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House of Commons

Wednesday 30 July 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Adjournment (Summer)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Janet Anderson.]

9.35 am

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): Thank you, Madam Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech--the first speech by the first Member of Parliament for the new constituency of Bedford.

The constituency is really made up of two towns, Bedford and Kempston. Bedford is the county town of Bedfordshire, and has been a centre of regional importance since Saxon times, if not longer. Kempston has been a village for most of its history, with evidence of Roman settlement. Bedford grew rapidly during the 19th century, and later physically joined Kempston to create a single built-up area, but an area with two distinct identities for the two towns--to the extent that Kempston has its own elected town council and mayor.

Unfortunately, those separate identities are not reflected in the official name of the constituency, and I shall therefore seek to change that name, to reflect the two towns of which it consists.

Bedford and Kempston is a good place to live and work, and a good place to represent. I am honoured to have been given the chance to serve my home town--if I may call it that, having lived in Bedford for 18 years, and in the locality for 34 years.

However, if I am still to be regarded by some as a migrant to the area--there are some old Bedfordians who might take that view--I am in good company, because Bedford and Kempston were founded on inward migration. Migrants came first from the surrounding villages when industry and the railways arrived in the 19th century.

Secondly, between the wars, the locally buoyant engineering and electrical engineering base attracted people from the depressed northern cities and from south Wales. Thirdly, after 1945, the towns expanded rapidly to their present size, attracting young families from London and elsewhere in Britain--and also from continental Europe, especially from Italy, Poland and the former Yugoslavia. People also came from the new Commonwealth--from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean.

There are people from more than 50 countries of origin living and settled in Bedford and Kempston. They have their various identities and, in many cases, their children, and their children's children, were born in the area and are growing up there. They are all part of the wider community and they contribute strongly to it.

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That makes for a constituency rich in the diversity of its people and, therefore, strong in its potential for the many ideas and talents that we all need to bring to fruition if we are to work together to build a better world.

That ethnic diversity was recognised and respected by my predecessor for the Bedford part of the new constituency--Sir Trevor Skeet, who retired at the general election. I am pleased to acknowledge his role both as a constituency Member of Parliament for 27 years and as a man who displayed independence of thought. I wish him and Lady Valerie Skeet a long and happy retirement. I also wish to salute the service to Bedford of the two Labour Members of Parliament elected by slim majorities in 1945 and 1966--Tom Skeffington-Lodge and Bryan Parkin.

During the past three months, my constituents have shared with me some of their problems, hopes and fears. There are always many problems, of course, and most are connected with the wider social, economic and political realities.

In housing, for example, there is a constant expression of need associated with an inadequate supply of affordable housing to buy and to rent. There are those whose lives have been blighted by the deep injustices associated with the bureaucratic nightmare which is the Child Support Agency. There are many others whose lives have been reduced by the creaking welfare benefit system which locks so many people into a life of dependency and relative poverty, instead of offering a helping hand into education, training, skills and dignity.

I am sure that I am not alone in being told about the stresses and worries generated by the growing pressures on community and social services, the national health service and local schools, despite the very best efforts of dedicated staff. People are concerned about crime, vandalism, jobs, pensions and transport, but they also tell me that, since the general election, the mood has changed for the better.

There are still problems--there always will be--but there is now a feeling that there can be solutions. People are not displaying unrealistic expectations or a desire for magic instant answers, but they believe that we can make progress--a step at a time if need be--and for the many, not just the few.

People in Bedford and Kempston want to see smaller class sizes, quality child care and early-years education. They want lifelong learning to become a reality for all those people who have been denied it for too long. My constituents support the prospect of a revived NHS and they want to see fairness at work and a realistic minimum wage.

People support the measures to tackle unemployment and to boost investment by supporting business by helping people to train and improve their skills. Many of my constituents have made it clear also that they want this country to be positive in Europe and to play our part in fair trade and international co-operation, peace and justice. They want us to be active in cleaning up the global environment in our interdependent one world.

So many people who feel that they have been forgotten over the years--including pensioners and those with disabilities--are waiting with interest for the reviews of the benefits system, pensions and community care. If I may say so, I hope that my constituents will not just wait, but will have their say in the consultation process. In my

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view, a wind of change is blowing through the country today. Expectations are rising, but with higher expectations comes the serious responsibility of the need to deliver. My constituents are patient and are prepared to give the Government a fair chance.

There are concerns about the effect of the strong pound on industry and employment, and about the consequences of the appalling state of the public finances which we have inherited and which point to further cuts in schools, hospitals and local council services. I urge the Government to be sensitive to those concerns and to help to minimise the damage before we get on to the long road to recovery outlined in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's Budget.

There are concerns about traffic congestion and pollution, and I hope that local interested parties will respond to the consultation exercise on trunk roads in England, argue for measures that will help to complete the bypass in Bedford and Kempston and press more widely for improved rail services. With rising expectations and greater public interest in politics and our national life, it is now all the more important that we open up our democracy so that all voices can be heard. That means action on freedom of information, and parliamentary, electoral and constitutional reform.

Since the general election, this country has begun a great journey and we cannot turn back. I have no doubt that it will be a long and often difficult road, but it will be worth it. In common with the majority of the British people, most of my constituents offer their support and their good will to help to ensure, in the words of a former leader of my party, John Smith,

9.44 am

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) on his maiden speech? He spoke of his constituency with the intimacy which comes of long residence, and my right hon. and hon. Friends particularly appreciated his tribute to Sir Trevor Skeet.

I speak--unusually, from the Dispatch Box, in this debate--to raise the question of the Government's so-called ethical foreign policy and particularly its application to defence-related exports. I do so because there has been no previous opportunity to do so and because the Foreign Secretary has gone to extraordinary lengths to evade questioning on this topic.

Let me make it quite clear at the outset that the Opposition whole-heartedly support the view that this country should have an ethical foreign policy. We believe that we had an ethical foreign policy under the previous Government. In considering applications for export licences for defence-related equipment, for example, those responsible were required to take into account, among many other factors, the

Indeed, on many occasions under the previous Government, licences for defence-related equipment were refused.

The Foreign Secretary clearly intends to take a different approach--or at least he wants people to think that he is taking a different approach. First, with a flourish of

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trumpets, the Foreign Secretary issued his mission statement in the Locarno suite of the Foreign Office on 12 May. He described it as a new mission statement and said that it set out new directions in foreign policy. He said that he was setting a new direction for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

In the course of setting out these new directions, the Foreign Secretary put up a series of Aunt Sallies and proceeded to knock them down. He said, for example:

But nor, as I have made clear, did any of my former right hon. Friends who served as Foreign Secretary since 1979 accept that. Nor do I.

The second occasion on which the Foreign Secretary raised the matter outside the House was on 17 July. In a speech entitled "Human Rights into a New Century" he set out a dozen steps to

Most of these steps continue the policies of the previous Government. In many cases, the fact that they do so is openly acknowledged.

On Monday, the Foreign Secretary announced the criteria to be used in considering licence applications for the export of conventional arms under this allegedly new policy. Given the importance that the Foreign Secretary clearly attaches to the policy--and given the fact that there has been so much press briefing about it--one might have expected the announcement to be made by way of an oral statement to the House. One might have thought that the Foreign Secretary was proud of his initiative.

Not a bit of it. The announcement was smuggled out in a written answer to a question from the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms). There was no opportunity to question the Foreign Secretary and we are left to speculate on the meaning to be attributed to this delphic pronouncement.

Let us test it by reference to one of the more controversial cases in this field--the export of Hawk jets to Indonesia. The sale of those aircraft to Indonesia was initiated by the Labour Government in 1978, less than three years after Indonesian troops entered the capital of East Timor. However, as a senior member of the Government insisted to the Financial Times on 18 July:

The Minister also said, in the same report in that newspaper:

    "the decision on Hawks should not be seen as a sign that new applications for similar export licences would be approved".

Why not, if they have not been used in East Timor?

Later briefing makes the tale even murkier. Foreign Office sources told The Daily Telegraph--according to yesterday's paper--that, after legal advice, it was decided that it was "unrealistic and impractical" to revoke export licences granted before Labour's election victory. They also said, however:

What we now have is the worst of all worlds--the minimum of clarity, the maximum of confusion. We are discussing not some academic paper, but a policy on which people's livelihoods may depend.

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I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us at the end of this debate why it was "unrealistic and impractical" to revoke export licences granted before 1 May, if that indeed was the reason for their being allowed to continue. I hope that after the recess, the Foreign Secretary will make some effort to clear up the mess that his various statements have created. I hope that the country will note this sorry episode as yet another example of those warm words from Whitehall signifying nothing that are rapidly becoming the hallmark of this Government.

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