Phil Wilson – Sedgefield MP, replacing Tony Blair
Comment at end
After Tony Blair resigned his parliamentary seat – on the same day that he resigned as Prime Minister, 27th June, 2007 – a by-election was held in his constituency of Sedgefield, County Durham, which he had held for 24 years.
Phil Wilson, Labour, was elected as the constituency’s Member of Parliament.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to make my maiden speech during the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which I believe will help to make our communities safer when it is implemented.
During the Sedgefield by-election, I became aware that antisocial behaviour continues to be a constant worry for local people, even in an area such as Sedgefield where, because of this Government’s policies, crime is well below the national average. Sedgefield constituency has been in existence since 1918, except for a short period between 1974 and 1983 when it was absorbed by other constituencies in County Durham. I pay tribute to those MPs who represented Sedgefield prior to 1974.
If anyone had said to me, when Sedgefield re-emerged in 1983, that our Labour candidate would become leader of the Labour party and then the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979, that after 10 years he would resign his position and leave Parliament to become a middle east envoy, and that I would become his successor after fighting a by-election, I would have asked that person whether they had ever thought about taking up writing fiction. Fact, it would seem, is much more original than fiction.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish Tony Blair, my predecessor, all the best for the future and put on record that I believe that this side of the House owes him a great debt of gratitude for the 13 years of leadership that he provided to the Labour party. The country owes him the same for the 10 years of leadership that he gave this nation. I know from speaking to him about it that he will always hold a special place in his heart for the people and communities of Sedgefield. I would also like to give Tony Blair’s successor as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown), my best wishes. I look forward to many more years of his premiership.
I have always lived in Sedgefield and it is an honour and a privilege to represent the area where I grew up. For the people of Sedgefield, politics is not a game. For them, politics must do what it says on the tin. I hope that I can live up to that simple but honest request. I am the son of a coalminer. My Dad worked down the pit for almost 40 years and when I left school, he encouraged me to go on to do whatever I wanted, but he did not want me to follow him down the mines. He wanted better for me and, likewise, I want my family to go on to aspire. Aspiration should not be the preserve of the privileged few. It is something that we should all be allowed to reach for. That is one of the reasons why I joined the Labour party and it helps to form the basis of my creed.I grew up in the Trimdons—a cluster of former mining communities in the north of my constituency, which share the same heritage as many other villages in Sedgefield such as Wingate, Wheatley Hill, Thornley, Deaf Hill and Station Town to the east and Fishburn, Bishop Middleham, West Cornforth, Ferryhill and Chilton to the west. It is those communities that are remembered when Sedgefield is referred to as a former coal mining area. When Tony Blair became MP in 1983, the coal mining area of County Durham had been ravaged by the then Conservative Government—and those memories run deep. In those days, hope and aspiration were neglected and thrown on the spoil heap of unemployment and deprivation.
“In the area of the Wingate employment exchange, which covers a very large part of the constituency, unemployment now stands at over 40 per cent. A large proportion of the unemployed are under 25 years of age… Those young people are not merely faced with a temporary inability to find work. For many, the dole queue is their first experience of adult life. For some, it will be their most significant experience.”—[ Official Report, 6 July 1983; Vol. 45, c. 314.]
Today—24 years later and 10 years into a Labour Government after my predecessor led us into victory in 1997—I am proud to say that the unemployment rate in my constituency is at or below the national average. Where there were 5,500 people in Sedgefield out of work in the mid-1980s, there are now just over 1,000 today. Today my constituency is ringed by new or refurbished hospitals, with a new hospital built on the outskirts of Sedgefield village itself. Education results are massively improving and there are now more than 1,000 new businesses in County Durham. Between Fishburn and Sedgefield, there is a new science park, NetPark, which is nurturing new cutting-edge technologies, which will attract highly valued jobs to the area so that we can face up to the challenges of globalisation. For those among us who care to compare Sedgefield today with the Sedgefield of the 1980s, they will see that it is a better place, in no small measure because of the resilience of my constituents and the policies of this Labour Government.
In the west of the constituency lies Newton Aycliffe, a new town and the largest conurbation. It is a thriving community, with a population of 25,500 and to its credit one of the largest industrial estates in the region. Newton Aycliffe is a town with a bright future. The town has its issues, such as the regeneration of the privately owned town centre, but it was William Beveridge himself, the father of the welfare state and founder of the new town movement, who became chair of the Newton Aycliffe development corporation in 1947.
To the east of Newton Aycliffe is the town of Sedgefield, after which the constituency is named—an ancient town, but with modern aspirations. Like other communities in the constituency, it keeps an eye in a forward direction. Further to the south, the constituency is more rural and includes the communities of Hurworth, Heighington, Middleton St. George and Piercebridge. It is an area of the constituency that is different from the rest, because in the by-election it was there that the Liberal Democrats stopped saying that they were the alternative to the Labour party and started saying that they were the alternative to the Conservative party.
The identity of Sedgefield has been transformed since 1983. It is now confident, aspirational, proud of its coal mining heritage and I will continue to march with the miners’ banners through the streets of Durham on gala day. However, the future lies in technology—once the preserve of science fiction—with strong communities, outward looking and ready to face the challenges of the 21st century.
We live in a world where change can be fast and can seem threatening to an already existing way of life. Others more cynical may want to exploit that for their own ends. I am talking about the presence of the British National party. I raise that concern not for my own sake, but for the sake of the communities I represent. The BNP had not been present in Sedgefield until the local elections, but then their leaflets arrived on our doorsteps. They spread discontent, where discontent did not exist. They talked about a rising tide of crime, when crime in Sedgefield is below the national average. They talked of Sedgefield being “swamped by immigrants”, to use their language, where in fact 99 per cent. of the population saw themselves as white British in the census of 2001. That kind of cynical politics has no place in the communities where I grew up, where the watchwords are compassion and solidarity.
The people of Sedgefield are at their best when challenged. They do not turn to cynicism or prejudice. They draw from the deep well of community and solidarity, which has nourished the area for so long. The words,
“by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone”
are not written down, or even spoken, but they are acted upon. For example, estates that have been pestered by antisocial behaviour have pulled together to root out the problem. In West Cornforth, the Cornforth partnership runs a successful youth project, which has seen the reduction in the amount of antisocial behaviour in the village. Local people and agencies have pulled together and united around progressing the well-being of their village. Likewise, in Ferryhill, the Ladder project is doing similar work and is a tribute to the local community.
Those are examples of hope—and where there is hope, aspiration follows. What gives aspiration structure is education. We need to give our young people the wherewithal to fulfil their potential and equip them for the challenges of the future, which is why I endorse this Government’s approach to education.
Sedgefield has changed beyond recognition in my lifetime, but it is only in the past 10 years that the heartbeat of optimism has found its rhythm. I can assure my constituents that I will fight to protect their communities, promote their interests, serve them with diligence and build on the success of this Labour Government. With that, I have a lot to do, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make this, my first speech, to the House.
The speaker following Mr Wilson, said this, with a combination of courteous charm and cynicism:
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow that maiden speech, which had all the elements of a good one. It was well delivered, if I may say so, and it was delivered to time. It was an excellent walk through the hon. Gentleman’s new constituency. Indeed, as he talked about those new industrial estates, the new town centre and the place ringed with hospitals, I am sure we all wished that we, too, could have had a Prime Minister who served our constituencies and delivered that level of investment. Unfortunately, not all of us have been quite so lucky. In all seriousness, it must be very difficult to follow the previous Member who represented Sedgefield. Whatever one thinks of his politics, by virtue of his high position he will be a difficult act to follow, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do so with aplomb.