I know that we are to have a debate on Europe next week, and I look forward to taking part if I catch your eye, Mr Speaker. It is important to clarify exactly where we stand on the European Union, especially as we have
a Government who appear to be going in two different directions with their manifestos-although perhaps not with the coalition document. I have no problems with a referendum whenever there is a treaty that means that powers will be ceded from the UK. If we accept the Prime Minister at his word-we ought to, because he has been in office for only two and a half weeks-he will never agree to anything that means that powers will be taken from Westminster to Brussels, so we shall not have a referendum over the next five years. However, I am keen on the Liberal Democrat proposal, which I supported, that we should have a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU. I hope we can explore some of those issues in the debate on Europe next week.
My final point is about something in the Queen's Speech that has not yet been explained. The sovereign-on the recommendation of the Prime Minister-talked about an enhanced relationship with India. I warmly welcome that. We should have the strongest possible relations with India. When I was Minister for Europe, the European Union began the EU-India summit meetings, but we have not given India sufficient attention. We should do so not just because of the 2.5 million people of Indian origin who live in the UK-some of them in my constituency-but because it makes good economic sense for us to do business with India and to have a strong and firm relationship.
The Attorney-General is on the Treasury Bench. He will know that the Indian diaspora has moved from places in south London such as Southall to Beaconsfield. If he looks at his diary, I think he will find that most of the parties he attended to celebrate his election were organised by the Indian community in Beaconsfield.
The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): The right hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly correct. Evenings of bhangra dancing and hospitality are well worth enjoying. I think he already knows that the Gerrards Cross south ward in my constituency-the wealthiest ward in the UK-is about 20% Asian.
Keith Vaz: I do know that. I have all the statistics and I know how much people in Gerrards Cross love the hon. and learned Gentleman. I am sure that now he is the Attorney-General, they will use his services well.
We must keep our relationship with India going. When the Prime Minister visits India on 2 October, he should take the advice Members gave previous Prime Ministers and make sure that he involves the Indian diaspora. Let us have firm, strong relationships with that very important country.
I can do no better than repeat the words of my illustrious predecessor, Claire Ward, who on a similar occasion said that she felt a great sense of awe and some nervousness. She had reason to do so. At the time she was only 23 years old, about half my age-only three years older than my eldest son. She also had the distinction-should I say?-of always being known as the youngest of the Blair babes in the 1997 intake. I fear
I did not make the cut for Cameron's cuties, so I have to rely on Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. He referred to my stature in Parliament as broadly equivalent to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles). However, I think Mr Littlejohn was referring not to political stature but to my girth.
Claire Ward was an outstanding Member of Parliament for Watford. She was proud and honoured to represent the town, and she is very popular-and not only in the constituency. She had a distinguished parliamentary career, and was a Whip for several years before becoming an Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice in 2009. I am sure that everyone will join me in sending our good wishes to her and her husband and young family for their future. She is still under 40 years old, and I really do not think that we have heard the last of her. She is a wonderful person.
My first experience of Watford was at the tender age of 21, when I joined Trewins, a local department store belonging to the John Lewis Partnership that was, at the time, compared favourably to the shop in the then popular programme, "Are You Being Served?" My time there was a great lesson for me. It gave me a certain morality on the way to do business. The way that that firm taught us to treat suppliers, customers and fellow workers was a lesson for my whole business career and, I hope, for my political career.
I started in Watford then, not dreaming that I would become the Member of Parliament for the town. Watford was very much regarded as an industrial town in those days, and in the days of my predecessor-but-one, Tristan Garel-Jones, now Lord Garel-Jones, a wonderful man and a distinguished Member of this House. He had been Deputy Chief Whip and had held various other jobs, and had been in the Cabinet. He has been a great help to me. Watford was known for what is still colloquially called the print; it was one of the biggest printing centres in Europe. It had Scammell Lorries and Rolls-Royce aero-engines, and most of the town was involved in manual labour.
Of course, thing have changed. We now have a very diverse economy in Watford. We have some well-known national names. Camelot, the lottery company, has its head office in Watford, and we have Total-the oil company-and several other big names. We also have many distinguished smaller, local firms. We have Sigma Pharmaceuticals, which employs 400 people, and a very interesting family-run business called DDD, which manufactures toiletries and cosmetics, and it too employs 400 people locally. It was established in 1912 and is family-owned.
The important things for me are start-up businesses and high-tech businesses. During the election campaign, I had the privilege of visiting a business called Twin Technology, which was a start-up company only two years ago, and which now employs 14 people. I visited it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who was then party chairman. It was interesting; we heard on that day how difficult it was for the owners of the company to keep building it and to keep recruiting people in the current economic circumstances, surrounded as they were by the obstacles of bureaucracy.
In my business career-before my political career-the most important thing was employing people. In business, it is the greatest privilege to be able to employ people-to give them the opportunity to make something of themselves in life. It is with some shame that I tell the House that, in Watford, unemployment among young people-that is, people under 24 on jobseeker's allowance-has more than doubled in two years. I think that we are talking about just under 550 people. That does not sound very much, but that is 550 lives in a small town. Those are people who want to work, and are able to work, but are not working.
To me, one of the most important parts of the Government's programme-this came out in the Queen's Speech-is providing a business environment where people are incentivised to create employment for others. If I do nothing else in Watford, and in my political career, I would like to be able to do this one thing: I would like to change the attitude to business among young people, together with a Government who are able to give them incentives to fill the empty shops and offices, so that we make business something that people want to do. I have spoken at many schools in Watford, and always to very bright young people. I say to them, "What do you all want to do after university?" but so few of them want to start businesses. It is not fashionable, and it should be. Government can incentivise people, but it is the responsibility of us all to encourage people to go into job-creating schemes.
The very large number of young unemployed people in this country-1 million-is obviously a scandal, but boiling that down to individuals, I believe that it is the job of Government to facilitate some form of change. I was delighted to hear in the Queen's Speech that the welfare reform Bill, much of which is based on our election manifesto, is to provide interesting schemes, such as a mentoring scheme for small businesses and sole traders to take in young people and give them a chance.
I remember being in business in 1992 and not doing very well. Unemployment was very high and we were very short of money, but I thought that I could afford to recruit three young people. At the time the Government had a very simple scheme: it was for one year; the employer paid the young person £30 a week; and the Government made up the balance. So, I went to a jobcentre on the Monday, and three young people started on the Tuesday. I am told that that process is impossible today, with audits, safety checks, people going to appraise the business and everything else. Somehow, we have to be able to give people a chance so that employers can decide, "Enough of all this. I want to recruit people, I want to give them a chance. If it works out, it does. If it doesn't work out, well I'm sorry." I hope that this Government will be able to change the environment into one that makes people want to take a risk, take a chance and not have all those reasons for not doing so.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab):
I pay tribute to the new hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who has the great distinction of making the first maiden
speech of any of the 2010 intake. That suggests that he has been quick off the blocks, and I hope that his Front Benchers take note that he, among our large 2010 intake, managed to get in first. I was expecting to hear maiden speeches for the next six months or so, so well done to him for getting in so quickly.
From listening to the hon. Gentleman's contribution this afternoon, I am sure that it will not be long before he plays an important role in the Chamber, and I was delighted to hear him pay tribute to his predecessor, Claire Ward, because she was well liked in the House. She entered Parliament as a very young woman, aged 23, and she was indeed in that famous picture-in which I also featured, because I too entered Parliament in 1997-of Blair's babes. However, she grew up in this Chamber, getting married and having children, and for her to have survived the life that we Members have to lead, while all that was going on in her personal life, which is the normal life of most young people, is nothing short of miraculous. I worry that we have made it more difficult for young people like Claire to enter Parliament, to lead a normal life as an MP and to have a successful career and home life, too.
I know very little about Watford; I am not even sure whether I have ever been through the town. People from Scotland always used to complain that people from south-east England knew nothing of what was happening north of Watford, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will at some point explain to me what the Watford gap was; I never did find out.
I pay tribute also to the proposer and seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address. In 2001, I seconded the motion on the Address, and in those days, traditionally, the proposer was most definitely someone who had been a Member for some time but would be standing down at the next election, and the seconder was the up-and-coming new person who would have a meteoric rise and soon be on the Front Bench. Since then, I have languished on the Back Benches, although I remember saying in my maiden speech that one advantage of my using a wheelchair was that I would be on the Front Bench for most of my parliamentary career. Unfortunately, the powers that be have perhaps not quite appreciated my talents.
Thirteen years on, I am absolutely amazed that I am still in this place. When a Member has an ultra-marginal seat, they do not expect to retain it when their party loses an election and to be on the other side of the House. However, I have managed to make it from one side to the other, and the view is much the same; I was expecting things to be somewhat different.
I suppose that one of the reasons why I am still here is my Liberal Democrat opponent. He put out so much literature, all of which told constituents in my very marginal seat that if they wanted to get rid of Labour, all they had to do was vote Liberal Democrat. My majority was emblazoned across all his leaflets. I had always had a real problem in convincing my constituents
that, yes, I did indeed have a marginal seat. They kept saying, "You'll be fine, Anne, don't you worry." I said, "No, I have got only a 1,300 majority and I have a marginal seat," but they would say, "Oh, it's all right-you'll be fine." So I thank the Lib Dems, who put out a sea of leaflets with my majority on them, all claiming that Labour could be defeated only if people voted Liberal Democrat. Thank goodness, my constituents saw what was best for them and for me and voted Labour after all.
I am proud of the achievements of the Labour Government in the past 13 years. Before history is rewritten too much and our achievements are swept away in the great euphoria of the new coalition Government, I should say something about the Liberal voters who did not realise that by voting Liberal they would end up with a Tory Government; in Aberdeen South, they were very well aware that if they voted Liberal they would get a Tory Government. To those Liberals, I say a Scottish phrase: if ye didnae ken then, ye ken nou!
The Labour Government's achievements have been many, but the one in which I take most pride is how we tackled the scourge of poverty-both pensioner poverty and child poverty. I do not want anyone to undermine what we did as a Government to bring people, particularly pensioners, out of poverty. We ended absolute poverty with the introduction of the pension credit for all pensioners in this country and we made huge inroads into tackling relative poverty. We did the same with child poverty; we turned the tide. The numbers were going up under the last Conservative Government, but we have turned that around-we turned that around, I should say; I have not yet got my tenses right-and the numbers of children in poverty were coming down.
The Labour Government also transformed the landscape on equality. I am thinking not only of the rights of the lesbian, gay and transsexual community, but of those of us with disabilities and those facing discrimination because of their gender or on any other grounds. I worry that the new Conservative-Liberal alliance will not take equality as seriously as the previous Labour Government took it. There are some warm words in the Queen's Speech, but warm words do not necessarily add up to a strong commitment to the equality legislation already on the statute book and to building on that to make sure that equality is at the heart of everything that the new Government do.
A Liberal-Tory coalition is not a new thing. We had one elected in Aberdeen in 2003, and it lasted until 2007, when a Lib Dem-Scottish National party coalition was elected. I have to say that it was not a happy experience for the good burghers of Aberdeen. Under the Liberal-Tory coalition elected in 2003, the city council underwent a huge reorganisation, which cost huge amounts of money, took away the existing directors of education and housing, and reorganised local government in Aberdeen into three geographical areas. By 2007, it was clear that the whole restructuring had failed miserably, and it had cost a huge amount. I do not know the exact cost because it is difficult to disaggregate these things, but it was certainly more than £100 million.
Aberdeen has had a foretaste of what may now happen under this coalition Government with regard to public spending cuts. In the first year, there were supposed to be £25 million-worth of cuts, which miraculously
rose to £50 million, and in the second year there were proposals for another £30 million-worth of cuts. This happened in one small city as a result of the financial mismanagement of, essentially, a Liberal-dominated council. Perhaps some of the Members sitting on the Government Benches should worry that the Liberals may talk a good game, but when they get into power there is quite a different outcome. What we found in Aberdeen, before the effects of the global crisis kicked in, and before any of the proposals made by the Government in the Queen's Speech or in the days leading up to it, was one of the richest cities in the United Kingdom on the verge of bankruptcy. It has been a sorry tale.
We often think of public servants as faceless bureaucrats and paper-pushers, but we must remember that it is these very same public servants who work for our local councils in providing the care for our elderly and disabled, and who will find that their jobs have been lost as a result of the actions taken by this new coalition Government. It is frightening to think of what might happen when we have the new cuts on top of the existing cuts. We have already seen it in Aberdeen. Schools have closed. Day centres for people with severe disabilities have closed without alternative provision being made, and those people have been left to find activities for themselves because they are no longer provided by the council. All the warm words-"Oh yes, we'll provide something better"-have never materialised into action.
Perhaps that helps to explain why I am sitting here on the Labour Benches having survived the Liberal bounce, the Clegg bounce, or whatever it was it called. It is because people in Aberdeen know the reality of what it is to live under a council run by the Liberal Democrats.
Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Lady seems to be overlooking the fact that this coalition Government are confronting a gap of £156 billion to £160 billion between what the country is spending and what it is taking in. Should she not take that into account?
Miss Begg: Part of the reason for my illustrative lecture is that in 2003 the Liberal council in Aberdeen took on a budget that was £27 million in surplus and turned that surplus into a £50 million deficit, without any kind of economic crisis. That did not happen to the Labour local authorities elsewhere in Scotland; it happened only, surprisingly, in Aberdeen, where we had a Liberal-Tory coalition that later became a Liberal-Scottish National party coalition. That council took a rich city that did not have any financial problems and, by its sheer incompetence in reorganising itself, managed to bring it quite close to bankruptcy.