Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.6 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): As you can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the number of Conservative Members present is somewhat depleted because there are five reasons for not being here.

The hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) spoke most eloquently about her predecessor. I do not think that anyone will forget the time that Mo Mowlam spent in Northern Ireland or the work that she did to try to resolve the problems in that troubled Province.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, who was also very involved in Northern Ireland. He was the Member of Parliament for Bridgwater for 31 years, and in that time he worked tirelessly for his constituency. He was also involved in the environment and in transport, Northern Ireland and defence. I am, of course, talking about Tom King. Tom said recently that he felt that the problems in Northern Ireland were a great shame because, when he was there, he felt that great progress was being made to resolve them. That was nearly 15 years ago. What is the position today? We must continue to work as hard as we can to solve the problems in the Province.

Much of Tom's time in the Ministry of Defence was taken up with the Gulf war. At the same time, he was responsible for the leadership election, so he had not only to strive to ensure that Saddam Hussein was put firmly back in his box, but to look after what was happening in this country.

9 Jul 2001 : Column 577

As a Member of Parliament, Tom strived always to give Bridgwater the representation that it deserved. It is a very diverse constituency, running from Exmoor down to the Levels. It is very large, and resembles, if anything, a banana. It is also unusual in that it is a high constituency—it contains the highest peak in Somerset—which extends to land below sea level. In Bridgwater itself, the constituency has the most westerly industrial town in the United Kingdom.

We are discussing export controls, and Bridgwater has many companies that send huge amounts of goods across the world. They include Gerbers, which is now the largest supplier of soft drinks in Europe, and British Cellophane. The constituency also produces pistons of the highest grade made in this country, and they are sent all over the world. Bridgwater has many other companies that have transformed it from the second largest port in the 15th century to what is now not a high-tech but a medium-tech industrial town.

Bridgwater has a long history. It is the home of the tile and brick industry, which, I am afraid, is long gone, owing to exports and imports. The last battle on English soil was fought in Bridgwater—that was the last time, I am glad to say, that republicanism reared its ugly head, and it was beaten fairly soundly on the Levels outside Sedgemoor.

In the past few weeks we have had our first case of foot and mouth. I was told about it on the night of the election. As a farmer, I had wondered what it would be like to be told that there was foot and mouth in the area, and I found out that night. I can assure the House that everyone was extremely concerned to be told that we had to start slaughtering cattle and sheep. I am glad to say that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made great strides, and we hope to have the exclusion zone lifted in three weeks so that normal trade can be resumed.

Bridgwater has a large tourism industry. We have one of the largest Butlins—there are only three. Butlins attracts 13,000 people a week, and has made an enormous contribution to local industry. Without a shadow of a doubt, west Somerset would not have been sustained without that extremely large employer; indeed, without Butlins, west Somerset would have been like a transposed part of rural Scotland.

There has also been another menace—flooding—which has got worse in the past few years. In west Somerset, we used to expect flooding once every 60 years; we have now experienced it in three of the past five. In the past two years, it has been so bad that not only has the town represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) nearly gone under water, but so has Bridgwater. The Environment Agency is based in Bridgwater, and its total budget this year for capital works to maintain defences and make sure that we do not have a disaster is £3.7 million. I am afraid that that sum is woefully inadequate when one takes into account the fact that we have a coastline which, in the past two years, has suffered two major breaches that could have been catastrophic and put under water a major proportion of industry and farming.

Our rivers have given rise to a moral dilemma that the House may, in future, have to debate. Our rivers silt easily; we have one of the highest tidal ranges in the world—22 ft—and, as hon. Members can imagine, our rivers go up and down like a yo-yo. In the past few years,

9 Jul 2001 : Column 578

they have silted badly, but they are not being dredged because people wish to maintain them as habitats for wild birds and mammals. However, if we do not dredge, we create a bottleneck of water. As that bottleneck gets tighter and tighter, there is bound to be a breach somewhere. When it comes, it could be disastrous.

The Environment Agency has pleaded the case for Somerset with this Government and the previous one. The Levels cover thousands of acres and include the island of Avalon in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory); all hon. Members know that after the battle there, King Arthur was laid to rest. We do not want serious flooding there again, as it will cause untold damage.

The House must address the issue of building houses on flood plains, not just in Somerset but throughout the country. If we continue as we are doing under present planning laws, ultimately we shall have to build on flood plains. In my constituency, if we do not build on Exmoor, the Quantocks and the flood plains, we have very little space to build on. If we do not sort that out in the near future, we may be in situation where, because of the policies decided by the House, we cannot avoid having to build in those areas.

Looking further ahead, the problem must be resolved either by the House passing legislation or by local councils being given the capability, with the Environment Agency, to sort it out. The longer we leave it, the more likely we are to have a disaster. Last year, in Malton in Yorkshire, the town centre went under water; the Environment Agency calculated that had that happened to Bridgwater, it would have been under 18 inches of water—think of the exports that would have been wiped out, to put it crudely. We do not want that to happen; I am sure that no Member does.

To give a council or the Environment Agency the capability to sort out the problem, we must look at the issue of money; that is what it boils down to. We cannot get money from Europe; we must get it from taxpayers. The longer we put things off, and the more we push the problem away, the more likely we are to have a disaster.

I was left in no doubt about the importance of flooding, when, in this august building, I was allowed to have an office in the yellow submarine. Since then, I have felt that I need a submarine to deal with the problem, unless we can sort it out soon.

6.14 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on his excellent and interesting maiden speech. I am sure that he will be a major asset to the House. It is a measure of his worth that, having been allocated an office in the yellow submarine and finding out that I, a fellow new Member, had not been allocated an office, he immediately and kindly offered to lend it to me if I needed it to meet constituents. I salute him for his generosity and look forward to his future contributions.

I am the newly elected Member for Wolverhampton, South-West in the industrial heartland of the west midlands. I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate. Before the House is a Bill radically to reform the United Kingdom's export control regime, principally in relation to defence and

9 Jul 2001 : Column 579

military matters but also in relation to objects of cultural interest. I propose to make some remarks about the former. I am delighted that the Bill will implement the recommendations of the Scott inquiry; no doubt Lord Scott of Foscote, as he now is, will follow its passage with interest. I am only sorry that, next month, it will be three years since the original White Paper was published.

The indiscriminate peddling of weaponry around the world is a major evil. There must be strict controls on the export of military equipment and know-how; there must be no export of items for torture nor of instruments of repression. Until now, our controls have been based on legislation dating back as far as 1939. It is a tribute to our predecessors that the old legislation continued to have relevance for as long as it did. However, the Bill brings us into the modern age, as it encompasses the computer revolution and new technology which even one of my heroes, Alan Turing, could barely have envisaged in 1939.

I commend the Government for introducing the Bill. I am particularly pleased that there will be annual reports to Parliament on its operation. However, I hope that clause 9 can be tightened further and that the provisions on the negative resolution procedure can be revisited.

In making my first speech about defence-related matters, I am following something of a local tradition. One of my predecessors, Herbert "Billy" Hughes, who represented what was then Wolverhampton, West, made his maiden speech on defence matters. He represented the seat from 1945 until 1950, then became the distinguished principal of Ruskin College for almost 30 years. In the House in 1945, he was presciently concerned about a possible atomic arms race.

Herbert Hughes's erudite successor also made his maiden speech on defence matters. Enoch Powell represented Wolverhampton, South-West from 1950 until February 1974, and subsequently returned to the House in October 1974 as the Ulster Unionist Member for Down, South. In 1950, Mr. Powell was concerned about the size and ethnic composition of our armed forces.

Many Members will recall Mr. Powell's successor, Nick Budgen, who represented the constituency from 1974 until 1997. For benefit of the curious, I might say that his maiden speech concentrated on inflation. Mr. Budgen was a colourful character of the old school—mostly a Conservative, except at the odd time when the Whip was withdrawn. His manifest contributions to the workings of the House earned him the accolade of "Back Bencher of the Year" on one occasion.

Like me, Mr. Budgen was a lawyer; like me, he opposed the death penalty, as Mr. Powell interestingly did before him and as Jenny Jones did after him. Jenny Jones represented the constituency ably in the last previous Parliament. Through her work in the House and the Council of Europe, she, with others, persuaded hon. Members to vote to restrict further the rare circumstances in which that ultimate sanction, death, might possibly still be allowed.

It was as a delegate to the Council of Europe that she really made her mark, bravely upholding the cause of human rights and democracy; she continues that struggle while her term of office there lasts for a few more months. She was in Albania last weekend, monitoring the second

9 Jul 2001 : Column 580

round of elections. I pay tribute to her hard work in the Council of Europe, in the House and on behalf of her constituency.

The constituency is wholly urban, and lacks the golden beaches of Redcar, which were mentioned earlier, and the Butlins of Bridgwater. Wolverhampton was proud to become a city last year. It took us only slightly more than 1,000 years to get there after our founding by Lady Wulfruna. The city is perhaps unique in terms of its representation in Parliament. It has three hon. Members who are sometimes styled as the three musketeers. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner), who is sitting beside me, was born and raised in his constituency and still lives there. The same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). I complete the set, as I was born and raised in the constituency that I am now proud to represent, and I still live there.

My constituency is home to the venerable Wolverhampton Wanderers football club—the Wolves—which is currently in the first division. Although the Molineux stadium is one of the finest in the country, the team, alas, is not. After 40 years, we are still waiting for renewed success. It took us more than 1,000 years to achieve city status, but I hope that we will not spend so long outside the premier division.

Soccer is by no means the only sport in Wolverhampton. We have cricket on the green at Tettenhall, one of the oldest swimming clubs in the country, and lots of field hockey and rugby. At Aldersley stadium, we have cyclo-cross, shooting and, above all, athletics. The freedom of the borough was recently awarded to Olympic champion Denise Lewis, who was raised and went to school in the constituency, which also boasts Dunstall park, the only floodlit, all-weather race course in the country. I confess that I was there last week, but only to use its excellent conference facilities.

There is not only sport; we are also a literate lot in Wolverhampton. Headquartered in my constituency is the United Kingdom's largest regional newspaper, the Express and Star, which has the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country and is a local institution that sells almost 300,000 copies a night, six nights a week. Like many midlanders, it has a fine tradition of embracing new technology. For example, it was the first daily newspaper in the country to publish colour pictures.

We are also a centre of learning, as we are home to the university of Wolverhampton, which has an admirable record of tackling social exclusion. Less than a quarter of its students are admitted through the traditional means of entry and it is now the sixth largest university in the country.

Perhaps student numbers are so high because we are such a friendly city. Northerners feel comfortable coming that far south, and southerners are happy to venture that far north, as hon. Members will doubtless discover when they flock to Wolverhampton on their summer holidays in a few weeks' time.

Of course, student numbers might be high because of the fine local ales. The constituency is the home of Banks's, the largest independent brewer in the country, which is sadly now facing a most unwelcome takeover

9 Jul 2001 : Column 581

bid. Many hon. Members will know its excellent beer. For those who do not, I suggest a short trip downstairs to the Strangers' Bar, where it is on sale.

Next Section

IndexHome Page