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7 Jun 2010 : Column 109

There has been much talk over the years about how statistics can be manipulated to suit the wishes of the Government of the day. I am confident that in this era of new politics, as described so elegantly by my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, such statistical innovation will not be a feature of the coalition Government-a Government of whom I am a little startled to find myself a Member.

I mention the fact of statistics or, to put it another way, results shifting with the tide, as when I had the honour of being elected at 3.30 am on 7 May by the good voters of Eastbourne and Willingdon I had already been through a 45-minute process where I had been told that I had lost. It appears that both my and my opponent's counting agents had made the same mistake. Better to have thought I had lost only to find out that I had won, one might say-certainly better than when I fought the previous general election in Eastbourne in 2005, where for a similar period of 45 minutes, I was told that I had won, until suddenly another box of ballot papers was discovered, and I had lost. Members will appreciate, I am sure, that I now believe something only after a certain amount of time has elapsed, to allow for any variables. In my case, 45 minutes appears to be the cut-off.

Nevertheless, it is a profound honour to have been elected as the MP for Eastbourne. I am the third Liberal or Liberal Democrat to have represented such a wonderful constituency. The others were my colleague Mr Bellotti, who was elected in the by-election in 1990, and, apparently, another Liberal MP from over 100 years ago. I believe we were in government at the time, so it is a particular pleasure to be in that position again, though I note that it was rather upsetting for the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). I fervently hope that we do not have to wait another 100 years before we are next in government, though I suspect that some hon. Members present may earnestly desire that.

I would like to make reference to the contribution of two of my other predecessors, Mr Nigel Waterson and the right hon. Ian Gow. Mr Waterson had the privilege of representing Eastbourne for 18 years and I am sure many of his colleagues in the House will join me in wishing him well for the future. I am aware that the tradition in the House is to speak only good of our predecessor, and that is how it should be. However, the recent general election in Eastbourne was a bruising campaign for all concerned, and at the time and since I promised my constituents that, come what may, were I elected I would remain truthful to them, whatever the criteria.

As my constituents know, there was not a great deal of love lost between Mr Waterson and myself, and it would be absurd and dishonest for me to pretend otherwise, but I would like to pay a fulsome tribute to him on two specific issues. First, Mr Waterson played a key leading role in the town's cross-party campaign to stop the closure of maternity services at the Eastbourne district and general hospital. His commitment and dedication to that cause played no small part in its eventual success. I, Eastbourne and the surrounding area thank him for that.

Secondly, let me provide a little context. Having spent over 20 years in business before coming into politics, I had to learn pretty quickly just how brutal a business our profession can be. It seems to be the nature of the
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beast. In a way, democratic politics across the world is the closest that protagonists come to war without actually killing each other. It is rather odd, but I am sure many more learned scholars than I have posited that, with a system in which there can be only one winner and the stakes are so great, tempers become frayed. As I am sure many Members know from experience, public meetings can become very heated. On those occasions when Mr Waterson was in the firing line, I observed that he was a brave man. He did not crumble or give in, and for that I respect his courage.

I should like to turn to the right hon. Ian Gow. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr Gow, but I am aware that there remain a number of Members who knew him well. I should like to tell them and the House that he is still remembered with tremendous affection by the voters of Eastbourne and Willingdon, across all party persuasions. He will be my role model of a good constituency MP.

I should also hope that in some small way my election helps to close the circle since the IRA's appalling and disgraceful act of assassinating Mr Gow all those years ago. I am half Northern Irish, and like many from that island my family was affected by the troubles. One of my uncles was a senior police officer who survived an assassination attempt by the IRA, while other members of my family were more supportive of the nationalist cause, and still other members were supportive of the Liberal Democrats' sister party in Northern Ireland, the Alliance party.

Therefore, I know more than most how far Northern Ireland has come over the past 15 years, and for that I pay a sincere and heartfelt tribute to all the political parties in Northern Ireland which have moved so far, and to both the Conservative and, more recently, Labour Governments for enabling the peace process, proving, perhaps, what I said earlier: for all its Sturm und Drang, democratic politics, red in tooth and claw, really is the only sane alternative. Otherwise, as we saw in Northern Ireland during the troubles and still see throughout the world, bloodshed ensues and people-innocent people-lose their lives. Consequently, to represent the same constituency that the right hon. Ian Gow died serving is an honour, and I assure the House that his memory and legacy live on in Eastbourne.

Talking of Eastbourne, I shall give Members a little history. Many in the House will know that it is a splendid town with a fine sea front, wonderful architecture and flanked by the stunning South Downs. Some Members, however, may not know that George Orwell was reputed to have written "Animal Farm" in Eastbourne. Indeed, Friedrich Engels lived for a time in the town and, allegedly, even received the odd holiday visit from Karl Marx. Not perhaps what we would expect-

Mr Deputy Speaker (Hugh Bayley): Order. It is an excellent maiden speech, but I am afraid that I must now call the next speaker.

8.47 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity this evening to address the House for the first time, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), whom I congratulate on making such an engaging contribution to this evening's proceedings.

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It is perhaps appropriate that I contribute to this part of the debate on the Gracious Speech, because I am the first Member for Banff and Buchan to make a maiden speech in the Chamber since the significant constitutional changes that brought about devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Part of my duty this evening is to pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland. My right hon. Friend made an inimitable mark on this House. He continues to serve the people of north-east Scotland as MSP for Gordon, and he continues to make his mark on what remains a live and dynamic debate about the constitutional future of these islands. I have no doubt that Alex Salmond will play an instrumental role in shaping the emerging debate, which is now gathering momentum, on new powers for the devolved Administrations. I have no doubt also that, when future generations reflect on the history of Scotland, Alex Salmond's central place in the story of our own times will be assured.

However, some of Alex Salmond's greatest strengths as a Member lay in the diligent service that he gave his constituents in Banff and Buchan. He worked hard to win the respect of his constituents across the political spectrum, and I aim to do likewise. I grew up in the Banffshire port of Macduff, I am now immensely honoured to represent my home area, and I shall seek to emulate the high quality of representation to which the people of Banff and Buchan have grown accustomed over the past 23 years.

Turning to this evening's debate, I am the first to concede that constitutional change can be a dry subject. However, for my constituents, a very great deal is at stake in our constitutional arrangements. Banff and Buchan's local economy depends heavily on agriculture, fisheries and energy and the manufacturing industries associated with them. People do hard physical work to produce tangible goods and services, and, although the oil and gas industry has brought a degree of prosperity to the area over the past 30 years, many people-especially women-still work in low-paid jobs in the processing and manufacturing sectors. Many of our older residents therefore face very frugal retirements, despite having worked hard all their days, and keeping warm in winter is a challenge for many. The constituency has been badly affected by the recession; in fact, we have experienced among the sharpest increases in unemployment anywhere in the UK.

The constitution matters to Banff and Buchan because our key industries are directly affected by decisions made at European level negotiated on our behalf by UK Ministers-too often, I am sad to say, not very effectively. In my view, further constitutional change is a necessary precursor to improving the lives and prospects of the people I represent.

The fishing industry is at the heart of our local economy, and it is the lifeblood of our coastal towns and villages. About two thirds of the UK's fishing industry is based in Scotland, and much of it is centred around Banff and Buchan, where Peterhead remains Europe's premier white fish port and Fraserburgh is Europe's largest shellfish port. The fishing industry also supports thousands of onshore jobs in fish processing, retail and supply. These continue to be exceptionally
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difficult times for the fishing and processing industries. In the past 10 years, the white fish fleet has halved and many of the current fleet are struggling to stay in business. The underlying problem is the European Union's common fisheries policy, which has been an unmitigated disaster at every level. The CFP is not fit for purpose. It threatens the economic viability of the industry and the social fabric of our communities, and it is causing untold environmental damage. Our fishing industry needs urgent action now to create a sustainable future.

As hon. Members will be aware, management of fisheries is a devolved issue, but the key decisions that set the policy framework are made by EU member states. Scottish fishermen have been repeatedly let down by UK Governments in EU negotiations. Just a few weeks ago, at a time of crisis for the industry, we saw the Scottish Fisheries Minister prevented from attending international talks on the CFP, while an unelected peer attended on behalf of the previous UK Government. Perhaps no issue highlights more acutely the limitations of our current constitutional arrangements. Fishing is far more important to the communities I represent than it will ever be to the UK as a whole. Although I regret that there is no mention of fisheries in the new Government's coalition agreement, I hope that they will take steps to redress the exclusion of the devolved Administrations from fisheries talks and will, in doing so, put some flesh on the bones of their much publicised, and today rather emaciated-looking, respect agenda.

Banff and Buchan's agricultural producers face similar representational challenges in ensuring that decisions made in Brussels reflect their interests and needs. Turriff is the most sizeable of Banff and Buchan's rural towns and is home to one of the UK's largest agricultural shows and a range of industries, including a large meat processing plant that supplies premium produce to supermarkets across the country. Turriff is of course more well known for the famous "Turra Coo", which formed part of a celebrated protest by local farmers against the taxation policies of the Liberal Government back in 1913. Perhaps there is a warning there for the present Government to mind how they treat Scottish farmers.

The realities of physical geography mean that there are distinct issues for farmers in different parts of the UK. Agriculture is also largely a devolved issue, but the practice of recent years has often been for UK Ministers to conduct negotiations with the EU Commission, the presidency and other member states without the presence of devolved Ministers. Once again, I would urge the new Government to bring the democratically elected representatives of the devolved Administrations around the table. As the EU reforms its common agricultural policy, the UK needs to move away from the "one size fits nobody" approach of recent years, which does a grave disservice to those among my constituents who earn their livelihoods from the land.

The other major source of employment in Banff and Buchan is the oil and gas sector, onshore and offshore, most notably at the St Fergus terminal. However, as we look ahead, we have to acknowledge that our future prosperity lies in renewable energy. Banff and Buchan is exceptionally well positioned to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the development of offshore wind, wave and tidal power. We have the location and a skilled workforce experienced in offshore technology. However,
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to make the most of these opportunities for green jobs, we need to challenge the current discriminatory transmission charges regime, which disincentivises the production of renewable energy in the very areas of the UK most equipped to produce it. We also need the UK Government to release the fossil fuel levy to enable the investment in the infrastructure that is necessary to realise our potential and to build a prosperous future.

I have no doubt that I will return to these issues in the weeks ahead, and I look forward to bringing the concerns of Banff and Buchan's constituents before the House in future.

8.54 pm

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): It is an honour to be called to speak and to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who spoke so passionately about her new constituency. She also spoke about a subject to do with the constitution that I, too, wish to address-the devolution of power to people more locally. That is a thread that binds together all of us on this side of the House. We believe that the constitution has become too centralised and that local people should be given more of a say. That is certainly true in West Suffolk.

West Suffolk has been represented for the past 18 years by Richard Spring, who was well loved in the constituency, worked tirelessly for it and was admired and respected in all parts of the House. I cannot recall the number of times that, during the election campaign, I knocked on a door and the person who answered said, "Oh, you are following Richard Spring. Well, you've got big shoes to fill." If I can manage to fill those shoes and do as good a job for West Suffolk as he did over the past 18 years, I will have done a very good job indeed. I say from the bottom of my heart that that is what I intend to do.

Richard Spring made the decision early on in his time as an MP to, as he put it, "out-liberal the Liberals" in local campaigning. Now that I find myself on the same Benches as that party, perhaps it is appropriate that I have learned a trick or two from the campaigning that he undertook locally to ensure that West Suffolk was well represented in the House. His biggest impact on the constituency was undoubtedly in the town of Haverhill, which is the largest in the constituency. It has a long history and was in the Domesday Book. It is now a town on the up, largely thanks to his work and that of St Edmundsbury borough council. It has companies such as Genzyme that export to China, which is truly where the future of our manufacturing economy will come from.

West Suffolk is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful constituencies in our country. I have heard the claims of others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)-I look forward to challenging his claim to have the most beautiful constituency in the country. With villages such as Ixworth, Stanton, Bardwell, Hundon and Wixoe, and the Stour valley village of Thurlow where I now live with my family, all in all there are 42 villages of thatched roofs and pink cottages all through Constable country, which inspired the great artist.

As well as the most beautiful, West Suffolk is one of the largest constituencies in England, and that large area is united by the poor transport links that we find throughout it. The A11, which serves the whole of
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Norfolk, desperately needs the final nine miles to be dualled to provide better transport and a better economy to the whole east of England. At the most northerly point of the constituency, Brandon is a peaceful market town, but that peace is destroyed as the holiday traffic runs up the high street. Members will not be surprised that as a new MP, I support the fully locally funded proposal to bring a bypass to Brandon. However, they can imagine my horror when, in preparing for this speech, I read the maiden speech of my predecessor 18 years ago and found that he, too, had argued that there was a desperate need for a bypass for Brandon. I hope that it will not take a whole 18 years to bring it about.

Just south of Brandon is Mildenhall, famous for the Roman Mildenhall treasure and now, of course, home to a large United States air force base. Finally, I turn to the town of Newmarket. It is undoubtedly the most famous town in West Suffolk, and its heritage lives and breathes in the 62 studs and racing yards that are woven through the town centre. It is a unique town with a unique character, and it has unique needs. For instance, it was once illegal to blow one's nose on Newmarket high street. That rule was in place for the benefit not of the local people but of the bloodstock that ran up and down the street.

Such attention to local need is unfortunately in marked contrast to the one-size-fits-all, we-know-best attitude that Newmarket has seen over the past 13 years, and it is to that point that I turn in the final moments of my speech. For many years, the constitution has endured a creeping centralism. In particular, in planning, John Prescott's regional spatial strategies have tried to turn every market town into a clone town. The powers of local people to resist have been stripped away, but already the new Government are succeeding in giving power back to the people. The regional spatial strategy was forcing through an inappropriate proposal to build thousands of homes and an industrial park in the middle of Newmarket, which the council found itself powerless to reject-but no more. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has given councils the power to make decisions for themselves once again. The people were given their voice and their democratically elected councillors voted unanimously to reject the proposal.

So there we have it. After less than a month in office, the new Government are already improving our constitution to make it more local, more responsive to the people and less in hock to unelected, unaccountable quangos. A law and a quango cannot solve every ill of this world, but by trusting people and sharing responsibility, we can make a start. That principle binds us together on these Benches. I commend the Queen's Speech to the House.

9 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) on his maiden speech and hope that he enjoys his time in the House.

It is my first opportunity to make a contribution since the election, and I am pleased to see so many new faces, particularly so many new women Members of Parliament, and so many new young women MPs. I hope that they, too, enjoy their time in the House and change it for the better.

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