Dr Julian Lewis: This has certainly been a valedictory debate, in more ways than one. We are closing this particular part of the Parliamentary year for the Easter Recess, and as we have heard time and again, many hon. Members have been taking the opportunity to make what will almost certainly be their final contributions in the House if, as we expect, a General Election is called shortly after our return.
Once again, the Deputy Leader of the House and I face the unenviable task of trying to summarise many speeches in a relatively short time. I believe that 19 speeches have been made during the debate: 10 by Labour Members, seven by Conservative Members and two by Liberal Democrats. I cannot help but observe that the two Liberal Democrats who contributed to the debate are both retiring. I suppose that we must all draw our own conclusions about where their colleagues are at the moment, but they are certainly not in the House of Commons earning their money.
In preparation for these debates, I always seek inspiration from the news of the day, or at least any other electronic communications that come my way. Hon. Members can imagine my chagrin when, as I checked my e-mails before coming into the Chamber for the start of the debate, I found that a single message had arrived. I do not often get spam, so I fear that someone is trying to tell me something. The e-mail was from an organisation called Skills Train and had as its subject: "Train for a new career today". I am not sure what the organisation has in mind, although it says that any one of a wide variety of career-paths could be mine. However, if the good electors of New Forest, East do what I want them to do, I hope that I will not have to take up that offer for at least a few years to come.
The custom at such times has been to pay tribute to colleagues who are retiring, and I know that the Deputy Leader of the House intends to do that to at least some such Labour Members. I know that more than a dozen of my colleagues will be stepping down at the election, so I would like to say a brief word about a few who have especially touched my life during the course of a political career that went on for a considerable time before I was fortunate enough to be elected.
Top of the list must be my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe), who brought more than a dash of glamour to the Conservative Benches during her distinguished career. I include her on the list because she has never been known to be stumped by a constituency case. I have always borne in mind the example she gave me of a sad lady who visited her. The lady was quivering and extremely nervous and agitated as she explained that she was constantly being zapped by rays coming from the men of Mars via the medium of her television screen.
For a brief moment, my hon. Friend was stumped, but inspiration struck, and she said to that poor lady: "This is quite simple to deal with. Every time you watch television, put on a pair of rubber boots, which will prevent the rays from being earthed and the problem will go away." The lady never returned to see my hon. Friend, but whether that was because the prescription worked, or because her bluff had been called, or because it was an episode of "Candid Camera" that was never shown, I do not know. However, if I remember my hon. Friend for nothing else – and I shall remember her for a great deal more – I shall certainly always keep her wise ability to deal with a constituency case diplomatically and effectively in the forefront of my mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) made a significant contribution to today's debate. For three decades or more, he has fought the battle for British sovereignty, both inside and outside the House. His campaign against the European Union's assumption of powers that ought to remain in the grasp of our country, Parliament and electorate is unparalleled. It is a source of shame to me as a Conservative that for a brief period the Whip was withdrawn from him for continuing to say on that vital issue what he had said all his political career. I can assure him, although I am sure that he does not need reassurance, that such a thing would never happen in today's Conservative Party.
Right to the end of his political career, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) has assiduously participated in Question Time after Question Time, and has shown throughout that courtesy and gentility are alive and well in the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Michael Trend) is also retiring. The House should be aware that he did an enormous amount of cross-party work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to bring the benefits of training in democratic techniques to the new democracies that were formerly part of the Soviet and Eastern European bloc. They have benefited from his guidance and advice. When I was a recalcitrant official at Conservative Central Office, I benefited from the wise and kind advice that he gave me when Deputy Party Chairman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (David Atkinson) will probably not remember this, but when he was chairman of the Young Conservatives he took the time in the midst of a busy party conference in Blackpool to give encouragement to a young state schoolboy – myself – who was attending his first ever national Conservative conference, and to give advice about how to conduct oneself at such events. I am sure that many of us have had similar experiences – we know how much it means at the outset of our political careers to receive advice from people whose own political careers are well advanced, and we appreciate their taking the time and trouble to do so.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (John Wilkinson), who had a distinguished front-line career in the Royal Air Force, has been committed to the defence of the United Kingdom for decades. I have found his career and principled adherence to the promotion of this country's defence inspirational over the years.
Before I come to the contributions to our debate, I should like to make one more point. We have all, not least myself, spent a great deal of time talking about Members who are leaving the Commons, but we should bear in mind the situation of the young hopefuls in every party who, even as we speak, are gearing up to try to enter the House of Commons for the first time. Who can forget the ordeal of the selection process? Who can forget the task of forging a campaign team from a variety of volunteer activists? [Interruption.]
Hon. Members say that they wish that they could forget, but I am sure that it is burned indelibly on their souls, just as it is on mine. Who can forget what it feels like stepping into the unknown for the first time on polling day? Like other hon. Members, I have personal friends standing in seats from Bournemouth [Toby Ellwood] and Brighton [Judith Symes] to Harlow [Robert Halfon] and Worcester [Margaret Harper], from Eastleigh [Conor Burns] and Romsey [Caroline Nokes] to the Forest of Dean [Mark Harper], from Weston-super-Mare [John Penrose] to Mid-Dorset and North Poole [Simon Hayes], and many, many more. I wish them well in the ordeal that they face, as I am sure hon. Members in other parties wish their friends, whom no doubt they are encouraging, as I would wish to encourage mine.
Once again, this end-of-term debate shows the value of the single Member constituency. Who can doubt for a second that the speeches that we have heard today showing the depth of knowledge, commitment and understanding about local issues are a direct result of the way in which the individual Member of Parliament is allocated an individual geographical area and a particular collection of citizens of the United Kingdom to represent?
I begin by mentioning the first speaker, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), whose contribution showed his intense commitment to the manufacturing and aerospace industries as they are represented in his constituency. I would expect nothing less from a former head of policy for a major trade union and a former member of the TUC General Council, as I know he is. He clearly has a tremendous commitment to Airbus and to his constituency workforce, but I would like to pay tribute to him for something else. He was the first speaker in the debate, and he remained in the Chamber throughout the entire debate till the very end, listening to every other contribution. I take my hat off, metaphorically speaking, to him for doing that.
Then my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East spoke in detail about devolution and said that now that it has been tried for a considerable time, people should be given a chance to have a say once again, but this time with the experience and ability to judge whether they consider it has worked or not. I cannot think of any reason to oppose such a suggestion. He spoke also about asylum seekers who abuse the system by deliberately destroying their papers after entry. He referred, as I would have expected, to the EU and to the Iraq war, and he said that many young people are switching off politics. That theme recurred in many other contributions.
No one could fail to be moved by the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Harry Barnes), who spoke in great detail about a case on which he had been working for 18 years. The fact that he chose to use his last contribution in the House to bring what comfort he could to the family whom he represented so assiduously shows a great nobility of spirit. I am sure that that family will treasure the words that he had to say about their case.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Paul Tyler) is an extremely assiduous parliamentarian. He once again returned to the Steven Roberts case – the terrible case of the soldier who told his wife before his death occurred that he had been forced to give up body armour, and then indeed lost his life in Iraq as a result of being forced to give up body armour. I add my own tribute to the extremely brave campaign that his widow, Samantha Roberts, has been waging to get justice for his memory.
I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his dislike of jousting in the Commons Chamber. It is a fact that if we were to remove from the parliamentary process the adversarial system, and substitute for it a system where politicians of all parties were effectively in each other's pockets, democracy as a whole would be the loser. The way in which corruption is dealt with in a democratic system is for people who err to know that if they err, their political opponents will be onto it like a shot. Woe betide us if we ever get to a situation where all politicians are chums not just personally, as many of us are across the divide of the House, but politically.
I have had dealings with people who live in societies that are run by constant coalitions. They tell me that they can never really have confidence in going to a member of the Opposition in order to criticise the Government because they can never be sure that, the next day, that member of the opposition will not be in alliance with that Government. Therefore they will always pull their punches. In a democracy, we do not want politicians to pull their punches.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Tony Banks) also shared the view of not liking combative politics.
Mr Banks indicated dissent.
Dr Lewis: I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is dissenting. I am put in mind of one memorable Adjournment debate, when he was a Minister responding to a colleague of mine. The debate was about bell ringing. He opened his remarks by saying that that colleague, whose name I will not mention, was the man who had
"put the camp back into campanology." – [Official Report, 20 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 1080.]
[Laughter.] It is great when I get a laugh for someone else's joke. If that is not a little bit of jousting, I do not know what is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) has made the case for saving Haslar Hospital a cause célèbre at Westminster. It is synonymous with his name. No one could have fought harder for a constituency cause than he has on that issue, and I wish him every success.
The hon. Member for Braintree (Alan Hurst) is clearly determined to do the best for his constituency in terms of communications by road and the blight on the lives and homes of his electors that ill advised road planning measures can inflict. He impressed the House with his mastery of detail on the issue. I hope that his campaign likewise meets with success.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East, who is retiring, gave strong evidence of his commitment to human rights in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. It was a fascinating insight for me, because the work for bodies such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and other transnational assemblies on which he has been our representative are not always sufficiently represented in the House. I was glad that he had not had the wool pulled over his eyes as to the state of affairs in Russia today, although naturally, like him, I welcome all steps in a democratic direction in that much benighted country.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Phyllis Starkey) managed to do something that is extremely clever for any politician, and that is to combine their political causes with the cause of benefiting, backing up and supporting anything to do with football. I have found from my experience that I can struggle with what I regard as the most important political cause going, but it will never be reported half as much as when I say a single word about safe standing in football stadiums. Then I can be assured of blanket coverage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) spoke with great feeling and affection for the countryside and made it clear that people in the countryside hate to be considered second-class citizens. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Julia Drown) spoke about her work on hospital provision and anti-social behaviour. I was a little surprised, however, that she did not refer to her work on international development and some of the causes that she has supported in other parts of the world for the underprivileged and downtrodden. Over the years she has been here, I have noted her great interest in and effective spokesmanship on behalf of those causes. I for one, if I am fortunate enough to be back here after the election, will miss what she has to say on those subjects in particular.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) spoke about the problems of the rail link from St. Pancras and the heavy-handed Government pressure on his local authority. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Hall) expressed grave concern about public health in his constituency, telecommunication masts and ghastly wind farms, a subject on which I share his doubts.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Richard Allan) paid tribute to his predecessor, Irvine Patnick. I am sure that his successor, Dr Spencer Pitfield, the Conservative candidate, will earn equal plaudits. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) made a typically principled speech on Europe and on postal ballot corruption. He often says things with which I entirely agree – that will probably not do his electoral prospects any good – and today was no exception.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is a cheery soul, but cheeriness can be carried too far when wishing one's opponents the best of luck in an election campaign.
I should like to have said a little more about the contributions of the hon. Members for Finchley and Golders Green (Rudi Vis) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (David Amess), but my time is up.
As this is such a friendly and jolly debate, I shall conclude with a word of kindness even for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Alan Milburn), who is quoted in today's papers as being worried about the contribution that Lynton Crosby, an Australian, is making to the Conservative election campaign. I assure him that we deliberately have an Australian making such an important contribution, because at this General Election the Conservatives intend to turn the results of the last General Election completely upside-down.