Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.52 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a great honour and privilege to be making my maiden speech, and to be following a parliamentarian of such distinction

21 May 1997 : Column 647

as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). He invited the Liberal Democrat party to support his views on registration, and although it would probably be inappropriate for me, as a new Member, to commit my party to that view, personally I saw a great deal of sense in what he said. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman made, and will wish to pursue them.

I represent the people of Somerton and Frome, a constituency that forms a large part of Somerset, stretching from the northernmost tip, at Norton St. Philip, just outside Bath, to Beercrocombe, just outside Taunton, at the other end. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mark Robinson, who served his constituents as an assiduous Member of Parliament, supporting them in dealing with their personal problems and doing all that he could to help them.

Mark Robinson also demonstrated over many years a genuine commitment to overseas development. He was parliamentary private secretary to Lady Chalker for many years, and although his commitment to the cause was not always reciprocated by his Front-Bench colleagues, it was notable and praiseworthy.

I also offer my sympathy to my predecessor and his wife in that we had such a tight vote in my constituency; the majority was 130. No human being should have to go through three counts. Whether one wins or loses, it is a tiresome occasion, and one is pleased to come out at the other end.

Historically, Somerset is a radical county. Some have described it as a county of revolting peasants, but that is a calumny. None the less, we have a tradition of independent thought and nonconformity, and of questioning the establishment wherever that may be, especially when it resides in the home counties.

We demonstrated those characteristics in no small degree in 1685, in Monmouth's rebellion, the last major rebellion on English soil. Many people in Somerset, myself included, are the direct descendants of rebels who took part in that rising.

Nowadays Somerset is a rather more peaceful place. Somebody once described it as characterised by cheese and churches, cider and smugness. I do not disavow the first three, but as for smugness, if we are smug it is simply because we have so much to be smug about in the beauty of the western counties.

I could indulge in a travelogue about the constituency, but that would take a long time because it is so large. Moreover, the names of many of the villages that I would encompass would be unintelligible to the Hansard reporters. Kingsbury Episcopi, Isle Abbotts, Charlton Horethorne and Wyke Champflower are all lovely villages, and I could go on at length about their merits.

However, suffice it to say that the constituency that I represent has an interesting history, because of the many events that have taken place there. It also has an industrial history. For instance, it is a coal-mining constituency. Labour Members may not readily recognise that fact, but Somerton and Frome was a coal-mining constituency until 30 or 40 years ago, when the mines were closed.

Frome, the major town in the constituency, was a wool town, much despised by a former parliamentarian, William Cobbett, as the "Manchester of the south". Wool was a significant trade there in its time.

21 May 1997 : Column 648

My constituency also once contained many islands, although now the levels have largely been drained, and one can get from island to island while staying relatively dry. However, once one had to take a boat, and there are still times when the Somerset levels revert to their previous condition and become the great mere of Somerset again.

Current industries range from quarrying--something that we have in common with the Derbyshire Members who have spoken this morning--to agriculture, and to the high-tech defence-related industries in some parts of the constituency. There is an enormous diversity of approach across the area.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) made his maiden speech the other day, he told us much about the merits of the city of Colchester, but as he sat down he said, sotto voce, that he had omitted to mention Queen Boadicea. Let me mention her now, because hon. Members will know that there is a statue of Boadicea, or Boudicca, on Westminster bridge. That statue was cast in Frome, and is a lasting mark here in Westminster of my constituency.

Over the centuries there has been a Liberal tradition in my part of Somerset. I am certainly not the first Liberal to represent at least part of the present constituency of Somerton and Frome. Indeed, there was a famous by-election victory in 1910, when Lloyd George spoke in the Wesley chapel in support of the candidate, who went on to win and take part in the great reforming Government of the early years of this century. Let us hope that that Government, and the 1946 Government, which many will remember, will not be the last reforming Governments in this century.

Thomas Hughes was once the Liberal Member of Parliament for Frome. He is famous for having written "Tom Brown's Schooldays", but he went on to become one of the founding members of the Co-operative movement, and so forms part of that radical tradition that informs west country politics.

New Members will all have listened with great interest to the debate on the Gracious Speech. As we demonstrated during that debate, there is much in the speech that Liberal Democrats can commend. But there are also gaps, which we shall seek to fill as the Parliament continues. For my constituents, one of the great tests will be not the intention--the intention is demonstrably good--but the outcome. We want to see whether the measures will actually make a difference for the people whom we represent.

Let me illustrate a few of the areas in which we shall make that test. The first, which has already been mentioned many times, is education. I am a former chairman of the Somerset education committee, and I do not believe that Somerset schoolchildren have been given a fair deal over recent years. This year's county council budget--set a few months ago--is the first for eight years without a real-terms cut in school funding. The reason for that is that Somerset was one of those rare authorities that felt unable to meet the demands of the capping regime of the previous Government. Here is an early test of the new Government's commitment to education. Will they impose a Conservative cap that will result in 90 teachers being sacked in Somerset?

Somerset is not an extravagant authority--historically, it is a low-spending authority--and it can demonstrate beyond peradventure the efficiency and effectiveness of

21 May 1997 : Column 649

its education service. Its education service boasts the lowest administrative costs of any authority in the country, and it delegates more money to its schools than practically any other authority. It has the lowest number of surplus places in its primary schools of any county in England, and it tops up the Government's standard spending assessment by taking money from other areas in the council's work--for example, road repairs, some of which are badly needed--to a greater extent than any other county authority. That will be a test of whether the Government are committed to "education, education and education" and whether the money that they intend to release from the assisted places scheme will make any difference in a county such as Somerset, which is already so near the bone as far as education expenditure is concerned.

We will be looking for capital expenditure. Somerset maintains 267 schools, but last year was permitted to spend only £2 million on their upkeep. What commercial business would dream of running an estate of that size with that amount of capital reinvestment? It is a nonsense in education and business terms.

Let me move to the police. I served for a time as chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority, and I remember regular visits to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary. I do not know whether he was engaged in "semantic prestidigitation" at the time, but whenever we asked for 100 extra officers--the minimum the chief constable required to police the rural areas of Somerset properly--the answer was no one year, the next year and the third year. Again, this will be a test for the new Government. Will there be more police officers on the streets of Somerset as a result of the change in Government, or will their rhetoric mean nothing?

The third test will be the environment, which was strangely absent from the Gracious Speech. Why was that? Is it no longer to be a priority? If so, we Liberal Democrats will have a great deal to say about that. One environmental test will be the Government's housing allocations and whether they wish to see the continuation of the proposed suburbanisation of Somerset. I have the greatest regard for my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and his constituency, but Surbiton and Somerset are different places and we do not want to see Surbiton replicated in our rural county.

Finally, I refer to the health service. We shall be looking for an NHS dentistry service. There is no longer such a service in Frome, as we have lost the last dentist offering NHS treatment. Will the service be restored? I am an optician by training, although I am not practising. Will free eye tests--a single preventive measure that would make a real difference to the health of a great number of people--return? Incidentally, free eye tests would save the health service a great deal of money in the long term by preventing diseases such as glaucoma by catching them early, rather than in their operative stages. Will we see a commitment to local hospitals--such as those in Wincanton which are currently under threat--and to acute services?

In a maiden speech, it is nice to be able to range over a wider area than is normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown)--my constituency neighbour--has, for my sins, asked me to speak on Europe in the next few months. When I do so, I shall be arguing for a radical reform of the common agricultural

21 May 1997 : Column 650

policy and the common fisheries policy, and for the informed consent of the peoples of Europe to any changes resulting from the Amsterdam summit. I shall argue for a genuine commitment to subsidiarity at all levels--European, national and local--and for greater accountability within the structures of Europe, but that will wait for another day.

Suffice it to say today that I am proud to represent my constituents in Somerset. I am a Somerset man, and I will unashamedly support the interests of the people of Somerset in this House. I look forward to an interesting time over the next few years in the hope that the great expectations raised by the election are not disappointed by the performance of the Government in attempting to realise their intentions.

Next Section

IndexHome Page