Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech today, and I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), on making theirs.
It is an honour to represent the people of South Swindon and to follow in the footsteps of Julia Drown, who was the first woman to represent the seat. Julia will be a hard act to follow. She was much loved in Swindon and there was genuine sadness when she announced her retirement from this House. Julia's legacy can be seen throughout the constituency, most markedly in improvements to the national health service. In her maiden speech, she called for a new hospital to replace the crumbling Princess Margaret hospital. Both she and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) worked tirelessly to achieve that, and the Great Western was opened in 2002.
In her maiden speech, Julia cited the urology waiting list in 1997. It was already 18 months long and only emergency cases were being treated. Today, under Labour, 98 per cent. of urology patients in Swindon wait six months or less for treatment and the Great Western hospital is on target to make that 100 per cent. by Christmas.
In addition to her interest in the NHS, Julia was a passionate advocate of international development. She was the co-chair of the all-party group on heavily indebted poor countries and a leader in bringing international development issues to the fore. In particular, she helped to secure a timetable for spending 0.7 per cent. of national income on international aid. I can assure my constituents that I will push for a continued spotlight on international development issues and am pleased that the Government have already signalled that in the Queen's Speech. Julia set high standards, and I will do my best to follow her.
Swindon has its roots in the railways and there remains a strong manufacturing base in the town. It is home to small enterprises and corporations such as MAN ERF, Honda and Nationwide. Those businesses make a major contribution to our local and national economy. There is now virtually no unemployment, although like many similar towns we have a residual
19 May 2005 : Column 330
problem of people on long-term incapacity benefit. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has pledged to help those trapped on that benefit, but our major challenge in Swindon lies in improving the skills base of our work force so that we remain an attractive place for international companies to locate and a dynamic place for small business to flourish.
I grew up in a new town, similar to Swindon, and lived in a council house until I was 25. I was the first girl in my family to go on to higher education. Education provided me with expanded horizons and my parents gave me the determination to prove that I was just as good as those born in better circumstances. That determination has seen me elected to this House despite many setbacks. Education is my passion, and while I congratulate Swindon's local education authority on its recent good inspection, I am dismayed that it is thinking of closing local schools such as Salt Way, Windmill Hill, Freshbrook and Toothill. They are all good neighbourhood schools.
Swindon has an historically low education funding base and I want to look into that. I urge the Government to look at the pockets of deprivation that exist among areas of wealth. Averaging out tends to disguise deprivation, which is then much more difficult to tackle without adequate resources. Our investment is making a real difference to the life chances of Swindon's children. However, staying-on rates at 16 and 18 are below the national average, and if Swindon is to remain and grow as an attractive place for successful companies, it is vital that that is rectified.
That brings me to one the most exciting yet problematic issues facing Swindon. We have the opportunity to expand the university of Bath in Swindon to include faculties of medicine, arts and manufacturing. That would undoubtedly provide schools, colleges and industry with a focus to improve the skills base in the town as well as develop an international learning base for industry. I would go so far as to say that it is vital to the continued success of Swindon that the university comes to us. The problem lies with its chosen site, which is on greenfield land next to Coate water, our much-loved, beautiful country park. Some 17,000 people have signed a petition to stop Coate being developed as the university plans include four faculties, a campus, 2,000 houses and a business park. I now truly understand the meaning of the phrase "between a rock and a hard place". I am seeking a third way and will do my best to work with all the parties involved to try to reach a viable solution.
South Swindon is a constituency of great contrasts. It contains areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the villages of Wroughton and Chiselden and a section of the Ridgeway. We have a second world war airfield at Wroughton, which now houses the science museum's national collection. I look forward to supporting its ambitious plans to create a science park on the site.
My constituency also includes the original railway village built during the great railway expansion of the early 19th century. That contrasts with the housing estates built in the next expansion of Swindon in the mid to late 20th century, many of them providing affordable rented housing for London overspill families.
19 May 2005 : Column 331
Affordable housing is now scarce and there are 6,000 families on the council's housing waiting list. That is something that I would like to see addressed.
I am concerned that Swindonians who seek help with debt owe an average of £35,000, before mortgage debt. Many are young women with children who have been abandoned by their partners and are left to sort out the debt on their own. That cannot continue, and we are right to emphasise the responsibilities of credit companies as well as those of the individual.
Crime and antisocial behaviour are issues that local police, neighbourhood watch groups and other constituents will not tolerate, and I firmly share that view. The new police community support officers in Swindon will help, and, thanks to the Government, Swindon now has an antisocial behaviour hotline. Fifteen ASBOs have been issued in the past five years and we have seen a 5 per cent. drop in overall crime. However, it remains a concern for my constituents, and I pledge to work hard to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour in Swindon.
The street scene and built environment are hugely important. Swindon's town centre is a poor example of 1960's architecture. Regeneration is urgently needed, and we look to the New Swindon Company to produce a solution that is architecturally exciting and uplifting for the whole town.
I move on to another architecturally exciting British innovationthe roundabout. If Wimbledon is home to the Wombles, South Swindon is the land of the magic roundabouta central roundabout surrounded by five satellite roundabouts. Swindonians nonchalantly negotiate the magic roundabout, whizzing clockwise round the outer circles and anti-clockwise round the central circle. A community that can do that without inflicting major harm on itself is capable of almost anything.
There is one conundrum in Swindon: it is a town and a people with much to be proud ofgreat community spirit, hard working and innovative, and home to some of our best national and international companies. It is a great place to live, yet Swindon has received a bad press over the years. I am calling time on that. Swindon has the potential to be a world-class community, and I shall be there as its cheerleader.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me in the debate, and I thank other Members for listening so courteously. It has been an exhilarating experience to enter Parliament as a new Member and, rather like negotiating the magic roundabout for the first time, we must keep our heads down, move forward with confidence, give way when necessary and go clockwise at all times unless it is necessary to go anti-clockwise. That is a good metaphor for a great institution.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con):
It is my first and delightful duty to congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) on her maiden speech. Clearly, the people of South Swindon have gained another eloquent champion. Many of us on both sides of the House fondly remember her predecessor, Julia
19 May 2005 : Column 332
Drown, and the hon. Lady will be extremely welcome in the House. I can honestly tell her that I have never heard a better section of any speech about roundabouts.
I congratulate all those who have made their maiden speeches, including the hon. Members for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). As one still young enough to remember my own maiden speech, but also as enough of an old lag to have addressed the House at every level of fullness and every stage of partisan excitementeven, sometimes, on occasions of wakefulnessI can tell them that they have gone through the most terrifying ordeal that they ever will in this place. The rest is easy.
I want to deal with two areas affecting the environment and one other aspect of the Queen's Speech. My overall verdict on the Government programme is that it shows alarming signs of hyperactivity, which is as wearing in a Government as it is in a small child. Forty-five Bills and five draft Bills are all to be put through the House by autumn next year. Given the parliamentary timetable, which, I observed during business questions, has been reduced again as we are having a longer summer holiday than we expected, there will probably be fewer than 40 weeks in which to discuss those 50 Bills. Are we likely to legislate well or wisely in those conditions? Of course not. The Government still seem to think, in the face of all evidence, that a bigger legislative programme means a better legislative programme. All our experience tells us that the opposite is the case.
The Prime Minister is entering his self-proclaimed political twilight desperately scrambling for a legacy. I am afraid that he will not find it in this collection of Bills, nor will he find it in his record on environmental matters. Climate change is one of the big issues for himhe has been known to declare that it is the biggest issue facing us. At other times, the biggest issue facing us can be education, Africa or terrorism. With all those issues, he is like a butterfly: he lands for a few seconds, flutters his rhetorical wings and is then away, leaving no imprint.
The Prime Minister and therefore the GovernmentI welcome the new Ministers to the environment team, both paid and unpaid; they can discuss the potential unfairness of that between themselveshave a genuine problem on this issue, but so, frankly, do all of us who are involved in the political process.
The biggest question facing the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairsthe two Departments whose work we are discussing todayis how we generate our energy and what effect that has on our environment. We have all known for a long time that that is the biggest problem facing them, yet we all chose not to discuss it during the election campaign.
I am not naive enough to believe that election campaigns can raise the tone of political discourse, but it is a melancholy comment on us all that, faced with a vital but complex and difficult issue, we all agree that this is not the sort of thing that we should be talking about in an election period. When we consider why people feel increasingly disengaged from and disenchanted with the political process, we should perhaps reflect on that. We have not discussed energy
19 May 2005 : Column 333
and, in particular and most contentiously, the role of nuclear power until now, when the election is out of the way and we all feel it is safe enough to do so.
As has been pointed out not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Michael Jack) but by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), there are two key questions in the debate on the role of nuclear power. First, can we meet our long-term emissions commitments without a new generation of nuclear stations? Clearly, the evidence can be used either way, but it seems to me that the answer to that question is probably not. Secondly, can we afford to build nuclear plants if we include the costs of waste? On the current evidence, the answer to that question is also probably not.
That is why this is clearly a complex and difficult issue, even before we get into the realm of all the passions aroused by the very idea of generating electricity using nuclear power. The cold economics seem to clash with the long-term international commitments, which we have rightly entered into, to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. That leaves us, as a country, facing in both directions: we cannot do without nuclear power, but we might not be able to afford it.
Clearly, we need to delve more deeply into those two questions and, in particular, into the question of affordability. On that, it seems to me that this country's time scale for going from the idea of building a nuclear power station in a particular area to the point at which that station might come on stream and start to generate electricity is ridiculously long. Broadly speaking, we assume that it takes 15 years from start to finish. If we started building some stations tomorrow, they would not be on stream in time to avoid the stresses and strains on electricity generation that we will face in the next decade, especially if we are to meet our long-term commitments. However, we know that we will not start building any new ones tomorrow, because we have taken so long to take the decision in principle.
It seems to me that some things could be done to reduce the time scale. First, we could change the planning procedure. We do not necessarily need lengthy public inquiries on new sites, because clearly we are now developing a range of sites that were involved in the original generationin particular, Magnox reactorsand they could be reused.
My experience is based on the two reactors at Dungeness, which are not in my constituency, but in the neighbouring constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). However, many of my constituents work at Dungeness and my experience tells me that, the reactors having been there for many decades, there is no local resistance to them or to the possibility of continuing nuclear generation there. Indeed, the reactors are welcome as a source of local employment, so some of the resistance that occurs in other areas would not be present.
The other aspect that lengthens the time scale for getting from idea to fruition is the technicalities of building, but we have reached the stage at which there are almost off-the-peg solutions that can be had. There are enough different types of nuclear generator around the world to enable that part of the process to be
19 May 2005 : Column 334
shortened. Therefore, we do not necessarily need to consider a 15-year time scale in future. That in itself would have some effect on affordability.
Moving to the other great problemthat of wastethere was a fascinating exchange in another place on 28 February between my noble Friend Earl Attlee and Lord Whitty. Earl Attlee asked whether the Minister thought that
The form of words used by the Minister is interesting. A complete resolution of the problem, which clearly would take some years, is not deemed necessary by the Government, only a "setting on course" to solving it. It may be that the Government have seen a way through this particular problem as well.