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Chris Grayling: Some of us would say that in a debate where there were five, six, seven or eight Opposition speakers in a row, there were not quite enough Government Members to take part. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has a different perspective on life from me.
John Mann: As the hon. Gentleman has directed disparaging remarks at Labour Members, perhaps he would like to have a word with his Whips who requested through the usual channels that those of us speaking late in the day curtail our contributions to allow him to begin speaking at 17.20.
The debate this afternoon has taken us from the islands of Scotland to the lowlands of Somerset, from the origins of King Charles to the origins of the plot to chop off his head, from the city to the countryside. We have visited league champions in three different sports, including the city of Leeds and Chelsea in central London. Members have raised a range of issues and subjects of concern. Many of those stories from different parts of the country and different Members, however, were similar stories of health services under threat, antisocial behaviour and a lack of policing, and transport problems.
Of course, maiden speeches are by tradition less tied in to the cut and thrust of this place. They are more measured, and therefore give a truer snapshot of the situation around the country. The Deputy Leader of the House should therefore suggest to his Government colleagues that they would do well to listen, as they were elected with well under 40 per cent. of the popular votethe lowest such vote in history. He and his colleagues know that things are going wrong, and we have had an indication of that this afternoon.
We started with an immensely powerful contribution from the new hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil)I am safe in pronouncing the name of the constituency, as he is not here to correct me, although the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who talked about her common ancestry in that part of the world, will no doubt know if I am well off the mark. He talked about the impact that he has already had in the Housenot too many new Members can make a major impact in their first couple of weeks, but clearly, he has managed to change the BBC's weather forecasts in that time. I wish him good luck, as there have been many complaints from Members and people outside, with Scottish connections or from Scotland, about the way in which those weather maps diminish the size of their country.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar also set out a powerful case for the independence of Scotland and explained how he believes that that would change things in his constituency. My message to him and other Members seeking the independence of their country is that they should remember the situation faced by many constituents in other parts of the country, where the level of funding from central Government is much lower than in Scotland. In the case of my county, Surrey, one of my local government officials told me recently that if we received the same level of Government grant as
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Scotland, we would not have to charge a council tax. There are issues that those who seek to break Scotland away from the United Kingdom might not have considered.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes told us of her journey from the Scottish isles to that doyen of resorts, her constituency. She talked about the threat to schools there. What a shame that she has not sought to join the Opposition in arguing for schools to have greater independence, the freedom to set their own admissions policies and the freedom to decide their own destiny, free from the interference of bureaucrats centrally and locally. If we had that kind of change, the difficulties faced by her constituents and their children might be less of a problem.
Shona McIsaac: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. However, my main concern was the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition council announcing controversial school closures in the middle of an election campaign. I was calling for a moratorium on such announcements so that everybody in our community can work together in the best interests of all children.
Chris Grayling: As the hon. Lady will well know, if schools had the kind of freedom that we would wish them to have, the situation that she has experienced could never arise. That would make a major difference, especially in rural areas, where small schools have been under threat despite the fact that they are wanted by parents.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was among those who spoke about the problems in his local health servicea hospital project becalmed, a victim of what in his area, I suspect, and certainly in many other parts of the country, is a financial crisis in the national health service. As the Government begin their third term, they will have to get to grips with the fact that all around the country, primary care trusts and hospital trusts are on the verge of bankruptcy if not already beyond it. Doctors are saying that they will lose the ability to refer patients to hospitals later this year because the money is not available to pay for treatment. There is a lurking crisis in the national health service, which as the year goes by will cause more and more problems for patients throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his plan to visit local school children tomorrow. They have made a CD in support of the Make Poverty History campaign. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, the children and all involved in the campaign that their aspiration is shared by Members in all parts of the House. We must work together as a Parliament over the next few years to ensure that this country makes a proper contribution to improving the lot of people in the developing world. I have to say, however, that if the children choose to sing to the hon. Gentleman tomorrow and if his singing voice is anything like mine, I hope that he is not invited to join in.
We heard a powerful maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker). I congratulate him on his first contribution. He paid generous tribute to his predecessor Dame Marion Roe, who I think will be much missed by all Conservative Members and, I hope, by members of all parties. It was clear from his speech that my hon. Friend will be able to provide an ample alternative for his constituents, and will do them proud when representing them here.
My hon. Friend talked about a number of places in his constituency. I remember just one, Hoddesdon. I used to go there as a student in my proudest days when, as captain of the Cambridge university tenpin bowling club, I led it to its first victory for nine years in the Hoddesdon bowling alley.
We heard a much more serious, much more important speech from my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who is one of the leading authorities in the House on care homes and care for the elderly. He rightly drew attention to the real problems that are occurring in the sector today. We are nothing as a society if we do not provide proper care for the elderly. My hon. Friend was right to say that what is going on in the care home sector is not acceptable, right to identify ways in which the Government have contributed to the problems, and right to emphasise to Ministers the need for something to be done, and done quickly.
I must apologise to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jeremy Browne) for not being here for his maiden speech. I had slipped out for some lunch, but I am told that he made a powerful contribution. He spoke of antisocial behaviour affecting even areas well away from our major city centres, and called for autonomy for Somerset enabling it to provide its own police force. This is my message to the hon. Gentleman. My constituency is in a county with a relatively small police force, and even with such local controls the problems do not disappear, especially whenas is the case in many countiesthe police are so badly underfunded.
What can I say about the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps)? It was a brilliant maiden speech, made without a note. My hon. Friend will clearly make a major contribution to his constituency. He too paid a generous tribute to his predecessor. Although when I shadowed her I had big political differences with her, I think that all of us in the House admire the way in which she managed to overcome very serious illness to continue her job as a Minister and make a contribution here during her eight years in Parliament. I hope that we all wish her well for the future.
From the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) we heard something of a rerun of her speech earlier in the week, but she is a distinguished figure on the Government Benches. She is a powerful orator, and her contributions are always welcome.
We heard another maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). He too will clearly be a highly effective representative of his constituents. As he said, he is the first Conservative representative of the constituency for a number of years, and he is the first Conservative Member of Parliament for Hammersmith for a rather longer time. I wish him well as he works to represent the areaalthough I must add that the past few weeks have
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been a time when, as a supporter of Manchester United, I have not been entirely happy to see the streets of his constituency bedecked in blue. I rather hope that they will not be bedecked in blue again until the next general election.
We heard another very effective and thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). He, too, will be an effective defender of his constituents. He did well to remind the Government that, after eight years, they cannot always blame what happened before they came to office for the things that are going wrong in his constituency. He talked with great effect about the rural nature of his constituency and the importance to town dwellers of maintaining the fabric of our countryside.
I was delighted to hear the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser). I was not in Parliament when he was here previously but I know of him and I know that he will be welcomed back to the Conservative Benches. That said, we are disappointed, and I am sure that he is too, that his predecessor has left this place. She was a tremendous contributor to the House of Commons, and a distinguished member of the previous Government. I was personally very disappointed when she left the Front-Bench team; she was a great loss. She has moved to another place, where I have no doubt she will continue to make distinguished contributions. She has been one of the major political contributors to this House and to this country over the past 20 years, and will be much missed.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk picked up on one of the themes that has been consistently discussed this afternoon: the absence of adequate policing in too many parts of our country, and the prevalence of antisocial behaviour. Too many police officers are not able to do their job properly because they are tied down by paperwork and by the lack of numbers on the streets on a Friday and Saturday night in particular.
I speak with passion about that matter because, in my constituency on a Friday and Saturday night, there are just not enough police officers out on the streets. If a couple of police cars are covering the whole area, we are lucky. That is the absurd situation even in a city such as Manchester, where perhaps only a dozen officers are on duty at any one time on a Saturday night. It is simply not good enough and the Government have to get to grips with the problem over the next four or five years.
I particularly welcome the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) to the House because we have much in common. She is the sixth councillor from the London borough of Merton to be elected to the House in the past few years. She and I were both newly elected councillors in Merton in 1998. We were perhaps not as assiduous in our council duties as we might have been, as we moved quite quickly to new political landsshe to Cardiff to fight the Cardiff, Central constituency in 2001, I to Epsom and Ewell. Merton has been an effective starting point for the political careers of many in the House. Her generous tribute to Jon Owen Jones was appropriate. Although we had our differences, as we all do, Jon Owen Jones, whom I knew from serving on many Committees, was an excellent Member of Parliament. I regret his departure. I enjoyed his company and I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff,
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Central can live up to the precedent that he set. It was probably a wise choice to move on from Merton to Cardiff as West Barnes ward, which she served, is Conservative again. There are no Liberal Democrat councillors in the London borough of Merton and, of course, Wimbledon has a Conservative MP again, so I suspect that she is better off where she is now.
On the subject of Merton councillors, my congratulations go also to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), both on her maiden speech and on her success at the election. She was instrumental in reducing the number of former Merton councillors in the House by defeating Tony Colman, who was leader of Merton council. Rightly, she talked generously about him, but I am tremendously pleased that she is now in the House. She carved a name for herself on election night and I am sure she will continue to do so in the years ahead.
My hon. Friend took us on a fascinating tour of her constituency and talked about some of the charitable, voluntary and community work that she has been involved in. In that connection, she brings valuable experience to the House and I am delighted to see her here. She will also be an important champion for the District line, which, as she knows, and as I know as a former Wimbledon resident, needs some effective champions.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is the youngest Member of the House. She has two things in common with her party leader: he was the youngest person in the House when he was first elected and, as she said, the west highland way links their two constituencies. I am disappointed that she did not follow in the tradition of representatives of her constituency by calling for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Scotland. She urged us all to visit her constituency and hoped that we would not go for political purposes.
I suspect that there will be some who seek to wrest the seat back from her, and when they come knocking on her door, it will not be entirely to see the sights in her constituency, but I wish her well in the House. She is absolutely right to talk about the importance of engaging young people in the political process and of having hon. Members of different age groups in the House. It is clear from the results of the election that age diversity in the House is increasing, which can only be for the better.
The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) made an interesting speech, which I interpreted as the first frost. When a Labour Member rises to express concerns about the economy, to call for the relaxation of inflation targets, to declare that the era of high inflation is long past and that we should intervene in the currency markets, I take that as a sign that Government Members are beginning to get a little jumpy about what has happened in the last eight years. They built on the foundations provided by the last Conservative Government and it seems that the economic tide may not be as one way as Labour Members have claimed in recent years.
The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) provided the last maiden speech today. He spoke effectively about his constituency and how he came to be here. His point about his involvement in the business of the House through its education programme
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was telling. It is beholden on us all to support the education programme and to encourage young people who are interested in politics to visit and see what we do. We should be open in explaining how it all works and try to make it more transparent than it can sometimes appear. We also need to encourage the next generation, which will come on behind us, to be as active and interested in politics as we have been ourselves.
The hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) spoke about the problems and unfairnesses in the council tax system. We have received mixed messages from the Government about what they propose to do with the council tax system. I do not believe that the alternative offered by the Liberal Democrats is the right one[Interruption.] Indeed, we do not really know what their policy is nowadays. I certainly believe that we have to reduce the burden of council tax on our pensioners, which is what Conservatives sought to do at the general election. I hope that the Government will listen to that message on local government finance and act to help our pensioners in the years ahead.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made a characteristically powerful speech about a variety of issues in his constituency. I offer him my best wishes for Saturday and my best wishes to his daughter for tomorrow. I have a son who is an active football player and I know how proud parents can be on the touchline. I wish him well. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) also made some powerful points about Teen Challenge UK and I hope that he is successful in securing funding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) spoke in broad terms about the challenges facing his constituency. When he described himself as "grizzled", I thought that he was being hard on himself. We in the House simply regard him as timeless. He speaks as the voice of Uxbridge in more ways than one, as anyone who tuned into local radio stations over London in the past few months will have heard. He talked about the challenge that the growth in demand for travel will present in his constituency. It will be difficult to achieve the right balance in this country over the next few years. We must be wise and listen to the voices of caution about the need to strike the right balance between supporting our economy and recognising the interests of residents in constituencies such as my hon. Friend's and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney.
We have had a good debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which many issues have been brought to the fore. It has revealed to the House how much commonality there is across the country in the challenges that we all face over policing, the future of the health service and transport services. There is an important lesson to be learned from this afternoon's debate. Although the general election led to the loss, either through retirement or defeat, of many valued colleagues on both sides of the House, our new intake of hon. Members has enriched this place with clear, articulate and effective contributions to our proceedings.
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