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Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I am privileged to speak in this Queen's Speech debate. I congratulate the new Members who have made maiden speeches: the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley (Ms Keeley) and for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). They have all focused on our primary responsibility: to represent our constituents. I congratulate them on the focus of their maiden speeches and wish them well.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) on his work as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is unique in that he has left his post with acclaim from all sides in Northern Ireland. That is testimony to the great work that he has done in fostering the peace process.

I congratulate the Government, and particularly the Chancellor, on their stewardship of the economy. My new constituency is entitled West Dunbartonshire, and the stability of the economy was key to my successful return. I spoke to many hundreds, if not thousands, of people there, who told me that employment and youth employment, which is at record levels, were crucial in terms of their voting Labour. Low inflation and low interest rates have meant that businesses can plan for the future and home owners could have the confidence to invest in their houses and develop their own lives. The family-friendly policies—such as the working families tax credit and child benefit—as well as free nursery places for three and four-year-olds, were important.

One of my last duties as MP for Dumbarton was to sign a letter to a single parent of three children to tell her that she was getting £13,000 a year extra as a result of the working tax credit. That is what I call investing in families and communities and ensuring stability in the economy.

My new constituency includes Clydebank, and I wish to take the opportunity to thank my colleague, Tony Worthington, who has retired, for his sterling work in Clydebank over the past 18 years. I wish to continue his work in this House and elsewhere. Tony not only represented his constituents in a fine way, but articulated the needs of the international community through his membership of the International Development Committee. He hopes to continue that work with the World Bank and others, and I wish him well, as will all those who know him.

I wish to continue his work with Clydebank Re-built, one of Scotland's first pathfinders in urban regeneration. Clydebank Re-built, although a small development company, will develop the waterfront at Clydebank over the next seven years. That waterfront is where the famous great ships—the Queens, the Lusitania, the Britannia—were built at the former John Brown shipyard. Over £250 million of development work will be put into that area.

In the wider constituency, projects including Clydebank Re-built, the Strathleven regeneration company—which I chair—the Loch Lomond shores and the national park are making an impact on the
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community. The business environment is creating new jobs and providing high-quality business units, tourist destinations and attractive residential areas.

Housing is a crucial element in the post-industrial strategy for our region, and I note with pride that more than 60 per cent. of all the people in West Dunbartonshire have privately owned houses. The message to the Government from my constituents is that Clydebank, Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven—the main areas—need the continued economic stability that we have seen over the past eight years to ensure increasing prosperity for our constituents and our communities.

Turning to Westminster, there is an air of gloom, particularly among Opposition Members. We have heard that the economy is spiralling into decline, that house prices are down and that unemployment is up—but let us look at the record. In The Sunday Times, David Smith—a distinguished economic commentator—said that the official figures indicated that since the early 1990s more than 3 million jobs had been created, most in the private sector. It is important for us to hit that nail on the head: not all jobs have been created in the public sector. Jobs have been created there, but the majority have been created in the private sector.

Statistics for the past 12 months indicate that there has been a rise of almost 80,000 in the number of jobs in the construction industry, 30,000 in financial and business services and 30,000 in distribution including retailing. We have heard that retailers are on a downward path—but they are increasing their business property. If they are doing so, it must be because they have a buoyant outlook for the next few years. That property means more retailing, but also more jobs.

The position in which the British economy finds itself in is clear. We are the 12th richest economy in terms of the gross national product per capita and, after nearly falling behind Italy and thus putting our placing at the G7 table at risk, the UK has recently moved ahead of France into a comfortable fourth place in the table of world economies. UK average growth between 1990 and 2003 was 2.7 per cent., putting us at the head of our main competitors, France, Germany and Italy.

I note that the Ernst and Young ITEM Club estimate—one that is not always favourable to the Government—indicates that solid growth will continue over the next three years, with consumer confidence expected to recover in 2005 and house price worries evaporating. Those are the comments of outside and objective commentators, but we must face the future, and as the Chancellor indicated, our future is firmly in the global economy.

The Bank of England report on inflation has indicated that the pace of expansion of the world economy is slowing and the recovery in global equity prices has ground to a halt. It also says that global growth is expected to slow this year, but is still expected to be higher than the historical averages. The oil price futures curve has risen, suggesting that the record oil prices may persist in the medium term. That is the background.

Let us focus on what the Government have done over eight years. Despite constant challenges and the risks of instability in the world economy over the past five
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years—those include the Asian crisis when Korea went bankrupt, the Russian crisis, the IT crisis, the stock exchange crisis, the US downturn, which spread across Europe and Japan, with world trade stalling for the first time in decades, and the volatility of oil prices—we have outpaced our European competitors in terms of growth. Also, the UK matches the United States in terms of future optimism. Despite world instability we have a base from which to grow the economy, and that is down to the very effective stewardship we have experienced over the past few years.

We face challenges from China and India. With the Treasury Committee in the last Parliament, I visited China, which should be taken seriously for a number of reasons. The first is the sheer size of the country: China's population is 1.4 billion, something that we cannot understand. The second is the pace of change; we visited Shanghai and saw the result of the input there over the past 10 years. The Shanghai skyline mirrors that of Manhattan. Ten years ago there was no such skyline in Shanghai; the pace of change is enormous.

I make one request to the Government in terms of the future of the G7. The Government must ensure that China's place in the G7 is recognised by others. China is growing and we must recognise that. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor could do us all a favour in terms of the global economy by ensuring that China gets its rightful place in the G7.

Still thinking about Tony Worthington, I wish to say that there is a great need for the international finance facility, and a need to ensure that the humiliation felt by the billions of people in poverty is eliminated. I wish the Government, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor well at Gleneagles—on climate change, but also on the African objectives, as we try to ensure future security and prosperity for all of us in this divided world.

3.9 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to make my maiden speech. I commend and congratulate the hon. Members for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), for Worsley (Ms Keeley), for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), all of whom made their maiden speeches today.

It is 99 years since the last Liberal Member for Westmorland made his maiden speech to this House. Ninety-nine years ago, my predecessor, Mr. Dudley Stewart-Smith, campaigned for fairer taxation and for greater support for pensioners and against an iniquitous and counterproductive foreign war. As we can see, despite being a century apart, we Liberals are nothing if not consistent.

That my constituency had to wait such a long time for its second Liberal MP may in part be due to the character and abilities of my Conservative predecessors. I pay tribute to my predecessor but one, Michael, now Lord, Jopling, who represented first Westmorland and then Westmorland and Lonsdale with great distinction for 33 years. However, I wish to pay particular tribute to   my immediate predecessor, Tim Collins, who represented Westmorland and Lonsdale for eight years and proved himself in that time to be an energetic parliamentarian with sharp instincts. He rose quickly in his party, spending most of his time on the Conservative
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Front Bench, speaking first for the Conservative party on transport and then on education, and then for the whole nation on matters to do with "Dr. Who". While on a political level I am delighted to replace Tim in this House, on a human level I feel for him, and I wish him and his family all the very best for the future.

Westmorland and Lonsdale does not need to lay claim to being one of the most attractive constituencies in the country, because that claim is self-evident. My constituency takes in large parts of three historic counties—Westmorland, Lancashire and Yorkshire. It contains significant swathes of two of our most breathtaking national parks—the Yorkshire dales and the Lake district, of which it has the largest chunk. Parts of the Furness peninsulas and the Arnside and Silverdale area of outstanding natural beauty also fall within the seat. Ours is a land of mountains and lakes, from the Furness mountains in the west to the Howgills near Sedbergh in the east, with the lakes Windermere, Coniston, Rydal Water and Grasmere in between.

The outstanding natural beauty of my constituency underpins its vital tourism industry, but it can also provide many challenges. Most challenging of all is the extreme and intolerable situation relating to the substantial lack of affordable housing. One in six houses in Westmorland and Lonsdale is a second home, and while I recognise the liberty of people elsewhere to purchase a second home, I value far more highly and recognise more firmly the more important competing liberty to have a decent first home.

Average income in my constituency is about £16,000 a year, and the average house price is about £200,000. I seek to persuade the Government—indeed, I have already written to the Minister for Housing and Planning—to take action to deal with this unsustainable situation. With regard to the Queen's Speech and this debate on the economy, I refer to the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which has already been mentioned today, that additional help is to be given to allow first-time buyers to purchase homes through millions of shared ownership schemes. It is heartening to see the Government acknowledge the problem, but that move will barely make a dent in the problem that I have outlined.

Some 27 per cent. of young people born and bred in Westmorland and Lonsdale leave the area and make their homes elsewhere, largely because of the excessive cost of housing, the lack of rented accommodation in the social sector and the absence of well-paid work. With regard to the latter, last week, one of our largest employers in Kendal, Goodacres, announced the loss of 50 highly skilled jobs. To lose so many young people is not only deeply upsetting in terms of dividing local families, but extremely damaging to our economy.

Losing young people from our communities also has an obvious subsequent impact on the birth rate, reducing demand for our local maternity unit and reducing school rolls, and therefore threatening the viability of some of our most important local services. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) campaigned a few years on the slogan "Breed for Cornwall". I am afraid that the proportion of my fellow residents who are in a position to breed for Westmorland is sadly diminishing. My wife and I are doing our best, but we cannot make up the shortfall on our own.
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Successive Governments have left Westmorland and Lonsdale with only a quarter of its original council housing stock; average house prices that are more than 12 times average incomes; and farming and manufacturing industries that are undervalued and undermined to the extent that our communities are now under extreme threat. In the past 12 months alone, there has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of people in my constituency presenting as homeless.

The lack of any limits on second home ownership gives freedom to a few to purchase such properties in volumes that have become unsustainable, thus putting up house prices and removing from the market otherwise good homes for local families. Changes to the planning laws, local taxation and the financial rules governing local authority housing are among the measures that we must pursue if we are to ensure that there is a future for rural communities such as ours.

My constituency remains one where agriculture and farming are vital to the local economy and to our culture and environment. Farmers who are recovering from the body blow that was the foot and mouth epidemic four years ago are now placed yet again in an economically marginal position by the unnecessary tardiness of the single farm payments scheme. Farmers will not only be paid in arrears for their work, but these payments are now to be paid at least two months late. Farmers may wonder whether Ministers would put up with their salaries being paid to them at some ill-determined and delayed point in the future.

My constituents are generous, outward-looking people who value fairness at home and abroad. Indeed, the best attended debate during the recent election campaign in my constituency was the World Development Movement's "Make poverty history" meeting. I therefore know that many of my constituents will have been horrified to read in the press that the European Trade Commissioner, who I understand once sat in this House, is seeking to undermine this Government's moderately progressive stance on economic partnership agreements between the European Union and the developing world. The Commissioner in question is allegedly expressing a view   that this Government should support economic partnership agreements that allow multinational companies unfettered access to the markets of developing countries.

I would wish to call on the Prime Minister to put his old friend in his place and to make a stand consistent with his stated support of the "Make poverty history" campaign. Countries that have been exploited to such a damaging extent by the developed world would be exploited and impoverished yet further if they were forced to open up their markets to powerful multinational companies. It is not free trade that we need, but fair trade. Freedom rarely comes about either in the housing market of Westmorland and Lonsdale or among the peoples of the developing world through an absence of intervention. Competing liberties must be refereed, and in the absence of any invisible hand, visible intervention by the community is essential if real freedom is to prevail.

I know that my job here is lent to me; it is not mine in perpetuity. I have it only so long as I deserve it in the eyes of the people of Westmorland and Lonsdale. The people of my constituency voted for the first time in 99 years for a progressive Liberal Democrat who will fight to protect and strengthen our communities, who
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will be a powerful advocate for them and who will be Westmorland's man at Westminster, and not Westminster's man in Westmorland. For the duration of my time here, that is precisely what they will get.

3.16 pm

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