Previous Section Index Home Page

I hope I will remember that as I begin my career in this Chamber.

Harlow is a unique place, and a varied constituency. In less than 10 minutes, one can travel from new town to leafy village. It is thought that one of the first slaves to be buried in England, who was known as Hester, was laid to rest in 1767 in St Mary's church at Little Parndon. I am glad to say that the MPs who lived in west Essex at the time were contemporaries of William Wilberforce, and that they fought alongside him for the abolition of slavery.

Harlow has a long tradition of helping the most vulnerable, and of being a thriving community and a place where social justice is at the forefront of the minds of its political representatives. Winston Churchill represented Harlow between 1924 and 1945, when it came under the Epping constituency. In 1923, in a speech in Victoria Hall in Old Harlow, he urged the restoration of the penny post and of pensions for widows with children. Similarly, although I had many policy differences with my predecessor, Bill Rammell, there was never any doubt about his absolute passion for Harlow, or about his determination to improve the lives of those most in need.

Harlow new town was built primarily to provide decent homes and living space for those living in poor quality housing in east London. It has many beautiful places, most notably Parndon Mill, which is perhaps the most romantic spot in Essex. The town park, Harlow common, the green wedges and our picturesque villages of Hastingwood, Matching Tye, Roydon, Nazeing and Sheering are a testament to the green nature of my constituency, and I will always fight hard to preserve this.

Like so many residents of Harlow, I am delighted that the Government have said no to an extra runway at Stansted, with all the environmental damage that that would have wrought. Nevertheless, despite our many beautiful areas and original architecture, parts of Harlow are creaking with age. There is a great feeling of optimism about the regeneration of the town, however, thanks to the work of Harlow Renaissance, local councillors and the former MP. Some regeneration has already been completed, including a new leisure zone, which is soon to be opened, and the revamped water gardens. Anglia Ruskin university-which my partner, Vanda, attends as a mature student-is due to open a campus in Harlow next year. The regeneration will strengthen Harlow's rightful place in the pantheon of great new towns.

For the regeneration of Harlow to succeed, however, there are certain things that the town desperately needs. One of the most important is an extra bypass to the
2 Jun 2010 : Column 488
M11. Inexplicably, Harlow was built with just one entrance, with most of the industrial quarter being at the opposite end. As a result, traffic in Harlow has reached gridlock, with large lorries trundling along from one end of the town to another. If Harlow is to have a viable future, a bypass is not a luxury but a necessity.

I mentioned a moment ago that one of the best tributes to my constituency is its strong community. I am a community Conservative, so I will always act to support and strengthen community organisations, even when financial resources are not readily available. To me, communities are the bedrock of our stability and are fundamental to our well-being, but there remain significant problems that we have to confront, rather than sweep under the carpet. One in eight adults in Harlow have literacy problems, and one in five have difficulties with numeracy. There is also a skills deficit. In Essex, nearly 4,000 young people are not in employment, education or training, and Harlow is one of the worst-affected towns.

I have come to the conclusion that education and skills are the real answer to these problems, but we must also transform the nature of vocational training and apprenticeships in our country. If we give young people the necessary skills and training, we give them opportunities and jobs for the future. Expanding and improving apprenticeships is not just about economic efficiency based on pure utilitarianism; it involves the profoundly Conservative ideas of helping people to help themselves, of a work ethic, of opportunity and, most importantly, of social justice.

I have seen for myself the power of apprenticeships to transform lives. I have seen John Tennison, the managing director of Smiths aircraft industries in Harlow, who started as an apprentice there more than 30 years ago. I have seen the construction training partnership, which helps youngsters supported by youth offending teams to train in building, electrical work and plumbing, and gives them the chance to succeed. I have seen Harlow college, and was delighted to visit the Essex apprentices scheme there with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). It is no accident that our college is climbing so high up the league tables, with its aim to be one of the best in England.

Our policy of creating 100,000 extra apprenticeships every year is something to be proud of, but we must do more, particularly in regard to reducing red tape and regulation and giving better incentives to businesses. Above all, we need a root-and-branch cultural change in our country. Winning an apprenticeship should be as highly regarded as getting to Cambridge university-or any university, for that matter. Apprenticeships should be held in the same regard as higher education by secondary school teachers, yet all the evidence shows that the opposite is the case. The apprenticeship organisation Edge says that two thirds of teachers regard their knowledge of apprenticeships as poor, and that just one in four teachers believe that apprenticeships are a good alternative to A-levels. As an MP, I intend to play my part in changing the way we regard apprentices.

I began my speech with the story of a monarch, and I hope that you will forgive me for ending it with another. Queen Elizabeth I was a great fan of Harlow, having visited it on a number of occasions. It is well known that her chief adviser, Lord Burleigh, suffered
2 Jun 2010 : Column 489
from the most tremendous gout. He expressed his concern about his service to his Queen, to which the monarch replied:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I have good news for you and this Chamber. I do not suffer from gout, but I do have the heart and stomach to fight hard in this House for Harlow and for our country.

6.27 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on an excellent maiden speech. We look forward to his future contributions. I should also like to echo his tribute to his predecessor, Bill Rammell, who was popular on both sides of the House.

Today I am making my second maiden speech-the first was 13 years ago-and I am doing so in the hope that I shall not have to deliver a third at any point in the future. My predecessor, Bob Wareing, entered the House in 1983. Bob was one of the first MPs to propose private Members' legislation to tackle discrimination against disabled people. I know he was respected on both sides of the House as a decent, courteous parliamentarian who believed passionately in the causes for which he spoke up. In his maiden speech in 1983, he spoke out against the threatened closure of Croxteth comprehensive school. The school was saved in the 1980s but, sadly, it is due to close next month, despite massive local opposition. I will work with local parents, with Liverpool city council and with the Government to explore options to restore a mixed, non-faith school for 11-year-olds in Croxteth and Norris Green.

Almost 1,000 years ago, West Derby featured in the Domesday Book. Today's parliamentary constituency includes Dovecot, Tuebrook, Croxteth, Norris Green, Knotty Ash and West Derby itself. Perhaps my most famous constituent resides in Knotty Ash. He is the comedian Ken Dodd who is now 82 years old and still going strong- [ Interruption. ] I shall make no comment on his politics. West Derby village has the only free-standing post-mediaeval courthouse in the country. It was built in 1586 and restored in 2005.

Crime and policing are key challenges in the communities that I represent. The appalling murder of young Rhys Jones in 2007 shocked the entire country and united the people of Liverpool not only in revulsion but in a determination that no more young lives should be lost. Rhys's parents have shown great dignity and courage throughout their terrible ordeal.

West Derby has a vibrant community and voluntary sector, in which the "big society" is already a reality. The sector involves groups such as Kinship Carers, which supports grandparents with caring responsibilities; Chrysalis, which provides a voice for families living with the horror of domestic violence; and the Communiversity, which provides jobs, training and apprenticeships for hundreds of local people. Then there are active citizens, such as Lee and Stephen Dunne, whose son Gary was murdered in Spain-they had to fight to have his body returned home and are now setting up a charity in his name to tackle the scourge of knife crime.

Perhaps the best known facility in the constituency is the truly wonderful Alder Hey hospital, which was founded in 1914. It was originally conceived as a workhouse
2 Jun 2010 : Column 490
for infirm paupers. Today it is an excellent hospital, caring for 250,000 children every year. Its plans for redevelopment will create the first ever children's health park in the UK-replacing buildings, most of which are 100 years old, with some having been built to the design of Florence Nightingale. The plan is for a hospital set in a park that will be the most environmentally sustainable hospital in the country. I know that the new Secretary of State for Health visited Alder Hey earlier this year and was very impressed by what he saw. I hope he will be able to take the opportunity when he closes today's debate to reaffirm the Government's support for Alder Hey, so that the children's health park can open in time for the Alder Hey centenary in October 2014. I also urge the Secretary of State to give the go-ahead for the Royal Liverpool hospital scheme, which is so vital for the future health of the people of Liverpool.

I want to focus on education in the time remaining. Last week, at the beginning of the debate on the Loyal Address, the Prime Minister characterised Labour's approach to public services as simply a combination of extra spending and Whitehall diktat. Well, yes, we did increase spending, and we make no apology for having done so. The fruits of our investment can be seen in all our constituencies-in the children's centres, in the new and refurbished schools, in better paid teachers and in a new work force of teaching assistants in our schools-but it was never just about money. It was about innovation and improvement in our schools, and the sharing of best practice across the system. It was about the literacy strategy, Teach First, the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, school federations, academies and trust schools. All these reforms were designed to improve the quality of education, and most notable of all was Sure Start-perhaps the most significant innovation in social policy in this country in the past half century.

Those are real achievements of which Labour Members can be proud, but we also need an honest debate about where we made mistakes during our period in government. We did allow the target culture in public services to go too far. Many professionals felt that their voices were not being heard by the Government, and we sometimes focused too much on structures and not enough on content. On that point, I fear that the new Government might well be in danger of making exactly the same mistake. At the heart of good public services are good relationships. The best schools combine effective leadership at all levels with an absolute focus on the quality of learning and teaching.

As we consider the Government's school reforms in more detail, I suggest three tests against which we should judge them: will they support improved teaching and learning; will they encourage better leadership at all levels; and will they promote fairness both in admissions and in school funding? I welcome increased flexibility and freedoms for schools, but we should support co-operation between schools and a continued role for local authorities to guarantee fairness at the local level.

I want to finish by talking about Building Schools for the Future because BSF is about promoting both fairness and excellence in education; it is not just about new buildings. A deliberate choice was made by the Labour Government to focus first on the poorest parts of the country. I am proud that Cardinal Heenan, Broughton Hall and West Derby schools in my constituency are
2 Jun 2010 : Column 491
currently being rebuilt-£67 million being well spent, but there are five more schools waiting to find out whether the Government will decide to go ahead. I urge the Government to go ahead with these important programmes. I want an 11-year-old in my Liverpool constituency to have the same opportunities that a child going to a top private school can take for granted. That was the vision behind Building Schools for the Future. If we are serious in this House about social justice, it is a vision that we should reaffirm today.

6.35 pm

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early in this Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on their thoughtful and compassionate speeches. They are indeed a hard act to follow.

One of my predecessors as Member of Parliament for Chippenham, albeit almost 200 years ago, was Sir Robert Peel. His maiden speech was to second the reply to the King's Speech and it was described by the then Speaker as

It lasted 40 minutes and Members will be pleased to hear that I cannot hope to emulate him-in that respect, at least.

Although Chippenham first returned Members in 1295, it is one of this Parliament's new constituencies, formed from parts of North Wiltshire, Devizes and Westbury, all of which were represented by Conservatives. My hon. Friends will therefore find me in the unfamiliar position of saying kind words about not one, but four, Conservative MPs-I could certainly use the practice! I say four because Sir Richard Needham was the most recent Member to represent a constituency going by the name of Chippenham. Sir Richard was the longest-serving British Government Northern Ireland Minister and also a successful Minister of Trade. He continues to work in business and I had the pleasure of meeting him on the very day that the election was called, as I visited a company in my constituency of which he is chairman. The significance of the visit was not lost on the local and regional media, who reported it widely, and I am grateful to him for his enthusiastic welcome.

Sir Richard was succeeded by my honourable neighbour, the current hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). We were both involved in the campaign to save Chippenham hospital, which, like the minor injuries unit that closed in Melksham, had been frustrated by a lack of support from Wiltshire county council when it really mattered. My honourable neighbour secured an Adjournment debate on the issue on 18 March 2008. I came to the Gallery that evening to lend my support and to see him put the then Minister on the spot. Now that we sit on the same side of this House, I look forward to finding common cause with him more often.

Members will know that my honourable neighbour, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), formerly Westbury, is a doctor. He served for 18 years as a medical officer in the Royal Navy, leaving as a surgeon commander and continues to serve as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. This saw him recalled in 2003 to
2 Jun 2010 : Column 492
serve in Iraq, and he has used that experience to speak eloquently about defence matters while in opposition. He reminds us of the professionalism of our armed forces, both regular and reservist.

Finally, the Devizes constituency has also contributed to the Chippenham seat. My predecessor there was Michael Ancram, who served three constituencies during his time in this House, as well as serving his party as chairman and deputy leader. I commend his last speech in this place, which was during the debate on the Budget statement. He was concerned that this generation's legacy to the next would be worse than financial debt, which can, after all, be repaid, as we risk leaving as our legacy a permanently damaged environment. He quoted a native American saying, which has long been a favourite of mine:

He urged this new Government to recognise and address the coming environmental challenges, the greatest of which is surely man-made climate change. Accepting this mission-one that has also been put to me by the Bradford-on-Avon climate friends- will be a focus of my activities throughout this Parliament.

Chippenham has not been represented by a Liberal since Alfred Bonwick more than 80 years ago. I am also the first Liberal Democrat Member to serve in this House for Wiltshire. Chippenham has experienced substantial growth in recent years, so I am pleased that the coalition Government have resolved to scrap the housing targets in the regional spatial strategy, which would otherwise have seen Chippenham grow by about a quarter over the next 15 years, threatening open land near to Birds Marsh woods and along Chippenham's flood plains.

Although not included in its name, my beautiful and diverse constituency also includes the towns of Melksham, Corsham and Bradford-on-Avon, as well as villages such as Holt where I live, Hilperton, Winsley, and the National Trust village of Lacock-and, indeed, the southern tip of the Cotswold area of outstanding natural beauty at Limpley Stoke. In fact, my constituency will be familiar to fans of costume drama, as Lacock has starred in adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" among others, and is better known to many as Cranford.

The railways have long been vital to the constituency's economic development, yet Melksham, which is the county's fifth largest town, has only two trains a day in each direction. Some Members may pass through Corsham, after Brunel's impressive box tunnel, when travelling by rail to Parliament. The town certainly sees many trains each day, but none of them stops there for the people of Corsham to use. Through my work here, I will continue to campaign for the improved rail services that my constituents so badly need.

I hope to open a constituency office in Chippenham town centre, which, if successful, will make a modest contribution to the town's services. However, I shall not be able to match Joseph Neeld, who paid for a new town hall to be built on the high street. It still bears his name, although-or perhaps because-his energies were so focused on the town that, in the 24 years that he spent as Member of Parliament for Chippenham, he did not speak once in Parliament. It seems clear already that I have not managed to show such self-restraint.

2 Jun 2010 : Column 493

As a Wiltshire school governor for the past eight years, I was particularly keen to make my first speech during a debate on education. Great teachers, excellent schools and a world-class university all helped to give me the confidence, financial security and independence to embark on the journey that has brought me here today.

Despite my father's best efforts, both my parents attended secondary moderns, and, in his case, a technical college. I recall my mother telling me while I studied for GCSEs that she had left school by the time she was that age. Nevertheless, as loving parents, they well understood the difference that embracing learning could make to the opportunities that lay ahead for all of us, and I was the first in my family to go to university-something that we could only afford with the help of a grant.

I was very fortunate. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out repeatedly during the recent election, family wealth still makes a massive difference to the educational outcomes achieved by children today. I agree with Nick. There are some excellent schools serving communities in less well-off areas, but it simply is not good enough for so many families to find that accessing a good education for their children is dependent on their faith, on paying fees, or on being able to afford a home in an expensive catchment area. Every school should be a good school.

The pupil premium that our Government will now introduce is a crucial lever for directing funds into schools serving families who cannot buy their way to a more successful school elsewhere, so that we can be sure that all children receive the support and attention that they need. I believe that this Government will become known for their ambitious school reforms, the measure of success for which will be that a great education is within reach of every child, whatever their background and whatever their family's means.

Whether in education, the economy or the environment, looking ahead with a concern for the next generation will, I hope, be the hallmark of my contribution to this place-a contribution to which I will devote the very best of my ability.

Next Section Index Home Page