Before I call the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), may I just explain to the House that a very large number of colleagues wish to speak and I have decided that the first two speakers should have eight minutes each? I hope that that is considered acceptable by the House, and of course there is scope for interventions, which would add to that eight minutes. Thereafter the limit will have to be tighter. I would happily sit here until midnight listening to the speeches, but, unfortunately again, I am subject to the timetabling, which is not determined by me. The first speaker in the debate will be the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire. I call Sir George Young.
I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. It is appropriate that this Parliament should end with a procedural innovation—a valedictory debate—having begun with so many other such innovations.
The sponsors thought that this would be a quiet day before Prorogation, with those retiring least inclined to return to our constituencies, giving us the opportunity to bid farewell to the House before we turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight on Sunday. I am delighted that the Leader of the House is replying to the debate, that the Father of the House is in his place and that so many colleagues are eager to take part.
I made my maiden speech on 18 March 1974. 1 thought it would also be my valedictory speech, as a second election was imminent and I had a wafer-thin majority in Ealing, Acton. Indeed, Harold Wilson delighted in telling me that he was in my constituency twice a week, which he was—on the A40 to and from Chequers. I was lucky enough to get in first time and I have been here ever since. Thanks to the Boundary Commission, I have represented two very different seats—Ealing, Acton and North West Hampshire. It has been a privilege to serve my constituents, my party and my country in this House. Whether my career has justified that privilege is another matter. Few MPs can have been sacked by two Prime Ministers, and then brought back by both, thus showing some ambivalence about my talents. I doubt whether any will achieve the double of The Spectator Back Bencher of the Year award for leading the rebellion against the poll tax, and another one for being appointed Chief Whip—and for the same party.
Let me share a few quick reflections—first, on the coalition. The Liberal Democrats did the right thing in joining my party in coalition, and I believe that history will be kinder to them than the electorate is going to be. The coalition was at its strongest with the business managers, and I enjoyed working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) as Deputy Leader of the House, and with the current Secretary of State for Scotland and the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who were Liberal Democrat Chief Whips. Both parties had Back Benchers with independent views—they were the so-called awkward squads, but the two squads tended not to be awkward at the same time. Their reluctance to engage with the Whips was mercifully matched by a reluctance to work with each other, and so defeat was rare.
I recall one exchange in a meeting in my office—without coffee—with a difficult colleague who wanted to talk about social mobility. He looked me in the eye and said: “Sir George, I believe in social mobility, downwards as well as upwards.”
I was greatly assisted in my task by two high-quality deputies, and a strong team of Whips who kept me out of serious trouble. There were occasions in the last Parliament when the Conservative Whips thought we had a better idea of how the Liberal Democrats were going to vote than their own Whips did, but together we helped deliver a stable five-year Government—something that many people doubted would ever happen. We were greatly assisted by the staff in the offices of the Leader of the House and the Whips under Mike Winter and Roy Stone.
At times, my patience with the Liberal Democrats was tested. I would get back to my constituency on Friday to find them taking the credit for all the good things the coalition had done, while blaming my party for the cuts that had made them possible.
Although a coalition was right for this Parliament, I hope it will not become the norm. I am worried that this country may drift towards an unstable Italian style of Government, with moving coalitions remote from the electorate. I worry too that the sharp change of direction that this country needed in, for example, 1945 and 1979 may no longer be possible.
Looking ahead, I hope that the next Parliament will work hard to ensure that the United Kingdom stays intact. The Union is more fragile than it has been since the partition of Ireland and will require very sensitive handling.
We need to restore confidence in the profession to which we all belong—that of politician. It is a paradox that most people believe that their own MP is a paragon of virtue, but refuse to generalise on the basis of that experience. We must decontaminate our brand and encourage more young able people to stand. Although we may never be popular, the next Parliament must rebuild public confidence both in MPs as a professional body and in Parliament as an effective and relevant institution.
To that end, I hope that we shall have a clean campaign, fought on the issues, with alternative positive visions of the future being promoted, with a minimum of personal invective and abuse. As a former Housing Minister, I hope that housing will be an important issue in the campaign, as we need to build more houses than were built under either of the last two Administrations if every family is to have a decent home.
Finally, if we have to leave this building at some future date for repairs, we must come back here. We should never abandon the history of this magnificent Palace of Westminster for a horseshoe-shaped Chamber in a new glass building outside London.
We have all in our time had our narrow squeaks. My career as Chief Whip nearly ended in disaster. One of my last visitors was the Australian Chief Whip who presented me with a whip—not a small whip that a jockey might use but a stock whip with a long leather handle, and yards and yards of leather of diminishing width. He made it clear that this was a personal gift to me and not a donation to the Whips Office. The rules on ministerial gifts are clear: if it is worth less than £125, one can keep it; if it is worth more, one must either buy it or give it to the Government. When my guest had gone, I asked my private office to establish the value of his gift. Minutes later, a white-faced official came into my room. All the websites he had accessed on my behalf had been barred by the parliamentary authorities, and he feared that retribution for the instigator was imminent.
I am conscious that many Members wish to speak, so I shall finish on that cautionary tale. I thank colleagues on both sides of the House and the staff of the House for their friendship over 40 years. I wish my successor and the new Parliament well in the challenges that lie ahead.
I wish to start by thanking all those who have helped me during my time as a Member of Parliament. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your stewardship of this House, your dedication to our parliamentary democracy and your unfailing courtesy to all sides, even when provoked. It is customary, of course, for the new Speaker to give up his previous party when he becomes Speaker. You, of course, had given up your previous party long before that.
Let me also thank the staff of the House: the Clerks, the cleaners, the catering staff, the librarians and the doorkeepers for their non-partisan and always unselfish support. Let me thank my colleagues on the Labour Benches, who have been so brilliant to work with and to work alongside. Their wisdom and friendship have sustained my family and me at times of personal loss. Let me also thank all colleagues, especially those who leave the House today, for their outstanding contribution to what we are right to believe is the greatest democracy in the world. Most of all, I owe a debt of gratitude to my constituents who sent me here and who accorded me the privilege of trust and service more than 32 years ago, in which time I have always tried to represent their needs and aspirations.
When I first stood for Parliament in 1983, I asked constituents to elect me as a candidate of youth and fresh ideas. I had to change tack in 2010 to ask them to elect me as a candidate of maturity and experience.
When I first arrived here in 1983, I was so unknown, so patently here just to make up the numbers and so clearly forgettable that The Times confused me with one of the many other Browns in this Parliament—there were as many MPs named Brown as there were Liberals or Social Democrat MPs. That may never happen again. The newspaper published a photo of me when I was a student, but then said that I had been born in 1926. In each successive newspaper in London, the error was repeated—not so much the power of the press, but the power of the press cutting. I was labelled as “elderly”, “veteran” and “old Labour stalwart” —definitely old Labour—with the result that, a few days later, I received a letter from a pension company saying that I had joined a new job late in life and would want to make provision for an early retirement.
Now, 32 years on, it is for others to judge what has been achieved between then and now. Today, it is not my constituents, Scotland or public service that I am leaving, but Westminster in London. I leave to live full time in the place in which I grew up and in which my children will grow up and complete their schooling. I leave this House feeling not just a huge amount of gratitude, but some concern. As the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, the UK is fragile, at risk and potentially at a point of departure. Countries at their best, their strongest and their truest are more than places on the map and a demarcation of borders. Great countries stand on shared foundations. They are guided by unifying ideals. They move forward in common purpose, and so it must be in Britain.
Whatever the future, in the constitutional revolution that is now under way I will fight and fight and fight again to renew and reconstruct for a new age the idea of Britain, based around shared values that can bring us together and advance a common Britishness, with a shared belief in tolerance, liberty and fairness that comes alive in unique British institutions such as the national health service and in common policies for social justice.
It is because I believe in Britain’s future that I am saddened—I am sorry to have to say this—that for the first and only time in 300 years of the Union, it has become official Government policy to create two classes of elected representatives in this House: a first class who will vote on all issues, and a second class who will vote on only some. That mimics the nationalists by driving a wedge between Scotland and England, and is meant only to head off opposition from the extremists with a direct nationalist appeal to the English electorate. It is not so much English votes for English laws as English laws for English votes. I ask this House to remember that our greatest successes as a country have come not when we have been divided and when we have turned inwards, but when we have confidently looked outwards and thought globally, our eyes fixed on the wider world and the future.
With the unwinding of what is called the pax Americana and in the wake of the recent retreat from global co-operation, we have today no climate change treaty, no world trade treaty and no global financial standards. We must recapture what now seems a distant memory—the heightened global co-operation of the past, which Britain led. We must never allow ourselves to become spectators and watchers on the shore when the world needs us in Europe and beyond to lead and champion global action to deal with problems from poverty and pollution to proliferation and protectionism.
This is about more than economics. Over 30 years, I, like most people on this side and on both sides of the House, have condemned the discrimination and prejudices of the past, which should now be consigned for ever to that past. I welcome the new freedoms, the new rights for equality and the anti-discrimination laws we have enacted and embraced. All societies need a moral energy that can inspire individuals to self-sacrificial acts of public service that come alive out of mutual respect and obligation. Yes, the predominant feeling in our country is an anger at elites that I can see in people’s eyes and hear in their voices. Yes, too, of the many social changes I have witnessed in 30 years, one of the most dramatic has been the fall in religious observance, but I also sense that the British people are better than leaders often presume. They are ready to respond to a vision of a country that is more caring, less selfish, more compassionate and less cynical than the “me too, me first, me now, me above all—me whatever” manifestos.
I sense that there are millions of us who feel, however distantly, the pain of others today; who believe in something bigger than ourselves; who cannot easily feast when our fellow citizens go hungry to food banks; who cannot feel at ease when our neighbours, in hock to payday lenders, are ill at ease; who cannot be fully content with poverty pay and zero-hours contracts when around us there is so much discontent. I repeat that it is not anti-wealth to say that the wealthy must do more to help those who are not wealthy; it is not anti-enterprise to say that the enterprising must do more to meet the aspirations of those who have never had the chance to show that they too are enterprising; and it is not anti-market to say that markets need morals to underpin their success. For this, and for showing me when I was young that when the strong help the weak, it makes us all stronger, I will always be grateful to my parents, who taught me these values of justice; to my party, which taught me how to fight for justice; and to my constituents, who taught me every day the rightness of justice.
We must never forget that politics at its best imbues people with hope. In 1886, Tennyson wrote one of his last poems, “Locksley Hall”, with its pessimistic refrain:
“Chaos, Cosmos! Cosmos, Chaos! who can tell when all will end?”
The then Prime Minister, Gladstone, was moved to remind Tennyson that in his first poem of that title he had said:
“When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.”
I have spoken today about what endures beyond anyone’s time in office and I want to leave here as I came here, with an unquenchable faith in the future—the future of a country that we can build and share together, a future in which we help shape the world beyond our shores, and a future in which we always demand the best of ourselves. That is a future worth fighting for.
Thank you for that guidance, Mr Speaker, and I shall endeavour to show that consideration.
This is for me where the journey ends—a journey that started when I was an 11-year-old and met Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, the MP where I grew up, and said to my parents that that was what I should like to do one day. I was incredibly fortunate some decades later to be selected as the candidate to take over from him, although, with his timeless film star looks, people wondered why he was giving way to an older man.
My journey has in many ways been one from north to south. My first seat was Clackmannan; my friends thought that I had wanted to stand in Clapham in south London but had stuttered and ended up in a mining seat in the middle of Scotland. It became clear to me in the course of that campaign that I had never really met a miner before and that they certainly had not met a Conservative before. I moved gradually further south and stood in another mining seat, in Nottinghamshire, and I worked out eventually that if I wanted to be a Tory MP, I should stop fighting mining seats. I was then very lucky to be selected for High Peak in Derbyshire and to serve there for five years before, after a break, coming back in for Wealden. To have had wonderful constituencies in glorious parts of the country has been an unbelievable and very special pleasure.
I have been given great jobs by the leaders of my party, including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who will be responding to this debate. If I look back at the thing in which I have greatest pride, it is that as Energy Minister I was able to drive through electricity market reform, one of the most important bits of legislation in the course of this Parliament. I feel that we do these things better when we do them collectively and when we try to take energy out of politics. When I left office—it would be more appropriate, I think, to say that the Government left me rather than that I left the Government—I received very kind messages from the leader of the Labour party, the leader of the Scottish National party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I thought, “Three out of four leaders; that’s not bad going.”
If we are looking at where we can make a change to Parliament, we must remember that the institution of Parliament is bigger than all of us, even collectively. I look at some aspects of it with great concern and even some sadness. We must address the opprobrium with which we are held as a collective breed and we must recognise that in some ways, that is to do with the way we do business. This Parliament is ruder and less courteous than I remember Parliament being when I first came in 23 years ago. We need to address that, because if we do not show that we believe in the institution and that the people with whom we debate on the other side of the House are as genuine and sincere as we are about what they are trying to do—they might have chosen a different way of trying to do it and might hold different values, but ultimately we are all here because we believe in serving our constituencies and our country—why should people looking in from outside believe that?
I have noticed as well a strange habit among Members of Parliament, which is that we do not shake hands. For 23 years, I found that rather strange but over the past few days I have been shaking an enormous number of hands and the policy starts to make real sense. At the end of this process, we are leaving as people who enjoy each other as people, and as friends and who value each other as human beings who all want to do the best for their constituencies.
I have been incredibly lucky. I have had wonderful constituents in two different constituencies and have had a wonderful parliamentary staff, but above all I have been supported by a wonderful family. In the course of the next Parliament, I look forward to being able to spend more time with them and to enjoying working with them and giving them the time and attention that they deserve.
This place has shaped my life for the past 28 years, but before that I remember my late father Ken and my mother Eileen, who instilled in me my values, and my late husband Keith, who introduced me to socialism and was a great support for 30 years.
I hope that I have remained true to those values. First and foremost, I have been a woman Member of Parliament who did not want to play the boys’ games—probably to my detriment at times. I am proud to have been the first full-time Minister for Women, even though my efforts got me sacked a year later.
I have had many opportunities as a Back Bencher, particularly in private Members’ Bills. My first was a Bill to tackle fly-tipping. My second was to place a duty on local authorities to introduce doorstep recycling. Both passed. I always hoped to win a third place in the ballot so that I could introduce a Bill to permit assisted dying, in which I believe passionately.
Another privilege has been membership of Select Committees, beginning with the Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House, in which I had the distinction of proposing the hanging lights we now have today, as there were none there before. From the moment I arrived I wanted change. I got my first opportunity on Robin Cook’s Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, which brought in many of our changes in procedure. It led to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and me organising the first successful campaign to change the House’s sitting hours. When those changes were partially reversed, we organised again in 2010. With much help we achieved the more sensible timetable we have today. I also greatly enjoyed my time on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and later the International Development Committee, when you, Mr Speaker, were also a member.
Inevitably, there were bad times. Rejection from government was one of them, but by far the worst was the Iraq war. Despite the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime, I did not believe that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, and I could not support an illegal war that I knew would have repercussions for a generation.
As I leave, I reflect on some of the great issues that remain unresolved, most notably the outdated notion of nuclear deterrence, when the real threats to our security are cyber-warfare, terrorism and climate change. Nuclear weapons have no utility; they cannot be used to defend or gain territory, and their financial cost is an obscenity. I only hope that the new initiative for a global ban on nuclear weapons, spearheaded by Austria and now signed by over 50 states, will succeed.
Another great regret is to see the plight of yet another generation of Palestinians. I cannot believe that the international community has tolerated such oppression for so long.
By contrast, my greatest joy came late in my career when my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) gave me the job of Climate Change Minister under the inspired leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). I am proud of the many achievements of our Labour Governments—our equalities legislation, the minimum wage and our investment in public services—but so much has been undermined by coalition policies.
Let me end with friendship, which makes life tolerable in this place. My first new friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), has become the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) is the most notable Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. In 1986, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) wrote me a note saying, “Joan. Deptford is wide open—go for it.” She has done more for women’s equality than anyone else, and I am proud to have managed her successful campaign to become deputy leader of my party.
I also value the friendship of my hon. Friend the irrepressible Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who has already made her mark in this her first Parliament. I am also grateful for all the hard work and loyalty of my constituency party, my constituents and the many staff who have worked for me over the years. Last, but not least, there is my dearest parliamentary friend and now husband, Frank Doran, with whom I have shared the rollercoaster life of two MPs with constituencies 500 miles apart.
Mr Speaker, it has been a privilege to serve in a House over which you preside as a truly modernising Speaker. I wish you, all the Officers and staff of the House and all those who continue to serve a fond farewell.
I entered the House on the same day as the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and I was recalling just how much has changed in this place. When we arrived, there were no mobile phones, no e-mail and virtually no staff. My local party provided me with a rent-free office and a part-time secretary, so all those who accuse us of exploiting the expenses system should remember that we were exploited by it at the beginning.
When I was re-elected at the following election, I remember the Marchioness of Aberdeen, a great stalwart of Haddo house who lived to a great age, saying to me, “I’m so glad you got back. You had a small majority. I was so worried that I nearly voted for you.” That is the kind of thing we experience in life—the people who nearly voted for us. Fortunately, enough did vote for me to have the privilege of being here for 32 years, which I never expected when I set out.
Like other Members, there are particular things that I wanted to record and remember from my time here. I have served for long periods under a Conservative Government, a Labour Government and, latterly, a coalition Government—interesting and different experiences. Fundamentally, as others have said, it is the connection with one’s constituents and the ability to work on their behalf, whoever forms the Government, that I think most of us who are speaking today would regard as the privilege of being a constituency Member of Parliament.
One of the most important events of my time here was the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. I was very pleased, having been the leader of my party in Scotland at the time, to work with the late Donald Dewar in setting up the framework for what became the Scotland Act 1998, which he and I helped to deliver. I had one disagreement with him, however, and I think that the outcome shows that I was right. It was about the voting system. I supported it, as did he in the end, but we had an argument about whether the additional Members should be elected on the basis of a second vote or an adjustment of the first vote. My view was that we should adjust the first vote, and I think that I was right, because we would not have a Scottish National party majority if we had stuck with that system. Unfortunately, that tells us that we are going to have to address the issue in future.
I have had the privilege of serving on many Select Committees, ranging from the Scottish Affairs Committee to the Trade and Industry Committee, the Treasury Committee and the International Development Committee, which I have chaired for the past 10 years. I believe that Select Committees are one of the things we do best and that the Members who serve on them achieve a great deal, because their work is based on evidence, seeking consensus and really shaping policy, and that is invaluable. They are one of the great strengths of the House. It has been a privilege to be part of it.
It has been a privilege to see in this Parliament the delivery of the commitment, enshrined in law, to contribute 0.7% of national income to development assistance, although I absolutely agree that it is not the money that counts, but what is done with it and how effectively it is used, whether that is to champion the rights of women and girls and the poor around the world or to tackle climate change or disease. We, as a country, are now the second biggest donor in the world, which gives us the capacity to change and transform things, and it has been a privilege to be even a small part of that. Mr Speaker, you served on the International Development Committee —I very much enjoyed your company, both in the Committee and on our visits abroad—as did the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) and the Secretary of State for Health, so it has been a wonderful training ground, as Ministers, Speakers and all kinds of people have come through that route.
Mr Speaker, we had a rather tetchy debate just before this one. All I want to say about that is that if we are to have a secret ballot for the role of Speaker, the right time to introduce that is when you stand down, at a time of your choosing, so that we can decide how to elect the next Speaker. I have valued and appreciated your support and friendship, which, in terms of speaking in this House, I will not require again, but I hope that the friendship will last beyond that.
My final point is that the most important industry in my part of the world is the oil and gas industry, which is going through a difficult time at the moment. I want to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), for the work he did in commissioning the Wood review and setting up the oil and gas regulator, which I believe, along with the industry’s determination to get costs down, will in the long run make the industry more competitive, despite the difficulties today, including Shell’s announcement of new redundancies.
I never expected to be here for 32 years. As the former Member for Manchester Central, Tony Lloyd, once told me, you have to keep reinventing yourself. I guess that I have. It is time to reinvent myself, as of Sunday night, as a private citizen, and I am really looking forward to it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his extremely kind personal remarks. He was a superb Chair of the International Development Committee, as, to be fair, was the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) before him. It was a pleasure to serve under his chairmanship, and I wish him well.
Mr Speaker, having served for 24 years, may I commend your role as in my view the greatest reforming Speaker in memory, by making the Commons immensely more user and citizen-friendly, and especially for the way in which you have enhanced Back-Bench influence? I thank all the Commons staff, including our excellent Serjeant at Arms and especially the Doorkeepers, with whom I have had a specially close relationship since I invited them in to share a few bottles of wine—South African wine—in the Leader of the Commons’ office.
I thank my constituents in Neath and Neath constituency Labour party for their tremendous loyalty and support. I was a Pretoria boy, but I am proud to have become a Neath man. When I first arrived I was shown into a local primary school, Godre’r Graig school in the Swansea valley: “This is a very important person to meet you, class.” A little boy in the front row put up his hand and asked, “Do you play rugby for Neath?” Clearly, he had his priorities right.
I have been privileged and fortunate to have the very best friend anybody could have in Howard Davies of Seven Sisters, what he calls God’s own country, in the Dulais valley in Neath. I first met him in February 1990, a former miner who was lodge secretary at Blaenant colliery during the heart-rending year-long strike in 1984-85. My first agent and office manager, Howard has always been completely loyal and supportive, but privately frank and direct—priceless virtues which I commend to anyone in national politics.
Having come from a world of radical protest and activism, I never expected to be a Minister for 12 years. It began when Alastair Campbell unexpectedly called and said, “Tony wants to make an honest man of you.” Some former comrades on the left were disparaging, but my response was, “I’ve never been an all-or-nothing person. I’m an all-or-something person.” I am proud of many of the achievements of our last Labour Government, some of which I helped a little with, including bringing peace to Northern Ireland and devolution to Wales.
However, there was a tabloid columnist who described me as the “second most boring member of the Cabinet”. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), the former Chancellor, came top. At least that was more civil than the editor of Sunday Express at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, when I led campaigns to disrupt whites-only South African rugby and cricket tours. He said: “It would be a mercy for humanity if this unpleasant little creep were to fall into a sewage tank. Up to his ankles. Head first.” That was nothing compared with the letter bomb I received, fortunately with a technical fault in it, or being put on trial for conspiracy at the Old Bailey for disrupting South African sports tours, or being charged with a bank theft that I knew nothing about, which was later discovered to have been set up by South African agents.
Despite serving as an MP and Cabinet Minister, and remaining a Privy Councillor, I have not changed my belief that progressive change comes only through a combination of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary action. We know that from the struggles of the Chartists, the suffragettes, the early trade unionists, anti-apartheid protesters, the Anti-Nazi League and Unite Against Fascism activists confronting groups such as the National Front and the British National party, and Greenpeace activists inspiring fights against climate change.
If I am asked for advice by young people, who often ask me, “Can you tell me how to have a career in politics?” I say, “It’s not about a career; it’s about a mission.” We should never be in it for ourselves, but for our values. For me, these are equality, social justice, equal opportunities, liberty and democracy in a society based on mutual care and mutual support, not the selfishness and greed now so sadly disfiguring Britain. These values underpinned the anti-apartheid struggle and brought me into the Labour party nearly 40 years ago, but nothing I was able to achieve as an MP or a Minister was possible without the support of my family—my wife Elizabeth Haywood, a rock to me, my wonderful sister Sally, her daughter Connie, my sons Sam and Jake, and their mum, my former wife Pat.
Above all, I am grateful to my mother Adelaine and my father Walter, for their values, courage, integrity, morality and principle. My mum when in jail on her own listened to black prisoners screaming in pain. My dad was banned and then deprived of his job. They did extraordinary things, but as Nelson Mandela said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.”
After 50 years in politics some might say it is time to put my feet up, but I have been lucky to have the best father in the world, and he told me in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager living in apartheid South Africa, “If political change was easy, it would have happened a long time ago. Stick there for the long haul.” That is exactly what I will continue to do after leaving this House.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) as he and I share something a little unusual, in that we have travelled from remote parts of Africa to find ourselves both sent to this place and now departing on the same day.
The abruptness of my departure is matched by the abruptness of my arrival in a by-election 16 years ago, when the present Leader of the House was then the Leader of the Opposition, so my right hon. Friend had the title “Leader” both when I arrived in this place and now as I leave it.
When constituents give us the privilege of serving in this place, we have the great chance to deliver on the passions that we share, which are the essence of the job—to represent those constituents and all constituents once we are elected. That is what I have found most rewarding, whether through championing the dairy industry and the wider agricultural economy, or dealing with the challenging issues that have arisen in the largest town in my constituency, Winsford. I will always be grateful to all my constituents for sharing their experience and their hopes and giving me the chance to turn things around for the better.
Once here, the chance to deliver on areas of policy has driven many of us to swap our previous lives in order to be part of our parliamentary democracy and that has been an enormous privilege. In my case, having been a manufacturing industrialist for so long, I have added and moved on through financial, health and international development issues. Among my experiences here, I pay great tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. For those of us who have not seen service, that has been a wise and helpful introduction to the great and noble service that our armed forces give our country in support of the very freedom that we here seek to defend.
My experience throughout the past 16 years as a politician has been the shared cause. Aspiring to be a politician, staying so and then looking back on one’s time is a genuinely noble cause—some may say it is dangerous to make such a claim—to participate in our own parliamentary democracy, to have the privilege of a seat in this House and to have a platform. I had expected to be here longer—indeed, my re-election literature is just being pulped and my successor was chosen last night. I wish her well. I hope she will be elected and then serve brilliantly. With very few days to adjust, I find it is not so much the place that I anticipate missing, but above all the platform and the people.
I have enjoyed having the platform to deliver on some genuine enthusiasms, such as my passion to seek to deliver progress on the control of neglected tropical diseases and malaria, the world’s biggest killer, which is totally avoidable and treatable. We have made progress, with support across the House and across Government divides. I pay tribute to the joint enterprise in which we have all engaged to make a significant difference in our generation to that great cause. The platform that Parliament gives us enables us to engage the political will with the resources and the technical expertise to deliver results for some of the most needy people in the world.
As I reflect on my imminent departure, it is ultimately people who have defined my time here and will define my memory of it—colleagues and the many friends I have made, particularly on the Government Benches but, let it be said, in all parties and in both Houses. For that I shall be eternally grateful and very much hope to keep up with them. I have been blessed with the most phenomenal and loyal staff here in the House, with fantastic support in the constituency. The staff of the House and you, Mr Speaker, your predecessors and the Speaker’s Office have all been extremely helpful in assisting us to deliver what we all care about, which is an effective mother of Parliaments with a modern, functioning democracy.
I thank all the people of Eddisbury and the members of the Conservative party here and in Eddisbury. I leave Parliament with a passionate belief in parliamentary democracy, our values of accountability and challenge that politics brings, and the chance that my constituents gave me to seek in my own small way to make a difference for the greater good. It is that which unites all of us in this House and which, I hope, will continue to drive the work that I now find I am turning to at the United Nations. So I thank all the people here. And I thank particularly my parents, my family, my children and my wife.
It is a pleasure to see the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) in his place. I first stood for Parliament in February 1974; I was able to discover that there were 14,000 socialists in Tonbridge and Malling, but unfortunately they were 10,000 fewer than the number of Conservatives who voted for the right hon. Gentleman. I took his and his constituents’ advice and moved elsewhere, and it has been my privilege to have served as the Member for Blackburn for the past 36 years.
Blackburn is a singular town in many ways, one of which is that it has had only two Members of Parliament—Barbara Castle, my predecessor, and me—in the 70 years since the war. I learned a great deal from Barbara, not least that the first and most fundamental responsibility of any Member of Parliament is to his or her constituents, however high and mighty that Member thinks they are and whatever office of state they may hold. It is our constituents who are, as it were, our employers and grant us the extraordinary privilege of serving in this place.
When I finally came to the House in May 1979, the conditions of the country were harsh and difficult, yet there was a greater instinctive faith in our political system and respect for its representatives collectively than there is today. There is a paradox here: in the 36 years I have been in the House, this place has become more effective, not less, in holding Government to account. In turn, governance itself has become more responsive and transparent.
In the past, the processes of government were protected by secrecy; judicial review was a rarity; there were no Select Committees; many Back Benchers on both sides held down full-time jobs outside; and the regulation of Members’ interests was elementary. The demands of constituents were far fewer: in the Select Committee that I chaired, we had evidence that, in the 1960s, each Member of Parliament had an average post box of between 15 and 20 letters a week.
Parliament has become stronger, MPs have never been more hard-working and this place has never been more visited, yet cynicism about politics is more pervasive than I can recall. The age of deference has come to an end, which in many respects is no bad thing. We are no longer on a pedestal. But I am reminded of those lines by T.S. Eliot in “Burnt Norton”:
“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.”
We are now having to bear much reality. It would be good to see the prism through which this place and our politics are reported distorting the reality rather less often, but we have to examine the beam in our own eye as well.
The most urgent change needed by this place is in respect of Prime Minister’s questions. This is not a trivial matter about half an hour a week; it is part of the way in which people see our politics. Whatever purpose it served in the past, it now gives a terrible impression and rarely illuminates. It is time to change it. In the short term, we should go back to the 15 minutes on a Tuesday and Thursday; in the medium term, we should ask the Procedure Committee to look more closely at how it should be changed. I suggest that we also need to do something more about attendance in the Chamber. Perhaps we could consider Committee days and Chamber days, as happen elsewhere.
The average length of service for a Member of Parliament is 11 years, and I have been incredibly lucky to have served my constituents for three times that. For a big village, as we often describe ourselves, my town has had to change more than most others as it has absorbed a large Asian-heritage population, but it has done so with a generosity of spirit.
Deciding to leave was incredibly difficult. I love my constituency and I love this place. There has not been a day when, coming into this building, I have not marvelled at its inspiration. I thank my constituents for the privilege it has been to serve them; my wife and family for their unstinting support; my staff; and friends and colleagues on both sides.
This is a wondrous place. I felt that in May 1979 when I first arrived. I feel it still now, as I leave.
It is a great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who was one of the first people to speak to me when I came to this House. He offered help if he could give it. That is the measure of the man, and it is a great privilege to follow him in this debate.
I am equally delighted to have had the honour of serving in the House as the Member for Northampton South over the past 10 years. I was an enthusiastic footballer for most of my first 43 years of life; having the opportunity to be in this place is to me the equivalent of an international cap, and I have been immensely grateful.
Over my 10 years as an MP, I have tried very hard to represent the interests of hard-working people in our county town—particularly those who, like me, would not normally be considered most likely to have a voice in Government. Indeed, I have travelled a considerable distance since leaving my secondary modern school aged 15; I created two businesses on the way, which now employ 300 people. To be here as a late arrival has been fun, but none the less has had its difficulties.
As an MP, I am proud to have worked hard to support the British pub, one of our most vital social resources, although often underrated as such by many. I am pleased to have fought to try to diminish the indignity of putting 27% of the population—those who smoke—out into the cold in shacks and lean-tos attached to pubs when better arrangements could have been provided for them. I am glad to have successfully fought to reduce the granny tax on bingo, which, to our shame, extracted a higher levy than other forms of gambling.
I make no apology for having given voice to the concerns of small businesses, and I served for nine years on the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. I consider that work to have been my major contribution to this Parliament. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and they provide a strong and ethical base that has increasingly seemed to have been forgotten or ignored by many multinationals and large corporate enterprises. I recommend that they look again at that particular aspect of their work.
I am proud to be a Northamptonshire man and to have represented our county town in this place. That provided the opportunity to create the Northampton Alive regeneration programme, which is making such a big difference to our town. The 40 projects in the programme include a new railway station, a new campus for the university of Northampton, a new innovation centre, 1,000 new jobs at our enterprise zone, a new bus interchange, reinvigoration of our improving town centre and a heritage gateway around which the new station exists close to the ancient castle in an area too long neglected.
Most importantly, Northampton Alive has been an inclusive project, providing a forum in which about 100 vital opinion formers in the town, including young people, unions, business representatives and religious bodies, can make a contribution to the project and give feedback to it, giving a degree of ownership to the people we represent.
Finally, I am especially proud of Challenge 2016, a county-wide project instigated by Northampton Alive and run by the Northampton enterprise partnership. In 2012, some 5,600 young people were not in employment, education or training in our county. That figure has been reduced to under 1,500, thanks largely to Challenge 2016 and the efforts of the Government. I am very proud of that particular record. For me, that encapsulates the Northampton Alive approach—providing opportunities for our young people, attracting new businesses, building facilities for cultural and leisure pursuits, highlighting our town’s heritage and creating a first-class environment where people can raise families and live fulfilling lives. That, surely, must be our objective in this place.
My final message, however, is this. Too often we hear that young people lack aspiration. My experience shows that it is amazing how aspirational young people become once they have a job. Mr Speaker, it has been a privilege to serve under you and to serve in this House with the good people who sit around this Chamber, and I am most grateful.
I made my maiden speech on 19 May 1992. By all accounts, it was a brilliant speech, because nobody interrupted me and within hours it was in a bound volume. I am very proud of that.
In ’92, of course, devolution was very much a minority sport. Nowadays it is central to virtually everything we do, as every Bill has on it its territorial reach. I mentioned many times in those early days that I was elected to Parliament in order to leave it, by which I meant in order to secure a Parliament for Wales.
In the 1992 Parliament, I well remember having to stay up all night during the Maastricht debates because I was the youngest of our Members and I was charged with waking up my friends and getting them in for the critical vote, which very often was between 4.30 am and 5.30 am. This went on for months, and often on two or three nights per week. It was at this time that I began to reflect on the enormity of what I had done in leaving a good legal practice and comfortable, rewarding job for this utter chaos, with its points of order, opera hats, “I spy strangers”, and general mayhem. Thankfully, of course, Maastricht came to an end, and something approaching normality descended in its place.
Looking back, I see that my Plaid Cymru colleagues, past and present, have a good record. For the past 35 years, we have pointed out, for example, the iniquity of the Barnett formula, with Wales losing out on billions of pounds over the years, and successive Governments denying it and making excuses. Post the Holtham report and the report from the other place, it is now received wisdom, and the fight goes on.
It so happens that I was the first person in the UK Parliament to argue for a Children’s Commissioner for Wales, and that came in 1993, swiftly followed by our friends in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Some eight years ago, I began a campaign on behalf of ex-servicemen who find themselves on the wrong side of the law after I discovered that upwards of 8,000 were in prison. This became a manifesto issue for every party at the last election.
During the 2010-11 period, I was privileged to chair a working group that brought in laws against stalking. Those laws have now saved lives, and there are currently over 800 cases before the courts. Last month, the Government accepted a ten-minute rule Bill of mine that brought coercive behaviour within the legal framework of domestic violence law.
I well remember opening a debate on the need for Parliament to see the full version of the Attorney-General’s opinion on the legality of the war in Iraq. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) spoke for the other side and did everything he could to trip me up—which was his job, of course, at the time. I opened the debate and my friend Alex Salmond closed for us. From a joint group of nine, we secured a vote of over 280, which I think was quite a substantial thing to do.
I suppose that what I am saying is that someone from a small parliamentary party can actually make a real difference—free of the dead hand of the Whips and free of any ministerial ambitions.
I thank my family for their forbearance and sacrifices. We all know what I mean by saying that: it can be a sacrifice for our families. I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and your deputies for your fair-minded approach to all of us, whichever party we belong to. I thank all Speakers under whom I have had the privilege to serve. I also thank the Library and research staff, my parliamentary staff and constituency staff, and, last but not least, the security staff, police and Doorkeepers who enable us to do our work in the fashion that we do.
In an awards ceremony speech in Cardiff city hall four months ago, I said that I believe that 99% of Members of Parliament are good, honest people who want to make a real difference, and I hold very firmly to that view. I thank the electorate of Meirionnydd, Nant Conwy and Dwyfor for their steadfast support and loyalty over these last 23 years, and I wish my successor well in her endeavours.
If I could wind back the clock, I would do it all again—more than that I cannot say. For one who came to Parliament in order to leave it, I shall miss it and the many friends I have made across the political spectrum.
As many Members here have said, it really has been a privilege to serve in this House. I think of myself as a nine-year-old boy moving to this country and merging two families when my mum, who is from the South Bronx and had four children, married my step-dad, who lived in a very large English country house and had four children, and they had two children between them. We became a sort of Anglo-American version of “The Brady Bunch”, with me as the eldest. I really never dreamed I would be in this House today, and I do feel almost teary that I am leaving, but it has been a privilege.
I thank my hon. Friend for his very kind comments, but I think that sometimes it is important that we put our families before ourselves, and that is a decision I have made.
My constituents have been amazing. Over the past 10 years, I have probably dealt with about 10,000 bits of correspondence. I particularly want to thank my constituents for their support over the past year, both to me and my family. My association has been fantastic. We fought some great campaigns. I particularly want to thank Jenny Jarvis, who was my first chairman, Roger Walters, Chris Siddall, who was my final chairman, and of course my agent Rikki Williams. We had some great times together, and I certainly enjoyed all my campaigns with them.
Unusually for an MP, I have not only got along with my association but actually got along with my councillors. I particularly want to thank Graham Butland, the leader of Braintree council, and David Finch, the leader of Essex county council. We have all worked very well as a team—my association and my district and county councillors. Finally, I would like to thank Paula Malone, my PA, for her support over the past 10 years.
It has been a long journey for me, from Bedford school in October 1973, when I joined the Young Conservatives, and Keith Joseph was my inspiration, to the Oxford Union, where my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) was my inspiration—I have known him for 35 years—to when I became chairman in Bermondsey, stood in Newcastle in ’97, and was finally selected, won and became the Member of Parliament for Braintree.
When we are selected, one of the things we all do is to get stuck into local campaigns. There are many campaigns that I have really got stuck into in Braintree, but I want to highlight just a few of them. For me, getting a community hospital there was one of the great success stories. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Alan Hurst, for the work that he did; I took on that mantle from him. Saving the postal depot at Halstead was a success. When we worked to build up the flood defences in Steeple Bumpstead, the village was torn as to where they should be, and working with both sides and pulling them together was something of an achievement. When there was the threat of 300 acres of solar panels in the north part of my patch, in Constable country, stopping those being built was a success story. I have had some not-success stories. I wanted to get the extension of the A120, which never happened, and a loop between Braintree and Witham, which also did not happen. But those are challenges for my successor, whoever he may be; I certainly hope it is a Conservative.
Supporting local community groups has also been important. I supported PARC—the play and resource centre—by running a marathon and raising £40,000 for it. I have worked with Braintree Rethink, the homeless charities Braintree Foyer and New Direction, and St Mary’s church in Bocking.
I served on the Science and Technology Committee for two years, on the Treasury Committee for four years, and in the Whips Office for five years, and I finally ended up as Minister for Civil Society.
Being an MP provides a great platform for things that you want to campaign on. One of the campaigns that I am most proud of is Women2Win. When I arrived here, we had only 17 female Members of Parliament. Exactly 10 years ago, with Baroness Jenkin, I founded Women2Win. At the last election we had 49 women MPs, and I certainly hope that at the next election we have more. I hope that next we can have a “50:50 by 2020” campaign whereby we get 50% women by 2020. I started the Million Jobs campaign to try to get more young people into work, and I thank the Chancellor for abolishing national insurance contributions for young people. I welcomed the seed enterprise investment scheme, which encourages venture capital, and I worked to protect the International Commission on Missing Persons, for which I got the support of the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks). I have also worked in Rwanda and Syria.
As I bring this chapter of public service to a close, I begin a new chapter of voluntary service. I shall work with Crisis, the homeless charity, and my own charity, A Partner in Education, doing primary education in Rwanda, and I shall spend time at Oxford.
I leave today a little sad. This has been an amazing experience. I have made many friends from all parties. I thank the staff and you, Mr Speaker, for the support you have given me, particularly over the past year. My constituents feel like a part of my family and it has been a privilege to serve them.
Finally, I thank my wife Lucy and my children Benjamin, Sam, Max, Lily and Zachary for the support they have given me over the years.
Like so many other hon. and right hon. Members, I begin by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for the way in which you have led us and conducted our business. It is many years since you and I first met over the Dispatch Box when we debated a piece of secondary legislation on European employment law. The House and our proceedings have been extraordinarily enhanced by the way in which you have presided over us, and I thank you for that.
I also thank the other officers of the House, who conduct their duties often without being properly recognised, including those who provide a service in the Dining and Tea Rooms, the Door Keepers who direct us and, of course, the formidable staff of the House of Commons Library, a facility on which I make far too many demands. I thank all of them very much.
I was first elected in 1992. When I became the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, as my constituency was called then, there were more MPs called John or Jonathan than all the women from all the parties combined. Why does that matter? It matters because the authority of this House is in crisis, which will no doubt be discussed and debated in the forthcoming general election campaign. As you so often tell us, Mr Speaker, this House should talk to the country and not to itself. The Westminster village can be a very comfortable abode, but it is not what we are here to serve. We need a Parliament that looks like, and that talks about the issues that matter to, the rest of the country, and that recognises the cost of child care, the shortage of decent homes and how difficult it is for an 18-year-old with very poor levels of literacy and numeracy to get a job. Dealing with these things is what inspires the confidence of people who live their lives with our politics as a low “brrr” in the corner most of the time. Those are the things that make them feel that we are worth it and worth engaging with.
I faced many challenges in my constituency, and the same is true of other London MPs in particular. The big issue when I was first elected was the number of elderly people waiting on trolleys for admission to the A and E department at King’s College hospital—the extraordinary hospital that serves my constituents. Another issue was the number of children who could not get into the primary school of their choice. There was an educational divide at age 11 whereby white and middle-class children went either to a private school or out of the boroughs. Now, however, with redevelopment at King’s and five new secondary schools in the constituency, the situation has begun to change, but the nature of our progressive politics, which Labour Members in particular hold so dear, means that the job is never done.
The great risk facing my constituency is that it will become a constituency of two types of life: that of the comfortable and well-off and that of the poor. Similarly, our capital city of London faces the risk of becoming two cities.
I am very sad that Sure Start, which was set up as an early nurturing programme by the Government of which I was a member, has been hollowed out. I hope we will never forget the optimism and ambition of the Olympic games, which, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, showed us the better angels of our nature
Without question, the greatest privilege I have had during my 41 years in this House and throughout my life is to have represented the people of Tonbridge and Malling in one of the most beautiful and historic parts of our country. I make a mild apology to Members on both sides of the House that my constituency is a phonetical trap, given that, almost with exception, every town and village is pronounced differently from the way in which it is spelt. I am glad to say that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), with his intimate knowledge from his time as my Labour opponent, pronounced the name of my constituency impeccably when he spoke earlier.
I am also glad to see the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) in his place and I want to take this opportunity to thank him for the contribution he made as a Foreign Office Minister to establishing a sound and effective policy on arms export control for the British Government. I have been the Chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls for the whole of this Parliament, and we have been doing our utmost to secure adherence to the policy the right hon. Gentleman set down in 2000.
I want to address my top concerns as I leave the House. The most important responsibility we have in this House is the proper and effective scrutiny of the Government’s proposals for the future law of the land. I have to be blunt: on the scrutiny of both primary and secondary legislation, this House has had its position in relation to the Executive weakened very substantially in the time I have been here.
The previous Government, early on, introduced the automatic guillotining of all Bills without debate after Second Reading, which represents a huge erosion of the scrutiny powers of the House. I certainly wish to call on the next Government, and indeed on the next House, to revert to the previous position whereby there was no such automatic guillotining of Bills after Second Reading, but there was a reserve power under Standing Orders for the Government to introduce a guillotine motion to deal with a clear attempt to filibuster.
The position on secondary legislation—almost entirely unreported and unrecorded—is every bit as serious in my view. The reason why we have virtually no debates at all on negative resolution statutory instruments and that those on affirmative resolution statutory instruments are for 90 minutes only and non-amendable is of course that secondary legislation is supposed to be relatively non-substantial and non-controversial. That was only a convention, and I believe that the House made an enormous mistake by not giving it a firmer buttress.
The convention was absolutely adhered to, as I vividly recollect. As the housing Minister responsible for the right to buy Housing Bill in 1979, I asked for a particular order-making power and the first parliamentary counsel, who was responsible for the drafting, came back to me—very politely, but very firmly—and refused to enshrine the power in the Bill because it was too widely drafted. I call on the House to revert to the position in which the then convention that secondary legislation should essentially be confined to non-substantive and non-controversial matters is restored and made firm either in Standing Orders or by legislation.
To give an illustration of the existing width of the powers—
Mr Speaker, I understood that your latitude applied only to the opening speakers, not to those of us speaking subsequently, but I await your guidance.
I would tell my hon. Friend that under the so-called Henry VIII powers, Ministers now have an order-making power, which is defined as
“a delegated power which enables a Minister, by delegated legislation, to amend, modify or repeal an Act of Parliament”.
I suggest to the House that that is a very disturbing example of the far too wide use of secondary legislation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I am anxious not to be responsible for cutting anybody out of this debate.
I want to turn to my next very important point. I will not repeat what I said on 6 March in the debate on the private Member’s Bill, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. For me, there is a fundamental issue of principle, which I hope those elsewhere in the House might share. If the Government of the day lose a vote of confidence in this House—if only by one vote—the right to decide the future of the Government should lie absolutely with the people of this country, not with political leaders cobbling together a deal behind closed doors.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), not least because, although we come from different political persuasions, he is the Member of the House I have known the longest, in that we both attended the same school more than 55 years ago. I recall inviting him to see examples of bad housing in the area of west London, where I worked in the late 1970s, when he was appointed as the housing Minister.
I thank the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for initiating this debate. I suspect the inspiration behind it was the speech delivered by Chris Mullin, my former friend from Sunderland, exactly five years ago when he initiated the concept of a valedictory speech under slightly different circumstances. One thing he said was that the “disillusionment and corrosive cynicism” affecting our politics was a deep threat to democratic politics in this country, and I entirely concur with that and with views expressed by other Members who have spoken on that theme this afternoon. In my view that is the biggest challenge of our time.
This is not the occasion to spell out all that is necessary to deal with that challenge, but I will highlight four themes that seem to me important. First is that Parliament must be more vigorous in asserting its power in scrutinising and holding the Government to account. We had a good example of that today, and for me there has been a wonderful symmetry about it. This is my last day in the House, and on my first day in 1986 I had the unusual experience of participating as a newly elected Back-Bench Member in a vote that defeated the then Government—who had a majority of 170—in the Second Reading debate on one of its flagship policies. Today has also been unusual, and I hope that the experience of the House standing up to Government is followed more vigorously and effectively in future as that would be good for our democracy.
Secondly, we must be more effective in devolving power. I am proud to have been part of a Government who did a lot in the way of devolution, and I played a small role in devolution in London to the Greater London authority. We failed, however, to address effective devolution in England, and that hugely important issue must be addressed in the next Parliament if we are to safeguard the future of the United Kingdom and have a Parliament that represents the whole country but does not try to micro-manage it. One lesson for the Government is that we need to do less and do it better. If we devolve more powers that are currently discharged here to sub-regional, regional and local authorities, we can ensure that those authorities have more say over matters that should be determined locally, and we will also work better here because we will be less fixated on the minutiae of government.
Thirdly, the Government must be more serious about governing well. That means being rigorous about policy development on evidence base rather than political prejudice, and more open to scrutiny in the way legislation passes through Parliament. In my view, much of that is currently not as effective as it should be. We should also end the annual reshuffle of Ministers. The ministerial merry-go-round is a serious challenge to good government because it simply denies people with expertise and experience built up over some years the opportunity to influence and shape the future of policy making.
Finally, we must better engage the public here and locally with our work and procedures. Too often, our procedures are arcane and difficult to understand, or they invite contempt. I wholly concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) about the urgent need to reform Prime Minister’s questions, which I am afraid does the House no credit at all. We must also think about how we engage people more effectively at local level and help to break down some of their sense that politics is done by people who are apart from them, rather than part of a process in which they are engaged.
In conclusion, I express my heartfelt thanks to the many people, not least the electorate of Greenwich and Woolwich, who have given me the opportunity to represent them over the past 23 years. I also thank the many colleagues, officers and staff of the House whose friendship, support and advice has made possible the contribution that I have been able to make over these years. I am deeply grateful to have had the privilege.
It is a great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford); I found much in his speech with which to agree. I am sorry we did not have more opportunities to agree on precisely those things over these years, but he justified in his career his remark about leaving Ministers in their office. He showed tremendous capacity as local government and housing Minister, and was much admired for his work in this House.
You and I entered the House in 1997, Mr Speaker, as part of the small Conservative intake. I am choosing not to stand again, but I and our 1997 colleagues wish you well for the future. I will look on with pride at that intake. I remember way back when, as we were engaging in—what did we call it?—in-flight refuelling in opposition against the Labour Government’s large majority, we learnt some of the tricks of the trade of parliamentary life, and the 1997 intake has demonstrated some skill in that area in subsequent years.
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman is very kind. Just as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich mentioned that he shared an alma mater with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the right hon. Member for Blackburn and I share an alma mater. I followed him there and I followed him here, albeit with a slightly bigger time lag.
I want to make some remarks from my heart. First, I want to thank my constituents. I hope they agree with many of the things for which I fought on their behalf in the constituency—infrastructure, the A14, the rebuilding of Papworth hospital, broadband infrastructure, the planning, maintaining our quality of life, supporting research and development and science, and making it the best place in the world for life sciences investment and one of the best in the world for any kind of scientific or high-tech investment. We talk about the Cambridge phenomenon, and a great part of it is in South Cambridgeshire; we can honestly say that we are the eastern powerhouse. I hope it is not hubris to say that I leave my constituency in extremely good shape and with a quality of life among the best in the country.
I also want to say a big thank you to Michael Howard and to the Prime Minister. They gave me the chance to be the Conservatives’ shadow Health Secretary for seven years—contrary to what the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, I had a long tenure in that post—and then the privilege of serving as Secretary of State for Health. Supporting the NHS and improving the health of the people of this country has been my passionate commitment in Parliament. In opposition, we fought for safer care and, in government, we got it. In opposition, we secured the highest ever level of public trust in the Conservative party’s policies for the NHS. In government, we delivered on our commitment to increase the NHS budget in real terms and to safeguard the NHS in tough times. I know that commitment will be sustained by a Conservative Government in the years to come.
I was determined to do more—to achieve the reforms in the NHS that virtually all recent Secretaries of State knew were needed but had not been secured. Many say that I implemented a reorganisation of the NHS that I promised not to do. That is not true. The Conservative manifesto had no reference to “no top-down reorganisation”. I was elected on the Conservative manifesto and I delivered it, including rising real NHS resources; getting rid of political targets; using information and choice to drive better outcomes; creating a strong, independent NHS voice, with GPs at the heart of commissioning; creating Healthwatch to represent patients; cutting administration costs by a third to increase front-line staffing; commissioning a 24/7 service, with GP access from 8 to 8; setting up the 111 service; virtually eliminating the longest waits for operations; cutting infections to record lows; abolishing mixed-sex accommodation; more than 1 million more people getting NHS dentistry; establishing the cancer drugs fund, with 60,000 benefiting from access to the latest treatments; and reforming social care so that people no longer have to sell their homes to pay for their care.
We did that and more. With our Liberal Democrat colleagues, we established health and wellbeing boards, with public health responsibilities and the capacity to integrate health and care. It was not easy and it was not popular, but public service reform is not a popularity contest. It must and will survive. It needs to survive because it will make a big difference in the future. My Back-Bench colleagues were robust, solid and consistent in their support, and I thank them and the Prime Minister for backing reform. The reality will show through in the years ahead, as we have seen in recent announcements, not least from NHS England.
I had a career before coming here and I will have a career after leaving, but I will always remain proud of what we have done here, as well as thankful for the comradeship of colleagues, those with whom I have worked, the staff of the House, the staff in my office and so many across my constituency.
When we are here, we trade blows and we take a lot of blows, but it is probably our families who feel them the most. They cannot go into the arena and fight back, but they feel the pain at least as much as ever we do. I want to say a big thank you to Sally and my family.
I would like to conclude, if I may, with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, who said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds”.
I have always striven to leave my constituency and the country better for my efforts. I may have erred, but I have always cared deeply for my constituency and my causes, and I will continue to do so. Time will be my judge. I am content to have been a man in the arena.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. It might be helpful to the House to know that there are 13 colleagues still seeking to catch my eye, and I am looking to call the wind-up speeches from the Front Bench at approximately 4.10 pm. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. It is roughly five minutes each, but no more.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley). We served together on the House of Commons Commission for a number of years and learned a lot about each other.
I was first elected in 1987. I have to say it was an accident, because I did not expect to win. I took a Conservative seat that had only ever once been won by my party, when Donald Dewar won it in 1966. It is quite an experience when one does not expect to be elected. I lasted until 1992 when the inevitable happened and I lost the seat, but I managed to come back in 1997 as a retread. I now have had what I think is likely to be the unique privilege of representing three separate seats in the city of Aberdeen—Aberdeen South, Aberdeen Central and Aberdeen North—all because of boundary reviews. In the 23 years that I have represented the city, I have been moving firmly further north. I am now, I think, the most northerly Labour Member of Parliament.
This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first discovery of viable quantities of hydrocarbons in the North sea. In that time, Aberdeen has grown from a city that depended on agriculture, fishing and light engineering to become the undisputed energy capital of Europe. It has been a privilege and an honour to have represented the city for 23 years.
The oil industry has brought great wealth to the city, but it has also brought tragedy. The Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 was, with 167 deaths, by far the worst disaster in any offshore industry in the world. The impact and the aftermath have been a huge part not just of my political life, but my life generally. It is not something one shakes off easily. When preparing for these sorts of events, one tends to pick out the main areas that one has concentrated on. I have concentrated on the Piper Alpha disaster and its consequences for offshore health and safety.
I have had a substantial number of opportunities. One I want to say a little about was the part I played in the minimum wage legislation. I think the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire was a member of the Public Bill Committee along with you, Mr Speaker. We spent many happy nights in Committee. I remember one occasion when we sat through the night from 10.30 on Tuesday to 1 pm on Wednesday. We were prepared and the other side were not, and I have to say we enjoyed it immensely. I have also spent much of my political life on trade union issues, and I am proud to have been for 14 years—until relatively recently—the secretary of the trade union group of Labour MPs, which works closely with the trade unions. I have always valued that connection.
I have followed a different career from most. I became the first Chairman of the Administration Committee when it was formed in 2005, and from there I graduated to the Commission, on which I have served with you, Mr Speaker, for the whole of this Parliament, and, as I said, with the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire. I learned a lot from my time with both Committees about how this place is run, and on this point I think we have to work harder. I quickly discovered how much I did not know about how this place operated and functioned, and I think most Members are in the same position; they do not find out about something unless they need to. There does not seem to be a ready need to find out how this place functions and is managed, or about the many staff it employs.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman; I now have a minute left.
The other Committee I have taken an interest in, was a member of and became Chair of was your works of art committee, Mr Speaker. I am proud of and have enjoyed the work I have done on that committee. However, probably the most enjoyable experience of my life—sitting next to my wife, I think this is saying quite a lot—was when the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I was a member, visited Hollywood to look at the film industry and I managed to spend two hours on my own with Maureen O’Hara and Jean Simmons. I challenge any Member to beat that.
Like everyone else, I want to thank the staff of the House, particularly the Clerks on the various Committees I have been involved with, and especially my loyal staff in Aberdeen, most of whom have been with me for a very long time and have kept me sane for most of it.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s joy at meeting his heroines. I empathise: having half an hour last November with Roger Federer in London was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and I will never forget it. For the greatest tennis player of all time to spare half an hour for me was extraordinarily generous of him.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran). I served on his Administration Committee until a PowerPoint presentation on own-brand cookies led me to resign, as I could not cope with the excitement anymore.
I do not know how you slept last night, Mr Speaker, but I have to admit that I did not sleep very well. I knew this was going to be my last speech and I wanted to make it a great oration, but I have worked out that I am what I am—a son of the suburbs. We have heard all these statesmen speaking and people with vast experience, and it is no good my trying to do something I am not any good at. I remember in my by-election, Matthew Parris, the columnist, described me as the missing link. On the pictures of the ascent of man from ape to homo sapiens, I was somewhere in the middle apparently, stooping, with, in those days, an orange hairy chest, or beard, or whatever it was—rather like an orang-utan.
I have tried my best, and I could never have imagined, 18 years ago, standing here now as an MP. I had no ambitions to enter this place at all. It was sad circumstances that led me to being elected and find myself standing here. To represent the area I have always lived and worked in has been the greatest privilege indeed, and of course it has been an easy task to be an advocate for the area in Middlesex I represent. Nothing much has changed since the description I gave in my maiden speech, apart from the fact that RAF Uxbridge sadly has closed—although the Boundary Commission made sure I got RAF Northolt for the last five years. Equally, I feel privileged to have represented an area with such an impressive and proud history.
The job of an MP has changed over the years I have been here. I have attended weighty issues of state. Who could forget the Iraq debate, when I had to resign as Opposition Whip because I wanted to oppose the Government? That seems strange, as the Government was the other side, but there we are. That is what happened. I have also been involved in less weighty issues, but what others might call less important can still be just as important to many people and are often just as fascinating.
One reason why I have enjoyed this job—I hope I have not been bad at it—is that I find people, including constituents, colleagues and everybody else, fascinating. That is what makes the job good. Even when I was in the Whips Office, it was talking to colleagues that made it fun.
I agree, but I am not going to dwell on that. It is for my memoirs—luckily, I am not going to publish them!
I have been lucky in Hillingdon. The previous Member representing Ruislip Northwood was John Wilkinson, and today there is my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)—and we have always got on. We may be political opponents, but we have become friends and we work together for our constituents in Hillingdon. I believe our constituents like and respect that and that they do not like too much adversarial stuff.
I sometimes think when I am watching a rugby match that people are putting everything into the game, but at the end of it, they shake hands and probably go and share a beer together. Some people outside the House probably do not realise that although we have our arguments and discussions that can sometimes get quite heated, we are basically on the same side, trying to help our people.
I have some great memories. I remember going to the smoking room, which was empty apart from Edward Heath and Tony Benn. They asked me to come and join them as they talked about Europe. Both opposed their own party’s particular view on the subject, and I was like a bystander, just listening to them. In many ways, that is how I feel my experience here has been. When I first came into this place, I described it as an “out of body experience”. It has been like a dream. I have a feeling that in six months’ time, waking up in a hospital bed somewhere, I might wonder whether it was all a dream. There might be no trace of anything that went on, no trace in Hansard or anywhere else.
It was sad that my father, Alec, never saw me elected to this place, but I was delighted that my mother did. She was an ardent royalist and was particularly proud of my role as Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household. The fact that I, the grandson of teachers and traders in Uxbridge, was travelling in a coach on a state occasion shows that it is possible to achieve a lot in this country, irrespective of background.
I look forward to engaging and training up my successor. I sometimes have a feeling that it is a bit like “Dr Who”, with MPs morphing into something else. I can already feel my hair getting a bit blonder and I seem to have found an encyclopaedic knowledge of Horace—we never know.
Finally, I would like to thank my long-serving secretary, Delma Beebe, who was with me from the start. She was sent to look after me and make sure I did not make too many mistakes. Luckily, I have not. I thank, too, my wife Kate, my sons Peter and David and my daughter Elizabeth, and, most of all, the people of my constituency for giving me this great opportunity to serve in the best place in the UK, serving the greatest country in the world.
What a momentous day today, Mr Speaker. I was able to vote for a victory on the Labour side, which makes it a great day for me to finish my parliamentary career.
Coming here was the last thing on my mind when I left school at the age of 15 and I went down the pit on my 16th birthday. I worked in the collieries for about 20 years through the dark days of the miners’ strike. I shall touch on that, because it is relevant to what is happening now. We lost our manufacturing base over the 10 years that followed—indeed, Britain’s manufacturing base was wiped out. I spent a couple of months in jail during that time. Before anybody thinks I have made a mistake, let me add that I was found innocent at the end of it. I was found innocent by a jury. It was the only trial jury in Scotland at the time. Thank God there was a jury and not just a judge.
You learn from such things. When I came down here many years later, after being blacklisted for two and a half years, I depended solely on my wife, who had to do two jobs to keep me going. The first tribute that I must pay is to Jean and my family—I have five grandkids now—who have stood by me through thick and thin. If Members think that it is hard for a wife to stand by them in Parliament, I can tell them that it is even harder for a wife to stand by someone who is in jail, and during a miners’ strike. My wife stood by me throughout all those times. I received texts from her and from my daughters today to wish me well, and I promised them that I would not become too emotional.
Next, I became a councillor in Midlothian. That, at the time, was the greatest privilege that I had experienced: representing, as a councillor, the area in which I had been born. For 20 years before that, I had been a union representative in the pits, so I have represented people for most of my life. It will be a strange experience to leave here and, for the first time ever, go home to my wife every night. I do not know how I shall cope. It will be a strange experience for both of us, after 14 years.
You may have forgotten this, Mr Speaker, but you were the first person I met in the Smoking Room. I had been to London only three or four times before—the first time I visited the House, there were police officers outside, and I was starting to attack some of the people in here—and when I finally got into Parliament, I had no idea what the place was like. The election took place in June that year, 2001—as Members may recall, it was postponed because of the outbreak of foot and mouth—and Wimbledon was on. It was impossible to find a place to stay anywhere in London. Eventually, the then Member for East Lothian and I found a boarding house, and, Mr Speaker, you and a good colleague took us there because we did not even know where it was, or what form of transport to take.
You were probably the first Tory that I had ever met, Mr Speaker. It was the first time that I had come to a place and been looked after there by the Opposition. I have always had a soft spot for them for that reason.
It gives me great pleasure to follow a Member—the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall)—who was a Deputy Chief Whip for the Opposition. My right hon. and good Friend the Member for Stirling (Dame Anne McGuire) was my Whip when I was first in the House. I learned very quickly—and I say this as a senior Whip—that you must mean what you say and say what you mean, because if you do not, the Whips will go after you. At the first sign of shuthering, they will pick on that. I have been a Whip for five years, and I love it.
What you learn very quickly is that you have to stand up for what you believe is right. That is something that anyone who enters Parliament should understand. We have had to make some difficult decisions in the past, and that includes the decisions that have been made during the last three parliamentary terms has been difficult. The decision on the Iraq war was one of the most difficult. I was on the side of the righteous and voted against the war, and I still believe that it was the right side.
Let me make a point about that, though. People talk about war crimes and the like, but it was this Parliament that made the decision. It was parliamentarians who made it. We can blame other people for things that have happened, but everyone had to stand up and make their own decisions then, and I congratulate the then Prime Minister on having allowed that. Nowadays, we would never think of going into a conflict without Parliament being consulted. We should stand up and take it on the chin when we make a mistake.
The other occasion on which I voted against the then Government was the debate on the 92-day detention period. That was one of the most difficult decisions that I ever had to make, and I was criticised harshly for it in my own area. That was the only time I have ever been criticised by my own folk.
I am running out of time. Let me end by saying that I will miss this place, and I will miss the Whips Office. I believe that the Whips do a really good job, and the side of their job that no one sees is the compassionate side. When people are in trouble—
I am mindful of the time, Mr Speaker, but I think it important to remember that, while one role of the Whips is to enforce the position of the party that they represent, the second role—the role that is not seen—is the compassionate role. May I suggest a change that could be made by the two major parties? They should appoint a senior Whip to be in charge of the welfare of Members, and—with the greatest respect—that person should not be the Chief Whip, or the Deputy Chief Whip, or the pairing Whip.
When I took my seat in the House with a slender majority of 57 after the Berwick by-election, a state of emergency was declared at the same time. I do not think the two events were connected, but they were the beginning of a sequence which involved two further elections in the next 11 months. At the end of that I still had a majority of only 73. We then went into a referendum on British membership of the European Community—wait long enough and another one comes round. The difference, however, is that in that referendum campaign I was fighting alongside Tories in favour of British membership of the EC and most of the opponents we were dealing with were in the Labour party; the world has changed politically quite a bit in that time. Some 41 and a half years after my first day here, I can say that, with those majorities, I did not expect to enjoy the privilege of representing the people of north Northumberland for so long—longer than any previous Berwick Member of Parliament.
My primary concerns in that time have been those of my constituents in the over 100 towns and villages which make up the Berwick constituency. Like many Members, I have derived real satisfaction from helping constituents who have been ill-served by the bureaucracy of state or local government, or by powerful private businesses. In political life, there are things we know we have helped to achieve, and they are the things we know would not have happened but for our own efforts. In that category I place examples like the dualling of the A1, the new high school being built in Alnwick, and the fact that the RAF has kept its crucial command and control and training facilities at RAF Boulmer in my constituency. For that, I called on the help of an invaluable parliamentary tool: the National Audit Office. It is not often realised how helpful that body is to Parliament and MPs.
The first two examples were certainly made possible by Liberal Democrat involvement in the coalition Government, achieving what previous Governments had failed to do. I am proud to have been a supporter of the coalition, and in my view becoming involved in it was the right thing for the Liberal Democrats to do, in order to provide stability for the country at a time of crisis, to take tough but necessary decisions to reduce the deficit, to temper austerity with fairness and to maintain long-term investment. Many of those things would not have been possible had we not taken that decision to take part in the coalition.
Although I spent a lot of time in the leadership and management team of my party in this House and outside it, I want to concentrate finally on one aspect of parliamentary activity which is increasingly recognised as of real benefit to our constituents, and more rewarding to MPs who want to achieve something than the sterile shouting match, to which several Members have referred, which takes place on Wednesdays at Prime Minister’s questions. Select Committee scrutiny of how well or badly the Government are doing their job has assumed vastly greater importance during this Parliament. Committees are no longer chosen by party Whips; their Chairs are elected by secret ballot—a rather sensitive subject today, but it is crucial to the authority that now attaches to the chairmanship of a Select Committee—and Committee members are voted for by a ballot within their parties. There must be no going back on this vital reform. The next Parliament should build on that reform and should not in any way weaken or undermine it. I welcome the fact that the Liaison Committee, which I chair along with the Justice Committee, has secured, with your assistance, Mr Speaker, £800,000 from the resources of the House in the next Parliament to strengthen and support the work of Select Committees.
By its nature our system allows for a strong Executive, and they must be held effectively to account. We in the Justice Committee have done that, but we have also tried to create space for a more rational, evidence-based objective debate about criminal justice policy. In the Liaison Committee, we have focused our now more frequent question sessions with the Prime Minister, probing in detail the influence that he and the No. 10 staff have on departmental policy. I pay tribute to colleagues in all parties who, despite their different political views, have worked with me in the Select Committee system.
My final word must be one of thanks: to the staff in every department of the House, to the staff in my Westminster and constituency offices, to all those volunteers who have given me so much help over the years, to my colleagues and friends in the Liberal Democrats, and to the electors of my constituency. I hope they will take my advice and return another Liberal Democrat to maintain the liberal philosophical tradition and the Liberal tradition of vigorous local representation which I have sought to uphold in this House.
It is a rare privilege to be allowed to make a valedictory speech, Mr Speaker. I have to admit that this is the first one I have ever had the opportunity to make in leaving a job; normally, there was a wee present and a drink in the local pub, so this certainly is an elevation beyond my expectations.
The people of Stirling paid me the honour of electing me four times and I thank them sincerely for it. Placed at the heart of Scotland, it is a constituency made up of many different and vibrant communities, across an area the size of Luxembourg. It is the most northerly rural Labour seat in the United Kingdom. I am its first woman MP, and there is a little picture of me in the city’s Smith museum, overlooking the marble bust of a previous MP for the city, Campbell-Bannerman, who was against votes for women—I think people going into our Smith museum get the message.
I want to echo the thanks of other hon. Members who have spoken highly of the staff of the Commons. From the moment I entered this place some 18 years ago, they have shown nothing but courtesy and service to me and other Members. Of course, I give a special thanks to my parliamentary staff, Graham, Heather, Aileen, Stephen, Rachel and Gerry, for their support and forbearance during my time in Parliament. I also thank my constituency party members and my trade union, the GMB.
Like you, Mr Speaker, I came into this House in 1997. At that time, pupils in my area were being educated in schools where buckets were needed to catch the rain; we needed a new hospital; our sports facilities were not able to cope with the demands of an increasingly keep-fit society; and the long-held ambition of creating a national park had still not been realised. Yet, within a few years those schools had been replaced or refurbished; new sports halls were built; we had our own new hospital; and one of the most scenic areas in the country, the Trossachs, had become a national park. I make no apology for saying that all those things were completed or commissioned under Labour Administrations.
I am going to pick out two or three highlights in this House for me. The first is the banning of handguns in 1997, and I hope there is never an attempt in this country to weaken that legislation. The second is the passing of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, because for me it was one of the most impressive House of Commons occasions, when people were prepared to put on the public record their own journey to accepting civil partnerships. That made such a contrast with the divisive and harsh debate about section 28 in the 1980s. The third was when, as Minister for Disabled People, I travelled to New York to sign the United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities on behalf of the UK Government, with a young disabled man, Miro Griffiths, at my side. I am sure the Leader of the House, as a former distinguished Minister for Disabled People, will appreciate the significance of that occasion. My regret about these past five years, however, is that some of the progress on disability rights has been seriously undermined, certainly in the eyes of disabled people themselves, by some of the very “radical”—I use the word advisedly—changes in our benefits system.
I am the eldest of a family of four girls. I, along with my sisters Kathleen, Helen and Frances, and our parents, lived for the first six years of my life up a small Glasgow stair, in a tenement. We had a room and kitchen, and an outside toilet. Down here it would probably be called a “studio apartment with bijou facilities”. Moving to a Glasgow housing scheme, which had a proper bathroom, was an unbelievable step up for my hard-working parents. Their ambition for us as their daughters was that we would take advantage of an education system, and we all did. They left school at 14, whereas we took advantage of the education system, and our children thought that university was the way to improve their own education. It was the ambition of that post-war generation that things would be better for their families.
Finally, I want to say a special thanks to my husband Len and my children Paul and Sarah, all three of whom have given me tremendous support. Mr Speaker, when I came into this House I was a “Blair’s babe”. I am pleased today to take leave of it as Orla and Seumas’s granny.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for this great innovation and for the excellent debate we have been able to have as a result of it. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for the innovations for which you have been responsible. I think particularly of the flow of schoolchildren through this House. We all see many more than in the past, and the effort you have put in to educating the next generation in this House will be a lasting legacy.
I begin by recording my debt to my constituents in Havant and explaining to them that when, in my final interview with my local paper, the story was run with the caption, “I leave Havant in great shape” it was not a personal statement about my fitness after years in this place; it was an attempt to be proud of what we had achieved together in Havant.
I thank my family for the inevitable burdens that they have shared as a result of my being a Member of Parliament. I know that my two kids look forward to being able to vote in an election without being under a moral obligation to support their father. I also thank our staff, particularly the three who have served me so well: Helga Wright, Annie Winsbury and Jackie Scaddan.
Colleagues matter. The inevitable ups and downs and triumphs and disasters of politics are among the great features of this place. There are colleagues in all parts of the House who are tolerant and understanding. There are friendships that keep the downs as well as the ups of politics in perspective. Having entered the House in 1992, I think particularly of two good friends, Judith Chaplin and Stephen Milligan, who both died within two years of being elected; that loss stayed with me for a long time.
In several speeches—most notably in those of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) and the former Prime Minister—the great values of Britain were mentioned. Those British values are shared in all parts of the House. But for us, surely, what matters is not just the values but the institutions and conventions that protect them and sustain them. I had the privilege the other day to go to the Magna Carta exhibition. We are celebrating Magna Carta not because it was a list of great principles but because it set out some key practical requirements such as habeas corpus and the requirement that the King’s actions should be scrutinised by the barons, leading to this place. The institutions that sustain those values are what make this country distinctive and special. Among those institutions are this place and also, under-appreciated but equally important, organised political parties. Political activity is about working with others and making the inevitable compromises of working with others. True political activity demands more than simply pressing a button on a laptop to express a personal opinion.
I have been privileged in my career to try to serve some of these great institutions, particularly in the Cabinet most recently as the Minister for Universities and Science. I was able to see and support our great universities and our great scientific institutions.
There is always a risk that valedictory debates become rather melancholy and people regret that things have got worse. Famously, Tip O’Neill, looking back on his time in the American Congress, concluded this about the way it worked: better people, worse outcomes. That has been an undercurrent of concern in several of the speeches we have heard today.
I wish to end on a note of optimism. Looking back to how our country as a whole has changed since I and several others who have contributed to this debate were first elected in 1992, I have to say that Britain is a better place. Britain has become better in many ways. Of course there are always problems to be tackled as social conscience is restless. We are an open and flexible society. All Governments deserve credit: the Conservatives have played an enormous role in strengthening our economy. Looking back on the Blair Government, I think that, at the end of that, we were a more relaxed and tolerant nation than we were in 1997, and that improved the quality of our national life. I feel confident that the young, dynamic, hard-working Members of Parliament who will be coming here for the first time next month will also be making our country a better place.
This has been a momentous day for Parliament, and none of us thought that the day would turn out quite as it did with the votes earlier. Regarding the part of that debate that centred on your role, Mr Speaker, one of the highlights for me over the past 28 years was being invited by you to help drag you to the Chair when you took up the post of Speaker.
For someone like me, from Stoke-on-Trent, it has been an absolute privilege to represent the area that I come from and that I belong to, uninterrupted, for 28 years. I have been fortunate. To have had the trust of my constituents, to have been taken into their confidence, to have been able work to try to make a difference where it really matters—no one could ask for more. I want to say a big thank you to all those who made it possible, not least the party, which had the confidence to select me as its Member of Parliament—coming as I did from Lambeth council, where I was got rid of by Mrs Thatcher —to serve here and make a difference over these years. It has been a huge privilege.
I want to thank my school and my late head teacher, Mr E.S. Kelly. In the days before the film, “The King’s Speech”, he asked me to stand up and speak at a schools award event. I told him I was too nervous and would never be able to do that, but he told me that because of George VI, if I believed in something I had to do it. Little did he know that his words would help me to come here and represent a whole constituency here in Parliament.
I thank my family. My father never knew that I got here, but I thank my mum and the rest of my family for standing by me. It was not easy in those early days, with just 41 women MPs and a young family. I was here every night, sometimes sharing one bed in the Lady Members’ Room when we were up all night long trying to keep everything going and never winning votes, while keeping alive the thought of a Labour Government next time round. We finally got that in 1997, although, unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Dame Anne McGuire), I was never a Blair babe.
When I think about my achievements, many things stand out. No other MP has helped rescue their football team twice, as I had to do with Port Vale. The institutions that keep our constituencies alive are also important and we must ensure that that work continues. My maiden speech was on the subject of health, and I quoted the words:
“The health of the people is the highest law.”
I still feel that that is acutely the case today. I have spent a lot of my time working on health and public health issues, and I am very grateful to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health for giving me a lifetime award—one of only a handful of people to receive one in the 150-odd years of its existence.
I could not have had better support from my staff and family, from my children and now my grandchildren, and, in particular, I want to thank my husband Jan. The important thing is to remember that time flies and that as Big Ben chimes, time is ticking away. Environmental issues are important. We have huge uncertainty about what the next Government will bring and when that will be put in place, but important talks are going on now, later this year in Paris on the climate change convention, and in New York on the sustainable development goals. More than anything else, I ask that this House, those who elect us to it and the young people who are the next generation embed environmental sustainability into its agenda and in all that we do.
I am aware that time is limited, and it has gone by in a flash. It is like a dream. I have every confidence that my successor candidate will be successful and will carry on the work on some of those issues. Only this morning, I was particularly privileged to ask a question about ceramics and origin marking. All of us in this House must do everything we possibly can to safeguard the future of Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries.
The two questions I am asked most frequently about being an MP are: “Is it what you expected?” and “Do you feel you have made a difference?” That usually draws me into thinking about the big-ticket items I have been involved in. The first, of course, is just being here and sitting on the Government Benches, from which our country is being turned around—supporting the Prime Minister; voting in the Lobbies the right way, mostly; and serving on Committees and so on. That has to be the biggest role of any parliamentarian.
Then there are my individual achievements on national issues. Early on, a constituent was affected by squatters, and my office took that up as a cause. I started with an oral question, followed that up with a Westminster Hall debate and got the Government on side, and the law was duly changed via an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Changing the law on squatting was a huge deal, and it has virtually ended squatting in residential properties in the UK. Wikipedia now lists it as “Weatherley’s law”. At this stage I pay tribute to my office manager, Robert Nemeth, who has worked tirelessly on the issue.
Then there is my work on intellectual property, or copyright as many refer to it. I took that up as a cause and was appointed the Prime Minister’s adviser on IP. I have now written four reports, one of which was released today, and they have been well received internationally. The Trading Standards magazine was kind enough to sum up my achievements as
“changing the course of history in the UK regarding IP Rights”.
Back in 2010 we were heading in the wrong direction on IP, and now that has been turned around, with senior politicians on all sides keen to stress their support for the creative industries and protecting their rights. At this stage I pay tribute to my researcher, Michael Ireland, who has also become an expert on the issue.
It is probably right to mention the support initiatives that nudged along the IP debate, my Rock the House and Film the House competitions, which have become the largest in Parliament and culminated last week with the final awards ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, Winfield house. We brought live amplified music to Parliament, with the likes of Fat Boy Slim, Whitesnake’s Bernie Marsden, national treasure Rick Wakeman and Slash playing live, plus the engagement in politics of a large demographic not often easily engaged by parliamentarians. I pay tribute to Niki Haywood, who founded the initiatives with me. I also pay tribute to you for supporting that right from the outset, Mr Speaker. There are two other issues that I should mention: my support for equal marriage and my opposition to fox hunting, both of which I can claim to be achievements.
However, it is not all about the big-ticket issues. I have probably enjoyed even more the work I have done on local issues, from galvanising support for the new Connaught primary school as soon as I was elected to taking on the Department for Education to stop building an unsuitable site on the BHASVIC—Brighton Hove and Sussex sixth-form college—fields and working with countless charities and other groups. The work is not done yet. The King Alfred site needs a world-class facility with a 50 metre swimming pool, so I intend to keep up the pressure there. The “Sage of Sussex”, Adam Trimingham, kindly referred to me recently as “the hyperactive” MP, and I am very proud of that tag.
May I also pay tribute to my other fantastic staff, Rachael Bates and Heather Newbury-Martin? All four of my staff have been with me throughout the five years. The zero turnover of staff must be some kind of record, and it has made working in Parliament an absolute delight.
So, have I made a difference? I think so, and from my mailbag it seems very many others do, too. Is it what I expected? Well, yes and no really. Much less time is spent on meaningful debates than I would have liked, and I would like more Bills from Back Benchers to have a chance of success. On the other hand, this is a great institution, these surroundings are fantastic and my colleagues are among the most dedicated and hard-working co-workers I have ever come across. And, yes, it has been a real honour to serve in this Parliament.
Half a century ago Mr Harry Ewing, a predecessor of mine as Member for Falkirk, described Falkirk as an iron town. He meant that in a worldwide sense, I think. The Carron Company was established in 1759 and sat at the forefront of the industrial revolution, and for over two centuries the iron industry defined the Falkirk area, feeding Glasgow’s shipyards and much else besides. Falkirk’s industry helped power Scotland. Today, a company in Denny called Specialised Castings can trace its lineage all the way back to the original Carron works, and Falkirk’s Alexander Dennis Ltd remains the wholly Scottish-owned manufacturer of the red buses we see across London and, indeed, the world.
Falkirk’s power remains central to Scotland’s industrial economy. Thousands of families in the Falkirk area will be sustained into the future by employment in petrochemicals and oil refining, shale gas importation and in the service industries that serve them. Ineos has committed huge investment to the area, as have the UK and Scottish Governments. Communities that once benefited from employment in mining are now leading the way in a different kind of underground activity—exploring for coal-seam gas. I know that that sometimes makes people in this place a little queasy, but I think it is one of the world’s future power sources.
It has been my great privilege to serve the hard-working folk of the Falkirk area in this place. They are as decent, realistic about human nature, forgiving and aspirational for their families as any people we could meet anywhere. They have been kind to me and my family in challenging times, as have you, Mr Speaker, and Members from across the House. I thank my constituents, all the Members here and the staff of the House for their great human generosity.
Like many Falkirk folk in the oil and chemical industries, and seafarers too, as quite a few come from the area, I have been able to apply the knowledge of oil, gas, mining and shipping that I have gained from representing those folk to other parts of the world, such as Africa—indeed, with yourself, Mr Speaker.
Falkirk people are the opposite of inward-looking wee Scots. They are the most decent and outward-looking people in the world. As a natural Unionist, who has served that Union in this place and in our very fine British Army, I recognised the narrow referendum vote in favour of the Union and the narrow win for the Union locally not as a sign of narrow-mindedness locally, but as the harbinger of the end of the Union as we know it. Most Falkirk folk, like most Scots, define themselves as Scottish first now, and many of those who chose the Union last year did so largely through fear. Scots are being asked for their votes now on the basis that they may get a larger share of UK wealth than many folk in England feel is fair. The Union cannot exist on the basis of fear or an appeal to greed. When greed and fear are the watchwords, we know that the tipping-point has been passed.
The Labour party in Scotland has not let anyone down, except people who did not like Labour Governments or Labour Prime Ministers, which admittedly included quite a few Labour party members, as I recall. However, from my modest participation in this place, I believe that the Labour party has done a great deal to be proud of. It faces great difficulties in Scotland. Scots feel that they face a choice between a new uncertain future in which they are masters and mistresses of their own destiny or behaving as if they are making menaces. That is how many people south of the border feel—that menaces or threats are being made that if great resources do not go up to Scotland, bad things will happen across the UK.
My strong view is that whatever the constitutional future of Scotland, the Labour party in Scotland needs to establish its own independent entity in Scotland. Two of my very close colleagues, my secretary May McIntyre, whom I thank, and Dennis Goldie, appear to own the trademark for the Scottish Labour party, so I suggest that the Labour party in Scotland treat them nicely and not threaten them. They are long-serving, very loyal Labour people.
Members of the English intelligentsia have already decided that Scots are on their way. They think it is a shame and hope it will all turn out for the best. Most English folk are concerned mainly about the impact of Scotland on their constituencies or where they live in England. They have discounted the result in Scotland—they think they know what is going to happen in Scotland.
The time has come for Scots to behave like the big boys and girls they are. Above all—this is what I am most concerned about—they need to convince energy businesses that Scotland will be stable economically, regardless of the new constitutional status. We have to move on from the Union we know to something altogether new. There is risk involved, and romance may well be the first casualty.
I always said that I would leave this place before I lost the buzz of having the privilege of speaking in this Chamber. I am very happy to say that after 18 years I am doing that.
There are many people who did not think I would last 18 years. The late Lord Rees-Mogg wrote an article every time I stood for election, saying that on the basis of an extensive poll of his friends and family, I was going to lose the next election. It did not quite happen. I was elected for the first time with a majority of 130. I followed it up at the following two elections still with three-figure majorities. I increased my majority each time, but by nothing so vulgar as four figures, until last time. Had I done it four times in a row, I think I would have established a more recent record for any parliamentarian, having four three-figure majorities, but I blew it by getting a larger majority at the last election.
I made up for it by being the first Liberal Minister to speak from the Dispatch Box since 1945, the previous one being Sir Archibald Sinclair. That will be my little footnote in history. I hugely enjoyed my time in government, both in the job of Deputy Leader of the House and as Agriculture Minister, although I was faced with an almost endless succession of acts of God, it seemed to me when I carried out the latter role, so much so that I felt I was the Minister for the apocalypse. It was pestilence, plague, floods, death and destruction on an almost daily basis.
I want to say that I was very proud to be a part of the Government. I particularly thank those in my two private offices who made my life bearable and supported me so well during that time. The principal role, of course, is to represent one’s constituency. I sometimes feel that I have become a bit of a Somerset cliché. I have brought matters to the House such as thatching, cider making, cheese making and carnivals—things that make people think, “Oh, for heaven’s sake—he’s doing his west country thing again!” My answer to that is that if I did not say those things, who on earth else would represent my constituents?
I like to think that I have also made progress on some really important issues—the A303 finally being done after all these years, the Great Western railway, what I hope will be successful responses to the flooding in my constituency, and maybe even broadband for some of my rural areas. When I was first elected, I did not imagine that Frome would ever be listed as one of the coolest places in Britain, but it has been repeatedly in recent years, along with Bruton, another town in my constituency. Even more importantly, I did not imagine, back in the ’80s when unemployment in Frome was 17%, that it would now be less than 1%—statistically, that is full employment. That is a great virtue and I am very pleased about it.
The House needs to address some issues. There needs to be further reform, as I do not believe we have completed the job. I have a huge amount of time for my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and I think we significantly reformed the House, but things were left undone—such as the establishment of a House Committee, on which we were, if I may say so, thwarted. I hope that future Governments will set one up.
We need to get a better balance between the constituency responsibilities of Members of Parliament and their responsibilities in this House. When I was first elected, I went on to the Foreign Affairs Committee. Other members of the Committee thought I was ineffably quaint because I insisted on going back at weekends to do surgeries. Some 99.9% of Members now do advice surgeries most weekends, but that may be at the expense of the scrutiny of legislation, and that worries me.
We obviously need to carry on working on the relationship between constituents and MP, aided and abetted of course by reports in the press. I do not mind occasionally being called names by the press. I remember once being called “a Tajik with toothache”; another time I was described as a cross between David Lloyd George and Father Christmas. That we can deal with, but we should not put up with the constant, relentless, drip, drip, drip of negativity towards MPs.
Lastly, I could not have done my job without the support of my staff: Georgina and previously Jack in London, and Claire, Chris and Teresa at my office in Frome. I could not have done it without my family, particularly my wife Caz and my children Bethany and Tom. I am very proud of having served the 900 square miles, 135 villages and 82,000 happy, smiling, tolerant, independent, bloody-minded, cantankerous Somerset people—and I am proud to be one of them.
This is a difficult and somewhat moving moment in which to give a final speech in Parliament, made impossible by the need to compress 38 years of thoughts into five minutes of gabble. I realised that it was time for me to go when I found that, although I was still able to ask smart questions in the Public Accounts Committee, I was totally unable to hear the answers. That made it difficult to reply.
It is more difficult for a Back Bencher to leave than for the big beasts, so many of whom have spoken today. I have to report that I have not, so far, had any offers of £6,000-a-day jobs—not even £6.50 has been talked of. There has been no suggestion that I should mosey along the corridor to the hospice down there, although I have been allowed to dine twice in the Barry Room, perhaps as a preparation for going there.
The reaction of constituents has been less than sentimental. I have here a letter from yesterday’s Grimsby Telegraph that says:
“what has Austin Mitchell done for Grimsby??...He has been leading or hud winking the true people of Grimsby all these years. Unfortunately when I return to my beloved Grimsby it does not resemble the Town I grew up and was so proud of. The streets are neglected the roads are in need of repair. I see a lot of misfortunate people in the streets of our main town centre wondering aimlessly in the day. Where has our spirit gone? No thanks to you Austin Mitchell”.
Well, I am sorry to have made such a botch of the job, but I have worked hard for Grimsby.
Thankfully, I have had no higher ambition than to be a Back Bencher, and the Labour Front Bench has agreed with that ambition and kept me as a Back Bencher, so I am speaking today as a Back Bencher.
The best part of this job has been fighting for Grimsby. Our constituency has been sadly maligned by programmes such as “Skint” and by Sacha Baron Cohen’s forthcoming programme on Grimsby, which portrays us as a lot of under-educated Millwall fans. In fact, it was filmed in Tilbury rather than Grimsby. We have been sadly neglected because all the goodies that Government hand out tend to go to the bigger cities with bigger populations and more MPs. We have suffered more from the cuts.
I think I have been able to achieve things for Grimsby, such as compensation for the fishermen who lost their jobs in the Icelandic fishing dispute, raising the status of the college, getting Europarc and the jobs that went with it, and Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises. That has been the joy of my existence. I am happy that my Labour successor will carry on that fight for Grimsby with all the vigour and courage of somebody younger and more dynamic than I am. I am happy that better times lie ahead for Grimsby, because we shall become the centre of the North sea wind turbine industry, with maintenance and supply carried on by Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises and construction carried on by the Able UK construction site at Stallingborough.
I am sad to be giving up the little platform of power that we have as MPs, because from it we can ask questions, taunt the Executive, and push causes. Perhaps I have pushed too many in my time, but it has been a very interesting and rewarding role. I am sad to be leaving the Select Committee, because Select Committees have been a joy of our existence. We can no longer control the Executive. We can check the Executive, as we did today, but that is only when they do something daft. We cannot control them; they control us. The job of Back Benchers, and indeed Parliament, is to heckle the steamroller of the Executive as it drives over us. However, we can audit the Executive. That is the useful job that the Select Committees are doing in absorbing so much energy and giving us such a rewarding role to replace the roles that have faded away as we have lost power as MPs. We are the auditors of the system—the auditors of power. We audit its mistakes and its policies: what it is doing wrong and what it is doing right. We need to develop that role. We are all auditors now—let’s go for it!
In the short time available, I want to take the opportunity to thank all the people who have made standing here, in this cockpit of the nation, possible for a humble lad from Birmingham.
First and foremost, I thank my family, without whom I would never have inherited my interest in politics, let alone the confidence to pursue it. I think that interest stems from my great grandmother, Nora Hinks, who was one of the earliest female councillors in Birmingham—admittedly for the Liberal party—in the early 1950s. My mother, Lois, and my grandmother, who we call Mrs Ward, both played a huge role in the 2010 campaign that led to us winning Cannock Chase. Mum was out pounding the streets of Cannock whatever the weather, regularly delivering leaflets in the cold and rain, even in the snow. She even let me move back into her house, aged 30, and without that base in Birmingham I would never have been able to campaign so effectively 20 miles up the road to win the seat. She was always there, no questions asked, and ready to help, as indeed she has been all my life.
Mrs Ward, despite being in her nineties, often sat up into the late hours folding leaflets and putting them into walking routes. Others here will know how important it is to have a map with the roads highlighted on it to give to the deliverers, and it is fair to say that they were placed in the neatest piles, with the maps perfectly folded, when she personally organised them.
I also thank my dad, whose donation of a week’s holiday in his villa in Bali raised the most amount of money of any of our auction prizes in my campaign, securing vital funds to put out all those leaflets and newspapers, which are so important in persuading people to vote for us.
My sister Briar and my brother-in-law Rick were also regular visitors, driving all the way up from London to, as Rick used to sing in the car, “Keep posting those letters!” My sister has always been a rock of support for me over the years, keeping me sane when the times were tough and encouraging me to have a positive outlook—a necessary requirement when fighting a seat with a 9,000 Labour majority. Her husband also wins the prize for the best letter to the editor of the local paper, saying that as the new MP for Cannock Chase I should get a Staffordshire bull terrier and name it Chevy Chase, which I promised to do, but did not—typical politician!
More than anything, I want to thank my long-suffering agent, Ian Collard, and his wife Rowena. They have worked more hours for me and my campaign than anyone else and they have never asked for a single penny in return. They were the architects of the 2010 campaign that secured the biggest swing of the election—a whopping 14%, which even the BBC called a “staggering result”. Without their meticulous planning, advice and strategy, we would never have won, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for enabling me to have the experience of being an MP. They will remain true friends for long after I leave this place.
Finally, I thank my wife Jodie, who is sitting in the Gallery and who has worked for more than four years as the manager of my constituency office, the MP help zone. Dealing with some of the most complex cases and often the rudest and most awkward constituents, she has maintained a quiet dignity and poise that few could match. Our wonderful wedding in the Crypt last August was the highlight of my time here—a truly magnificent venue and a day we will never forget.
In this House, I personally thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) for his unparalleled support and kindness to me, especially during the tough times, and wish him every success for yet another term in this place. I do not know how he does it. My dear friends Chisholm Wallace and Harry Spencer Smith have also been stalwarts and will remain good friends for years to come. Indeed, besides the parliamentary seats being contested, this House does not forget those fighting for district council and other seats. From Walsingham to Walham and from Cornwell to Cadwell, we wish them well.
Being an MP has been an incredible journey—a rollercoaster, really—with some huge highs as well as a few lows, but with the good more than cancelling out the bad. It was an itch I had wanted to scratch since I was a young man, when I met John Major in the 1997 general election, and I feel very fortunate to have achieved my dream when I was just 31. I had not expected to win the seat, let alone with the biggest swing in the country, but that just goes to show what can be achieved with great campaigning, hard work and the right team.
Being an MP has been a tremendous privilege, with some unique experiences and the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of constituents. In what other job could someone save a hospital, electrify a train line or run a series of jobs fairs to help people back into work? We are rightly proud of all those achievements in Cannock.
Being an MP also comes at a great cost, including being away from home four nights a week, working very long hours, often for lower pay than before, and with constant, unwanted and unwarranted media intrusion into every aspect of ours and our families’ lives. It is a price that was once worth paying, but for me that time has now passed and I look forward to new challenges, greater freedoms and a life outside this mad House.
Forty-eight years ago, when I first joined the Labour party having been rather angry at the way in which a landlord had treated a neighbour of mine, little did I think that I would end up here. I thought about that when I gave my maiden speech on 6 May 1992. The 23 years between then and now have been extraordinary and I have a lot of people to thank for that, particularly from my local party, which contains some great stalwarts and wonderful people.
We have heard tributes being paid to great people in politics, some of whom work at the local level. Reg Chrimes and the late Fred Venables and Norman Angel—extraordinary people of great integrity—had something like 150 years of public service as councillors between them. If a little bit of their integrity has rubbed off on me, I will leave this place a proud man.
You were involved in one of my achievements here, Mr Speaker, namely my 10-year campaign to have Nelson Mandela’s appearance in the Great Hall recognised with a plaque there. It did take rather a long time. I remember the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), when he was the Leader of the House, pointing out that the wheels grind very slowly here. That is probably the only early-day motion I have signed that has had an effect.
I want to reflect on such things as the legislation on agency workers and the work done—on a cross-party basis, I have to say—to support Vauxhall Motors. We have transformed that company with the support of Ministers from all three political parties. More recently, there has been the acquisition of the Thornton research centre, which must be going in the right direction because it has attracted visits by four Cabinet Ministers within the past year. We hope to see more Cabinet Ministers—Labour ones, I hope—during the next Parliament.
In the past few years, I have concentrated my efforts on the science agenda and the work of the parliamentary and scientific committee, the first ever all-party group. It was formed 75 years ago, and last year it had its 75th birthday party, hosted by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh in Buckingham palace. There is also the work we have done on the Science and Technology Committee during the past five years. It is a great pleasure to see the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) in his place, because he had to face me many times in enjoyable exchanges.
Some of those points are covered in the Select Committee’s legacy report. In the foreword to the report, I have commended the extraordinary staff we have in this House, and put on the record my thanks to the Committee for its collegiate approach. We have never had a political division in the Committee; yet we have published some reports that are quite blunt about failures within Government. That says a lot about the new process, and reflects well on the election of Chairs and the authority that that gives Chairs over their Committee. I refer hon. Members to the Chair’s foreword to the legacy report, because there is a wonderful picture of me in the Jubilee Room setting off a methane mamba in my hand. It could have set the Houses of Parliament on fire, but I assure everyone that it was a controlled experiment.
Just yesterday, a Bill was published. I do not know, Mr Speaker, whether from your deep reading of parliamentary literature you are aware of the publication of this fake Bill by the science community—you can guess who was behind it. It is called the Andrew Miller parliamentary farewell appreciation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill and was presented to me in all its glory, looking just like a parliamentary Bill, by the science community. I am immensely proud of that, but what I am really proud of is the work that the Committee has done to deserve the accolades it has received.
Finally, if I may, I want to thank the staff I have had over the years, and particularly, as several hon. Members have done, to thank my family, and nobody more than my wife Fran, who has stuck with me through thick and thin during this period. It has been an extraordinary 23 years, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.
This debate is a Backbench Business Committee innovation, and I suspect that we will probably have such debates in subsequent Parliaments. Today has been a fascinating insight into many careers: some have been longer, greater and grander than others, but all have added value to our life as a democracy and have assisted our constituents.
I think that I can safely say that I am the only Member in the Chamber who actually wishes to be returned to serve in this place after the general election. [Interruption.] Oh, sorry—some may have a harder job than others. It has been important to listen to the valedictory speeches, but I certainly hope that this is not mine.
I have been adding it up—this is probably wrong—but I have calculated that we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members with 677 years of experience serving in the House. Obviously that is all squashed together and not linear, but the House has benefited from that experience over the years. Such experience will be missed when hon. Members call it a day and Parliament prorogues, dissolves and ceases to be, and they go on their way to live and—I hope—very much enjoy the rest of their lives, be it in retirement or other vigorous work and experience.
We have listened to some gems in this Parliament’s final debate, and we have heard from three Leaders of the House whom it has been my privilege and fun to serve opposite during my three and half years as shadow Leader of the House. We heard from the right hon. Members for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), and for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague)—I note that it is the birthday of the current Leader of the House, so I wish him a happy birthday. I suspect he has had rather happier birthdays than today, but I hope it gets better later on. Those three Leaders of the House have had rather contrasting styles, but I have enjoyed working with them on the House of Commons Commission and serving opposite them. I had a little joke and verbal joust at their expense, the occasional barb of which might have hit home, but I have been punched back as many times as I have managed to land my own blows.
We also heard from a distinguished ex-Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who spoke about the future after his 32 years in Parliament. His passion for equality and the developing world—he is currently the UN special envoy on global education—was evident, as was his morality, the approach he takes to equality in politics, and his passion for football. More than anything, we heard his warnings about the dangers that we approach if we balkanise our country, and he said he would “fight, fight and fight again” to save the Union. His unquenchable faith in the future also came through in his remarks, and he reminded us that we work best as a country when we co-operate rather than collapse in a morass of contention.
We heard from many distinguished “big beasts”—that is how my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) described them—including my right hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Mr Hain), for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), who have all had fantastic achievements. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood had the triumph of the Olympics, but we should also remember the sensitive way in which she handled the relatives after 7/7. Somehow I do not think she is intending to leave politics altogether, and I wish her luck and will support her in any future bids she may make.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) spoke about representing the entire constituency thanks to evolving boundary changes over the years, and about the transformation that Aberdeen’s emergence as the energy capital of Europe has made. He said that one of the best parts of his parliamentary career was going to Hollywood and meeting Jean Simmons and Maureen O’Hara, and he asked if anyone could better that. All I can say is that I think I can, because I was introduced to K D Lang by Chrissie Hynde. They are also two very interesting women to get to meet, and I am sure that I enjoyed my discussions with them as much as he enjoyed his time in Hollywood.
We have heard many gems of speeches. What shone through in all of them is the glory of our constituency system, in which people look after particular geographical areas, the dedication with which they do that and the way in which having that connection with real communities puts us more in touch with what is going on in our country than many people who comment on politics. I hope that is one aspect of our political system that will never be changed. What has shone through for me in this debate is the dedication, hard work and enduring commitment that Members, whether they have served here for five years or 42, have given their constituents.
I wish everyone who is retiring a long and happy retirement, and I wish everyone who is going on to pastures new, happy green pastures.
My challenge in seven minutes is to mention one thing about as many as possible of the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, and to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for suggesting it. I also join him in thanking the staff of the House for the professionalism of our security staff and Doorkeepers, the long hours of the Clerks and the staff of the Library and the massive expertise that keeps this building running despite all our best efforts to make it so difficult.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). I have disagreed with him about virtually everything in his career, but we should thank someone who has been Prime Minister of our country and served 32 years—a lifetime of public service in this place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) has been one of my cheeriest colleagues in my time in the House, and I can tell the House that when I was Leader of the Opposition, I needed cheery colleagues.
The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) spoke of the importance of being a woman MP when she was first elected. It is still important, and there should be more. One of the great prizes of the 21st century will be the full social, political and economic empowerment of women everywhere. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) spoke about the importance of the connection with the constituency, which is a good argument against proportional representation, on which many of us will reflect.
The most revealing comment from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) was that when he was first appointed a Minister, the call was from Alastair Campbell, not Tony Blair. That tells us something about that Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien) is going on to an important role in the United Nations which, sadly, will only carry bigger burdens with it. The House wishes him well in that role.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for his recent work in the House. I hope that after recent controversies his career will be seen in the full context of his achievements. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) said that he had created two businesses and employed 300 people before he came to the House, and we need more people who create wealth and business here.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said that as a Welsh nationalist he came to Parliament in order to leave it, and I am pleased that he is not leaving with his country as I will live there for much of the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) has been a great advocate for his constituency, and I remember that when he was selected for Newcastle—which he also became a great friend and fan of—he was astonished, because he had gone to the selection meeting not really caring about the result and not pretending to have any link with the constituency or any familiarity with it, and the selection committee chose him because he was honest.
We should recognise the important role played by the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) in staging the best ever Olympic games in the history of the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) spoke about the decline of scrutiny in this House, but he has been a very good example in his own career, as Chairman of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, of the enhancement of scrutiny in this House.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) spoke about ending the annual shuffle of Ministers, but actually this Prime Minister has made quite a lot of progress in that regard, something I have always urged on him. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) spoke about the eastern powerhouse. He has been an intellectual powerhouse.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) has made a great contribution to the House and its Commission. My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) almost morphed into the Mayor of London in his speech, which was quite a spectacle.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) spoke about having only been to London three times when he was elected—more a culture shock to London than it was to him—and spoke about the compassionate side of the Whips Office. That is a new concept for the nation, but an important one that Members of this House are familiar with.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) spoke about not going back on the role of Select Committees. He is right. The right hon. Member for Stirling (Dame Anne McGuire) spoke about going from being a babe to a granny and about her work for disabled people. I regard my proudest legislative achievement as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. My right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) has been one of the most outstanding Ministers of science ever.
I cannot go through all the other remarks by the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and for Hove (Mike Weatherley), the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), but they all spoke powerfully and well. It has been such a display of brilliance that it is hard to imagine how the House will do without us all, but I am sure it will.
I have found the people of north Yorkshire, with their enterprise, resourcefulness and good humour, to be the inhabitants of one of the most welcoming places on earth and one of the best places on earth to be. To be their MP for 26 years has been a privilege beyond measure.
I want to thank my colleagues around this House. I can say with conviction, as Leader of the House, that I believe the great majority of colleagues in all parties are sincere and hard working. The reputation of this House can be restored by a continued display of that.
When I saw the Youth Parliament sit in this Chamber in November last year, I could see how inspiring the future can be and how, as so many of us leave the House, we can be confident that there will be a new generation of extremely impressive young people who will come to this House. Meeting young people is generally the single most encouraging experience that most of us have as Members of Parliament. The Youth Parliament was a display of that a few months ago. It is something I will remember on leaving this House after such a long time in it.
I again pay tribute to all colleagues who have taken part, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, to whom I must leave the last word in this debate.
With the leave of the House, may I add a very brief footnote to what the Leader and the shadow Leader have just said? When the three sponsors of this debate were successful in securing the debate, there was a lot of sucking of teeth in various quarters of the House. This was a dangerous innovation. It had never been done before and, I was told, it would literally end in tears.
I am very glad we went ahead with the debate for two reasons. First, it has provided a structured framework within which those who wished to make a farewell speech have been able to do so without shoehorning it into some other debate. There have been some excellent speeches and the next Parliament would do well to look at the advice that has been handed to them by those who have spoken.
The second reason is this: we have had a useful counterbalance to what happened this morning. This morning we had a very lively and, at times, bad-tempered, harshly worded debate. It would have been sad if the House had prorogued at that moment. I think this afternoon has provided a useful counterbalance to what happened this morning, and it has provided a more dignified, consensual end to a coalition Parliament.
I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. I hope that succeeding Parliaments might tread in our footsteps.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming dissolution.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I echo the sentiments expressed by the retiring Member, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young).
Yesterday, while I was asking a question, you intervened, Mr Speaker, because a Conservative Member shouted, “SNP gain”. I could have said, “Well, that’s exactly what the Conservative Members want—more SNP Members down here”, but I did not respond because traditionally if a Member does not respond to a sedentary intervention, it does not get recorded. In fact, however, I find it was entered in Hansard in column 1429. I denied myself that political point, because I wanted to concentrate, as you know, on the serious question facing my constituents. Will you look at this matter again, Mr Speaker? It has been said that someone else referred to the incident three questions later and therefore it was entered into the record.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I understand that Hansard followed its usual policy to include an intervention from a sedentary position if it is commented upon in subsequent proceedings, as in this case. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I am sure he will understand that we cannot take the matter further at this stage.
The sitting is suspended until 5 pm. Shortly before the sitting resumes, I shall cause the Division bells to be sounded.
Sitting suspended (Order, 24 March).