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11.20 am

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak so early in this Parliament; with so many new Members coming in at the general election, I had visions, or perhaps nightmares, of making my maiden speech some time around Christmas, so I am delighted to get in.

It is an honour to serve in the House, with the tradition and history that it oozes--I thank first the members of the Jarrow Labour party who nominated me and the constituents who voted me into this splendid House to represent their interests--but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take on board some changes that could be made to improve its functioning. I draw attention to the voting system in particular. I read recently about schools being failed after a visit from a group of inspectors; if that group studied our voting system, we would certainly be failed automatically. That should be considered, but I leave it in the hands of the Leader of the House.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Don Dixon. I am in a good position to do that, as I am a good friend of his and have known him for many years. Many hon. Members will know Don; he certainly stamped his authority on the House in his role as Opposition Deputy Chief Whip. He came from a traditional, humble background in Jarrow. He had a basic education; worked in a shipyard; came up through trade union politics; became leader of Jarrow

21 May 1997 : Column 654

council; and was elected to Tyneside council, transforming the whole of south Tyneside with his vision of council housing. He was then elected to the House in 1979, and served it well.

The great thing about Don was that he set great store by loyalty; he has shown loyalty to all those who know him, to the Labour party and, as I know for a fact, to the House. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties respect the job that he did, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for recommending his early elevation to the House of Lords; we in Jarrow see that as a tribute to Don, and we take it as a tribute to the people of Jarrow.

It is customary for new Members to speak about the constituency for which they have been elected. Once again, I am in a fairly good position, as I was born, bred and educated in Jarrow and know the town very well, but the constituency contains not only the town of Jarrow but the town of Hebburn; the villages of Boldon, Cleadon and Whitburn; and the new ward of Wrekendyke, which was transferred in the recent boundary changes.

My constituency is, of course, very famous in Labour history. It was built over the past century on a heavy industrial base on the Tyne. Sadly, that base declined through the 1980s. The last coalfield in Jarrow has closed, as have the steel industry and most of the shipping industry. With those closures, I am sad to say, many good, hard-working, decent people were discarded and told, "We no longer need your services, thank you very much." That is and always will be a tragedy and a message about what happened in the 1980s.

If there is one message that I would like to get across in this maiden speech, it is the need for jobs in Jarrow. It is very sad that, last Monday, yet another Jarrow march set off, this time on the way to Europe, nearly 61 years after the first Jarrow march, when Ellen Wilkinson and 200 men from Jarrow walked to London in the search for jobs.

At the meeting to see the marchers setting off for Europe on Monday, I expressed the hope that it would be the last march to have to leave Jarrow in search of jobs. Remember that the marchers who left on Monday left with exactly the same principles as those who left in 1936: they were after not handouts or charity, but real jobs, because unemployment affects people as individuals; it affects families; and, if there is mass unemployment, as there is in the north and in Jarrow in particular, it affects the town. It is no wonder that there are social divisions throughout the country.

It has sometimes annoyed me over the past decade or so--I hope that Ministers will take this on board--that unemployment is spoken of in percentages, with this per cent. in Jarrow, that per cent. in Liverpool and so on. Percentages are no good, because an unemployed individual is 100 per cent. unemployed. It is important to remember that.

Old habits die hard: I was reading Ellen Wilkinson's book, "The Town That Was Murdered", and found some interesting parallels between the 1930s and the 1980s. For example, she said that in the mid-1930s unemployment in Jarrow was about 70 per cent., while in the neighbouring town of Hebburn it was lower, so the Government decided to merge the figures and came up with a figure of 35 per cent.: they cut unemployment overnight. There is an interesting parallel with the 30 changes in the way in which the figures have been calculated.

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Ellen Wilkinson also provided some interesting parallels concerning youth unemployment, which was rife then as now in Jarrow, and about people being thrown on the scrap heap at 40 and left to go stale and vegetate at home, wasting all the skills and promise that they showed in early life.

As Member of Parliament for Jarrow, I want to press the claim for jobs, which I consider to be imperative. That is why I welcome the Government's jobs package to get 250,000 youngsters nationally from welfare into work and to give the long-term unemployed the chance to get back into work, financed by a windfall tax on the privatised utilities.

Of course, we would be kidding everybody if we said we could build utopia overnight, but we must remember that the Labour party's pledges are a commitment and an indication of our priorities. The unemployed are of central importance to our programme. We are making a start, and I am sure that we will do more over the coming Parliament.

It is not as though the people of Jarrow and the surrounding area were lying back through the 1980s. Both councils in my constituency, South Tyneside and Gateshead, have been working actively with the private sector to try to generate jobs in the area. In particular, South Tyneside, which covers most of my constituency, has drawn up many innovative schemes to try to rejuvenate the area, in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors through an organisation called STEP, the South Tyneside Enterprise Partnership. Schemes include extension of the metro, provision of a second Tyne tunnel through a private finance initiative project, and preparation of green-field sites for industry.

I make no bones about the fact that I will press the Government on jobs for my area. I hope that we will get positive, urgent decisions on matters such as the second Tyne tunnel and STEP's single regeneration budget bid, which covers Jarrow and Hebburn. We need early decisions because those matters are vital for the area. There is much hope in my constituency. I make no apology for pressing the case for jobs in Jarrow, as other hon. Members will for their constituencies. I will often repeat the same message. I hope that we will be able to deliver for the people of Jarrow.

11.30 am

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons), for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), among others, on making their maiden speeches.

I am the first ever Labour Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. Against all the odds, we won the seat, but we also won the argument. It was Labour, not the Liberal Democrats, who fought the Conservatives. It will be like that for ever more. We shall continue to win because people will back new Labour as they need a good, hard-working constituency Member of Parliament and a good new Labour Government.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Derek Conway, who gave the constituency great public service for 14 years. I pay tribute also to his predecessor,

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Sir John Langford-Holt, who was held in great affection and high regard for 38 years before Mr. Conway. As I am only the third Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham since the war, I trust that the precedent for such longevity of service will continue. I pledge that I will fight for the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham with great heart and vigour.

I thank the Palace of Westminster staff, who have been so kind and helpful not only to me but to other new Members. They have set a standard in friendliness and in always being able to help us out. I also thank the voters who voted for me and my campaign team, who worked so tirelessly. I must thank my wife, Shelly, and my son, Alexander, who sacrificed much family life so that I could be here. I ask the powers that be to spell my wife's name correctly. I do not want to incur her wrath; in a choice between her wrath and the wrath of the Whips, give me the Whips' wrath any time. To those who warn that I would not want to incur the wrath of the Whips, I say, "You don't know my wife."

Last week, I brought my son, who is only 18 months old, to the Commons. One problem was that I had to explain that the television sets around the House cannot yet be tuned to Postman Pat or the Teletubbies. However, I might push the Finance and Services Committee to consider the possibility. My other problem was that my son is so young that he did not know the ways of this great Palace. When he could not get his own way, he decided to lie prostrate in the corridors of power, kicking and screaming. I was a little embarrassed until I found that that was not too unusual in the Commons.

To echo other maiden speeches, I hope that the House will become more family-friendly. I know that great strides have already been made but, as a father, I shall support measures to make it more user-friendly to families.

It is a great honour to serve the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham. The constituency's history goes back thousands of years. The village of Wroxeter, which is near Shrewsbury, was a Roman city--in its heyday, the fourth largest in Britain. Acton Burnell, another small village near Shrewsbury, held the third Parliament of Edward I.

Some might disagree, but I truly believe that Shrewsbury is delightful--the finest town in England. It is dominated by its 15th-century black and white Tudor housing and narrow cobbled streets. It is the birthplace of Charles Darwin. The surrounding villages account for my constituency's name. Atcham represents the quarter of its voters who live in rural areas. It is some of the most beautiful countryside to be seen. Hon. Members may recall that we have an annual flower show. I do not want to cause a dispute with the Minister for sport, but it can hold its own with any in the country.

Shrewsbury does not rely only on the past. It has a great future. It has a thriving business community with great plans for expansion. I trust that I can play a part in bringing more investment to the town and surrounding areas. I hope that our Challenge 2000 bid to try to create a new business venture in the north of Shrewsbury, which will bring up to 2,500 much needed jobs to the town, will be successful. Youth unemployment is especially bad in some deprived areas of Shrewsbury. People may say, "What deprived areas in Shrewsbury?" However, there are such areas. Many towns and villages around Britain have, like some parts of Shrewsbury, suffered over the

21 May 1997 : Column 657

past 18 years. I hope that our pledge to put 250,000 youngsters back to work or into training will help up to 200 young people in the Shrewsbury area. I shall work in partnership with councils, businesses, the voluntary sector or whoever else to help to bring more jobs to Shrewsbury.

I mentioned the Acton Burnell Parliament of 1283, the main purpose of which was to provide for the recovery of debts. I welcome the measure in the Gracious Speech that will ensure that, at long last, large companies pay their debts on time. Small businesses have suffered much: one has gone out of business every three minutes since 1992. We need to help them quickly. Those entrepreneurs will help us to forge ahead and create more jobs.

The new Labour Government have set a new direction and offer new politics for Britain. For business circles, one of the Government's main attributes will be the creation of private-public partnerships and agreements. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale. The public purse cannot fund everything in future. We must take the social conscience of the public sector and work with the dynamic, efficient private sector to come together as one to provide the services that the country needs.

On business, I look forward to the information technology opportunities that lie ahead, especially for rural areas. Many young people in rural areas in my constituency could work from home, the village hall or a communal area using information technology.

It was a great travesty to see Shrewsbury Town football club relegated last season. Of course, that occurred under my predecessor, so I look forward to the football club rightly being promoted in the coming seasons so that it can become a centre for the town.

Farming is of key importance in my constituency and farmers there have been devastated by BSE. The handling of the BSE crisis was terrible and I welcome the Foreign Secretary's pledge to work with Europe and to be at the centre of Europe in order to ensure the lifting of the beef ban as quickly as possible. I cannot stress enough how hard the crisis has hit some of those beef farmers, especially those on small farms. They have had to endure not just the financial hardship but the mental stress that has been inflicted on themselves and their families. I trust that things will improve quickly.

We need a reform of the common agricultural policy and it must be linked to enhancing the environment. We must ensure that in future we do not pay farmers to do nothing with set-aside. We should ask them and pay them to enhance the environment.

I should like to say a quick word about our terrific hospital, the Royal Shrewsbury. It has had to undergo incredible hardship and cuts over the past 18 years and I pay tribute to all the staff, the doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and consultants, who have worked so hard to provide such an excellent service in spite of financial difficulties.

I want to extend a warm invitation to any hon. Member to come to Shrewsbury to taste the delights of such a wonderful area and take in the beautiful countryside.

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