Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I have the honour to address the House for the first time this afternoon and the privilege to represent the East Sussex constituency of Bexhill and Battle, which contains the two towns of that name and a large rural area covering some 240 square miles. I was born and bred in Sussex, so to represent that seat means a great deal to me.
I follow Charles Wardle, who represented the constituency for 18 years, held ministerial office and was a diligent and assiduous constituency Member of Parliament, often taking up local causes with extraordinary and effective tenacity, as many residents of Robertsbridge, who suffered yet again this winter from terrible flooding, will readily testify. I hope that people
I am pleased to say that Bexhill and Battle has been represented by a Conservative Member since 1874, and Charles Wardle was preceded by a distinguished and much respected parliamentarian, Bryant Godman Irvin, who gave great service to the House, not least as Deputy Speaker and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from 1976 to 1982. He is still remembered with affection by my more senior colleagues.
Byrant Godman Irvin was preceded by another distinguished Member, a former mayor of Bexhill, Mr. W. N. Cuthbert. He was one of the few Tories to enter the House in the first election after the second world war at the time of the Labour landslide. I feel a strange affinity with Mr. Cuthbert. He, too, must have sat on these very Benches and stared in disbelief at the overwhelming number of Labour Members, but I take great encouragement from the fact that just five years after he was elected, that great majority was swept away.
It is a time-honoured tradition for new Members to make bold and flattering claims for their constituency. However, I can tell the House that Bexhill and Battle is, without a degree of doubt, one of the most beautiful parts of this kingdom. Mindful of the fact that we live in an age of performance indicators and audits, I have the statistics to prove it. Some 74 per cent. of Bexhill and Battle is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty and we have 16 sites of special scientific interest. From the High Weald to the Pevensey levels, from the Kent ditch to Brightling beacon, my constituency is blessed with an idyllic historic landscape and a majestic coastline. My constituents are guardians of a very special environment which I have pledged to defend.
We also treasure something else in Bexhill and Battle, less visible in the tourist guides but just as importantquality of life. Quality of life is a fragile and precious thing which cannot be measured by economic indicators alone. We understand that in the countryside, especially in the patchwork of close-knit rural communities that criss-cross my constituency. In the elegant Edwardian seaside town of Bexhill, I am pleased to say that standards of courtesy and decency still prevail. The De La Warr Pavilion, a modernist architectural gem, may be our most famous landmark, but the public spirit of my constituents, which finds expression in the numerous and highly successful voluntary organisations and charity fundraising committees, is perhaps the town's finest feature. They do a terrific job.
Few people realise that Bexhill was the birthplace of British motor racing and next year we look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first motor race along the seafront. However, in a constituency that is rich in historical associations, that race was relatively recent. Most famously, of course, in 1066 King Harold was defeated by William of Normandy. The town of Battle is now a charming, historic but vibrant market town. Despite the passing of 1,000 years, the deeds of that fateful day and the personalities of the individuals involved are still stamped on the local landscape. The strong vein of Euroscepticism that runs through my constituency perhaps shows that there are old scores yet to settle.
The bypass was not just a measure to ease traffic congestion; it was desperately needed to provide land for housing to attract people to the town and to provide homes for local families who are unable to get on the property ladder. It would have opened up land for a business park to provide much-needed, better-paid jobs, and it would have provided land to build a new university, which is one of the proposals of the new Conservative-controlled East Sussex county council. I, for one, shall continue the fight for the Bexhill bypass. However, I welcome any action from the Secretary of State to upgrade the A21 and improve our poor rail links to London.
Many people in the villages and the countryside in my constituency face a bleak, uncertain future, thanks to the crisis in the countryside and the secondary shockwaves from the foot and mouth epidemic. Action is undoubtedly needed, but the imposition of urban values on rural communities is certainly not the answer. However, my constituents know that to prosper they must embrace change. The area must attract investment to bring greater opportunities to young people and the less well-off members of our community. That means embracing new technology, new ways of working, a better skill base and a better transport infrastructure, and creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can prosper. There is no universal solution, but I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that if we can get education right so much else will come right too.
My constituency is fortunate in having many good schools. My son's primary school in Etchingham, with just 130 pupils, is one of several beacon schools, sharing its success with others. We are particularly proud of the fact that Bexhill high school has just won technology college status. I applaud the fact that education is one of the Government's foremost priorities, but as much as I share their ambition to make improvements, I am genuinely concerned by their propensity to over-regulate our schools and further education colleges. In their desperation to drive up results, they chronically overload teachers and students.
Childhood and adolescence are not merely a departure lounge for adulthood, but a time of life that should be enjoyed and relished for its own sake. We do our children no favours by denying them a childhood. We do young adults no favours if, at 16 or 18, they are worn down and worried by a constant work load of public examinations and tests. At the election, the Labour party told the country that "the work goes on", but for the sixth formers at Bexhill college, the work goes on and on and on. After-school sports, clubs and extra-curricular activities are all being squeezed as never before, and in driving our students ever harder, the Government risk quenching the very thing that drives our economy, the ingredient X that gives our nation an advantage over our trading competitors, which is our blend of ingenuity, creative spirit, free thinking and entrepreneurial flair.
Before entering the House I spent two fascinating years working for a large corporation in Russia, at the front line of efforts to reform and reinvigorate the post-Soviet economy. I was lucky to work with numerous highly educated people, whose excellent general management admission test scores were terrifying. The breadth of their knowledge never ceased to amaze me, but all too often, despite that, their ability to think creatively, to be radical and to take personal responsibility and initiative had been completely drilled out of them by an overbearing education system. The flicker of creativity and individualism that is the essential catalyst of wealth creation had been completely extinguished.
Clearly, we have not yet reached that point in this country, but, albeit from the kindest of motives, that is the direction in which our further education system is heading. Indeed, a Russian official making a recent fact-finding visit to a neighbouring education authority, when asked for her impressions remarked that the British education system was very impressive, but seemed to her rather over-centralised.
The current confusion and the U-turns in the new AS-level regime have only compounded that worry. It is no wonder that there is an unprecedented crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. I speak as a director of, and shareholder in, an advertising agency that specialises in that area of public service recruitment. It is time to trust the teaching profession, which has changed greatly in recent years. Those good changes were set in train by successive Conservative Governments. We rightly expect a great deal of our schools, and we must hold to account those who fail to deliver, but surely it is now time to stand back and give our teachers and lecturers some professional space.
Bexhill college in my constituency is subjected to three separate external auditors, and barely a week passes without an audit or official inspection taking place, tying up a huge amount of staff time and front-line education resources. The funding for the college comes from up to 73 separate pots, with all those amounts, including sums as small as £2,000 for governor training, having to be separately tracked. We will never unlock the potential of each and every student by crushing the professional freedom of teachers and lecturers.
I began this speech by praising my constituency, and I should like to end in the same vein. As this is a debate on education, I hope that the House will indulge me if I quote a verse by Rudyard Kipling, who made his home at Burwash in my constituency and was inspired by the wonderful countryside around him. He wrote:
But, since man's heart is small,
Ordains for each, one spot shall prove
Belovèd over all
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair groundin a fair ground
Yea, Sussex, by the sea!"