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Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech, which I do with what I hope is forgivable trepidation and some jangling of nerves, emotions that are only made more acute by the excellent fluency of the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern).
I like to think that at least I will make this maiden speech with greater confidence, and that I will make myself more clearly understood than the last time I gave
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a maiden speech as a new parliamentarian, which was back in 1999, when I had just been elected as a Member of the European Parliament. In my maiden speech in that place I made a joke that was, thankfully, good enough that the English speakers in the audience laughed immediately. Those who received the translation through their headphones in languages that are rapidly translated, such as Italian, French and Spanish, also laughed. I then moved on to a much more sombre point, in the middle of which the German speakers burst out in raucous laughter because, as those hon. Members who speak the great German language know, the verb comes at the end so the punch line is deferred. I cannot vouch for the quality of what I say today, but I hope at least that I do not encounter those problems again.
It is customary of course to praise one's predecessors, and I have been deeply impressed by the rhetorical dexterity with which other hon. Members have made maiden speeches in which they have lavished praise on individuals who, I assume, were until very recently their bitter foes and opponents. Thankfully, I do not face that dilemma because I stand here as the successor to Richard Allan, the previous Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield, Hallam, who I know was as liked and admired in the House as he was in his constituency. I am sure that I speak on behalf of many hon. Members when I say that he was a Member of Parliament who discharged his duties with a unique mix of integrity, modesty and talent. He won the seat in 1997 with an extraordinary swing of 18 per cent. in his direction, and the generosity and sincerity with which he then became the MP for Sheffield, Hallam was rewarded with an even bigger majority in 2001.
Richard Allan's generosity was my good fortune in the two years in which I shadowed him as the parliamentary candidate for the constituency. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude not only as a close friend but, latterly, as my campaign manager in the election. I am sure that, again, I speak on behalf of many here when I say that I hope his voluntary withdrawal from the political scene will prove in time to be a temporary interruption rather than a permanent departure.
Sheffield, Hallam is unique. It has the city centre just moments away, yet it flows deep into the Peak District national park. Where else can one go rock climbing one moment and attend some of the best theatre outside London's west end the next? Poets have waxed lyrical about Sheffield, Hallam. John Betjeman famously said about Broomhill, a particularly beautiful part of the constituency, that it was the "finest suburb in England". Although I know that many of my constituents might bridle a little at that characterisation and certainly are rightly anxious about the relentless and often insensitive over-development of properties in Sheffield, Hallam, they would still recognise Betjeman's accolade.
There is an unusually heavy emphasis on education in the constituency. I saw a statistic somewhere showing that the percentage of school leavers in Sheffield, Hallam who go to university is among the highest in the country. The two universities, Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield, are the two largest employers. The commitment to our great public services is extremely strong, with over 40 per cent. of all people employed in the constituency working in the education and health sectors.
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I have heard it said that those who work in those public services are most likely to resist any change, however merited, in the reform, development and evolution of the sectors. Having spoken to countless nurses, doctors, researchers and teachers in Sheffield, Hallam, I flatly reject that characterisation. My view is that my constituents are perfectly aware that change is an inevitable and often healthy discipline for large public sector organisations, which are often quite cumbersome. What they object to is change driven by whimsical political fashions that change from month to month. It is worth recalling that our public sector workers are those who need to pick up the pieces when new schemes that might seem plausible when invented here in Westminster or Whitehall go awry in practice in our schools, our universities and our hospitals.
I have also heard it said that general elections are times when voters will not lift their eyes to the larger international scene, times in which everyday bread-and-butter issues will always predominate. Again, my experience in Sheffield, Hallam challenges that. I was very encouraged by the number of times that international issues, particularly the plight of many countries in the developing world suffering from grinding poverty, were raised with me on the doorstep.
As someone who is inured to the almost relentless daily diet of antagonism to all things European in much of our national public and media discussion, I was also quite encouraged by the number of times that my constituents raised the great unresolved and vexed issue of our place and our future in Europe in a manner that was measured and driven by sincere concern and interest. I would certainly like to play my part in advocating an approach to the future of Britain in Europe which emphasises a balanced and unprejudiced approach.
I do not mean to say that we should be uncritically in favour of everything that emanates from the European Unionit is as flawed as any other political and economic institutionbut I have always believed that it is perfectly possible to be pro-European and, at the same time, in the forefront in advocating far-reaching improvements to the EU. However, our approach should be one that states and restates, in a forthright and unflinching manner, that we should always remember the wider benefits that will accrue to this country from our continued commitment to our European vocation.
I am only the 10th Member of Parliament for Sheffield, Hallam since the constituency's creation in 1885, but it has exported well in excess of its quota of politicians. Joe Ashton, Sir Irvine Patnick, Angela Knight and Spencer Batiste are only some of the more recent politicians from the constituency who have made their presence felt in the House, and I am acutely aware that I have my work cut out to honour the tradition that they have set. On the day of the election, with Richard Allan I visited all 19 of the polling stations in the constituency
My hon. Friend might have difficulty in his constituency, but we in Sheffield, Hallam organise ourselves efficiently. I was encouraged to see the number
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of people who waved at us and gesticulated at us[Laughter.]with their thumbs up, I hasten to add. My joy at seeing that was only slightly dented by the realisation that all the salutations were directed specifically at Richard Allan, and they almost entirely ignored the grinning candidate at his side. It is my sincere ambition to do all I can on behalf of all my constituents, regardless of political party affiliation, so that during the years and elections ahead I may merit an occasional thumbs-up and wave. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have listened to me take my first, somewhat ginger, steps towards achieving that ambition.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): It is a great delight to be present on a day when there have been so many sparkling maiden speeches. As Parliament proceeds, some hon. Members might discover that debate in this Chamber is not always regarded as the most exciting or amusing pastime of the talented, so it is a privilege to listen to the new Members. They are, of course, most welcome here, each one with their own style, each one with a strong commitment to their own constituency, and each one capable of giving every one of us a tremendous boost by bringing fresh ideas and a fresh approach to this place.
After all, this is going to be an extremely interesting Parliament. When they are facing their third successive period of legislation, Governments must think deeply about their objectives. I am privileged to have been a member of the Labour party since I was 16, which of course was not very long ago, and to be present today to see the way in which my Government plan, not only to build on the exciting things that have happened in previous Parliaments, but to shape the future of the United Kingdom.
The general election provided interesting examples of the problems now facing any elected Member. Going from door to door and talking to many people throughout my constituency, it became clear to me that there is an extraordinary disconnection in the public mind between what elected Members do and have achieved and what in fact happened in people's ordinary lives. We talk about the money spent on education, but people seem to regard that as money dropped, like manna, from heaven and distributed on the ground. I pointed out to them that the fight for the just-completed primary school of which I am hugely proud had lasted 15 years before we got it going on the ground, and that the remarkable headmaster of that school had marched every step of the way with the architects to secure, not only a highly imaginative design, but one that responded to the needs of the primary schoolchildren in that area in a way that has not always been seen in the past. Only then did people recognise that Government have a strong role to play. To those of us who educate our children and grandchildren only in the state system and who use only the state system of health care, it is important to make that connection.
I hoped that we would have the odd debate on transport. Perhaps when the Select Committees are reconstituted, I might once again have a word or two to say on the subject. I look forward to the time when I,
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with my excellent colleagues from all over the United Kingdom, am able to examine in detail the Government's plans. Some transport topics are quite controversialfor example, the speed at which people are allowed to driveand other parts of the transport system are equally interesting and important. Today, however, I shall concentrate on one issue.
I spent many years of my early married life involved in the national health service. Three of my children followed me into the NHS, although only one is now leftthe others, quite extraordinarily, decided to go on to make money. When we examine the Queen's Speech, it is important that we ask a number of questions. Let me make it clear: I believe that the cash that has gone into the NHS over the past seven years is not only exemplary, but essential. In my constituency, we had 17 years of people saying, "Each year, we will cut the budget. We won't announce that that's what we're doing. We'll simply say that we want efficiency savings: give us those, and you'll get a much better health service." In fact, we got nothing of the sort. We got rundown facilities and primary care services that were not modernised and did not respond to the needs of the population. Since 1997, the major district hospital for my constituencybecause of the boundary commission's inability to get these things right, it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien)has had a new mental health ward, new accident and emergency facilities, and a new eye service, which I opened. In addition, one of the new, famous and controversial special centres has been built alongsidebut as part of the national health service, and specifically part of the Leighton hospital.
Let me tell the Government that, in this Parliament, they will have to think and behave differently. I am not saying that they were uncaring, but they must now think seriously about the sort of legislation that they introduce. First, they need to take more time. There are no brownie points to be gained by simply having lots of legislation. Legislation has to be good legislation, properly and carefully scrutinised, not only by the other place, but by this House. Secondly, legislation has to respond to the real needs of the people of the country.
Where the national health service is involved, the Government need to make clear where they want to be at the end of this Parliament. I am prepared to believe that, despite the large sums of money, the NHS has not responded with the speed and flexibility that some of us hoped for. I have spent my whole life among doctors and I know that, whatever they might say, they are not the most flexible creatures, although they have a high level of expertise and a great deal to offer. However, the aim cannot be only to increase throughput of patients, as if what is sought is simply a form of modernisation. That is not what the NHS is about.
I ask the Government and the Secretary of State for Health to state one or two things plainly. If we are to expand private care, what is the object? Is it a goad to produce better results within the NHS? Is it a replacement, based on the assumption that only private care provides a higher standard of care? That is nonsense. Or is it, in fact, designed to deal with an immediate problem, in the hope of bringing money back to the NHS after the problem has been resolved? If so, the system does not work like thatit never has and it never will. The Government have a special responsibility. They must tell the people of this country,
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"You cannot do without a national health service. It is your rightyour fundamental and important rightto have health care when you need it and not based on your ability to pay." That is the reason I joined the Labour party, the reason I remain in the Labour party, and the reason why, until the end of my days, I will fight for a national health service that is capable of responding to the needs of the United Kingdom.
Above all, the Government must be clear. We talk about a customer-led service, but what do customers do? Customers go where they can get the best for their moneynot necessarily the best goods, just the best for their money. That is not what the provision of health care must be. We must have balance; we must have breadth of view. Above all, we must never find that we have created machinery which, irrespective of what happens in futureGod save us from ever having a Conservative Government againcould lead us directly towards the privatisation of all services, so that we go back again to the situation that existed when I was a child. That meant that working-class people did not get proper health care. They did not receive preventive care. They did not get intelligent support. In this House or anywhere else, I will not support anything that does not understand the difference between the provision of health care and the provision of moneyed services. I will have other things to say. I am a silent creature, but I would say that it is important that the future of the health service is fundamental and clear. We need the Government to spell out their intentions.
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