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7.53 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I wholeheartedly congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on his splendid maiden speech. I remember making my maiden speech to a packed House, because at that time it used to be a great occasion and the Chamber was often full. I made my maiden speech on the rate-capping measure. I followed the former right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. Strangely enough, the right hon. Gentleman was not in favour of rate capping--I took a different view. It was noticeable that the hon. Member for Yeovil was entirely in tune with his predecessor in that constituency and was right to pay a warm tribute to him.

The hon. Member for Yeovil impressed the House with the command of his understanding of issues in his constituency. I certainly was extremely impressed that he used no notes. I shall not try to kid anyone that I am that clever--I have bits of paper all over the show in case I forget what I am saying.

The hon. Member for Yeovil made this a special occasion. No doubt, the Whips will be telling the 96 or 97 new Members to make their maiden speech quickly. That is bad advice. The only time that the House will

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really listen to what hon. Members say is when they make their maiden speech, so I am not in favour of throwing that opportunity away when there is no one to listen to it. I say to the hon. Gentleman, "Well done!"

If we had fought the general election campaign on the basis of today's Gracious Speech, God help us all. In every sense, there is an awful programme before us and I shall deal with it in detail in a moment. However, I want to talk about the general election campaign. It was a rotten campaign in every sense.

I shall share my personal experiences with the House. In my former constituency, I was used to fighting the Labour party--this is not a dig at the two Liberal Members in the Chamber--but in my present constituency, I found it a new experience to be fighting the Liberal party. Four years ago, when I spoke on the Gracious Speech, I felt somewhat discomfited because I had been sitting on the Government Benches and when one suddenly finds oneself in opposition it can be somewhat discomfiting. I do not feel like that today. I have got used to being on the Opposition Benches although I do not enjoy it and I very much want my party to return to government.

I have also got used to the way in which the Liberal party fights general election campaigns. In particular, I have got used to the little charts that they put through letter boxes; I have got used to the Focus newspaper and being told not to let dogs mess on the footpaths and not to drop litter. I have become very used to the Liberal style of campaigning.

During the general election campaign, the hon. Member for Southend, West was told that he should find another job, because it was, apparently, a two-horse race and I did not figure in it at all. It was a straight fight between the Liberal candidate and the Labour candidate. I have found out that the Liberal organisation wrote to all declared Labour supporters telling them to vote tactically in Southend, West. As the Liberals saw it, there was a straight fight and they were in pole position to take the seat.

I can say only that that backfired spectacularly on the dear Liberal party. Not only did the Liberals lose votes--more than 6,000 votes--but they are no longer even in second place; they are in third place. The Labour candidate at least had the good grace to say at the declaration that he deplored the technique of tactical voting. He said loudly that if one stands for a political party one jolly well votes for it. This place will improve when hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen have convictions and tell the general public what they believe in. I applauded the Labour candidate who deplored tactical voting. I suspect that the Liberal charts and claims about two-horse races will no longer happen.

I found myself in a state of shock at the count because I had obtained the largest majority ever during my time in politics. We managed to treble our vote. If any of my Conservative colleagues are feeling depressed about the general election result, let them come to Essex! The tide has turned for the Conservative party in Essex. I may bait the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) to join me and to share his views on the situation. In Essex, we achieved splendid results. In Southend, it was quite clear that the general public wanted no more of this rotten Labour Government supported by the Liberals; they wanted a Conservative Government, so both Southend Members were elected with substantial majorities.

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It gets better. We had the council elections. The Labour and Liberal parties did not fare at all well in those elections. The Liberals used to be the main opposition in Southend--but no longer. The Conservatives were elected with a huge majority. As for Essex county council, there was an interesting technique at presidential questions: a Labour member would bowl gentle balls to the leader of the Labour party about how badly Conservative- controlled Essex county council were administering education, transport, and other matters. That obviously did not work, because Essex county council is no longer a hung council in which the chairman has the casting vote; there is now a substantial Conservative majority. So my right hon. and hon. Friends need not feel too gloomy about how the Conservative party did in the general election, because we did very well in Southend.

The only thing that was troubling me when I went to my count was the knowledge that, at the start of the general election campaign, I had recklessly agreed to do a charity abseil down the side of the Cliffs pavilion. I am told that the abseil has attracted a record number of subscribers, on the basis that any number of people are keen to see the hon. Member for Southend, West break his neck. I do not intend to break my neck on Sunday and create the need for a by-election.

I shall now consider the Gracious Speech. We heard that the Government's central objectives were

I did not hear the leader of the Labour party tell the House what that inclusive society was all about, but I can tell him that the people who are not included in the Labour party project are the working classes. Labour despise the working classes now. One has to be posh to be a member of the Labour party these days. If the Government are serious about creating a more inclusive society, the first people that they need to include are the working classes in the United Kingdom who did not vote.

It is a disgrace that this rotten Government were elected by only one in four of the general public. Why are people not voting? A person from the media asked me what I thought the low turnout was all about. This is the media asking Members of Parliament why we have a low turnout! Elements of the media have undoubtedly denigrated Members of Parliament, lowering their standing in public esteem.

I, for one, wholeheartedly blame the Labour Government, especially their leader, for what has happened in this country. They have tried to americanise our politics. They have announced outside the House things that should have been announced on the Floor of the House. They have trivialised our proceedings. They have turned their own Back Benchers into a crowd of lemmings. However, as a result of the reshuffle that has taken place, we may hear increasingly from Labour Members of Parliament how they feel about the 20 Bills on which the House will be deliberating over the next 18 months.

It is a disgrace that we have followed the United States of America, and voter apathy is the winner. We are the mother of Parliaments. People from all over the world admire the standing of this place, and yet it has been reduced to a second-rate Chamber. I am disgusted about that. I hope that Members of Parliament will be honest with themselves and that we shall all quietly reflect on the matter, and then not just talk but do something about it.

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We were told in the Gracious Speech that the

Have they just suddenly become interested in crime, welfare, health and reform of public services? What on earth has been going on for the past four years? This is drivel.

We are told by the Labour Government that it took four years to sort out the public finances. That is codswallop. There was nothing wrong with the public finances when Labour won in 1997. The truth is that they did not have a clue what to do when they became the Government. They did not know how to run the health service. They did not know how to run education. They did not know how to deal with crime and disorder. Yes, they talked about an integrated transport system, but they certainly have not delivered one. It has been a disaster, and as Members have knocked on people's doors during the election campaign they have learned at first hand the general public's perception of all these issues.

We were told in the Gracious Speech that the

How many Members of Parliament who spoke to teachers on the doorstep were told, "David, I am glad that you are here. The Government are doing a fantastic job in reforming education. The 1,099 circulars really are the answer to education, education, education"? No, teachers did not say that. They said, "David, our morale is at rock bottom because we have a nannying Government who haven't a clue about what they want to do in education other than interfere." So when I read details about how the Government are going to reform education in this country, I think, God help the teachers who work, day in, day out, trying to inspire our children to get involved.

I wonder how many hon. Members went to mock general elections in schools. Even that was not on the agenda this time. I started in politics by standing in the mock elections in 1964 and 1970.

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