Today I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Rochester & Strood.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally)—a small business owner like myself, who I am sure will make a great contribution to this House—and the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). I am proud also to be following my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who made an excellent speech. I think my hon. Friends will agree that she will be an asset to this House.
I feel truly honoured to be standing here today, charged with the privilege of representing the very constituency in which I was born and bred. I follow a line of representatives who were of an independent nature and character—[Laughter.] My immediate predecessor, Mark Reckless, worked hard to win back the seat for the Conservatives in 2010. His steadfast position on Europe will be remembered in this House. He gave his constituents a chance to have their say in a by-election dominated by that position, in which he was victorious, but he also gave me an opportunity that I never thought I would have: the chance to stand as a candidate to represent my home towns.
My wonderful constituency and my fellow constituents have been thrown somewhat into the spotlight in recent months, with the eyes of the nation and numerous news agencies watching us. To some, it felt like our towns were experiencing a mini-invasion. To use a phrase coined by the BBC, this was the start of the battle for Rochester and Strood. The people of my constituency are resilient, forthright and determined, and I am immensely proud of the way they had their voices heard and how they dealt with the focus put on us in that period. However, after a short interlude, they decided that the leadership and the future prosperity of our country were more than a single issue—something that the people of Rochester and Strood were not prepared to gamble with.
My constituency is steeped in maritime, military and industrial history, and has a diverse landscape and community. It forms part of the Medway towns and includes Strood, Chatham, the old city of Rochester and numerous surrounding villages. The area is named after the tidal River Medway, which meanders through them. Over the centuries, that natural resource has shaped the development of the landscape and the lives of the people who live there.
In Rochester, our magnificent Norman castle and cathedral have been well documented, but the House may not be aware that we are also blessed with Upnor castle—an Elizabethan fort built to defend warships moored on the river, where in 1582 Queen Elizabeth I reviewed the fleet—on the opposite bank of the river to the Royal Chatham dockyard, which in its heyday was the most important shipbuilding and repair dockyard in the country.
It is a lesser-known fact that it was on the River Medway that one of our most famous 16th-century seafarers, Sir Francis Drake, learned to sail. He went on to circumnavigate the world, defeat the Spanish armada and become a Member of Parliament. Given that I, too, learned to sail on the River Medway, and have become a Member of Parliament, one does wonder where this path will take me.
There are many subtle reminders of past industry in my constituency, none of them greater than the chalk cliffs that show themselves to us every now and then—a reminder of when cement works were scattered across the towns of Medway. That cement was shipped by barge to grow an expanding London, and was most notably used in the reconstruction of San Francisco after the great earthquake of 1906. There is also the old slipway at Borstal, where the Short brothers would launch their seaplanes, built at the factory, and the car park in Strood, where Aveling and Porter once stood—the company that became the largest manufacturer of steamrollers in the world.
The ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the hard-working people of my constituency have created a local economy where small enterprises thrive and grow. Since Labour was in power, unemployment has fallen by 46% and 6,200 apprenticeships were started; there are over 10,000 across the Medway towns. Our future economy is intrinsically linked to the provision of education and skills to our future generations.
I congratulate this Conservative Government on their determination to challenge all educational establishments that are not delivering for our children. As a Medway councillor, I held the educational improvement portfolio. Outcomes for our young people have not been what they should. Often I have seen the interests of the adults involved in under-performing schools put before the outcomes for the young people they served, and being a barrier to prompt improvement. Our schools community must be led by inspirational professionals who have high expectations and aspirations for the young people of my towns. I am a local comprehensive school girl from a working-class background who has worked hard, run her own business and become a Member of Parliament.
My journey is one that every young person in my community should feel is possible for them, with the values, skills and experiences they receive, which should prepare them to be the next generation to see Rochester and Strood through changing times.
I welcome today’s debate. We live in a technologically advanced world, and it is right that our security services and police should have the tools to tackle the threats that we face. I have a sister who is a talented social worker, and through that connection have had the honour of working with some wonderful children who have come into our care system. All too often, our young children have been pushed from pillar to post for long periods while decisions are taken about their future care plans, with further lengthy waits to be matched with new parents. I know one young person who had the system and the time scales fail her at a young age. That is simply not good enough, and it is right that Ministers are looking at ways to address this.
My sister and I have taken very different paths, but we have both thrived because of the love and stability of our mother and father. It was our parents who gave us the tools to succeed. I want every child to be as lucky as I was to experience the love and stability that a permanent family can bring, so that our children can thrive, and their future life chances are no longer uncertain. The safety of our young people is of paramount importance, so we must have powers to investigate and tackle criminals who target and exploit our vulnerable young people; they must be thwarted and brought to justice.
I have much to focus on over the coming Parliament—supporting my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his renegotiations on Britain’s future with Europe, working with colleagues and leaders at Medway hospital to build on the improvements we are now starting to see, protecting our beautiful Hoo peninsula, the fine agricultural land, marshland habitats, and our villages from over-development, and continuing to make it quite clear that we are not an extension of London and no airport is wanted in Rochester and Strood. As mentioned previously, we, the people of Medway, are determined and we like to win our battles.
Finally, I would like to bring it to the attention of the House that it is 45 years since the previous Conservative woman was elected to represent the constituency that preceded Rochester and Strood. Dame Peggy Fenner was first elected to this House in 1970, a formidable women, remembered for her fierce opposition to the closure of Chatham dockyard in the 1980's. She asked the Defence Secretary of the time:
“Does my right hon. Friend believe that the people of Rochester and Chatham elected me to support a Government that would do what has just been done to their dockyard? My right hon. Friend need not reply. I shall tell him the answer: they did not, and I will not.”—[Official Report, 25 June 1981; Vol. 7, c. 391.]
Sadly, she passed away last September at the age of 91. I hope I can follow in her footsteps, being also a strong Conservative woman, and be a formidable defender of the needs of the people in my constituency, Rochester and Strood.