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Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and I am personally experiencing the frustration that follows from being a member of a party that won the popular vote in England, yet remains a long way behind in the number of seats. Does he agree with the strong rationale that the links between an individual working in a community and that community itself must be the bedrock of our democratic system? Does he accept that what he proposes inevitably means moving away from that link?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point, as I have already said that the link between the Member and the community is important. I also recognise, however, that the 22,000-odd peopleI use the term "odd" in the mathematical rather than the pejorative sensewho voted Conservative in the Somerton and Frome constituency at the last election have not elected anyone to represent them on the basis of the votes that they secured. There has long been trench warfare over seats in Somerset and roughly similar numbers voted Conservative in the previous election and the one before that. The trick that we need
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is something that unites the sense of community with a sense of fairness, which is what I believe the British public want.
Chris Grayling: I am grateful for the opportunity to press the hon. Gentleman on that. I gain the biggest buzz of all in my constituency when someone approaches me and says, "I could never vote for you; I could never vote Conservative; but I am really grateful for the job you are doing." I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must have experienced the same feeling and that he would accept that it is possible for every MP to do a good job for every single constituent, regardless of how they vote.
Mr. Heath: Absolutely. One of the greatest compliments that I was ever paid came from a teller in a blue rosette who stopped me at the polling station during the previous electionnot this oneand shook me warmly by the hand. He said, "Mr. Heath, I am a Conservative, as you can see, but I want you to know that you are, in my opinion, the best Member of Parliament that we have ever had". I was grateful for that; it meant something to me[Interruption.] Not everyone would say that, but this gentleman did. I nevertheless believe that there are electoral systems that unite the crucial principle of being connected to a community with fairness across the country.
I recognise that there are both strongly divided and partisan views and some non-partisan views, and that all are equally strongly held. Surely, however, we have a duty, as the elected House in this country, to examine the issue on behalf of the people out there who believe that the system is not working properly or who have simply walked away from the whole process, as evidenced by the degree of abstentionism in this country's elections. There are far too many who feel that democracy is just not delivering for them, which is a very dangerous thing.
To move on from the electoral system itself, I want to mention the integrity of the voting system and problems with postal voting. I share the view that postal voting is, in its place, a useful addition to the opportunities available to the public. There were experiments in my constituency with all-postal voting for district council elections. It had an interesting effect and marginally increased participation, although there were, equally, problems on the other side of the fence. The difficulties that we experienced were clearly identified in our debates on pilot systems for the European Parliament before the whole electoral process started. The Government's insouciance and indolence meant that the proper safeguards that should have been put in place were not put in place, even though the Electoral Commission had said that they were necessary. That is why so many people felt that the system was being abused.
It is surely critical to our electoral process that people feel that our system has integrity. We preach the lesson abroad all the time when we monitor elections in other countries, yet there are systems in this country that would never pass my scrutiny as a member of the parliamentary delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. If I were monitoring an election abroad, and saw some of the abuses of electoral processes that have taken place in
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this country, I would write a damning report. We must revisit those problems, together with the engagement of the general public and voting opportunities, as a matter of urgency. For example, we could reflect on the possibility of voting at weekends. It is common in many other countries and it may be right for us now in an age when everyone works through the week. As we all know, having knocked on many doors over recent weeks, it is rare to find anyone in on a weekday, yet it is a weekday on which we call an election. Does that make sense? I do not believe that it does.
Finally, we need to connect all those issues with constitutional reform. The Government must get to grips with the job that they have botched. They started to reform the upper Chamber, but have not completed it, yet such reform is integrally connected with what happens in this Chamber. It is not possible to define the form and functions of the revising Chamber until the primary Chamber can do its work of scrutiny effectively. I do not believe that it functions well at the moment. As a result of the application of guillotines and the refusal to allow enough time for important Bills on Report, far too much legislation passes through the House with only cursory examination. We should remember that Report is the only time when hon. Members on both sides of the House can raise important issues on the legislation of the day. Legislation can sometimes be critical to the life and liberty of their constituents, but if hon. Members do not have the opportunity even to speak to, intervene on or debate critical amendments, the House cannot be said to be doing the job that it is elected to do. Once again, I view that matter as critical to our electoral process.
Mr. MacNeil: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which theoretically allows a party to win less than 51 per cent. of the vote in every seat yet win every seat in the country. However, I could not support a proposal to hold elections over a weekend, and especially on a Sunday, as that would cause many of my constituents difficulty.
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and applaud him for intervening so soon after making his maiden speech. That shows great confidence. I understand the sensitivities in parts of Scotland and Walesand, indeed, the west countryabout holding an election on a Sunday. Similar problems arise in parts of London, Manchester the other cities about holding an election on a Saturday. However, a slightly prolonged voting period would allow people with deep religious convictions not to vote on a Sunday.
In conclusion, we must address the electoral question as a matter of urgency, and we must do so in this elected House. The country needs to begin a process of democratic renewal. If the word did not have such bad connotations, I would say democratic rearmament because we need a crusade to get the democratic system back on track. Those hon. Members who think that this discussion is academic or merely dreamed up by Hampstead liberals in their drawing rooms are wrong because it is not. I have set out what people around the country are thinking. They believe that the system no longer works, that this House is irrelevant, and that neither Government nor Opposition parties listen to
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them. If we accept that with equanimity, we do both House and country a grave disservice, as the alternative is an awful lot worse.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for putting me out of my misery. I have had a long and nervous wait on these Benches and I shall try not to bore the House to tears over the next 10 or 12 minutes, but it will be difficult to follow such oratory.
I have visited the Scottish isles, and regularly go to Islay and Jura. I know that they are in the south, but if the constituency of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) is as beautiful, he is indeed a lucky man. I have said that I will try not to bore the House, but Conservative Members cannot yet be deselected for making a bad speech. For that, I am grateful.
I follow Dame Marion Roe as MP for Broxbourne. She was well known to the House as a wonderful woman who made a wonderful contribution to the work done here. Her curriculum vitae is three pages long, but merely reading that for 10 minutes would put me in great trouble, so I shall pick out the highlights. She was an Environment Minister when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and was also Chair of both the Health Committee and the Administration Committee. She was also joint vice-chair of the 1922 committee, and I am sure that she would like to be here today in that role.
The most important thing, however, is that Dame Marion gave 22 years of fabulous service to the people of Broxbourne. She is much loved and admiredand much missed. I want to thank her for the great kindness that she showed me and my young family when I was selected to fight the seat. Her husband James Roe, who was by her side for all those years, also deserves my gratitude for his kindness.
I am sure that the House will be interested to hear that Broxbourne is wedged between Essex and London. It is ringed by the M25 and the A10, and I thought that I would break with tradition and give hon. Members a brief tour of my constituency.
Waltham Cross lies to the south. It has a thriving Italian community of 10,000 people, many of whom came from Sicily to work in our greenhouse industry. Indeed, the town is twinned with Sutera in Sicily. It is well known for having an Eleanor cross, raised by King Edward I in 1292. Thirteen of those wonderful crosses were made in memory of the King's dead wife, whose body he trundled around London for 13 days. I hope that he got to us early in his journey, as I imagine that, by day 12 or 13, people would have known that she was on her way at least two days before she arrived.
I turn now to the historic town of Cheshunt, home to Cedars park, at whose gates Charles I was proclaimed king. Unfortunately, the story goes downhill from there. Cedars park was razed to the ground in the civil war, and we all know that Charles I unfortunately had his head cut off. Subsequently, Richard Cromwell, the Lord Protector's son, retired to Cheshunt on his return from his travels, when a new king was in place.
Given the streak of republicanism in Cheshunt, I am surprised that Labour is not better entrenched there. I am glad that it is not, but I should like to take this
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opportunity to thank my Labour opponent in the election, Jamie Bolden. He is 23 years old, a remarkable young man and a great credit to those on the Labour Benches. I believe that he is a future leader of the Labour party, or a future Cabinet Minister. He fought a hard and clean campaign, and the good-natured running joke in the constituency is that his mum is very proud of him. However, she has every right to be.
We move now to Broxbourne, which straddles the New river. That wonderful river was built in 1650 to take water from the chalk downs into London. It is home to a wide range of wildlife, including kingfishers and herons, as well as enormous pike. I am a very keen fisherman, but the drawback is that one is not allowed to fish in the New river. When I come to the end of my time in Broxbourneand it might be sooner than I thinkI hope on my last day that I might be able to nip down to the river. Many young men and women in my constituency find time to hide under a bridge and try and catch fish. I shall join them, and I shall cheer them on.
Broxbourne is home to a wonderful school that has three stars. It is highly rated by Ofsted andmore importantlyby the children who attend it. Many of them go on to do great and fabulous things. Another school in my constituency, the John Warner school, has just been awarded a charter mark, and students at the Sheredes school this week opened a garden at an old people's home that they had spent their free time repairing and making look beautiful. They are to be lauded for that, as young people make a massive contribution to society. We need to praise them for that, and encourage more people to get involved.
I hope that the House is not too tired with this journey around my constituency, as it is time to get back in the car and visit the attractive market town of Hoddesdon. It has a beautiful town centre that I am afraid needs some work. It could be a fantastic facility for my constituency and the surrounding area. We need to reinvigorate and revitalise Hoddesdon town centre. I shall work with all my colleagues on the town council and in local groups to ensure that we get the right business to go there, and that the town becomes a place people want to visit and spend time in.
The international pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp and Dhome is located in Hoddesdon. It is a major employer in my constituency, and it is at the forefront of finding cures for today's diseases. Again, I look forward to working with the company to bring more investment to my constituency, as I do with Tesco, which also has its headquarters in my constituency.
Last, but not least, is the Cuffley and Northaw ward in the borough of Welwyn Hatfield. It is an extremely beautiful area of rolling countryside and little villages. It is a wonderful part of the green belt and many people from London come to enjoy that part of my constituency. I urge Labour Members to press the Deputy Prime Minister to do a little less building on our bit of the green belt, as the present proposals worry many people.
Despite the leafy picture that I have painted, Broxbourne is not all roses. There are significant pockets of poverty, and we have many of the problems that one equates with London. Despite the best efforts
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of our schoolswe have wonderful head teachersour young people simply do not do as well as others in more prosperous areas. I urge the Government to work with me and other interested parties to try to improve the performance of our young people and give them the life opportunities that I and so many other Members had. The amount of new build is putting increasing strain on our schools and hospitals. I have parents crying in my surgery because they cannot get their children into any of the schools of their choice, let alone their first choice.
To be a little controversial for a moment, I understand that for every £60 spent by the Government in the north of England, only £35 is spent in my constituency. I do not want to see an increase in taxin fact, I would like to see taxes reducedbut the cake should be cut a little more fairly. My constituents need good public services, and they need good schools and chances to improve their lives.
I shall conclude with the three things that matter most to my constituents. The first is the protection of the green belt. The East of England regional assembly is a totally unaccountable body, but it is placing hundreds of thousands of houses in the area. My constituents are confused, because 250,000 houses in the north of England are being pulled downhouses that would cost £30,000 to renovate, but £117,000 to replace. I will work with all parties to bring planning back to local people and to make elected politicians accountable for it.
I shall not rehearse the problems that Chase Farm hospital faces. It is a wonderful place where many good people work and we are lucky to have them, but it is in desperate need of more funding. That funding was promised eight years ago, but it still has not arrived. My constituents deserve a first-class health service. After all, they are paying for it. The people who work at Chase Farm deserve to work in a state-of-the-art hospital. My fear is that, if we do not see more investment, we will lose many of those good people and the problems afflicting Chase Farm will only worsen. I would hate to see that happen.
The final issue is crime. We are told that Broxbourne has 84 police officers, one per 1,000 of the population, but there are lies, damn lies and statistics. What with shifts, weekends, holidays, training and sickness, that number is radically reduced. Indeed, on some evenings, there can be as few as eight police officers covering those 84,000 people, which is only one per 10,000. Police stations are shut and calls go unanswered. I have huge respect for the brave men and women who patrol our streets, but we need to give them more support. I cannot go on telling my constituents, as the Government would like me to do, that they have never had it so good, because the reality does not match the rhetoric. We need more policemen and more visible policing before my constituents lose confidence in the service.
This is a daunting place, but I take comfort from the fact that, in the last century, 3,000 Members of Parliament came before me and in the next century, if we still have a Parliament, 3,000 will come after me. Only a very few make a lasting contributionLloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and, although it pains me to say it, the present Prime Minister, because he will be recorded in history. I have been awarded a tiny walk-on part and I am hugely grateful for that. I hope to be a courageous Member of Parliament who puts his country and constituency
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before his personal career. Wherever I see unfairness or injustice, I hope to challenge them. Whether I am here for four years or 40 years, I hope that my constituents will say, "He did his best for us, and that is all that we could ask."
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