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8.51 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous), for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on their maiden speeches, and I thank the hon. Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) for continuing my Cook's tour of the country.

I pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Mrs. Jackie Ballard, the first woman to represent Taunton and a conscientious and hard-working Member of Parliament who quickly established an enviable reputation both within and without the constituency. I also want to mention David Nicholson, her predecessor. He never shouted loudly about all the hard work that he did, and I pay tribute to the full 10 years that he served in the House.

Taunton really is a beautiful constituency, encompassing the fertile Vale of Taunton, overlooked by the Blackdowns, the Brendons and the Quantocks, as well as half of Exmoor. Its mainstay in those parts is agriculture, and especially dairy and livestock—for those who do not know, it rains quite a lot there.

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The past few months have been torturous for the farming and hill communities and all those in the rural villages. Foot and mouth disease has plagued us, although infection has played a relatively small part. We have all been affected. Wiveliscombe and Dulverton, two of the smaller towns, have both struggled. There has been a great impact on tourism, and especially sporting pursuits tourism, because Taunton has eight hunts, as my predecessor used constantly to say. The voluntary cessation of hunting in February added to the destruction of tourism in the constituency. That is especially bad news for all the farm businesses that had taken the Government's advice and diversified.

There are other rural businesses alongside farming, many of them situated in villages with wonderful names such as Hatch Beauchamp, Stoke St. Gregory, Stoke St. Mary, Bishops Lydeard and Sampford Arundel. Then we have Ashbrittle and Appley to the west of Wellington, and Huish Champflower and Brompton Regis up on the Brendons.

Agriculture has been affected recently, but in his maiden speech, no less, Sir Edward du Cann said that


It is regrettable that, in the 45 years since he made that speech, we do not seem to have travelled very far.

If I have one long-term aim as a Member of Parliament it is to help the rural and urban elements of my constituency to understand that they rely heavily on each other. There is no better example of that than the livestock market in the centre of Taunton, which Mrs. Ballard described in 1997 as "thriving". I have to say that it is not thriving at all at the moment; it, too, has been closed because of foot and mouth disease.

There is no better testimony to the importance of agriculture than the mutual dependence that exists between the countryside and the towns: local shops have less money spent in them because the farmers do not make their twice-weekly visits to the livestock market. Farming and tourism do bring lots of money to the area—but not at the moment.

Another town, Wellington, has also been affected, but less so, because it is seven miles to the east of Taunton, and has been helped by the growth in the markets that the firms Relyon and Swallowfield both supply.

Nobody—even those with an urban disposition, such as Labour Members—wants to see our agriculture collapse, as farming has created and moulded our beautiful landscape, and that provides the backdrop to this country's tourism.

The Taunton constituency centres on the county town of the same name, which sits astride the river Tone. The Tone has taken to flooding at various points in the past couple of years, and we need to think seriously about how to combat flooding in the whole of Somerset in the next few years.

Taunton is the home of the county council and of Taunton Deane borough council. More importantly, in my opinion, it is also home to Somerset county cricket club; it is regrettable that we lost by eight runs to Gloucestershire yesterday. Taunton Town football club, which, sadly, until

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this year had a habit of coming second in cup finals— 19 times in a row—has managed to reverse that trend, and we are now the proud holders of the FA vase. The rugby club can also hold its head high, having won promotion.

My constituency is not just pretty names and stunning church towers, although we do have one church tower that has been described as the noblest parish tower in all England. The St. Mary Magdalene charitable fund needs £500,000 at the moment to restore the historic organ, the tower and the fabric of that church.

Some, especially those who wish to go there, may perceive Somerset as a bucolic idyll luxuriating in milk and honey. None the less, there are more than a handful of homeless people in Taunton and the rest of Somerset, and the problem is getting worse as agriculture declines, both in terms of the number of people employed and in terms of wealth.

There are pockets of rural poverty, and the people who live in them will look towards Taunton, which has only 2 per cent. unemployment, to provide them with work. They will therefore travel there and look for bedsits, but there are now fewer of those, as our landlords have been forced to upgrade the accommodation without any corresponding increase in rent. The heavy hand of the local authority and of Government legislation has frightened them off. It is worrying that the Government now say that they will publish a consultation document later this year. That will only add to one of the major problems in dealing with homelessness—that there are already too many laws that have frightened away private landlords.

We know how many people are officially homeless in Taunton, but we do not know how many there are unofficially. The Taunton Association for the Homeless says that it turned 90 people away last month, so it wants to build more rooms—yet the first the residents of nearby Alfred street heard of that was when the proposal went out to planning consultation.

That is regrettable. If we want those facilities to be able to cater for the number of people who are homeless, and to be accepted in local areas, we need to ensure that they can nurture the locality and that residents' fears are understood.

Taunton Association for the Homeless is a fine, well-runassociation, and its work is complemented by Open Door, which is run by Taunton Christians Together. As its mission statement says, Open Door tries


However, Open Door has a problem that is not purely financial. Apparently, it can operate for only three days a week at present. It gets funding from the local councils partly because the county council will not operate on a Sunday.

If we are to be successful in combating the problems of homelessness, we need participation from the voluntary sector. I worry, because at every voluntary and charitable event that I attend I am too often the youngest by a whole decade—and I am not that far off 40. If people in my age group do not get involved in voluntary work and in supporting, financially and through their own actions, those charities that help the homeless, it is a potential

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worry because the authorities will not always be able to fill in the gaps. That makes the contribution of the voluntary sector very important.

I am sure that the Bill is well meaning, but I fear that it will not reduce the regulation overload that is seriously hampering attempts to reduce homelessness. That is a problem that we must all resolve.

9 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I congratulate my hon. Friends who have made their maiden speeches today, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), whom we have just heard. We have had the privilege of hearing several spirited maiden speeches and have seen the emergence of strong parliamentarians who will be excellent representatives of their constituents.

Many of us will celebrate when the Bill finally reaches the statute book after many false starts, especially those of us on the Government Benches who have been trying to extend the rights of the homeless since the 1970s. Homelessness was my formative political experience, because my first job as a young woman was working in Battersea social services. I shall not say how many years ago that was, but it pre-dated the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. When homeless families came into the social services offices with their children, often with their worldly goods wrapped up in string, my job was to offer them a ticket back to whatever floor they had recently been sleeping on—perhaps belonging to friends or relatives—or to offer to take their children into care. Those were the only options available to homeless families, and that is why I worked in a voluntary capacity to help to ensure the introduction of the 1977 Act—of which we can still be proud—in the days of "Cathy Come Home". In a professional and voluntary capacity since then, I have worked to try to enhance the rights of the homeless and those in housing need.

It is significant that this Bill will be the first to receive a Second Reading after the election. I am proud that it is the Labour party that has always sought to protect the rights of the homeless and to tackle housing need. The new-found enthusiasm for the homeless on the Opposition Benches should be tempered with the reminder that it was during their 18 years in government that we saw devastating cuts in housing investment, over and above those in any other public service; 1 million people becoming homeless as a result of repossession; a doubling of homelessness; and, worst of all, in the dying days of the Tory Government, the Housing Act 1996.

Sections 6 and 7 of the 1996 Act further curtailed the rights of the homeless and reduced the duty on local authorities to rehouse homeless families permanently. Instead, the Act introduced a two-year duty, requiring local authorities to provide only hostel or other temporary accommodation. That was a disgraceful move and was universally condemned by homelessness charities and all of those working in the housing and homelessness sector. Inevitably, those measures led to an increase in the numbers of the homeless and the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We are still reaping the whirlwind of that legacy of the previous Tory Government.


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