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Those same principles need not mean going it alone, as they can extend beyond the school gate, with schools working in partnership with others. In my constituency, the 44 schools and colleges already work co-operatively, choosing to pool resources in the pursuit of shared goals. The potential advantages of that kind of approach are manifold. It can enable smaller village schools,
which we value very highly in my area, to derive scale benefits that they otherwise would not have. It can provide new stretch opportunities for particularly gifted and talented youngsters, and also a forum for governors to share best practice.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has outlined bold plans to help tackle the problem of people being trapped in the welfare system, but I am sure that he would agree that even better than cure is when we can go for prevention. The oft-quoted number of NEETS-people not in education, employment or training-is such a bland statistic, but it masks so much wasted potential. It is often said, too, that one can spot the people likely to end up adding to that statistic from a very early age. That is too often remarked on, but too rarely acted on.
We must have ambition for all our young people, and the pupil premium that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is putting forward will be a big part of that. I hope too that more areas will follow the model of the East Hampshire Partnership, for which a key focus is identifying the people who may be at risk of falling into that group, and working together across the age groups for their benefit.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me the chance to speak.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to make my maiden speech in a debate about economic affairs, and in particular about the services and assistance that we provide for our most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens. It is an honour for me to follow the hon. Members for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood).
The subject of today's debate is one close to my heart, not least because until very recently it was part of my responsibilities as the Minister for Social Development in the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. In addition, concern for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable has always been top of my political agenda and that of my party. The Social Democratic and Labour party is here to serve.
No one better personifies dedicated public service and a lifelong desire to improve the lives of fellow citizens than my predecessor Eddie McGrady. He has been an exemplary contributor to making Northern Ireland a better place for all its people, across a career spanning 50 years of steadfast public service. Unlike others, his leadership style has not been bellicose or loud. Instead, he is a member of that elite group of statesmen and politicians who make progress for everyone through their wisdom, dedication, patience and hard work. For me personally, he has been a role model and a true friend. I am proud of what he has done for the constituency of South Down. The evidence of his endeavours is there for all to see throughout that beautiful constituency.
I said that South Down was beautiful, and it is. Located in the south-eastern corner of Northern Ireland, it boasts at its heart the magnificent Mountains of Mourne, which play host to Northern Ireland's highest
mountain peaks and cradle the crystal-clear waters of Silent Valley that sustain our capital city of Belfast. South Down also has an extensive and charming coastline, stretching from Carlingford lough at the Irish border to the south, through the bustling harbour towns of Warrenpoint and Kilkeel and on to Newcastle where, famously.
"the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea."
The coastline curves northwards beyond that again, to the historic town of Downpatrick-the place that I call home.
Although there is some vibrant manufacturing industry and commerce in the area, the main industries in South Down are agriculture, fisheries and, increasingly, tourism. Regrettably, South Down also has its own pockets of deprivation. It is a very good example of a place where, if the kind of welfare-to-work initiatives envisaged by the Government are to have any success, there needs to be an accompanying concentration on job creation. For the House can rest assured that there are very few people I know, especially in South Down, who do not want to work.
As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I told the previous Government that a policy of pressing people into work when there are few jobs to go to could not prosper, and I repeat that message to the new Administration. I share the Government's desire to help more people enjoy the dignity and self-sufficiency that comes from gainful employment but, in Northern Ireland, a policy of hounding people away from benefits when there are few new opportunities for employment will cause only hardship and resentment.
But let us be positive: I believe that we in Northern Ireland have it within us, now that all the pointless violence has ended, to make our economy take off for the first time in generations. We are attracted to the possibility of devolving tax-varying powers to the Stormont Executive-powers that will allow us, for the first time, to compete as equals in the quest for foreign direct investment. I very much welcome the indications from the Government that they will help us harmonise corporation tax on the island of Ireland.
We can do more for ourselves in many other areas, too. Northern Ireland has potentially a very rich renewable energy resource. It can be at the centre of our plans to develop the green economy. We also have huge potential in our agriculture and food industries to drive for higher added value. We have a well-educated and trained work force, and a world-class broadband infrastructure that can be the platform for the growth of our tradable sectors. We must get all of this moving if we are to be credible in offering work to everyone.
I also think Northern Ireland can harvest a major expansion of its tourism industry. We offer a well-priced and absorbing tourism product that is enhanced by high-quality hospitality and a genuinely friendly and welcoming people. The potential for tourism development is, I believe, at its most enticing in my own constituency of South Down.
In the Downpatrick area, we hold the authentic heritage of our national saint, Patrick, and that is something very special. The whole world celebrates his anniversary on 17 March, yet that same world has limited understanding of his story. It is a powerful and compelling story of bringing Christianity to Ireland and allowing it to blossom
in a land of saints and scholars at a time when it was threatened with extinction in Britain and the rest of Europe.
Patrick transcends all our historic quarrels in these islands and in particular within the two traditions in Northern Ireland. He is a unifying figure and his message is one of reconciliation. He was a Roman Briton, and as such was our greatest ever import. He is, and can be even more, our greatest ever export. In special parts of South Down, we hold the sites where Patrick first landed in Ireland and where he built his first church, the healing wells where he bathed, the place where he breathed his last, and the grave where he now rests.
I am confident about the future and the ability that we have to improve the economy and the living standards of our people. I will work positively here to achieve those objectives, but each week I know that I will be returning to a special place. I invite all Members here to visit South Down, and Downpatrick in particular, where they can walk in the footsteps of Patrick.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, and may I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on her passionate advocacy of the economic development of her constituency? I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on his advocacy of the importance of education programmes.
I am very grateful to be called in today's economy debate, as I believe that addressing the deficit and powering economic growth are the two most important things that this Government can do. I believe that South West Norfolk, and Norfolk as a whole, have a lot to offer in helping us to achieve those objectives.
The people of South West Norfolk are not afraid of hard work. Indeed, we are a forward-looking and self-reliant county. We are part of the east of England, which is one of the three regions in the country that puts more in the tax pot than it takes out of it. To carry on being a net contributor, however, we need to make sure that we have the necessary infrastructure and skills in our county, and that is what I am going to talk about today.
My predecessor, Christopher Fraser, worked hard on those issues-to secure further funding for the A11 and to protect Swaffham community hospital. He spoke out frequently on the issue of flood defences, which are important for members of our community, some of whom can use their road for only 200-odd days in the year because at other times it is closed due to flooding.
South West Norfolk is famous for some strong characters. Thomas Paine was born in Thetford-a man who started off revolutions on two continents. Boudicca was reputed to have had her base in Thetford as well. She led an uprising against the Romans. Sadly, when she left the county of Norfolk and moved on she was strategically outmanoeuvred at the battle of Watling street. That is not a fault that afflicted one of my other predecessors Gillian Shephard, now Baroness Shephard, who successfully steered many reforms through this House as a Minister for Agriculture and as Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
Agriculture is a huge part of the economy in South West Norfolk. We have the world's biggest sugar factory in Wissington; we also have some amazing arable production
and pig production, and we are still enjoying the bounty of the asparagus crop. I have just been enjoying asparagus in the Tea Room and I hope that it was Norfolk asparagus. If it was not, I will certainly be working to make sure that it is in future. Agriculture faces problems, not least the Rural Payments Agency, which I want to work to reform, particularly the mapping exercise, which has caused many farmers in South West Norfolk utter consternation.
We have two other key market towns in South West Norfolk-Swaffham and Downham Market. I do not know whether hon. Members have heard of the pedlar of Swaffham. He came to London to look for treasure, but he found out that the treasure was in Swaffham all along. I can tell the House that there is much more treasure to be unearthed in Swaffham-its tourism industry and its energy industry. Downham Market is another fine town that used to boast orchards. It is still a centre for agriculture, and now has a number of commuters living in the constituency, who travel to Cambridge, Kings Lynn and London. I shall be wanting to make their lives easier by seeking improvements to that train line.
The constituency stretches from the fens to the brecks and right down to the Suffolk border. In all those areas various business are tucked away. We have innovative businesses producing fuel from cooking oil, high-tech lasers and airport scanning equipment. It is amazing the things one finds. All those businesses tell me the same thing. They are frustrated with dealing with too many Government agencies, a plethora of initiatives, and too much red tape. They also want action on the creaking infrastructure in Norfolk and say that we need more specialist skills. That is why, together with my Norfolk colleagues, I shall be fighting for dualling of the A11 from the fiveways roundabout to Thetford.
I notice that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor mentioned earlier that he wanted to put money where there was a high-level economic return. I can tell the Minister that there is a benefit-cost ratio of 19 for this project, so it is of high value. It will unlock more growth in Norfolk. We also want to see a successful conclusion to the train franchise agreements, and of course broadband rolled out across the county.
The other thing that I will be pushing for is an overhaul of our qualifications system. Like everywhere else in the country, the economy of South West Norfolk has changed. With increased automation, we now have more highly skilled jobs. A typical farm now employs an eighth of the employees that it did 40 years ago, but those employees are in highly technically skilled and business management roles. We need to ensure that we educate people for those jobs. That is why I want to look to our great universities to lead on academic qualifications. I have previously called for maths and science to move from geek to chic. Never has this been more important, and I will be pressing for that.
I also want to see employers lead in on-the-job skills, because people get a passion for work and a sense of craftsmanship from watching someone who cares about it doing the job. I will be fighting for that to make sure that those people, not bureaucrats, are in charge of setting our qualifications.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I am truly grateful. I know that we have the right policies and that the will is
there among those on our Front Bench. We can make not just Norfolk a powerhouse but the whole of Britain a powerhouse for the future of our economy.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I congratulate other hon. Members on their maiden speeches. I have learned a lot; I have enjoyed them much, but I particularly look forward to a supply of that asparagus.
After 30 years living in my constituency, I am proud to be an adopted Teessider, and even more proud to represent the people of Billingham, Norton, much of Stockton and the surrounding villages. My Stockton North constituency has a long history as an industrial hothouse, with engineering, chemical manufacture and shipbuilding. Work with metal for building ships and some of the world's most famous bridges has always been at the centre of our community. Even just two weeks ago, we saw the world's largest marine pipe-laying machine loaded on board a ship and exported to the far east. Built in my constituency by IHC Engineering, it will subsequently be deployed in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Brazilian coast, laying pipe lines for, among others, BP, Exxon-Mobil and Shell.
The metal work also has its links with the Houses of Parliament. Every time I hear Big Ben strike, it reminds me of home. The original bell was cast in Calf Fallow lane, just 400 yards from my back fence. The history books say that the people of London cheered the bell through the streets, but sadly it never took its place in the Clock Tower, as it cracked under testing. I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the same does not happen to me.
We have seen many changes in our local economy. Substantial investment by the regional development agency One NorthEast has helped business and industry in Stockton not just to play to its strengths but to diversify into all manner of things from financial services to 21st-century digital businesses. Investment in education and training has also brought big dividends, and I only hope that the investment continues, and that the new Government's plans to change the RDA do not render it useless.
My constituency is famous for many other things. Stockton is home to one end of the world's first railway line. The town boasts the widest high street in England. John Walker invented the friction match in his high street shop, and the town is home to one of Europe's premier arts festivals, the Stockton international riverside festival. We are also celebrating the 700th anniversary of our market charter this year.
Billingham developed from a small village to a large town during the ICI era on Teesside. It also boasts a festival of its own-the international folklore festival, now in its 46th year. The people of Billingham are also famous for taking on the might of the nuclear industry in the shape of Nirex, which wanted to dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of medium-level radioactive waste under their homes in a disused anhydrite mine. Their campaign "Billingham against the nuclear dump" was successfully led by my predecessor Frank Cook, then a new MP himself. It was the biggest constituency campaign he was involved in during his 27 years as the
Member of Parliament for Stockton North. Many hon. Members will remember Frank Cook as a Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall, and for his work with NATO. I will remember him as a dedicated champion of genuine asylum seekers, helping to protect many of them from torture or death, which they would have ultimately suffered if they had returned to their home country.
Education is my particular interest, and I am extremely proud of the success of many schools in my constituency. They have delivered outstanding success for our children and young people. Much has been achieved, but much remains to be done. As Stockton borough council lead member for children and young people, I was privileged to oversee the work to develop the Building Schools for the Future programme across the borough. Opposition Members share my anxiety that the biggest single investment in education ever is now subject to review and could be cut. I remain hopeful, however, that the new Government will soon end the speculation over BSF and help us transform teaching and learning in the kind of facilities of which we can all be proud.
A co-ordinated approach to delivering integrated services for our children and young people is essential as we go forward. The safeguarding of our children must be central to that work, yet there has been little mention of it from the new Government, except for a statement promising a review and a cut in bureaucracy. We have seen the high-profile cases of recent years, and they illustrate the need for safeguarding of our children to remain one of the highest priorities for national and local government alike. While every failure is a disaster for a child or a young person, we must not lose sight of the daily work of our local authorities and social workers, often working against the odds to deliver success in the most difficult of circumstances.
Much of our talk these days is about reducing spending, but I hope the Secretary of State for Education and the Chancellor will deliver real resources in developing education in our schools on budgeting. It is a critical area in which support is needed for young people and many families, to help them manage their income and not fall into the hands of loan sharks, both legal and illegal. There are people in my constituency who pay for their television £1 at a time through a slot meter, and end up paying for their television several times over. There are others who, believing that there is nowhere else to go, take out loans with extreme interest rates, and often struggle just to meet the interest payments. I will work here to put an end to that "legal loan shark" practice, which devastates so many lives, and help people find affordable credit through credit unions or other means.
Higher education is also important to my constituency, and Stockton boasts of being a university town. Durham university on the south bank of the River Tees falls in the Stockton South constituency. I know, however, that the university harbours an ambition to expand student numbers and move across our new Infinity bridge and on to the north shore and into Stockton North. I hope that ambition is realised.
I firmly believe that a healthy community can be a learning and economically vibrant community that can achieve great things in developing an exciting future. In recent times, we have seen improvements in the health of some of our neediest communities across the country, and in my own constituency. I hope we will see that
improvement continue, with our planned new hospital given the go-ahead. I also hope that the new Government will recognise the huge benefits that continued investment in integrated education, social care and other services for children and young people can bring. Many children and adults in my constituency still face the toughest of circumstances, and could suffer most under the cuts proposed by the Government. I hope I can serve them well by highlighting the issues affecting their lives, and persuading all who will listen that people like them need us in their corner.
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