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11.7 am

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): I am grateful to have been called early in our debate to make my maiden speech in Parliament. I am not entirely sure of the convention for successive maiden speeches, but I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on his eloquent and interesting speech; I am sure that he will serve the interests of his constituents well.

It is with trepidation that I make my maiden speech today, because I note that it is Friday the 13th. For some people, 13 is their lucky number. My lucky number, however, would have to be 48, which, as some hon. Members will be aware—certainly Conservative Members—is the size of my majority. In my constituency of Perth, such a small majority is not without precedent. Indeed, one of my illustrious predecessors, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who was well known to the House as a colourful character and eloquent member of the Scots Bar, had a majority of 53 when he first came to the House in 1974. He went on to hold the seat for 21 years; I take that as a good marker for my own tenure.

I believe that my constituency of Perth likes determined and strong-minded individuals who are prepared to speak up for the interests of their constituents, and there is no better example of a real fighter for her constituents and for Scotland than Roseanna Cunningham, my immediate predecessor and fellow member of the legal profession. Roseanna entered the House in June 1995 as the Scottish National party Member for Perth and Kinross—as the constituency then was—following a spectacular by-election victory. She went on to hold the seat in the 1997 United Kingdom general election. That was the first time in the SNP's history that a by-election victor had held a seat in a general election. In doing so, Roseanna moved the cause of Scottish independence significantly further forward.

As many hon. Members will be aware, Roseanna was a forceful debater and never failed to get her point across. She was a champion of the land reform debate, and succeeded in wresting further powers for the Scots Parliament from the Government during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998. There were very few concessions during the passage of that Act, a point that will not be lost on the people of Scotland in the years to come. Roseanna Cunningham is now a Member of the Scots Parliament, and I feel sure that all Members in this place would wish her well in her continuing work in that Parliament.

For me, it is a great privilege to have been elected to serve as the Member for Perth. I have heard claims in the House during the past few weeks on the part of various

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Members while making their maiden speeches to the effect that their constituencies are the most beautiful. I would respectfully have to differ, for who, having been to Perthshire, could fail to be enchanted?

My constituency consists of the fair city of Perth itself, where some hon. Members will be interested to know that the fair maids reside, and the peaceful village of St. Fillans, nestling on the shore of Loch Earn to the west. It extends through the southern highland town of Crieff and beautiful Comrie down Strathearn to the thriving town of Auchterarder and the neighbouring village of Aberuthven. It includes the gentle plains of the Carse of Gowrie and the historic village of Abernethy. No visitor to my constituency could fail to be impressed, and no visitor could fail to be struck by the diverse nature of the countryside, with the lower Grampians to the north, the Ochils to the south, the silvery Tay stretching to the east and beautiful rich farming lands throughout the constituency.

A visitor to my constituency would be able at the end of the day to unwind, perhaps in the beautiful Gleneagles hotel with a wee whisky, the headquarters of Highland Distillers being based in Perth. With the whisky we, of course, have the water. We have Highland Spring, the world famous mineral water producer, which is based at Blackford in my constituency.

A visitor will also quickly become aware of the importance of small firms to the local economy of Perthshire, particularly in the tourism sector, which has been hard hit by the foot and mouth crisis. It must be said that the tourism sector has been struggling for some years now against the backdrop of the high pound policy and the highest fuel taxes in Europe. Those are both Government policies, and regrettably both are currently outwith the jurisdiction of the Scots Parliament. It must also be said that the shambolic state of the Scottish tourist board, which is known as visitscotland, but perhaps not for much longer, has not helped the situation for those who are trying to make a living in the tourism sector.

It is not only tourism that is suffering. Small firms in general in my constituency, as elsewhere in Scotland, are burdened with over-regulation, excessive red tape and high business rates. In Scotland, we once again have higher business rates than in England. The poundage has been decoupled by the Scottish Finance Minister and the Labour-Liberal coalition in the Scottish Parliament. Small businesses are overtaxed and they are acting as unpaid tax collectors. Those problems are exacerbated in my constituency by the lack of a 21st-century telecoms infrastructure, with very little broadband communication and high-speed ISDN—integrated services data network—available outside Perth city.

Notwithstanding what the Minister said, in my constituency there is now a downward trend in business start-ups. There is also an increasing trend of business failures. Those failures do not take place because those concerned go on to start another business. They are the result of people being unable to afford to keep their businesses going. That is the depressing reality.

In Scotland, small firms are the motor for growth. Without a supportive framework for small businesses, we cannot move forward. Indeed, growth in Scotland in the past 30 years has averaged a paltry 2.1 per cent., lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom and our other European competitors.

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The simple fact is that the Union is not working for Scotland. We need to ensure that full financial powers are returned to Scotland so that we can create the right economic conditions for our small firms to flourish and for our country to prosper, a country where we will not be ripping out key services from our local hospitals, as is the threat in my constituency to Perth royal infirmary. In short, Scotland needs to return to the normal status of independence, for it is only with independence that Scotland can move forward.

I am honoured to have been elected as Member of Parliament for Perth and I fully intend while in the House to champion the interests of small firms and to stand up for my constituents and my country. In so doing, I am following in the illustrious footsteps of my mother, Winnie Ewing, former Member for Hamilton and then for Moray and Nairn, and now a Member of the Scots Parliament for the Highlands and Islands. I am also following in the footsteps of my sister-in-law, Margaret Ewing, former Member for Dunbartonshire, East and thereafter for Moray, and now the Member of the Scots Parliament for Moray. One of the Doorkeepers, who remembered both my mother and my sister-in-law, said to me the other week that it seemed to him that as soon as one Ewing left another one arrived fairly quickly thereafter.

My mother is sitting in the Speaker's Gallery, and I feel that it would therefore be appropriate for me to conclude by echoing a statement that she made at the time of her famous by-election victory in Hamilton in November 1967. That is that I and my hon. Friends are not here to settle down; we are in the House to settle up for Scotland.

11.15 am

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): I was enriched by and pleased to hear the three maiden speeches, in particular the one delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) whose predecessor, Peter Snape, I knew well. Another West Bromwich Member was Baroness Boothroyd, whom we all knew in the House as a great character. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) is still in the Chamber. I am almost one of his neighbours. I am aware of the difficulties in Dagenham and the concerns over Ford but pleased by the recent news about new production and new clusters. I am sure that he will be a strong advocate for the area and its people, who have such opportunities alongside such problems.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), whose speech I much enjoyed. I look forward to going on holiday to her constituency one day but hope that I am able to do so before I am required to have a passport to go there. I am pleased to see her mother here as well.

Like others who have spoken, I have a background in small business. In the first instance, however, it was in multinational companies. I managed a marketing department; I then started a couple of my own businesses in travel and in graphic design, a business which has an international clientele. My interests are declared in the Library. I come to this place with an idea of some of the difficulties of running a small business. That runs alongside my admiration for the public sector, having been the leader of Croydon council.

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I shall talk in general about the need for a strong and stable economy, which is the start point for small business success. I am sure that we can trade all sorts of statistics across the Chamber. The Government, however, are bound to be in a stronger position because more small businesses are being created than ever before and there are fewer business failures. That is partly due to the support that has been given to small businesses. Largely, however, it is due to the overall economic success that we are now enjoying. That is the result of the prudent economic management of the economy, and not least the independence of the Bank of England, which has guaranteed low interest rates and low inflation rates. Proper cost control by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has ensured that we have an economic climate in which small businesses are succeeding.

When small business people approach me and talk about regulation and red tape, they must put that in the context of a successful economy that is delivering more prosperity, more growth and more profits. Alongside that environment, the Government are introducing an agenda that has made work pay. We have the working families tax credit and other opportunities that have enabled people to access the market and to earn enough wages to make work worth while. These people are often employed in small businesses. I said in an intervention that regulations are part of an equation: if we did not have regulations and opportunities, wage costs for small business would be much greater, as would the scarcity of skills, and the success of small business would be much less. We must examine the entire picture rather than take an opportunistic approach, as the Opposition do, and try to pick off little bits and misrepresent the impact of red tape.

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