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6.35 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am uncertain whether the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) was delivering a maiden speech, but, in any event, he is certainly worthy of congratulation. His speech bore the hallmarks of a maiden speech in that it lacked extreme partisan rancour and had historic and geographic erudition, which illuminates all our minds when we consider such matters. Indeed, it might be said that, if every speech were a maiden speech, the quality of what we hear would sometimes be raised. Fortunately, I am not in a position to make a maiden speech, although there were moments during my election count when I thought that I was coming jolly close to being born again.

I would like to comment on the Queen's Speech, particularly with regard to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I think that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a number of mistakes over a number of years. One of my distinguished predecessors, Sir Valentine Crittall, the first Labour Member for Braintree, was also the first Labour Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture. His picture looks down upon me from my office wall every day. In that sense, the Ministry had a good part to play.

Agriculture is not the only part of our rural communities, but it would be unwise to downgrade it too far. All our rural communities ultimately depend on the

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widespread part played by agriculture. It is wrong to say that the Government have done nothing for agriculture. The amount of subsidy that is, rightly, paid to agriculture is enormous. It is the most supported industry of all. Indeed, I believe that more public support is given to agriculture than to all the other industries put together. That is not to say that it is wrong, but it should be recognised that that is the case.

Some people say that we should reform the common agricultural policy and move away from subsidy and support. My view is that we should perhaps change the approach to subsidy and support. It is unrealistic to believe that British agriculture in all its forms can survive in a completely free market. We have heard about palm trees in the west of Scotland. Certain parts of our nation may have climates that are more amenable to agriculture than others, but there are parts of the world with which we can never compete in terms of climate, land and soil. Notwithstanding that fact, our economy needs a strong agricultural base. Therefore, I support the continuation of support and subsidy for British agriculture.

Agriculture is not the only aspect of the rural community. Over the past four to five years, we have made progress in several areas. I do not subscribe to the view, which is normally expressed during election campaigns, that there is town and country and never the twain shall meet. The towns rest upon the countryside, and people interchange between town and countryside. To set one against the other can do no good.

There are particular difficulties in rural communities, one of which is transport. We all subscribe to co-ordinated transport--to better transport. Some villages and hamlets will never have a half-hourly bus service, but we need to find out how to build a valuable and useful transport system in our rural communities.

I am somewhat concerned about the operation of private bus companies. Enormous Government and county support goes into rural bus routes. Every time a private operator makes a loss on a bus route, he closes it and expects the county to pick up the bill. That is the opposite of the principle of cross-subsidisation. If a company operates a private bus service, it should take the good with the bad: it should run profitable services and pay for the unprofitable services out of some of that profit. We should not expect the public purse to take all the unprofitable routes and the private operator to take the profitable ones. Clearly, bus services in rural areas need greater regulation and co-ordination.

Another matter that would make a colossal difference to the lives of people in country areas is an increase in home-to-school transport. If we are serious about reducing the number of motor cars on our roads, the time and place to do it is in transporting children from home to school and back again. Anyone who drives at any time during a school holiday suddenly realises how empty the roads are at half past eight in the morning, compared with the amount of traffic before the holidays. If greater public finance went into providing home-to-school transport, the benefit would be felt not only by children, but by their parents, who are often encumbered in ferrying children around--sometimes to three separate schools. Indeed, we would be providing a service that has been lacking hitherto. The Government have done well in the support that they have given to home-to-school transport, but I urge them to go further so that we can greatly enhance village communities.

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The crucial social element in the countryside is the post office. We have all lamented the decline in the number of post offices, which has happened over many years; this is not a party issue. The Government have promised that new banking measures will be introduced into the post office system. That is welcome. The Government answered a parliamentary question that I tabled saying that benefits and pensions will still be paid in cash after 2003. That must be encouraged if we are to keep the flow of business through local post offices.

If the post office, the public house, the church and the chapel disappear from the local community, it becomes little more than a dormitory housing estate. We must ensure that those facilities remain. We must do all within our power to increase local employment and work based on agriculture and its subsidiaries, where possible. However, we must also encourage other appropriate businesses in the countryside, so that it becomes a living countryside, as opposed to a picture-postcard ideal that people visit at weekends and for holidays.

6.42 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): I rise to speak in the House for the very first time in the knowledge that my constituency was last represented by a woman in 1955, the year I was born--no maths please. I am a lady, and I should not like anyone to do the calculation. In fact I am the first woman to be returned to the House from Northern Ireland in almost 30 years. The previous one was Bernadette Devlin, who represented Mid-Ulster as a Unity Member of Parliament in 1969--by the way, I promise not to assault the Home Secretary--and then as an independent from 1970 to 1974. I grew up on a farm only a few miles from her home in Cookstown, but our paths never crossed. She was a Catholic and I a Protestant, and we went to separate schools. When she was 10 and I was two, a new Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant was appointed to Coalisland, a small village lying between our respective homes.

The previous sergeant had been blown up by a booby-trap bomb placed by the IRA during its 1950s terrorist campaign. The new sergeant tolerated no nonsense. He was a strict disciplinarian and gained a reputation for being somewhat fierce--so much so that, as a child, I remember that the threat of seeing the sergeant was the ultimate deterrent to bad behaviour in our house. The fierce sergeant was none other than Jack Hermon.

Some 30 years later, Jack Hermon was Chief Constable of the RUC, and I was an academic lecturing in the law faculty at Queen's university. One of my colleagues at that time was a shy, bookish, softly-spoken, red-haired, bespectacled young lecturer. How the years have improved my colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party! I am delighted that he was comprehensively and very wisely returned as our leader by the Ulster Unionist Council at the weekend.

In 1987, having been outraged by the Chief Constable's discrimination against women in the RUC, I wrote an article criticising him bitterly for his actions, of which I sent him a copy. Months of silence followed, then a phone call. It was a man's voice--the voice of someone claiming

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to be the Chief Constable, Sir Jack Hermon. All the women here will know what I mean by the phrase, "women's intuition": we know instantly when something is a hoax. I knew instantly that it was a hoax call, so I responded, "If you're the Chief Constable, I'm Brigitte Bardot." So much for female intuition and instincts. To my enormous embarrassment, he was who he said he was, and I was certainly not Brigitte Bardot. So it was that we met, subsequently married and made our home in North Down.

I have, therefore, only been called Lady Hermon for the past 12 years. For the previous 33 years, I had been Sylvia Paisley--although I am not related to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), and nor do I share his political views. I was, nevertheless, delighted when he said that the best decision that the Chief Constable of the RUC ever made was to marry a namesake of his.

When I first stood for selection as a candidate in North Down, I immediately learned how I was perceived by the media. The Irish News--the excellent main nationalist paper and one of my favourites--ran a story about the four candidates. The name of each appeared with a little descriptive note. Alongside mine was what was to become a traditional little note: "Lady Hermon, wife of the former Chief Constable of the RUC", and so on. A similar note appeared for each candidate, although they were not described as being married to the Chief Constable. The paper's problem was which photograph to include. Did it put in my photograph or that of any other candidate? No, it put in the photograph of Jack Hermon.

Victory at a general election brings many rewards, including, in my case, a photo of me--not Jack--with one of our Airedale dogs. That picture appeared on the front page of The Sunday Times. If I had received a pound coin every time someone had said to me, "What a beautiful dog you have," I would be enormously rich by now. Let me give a bit of advice to all hon. Members: they should never have their photograph taken with a handsome dog.

Amid all the other results in Northern Ireland, where voters appear--I emphasise the word "appear"--to have polarised to Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party, I urge the House to note the message of co-operation and moderation from North Down. I was selected only on 9 May, the day that the general election was called. In less than a month, Catholics and Protestants, the small Jewish community in Northern Ireland and the Chinese community, Unionist voters, Alliance voters, Social Democratic and Labour party voters, Progressive Unionist party voters and the Women's Coalition all felt comfortable in voting for and returning me to the House with a majority of more than 7,000.

I am, therefore, enormously proud of the people of North Down. They have returned North Down to the Ulster Unionist party; they have returned a woman to Westminster; and, in me, they have returned someone who remains strongly pro-agreement. The people of Northern Ireland need and deserve to see all the agreement implemented; it must not be allowed to stumble and fall at this stage.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, who no one will deny was a colourful character. Robert McCartney QC held the seat from 1995, during which time he made a lasting impression on political life in Northern Ireland. As well

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as being a colourful character, he was a powerful orator and he remained something of an enigma to the end. Despite having declared that

he did not hesitate to step in front of me--leaving his back exposed--to address the press corps before I could make my acceptance speech when the count was declared on 8 June. What a real character. I sincerely wish him well in what was for him an unexpected retirement from the House.

North Down is truly a beautiful coastal constituency. For those who cannot visualise it, it runs along the top of the Ards peninsula. My home town of Donaghadee is well known for its splendid lighthouse, which was built in 1836 and is still in perfect condition, as are all the 100-plus steps that I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to climb and descend regularly as a form of exercise. The maypole, which dominates the centre of Holywood, is also in perfect condition and attracts tourists every year.

Mercifully, the rural hinterland has escaped the ravages of foot and mouth disease. I have listened with great attention and great concern to those who have a dreadful blight on their constituencies as a result of foot and mouth. We in Northern Ireland have escaped the worst of the ravages. That is in no small measure due to the skilful handling of the crisis in Northern Ireland by our own Minister with responsibility for agriculture, Brid Rodgers, to whom I am delighted to pay a warm tribute on behalf of the farmers in my constituency. My father, who is still farming at the age of 85, said that had she been standing in his constituency, he would have voted for her, and he is a long-standing Unionist. She has handled the outbreak superbly well.

During the election campaign I was struck, and rather offended, by the fact that North Down was frequently described in the media as the gold coast, with the "have yachts and have nots"--and more recently as "the gin and Jag" constituency. These descriptions paint a grossly inaccurate image of my constituency and its wonderful people. I shall take a few moments to paint a different picture.

It is true that in Bangor we have a magnificent marina that is full of yachts. It is the fourth largest marina in the United Kingdom. It is true also that in Bangor we have the Kilcooley estate, where there are about 650 children without one play park or playground between them. Millisle is a small coastal village which is scenic for tourists, but having canvassed there I can tell a different story. It was there that I was asked for my autograph for the first time. It was a humbling experience to find that young children regarded it as the highlight of their day, week, month and perhaps their year to ask a parliamentary candidate for her autograph.

The lives of all these children deserve to be enriched with much more investment in youth facilities the length and breadth of the constituency.

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