Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on making what I am sure you will agree, was a distinguished and passionate speech in the best traditions of the House.
It is a great honour to have been elected by the people of Basingstoke to be their Member of Parliament. Basingstoke is a great place to live and we are very proud of it. I pay special tribute to my predecessor, Andrew Hunter, who served the Basingstoke constituency for 22 years. He was known in the House as a passionate man of strong principles and Basingstoke knew him as someone who worked tirelessly for the many hundreds of constituents who came to him for help and support. Time after time during the election campaign I met people who told me that Andrew would be a tough act to follow and I am sure that they were right. Throughout the past two years, Andrew has extended to me enormous support and guidance, for which I will always be grateful. As a result of that help, I hope that I am better placed to attempt to meet the high standards that he set.
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I am truly fortunate to have been elected to represent a constituency that I believe exemplifies all that is great about Britain. It is a cocktail of the historic and the modern; the rural and the urban. It is one of the largest centres of employment in the south-east of England and is set in the most beautiful rolling Hampshire countryside. I believe that Basingstoke is a success because it has a unique balance between those different elements, so it is vital for us to protect that balance.
The constituency itself comprises the town of Basingstoke and its many surrounding villages, including Pamber, Sherfield-on-Loddon, Bramley and Silchester, and the communities of the idyllic Candover valley, all of which are home to numerous businesses, farms and estates, as well as to residents working in Basingstoke and further afield. The origins of our community, like so many, date back to Roman times. Silchester, a beautiful village just north of Basingstoke, was once a vibrant and thriving Roman settlement. The area around it is an archaeological treasure trove. The walls of the old Roman town still stand and give visitors an idea of the scale of this once pivotal Roman settlement. History does not tell us why, after prospering for so many years, the original Silchester settlement was abandoned. Today's Silchester may be a smaller affair, but the residents typify north Hampshire people in the pride that they take in nurturing their community.
Basingstoke also had an important role in the civil war. The siege and ultimate storming of Basing house is an important part of our nation's history and of this place. Basing house, home of the royalist Marquis of Winchester, was the largest fortified house in England. It is said that when the house was finally stormed by Cromwell in October 1645, King Charles realised that his cause had finally been lost.
In common with many buildings visited by Cromwell during the civil war, Basing house is now in complete ruins, but the site is carefully protected by Hampshire county council and Basingstoke's archaeological and historical societies. It also provides a fine venue for many local events throughout the year, some of which I have had the pleasure of attending with my husband and three children.
Basingstoke has been for centuries a market town. Indeed, the market recently celebrated its 790th anniversary. This event was duly commemorated and celebrated by Basingstoke's heritage society. All those historical facts serve as a reminder that the face of the modern constituency of Basingstoke belies a proud history. That continuity through history can also be found in some of the Basingstoke's past representatives in the House. Immediately prior to the civil war, Members for Hampshire included Sir Henry Wallop and Sir Richard and Sir Thomas Jervoise. I am pleased to say that they were all on the parliamentary side. Their descendants still live in the constituency and make a significant contribution to our local community.
I had great pleasure in working with another of my predecessors during the general election campaignSir David Mitchell, father of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). Sir David was first elected as Basingstoke's Member of Parliament in 1964, the year I was bornsomething I find more amusing than Sir David does. On a superficial level, there are many differences between Sir David, Andrew Hunter
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and myself. I may be Basingstoke's first female Member of Parliament and the first to be educated at a comprehensive school, but in truth there is great continuity in our shared Conservative beliefs and our passion for Basingstoke's continued success.
The modern face of Basingstoke boasts excellent facilities and amenities. We are fortunate to be served by the North Hampshire hospital, located in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). It is a world leader in treating bowel and liver cancer. We are home to the Anvil, one of the finest modern concert halls in the country. More recently, the town has seen the arrival of Festival Place, a state-of-the-art shopping development. But Basingstoke is notor not yetutopia. The delicate balance of Basingstoke's character and uniqueness, which has proved so attractive to families and businesses alike, is under threat.
Basingstoke has taken its responsibility to provide new housing very seriously over the past 40 years. In more recent years, the Government's appetite to build houses in Basingstoke has increased significantly, but the funding for necessary local services has not. When we look at the services that support those new homes, we see that they have simply not kept pace. Our trains are overcrowded, our doctors' surgeries are bursting at the seams, and our police struggle to deal with antisocial behaviour because they do not have the strength and numbers to provide more visible policing. Housing development plans have mushroomed, sometimes with questionable benefits for those seeking more affordable housing. These are all problems that were of enormous importance during my election campaign and will be important priorities for me in my work in this place.
We need to support and protect our towns from becoming characterless urban sprawls, where the distinct nature of each community is blurred and lost. Basingstoke will retain its identity if we maintain its unique character, which I believe is best understood by those who have the interests of Basingstoke at heart and those who are locally accountable to the Basingstoke electorate.
Retaining our strength is important not only for people locally but for the country as a whole. Basingstoke has a worldwide reputation for business, and our companies employ more than 80,000 people in many diverse fields. Our success owes much to classic industrial location theory; we have a skilled work force, good transport links and good proximity to London and the European markets. The town boasts offices of some of the world's leading companies. It will be of great importance to me in my work here to ensure that Basingstoke is able to continue to compete in the global market.
Places such as Basingstoke are the nation's economic powerhouses, generating the tax that makes so many of our present Government's plans possible. Basingstoke needs a Government who understand how to provide the right environment for future success, giving an opportunity to succeed and build on the wealth of the nation. If business in this country is overtaxed or overburdened with regulation, it can, and will, choose to locate elsewhere. As a graduate, like others on the Opposition Benches today, of the London School of
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Economics, I appreciate that there is nothing inevitable about Basingstoke's continued economic prosperity and, unlike the residents of Silchester all those years ago, we should take nothing for granted.
It should come as no surprise that Basingstoke has participated fully in the explosion of consumer debt that has taken place throughout the country in recent years. The world has changed enormously since 1974, when the existing Consumer Credit Act was passed. I recall being taken by my father in the mid-1970s to a local building society to open a savings account, on the basis that if one did not have a record of savings then, one simply could not get a mortgage in the future. How times have changed.
The vast majority of lenders treat customers fairly. A small proportion do not, with devastating consequences. I know from talking to those at my local citizens advice bureau, the people who often have to deal with the consequences of the current legislation, that they face unprecedented demand for debt advice counselling. They gave me an interesting example of a client who came to them 12 months ago. She had a borrowed a small amount, £400, by way of an e-loan. She had gone on the web to a virtual broker and been charged £30 for doing an online search for the best deal. The best deal that the broker came up with was a loan with interest payable at 300 per cent. APR. In fact, the agreement that the client signed, online, included a monthly repayment figure that serviced the interest only and not one penny of the capital. That meant that the borrower would simply never repay the loan. The full terms and conditions of the loan came to light only when she contacted the lender for a settlement figure to be told that she had not even started to pay off the debt. The Bill is designed to avoid that type of situation being allowed to happen in future. I hope that it will help to ensure that consumers are better informed when entering into any credit agreement and that it will help to promote a more transparent market based on responsible lending.
As a Conservative, my guiding principles are based on opportunity and freedom, and nowhere more than in business. I abhor unnecessary regulation, and I dare say that there are elements of the Bill that may prove unnecessary. However, I believe that this is one of those areas where regulation is required to protect consumers in the unequal battle with lenders and other creditors.