Theresa May – 1997 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons


Below is the text of the speech made by Theresa May, the Conservative MP for Maidenhead, in the House of Commons on 2 June 1997.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate.

When I was preparing my speech, I looked at some of the maiden speeches that had been made by hon. Members in the weeks before the Whitsun recess. I noted that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Ms McKenna) mentioned an incident in which a taxi driver had mistaken her for the wife of an Labour Member of Parliament. Sadly, mistaken identity is not confined to the Labour Benches.

My own confusion was great when I was in the Members Lobby and the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) rushed up to me, himself in a state of some confusion, and encouraged me to put my name on the list for the ballot for private Members’ Bills. He was astounded when I looked at him and said, “Why?” Obviously, he had mistaken me for one of the ladies on the other side. [HON. MEMBERS: “Surely not.”] I was told that a Member making a maiden speech was never intervened on or heckled. That clearly refers to the opposite party, but not to one’s own.

Further confusion has ensued in my early days in the House. When I arrived, I had to take great pains to point out to my colleagues that I represented Maidenhead rather than Maidstone. That was particularly pertinent in the early days of this Parliament. Being a Conservative Member called Theresa adds a certain interest to my life in the House; I am thinking of acquiring a badge reading, “No, I am the other one.” To cap it all, on the morning when I moved into my new office, when the telephone rang for the first time I eagerly picked up the receiver to find out who the caller could be, only to discover that the person on the other end of the line wanted to speak to Edwina Currie.

One of the pleasures of making a maiden speech—I suspect that it may be the only pleasure—is the opportunity that it gives the new Member to pay tribute to his or her predecessors. For most Members, that means referring to former Members of Parliament; but Maidenhead is a new constituency, created from two former constituencies, and I am pleased to say that both my predecessors—my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—are well and truly back in the House.

I thank them for the kindness that they have shown me, and for the help and advice that they have given and continue to give me. I particularly thank them for giving up some rather good bits of their former constituencies to form mine. In the circumstances, I am very grateful for that. I also pay tribute to their diligence as constituency Members. Despite having had other onerous and time-consuming responsibilities at various times, both worked assiduously on behalf of their constituencies and their constituents, and in that respect they have left me with a great deal to live up to.

It is a privilege to stand here as Member of Parliament for Maidenhead, especially because this is the first time that Maidenhead has had its own Member of Parliament. In view of the potential origin of the town’s name in the symbol of the maiden’s head, it is perhaps appropriate that it should now be represented by a maiden—although I must confess to using the term somewhat loosely.

Although the name of the constituency is Maidenhead, it covers more than just the town of Maidenhead. It also includes some lovely tracts of Berkshire countryside, including what I would describe as some of the prettiest and most delightful villages in the country. Maidenhead is a thriving, dynamic town with a thriving local economy and many local businesses, ranging from small family firms that have been in the area for many years—indeed, for generations—to the European headquarters of multinational companies.

The advantages for businesses in the area are many. Not only is it a pleasant and attractive place in which to live and work, but there is a high-quality labour force on which to draw. Maidenhead also has the advantage of proximity to the motorway network, to London and, of course, Heathrow. Those are advantages for business, although it must be said that they also create some problems for local people—night flights into Heathrow, noise from the A404(M), the need for another bridge across the River Thames, the threat of motorway service stations and the threat of development. I have been and will continue to be involved in all those issues, and I trust that they can be resolved in the interests of those living in the constituency.

Although not much has been written about Maidenhead, it is a town steeped in history. I was reminded of that yesterday morning as I watched the mayor unveil a plaque in the town centre to commemorate the site of the 13th-century chapel that was the predecessor of the current borough church of St. Andrew and St. Mary Magdalene.

Maidenhead owes its origins to the River Thames, and the river continues to play a significant role in the life of the constituency. Many people enjoy walking alongside the river in Maidenhead and watching the operation of Boulters lock. Further up the river is the delightful village of Cookham, where people can spend time looking at the works of the local artist Stanley Spencer in the Stanley Spencer gallery.

The river in the Maidenhead constituency makes it host to one of this country’s major national summer sporting events, the Henley regatta. Although Henley is in Oxfordshire, the regatta meadows are firmly in Berkshire. The river adds charm to many other villages, including Sonning and Wargrave. Wargrave may be of particular interest to female Members, because in 1914 Wargrave parish church was burnt down by suffragettes. I am happy to say that getting votes for women in Wargrave these days does not require such drastic measures. I shall not name all the villages in the constituency, but it is a delightful part of the country, and I am very proud to represent it.

Maidenhead is blessed with good schools in both the state sector and the private sector. I hope that we all agree that the aim is to provide the right education for every child. For some children, that will be an education that is firmly based in learning practical and vocational skills. For others, it will be an education based on academic excellence. The assisted places scheme enables bright children from less well-off families to take advantage of an education that would otherwise not be available to them. I totally refute the concept that underpins the Bill—that, if everybody cannot have it, nobody should have it.

The advantage of the assisted places scheme is that it enables children from less privileged families to benefit from high-quality education. I want to focus on one aspect of the scheme, to which I trust the Government will pay some sympathetic attention. The assisted places scheme not only helps bright children, but is an important way of helping children from difficult family backgrounds or with particular social needs.

A number of charitable foundations provide boarding school places for children whose family circumstances are such that they require to go boarding school: they may have troubled backgrounds or there may be a social need. Those places are provided through a mixture of funding: the boarding school element is funded by the charitable foundation and the education costs are covered by the assisted places scheme. Those children are genuinely in need, and if the assisted places scheme goes, the opportunity to provide boarding school places for children from difficult backgrounds will go with it. I know that the Minister has received representations on that issue, and I trust that the Government will find a way to ensure that genuinely needy children continue to be catered for as they have been in the past.

I should also like to comment on the opposite side of the Bill, if I can call it that: I am referring to the reduction of class sizes. When I was the chairman of a local education authority, we had many interesting debates about the impact of class size on the quality of education. My concern about the Bill and the way in which it will operate is not only that it will abolish the assisted places scheme, but that the assumption behind it is that the prime determinant of the quality of education for our children is the size of class in which they are taught. It is not: the prime determinant of education quality is the quality of teaching, and that is a function of the quality of teachers and the way in which they teach.

The evidence clearly shows a direct correlation between the method of teaching children and the quality of education that they receive. There is no clear correlation between quality of education and class size or the amount of money spent on children in any particular class. I urge the Government to reconsider the issue of quality and standards of education. It is important to examine the methods used by teachers, particularly in the primary sector. I have long questioned the concept of child-centred education. That may sound wonderful, but, as the Office for Standards in Education has said, we should seek more whole-class teaching in primary schools. The method of teaching is important, and the Government should not forget that in their attempt to grab the headlines on the issue of class sizes.

The only other point that I want to make relates to parental choice. By putting an artificial cap on the size of primary school classes, the Government are reducing parental choice. When I was a chairman of education, I received a number of telephone calls from anguished parents who were concerned because their children could not get into the school of their choice. I am sure that any councillor involved in education will have received such calls.

Those parents will now find that their choice is further restricted, because in the past they were able to take their case to appeals panels—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) raised that issue. We all know that head teachers often found one or two extra places for children whose need to be in a particular school was great. The Government are to abandon that practice. They say, “No, it doesn’t matter if a school is popular, or that it is over-subscribed and parents are keen to get their children there. The parents don’t know best about where their children should be educated. The Government know best, and the Government will put an artificial limit on class size.” That will further reduce parental choice.

The Bill will not improve academic excellence or the quality of education in our classrooms. It will take away opportunities from a large number of children, who would benefit from a quality of education that they would not receive without the assisted places scheme. Furthermore, it will reduce parental choice. The Government are saying to parents, “You don’t know best—we do.”