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7 Jun 2010 : Column 78

We must all hope that the promise of a referendum is not another cast-iron guarantee. Perhaps it is cast-iron with only Lisbon-shaped exceptions. The refusal to allow a referendum in the past has always been driven by the fear of the House actually hearing what the people of the United Kingdom have to say on the subject, but hearing the people and acting accordingly is what democracy should be all about. We will see how keen the coalition Government are to listen to the UK's views on the European Union should the opportunity for a referendum on any subject arise during this Parliament.

I have a question for the Government. Will only one referendum be held on any proposal, or will the tactic that was displayed and deployed in the Republic of Ireland be used here in the UK? The people of the Republic of Ireland were asked about the Lisbon treaty and said no to it, and then they were asked again because the Government and the rest of Europe did not get the answer that they wanted. We cannot treat the people with disrespect. It will be interesting to see what the coalition partners do, as they will probably have different views and put different opinions to the general public. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) introduced a Bill in the last Parliament in an attempt to ensure that the previous Government would honour their pledge to hold a referendum. People will rightly be sceptical until the Government give a real demonstration that they are willing to listen to the British people's views on the issue. All three major parties will have heard that being emphasised, and I say to them that there are other parties-

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

6.48 pm

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to give my maiden speech today, although not quite so grateful to follow the excellent maiden speeches of so many of my colleagues on both sides of the House. They have set the bar almost impossibly high.

Many Members will know my predecessor, Evan Harris, as an energetic and uncompromising Member of this House, and although we often disagreed on points of principle, he was one of the few politicians who never put popularity above principle. I know that he will go on to make a significant contribution elsewhere. Dr Harris was not my only predecessor to make an appearance on the campaign trail. Far too often on the doorstep, constituents would look at me, sigh, and say, "Well of course, I remember Airey Neave", or "Now John Patten, he was a good constituency MP." It is a little too early to work out exactly where I will end up in that illustrious line-up, but I hope that it will be recorded that I did everything in my power to serve the constituents of Oxford West and Abingdon with integrity and commitment, and that I became the dedicated constituency representative that they so deserve.

Let us be honest-there could not really be a better constituency to represent. My home town, Oxford, is surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world and its history of scholars, authors, artists, inventors and Prime Ministers fills library after library. I am particularly
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pleased that, even after boundary changes, I still have the opportunity to represent my undergraduate and graduate colleges-St. Anne's and Somerville.

Oxford university and Oxford Brookes have international reputations in field after field. I know that many scholars and students are watching the university fees review with anxiety. I know exactly what it is like to pay tuition fees, having been in one of the first years to do so, and we must ensure that university funding reform is open and fair, properly supports students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, creates an academic environment that supports research, and enables our top universities to remain competitive-and even become more so-on the international stage.

Oxford West and Abingdon's excellence is not confined to education. The NHS in Oxfordshire hosts many centres of excellence and an enormous number of dedicated health professionals-my father for one. I know that they join me in welcoming the coalition Government's commitment to increasing NHS spending and to introducing the revolutionary idea of letting local health professionals set local health priorities.

As we struggle to maintain the recovery, it is ever more important that we support Oxfordshire's vibrant private sector. That includes ventures at every stage of growth, from start-up university spin-offs in biotech and renewables at Begbroke science park to long-standing international publishers such as Oxford University Press and Blackwell.

Beyond the dreaming spires lies Abingdon-a beautiful market town that is one of the oldest continuous settlements in the UK. However, Abingdon's fantastic location on the banks of the Thames and the River Ock has been a thorn in its side, creating difficult traffic problems and allowing terrible floods in 2007. Climate change means that there is an increasing risk of flooding in that area. As research shows, it is incredibly important to maintain our commitment to flood defences, which are far cheaper than the catastrophic results of unmitigated flooding. Those defences are much needed by the residents of Osney, Abingdon and nearby villages such as Kidlington. I look forward to supporting their campaign for them.

However, I have chosen to speak in today's debate because of my commitment to another local campaign. Despite chronic under-reporting, research shows that domestic abuse accounts for 16% of violent crime. It affects one in four women and one in six men. Despite the fact that most people still think of it as a women's issue, a third of victims are men.

The social and economic impact of domestic abuse is becomingly increasingly unsustainable. Domestic abuse claims more repeat victims-that is more police time and more repeat visits to A and E-than any other crime. It leads to the murder of four women and one man a fortnight, and affects four children in every class of 30. All that costs our economy an estimated £23 billion a year, and front-line services bear the brunt. In the current economic climate, that will only get worse. United Nations research has confirmed what common sense has told us for years: unemployment and financial instability exacerbate domestic abuse.

Surely if those on both sides of the Chamber can agree on anything, it is that no one should fear being raped or beaten in their own home, forced into marriage
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or killed in the name of honour. However, there are still worrying gaps in provision. In theory, the introduction of sexual assault referral centres is a good thing, but the nearest one for us is in Slough-a long way to go for someone who has been brutally raped. To add insult to injury, my local rape crisis centre currently faces a funding crisis. There is also the gender problem. Although roughly a third of victims are male, only 1% of refuge space is available for men. In Oxfordshire, there is no provision for male victims fleeing domestic abuse.

There is also a serious lack of perpetrator programmes. Despite the fact that a quarter of male probationers and 17% of male prisoners are domestic violence perpetrators, there is such a shortage of places on those programmes that, recently, some courts were expressly prohibited from using them as a sentencing option. No perpetrator programmes are available in Oxfordshire.

However, we have one thing to boast about: the champions network. When research revealed that victims can go to as many as 10 agencies before finding the help that they need, the Oxfordshire county domestic abuse service decided to short-circuit the problem and train a network of volunteers in other agencies. They were called champions. They are seen as the lead on domestic abuse issues in their agency and they can advise colleagues on management of individual cases and ensure access to local resources. There are now more than 300 champions in 60 agencies. They are all volunteers, all trained and they all make an enormous impact. As far as I am aware, it is the only network of its kind in the UK. I am proud to be a champion myself, to speak up for that excellent work. I thank the Deputy Speaker for giving me the chance to speak in this debate.

6.55 pm

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) for an eloquent and elegant contribution. I also single out my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). It is so good for the House that women with her experience have been elected to serve.

It is customary to pay tribute to one's constituency in a maiden speech. I am pleased to say that I am not in the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who appeared to have to work hard in 1997 to find something interesting to say about his constituency. However, he managed the story from June 1889, when a giant circus elephant collapsed and died on Castlebar hill. I quote from his maiden speech:

I am delighted that, for me, the task is entirely easy and pleasurable. East Lothian is, without doubt, a constituency blessed in almost every way imaginable. It positively drips with scenic beauty. Not only is it blessed with breathtaking natural beauty, it has a continuous golden thread of historical significance. Those golden colours are reflected in the wonderful art of local artist John Bellany, who grew up in Port Seton. The constituency's natural beauty ranges from magnificent beaches, through
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agricultural farm land to rolling hills, and features everything from Cistercian monks to the resting place of Concorde.

Even with that embarrassment of riches, I have not mentioned its greatest asset: its people. East Lothian is blessed with genuinely close-knit and vibrant communities. It is a part of this country that has a real and thriving sense of self. Its strong sense of identity means that, even in these most difficult times for the newspaper industry, it is served by three local newspapers. The existence of the East Lothian Courier, East Lothian and Musselburgh News and the Evening News is not a leftover from a past age but the reflection of a community with deep roots and a strong sense of social justice.

The communities of East Lothian range from former mining and fishing villages through to castles and keeps, from the market town of Haddington to the fiercely proud mining-built communities of Prestonpans, Tranent, Wallyford, Macmerry, Ormiston, Elphinstone and Whitecraig. At the east end of the constituency sits Musselburgh-the "honest toun"-which now has one of the top five race courses in the country.

The constituency's people have a long history of not being easily pushed around and not tolerating social injustice. Those battles have not been fought only in this country. The men who left East Lothian to fight against Franco's fascists in the Spanish civil war have their names inscribed on a plaque in Prestonpans.

As well as brave men, East Lothian also has a proud history of brave women. My predecessor, Anne Moffat, was the first woman to represent East Lothian. She began her working life as a nurse and went on to become president of Unison. Becoming the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) when he was Secretary of State for Health was a real source of pride to Anne. She cared deeply about the NHS and her first-hand experience of working in the wards equipped her well for that post.

The House will be aware that Anne has suffered poor health in recent months, and I am sure all hon. Members will join me in wishing her good health and happiness. Anne paved the way for other women to represent East Lothian-I am sure that I will not be the last-but she was not the first woman to stand up for working people in my constituency. There is a statue in Tranent, by sculptor David Annand, of Jackie Crookston beating her drum with a small child at her side, to commemorate the massacre of Tranent in 1797. Women from mining communities across the county beat their own drums to protect their communities during the miners' strike of 1984. That dispute and those months of hardship almost tore those communities apart as some men returned to work. Fiona Hunter, then aged only 12, wrote a poem called, "Hang on Dad" for a school project:

It is hard to believe that those are the words of a child of 12.

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The common endeavour of the miners, their families and the communities of East Lothian bound them close together, so my constituency is clearly one that does not easily lend itself to dissection, the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries and the random consequence of arid mathematical formulas dreamt up in Conservative central office and breathed into life in Whitehall. The coalition Government cannot take a community such as East Lothian, with its sense of self, its sensible and natural boundaries and institutions, and its hundreds of years of organic community development, and simply apply the chainsaw of narrow party advantage in the way that has been proposed.

As I was campaigning, I was proud to mark Labour's record, and I now want to make a pledge to the people of East Lothian: Her Majesty's loyal Opposition will fight to stop the Government's proposals to weaken democracy and my role in representing you. I thank the House.

7.2 pm

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am delighted to have caught your eye to give my maiden speech. May I take this opportunity to congratulate those on both sides of the House who have given their maiden speeches in this debate? It is an honour and privilege for me to have been elected by the people of my home town, Northampton, where I was born and brought up, and to represent the Northampton North constituency.

Northampton has sent some distinguished representatives over the years, both for Northampton North and Northampton South. Sally Keeble, my immediate predecessor, was a fine constituency Member of Parliament who dedicated her 13 years in Parliament to public service. She was a passionate protector of the disadvantaged and a keen supporter of, and advocate for, the poor, as many in the House will have witnessed, particularly in her work on international development. At an election campaign hustings, Sally discreetly mentioned that she was missing her son's 14th birthday party, which is evidence of the dedication and commitment that she gave to representing the constituency. As many in the House will know, Sally's late father was an illustrious ambassador from the Court of St James to the Soviet Union, and no doubt her dedication to public service was fostered from an early age. I wish her and her family all the very best for the future.

As I said, Sally was the most recent in a long line of distinguished Members whom my home town has sent to the House. They have not always been without controversy. In fact, there is a worrying predilection toward deselection-of both Labour and Conservative Members. The first Member sent here in 1974 from the new Northampton North constituency was Maureen Colquhoun, who I understand underwent a rather difficult time for reasons that were not unconnected to her personal life-reasons that nowadays would be a positive attribute to candidacy in the Conservative party. Maureen was followed by Tony Marlow, whose boating blazers are the stuff of legend in this House. He, too, was threatened with deselection, for reasons that were something to do with a place called Maastricht. That would not be a positive attribute for candidacy in the modern Conservative party, so some things do stay the same.

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Sally Keeble actually bucked the trend, because she was not threatened with deselection. Instead, she attempted to deselect the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the then Prime Minister, in one of the coup attempts against him. I am sure it will be noted by my hon. Friends that I do not intend to follow those traditions-either of deselection or decapitation.

Going back a little further, this House has dealt rather harshly, if I may say, with some Northampton representatives. One was imprisoned in the Clock Tower, another was fined for voting without having sworn the Oath of Allegiance, and one-Spencer Perceval-was assassinated in 1812 while entering the House. I hope there will be less dramatic opportunities for me to make my mark on this place.

Northampton is an historic market town with excellent communications-we are only one hour up the motorway or from Euston on the railway-and we excel on the sporting field. We have the Saints rugby team, the Cobblers football team and the county cricket ground. The town also has an excellent business ethos, and I invite all hon. Members to visit us.

As many will know, the town has an ancient history of boot and shoe making. Many in the House-on both sides-have benefited from shoes made in Northampton, not least my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. He is often accused of wearing Hush Puppies, but in fact they are brown suede shoes made in Northampton-although I was pleased to see that he did not wear them with the full-bottomed wig when he gave Her Majesty the Gracious Speech in another place.

I thought it would be suitable to make my maiden speech during the part of the Gracious Speech that relates to home affairs, because I have been in practice as a barrister for the past 16 years. In 13 of those years, I have witnessed some rather extraordinary events that reflect the current concern with the criminal justice system in the country at large. Some 3,600 new criminal offences have been created in the past 13 years, a rate of about one every weekday. You will be reassured to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it is now illegal to sell a grey squirrel and to explode a nuclear bomb. Many hundreds of other pieces of legislation have been passed: 404 forms of behaviour are illegal now that were not illegal in 1997. To give one an idea of the progress-or lack thereof-whereas for most of the past 100 years there was about one criminal justice Bill per decade, there were 60 in the past decade.

I am afraid that we have not had the progress that we would like. To give one example of that quickly, within the last several months at court, several barristers were kept waiting while prisoners refused to alight from a bus because they were worried about losing their places in an overcrowded prison system. The prison officers refused to force them off the bus, because doing so would breach their human rights. Many were kept waiting for many hours. One prisoner decided that he needed to use the facilities and was allowed to alight from the bus, go into the cells, use the facilities and go back, voluntarily, and get back on the bus, because to have forced him to do otherwise would have been a breach of his human rights. Meanwhile, many were kept waiting in court.

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I hope that my time in the House will help to ameliorate some of those discrepancies and disconnections that now exist in our system.

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