Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am most grateful for this opportunity to address the House for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Members for Newport, East (Jessica Morden), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) and for Bristol, East (Ms McCarthy) on their excellent contributions to the debate in their maiden speeches.
I would like to begin by paying a personal tribute to my predecessor, Alan Hurst. He served our constituency well for eight years, was an individual of the utmost integrity and was highly regarded in all our communities. Alan was particularly active in supporting a number of local campaigns, he served our farmers well on the Select Committee on Agriculture and he stood up for the need for pensioners to have dignity and security in their retirement. Above all, Alan was a gentleman and I wish him all the best for the future.
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As I will be the last Member of Parliament to represent the Braintree constituency as it currently exists, I would be remiss if I did not also pay tribute to Alan's predecessor, Tony Newton, the first Member of Parliament for Braintree. Tony represented the constituency for 23 years and rose to become Leader of the House. The respect Tony earned here was mirrored in my constituency. Indeed, I can hardly go to a household or meet a constituent that Tony did not at some time or another help out. On a personal level, I thank Tony for his guidance and support over the past six years. Braintree has been well represented and well served by my two predecessors and I hope to live up to the standard of serving our community that they have set.
I understand that it is traditional in maiden speeches not to make controversial remarks, but I see nothing controversial in saying without hesitation that I am honoured and privileged to represent not only one of the most beautiful areas in Essex but also one of the loveliest parts of our country. The constituency is a mix of old and new, with some exquisite examples of mediaeval architecture and some attractive modern developments.
The constituency is dominated by two market towns, Braintree and Witham, which in turn are surrounded by more than 40 villages and hamlets. While Witham traces its origins to the Saxons, one can see in the town both post-war and modern developments, almost side by side with 16th and 17th-century dwellings. Further up the road is the village of Silver End, a model village built in the early 20th century by the Critall family, who did so much to bring employment to the area at that time, and whose name is synonymous with the creation of metal window frames.
We also have some extraordinarily beautiful mediaeval villages, such as Bocking, Coggeshall, the Colnes, Feering, Finchingfield, Gosfield, Great Bardfield, Kelvedon and Wethersfield, many of which have won the Essex county village of the year award. Perhaps the most notable mediaeval structures are the Cressing Temple barns, built in the early 13th century, which are the largest and most complete set of mediaeval barns in Britain.
Braintree itself began to develop back in 1199 when it was granted a charter to hold a market by King John, which is still held to this day. The town was a pioneer in seeing the benefits of immigration when, in the 16th century, Flemish Protestant immigrants brought their weaving skills to the area and the woollen industry prospered. In the 1830s, two centuries later, a descendant of those Huguenot refugees, Samuel Courtauld, opened his silk factory.
Today, Braintree is one of the fastest growing towns in Britain and has a number of extremely attractive developments, most notably Notley Garden Village. However, perhaps Braintree's most famous export in recent years has been one of the country's most innovative modern rock bands, The Prodigy.
As I moved to Braintree from America when I was nine years old, I was curious about any American connections with the area. Although first impressions might lead a visitor to believe that those are limited to the McDonald's, the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Pizza Hut on what is referred to locally as cholesterol corner on the Galleys corner roundabout, I was interested to learn that the last American to become a
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Member of Parliament, Chips Channon, who was elected in 1935, 70 years ago, as the Member of Parliament for Southend, lived locally in Kelvedon hall. Furthermore, the first US airfield in the UK during the second world war was Andrews Field station in Braintree, near the village of Great Saling. I mention the latter point as my father, who was an officer in the US armed forces at that time, and subsequently in the US State Department, spent a considerable amount of time in Britain and was a strong Anglophile. So it was not surprising to my mother's friends that, following his death when I was six, my mother married an Englishman and moved our family to Britain.
I have always believed that politics is about people and how we make their lives better, yet many of my constituents feel that the Governmenthowever well meaninginterfere in their lives when they should not and do not really support them when they should. I draw the attention of the House to the concerns of three very different sections of our community.
The first section is made up of our hard-working public servants. The tendency of the Government to centralise the management of our public services and to set more and more targets for our public servants robs our front-line professionals of the freedom they need to get on with their work. For example, many teachers in my constituency feel that they are denied real autonomy over school discipline, while our doctors have been subjected to a growing number of targets that often subvert their clinical judgment while denying them the flexibility to respond to specific patient needs.
The second section is made up of those who live in our rural communities. Two thirds of my constituency is rural and many of my constituents feel not only that their way of life is under threat, but that the very fabric of their day-to-day lives is being diminished. Rural post offices and village shops are being closed down. Local bus services are being cut daily and there is almost a complete lack of police visibility, as our forces become more and more overstretched. In addition, the farmers in my constituency are increasingly burdened with more red tape and regulation.
Perhaps most important of all is my concern for the pensioners in my constituencya concern that was shared by my predecessor. We have many local voluntary groups that support our pensioners, such as Age Concern and the Braintree Pensioners Action Group. I cannot praise them enough for the work that they do on behalf of the elderly.
A key concern of many pensioners is that the headline increase in pensions does not take into account what they actually have left to live on. While pensions may have increased in real terms by 21 per cent. in the past eight years, the reality is that higher fuel bills combined with a significant increase in the council taxmore than 70 per cent. in my constituencyhave had a severe impact on pensioners' weekly cash budgets. Many pensioners in my constituency are fortunate enough to own their own homes and the Government therefore view them as asset-rich. However, in reality, those pensioners will become increasingly cash-poor, especially when they find their houses placed in a higher band, following the Government's decision to reband many properties.
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If, as I believe, we should judge a society on how it looks after the most vulnerable, especially the elderly, surely the Government must address that issue by re-establishing the link between earnings and pensions, as well as by offering a significant rebate to pensioners from their council tax bills. Yet in finding a solution to the challenges that our society faces today, I draw hon. Members' attention to the words of Abraham Lincoln, who in his speech on government by the people said:
"you cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong . . . you cannot lift the wage payer by putting down the wage payer . . . you cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred . . . you cannot help men by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves."
While the Government seem to believe that a few billion pounds more here and a little more Government interference there will resolve the nation's ills, we have seen little evidence that such an approach works. I believe that, if we want to create a better society, we need to constrain the ever-increasing power of government and to free ordinary people to make their own decisions.
I believe that ordinary people know much better than politicians what is best for themselves, their families and their community. I believe that teachers know what is best for their pupils, and I believe that doctors and nurses know what is best for their patientsnot remote politicians and bureaucrats in Whitehall. Indeed, last week's rejection of the European constitution by the French and the Dutch was as much a rebuke to their own remote and increasingly out-of-touch politicians, as it was a rejection of the constitution itself.
During the passage of the last Finance Act, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the shadow Chancellorthe then shadow Chief Secretarynoted the importance of the tax avoidance measures proposed by the Government. However, the devil is in the detail, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), the new shadow Chief Secretary stated, we must be careful that we do not damage the competitiveness of the UK tax regime. We must also be careful that we do not drive offshore many of the huge multinationals which the Bill could affect. That risks costing UK plc jobs. It also risks costing the Treasury other tax benefits, such as the taxation that it collects from those employed by such companies.
As the shadow Chief Secretary recommended, we must use the opportunity in Committee to ensure that we have the necessary balance between casting the net of anti-avoidance legislation wide enough to prevent circumvention and maintaining a tax regime that does not prevent foreign investment in the UK. While I appreciate that the Government have attempted to ameliorate some of industry's concerns, the Bill still risks making Britain a less attractive location for multinationals and as it completes its parliamentary passage, let us not choose the disastrous over the unpalatable.
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I should like to thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I should also like to thank the people of Braintree for the honour of electing me as their Member of Parliament. I will be a strong voice in the House for all my constituents.