Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech to the House. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Horwood) on his excellent maiden speech, and I should also like to take this opportunity to thank hon. Members and the staff of the House for giving me so much help to settle into this role during the past few weeks. That help has been invaluable.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, as the House has never before been able to debate the legislative programme of a third-term Labour Government. This situation is not only historic, but provides us with further opportunities to improve this country for everyone.
At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Gerry Steinberg. Gerry served his constituents very well, and worked extremely hard to bring jobs and prosperity to Durham. He was for many years a diligent member of the Education Committee. I know that he will be missed, and the Public Accounts Committee, on which he also served, will be a less lively place without him. Right hon. and hon. Members might like to know that I have it as an aspiration to be as quiet and retiring as Gerry!
I also consider it to be an enormous privilege to be the Member of Parliament for my home, the wonderful city of Durham. Those of us who are fortunate to live there
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know of its extraordinary beauty and outstanding cultural heritage. In an effort to introduce the rest of the world to it, the travel writer Bill Bryson wrote:
I wish to return to the subject of Durham's amazing heritage. Durham's history is founded on the life of St. Cuthbert, a seventh century Northumbrian saint. He was noted for his fair and placid manner, for having a remarkable talent for athletics and a reputed gift for working miraclesso not much for me to follow there then! Durham cathedral was of course built as his burial place. The magnificent cathedral is still a place of pilgrimage and worship: it is central to the life of the city and I pay tribute to the work of the cathedral today.
The cathedral is also remarkable for its Galilee chapel where the Venerable Bede is buried. Bede, a religious scholar and early academic historian, became known as one of the most learned men in Europe. As the final resting place of one of the earliest academics, it is perhaps fitting that the cathedral is now surrounded by Durham university. Our university is considered to be one of the best in the country. It is renowned internationally and it too provides essential jobs and a valued contribution to our civic life. I think it must be one of very few universities to have a beautiful castle as one of its colleges.
Durham has another heritage that needs to be equally celebrated, and that is a heritage built on the city's mining industry and Labour inheritance. It is a joy to many of us in Durham that the miners gala is not only still held in the city every year but goes from strength to strength. It acts as a real focus for progressive politics in the city and involves a wide range of voluntary and community organisations. Long may it continue.
In his maiden speech, Gerry Steinberg admirably chronicled the problems facing the ex-mining villages surrounding the city centre. He pointed to the devastating levels of unemployment created by mine closures and de-industrialisation, and the absence of any policies by the then Conservative government to tackle them. So unemployment became an intergenerational experience because of the lack of jobs. It also created acute deprivation and the associated problems of poor health and the waste of human talent. Thankfully, I am able to stand here some years later and talk about the positive changes Labour has made in Durham. Unemployment in Durham city has halved over the past eight years, and that downward trend is continuing as new jobs come on stream. While many of those jobs have been created as a result of Labour's investment in the public services, Durham's private sector is also thriving. For example, the rate at which new firms are starting up in Durham has increased by 30 per cent. since 1997. That compares well with the north-east as a whole, which saw new firm start-ups increase by 11 per cent. over the same period, and both Durham and the region outstrip the national rate of increase.
That economic success depends on having a well-educated and skilled work force. Progress with raising educational achievement has been one of the Labour
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Government's most impressive achievements. Durham city has seen a 20 per cent. increase in pupils achieving five good GCSEs. Durham's quality of life is also much better than eight years ago. The burglary rate, for example, is down by 36 per cent. People are also living longer under a Labour Government. Durham city's death rate from circulatory diseases has fallen by a quarter since 1997 and from cancer by a fifth.
One has only to look around my constituency to see how investment in public services is making a difference. In Durham, we have a new hospital, a new state-of-the-art further education college, and we are shortly to have new buildings for Durham Johnston school. We have a Sure Start scheme with a children's centre already being built, and more children's centres on the way. And Durham is, I think, typical in that regard.
My job as an MP will be to ensure that progress continues. That will mean working with a range of agencies, businesses and the local councils to continue the regeneration of the urban areas and former mining villages. It will involve bringing schools, colleges and the university together to continue to improve educational attainment in the city, to provide innovative training models for the workplace and to promote Durham as an international centre of excellence for science development. My background in higher education means that I am simply passionate about education and its capacity to transform whole communities as well as individuals, and I will work to improve education at all levels in Durham.
It will also be necessary to continue to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour and local policing teams should help to reduce the fear of crime especially for the elderly. I want to continue to engage actively with communities in the city and listen to and act on their concerns. That includes establishing a mechanism for the voices of young people to be heard so they can see that democracy works for them too.
Finally, I return to the theme of heritage that I started with. Durham also has a tradition of reaching out to troubled communities throughout the world. I am very pleased that the Government have put the middle east peace process and reducing poverty in Africa at the top of their international agenda and I look forward to working with the many groups in Durham that have overseas development issues as their focus. I will of course be there to represent all my constituents and I will bring hard work and commitment to that task.
David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I am especially pleased to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). Although I suspect that we will disagree on many issues in years to come, I agree with her about the beauty and scenic majesty of her constituency, as I pass through it on the train from Edinburgh to London.
I was also pleased to hear today the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace). I also had the pleasure of hearing him make his maiden speech in the Scottish Parliament in 1999. I was also pleased to hear the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), who gave us all considerable encouragement that if we are able to do our job well we will be routinely embraced by our constituents in the street. I aspired to the recognition
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and affection that one of my predecessors, Sir Hector Monro, received from his former constituents. Some 22 years after he ceased to represent the Thornhill area of Dumfriesshire, people still come up to shake his hand.
It is my honour and privilege to have been elected as the first Member of Parliament for the newly created constituency of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, to which I have often referred by the acronym DCTalthough people then think that I am talking about some unfortunate medical condition. Some have suggested unkindly that my constituency was created just to bring together the bits that the boundary commission for Scotland had left over after it had created the 58 other constituencies. I prefer the boundary commission's own explanation that it wanted to bring together those diverse and disparate small towns and areas to create a constituency that would require its Member of Parliament to focus on rural issues. That is certainly the commitment I make to my constituents.
The constituency covers about 2,000 square miles and takes in the river valleys of the Annan, the Esk, the Clyde, the Tweed and the Nith. It contains about 100 communities. If I were to follow the example of other Members and list the merits and concerns of those communities I should take up all the time remaining for our debate this evening, so I can only summarise my remarks about a part of Scotland that has great scenic resonance and history. The one thing that I can say about William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Robert Burns is that all those great Scots at least passed through my constituency.
The constituency begins at the English border at Gretna, now as famous in Scotland for its football club as for being a location to marry. The constituency stretches along the route of the M74 beyond Coalburn. To the west lie the communities of Thornhill, Kirkconnel, Sanquhar and Upper Nithsdale, which still has unemployment rates well beyond the national average. I am committed to working with our local MSP, local councillors and relevant organisations to increase employment opportunities in the area. I am also pleased to be playing a part in the A76 corridor action group, lobbying for improvements to Scotland's forgotten trunk road, which will play a vital part in the regeneration of the area.
In the east of the constituency lies the community of Langholm, which is steeped in rich border history and the history of the border reivers. Unfortunately, of late we have a new border reiver in the form of the Environment Agency, which has tried to introduce rod licences on the Scottish section of the River Eskas unwelcome as any cross-border raids of the past. As a Member of the House, it is my intention to try to bring that matter to a resolution.
In the north and east, the constituency follows the A702, passing through communities such as Biggar and West Linton. Biggar has an interesting motto to which all of us from small towns can subscribe: "London's big but Biggar's Biggar". Many people living along the A702 believe that its designation as the main trunk route between the M74 and Edinburgh is unsustainable, and I hope to persuade the Scottish Executive that they must take action on that matter.
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Biggar and the areas of south Lanarkshire that fall within my constituency have not had the benefit of Conservative representation since the election of 1959 when Patrick Maitland was defeated by Judith Hart. West Linton and Peebleshire have not had the benefit of Conservative representation for 40 years since the death of Colonel Donaldson. However, in accordance with convention, I shall pay tribute to more recent Members rather than those long past. In fact, because my constituency is newly created, three of the four predecessor Members are still Members of the House. Indeed, I have the pleasure of being the Conservative MP for the hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) and for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood). The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) would have been a constituent but he moved a few weeks ago. I am sure that the two things are not related.
Like many Members on the Conservative Benches, I was greatly saddened that my friend Peter Duncan was not successful in his attempt to return to the House. As many Members representing constituencies in England will find, changes proposed by the boundary commission can be harsh to even the most hard-working Members. Peter's win in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale in 2001 was a remarkable achievement. If its boundaries had been retained, he would have been elected with a greatly increased majority, due in no small part to his diligence as a hard-working constituency Member, speaking out on issues that really mattered to the people in his far-flung constituency. Those issues included the lack of dental servicesthe registration of dentists being one of the health matters reserved to the Housethe future of the King's Own Scottish Borderers and fuel duty.
Peter also made an enormous contribution to political debate, both in the House and in Scotland in his role as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. He has much still to give to the Conservative party, Scotland and the House, and I very much welcome his continuing role as chairman of our party in Scotland, carrying out the structural and organisational reforms that our Unionist party needs to adopt to succeed in the future in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.
When asked which single issue is of particular importance to my constituency, I often reply that it is energy policy. At the northern end of the constituency are the largest opencast developments in Europe. At the southern end is the Chapelcross power station, which is being decommissioned. One of the roles that I hope to play in this Parliament is to persuade the Government to make a quick and positive decision on nuclear power so that Chapelcross can play host to a new nuclear power station, which would be most gratefully welcomed by the community and the local work force.
As I have said, I am the first serving Member of the Scottish Parliament to be elected to this place. The Scottish Parliament has had a difficult birth and continuing growing pains, and faces many challenges if it is to live up to the expectations of the people who voted for its establishment in 1997. However, we should never forget that it is the settled will of the people of Scotland that the Parliament should exist in its present form, and there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that they have changed their view on that matter. However, devolution is a process, not an event. The inevitable next
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steps are to replace the system of nods and winks between the Labour party in Edinburgh and the Labour party in London with protocols and procedures between the Parliaments and Governments that will stand up to scrutiny and that will work when we have Governments of different political persuasions in Edinburgh and in London as we surely will.
It is with some sadness that I will be leaving the Scottish Parliament and the many friends and colleagues with whom I have worked there over the past six years. However, I look forward to the new challenges, which are already evident to me as the new Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.