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7.18 pm

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): It is a great honour and privilege to speak for the first time in the House as the Member for Wealden and especially as the successor to one of the most loved and respected Members of this place. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith was in many ways a unique man. He had been a distinguished Minister with responsibility for pensions and for defence, and he had been a distinguished Select Committee Chairman. For many years, he had also been devoted to the North Atlantic Assembly in which he served for 20 years, including as one of its committee chairmen and, for the past five years, as its treasurer.

Sir Geoffrey was a fine debater, devoted to Parliament and its ways. However, what people will remember most about him was that he was an extraordinarily gentle and decent man. I have never heard him say anything unpleasant about anybody in any party. That is a remarkable achievement in the world of politics. He will carry with him the best wishes of this House as he moves into his retirement.

Sir Geoffrey was the most marvellous support to me in the year that I shadowed him as a prospective parliamentary candidate. We worked closely together over that time. He was an immensely diligent Member of Parliament, much loved within the constituency. He campaigned assiduously for local schools and hospitals, for the restoration of the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes, and for farming and rural communities. Those are all issues on which I would wish to continue his work.

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I imagine that for many hon. Members the most immediate difference between Sir Geoffrey and I would be sartorial. He could still wear the suits he wore 50 years ago, and regularly did. When he campaigned--even when he was canvassing at the last election--he did so at a trot, managing to jog around the constituency at a rate that I found quite bewildering. When we stood beside each other--him at 77 and me at 42--people asked him why he was giving way for an older man. He still retained those wonderful good looks which people also remembered from his appearances many years ago on television.

Many of my friends who were waiting up for the election results were concerned that Wealden was about the last constituency in England to declare. They were concerned that there might be a recount, and the following morning and the following week the local newspapers had headlines suggesting that the Wealden result was in jeopardy and that Labour was celebrating a swing. These referred to the fact that the count had taken so long, and it was with some trepidation that I reached for an excellent paper produced by the Library, which reassured me that Wealden had produced the third-largest Conservative majority in the country. Having spent most of my political life fighting in marginal constituencies, I can live with that degree of trepidation and jeopardy.

Many things about Wealden are remarkable. It is a constituency that is only 40-odd miles from London, yet it contains some of the most unspoiled country and beautiful scenery that one could find. Although many people commute out of Wealden to Brighton, Gatwick and London, the constituency is characterised by areas such as Ashdown forest and the historical farms of the High Weald, and areas that are famous for characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Sherlock Holmes, great literary characters who have come to mean a great deal to the constituency.

Wealden also has villages and towns which, in their own way, are extraordinarily special; towns such as Crowborough, Hailsham, Uckfield and Heathfield and a whole host of small villages that make it one of the most desirable places to live. While one should take great comfort from those factors, one should not begin to think that Wealden is not without its problems and genuine anxieties. It is an area that has had much good fortune, but there are still real concerns, the first of which is housing.

The Government's plans--backed locally by the Liberal Democrats--to build tens of thousands of new houses in the greenbelt area are matters of profound concern. It is something that the overwhelming majority of people who live in Wealden would wish to resist. The problem is that we simply do not have the infrastructure locally to cope with those numbers of houses. We do not have the places in our schools or on the local doctors' waiting lists; nor do we have the facilities in our transport network.

I believe it is paramount that decisions on new houses should be made locally by councillors who understand those situations, rather than remotely by Ministers. I do not believe that the previous Secretary of State ever tried to drive either of his two Jags down the narrow lanes of East Sussex, yet the decision was to be his about how many houses we should take. It is vital to an area such as Wealden that those decisions should be made locally.

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The next issue of concern is policing. Rural policing has been in great decline and we view that with great anxiety. We have seen the numbers of police in the county fall over recent years, and the number of police on the beat has also fallen. I want those numbers to be restored, more police to be back on the beat and, crucially, our local police stations to be kept open all the time. When someone is apprehended in the night in Crowborough, it does not make sense that they should be transported by two officers to Crawley, because that takes those officers out of service in the community for three or four hours. I will campaign on behalf of my constituents to make sure that we keep those local stations open at weekends and overnight.

There will be a wide welcome for the plans introduced by the now Conservative-controlled county council to reintroduce local community policemen, funded by the county council, so that there can be people in rural communities who work only in the areas where they live and who will not be taken away by a big crisis in Brighton or elsewhere. They will be there to look after the needs of their communities.

The next issue is the future of those rural communities which we have seen gradually slide away. The nature of those villages remains, externally, as it has done for years, in terms of the character of the houses, the nature of pubs and the fact that we still have many butchers shops in the villages, although they are declining all the time. However, far too many village post offices have closed. Nationwide last year, more than 500 post offices closed in our smaller communities. That is a tremendous loss, not just to the pensioners who depend on them for drawing their pensions each week but to the many people for whom the post office is the life-blood of the local business community. I hope that measures will be introduced during this Parliament, and that the Government will be persuaded during the debate on the Queen's Speech, genuinely to support local village communities.

At the nub of rural communities is farming. We have been incredibly fortunate in East Sussex, in that we have not had a single case of foot and mouth disease, but that does not mean that farming is not in crisis. One half of dairy farmers in the south-east have come out of dairy farming in the last two years. Their farm incomes have declined by 90 per cent. over the past five years. One of the consequences of foot and mouth will be that people who might otherwise have been able to stay in farming will feel that they simply cannot justify the huge disparity between the value of their farmhouse--which is in great demand from people wanting to move into the area--and the income that the farmland can now generate for them.

This House must act urgently to try to make sure that our farmers enjoy a level playing field and are not facing unfair competition from overseas products that do not adhere to the same standards of animal hygiene and animal husbandry. We need good labelling so that consumers who wish to buy British food know that they are genuinely doing so, rather than buying food that may have been reared overseas and simply packaged and processed in this country.

There is nothing in the Queen's Speech that suggests to me that the Government wish to act with regard to the countryside, apart from their knee-jerk reaction on

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foxhunting. If we do not stand up for farming, the whole fabric of our countryside will be in jeopardy and will be changed for ever.

For me, there could be no greater privilege than to represent the area where I was born, grew up and went for most of my schooling. To come from the area just north of Wealden and now to be the Member of Parliament for the area is something that, as a child, I could only have dreamed about. I know that there are many issues of concern to the constituency, issues about which I care passionately and for which I hope I can be a voice in this House for some time to come. Sir Geoffrey was here for 36 years and looked at the end of it as if he could do another 36 years and not notice the strain. He is a hard act to follow, but I shall do my best to be that voice for this constituency.

7.28 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I wish to concentrate on the final phrase in the amendment, which asks whether the House should have confidence in whether the Government can deliver world-class services. I believe that that is an important challenge to the Government in this period of delivery.

Before doing so, however, I congratulate the three hon. Members whose maiden speeches I have heard: the hon. Members for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and for North Down (Lady Hermon). It was a great pleasure to listen to them, and there was a common theme in all three speeches. It is a humbling experience to realise that so many thousands of people have put a cross against one's name, as that imposes a high degree of responsibility on each of us. I wish all three Members well in their careers.

Can the Government make any real change to our constituents' quality of life? Some progress has undoubtedly been made, but the level of turnout showed that not enough has been done to engage swathes of people in our society. I have no doubt that public services need to be overhauled. The public will believe that we are only tinkering at the edges unless we roll up our sleeves during this Parliament and help change their lives and living conditions.

We have talked about joined-up government for some time, but so far the change has been minimal from the point of view of thousands of people living at or near the poverty line in housing that no Member of this House would choose to inhabit. I would go further and say that very few in this House have ever experienced living in such housing at first hand.

I joined the Labour party 32 years ago because of my dismay at the way in which the public and private sectors addressed the housing needs of decent people. Over those 32 years, I have been a council tenant, I have lived under private landlords who sent the heavies round to collect the rent and am now, fortunately, an owner-occupier living in an historic building. Therefore, I feel qualified to comment. Sadly, not enough has changed in all that time. I have asked myself why that is so, given some of the things that we have all seen in our constituencies. I have come to two conclusions.

First, on the supply side, there are simply not enough houses in some constituencies. In some, as the hon. Member for Wealden said, the controversial point is

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whether housing development takes place. In my constituency, the argument is not about the placement of houses but about the quality of accommodation. I give the Government credit for some of the imaginative ways they have looked at the problem over the past four years and intend to do so in the future, as outlined in the Queen's Speech.

My second conclusion is talked about but seldom addressed--namely, that the very machinery of government fails to meet the needs of many people who are disengaging from the political process. I wonder how many colleagues went around rundown estates in their constituency during the election campaign, knowing in their hearts that we have failed to get to the core of the problems facing some areas. Those who voted said, "You're better than the other lot", but many said, "You're all the same. You don't actually make a real difference to our lives." The real problem lies here in London, where the machinery of government has failed to get to grips with the inertia in the system. Unless we genuinely deliver, on a joined-up basis, we will fail.

Why does the process of evaluating the effectiveness of a local housing strategy look only at housing? Best value criteria should be based on the same systems that good cost-centre management apply in the private sector. The cost centre must be able to deliver to its targets but, in making decisions, it must also take into account the best interests of the business as a whole. That is how the private sector operates, but the system seems to be lacking in the Government machine. That is not a new comment--the problem has existed for generations. Not only is such a system lacking, but some public sector managers seem to be resisting it.

I shall give a couple of examples. The first is a diversion from housing. Merseyside fire authority, which serves only one small part of my constituency, has concluded that under its best value rules, it should change the Heswall fire station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) to day manning. Going ahead may be fine in terms of the Merseyside criteria, but it means additional expenditure for the Cheshire fire authority, which will have to fill the gap. That seems bad business planning on the part of the fire authority. In that example, my first cost-centre requirement is met but the second is entirely ignored.

Let me return to housing. I want my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to know that I am not hung up on ownership. There is only one principle as far as I am concerned--whether we can deliver decent housing and give citizens the dignity of a decent roof over their head each night. The provider is secondary.

In my constituency, an estate called Parklands used to be full of post-war precast reinforced concrete houses that were falling apart. As a result of an imaginative partnerships between central and local government over a number of years, a massive amount of work has been done to restore the dignity of decent housing and that estate has been changed out of all recognition. The Government have failed to consider the benefits that that investment has had in reducing demands on the police and social services as well as educational pressures. That is what I mean about making sure that in assessing how one cost centre of government operates, one looks positively at a wider range of services.

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One can compare that estate with areas of my constituency where no such investment has been made in the recent past. There has been a massive decline in turnout in such places. Not only has there been a better level of turnout in areas where people have been engaged and seen the effect of the Government's delivery, but there has been an improvement in terms of other areas of Government expenditure.

The Government need to look carefully at those areas to ensure that the proposition contained in the amendment is killed off once and for all. The Opposition's premise is false, but Ministers need to make sure that they get to grips with the machinery of government and look at the needs of people on a diverse basis--not as a single cost centre. If they consider matters in that way, we will have success during the part of this Administration's time that concentrates on delivery.

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