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1.43 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early. Before I do so, I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on his excellent maiden speech and on drawing the House's attention to an important issue, the way in which the description on the ballot paper can mislead the electorate, and the need for legislation.

I thank the people of Sutton and Cheam for returning me as their Member of Parliament. My predecessor, Lady Olga Maitland, represented Sutton and Cheam for five years. She was an assiduous attender and participant in debates and Divisions in this House. Indeed, I understand from the Library that she was in the top 22 for oral questions in the previous Session. She was and is a forceful personality who pursues causes in which she believes with great energy.

This is not the first occasion on which a Liberal or Liberal Democrat has been sent to Parliament by Sutton and Cheam electors. In 1972, my colleague and friend Graham Tope, now Lord Tope, was elected in a sensational by-election. He started an all-too-brief career in December 1972 by delivering his maiden speech a little over two hours after taking his seat. I am pleased that I did not have to go through that ritual.

It is a great source of pride to me to be part of the largest Liberal Democrat parliamentary party since 1929. I have no doubt that my election in Sutton and Cheam owes much to the hard work and leadership of Lord Tope in the constituency over the past quarter century.

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Sutton and Cheam, for those who are not so familiar with it, is in south-west London, just 13 miles from this Chamber. The constituency nestles on the edge of the north downs and it is, I believe, one of the greenest constituencies in London, both in terms of its politics and in terms of its environment. Indeed, it has the greatest tree cover in London. It is a great place to live. It is the place where I was born and it is the place where I wish to continue living.

Sutton and Cheam has, on any measure, some of the best schools in our country. I have the pleasure of being a school governor of Westbourne primary school. It has just received one of the most glowing Office for Standards in Education reports that I have had the opportunity to read. It is all strengths and no weaknesses--a real tribute to the staff and pupils of that school.

A number of concerns were raised with me as I was out campaigning in the general election. One concern that I am particularly keen to draw to the House's attention is the effect of the Greenwich judgment. It is a judgment by the courts, which effectively denies to many children in my constituency the opportunity of getting a place in the school that their parents choose for them. In some cases, it is denying children a place in a high school in my constituency altogether. I am determined to press for legislation to change the law and thus lift the stress and burden that many parents feel as a consequence of the transfer to high school and of the way in which the judgment penalises them.

The single most important issue that came up on the doorsteps in my constituency during the general election was the health service and the financial crisis in which the previous Government had left it. My and my constituents' local hospital is St. Helier hospital. Even as the election campaign was proceeding, a ward was being closed. That was on top of the spectacle of many people being forced to wait for hours during the winter on trolleys to get treatment in accident and emergency. It is vital that the Government act not only to safeguard the health service, but to go beyond that. They must stop the closures, employ more nurses and doctors, make sure that we see real cuts in bureaucracy and give additional resources to our health service.

During the general election, I was greatly impressed by the many people who expressed concerns to me about the rights of disabled people. I was much heartened yesterday, therefore, when I heard the Secretary of State for Education and Employment say that he would review the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I believe that the Act falls well short of the comprehensive civil rights legislation that disabled people want and are entitled to. Although I welcome much of what is in the Queen's Speech, I am sorry that it was silent on that question.

I hope that the Government will do more than simply incorporate the European convention on human rights into UK law, welcome though that is. We need a powerful human rights commission to strengthen the protection of individual rights, and that includes the rights of disabled people. Disability is a social and political issue as well as a physical one. An impairment becomes a disability as much if not more because of social and political barriers. Rather than accepting exclusion, the emphasis must be on identifying and removing external barriers. I hope that the Government will accept that principle when they review the Disability Discrimination Act.

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Fundamentally, civil rights for disabled people are about removing the political and social barriers that often cause physical barriers. They are about changing attitudes and challenging the "Does he take sugar?" attitude towards disabled people. In opposition, many Labour Members took a lead in promoting such a change. I hope that, in government, that commitment will shine through.

As a councillor for the past 11 years, I believe passionately in the need for decentralisation, which is vital for renewing our democratic life and for rebuilding a sense of community. Therefore, I hope that the Government will introduce legislation to give local government a power of general competence to act for the common good and in the service of local communities.

Earlier today, there was talk of flow charts and the way in which the incorporation of the European convention on human rights would affect this place. I was elected as a councillor to the London borough of Sutton in 1986, the year of the demise of the Greater London council. I had the opportunity to serve on some of the joint boards that dealt with such matters after abolition; we have faced a chaotic mess in London in the past 18 years as a result of that abolition. I look forward to the creation of a new strategic authority for London. However, the test for the Government will be how far they delegate powers from Whitehall to a new strategic authority and how little they encroach on the London boroughs.

There is a new mood in the country. The Government begin their administration with a great fund of good will. Now is the time and the opportunity to modernise Britain's outdated institutions, rebuild a sense of trust, renew democracy and give Britain's nations, regions and local communities a greater say in our affairs. I hope that Parliament will address those issues. If it does, it will make a real difference.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have sat here for four hours and 20 minutes as the only Opposition Member present representing a Welsh constituency. I regard the House as having a reputation for fairness, but no Opposition Member representing a Welsh constituency has been able to contribute to today's debate on constitutional reform. As a Welshman, I am used to being treated with contempt, but I would not have expected my nation to be disgraced in this way in the House. I am sure that that was not your intention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that it will not happen again. If the Secretary of State for Wales will allow me, I shall attempt to intervene in his speech.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The hon. Gentleman has some experience of the House and he knows the difficulties of the Chair, particularly early in a Parliament when a great number of new Members are seeking to catch one's eye and make a maiden speech. His party has had very adequate representation in that respect. I hope that he will recognise that it is a matter of taking the rough with the smooth and that no slight to the nation of Wales was ever intended.

1.52 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): We all appreciate the difficulties that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues have on these occasions in trying to fit in all

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those who wish to speak. I congratulate you and your colleagues on your appointment. We are certainly pleased to see you in the Chair and we look forward to the way in which you will handle our deliberations in the months and years ahead.

I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Scotland. He and I go back a long way, even further than the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), in that we go back to the days when we were both practising in different branches of the law in Scotland and we sometimes found ourselves working on the same side. I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours. I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Wales, with whom I have not had as long a connection. Although I have had political experience in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, I have yet to have political experience in Wales and I wish him well.

This has been a wide-ranging debate. We have touched on a number of important constitutional issues. Although I suspect that we shall have to await further detail on many of them before we can do them justice, the debate has been an important opportunity for a first trot around the course of the constitutional reforms that the Government are suggesting.

We have had a veritable clutch of maiden speeches of a very high quality. I particularly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who spoke with great dignity and feeling about her constituency and her concerns for the problems of people there. I am sure that she will contribute in the Chamber on many other occasions.

I should also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) and particularly thank him for his generous tribute to Michael Portillo. I cannot say that I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, but I congratulate him on the way in which he made his case.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) also made his maiden speech, and I thank him for his remarks about my friend Ian Lang. The hon. Gentleman obviously has an affection for his constituency, which is indeed shared by many of us who have travelled through and stayed in it on many occasions.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) made his maiden speech, and I congratulate him, too. I noticed the place from where he spoke, which was reminiscent of that occupied by his father. Indeed, the style with which he spoke was also reminiscent, although I am not sure whether under the new dispensation of the Minister without Portfolio he will be allowed quite the independence that his father used to exercise in the House. The hon. Gentleman found an echo of support on the Opposition Benches for some of the remarks that he made about the Maastricht treaty and the single currency.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas). He paid tribute to his predecessor, Rod Richards, referring to him as blunt and iconoclastic. Opposition Members found such a style refreshing in the Chamber. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean his comments in anything other than a favourable sense. He made a well-constructed and well-argued speech and I look forward to debating many constitutional issues with him in future.

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The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) made a powerful speech. He paid tribute to his predecessor, Rupert Allason. I was impressed by the extempore way in which he delivered his speech. Although he might not be literal, he is certainly literate. I finally congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who paid tribute to his predecessor, Lady Olga Maitland. He also made a fine speech. The speeches that we heard from those whose first occasion it was in the House give us some confidence in the quality of debate in future.

I now refer to the speeches made by other hon. Members and hon. Friends. I shall be brief because I realise that we have constraints on our time. I want to leave plenty of time for the Secretary of State for Wales to answer the detailed questions put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), which, rather to my surprise, have been referred to as nit-picking. If trying to get constitutional reform right and securing the constitution are regarded as nit-picking by certain hon. Members, I fear very much for our constitution. Some very powerful questions were put. I expect, as does the rest of the House, to hear answers to them from the Secretary of State for Wales. I shall come in a moment to certain other questions that were asked as powerfully by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but should first refer to one or two other comments.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) spoke, as did my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), about the European convention on human rights. They both spoke with a good deal of expertise. We shall have to look closely at the implications of incorporation in the light of what they said. There is certainly much more work to be done.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) lifted the veil a little by saying that the new dawn was about building socialism after the election. I am not sure whether he cleared that with the Minister without Portfolio before he said it. Such a belief is certainly what many of us have suspected for some time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) made one of his usual gracious speeches, but, for all the wit and humour, the message was strong and powerful. I pay tribute to him for what he said. He made it clear that he would regard any attempt to short-change the Chamber in terms of the debate on constitutional matters as--I think that these were the words that he used--something akin to tyranny. I hope that those words were listened to by Government Front Benchers.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) spoke from the Northern Ireland perspective. We on the Opposition Benches also want an end to direct rule and the creation of institutions of locally accountable democracy in Northern Ireland. That can be achieved only by agreement and by addressing the various relationships within Northern Ireland, between the north and the south and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The way in which that is done must be broadly acceptable to both parts of the community in Northern Ireland. I wish the talks process success when it resumes in June, and I take this opportunity to wish the Government success in advancing it. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Upper Bann endorse the talks

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process and I hope that when he returns to it on 3 June, he will demonstrate the political will and determination to make real progress.

The main and most urgent legislation that the House faces is, of course, the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, which was published yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks posed a number of questions about the Bill and, although we shall debate it next week, it is worth reiterating some of our concerns. Several hon. Members and hon. Friends have made the point that it would be more appropriate to have a referendum after the legislation had passed through the House, so that the people of Scotland and Wales knew what they were voting for. It is noticeable that the Bill mentions agreement to a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, not to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly proposed by the Government. The Bill does not even refer to a White Paper, but refers merely to a vague concept. That fills me with suspicion about whether the purpose of the Bill is to allow the Scottish and Welsh people to say yes to a general concept and thus to allow the Government to do what they want, regardless of the wishes of the people of Scotland and Wales.

Why is there no threshold in the Bill? The Secretary of State for Scotland is looking at me in surprise, but if only 10 or 20 per cent. of the Scottish people bothered to vote in a referendum, would he regard that as a mandate to proceed with constitutional change? Or does he, like me, believe that the result will need some credibility from the numbers who vote before a mandate is created? I put that question for answer next week, because we feel strongly about the issue.

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