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7.44 pm

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) said in his fine speech, this is the season of maiden speeches. June is traditionally the season of strawberries, sweet and red. One always says that one cannot have enough of them. Perhaps that is true of maiden speeches.

Like other new hon. Members, I sought advice on my speech and was told not to be controversial. I must, however, start by taking issue with my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) and for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who claimed that their constituencies were the most beautiful. That claim is erroneous. The most beautiful constituency is in fact the Forest of Dean. I say that because I assume that my hon. Friends have not seen for themselves the splendour of the oak and fern-covered limestone hills about which Dennis Potter wrote.

The Forest of Dean lies between and is isolated by the magnificent Wye valley and the mighty River Severn. The ancient forest mentioned in the Domesday book has provided charcoal for iron smelting since Roman times, great masts for Tudor and Stuart navies and now provides commercial timber and a wonderful wilderness where locals and visitors alike can roam and relax.

Although the Forest of Dean is a rural environment, it has a long history of industrialisation due to its mineral wealth. Iron has been worked from early times and it gives the area the materials for its steel working and engineering. Until 30 years ago, deep coal mines were the mainstay of the local economy. In recent years, however, there has been much change, with lighter engineering, building, food processing and the tourist trade becoming the major contributors to the area's economy.

Although the community is made up of small towns and little villages scattered throughout the forest, it is closely linked, and through its remoteness has developed a different dialect to the rest of Gloucestershire. It has a strong sense of its own identity and distinct traditions, one of which allows sheep to roam freely--even to wander in and out of Woolworth's on Cinderford high street. There is pride in being born within the St. Briavel Hundred, which allows males, once over 21 years old, to be freeminers. I am proud to have the honour to represent the beautiful area, where, due to its geographical location and industrial history, people have developed an individual and independent personality.

My immediate predecessor worked hard for the constituency. I hope one day also to have that reputation. He knew and admired the local traditions. Indeed, he took

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up and fought steely for the cause of the freeminers. He enjoyed the job and life here in Westminster, and was in the House for 18 years. I believe that he found losing such a life hard.

Another of my predecessors was Charlie Loughlin, an outspoken Yorkshireman--I should like to be like him too--who represented the Forest of Dean from 1959 to 1970. That was a difficult time for the Dean. The mines were being closed one by one. The last one, Northern United, was closed on the very cruel date of Christmas eve 1965. Village after village felt the shadow of unemployment and economic decline. There is still huge respect for Charlie for the work that he did in helping miners find alternative work.

The Forest has never known great prosperity and many of its settlements are still in the shadow of decline. In the past 20 years in particular, it has suffered from a lack of investment and regeneration. It is vital to ensuring the successful regeneration of the whole local economy that its young people are well educated, well trained and skilled. Educational success is the key to economic success.

I was a teacher for 18 years, when I principally taught secondary aged children with learning difficulties or those who required remedial help. In 1996, 43 per cent. of our 11-year-olds failed to reach the expected levels for their age in English and mathematics. It seems that more and more children are entering secondary schools without succeeding at the basics. They have already failed.

I can testify that remedial work with those children is long, time-consuming and expensive. In most schools such groups have a pupil-teacher ratio of 1:12, 1:8 or even smaller. That happens because teachers are most effective in smaller groups. Such a teaching ratio in remedial groups is a heavy cost on a school's budget, but it is one that must be borne given the present number of pupils that need that support.

In my 18 years of experience the majority of those children experiencing failure at mathematics or literacy had suffered from a poor early start, particularly at the critical ages of five, six and seven. The most common factor among those children was that they had suffered from being in large classes. I believe that first-time good practice in smaller classes, when the foundations of literacy and numeracy are laid, is better for the individual child and would be a lot less expensive for the secondary school system in the long run. Prevention is always better than the cure.

In addition, young teenagers who feel that they have failed educationally have low self-esteem. They are twice as likely to be truants, and to be disruptive at school, and they are more likely to be involved in crime outside school. There is a cost to society at large if we fail to invest in smaller classes when children are learning the basics.

Of course the independent sector has smaller classes. Conservative Members know that because they send their children to schools in that sector. In 1996, just 176 children in Gloucestershire, where the Forest of Dean is located, participated in the assisted places scheme, compared with 81,000 educated by the state in the county. Labour's values are designed to provide good-quality education for the majority and not to defend a few privileged people.

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The parents of children in the primary schools of the Forest of Dean want smaller classes. That is especially true of those whose children attend Mitcheldean, where there are classes of 35 for year 2, or those who attend Tutshill, Coalway, the Church of England primary school in Lydney or St. Whites in Cinderford. The list goes on and on. The five, six and seven-year-olds in all those schools are in classes of well over 30 pupils.

The parents of those children fund, through their taxes, the education for a privileged few in the assisted places scheme. Those parents fund independent education, which, per child, costs the state two or three times more than that which is spent on their children. Is that right? Is that socially just? Surely not.

Nationally, the number of primary school classes of more than 30 has risen from 24 per cent. in 1992 to 31 per cent. in 1997. That is a shameful record. Class sizes make a difference. In the 1995 Ofsted report, Christopher Woodhead made it quite clear that smaller class sizes were beneficial for primary school children aged five, six and seven. Academics know that smaller class sizes make a difference; teachers know that, as do parents and even the children in those classes. It seems that only the previous Government would not acknowledge their importance.

The Labour Government know that smaller class sizes matter. The Bill will take action to reverse the rise in class sizes. That change must be the mere first step because it is not the only thing that needs to be done. I will be pressing to ensure that we bring in a legal maximum class size of 30 for primary school children of all ages, and possibly of 25 for those of reception age.

The £100 million that will be made available in the next three years by abolishing the assisted places scheme will be used, together with other measures, to reduce class sizes for those important primary school years. That is educationally right, economically right, socially right and morally right.

The constituents of the Forest of Dean want smaller class sizes for their children, for their schools, for the future of their economy and for the simple social justice that it will deliver. They gave a mandate to the Government to be concerned for the many and not the few. They gave the Government a mandate to deliver social justice and to make education a priority. I am pleased to be able in my maiden speech to pledge my support for the Bill that will do that.

7.54 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I am delighted to make my maiden speech. I am especially delighted and honoured to follow that given by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), because we have met on a number of occasions in the past few years during our general election campaigns. She delivered a robust and entertaining speech, which will no doubt be supported by the foresters.

I know the Forest of Dean well, and I must tell the hon. Lady that the most beautiful part of it is Symonds Yat. She will concede that that falls about 100 yd inside Herefordshire in my constituency. Nevertheless, I agree that the Forest of Dean is a most beautiful part of the country.

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I am also delighted to note that the new hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) has reappeared in the Chamber. I listened earlier to his maiden speech. The cities of Hereford and Worcester have a tradition of rivalry that goes back over many centuries. Hereford is the older of the two cities, although I accept that Worcestershire has the slightly better cricket team.

I am also delighted to make my maiden speech during this important debate on education. For all Liberal Democrats, education is at the centre of our political thinking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for once again explaining our position to the House.

There are a number of private schools in my constituency, and, although I support our opposition to the assisted places scheme, my party and I are in no way opposed to those private schools. I look forward to working with many such schools in my constituency and I congratulate them on the high-quality education that they provide.

Among my first words in the House must be my thanks to the constituents of Hereford who elected me. They made a wise choice and, as my first promise, I pledge that my total commitment will be to them. For all hon. Members, it is a privilege to represent our constituencies, but for those who, like me, were born within our constituencies, it is perhaps a special honour.

I should like to say something about my predecessor, Sir Colin Shepherd. Many hon. Members, particularly those on the Conservative Benches, will remember him. He was an active member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and I am delighted to say that I have followed his tradition of membership of that important organisation.

More recently, Sir Colin was chairman of the House of Commons Catering Committee. I am sure that all new Members would like to join me in paying tribute to him for the excellent bars and restaurants within the precincts of Parliament--they are largely due to him. I am not sure whether it had anything to do with Sir Colin, but, on my first visit to the Strangers Bar, I was extremely amused to see that the beer on sale was called Shepherd's Delight.

Let me tell those hon. Members who do not know much about the Hereford constituency a little bit about it. It is made up of the southern half of the ancient county of Herefordshire. At the southern part, near Ross-on-Wye, is the Wye Valley, which was so eloquently described by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. To the west are the foothills of the Black mountains, which border the Welsh seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey).

Half the electors of my constituency, however, live within the city of Hereford. Those constituents, in common with many in Herefordshire, were delighted by the first meeting of the new unitary Herefordshire authority three weeks ago. After so many years of being attached--I must say that it was against our will--to the people of Worcestershire, Herefordshire has at last regained its independence.

The picture of local government throughout Herefordshire is not quite complete, because, although the market towns of Ross-on-Wye, Leominster and Bromyard will retain their town councils, the city of Hereford, one of the three oldest cities in the country, will lose its district council when the unitary authority takes over from it next

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April. Unless arrangements are made either for the parishing of the city or for the appointment of charter trustees, the 616th mayor of the city, who was installed three weeks ago, could well be the last. I give notice that I will exert pressure on the relevant Ministers on the Treasury Bench to ensure that such an anomaly is not allowed to occur. Indeed, it would be a total betrayal of more than 800 years of history that started when the city gained its royal charter in 1189.

There are possibly two symbols of Herefordshire that are best known throughout the world--Hereford cattle and Hereford cider. Hereford cattle, like all British beef, suffered badly under the previous Government. Even the pure-bred herds of Hereford, fed solely on grass and with no history of BSE, have been subject to the export ban. My hon. Friends and I will support any measures that the Government introduce to get the ban lifted soon.

Hereford cider, perhaps the second largest private employer in Herefordshire, also suffered under the previous Government, who twice increased the duty on cider, while the duty levied on beer and lager remained constant. That policy cost hundreds of jobs throughout Herefordshire, and I intend to press the new Government not to continue down that misguided road.

Shepherd's Delight may be on sale as a draught beer in the bars in the House, but I am sorry to say that it is not possible to purchase draught Herefordshire cider here. Hon. Members of all parties may rest assured that I shall do everything I can to pressure the new Chairman of the Catering Select Committee to rectify that omission as soon as possible.

I made a manifesto pledge to establish an all-party cider group--we already have beer groups and whisky groups--but, after the Liberal Democrats' great success in Taunton, North Devon and North Cornwall, among other places, it will be hard to find a cider-producing area that is not represented by us.

I referred to my immediate predecessor, Sir Colin Shepherd, and I want to say a few words about another predecessor of mine, Frank Owen, who was elected in 1929 as the last Liberal Member of Parliament for Hereford at the tender age of 23--young even by comparison with many current Labour Members. He was also the last Herefordian to represent the seat. He was defeated in 1931, after two short years in Parliament.

After leaving Parliament, Frank Owen had a glittering career in journalism, and became editor of both the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. After a period as a television journalist, he returned to fight the Hereford seat in 1955, and again in a by-election in 1956 that was bitterly contested even by today's standards. He failed on both occasions and handed his position as Liberal candidate to an up-and-coming young television journalist of the day, Mr. Robin Day, who went on to achieve better things.

Frank Owen went on to achieve even more greatness in journalism. He was once asked whether it were true that he had been a very young Member of Parliament. "Yes," he said, "I was elected by the highly intelligent, far-sighted people of the constituency of Hereford in 1929--and thrown out by the same besotted mob two years later." He said it with a smile on his face, and I would certainly never wish to echo those views about my constituents. I am honoured and privileged to represent his old seat.

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I thank the House for its indulgence in listening to my speech, and I look forward to making a contribution in the future.

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