Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab):
As you will know, Mr Speaker, it is the custom when we come to this place for a new Member to make a maiden speech. With your indulgence, I wonder if I might initiate a new genre tonight: the valedictory speech.
I have been in this place 23 years. I hope that, during that time, I have left the occasional footprint in the sand, but I am under no illusion. Only a handful of those of us who currently strut these corridors will still be remembered in 10 or 20 years’ time and I do not expect to be among them. Before the waters close over my head, however, I would like to take this opportunity to place on record a few random thoughts that might be of interest to those who come afterwards.
To those who ask where I am coming from, I reply that I am a socialist with a small s, a liberal with a small l, a green with a small g and a Democrat with a capital D. Although most of us are more prosperous than we have ever been, we live in an age of disillusion and corrosive cynicism. It is fashionable to believe that all politicians are useless, that nothing works, that everything is bad and getting worse and that all political activity is pointless. I do not accept this.
Despite the catastrophe of Iraq, I sincerely believe that the achievements of the last three Labour Governments have been considerable. I have only to look at my own constituency to see the truth of that proposition. With hand on heart I can say with confidence that during these last 13 years the lives and life chances of many of my least prosperous constituents have been immeasurably improved.
The Government have, for reasons I can only guess at, been rather shy about it, but we have redistributed some wealth. The minimum wage, working tax credits, pension credits and the huge investment in health, education and public transport have made a considerable impact and I defy anyone to argue otherwise. In my constituency in 1997, and one has to pinch oneself to recall this, a significant number of people-security guards, mail-order workers and care workers-were earning as little as £1 an hour. The waiting time for a hip operation at Sunderland Royal hospital was up to two years and it is now 18 weeks and falling.
There is a secondary school in my constituency, Sandhill View, at which 15 years ago less than 10 per cent.-I repeat, less than 10 per cent.-of GCSE pupils were achieving five A to C grades. Today, Sandhill View is under dynamic new management. It has been entirely rebuilt, sharing a library, sports and other facilities with the surrounding community. It covers exactly the same catchment area as the old school, and around 60 per cent. of pupils obtain five A to C grades. To be sure, there is still room for progress, but I think that the House will agree that there has been a dramatic improvement on what went before.
Nor do I believe that such changes are confined only to Sunderland. City centres such as those in Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, once in near terminal decline, have been reborn. No doubt there are many reasons why this has happened, but I do believe that it has something to do with the fact that we have enjoyed more than a decade of Labour Government.
There has been progress, too, in other important areas, such as the environment, criminal justice, and international development, and above all in Ireland, where peace has been achieved after many years of apparently intractable conflict. And who would have thought that we would live to see the day when a new Labour Government took a controlling interest in three major banks with-eventually-Conservative support?
There are social and constitutional reforms that were controversial in their day but which, having been enacted, will endure for ever. They include the bans on smoking in public places and on cigarette advertising, the requirement that political parties disclose their source of funding, and the Freedom of Information Act-painful though that has proved for us humble servants of the people. Whatever the outcome of the election, no one can take those achievements away from the Governments of the last 13 years, and I note that no Opposition party is intending to do so.
Mr. Speaker, I depart with mixed feelings. I have heard it said that most MPs stay one Parliament too long, and I thought it better to go while people are still asking “Why?” rather than “When?” There will be withdrawal symptoms. Leaving now is either the best thing I have ever done or the biggest mistake of my life. At this point, I have no idea which.
I do know this, however: I count it a privilege to have been born in a democracy and to have served in this place. The great thing about democracy is that, although harsh things are sometimes said, we are not actually trying to kill each other. Differences are ultimately resolved at the ballot box. One side wins; one side loses; and the loser lives to fight another day. Mr. Speaker, those are the last words that I shall speak in this place.