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Albert Owen (Ynys Mon): In rising to make my first speech to the House, I am fully aware of the history that goes before me. Ynys Mon, or as it is known in its English form, Anglesey, is unique in parliamentary terms. Since the second world war, four different parties have represented it in the House.
First, there was the Liberal party with Megan Lloyd George, the daughter of the great Welsh Prime Minister. She served the island from 1929 to 1951. Her powerful presence in the House ensured that Anglesey was in the political mainstream during those difficult times.
In 1979, Anglesey went blue. The Tory Member, Keith Best, was a popular and hard-working Member, but he fell from grace by--let me put this gently--immersing himself in the popular share capitalism of the day and becoming a little enthusiastic, as a consequence of which his parliamentary career came to an abrupt end.
My immediate predecessor, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, took full advantage of Mr. Best's downfall and, in 1987, Ynys Mon returned its first Welsh nationalist Member. In 1999, Mr. Jones was elected to the National Assembly for Wales and took on a dual mandate. He later became leader of Plaid Cymru and stood down at the general election to concentrate his efforts in Cardiff. I wish him well in that task--at least until 2003.
I return to pay tribute to Cledwyn Hughes. He was a true giant of Welsh politics and represented Anglesey in both Houses of Parliament for more than 50 years. Cledwyn was never a quitter. The 1951 election was his third attempt, against the advice of his father, a staunch Liberal and friend of Lloyd George. Cledwyn was one of the few people I have known who could say that Lloyd George knew his father. He was driven into politics by the desire to improve the quality of life for the people of Anglesey.
As Opposition spokesman, Cledwyn put to good use his background in local government and law, and ensured that social legislation to improve people's living conditions was at the top of the agenda. Following the 1964 election, he became a Minister with responsibility for overseas affairs, and in 1966 he became the second Secretary of State for Wales. He was a passionate supporter of devolving matters and, along with Jim Griffiths, was the true architect of Welsh devolution.
Cledwyn was chairman of the parliamentary Labour party during the latter years of the Callaghan Government, and went on to lead the Labour party in the other place. During his tenure as Member of Parliament for Anglesey, the island experienced unprecedented economic growth due to his drive and enthusiasm. In December last year, I had the privilege of being his guest when he was given the freedom of the city of Cardiff for his services to Wales and to the capital city. Alas, that turned out to be his last public engagement, but a fitting tribute was paid to Cledwyn by the lord mayor of Cardiff, who said:
But the best tribute to Cledwyn was paid on 7 June when the people of Anglesey elected a Labour Member of Parliament. It was the first of only two gains for Labour on that night. After winning Ynys Mon, Labour represents the four corners of Wales. Ours is the only party that can assume the title of the party of Wales: "y blaid gwir Cymru--the true party of Wales". Ynys Mon is affectionately known as "Mon Mam Cymru--the mother of Wales". History attributes the name to the extensive cornfields that supplied the Welsh nation during many invasions. The island was a chief centre for the druids, cursed the Romans and later became a stronghold of the princes of Gwynedd. For 200 years, Anglesey was also subject to Norse raids. Anglesey has a rich history, but it does not live in the past. Today, it is a centre of Welsh culture and gives a welcome or "croeso" to people from all over the world. Its scenic beauty is second to none, but hon. Members should not take my word for it--please visit.
It is a great sadness that, over the past two decades, Anglesey has, none the less, risen to the top of the wrong league tables. It has the highest unemployment in Wales and the highest rate of depopulation, with about 500 young people aged between 18 and 36 leaving the constituency to seek work each year. Ynys Mon is a diverse constituency. Predominantly rural, in recent months it has suffered terrible loss owing to the foot and mouth crisis. Both agriculture and tourism, as well as auxiliary businesses, have been hit hard.
A fully integrated transport system is vital to delivering prosperity throughout the UK, especially to areas on the periphery such as my constituency. I am pleased that in 1997 the Government undertook the dualling of the A55 across Anglesey and made it a priority. That venture is now complete and I believe that it offers great opportunities to the local economy. It is worth mentioning that under the Tories the A55 did not extend beyond Llanfairpwll--I shall spell that out for Hansard later. It is also worth pointing out that Plaid Cymru failed to influence the A55 project. It took a Labour Government to achieve that, which is further evidence of Labour delivering for Ynys Mon. There is evidence of improvement in the railways, but we still have an awfully long way to go and I shall work with my colleagues on the north Wales coast to ensure that we achieve our goals. Everyone throughout the United Kingdom needs a modern transport system.
On modernisation, as the Leader of the House said, this House itself needs reform. How many Parliaments offer a personal hanger on which to hang one's sword and gown on day one, but fail to provide newly elected Members like me with an office or a phone until much later? Archaic splendour must be balanced with modern efficiency. I am aware that much hard work has been done, but priority must in future be given to new Members.
In the past four years, the Government have made a good start in many respects, but I am tired of the remarks that Labour has done nothing for rural communities in its first term. In my constituency, more than 2,000 people benefit from the minimum wage, a further 2,000 families from the working families tax credit, pensioner households from the winter fuel payment, and families from increased child benefit and smaller class sizes. I choose to speak in terms of a united community, rather than rural and urban communities. Ynys Mon might be on the periphery in geographical terms, but I intend to make it central in political terms. Few people get the opportunity to represent their native constituency. The people of Ynys Mon ask for nothing more than "chware teg--fair play."
Arriving in Parliament can be a daunting experience for some new Members: some are in awe, others in fear of the place. I am mindful of my late father's words of wisdom and support, without which I would not be standing here today. I believe that he was quoting Robert Louis Stevenson when he told me:
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Albert Owen). He made an excellent maiden speech in which he spoke eloquently about several of his predecessors from a variety of different parties. He gave us the rich history of a seat that some of us have had the pleasure of visiting on our holidays, and he spoke about the issues facing his constituency in this Parliament. On the strength of his maiden speech, the whole House will look forward to hearing him speak in future about his constituency and the issues that are of concern to his constituents.
One cannot be a maiden twice, and I return to the House of Commons after an absence of four years--described on Friday by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary as a "sabbatical". I do so in a spirit of great humility, first, because I am conscious of the fact that I have a second opportunity to represent a community--on this occasion, the royal town of Sutton Coldfield; and, secondly, because the experience of the past week has made it clear to me that this is a very different House of Commons from the one that I left only four years ago. I know how much I have to learn from my colleagues about the art of opposition and I look forward to doing so. I am, of course, sorry that I am not representing my former constituency, Gedling, which I represented for 10 years, but this is an opportunity to thank my successor, who was far more generous than he need have been on the occasion of his maiden speech in 1997.
It is an enormous honour to follow Sir Norman Fowler, who was well known on both sides of the House. He represented the royal town for 27 years, although, like me, he was a retread from Nottinghamshire who made the pilgrimage across to Sutton Coldfield. He stood up for the midlands against decisions made by southern-based decision makers that often favoured the south over the midlands. On that subject, I should like to express my hope that yesterday's visit to Birmingham by the Minister for Sport reflected a genuine desire to see whether the excellent plan for "the people's stadium", proposed by Birmingham to substitute for the lamentable performance of Wembley, might come to pass. I greatly hope that the Birmingham proposal will be given a fair wind.
Sir Norman dignified politics. It is no exaggeration to say that he was deeply respected and loved in Sutton Coldfield. Throughout the campaign, I met many non-Conservatives who had voted for him because of his hard work for the constituency over many years. He also scored many significant achievements in Parliament. His abolition of the dock labour scheme was highly controversial at the time. The major changes that he made to the pensions industry were not without their problems, but it is largely thanks to his pioneering work that today this country has the largest amount of funded pensions in Europe--indeed, we have more than all the rest of the EU combined. It is sometimes forgotten that Sir Norman was Secretary of State for both Health and Social Security for no less than six years--a remarkable achievement.
Sir Norman returned Conservative finances to the black when he was chairman of our party, and I believe that he is the only chairman in living memory to have received two standing ovations in the course of one speech at the Conservative party conference--no mean achievement, given the alleged average age of the membership of the Conservative party. It will be of great comfort to his many friends in the House to learn that Sir Norman will soon be installed in the other place, where he threatens to play a major role--in addition, of course, to spending more time with his family.
Following a disastrous decision in 1972, the royal town of Sutton Coldfield became part of Birmingham, albeit for local government purposes only. The royal town is a distinct community: we have our own schools, churches, hospitals and magistrates courts, and a myriad of voluntary sector groups that reflect the enthusiasms that characterise Sutton Coldfield. In the 16th century, the town benefited greatly from Bishop Vesey, who appears to have plundered his see at Exeter to the great advantage of his home town. Sutton Coldfield received a royal charter in 1528. Its endowed municipal charities have grown since then and do much good work. They are jealously guarded from the predatory paws of Birmingham.
Sutton park is the largest municipal park in Europe. It covers 2,400 acres; 70 acres is covered by water. It is a national nature reserve and has recently received a lottery heritage grant for work on heathlands, and a woodland grant. It is a wonderful amenity for local people. It is no exaggeration to say that, while dining at the Boathouse beside the water, one might imagine that one were in the Canadian rockies, rather than five miles from the centre of Britain's second city.
Sutton Coldfield is an area of high affluence, low unemployment and generally high-quality housing, but it is not without its challenges. It groans under the weight of development. Infill, backfill, planning conundrums and the erosion of the green belt are ever present threats throughout Sutton Coldfield. We are very concerned at how the Pedimore development, which was much spoken about in the House by my predecessor, has been given the go-ahead. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, local communities should have far more say in planning decisions. That is at the top of our concerns in Sutton Coldfield.
We have many excellent local schools, particularly secondary schools, including two grammar schools, which are over-subscribed and very popular, but we need another secondary school. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that some of the saddest letters that Members of Parliament receive are from parents who spell out that they cannot get their children into the school of their choice. We are enormously enthused by a Church of England initiative, which may lead to the building of an additional Church secondary school in Sutton Coldfield. Today, I have written to the Bishop of Birmingham to ask that we be given serious consideration.
It is against that background that I judge the Queen's Speech. There is no doubt that there is much in it that will be welcomed. I hope that the Government will be able to deliver for my constituents in Sutton Coldfield. I have listened with great care to what the Government have said about health. I have an indirect interest in the health industry because my wife is a doctor in general practice. I am acutely conscious that my constituents, if they are unfortunate enough to be afflicted by cancer, stroke or cardiac disease, are materially less well off than their opposite numbers in many European countries, including Germany and France. That materially worse experience--the great anxiety for both them and their families--cannot be blamed on the last Conservative Government; it cannot be argued that the blame rests with them. The Government have promised world-class public services. They know the tunes, but they must deliver. My job as Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield will be to try to ensure that they do.
It is not just about money. The belief is growing that the post-war consensus on the national health service does not deliver. We must look elsewhere--to other countries. The Government must maintain access and availability, but, increasingly, it is up to others to run and to manage health care. I hope that the Government will consider carefully how to make this country's health care the envy of other European countries, instead of continuing to decline and deteriorate. I look forward to the time when we have workplace schemes and stakeholder health plans perhaps, and health care is more available through the proper ordering of the involvement of the private sector. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a retread maiden speech.