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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 May 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Adjournment of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.34 am

Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): Madam Speaker, I congratulate you on your election.

In this my maiden speech, I pay a warm tribute to my predecessor, Dr. John Gilbert, who represented the Dudley, East seat for 27 years. He represented the people of Dudley conscientiously and, when I was campaigning, he was often mentioned by people who came up to me in the street and commended him for the help that he had given them. I congratulate him on his recent appointment as Minister of State and on his imminent appointment as a life peer.

I now also represent two wards that were represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson)--indeed my friend as well--and I pay tribute to him. At a national level, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. This country is fortunate in having such a bold, dynamic and visionary leader, and the extent of my party's victory turned on his leadership. It also turned on the efforts of many others, including my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with his robust good sense, his background in the Labour movement and his energy, and many ordinary members, including the members of the Labour party in my constituency. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons on her appointment. The House is fortunate that the initiative for its reform is in such good hands.

I have the honour to represent Dudley, North. It is a tremendous privilege to have been elected to serve the people of that part of the black country. The region is replete with history, which dates back to prehistoric times. Castle Hill and Wren's Nest contain a unique collection of prehistoric fossils and an application has been made for world heritage listing on that basis.

As you well know, Madam Speaker, the name "the black country" derives from the time of the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, the region was a powerhouse of economic activity. It is a history of a great people who take pride in their contribution to this country's modern development. Much of that 19th-century industry has gone, but my constituency can look forward to the new millennium with confidence under a Labour Government, who are prepared to provide support for local initiatives. The Castle Gate project is just one example. The site, designed for high-tech industries of the 21st century, will now go ahead.

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We should not forget that the past 18 years have not been kind to many of my constituents. Older people have suffered in particular and unemployment, especially among young people, is far too high. I therefore welcome the Government's commitments to improve public services, the national health service and social housing, and, in particular, their undertakings on the training and employment of young people. The Labour party believes that services provided publicly, by the community, are a way of ameliorating inequality, which has been so accentuated in the past 18 years.

Before the House adjourns, I should like it to consider a number of matters. The first relates to the Government's policies to address crime. When I was campaigning during the election, I found that youth crime was of particular concern to many ordinary people. In some cases, they may misperceive the problem, but crime is an objective reality. In his recent pronouncements, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has built on the well-accepted criminological truism that certainty is as important as severity in deterring crime. That is why fast-track punishment is important. Offenders have to be sure that they will be caught and punished quickly--it is as important as what happens afterwards.

Several years ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister coined the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The causes are many. Government policies on employment generation for young people are linked to our crime prevention policies. People without hope, or a future, or who are alienated from society, are more likely to commit crime.

A number of points have struck me as I have sat in the Crown court as an assistant recorder, and now a recorder, for the past six years, although I hasten to add that my experience is limited. The first is the complexity of matters. The former Home Secretary traded in simplicities. He also rejected the findings of research, even research from his own Department. It is no wonder that those at the coal face of the criminal justice system--the judiciary, including the higher judiciary--have resoundingly rejected his approach.

Secondly, I was struck by the fact that so much crime is drug and alcohol related. A number of hon. Members have said the same and mentioned the irresponsibility of some parts of the drinks industry. I agree that something must be done.

A third point that has struck me is that many people who appear before me in the Crown court have not had a decent start in life. We see that in the pre-sentence reports. That certainly does not absolve them from responsibility for their acts but it means, as the Prime Minister has said, that we must tackle the causes as well as the manifestations of crime.

Before the House adjourns, I should also like it to consider the recent pronouncements of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. One announcement concerned the operational independence of the Bank of England. The main Opposition party has taken issue with that on the basis that the decision was taken without parliamentary debate or statement, but it is in the nature of such things that events move quickly. In fact, it was an astute move. It back-footed the markets and richly deserves the praise that it has won. It is consistent with international developments in the operation of monetary policy and it also puts us in a position to comply

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with the Maastricht treaty should we decide to be part of the European single currency. There will still be accountability through the Monetary Policy Committee and a more representative Court at the Bank. More important, the Government will continue to set the inflation target.

I was gratified to hear the Governor of the Bank of England say last week:

I welcome that statement; it is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is seeking to achieve.

I have been fortunate to serve on several International Monetary Fund missions to central banks in Asia and eastern European countries. I have to confess that sometimes the Governor's realistic appraisal of goals was rather lost in the concern for price stability. In countries with rampant inflation, price stability must be an overriding factor but, as the Governor has rightly said, and as the Chancellor has also made clear, the central goals must be growth and employment with stability, as the Chancellor has said, a platform to those ends.

I hope that before the House adjourns it will take into account the various matters that I have mentioned.

9.43 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): It is a pleasure and an honour to follow the eloquent and detailed maiden speech made by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston). I hope that my contribution will match his in eloquence and content.

It is a privilege to represent the beautiful constituency of Oxford, West and Abingdon. I am the first Liberal to sit for Oxford since a certain Mr. Frank Grey, who won in 1922 and 1923. On both occasions there was a two-party contest between the Liberals and Conservatives--a luxury that we can no longer enjoy. Unfortunately, Mr. Grey was unseated after an election petition, the charge--or at least the allegation--being that he tampered with the signals on the railway to prevent a train carrying Conservative voters from arriving from Oxford and disgorging its contents. It seems that 70 years later, the previous Government found an even more effective way to stop people going about their business on the railways through their privatisation programme.

In representing Oxford, I am also following the late Evan Luard who was latterly a member of the Social Democratic party, which I also joined. We therefore share not only a relatively rare first name, shared as far as I know in political circles only by the son of the new Prime Minister, but our political beliefs. He was followed by my immediate predecessor, the right hon. John Patten.

John Patten was considered a controversial Member of Parliament, yet he was and is well respected in the constituency for his courtesy to his political opponents and his constituents and for the effective and prompt way in which he dealt with constituency matters. Although I might not agree with much of what he said during the years that he served the constituency, I pay full tribute to his record as a constituency Member of Parliament and his record of standing up for what he believed in,

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even though it might court controversy. I hope that in also making a stand on things that matter to me, I can follow in his footsteps.

Oxford, West and Abingdon has many claims to fame. Because of its old and beautiful university, it has perhaps more libraries than any other constituency, more chapels and, of course, more bars and pubs. Indeed, I served my political apprenticeship 10 years ago among those chapels, libraries and bars. That allows me to note now the colleges of Balliol, Brasenose, Corpus Christi, Christ Church, Exeter, Hertford, Jesus, Keble, Kellog, Lincoln, Linacre, Lady Margaret Hall, Mansfield, Magdalen, Manchester, Merton, New college, Oriel, the Queen's college, Regent's Park, St. Anne's, St. Antony's, St. Catherine's, St. Edmund Hall, St. Hilda's, St. Hugh's, St. John's, St. Peter's, Trinity, University, Wadham, which is my own fondly remembered alma mater, Wolfson and Worcester.

The risk in that recitation of the oft-travelled canvass trips is that I may have missed some out, but I must pay due respect to the voters of those colleges--first-time voters at that--who, in large numbers, decided to return a Liberal Democrat. Partly it was because they recognised the importance for the future of this country of investment in education, not only in school education from which many of them benefited in the state sector, as I did in Liverpool, but in higher education.

Before the House adjourns, it is important that we consider the future of higher education. The university sector is under great pressure with the unit of funding having been reduced serially since the expansion of numbers, which was welcomed by all, but which was significantly underfunded. The threat of the end of free education for a first degree, for young as well as adult learners, should be treated with grave concern.

Access to higher education is already restricted to those well enough off to ensure that they can get through their university days without descending into poverty or those perhaps able to take out loans contingent on the fact that they are entering professions for which the remuneration will be sufficient to pay off those loans. The concern is that we not only damage access for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, such as people who went to my own comprehensive school in Liverpool, some of whom I know had to drop out of university education because of the cost, but close off access to higher education for those pursuing careers that are less well paid. In many cases, young graduates find that they cannot consider entering a career in the caring professions or in public service.

Hon. Members have expressed great concern about the recruitment levels of those entering the teaching or nursing profession, entry to which now usually requires a degree. Labour Members will be interested to know that, in my own profession, the starting salary for junior hospital doctors for out-of-hours work is around £3.50 an hour. They should be concerned that those who are treating, out of normal working hours, the sick and the most vulnerable in society are among the lowest-paid in the country.

I was proud to represent junior doctors in my trade union--the British Medical Association--not only in Oxford, West and Abingdon, but across the south-east. The BMA has pressed for due consideration of not only terms and conditions of employment but the work load

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that has fallen upon those who are working in the acute hospital sector. I include in that sector the legion of managers who now work in the health service. When I started on the wards, one would never see a manager beyond the normal working day on the wards of my local hospitals, the Radcliffe infirmary or the Oxford Radcliffe hospital. Even managers, however, are now pressed into action, when patient waiting times become too great. Managers, rather than junior doctors, are working hard to find beds--which are often in short supply--in which to place patients until an appropriate management plan can be made.

Before the House adjourns, I hope that we resolve to tackle the problems of the acute hospital sector, for the benefit not only of patients--who are feeling the effects of the excess work load placed on those working in the profession and of shortened hospital stays--but of those working in the hospital sector, on whom the national health service, which is under great pressure, must rely. Those people are doing ever more overtime and working ever harder, for seemingly less and less reward.

It is a pleasure for me to represent not only my fellow trade unionists within the medical profession but all my constituents in Oxford, West and Abingdon. People in my constituency have an outlook that extends not only to their own city and country. My constituency is the home of the Oxfam charity, and its university is the home of several third-world organisations. They look beyond our shores to think of people who are less well off than ourselves.

During the general election campaign, I made a pledge--which I hope to implement--to ensure that, when considering how to redistribute our country's resources, we not only think of the people of these islands, but consider how we can ensure that the world in which we live can be a fitter place, in which resources are shared more fairly between the first world and those in less developed countries. If I have a part to play in achieving that goal, I shall have served my constituents proud.

It is an honour to have been elected to the House, and I hope to be able to raise all these issues in this Parliament.

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