am immensely lucky that in these difficult times, Edinburgh West has a shared aim and a sense of team spirit. So as we rightly place more emphasis on industries such as biotechnology and the engineering of exciting new marine energy solutions, we should not forget two other priority industry sectors in Scotland, which have contributed significantly to the success of the Scottish and UK economies in the past decade. I refer to tourism and the financial services, two sectors in which my constituency has flourished.
Edinburgh airport, the gateway from mainland Europe not only for Edinburgh but for Scotland more generally, has 320 flights a day and 20,000 passengers, and those numbers are climbing. It is opening up new routes all the time—for example, to Marrakesh and many others announced in February. This is to be commended, as the more direct routes we have, the less wasteful travel we have through the London hubs of Heathrow and Gatwick. Add to this the potential for a much-needed high speed rail link with London, and we will see a continuing healthy picture for Scottish tourism and business, boosted by the year-round reputation of Edinburgh as a festival city.
I must not forget Edinburgh zoo when talking about tourism. In his maiden speech my predecessor joked about representing more penguins than any other Member in the House, and I am proud to say that that is still the case, but I can now add to that list of animals and say that I am the only MP in the UK to represent koalas. Should present plans come to fruition, I hope to be standing here in five years’ time as the only person representing pandas.
The financial services sector is a major sector in Edinburgh West, employing many people, but I shall move on as time is defeating me. Understandably, many of those working in the financial services sector and banking in particular fear the banking reform that must surely come. They should be reassured that the aim of that reform is to make their jobs more secure, not less. I will work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that that happens.
I conclude by quoting my Conservative opponent during the recent contest, who said—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the honour to follow so many excellent maiden speeches.
I would like to start by paying tribute to my predecessor. To be able to say on the doorsteps of Newcastle upon Tyne Central that I was the new Jim Cousins was a huge asset. Perhaps one in five constituents knew him personally, and had a tale to tell about how he had helped them. As a constituency MP, he could not be bettered. He was also a champion of Newcastle and the north-east, and his long service on the Treasury Committee was of great benefit to his country and his city. His role in saving Northern Rock will be long remembered.
In the boundary review, Newcastle Central gained the wards of Elswick and Benwell and Scotswood from the old Tyne Bridge constituency. I want to thank David Clelland for his dedication to his constituents in those historic areas of my city.
The Romans chose Newcastle as the lowest bridging point of the Tyne, and later built Hadrian’s wall, which runs through the constituency. In the centuries that followed, we guarded England from the attacks of Scottish raiders. How times change! But as a port, we were ever open for trade. Newcastle played a huge part in the major industries—wool, salt, shipbuilding, coal and engineering. We were at the leading edge of the first industrial revolution.
If history is merely the story of great men, I need mention only some of Newcastle’s favoured sons to prove our place: Earl Grey, who has found such favour on the Government Benches; Armstrong, the great industrialist and founder of Newcastle university; and my own hero and fellow engineer, Stephenson, who built the railways.
But I believe that it is the contribution of those whose names are not recorded that it is most important to remember. It was the unnamed, ordinary men and women of Newcastle who built the ships that enabled this small island to wield global influence. My own grandfather worked in the shipyards of the Tyne. The men and women of Newcastle built the trade union and Labour movements, to which we owe so many of our working and voting rights. They built the co-operative and the Fairtrade movements, which combined the best of international idealism and local realism. Closer to home, they fought to protect the unique environment that is the heart, or rather the lung, of Newcastle.
Newcastle’s town moor is justly famous—a vast expanse of open moorland, kept in common and grazed by herds of cows. In London, cows in the centre of the city are considered installation art. In Newcastle, our councillors debate the future of our city within spitting distance of cowpats, an arrangement that I recommend to the House as ensuring a grass-roots sense of perspective.
With this history and community, it is no wonder that I felt a huge sense of privilege growing up in Newcastle. Yes, we were a one-parent family on a poor working-class estate, North Kenton, but good local schools, great public services, great housing and the health service meant that I could fulfil my ambition of becoming an engineer. But just as I was deciding to enter engineering, the country was deciding to leave it behind. We were going to become a service economy. I believe in a strong service sector, but time has shown that an exclusive focus on services left our country weaker. Certainly, I had to spend much of my career abroad. Still, I saw first hand the devastation brought about by the loss of the great northern industries of mining, shipbuilding and steel—whole communities robbed of a purpose. Let us be clear, that loss was not just a north-east loss; it was the country’s loss. Although we remain the sixth largest manufacturing economy in the world, building and making things is no longer a part of our culture. That has to change.
I know that I should not touch upon controversial subjects, which is why I am so glad that what I am going to say is entirely uncontroversial. During the election, all parties were in agreement that the economy needs to be rebalanced in favour of manufacturing. Newcastle, with our great universities, specialising in medicine, design and engineering, our industrial heritage and strategic assets, has an essential role to play. We can help the UK to meet two of the great challenges that face us—securing sustainable energy resources and supporting an ageing population. These sectors need to be part of the new economy. We need to build up our science and manufacturing base and foster the spirit of innovation that led George Stephenson to invent the steam engine and make his fortune.
I know from my own experience that building a business takes vision, courage, blood, sweat and tears. But manufacturing is particularly difficult. It needs long-term investment. I recently visited BAE Systems and Metalspinners, two engineering firms in my constituency. I saw 60-tonne pressing and cutting machines that cost millions of pounds and are expected to last for decades. We must continue to help these companies invest. They need a strong public sector. They need apprenticeships, good transport links, a strong regional development agency and tax allowances for manufacturing and innovation.
We are a small country and it is no longer our ships that set the boundaries of the world. But even as a small country, we can set the direction of the new industrial revolution if we equip ourselves to grasp those opportunities, and I will fight to make sure that the Government do just that. My career in Parliament will be dedicated to ensuring that Newcastle upon Tyne Central is an economically and culturally vibrant contributor to the UK and the world.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me this evening. The six hours that I have been waiting have truly passed in a flash, such has been the quality of previous maiden speakers, including just now the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I should particularly like to associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is sadly no longer in the Chamber, about the equalities agenda and gay rights.
At the outset, I should make a declaration, as we do a lot of that at the start of Parliaments. Anyone hoping that I will enliven proceedings in the manner of one of my elder brothers, the former Member for Henley, is likely to be disappointed. Private Eye, in the issue on newsstands at the moment, has helped me to set expectations appropriately low. It quotes an unnamed Oxford contemporary, in the first of a series that it is doing on new Members, and that friendly Oxford contemporary of mine says:
“He could not be more different to Boris. It’s as though the humour gene by-passed Jo altogether and he inherited only the ambition gene.”
It is an absolutely fair comment, but I do not really apologise for the humour-ectomy, nor, indeed, for any hint of ambition that the House might detect, because these are serious times and politicians need to be ambitious when the country is in such a mess. History will not forgive us if we flannel around in the House over the next five years and fail to pick the economy up off the floor, where it is at present.
Orpington, the constituency that I am fortunate enough now to represent, has not troubled the House with a maiden speech for 40 years. I am tempted to give Members a double helping, but time will not allow it. That lengthy interlude has arisen because my distinguished predecessor, John Horam, began his parliamentary career not in the idyllic glades of northern Kent, but in the gritty Gateshead West area of Newcastle.
John Horam has the distinction, as many Members will know, of being the only Member to have served in all three parties. He was originally of course a Labour MP in Gateshead, but, disillusioned with Labour’s leftward drift, he dallied with the Social Democratic party in the early ’80s before eventually donning Conservative colours and becoming the MP for Orpington in 1992. By the time he came to give his maiden speech that year, he was of course no maiden, but as a liberal Conservative long before the genre became fashionable, he was at least ahead of his time.
That John’s political journey—his odyssey, in some ways—culminated in Orpington of all places is entirely appropriate. After all, it was in Downe, one of the constituency’s most picturesque villages, that the father of evolutionary biology propounded the earth-shaking theory of natural selection—the most important scientific breakthrough of the past 150 years. It is no surprise to me at all that the people of Orpington inspired Charles Darwin to come up with the concept of the survival of the fittest: meet them and one sees the very best that evolution has done with homo sapiens over the millennia.
Orpington is famous for much more than the man who debunked creationism. I shall not dwell too long on the “Buff Orpington” chicken, admired by poultry breeders for its gentle contours, colourful plumage and succulent breast meat; suffice it to say that they are easy layers, go broody very often and make great mothers. Would it be too much to expect the local Tesco superstore to stock it and support the breeders of that fine bird? I shall keep the House informed of my progress, but my office called Tesco this morning, and it does not currently stock that chicken.
If Orpington’s contribution to science is beyond question, its place in the footnotes, if perhaps not the chapter headings, of British political history is no less assured. In 1954, for example, the constituency almost snuffed out the career of a young Mrs Thatcher. Having fought unwinnable seats in neighbouring Dartford, she sought the nomination for Orpington. In The Croft Tearoom in St Mary Cray, one of the more hard-on-its-luck areas of the constituency, can be found a fine photograph of the young Mrs Thatcher buying her daily milk from a horse and cart in an attempt to impress her local credentials on selectors. She was unsuccessful. Bitterly disappointed at how leading local Tories reckoned her candidacy incompatible with her role as a mother of twins, she wrote to central office to say that she was abandoning all thought of Parliament for many years. Needless to say, British politics would have been very different had she not relented.
I shall not dwell on counterfactuals, but one thing is certain: Orpington would not have gone on to become the totemic seat for the Liberals that it did in 1962 had Mrs Thatcher become our MP. The man who defeated her for the nomination resigned unexpectedly, triggering a famous by-election. A good Balliol man by the name of Eric Lubbock, representing the Liberals, scored an historic victory by overturning a very substantial Conservative majority and chalking up a Liberal gain in an area far away from his party’s traditional heartlands in the west country and the Celtic fringe. The birth of Orpington man sparked a revival that marked the end of the Macmillan era and made Orpington a permanent fixture in Liberal folklore.
I come back to the present and the subject of this debate. The scale of the Conservative victory on 6 May, with its 60% share of the vote, was a resounding endorsement of the Conservative party’s economic programme. The priority now is to achieve an accelerated reduction of the £156 billion deficit and it is one that I wholeheartedly support, as I support the creative and compassionate ways that I know the Government will use to go about that difficult task. The £6 billion of cuts already announced is barely a start in the process. I look forward to the emergency Budget on 22 June and the public consultations on the role of the state, which will follow.
As one who recently spent four years working in one of the fastest growing parts of Asia, with a ringside seat on the emerging economy that is India, I am fully aware of the challenges that globalisation presents to the British economy. I would like to use the time that I have in Parliament to help this country and Orpington constituency meet those challenges.