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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is with some considerable honour and humility that I rise to make my maiden speech: honour because it is a great privilege to be elected to the House and humility as I contemplate the trust put in me by the electors of the Forest of Dean.

I start on a note of agreement with my immediate predecessor from the Labour Benches. In her maiden speech, she took issue with two of her hon. Friends—the hon. Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)—who had described their constituencies as the most beautiful in the United Kingdom. She claimed that description for the Forest of Dean, and I am delighted to agree with her most strongly. She did not contest the seat at the general election and I wish her and her family well in her retirement from the House.

The Forest of Dean constituency lies between the Rivers Wye and Severn in the west of the county of Gloucestershire. It has had a tradition of industry, mining, farming and forestry in the past, but its employment patterns today are becoming more typical of our county. Increasingly, more of the working population are forced to commute out of the area to work—about 40 per cent. each day. I want to focus on working to encourage more high-quality local jobs in the area during my term of office.
 
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I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor but one, Paul Marland, the former Member for Gloucestershire, West and to thank him for leaving behind a very positive reputation that cannot but have helped my campaign to be elected to the House. I have lived in the Forest of Dean for more than five years and the most enjoyable thing about the years leading up to my election has been getting to know many remarkable people. There is a strong tradition of independence and individuality in the Forest of Dean, so I hope that I will demonstrate at least some of that while I am here—I hope, for fear of damaging my career for ever, that the Whip on the Front Bench will forget that part of my speech.

I understand from those that note these things that my election to the House marks the first time that a Labour Government have not been able to count on the Forest of Dean to return a Labour Member of Parliament. It is also the first time, with the current boundaries, that the Forest of Dean has elected a Conservative MP.

Probably the best known former MP for the Forest of Dean was Sir Charles Dilke, who held the seat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He won the seat in 1892, successfully defended it in 1900 with a massive majority, and was unopposed in 1906—that is an electoral record worthy of emulation. His name lives on, as one of our two fine community hospitals, the Dilke Memorial, carries it proudly. The location of the hospital and the services that it provides are currently under review by our primary care trust. I have been contacted by many local people, an overwhelming number of whom wish to see the hospital developed on the existing site with an increased number of services available locally. I shall campaign strongly for that.

One of the issues that occupied a great deal of my interest and concern as a candidate—it continues to be a special interest for me as a Member of Parliament—is provision for special educational needs. The parties that ran Gloucestershire county council until 5 May had embarked on a process of closing special needs schools throughout the county, including Dean Hall and Oakdene special schools in the Forest of Dean.

The school closures were passionately opposed by the parents, children, heads and teachers. My Conservative colleagues and I supported them in their campaign, but were not able to stop the closures in time. The new special school to replace Dean Hall and Oakdene—the Heart of the Forest community special school—will provide education for children with severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning difficulties, and complex needs. For those children, I am sure that it will provide an excellent service and do an excellent job, and it will have my full support, but that leaves an important gap in provision.

Children with moderate learning difficulties, who would once have been taught at Dean Hall, will now be expected to cope in mainstream education. I am      pleased to say that the new Conservative administration, which took power in Gloucestershire on 5 May, was elected on a pledge, and it will commission and carry out a full review of special schools provision in the county and the Forest of Dean, in line with that commitment. Once the review is complete, the council will respond appropriately. Possible responses could include increasing places at the Heart of the Forest
 
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community special school or other options, depending on what the review throws up. I warmly welcome this commitment and know that it will be good news for many families in the Forest of Dean.

A number of children with special needs from my constituency attend the Alderman Knight special school in Tewkesbury, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). This school was also scheduled for closure by the previous regime at Shire hall. I am pleased that the Conservative administration gave a commitment to keep the school open and has started that process already. My hon. Friend should be congratulated on the vigorous campaign he waged, which is now paying off.

The lesson I learned from those experiences is that while it is right to include children with special needs in mainstream schools where that is appropriate, it should not be the only option. There are children for whom a special school is the right and best option for their future. They must be given that opportunity. As politicians, however, we must also be wary of second-guessing their parents. They know their children better than any bureaucrat or so-called expert, and we should do them the courtesy of listening to their views and be wary of prejudging them.

I conclude with this thought. My experience of the campaign to retain special needs education in Gloucestershire highlights something else, touched on by other hon. Members—the importance of voting and participating in political debate, and the impact that has on the lives of ordinary individuals in our communities. Special needs education was an example of something on which different parties had different views, and was an issue of tremendous personal importance to those involved. The decision to close or not to close a range of important schools depended directly on the votes cast in an election. Regardless of the view one takes on the issue, it cannot be denied that voting made a difference. I hope people learn from that example, get involved in political debate and participate in the process. They may not be able to change the world, but they can certainly change their part of it for the better.

5.53 pm

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): As a new Member, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I also congratulate and compliment my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), and the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on their excellent maiden speeches.

Like the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), whose maiden speech I listened to last week, I, too, was advised on the importance of the same three things: say nice things about my predecessor, say nice things about my constituency and say nothing controversial. In following the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) said:

I leave it up to right hon. and hon. Members to judge how I fare.
 
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I am extremely proud and honoured to have been elected to the House by the people of Dundee, West, and although boundary changes have meant a substantial increase in the geographical area covered by the constituency, I believe that most people would accept my predecessor as being Ernie Ross.

Ernie represented the people of Dundee, West with great distinction for 26 years, and I hope that I can serve the constituency as well as Ernie did. Hon. Members will no doubt remember that Ernie's great interest during his time in Parliament lay in foreign affairs, in particular the middle east. He has made a great many friends via those interests, and is quite rightly held in high regard both at home and abroad for his work in these areas over the years.

I took the liberty of obtaining a copy of Ernie's maiden speech and in it he said that Dundee was the first place in Scotland to elect a Labour MP back in 1906. Ernie now holds a record himself as the longest serving MP Dundee has ever had. Again in his maiden speech, he had high praise for the Dundee council department then known as the direct labour organisation. Having myself been employed there between 1987 and 1997, when it had changed its name to the public works department, I can vouch for the excellent and efficient work force right up to the present day, although following another name change it is now known as Dundee contract services. Looking back at Ernie's maiden speech of May 1979, it was in many ways quite visionary. For example, it looked to the day when Scotland would have its own Parliament, which of course came 20 years later. I wish Ernie a long and happy retirement.

A new part of Dundee, West that I have inherited was formerly part of Dundee, East and as such was represented in the House for the past four years by Iain Luke. Iain is a good and valued friend of mine, and one that I know I can turn to for advice when required. Obviously, I would have preferred Iain to be here as a fellow Member, and perhaps that may yet happen in the future.

The new Dundee, West constituency also includes a part of what was previously Angus, and as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) has been returned to represent his newly formed constituency I have to admit that the advice I mentioned in my opening remarks was silent on whether I had to say nice things about a predecessor under such circumstances. The fact that he was returned surely tells its own story, and I congratulate him on that.

I have to confess that I have never met the hon. Gentleman, but I did meet some of his Scottish National party colleagues during the election campaign. My campaign team would open a book on how long it took any SNP speaker to mention the "O" word. For the uninitiated, the "O" word is oil, and I think that the record was 90 seconds. I should make it clear that 90 seconds was not the shortest time it took to mention oil, but actually the longest. On that subject, I must congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) on a fine maiden speech yesterday. I commend him not only for the content and presentation, but for the fact that he lasted seven minutes before mentioning the "O" word. Of course, the subject of oil has been in the news again recently, although not the North sea variety. I have to commend
 
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the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), himself Dundee born and bred, for his recent Stateside performance.

Moving quickly on, my constituency of Dundee, West is now a marvellous mix of rural and urban areas, business and technology parks, teaching hospitals, colleges, universities, a thriving cultural quarter and much more. Dundee has always welcomed people who choose to live and work or, study there, and so side by side in Dundee, West we now have ethnic communities, student communities, professionals in science and research and, of course, Dundonians themselves. As both the city's universities are situated in Dundee, West, the student population in particular is substantial, and not only have Dundee people welcomed them with open arms, but occasionally we try to help keep them on the straight and narrow.

A story is told of a student who was seen leaving the students union in the wee small hours, having obviously had a good night of it. A police car drew up and one of Tayside's finest got out and inquired, "Do you know where you're going sir?", to which the student replied, "I'm going to a lecture." The policeman continued, "It's half-past 2 in the morning, sir. You cannot possibly be going to a lecture." Back came the response, "Have you met my landlady?"

Also located in the Dundee, West constituency are the city's two senior football clubs, Dundee FC and Dundee United. In fact, they are situated in the same street. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate Dundee United on reaching the Scottish cup final and to wish Dundee FC a speedy return to the premier league.

May I also congratulate two local junior football teams that will be contesting the Scottish junior cup final at Tannadice Park this Sunday. Tayport junior football club, which plays its home games just across the Tay bridge in the constituency of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), will take the field against Lochee United junior football club, which plays its home games in Dundee, West. I am sure that a great game is in prospect.

For many people, Dundee was always famed for the three Js—jute, jam and journalism. Jute and jam are now gone, but most people remain familiar with Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids, not forgetting Oor Wullie and The Broons. Obviously, the DC Thomson empire is responsible for many more publications, but those are probably among the most instantly recognisable characters for a lot of people.

I believe that even in the 1950s the overwhelming majority of Dundee families would have had one or more members working in the jute industry. My mother and grandmother both worked in the mills, and even in that environment there was a pecking order: they always made a point of telling people that they were weavers, not spinners.

In the post-war years many new factories opened in Dundee, West, such as NCR, Timex and Veeder-Root. Of those companies only NCR remains, but wise investment, particularly in research and development, allied to good working relationships with the trade
 
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unions, means that it remains one of the city's major employers, and I will do all in my power to ensure that that remains the case.

What has replaced the jute mills, the jam and confectionery factories and the light engineering companies? Many new businesses have started up in recent years in the city's industry and technology parks, most making use of the help provided by the regional development agencies, and they now employ many Dundonians. Where we have seen a major upsurge in Dundee, West though, is in the numbers of people employed in research and development—for example, in biochemicals and other sciences. Many of the leading authorities in those fields are now living and working in Dundee, West, and having met some of them both before and since the general election, I am delighted when I hear the credit that they give Ernie Ross for the fact that they are in Dundee.

Unemployment is less than half what it was in 1997, so obviously we are moving in the right direction. However, one area of concern regarding employment remains; it was touched on by the hon. Member for Dundee, East yesterday. That is what people perceive as the unacceptably low number of civil service jobs located in Dundee. I would like to help to address that situation.

Full employment has to be our aim, not only in our own constituencies, but throughout the UK. Without work, there are no wages, and no wages means poverty. We must strive to ensure work and wages for all. I want to see a radical third-term Labour Government continue towards their goal of the eventual eradication of child and pensioner poverty. Of course, the forthcoming G8 conference at Gleneagles, just down the road from Dundee, must ensure a collective effort in striving to make poverty history internationally.

I intend to represent all parts of Dundee, West equally and to the best of my ability, and I say that in particular to those people who, because of boundary changes, now find themselves constituents in Dundee, West. I remember reading that Peter Ustinov, the famed actor and a former rector of Dundee university, on being asked why he had not gone into politics, replied, "I couldn't bear to be right all the time." I hope that I have the good sense and humility to realise when I am wrong, although I do remember my wife Norma once saying to me, "When you said I was marrying Mr. Right you never told me your first name was always . . . " She was joking, I think. Seriously, I hope that I have the good sense and humility to know when I am wrong, although I will certainly have the courage of my convictions when I know I am right. The people of Dundee, West would expect no less.

6.2 pm


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