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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): I am very pleased to be able to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech and pleased but somewhat nervous to be making my maiden speech. I am nervous, first, because I have spent my whole adult life so far as a historian studying and teaching the history of this country, the development of our democracy and the workings of the Chamber: actually to sit on the green Benches and contribute to the debate is more than a little awe-inspiring. I thank the voters of Chesterfield who have placed their trust in me by returning me as the first Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield and the first Liberal MP since 1929.
Secondly, I am nervous because I am more than conscious that I follow in the footsteps of one of the leading political figures of the past half-century. Tony Benn, the previous Member for my constituency, was highly regarded in Chesterfield as a good constituency MP who helped a great many local people with a huge variety of problems. He was always willing to take up any cause and never reluctant to tackle his own local Labour councillors when he thought that they were wrong. He extends that approach, of course, to his party nationally and to the present Labour Government. He is a passionate and eloquent advocate of his beliefs to which he always remained faithful, however controversial they were.
I was privileged to hear Tony Benn speak many times in Chesterfield and on occasion, over the years, to put questions to him and debate with him. I disagreed with him on much of what he said but no one could ever doubt the sincerity and passion with which he holds his views. I hope that we shall hear much more from him in years to come, and that he has indeed, as he said, stood down to spend more time on his politics. His place in the political history books is assured, beginning with his first entry when he rewrote constitutional law by establishing the right of peers to renounce their title to stand for election to this Chamber.
My constituency was described during the election by Matthew Parris of The Times as a hard-bitten town. I can forgive Matthew much as he was the only national print media journalist to spot and predict openly that we were on course to win Chesterfield, but as an honorary Chesterfieldian--I have lived there for 22 years although not for my whole life--I must defend it against that description.
Chesterfield was an engineering and mining town as well as a market town. Stevenson, the great railway engineer, made it his home in the 19th century and is buried in the church around the corner from where I live. The mines have all gone now, although I had the privilege of going down Markham pit as the guest of Chesterfield miners about two years before the pit was finally closed. Much of the heavy engineering has regrettably gone too, including Markham Engineering, which built the channel tunnel boring equipment. More recent blows have fallen in the past few months on old industries such as Donkins and Dema Glass. However, although the town suffers higher than average unemployment, it is beginning to recover from those blows. New industries, especially light engineering and high-tech computer firms, are locating and expanding in the area.
Chesterfield has its own place in history with the Revolution House museum. In 1688, it was a small isolated country inn where the Duke of Devonshire and others met in secret to plot the revolution of that year--a revolution that although it contributed to some religious bigotry was none the less a landmark in the development of democracy in this country.
Chesterfield is an excellent tourist base as a gateway to the splendours of the Peak district and to the wonders of Chatsworth house, Hardwick hall and Haddon hall. Wherever one stands in Chesterfield, one can look up and see fields and moorland surrounding the town, giving it a pleasant and open aspect.
We also have an excellent football team, which has done remarkably well in recent years despite problems with its management, its finances and the previous Minister for Sport. Its success in recent years has done much to boost the town's morale and community spirit.
I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) that all Liberal Democrat Members oppose the national missile defence system. It is based on technology that does not work and that will be immensely expensive to develop to a point where it still could not work 100 per cent. The very process of developing that technology will destabilise the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and the many advances that have been made in the past 10 years in the cause of nuclear reduction and world peace.
I almost prefer the system of nuclear-free zones, in which I used to live--first, in Sheffield in the 1970s, and then in Derbyshire in the 1980s. We could always rest secure in our beds in the knowledge that we would somehow be exempt in the event of nuclear war because our road signs told us that we lived in a nuclear-free zone. Perhaps I should write to President Bush with my suggestion; he might take up the idea. Like NMD, it would not work in the slightest, but it is far cheaper and does not destabilise world peace.
I hope that the House will indulge me slightly if I return to yesterday's lead debate, in which I had hoped to make my maiden speech. For the past 22 years, I have been a secondary school teacher. For 12 of those years, I was the head of a sixth form. I also have three children of school age, who are currently at school in Chesterfield. I have some knowledge of our state education system from both sides of the fence--as a teacher and as a parent, or in the horrible words that Governments prefer to use about our public services these days, as a producer and as a consumer.
Two of those who opened Wednesday's debate emphasised that they had not attended public school. I would add my own disclaimer to their comments, and I think that that matters because more than 92 per cent. of our children are educated in the state system, not in the public school sector. As the former Member for Islwyn, Neil Kinnock, said so passionately, they owe their life chances to the state system. I was the first member of my family, living on a large council estate in Sheffield, ever to go to university, and it transformed my life. I very much doubt whether I should have been able to take that opportunity, back in 1975, if my then unemployed father and I had been faced with the prospect of yearly tuition fees and a £10,000 to £14,000 debt on graduation.
I have spent the last two thirds of my teaching career working in what have been controversially described as bog standard comprehensive schools. Hon. Members can imagine how my teaching colleagues and I felt about that description of our life's work. However, as I am supposed not to be controversial in my maiden speech, I shall leave the details to hon. Members' imaginations on this occasion.
There is an often-professed vision behind the Labour Government's approach to education, education, education--a vision that I can share and applaud, even if I have doubts about the reality of its implementation. I suggest that all Governments would do well to spend a little more time consulting the work force before launching into schemes that sounded good when their advisers drew them up, but which revealed their flaws when imposed too quickly and without consulting those who have to deliver them. The recent problems with the introduction of AS-levels are a classic example.
Long suggested and generally welcomed by teachers as a valuable way to widen our over-narrow and prescriptive academic curriculum, AS-levels were introduced far too quickly and without enough practical planning. Last summer, I had to scrap a successful and innovative A-level course, and then at very short notice and with no extra money to buy brand new textbooks, which had not even been written for a brand new course, a colleague and I had to prepare and teach the new AS-level. It was February of this year before I attended an exam board course that gave me the final information on how the course would be taught and examined, yet we were already 70 per cent. of the way through teaching it and the course work exams were imminent.
If we as teachers had problems, hon. Members can imagine how the students felt. They have been the guinea pig generation for the national curriculum, for SATs and now for AS-levels, none of which was planned, introduced or funded properly. Of course, hon. Members do not have to take my word alone on that. Nick Tate, the then head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said recently that the AS-level scheme, which he helped to devise, seemed like a good idea at the time. Having just completed his first year as head of a school, he now says that he can see the problems and the miscalculations, which could have been avoided. That lesson should have been learned after the rushed introduction of the national curriculum, which has had several major rewrites since the late 1980s.
Like managers in industry, Governments of all parties would do better if they carried their work force with them after consultation rather than regarding staff as an enemy within who inflict scars upon one's back.
In principle, I welcome the secondary schools review. We should never be complacent; we can always improve. However, I hope that the Government will work through and with teachers and public sector workers rather than imposing measures on them, regardless of their professional judgment.