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4.54 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate.

First, I thank the people of the Mid-Dorset and North Poole constituency for electing me as their Member of Parliament. It is a great honour to represent them and I promise to do my best in serving them.

Mid-Dorset and North Poole was a new constituency, created in 1997. Hence, my predecessor, Christopher Fraser, was its first Member of Parliament. I pay tribute to his diligent and conscientious work for his constituents. Here, his parliamentary career progressed within a relatively short time. He was appointed Private Parliamentary Secretary to Lord Strathclyde. I recall it being reported in our local press that Christopher was voted the best dressed MP. I fear that I cannot aspire to his never-failing extremely smart appearance.

It is traditional to spend a little time describing one's constituency. That will give me particular pleasure, as mine has one minor defect: its name, which presents problems to media commentators and local residents, and certainly does not give a real sense of place. It is located in a beautiful part of the country and I am proud to live in such a special area, which is made up of many different individual communities, both urban and rural. The constituency was created from parts of four other Dorset constituencies and local services are provided by four principal councils.

About two thirds of the electorate live in the borough of Poole. This part of Poole includes more recent development, but there is great pride among local residents in belonging to the ancient borough of Poole. Four years ago, I had the great honour of being the 749th mayor of Poole. I am sad to say that I was only the 10th lady mayor in that long history.

In North Poole, we have a great source of employment, which includes the head office of Dorset chamber of commerce and industry. We have many important small and large businesses covering engineering, electronics and computer-based industries, and recently the manufacture of Poole pottery has been relocated into the constituency.

We have internationally significant heath land and outstanding recreational facilities. As we move across to the west of the constituency, and from many parts of North Poole, we have many glimpses of the famous Poole harbour, and as we go into the rural part of the constituency, which is the largest part in area, there is also a beautiful forest. We pass through villages, and when we get to the far west we reach Bere Regis and Wareham. Wareham is a beautiful Saxon walled market town and it, like Poole, was very important in trading. Perhaps some

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hon. Members have experienced a very pleasant boat trip from Poole quay to Wareham, where one can get excellent fish and chips.

I have deliberately referred to Poole harbour because my constituents would not forgive me if I did not mention the need for a second Poole bridge. I am sure that I will co-operate with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) in making sure that that is firmly on the Government's agenda.

As I have described, my constituency is made up of many diverse communities, but their interdependence and complementary nature underline many of the challenges facing the Government in terms of urban and rural policy making. The whole of my constituency is indeed greater than its parts. I wish to put Mid-Dorset and North Poole firmly in decision makers' minds.

Across the diverse communities in my constituency there is a common issue: the need for better public services. I welcome the priority given to these in the Queen's Speech. My concern is whether the detailed proposals will deliver improvements, as clearly demanded and deserved by the public.

I shall speak on one public service today--education--as it is an area in which I have direct experience as a former chair of education. Yesterday, I was aware of comments floating in the direction of the Liberal Democrat Benches that it is not simply a matter of money. Most of us would agree that we cannot improve public services just by throwing money at the problems. I would like to stop today to think about the consequences of a lack of money.

The local education authorities in my constituency--Dorset and Poole--receive considerably less funding than those in other parts of the country. In fact, for this financial year, it works out that they have together received 10 per cent. less than the average standard spending assessment in England. Nobody would expect identical allocations across the country, but we have a right to expect to understand the differentials, so that we have a fair, open and transparent system.

Parents and teachers in my constituency find it difficult to understand why schools in Poole receive on average £274 per pupil less than those in other constituencies. That seems largely to come down to the problem of the area cost adjustment. I am aware that that has been raised many, many times. It was never addressed properly by the Conservative Government and the deferring of the day of sorting out such problems seems to go on and on. Meanwhile, our children are losing out, and for all time.

On the face of it, the consequences of that lack of money in my constituency are not apparent because we achieve excellent results. However, that is due to the commitment and excellence of our teachers and the commitment of our parents. In many parts of the constituency, there have been financial improvements in schools owing to parents' commitment to providing extra funds.

However, I described my constituency as diverse, and it is. There are parts where there is extreme poverty. It is very difficult to be sure that children are receiving the education that they deserve when it is not possible for parents to put in extra money or secure sponsorship from firms and local industry. I am concerned about every child in my constituency and I would like to think that every child matters. I really want to know when those issues will be addressed.

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In 1997, Dorset returned eight male Conservative Members of Parliament. In 2001, there are six Conservative Members, one Labour Member and one Liberal Democrat--seven male and one female. Over the next few years, I hope that I will be able to demonstrate that that is an improvement in representation in more ways than one.

5.2 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on her maiden speech. She mentioned that her predecessor was voted the best dressed MP--I appreciate that that is not something to which I could ever aspire--but when she first came into the Chamber her vivid red clothes reminded me terribly of the Blair babes, as they were known. Perhaps my eyes are going. I am sure that she is immensely proud to represent a beautiful part of Thomas Hardy country. Her constituency is an excellent part of our national heritage.

I am very sad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is not in the House so that I could press her further on the proposals that she may or may not have for privatising parts of our education service. I hope that her colleagues on the Government Front Bench will relay my felicitations and congratulations not only on her very good speech but on her well deserved promotion to the sunny uplands of the Cabinet. I say without fear of contradiction that she is one person who very much deserved her promotion. Long may she be in that role and successful at it.

The Gracious Speech began with the assertion that economic stability and reform in public services will lead to

I am afraid that I must beg to differ slightly with that. Those two areas of government are very important to achieving such objectives, but many other matters must be addressed if, in the name of social justice, all our citizens are to be included and are to share in the desired prosperity.

Many of the measures set out in the Gracious Speech are certainly to be welcomed. It would be churlish not to mention them, but they relate to a particular view of government. I remember when the flavour of the month in my party was communitarianism. I did not take a great deal of notice of the half-baked ideas of Amitai Etzioni when such views were fashionable. When the third way came on to the scene, I did not lend my name to it. Indeed, I did not lend my name to the third way, the fourth way or the fifth way. Nobody could ever explain the third way to me and I never understood what they were going on about anyway. It seemed, in part at least, to represent a more technocratic and managerial view of what government can achieve--a view that is very well reflected in the Gracious Speech.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Gracious Speech did not contain the sum total of measures that will be considered by the House during the Session. Many other items might arise that were not set out in the Gracious Speech; indeed, I hope that that happens. The Speech contained a list of the Government's priorities. Presumably, they were set out at least in part to reconnect with the many millions of people who turned their backs on electoral politics last month.

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That is one theory behind the delivery argument that has repeatedly been advanced in recent weeks. I think that we must at some point explain what exactly we mean by delivery. There is certainly a high expectation of all forms of delivery in education, health, crime reduction and transport. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham): our yardstick must be what happens in our constituencies. Many good things have happened during the Government's period in office. For example, with regard to education in my constituency, I cannot cavil at the amount of capital investment that has gone into our schools, although there is still a long way to go and many have missed out. That is partly due to the ineptitude of a local Lib Dem council that cannot get its act together, but many problems have also arisen because of a basic shortage of available funding. Although plenty is available, it is not enough to meet the huge backlog that built up over the years.

On health, the circumstances are similar. Investments have been made in our local health provision, but horror stories are still coming out of local hospitals in particular. We still need to address the problem that was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), who pointed out that, despite increased resources, the service outcome often seems to get worse. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will want to consider the matter in terms of delegation or devolution of powers to a regional level. Who knows? Improvements might be made even lower down the supply chain and at the coal face, where it really counts.

The achievement of the promises that have been made on delivery in those many areas will rest on the Government's actions during the next 18 months or so. I refer to 18 months because of the long lead-in time of so many of our commitments. For example, we have a commitment to increase the number of teachers, but we need to recognise--we did not seem to do so before--that it will take a long time for the required number of teachers to train and qualify. Do we have the capacity to meet demand within the period in which people expect it to be met? It is no use talking to the electorate about a 10-year plan. They will think about what happens between now and the next election.

The commitment to produce another 10,000 or so doctors is similar. Does not it take six or seven years to train a doctor? People will expect a positive service outcome way before the first cohorts have completed their training. I accept that many have already started, but do we have the capacity to train the numbers? There is often a mismatch between presentation and the expectation that is out there.

It may seem ridiculous at such an early stage to look four years ahead, but people know how quickly the electoral cycle ends. People also understand that events in the early days of a Parliament determine what happens at its end. I like to look ahead. At the next general election, there is no way that we, the governing party, can offer excuses to the electorate, given our firm commitments on delivery. It is therefore essential to move quickly to effect the necessary changes to meet expectations.

It is not impossible to achieve that, but it does not require a technocratic view of government; it demands a political vision. I hope that we shall see signs of that shortly. When Clem Attlee became Prime Minister of a bankrupt country, he was able to effect his vision of the

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British polity in one Parliament. It did not take him four years to put in building blocks; he implemented his vision in times of great adversity. We face such urgency, at least in electoral terms, today.

I am worried about the omissions from the Gracious Speech and the expectations of people who have hitherto been Labour voters. We must all take note of what happened in the last general election. Much nonsense has been talked about it. Once the academics get into the number crunching, they will confirm what sensible observers have already divined. There was great apathy and some complacency. Some people also took the attitude of, "A plague on all your houses; you do not relate to my life." That should worry everyone in politics; several hon. Members have already said that. We must take the matter seriously because people's attitudes are linked to what the Government provide. In that context, the omissions from the Gracious Speech are especially stark.

Some of my hon. Friends have spoken about local government, which remains an important delivery mechanism, not only for central Government services but for those that directly affect the quality of life. Housing remains a major issue for people. However, the proposed changes to housing legislation deal only with those who buy and sell houses, and not with the rented sector. They should, because the rented sector is a matter of grave concern.

Like many constituencies, mine has a mix of owner- occupied, privately rented, council rented and housing association properties. Often, meaningful planning is obstructed when attempts are made to tackle serious housing problems. There is a matrix, one part of which tends to act against the other when we try to achieve something meaningful. The Gracious Speech does not tackle that.

Local councils cover poorly lit streets and potholes in the street, which are obvious manifestations of poor government in many people's eyes. Many of the more esoteric subjects with which we get carried away do not matter an iota to someone who has a leaking roof, a huge pothole in the road outside that no one will fix, or goes home down a street with broken lighting. Local authorities can and should provide the services that matter most.

However, local authorities of all political hues are over a barrel because of our terrible centralising tendency. That has happened under a Labour Government and under previous Governments. It has been growing for a long time; it is almost as if we do not trust people to get on with their lives. We have not done so for the best part of 20 or 25 years. That detracts from the democratic process and people's involvement. It also constitutes a failure to deliver what we claim we are here to provide: a tangible improvement in people's everyday lives. We simply do not do it. For me, that accounts for a major part of the disaffection felt by a large part of the electorate towards politicians of all parties at the election.

To go back to the idea of delivering on our public services, I wonder about the time frame in which expectations are set, as opposed to the time frame in which delivery can take place; for example, in the training of personnel. I also wonder what will happen to the financial settlement after 2003. It seems as though we

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shall come to a great unknown at that point. How are we going to finance the public services in a meaningful way after that date? The Government will need to be able to convince us that they can continue what appears to be a very ambitious programme for public services, and we shall need to know, quite frankly, where the money will come from.

Other issues that I would have liked to be included in the Gracious Speech have been ignored. There is nothing about the review that is needed of the financial settlement between the countries and regions of the United Kingdom. I shall not repeat what my hon. Friends have said about the unequal funding of the different parts of the United Kingdom.

In the north, we feel disadvantaged by the Barnett formula, which certainly favours Scotland and Wales. We also feel disadvantaged by an area cost adjustment that, for years, has taken money away from local government and put it into the south-east. That is all done for very sensible reasons, but the net result has been a disparity in funding between some regions of the United Kingdom and others, which cannot be justified. It seems as though the time is right to review that situation. There might be a case to be made for some of those disparities, but I cannot recollect when the last review took place.

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