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The coalition Government now say-we have heard this on a number of occasions-that tackling poverty is one of their priorities, yet three factors lead me to think that that may not be the case, or that the rhetoric may not be matched by the reality. First, we will see cuts in
the child trust funds, which have been one of the most successful exercises in encouraging people, particularly from lower-income backgrounds, to save. We have seen a trebling of saving among families with children, predominantly among lower and middle-income families.
Secondly, there is the cancellation of the public housing programmes. Again, we are not wholly clear about this, but it is pretty clear that there will be some cancellations in the public housing programmes that were pushed through in the last year or two of the Labour Government by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who was an outstanding Housing Minister. They should have happened years earlier. They should have started in 1997, but at least we started them in the last two years, and billions of pounds were going to be pumped into them.
Finally, there is the agency workers directive. Agency workers are some of the most exploited and low-paid workers in Britain. That directive took years to negotiate in Brussels, and it may not make as big a difference as I would like, but it will have a modest impact in creating a certain equality between agency workers and full-time, permanent workers. Very often agency workers are used to undercut the permanent work force.
Again, we do not have a clear position on this. That is partly because the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has Ministers from different political backgrounds. In fact, the Secretary of State has been in more parties than Paris Hilton. It seems that the directive may be abandoned, watered down or renegotiated. That will have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable workers in Britain.
The roots of Britain's current position with regard to poverty go back to the 1980s. In 1979, the last time that we left office, we left the country with one of the most egalitarian societies in the western world, rivalling Australia and West Germany in terms of income and wealth distribution. In 1997, when we returned to power, it was one of the most unequal societies in the western world, and the figures back that up. If a Government privatise and deregulate like a bunch of medieval crusading zealots and insist on shackling and attacking trade unions, removing the rights and protections of some of the most vulnerable workers in Britain and ripping up and eviscerating whole industries and communities on the basis of economic fundamentalism and political vindictiveness, an explosion of poverty, like that which came about in the 1980s, can hardly come as a surprise. That was the result then, and it is plain for all to see.
The coalition accuses us of a failure to tackle poverty. In reality, the criticism that can be levelled at the last Labour Government is that we did not go far enough in repairing the damage of the previous 18 years. There were modest attempts to do so, but they did not go far enough, and my worry is that this Government have now come back to finish their previous job. The price of the cuts that we hear about will be paid by our constituents, who are some of the most vulnerable in Britain; Opposition Members will be representing people on the receiving end. The Deputy Prime Minister talks about "progressive cuts", but it is easy for him to say that when he comes from a background of wealth and privilege and is not going to be on the receiving end of the cuts himself. I should like him to come to the House and explain to us exactly what "progressive cuts" means, because I am struggling to find a definition of it.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, and may I welcome you to your place? I am much in favour of seeing women in positions of authority and, indeed, high office. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister takes note of that.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak in this very important debate on poverty, and to follow the contribution of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and many fine maiden speeches. On those earlier maiden speeches, I can do no better than agree with the characteristically generous tribute from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), so I shall not try to do so. However, it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who, unlike myself, had the courage to do this without notes, and the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), who is certainly a most passionate advocate of his constituency. Surely the fact that that was his second maiden speech will explain the fluidity and passion with which he delivered it.
I have the honour of following Phil Hope as the Member for Corby, and I hope that Opposition Members bear me no particular grudge for depriving their Benches of such a kind and pleasant man. He was a passionate advocate of Corby and achieved ministerial office early, serving in various Departments, from Education to Health and the Cabinet Office, before winding up as the Minister for the East Midlands. His obvious political ability was matched only by his kindliness and courtesy, which I know must have endeared him to many Members from all parts. In the four years that I was the Conservative candidate for Corby, Phil and I never exchanged a sharp word, and I am glad to see the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) in her place, because he exemplified the principle that in politics our opponents need not also be our enemies.
Urban Corby, the fastest-growing town in the country, is surrounded by the idyllic countryside of east Northamptonshire. We have more than 60 villages, as well as the thriving market towns of Irthlingborough, Raunds, Thrapston and Oundle. Corby is a former steel manufacturing town, and it played its part in the war effort by supplying the pipes used in Operation Pluto, which bought fuel safely to our allies as they fought in Europe. I am well travelled, but nowhere have I encountered such pride in place as Corby people have in their town. If I had to sum up the town in a single word, "pride" is the one that I would use.
Located though it is in the heart of England, the pride of Corby is its diaspora from Scotland. My constituency, perhaps uniquely in England, celebrates a regular highland games, and I am informed by staff at Corby Asda that they sell 17 times more Irn-Bru there than in any other store in England.
Meanwhile, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin)-the Chief Whip-and my Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who I see in his place, will be glad to learn that rebellious women do not fare well in my constituency. The glories of east Northamptonshire include the village of Fotheringhay, where Mary, Queen of Scots met her fate in 1587. Be that as it may, I am conscious-as are, I am sure, many other Members making their maiden
speeches today-that I was sent to this place to represent the interests of my constituents here, not the other way around.
My noble Friend Baroness Thatcher inspired me to enter politics. She taught me the importance of ideology-crucially, in the context of this debate, that politics is in its essence counter-intuitive, and that Conservative means deliver liberal ends. On arriving at the House just after the general election, it was something of a relief to discover that, on occasion, Liberal means may deliver Conservative ones.
It is particularly appropriate that the Member for Corby should deliver her maiden speech in a debate on poverty, because the ambitious programme of welfare to work laid out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team will assist many of my constituents, who saw a 103% rise in claims for jobseeker's allowance over the course of the last Labour Parliament. This ambitious programme will provide a way out of poverty and despair for many thousands of families. It is the result of years of focusing on social justice by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I commend it to the House.
If I myself have a political ambition, it is-perhaps I may ask the House's traditional indulgence for a maiden speech-to suggest a cross-departmental project to my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Defence. For several years, I lived in the United States-indeed, my family are American-and I was struck by the exceptional way in which people treat their troops and their troops' families. Over there, the Veterans Administration, which has a seat at the cabinet table, oversees all military welfare, from hospitals to low-cost housing loans. There was much in the Conservative manifesto for our troops to celebrate, from extra money for mental health provision to the application of the pupil premium to the children of military families. Too often in Government, however, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
I am glad to see my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) in his place beside me, for he spoke most movingly in his maiden speech of the need for this House to put Help for Heroes out of business by providing better medical care for our troops. I suggest to him, and to the whole House, that a fully fledged veterans administration might go even further, overseeing all military welfare, from widows' pensions to mental health provision, and that it need not cost too much; rather, it would merely tie all military welfare together.
My county of Northamptonshire hosted no fewer than seven United States airfields during the war, and in my constituency the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes still fly proudly side by side to commemorate the fellowship of our forces. I suggest to the House that we learn from the special relationship where it still has something to teach us. We can, and should, do better by our troops and their dependants. We are considering today issues of poverty; let us ensure that poverty and despair do not touch the lives of those who have given so much for this country.
I thank the House for its traditional courtesy in hearing me out in silence during my maiden speech. It has been an honour to speak in a debate on poverty and to commend the Government's ambitious programme to the House; and also, of course, to speak as the
Member of Parliament for Corby and for east Northamptonshire-the heart of steel in the rose of the shires.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) on her confident, interesting and passionate maiden speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) on his maiden speech, and I wish every success to his rugby team, except when they play Wigan.
I should like to begin by stating that although I follow the well-respected and esteemed Ian McCartney, about whom I am going to say more later, there are a couple of obvious differences between us-I am female, and I do not have a Scottish accent. I think there might be a slight height difference as well. I wish also to express my pride in being the first female MP for Makerfield.
Makerfield has a proud tradition of electing Labour MPs going back to 1906 and the election of Stephen Walsh, who incidentally was 4 foot 10 inches tall-perhaps another precedent there. The people of Makerfield were so determined to send a Labour MP to this place that they raised the funds themselves to pay his salary and ensure that he could represent the constituency in Parliament. That determination in the face of adversity still characterises the people of Makerfield today.
Makerfield is not one particular, easily identified area but a collection of pit villages that grew up around the collieries, each with its own proud history and identity. Heaven forbid that one confuses Bamfurlong with Platt Bridge and Stubshaw Cross with Bryn. Each area has its own sense of community and history, and many of their people lived through-and, despite the wonderful efforts of the past 13 years and the excellent Labour council, are still living with-the devastation caused in the 1980s. However, there is a lot of grit and determination in Makerfield. It is unequalled, as is the people's warmth and friendliness. During the cold weather spell in January, I came across an 86-year-old woman, Theresa, shovelling snow and clearing paths outside not only her house but her neighbour's. When the council workmen offered to do it for her, she said, "Nay, I've been shovelling coal as a pit brow woman since I was 14, and I can handle a shovel better than you two." Grit, determination and a sense of community with the people all helping each other-that is what sums up Makerfield to me.
I turn to my predecessor, Ian McCartney. The words that I speak about Ian are spoken not by convention but with conviction and affection-an affection that is felt throughout Makerfield and the labour movement. Ian represented Makerfield for 23 years, and his love for the area and its people is nearly as great as the affection and respect that they have for him. His career in opposition and in government was both varied and influential. In opposition he spoke on health, employment, education and social services, and in government he was Minister of State in the Department of Trade and Industry. It was during that period that he introduced a major new package of employment rights, including the national minimum wage. I do not believe it would be an exaggeration
to say that millions of people throughout the country have benefited from those measures and have reasons to be grateful to him.
As chair of the national executive committee and the national policy forum, Ian was trusted by both the leadership and the membership-not an easy to balance to hold. That is just one demonstration of his integrity and the high regard in which he is held. Despite his senior positions, he never forgot his roots. His first aim, which he undoubtedly achieved, was to be a good constituency MP. Indeed, he once said to me that all the best legislation, including his campaign that led to the banning of foam furniture that emitted toxic fumes when alight, which has saved thousands of lives across the country, came from constituency casework. Of course, with Makerfield being part of Wigan borough, I cannot leave out the fact that he was the founder member of the all-party rugby league group. Wigan has a proud rugby league heritage and amateur clubs continue to produce world-class players who represent Wigan and their country.
Ian was also president of the Money Advice Trust, and it is credit and financial capability that I now wish to discuss. I have been chief executive of a citizens advice bureau for 23 years, and during that time people have come to me with an incredibly diverse range of problems. However, credit and debt consistently make up the highest percentage of our work, and it has an impact on people's ability to continue in their work, on their health and on their relationships. I have long believed that there are three strands to tackling the problem, each of which is important and requires funding and, in some cases, further exploration and legislation.
Financial capability is the preventive area-teaching children, families and community groups the skills that they need to manage their money and choose their financial products wisely. I am heartened by the partnerships developing between citizens advice bureaux, the Personal Finance Education Group, credit unions and the Money Advice Trust. Indeed, locally my own bureau worked in partnership with Welcome credit union to provide financial education to low-income groups.
The second strand is the availability of credit, especially to low-income borrowers, and encouragements for non-traditional savers to save. I therefore deeply regret the Government's removal of the child trust fund, which was the first time some families had a lump sum to put into a savings account for a child. It has been a practical demonstration to that child and the family of how savings work.
I hope that credit unions will be supported and allowed to expand. My constituency has two excellent and progressive credit unions, Unify and Welcome. Encouraging credit unions, mainstreaming their services and making them a real alternative to iniquitous rates of interest-2,760% in some cases-for people who want to take out a short-term loan are all really important. I firmly believe that we need to explore a range of policy initiatives with mainstream lenders, credit unions and the social fund to end the cycle of credit dependency.
Thirdly, for people already trapped in the spiral of unaffordable borrowing, access to debt advice services is crucial. Funding for that should not be solely for legally aided people, but should be available to all. I have seen for myself the effect of the face-to-face funding for debt advice provided by the previous Government and I have been able to more than match that funding
from a PCT-funded project to reduce lower level mental health problems. Indeed, a report has come out this week showing that in two cases professionals have downgraded people previously at risk of suicide to no longer needing medical intervention as a result of that project. I urge the Government to continue the face-to-face funding and to explore other funding to help to support people in work to stay in work, maintain their health and their relationships and not let debt destroy families and individuals.
I began by referring to my predecessor and commented on our differences. However, I would now like to finish by stating that I hope that we also have similarities and that the most striking similarity will be that we have both been, and will be, a strong voice for Makerfield.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech. I congratulate you on your illustrious elevation and I am delighted to see a fellow Bristol MP in the Chair. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on her maiden speech, and all the other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I have enjoyed listening to them all, and it has been heartening to hear the passion and conviction with which they have spoken about their constituencies.
For my own constituency, it is both an honour and a privilege to stand here as the new Member of Parliament for Kingswood. Located between Bristol and Bath, within the boundaries of South Gloucestershire, it includes the towns and villages of Kingswood itself, Hanham, Longwell Green, Barrs Court, Cadbury Heath, Emersons Green, Bitton, Willsbridge, Oldland Common and North Common, Siston, Warmley, Mangotsfield, Rodway and Soundwell, as well as a large part of the beautiful countryside that lies within our precious green belt. It is a great place to live, and as the new Member, I hope that I can play my part in making it an even better place to live and work. As a local man, who was born and grew up there and whose family have lived in Kingswood for generations, I am extremely proud to serve the local area that I call home.
Since the creation of the constituency in 1974, Kingswood has been fortunate to be served by some excellent Members whom many in the House will remember, including Terry Walker, Jack Aspinwall, Rob Hayward, and my immediate predecessor, Dr Roger Berry. They all have left behind a record of public service and civic duty that will be hard to emulate. Roger Berry is perhaps best known in the House for his tireless efforts to champion the rights of the disabled and most vulnerable in society, for which I pay him credit and hope to continue his hard work.
Like many of our neighbourhoods and towns, Kingswood has a rich tapestry of history. The town first came into prominence in the late 17th century through coal mining. Kingswood's reputation was first founded on its people-the colliers who mined those deep seams underground. They were fiercely independent in spirit, and one contemporary wrote that
"the colliers were numerous and utterly uncultivated. They had no place of worship. Few ventured to walk even in their neighbourhood; and when provoked they were the terror of Bristol".
It was into this lawless land that the preacher George Whitefield chose to venture. With no church nearby, Whitefield chose to preach beneath the open skies. On a clear night, if one looks out across the horizon of Kingswood, one can see the very spot he chose, Hanham Mount, for it is marked out by the green light of a beacon shining out from one of the highest parts of the constituency. Beneath it is a memorial-a grassy area with a large paved cross-beyond which a gorse-covered bank leads up to a stone platform with a wooden replica of a pulpit. It was here that Whitefield first preached on 17 February 1739. He was afflicted by a squint so severe that no one knew exactly where he was looking, and yet he began to draw vast outdoor crowds who never took their eyes off him. Benjamin Franklin, who later heard him preach many times in Pennsylvania, declared that he had a voice like an organ.
At first the local miners mocked Whitefield's temerity, but his persistence paid off. The numbers attending his sermons grew steadily from a few hundred to nearly 20,000, and Whitefield himself noticed the effect that he began to have on them, not least from the white tracks appearing on their faces-black from coal dust-formed from the tears streaming down their faces. Shortly afterwards, Whitefield was called away for other duties. He sent for his friend, John Wesley, to fill the gap. Wesley later described his initial reluctance to participate in preaching outside, away from the sanctity of a church:
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