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Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in the closing stages of this important debate on the Finance Bill. Maiden speeches must come somewhere, and a debate on alcoholic liquor duties seemed as good a place as any.

It is a great privilege for me to be in the House representing the Kettering constituency. I was born in the constituency and have lived there all my life. It is where my home is and where my heart is. It is where I have raised my family and taken an interest in community affairs for the past 20 years. I very much appreciate the support that I have been given by local electors, and I recognise my responsibility to the people of the constituency.

The Kettering constituency covers an area of more than 400 sq miles set in the heart of rural Northamptonshire and includes the whole of the borough of Kettering and a large part of the Daventry district. Kettering is the main urban centre, but the constituency also includes the smaller A6 towns of Rothwell, Burton Latimer and my home town of Desborough, in addition to some 50 villages and hamlets.

The area has excellent road and rail links. The A14 or M1-A1 link road puts Kettering firmly at the crossroads of England. Combined with the midland main line rail service, that provides many benefits and opportunities for commercial expansion.

The constituency has a bustling commercial centre noted for its success and diversity. It also has many historic and picturesque villages which preserve the charm and tranquillity of a traditional rural community. The need to balance new development with conservation has been an important feature of local planning issues for many years.

There are many tourist attractions in the Kettering area--Boughton house, Rockingham castle and Wicksteed park, to name but a few. We also have the Triangular lodge, where it is said that the gunpowder plot was conceived and planned--not everyone from the Kettering area came to the House with honourable intentions.

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That cannot be said of my predecessor, Mr. Roger Freeman, who represented the constituency for 14 years. Through that period, he rose to the dizzy height of Cabinet Minister. While my talents and natural abilities have yet to be fully recognised, my immediate goal is to represent the constituency with the dedication and commitment shown by my predecessor.

Roger Freeman was a very hard-working Member of Parliament. In my dealings with Roger over the years, he was always extremely polite, courteous and helpful. Despite our political differences, I found him a good and decent man to work with. I know that some of my hon. Friends have had a little difficulty in paying tribute to their predecessors, but I have no such difficulty with Roger Freeman.

Having given the customary thumb-nail sketch of my constituency and paid tribute to my predecessor, I shall move on to the business in hand and paint a different picture of the concerns and issues in Kettering. Beyond the picture postcards and thatched cottages, there is another picture. In this light, I welcome the Budget proposals.

In my constituency, there is great concern about the future of the national health service. Indeed, only last week it was announced that the area health authority is facing a deficit this year of several millions of pounds. This has serious implications for local services throughout the coming winter and over the coming year.

The local further education college is also running a deficit budget. I have already had meetings with management and staff representatives to discuss their financial difficulties. Redundancies are being discussed.

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I have visited many local schools and have seen at first hand the appalling state of disrepair caused by the lack of investment in school buildings. That is having a detrimental effect on staff and pupils. In Rothwell, a small town with a population of 7,000, mobile classrooms are a feature of all the schools. It is possible for children in that town to spend their entire school life being taught in what are basically wooden huts.

In some of the central wards of Kettering, youth unemployment is more than 25 per cent. It is perhaps no coincidence that those areas also have the highest crime rates, and that the crime rates have doubled over the past few years.

I am proud of the area that I represent and privileged to be a Member of Parliament, but I cannot ignore the problems in the community. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's Budget proposals, which reflect the people's priorities. The additional £1.3 billion for schools' capital spending over the next five years from the windfall tax and the £1 billion for current spending will provide some of the resources that our schools need to raise standards.

The extra £1.2 billion for the NHS will begin to improve patient care and restore public confidence in our health service. I welcome the additional funding for breast cancer announced a few days ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

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The welfare-to-work provisions announced in the Budget offer new hope and opportunities for young people, lone parents and the long-term unemployed in my constituency.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's commitment to a fairer tax system, with the reduction of VAT on fuel to 5 per cent., which will benefit more than 17,000 pensioners in the Kettering constituency. The Government must ensure that the resources are available to meet all those needs.

With reference to the amendment, I understand why the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) should table such a proposal, but the amendment offers no suggestion about where the necessary resources might be raised.

Of course the Budget is a tough one. None of us expected to come to the House and make easy decisions. All Budgets must have a tough edge. It could be argued that the Chancellor picked up the poisoned chalice from the previous Government. We need a balanced Budget. The Chancellor will look for extra resources to put into health and education. The amendment would have been improved if it contained suggestions about how any shortfall could be made up if it were accepted.

In the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out a clear statement on economic stability. For the first time in 18 years, we have a Budget for all the people. It honours our pledges and reflects the desire for change that was so clearly demonstrated by the people of Britain on 1 May. I welcome this opportunity in my maiden speech to congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Front-Bench Treasury team on the Budget, and I look forward to the days when I do not have to visit crumbling schools, when the people whom I represent have their faith in the NHS restored, and when we can get to grips with youth unemployment and crime in our communities, and make Britain a better place.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): It is my pleasure, in following the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Sawford), to congratulate him on his maiden speech and to wish him well in his career in the House. The House will have noted the generous spirit in which he paid tribute to his predecessor. I know his constituency reasonably well, having made one or two campaign forays there, but I can reassure him that I do not expect to make any more in the immediate future.

Speaking as a Scot, the only thing that disappointed me, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, about his speech was his unwillingness to support the admirable amendment moved by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). In the spirit of Scottish politics at the moment, I am happy to say yes, yes to her amendment. In wishing the hon. Member for Kettering well, I assume that, with his maiden speech now on the parliamentary record, he is not proposing to have a career in the Scottish Parliament, as and when it comes about. He may find that the voters there are less generous in their response to his comments than I am.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I am happy to give our support to the amendment. The points made by the hon. Member for Moray about the importance of the whisky industry at local and especially rural level, as well as about the huge contribution it makes to the national Exchequer were telling. For many years, all of us involved in the all-party group have made those points in discussions with successive Treasury Ministers.

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Over recent years, we have been encouraged to find some resonance from the Treasury in terms of recognising, as the hon. Member for Moray pointed out, not only the local importance of the industry in areas such as ours, but the massive contribution it makes to the public purse for the United Kingdom as a whole. It has been encouraging to see that point being taken on board which is why it was dispiriting, if I can use that term, that an uprating was announced in the Budget. We feel that it is out of kilter at this stage.

First, the local importance of the industry is well understood throughout Scotland. Secondly, we had been making progress on the duty on whisky and the change is a setback. The change is all the more ironic because the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a Scot who represents a Scottish constituency. Thirdly, the change will bring us back to the problem that has bedevilled the whisky industry for too many years. There has been an unfair playing field in terms of the difference in the tax take from whisky and from other alcoholic drinks. We have been trying to make progress in the direction of fairness, but the changes takes us some way back from that.

In due course, we shall see whether the argument about the elasticity of demand holds sway. It may be that, some way down the track, the ultimate tax take will decrease as a result of the increase in duty because consumer habits will be moved in other directions. The Chancellor may find that the increase proves to be counter-productive because it does not result in the income that he anticipates and because it is a further disincentive for the interests of the Scotch whisky industry as a whole.

I am happy to support the amendment, which will find a warm and wide echo in Scotland. I hope that it will commend itself to the House.

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