Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech and trial the fashion of orange suits for community service. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) on his maiden speech. As he was speaking, I could hear my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jeremy Browne), who is also a new Member. My hon. Friend was at the same school, in the same year and in the same class as the hon. Gentleman and echoed everything that he said. I did not ask my hon. Friend whether the word "shifty" also applied.

Following the convention of the House, it is my pleasure to praise my predecessor. That is easy for me because my predecessor was Jenny Tonge, as all hon. Members know well. Jenny came to the House with a background as a doctor intending to make a career in women's health, and she certainly spoke on that matter with great frequency. In the end, given the vagaries of politics, she ended up as our spokesperson on international development. It was her work focusing on the humanitarian consequences of war and suffering, and talking about Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq, with which she made her reputation. Some people say that some of her remarks were divisive, and I did not always agree with what she said. However, I learned a lesson from Jenny that I intend to be a model for everything that I do in the House. She was not afraid to be independent or to speak her mind. I do not think that she ever understood what spin was about. In that way, even when people in my constituency disagreed with her, she earned respect. I found respect for her across all political parties in my constituency, and I see from the nods and expressions of hon. Members that she earned the same kind of respect in the House.

Jenny is of course going on to another place—she will speak for herself. I hope that she will not find it the prison that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) implied. He seemed to think that she might be caught up in some of the legal changes proposed on incitement to racial hatred. His words were an interesting warning that we should take to heart.

It is also my privilege to praise my constituency. Hon. Members will note the irony that Richmond Park is named after the one part of the constituency in which there are virtually no voters. However, the constituency captures both the old Richmond and part of the borough of Kingston—north Kingston, to be precise.
23 May 2005 : Column 472
For people in north Kingston, it is quite difficult to be part of the Richmond Park constituency. They try to understand why they have been included in the area because they have relatively little relationship with the other half. One of my tasks is thus to try to ensure that I represent both sides.

The areas have a common background due to their ties to royalty. North Kingston was the home of Saxon kings. It is also an environmental place and is the home of one of the biggest green fairs in the country. It has a growing attraction as a place for young families, especially, to live and make their futures. It has a strong history of good primary and secondary education. Richmond also has a royal connection. Queen Elizabeth I died in the old Richmond palace and King Charles II put the enclosures around Richmond park. There are royal ties to Kew gardens, which is not only one of the greatest botanical gardens in the country, but recognised globally as a world heritage site.

We are an area of villages, greens, commons and communities. The River Thames runs through the constituency. I recommend that anyone who has questions about the efficiency of government come to the Public Record Office at Kew and examine the Domesday Book, a cause of many visits to the area.

The description of Richmond Park as a leafy suburb is one that we listen to with a strained expression. Although the area includes many of significant wealth and prosperity, we also have people who live in deprived homes and neighbourhoods. We have behind some of our doors genteel poverty. It is easily overlooked, but it is extremely real to those who live there. We have many people who live on council estates and former council estates for whom wealth and prosperity are not the daily reality that they face. Because our area is so often dismissed as leafy and prosperous, their needs are often not recognised by central Government. It is to represent those people and their needs that I stand in the House today.

Like everywhere else, we have a certain amount of crime. We are two of the safest boroughs in London, but to people who are the victim of antisocial behaviour—in parts of our community that is not an infrequent experience—that matters just as much as if they were living in inner London or in a community up in the north-east. The attitude that the area is such a safe place has become an excuse that we must deal with. It means that we do not have policing that matches our needs, we have not been able to roll out the safer neighbourhood teams in the way that we need to, and we suffer particularly as people across London discover that we are an area with relatively little protection compared with our neighbours. Crime has begun to travel, as people come across the bridges into our communities because we are seen as a soft target. That must raise issues for me and other hon. Members.

There is a perennial issue for us, which Jenny mentioned in her maiden speech. Her predecessor, Jeremy Hanley, mentioned it in his maiden speech, and his predecessor, Sir Anthony Royle, also spoke about it. I refer to the blight on our community from the ever-expanding reality of Heathrow airport. A new lobby group has been formed to promote a third runway at Heathrow. On behalf of my community, I will fight that with every ounce of energy that I have. This is not a party political issue in my constituency. Every political
23 May 2005 : Column 473
party shares those views, and so does every level of government because we recognise the needs of our residents for a decent quality of life and their right to a decent night's sleep and to be outside in their gardens from time to time without being drowned out by the noise of aircraft. We will go on fighting that battle. It is my ambition that my successor will never have to mention it in what I hope will be her maiden speech, because we will finally have dealt with it in this Parliament.

As I draw to a close, I express my thanks to the various old hands present in the Chamber, who have had the forbearance to sit and listen to maiden speeches. For us this is a gentle beginning; for them, it must be a desperate test of their patience. We all appreciate it.

The last issue that I addressed, Heathrow, picks up on   a topic that I hope to follow in the House—the need   to find a way to reconcile the importance of environment and sustainability with economic development, prosperity and growth. That subject, which needs to be dealt with in a serious way in legislation and in debate, is one that I particularly want to pursue. I say that on behalf of my residents. Like many others who have spoken today, I have the great pleasure to say that I am speaking to represent my neighbours and friends, the voluntary groups that I have worked with over many years and the businesses that I hope I have assisted, and to represent everybody of every political colour in my community. I thank the House and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make this maiden speech.

6.44 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): It has been a pleasure to sit in the Chamber this afternoon and listen to the speeches of recently elected hon. Members. That has been said before, but it is worth reiterating. It was not a test of patience at all; it has been extremely enjoyable. The speeches have been quite entertaining, and I wish that all those people who said to me on the doorstep, "Oh, politics is boring" could have been here to hear them. It has been a really enjoyable experience and I thank all the hon. Members who have spoken.

To return to the business of the House this afternoon, I welcome Government plans in the Gracious Speech to introduce an electoral administration Bill. Although the robust stance adopted by the returning officer in Bradford and West Yorkshire police went some considerable way to deterring the abuse of the electoral system in the general election, there can be no doubt that the current system, particularly with regard to voting by post, does not have the public confidence that our electoral system should have.

The events witnessed in Birmingham and now in Bradford, plus the hearsay evidence in my constituency, should never be allowed to occur again. The fundamental right to vote and to vote in secrecy cannot be taken for granted. For just one person to be denied that right, or to have it taken away on demand by another, makes a mockery of the system. A balance must be struck between the need to increase voter participation and the need for a secure system. The Electoral Commission's recommendations are helpful in this regard and I hope they will be incorporated in the Bill.
23 May 2005 : Column 474

That said, perhaps we ought to consider a more fundamental review. The strength of any electoral system and of our democracy is only as good as the accuracy of the electoral register. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of people registered to vote in the Bradford district, of which my constituency forms one fifth, fell by 6.5 per cent. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) the number fell by 11.3 per cent.

Why is this the case? Without a doubt, some of the reduction can be attributed to migration or changing demographic patterns, but the fact that registration went up in all five parliamentary seats in the Bradford district prior to the general election suggests that the numbers of potential electors were there, but the incentive to register was not. I am sure I was not alone in being surprised, when canvassing, to find houses, and sometimes large parts of a street, that were not registered.There are, of course, many reasons for non-registration. Some people do not want to be found. Whatever an individual's personal reasons for avoiding registration, it is a flaw in our system when registration is not encouraged or seen as a priority.

I have recently seen cases of minors being included on the electoral register or, more sinister, multiple registration at a two-bedroom house. As registration is not seen as a priority, such cases tend to go unnoticed or are not acted upon. On one occasion, someone whom I knew, owing to my constituency work, to have been refused leave to enter the UK was seen voting in a council election.

To base registration and, therefore, our whole electoral process, on good faith and honesty, though diligently upheld by the vast majority of the population, is outdated and being exposed to abuse. The unscrupulous minority, knowing that scrutiny of the register is not even on the radar of priorities, is able to commit electoral fraud with ease. The means to ensure the security of the register already exist. Some people believe that the payment of council tax will automatically lead to registration. Why not? The information is available and includes those in receipt of housing benefit, who often form the bulk of people who fail to register to vote. A simple exercise—a cross-reference between the electoral register and payment of council tax—would show a number of anomalies. Perhaps the over-use of the Data Protection Act 1998 prevents us from applying common sense in these matters.

Registration, supported by dates of birth or national insurance numbers, could be a welcome development, and that gives me yet another reason to support the introduction of identity cards. Presentation of an ID card at a polling station could give definite confirmation that the elector is who they say they are. Linking electoral registration to the holding of ID cards or passports would be a positive development and encourage a package of responsibility associated with citizenship.

Ensuring that our electoral system is fair, secure and encourages a high level of participation is just part of the battle. Encouragement to register, fairly and securely, must not be overlooked. It does not take rocket science, just a determination by local authorities, backed by adequate funding and imaginative but clear legislation.
23 May 2005 : Column 475

6.50 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page