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Debate on the Address


[First Day]

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the proposer and seconder of the humble Address, I should announce to the House the proposed subjects for debate on subsequent days, which will be as follows: Wednesday 18 May—foreign affairs and defence; Thursday 19 May—industry and the environment; Monday 23 May—home affairs and communities; Tuesday 24 May—health and education; Wednesday 25 May—the economy and welfare reform.

I call Mr. Kevin Barron to move the humble Address, after which I will call Vera Baird to second it.

2.46 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker, I stand up with some trepidation, in view of the words that you have spoken over the last few minutes, in respect of the content of my speech. I hope that it falls within the rules and guidance that you have given us.

I am pleased and privileged to be asked to move the motion today. I believe that I am the first Member representing the Rother Valley constituency to be asked to do so. It is a great honour for me, and for my constituents. I am also pleased to note that the seconder of the motion is my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), as I spent my early childhood years in New Marske, a village in her constituency.

My Rother Valley constituency has two great strengths: its natural beauty, which is steeped in history, and its people. Situated in the north of the constituency, where I live, are the ruins of Roche abbey, a 12th century Cistercian abbey dissolved by Henry VIII, which is a great tourist attraction for the area, as is much of the

as described in Sir Walter Scott's classic "Ivanhoe", which mentions

Rother Valley has also played its part in the history of this building, the Palace of Westminster. After the fire of 1834, stone was cut from a quarry in Anston—it is still working today—loaded on to narrow boats and carried down the Chesterfield canal in the south of the constituency to the tidal river Trent, where it was transferred on to Humber sloops for its trip to Westminster.

The people of the Rother valley are open, honest and not afraid to speak their minds—something that I am always happy to be reminded of in election campaigns, unnerving as they can be. The last campaign was the sixth election victory for Labour that I have secured in
 
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Rother Valley—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—and it was the first in which I was able to say to my constituents, "This is what Labour has done for you," as opposed to "what Labour will do for you". As my agent, Alan Goy, always reminds me, we must never take our constituents for granted.

I was, however, slightly concerned to discover during the election campaign this year that the UK Independence party candidate's name was none other than Gordon Brown. Thankfully, my constituents are not easily fooled by someone who was obviously trying to cash in on the name of the most successful Chancellor of the Exchequer that this country has ever had. He lost his deposit.

The Rother Valley constituency is also known, among Conservatives rather than Labour party members, as not a bad training ground for would-be Conservative MPs. For the first time, a Conservative candidate for Rother Valley has succeeded in being elected to the House—although not to represent that area, I hasten to add. I am referring to the newly elected hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge). I thought that his seat was a good training ground for Labour candidates, but he told me earlier today that we missed taking it by about 5,500 votes, so perhaps I should not suggest that.

My roots were planted in the Rother valley in the mid-1950s, when my father moved his family to Maltby, where he had work in the local coal mine. It was there that I met my wife Carol. We brought up our family there, and our four grandchildren—Nancy, Ross, Joe and Clark—are thriving there.

The first school that I attended was Maltby Crags junior and infants school, built in 1912 to accommodate the children of the growing mining community. I mention it because it has recently closed and been replaced by a modern, state-of-the-art new building, which opened this Easter. It is the second new school to open in my constituency this year, the other one being a junior school in Dinnington. Alongside those two new buildings, we have had major investment in all other schools, thanks to this Government.

The raising of school standards has been a priority for the past two terms of this Government, and I am pleased to see education playing a prominent part in today's Queen's Speech. That builds on the progress already made, and I believe that we are paving the way for a more just and equal society.

At this point, I remind my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister that he accepted a request to open the new office and classroom block at his old primary school, Brinsworth Manor, which is in my constituency. He visited it during the election campaign—but I hope, John, that it will not be too long before we get a date for the next visit.

Nine months after I became the MP for Rother Valley in 1983, this country was plunged into the year-long miners strike. The constituency had six coal mines and a large workshop, which meant that about 4,400 miners were on strike for those 12 months. No matter what the rights and wrongs of the dispute were, the aftermath of the strike and the pit closure programme had a major psychological and economic effect on the communities
 
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of the Rother valley. Taking away major employment and offering little if anything in its place meant a massive increase in unemployment and poverty.

However, I do not want to dwell on those times in my speech today. Instead, I want to celebrate what has been happening in my constituency since 1997, under this Labour Government. The introduction of the new deal has reduced long-term youth unemployment by 88 per cent., and long-term adult unemployment by 90 per cent. Thanks to the positive action taken by the local regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, and by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and other Government-funded organisations, unemployment is now below the national average. That is unprecedented in my constituency's history since records began.

In the heart of the constituency, more than £12 million has been spent on the redevelopment and decontamination of the old Dinnington colliery site. The site covers more than 200 acres, half of which is devoted to commercial development. The other half is high-quality public open space, with wildlife habitats. The site has won national awards for environmental best practice. The newspaper publisher Johnson Press has begun work on a state-of-the-art printing centre on the site; at £60 million, the investment is the largest single end-user on a former colliery site. The investment and vision of this Labour Government have transformed sites such as Dinnington and the once infamous Orgreave coke works into focal points of the region's economic infrastructure for the 21st century, just as the collieries themselves were the focal points in the 20th century.

I have been a Member of Parliament for more than 22 years. If I had to select the most exciting and challenging time in that period I would choose 1985, when I was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock. The years I spent with him probably gave me the best education a parliamentarian could have had in those days. We had many battles on many fronts, not least with a largely hostile media. During the 1987 general election campaign, a tabloid newspaper ran a full-page article entitled "Why I'm backing Kinnock", by Stalin. The paper had hired a psychic medium to canvass the spirits of major figures from history to establish who they would support in the forthcoming election. Apparently, Stalin was going to vote Labour. Winston Churchill, Henry VIII, Nelson and Boadicea were, unfortunately, backing Margaret Thatcher. And Keir Hardie had switched to the SDP.

Neil Kinnock's role in leading the Labour party back on the road towards government was no mean feat. Harold Wilson once compared leading the Labour party to driving an old stagecoach. If it is rattling along at a rare old speed, he said, while some may feel travel-sick, most of the passengers are so exhilarated that they will not start quarrelling. However, as soon as it stops, they will argue about which way to go. The trick, he pointed out, is to keep going at an exhilarating speed. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just been re-elected for an historic third term. I believe, as the electorate believes, that we must be travelling at the right speed and in the right direction.

I have been chair of the Yorkshire and Humber group of Labour MPs for a good number of years, although not for as long as was once said by the journalist
 
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Brendan Carlin, who wrote in the Yorkshire Post that I had been there since the Romans invaded. As such, I have kept an interest in regional as well as national politics. I do not know the exact number of by-elections that I have been involved in over the past 20 years, but the one that sticks in my mind was in Hemsworth just before the 1997 general election. I was on the street with the candidate outside Hemsworth post office when I was approached by an elderly lady who peered into my face and said, "Excuse me, are you new Labour?" Cautiously, I replied that I was proper Labour. "Thank God, for that," she said, "I can't stand that Arthur Scargill."

The House may know that I have had a long-standing interest in health matters, as a shadow Minister, in chairing all-party groups and in campaigns on public health, particularly against tobacco-related diseases. I applaud the proposed legislation to restrict smoking in enclosed public places and in the workplace. I hope that that will have a comprehensive effect in offering protection to all workers in all workplaces. I also welcome the Government's commitment to introduce more choice and diversity in health care provision and further improvements in the quality of health care services and hospital hygiene.

I note that the Government are committed in the Queen's Speech to continuing the pursuit of economic policies that promote long-term growth and prosperity and to continue reform of the welfare state in order to reduce poverty and offer greater equality. The Government's welfare to work programme is having a positive effect on the lives of many of my constituents.

For many years, I have been the chair of the all-party Bulgaria group, and I have observed with interest the progress that Bulgaria has made to establish itself as a democratic state. In recent years, I am pleased to announce, interest in the group has increased, commensurate, I think, with the probability of Bulgaria's joining the European Union, although that may be in no small measure due to our annual Bulgarian wine-tasting evening, which attracts rather a large turnout of Members. I look forward to supporting the legislation announced in the Queen's Speech to ratify the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union.

It is unusual for a Back-Bench MP to speak to such a well attended Chamber. Rarely do we have such a captive audience. But what makes this occasion unique is that I have been given the honour of proposing this motion at the beginning of an historic third-term Labour Government, and I commend the motion to the House.

3 pm


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