Geoff Hoon – 1992 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made in the House of Commons by Geoff Hoon on 20 May 1992.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan-Smith) on his maiden speech. I hope that he will take it as a compliment when I say that he looked and sounded as though he had been here for years. I am sure that he will soon be fitted with his own leather jacket.

Perhaps I have the easiest task of any new hon. Member in paying proper tribute to my predecessor. Frank Haynes was popular in all parts of the House because of his genuine friendliness and good humour, his commitment to a range of good causes—from local hospitals to the fortunes of Sutton Town football club. He was popular with political friends and opponents alike.

Had I needed any convincing of that, it was confirmed recently when, with characteristic generosity, he agreed to help me to show a constituency school party round the Palace of Westminster. He has a formidable reputation as a tour guide and the Kirkby Woodhouse school party was not disappointed. As we made our way round the Palace it was clear that we were in the presence of a star. Wherever we went we met people who would stop and congratulate Frank and wish him well for the future. Everyone from police officers to Members of the House of Lords had a good word for him.

Frank’s popularity is reflected in the constituency of Ashfield. There cannot be an organisation, group, club or society of which Frank is not a member or which he has not helped in some way over the years. I say that with some confidence as, since my election, representatives from them have all written to me asking me to carry on the traditions that Frank established. Frank’s talent and obvious popularity are based on the sheer force of his personality and the sheer volume of his voice.

Frank had one quality that I believe has not been given proper attention: his considerable political skills which have perhaps been overlooked. He won Ashfield after arguably one of the worst by-elections in Labour party history. He held Ashfield for the Labour party in some extraordinarily difficult circumstances in Nottingham. He was greatly assisted in that by the wisdom and experience of his agents, Clarrie Booler and Bryan Denham.

In 1979, Frank replaced the current hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who might like to know that he still has at least one supporter in Ashfield. In the dying days of the general election campaign, I knocked on the door of the house of an elderly lady, who kindly invited me in and asked why I had taken so long to get round to see her. Like any candidate anxious to win votes and influence people, I politely explained that it was a big constituency and it took a little time to get around. “Tim Smith,” she said, “called on everyone.” In my candidate’s mode, I still more politely pointed out that there were 75,000 electors in Ashfield and I could not see how he could have met them all. “Of course he did,” she said, “regularly.”

My candidate’s charm school smile was wearing a little thin by the time she asked me what I had to say for myself. I launched into the two-minute version of the Labour party manifesto, trying to steer the conversation in the direction of her voting intentions. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said. “I have already voted by post.” I now know what is the political equivalent of the blind man in a dark room looking for a dark cat. It is a Labour candidate canvassing a Tory lady who has already voted by post.

In making my preparations for this speech, I realised that the last three people to represent Ashfield now belong to three different political parties. David Marquand left Ashfield for a career in the European Commission. By contrast, I shall be leaving the European Parliament to concentrate on the constituency of Ashfield. He made his maiden speech in 1966, when he was able to state that mining was the linchpin of the economy of Ashfield. He went on to say, however: the coal mining industry of Nottinghamshire faces a grave crisis of confidence.”—[Official Report, 5 May 1966; Vol. 727, c. 1965] He argued that it was urgently necessary to work out a comprehensive fuel programme in order to be able to assure the miners of the east midlands about their future for a long time to come.

These words have echoed down the years. There has been a massive reduction in the number of local collieries. I expect to represent Ashfield when its last colliery closes. That will be a sad day for the local community and it presents a bleak prospect for young people, who will also face difficulties finding work in Ashfield’s other great industry, the textile trade.

From 1955, Ashfield was represented by Will Warbey. He had first been elected to the House to represent Luton in 1945. On 23 August 1945, in his maiden speech, he used words which are of particular relevance to today’s debate: absolute national sovereignty is now an out-dated factor in international affairs. He quoted the right hon. Member for Woodford, Winston Churchill, who had talked of the mixing of the nations, and went on: I believe there is a great opportunity in the future for nation States to get more mixed together, especially in their economic functions. We have a particularly excellent opportunity in the case of those nations in the north and west of Europe, and I include our own, which, I am glad to say, have now very largely a common political outlook, and which are intending to pursue similar policies of planning for full employment and for raising standards of living. We can get together and plan very largely in common in order to achieve those objectives.”—[Official Report, 23 August 1945; Vol. 413, c. 898] That was what the House was discussing in August 1945, and in essence it is what this debate should be about.

The Members meeting in Parliament in 1945 were determined to end the divisions of Europe based on the extreme nationalism that had caused two catastrophic world wars. Like many others in a similar situation, my father volunteered to fight in the second world war on his 18th birthday. When he came to Strasbourg shortly after my election to the European Parliament, he said how much better what I was doing was than what he and millions of others had had to do in the second world war.

We now have to build on the European foundations established by previous generations. Although the Maastricht treaty is a far from perfect addition to the European building, it contains much that will contribute to the mixing of nations. Others have already criticised Britain’s opt-out on economic and monetary union and on the social chapter. Since I am still a member of the European Parliament I want to concentrate my remarks on the institutional aspects of the treaty and to express my regret at the timid steps taken towards real democracy in the decision-making processes of the European Community.

Too often we have heard Ministers complain about decisions taken in Brussels as if they had played no part in the process or had no responsibility for the failure to hold the European Commission properly to account. The same Ministers were responsible for the intergovernmental negotiations that led to the treaty. If Brussels is to blame, so are the Ministers who have failed to reform the treaty to control the Commission and to make it answerable to those who have been directly elected to represent the people of Europe. Those representatives sit in national Parliaments and in the European Parliament.

Members of all the Parliaments of Europe should be working together more closely to improve the democracy of the European Community. We could start by considering how to improve the working relationship between Members of this House and British Members of the European Parliament. There remains an uneasy tension between those two democratically elected institutions which, in a European context, should be following a common purpose—the proposing, amending and approving of European legislation as well as holding the European Executive to account.

The uneasy relationship exists in spite of the fact that in the present House of Commons, 62 hon. Members have experience of one or more of the European institutions. Thirty of my new colleagues have been members of the European Parliament, directly elected or appointed like our Speaker, and 32 have been members of the Council of Europe.

The uneasy relationship allows the European Commission—the least democratic of the Community’s institutions—to assert a disproportionate influence over legislation. During the debate on the Single European Act, it was suggested in Britain that the treaty changes then being debated marked a final shift of power from Westminster to the European Parliament.

In practice, the European Commission has significantly increased its power over legislation because of its ability to determine which amendments to propose during the various stages of the legislative process. In effect, it has been able to play off the European Parliament against the Council of Ministers, telling the Council that the European Parliament would not accept certain amendments and, in turn, telling the Parliament that it could not propose Parliament’s amendments to the Council because they would be rejected. As a result, the Commission’s policy line has been strengthened at the expense of the democratically elected Parliament and Council.

Certain measures in the Maastricht treaty will undoubtedly tilt the institutional balance slightly in the direction of the European Parliament. It will do little, however, to make the European Commission subject to democratic control. Similarly, the decisions of the Council of Ministers, meeting in secret, are rarely subject to democratic scrutiny. The Maastricht treaty will do little to improve the ability of elected Members of national Parliaments to oversee the activities of Ministers meeting in council.

Much of the debate so far has concentrated on criticisms of the present operation of the European Community. I share some of the criticisms, but I disagree strongly about the appropriate solutions. If the European Community overrides democracy, the solution is to make it more democratic.

I am grateful for the House’s attention.