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10.4 am

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington): I hardly need tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or any other Member how overawed and inadequate I feel. It seems that the eyes of the world are on me, even though they probably are not. I am bearing in mind the one piece of advice that all the wise old stagers have given me, "Remember, this may be a big moment for you and your mum, but it is of no interest whatever to anybody else."

In these dying hours before the summer recess, I feel embarrassed to inflict my clumsy first stab on a House accustomed to much better. Nevertheless, I am glad of the chance to say a few words about my distinguished predecessor, Robin Corbett, who, having entered the House almost 30 years ago, has a lot of friends here. Happily, although they have to make do with me as his replacement, they have only to walk to the other end of the building to find the noble Baron Corbett of Castle Vale in all his ermine finery and splendour.

Robin Corbett is a good man who served our community in Erdington admirably for many years and, as well as much else, did great service in the House as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. Since I took over from him, he and his wife Val have been extraordinarily kind and helpful to me and I have no doubt that those who visit the other place will find him sticking up for our part of Birmingham with the same vigour and valour as he displayed here for so many years.

Erdington is a place worth sticking up for. I grew up in the adjoining constituencies of Perry Barr and West Bromwich, East, the northern parts of which melt into Erdington and Kingstanding, and those places are special for the same reason—their people. I shall not pretend that my constituency is the most conventionally beautiful corner of England. As it happens, I love Spaghetti Junction, which is lucky, because I live almost directly under it. But that is okay—I am a Brummie. I was raised among the concrete and the canals, so I feel the same way about contraflows and flyovers as did Priestley about the Pennines and Ted Hughes about the corncrakes, the kittiwakes and all that country malarkey that I am not au fait with.

I cannot pretend that Erdington is bucolic, but it has its graceful nooks and crannies. At Rookery House, Peter Hulse's beautiful gardens are an oasis of tranquillity and peace, but I must take this chance to call on Birmingham council to ensure not only that Rookery House remains the great amenity that it is, but that it is developed into an even better amenity, with the house itself brought into full public use.

My point, despite the delights of Rookery House, is that people are Erdington's great strength. This nation's second city is, unusually, its most patronised and least appreciated. There is almost no aspect of Brummagem that escapes the attention of comedians from elsewhere, but I am glad of the chance to assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we really do not care about that. We can easily live with all the jokes about our shopping centres and our accent, because we have an indomitable sense of who we are and where we come from.

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I am not at all embarrassed to describe the people of Birmingham as the very backbone of this country and that is true not just because of what we do or what we make, although that is still what we are most famous for, and rightly so. In Erdington, we make the S-type Jaguar, which is a beautiful British car that is keeping alive a great British brand. We also make some of the world's finest machine tools at Cincinnati, the overwhelming majority of which are exported. At Valor heating, we make the famous old gas fires that still keep Britain warm in winter. Members will not be astonished to learn that, at Dunlop Aircraft Tyres, we make an extraordinary variety of aircraft tyres.

Until recently, we made the tyres for Concorde, but under the Concorde safety review, the contract was unilaterally and disgracefully awarded to a French tyre company, even though there is no reason to believe that its product is any safer than Dunlop's. Even though that happened before I was elected, the inability to do anything about it already feels like my first failure as an MP.

By any standards, the recent efforts of those and other Erdington companies have been outstandingly impressive. Neither the strong pound nor the weak euro is doing any favours to exporters, but those companies are soldiering on because they have a solid mixture of good management and progressive trade unionism, which is the bedrock of modern manufacturing and will continue to be so.

As I keep saying, it is not what we do but who we are that makes me proud to represent Erdington, Kingstanding, Pype Hayes, Castle Vale and our other communities. What is special about us is how normal we are. By "normal", I mean what normal normally means, not what Norman—or should that be normal—Tebbit means by normal.

Mr. Pound: You mean normal.

Mr. Simon: Yes, I mean normal. What is normal about my constituents is that, whatever else they are, they are ordinary, decent, straightforward people who work hard and play by the rules. They do not want special favours or extravagant deals; they know only too well that the world does not owe them a living. They do not expect to be cosseted and cuddled from the cradle to the grave; all they ask is a fair crack—a reasonable chance of a reasonable job, a decent education for their children, decent health care and housing, and streets that they can walk without fear.

To many people, that does not seem like a particularly ambitious prospectus; it hardly seems like too much to ask. Yet we have failed to provide those things for generations. As a partisan politician—which we all are—I believe that much of the blame for that failure lies at the door of the Conservative party. However, the Labour party, too, has made its share of misjudgments. During the 1980s, in particular, we let people down too. My point is that the whole political class should share responsibility for failing to satisfy such basic aspirations. It is hardly surprising that people do not trust us when we consistently fail to deliver such fundamentals.

By the same token, and with reference to what the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) said earlier, it is hardly surprising that people do not bother to vote. Perhaps a low turnout is a symptom not just of our failure to engage, connect or other such vague words, but of

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politicians' consistent failure to deliver the basic things to which people feel entitled. Voter turnout in Erdington on 7 June was 46 per cent, which is not good. It was particularly disappointing because, as hon. Members all know, it was disproportionately the younger people who did not vote. Notwithstanding my previous point, we must redouble and redouble again our efforts to engage them.

My worry is not that the average age of a Member of Parliament is 50.3. There is nothing wrong with that; some of my best friends are 50.3. My problem is that I am 32—

Mr. Pound: It may change.

Mr. Simon: Yes, it may. None the less, on the doorstep I was struck by how incredibly old and out of touch I seemed to those young people, who subsequently, sure enough, did not vote. I have no magic answers to this problem, but I truly believe that it can be solved. The fact that we have not done so thus far is not fundamental, systemic and unchangeable, but simply a function of the fact that we have not tried hard enough. It may sound as though I have a naively simple faith in our ability to change people's behaviour, but it is nothing more than a simple faith in democracy, which is another way of saying a simple faith in people. We all know that politics does make a difference. We must convince our younger constituents of that. I am convinced that we can do so if we try harder.

I would not like older Members—for want of a more gentle phrase—[Hon. Members: "More experienced Members"]—and more experienced Members to take this youth manifesto as a slight on their seniority. I have been touched by the generosity with which old hands have given me wise counsel and warm friendship, without treating me too much like an irritating son-in-law. Continually being taken for a researcher is becoming a little wearing, although it beats being barred from the Terrace, as I was a couple of weeks ago, on the grounds of my uncanny resemblance to a member of the press.

As my wife was supposed to give birth a week ago but has not—I do not blame her, any more than I blame hon. Members for being old—I probably should not quote the line from Jimmy Baldwin:

It expresses exactly how I feel about becoming a Member of Parliament.

Whatever we may have done or been before, being elected to this place for the first time presents the most arduous challenge and the most awesome responsibility. After only six weeks, I am already well aware of how much harder this job is than it looks. I only hope that, in a couple of years or so, I may start to get the hang of it.

10.16 am

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) on his first speech, which I found interesting and humorous. I wish him well in his constituency and hope that his wife delivers shortly. Given what he said, I hope that she has a daughter and that he enjoys the experience.

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In standing before the House for the first time today, I am reminded of the comment that there are only two things more difficult than making a short address: the first is trying to climb a wall that is leaning forwards; and the second is trying to kiss a girl who is leaning backwards.

Needless to say, it is a great honour and a privilege to be addressing the House and I thank the voters of Billericay and district for sending me here. As we all know, the first duty of a Member of Parliament is to be a good constituency Member and I shall do my utmost to serve the interests of all my constituents, regardless of how they voted or whether they voted at all. I also thank my family and friends in the constituency for all their support, without which I would not be here. In addition, I thank Thalia, my wife, for being by my side for the past 10 years.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor. Teresa Gorman represented the Billericay constituency diligently and effectively after becoming its MP in 1987. Essex is known for the independence and entrepreneurial character of its people, and Theresa earned the respect of many by not being afraid to make up her own mind on things and speaking out on what she thought was right. During her time here she championed a wide range of worthwhile causes, including those of small businesses and the self-employed. She battled against trade union closed shops, the Post Office monopoly and the creeping loss of our sovereignty to Brussels and the European Union. Theresa was never afraid to stand alone and challenge conventional wisdom. I am sure that the House joins me in wishing her and her husband Jim all the best for the future.

I am fortunate to represent the Billericay and district constituency. It is a diverse constituency, comprising four townships, broadly one in each corner of the constituency: Billericay, Wickford, Laindon and Pitsea. Each has its own character and sense of community. In the middle is beautiful greenbelt land and green fields, which is part agricultural but includes villages of various sizes, such as Crays Hill, Ramsden Bellhouse, Little Burstead and Great Burstead.

My constituency has some of the most interesting churches and listed buildings in the land. It also has some excellent markets—in Pitsea and Wickford there are always bargains to be had. Indeed, with its four townships, my constituency is a shopping paradise, with its wide range of merchandise for sale and its excellent pubs, inns and restaurants.

As for Billericay itself, the town has historical connections with the Pilgrim Fathers. Christopher Martin, who led the expedition, and his family left Billericay to sail on the Mayflower in 1620. That journey is symbolised in Billericay today by the many references to the Mayflower—for example, Mayflower school, the Mayflower and Pilgrim pubs—and by the numerous small businesses that include the word "Mayflower" in their name. Christopher Martin road is on the edge of my constituency. There are several towns in New England itself called Billericay, and one called Billerica, which is the original spelling. Those men and women were escaping the heavy hand of government, which at that time would not allow people to worship or lead their lives as they saw fit.

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I should like to take this opportunity to make the Government aware of one of the key issues concerning many entrepreneurs who live in the constituency today: that is, the rising burden of regulation and taxes on small businesses and the adverse consequences that flow from that for my constituents and for the country as a whole.

One of the main reasons why I am a Conservative is that I believe the relief of poverty should be one of the main objectives of politics. But this can better be brought about if we foster personal freedoms within the rule of law, if we encourage enterprise, and if we allow businesses, especially small businesses, to breathe and thrive. Such an approach will create a more prosperous economy and more wealth from which the Government can take their rightful share in order to help the truly disadvantaged in society.

That will not happen, however, if Government pile regulations and costs on to business, because that will hinder enterprise and, eventually, our ability to help those most in need. Yet this Government continue to make life difficult for entrepreneurs. During Labour's first term, red tape costs increased by £15 billion according to the British Chambers of Commerce. Regulations such as the working time directive, the working families tax credit, the data protection directive and student loan repayment have all contributed to those increased costs. And the burden of red tape always falls disproportionately on small firms. Figures from the Institute of Chartered Accountants show that the cost to small businesses of implementing new legislation doubled in the period 1990-2000. Such a cost is meaningful to small businesses.

As for tax, the Confederation of British Industry has calculated that overall taxes on businesses have increased by about £26 billion since Labour came to power. Examples of that include IR35, the climate change levy and the highest fuel duty in the European Union. The many self-employed in my constituency, and the 3 million across the country, also pay more tax courtesy of a national insurance regime that has become more onerous since the 1999 Budget.

The Conservative party has pledged less regulation, and would exempt small firms from a raft of regulations, including the working families tax credit. We have pledged to abolish IR35, to cut fuel tax, to abolish the climate change levy and to reduce business rates. I believe that we should go further in reducing the overall level of taxation, especially for the self-employed, whose level of income tax and national insurance contributions is far too high. I ask the Government to consider this issue, which is causing concern to a large number of my constituents.

I would also ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the Government's attitude to two further issues that are troubling my constituents, and which also show how the heavy hand of government can adversely impact on individuals and local communities in their daily lives. The first relates to greenbelt and greenfield development. In short, the Government seem determined to force Essex county council to build 5,200 houses a year for the next 15 years. That will put tremendous strain on our already overburdened infrastructure. My party believes that local authorities and local communities should decide on the right level of local development, not politicians sitting in Westminster. I urge the Government to consider that proposal.

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The second issue relates to incinerators. There is strong evidence that incinerators emit dioxins, which can cause cancer, yet the Government refuse to match the Conservative party's policy to instigate a moratorium on the building of new incinerators. We believe that they are a health hazard until proven otherwise. Would the Government please reconsider that proposal, as that would help to ease the concerns of many of my constituents?

There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of hon. Members, regardless of party, are here because they want to try to improve society. We differ on the method of achieving that goal. The Conservative party has greater faith in the individual than in the state, believing that politicians can sometimes be the problem not the solution. That is so whether the issue is freeing our entrepreneurs from stifling regulation and costs, allowing our local communities to make their own decisions about greenbelt development and incinerators, giving our local police forces more say in how they police their local communities, allowing our local doctors and nurses, governors and teachers more say in the running of their hospitals and schools, or guarding our country's sovereignty against the unelected politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels.

We must guard against an overpowerful Government who tend to encroach on the personal rights and freedoms of individuals, and instead encourage individual initiative and enterprise, which will benefit society as a whole. I am conscious of my constituency's historical link with the Pilgrim Fathers. I look forward to playing my part in achieving that goal in the years ahead, and hope that no one has to set sail from my constituency while I am the MP.

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