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It is an honour to represent the constituency of Ludlow and the county of my birth. It is a particular honour as I am the first Liberal Democrat Member ever to represent Ludlow and, I believe, the first Liberal to do so since 1886.
I welcome the Bill. Homelessness is not just an urban problem, as several hon. Members made clear. The homelessness problem in rural areas such as mine, where house prices are going through the roof and yet we suffer from low wages, is that young people are being driven out. The problem is not so much that they are sleeping rough, but that they are not sleeping in the constituency of Ludlow.
Several hon. Members have mentioned Stephen Ross, whose Bill in 1977 put much homelessness legislation into practice. Many Members will not know this, but he moved to Ludlow after he had finished his time in the House and was president of our constituency party until he died.
Christopher Gill could also be a doughty fighter for local people. At the outset, he was a lone voice in fighting for Kidderminster hospital. Despite the political differences between us, I suspect that he will be rather pleased that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and I will continue his fight for services at that hospital.
Many Members have saidI am sure that everyone does in a maiden speechthat their constituency is one of the most beautiful in the country. All I say is that people should come to Ludlow and draw their own conclusions. Not only will they find it very beautiful, they will find that the people are very relaxed, friendly and welcoming.
The Shropshire hills have been given a boost by the Secret Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms, which is a must for all visitors. My constituency is also full of historic castles and buildings. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) referred to Caernarfon castle, but he may not know that, for some time, Ludlow castle was the seat of government for this country and, for a much longer period, ruled Wales. Ludlow now boasts more Michelin star restaurants than any other constituency and it has many fine pubs and hotels. Indeed, it has the largest number of micro-breweries. The figure of six is more than anywhere else and they produce top-quality real ales.
I do not, however, want to gloss over the problems that my constituency faces. It is one of the most rural constituencies in England. Nearly 12 per cent. of the working population work directly in agriculture and the jobs of many others are dependent on the agriculture sector. That sector has been in decline in the past five years and foot and mouth very nearly finished it off. It is the bedrock of the local economy and I hope that the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will turn the rural economy round and not earn the reputation of its predecessor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Kidderminster hospital is primarily known because of its connection with Wyre Forest. However, a third of my electorate20,000 peopleused it because it was their nearest hospital. For them, the loss of the accident and emergency department might be life-threatening. They were used to the 45 minutes that it took from making a 999 call to being taken to an accident and emergency hospital. Many now face a wait of an hour and a half from the time that they make the call to when they arrive.
Shropshire and my constituency are affected by the poor state of local government finance, which is a familiar problem in rural areas. Schools are desperately underfunded but, none the less, produce excellent results. The roads improve whenever one leaves Shropshire. That is no surprise: every surrounding county is better funded. Social services have experienced severe cutbacks. I heard that a local government finance reform Bill was going to be announced in the Queen's Speech and was deeply disappointed when that did not happen.
The election in Ludlow was not entirely about party politics. Its electorate are relaxed, friendly and not easily stirred. Indeed, they probably have not been stirred for 115 years in political terms. However, there is a growing
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): We have had a fascinating debate, but it should not be taking place. The Homes Bill could have been an Act by now had the Government taken our advice and not insisted on linking it with the highly controversial compulsory seller's pack. It is a vindication of the Conservative opposition to that rushed and ill-thought-out measure that it was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. That goes to underline the pitfalls of abusing our powers of scrutiny by using programming measures to rush badly drafted legislation through the House. How many measures that succeeded courtesy of the Government's programming sledgehammer will we have to revisit in this Parliament simply because they legislated in haste? In their unseemly rush to flex their political muscle, legislation was not subject to the full rigour of scrutiny inside and outside this place. The Secretary of State, who is not present, had a cheek to present the Homelessness Bill as if it were the first month of the first Labour Government.
Let us look on the bright side. Without today's debate, the House would have been deprived of a string of excellent maiden speeches, of which a surprising number touched on homelessness. Interspersed with those were many contributions by old lagsthe hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster), for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). Indeed, I think that the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) spoke for even longer than she did in her maiden speech four years ago. However, that was not before the annual tiradethe short, sharp speechby the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). For those of us who joined the House four years ago, it is familiar to hear all the ills of the world put down to 18 years of Conservative government. There was no mention of the appalling housing record of Labour-controlled London boroughs. Perhaps she will put us on notice of when she will take some responsibility for the deterioration in housing under four years of Labour government, including her short, sharp tenure at the now defunct Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. When will she be prepared to be judged on her record as the Mayor's special adviser?
Returning to the maiden speeches, we started with an excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). It is good advice to mention one's agent in one's opening speech. The hon. Gentleman's tones are not, perhaps, the mellifluous Welsh ones of his predecessor, but his understanding of the problems of his constituency and his portrayal of it as very different from the seat that his predecessor inherited 31 years ago show that he is in touch with his constituents. His point about stable communities being at the heart of a solution to housing problems was very relevant.
We had another excellent maiden contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). Not many of us can talk about two highly distinguished predecessors with busts in the Palace of Westminster. I hope that my hon. Friend will not repeat the performance of the earlier of those predecessors, Oliver Cromwell, who snatched the Mace, made one contribution in his first year as a Member of Parliament and suffered a lingering death from malaria. My hon. Friend is very welcome here in the defence of the privileges of this House as its powers, including the power of scrutiny, come under attack not now from the divine right of kings, but from an arrogance of power exercised by an Executive in Downing street.
We then heard an excellent maiden contribution from the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), following in the tradition of difficult-to- pronounce Scottish constituencies. His approach was a refreshing alternative to blaming everything on those wicked Tories between 1979 and 1997. His commitment to homelessness projects in his constituency resulted in the expertise with which he contributed on the subject.
I am afraid that I missed the maiden contribution of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), although I gather that he gave us some insight into the highly underhand tactics used by Liberal Democrat candidates, including the fact that he identified a former Conservative Member of Parliament as not living in the constituency, even though he was his landlord.
We then heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). It is excellent to see the Isle of Wight back in Conservative hands, as well it should be. He brings to the House great expertise in education. He made very bold claims: he said that it never rains in the Isle of Wight. He gave us a different view on the promotion of tourism by advertising the prisons available on the island and the attractions of garlic ice cream, garlic beer and garlic honeywhich is ironic given the fact that in "Dod's", he gives one of his recreations as avoiding gardening.
We then moved on to the Welsh tradition of unpronounceable constituencies, with the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), whose maiden speech was a refreshing jerk back to the tradition of Labour Members blaming everything on the wicked Tories. By my count, he mentioned Keir Hardie at least seven times. His strong, passionate speech was reminiscent of Keir Hardie's contributions, and then he started mentioning socialism and trade unionistssubjects that do not, these days, raise too many cheers from his ministerial colleagues. The crucible of Welsh politics that produced Keir Hardie in the last century is, I fear, rather different today.
We then heard from another Welsh Member, albeit from a different party. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) follows in the distinguished footsteps of Dafydd Wigley and tried to outdo the Member who
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) spoke about his most beautiful constituency, but, with refreshing honesty, admitted that it does indeed rain a lot there, in contrast, apparently, to the Isle of Wight. He took the wise step of mentioning just about all the villages in his constituency, which always helps, and spoke intelligently about the stark mutual dependence of rural and urban areas and the problems of homelessness and poverty, which exist just as much in the country as in the towns. I am sure that the people of Taunton will be well served by their new Member. I would expect no less from someone who, like me, cut his political teeth in Wandsworth politics, and is also godfather to one of my daughters.
We completed our Cook's tour with the contribution of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green). He followed the tradition of mentioning the beauty of his constituency, as well as the restaurants and breweries in which he takes pride. He was not quite shameless enough to mention them all by name to acquire free dining facilities, but his was an interesting contribution all the same. He also concentrated on the many problems of poverty and homelessness in a largely rural constituency.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), on her promotion to the Front Bench. She and I have done battle on many occasions, largely on financial Bills, although she was temporarily hushed during her tenure as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the now Chief Whip; we welcome her back and, no doubt, she will be more vociferous.
I greatly sympathise with the Under-Secretary, for her portfolio includes a number of poisoned chalices. It includes urban regeneration, on which the Government have singularly failed to deliver. They have produced a plethora of initiatives that are all about setting up structures rather than delivering, and there was no mention in the Queen's Speech of an urban White Paper or Bill.
The Under-Secretary is also responsible for planninganother area where the Government have singularly failed to overhaul the chaotic system under which we sufferand housing, which was one of the previous Government's biggest failures. The Minister for Local Government has just arrived to give her a crumb of comfort for the Government's most appalling record.