Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Maiden Speech

25th June 2001

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): In rising to make my first speech in the House as the new Member for Aberavon, I am struck by the significance of 7 June. That was the date on which this year the British people for the first time returned a Labour Government for a second term with a substantial majority. They are committed to a programme of social justice, abolishing unemployment, pensioner poverty and child poverty, and achieving an advancement of opportunity for all. The date of 7 June was also the day in 1984 when I was outside the House with tens of thousands of people from mining communities all over Britain, seeking that very same justice. For many Labour Members, there is a certain poetic justice about the date of 7 June.

In paying tribute to my distinguished predecessor, Sir John Morris, who served our constituency for almost 42 years, I am reminded that I am only the fifth Member to represent Aberavon since the constituency was created in 1918. Sir John served Aberavon, Wales and the United Kingdom with great distinction. He had the vision to campaign successfully for greater investment in the steel industry, for better road and sea links through the M4 and our deep water harbour, and for the diversification of the local economy, culminating in the recent development of the Baglan energy park. The arrival of our new regional hospital is also a tribute to his diligent campaigning.

Sir John will also be recognised more widely as both a Welsh and a British statesman. He was latterly the Attorney-General, and in the late 1970s he was the architect of the first attempt at devolution in Wales. It was Sir John who said of our defeat in 1979:

"When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you know it's there." The Labour Government's achievement of what Sir John called

"the repatriation of democracy to Wales" owed much to his pioneering work over many decades.

Aberavon is a very special constituency. It has a remarkable history, and because of the talents of all its people it has a bright future. It is the birthplace of Dic Penderyn, the first martyr of the Welsh working class. It is also the birthplace, at Cwmafan, of William Abraham--Mabon--the great champion of the Welsh miners, who was the first Welsh worker to be returned to the House. Aberavon was the constituency to have the distinction of returning the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who remained steadfast to the Labour cause, at least while he was in Aberavon.

The constituency has long been distinguished for its tolerance and for its radical, dissenting, co-operative, community, socialist and internationalist values, which we still proudly embrace today. On Friday, I attended a charity concert for the benefit of children of Chernobyl; on Saturday, in the Upper Afan valley there was a fund-raising event to protest against land mines. Those values are also clearly demonstrated by the success of co-operative enterprises at Glyncorrwg and Blaengwynfi, which deserve further support. Historically, the internationalist values are perhaps best expressed by the old Independent Labour party centre at Briton Ferry--visited frequently by such remarkable speakers as Emma Goldman, James Maxton and the Afro-Caribbean writer C. L. R. James, who, it is said, completed his masterpiece "Black Jacobins" in our locality.

Today the constituency faces great economic, landlordist, educational and environmental challenges. The steel industry at Port Talbot, as elsewhere, has lost many jobs in recent years, but the skills of its work force deserve a long future, and I will campaign for that alongside our local authority, the National Assembly for Wales and the steel unions. We have witnessed an ordered withdrawal of the petrochemical industry--a model of corporate social responsibility--and its replacement by the private-public partnership in the context of the new energy park and the planned urban and sports villages envisaged for Llandarcy.

In my first speech to the House, I want to focus specifically on the citizenship rights of disabled people and their carers in relation to the economy and to the whole of society. Our new Labour Government should and will be measured by the extent to which we tackle, in partnership, the fundamental inequalities faced by disabled people and their carers.

Already in my constituency good progress is being made through the local authority's special needs provision at Briton Ferry and Sandfields schools, the new special needs activity centre for very young children at Taibach, the work of the Shaw trust at Llandarcy--including its disability action centre, which is soon to be officially opened--and the thousands of volunteers often working with disability groups, and networked through the local council for voluntary service.

Government, in Westminster and in the National Assembly for Wales, have demonstrated their serious commitment by setting up the Disability Rights Commission and the recently launched carers strategy in Wales. Three organisations--Mencap, the Down's Syndrome Association and the Carers National Association--recently held awareness-raising weeks. The House would do well to reflect on the vital matters that they raised in relation to employment and wider social issues, and I urge our new Labour Government to listen to their concerns in order to achieve a sense of full citizenship for disabled people and their carers in the new millennium.

Disabled people are twice as likely as others to be out of work. Fewer than one in 10 people with a severe learning disability are in work, and more than 1 million people with disabilities want to work. There is a shortage of at least 40,000 supported employment places. The benefits system is a barrier for many people wanting to work, and most employers have no experience of employing people with a learning disability.

We need an expansion of the access-to-work scheme, offering on-the-job support. We need new rules for the disabled persons tax credit, making work pay for part-time workers, and we need a Government strategy to promote employment of people with a learning disability. We need statutory provision to support carers in the workplace, and young--and not so young--carers who are in education. For all young adults with a learning disability, we need structured programme routes from school and college to the world of work, and we need to involve carers in decision-making bodies.

We need proper and sensitive national consultation with the Benefits Agency, and a new development of the new deal to break down barriers and remove benefit traps for many people with a learning disability who are able to work and wish to do so. We need a national awareness campaign for employers, aimed at breaking down the obsession with formal qualifications. We need to give priority to those who will never work again, and to their dependants. We need to increase the pace of the settlement of miners' compensation claims, and those of their widows, until it becomes a whirlwind.

The aspirations of disabled people and their carers mirror those of the general population: a good standard of health, educational opportunities that lead to a meaningful occupation in adult life, sufficient income to afford a comfortable standard of living, a safe and secure home environment, a fulfilling family and social life and a valued place in the community. Those are, after all, universal rights, whether they apply to a disabled child in Soweto or to a disabled miner or steelworker in Skewen.

We have a more benign and friendly elephant on our doorstep now--our great Labour majority. Let us use that power wisely and swiftly to achieve social justice--the power which we did not have on 7 June 1984, but which we now have following 7 June 2001.

The Queen's Speech began by referring to our aspiration for a more prosperous and inclusive society. We can do no better than recognise the need to make that essential and courageous journey of hope from social inclusion to social justice, to build a truly inclusive society. The people of Aberavon and the people of Britain expect nothing less.

It was the Chartist poet Ernest Jones who wrote of that fine sense of hope and courage:

"The coming hope--the future day

When wrong to right shall bow,

And but a little courage, man!

To make that future - now!"

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): I declare again the interests recorded in the most recent Register of Members' Interests.

It is a very pleasant duty to congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), on behalf of the House, on his maiden speech. He did all the right things: he paid proper and generous tribute to Sir John Morris, who was much liked on both sides of the House and, I am sure, carries the best wishes of all of us in his retirement--if, indeed, he is retiring; he never seemed to retire before.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke eloquently about his constituency, as is right and proper, and spoke particularly eloquently of the interests of both the disabled and those who care for them. We look forward to hearing from him again on that subject, which stood out from a remarkably well thought out and eloquently delivered speech.

The hon. Gentleman produced something of a first: I think that that was the first time I had heard a Labour Member speak highly of Ramsay MacDonald. Perhaps he has now been rehabilitated. Who knows? Perhaps he is becoming new Labour again. I suspect, however, that we may not hear of Ramsay MacDonald again quite so swiftly--although we certainly want to hear from the hon. Member for Aberavon again. I repeat my congratulations on behalf of the House, and, indeed, congratulate all who have delivered maiden speeches so far.

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