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As I said in opening my remarks, it is an extraordinary privilege to take my seat in this House. There is a special responsibility on all of us who do so at this time to
rebuild trust and confidence in democratic politics. I am pleased to commit myself to that task and to thank the people of Sheffield Central for giving me that opportunity.
I remember reading many years ago that an august former Member of this House once said that one's maiden speech was the easiest speech that one would ever have to make in the House of Commons. Standing here now, I suspect that I speak for a few people who were in the same position earlier this evening when I say that that former hon. Member had a very singular interpretation of the word "easy"; because although this is a tremendous honour, it is also terrifically intimidating. I can therefore tell the House that nobody is looking forward to the end of my speech more than I am.
I shall say a few words first about Tamworth and then about my predecessors. Tamworth is an ancient town whose history stretches back to when England was formed. It was founded in 874 by King Offa, who built the dyke to keep out the Welsh. Sadly, his defences did not extend to keeping out the Danes, who came and burned the town down a few years later. The townsfolk were not daunted, however. They picked themselves up, got themselves together and rebuilt their town. That did not commend itself to the Danes, who promptly returned and burned it down again. It says something about the resilience of the people of Tamworth that they did not give up. They built their town again, this time with the help of the Normans, who built a castle to protect it. The castle is still standing, and the Danes never returned. Ever since that time, through the reign of Edward II, when the town received its charter, and the reign of Elizabeth I, when it got another, to the age of Peel, when Tamworth played host to the launch of the Conservative party with the Tamworth manifesto, the town has been at the heart of England. It has been part of our national history and identity.
Sadly, not enough people know about Tamworth's history. When I tell people that I come from there, they say, "Ah, yes. The Snowdome!" or "Ah, yes. The Tamworth Two! The escapee pigs that caused such a furore during the BSE scandal eight years ago." They do not mention Peel or the Tamworth manifesto. So I hope that when the Secretary of State for Education introduces his education proposals, he will ensure that history is set first and foremost in the teaching of young people, so that they can learn much more about Tamworth and the Tamworth manifesto, and a little less about the Tamworth Two.
Let me now say a few words about the issue at hand. Education is an extremely important subject in Tamworth. We have suffered for many years as one of the poorest-funded local education authorities in the country. That sets children in Tamworth apart; they start at a disadvantage. We need to even up the opportunities for young people there, which is why I welcome my right hon. Friend's invitation to head teachers to apply for academy status, and his proposal to lift the burden of bureaucracy off the backs of teachers and to give them more power. Only if we give head teachers more power and more
money to spend on their schools as they see fit, and only if we give teachers the time and the space to teach, which is what they want to do, will we drive up educational standards and improve the morale of the teaching profession.
But it is not just a question of improving education; it is also a question of providing job opportunities. The Government need to get the burden of bureaucracy off the backs of businesses, so that they can grow, prosper and create new jobs. In that way, the children who are now leaving school in Tamworth can be employed and build their own prosperity. I hope that, when the Government introduce their great repeal Bill, the Secretary of State for Education will use all his artistry and eloquence to prevail upon his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to focus not only on civil liberties but on the promotion and preservation of business liberty. I want to see a bonfire of red tape, so that businesses in my constituency-such as Forensic Pathways and Alcon-can grow and prosper, and employ and reward more people. Personal prosperity is the best guarantee of liberty, and I hope that the Government will take that on board.
I should like to say a few words about my predecessors. Tamworth is an old constituency, and it has had a long line of great-sometimes rather colourful-Members of Parliament. In the 18th century, our Member, Sir Thomas Guy, built our almshouses before going to London to build his hospital. Peel, whom I have already mentioned, was a great Member for Tamworth. He founded the police force, reformed our penal laws and emancipated the Catholics. He also repealed the corn laws, thus enshrining free trade as a fundamental principle of the Conservative party. He was a great statesman who represented Tamworth. Incidentally, he also had the county boundary of Staffordshire moved so that his house fell within his constituency. Now I do not suppose that the modern Boundary Commission would be quite so accommodating to any such request I might make, which I suspect is the price we pay for progress.
More recently, as some Members might remember, we had Sir David Lightbown-a Member much loved in his constituency, but much feared in the passageways of this Palace. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) reminded me that that was true, to his own cost, some years ago, when Sir David, a Whip of some considerable stature, picked him up by the lapels to remind him which Division Lobby he was meant to be going into that night.
My immediate predecessor was Brian Jenkins, who held the seat for 14 years, in which time he worked hard to put his constituents first and foremost. During the six years I have been a candidate in Tamworth, I have never heard a bad word said about Brian Jenkins, who I think genuinely demonstrates that an MP does not have to sit on the Treasury Bench or be a great orator or firebrand like the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) in order to be a good parliamentarian. Brian Jenkins served his constituents conscientiously and quietly for 14 years. If I can work as hard for them as he did, I will reckon myself a good parliamentarian.
It is a great honour to stand in this spot where Peel must have stood close by. I said at my count just a month ago that it was the honour of my life to be sent
here by the people of Tamworth, and so it is. I feel that honour acutely tonight, and I hope that, however many speeches I make, however long I am here, however many brickbats get thrown up from this or that side, I will acutely remember that honour.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I congratulate all the new Members who have made their first speeches, as well as thank the old Members who have stayed in their places to listen to us. I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my first speech in the House. I would like to place on record my thanks to those in the offices of the House who set up the induction day, which made our life as new Members much easier and helped us to settle in.
Members will have noticed that I share the same surname as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). There has already been some confusion, as some Members think I am his daughter, while others think I am his wife. Thankfully, no one has suggested yet that I look like his mother, but that may be to come. For the record, I am his sister, and I have had congratulations and commiserations in equal numbers for that. It was our parents, Merlyn and Tony-sadly, both now deceased-who taught us about public service and that when much is given, much is expected. After my father died, my mother brought up three teenagers single-handedly. All three of us became lawyers, but that was not her fault. She found time when she was a pensioner to become a councillor and set up the first senior citizens committee, highlighting that important and growing group of citizens. Her initiative to give Christmas hampers to senior citizens was legendary.
There is an invisible thread that links me standing here today with Emily Davison-the suffragists and the suffragettes, but particularly Emily Davison-because she hid in a cupboard below the west cloisters, so that her address in the 1911 census would be the House of Commons. A former right hon. Member, Tony Benn, placed a plaque there so that we can remember her. It is because of her actions that I am able to give my address as the House of Commons.
Following custom and practice, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Bruce George. He was a Member of Parliament for 36 years. He was a member of the Select Committee on Defence and then its Chairman, but his heart and soul always remained in Walsall; he cared about Walsall and its people above all else.
In his first speech, Bruce referred to part of his constituency that was represented by the late John Stonehouse. Members will recall what was said about him-that he was the only Postmaster General to sew his own mailbags. Curiously, he stood in Twickenham, as I did in my first attempt in a parliamentary election in 1987. I also have a link to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), as we both have family who come from Goa, India-mine by birth and his from his first marriage.
A previous Member of Parliament for Walsall South, Sir Henry D'Avigdor-Goldsmid, referred to Walsall in his first speech as a town of a hundred trades. Many have gone, particularly the steel industry, but I am pleased to say on this coronation day that our Gracious Sovereign's handbags are still made in a factory in Chuckery.
Walsall is also a place that has seen the fruits of regeneration. Massive investment by the previous Government made possible the completion of the Manor hospital, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) for the huge part that he played in ensuring that funds were secured. There has also been regeneration in the town centre, and there is new housing. There is a refurbished Walsall college, and a new Tesco site that will create nearly 3,000 jobs.
The creative arts are celebrated in the New Art Gallery Walsall, an iconic building which I urge Members to visit. At the gallery there is a new generation of poets: Helen Calcutt, who, with her father David Calcutt, a renowned writer and poet, performed her poem celebrating regeneration, entitled "Where there was nothing". She referred to another iconic part of Walsall's skyscape,
"to the thought of light's near breaking, over the bell tower, over St Matthews Spire."
That continues the literary tradition of Walsall, for it is in Caldmore-pronounced "carma"; they do things differently in Walsall-that Jerome K. Jerome was born. Members will recall the first line of "Three Men in a Boat":
"There were four of us".
Walsall South is a constituency of contrasts. There is a farm at Pheasey Park Farm, and, at the other end, the vibrant, close community of Palfrey and Pleck. However, there are inequalities. When it comes to one of the key performance indicators at GCSE grades A to C, there is a contrast between one end of the constituency and the other. In Paddock, an affluent ward, the rate is 100%, whereas in Darlaston it is 41%. That is why it is important that Joseph Leckie school, which was in line for repairs and upgrading from the Building Schools for the Future fund, is not overlooked in any future decision.
I do not think that education can be measured as a unit or in fiscal terms. I would like the Wellington College well-being course to be taught in every school, because it is a design for life. Education is continuous. From birth, there is Sure Start. I am pleased that the Government have no plans to dismantle it, especially as there are 17 schemes in Walsall, and in Palfrey good work is done with both fathers and mothers. However, it concerns me that the 5,000 child trust funds that were started in Walsall South will end. The funds are a gift from the state to children, and, in my view, teach them fiscal responsibility, because they can track their investment as they grow up.
I ask the Government to rethink the future jobs fund. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I saw its work at first hand. Young people who would have been on the dole were taught skills. There was no Government interference, but money was given directly to local organisations which taught skills to match the available jobs. When I asked what the young people received at the end, I was told that they received a CV and a reference-along with, I am sure, lashings of self-esteem.
Many of my constituents are very distressed by the events that have taken place in international waters near Gaza. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary have made strong statements, and I support them, but the blockade must be lifted.
Aid and construction materials should be allowed under the supervision of the EU and the UN. Anyone who attended the BBC Proms, where the East West Divan Orchestra played-the initiative of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said-will see hope for the future. When people meet, they do not fear each other. The children of Israel and Palestine should hear music, laughter and their parents' voices, not gunfire and the mourning of lost lives.
Let me end by saying that there is a strong feeling among Members to whom I have spoken, new and old, that we will do good work together in the House, and go some way towards restoring trust in Parliament. I pledge that to the House, and to the people of Walsall South.
Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. I am pleased to follow the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and of many other Members who have spoken today with great pride in their constituencies and also a good sense of humour. I was pleased to learn of the farming background of the hon. Member for Stroud. As someone who grew up on a Norfolk farm, I am aware of some of the significant challenges facing agriculture, and it is good that someone with direct expertise in that area has been elected to this House.
I would like to start by paying tribute to Charles Clarke, the previous Member for Norwich South. Charles brought immense intellectual rigour to debates on policy, both locally and nationally. He worked very hard for his constituents, and while he was serving outside the Cabinet he also built a reputation as someone with real independence of mind, and with great confidence in speaking up when he felt his party was wrong.
Norwich has a tradition of rebellious tendencies. In 1381, it was a focus of the peasants' revolt; the city gates were forced open and the castle taken by the rebels. Within 200 years, my city experienced another great rebellion: Robert Kett led a three-week uprising against the enclosure of common land. His army seized the city, and defeated a Government army in battle. In 1793, Norwich's Bell hotel was the meeting place of a secret group hoping to spread French revolutionary ideals.
As I am probably not giving too much reassurance to my party's Whips about the value of having a representative from Norwich in their ranks, I shall move on to talk about some other issues that affect my constituency. It truly is a great honour and privilege to represent Norwich South. Norwich is a great city in which to live and work. Economically, politically and culturally, it is a very important capital within Norfolk and East Anglia, and we aspire to be, and do, so much more.
However, like the rest of Britain, Norwich faces its own challenges. Top of the list is the need to develop the infrastructure supporting Norwich's economy. One of the major issues is the need to improve the Norwich to London rail service, which has suffered from under-investment for many decades. As part of the Greater Anglia rail franchise, I want to see a genuine commitment to 90-minute journeys between Norwich and London, more reliable services, newer trains and improvements to capacity. Although new high-speed rail is, of course,
to be welcomed, we must not distract attention from such routes, where investment is so desperately needed.
I also want to see the soonest possible completion of the dualling of the A11, a key road link connecting Norwich to London. Following a Government inquiry into this matter earlier this year, we are all now awaiting the inspector's report. It has been estimated that for every pound required to complete the dualling, the local economy would benefit by £5. It is a very strong and necessary investment, which would give Norwich and Norfolk a much needed boost. The state of the public finances means that there is real pressure on budgets supporting such infrastructure development, but it is vital that those parts of the county that have not had a fair deal in recent years do not lose out now.
Norwich is seeking to become the UK's first capital of culture, in 2013. My city has a fantastic cultural heritage. I am enthusiastically backing Norwich's bid, and I urge other Members to join me in doing so by signing up to my early-day motion. This would mean so much to the city of Norwich and the wider region, not only in terms of cultural growth, but through the economic and tourism boost a successful bid would provide. I fear that I probably will not have the backing of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), however.
My city's culture and heritage includes a wealth of pubs and churches. Norwich was once famous for having a church for every week of the year, and a pub for every day, with the highest number of watering holes per square mile in the UK. It is also thought that Norwich's churches were so popular in part due to activities that resulted from the popularity of its pubs.
Norwich is also known for its world-class research in the field of climate change. As a low-lying county with a soft coastline, Norfolk is in many ways at the forefront of climate change in the UK. Many of the UK's leading climate change experts are based at research institutions in Norwich, including the university of East Anglia and the Norwich research park. This Parliament will prove to be of vital importance to the future of our planet, and the expertise in my constituency can play a vital role.
Another area I am passionate about is education. As a former secondary school teacher, I am committed to seeing that schools get the best deal possible. I am delighted that front-line school funding will be protected, and that the new pupil premium will provide greater support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Norwich is a university city, and my constituency contains the university of East Anglia. Like university students throughout England, its current and potential students are nervous about taking on the level of debt now required to study their chosen degree courses. I am one of an increasing number of MPs who has the misfortune of having a substantial debt to pay off. I passionately believe in the case for free higher education and, until the country can afford to deliver on that, I hope that we can at least work to address the issue of student debt. We also need to widen participation in higher education and increase the number of young people entering it from less well-off backgrounds. Education and aspiration are key to improving social mobility.
Building a better Norwich, or building a better Britain, does not come about simply by dropping Government
legislation from a great height and hoping that it will bear fruit. It comes about through working the ground to enable it to bear fruit and working with the people whom it affects in order to harvest their ideas and experiences as to what works and what could be made to work. I am a local representative as well as a parliamentarian, so I know that we must connect the legislative process with our communities. As the Member of Parliament for Norwich South, I will spend the next five years and, I hope, many more thereafter, working with individuals, community groups, the police and council representatives-with everyone who has a stake in the future well-being of my city-to bring about the very best for Norwich. I look forward to working over the years ahead to raise, through Parliament, the concerns and issues expressed by my constituents in Norwich and to working with colleagues from all parties to deliver on the proposals outlined in this debate to the benefit of my community.
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