Working hard for you
I offer my congratulations to all who have spoken before me on their excellent and heartfelt speeches, and especially to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), on his interesting and thoughtful contribution.
Like most Members of this place, I approach this moment with excitement and trepidation. We are bombarded with advice from colleagues, friends and family about the content, timing and conventions of this place. The advice varies from "Make it in the first 24 hours, before anybody knows who you are" to "Well, leave it a year and learn from everybody else's mistakes." Others say "Be workmanlike, keep it short and tell jokes." I am unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), whose maiden speech I was privileged to witness, in that I lack his comic timing, so there will be no jokes. He literally had hon. Members rolling in the aisles, and I would recommend his speech to hon. Members as a very good read.
The conventions however are clear, so I will now focus on my constituency, Plymouth, Devonport. I urge hon. Members who have never ventured into Plymouth to do so. It is a great place in a fantastic setting, bordered as it is by the Dartmoor national park to the north and the Tamar estuary to the west, spanned by the Royal Albert bridge, the last and greatest of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great railway engineering structures. To the south is Plymouth city centre itself; vibrant and exciting, its skyline is marked out by cranes, indicating the regeneration that is happening in this historic city. The architect David Mackay has developed a new and exciting vision for the city that will have positive outcomes for its wider hinterland, extending into my constituency and beyond.
This city's great history is revered around the world. Indeed, more than 40 towns and cities are named in honour of Plymouth. Plymouth conjures up names such as Francis Drake and the pilgrim fathers. Its heritage is something that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) value greatly. The maritime history of the area extends up from Plymouth harbour into my constituency, where the royal naval dockyard is situated. Devonport was initially known as Plymouth dock, but as it grew in importance, local pride and rivalry took over and it became the port of Devon; Devonport. It has buildings dating from the 18th century, through the period of the great sea captains such as Nelson and into the 21st century. It was, like the rest of Plymouth, targeted during the second world war, and many workers gave their lives, as did their families. More than 1,000 civilians died in Plymouth.
In its heyday, the dockyard employed more than 15,000 people. The number is now down to 5,000, but they are carrying out essential work for the Royal Navy refitting Type 22 and Type 23 frigates and Vanguard nuclear submarines. It is vital that we retain locally the valuable engineering and technological skills of that work force. The quality of those jobs, which are generally highly skilled and therefore better paid, is crucial to the long-term survival of what is otherwise a low-wage economy. Devonport has an ongoing and essential role to play in maintaining our fleet, and I shall certainly champion that cause in the House.
The dockyard is a major employer, but there is a need to develop a more flexible work force to meet the needs of a growing and changing economy. We in Plymouth want to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century, so skills training and community development play a vital role. In my constituency, there are a number of excellent training establishments meeting a wide range of needs, including the Plymouth engineering group training scheme, which targets young people and also retrains older, more experienced workers such as plumbers and electricians who are seeking to update their skills; the brand new training centre at the Peninsula Medical School, which has just accepted its first intake of medical students; and the radiology academy, which will be one of only three in the country training much needed radiologists. That is all evidence of the massive increase in investment in the front-line services in our health service.
Plymouth is home to the innovative Tamar science park, which is rapidly growing new businesses in hi-tech areas linked to medical research. Cardioanalytics, which was set up by two consultant radiologists about eight years ago, now has an international reputation and employs 60 to 70 people. In Devonport, local communities work at a micro-level to improve the skills of people who live in them. Individuals and organisations bring people together and provide basic community facilities. In Belliver, Marlene and Peter Turner run a community centre from their front room. They support various craft groups, organise City and Guilds courses and arrange the annual St. George's Day festival, which I was delighted to be able to attend this year. They are now introducing proposals for a purpose-built community space. In Honicknowle, there is a thriving youth and community centre where excellent work is being done to motivate young people. That positive action helps young people to find a purpose in life and, to use a much used phrase, learn to respect others as well as to be respected themselves.
I welcome measures in the Queen's Speech that make children and young people a priority but also clamp down on antisocial behaviour and assist authorities and parents in the setting of boundaries for young people. The Budshead Trust is another group that does excellent outreach work and encourages local people to participate in their local community. Of all the schemes that I have visited in Plymouth, Sure Start has been the real catalyst for change in some of my constituency's more deprived areas. Sure Start schemes have acted as motivators for young women and men who previously felt cast adrift. Along with the new deal, they support them into new pathways of work and training. I am immensely proud of the investment that the Labour Government have made in setting up and running those schemes, and I look forward to the further expansion of children's centres in my area.
The Plymouth, Devonport constituency is made up of a number of separate communities. Because of the topography of the area, links between them are not easy. Much of the housing is post-war local authority property, built to house people who were bombed out of their homes and dispossessed during the second world war. A lot of it has fallen into disrepair, and it presents a major challenge to the city council, which is responsible for much of it. Ensuring that the city council has the funding necessary to manage that stock will be one of my earliest challenges as a new Member of Parliament, and I shall undoubtedly beat a path to the door of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
I am encouraged by the emphasis placed on the need for new affordable housing by my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In an area where housing costs have risen sharply but where wages have remained below average; a dual-income couple earning 25 per cent. above the average in the south-west struggle to buy the average south-west home;new affordable homes, including some of the £60,000 homes flagged up at the recent sustainable communities conference in Manchester, would be very welcome indeed.
Issues relating to the economy, housing, communities, transport and the dockyard were themes of the maiden speeches of my predecessors. David Jamieson, who decided to stand down at the election, had a reputation in the House as a witty and passionate speaker. He is best known in Plymouth for his work following the tragic deaths of four children in the Southway area of my constituency in the Lyme bay disaster. David pushed through a private Member's Bill and got the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act 1995 on to the statute book without the support of the Government of the time, which was no mean feat. In later years, as a transport Minister, David fought passionately for the cause of improving road safety.
Other names spring from the pages of Hansard, including Michael Foot, who is deeply cherished by the people of Plymouth and whom I met recently at the launch of the Mackay vision for Plymouth at the House of Commons. He is still an official substitute for Plymouth Argyle football club, with the number 90 on his shirt, to match his years. Lord Owen, too, continues to take a close interest in Plymouth. Devonport was also represented by Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Liberal known for the eloquence of his speeches. He is perhaps best known for the introduction of the highway code and the Belisha beacon. Plymouth has also been notably well represented by women, including Lady Astor, Dame Joan Vickers, Dame Janet Fookes and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton who, if she were cut in half - heaven forbid that anyone should want to do so - would be found to have Plymouth running right through her like a stick of rock. I very much hope that, in time, I will be as strong a champion for Plymouth, Devonport as she is for Plymouth, Sutton. I am honoured to serve in Parliament and I am mindful of my responsibility to the people of Plymouth, Devonport. I very much hope I can live up to the example set by my predecessors, and I certainly look forward to the challenge.