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12.17 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): It is with a great sense of history and responsibility that I speak in the House for the first time as the first Labour Member to be elected at a general election to represent any part of Dorset. Indeed, South Dorset is the first Labour gain from the Conservatives in the area this century, and we look forward to many more such gains, especially in the newly fertile shire counties and in the south-west, where we are still the second largest party.

I take this opportunity to thank the electors of South Dorset again for putting their trust in me to represent them with double the majority of my predecessor. A majority of 153 may not sound much, but I was delighted to get it into three figures.

As a new Member, I am conscious of the need to learn and respect the traditions of the House; at present, it is only too easy to trip over them as I wander confusedly through the corridors full of other Members' offices. I am happy to respect the tradition of paying tribute to my predecessors, the former Members for South Dorset.

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I take over from Ian Bruce, who will be known to many in the House, as he served the people of South Dorset for 14 years as their Member of Parliament. Although we have been political opponents for the past six years, Ian and I have always had a good working relationship, co-operating when necessary for the good of the area. He has always been polite and thorough, and I was most grateful to him for the kindness he showed to my late father, who corresponded with him after I came 77 votes short of unseating him in 1997.

Ian was one of a long line of Conservative Members for South Dorset--among them, Viscount Cranborne. That line was punctuated in 1962 by the by-election victory of the late Guy Barnett, who took the seat for Labour when the Tories, strangely, were divided over Europe and managed to put up two candidates. I am confident that Tory divisions on Europe are not a precondition for Labour success in South Dorset, but I would certainly encourage the Conservative party to continue its forthright and entertaining argument for many more years to come.

Sadly, Guy Barnett fell just short of retaining his seat at the 1964 general election, but he is still recalled with great affection in Dorset. He went on to serve as the Member for Greenwich, and I know that senior Members still remember him fondly.

What kind of constituency is the Labour seat of South Dorset that I now proudly represent? The beauty is inspiring and the people are kind and generous, but I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government that appearances must not be allowed to hide the many needs of the area.

The south Dorset coast is the subject of a world heritage status bid. From Brownsea island and Poole harbour in the east, past Studland bay, Swanage sea front and Lulworth cove to the start of Chesil beach and the Fleet at Weymouth and Portland in the west, it is spectacular. I am a geography graduate, and, having studied coastal features such as Durdle Door and the longshore drift of Chesil, I am immensely proud that they are now in my constituency.

Beyond the coast, there is equally special countryside: the nature reserves at Arne, Lodmoor and Radipole, the heathland of the isle of Purbeck, the rugged beauty of Portland. All that is just a convenient train ride from Members' constituencies, and I am sure that the Travel Office would be pleased to make arrangements. Indeed, I look forward to seeing the many who will, I am sure, come down for the Tolpuddle rally, which, although it takes place in West Dorset, will take place within a mile of what is now a Labour seat. Yes, one of the crucibles of trade unionism is finally within spitting distance of a Labour constituency.

Some may wish to visit our other tourist attractions. I am thinking particularly of Conservative Members, who may want to take a break from their current campaigning. At Bovington they can visit the tank museum, and view such classics as the Chieftain, the Patton and the Challenger--and if that seems a little too limiting, they could of course pop across the road to visit Monkey World.

Beyond those attractions are great natural resources--for example, the Purbeck stone and Portland stone that can be seen in buildings all over London. We have important oil reserves. We have an international centre for

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nuclear decommissioning technology at Winfrith, and we have the army camps at Bovington and Lulworth. I was delighted to receive a letter yesterday from Colonel Beer at Bovington, reassuring me that plans to move an armoured reconnaissance regiment into the Stanley barracks were proceeding. There is a delay because of the commitment to provide our armed forces with decent accommodation, but contrary to local rumour put about during the election, the growth of Bovington is set to go ahead, with the welcome boost to our economy that will accompany it.

Further west, in Weymouth and Portland, we have a strong light industrial base, particularly involving defence-related employment, and, of course, the tourism economy, which is vital throughout my constituency.

In many ways we appear to have everything that we need in South Dorset, but we also need our fair slice of the cake. Our education standard spending assessment is one of the worst in the country, our councils desperately need a fairer funding formula, and we need to go on trying to gain attention for those of our industries that are struggling. I am thinking particularly of agriculture, tourism and defence, the mainstays of the economy of the south-west of England and of South Dorset.

Clearly agriculture is suffering, even in Dorset, where we have been fortunate enough not to have any cases of foot and mouth. The low value of the euro is one of the many difficulties that farmers face, as it translates into lower export prices and lower payments from Brussels. I look forward to campaigning for entry into the single European currency in the interests of farmers--just as soon as my right hon. Friends tell me that it is in our national interest to do so.

Tourism has, of course, also been badly hit by foot and mouth. I have tried my best to sell the area to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the rest of the House, as the perfect place to visit--it is natural rambling country--but there is now real hardship among our small tourism businesses, and footpaths have only recently reopened. Those businesses need all the help that they can get.

The seaside resorts also have long-term needs. I hope that Ministers will continue to press in Brussels for their eligibility for European Union regeneration funding. Swanage and Weymouth offer great family holidays by the sea, but are struggling to compete with Spain, Portugal and other countries in the eurozone where our pounds go a lot further than they do on the South Dorset coast.

It is crucial for the South Dorset economy that we retain strong international links, the presence of the armed forces and a vibrant defence industry. Last Sunday I attended the veterans festival in Weymouth, along with many hundreds of ex-service men and women. The area is very proud of its veterans and, uniquely, even has monthly reunions. It is a community that is proud to be British, and proud to look beyond our borders for its friendships.

Defence policy has always been, and will remain, important to the constituency. It is a remarkable tribute to the local people, on Portland in particular, that the area has not suffered more following the closure of the Ministry of Defence establishments in the last decade. It is also a tribute to schemes such as the new deal, the regional development agency and the European social fund that unemployment is now half what it was four years ago, despite thousands of job losses on Portland.

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I was delighted to hear in the Gracious Speech that we maintain our commitment to NATO and that we will be asked to agree to ratify the Nice treaty. Britain has a unique place in the world. As has been pointed out, our membership of the European Union, NATO, the Security Council, the G8 and the Commonwealth give us a unique insight into and understanding of international affairs. As active and respected players in all those organisations we can punch above our weight in many ways. We must use that influence to work to persuade the people of Europe of the merits of enlarging the European Union. Enlargement must be allowed to proceed.

Many of the countries aspiring to join have fragile democracies that survived the threat from extremist politicians thanks to the promise of entry to the EU and access to that market. Enlargement does not come without a cost, but it offers bigger markets, more stability in our region and the further extension of human rights and democracy. Enlargement offers peace and security to us and to our neighbours. Enlargement is good for Britain, and the Nice treaty is good for Britain. I look forward to furthering those arguments in the House. What is good for Britain internationally is good for my constituents, and they are the people whom I shall always seek to serve first and foremost in the House.

12.26 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): It is with great pleasure and delight that I rise to speak as the newly elected hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. It is an especial pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). His adherence to the traditions of the House, including the small circle of people--the doughnut effect--that he attracted as he spoke, shows that he has learned his early lessons well. He speaks of his new constituency with great relish, enthusiasm and considerable humour.

The hon. Gentleman's kind remarks about his predecessor, Ian Bruce, are much appreciated by Conservative Members. Ian was a friend and colleague. For a time, he was my Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Social Security. Conservative Members will miss him. The way in which the hon. Gentleman addressed the task of his maiden speech and spoke so fluently and well, bodes well for his career here. We wish him well and look forward to his contributions to future debates.

I will not stretch the credulity of the House with descriptions of an epic boyhood in Bedfordshire, and how I dipped my toes in the River Ivel and listened to the distant halloo of the Oakley hunt. It will not have escaped hon. Members' attention that my childhood home was Bury in Lancashire, which I was proud to represent here for some 14 years. It is with grateful thanks to the good people of North-East Bedfordshire that I am returned as one of the unfortunately named "retreads".

I am proud to be a retread. For those who have served in public life, there is an advantage in taking that experience into a different form of work and experiencing something outside the House for a time. One sees things from a new perspective, finds out from other people what is really on their minds and what they would really like us to talk about, gains a new insight into how they see us, and learns what the price of coffee is in the rest of London, rather than here.

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I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House and members of staff for the warm welcome that they have given me since I returned. I mention in particular members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship and members of the parliamentary football team, who have been very kind to me. I must scotch the rumour that I decided to return to the House on the day I learned that the parliamentary football team now went abroad to play matches against teams such as the Hungarian Parliament. It is not true that that settled my mind, but it did make a contribution.

North-East Bedfordshire is, geographically, a vast constituency. It stretches from Northamptonshire in the north to Hertfordshire in the south, from Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes to Cambridgeshire and Huntingdon. The historic county town of John Bunyan is neatly skirted around. In all aspects, North-East Bedfordshire is a delight. Domesday book villages nurture listed churches throughout the constituency. The rivers Ivel and Great Ouse flow through the constituency, and the channels of communication are the historic Great North road and the Great North Eastern Railway, which takes commerce right through the constituency to various destinations.

Predominantly rural, the villages of north Bedfordshire and the activities of farming and growing have for generations given a particular shape and character to the people and the land there. There is deep affection for and understanding of the county's heritage. However, we also look to the future of agriculture, which remains one of the nation's great, and most efficient and productive, industries. Agriculture makes a tremendous contribution to national life.

History and attractions abound in the constituency. In Cardington we have the sheds where the great airships such as the R101 were built. The Shuttleworth aircraft collection and the Swiss garden are world renowned. In the north of the constituency, the Santa Pod raceway would provide an enjoyable day out for most hon. Members. At the southern tip of the constituency, Arlesey Town football club brought home the FA vase from Wembley as recently as 1995. In this place, the constituency is also represented, in the Refreshment Department, by the excellent products of the Jordan family, who manufacture healthy food and cereal bars that we all enjoy.

The towns of Biggleswade and Sandy are growing rapidly. People in those towns are employed in modern engineering industries and in high-tech, commercial and retail businesses. However, a growing number of them commute to various other places, particularly London.

Business, local authorities and the voluntary sector come together to promote pride in Bedfordshire. People there are friendly and hard working and very proud of their public services. They are also strongly community minded, as was demonstrated to me on my first constituency engagement, last weekend, at the re-opening of the Great Barford lower school swimming pool, an event which I much enjoyed.

My constituents deserve the very best from those who represent them, and in Sir Nicholas Lyell they had exactly that--a man dedicated to public life, serving constituency, his county, his party and the nation. He will be remembered in the House for his 22 years' service, which were distinguished by his courteous manner and his able holding of some of the major legal offices of state. In

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Bedfordshire, in both the constituencies that he represented, he is remembered on many doorsteps as a Member of Parliament who worked for everyone. He will be much missed in the county, and as someone whom I must follow, he sets me a great challenge.

Sir Nicholas was my predecessor. However, I should also like to spend a moment on my successor, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who beat me in the 1997 general election and has retained his seat. On more occasions than were really necessary he has made generous references to me, both in this place and in the constituency. For that I am truly grateful. It has also served the purpose that he sought and ensured that I did not chase him again. I hope that he appreciates that.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Bury, North has yet encountered my favourite old constituent, whose cheek and brass neck will take some matching by my new constituents. He came to see me at one surgery, from one of our poorest council estates, sat down and said, "Mr. Burt, I want your help. My front door was wrecked six weeks ago. I told the council, but they have done nothing about it." As a Conservative Member with a Labour-controlled local authority, I eagerly picked up my pen, as the case was money for jam, I said, "Mr. So-and-so, that is interesting. Tell me about it. How did your front door come to be wrecked?" He said, "The police broke it down during a raid." I put down my pen. The case was clearly more difficult than it seemed. I said, "What does that have to do with the council?" He said, "The police told the council all about it and the council could have told me. If I had been there, I would have held open the door for the police and they wouldn't have had to break it down." I looked at him very sternly and said, "You must tell me, did the police find anything in their raid?" Having checked that there was no one else in the room, looking round very carefully, he whispered to me, "Mr. Burt, not what they were looking for."

Having demonstrated their scepticism about the Government by returning me at the general election, my constituents will have listened to the Gracious Speech with mixed emotions. They all welcome the measures that are obviously intrinsically good, such as the reform of the adoption laws. For those who commute on the trains, the reform of rail safety will be a matter of great importance. However, they all share my wry bemusement about how competition and enterprise can be strengthened, as the Gracious Speech states, by the Government's usual activities of higher taxation and greater regulation.

Bedfordshire's rapidly growing population will be intensely interested in proposals for reforms designed to deliver better public services. Like me, they may feel that past performance does not bode well. We now have fewer police officers, our health authority is underfunded and our Conservative county council--triumphantly re-elected the other week--struggles to provide services for those who are already there, let alone the many thousands of people who will live in the new houses that the Government have asked to be built in the county.

My constituents will expect me to scrutinise carefully the progress that the Government seek to make as set out in the Gracious Speech, and I shall certainly do so. There was deep disappointment, though little surprise, at the lack of a mention of rural affairs. The impact of the crisis in the countryside is very deep and goes beyond the immediate families and into the communities. The loss of

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about 60 per cent. of farm income during the previous Parliament is an indication of that, and the anger that the farming community felt was expressed at the ballot box.

I am aware of the conventions of the House and do not wish to delve too deeply or be too critical, but Labour Members will know that I will return time and again to this subject. It adds to the bitterness in the countryside that the Government have given such priority to the reintroduction of a Bill to ban hunting. Opinions on the subject are mixed, but its relative importance, given the issues of income and livelihood, is really not very high.

For those who represent rural areas, the future of Europe and of the common agricultural policy is crucial. I am sure that next week Ministers will address the issues of CAP reform and the Government's aims and intentions on the matter will be closely scrutinised. The handling of agrimonetary compensation--the mechanism for resolving the difference in value between the pound and the euro--has not been a happy story and does not bode well. I will seek a commitment that all the support that is available through that mechanism will be applied for. The mid-term review of the CAP will coincide with further discussions on enlargement. We want to ensure that government is relatively joined up in that regard, and that before any treaties are signed, the interests of the agricultural community are well protected.

Both the European Union and this country stand at yet another crossroads. The new Foreign Secretary--an old friend whom I wish well in his new responsibilities--talked about some future issues in a general way, but as the House knows, it is not the general intentions on Europe but the specifics that cause the problem. My party put the issue of Europe right at the heart of its election campaign. It was brave to do so, when every public opinion poll over the preceding four years showed that the public saw it as a less important priority than we did. I believe that we were right to attempt to move public opinion towards awareness of the pressing issues concerning the European Union and our relationship with it, but our tone and our approach have been seriously at fault.

I referred earlier to those with whom I have been working outside the House. Many are Conservative voters but others, who ought to have been Conservative voters--predominantly, ominously, the young--seem to move in circles in which it has become an automatic reflex not to vote Conservative. Our clients were significant UK and international companies, involved with Europe and far from blind to its institutional problems, but I am afraid that too many expressed unease with our approach to the issues. All too often, the potency of our arguments was lost by an almost comic hostility towards Brussels. If we are to play our true role in these debates and to hold the Government to account on issues such as democracy and sovereignty, as our constituents rightly expect us to, we will have to take a much more constructive and realistic approach.

I strongly support what Europe has achieved for its peoples over 50 years of reconstruction, but I am profoundly disturbed at the pace of a process of political integration that seems to have a dubious democratic mandate, and at the continual fudging of the central issue of demarcation regarding what Europe should do together

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and what individual nations must do individually in order to protect their national integrity and safeguard the significance of their own internal election processes.

I do not believe that a single currency is a panacea for those ills. The debate about it during this Parliament must be informed by a Conservative party that argues its case cogently and reasonably, rather than obsessively, as the public perceived it. Not least among the reasons why I hold that view is that I am not convinced that the Government truly understand that the best way of being positive Europeans is to ask the uncomfortable and difficult questions, rather than to swim with a tide that seems exhilarating at first, but which is fundamentally dangerous as time goes on.

I have two brief final points. First, from my observation of friends outside the House, I agree wholeheartedly with the speeches made during the Queen's Speech debate that have warned us quickly to consider further reform in this place as a means of re-engaging the public in the political process. A Parliament that is over-dominated by the Executive in theory is now over-dominated by it in practice.

Political parties will have to relax their grip on Back Benchers, who must be prepared to see an honourable career in the House away from the Front Benches. As a House, we can no longer assume that what interests us for hours will interest people outside. People increasingly want their politicians to meet them on their own ground, and to have more unwhipped, thoughtful and honest debates on many issues that are considered to be either Cinderellas or too hot to handle. The media must play their part. They cannot wish for more independent Back Benchers on both sides of the House and then pursue them all with the idea of split and division. In a modern Parliament, the media ensure that the people get the politicians that they want them to have.

Secondly, I would go further than the recent Hansard Society report on the future of Parliament and argue that Select Committees should have the power to initiate, introduce and take forward Bills, rather than merely to make recommendations at the conclusion of an inquiry. That would address the problem that virtually everything that occurs on the Floor of the House is confrontational. Hon. Members are almost obliged to be either for or against a proposition merely because of its origin, when they have usually played no part in either the consultation or the drafting process. If we are to end yah-boo politics, or at least to provide some time when we can take our own decisions on whether to legislate, more independence in proposing legislation might just help us.

People expect a lot of this Parliament, in which I am extremely proud and delighted to be able to take part once again. I assure the House and the people of North-East Bedfordshire that I shall do my very best to represent them, and to encourage the House to meet the expectations of people outside in what I expect to be a challenging and fascinating Parliament.

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