Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.20 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): I am most grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate.

Before I came to the House, I was editor of History Today, so I hope that the House will forgive me for having felt some small pride and privilege in making my own little piece of history on 2 May as the first-ever Labour Member of Parliament for Blackpool, South.

Blackpool and history have always been intertwined. Blackpool has played a central part in the popular culture, history and leisure of our country over the past 150 years. Blackpool's motto is "Progress". Blackpool has been a pioneering and innovatory town in municipal government for more than 150 years. It is worth remembering that its Victorian values introduced the first tuppenny tourism rate, gas and electricity on a municipal basis, the promenade and the tramways, which still work today, and, of course, the tower, with which every visitor to Blackpool is familiar.

It is a great boon to come before the House as the new Member of Parliament for Blackpool, South, because most, if not all, hon. Members will be familiar with the town through conferences. We have not one but three piers. We have a Golden Mile, where one can encounter such delights as "The World of Coronation Street" or "The Life and Times of Sooty". We have the pleasure beach, which for more than 100 years has been run by the same family and has a saga very similar to that of a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. We have the Big One and the promise of a dark ride for the millennium, which should perhaps be referred to the Minister without Portfolio. We also have quieter pleasures in the form of Stanley park and Marton Mere, and, of course, the illuminations. We have millions of visitors. My constituency has more than 2,000 guest houses doing bed and breakfast--with a finer cooked breakfast than one will get in many of the grander hotels in North shore.

When I was a child and was taken by my parents on day trips from Manchester to Blackpool, to see such delights as Zola the Zombie--"She's alive, she's well, she's living in a goldfish bowl"--little did I think that one day I would represent that town. As I reflect on my good fortune, however, it is, of course, customary in the House to pay tribute to one's predecessor, and that I am very happy to do. My predecessor, now the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), was a chivalrous and courteous opponent when I stood against him in 1992, and the case work that I have inherited from him shows that he was assiduous and thorough, as would befit a lawyer with his training. However, I was not aware, until relatively recently, of his keen interest in eastern philosophy.

The Tory party has had a new leader since the general election, who we believe practises meditation techniques, but it is obvious that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath practised Hagueism avant la lettre. That he has returned to the House is clear evidence of that other piece of eastern philosophy, reincarnation. He has given the House proof positive of the transmigration of souls by reappearing as

4 Nov 1997 : Column 144

the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I thank him for his contribution to bridging the north-south divide and offer him many long and happy years in his new constituency.

Blackpool is not all tourism and holidays. Many of my constituents work in industries outside the town--British Nuclear Fuels, ICI and British Aerospace, where many of them are engaged in the Eurofighter project--and in the civil service, in war pensions, disability living allowance and National Savings, Ernie and premium bonds, which has just celebrated 40 years. All those industries have faced strong challenges in recent years but have come through. At a time of discontinuity and market forces, it is as well to remind hon. Members on both sides of the House of the proud ethos of public service that Fylde civil servants have given over 50 years.

Blackpool is not all fun and candy floss. Behind the fronts of the streets, some housing conditions are positively Dickensian. Many people in Blackpool earn a poor salary. Seasonal unemployment is high--up to 20 per cent. Many of the young people who come to our town find that the streets are not paved with gold, and the problems of drug and alcohol abuse are severe. Nevertheless, I am enormously proud of the self-help, good humour, enterprise and hard work of my constituents. However, without a personal and social infrastructure to support them, their efforts to make progress and grasp opportunities will always be maimed. That is why education times three is at the heart of our project in government.

At home, I have a medal struck from the copper of Nelson's first flagship, Foudroyant, which was wrecked off Blackpool 100 years ago this year. That medal was given to my grandfather for being one of the top 10 schoolchildren in a Derbyshire elementary school, when he was 10. He wanted to be a teacher, but time, class and family circumstances meant that he spent his life as a boiler man, although I remember as a child the historical novels on his shelves, which may have stirred my interest in the subject.

A former leader of our party, when speaking about such people, said that they had been deprived of a platform, and that platform of empowerment in education is at the heart of new Labour's project. It does, of course, involve very hard choices. I must tell Conservative Members that there was never any golden age in the funding of further and higher education, and least of all under their Government.

I was the first in my family to stay on at school and go to university, and am well aware of how chance, good teachers and family encouragement helped me to come out of Oxford with a history degree. However, I am also aware that dozens of my contemporaries did not have that first, nor second, chance. The existing system of grants did nothing to support or help them. Therefore, it ill befits the Opposition to come here today to don the cloak of concern and pretend that we are in year zero.

The Opposition speak of maintenance grants, but it takes some cheek to defend a system that they progressively devalued and cut away during their period in office. In any case, it is not a system that ever benefited all students. One of the fastest-growing areas in the past few years, as Dearing has said, is that of part-time students. For them, a maintenance grant, even tutorial fee support, was never an option. I remind the House that

4 Nov 1997 : Column 145

the Conservative Government whittled away the voluntary grants that were available in their constant attack on local government funding.

As one who taught for 20 years as a part-time Open university tutor, I welcome the Government's opening moves to remedy Dearing's deficiencies in the report. I shall look to them to develop--perhaps with tax incentives--funding support to put part-time students, vocational and non-vocational, on a level playing field. The Government's response to Dearing is a responsible and realistic approach. It is one that is shared by the bodies concerned. I quote from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which says:

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) referred to the crocodile tears and crocodile teeth of the Opposition. I am equally not fooled by the crocodile waffle of Opposition Front Benchers, whose Government frittered years away when they had the opportunity to address the problems that the Labour Government now face. The Conservative Government were happy to see student numbers expand, but they did nothing to fund them. They did nothing in office to address the problem of pauperising students year by year.

It was not the Conservative party which created the Open university, admired worldwide as a great British contribution to education. It was not the Conservative party which came before the House with proposals for the Open college and the university of industry. It was not the Conservative party which proposed individual learning accounts which will help and enable people. It is the Labour party in government which has done and is doing those things. We do them as a debt to the dead, but we also do them as an encouragement to the living. We do them because it is part of our central project to enable, to empower, to excite and to energise all our people for the 21st century, in my constituency and throughout Britain. That is why education, education and education is central to our endeavours. That is why the Government deserve support today against the Opposition motion.

5.30 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on his maiden speech. It was a great pleasure to listen to him. I have listened to him before today. He mentioned the towers of Blackpool and Millbank. In my memory are the towering spires of Oxford where we were together. I can tell that we shall have as many amicable differences in the future as we used to have in the past.

The issue before the House can readily be understood only if credit is given where credit is due. Of all the inheritances that the Conservative party handed on to the Government of the day on 2 May, no jewel shone brighter than that of higher education. As Professor Dearing pointed out, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development described our system of higher education as highly efficient. We may not have yet

4 Nov 1997 : Column 146

achieved the highest levels of access to tertiary education, but we have achieved one of the highest levels of degree status.

Next Section

IndexHome Page