Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.22 pm

David Wright (Telford): In my first speech in the House I should like to touch on three themes. I should like, first, to comment on my predecessor in the House; secondly, to speak about the constituency of Telford and its unique position in the history, including economic history, of our nation; and, finally, to look a little to the future.

It is not hard at all to be complimentary about Bruce Grocott, the previous Member for Telford. He served the town as Member for The Wrekin between 1987 and 1997, and then, from 1997 to 2001, after a boundary review, as the Member for Telford. Previously, in the 1970s, he was the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth. In those years he was an excellent parliamentarian, serving his constituents with efficiency, honesty and good humour. It is a testament to him that, whenever I have introduced myself as the new Member for Telford, people have not only commented on my height--indeed I am taller than Bruce--but mentioned their great fondness for him.

Bruce Grocott served the Prime Minister with great loyalty as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. Previously he served Neil Kinnock, and before that the late John Smith. I know that, in the other place, he will continue to serve our country with enthusiasm and his infectious optimism. I am also sure that I speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House when I say that he richly deserves the honour that has been bestowed on him. Having campaigned with him for 15 years, I can say that he is enormously well-respected in Telford. It is very hard to find anyone with a bad word for him. In fact, he has sometimes complained that I have looked too hard for someone with a bad word for him. Nevertheless, I am glad to call him my friend.

25 Jun 2001 : Column 461

As hon. Members know, the constituency of Telford sits in the county of Shropshire and contains most of Telford new town. Although it is a new town, it is largely a mix of older communities--the old districts of The Wrekin, each with its own rich industrial and social heritage. I feel very honoured to be the new Member for Telford because I have lived in the constituency all my life. I think that it is a particularly humbling and moving experience for any Member to be able to say that he represents his home town.

Telford is a creation of the post-war new towns movement. In the post-war era, building on the principles of the garden city movement and the actions of some of the enlightened philanthropists--Titus Salt has already been mentioned today--the then Government sought to build new communities to relieve people of poor housing conditions in the conurbations and tackle the problems presented by the juxtaposition of industrial and living environments. In the late 1960s, Telford was designated as an expansion of the original Dawley new town project. The aim was to revitalise the older communities of Oakengates, St. George's, Dawley and Madeley, where older mining, foundry and engineering industry was falling into decline on the east Shropshire coalfield.

Alongside those communities were created new areas of housing and industry as well as retail and leisure facilities. It has taken more than 30 years for those new communities to gel into the older areas and districts of The Wrekin. I think that I belong to the first generation of people from the area who would describe themselves as Telfordians.

Perhaps the most well-known part of my constituency, however, is the Ironbridge gorge, including Coalbrookdale. It was there, in 1708-09, that Abraham Darby first used coke to smelt iron and signalled the commencement of mass iron production, which was the birth of the industrial revolution. It was people such as Darby and Wilkinson--"The Iron Masters", as they were known--who were the innovators behind the industrial processes of the modern world. In 1779, iron from the Coalbrookdale foundries was used to construct the world's first iron bridge. The area is now of course a world heritage site.

It was, however, not those innovators alone who led the process of industrial change in our nation. That process was led also by ordinary working people who worked in often appalling conditions. It is their contribution to our society that I should like to celebrate today. Indeed, many summaries have been made of what Coalbrookdale looked like in that time of industrial change. It was a living hell, where people lived and died tied to large corporations and gave their lives to drive forward our nation. Far too often in our history, the achievements of ordinary working people are hidden behind the big names. I pay respect today to those hidden heroes of our industrial past.

For many years, the economy of Telford was dominated by big corporations such as the Lilleshall company, with its focus on foundry and engineering work. To be fair to the Lilleshall company, it was often fairly enlightened, building good quality homes for the work force and driving forward a process of change. That process was built upon the non-conformist traditions that Telford has enjoyed over the years. From this industrial landscape grew the co-ordinated organisation of labour in the trade

25 Jun 2001 : Column 462

union movement, a legacy that, I am pleased to be able to say, has lasted beyond the life of some of the old companies that I have mentioned.

Looking to the future, I believe that Telford can continue to be a beacon of innovation and economic growth in the west midlands. During the election campaign, I visited numerous companies that are leading the global field in electronics and computing, automotive component manufacture, plastics, engineering and the banking and service sector. What struck me most during those visits was that the goods and services being offered were often of the highest quality and that in order to compete in the global marketplace, quality is now the key. Being the best in the world is the most important factor for many of our companies.

Large corporations will continue to be important in Telford; that goes largely without saying. However, the future will be increasingly dependent on the success of small businesses and the self-employed; the new innovators of our age. Central to the future also will be the continued creation of real partnerships between employers, employees and the union movement. The best organisations are encouraging this partnership approach, adopting team-focused working and the principles of quality management and allowing people to be innovators at all levels in organisations, not just in senior management positions.

Companies such as Brinton's carpets or Aga Food Services Group in my constituency provide jobs for many of my constituents. They are embracing new working practices, dismantling the old structures and unlocking the potential of their employees in a way that was never done before. If that is done well, it can be done in partnership with the union movement and we can drive forward the productivity of those companies and of our nation.

The products produced by Brinton's and Aga are world class and, importantly, they pay decent wages. For many years, Telford was known as a low-wage location. That is why the minimum wage and the working families tax credit have been so important in my constituency. Thousands of people have found their living standards improved during the last four years. The challenge now will be to provide more jobs in Telford.

I wish to flag up one area of concern: the proliferation of agency work and temporary employment contracts in our economy in Britain today. In many circumstances, such contracts and arrangements are acceptable and give flexibility in the labour market. But too often they are used to circumvent giving people the employment rights that they deserve. We need to consider our approach in this area in much more detail.

During the election campaign, I went to the local constituency jobcentre, where up to two thirds of the vacancies available were for agency-based working. This is a real problem across the country. We need to encourage employers to adopt better working practices and to pay the going rate for the job, while giving people better standards.

The Government are providing the platform for continued economic growth in Telford, and the figures bear that out. Unemployment in the constituency has fallen by 22.6 per cent. since 1997. Youth unemployment has fallen dramatically--by more than 70 per cent.--in a similar period. Nearly 500 young people have benefited from the new deal programme.

25 Jun 2001 : Column 463

I welcome the principle in the Queen's Speech that economic stability will continue to be the foundation on which increased spending on social infrastructure can be built. I believe that Telford and its people can continue to mirror the achievements of the industrial innovators and the working people of the past. As a local lad, I am proud to represent the constituency; a constituency with such an illustrious past and, I hope, a bright future.

8.33 pm

Iris Robinson (Strangford): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on his maiden speech. Both in content and delivery, he has demonstrated a keen grasp of his subject and has set a high standard for the rest of the new Members to follow. As a fellow member of the new class of 2001, I will watch his progress with interest and, I suspect, envy.

It is an enormous honour for me to become the second Member of Parliament for Strangford since it was created in 1983. Each of us--even the most humble--when first we walk into this House will experience a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and even pride to be chosen to speak for our constituents.

I feel especially fortunate to represent one of the most scenic and beautiful areas in the kingdom. If anyone doubts my word, I invite them to come and judge for themselves. They should visit the historic Scrabo tower, nestled beside the principle town of Newtownards; see Saintfield, Comber and Carryduff expanding and shaping their future; drive around the coast, stopping, of course, at the picturesque villages of Ballywalter and Ballyhalbert; and sail around Strangford lough, taking in the quaint settlements of Greyabbey, Portaferry and Kirkubbin. They should leave time to walk around the charming fishing village of Portavogie and try those world-famous Portavogie prawns, and if anyone has the energy, they should come to Dundonald leisure park. Almost 10 million people have made it one of the United Kingdom's most visited leisure attractions.

Visitors should cast their eyes over the rolling County Down countryside, the lush green fields, the lough and the coastal views. This is an area untouched by much of the plastic commercialism of the age. It is nature at its best. It is God's own country.

Most of all, visitors should take time to meet the people of Strangford. No friendlier citizens could be found anywhere, and I am delighted to report to this House that Her Majesty will find no more loyal subjects, wherever her writ may run, than the good people of Strangford.

My predecessor, John Taylor, represented this constituency for 18 years. Those who know of the many fierce and bruising battles that we have had will be wondering how I will come to terms with the convention that a new Member, in a maiden speech, should make some complimentary remarks about their predecessor. I cannot deny that Lord Taylor and I have had major political differences. We directly fought two elections against one another in the constituency of Strangford--one for Westminster, the other for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The score is one all and, before he stood down, I had been looking forward to the decider at the recent election.

25 Jun 2001 : Column 464

If there was ever a politician who could treat political triumph and disaster just the same, it was John Taylor. Despite our political differences, I appreciate the personal sacrifice that he made by being involved in politics in Northern Ireland over the last turbulent 30 years. Indeed, when in 1972, the official IRA shot my predecessor, he almost paid the ultimate price for his service to the community.

From being a Minister in the Stormont Government before 1972 through to the present day, John Taylor has been elected to almost every body formed. He has been a district councillor, a Member of the Stormont Parliament, the Northern Ireland Forum, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention, three Assemblies, this House, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and now the other place. I am sure that I have left something out but I am equally sure that he will remind me of it. I genuinely wish him well for the future.

Much as I feel a sense of pride at having been elected to this House, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to those who sent me here. On the doorsteps, it was clear that those who had never before voted for my party or for me were doing so because they felt that they had been betrayed and let down, not just by the Ulster Unionist party but by this Government.

There was no greater sense of betrayal than that voiced by those who serve in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is difficult to put into words their feelings of hurt and anger at how they have been treated. For the past 30 years, they have been the last line of defence against terrorism for the entire community. It is impossible to estimate the countless lives saved by the gallantry of the RUC. Its officers can never switch off from the constant and continuing threat to their safety. We cannot calculate the endless hours of worry for the families of those officers during the darkest days of the troubles--the nights when wives watched their husbands leave for duty, fearing that they might never return.

For more than 300 families, their loved ones never did return. Thousands of others returned with injuries from which they would never fully recover. I fear that it will not be so, but I contend that history should record that the officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary have been the real heroes of the Ulster troubles.

Imagine, then, the ignominy that they faced when they discovered that the so-called peace settlement contained an explicit remit for their destruction and specific rewards for the very terrorists from whom they had been protecting our society. Murderers were released from prison after as little as two years, and they saw terrorists elevated into government and even offered places on the very body that has authority over the police. At the same time, the police force to which they had dedicated their lives was being consigned to the history books on the altar of political expediency. Their name was removed, their uniform changed and even their proud insignia was taken from them. One cannot avoid the conclusion that the RUC has been disgracefully and shabbily treated.

Even now, the Government are engaged in talks that are aimed at satisfying the latest demands of republicans on policing, which will further denigrate the service of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. However, this is not a question only of symbols or titles; it is about effectiveness in the job that the police have to do. Police cuts are taking

25 Jun 2001 : Column 465

place and morale is at an all-time low. It is simply impossible for police in many areas to do their job properly.

Even now, the RUC is still facing attack. Which one of us could possibly envy the job that it has to do, with conflict in areas such as north Belfast, where, night after night, it seeks to preserve life and property? It also faces serious difficulties from terrorists, many of whom have recently been released from prison and are terrorising their communities, creating Mafia-style ghettos, engaging in racketeering, extortion and gangsterism, and running their evil drug empires. This is not the creation of a bright new future; it is the unfolding of a terrifying nightmare.

I have been sent to this House to deliver the message that the present political arrangements do not attract cross-community support. History should have taught us all that, unless both sections of our community support the institutions, the structures will fail. It is not feasible in a divided society such as that of Northern Ireland to govern without consent.

The results of the elections have confirmed that about two thirds of the Unionist community oppose the present arrangements. That is not a matter for debate; it is a matter of record and fact. This reality cannot be spun out of existence or brushed away. It must be faced. The Belfast agreement has at its heart the principle that it can exist only with the support of a majority in both the Unionist and nationalist communities. Now that it has been established that Unionist support is absent, it is the duty of the Government to renegotiate the agreement and to seek support for a way forward that can gain and enjoy the support of both Unionists and nationalists.

This House should be slow to turn its back on the democratically expressed will of the Unionist community. To tell a people that its votes will be ignored and that there is no political way of remedying its concerns is to drive it away from the democratic process, with all the obvious and attendant dangers.

I have represented Strangford in the Northern Ireland Assembly since 1998 and before that in the Northern Ireland Forum. I have always sought to put the interests of my constituents first in all that I do. My door is open to any person of any background. I ask nothing more for the people of Strangford than any other hon. Member would ask for his or her constituents, and I will accept nothing less.

My father came from this city of London, and although he died from war wounds while I was still a very small girl, he inspired me and passed to me his love of our British traditions and way of life. I am not a polished or professional politician. Much of what I have to do in politics does not come easily to me. I was an uncomplicated working-class girl who was driven by circumstances and lifted up by the people in spite of my limitations. I can only hope that down-to-earth loyalty, compassion, honesty and effort can substitute for all else that I lack. There can be few greater honours than to be elected to represent the interests of our constituents. I intend to make their cares my concern, and I am willing to be judged on that basis when the time comes for them to pass their verdict.

Next Section

IndexHome Page