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Mr. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for calling me to speak for the first time and I am grateful to hon. Members for the traditional courtesies, which I hope they are about to show me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) and other new Members on the worryingly eloquent examples that they have set me. In return, I shall try to observe tradition by being as uncontroversial as my liberalism allows.

Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would also like to thank the House authorities for the support and advice that they have give to new Members this year. I gather that the service is rather better than that of previous years and it is much appreciated. Of all the things that have been explained to us newcomers, the complex web of allowances, final-salary pension scheme and expenses is what attracts most attention outside the House. There are easy political points to be scored in attacking those provisions, but they do not seem particularly outrageous to me when compared with what is provided to some people in business. However—and I must declare a family interest in this, as my wife is a doctor—they place on Ministers a responsibility to treat very carefully the pension arrangements, in particular, of other public servants, including my constituents in GCHQ, the NHS and Cheltenham's schools and colleges.

It is appropriate that a Cheltenham maiden speech should be made on a day devoted to debating health and education, as our town motto is, after all, "Salubritas et Eruditio". The educational tradition is very long, and dates back to the foundation of our grammar school by Richard Pate in 1578. That tradition of educational excellence continues today, not least in our best comprehensive and special schools, the Gloucestershire college of arts and technology and our new university. I am also proud that the tradition includes first-class education for many disabled students at the national star college, parts of which are in my constituency. However, I am bound to say that the perception locally is that education provision is underfunded compared with other counties, and that pupils' experiences across Cheltenham can be very mixed. Those are serious issues, to which I am sure that I will return another day.

Health has been equally central to Cheltenham life. Today, we boast a three-star hospital foundation trust, a three-star primary care trust and a three-star
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partnership trust for mental health. While I share many colleagues' reservations about the accountability of foundation trusts, I hope that Ministers will look kindly on the mental health trust's current application for foundation status. Under the current system, that seems to be its best way forward.

Cheltenham's association with good health began in earnest in 1716, when our future prosperity was assured by a pigeon targeting a mineral spring. It was drinking the first Cheltenham waters. The spa soon became a magnet for visitors, including George III, his Prince Regent, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen, who took the waters for their health-giving properties. The spa water is, to be perfectly honest, an acquired taste that is unlikely to have mass market appeal in the near future, but I would recommend it to the Secretary of State's colleagues in the Department of Health for analysis, especially since water-borne bacteria phages have recently been suggested as possible antidotes to MRSA.

Cheltenham soon developed into the beautiful and friendly town that it remains today, but that brings its own problems. A high quality of life, relative prosperity and easy access to the beautiful Cotswold countryside attracts people to live and work in the area. As a result, we have been told by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to expect tens of thousands more homes to be built on our green belt, perhaps even merging us with nearby Gloucester. However, what is the logic of concentrating development on already prosperous towns that neither want nor need it, when smaller rural communities are dying for lack of families and less prosperous parts of the region and the country need and want development more?

In the end, our quality of life will be compromised and our traffic and services will be overloaded, while outlying estates will become even more of a focus for the antisocial behaviour that blights Cheltenham too, and which stretches police resources to the point where people are losing confidence in the force's ability to respond. Nor will that development of relatively expensive housing do anything to help the people trapped on our housing waiting list who are already beating a path to my surgery door.

There is inequality in Cheltenham. I have been elected not just by readers of The Guardian living in elegant regency properties—although I think that I probably did count on their votes—but by people who have to work hard just to make ends meet on streets and estates that suffer very significantly lower incomes, worse health and fewer educational opportunities than those in the more affluent parts of town. Those people expect me to fight for change in this House, and I promise to do so.

Cheltenham continues to welcome visitors, especially through a succession of festivals, many of them giving the town an international flavour. During the national hunt festival in March, the Queen's hotel flies the Irish tricolour, and our pubs take euros. In fact, the horses race in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), but I would not embarrass him by suggesting that his pubs should take euros too.

Our international festival of music attracts world-class talent every year, as befits the birthplace of Gustav Holst. We also offer fantastic festivals of literature,
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cricket, science, folk and jazz. Visitors to Cheltenham in recent years have also included a succession of Labour and Conservative general election candidates, who perhaps are ignorant of the fact that, for the past 30 years and for much of its earlier electoral history, Cheltenham has returned only MPs born and bred in Cheltenham. I am proud that I, too, am representing my home town in Parliament.

Cheltenham has had a great liberal tradition in this House and not just among those wearing my party colours. Our parliamentary representation was born in the Reform Act 1832 and our first MP, Craven Berkeley, was a staunch supporter of more democratic reform. However, I am afraid that he did not set a very good example in other ways, going so far as to shoot at an opposing Tory MP on one occasion, in a duel in 1842. Luckily, both were equally bad shots. On another occasion, Berkeley allegedly guarded the door of a Regent street bookseller while his brother beat up the proprietor. Nevertheless, he was very popular with his constituents and was re-elected many times, being unseated only once—for offering rather too many refreshments to his electors during the campaign. He thereby established a powerful Cheltenham tradition for electing local, liberal and independently minded MPs with a strong association with food and drink.

In the late 19th century, the best example of that tradition was James Agg-Gardiner, a successful Tory brewer. I went to school with the smell of hops from what was once his brewery wafting through my classroom. Agg-Gardiner, too, had liberal ideas. In particular, he championed the cause of women's suffrage as early as the 1870s. Then, as now, Cheltenham was a Liberal-Tory marginal. Agg-Gardiner lost the seat in the Liberal landslide of 1906, but only by 401 votes. The seat changed hands at each of the two subsequent elections, with increasingly tiny majorities, and was finally regained by Agg-Gardiner with a majority of just four votes—which makes 66 sound like a comfortable majority.

Another colourful and independent-minded Tory was Charles Irving, the first Cheltenham MP whom I knew as a constituent. Older hon. Members will remember him with affection for his skills in reforming and improving House of Commons catering. However, as with Agg-Gardiner, food and drink went side by side with more serious fare. Charles's maiden speech was a passionate attack on capital punishment, bravely delivered at the height of the IRA's bombing campaign. It reads as a timely defence against the curtailing of civil liberty in the face of terrorist atrocity. Charles was a genuine social reformer; that did not always endear him to his colleagues in the party to my right, but it made him well loved in every part of Cheltenham.

Charles's successor was my predecessor, Nigel Jones. In good Cheltenham tradition, he became chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group and was once named parliamentary beer drinker of the year. He, too, was a committed political reformer, championing, among other things, the trade union rights at GCHQ, which he did see restored while sitting in this House. At times, Nigel served Cheltenham as its MP under more difficult circumstances than any of us would ever want to face, and his courage and good humour in the face of injury and later ill health earned him much respect. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in congratulating
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him on his imminent ennoblement. I hope that the other House will prove a suitably restful environment, in which he will return to the best of health.

My election result was modest compared with Nigel's, but I was pleased to have raised not just important local issues but also critical global issues, such as the need to make poverty history and—the single most important issue of all—the fate of the planet's environment. However, local issues featured strongly in the election, and I cannot sit down without finally referring to one local issue that is relevant to the subject of today's debate. The previous Secretary of State for Health found himself in an embarrassing situation after he met me and local campaigners concerned at the loss of children's services from Cheltenham general hospital to Gloucester, and specifically at the loss of Battledown children's ward as a 24-hour in-patient facility, as proposed by the foundation trust. The petition handed to the right hon. Gentleman that day apparently ended up in a skip in Oxford, and that caused huge offence in Cheltenham. We did get an apology, but the best way for the Government to regain a little of their tarnished reputation locally would be for the Secretary of State to say that she will look afresh at the case of Battledown ward, and support a 24-hour in-patient service. As the Department said only last year,

I am sure that the Government will want to prove that that was more than just words.

I am honoured to be here representing Cheltenham, and I am very grateful to the House for its patience.

7.48 pm

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