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8 Jun 2010 : Column 240

It is easy for me to pay tribute not only to my predecessors for previous constituencies, such as Cannock and Brierley Hill-for example, Sir Fergus Montgomery and Jennie Lee, who were great parliamentarians-but to my immediate predecessor, Sir Patrick Cormack, a great parliamentarian whom we all greatly admire. Sir Patrick believed in and fought passionately for his constituency and constituents, but he also believed passionately in this House-in its traditions and its importance in our national life. He also believed in the importance of a strong House of Commons in holding the Government to account and ensuring good government. Those principles were close to Sir Patrick's heart and will be close to mine.

Over the weeks following my selection, Sir Patrick and I became good and close friends. We enjoyed spending a great amount of time campaigning together, and although our styles were sometimes a little different, that made it all the more enjoyable. I remember campaigning in the former mining village of Great Wyrley, where many constituents rushed up to Sir Patrick to wish him well in his retirement and thank him for the work he had done for them. They shook his hand and said, "Mr McCormack, Mr McCormack." After about the 10th person had done so, I said to Sir Patrick, "Don't you ever correct them?" He said, "Dear boy, after 40 years, it hardly seems worth bothering, don't you think?" It is an honour to step into Sir Patrick's very large shoes, but I hope that, over the years, I will gain some of his panache and style, which graced this Chamber, and that I will be an asset not only to the people of South Staffordshire but to this House.

South Staffordshire is one of those constituencies about which so many people say, "Where is it? Which town is in it?" People probably travel through it many times when they go up the M6 or up the west coast main line. It is a beautiful constituency that does not have a single major town, but is built up around many small, and some large, villages scattered across the South Staffordshire countryside. Many of those villages were born out of the industrial revolution and coal mining traditions, and have settled in some of the most beautiful, pretty and gentle English countryside that one can imagine.

The people are straight talkers, which, as a Yorkshireman, is comforting to know. As a straight talker myself, it is nice to have it blunt from others. South Staffordshire is a beautiful constituency that is criss-crossed by many canals and beautiful fields. However, it has its problems and issues. In South Staffordshire, compared with the national average, twice as many people work in manufacturing. That is important to me, because I have worked in manufacturing since I left university. I think it is fair to say that I am one of the few potters who sit in the House today. It is that experience of manufacturing that I hope to bring to the House, because far too often Governments of all colours have believed that we can build a strong, stable and vibrant economy on the twin pillars of financial services and coffee-shop economics. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who works in coffee shops and I even grudgingly admit that we might need bankers, but we cannot have a vibrant British economy without a strong and vibrant manufacturing sector.

Far too often, young people who go into manufacturing or engineering are seen as taking a second-class career, whereas we reward and sing the praises of people who
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go into accountancy, the law or public relations. We do not sing enough the praises of our designers, engineers and manufacturers. We need to change that ethos and have a similar one to that of Germany or Japan. We will have a truly vibrant economy only when we recreate the Victorian spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness that made Britain such a vibrant country, as I am sure it will be again.

I truly welcome the Prime Minister's comments about the importance of manufacturing and I hope that the Treasury team listen well to his comments and do not spend all their time listening to bankers. They should also listen to manufacturers, because we often have a lot more common sense than bankers. I hope I can play my part in representing South Staffordshire and the people of a beautiful and lovely constituency, and that I can ensure their voices are heard loud and clear in this Chamber.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Hugh Bayley): I call Jonathan Edwards.

6.59 pm

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on his excellent maiden speech, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to make mine in this debate. The way in which we respond to the longest-lasting recession since records began, and the support structures we put in place to deal with the human cost of the recession, will be the overriding domestic issues of this Parliament. I will close my contribution today by talking about an issue that is of huge importance to me-fuel poverty-but first I should like to use this opportunity to talk about my home constituency, which I now have the ultimate honour of representing as Member of Parliament.

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr consists of four valleys. Two rural valleys-the Teifi and Tywi to the north-are based on two majestic rivers that provide among the best salmon and sewin fishing in the British isles. Agriculture provides the backbone of the economy, and I am committed to fighting to preserve the traditional Welsh family farm and the traditional Welsh rural way of life.

There are also two post-industrial valleys-the Amman and Gwendraeth. As a son of the Amman valley, I can claim without any prejudice that the anthracite coalfield there contains the best coal in the world. The industrial half of my home communities-a producing economy-has suffered at the hands of a UK macro-economic policy obsessed with financial services and the negligence of manufacturing.

My constituency is probably most famous for its production of Welsh sporting icons. Some of the greats of Welsh rugby come from the area-Carwyn James and Barry John-and current Welsh and British Lions greats Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones and Shane Williams are sons of Carmarthenshire. Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is also famous for its many castles, some of conquest, some of defiance. The three Deheubarth castles-Dryslwyn, Dinefwr and the imposing Carreg Cennen-are symbols of Welsh resistance, and of our determination as a people to preserve our identity and defend our freedom.

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The north of my constituency was the home of a real life Robin Hood. Twm Sion Cati earned his fame by robbing from the rich to give to the poor. I consider myself a redistributive politician very much in the same vein. His arch-enemy was the sheriff of Carmarthen, a post I once held-although I must admit it was somewhat confusing for a Welsh nationalist such as me to hold that office. I look forward to campaigning for a tax on international currency transactions in honour of Twm.

Carmarthenshire is the home of great Welsh political radical minds. Llandybie born DJ Davies formed the Independent Labour party in Ammanford before the first world war, but then became a founding member of Plaid Cymru in the 1920s. He began working in the mines at the age of 14, served in the US navy, and was a formidable boxer. He lived in Denmark, and became convinced that the advancement of the Welsh working class could be secured only in a free Wales. Heavily influenced by the syndicalist movement, he wrote the masterpiece "The Economics of Welsh Self-Government" in 1931, which formed the basis of the decentralist socialist vision that guides my party to this very day. His vision of a mutual approach to economic development is one that I believe areas such as Carmarthenshire must embrace if we are to meet the challenges we face.

Jim Griffiths was a son of Betws. A Labour politician, he was the co-architect of the modern welfare state with Aneurin Bevan, and helped to deliver the first measure of Welsh devolution with the creation of a Minister for Wales. That political victory for the first time enshrined Wales as a political nation, and set in motion the chain of events that led to the creation of our own Government and legislature.

Carmarthenshire was also the constituency of the greatest Welshman of our time, Gwynfor Evans. His historic victory in 1966 marked the election of the first Plaid Cymru MP. Gwynfor's legacy has been to inspire generations to the cause of our country.

I should like to say a few words about the man I replace, Adam Price. After less than a decade in front-line politics, he has already established himself as one of the greatest figures in the history of the nationalist movement, and one of the most significant political figures of our time in Wales. When he returns from his studies in the USA, his destiny is clear: to serve our people in our own Parliament in Cardiff, and to lead our people to our political freedom.

Adam will be remembered for unearthing the Mittal scandal and for leading the opposition in this House to the invasion of Iraq. He was a local champion in fighting for compensation for miners suffering from terrible respiratory diseases and securing a pension compensation fund for steelworkers who had seen their life savings disappear. Wales can ill afford to lose politicians of the stature of Adam, and I hope he returns ready to continue his work on behalf of our people and our communities.

In the time that is left, I should like to talk briefly about an issue that is very close to my heart: fuel poverty. In a modern country, it is a disgrace that more than a quarter of all Welsh households live in fuel poverty. It is one of the greatest failures of government that people in Wales and throughout the UK must continue to make daily choices between heating and eating. In the last year alone, average heating bills have increased by 33%, leaving people on fixed incomes
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terribly exposed, and energy prices in Wales are higher than anywhere else in the UK.

We need action at international, UK, Welsh and local government level if we are serious about eradicating the blight of fuel poverty from our communities. First, international oil prices must be stabilised to avoid price fluctuations. That could mean a long-term agreement between oil producer and consumer countries, as advocated by the French Government, and-arguably-the use of a more stable trading currency. The UK Government need to raise incomes and ensure that available benefits and tax credits are claimed by those who are entitled to them. That package should include the extension of winter fuel payments to all vulnerable groups. Secondly, energy-efficiency measures should be targeted primarily at the fuel-poor, and, thirdly, we need greater regulation of the energy market, and in particular a mandatory social tariff for the fuel-poor so that they are removed from a competitive market that simply does not work.

The Welsh Government must ensure that Wales gets its fair share of the UK Government's energy efficiency schemes and create a package of support and advice for people living in fuel poverty. They must also promote off-grid, decentralised local energy systems, backed up with smart metering, so that communities can develop their own solutions to the twin challenges of global warming and energy poverty. I would also like a statutory duty on Welsh local authorities, which could include the retrofitting of vulnerable homes with the latest air-to-heat technology.

I have little doubt that the social justice agenda and the growth of Welsh political democracy and sovereignty are intertwined. During my time here in this place, I look forward to working with those across the political divide who believe in building a modern, just and prosperous Wales. Diolch yn fawr.

7.6 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak here today for the first time. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), and I share his determination to secure a Robin Hood tax on international financial transactions. As it happens, I had the pleasure of knowing his predecessor from my time studying in Aberystwyth, and I am sure he will be a worthy successor.

St Austell and Newquay is a new seat that stretches from coast to coast across the heart of Cornwall; it is a unique constituency. It includes many places that hon. Members will have visited. St Austell and Newquay are Cornwall's largest towns, but they are sharply contrasting, and the villages at the heart of my constituency could not be more different from those along the coast. It is a diverse seat: rural, urban, coastal, industrial and agricultural. I was born and bred in the constituency and I am proud to call it home.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced a boundary review. It seems that as well as being the first Member of Parliament for St Austell and Newquay, I may also be the last. In the context of today's debate-I say this tongue in cheek to the Conservative Whips-perhaps it is only the sizes of our constituencies that will be increased by the Government rather than cut. However long I am in this place, it will
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be the privilege of my life to represent the people with whom I went to school and grew up, and with whom I live and work.

Members will be familiar with the picture postcard image of Cornwall, but they may be less aware of what lies behind that. We have by far the highest water bills in the country, yet some of the very lowest incomes. We do not have enough jobs, and those we have tend to be low- paid and seasonal. Thousands of people cannot afford a place to live in the communities in which they grew up. Indeed, I may be the only Member who was still living with his parents when he was elected.

Those are the challenges that face the people whom I represent, and my predecessors-Matthew Taylor, Colin Breed and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)-made a huge effort to tackle them. Matthew Taylor's review of affordable housing is the best route map out of the housing crisis that we face in rural areas; my hon. Friend's work to secure the Walker review on water charges has led to a real-terms cut in water bills in Cornwall; and Colin Breed helped to develop the tax policy that will be implemented by this Government and will lift millions out of poverty. All three of my predecessors have shown a record of action in the best tradition of the first Liberal MP for Truro and St Austell, David Penhaligon. If anyone in this place doubts the impact we can have, they should knock on doors in my constituency and hear people talk about Mr Penhaligon almost 25 years after his untimely passing.

I do not mind admitting that that is a lot to live up to-as with other hon. Members, the bar in my seat is very high-but I welcome the opportunity to continue to tackle the problems we face in Cornwall from the Government side of the House and with the principles that underpin the Government's agenda: freedom, fairness and responsibility. People who are trapped in poverty cannot be free. The need to work day in, day out just to make ends meet erodes the freedom to have a quality of life to which we should all be able to aspire.

I therefore welcome the Government's commitment to raising the threshold at which people pay tax to £10,000 over the course of this Parliament. That will take many thousands of my constituents out of tax entirely and give hard-earned money back to everybody else. It will increase the freedom of those I represent, and by spreading the tax burden more evenly across our society, it will be fairer. I also welcome the re-establishment of the link between pensions and national average earnings. That is the fair thing to do and it is a step towards ending the pensioner poverty that blights Cornish communities.

The first step towards people being able to lead a responsible life is for them to have a place of their own in which to live, so I welcome the moves the Government will be making to bring empty homes back into use. There are 8,000 empty homes across Cornwall, and 1,400 in St Austell and Newquay alone. These homes should not be standing empty while so many people are in housing need.

I welcome the scrapping of the absurd regional spatial strategy, which would have led to so much of Cornwall's countryside being concreted over with little gain for those in real housing need. Other measures, such as the promotion of shared ownership and community trusts, will do much to ease the housing crisis in Cornwall. I
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would like this Government to go further, however, by allowing local authorities to set a limit on the number of second homes in a community. Local needs should come first. Following recent announcements, councils now urgently require clarity about the criteria they will use to determine future housing provision.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I went twice. Statistically, I should not be here. My grandfather was a clay worker, my parents are separated and my secondary school was in the state sector. I am a gay man from an average working-class Cornish family. Access to education changed my life chances, and I have come to this place to extend to others the social mobility and opportunities that have so benefited me. If we are to tackle the poverty that bedevils parts of Cornwall, we have to give people the chance to make the very best of themselves. We cannot have a fair society if people do not have the chance to make the most of their talents, and it will not be a free society if people cannot use their abilities to achieve their dreams.

The community I grew up in and now represent understands the values this Government are promoting; indeed, they are summed up in Cornwall's motto "One and all". However, the people who sent me here will be keen to make sure that the burden of addressing the problems facing Britain, which were caused by the Labour party, falls on those most capable of carrying it.

This debate has highlighted some of the difficult choices we face. We in Cornwall have been let down by successive Governments, and in playing my part in making those difficult choices I will never forget that we need a fairer funding deal for Cornwall. I hope that now my party sits on the Government Benches, the issues I have touched upon this afternoon, and that my predecessors have campaigned on for decades, can finally be addressed, not "drekley", as we say in Cornwall, but today.

7.13 pm

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). My family has spent many holidays in his constituency, and I think VisitBritain could do worse than collect together all the maiden speeches of the past few days and use them to promote some of the most wonderful parts of our country-indeed, there are bits of our country I would not have recognised at all from the descriptions. I congratulate all Members who have delivered their maiden speeches. I was going to say that my contribution would be an older maiden speech, but one of those adjectives would not quite be appropriate. I shall now launch forward while leaving Members to work out the meaning of that remark.

First, I want to welcome the comments of the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the principles that will underpin his approach to welfare reform. He said in a recent article:

That is a robust comment to make, certainly for a Conservative Secretary of State for Work and Pensions-and, frankly, it would not be at odds with many of the comments of previous Labour Secretaries of State.

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