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5.25 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), and to speak in a debate briefly attended by my old comrade the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), who has now left the Chamber. He defeated me soundly in 1997, so living up to his nickname of "Jones the Vote", and it is a great honour to share the Chamber with him now.

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As is conventional in maiden speeches, I pay tribute to my predecessor. As many in south Oxfordshire and elsewhere have not hesitated to point out, Michael Heseltine is a hard act to follow, so I approach this moment with much the same sense of self-doubt as Simba in "The Lion King". For the benefit of those who have not seen Walt Disney's film, there is a poignant moment when Simba, following Mufasa across the veld, compares his own paws with the vast pawprints left by that great beast; such are my feelings today. I have no arboretum in south Oxfordshire, merely a sort of lop-sided laurel. I struggle to run one magazine, whereas Michael told me that at the last count he had 267. He served the people of south Oxfordshire well for 26 years and in that time he was one of the biggest figures on our political landscape.

As Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael liberated millions from the captivity of state-owned and state-controlled housing. When some Members of Parliament were unilateralist, he stood out against a Soviet menace that is now almost forgotten and played his part in the end of the cold war. He worked tirelessly in the 1980s for the people of Liverpool and other deprived areas, and in so far as there is a Canary wharf—Hezzagrad, as people call the great city that has arisen in the docklands—it is thanks to his energy and drive. It is fair to say that we did not agree on every detail of European policy, but far more united us than divided us. Even when Michael was Deputy Prime Minister, he was, it is acknowledged everywhere in south Oxfordshire, an excellent constituency Member of Parliament—and what a constituency it is.

There might be some present who are under the impression that Henley is merely the town of Henley, so it might be helpful if I give them a little guided tour. Suppose one is travelling on the M40; just before junction 6, one suddenly comes to that dramatic cutting—the Khyber pass of the Chilterns—where ahead, spread out like a land of dreams, is the plain of south Oxfordshire. That, roughly speaking, is my constituency. That is the view that Jude the Obscure saw when, on that spot, he dreamed of education: far in the distance on a clear day one can just make out the spires of the ancient university town, now in need of some protection from senior figures in the Labour Government. Away to the south, one sees the Whittenham clumps, which were famously painted by Constable, and the towers of Didcot power station, which were not.

If, unlike Jude, one turns south at junction 6, one comes to the small town of Watlington, with its first-rate fish and chip shop and venerable town hall. One would not want to have a car crash in Watlington because, apart from anything else, the Government have closed the local cottage hospital—a fate that has befallen many cottage hospitals throughout the country. Labour Members will of course be delighted to know that the hospital is now likely to be rebuilt, thanks to an enormous concerted private initiative taken by the people of the area. I do not know whether that is in accordance with Government policy these days—it is hard to tell—but let us hope so.

Even if one were not injured in that car crash, one would certainly not want one's car to be out of action for very long in Watlington. One might have an urgent appointment in Thame to the north but not want to stump up for the petrol. Let us not be under any illusions—many of my constituents find it very difficult to afford petrol these days, as my hon. Friend the Member for South

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Suffolk was saying. Someone might want to use the bus. I have news for the House: one can get a bus from Watlington to Thame only on Tuesdays and come back only on Saturdays—but let us suppose that, one way or another, one succeeds in doing so.

People will find in Thame a vibrant town that holds regular busy farmers' markets of the kind that the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West was describing—and wonderful events they are. The farmers will say how badly affected they have been by foot and mouth, how fast their incomes have been falling and how much they depend on such occasions to market their produce. They will also say, I am afraid to report to the House, how disappointed they are that there was not more in the Queen's Speech about rural affairs than the promise to ban hunting.

Armed with some produce from the farmers' market, one might meander south. Let us suppose that one gets a bit lost. If one is lucky, one will end up at a place called Ewelme—it has a claim to be the centre of English literature and language, as Chaucer's niece is buried there—where a wonderful pub called the Shepherd's Hut, selling very good ale and food, is to be found. It is doing very well, unlike many other pubs in the area that are not so lucky and, as hon. Members will know, have been closing in great numbers.

One reason for such closures is that people are of course worried about drink driving and the punitive measures taken by the police. I of course support all measures to deter reckless driving, but want in my maiden speech to make one legislative proposal. The Chancellor, who I am disappointed to say is not present, should offer a tax break to Brakspear's 2.5, which is a newly developed beer that I have sampled and which I assure the House is utterly delicious. One can drink three pints of it without coming near exceeding the limit. It would be very good if it were taxed at an appropriate rate, thereby encouraging sobriety when driving and helping local pubs that are otherwise closing at such a rate. Those who have the Chancellor's ear may be inclined to pass that on to him.

Thus fortified, one passes through many scenic villages in south Oxfordshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has pointed out, such places have already suffered the closure of post offices and many varieties of unsuspected rural hardship. Eventually, one arrives in Henley, the town that gives its name to my constituency. It is of course famous for its regatta and bringing back a great haul of gold from the recent Sydney olympics, thereby doing something to redress the Chancellor's recent wanton disposal of bullion on the markets. Henley is of course also this week the scene of a most wonderful festival, which I commend to all Members.

Not everywhere in my constituency is as lucky as Henley. There are pockets of genuine deprivation, problems of poverty and problems of prosperity. For every affluent estate agent in south Oxfordshire—and there are quite a few—there are dozens, if not hundreds, of young people who cannot afford housing in the area and whose needs must be attended to.

I want to explain why I am in politics and sought election. We always say in our pious way that we want to make a difference, to do out bit for our country. Of course that is true; I hope that the House will not mind if I offer it that piety. It is perhaps especially true for someone who

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spent a lot of time sitting in the Press Gallery—I am not supposed to mention that place; I hope that hon. Members will forgive the solecism—as a journalist. I do not condemn those who have taken the socialist view—I do not know whether they are still socialists—and do not condemn those who have believed in socialism. I can see why they do, and why they are motivated to root out injustice and build a better a society. However, I think that Conservatism offers a better and broader understanding of human nature, which is why it has been so successful over the past 200 years and why it is now sedulously imitated.

There is a hidden wisdom in old ways of doing things. If you get the state off people's backs and allow them to get on with their lives, not only will they be more contented, broadly speaking, but they will generate more of the wealth that society will always need to help the poorest and those who genuinely cannot help themselves. That is one-nation Toryism; it is a wholly reasonable creed. If I have one criticism of the framing of the motion—of course, I do not—it is that we have talked too much as if there is a great insulation between the crisis in the countryside and metropolitan England and London. The simple fact is that yesterday's newspapers show that musicals are closing in London because of the foot and mouth crisis.

The crisis in the countryside affects everyone. I make that point for the first time in the House as Member for Henley; I am proud to be given the chance to make it again, as I shall on behalf of all my constituents in the months and years ahead.

5.36 pm

David Hamilton (Midlothian): I do not intend to attempt to try to follow the entertainment that we have just had, but, as a socialist, I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on his contribution and his tribute to his predecessor. If I remember rightly, his predecessor closed 32 pits throughout Britain and had a hairstyle not unlike that of the hon. Gentleman. I shall see with interest how we can work together on a number of issues over the next four or five years.

I shall make one or two observations about comments that have been made about the countryside in crisis, before going on to the main part of my maiden speech. As a councillor in Midlothian—there are 17 Labour members on the council and one Liberal Democrat—I had meetings with farmers and others, as I represented a semi-rural area. It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we all need to work together. We rise and fall together; it is not about one community as opposed to another community. Foot and mouth has highlighted that in many ways.

I have recently been meeting farmers, who have raised the same issues as those raised by the Opposition. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) talked about how high council tax is; a tenant farmer who lived in a big mansion complained to me that he had to pay council tax, but never had the opportunity to own the house because he was a tenant farmer. Such complaints are made, but we should remember that the Government helped badly paid farm workers by establishing the minimum wage, giving them some of the biggest increases that they have ever had. We should remember that it is not just about the farmers, but the farm workers who reside in the countryside and have to look after farms.

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In addition, I am pleased that we work well with people from the borders. We shall work with hon. Members from the borders to promote the Waverley line, which is extremely important in opening up the countryside. It is important that we start to look at developing the countryside's economic base.

It is a great honour to speak in the House as a representative of my home county of Midlothian, the place of my birth and, of course, the constituency of a man whom some may remember, W. E. Gladstone, Midlothian's most prominent politician to date, who made his mark in Parliament. Since its early years Midlothian has undergone many changes in size and population. Since the war there have been four Labour Members of Parliament: David Pryde, James Hill, Alex Eadie and, of course, my predecessor, Eric Clarke. They all had one thing in common: they were all from a mining background. Alex Eadie will be remembered by some in this place as Under-Secretary of State for Energy between 1974 and 1979. He spent 21 years in the House and did not forget his roots. He was followed by my predecessor, Eric Clarke.

As it is the custom of the House, I shall say a few words about Eric, who came to this place in 1992. I believe that his contribution was a good one, and not only because he successfully introduced a private Member's Bill or because he was a junior Whip for a period. I believe that being a Whip would have suited him. He was commonly thought of as rather a grumpy person, but having known him for more than 30 years I can assure the House that Mr. Grumpy had a soft centre. Indeed, in the last Prime Minister's Question Time of the previous Parliament, I saw the then hon. Member for Midlothian thanking all Members for their friendship, and that was sincere. I hope that the House will join me in wishing Eric a long and happy retirement.

The House will remember that Eric raised the question of a group of workers, and I to pledge to carry the banner forward. I refer to victimised miners—an issue that is still a running sore after 17 years. I believe that the Government have made some progress with the repeal of parts of trade union legislation. They have made major changes to enable thousands of workers to claim industrial compensation, having recognised the contribution that they made over the years. They are the first Government to do so.

Workers, including miners, and their families have been able to claim. They have received benefit for vibration white finger. Thousands of miners and widows and their families are receiving millions of pounds through chronic obstructive pulmonary restriction funding, although it has taken too long for some of the payments to be made. That is a major change and a major improvement to the lives of many people throughout Scotland and, indeed, Britain.

Good people such as Alex Bennet, James Hogg, Robert Hogg, Michael Hogg, Arthur Blackhurst, Billy Anderson, George Laing, Jimmy Lennie and George Purcell are only a few of the 206 Scottish miners who were sacked during the 1984–85 strike. Many have returned to work. Unfortunately, all too many did not get the opportunity to do so. It is already too late for some, such as my good friend Dyett Murdoch, who has since passed away, but their families are still looking for justice.

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There were many casualties during the dispute. There have been 17 long years for Britain's sacked miners and their families. They lost not only redundancy payments but, more importantly, some of them lost their pension rights. If Members are wondering why I feel so strongly, it is because I am one of the sacked Midlothian miners—there were 46 at Monktonhall colliery, 36 at Bilston Glen colliery and five at Newbattle workshops. I am proud to be a victimised miner, and to be the first to enter Parliament. The phrase "down but not out" comes to mind when I say that. I am proud also to carry the banner on behalf of miners and their families.

I hope that the House will agree that 17 years is long enough. We should have a cross-party agreement to right the wrong. I remind Conservative Members that even after the dispute up to 10 Tories signed petitions to the effect that the miners should have been reinstated after the dispute.

On a more upbeat note, over the last decade mining has declined and Midlothian has changed dramatically. Thousands were employed in only a dozen industries, and now dozens are employed in 1,000 industries. That shows that small micro industries have developed throughout the area.

The old industries may have gone, but they still play a significant role. An example is Monktonhall, the colliery where I used to work. The council has commissioned studies into the use of warm water from old mine workings to provide energy for 4,000 houses and industrial units in the largest greenfield development site in Scotland. Essentially, a mine water heat pump would pump water that had been geothermally heated from the bottom of the mine. The water would then be circulated to consumers and returned to the mine, where it would be reheated. If the heat pumps were operated using a green source of electricity, the heat delivered would be truly renewable energy without any greenhouse gas emissions. This renewable energy requires a capital investment, perhaps from one of the funds that have been announced by the Government, and a commitment from the developers to provide the appropriate infrastructure.

Finally, one of the most exciting challenges in Midlothian comes from biotechnology. Hon. Members will have heard of Dolly. We are in the process of combining research and manufacturing in Midlothian with the development of the Gowkley Moss land acquisition, to which I look forward. As a councillor, I have asked the director of education to work closely with our six secondary schools and the local college and universities to support employment opportunities in biotechnology, which now employs more than 1,000 people in the locality.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for the kindness shown to me as a new Member. I have no doubt that that will be shortlived, thanks to the Opposition and some of those on the Government Front Bench, when I start to express my views. I have been given a great privilege by the people of Midlothian, and I shall do everything in my power to repay that privilege.

We are at the beginning of a new millennium. As we meet the new challenges, I hope that we will not forget the values for which many of us came into politics—free education, a free health service and support for the weak in our society, for those who are disabled and for our

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elderly. I feel sure that when we say that we are the fourth largest economy in the world, those people will benefit, along with all of us, and not just a few.

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