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7.10 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I start by commending the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) on his excellent and illuminating maiden speech. I am sure we will hear much more from him in the years ahead. I wish well both him and all those who either have already or are about to give their maiden speech.

Since the formation of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, we have heard much in the press in Scotland about the fact that there is to be a "respect agenda", with the UK Government improving relations with the devolved Governments and the parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is thus with some regret that I noted the Deputy Prime Minister failing even to mention that agenda in his speech; he made an announcement of important constitutional progress on the reform of the House of Lords in respect of which he saw fit to invite Members from only three parties in this House.

The shadow Secretary of State is not in his place, but I ask his colleagues to pass on to him the comments that I am about to make, because I have not been a blushing violet-or even a shrinking violet; I am now blushing, and not for the first time-when it comes to criticising the last Labour Government. During the last Parliament, there was much I needed to criticise the Labour Government on when it came to constitutional matters, but in recent times the previous Government worked hard on issues such as the reform of party and MP finance to include all the parties. Indeed, the then Justice Secretary was exemplary in his relations with the political parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is totally unacceptable that we are to see major constitutional reforms in the United Kingdom on the basis of excluding the parties of government from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I was pleased to note that other Members on the Opposition side, not least the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), recognised that as an important issue.

Moving on to discuss the Queen's Speech, we understand that progress is to be made on further devolution of powers to Scotland. That would mean safer streets and safer communities, which is something that we welcome, as we also welcome the willingness to consider improving the financial powers to be devolved to the Scottish Government and to the Scottish Parliament. This comes at a time when we are hearing growing calls from academics and senior business leaders who want Scottish Ministers to control taxes and social welfare and to have borrowing powers.

The Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility has been triggered in part by the new coalition Government's pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. Among the leading members of the Scottish business community who are calling for fiscal responsibility in Scotland is Jim McColl, the chairman of business development firm, Clyde Blowers, which is involved in the campaign. He said recently:

That has been underlined by Ben Thomson, the chairman of the think-tank Reform Scotland, who said that there is "surprising" breadth of support for radical change, which was further underlined in The Times today by Sir Tom Hunter, who writes:

I very much hope that the coalition Government will take all these voices into account and follow their own advice on the respect agenda and on working constructively with the Scottish Government in pursuing these matters.

In the time remaining, I would like to touch on a number of other constitutional reforms: fixed-term Parliaments, the 55% threshold, democratisation of the House of Lords and reform of the electoral system. We in the Scottish National party have long supported the introduction of fixed terms-experience of which, of course, we have in the Scottish Parliament. To illustrate and underline the point made by colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party earlier, it would be a real mistake to set the date of a fixed Parliament to match exactly the date of elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. If we are to have fixed terms, why not pick four-year rather than five-year cycles? Experience in the last Scottish Parliament election showed that the more elections one holds on the same day, the more problems can ensue.

Turning to the so-called threshold question, we need only a simple majority to form or bring down a Government in the Scottish Parliament. If no Government can command 50% of support among voting MSPs within 28 days, Parliament is dissolved. The 66% barrier exists only to ensure that there is time to allow a new Government to be formed if an old one collapses. I really hope that the Government listen on this issue. For people who have practical experience of the system as it works in action, the 55% threshold is a gerrymandering effort to hold on to power, as are the boundary reviews, which seem to take no account of the geographic diversity in some parts of the United Kingdom. It is also hard to conclude anything but that this is an effort to target poorer and more rural constituencies. If there is a need to reform the size of constituencies, the Government must take account of manageable size and geography.

On democratising the House of Lords, our party is in favour of a unicameral set-up, but should there be a second chamber, it must be elected. On electoral reform, if we are to have a referendum, we should include more than one option: the alternative vote is not proportional representation.

In conclusion, we heard today from the Deputy Prime Minister in soaring reformist rhetorical tones what was in actual fact his falling at the first fence. Inclusion, debate and participation are all fine and well, but they need to include all-

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

7.17 pm

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a maiden speech that
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comes at last to me, having been selected as the candidate for South Swindon some six years ago. That means that in 2005 I was beaten by my predecessor, Anne Snelgrove, to whom I pay warm tribute today. She worked extremely hard for her constituency and for her constituents. It is interesting to note that many of the challenges that she raised in her maiden speech are the challenges that face Swindon today-on jobs, for example. In fact, the unemployment position in Swindon is now twice as bad as it was back in 2005. Town centre regeneration is another challenge; the recession has sadly put paid to many of the fine plans laid out for our town centre.

I do not want to start, however, on an unduly pessimistic note because, like the peal of 10 bells at Christ Church in Swindon, celebrated in the poetry of Sir John Betjeman, there is much to ring the praises about when it comes to the town I represent. This is the part of my speech that is entirely uncontroversial, because it is a known fact that Swindon is a cultural hub. We are the home of the National Trust and the base of English Heritage. We also have the museum of the Great Western railway-God's wonderful railway, in other words-this year celebrating 175 years of its existence by Act of Parliament. We are home to the National Monuments Record office.

We have splendid country parks, including Lydiard park, the former ancestral home of the Bolingbroke family-a political family well known to this House and to the other place. It is now a delightful country park to the west and on the western fringes of my constituency. To the east, we have Coate Water country park, much loved by local residents, home of a miniature railway and, on the edge, home to the museum of the 19th century writer and naturalist, Richard Jefferies.

There is much to commend the constituency that I represent. It is town, suburb and country, lying as it does between the ancient Ridgeway path and its iron-age forts, and the iron road of the railway that meant so much to the development of Swindon in the 19th century. Bisecting my constituency through the middle is that 20th-century innovation, the M4. Make no mistake about it, Mr Deputy Speaker: Swindon is well and truly at the heart of our country.

Swindon's communities, whether they be in the town centre or out in the suburban fringes, are all united by several concerns. One of those concerns is about the need to protect and preserve our green spaces, and to ensure that the development that we know will come to Swindon-it is a town that has grown over the years and reinvented itself to quite brilliant effect-is sustainable. I therefore welcome a change to the planning regime, so that my town can survive, thrive and prosper in the years ahead.

One issue that comes up time and time again with the people I now represent is their concern about the system of criminal justice in our country. It might sound like special pleading-I make no apology for that-but having spent most of my professional life working as a barrister in the criminal justice system, I think that I am allowed to make some observations about the gap between political rhetoric and the sad reality of what is happening in our system today. We have confused legislative hyperactivity with effectiveness. The sausage-factory approach that saw Criminal Justice Act after Criminal Justice Act has not resulted in a better system; in fact, it has made it a great deal worse. The law of unforeseen consequences means that the extra burden placed on the system is causing it to creak at the hinges.

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The words of politicians in this House and other places sound particularly hollow to those at the chalk face trying to grapple with the reality. We have spent too much time concentrating on the consequences of offending, instead of looking at the means of preventing it in the first place. The rhetoric of being tough on crime so loved by a former Prime Minister misses the point. It is time for us to be smart on crime, by looking at the causes of that criminality and dealing with them, lest we reap the whirlwind of social problems and increased expenditure.

When there is no option, we must stop being spellbound by the complexity of things. Prison is there to perform three simple functions: to protect the public, to punish offenders and to offer the hope of rehabilitation. None of those important functions seems to have been properly valued, as the events of recent years bear out. It is a scandal that those who have to pass sentences in the Crown court and other places are influenced by pressures on prison numbers. It is simply unacceptable and literally a denial of justice.

If we are to deal most effectively with criminality in our country, we need to call criminal offences crime, move away from the unproductive and costly antisocial behaviour structure and all the rhetoric surrounding it, and remember that at the root of it all, it is crime prevention and early intervention, particularly in the lives of young people, that we will see reaping real rewards, when we come to look back at our time in office. My plea today is for effective action on crime-for a bit of cleverness, rather than the rhetoric of tabloid newspapers. I look forward to, I hope, playing my part in the debates on crime and other issues that are important to the constituents I represent in the years ahead.

7.24 pm

Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): Thank you for the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech in this august Chamber, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am the first woman from Glasgow East to represent the constituency. Indeed, I am delighted that my city of Glasgow has simultaneously provided two women to represent it. We are indeed on the march.

I was intimidated before coming to this Chamber and, having listened to so many wonderful speeches, I am now completely intimidated-even more so than before. I have served in the Scottish Parliament since its inception in 1999. The transfer to these Green Benches has been daunting; indeed, this is a very different parliamentary experience.

I arrive in Westminster at a time of great and momentous challenge, in the tailspin of one of the world's worst financial crises and an unprecedented breakdown in public confidence in the political class. In such a Chamber, we inevitably look to the voices and influences of the past. We must learn from and understand them. In this era of supposedly new politics, I hope that we do not forget the major advances of the past, including those of the preceding Labour Government. Among the most radical acts of that Labour Government was the constitutional arrangements that they introduced, including the advent of devolution, which was perhaps one of the most significant shifts in Government power that any of us is ever likely to witness.

7 Jun 2010 : Column 88

Devolution has played a vital part in the economic and social renewal of Scotland. I have seen the Scottish Parliament become firmly embedded in the body politic of Scotland, with a programme of reform that has a deep and lasting impact in my constituency of Glasgow East. That constituency has many challenges to face. It ranges from the relatively prosperous areas of Mount Vernon and Garrowhill, through to hard-working communities such as those in Craigend and Carmyle, all of which include communities that have paid too high a price for the economic policies of the 1980s. We once had a steelworks that at its peak employed 40,000 workers. Now, United Biscuits, although perhaps the largest employer in the constituency, has 800 workers, making a vital contribution to the local economy.

Work was done by the previous Labour Government to develop the economic base of the east end of Glasgow. In the past 10 years, there has been an increase of businesses of nearly 50%, and increasing every year of that Labour Government. But as I say, Mr Deputy Presiding Officer-forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker; that was bound to happen-challenges remain. We have an unemployment rate of 7.3%, against a Scottish average of 4.3%. However, it is also incumbent on me to say that there is deep resentment across the east end that its many achievements are overlooked or undermined.

There is much to celebrate in the east end of Glasgow. We have some of the highest-performing state schools, in brand-new buildings. In 2014 we will host the Commonwealth games; and, of course, we are home to one of the world's best football teams, Glasgow Celtic. I know that my speech is meant to be uncontroversial, but I must challenge a Member who spoke previously who claimed paradise was in his constituency. Paradise is, in fact, in the east end of Glasgow. Let me be clear: Glasgow East is a place of significant opportunity, but much more needs to be done; a place of great aspiration, too much of it unfulfilled; and a place of enterprise and effort, not always rewarded as it should be.

I am sure that in tackling that agenda I would receive strong support from my predecessor, Mr John Mason. Although I did not share his nationalist beliefs or those of the Scottish National party, I know that he had a strong dedication to his cause. In an age of spin and public relations, that is very much to be respected. I was in the unusual position of having fought John in two elections. I witnessed first hand what a strong defender of our democratic process he is. I am sure that everyone in the House would wish John Mason well in his future endeavours.

John Mason and I both share an appreciation for the work of our mutual predecessor, David Marshall, who served Glasgow, Shettleston-and subsequently Glasgow East-with great distinction for nearly three decades. In fact, the east end of Glasgow has produced parliamentarians of outstanding character and achievement. Most towering of all was John Wheatley, who combined inspiring politics with practical actions and is best remembered for the Housing Act 1924, which for the first time provided affordable housing for working people in Scotland. His legacy continues in my constituency.

I am well aware that my constituency is well known to many Members, particularly the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who claims Easterhouse as part of the inspiration for his welfare reform. Easterhouse is an area of genuine warmth and friendliness, and of course
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he was welcome. However, I am told that local people were intrigued: they had never seen a Tory before-and after he left, they have not seen one since.

The Secretary of State has made great claims for the changes that he will introduce. He has raised enormous expectations. I should tell the House that I will endeavour with some energy to ensure that he does not dispense that sick old Tory medicine, which is that when times are hard, benefits for the poorest are cut and the better-off are given tax cuts to see them on their way. His argument will be seriously weakened if he tells people that the only answer is work when there is no work to go to, and cuts all the supports that help individuals and families to get back on their feet. The effects of Thatcherism seem to have taken him by surprise. I do not know where he was during those years, but he certainly was not in Easterhouse then. I will say this about his reform programme: the people of Easterhouse and Glasgow East will be watching his work very closely indeed.

Mr Deputy Presiding Officer-Mr Deputy Speaker; I do apologise. I have won elections and I have lost elections, and from the recent election I draw the conclusion that no one party received ringing endorsements, and there was a very marked voting pattern throughout the country. I hope that the coalition Government pay close attention to the voting patterns in my constituency, my city and my country, because those people made it very clear that they did not want to return to an agenda of cuts and unemployment. I hope that, in the spirit of the new politics, the Government will pay due attention to that.

7.30 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) on a tremendous maiden speech. Those of us who know something about Scottish politics are well aware that she has a good reputation-a great reputation-and I am sure that she will continue her work in the House of Commons. She spoke with great passion and commitment, and she joins a number of ladies from Scotland on the Labour Benches who are a tremendous asset to this place.

May I express a little sympathy with the hon. Lady? Having also come to the House of Commons from another Chamber, I spent my maiden speech addressing the assembly as "My Lords". Happily, I was cured of the habit pretty quickly, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will soon find it very easy to address the Chair as "Mr. Speaker" or "Mr. Deputy Speaker".

I intend to talk about House of Lords reform. However, I am tempted first to make a brief comment about boundaries, particularly after hearing the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) say that absolute numbers were everything. I politely beg to differ. If, indeed, pure mathematics dictates that this Chamber should represent absolutely the votes cast in an election, the answer is extremely simple: it is called the single transferable vote. We all accept, however-I certainly accept-that there is something very special about the link between Member and constituency, which goes beyond simple mathematics.

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