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7.28 pm

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I begin in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly), with a few congratulations. Let me say how delighted I am to be addressing you as Mr. Deputy Speaker, and how pleased I am with your promotion to that high and honoured office. I hope that you will pass my best wishes to your family and to your constituents, who must be as proud that you are sitting in the Chair as I am to be addressing you tonight.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) has just made an interesting speech on defence that was obviously well researched; he was well briefed. He spoke without notes, and I congratulate him on that. I was reminded of the last maiden speech about defence that I heard from a Conservative Member who spoke without notes. That was the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I am not making a comparison, but both speakers were obviously well briefed on defence. I welcome the hon. Member for New Forest, East to the House; I am sure that we shall hear plenty from him in the years ahead.

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Let me congratulate two other speakers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West made an eloquent and passionate maiden speech. We are told that in a few weeks' time she might be celebrating another personal event, and we were particularly delighted to hear from her today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who, unfortunately, is not present now but who made an interesting speech about his experiences over the past few weeks and what brought him here. He told the House that he would be here for only one term; we shall wait and see whether his appetite is whetted a little further. I am sure that we shall hear many expert contributions from him, relating to his experience in his private field as well as his dedication to representing his constituents.

I feel that, in a way, I too am making a maiden speech, as this is the first speech that I have made from the Government Benches. It is almost 10 years since I made my maiden speech--also on the Gracious Speech, and also on the economy--on 8 July 1987.

In the previous Parliament, I chaired the Select Committee on European Legislation, which has long been undervalued, overlooked and not appreciated in the House. It does excellent work on behalf of the House, as I think the House began to recognise towards the end of the previous Parliament. I am sure that the new Government will improve the way in which we deal with European affairs in the House during the current term.

I do not wish to delay the House, but I should like to raise a couple of issues related to the Committee's work, and to earlier speeches. We have made inquiries into the intergovernmental conference, and produced three reports. We produced an excellent report on the role of national Parliaments, which is an important issue, not just for our Parliament but for every Parliament in every member state. I am sure that some of our recommendations will be discussed at the IGC. Even the previous Government accepted our recommendations on scrutiny and the four-week rule, and we hope that they will be incorporated in the treaty.

Let me appeal to new Members to take the opportunity to avail themselves of the information about European affairs that is available to them, certainly from the Select Committee on European Legislation. Our Committee produces reports regularly. It was the first Select Committee--and is currently the only one--to put its reports on to the Internet. Two Standing Committees scrutinise directives and legislation passed to them by the Select Committee, and any hon. Member who is interested in a subject that one of them is scrutinising can question a Minister, make a speech and represent the interests of his constituents in the Committee. That is a good opportunity to gain expertise on important issues that will be discussed not just in our Parliament, but in every Parliament in Europe over the next few years.

Let me say something about monetary union. I agree that it is highly unlikely that the United Kingdom will join a single currency if and when it is embarked on in a couple of years, because of the weaknesses in the convergence criteria. The new Government have always taken that view. Once, however, my name was included in a leaflet listing 50 Labour Members of Parliament who were opposed to the single currency. I was a bit annoyed at the time, because I had not approved my inclusion in that list, and--although I have my concerns about how

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and when we would enter a single currency--I am not opposed to the single currency per se. I put that on record now.

I feel that it is the political classes in this country that are discussing the single currency. The views of the public--our constituents--are shaped by soundbites that they read and hear in the media; there is no real debate in the country about the issues that are involved, and it is vital for such a debate to take place. Obviously, there will be more debate if we have a referendum, but I do not think that we should wait that long.

The tragedy is that, although the European Commission provided every member state with information about the issues involved in the single currency, and about the pros and cons, the previous Government, to their shame, refused to accept that information because they did not want a general debate. I urge the new Labour Government to initiate such a debate, and to allow the information to be provided throughout the country.

To those who say that we should not enter a single currency at any price, I say this. The question will not be, "Should we go into a single currency?" It may well be, "What will happen if we do not go into a single currency?" Many questions must be answered by those who are against the idea. Are we seriously saying that, if a single currency is established and is joined by the vast majority of European countries, the three major currencies in the global economy being the dollar, the yen and the euro, sterling will be able to survive outside those three currencies without our economy being seriously damaged?

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), raised some of those issues today. He asked what the position was on the exchange rate mechanism, and what the value of sterling would be if we joined a single currency. If we did not do so, would the same happen as happened before? We all know the story, which was denied by the then Mrs. Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. When Mr. Lawson was Chancellor, he apparently shadowed the deutschmark without telling the Prime Minister. Would we shadow the euro and, if so, what would be the impact on our interest rates? Does anyone seriously suggest that the UK would have lower interest rates than the member states that were in a single currency?

People will have to do more than wrap themselves in the Union Jack to persuade me that not being in a single currency under such circumstances would be in our best interests. I raise those few points not only to provoke debate in the House, where we can always find reasons to debate the issue, but because I hope that sooner or later that debate will start in the country.

The speech by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) has prompted me to speak about the issue of qualified majority voting. It is a bit rich to be lectured by Conservative Members on that subject. I do not have to remind Conservatives who took us into the single market and set us on a road on which the single currency would be inevitable. I should not have to persuade or inform Conservative Members that Lady Thatcher conceded to more qualified majority voting than any Prime Minister since we have been in Europe. All the hot air about qualified majority voting should be treated as such.

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I am delighted and proud, as are all my hon. Friends, to take part in a debate on the Gracious Speech of a new Labour Government. It is a great honour for us, who have been fighting for so long to be where we are today, but one has to be out in the country to feel the warmth and the relief of the people over a change of Government. It can almost be tasted in the air. I have been involved in many interesting votes in the House, but I cannot imagine an occasion that I shall enjoy more than last night's Division, which resulted in 422 votes for the Labour Government and 151 for the Conservative Opposition. That was a delightful moment for me, and I look forward to more such delightful moments.

7.42 pm

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): It is a privilege to have the opportunity to address the House, and I thank the people of Lagan Valley for electing me. My constituency has at its heart the River Lagan, which flows from its source on Slieve Croob through a lush and fertile valley to the sea at Belfast lough. Its main town is Lisburn, a friendly market town which is home to the Irish linen centre and Thiepval barracks, the headquarters of the Army in Northern Ireland. The borough of Lisburn is the second largest local authority in Northern Ireland and enjoys the reputation of being one of the most progressive areas in the Province. Lisburn is one of two cathedral towns in Lagan Valley, the other being Dromore, a traditional Ulster market town with strong connections to agriculture and textiles.

The historic village of Hillsborough has a long association with the royal family and has had many royal visits in recent years. My home village of Moira has gained the reputation of being one of the most colourful places in Northern Ireland and has won many awards for its floral displays. I could mention many other notable towns and villages in Lagan Valley, including Anahilt, Ballinderry, Dromara, Drumbo, Dunmurry, Glenavy, Maghaberry and the Maze. Suffice it to say that I count it a great honour to represent them all.

I pay a warm tribute to my predecessor, Sir James Molyneaux, who served in the House for more than 25 years. Sir James was first elected to represent the Antrim, South constituency in 1970 and to represent the new constituency of Lagan Valley in 1983. As a Member of Parliament and leader of the Ulster Unionist party, Sir James was one of the most respected political figures in Northern Ireland and in the House. His solid and determined leadership through some of the most difficult periods in Northern Ireland's history has enhanced the cause of the Union, a cause that he dearly loved, and has contributed to the prospect of a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland. His advice, support and friendship have been invaluable to me, and I welcome the fact that we shall continue to benefit from his wise counsels in another place.

We welcome the Prime Minister's visit to Northern Ireland last week and trust that it is a sign of the new Government's priority in tackling our many problems; not the least of those is the need to reinvigorate the Northern Ireland economy. We continue to have one of the highest levels of long-term unemployment in the United Kingdom. Therefore, we welcome the Government's commitment in the Gracious Speech to deliver high and sustainable growth and employment by encouraging investment in growth, skills, infrastructure and new

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technologies. We in Northern Ireland desperately need such investment, and although we have made much progress in attracting inward investment, much more needs to be done.

It is essential for such investment to be spread much more equitably than in the past. My constituency has not benefited as much as some others from inward investment in Northern Ireland. The neighbouring constituency of Belfast, West has enjoyed much higher investment, and I urge the Government to be more equitable in treating the various areas of Northern Ireland. I shall certainly put the case for more investment in constituencies such as mine.

There is also a need for better co-ordination of economic development agencies in Northern Ireland and for better co-operation between them and Northern Ireland's political representatives. For far too long, those agencies have gone about their business without involving political representatives in the way they should. It should be the Government's priority to give Northern Ireland Members a greater role in economic development in the Province.

Our largest indigenous industry is agriculture, and Lagan Valley contains many farmers and has a long tradition of farming. The industry has suffered greatly in recent years, most recently because of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, which has affected our beef industry. I urge the Government to give priority to the lifting of the ban on the export of Northern Ireland beef. It is widely accepted that Northern Ireland can meet the criteria that were laid down at the intergovernmental conference in Florence. It is unjust that the previous Government were not prepared to allow Northern Ireland to take the lead towards the lifting of the export ban. I hope that the new Government will end that injustice and will give Northern Ireland agriculture the confidence that it so badly needs by urging Europe to lift the export ban on Northern Ireland beef as soon as possible.

I was privileged to work for another illustrious Member of the House, the right hon. Enoch Powell, who represented the constituency of South Down, part of which is now included in my constituency. I pay tribute to Mr. Powell, to the manner in which he represented the people of Northern Ireland and to his contribution to the House during his time as a Member of Parliament.

One of my illustrious predecessors was Sir Richard Wallace, who bequeathed the famous Wallace art collection to the British nation. Sir Richard was Member of Parliament for Lisburn from 1873 to 1885, so it was appropriate that staff and pupils from the Wallace school in Lisburn were the first constituents to meet me in the precincts of the House. Wallace school's motto is "esperance", which means hope. That is what the House must offer the people of Northern Ireland--hope for a future free from the scourge of terrorism, where our people can enjoy full equality of citizenship within the United Kingdom.

Some people are cynical and say that great aspirations always come to a hopeless end. I rather like to think that great aspirations bring not a hopeless end but an endless hope. Hope is not just a nice option; it is essential to survival. It lifts our spirits and helps us to keep going. According to Solomon's ancient proverb, it tells us to

It tells us to

    "In all our ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct our paths".

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When William Wilberforce addressed the House 207 years ago this month for three and a half hours with what the great orator Edmund Burke called the greatest speech that he had ever heard, he had an aspiration to see the practice of slavery banished from the British dominions. He faced incredible opposition and his aspirations seemed hopeless, yet Wilberforce was drawn by hope based on his Christian convictions and he campaigned on until the House passed the Slavery Abolition Bill 44 years later.

Northern Ireland, too, faces great problems. Its divisions have defied some of the greatest political minds in the world, but the problem is not hopeless. We, too, have a dream that peace may come and that all our citizens may learn to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God. We shall seek with all our heart and strength to bring about such a peace. I urge the Government to work towards that end in Northern Ireland--a fair and just peace, a real peace that recognises the rights of the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own political future, free from the threat of terrorist violence and political interference. That is the way to ensure that the hope for which the people of Northern Ireland yearn will not be snuffed out.

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