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Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am most grateful for this opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a great honour and a privilege. I want to give my congratulations to other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches this afternoon. They have all spoken with great passion and eloquence, and I look forward to hearing from them again.
I want to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Derek Foster, who held Bishop Auckland from 1979 until the last general election. Wherever I go in the constituency, I hear his praises sung most highly: whether by old-age pensioners in difficult circumstances whom he has helped; or by farmers whom he supported during the foot and mouth epidemic; or, indeed, by the manufacturing engineers, for whom he seems to have provided a network of connections beyond the constituency and into academia. Indeed, Derek seems to have been practising endogenous growth theory before my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) invented it.
Most recently, with Brian Stephens, the former leader of Sedgefield borough council, Derek spearheaded the campaign to set up the Locomotion railway museum in Shildon, which has been a great success, receiving 100,000 visitors and one prize already. It is indeed right that Derek's loyalty and service are to be recognised by ennoblement and transfer to another place.
It is an honour to be the first woman MP for Bishop Auckland, and that honour belongs to Ruth Dalton, who took the seat in a by-election in 1929. Her husband, the then MP for Peckham, had already been selected as the Bishop Auckland candidate for the forthcoming general election when the sitting Member unexpectedly died. Meanwhile, in Peckham the prospective candidate was the sitting MP for Gateshead. Had it not been for the ingenuity of the Bishop Auckland Labour party, instead of one by-election there would have been three, but the whole matter was resolved in two days.
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"Without Ruth even attending for interview, the seventy-strong General Committee Bishop Auckland decided unanimously that she should become the by-election candidate. No other name was even mentioned",
because she could be relied on to resign in favour of her husband as soon as Parliament was dissolved, three months later. I fear that the second woman MP for Bishop Auckland will not prove to be reliable in quite the same way.
Bishop Auckland is a remarkable constituency. With its industrial east and rural west it is truly a slice of England, so its needs reflect many of the long-term challenges facing the country as a whole. The former mining villages have long since given way to industry and manufacturing. Spennymoor, Shildon and Bishop Auckland have a strong engineering base, and in Barnard Castle there is a large Glaxo plant. Under this Government's economic stewardship they are thriving. Of course, there have been job losses and restructuring, but the fact is that unemployment now is half its level in 1997. Next month, Electrolux is inaugurating a new production line, securing 600 manufacturing jobs.
Within the constituency the community suffering the most serious deprivation is the Woodhouse Close estate. There, homes are boarded up and bombed out before being demolished. My work on Sure Start first took me to the constituency, and in partnership with voluntary sector groups, led by such capable women as Jane Armstrong, Doreen Kett and Jackie Heslop, Sure Start is making a real contribution to community development and hence to opportunities for children. The Government have set themselves ambitious targets to halve and eradicate child poverty, and I urge Ministers to stick with them. Sure Start is part of that. Equivocal academic evaluations are irrelevant; it was never intended as a quick fix. The full benefits will not be realised for another 20 years.
That part of the constituency is in the Wear Valley district, which has the dubious distinction of being the most deprived rural authority in England. One manifestation of that is that it has the worst obesity rates in the country. In her maiden speech in 1929, Ruth Dalton complained about the quality of school meals, and I am sorry that that was still an issue in the last general election, despite all the good work by my colleagues on Durham county council. I welcome the financial package announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, but I do not believe that the problem of children's diet can be solved through Government spending alone: responsible behaviour on the part of the private sector is also necessary. I therefore welcome the commitment made in the last public health White Paper to introduce legislation if a voluntary code of conduct on advertising during children's television is unsuccessful.
Sweeping up to the west of my constituency is the Tees valley, which passes through some of the most beautiful farmland in England to the Pennines, where there are ski-lifts above Mickle Fell. I am looking forward to testing them in the winter, but now beautiful walks are to be had through the bluebell woods by the river. Hon. Members will not need to be reminded by me that the bluebell is one of our native species most threatened by global warming. I have to report that during the election
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campaign in Bishop Auckland, the need for strong action to meet our Kyoto targets was the one thing on which the candidates of all the major parties agreed. I am especially glad that the Government have made that a priority at the forthcoming G8 meeting.
The Bishop Auckland constituency is also rich in historical sites, including the Roman fort at Binchester, the Saxon church at Escomb, Raby castle and the Bowes fine art museum. I am torn between the feeling that this is a secret best kept for those who know it and the knowledge that there is fantastic potential for tourism in the area. None the less, the beauty can hide serious problems of rural deprivation and isolation as farming communities come to terms with changes in international markets. However, reform of the international trading system cannot be accomplished in a moral vacuum, and I do not believe that that is what my constituents want. One hundred and fifty years of political and social action in County Durham have produced a culture based on the values of solidarity with those less fortunate than ourselves, collective action and standing up for what we believe.
All those issuesjobs, child poverty, the environment and international tradeare, at their root, economic problems, but they are not technical problems requiring technocratic solutions; they are political problems. Labour was re-elected on a programme of reform. The aspiration of Labour Members is that our values should dominate the 21st century in the way that the Tories' did the 20th. That means addressing long-term challenges. That is not an excuse for procrastination: we must tackle urgently those changes that take time to come to fruition.
My sincere desire is to serve my constituents well and represent their views in our debates, so that in 76 years' time, when the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland is describing her constituency, she is no longer worried about school meals, but the children are still enjoying the bluebell woods. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members for listening to me this afternoon.
Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): In common with many hon. Members who have spoken today, I rise to make my maiden speech with some trepidation, especially as I am nursing a heavy cold. I hope that the House will forgive me if I splutter during my speech.
I enjoyed the speech we have just heard from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and all the other maiden speeches that we have heard today and in preceding days. As an amateur psephologist, I have enjoyed hearing the potted political histories and geographical descriptions of many of the constituencies that I have studied in newspaper lists and books over the years. All new Members are united in our enthusiasm for talking about our constituencies.
Bristol, West includes the city centre and most of the famous landmarks and institutions of the city. At the eastern edge is Temple Meads station, the original terminus of Brunel's Great Western Railwaya station and a line with which I am now becoming extremely familiar. The western boundary is formed by the Avon gorge, which is bridged by Brunel's Clifton suspension
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bridgeprobably the iconic image of Bristol that is known throughout the world. To the south lies the harbour from where John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497 and, in the 19th century, Brunel launched his ships, which transformed voyages to all parts of the globe. A replica of Cabot's Mathew and the ongoing restoration of Brunel's SS Great Britain are now key attractions in Bristol's vibrant harbourside. The city's maritime heritage co-exists with the arts and media centres around the harbour, including the Watershed media centre, of which I have been a long-standing director and the Arnolfini gallery, as well as many commercial and leisure developments that are transforming the economy of the city centre.
Within these boundaries is a great variety of communities. In the south-east, there is St. Pauls, which every summer hosts a colourful carnival that attracts visitors from throughout the country. It is a fixed and popular reminder of diverse multi-cultural Bristol. In the west end, we have the elegant Georgian squares and crescents of Clifton and my own neighbourhood, Kingsdown. Forty years ago these areas were in decline. Now, again, they are once more the most desirable housing districts in Bristol, with the fashionable shops and coffee houses that characterised them when they were laid out in the 18th century.
To the north, over the downs, Bristol's precious expanse of green space that is protected by an Act of Parliament, there lies Westbury on Trym. It is a community with a history as long as that of the city of Bristol, into which it has been subsumed. It still retains as its centre a distinct village feel.
In the midst of these communities lie the Edwardian and 1930s suburbs that characterise Bristol, West. They are home to the thousands of professionals, managers, academics, students and Government workers that comprise so many of my constituents. At the heart of all this lies Bristol university. The university, together with the university of the West of England, makes a huge contribution to the life of the city. The research that takes place, particularly in engineering, together with the work of Airbus, which is just outside my constituency, makes me proud to represent a city that has an illustrious history but is also one where the future is being made.
Last night, I attended the all-party parliamentary university group and dined with a roomful of vice-chancellors, including the vice-chancellor of Bristol. It brought home to me that as a Member of this place I shall have access to individuals and to viewpoints that previously have been unavailable to me. As a new Member, there will be many opportunities for me to listen and learn, as well as having a platform for my own views.
I am proud to be an alumnus of Bristol university. I went there from Mountain Ash comprehensive school in south Wales. I hope that they will not mind me saying so, but the Minister for the Middle East, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), and the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) are also alumni of the school. That is not bad for a school in one of the most deprived communities in the country. I have to say that if I were faced with the same financial arrangements that the Government have now put in
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place for students, I am not sure that I would have gone to Bristol university. In some way, I think that my life might have been somewhat different.
Since graduating from Bristol in history, I qualified as a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. To amend slightly the words of Jefferson, in this place there is always history and taxes. I hope that my twin disciplines may be of some use in debates in future.
Two summers ago, purely for recreation, I researched the political history of Bristol. It was useful preparation for today, although I did not know so at the time. The city and county of Bristol, from the earliest days of Parliament, sent two representatives to the House. Since the glorious revolution of 1689, the electors often used their dual franchise to return both a Whig and a Tory Member. In the early 18th century, elections turned on the protection of the West India trade or the emancipation of slaves. Once that issue was settled for the better, there was the issue of electoral reform, an issue that led to riots in the city in 1831.
In 1885, the city was split into four constituencies, each with one Member, each of them elected by the single vote. That pattern was replicated throughout the country. It exists to this day, and it is responsible for bringing us all to this place. From 1885 to 1997, there were 112 years of unbroken Conservative representation in Bristol, West. There was a succession of Conservative grandees, from Sir Michael Hicks-Beech, whose crest adorns the Chamberas I noticed todayto Oliver Stanley and Walter Monckton through to William Waldegrave, who was vanquished in 1997. I shall speak of my Labour predecessor in a moment.
In 2005, I was elected as the first Liberal ever to represent Bristol, West and the first Liberal in the city for 70 years. I was the first ever within the city's boundaries to be elected in a genuine three-cornered contest. The three-way fight in Bristol, West in the last general election attracted attention from around the country as, supposedly, the most interesting contest in the election. A media cavalcade descended on Bristol, West. So did the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and half the Cabinet. I do not think they came to marvel at the achievements of Brunel or to take coffee in Clifton, but their political tourism was to no avail.
Why was the election in Bristol, West ferociously fought, whereas in the rest of the city the election wasI am sure the hon. Members involved will not my mind my sayinga relatively quiet affair? Why was the election in Bristol, West perceived as having a chance of changing the composition of the House, whereas the same was not said of the rest of the city? How can it be that the votes of the electors of Clifton in my constituency carried more weight than those of the electors of Lawrence Hill, Windmill Hill or Avonmouth in the other three city constituencies?
First past the post is a fine way to settle a bet on a dog race, but it is no way to determine the government of our country. In the Queen's Speech there is reference to means to adapt electoral administration. I am sure there is much good work to be done, most notably on postal voting and electoral registration, but we do not need to tinker with the existing electoral system. We need to reform it radically, sweep away first past the post and introduce a system of fair votes.
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Electoral reform is an issue that unites me and my immediate predecessor. I have known Valerie Davey for more than 12 years, since we were both elected to the now defunct Avon county council. She was a shining example to me of the fact that there are decent people in all political parties who are doing their best for their communities. For the past eight years she served Bristol, West diligently as a constituency Member, and I know that for many people who decided for national political reasons to part company with the Labour party on this occasion, it was a wrench to part company with Valerie. I wish her well for the future.
I end with a reference to perhaps our most illustrious predecessor in Bristol, Edmund Burke. I noticed in the Members Dining Room a couple of evenings ago that in the caption underneath his portrait, it is recorded that he once spoke in the previous Chamber for more than four days. I am not sure what he would have made of the 10-minute deadline that is crunching down on me. On his statue in the city centre in Bristol is an extract from his hustings speech at the 1780 general election, which reads:
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