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Islwyn comprises a series of small towns and villages scattered along the mountains and valleys of west Gwent, nestling comfortably in what could be termed the bible belt of Welsh rugby union. My constituency, like many parts of south Wales, suffered terribly at the hands of the last Tory Government. As a former mining district,
Islwyn lost many jobs with the closure of the pits. Whereas the Tory Government abandoned the people of the valleys, I am proud to say that the last Labour Government stepped in to encourage companies to invest in south Wales.
One example of that is the support that the Government gave to General Dynamics, which was encouraged to come to my constituency, and which is still creating jobs for us. One of the last acts of the Labour Government was to award the contract for the new specialist vehicle to General Dynamics. In my constituency alone, that decision will create 200 new jobs and secure a further 250. That is the sort of support for industry and jobs that is so vital to delivering economic recovery, and I urge the new Government to follow the example set by the previous one in that regard.
Those of us fortunate enough to be born in the south Wales valleys grow up with a deep sense of community and belonging. Above all, valleys people are known for their generosity, kind hearts and resilience. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the campaign to restore the Newbridge Memo, the memorial hall in the centre of the town. The Memo was built in 1924 by the contributions of local miners, as a lasting memorial to local servicemen who lost their lives during world war one. The name of every serviceman from the town who answered the call to serve our country is listed on the walls of the Memo. The names are not just of those who gave their lives, but of everyone from Newbridge who was ever called to the colours.
The House should be aware of how important coal mining was for the Welsh valleys. Sadly, however, many people have forgotten how significant coal mining was to our communities in south Wales. It is, therefore, extremely important that the restoration of the Memo goes ahead, because, for some of us, it is our last link to the historic past of the valleys in which we were born. The Memo is not a celebration of the great and the good; rather, it serves as a tribute to the role that working-class people played in making this country of ours great. Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Newbridge Memo, it is much more than just a memorial to a bygone age. It is the living, beating heart of the town of Newbridge. It is a palace for the valleys-a palace for working people to enjoy and celebrate. It deserves a great future. Like my predecessor, who threw his weight behind the campaign, I will do everything that I can to see it restored to its former glory.
For me, that campaign demonstrates the strong and vibrant sense of community that is prevalent in Islwyn. However, that is not to say that we do not have our problems. The credit crunch has come to our attention on a national scale in the recent past, but many people in Islwyn have been experiencing a crisis of credit for many years. Unlike many other EU countries, the UK does not guarantee people legal access to affordable credit. Lenders can refuse to lend to anyone, for any reason, and they can charge any price for their lending. They can, and do, impose interest rates at percentage rates in the thousands.
When I did some research into this, I found that Safe Loans, for example, charges a typical annual percentage rate of 2,120.1% on 30-day loans, and that Wonga charges a typical APR of a huge 2,689%. I can well
remember that, when I was a child, doorstep lenders such as Provident would charge high interest rates and hammer on doors while people cowered inside because they did not have the money to pay them. These extortionate rates of interest are simply disgraceful, and we should not allow companies such as those to take advantage of the vulnerability of some of the poorest in our society. The fact that we tolerate such practices means that many people are unable to obtain credit without extortionate cost.
One answer is for the Government to provide support for the credit unions, which provide credit at reasonable rates to people who would otherwise not have access to it. The Islwyn Community credit union, like all credit unions, is committed to building its members' wealth. By contrast, our banks seem to have been committed for too long to building wealth only for themselves. Banks really should take a leaf out of the credit unions' book, and see their role as being a part of the community, rather than trying to profit from it.
The last Government provided £98.75 million-worth of support to credit unions and community development finance institutions, which provide support for small businesses. They also legislated to ensure that credit unions can fairly compete with mainstream providers of financial services. As a result of these measures, credit union membership has more than doubled since 2000, yet strengthening the credit union movement is only a small step in tackling financial exclusion. In their last Budget, and in subsequent announcements, the last Government pledged to introduce a range of measures to tackle financial exclusion, including requiring banks to provide bank accounts to all consumers with a valid address, transforming the Post Office into a people's bank, and consulting on requiring banks to disclose the extent to which they are under-serving their communities. If seen through, these measures would ensure that bank operations serve all parts of the community, so they can really make a difference to tackling financial exclusion. I urge the new Government to adopt and pursue these measures with all the vigour they can muster.
In addition to the problem of financial exclusion, we find ourselves in a unique economic situation that will require us to make large cuts to public spending, which will affect all parts of the United Kingdom. In making these cuts, we must ensure that we do not hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
Under the last Government, hundreds of thousands of people were lifted out of poverty, and we must ensure we do not send those people back into it. There are some in this House who propose cutting tax credits. To do so would pass the burden for reducing the deficit on to families that are struggling to make ends meet. To cut tax credits would punish the poor for the greed of the very rich. This would be morally reprehensible, and I urge the new Government to protect tax credits, as doing so would shield the poorest and most vulnerable in our society from the impact of the crisis.
I am also deeply concerned about the Government's plan to abolish the child trust fund, which will jeopardise the future of our children by cutting down on their options as they enter adulthood. For well-off parents, it might-just might-be possible to fund trust funds to support their children, but for those who are already struggling to get by, the state-supported child trust fund is the only chance they have of producing a nest egg for
their children. I therefore urge the new Government to reconsider and ask them to reinstate the child trust fund and protect the future of our children.
We face great challenges ahead, but in facing them we must strive always to make choices that are fair and equitable. As we tackle the deficit, we must strive to protect the vulnerable and the young. We must also seize the opportunities this crisis presents to build a fairer financial system in this country. If we do, we will build a fairer and more just country, which will mean a greater Britain-not just for some, but for all.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I am very grateful indeed to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak on the Gracious Speech. May I say how well the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke in his maiden speech? I must also pay tribute to my predecessor, Laura Moffatt, who represented the Crawley constituency for 13 years. Laura did that job extremely diligently. I pay tribute to the work that she, a former nurse, did in speaking up in this place on behalf of, and seeking to change the regulations for, health care workers who suffer from needlestick injuries. She certainly helped to provide a safer environment for the front-line health care workers whom we rely on in our national health service. That is highly commendable. Even before she was elected in 1997, she had a long and distinguished career as a member of Crawley borough council and she was also a former mayor of the borough, holding such important positions as chair of the housing committee. We should all pay tribute to Laura for her long public service as a nurse-she was the first nurse ever elected to this place-as a borough councillor, as a mayor and, most recently, as Member of Parliament for Crawley.
Crawley is a great borough and a great constituency, and it is my great honour to have been elected by the people of Crawley to represent them in this Chamber. Crawley is a new town, but has a long history. The three principal villages that made up the original area were Crawley, Ifield and Worth, all of which were mentioned in the Domesday Book, but it was perhaps in the middle ages that, through its iron working, Crawley really started to flourish as a centre of industry. Many of the remnants of that industry, in the form of hammer ponds, still exist in the area: there is still a hammer pond in the centre of Tilgate park-the premier park of the constituency-now providing a great leisure facility for families to enjoy when the weekends are sunny.
Several centuries ago, Crawley expanded further as the main stopping-off place for people travelling from London to the south coast. Notable buildings include the medieval George hotel in the high street, which is still a hostelry today. Perhaps Crawley really came into its own when it was designated as a new town after the second world war. It was originally designed to have a population of approximately 50,000 people, although it has grown to in excess of 100,000 people today. It is a very successful community.
Whether they be first or second generation, people in Crawley have typically come from somewhere else either in this country or from around the world. I am a migrant to Crawley constituency myself. However, there is an extremely strong sense of community for a new town, which holds the local community in very good stead indeed.
One of the most significant industries-in fact, the most significant-in the constituency is the nation's second-largest airport, Gatwick. It is a major local employer and driver of the local economy. I am delighted that the new coalition Government, West Sussex county council, Crawley borough council, the new owners of Gatwick airport, as well as myself, all agree with the future way forward for the airport in that we all want to see passenger numbers grow from the current 35 million throughput passengers a year up to a potential 45 million, and we want to see many more scheduled flights rather than just charter and low-cost flights departing and entering the airport. Equally, we agree with the new coalition Government and the new owners of Gatwick airport in rejecting runway expansion at this time. I think that that will provide the economic growth that we need for the airport and therefore for the local economy, while safeguarding and helping to protect the local environment. The balance between achieving economic development while ensuring that we protect and enhance our environment rather than destroy it as we go forward was debated earlier today and it will continue to be debated not just as an issue relevant to my constituency, but to the country as a whole.
I wish to raise another issue relevant to the Crawley constituency-health care. It was a source of great regret when, five years ago, Crawley hospital saw its A and E department downgraded so that people had to travel 10 miles up the road into another county to receive those vital services. Several years prior to that, Crawley hospital saw its maternity unit transferred out of the constituency-indeed, out of the county as well. During the obviously happy time when my two children were born in 2003 and 2005, it was a source of regret that they could not be born in their home town. Another source of regret is that Crawley is the only settlement in the UK with a population of more than 100,000 that does not have a hospital to supply A and E and maternity services. I was involved in an important campaign which I co-chaired with my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude) to get those hospital services brought back to the important population and transportation centre that the Crawley constituency represents.
I want to mention one special community that has come to live in Crawley. I mentioned that many people have chosen to settle there from around the country and around the world. Citizens of the Chagos Islands, particularly of Diego Garcia, were exiled from their home islands in the late 1960s. A decision was made by Order in Council-it did not come to this place, which I think was quite wrong-to make way for an airbase on Diego Garcia, which meant that those people were deported from their home island against their will, and they had to live in relative poverty in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Seven years ago, they started to arrive at Gatwick airport and they have been very successful in making Crawley their home. There is now a population of nearly 2,000 Chagossian and Diego Garcian people and their descendants in Crawley.
I look forward to arguing on behalf of those people, during my time as Member of Parliament for Crawley, that they have a human right to return to their islands should they so wish, either to visit or to live there permanently. I believe that, having been removed in quite a shameful way, they should be allowed to
claim that human right. It is an honour to be given the opportunity to speak on their behalf in my maiden speech.
Tomorrow, I shall cease to be leader of West Sussex county council, a position that I have been privileged to hold for nearly seven years. I cannot help thinking that, after being a somewhat big fish in a small pool, I am now a somewhat smaller fish in a somewhat larger pool. I hope that, as I become used to these larger waters, I shall be able to speak up for the rights of local government and the principle of decentralisation of power away from Whitehall to our local authorities. I believe it is a very important principle that, where services are largely locally delivered, they should be largely locally decided on. I look forward to playing my part in this coalition Government in the devolving of power down to our elected local governments, and the extension of the authority that individuals and communities have over the important public services that are locally delivered.
Let me again thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker, for calling me during the debate on the Gracious Speech. I am grateful for the attention of the House.
Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), both of whom were generous to their predecessors and passionate advocates for their communities. They are welcome additions to the House and I have no doubt that they will benefit our public life.
Let me also pay tribute to the former, now shadow, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). He undertook his duties with rare passion, commitment and insight, and I believe that all of us, in the House and in the country, are the better for it. In Copenhagen no one worked harder to secure a deal, and at home I expect the heavy lifting represented by the last Government's energy policy to bring substantial relief to the new Government. I urge them to build on what we achieved. I certainly hope that they will do so, especially when it comes to nuclear energy, on which I declare my usual interests.
Let me also congratulate the new Secretary of State and the new Minister of State, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), on their appointments. It would have been an unlikely pairing only a few weeks ago, but I wish them both every success. Energy policy is undoubtedly one of the most important issues of our age, and as such it should be above the often petty squabbles of party politics both inside and outside this place. Energy policy and the increasingly vital set of policies that rest upon it-particularly environmental and economic policies-require a common approach supported by a broad consensus of support. I look forward to playing my part in helping to achieve that and achieving it quickly, because time is running out for us all. Critical decisions must be made now, and the momentum established by the last Government must be maintained in the national interest, the interests of the House and the interests of the people of this country.
Although I was pleased to note the reference to energy policy in the Queen's Speech, I regretted the absence of any specific mention of nuclear energy, on which I now wish to concentrate. Some important issues need to be clarified and I hope that either the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will address them.
Let me begin with the subsidy for nuclear power generation. Much has been said today, and written in recent weeks, by the new Ministers, but clarification is now urgently required, not just for the House but for investors. I have always supported public subsidies for new nuclear generation, which I consider necessary to facilitate its establishment in the United Kingdom. After all, nearly every energy source in the UK receives, or will soon receive, one subsidy or another-for instance, through grants for landowners to grow biofuels or erect windmills, for the establishment of gas storage facilities, or for the development of carbon capture and storage. All those activities are in some way subsidised by the public purse. It is recognised throughout the developed world that energy policy and power generation are too important to be left to the market; they need the strategic support and intervention of Government. Why should nuclear be different?
Let us consider what subsidies will be necessary for new nuclear generation in this country. The Civil Nuclear Constabulary is an essential part of our nuclear industry, as are the Office for Civil Nuclear Security and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. All those bodies exist to support our nuclear industry, and all are supported by significant sums of public money. Does that funding, which is wholly and exclusively required by and because of the nuclear industry, represent a subsidy for the industry? By any definition, it does. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has no plans to remove these organisations or reduce their budgets?
The national grid requires serious public investment to facilitate the new generation of new nuclear power stations that the nation needs. The case for it is unarguable. Is that a subsidy? Will the Secretary of State commit himself today to making the necessary investments, along with new nuclear developers, to make new nuclear happen now, particularly in my constituency?
The process of establishing an underground deep waste repository-physically, economically and politically-will require billions of pounds of public money, some of which will be required during the present Parliament. New nuclear development demands that the project finally be implemented. Is that a subsidy? Will the Secretary of State commit himself today to continuing the policies of the last Government in that policy area, particularly in connection with the principle of voluntarism?
Britain's nuclear renaissance could and should create about 100,000 new jobs, well paid and highly skilled, but our manufacturing base requires strategic help to maximise the benefits of our nuclear programme. Sheffield Forgemasters, and other crucial elements of the supply chain in West Cumbria and Barrow, require financial support from Government to help us to develop our industrial capacity and capability and to deliver our programme. Is that a subsidy, and can the Secretary of State confirm today that all pledges of financial support for the supply chain made before 6 May will now be honoured in the national interest?
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