I am grateful to you for calling me to make my maiden speech today, Mr Deputy Speaker. I should like to congratulate the hon. Members for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on their excellent maiden speeches, and, especially, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) on his passionate and informative speech.
I believe that a Member of Parliament once described maiden speeches as lasting 10 minutes, beginning with a few nice words about the previous Member-often the most difficult part-followed by a description of the constituency and an indication of the Member’s own parliamentary obsessions, and concluding with a passing reference to the subject at hand. I can assure hon. Members that I have no difficulty in paying tribute to my predecessor, Martyn Jones. I have known him for 24 years; indeed, I campaigned for him when he was first elected in 1987, in what was then the parliamentary constituency of Clwyd, South-West. Martyn was rightly proud of serving as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, and of all the painstaking and detailed work he did to ensure that money left lying in dormant bank accounts found its way to good causes. Many hon. Members who served alongside Martyn will recall his distinctive bow ties. Indeed, one of the first messages I received after my election came from a well-wisher who ended his note with the rather startling comment:
“Long may the tradition of bow tie-wearing Joneses representing Clwyd South continue.”
I am afraid that I might have to break with that tradition before it becomes too entrenched.
Clwyd South is not one community but many, and that is something that we are very proud of. It has agriculture, industry, tourism-including a world heritage site at Pontcysyllte aqueduct-natural beauty, including the breathtaking Horseshoe pass, and a world-famous international music festival in the Llangollen international eisteddfod. It was also the home of Wales’s first ever national Welsh language youth festival, the 1929 Urdd eisteddfod, at Corwen. It is the home of the great centre of the co-operative movement at Cefn, and of the site of the citadel of Welsh music, culture and non-conformity at Rhosllanerchrugog. We also have the historic base of a former iron and steelworks at Brymbo, which was where my father worked. Sadly, the steelworks itself closed almost 20 years ago, with its blast furnace being shipped off to power the economic revival of China. My constituency also has a history of coal mining, including mines near Chirk, Bersham and Hafod.
There is a history of coal mining in my family, as there is in many families from my area. My paternal grandfather was killed in a major mining accident in Gresford in 1934. My maternal grandfather, also a coal miner, started work at the age of 12. A year or two later, my grandmother had left school and was caring for her parents and siblings. Because of childhood illness, my mother was not allowed to sit the 11-plus examination. She left school and went to work at 15, having to train in her own time to become a medical secretary. All those people, and many others like them from my home community, experienced a poverty of finance and of opportunity in one way or another. It was the kind of poverty that brought together ordinary people in communities across the United Kingdom to seek election to this House to change things for the good. Without such people, many of the opportunities that people of my generation have enjoyed would not have been possible.
That type of poverty-of finance and of opportunity-has been well documented, and rightly so. But there was another type of poverty in my home community that is less well known. It was the poverty of a child going into their local school and not merely being denied the opportunity to be taught in their own language, but in many cases being punished for speaking it. Indeed, in the 19th century, there was the common punishment of the “Welsh Not”, a piece of wood worn around the necks of children who spoke Welsh, who would later be caned. It might shock hon. Members to learn that, even after the use of the “Welsh Not” ceased-indeed, as recently as the 1930s and 1940s-children in the communities that now make up Clwyd South and in many other parts of Wales were punished for speaking Welsh at school; and even after those barbaric practices ceased, there was a sharp decline in the use of the Welsh language. It took decades before its use was finally accepted as mainstream.
Today, I rejoice that I can swear my oath as a Member of Parliament in Welsh, but in doing so, I pay tribute to people such as my former head teacher, Mrs Mair Miles Thomas, who fought for the Welsh language at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. They were ordinary people in the mould of Mrs Rosa Parkes, and their commitment and dedication to civil rights deserve wider recognition.
I know that, for many Members, part of the art of a maiden speech is naming every single community in their constituency, but for Clwyd South that would not be possible, such is the profusion of villages and small towns spread over a vast terrain of 240 square miles. In today’s debate, we have heard much about the protection of the rights of the few, and I have found much of that debate interesting and informative. When one considers the nature of constituencies such as Clwyd South, one is indeed considering the rights of the few. It is not difficult to understand why, over the years, local campaigners have spoken out against proposals drawn up in metropolitan areas, apparently with our best interests at heart, whether for the deregulation of the bus services in the 1980s, for a rural school, for a post office, or for a game plan drawn up by metropolitan policy wonks to “equalise” us all into communities of 70,000 people, regardless of
sparseness, terrain, or other local factors. Those of us who care about our rural communities will not be railroaded in that way.
That is why I also hope that those who have to make undoubtedly difficult decisions will not consider the rate of value added tax as a mere statistic to be increased at will. In many areas such as Clwyd South, where small businesses form the backbone of the local economy, the net result of high rates of VAT would be an intense struggle in many cases, and bankruptcy for the local builder, the plumber, and the small business person in others.
On that note, and having made those points, I pledge to do my best to serve the people of the communities of Clwyd South and to contribute to the life and work of this House. Diolch yn fawr.