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9.6 pm

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I hope to have learned from my experience in local government when making this speech, in that it does not matter what someone says as long as they are brief, because then people will like them. I congratulate everyone who has made their maiden speech this evening, because we have heard wonderful contributions demonstrating real passion for the home territories of hon. Members, and I hope that my speech can do the same.

I wish to start by paying tribute to my predecessor as the MP for Walthamstow, because I know that I have a hard act to follow. In E17, we have a fine tradition of MPs who have embodied the best of my party and the best of our politics, not only in London but nationally. Just like another previous incumbent, Clem Attlee, our MP Neil Gerrard fought tirelessly for the ideals that brought him into political life with independence and with honour. I am reliably told that he is a man who was a Whip's delight, taking up the causes that others often shied away from. He was a tireless advocate for a better and more humane approach to asylum and immigration, for the need to support action on HIV and AIDS, and for prison reform. He has also been a powerful voice for my home of Walthamstow, and I have been honoured to work with him.

Neil and I have campaigned together for many years on local issues that matter to the future of our area and to the community in which we live. We have called on London & Quadrant Housing Trust not to leave our iconic local dog track derelict for six years and instead to name its price so that we can bring it back into use. We have called on the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God not to leave the beautiful EMD cinema derelict and instead to work with the McGuffin Film and Television Society and local residents so that we can have cinema in Walthamstow. We have fought for more investment in our local Whipps Cross hospital and for local school places. We have stood up for human rights in Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Palestine. The Whips may be horrified to learn that Neil has been an inspiration to me, and I promise in this Chamber to follow his good work for the people of Walthamstow.

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I know from my work with the people in Walthamstow that we are not a community short on ambition. We put our money where our mouth is, organising and mobilising for a better future for our families, wherever in the world they may be. Whether we are talking about the Senior Citizens Asian group, our local Somali, Anatolian and Tamil communities, the mum and dads in our Sure Start centres in Lloyd Park, Sybourn or Church Hill, our local toy library, or the many local youth projects with which I am proud to work, including the Active Change Foundation, Pak Cultural Society, the X7eaven Dance Group, the Woodcraft Folk or even the Scouts, Walthamstow is full of people with ideas and dreams about what they want to do and with the passion and commitment to each other to work together to achieve it.

Indeed, I contend that because Walthamstow has always been full of people like that, our area has played a key and yet too often unacknowledged part in shaping the lives of everyone in this Chamber. I want to try to change that this evening. Hon. Members may not be aware that Walthamstow and the Lea valley were the original base of British aviation and motoring. Our area also has a proud history in the creative industries, which ranges from its being part of the original British film industry and having Turner prize winners as residents, to holding on to William Morris and even the grime music scene. We lay claim to helping put a man on the moon, to England football team greats, through David Beckham, to even the kinder Conservatives, through Disraeli, and to the best of British rock, through Ian Drury and the Rolling Stones. I am proud to share with Keith Richards' grandmother the honour of having served as mayor of Waltham Forest.

Yet for all that we have contributed to this country, we in Walthamstow know that we still live in a world in which too often it is where someone lives, rather than what they are, that defines whether they have the opportunity to realise their potential. I am so proud to represent Walthamstow, and therefore so determined that that situation must change. I know that it is worth our while. If we can unlock the talent of Walthamstow's residents, Britain will benefit even more than it has done already from the creativity of previous generations. That is why I wanted to speak in today's debate and why I want to draw the Government's attention to how their education plans will hinder, not help, young people in places such as Walthamstow.

Following on from what the Secretary of State said, I want to prick the Government's conscience: if they can find the money for marriage, they can find the money for the programmes that actually work for our families. Political leadership is about the ability to think long term. I urge the new Administration to rethink their proposals for child trust funds, and instead to recognise the investment in the future that this scheme represents. For the 8,000 young people in Walthamstow who have one, they offer the kind of opportunity that too many in previous generations have been denied. They are a launch pad for a leap into further and higher education; the start of funding for a down payment on a house; or money to help pay for training or start a business. Do not listen to me; listen to the 30% of poorer families topping up their child trust funds as we speak.

The same could be said of the future jobs fund. For many young people in Walthamstow this has been a lifeline, getting them into employment and on to the
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first steps of their career ladder. They are not the young people who have the networks and connections that mean that success is assured, but they have grabbed with both hands the start that this scheme offers. I also urge Ministers: if they say they care about social mobility, they should rethink their planned cuts for universities. I can attest that it is in places such as Walthamstow that those kinds of policies, over the past 13 years, have transformed the life chances of young people.

When the previous Government started to increase the number of places available in higher education, Walthamstow's children took the opportunity it represented. In the past 13 years, the numbers of young people from my constituency going to university have rocketed by 87%, and the evidence shows that they are the children from poorer backgrounds. Our young people in Walthamstow do not lack ability. We have the top-performing economics department in the country, at Sir George Monoux college, and we have pupils who have benefited from the Building Schools for the Future fund, in schools such as Walthamstow School for Girls and Frederick Bremer school, and we are concerned about what will happen if we hang the axe over projects such as the one for Willowfield school in Walthamstow, because we see the difference that such investment makes.

I urge the Government to ensure that they will guarantee the Building Schools for the Future funds that have already been committed. Above all, this programme shows that these things happen not by accident, but by design. The Labour party understands that when we invest in the future of every young person in Britain, wherever they live, we all benefit. That is why I give notice to those on the Government Benches: on behalf of the people of Walthamstow and their families, I intend to fight for every place, every opportunity and every chance that my community wants and deserves; to challenge the Government's proposals that will mean a bleaker, not a brighter, future for them; to use my place in the House to be a voice for those who will be forgotten by the Government's proposals; and to argue that there is not simply opposition to the Government, but an alternative. The potential that we have in Walthamstow to contribute to the future prosperity of this country demands nothing less.

9.13 pm

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for letting me make my maiden speech this evening. I congratulate all the other hon. Members who have made their first speeches today, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), whose speech was quite inspirational.

I feel honoured and privileged to have been sent by the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey to represent them here in Parliament. They have placed on my shoulders a great responsibility, and it is a responsibility that I take very seriously. I know my immediate predecessor, Derek Wyatt, felt the same way, and I would like to pay tribute to him for his dedicated service to our community over the past 13 years. Of course, like many other political opponents, we locked horns on a number of occasions, and the 2005 general election was a real ding-dong battle that ended with me winning by 118 votes -or so I thought. Understandably, Derek asked for
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a recount, and hon. Members can imagine my disappointment, and his relief, when the result changed to a 79-vote victory for him. Part of me was disappointed when Derek decided not to seek re-election this time because I wanted to beat him fair and square without the need for recounts, but another part of me was pretty relieved, because he was well liked and well respected in my constituency and if he had been the Labour opponent, it would have been far more difficult for me to convert that 79-vote deficit into what was eventually a majority of 12,383.

Life moves on. I am now the MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and standing in this Chamber today is the culmination of a lifelong dream. I come from a humble background. I grew up on a council estate, went to state schools and, like many of my generation, left school at 16. For boys from the Fort Luton secondary modern school in Chatham, there were few employment options. It was pretty well expected that we would become apprentices in the dock yard, go to work in the oil refinery on the Isle of Grain or join the armed forces. Going to university was something that we could only dream about-particularly someone like me who failed the 11-plus.

Despite having had a less than classic education, my generation of working-class children was taught to love our country, honour its traditions, obey its laws and respect its institutions, particularly Parliament, which is the very heart of our democracy. I have been concerned by the way in which respect for Parliament has diminished in recent years and I am determined to play my part in helping to restore its somewhat battered reputation. I will do my best to uphold the best traditions of Parliament and I will never knowingly bring it into disrepute. That is my pledge to the House and to the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

I want to be a true parliamentarian, holding the Executive to account and representing without fear or favour those who sent me here. Those people-my constituents-are special people, and Sittingbourne and Sheppey is a special constituency that I am very lucky to represent. For those who do not know, it is situated on the north Kent coast and is one of the most unique and diverse constituencies in the country. I know that we all say that, but in my case it is true. We have a port that has the deepest water outside of Rotterdam and we have one of the few steelworks in the south of England. We have three prisons, which is pretty unique in itself. We have a seaside community and a rural, farming community with both livestock and fruit farmers. Some 40% of our population lives on an island, which is also unusual in England. We have 24 town and parish councils and three large, unparished urban areas.

Each of those communities has uniquely different problems and concerns, and I will be dedicating myself to highlighting some of those concerns in the coming months and years. Today, I would like to start by addressing an issue that is relevant to the Academies Bill. Two years ago, one of the secondary schools in my constituency, Westlands school, received an outstanding Ofsted report. So good was the report that the head and his senior staff were seconded to help to improve standards in a number of other schools in Kent. More recently, Westlands decided to form a federation with a struggling
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local primary school so that it could help that school to drive up standards. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that that this is just the kind of initiative that we should welcome. But the staff and governors at Westlands are even more ambitious than that. To make their school even better, they are keen to become an academy. They have already made inquiries about obtaining academy status, but have been told that their bid would not succeed because they are in a federation with a school that was deemed to have been struggling. It seems that a key test for approving academy status is that the applicant school is "outstanding".

I have no problem with that criterion, except that it effectively prevents federated schools from gaining academy status unless both schools are "outstanding". That seems a particularly perverse rule when one considers that one of the objects of the Academies Bill is to give schools

I very much hope, when the new Academies Bill is drafted, that that rule can be amended to make an exception for outstanding schools like Westlands which, for the best of intentions, have linked up with a less successful school. That would make a great deal of sense if we are genuine about driving up standards in all our schools.

In conclusion, let me explain briefly what motivates me. One of our regional newspapers published recently a short biography of all the new Kent MPs. Each piece finished with what might be a dream job for that MP. The jobs ranged from Sports Minister through to Prime Minister. My dream job was listed as being the Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. That pretty well sums me up, because being able to represent a community that I love here in Parliament is actually what motivates me.

9.21 pm

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech this evening. I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) warmly on his maiden speech. I share his passion and conviction in wanting to represent my constituents. He is right to say that doing that is a very great honour for all of us, and it is one that I hope to carry out to the best of my ability.

I should also like to congratulate all the other new Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I have listened to most of them-it has been a long day-and I think that many of them spoke with great conviction. They have been extremely accomplished, and I congratulate them on opening their accounts.

My predecessor as the Member for Pontypridd was of course Dr Kim Howells. Kim first entered the House in a by-election in 1989, and he served with what can only be called great flair and passion for over 21 years. His broad experience and interests-his hinterland, so to speak-allowed him to serve with great distinction in a wide range of Departments. At the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and as Minister for Higher Education, he spoke fluently and fearlessly to Members and media alike-so fearlessly on occasion, in fact, that many of us who know him well were deeply worried when we
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learned that he was going to be announced as the new Minister for the Middle East. However, Kim of course carried off that portfolio, like all of the others, with great panache, charm and purpose, as he did his role as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee when he returned to these Back Benches. I know that he will be greatly missed in this House and in my constituency, his former constituency. I wish him well, and I am sure that many others in the House will join me in doing so.

For my own part, I intend to carry on Kim's tradition of speaking without fear or favour on behalf of the constituents of Pontypridd, addressing the issues that matter to them and serving them by articulating their concerns both in and outside this great Chamber. I will do so with passion, and a conviction that I think comes easiest to those of us in this House who are lucky enough to represent the towns that made them. As a man of Pontypridd once naively hopeful of achieving the highest accolade his town might bestow on him-playing for the first XV at Sardis road, of course-I have no qualms in stating that standing here today is almost as proud a moment as it would have been to pull on the black and white jersey of Ponty.

I am sure that hon. Friends from neighbouring constituencies will forgive me for saying that Pontypridd is an iconic valleys seat. From the town of Pontypridd, bisected as it is by that most Welsh of waterways, the Taff, whose once coal-black eddies mix now with the Rhondda in the great park of Ynysyngharad, through to the former mining towns and villages of Beddau, Tynant and Tonyrefail in the north, to the farmland turned commuter communities of Pontyclun, Miskin and Efail Isaf in the south, it is modern south Wales in microcosm. Its past is also a near-perfect reflection of south Wales history. Ponty grew from village to market town, then county town, on the profits from coal. The rush for black gold in the 19th and early 20th century forged great architecture, culture, character and a frontier town attitude that would have been recognised in Abilene or Dodge City in the same era.

That period left us with our famous bridge, once the widest single span crossing in the world, and another by Brunel; a train station built to accommodate the great caravans of coal trucks, also at one point the longest in the world; boxing champions like Freddie Welsh, singers from the bass baritone of Geraint Evans to the Treforest tenor of Tom Jones, and rugby stars by the dozen-Glyn Davies, Russell Robins, Neil Jenkins, Martin Williams, Gethin Jenkins; the list is endless.

Pontypridd's present, too, mirrors post-industrial Wales: greener, cleaner, healthier and wealthier now, thanks to Labour investment. There is a new hospital, four new schools, a massive increase in quality housing and home ownership, and now a £40 million learning campus soon to be opened in Nantgarw, just one current testament to our ambition, the aspiration of our people and our faith in them.

However, questions remain about the future of Pontypridd. Though the last decade has seen my constituency, and others like it, start to close the gap in health, wealth and opportunity between them and more affluent parts of Britain, the distance is still unacceptably wide. It can be closed, in part, with effort and aspiration, but it requires sustained investment too, and although we live in much straitened economic times, principles of
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social justice and economic equity dictate that, whichever Government are in power, we must recognise the need to shrink that gap further.

That is why I chose to make my maiden speech during this important debate on health and education, because although a devolved Wales may be insulated, in part, from the policies currently proposed by the Tory coalition, other actions already undertaken will have a long-term impact on the ability of my constituents to improve their health and educational achievement. In particular, I refer to the so-called efficiency savings that the Government are achieving through abolishing the future jobs fund and axing the baby bonds, policies that were proving popular and effective in my constituency.

As a Welsh MP in a British Parliament, I make no apology for addressing the substance of the Government's proposed education Bill, which appears to subvert entirely the original intention of the academy system, transferring freedoms that were accorded as a specific stimulus to schools in challenging circumstances and with diverse intakes, and affording them instead to already successful schools, allowing them to float free from democratic and local control.

As for the notion of free schools modelled on their Swedish equivalents or US charter schools, I urge those on the Government Front Bench to examine the evidence anew. Already today we have heard that state education authorities in Sweden have decidedly mixed views about the track records and the segregating impact of the free schools there. From America, there is already a growing body of evidence that leading educationists such as Diane Ravitch are railing against them. She described them recently as a "free market construct" designed by

In that one phrase the true agenda of the new right-wing coalition Government shines through, and it is a vision that I and others on the Opposition Benches will oppose with vigour and conviction.

I have had a lot of advice since arriving here as a new MP, all of it well meaning and most of it entirely contradictory-speak early and make a name for yourself, or bide your time for a decade or two; frequent the Tea Room with regularity, or shun it like the plague; never show weakness to the Whips, and never cross them either. I would like to thank all the honourable and venerable Members for these pearls of wisdom. However, I believe the best advice I have taken was not delivered first hand, but in the pages of a newspaper by the former deputy leader of the Labour party, Roy Hattersley.

Lord Hattersley stated that

I am not sure about the next bit, as he went on:

I have my beliefs and my convictions, and I intend to hang on to them. I intend my time in this place to be a "great and glorious adventure," at the end of which I will have made real improvements to the lives of people in Pontypridd.

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