Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I congratulate you on your election? Having just fought my first election, I know how arduous it can be, so I congratulate you on having fought a second one so soon after the first.
It has been a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches of so many hon. Members on both sides of the House today. I envy the fact that so many people are post-maiden, while I still have that ordeal ahead. At least, unlike earlier today, I can speak to a hushed and listening House, although perhaps Hansard can show that that is because there is quite a lot of green space on the Opposition Benches. I do not, by contrast, envy anybody their constituency as I think that I represent quite the nicest bit of this great country. The constituency of Devizes encompasses a large chunk of central Wiltshire. We have the vibrant market towns of Devizes, Marlborough, Tidworth, Durrington and Ludgershall, as well as the armed forces garrisons at Tidworth, Netheravon, Bulford, Larkhill and Upavon. We have 111 beautiful villages, the neolithic monument at Avebury, miles of rolling chalk landscape and the tranquil Pewsey vale. It is wonderful and I urge all hon. Members to visit as soon as possible.
We host the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, which some might say is an easier way of getting here than fighting a general election. We are also home to the Wadworth brewery, which brews with pride the famous 6X beer. That is why I am such a fervent supporter of community pubs and why I would like taxes on beer to be lowered when the economic circumstances that we have inherited improve.
There are many useful lessons in the Devizes constituency for budding politicians to learn, and I shall mention a couple of them. In the Devizes Market place there is a cross bearing the legend of Ruth Pierce, a market-woman who, when doing a bit of dodgy dealing in the Market
place, said, "God shall strike me down if I am found to be telling a lie." She was struck down immediately, bearing the proof of that lie in her hand. I think that is a valuable lesson for politicians when making speeches.
The need to create legislation that endures is also obvious in my constituency. The oldest piece of legislation never to be repealed was passed by the Parliament of 1267 that met in Marlborough, so there is another lesson to be learned about passing legislation that stands the test of time.
The legendary Devizes Caen Hill lock flight on the wonderful Kennet and Avon canal, which is the longest in-water canal in the British isles, shows us what local energy and activism can do. It was the local business people of that town who paid for the canal to come to the top of the hill, where Devizes sits, when it would have been so much easier for it just to go around it. Energy, activism and a refusal to "go around" are all things that my predecessor, Michael Ancram, demonstrated abundantly. When he was elected to represent Devizes in 1992 he was already an experienced politician, having first been elected in 1974. In 1979, he beat a young Scottish Labour politician-one Gordon Brown-for the seat of Edinburgh, South. It took another 31 years for my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) to emulate that feat by beating the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) in the general election.
Michael's distinguished political career spanned almost four decades and took in the roles of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, shadow Foreign Secretary, shadow Defence Secretary and chairman and deputy leader of the Conservative party. While I might, in my wildest moments or in my cups, aspire to follow in his political footsteps, it is his personal characteristic of unfailing courtesy, his dedicated work on behalf of his constituents and his great love for the part of Wiltshire that he represented that I would most like to emulate. Indeed, it is my great love for Wiltshire, which has been my family's home for the last decade, that has brought me into politics.
I live in a small Wiltshire village, so I have seen at first hand the damage to rural Britain that was caused by the last Government-possibly the most urban-minded Government that Britain has ever seen. Our farmers have struggled with mountains of red tape, unchecked animal disease and an indifferent Government who were not interested in buying British food or dealing with the dishonest food labelling regime. We have had multiple grandiose regional spatial strategies in Wiltshire, but we still lack affordable housing, transport links and the broadband infrastructure that is so important for building a living and working countryside. A shocking legacy of the previous Government is the NHS quangocracy, which means that my constituency has the worst ambulance response times in the region and no minor injuries unit.
However, the lacklustre state of the rural economy and embedded rural poverty trouble me most. Employment in my constituency-that great driver-out of poverty-is still weak, and unemployment has more than doubled in the past five years. As the former Government's rural adviser said, there are huge traditional barriers to gaining employment in rural areas: poor public transport, less training and less guidance provision-a bit of new
Labour gobbledegook that means that we do not get as many jobcentres per head of the population in rural Britain.
There is genuine poverty in rural Britain, and it is often well hidden behind a chocolate-box façade. Examples of that hidden poverty include the pensioner who is too proud to claim benefits; the family travelling 40 or 50 miles on poorly maintained roads with high petrol prices to get to work; the unskilled labourer laid off when the nearest job is 40 miles away, and the single mother who came to my surgery who is sleeping on her parents' sofa because she cannot get on the housing list. We need to tackle those issues, and I know that my constituents do not feel that the previous Government listened to them. This Government will not overlook them.
No discussion of my constituency could be complete without a mention of the armed forces. As my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), likes to say, I am the Member of Parliament for most of the British Army. That is a small exaggeration, but my constituency is home to more than 11,000 soldiers as well as at least the same number of dependants, not to mention the several thousand Ministry of Defence civil servants. That is why I am so proud to support the armed forces. I know that all Members of Parliament do so, and many of us on these Benches welcome the imminent strategic defence review and a Government who are more supportive of our current operational commitments.
I was not successful today in the private Members' ballot. I wanted to introduce a Bill to make Remembrance day a national holiday so that all generations can understand the sacrifices that our armed forces have made and pay their respects to our past and serving troops. I assure hon. Members that they will be hearing from me about that in future, and I would welcome the support of Members of all parties to get it done.
Although the name of my constituency is derived from the Latin "ad divisas"-I did not learn that at Nailsea comprehensive school-or "on the boundaries", reflecting the town's historical position on the edge of two local manors, I want the people of Devizes no longer to feel that they are on the edge of policy making, on the political boundaries or forgotten by the Government. Instead, I want them to know that their aims and aspirations are at the heart of our Government's outlook. It is my job to make that happen; it is a job that I am proud to do.
I applaud all hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) in particular left me feeling somewhat inadequately prepared. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) referred to a former Member for the seat whose constituents had a whip-round to pay his salary. It is beginning to feel a bit like that round here at the moment. I especially congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), whom I follow. She has left me quite a challenge.
First, I thank my constituents for sending me here. It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to represent them, and I give my assurance that I will do so to the very best of my ability. As a new Member with a new constituency, I am often asked where Meon Valley is. My constituency sits in the southern part of Hampshire, to the south and east of Winchester, and to the north and west of Portsmouth. It was made up of the bottom half of Michael Mates's seat and the bottom half of Mark Oaten's seat-that description has raised the odd eyebrow.
We take in the beautiful green lush Meon valley itself, with life revolving around small market towns, but the bulk of the population live in the south-east corner of the constituency, in Waterlooville, Cowplain, Hart Plain and Horndean. Living there are people I describe as bedrock Britain-many of them ex-services-the very engine of our country. Many of them are finding life increasingly difficult, a subject to which I shall return before I conclude.
The constituency contains many highlights, and given his well known evocation of the English countryside, the right hon. Sir John Major would be comfortable visiting us. In Hambledon, we have a village that can boast the first record of its cricket club in 1756. The club can claim to have given us much of what we recognise in the modern game, and was the focal point for the sport until the MCC took over in 1787.
As for beer, it is to be regretted that our major brewery, Gales in Horndean, closed after a recent merger with Fuller's, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), who spoke earlier. However, in Gladys avenue, Cowplain the fight-back has begun. We have many excellent ales, but I single out Michael Charlton, backyard brewer extraordinaire, who won last year's Hampshire beer of the year with his majestic Havant Finished, produced in his garage. I look forward to launching Havant Forgotten with him in November, in aid of the Royal British Legion. As a Conservative Member with an active and dedicated association, I think it wise that the subject of old maids is probably best avoided.
Both my predecessors are hard acts to follow. Michael Mates enjoyed a highly distinguished career in the Army and for 36 years from 1974 sat on the Conservative Benches, serving with great distinction in many senior roles. Michael is an expert in diverse fields, but it is for his record in the House on defence matters and on Northern Ireland that colleagues will know him best-oh, and the Flanders and Swann.
As a constituency MP, Michael was no less well regarded. I have met countless people across the constituency whom he has helped. Aided by his long service and consequent connections, he unlocked bureaucratic logjams for many of his constituents.
Two votes it was. In a November rerun-the first election I participated in-Mark converted those two votes to 21,500, which was not the most auspicious start for my political career. That figure
stood Mark in great stead in following elections, not least against me. He held various prestigious positions in the Liberal Democrat party and made a contribution to the orange book-a tome whose pages are now more important than ever before.
More than anything else, Mark taught his constituents what to expect from an MP. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He accumulated a reputation as the acme of a local champion. If I can ever establish a reputation in Meon Valley as widely and deeply felt as Mark's in Winchester I will truly have achieved something extraordinary.
I am delighted that the coalition has made clear its plans to return control of housing targets to local people, and has acted to restrict back garden development and to remove density requirements. It is incredibly important that all of us work to ensure that those changes are seen as an opportunity. We have been given the freedom to shape better communities that work for all our citizens, and to do it to our own design. But there is an obligation on us, too.
In a country as wealthy as ours, it is uncivilised that so many people are on housing waiting lists-some 3,500 in the Winchester district alone and another 3,000 in Havant borough. Those numbers are unsustainable. Most people in Meon Valley understand that and recognise that new housing is needed. Without the skirts of Government-imposed housing targets to hide behind, none of us should shirk the task of making that case to our communities. My experience, in Meon Valley at least, is that most people agree if the proper facts are laid before them.
Furthermore, under the auspices of the dreadful planning policy statement 3, far too many developments crammed affordable housing into flats and small dwellings so that central targets on density could be met-the perverse effect of central Government targets at work. In my view, communities with vision will now use the removal of those targets to build larger dwellings for those who cannot otherwise house themselves. A proper family home, with adequate living space and some privacy both indoors and outdoors, must be a fundamental ingredient of happier lives and less troubled, more contented communities. It is down to us and all our councillors to go out and make that argument. We can and should seek to persuade our constituents that it is in all our interests to do so.
Finally, let me say a brief word on a threat that we must all recognise. Among my constituents there are a great many people who, to their enormous surprise, find themselves in challenging economic circumstances. Most of them are in their 70s. They often own an asset, in their own homes. They have saved and accumulated pensions, but rarely are any of them more than modest in scope. Over the past several years, through a combination of low returns on savings, the lack of eligibility for state help, rising energy bills and, particularly, the cost of ever-increasing council tax, many of them are finding it very difficult to get by. Yes, they could sell their homes, but most of them already live in small dwellings and cannot practically downsize without moving away from their friends and family. Yes, they could use equity release schemes and enjoy a modestly increased income from capital, but many of them now struggle to find such products or, in fact, are scared of using them.
These people may seem asset-rich, but they are certainly income-poor. The asset that they strived so long and
hard to obtain is now an impediment to getting any kind of help. We now face a future where many of those whom we would all regard as model citizens and who have paid much of the tax that allows the Government to function regard doing the right thing as a poor piece of advice to give to their children and wider families. That, surely, is something that we should be very concerned about.
Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for inviting me to give my maiden speech this afternoon. It is perhaps an afternoon of debuts, and I, too, wish to congratulate you on your appointment to the Chair, as well as welcoming and thanking all the other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches this afternoon. The bar has, yet again, been set very high for those of us who follow. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) for his fine speech.
In time-honoured tradition, I should like to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, the retiring MP, Liz Blackman. Ms Blackman represented Erewash with compassion and commitment and is remembered in particular for her contribution on issues to do with education and children with autism. I note from Ms Blackman's maiden speech that she commented that she was the first Labour MP for Erewash and that she hoped that Erewash would continue to return Labour MPs for many years to come. I hope that she will forgive the electorate of Erewash who have perhaps taken a different view from hers on this occasion. I do, of course, wish her well for the future.
I wish to mention two earlier predecessors as Member of Parliament for Erewash: first, Peter Rost, and secondly, Angela Knight, both of whom will be remembered fondly by the House. Angela Knight has been very supportive to me and continues to contribute extremely well to public life.
Now, for the benefit of the uninitiated or perhaps the unfamiliar, I wish to explain that the constituency of Erewash is, in fact, in south-east Derbyshire, in the heart of the east midlands, between the cities of Nottingham and Derby. The constituency derives its name from the River Erewash, which meanders through the constituency. It is right to say that the river is not without its literary references. Indeed, the author D. H. Lawrence makes reference to the River Erewash in some of his novels.
The geography of Erewash consists principally of two towns-Ilkeston and Long Eaton-as well as a number of pretty villages and a stretch of beautiful countryside. Indeed, the stretch of countryside that I refer to is under possible threat from developers through the access routes on the old Stanton ironworks, and I assure the House that I will do all that I can to preserve our green belt and valuable open space in Erewash.
The ironworks was once at the centre of employment opportunities in my constituency. Erewash has been blessed with a fine history of lace making, manufacturing and engineering. Indeed, the last, sole remaining traditional lace factory in the country still operates in Ilkeston. It is called Cluny Lace, and it has a dedicated work force and an impressive family history of work in the industry. Other industries, such as high-tech engineering, the service industry and information technology, still service
the Erewash economy, but it is right to say that the traditional industries have suffered enormously in recent years. There has been a steep decline in manufacturing over the past 10 years and the effects on the economy are still felt most keenly. It is to the credit of my constituents' ingenuity and entrepreneurship that a number of small and medium-sized businesses have started, with niche markets being reached and new technology helped. However, Erewash itself was not assisted by the policies of the previous Labour Government, who used their best efforts to stifle entrepreneurship and made small businesses suffer.
Erewash has much to offer any business investor: a willing work force; excellent transport links, with the M1 running through the constituency; and well-located business premises. I will do all that I can to bring investment and much-needed jobs to the families of Erewash.
We are lucky to have a well-respected and flourishing organisation called the Erewash Partnership in my constituency. It acts as an effective umbrella organisation for the local authority, all local small businesses and the voluntary sector. I shall do all that I can to support the partnership's vital work.
One route back into employment can be through volunteering; indeed, national volunteers week has just drawn to a close. My strong commitment to supporting volunteers is a principle that was impressed on me from my school days. We are lucky to have a strong army of volunteers in Erewash who help the vulnerable, the elderly and families in many different ways, and long may that continue.
There is a campaign in Erewash for the reopening of the train station, which I hope can be achieved because it would assist businesses and residents in Ilkeston. Erewash has a proud history of service on the train network. Indeed, my dear, late grandfather worked for many years as fitter on the steam trains across the east midlands. I know that he will be cheering me on from above on that particular campaign.
I am grateful to be able to contribute to this extremely important debate about poverty. As we heard earlier, more than 3 million children in the UK are living in poverty. There is a pressing need to tackle the problem, so I applaud my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's recent announcement that there will be a review on poverty in the UK and how the state can assist the least advantaged. The whole House benefited from the contribution to the debate made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who will lead the review, and I look forward to assisting in any way that I can.
Agencies working together locally to assist families is the key to fighting poverty. The reality is that the state cannot and should not seek to provide all the answers to this complex problem by itself. We have a dedicated voluntary sector with many large and small charities that help disadvantaged families in the UK. Further steps to enable the third sector to work hand in hand with social services and adult services are to be encouraged.