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Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I start by paying tribute to the eloquence and enthusiasm with which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) made his first address to the House. I just hope that I can in some way match those assets.
I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House for the first time, but I do so with some trepidation, because I am seeking to fill the shoes of some very eminent people who have represented Newbury in the recent past. Many Members of this House will remember Sir Michael McNair-Wilson, who was for two decades the Member of Parliament for Newbury. He was followed all too briefly by Judith Chaplin, who tragically died 11 months after entering the House.
It has taken me a long time to get here. I was first selected for the Newbury constituency 11 years ago, and one reason why it has taken me so long is my immediate predecessor, David Rendel. When he won the Newbury by-election, the information about his majority was passed to his party leader, who said, "That can't be the majority; that must be the total vote." David Rendel remained an active and committed Member of Parliament for 12 years, and it is a great privilege to follow him. I pay particular tribute to his stalwart support for the Newbury bypass, which was a massive issue in West Berkshire, as many Members will remember. He led that debate locally with great courage, and I pay tribute to him for that.
Like the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, I consider it a great privilege to represent the constituency in which I was born, raised and educated, and where I live with my family today. It is a very beautiful part of England. It starts just to the west of Reading, goes all the way to the Wiltshire border and includes in its landscape the Berkshire downs, many beautiful villages and the Lambourn valley. Given the presence in my constituency of the Lambourn valley and the Newbury racecourse, I look forward to being an active supporter of racing and the racing industry in this House.
My constituency also includes the vibrant towns of Thatcham, Hungerford and Newbury itself. Part of the fascination of the area is that close to such beautiful landscape and long-established industries as racing and agriculture, one finds cutting-edge technology companies such as Vodafone. Some 20 years ago, Vodafone was started by a handful of employees in one office in Newbury; now, more than 5,000 employees work at its headquarters and in the immediate vicinity of Newbury. It is a model of corporate responsibility, and there is scarcely a school or voluntary body that has not received substantial funding from the Vodafone Group Foundation in recent years.
We are extremely proud of our new hospital in West Berkshire, which was opened last year. It was opened thanks to the hard work of many local people[Hon Members: "Thanks to a Labour Government."] I am coming to that. The hospital was opened thanks also to a legacy from a generous local person. The private
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finance initiative process was progressed under the previous Conservative Government, the hospital was built under the Labour Government, and the credit for it was taken by the Liberal Democrats. So we all feel a sense of ownership.
West Berkshire is no stranger to protest. In 1868 there was an election in which a previous Richard Benyon was elected for the constituency, and Newbury assizes were filled for many weeks afterwards with many cases of riotous assembly. I am glad to say that elections these days are much more orderly and good natured. However, in my constituency we have the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, and Greenham Common, both of which have excited certain protest activities in recent years.
The Atomic Weapons Establishment is close to where I live, and I do not subscribe to the hysteria with which some people regard it. It is a good, conscientious local employer. It is conscious of the safety of local employees and of local people, and it is a centre of excellence for science and engineering. I commend it on the decommissioning work that it has done throughout the world.
Greenham Common is a living, breathing example of the peace dividend. In the 1980s it was a scene of mass protests, but more people work at the base now than worked there at the height of the missile deployment. The open area has reverted to public access, and all profits from the rentals are ploughed into the local community.
The sense of security, or insecurity, that people feel stems, to a great extent, from the sort of community in which they live. Communities both large and small need to have a sense of worth. There seems to be a relentless centralisation of resources and vital facilities that sucks the lifeblood out of communities. The loss of village shops and post offices, the closure of rural schools and churches and the conversion of pubs to housing have all been debated at length, but it is not just in rural communities where that is a feature.
In my constituency, towns have lost police stations and ambulance stations. Last year we suffered the great and severe loss of a number of suburban post offices. Each time a community loses one of these entities, its sense of self-worth is diminished. Nothing is achieved by standing by and watching as this centralisation continues. We have to look forward to see the risks that will come if this scourge continues, and what we can do to prevent it.
My local magistrates bench sits just in Newbury, but many years ago it sat in Hungerford and Lambourn. Perhaps for very good reasons, it withdrew to Newbury. I am convinced that in future somebody could make a good case for centralising all magistrates services to a larger town such as Reading. I have nothing against Reading, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) would have words to say if I did. However, it is absolutely crazy to persist with this intense centralisation.
We must protect individuals who will be affected. Where would such a move leave an elderly person who has been a victim of crime and has to travel many miles to give evidence in court in a city or town with which he
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or she is not familiar? We have to embrace technology and applaud organisations such as Thames Valley police, which recently opened a police presence in a village that lost its police station 10 years ago, thereby adding to the sense of worth of that community.
That is the point. Too often the centralisation of services is done for the convenience of organisations rather than for the communities or individuals that they serve. We forget that the concept of best value means more than financial prudence; it must encompass a human element. Enhancing the sense of a community's worth by retaining or reinforcing services and pushing services back into it is a concept that will feed into any current zeitgeist, such as the respect agenda.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): I start with a real tribute to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Making a maiden speech in the House of Commons is, as we all remember, never easy, but they accomplished it with a degree of self-confidence, and with some contentiousness, which I am glad to see is beginning to break into maiden speeches. They spoke also with a certain wry amusement, which means that they will be listened to with great attention in future. I am sure that we all wish them well.
Obviously a good deal of the Queen's Speech is positive and constructive, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) had the grace to recognise that at the start of his speech. However, I found much of the rest of his speech disappointing. He concentrated, understandably, on the difficult issue of drug and alcohol-related crime and the figures, which are contentious. But he did not say that this was a problem that exists in almost all western societies and, although I understand the difficulties, he was not able to come forward with his own alternative, positive and better proposals.
The right hon. Gentleman moved on to anti-terrorism, which is another extraordinarily difficult subject, as he recognised in a speech at the end of the last Parliament. Again, however, he did not come forward with proposals on how to reconcile individual civil liberties with the overriding need to protect the state, which is the central issue.
David Davis: Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. If it is just one personas it appears to bewho is to be under a control order, that is when surveillance, which is what we talked about in the last Session, would come into its own. We do not need control orders in those circumstances.
The generality of the Queen's Speech has much in it on which we would all agree, but I find it a little piecemeal. It is rather a patch-and-mend programme over a wide area of policy, instead of possessing a commanding theme or embracing a clear vision of
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society. Another concern is that in the absence of such a vision, there is a complete omission of many proposals that would address some of the fundamental problem areas in society. Indeed, some of the content of the Queen's Speech might even make those areas worse.
My first point is about accountability, which I realise is contentious. It was raised at the start of the election campaign, but not pursued. It is not a dry constitutional issue, because it underpins all the other decisions that are taken across the board. We cannot go on repeating episodes such as what happened with tuition fees, foundation hospitals, genetically modified foods and control orders, on which the Government either did not consult or, having consulted, proceeded to take the decisions that they intended to take all along. We cannot again be taken to war on the basis of a vote the day before a war starts, and be denied any debate on it and its aftermath for 15 months, and then given only an Adjournment debate, without any substantive motion or a vote. All that ground is well known, and we need a new set of agreed procedures in the House to make such arrangements impossible.
I hasten to say that in this Parliament, with its much smaller majority, none of us is seeking confrontation, but that depends on a more responsive leadership. We need a new stylemore collegiate and genuinely consultative. Frankly, however, that will not happen unless Parliament bestirs itself. We need a new cross-party parliamentary commission to examine every aspect of parliamentary accountability and make recommendations. Its remit should include the role and powers of Parliament in holding Ministers to account, in choosing membership of Select Committees, in appointing specialist committees of inquiry, and in tabling motions for debate and vote on the Floor of the House, as well as completing reform of the House of Lords. Those are all fundamental if Parliament is to regain its rightful place in the power structure of this country.
My second point is that if the Government are to construct, as I hope they will, a new, modern and dominant social democratic consensus as their memorial, they will have to do a great deal more about inequality. It is true that child poverty has been reduced, that pensioner benefits have been significantly increased and that working families are better off as a result of the working families tax credit. All that has been made possible by the Chancellor's sound management of the economy. However, it is also true that inequality has sharply increased. It is unacceptable that one fifth of our population is below the poverty line when hundreds at the other end of the spectrum take home several million pounds a year. In particular, the national minimum wage is set much too low, and the flagrant tax-avoidance devices of stock options, bonuses and so-called fringe benefits need to be dealt with.
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