Previous SectionIndexHome Page

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), who, in his maiden speech, addressed the House with a combination of skill, wit, authority and, to use his word, pride—pride in his constituency, pride in his surroundings and pride in having arrived in this House to represent his people. As it happens, I know the   hon. Gentleman's immediate predecessor, Ross Cranston. He is an immensely intelligent and engaging man. The hon. Gentleman spoke movingly about his predecessor, and he will be a very good successor indeed to Ross Cranston. We look forward with interest and respect to his future contributions to proceedings.

I also congratulate a number of other Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I refer, of course, to the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who seems to bear many of the admirable traits of her immediate and remarkable predecessor, and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), who is something of a seasoned professional in politics. This is before I even get to the bit that I treasure most, as a continuing party animal, which is to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).

I have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for many years. He loves his constituency, he is part of his constituency, he was determined to represent his constituency—and in the end he got here. He spoke with great warmth and sincerity about his patch and the challenges that it faces.
23 May 2005 : Column 485
My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor described in compelling terms the journey that he has made from what he called his humble origins to the success and status that he is fortunate enough to enjoy today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and   Atcham displayed a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of his constituency—very impressive in a   debut performance—culminating in a witty and appropriate reference to the special relationship that he is cultivating with the Prime Minister's father. If that does the trick in securing an improvement in public performance, we shall all owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend. And by the way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I   am to have any chance of being called to speak, either in debates or at Question Time, I know that I must always resolve to sit in front of my hon. Friend and not behind him.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr.   Oaten) threw down a very legitimate gauntlet to the Conservative Opposition earlier. I cannot speak for my right hon. and hon. Friends—I gave up attempting to do so some time ago—but for my own part, I want to make it clear that I remain implacably opposed, on grounds of principle and practicality, to the introduction of identity cards. The Government's arguments on this matter have consistently shifted, and none of them is persuasive. I shall endeavour to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to go the right way on this subject, but whether they do or not, just as I spoke and voted against the introduction of identity cards in the last Parliament, so I intend to continue to do so now.

There are good things in the Queen's Speech. In what they have set out so far, the Government are picking up on a number of important public priorities. The difficulty, of course, is that the devil is in the detail. So much will depend on the practicality, and on the extent to which the Government are sufficiently rigorous in their pursuit of their objectives and display the necessary determination to overcome the people and things that tend to get in the way.

I should like to focus on a number of the specifics in the Queen's Speech. The first point that I want to make is that immigration and asylum should not be artificially conflated and confused. They should not be regarded as synonymous—they are not. On immigration, let me make it clear that I welcome the Government's intention to introduce a points-based system for admission to this country. Yes, I believe in controlled immigration, but I   also believe that it is incumbent on people of good faith in all parts of the House to be as ready to proclaim a commitment to fairness in immigration policy as they are to proclaim a commitment to firmness. A successful, free enterprise capitalist economy needs a decent level of immigration. The economic as well as the moral arguments for immigration need to be made, and I am not afraid to make them.

On asylum policy, let us be explicit in our debate. There are currently people in this country who should not be here. Equally, there are people who are not in this country but who, in a fair system, should be. I was appalled to hear recent testimony of people trying to get to this country from Darfur who were denied the chance to do so because they were told by the Government that
23 May 2005 : Column 486
it would be safe for them to relocate to Khartoum. That is a bogus and ignorant argument that completely underestimates the significance, power and ill intent of the state apparatus in Sudan. I want to see firmness, but I also want to see fairness. I did not make a party political issue of immigration or asylum in my constituency, and I do not seek to do so now.

The Government's proposals on incapacity benefit represent an important area of public policy, and the way in which Ministers reform it—by retitling it and dividing it into two parts—should be driven by the extent of the abuse that is being committed, rather than by an anticipation of the level of revolt that they will face for seeking to address the problem. In other words, if they do the right thing and are fair in giving support to those who need help while denying it to those who do not, the Conservatives should not play games; we should support them. If, however, the Government simply cower at the first sign of grapeshot from left-wing Labour Back Benchers, we should not support them. We have a duty as a constructive Opposition to point out the error of the Government's ways. The opportunity is theirs. I shall try to take a constructive approach and I shall not be afraid to support the Government when I believe that they are right—sometimes flying in the face of judgments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Never!

John Bercow: My hon. Friend speaks from the Front Bench with a degree of intensity and feeling.

There is much to do on education, but I want to make one important point. Using private money to support and bolster the public sector is one thing, and I favour it. Using public money to support and bolster the private sector is quite another, which I do not favour. There are lessons to be learned by my own party in its approach to this subject as we seek a reformed and strengthened public sector capable of delivering for the interests of the majority.

On House of Lords reform, there is a difference between destructive and constructive reform. It is all very well for the Government to say that they will get rid of the remaining hereditaries. Let me make it clear that I find the hereditaries' continued presence intellectually difficult to defend, and I am not one to say that their removal cannot be justified. I believe that the Government can make a case for it. I do not believe, however, that the Government should simply get rid of something without putting something substantial, constructive and enduring in its place. If the Government can combine the removal of the hereditary principle with a constructive proposal for sustainable reform along the lines argued for by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and the former Member for North Cornwall, Paul Tyler, representing the Parliament First group, I say three cheers to that.

My final observation to the Government is that allowing sufficient time for debate on all these important measures is not a sign of weakness; it is a display of strength. If the Government really believe that they have
23 May 2005 : Column 487
a compelling case for their measures, they should not be shy about it. They should allow other views to be expressed, and ensure that there is time for that. They should listen to the public, who feel that the Government, for all their good intentions, are often too arrogant and too dismissive of other views. I hope that they will turn over a new leaf, and in the interests of the country, I wish them well with the legislative programme that they have outlined.

7.37 pm

Edward Miliband (Doncaster, North) (Lab): I am most grateful for the chance to address the House for the first time. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is known throughout the House for his independence of spirit, which we have seen on display again today, and which I am sure would be welcomed on these Benches. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) for their maiden speeches today, and to all hon. Members for their eloquent contributions.

In preparing my own speech, I looked back at the maiden speeches of my predecessors, and was struck by that of the radical reformer, Richard Cobden, who opened his account in the 1841 Queen's Speech debate. He told Members that it was not

but it is hard to deal briefly with the case against the corn laws. Cobden's speech, in its abbreviated form, stretched over 13 columns of Hansard and was estimated to have lasted at least 50 minutes. There is no record of how many Members remained in the Chamber at the end. The time limit on our speeches today means that I shall certainly not be emulating his precedent.

By custom and, more importantly, out of respect, I   want to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Kevin Hughes, who sadly retired from the House because of illness. For 13 years, following his service as a miner, he served the people of Doncaster, North with great distinction, fighting for the place he came from and the people he grew up with. He served for four years in the Government Whips Office and, while I gather that it is hard to be a popular Whip, I know that many Members will miss his frankness, his integrity and his friendship. I thank him for the kindness that he has shown to me. In my constituency, too, there is the highest regard and warmest affection for Kevin and for his wife Linda, who so brilliantly assisted him with thousands of constituency cases. I promise my constituents and this House that I will try to live up to the standard that they set. I also pay tribute to Mick Welsh, Kevin's predecessor for 13 years, who served first in Don Valley and then in the newly created Doncaster, North.

Unlike Kevin, Mick or their predecessors, my roots do not lie in Doncaster. I am the son of two immigrants who met in London after the war, who had strong political beliefs, to which I refer because it helps to explain why I am here today. Ours was a socialist household, in which we were brought up not just to think that the injustices of society were wrong, but to believe that through political change, something could
23 May 2005 : Column 488
be done about them. Of course, as we grow up all of us make our own way. But it is right to recognise that it is this upbringing and that belief which brings me to this House to represent Doncaster, North.

Mine is a constituency that surprises those who visit it. Far from being an urban seat, as many assume, it is composed of a series of villages to the north of the town. It is a place with great and sweeping countryside, including Sykehouse, the longest village in England, the Thorne and Hatfield moors, renowned for their natural beauty, and Askern lake. We are also home to Saxon churches and the Norman church of St. Mary Magdalene in Campsall, where it is said that Robin Hood and Maid Marian were married. As strong believers in redistribution, people in Doncaster, North are happy to reclaim his roots.

And yet, despite our picturesque scenery, the lifeblood of my constituency was, until the 1980s, the   mining industry. When Mick Welsh rose to make   his maiden speech 26 years ago yesterday, four major pits dominated our landscape—Askern, Bentley, Brodsworth and Hatfield—directly supporting many thousands of families. All are now closed, although we are working for the reopening of Hatfield, which could not only provide access to half of the accessible coal reserves in England but offers the prospect of a new clean coal power station. That is an endeavour in which we hope to secure financial as well as moral support from the Government. We therefore face the challenge of massive industrial transition, with all that that entails for both the economy and the community.

Our advantage is that Doncaster, led by an elected Labour mayor, is a town—in fact, a city in all but name—on the up, experiencing the economic prosperity that is returning to the north of England. We have a new international airport, which was opened last month, one of only three UK airports with a runway large enough to accommodate the new Airbus A380. The airport is already expanding horizons, as shown by the eloquent letters that I have received from class 4 at Toll Bar primary school, which I shall visit on Friday. Our new education complex, Education City, when it opens next year, will, we are confident, become a university with several area-based campuses, including one in my constituency. We are also well served by local newspapers, although during the campaign my recognition factor suffered a bit of a setback when one campaign profile mistakenly substituted for a picture of me a photo of a brick wall.

As Doncaster revives, we in the northern villages will not necessarily share in the prosperity without the right sort of intervention by national and local government. Doncaster, North has great attributes, with pit traditions of community and fraternity, countryside, and most of all the people—honest, fair and hardworking—but at the same time the scars of the last two decades run deep. Therefore, as befits the representative of a progressive party, I come to this House not to talk about the gains that there have been, important though they are, but to say that we still have a long way to go to create the society that we seek. Despite progress in the past eight years, Britain is still a country too unequal, too divided by class and status, too distant from the goal even of equality of opportunity.
23 May 2005 : Column 489

Therefore, what are our needs? Above all, we need a Government who will keep investing in our social and economic infrastructure. If my constituents are to get to the new jobs that are being created at the airport and elsewhere, we need investment in rail, road and bus services. In addition, people often ask me why, if the Mayor of London can regulate London's bus service so that it serves the people, we in Doncaster cannot do so?

To tackle disadvantage at its source, we need not just our three new Sure Start centres but such centres in every area, not just because of the services that they provide but because they represent a new focus for the community. I congratulate our secondary schools on their progress in GCSE performance, but we are still a long way behind the national average, and we need the most modern facilities not just in our new academy in Thorne but in every school. And to raise participation in higher education—still less than half the national average—we need not just the new Doncaster university, but to raise the sights of young people and to keep expanding university places.

The message that I received loud and clear in this campaign was that as we seek to revive our spirit of community, youth services must become a higher priority. What many young people on our streets told me is that there was nowhere for them to go and nothing for them to do. The young people whom I met are not yet cynical, nor are they without hope, nor are the vast majority troublemakers, but many feel that nobody really listens. They are tomorrow's voters—or, regrettably, non-voters. Respect is a two-way street. Many older people feel that young people do not show enough respect, but young people feel neglected by our society. If we can show them that we are listening and will respond to their needs, I am convinced that it will make an impact far beyond the immediate provision of youth services. That will be a priority for me as I try to serve my constituency in this House.

I want to end by referring to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government, who is winding up the debate tonight. It is daunting, on such occasions, to have members of one's family watching in the Public Gallery—but worse, I feel, to have them sitting in the Chamber. As the House will know, he and I are now the only brothers in this place, although there are two sets of distinguished Labour sisters. I quickly offer this reassurance to the House: there are no more Miliband brothers to come. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that two is more than enough.

I also want to put on the record, however, how much my family owes to this country. Our father left Belgium in 1940 on the last boat to Britain, the evening before the Nazis arrived, and would have perished without the welcoming arms of a country that recognised its duty to help those fleeing from terror. I hope that I and my brother, in the service that we give in the House, can in some small way help to repay the debt that we owe to this country. In my contributions in this House, I will strive to reflect not only the voices of the constituents who put me here this month, but the humanity and solidarity shown to my family more than 60 years ago, which led my family out of the dark times of despair to a place of hope, and me to the Floor of this House today. I thank the House for listening.
23 May 2005 : Column 490

7.46 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page