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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I begin by congratulating my fellow Members who have already made their maiden speeches so well today. The first was the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), who made an excellent contribution. Fortunately, the constituencies of those who followed him were somewhat easier to pronounce. We heard from the hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jeremy Browne), the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser)who, unusually, had the opportunity to make a second maiden speechmy hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), and the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening). I enjoyed listening to all of them.
It is a great privilege for me to represent East Dunbartonshire, where I was raised and where I have lived for most of my life. The seat has many
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distinguished constituents, not least the Speaker of this very House. I am looking forward to getting to grips with my constituents' inquiries and problems. Mr. Speaker has welcomed new Members to the House, helpfully offering advice and a listening ear. I am in the fortunate position of being able to reciprocate. Whether the problem is antisocial neighbours, harassment at work or difficulty with a landlord, my door is always open.
East Dunbartonshire stands out among constituencies for electing women in their 20s. The last young woman to represent it was Margaret Bain. Her maiden speech was described by William Hamilton, then Member of Parliament for Fife, Central, as
Perfect, I thought: no doubt it would be a helpful guide for me. Imagine my surprise when, reading the speech, I came across Mrs. Bain's call for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Scotland. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) may be pleased to learn that I plan to be less controversial today.
The current boundaries of my constituency contain much of what was formerly Strathkelvin and Bearsden, and part of the old Clydebank and Milngavie seat. Tony Worthington, who stood down at the recent election, gave long service to the community of Milngavie. I pay particular tribute to his hard work on international development. John Lyons was also active in promoting international issues. As Member of Parliament for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, he kick-started a local campaign for East Dunbartonshire to pursue fair trade status. I know that John will be pleased that his efforts are paying off and that a steering group is working towards making East Dunbartonshire a fair trade zone by 2006.
Both those former Labour Members should also be congratulated on their principled stance in opposing the Iraq war. The ability to put conscience and constituency views before the view of the party is valued by members of the public, even if it is less popular with the Whips.
Having mentioned Labour and SNP former representatives of my constituency, I should point out that the Conservatives also held the seat: it was represented by Sir Michael Hirst in the 1980s. In the Scottish Parliament, the Independent Dr. Jean Turner represents Strathkelvin and Bearsden. It was about time that a Liberal Democrat was elected. I am delighted to be the first Liberal Democrat to represent East Dunbartonshire, and also the first Liberal Democrat Member in west central Scotland since Roy Jenkins represented Glasgow, Hillhead.
East Dunbartonshire sits just to the north of Glasgow, stretching from the city boundaries to the foot of the beautiful Campsie fells. I may be accused of bias, but I believe that it is a fantastic place to live. The distinct areas that make up East Dunbartonshire retain a strong sense of community spirit. Situated just 20 minutes from the bustling cosmopolitan city centre of Glasgow and a similarly short distance from the lush beauty of Loch Lomond, it really does enjoy the best of both worlds. Hence it is a lovely place to visit, and I encourage hon. Members to do so, though perhaps not with the purpose that several right hon. Labour Members had when they visited earlier this year.
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People have been visiting for centuries. In 141 AD, the Romans arrived. They found the place so pleasing that they thought there was no need to go further north. Indeed, they built the Antonine wall through the constituency with forts in Bearsden, Cadder and Kirkintilloch. Bearsden was even treated to a Roman bathhouse.
The retention and protection of the vibrant community spirit in East Dunbartonshire will be a high priority for me. Central to strong communities are good local services, which is why I have been particularly concerned at the recent closures of post offices in local areas such as Bearsden, Westerton and Auchinairn. In Bishopbriggs, the main post office has been under threat, although I am now optimistic that, thanks to the support of thousands of local people, the facility will be kept in the town centre. Post offices often act as hubs for the community and a trip to the post office is about so much more than just making a transaction. Such social contact forms part of the glue that binds communities together.
Economic regeneration can also support communities. Kirkintilloch, part of which is in my constituency, is looking forward to a multi-million pound regeneration project that will deliver a state-of-the-art leisure centre by 2007, an arts and culture centre, a health centre and better access to the countryside. A new marina on the Forth and Clyde canal will help to cement Kirkintilloch's reputation as the canal capital of Scotland.
My home town, Milngavie, attracts visitors from all over the world keen to embark on a challenging and dramatic long-distance walk. The west highland way begins in Milngavie and finishes 95 miles further on in Fort William, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy). I was delighted to welcome him last month to the start of the west highland way, where we spoke with one of the many active local community groups, the Bearsden and Milngavie ramblers. Next month, the west highland way is celebrating its 25th anniversaryit is almost as old as I am.
Although I may, just, be older than the west highland way, I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) in being the youngest Member of this House. I am delighted that among the new faces in the House there are several young MPs. It is a strength that the elected Members span a spectrum of 55 years in age. A more representative House can help to make politics more relevant to the electorate that we serve.
Many people feel disconnected from politics, and nowhere is that more apparent than among young people. Addressing that will take a bit more than baseball caps and text messages. I argue that there is not a general lack of interest in politics, but rather a lack of faith in the political process and in us politicians to address the issues that people care about. People want to know why millions are dying from treatable diseases in Africa, and they want the world to stop sleep-walking into future environmental disaster. Britain's leadership of the G8 later this year will be a key test for many people who are still prepared to give politics a chance.
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I am thrilled and honoured that the voters of East Dunbartonshire have chosen to give me a chance as their elected representative. I am determined to represent all of my constituents tirelessly, whatever their politics and even if they do not happen to be the Speaker of this House.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): May I first say how much I enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)? Age is obviously no barrier to being a successful and fine speaker in this House, but it is something of a surprise to follow someone many years younger than one's children. She made a fine speech. I have only ever been to Kirkintilloch in her constituency and that was a brief visit.
Other new Members made equally trenchant and interesting speeches, some laced with humour as well as intelligence. I did not agree with every point raised but, surprisingly, I agreed with quite a few, even though they were made by Opposition Members.
I made a late entry into the Chamber this afternoon, but not just to avoid having to pronounce the name of that wonderful constituency in the west of Scotland, which I shall have to learn before too long. I was fortunate in arriving late for that reason, but my main purpose is to deliver the speech that I wanted to make in the Queen's Speech debates but was unable to do so, largely because so many fine new Members were making their maiden speeches. It was enjoyable and interesting to hear them yesterday. I want to raise some fairly serious points about the economy, so my remarks are addressed mainly to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is one of his close friends, so perhaps he will put in a good word for me after he has heard my speech.
Support for the Government has rested largely on our success with the economy. We have had strong and steady growth for eight years and unemployment has fallen to astonishingly low levels. We have had buoyant house prices and rising public spending, all of which has brought dividends and contributed to two further substantial election victories. We must ensure that our economic record continues in order to win fourth and perhaps even fifth terms in office. The benign economic environment has meant that voters, particularly Labour voters, have forgiven the Government for other less popular policies. Even I have disagreed with Ministers and the Government on some issues. The Iraq war has already been mentioned, but when people came to vote, they put the pound in their pockets, their jobs, their secure homes and their schools and hospitals first in their reckoning. That is precisely what they did at the last election.
In Luton, North, my support depends strongly on my constituents' reaction to what they experienced under the Conservative Government 12 to 14 years ago. That
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is because my constituency was then the epicentre of negative equity and repossessions. It was the No. 1 constituency in that respect, and my constituents have not forgotten it. That folk memory continues to this day and will serve us well in future years, though I do not want to rest only on the bad record of our Conservative predecessors. We need to be proud of the good things that we do, too.
We must keep the economy strong. The truth is that we are now facing rather more difficult times. Forecasts have been made in the newspapers both today and yesterday of the difficult times that lie ahead unless we take appropriate action. Growth has long been driven primarily by consumer spending and economic demand. That has been based, in turn, on rising asset values. Since the collapse of the exchange rate mechanism in 1992, house prices have risen and there has been a surge in stock market values. Growth was so strong that it accommodated a substantial appreciation of sterling in the late 1990smuch to my surprise, I must say, because I had thought that such an appreciation would damage economic growth. That did not happen and we sailed through it, just as we sailed through a sharp fall in the stock market subsequently.
Such events may have been expected to throw us off course, but the economy has continued to grow. House prices have been the basic reason for that. As they have continued to rise, so have the asset values that matter to most peopletheir own homes. Particularly for working people, the price of their house is more significant than the state of the stock market. That is not true of other countries, but it is certainly true of Britain. House prices have now reached a point at which the ratio between earnings and house prices is twice that of 10 years ago. Such a surge cannot continue indefinitely and demand must derive from other sectors.
The Governmentthe Chancellor, in particularhave done well in driving public spending ahead, especially in health and education. That has brought benefits in employment as well as economic growth. I urge the Chancellor to continue with his public spending programme to ensure that we have not only social benefits, but the economic benefits of full employment.
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