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I plan to contribute directly to this interesting debate in due course, but first, in line with tradition, I wish to refer to my predecessor in the House, the late John
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MacDougall. That is particularly appropriate and particularly poignant, because today, as we remember John, would have been his 61st birthday.

John was a first-class constituency Member who earned respect in all the communities in central Fife. He was a man of integrity, a man of compassion and a man of good humour, who had high aspirations for his constituency. He believed that education was a personal engine for development. Indeed, as leader of Fife council he introduced universal nursery education for four-year-olds long before other parts of the United Kingdom. He lobbied hard to secure investment in skills for the world of work beyond school and for work-force training, a theme to which I shall return later. He also championed the interests of the elderly in our communities, liberating senior citizens in enabling them to access public transport at no personal cost.

John successfully led a campaign against the break-up of the ancient kingdom of Fife during local government reorganisation, recognising the dividends of a united kingdom. He enthused about the benefit that accrued to this constituency, and to Scotland, through its remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, as a passionate and patriotic Scot, he emphasised that the saltire was not the sole preserve of one political party. The Scottish National party has a tendency to claim it as its own, but he reminded Scots regularly, as I do—no heckling!—that it belongs to all Scots, the vast majority of whom have no appetite for separation.

However, it is at times like this that we must remember that there are more important things than politics. John’s life was tragically cut short by an asbestos-related lung condition, mesothelioma.

Sadly, John has not been alone in suffering from industry-related diseases in the constituency. In 2006, in his maiden speech, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) warned of a national mesothelioma hot spot. Working conditions in the mines and the dockyards have had a devastating impact on many lives in our constituencies It is to the great credit of this Government that compensation schemes have been put in place to support people with work-related and debilitating diseases. Those schemes have been well received and generally successful, and I am aware that Ministers are currently trying to ensure that all cases are dealt with in a timely fashion and with minimum bureaucracy. However, while the legal process by and large has been handled in a very responsible fashion, concerns remain about a handful of legal firms that have exploited the situation to their distinct benefit. Ministers have also been tackling that issue in a serious and determined manner, trying to ensure that maximum dividends go to the people who have been so adversely affected.

Over the past two years, knowing full well the seriousness of his condition, John demonstrated outstanding courage and commitment to his constituents. He was still active in the last two weeks of his life, and the House is all the poorer as a result of his untimely passing.

In characteristic fashion, John’s wife Cathy is currently trying to set up a trust in John’s name to undertake further research on asbestos-related diseases.

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John’s perennial quest to improve the lives of others and seek fairness and social justice is also mine. I hope that I can live up to the challenge in the same way as John, and go on to inspire people and enhance their life prospects.

Like John, I have spent all my working life in Fife, and most of it in my constituency. Let me explain to Members who are not aware of the location that Fife is on the east coast of Scotland, south of Dundee and north of Edinburgh. The largest community is Glenrothes, a new town that was established in 1948 to tap the huge coal reserves at Rothes colliery. However, after major mine flooding Glenrothes had to diversify very quickly, and soon attracted a diverse range of new industries and businesses.

Many other smaller but equally important communities make up the constituency, many of which were devastated in the 1980s as a result of the quick demise of traditional industries. They demonstrate a strong sense of identity. They have proud traditions as caring communities, supporting the weak and vulnerable in society. In my opinion, the boundary commission did a disservice to those many other communities, such as Kinglassie, Cardenden, Leven, Methil, Buckhaven, the Wemyss villages, Windygates, Kennoway, Thornton and Kirkcaldy North, by calling the constituency Glenrothes. I should prefer a constituency title reflecting the composition of the constituency more accurately, and I will pursue that further in due course.

Members will be interested to know that my constituency neighbour is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Indeed, until recently I was rector, or head teacher, of the Prime Minister’s old school—but not, as one reporter commented, the Prime Minister’s old head teacher. Had that been the case, I think I would have been in the Guinness Book of Records as a new entrant to the House of Commons in my mid-eighties. However, the change in title from rector to Member of Parliament means that I no longer receive correspondence from other parts of the United Kingdom addressed “Rector of Kirkcaldy high school” and beginning “Dear Reverend”—or, in one case, “Your Eminence”.

Let me assure hon. Members that, contrary to press speculation, I was not approached personally by the Prime Minister to stand as a candidate. I have concrete evidence to substantiate that assertion. When I challenged a reporter about the timing of the alleged early phone call, expecting a day in the week to be cited, she suggested that it had been made just after 8 am. I understand that it is common knowledge that when the Prime Minister telephones early in the morning, it is between 5 am and 6 am at the latest.

I have taken advice, and have been assured that telling tales out of school does not constitute a leak. I can therefore reveal exclusively that, when at school, the Prime Minister was involved in a very unfortunate cover-up. The Prime Minister was a talented sportsman. His athletics victory in the Fife championships was described in a superb piece of hyperbole. The school magazine editor of the day noted that he had won the 400 yards by “miles”. However, the editor later lamented that the Prime Minister had been disqualified because he had worn a rugby shirt over his vest, thereby concealing his number. Clearly the Prime Minister has learned lessons from his school by experience: he has been very open with numbers as the Government have supported
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people through the current economic downturn, although whether all the numbers would fit on an athletics vest is another matter.

The Prime Minister also received the leather strap for a misdemeanour at Kirkcaldy high school. I understand that he has no sadistic tendencies, but he does take pleasure in leathering the Opposition. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Can do better.

Regeneration schemes have brought new opportunities to my constituency. Over the last 10 years, 10,000 jobs have been created in Fife. In my constituency today, that diversity is reflected in well-established businesses such as Tullis Russell, which produces high-quality paper. The energy company npower has just invested £100 million in a biomass plant, thereby reducing the carbon footprint dramatically. Diageo—which, I am sure, is popular with Members here—produces superb Scotch whiskies, and recently won the prestigious national gold award for healthy working lives.

Raytheon, which operates in the defence industry, is a major high-technology employer, and there are new industries, too: BiFab is in the vanguard of alternative green technology developments, manufacturing platforms for offshore wind turbines and developing structures to harness tidal energy. Incidentally, it cannot praise highly enough the continued support for, and investment in, its extension plans from the Royal Bank of Scotland.

What do these companies, and the many other successful businesses in my constituency, have in common? They sustain their success through difficult times by being innovative and proactive. In particular, they have anticipated changing market conditions. They have managed change well, they have consulted their work force and, above all, they have invested in people to ensure sustainability, competitiveness and prosperity. In short, they have translated good ideas into effective practice.

The same challenges lie ahead in politics, especially during what has been described by many as the first financial crisis of the global age. It is often said that vision without action equates to daydreaming, and action without vision inevitably leads to chaos. We live in unprecedented times, with global economic challenges that will influence the lives of all of us, so thank goodness for a Prime Minister and Government with the clear vision to lead us through these demanding times with a well thought-out action plan for the next few years—no heckling, please. This strategic plan should take us through the downturn with minimal impact compared with other countries, and bring stability and a return to growth in the years ahead.

As a newcomer to Parliament, I have heard nothing to convince me that the Opposition have any viable alternatives—certainly, in my book doing nothing is not an option. Like John MacDougall before me, I emphasise the need to continue to invest in people by enhancing training and professional development. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, it is relatively easy during an economic downturn to hit apparently soft targets such as skills training and development. However, if we do not nurture human capacities and unlock the potential of our work force, we will not have a competitive edge as a nation when the upturn comes.

Lord Leitch of Oakley noted in his recent Carnegie lecture that, in terms of current global economic competitiveness, despite the strengths of the UK’s education
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system, our productivity is distinctly average; he described it as “undistinguished mediocrity”. Competitors such as the USA, France and Germany are at least 15 to 20 per cent. ahead in the productivity stakes. This is not about protecting business from change; it is about being proactive in preparing for it.

In my professional field, I have worked with colleagues to shape the future in education, and I have often used the following anonymous quotation to urge people to try to take ownership of their destiny:

In other words, whatever the support, only we—the people in a particular business, community or service—can fix things. A positive attitude, optimism and a can-do mentality are of fundamental importance.

The Government must be congratulated on their investment in modern apprenticeships. It is through effective leadership and skills training that we will nurture creators of wealth. It is disappointing that the Scottish Executive have not yet made the same commitment to modern apprenticeships north of the border, and I hope that MSP John Park’s Bill to extend modern and adult apprenticeships will receive cross-party support in Holyrood, thereby ensuring that Scots youngsters have the same opportunities as those in the rest of the UK.

We must do more, however, to bridge the academic-vocational divide, and ensure parity of esteem for vocational qualifications and extend the scope of vocational degrees. For too long, they have been perceived as the poor relation, but such qualifications will be critical in reinvigorating our economy. We must do more, too, in targeting training to future employment opportunities, and arrange that training is demand-led. As a matter of priority, we must do more to address the challenges faced by a small but significant cohort of our population who are not functionally literate and numerate. To be world class and highly competitive in the global marketplace, upskilling must be a key national objective, and this Government have extended their commitment to guide and facilitate such progress.

For politicians, and for business, this shared skills agenda demands continuing priority, passion and perseverance. Quite simply, we cannot afford to fall behind; we need to unlock the vast reserves of human potential, and to build a fairer and more prosperous society. It is imperative, particularly during these difficult economic times, that we invest in people, look forward with optimism, talk up the successes and focus on the things that really matter.

In conclusion, I return to the examples of best practice cited earlier from my constituency, both in business and social investment. For the future of this great country, the drive to enhance economic and social skills must be relentless as we strive to improve the life prospects and chances of our constituents. As a former rector, I have spent years leading other learners, but have had to demonstrate throughout my professional career that I am a leading learner myself. The last few weeks have been challenging and I have been on a steep learning curve. This applies not only to Parliament, but on the doorstep.

When canvassing, we see life “in the raw”. In the later part of the campaign, I met a lady who was obviously somewhat intoxicated. Aware of party political interest
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in happy hours and excessive alcohol consumption—I must make it clear that of course I am not referring specifically to Members—I asked how many drinks she had had, to which she replied, “Son, I’m an alcoholic, not an accountant.”

I am grateful for this opportunity to make my maiden speech. I also appreciate the words of reassurance and encouragement received from many Members. “Don’t worry”, they said, “it will be straightforward—and not all will be listening anyway, and some might be asleep. It is not a daunting experience.” I can assure Members that it is, although I understand that few acknowledge that this is the case until the experience is over.

Finally, I have had the privilege of leading two large successful secondary schools, and I think that it is entirely appropriate that I conclude by citing their mottos. The first echoes the theme of my speech. It comes from Inverkeithing high school—“Grow by Choice”. The second summarises my commitment to this Parliament and to my constituents: “I will strive to do my utmost.” Now, where have we heard that before?

8.17 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): To be able from time to time to congratulate a Member on a maiden speech is one of the genuine privileges of being in this House, and I think all Members will agree that we have just heard an outstandingly good maiden speech. The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) is clearly rooted in his constituency, and his experience comes from being rooted in it. It was a witty speech, and I say to the hon. Gentleman that if he can make colleagues in this House laugh occasionally, he will be more than halfway to holding their attention. I am sure we will hear a lot more from the hon. Gentleman in the future.

The hon. Gentleman and I share two things at least. The first is a love of the Union. My mother is a Scot; her name is Oina Paterson. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and I are both constituency neighbours of the leaders of our parties. That can sometimes be good news, but it can on occasion mean that one really has to check the line to take; otherwise, we can find ourselves saying to every inquiry, “I do not do surveys,” if we do not want to have embarrassing discussions with the Whips as to why we appear to be taking a somewhat different line from the leader of our party.

We all look at the Queen’s Speech from the perspective of what it says to speak to the condition of our own constituencies. Interestingly, the proposed subject for today’s debate is employment, universities and skills and housing. We have heard very little about employment, other than what the Government intend to do to reorganise the Learning and Skills Council and other such things; they are just reorganising the furniture of the machinery of government. The recession is hitting the M40 corridor with some vengeance. Last week, Aston Martin announced that it was making a third of its work force redundant at Gaydon, and Honda announced that it was looking for a buyer for its Formula 1 team at Brackley and that if it did not find one, it was simply going to pull out and close altogether.

A vibrant specialist, high quality motor racing industry has always been based along the corridor from Longbridge to Cowley, which goes up the M40, providing highly
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skilled jobs. That is reflected in the fact that Banbury is home to excellent companies such as Prodrive; indeed, when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Banbury the other day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the borough of Banbury’s having received a charter, Prince Philip, unsurprisingly, visited Prodrive. So, it is a matter of concern when high quality, specialist automotive engineering jobs such as those disappear in such large numbers. I pray to God that Honda finds a new buyer, because it generates many excellent supply jobs not only for itself, but throughout the local economy. It will be incredibly bad news if that starts to unwind.

The M40 corridor is not only losing jobs in high-tech manufacturing, as we saw—again this happened last week—with what happened to the Alden Group, a printing business that was based in Oxford, but is now based in Witney. It was a family business going back six generations; it was second only to Oxford University Press. It had been sold by the family earlier this year to a German company as a vibrant, strong going concern, but last week the administrators were called in. I do not know the exact details, but I would be willing to speculate that it was not because of any inherent weakness in the Alden Group. I suspect that, as with many companies, a hedge fund or some other organisation in the new company’s structure found itself in financial difficulties, that necessitated a fire sale, its investments were undermined and unwound and that lead to the loss of jobs.

The recession is already hitting the M40 corridor, but research by the Local Government Association tends to suggest that counties such as Oxfordshire will be hit far worse by this recession than by any previous one and that Oxfordshire will be hit far worse than many other parts of the United Kingdom, not least because of the large number of jobs in Oxfordshire that depend on financial services. The jobs of people who travel to London, Reading and other financial centres on a daily basis may start to unwind. Such people will never have expected to have been out of work or to have lost their jobs.

What help will such people receive? They will go to Jobcentre Plus and they might be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance, and I wish to make two points on that. We have heard a lot today about training—Train to Gain, adult training and other types of training. When people become unemployed, they often want to acquire new skills, perhaps to find other opportunities in the world of work, but one of the perversities of claiming JSA is that people cannot train while doing so. The other day, I learned of a constituent of mine who had been made redundant and who had decided to use his savings to train to become a driving instructor. He discovered that because the job centre did not consider him as being available for full-time employment, he lost his JSA, so he was doubly hit. I hope that Ministers will examine the ability of those who are made unemployed to find opportunities to train without losing their benefit.

Many people who have skills will want to contribute those to the community by doing voluntary work while they are looking for work, but they, too, find their claims for JSA undermined. I say to Ministers that there is a difference between the welfare reforms that the Government are introducing in the Queen’s Speech, which seek to get those who have never been in work into the world of work, and the system in respect of people who have been in the world of work, desperately
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want to get back into it as quickly as possible and want to make a contribution to the community or to acquire new skills while they are unemployed—for the shortest period of time. Our system must recognise the contribution and aspirations of those who have been out of work and want to get back into it as quickly as possible.

For many of those who lose their jobs, life will be an enormous shock; it will be very dislocating, particularly if they have been working in other parts of the country, such as London. One thing that I hope we can do in Oxfordshire—I am discussing this with Oxfordshire county council and the Oxfordshire Economic Partnership—is set up informal jobs clubs in Banbury and Bicester, whereby people who have lost their jobs can come together to take strength from counselling and the experience of others, and can have the support of outreach workers from Jobcentre Plus and the LSC—until it disappears. Why on earth, yet again, should another bit of the machinery of government be abolished just when it might be helpful? Such clubs could also provide people with access to intelligence about what might be happening in the labour market. In short, we should make it clear to them that the community wishes to do everything that it can to support them and get them back into the world of work as speedily as possible. Each and every one of the unemployment statistics is an individual person who has a family and who has individual ambitions and aspirations. Getting such people back into the world of work as speedily as possible is the collective responsibility of us all.

The economy of my constituency is almost entirely dependent on small and medium-sized businesses. What I find so unbelievably frustrating about this Government is not only that they are strong on rhetoric and headlines, but when one starts to dig into the headlines, one finds that there is just no substance. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer devotes a whole section to “Supporting business”, in which he makes the following acknowledgment:

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