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6 Dec 2000 : Column 6

Debate on the Address

[First Day]

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the mover and seconder of the humble Address, I should inform the House that the proposed pattern of debate during the remaining days of debate on the Queen's Speech will be as follows:

Thursday 7 December--health and social security; Friday 8 December--education and industry; Monday 11 December--foreign affairs and defence; Tuesday 12 December--home affairs and inner cities; Wednesday 13 December--the economy.

I now call Sir John Morris to move the humble Address, and Miss Anne Begg to second it.

2.35 pm

Sir John Morris (Aberavon): I beg to move,

It is the privilege of a Government Back Bencher to move the address. I have had to wait 41 years for the opportunity. I make no complaint: owing to the kindness and, may I say, most immodestly, the wisdom of three successive Labour Prime Ministers, I have simply not been available, because I was holding ministerial office from time to time. After 18 years, at a mature age--although not quite as mature as many Chinese statesmen--it was a particular delight to be called back to office by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to become a Minister in a Government pledged to build a sound economy and, on that basis, to improve the quality of life. My right hon. Friend would be the first to agree that there is much more work to be done in this Parliament and the next.

When Lloyd George's son, Gwilym Lloyd George, was Home Secretary, he was driving in Wales accompanied by his permanent secretary. When they got lost on a back road, they stopped and asked a pedestrian, "Where are we?" "In a motor car." was the reply. The permanent secretary sagely observed, "That was a perfect parliamentary answer. It was short, it was accurate and it did not reveal any information that was not already known." My speech will be short and I hope that it will be accurate, but it will reveal things about my constituency that are not known to most hon. Members.

It is a happy tradition on this occasion to refer to one's constituency and to the people who sent one here. I do so with gratitude--the gratitude of my wife and I. Together, my immediate predecessor and I have served Aberavon for 71 years. If we are not Labour's heartlands, who are? Whatever may occur in future, I would deplore the loss of the Member-constituency link--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] When, after 23 years, I lost part of my constituency, I missed the friendship of two generations. My constituents and I had grown up and grown older together.

Aberavon is a small constituency, consisting of an old mining valley--there were four pits when I started in Parliament; a sea shore with one of the most efficient

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steelworks in Europe at Port Talbot; and the west, where BP Oil and BP Chemicals used to provide much larger employment. The architectural jewel in the crown is Margam park, with its magnificent orangery--now restored--which, in its proportions, is not unlike the orangery at Versailles, and which has been the scene of many major gatherings in south Wales.

Apart from steel, we have produced famous actors: Sir Anthony Hopkins, a fellow freeman of Port Talbot, and Richard Burton. One of my most pleasant duties as a Member was to attend Elizabeth Taylor's 40th birthday party--

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Sixty years ago.

Sir John Morris: Gallantry forbad me from saying how long ago it was.

When the Abbey steelworks was being built at Port Talbot in the late 1940s, men and women from throughout the country flocked to man it. Housing, schools and community facilities had to be built quickly. In 1959, when I started, 16,000 men and women used to enter the works. The number employed has shrunk to well under 4,000. Too many of my constituents have lost job opportunities, and little was done to replace them. Their children had to get on their bikes to find work elsewhere.

The weakness of the euro is a constant anxiety for steelmakers, as it is for other manufacturers that are dependent on exports to Europe. We note with interest and relief the recent strengthening of the euro.

Investment in steel has been made locally in recent years, and last year I was privileged to open a new line at a cost of £190 million. However, it is operated by a handful of engineers, both men and women. We shall follow closely yesterday's changes in the leadership of the steel industry.

Attracting new industry west of Bridgend is a perennial problem in south-west Wales. The lifting of the moratorium on gas-powered electricity plants for Baglan energy park was a significant signal of the Government's listening and understanding. We appreciated the personal interest of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in ensuring that the leading-edge technology of General Electric of America was facilitated there. If all goes well, the energy park, with its cheaper energy, should be a major catalyst for the attraction of new industry on a substantial scale, which is one of the major concerns of that part of the heartlands.

As an old mining area, we share the impatience of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the need to speed up compensation for ex-miners and their widows. My grandfather went down the pit at 13, and I have seen too many instances in others of the ravages of coal mining on the human frame. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, the responsible Minister, is tackling the problem energetically. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will do his utmost to ensure the success of the new plans for the adaptation of the scheme for Wales. All power to their elbow, because for many time is running out. It is certainly a matter of concern in the heartlands.

I welcome the Bill to improve performance in the health service, and the money provisions in the Finance Bill. In my constituency, we are having a new hospital

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built at Baglan, but that is no thanks to the three, if not four, Conservative Secretaries of State whom I called upon to make a decision on my many visits to the Welsh Office--I wore the carpet threadbare on my visits there.

The Leader of the Opposition, when he was Welsh Secretary, was most gracious in his welcome. I even offered him the chance to drive the ministerial bulldozer and cut the first sod if he took the decision. He never did, and his time ran out.

Where Welsh Conservative Secretaries of State failed, the Welsh Assembly delivered. Miss Jane Hutt, the Welsh Health and Social Services Secretary, and I together dug the first sod, bringing 15 years of campaigning to a conclusion. Against that background, I welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to making devolution in Scotland and Wales work, and to the introduction of a Bill to extend the functions of the Children's Commissioner for Wales.

Jobs for the young are of particular concern to the heartlands. Since the new deal was introduced, youth unemployment in Aberavon has fallen by 86 per cent: 456 young people have found a job through the new deal. Since 1997, there has been a 26 per cent. fall in overall unemployment. That is reflected right across the country. What a waste of national resources it was to spend money on long dole queues when there were so many better things to do by investing in improving society.

Many of my constituents have retired from employment in the steel, coal, oil and chemical industries, and they have occupational pensions. We followed and welcomed the Chancellor's November proposals. The 13,320 pensioners in Aberavon welcomed the proposed pension increases from next April. My pensioners are the nation's investors. They have invested their working lives in our industries, and the Chancellor is recognising that.

In the heartlands, as elsewhere, we are concerned about crime, in particular the small number of youths who perpetrate car theft, acts of vandalism and nuisance. The effect of the actions of a few is out of all proportion to their numbers. When I was Attorney-General, I joined my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor in speeding up justice for young offenders. In my constituency, the car is vital for many people to travel to work, so there will be a particular welcome for a Bill to cut vehicle crime and a Bill to tackle disorderly conduct and raise the age for child curfews.

Lastly, I welcome a Bill that enables the United Kingdom to ratify the statute of the international criminal court. The Government have taken a lead in getting international agreement to set up the court. We believe that those who commit crimes against humanity should be brought to justice, and from the evidence of my postbag so do many of my constituents.

I commend the Gracious Speech to the House, and I wish my colleagues in government well.

2.49 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I think the whole House will agree that it has certainly been worth waiting 41 years for the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Sir J. Morris).

It is regarded as a great honour for a new--or newish, as I have been in the House for three and a half years--Back Bencher to second the Loyal Address. It is an

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honour not only for the hon. Member, but for the hon. Member's constituency. I was absolutely thrilled when my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip approached me a year ago and asked whether I would be interested in seconding the Loyal Address. I was so thrilled, indeed, that three days later I had an argument with a car at Aberdeen airport, and the car won. It is amazing to what lengths some people will go to avoid delivering a speech.

Last year my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) did a sterling job--his act will be hard to follow. However, I am back, fighting fit and delighted to be here today, as it is indeed a great honour--or perhaps not. Since I agreed with such alacrity to deliver this speech, I have discovered a disturbing pattern among those who have previously seconded the Loyal Address.

It is generally assumed that the seconder on such occasions is an up-and-coming Member of Parliament, one to watch. From my side of the House, such luminaries as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip and Neil Kinnock have carried out the duty that I am performing today.

If we look at the constituencies of those who have seconded the Loyal Address since I was born, which was 45 years ago today--[Hon. Members: "Happy birthday!"]--I am glad not to be told that I do not look a day over 50! During the past 45 years, I am the fifth hon. Member representing Aberdeen, South to deliver such a speech. It is an honour for Aberdeen, South, undoubtedly, but possibly not an honour for those elected to represent the constituency.

Let us examine the history of those who have represented Aberdeen, South. In 1957 a predecessor, Lady Tweedsmuir, proposed the Loyal Address, but in 1966 she lost the seat to Labour. The next hon. Member for Aberdeen, South to participate was Iain Sproat in 1972, who seconded the Loyal Address. He did not lose Aberdeen, South, but in 1983 he thought that he might lose, so he went off to fight what he thought would be the safe Tory seat of Roxburgh and Berwickshire. The Tories won Aberdeen, South in 1983, but I am afraid that in Roxburgh and Berwickshire Iain Sproat lost.

Next up was Gerry Malone, who seconded the Loyal Address in 1985. The Liberals did not win Aberdeen, South, but two years later Gerry Malone lost. Then there was Raymond Robertson, who seconded the Loyal Address in 1994. We all know what happened to Raymond Robertson in 1997--he lost.

Hon. Members will understand why it is with some trepidation and not a little foreboding that I address the House today. Perhaps I had the right idea last year, when I used all possible means to get out of this. Since the second world war, the only two hon. Members for Aberdeen, South who did not have the privilege of proposing or seconding the Loyal Address were my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) and the sadly missed late Donald Dewar. They both lost the seat as well. I am the first Labour Member to deliver the speech, and provided that I never take the voters of Aberdeen, South for granted, I hope to change the pattern.

I know that it is the custom on such occasions for the Leader of the Opposition to pay tribute to right hon. and hon. Members who have died since the previous Gracious Speech, and I am sure that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) will pay fitting tribute to

6 Dec 2000 : Column 10

Donald Dewar. However, I crave the understanding of the House if I, too, indulge in some reminiscence of my most famous predecessor.

Donald knew better than most how difficult a seat Aberdeen, South was to win and subsequently to hold. All through the 1997 election campaign, when everything seemed to be going so well, when members of my campaign team were up-beat--the canvass returns were good; the reaction on the streets and the doorsteps was excellent--and when everyone thought that we were on to a winner, there was always Donald saying, "Oh, I don't know. If the vote doesn't split just right, you won't win, you know." He was always a cheery soul.

Everyone has many stories about the late First Minister for Scotland. I was reminded of another one last night when I paid a visit to Dover house--the old Scottish Office when Donald was Secretary of State for Scotland. I can remember my first visit there. It was the week after the 1997 election, and I could not get to a function in Dover house because it was on the first floor and there was no lift. On that occasion, blushes were spared--mine particularly. I do not know whether hon. Members have any idea what it feels like being a lady of a certain age--I feel a bit sensitive about my age today--who has to be carried up and down stairs. On that occasion, the party was moved down to one of the offices on the ground floor.

The next time I visited Dover house, a brand new lift had been installed. "Was this put in especially for me?" I asked of the official who was showing me where it was. "Oh, not at all", he replied. "This is just part of the programme to make Government offices more accessible." Of course, the first person I met when I got out of the lift was the Secretary of State himself, Oor Donald, who asked, "And how are you finding the new lift we put in for you?" I believe he even called it Anne's lift after that. He is, and will be, sadly missed.

The electors of Aberdeen, South obviously like to keep their Members of Parliament on their toes by not taking anything for granted. One thing they like, however, is the economic stability that the Government have brought. I suppose that Aberdeen, South is a complete contrast to the heartlands described by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon, who proposed the motion. I am sure that the Finance Bill announced in today's Gracious Speech will build on the solid foundations that have already been created.

When my immediate predecessor, Raymond Robertson, delivered his speech six years ago, he observed that the Grampian area was so prosperous that, thanks to the Conservative Government he supported, it had an

I can report to the House that since this Labour Government came to power, unemployment in Aberdeen, South has dropped by more than half and is now only 2.2 per cent. Much of that reduction is obviously due to the oil and gas industry--and thanks to the high price of oil at the moment. I know that not everyone thinks that a high oil price is necessarily a good thing, but in Aberdeen we can be quite pleased. The high oil price means that the United Kingdom will continue to be a major player in the oil industry, and Aberdeen will play an important part. There were several very important announcements this summer of new developments on the UK continental shelf, which should secure the jobs of many in my constituency.

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However, there are, and always were, pockets of deprivation in Aberdeen, South, which the Government are slowly addressing. I make a special plea for the fish processing industry, which still provides more than 1,500 jobs in Aberdeen, South. Because of the lack of available fish, the processing industry is facing some serious difficulties--we hope that those difficulties are temporary, but the industry needs to overcome them if it is to survive as the thriving industry it once was.

Transport links are also very important to my constituency. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I am not going to make any jokes about the frozen north. The promise to improve transport safety is very much to be welcomed. I hope that the Bill that will bring about safer travel by sea will also apply to fishing vessels.

My constituents in Aberdeen, South are very internationalist in outlook. They have welcomed people from all over the world who came to live and work in Aberdeen, particularly in the oil and gas industry. One of the issues about which I have had a large number of letters is the Jubilee 2000 drop the debt campaign. I have also received many letters condemning human rights abuses in many countries and asking the Government to take action. Those constituents of mine will be delighted with the proposal to set up an international criminal court.

The fact that education was left out of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was passed by the previous Government, has rightly been strongly criticised. I am therefore glad that that omission will be rectified in the proposed special educational needs and disability Bill. Unless we take discrimination against disabled children and young adults out of the education system, the dream of having full civil rights for people with disabilities will remain a dream and never become a reality.

As a former teacher, I know about the importance of a good education. That is doubly true if we expect, as expect we should, disabled children to grow up to play their full part in society, so that they too can contribute and not always have to be the recipient of charity or good will.

People such as my brother, who is a general practitioner, will be delighted to see an end to tobacco advertising.

I am sure that my constituents will be happy to note that where Scotland leads, the rest of the United Kingdom follows. A number of Bills fall into that category. The Bill dealing with the mode of trial will bring English law into line with that in Scotland. The curfews on teenagers were piloted in Scotland, with some success. The House will be given a free vote on the issue of hunting with hounds, a barbaric practice about which more of my constituents have written to me than about any other subject.

It has been a great honour to second the motion on the Loyal Address. I hope only that I shall be present to hear the next one.

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