Alan Milburn – 1992 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Alan Milburn in the House of Commons on 11th May 1992.

It is with a great sense of pride that I rise to make my maiden speech—in, appropriately enough, a debate about the future of British Rail. As hon. Members will know, the railways and the town of Darlington, which I am proud to represent, are virtually synonymous. Darlington, however, has another reputation, of which hon. Members are probably aware: its reputation as a barometer marginal seat.

It is my pleasure to say a word or two about my predecessors. My immediate predecessor, Michael Fallon, was a man of impeccably right-wing views. Indeed, he remained a devoted follower of Mrs. Thatcher even when that fell somewhat out of fashion on the Conservative Benches. He was, none the less, a hard-working Member of Parliament who rose to junior ministerial rank, and I wish him well in his new career outside Parliament.

I also pay tribute to my two immediate Labour predecessors, Ossie O’Brien and Ted Fletcher. Ossie had the misfortune to serve in the House for only six weeks after his splendid victory in the 1983 by-election; Ted, by contrast, sat for nearly 19 years, often bucking the national trend by dint of his diligence and personal popularity in the town of Darlington. Like those hon. Members, I will always put Darlington’s interests first, and will do my utmost to maintain their record of service to the town’s residents.

As hon. Members will know, Darlington gave birth to the railways, and so helped to spawn the first industrial revolution. Happily, that spirit of engineering enterprise and skill remains alive today in the string of top international companies for which Darlington is home: Cummins, Bowaters, Torringtons, Rothmans, and Cleveland Structural Engineering, to name but a few. One of those companies, Cleveland Structural Engineering, beat off international competition last week to win the contract to build the Tsing Ma bridge in Hong Kong. The bridge will be the largest structure of its kind in the world, and, like the Sydney harbour bridge, the Tyne bridge and the Humber bridge, it will be built in my constituency. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in congratulating both the work force and the management of CSE on their well-earned success. Whenever I have visited the Yarm road factory, I have been immensely impressed by the skills and commitment that I have seen there; now, they have obtained their just reward.

Although I am delighted by Cleveland’s success, after hearing the Gracious Speech I am less optimistic about the future for British industry as a whole. The speech was virtually silent about the economy, which remains in such dire straits. That the word “unemployment” did not even earn a mention is an insult to the 4,740 people in the Darlington district who remain without work. The recession has already cost 1,300 manufacturing jobs in my constituency, but all the major forecasts suggest that unemployment is set to go on rising.

Last year’s record fall in industrial investment risks plunging the country into a repeat of the economic mistakes of the mid-1980s—capacity failing to meet demand, thus forcing up imports and prices and lea ding inevitably to a Government-engineered slowdown. Companies such as CSE deserve better than that. They should be able to rely on the same support as is available to their foreign competitors from their home Governments: measures to stimulate investment in training, transport and technology. Yet here, in the middle of the longest recession since the war, we have the spectacle of the Durham training and enterprise council being forced to cut adult training by more than 20 per cent. in Darlington because its budget has been squeezed dry once again. It is a scandal that those offering youth training will have to provide more for less. Funding for non-endorsed training weeks has fallen from £31 to £28. What was training on the cheap is rapidly becoming training for a pittance.

These cheap and nasty cuts are pouring Darlington’s future down the drain. I fear that, without a change in policy, Darlington’s very real potential for economic take-off will be grounded, even before it has started. That would be a tragedy because, as Cleveland’s success amply shows, we have much to be proud of in the town of Darlington. The town is ideally placed to be at the core of a new industrial revolution that will bring more high-quality, high-skilled, high-tech, and high-paid employment.

Darlington’s fortunes, however, depend upon the Government removing the ideological blinkers that so restrict their vision and rethinking their hostility to manufacturing and their indifference to the north. The Government’s preoccupation with the privatisation of the railways is, classically, a triumph of ideological hope over the experience of those countries who owe their fast, efficient and safe railway systems to Government policies on planning and investment. The dictum that the market, and nothing but the market, can bring prosperity to areas like the north has proved disastrously wrong. After 13 years, unemployment is higher, the number of people in work lower and the gap between the rich and the poor ever wider.

Last week I listened with great interest to the Prime Minister’s promise to open up the powers of Government to public scrutiny. I hope that he will go one stage further and devolve power out from Whitehall to the regions and nations of our land. If the Prime Minister is serious about breaking down concentrations of unaccountable power, he will begin by reversing that process of creeping centralisation that has so characterised Conservative party policies since 1979. The north not only needs restoration of regional policy and proper investment in our transport infrastructure to allow us to compete against better placed regions and nations at the core of the single European market, but we need the right to determine our own future through a new structure of regional government that will take power from the centre.

Any process of devolution should include giving towns such as Darlington the right to run all their own services. In 1974, Darlington lost its county borough status because of the last Conservative reorganisation of local government. Ministers now have an oppportunity to put matters right by returning to the people of Darlington the powers that are rightfully theirs. I am looking not for any special favours for Darlington, but for policies that will rightly reward the vigour, loyalty and skill of its people. Too many of my constituents have paid the price for the records that the Government have set in the town in recent years—record bankruptcies, record mortgage repossessions and record hospital waiting lists.

I fear that the policies in the Gracious Speech mean yet more of the same. Darlington deserves a new spirit that forsakes the short term, the quick fix, the “me at the expense of the rest”—a spirit that says that all of us rely on common services because we are all part of the same community.

For those of us who grew up in the north-east, the past few years have seen a loss of that sense of community which used to characterise life there. When the Conservative party declared that there was no such thing as society, it acknowledged that, by its policies, people had been cut adrift from their communities, and as community has been denied so hope has been smothered. Hope can return to the communities of the north-east, but it needs policies that put talents to use rather than allow them to go to waste; policies that will reduce crime by putting sufficient police officers on our streets. It means policies that will restore pride by cleaning up our environment. It means tackling the obscenity of homelessness and investing in our hospitals and schools. It means, above all, giving regions such as the north-east and towns such as Darlington the chance to compete. It will be my privilige to fight for those policies in the House, I hope for many years to come. I shall do so in order to benefit the whole community of Darlington.