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7.57 pm

Mr. Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to speak in what I and many hon. Members consider to be a historic Budget debate.

There are three reasons why I am pleased to make my maiden speech on this historic occasion. It is the first Labour Budget to be presented to the House since 1979. As other hon. Members have said, many in the House and outside consider it to be the people's Budget--the Budget that the people wanted my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to implement as soon as possible. It is also an historic occasion for me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I have no hesitation in welcoming my right hon. Friend's Budget, and nor do my constituents in Wirral, West whom I have the honour of serving.

Before moving on to the formal part of my speech, consistent with the pleasurable traditions surrounding a maiden speech, I should like briefly to touch on why I believe the Budget will be good for the country and good for the people of Wirral, West.

There are 18,000 elderly people in my constituency--good and decent people, many of whom live in the pleasant seaside towns of West Kirby, Hoylake and Meols. They will welcome the measures to reduce VAT on domestic fuel and the extra money that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has found for the health service. I know that those and other measures will go a long way to allay the fears of pensioners across my constituency. I spoke to many of them during the election campaign, and they told me just that.

In the town of Greasby, which is inland and central to my constituency, as well as in the areas of Irby and Pensby, many hard-working families with children at school will welcome the new money earmarked for education by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

On the eastern edge of my constituency, which borders on the constituency of the Minister for Welfare Reform, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), my constituents in Upton and Prenton and especially those on the Woodchurch estate, where during the election campaign people were kind enough to give me the warmest of receptions, will welcome the welfare-to-work measures, which will provide real opportunities for jobs and real training for the many hundreds of young people who have been out of work for more than six months.

Moreover, the measures to which I have just referred will go a long way towards dealing with and repairing the damage done to the body politic by the former Government. What this Government and what Labour Members are willing to say and promise, they are also willing to carry out.

Convention directs that I now mention my predecessors, and I do so gladly. Indeed, I would do so even if convention did not direct me in that way. I have

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the honour of succeeding the right hon. David Hunt MBE. Before him, the seat--Wirral as it was then--was held by a former occupant of the Chair, the late Lord Selwyn-Lloyd.

I have had the considerable benefit of being able to read the maiden speeches of both my predecessors, and on the face of it certain traditions appear to have been formed by them. I should like briefly to outline some of those traditions. First, Lord Selwyn-Lloyd, while Speaker, had the reputation of answering his constituency correspondence by return of post.

Secondly, both my predecessors made their maiden speeches while in opposition and, as was consistent with those former times which are sometimes difficult to recall, they welcomed the proposals being put forward by the then Labour Government in a constructive manner. I wish and hope--although I do not necessarily expect to be repaid for it--that Conservative Members would reintroduce that tradition of constructively welcoming proposals when they are good for the country, although I have not heard any of that in my short time in this honourable place.

Thirdly, the right hon. David Hunt made his maiden speech during the 1976 Budget debate. To emphasis the point that I have just made, he welcomed many measures before the House in that speech, especially in relation to job creation and training. Both my predecessors represented the constituency for many years--31 years and 21 years, respectively.

I should be delighted to try to continue some of those traditions. I shall endeavour to answer my constituents' correspondence by return of post. I am only too happy to welcome the measures put forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on behalf of the Government, but by way of difference from my predecessors, I am pleased to be able to do so from the Government side of the House. I hope that I am not tempting providence as a new Member, but I am also willing to represent Wirral, West for many years to come. I also realise that, in my own small way, I may have started a tradition of my own: I am the first Labour Member for Wirral, West. Again, I hope that I am not tempting providence, but I hope that that will continue for many years to come.

David Hunt was and is widely respected and liked inside and outside the House. He was known in the constituency as a courteous and diligent Member of Parliament. He was and is a one-nation Tory. His career is well known to many hon. Members, and it would be remiss of me not to remind the House of the many important ministerial posts that he held, culminating in a well deserved place in the Cabinet in the important position of Secretary of State for Wales.

On a personal note, no victorious candidate can ever have been blessed with a more gracious person in defeat than I was with David Hunt. He has been most kind, and continues to be so, and I should like my thanks to him for that to go on record.

I should like to make one brief observation on the welfare-to-work proposals which were so clearly set out yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), who made an excellent maiden speech on behalf of his constituency, has already made mention of the minimum

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wage, but I should also like to do so. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that that proposal underpins the challenge to get 250,000 young people back to work. The need for that proposal is well understood across my constituency and across the age range.

If I may, I should like to cite one anecdote from just before the election campaign. During a particularly cold February, I and my colleagues in the constituency petitioned on the question of a minimum wage. More than 1,300 people supported the principle of a minimum wage by signing that petition. Sadly, when it was sent it to the relevant Department, it was ignored.

What struck me most forcefully on the streets of Hoylake, West Kirby, Pensby, Upton and Prenton was that people knew about the minimum wage. They well understood the principles behind it and the need for it. I therefore beg to differ from Opposition Members when I say that people in my constituency do not believe that the minimum wage will have the job-negative effect claimed.

The new jobs that will be created under Labour's welfare-to-work scheme must not be under Burger-King conditions. In addition to helping the young people to whom I have referred, a minimum wage will assist about 6,000 people--mainly women part-time workers--who currently earn, disgracefully and unacceptably, less than £2.50 an hour.

I shall conclude on that note, as I hope to speak in the debate which I understand that we are to have later in the year on the minimum wage, when I hope to put other arguments before the House. I beg to support the Chancellor's Budget statement.

8.9 pm

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I am delighted to congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford), who made a fluent speech. I am sure that he will be an able and effective advocate for his constituents.

It is a great honour to have been elected to serve the constituency of Torridge and West Devon, which has been my home and where I have farmed for many years. I am also delighted to pay tribute to my predecessor, Miss Emma Nicholson, and her predecessor, the late Sir Peter Mills.

I first met Emma Nicholson during the 1987 general election campaign. She was a formidable and fair campaigner and I got to know her better after December 1995. She has always championed the causes of the less fortunate and, last year, I accompanied her on the traditional pre-Christmas tour of the constituency. In schools, hospitals, day care centres for people with learning difficulties and homes for the elderly, she was greeted with warmth, affection and gratitude. Her reputation for personal courage is widespread and her work with refugees was often carried out at great personal risk. She has been a source of encouragement to me, and I am most grateful.

The late Sir Peter Mills and his dedicated wife, Lady Mills, served the constituency with distinction for many years until his retirement in 1987. He was a much admired Member of Parliament and a man of the highest integrity--a fact that he himself would have been the last to advertise.

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My constituency is, I believe, the second largest, geographically, in England. It is a beautiful part of England with a variety of landscapes. The cliffs at Hartland in the north-west give way to the long beaches of Westward Ho! Nearby at the mouth of the River Torridge is Appledore, whose shipyard has survived in a difficult market. Further up the river is Bideford, which has a busy quay and a breathtaking setting. To the south are the towns of Holsworthy, with its busy livestock market, and Great Torrington, which has recently been successful in the rural challenge. That will provide a much needed impetus to the stalling local economy. In the south of the constituency is Okehampton, which is often referred to as the gateway to Dartmoor national park, whose stark beauty has been so successfully sustained by the park authority. The most southerly town in my constituency is the ancient stannary town of Tavistock.

The people of Torridge and West Devon are independent and hard working. Our economy is based on some industry, tourism, fishing and, of course, agriculture. In his maiden speech in 1964, Sir Peter Mills explained that an increasing number of farmers in the constituency were producing cereals, although we had not reached the heights of other counties, such as Wiltshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, with their rotation of four years barley and one year in the south of France.

Times have not changed, and agriculture in my constituency still mostly consists of small and medium-sized livestock enterprises. Many farmers, especially now with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis in its second year, are hard pressed financially. They have seen the value of their stock plunge to levels not seen for years. The unwarranted and unfair cuts in compensation for the over-30-months scheme and the imposition of the upper weight limit announced last week by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are a cruel blow to many farmers in my constituency who are already having the greatest difficulty surviving in business.

In his Budget speech, the Chancellor put great emphasis on stability and long-termism. As a lawyer practising in my constituency for more than 20 years, I have seen at first hand the results of instability and short-termism. One of the great problems we have in Devon and Cornwall is that the brakes get put on the economy by dramatic increases in interest rates when overheating in the south-east demands it, which is usually just before the recovery reaches us. For years, our downturns in the economic cycle have been relatively lower and longer than in most other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. It is no surprise that our investment record is poor.

I have frequently witnessed the destruction of good and viable businesses caught up in the boom-bust cycle. I have watched the havoc it has caused to the lives of many able, honest and hard-working people. To help stabilise our economy and to promote sustainable growth and investment, it was my party's policy to bring greater independence to the Bank of England. We are pleased that the Government have adopted that policy which should assist the regions of Britain especially to plan for sustainable growth and investment, free of the concerns that are generated by political interference in the day-to-day management of monetary policy.

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Yesterday's announcement that the National Audit Office will have a continuing role in auditing the public finances--and the commitment to greater openness--should buttress changes made to the role of the Bank of England to secure long-term stability for the British economy. However, pressing needs remain for public expenditure. There was nothing extra for the national health service and education this year. I hope that the £1.2 billion for health next year--which in real terms, allowing for inflation, works out at about £560 million--is sufficient to keep open facilities such as Winsford hospital in my constituency, which is threatened with closure.

Will the additional education spending enable the rebuilding of many of the old and unsuitable schools in my constituency, such as Holsworthy primary school? I can assure the Chancellor that, notwithstanding the poor structural condition of the schools, they meet exacting standards for results and discipline.

Most of the revenue required to match the Government's commitments to expenditure and repayment of debt comes, first, from the one-off and retrospective windfall tax and, secondly, from changes in the tax treatment of company distributions. Both those measures raise legitimate and significant concerns. The Liberal Democrats can only hope that the expectations raised by the Budget will be fulfilled in the years to come.

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