Making my maiden speech in the House of Commons

I was lucky enough to be the first new MP to make their Maiden Speech yesterday evening. To say that I was a little bit nervous is a slight understatement but I soon got over those gitters! I used my Maiden Speech to highlight the shame that is the huge increase in youth unemployment in Watford:

I am very grateful to be called to speak today. I can do no better than repeat the words of my illustrious predecessor, Claire Ward, who on a similar occasion said that she felt a great sense of awe and some nervousness. She had reason to do so. At the time she was only 23 years old, about half my age-only three years older than my eldest son. She also had the distinction-should I say?-of always being known as the youngest of the Blair babes in the 1997 intake. I fear I did not make the cut for Cameron’s cuties, so I have to rely on Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. He referred to my stature in Parliament as broadly equivalent to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles). However, I think Mr Littlejohn was referring not to political stature but to my girth.

Claire Ward was an outstanding Member of Parliament for Watford. She was proud and honoured to represent the town, and she is very popular-and not only in the constituency. She had a distinguished parliamentary career, and was a Whip for several years before becoming an Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice in 2009. I am sure that everyone will join me in sending our good wishes to her and her husband and young family for their future. She is still under 40 years old, and I really do not think that we have heard the last of her. She is a wonderful person.

My first experience of Watford was at the tender age of 21, when I joined Trewins, a local department store belonging to the John Lewis Partnership that was, at the time, compared favourably to the shop in the then popular programme, “Are You Being Served?” My time there was a great lesson for me. It gave me a certain morality on the way to do business. The way that that firm taught us to treat suppliers, customers and fellow workers was a lesson for my whole business career and, I hope, for my political career.

I started in Watford then, not dreaming that I would become the Member of Parliament for the town. Watford was very much regarded as an industrial town in those days, and in the days of my predecessor-but-one, Tristan Garel-Jones, now Lord Garel-Jones, a wonderful man and a distinguished Member of this House. He had been Deputy Chief Whip and had held various other jobs, and had been in the Cabinet. He has been a great help to me. Watford was known for what is still colloquially called the print; it was one of the biggest printing centres in Europe. It had Scammell Lorries and Rolls-Royce aero-engines, and most of the town was involved in manual labour.

Of course, thing have changed. We now have a very diverse economy in Watford. We have some well-known national names. Camelot, the lottery company, has its head office in Watford, and we have Total-the oil company-and several other big names. We also have many distinguished smaller, local firms. We have Sigma Pharmaceuticals, which employs 400 people, and a very interesting family-run business called DDD, which manufactures toiletries and cosmetics, and it too employs 400 people locally. It was established in 1912 and is family-owned.

The important things for me are start-up businesses and high-tech businesses. During the election campaign, I had the privilege of visiting a business called Twin Technology, which was a start-up company only two years ago, and which now employs 14 people. I visited it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who was then party chairman. It was interesting; we heard on that day how difficult it was for the owners of the company to keep building it and to keep recruiting people in the current economic circumstances, surrounded as they were by the obstacles of bureaucracy.

In my business career-before my political career-the most important thing was employing people. In business, it is the greatest privilege to be able to employ people-to give them the opportunity to make something of themselves in life. It is with some shame that I tell the House that, in Watford, unemployment among young people-that is, people under 24 on jobseeker’s allowance-has more than doubled in two years. I think that we are talking about just under 550 people. That does not sound very much, but that is 550 lives in a small town. Those are people who want to work, and are able to work, but are not working.

To me, one of the most important parts of the Government’s programme-this came out in the Queen’s Speech-is providing a business environment where people are incentivised to create employment for others. If I do nothing else in Watford, and in my political career, I would like to be able to do this one thing: I would like to change the attitude to business among young people, together with a Government who are able to give them incentives to fill the empty shops and offices, so that we make business something that people want to do. I have spoken at many schools in Watford, and always to very bright young people. I say to them, “What do you all want to do after university?” but so few of them want to start businesses. It is not fashionable, and it should be. Government can incentivise people, but it is the responsibility of us all to encourage people to go into job-creating schemes.

The very large number of young unemployed people in this country-1 million-is obviously a scandal, but boiling that down to individuals, I believe that it is the job of Government to facilitate some form of change. I was delighted to hear in the Queen’s Speech that the welfare reform Bill, much of which is based on our election manifesto, is to provide interesting schemes, such as a mentoring scheme for small businesses and sole traders to take in young people and give them a chance.

I remember being in business in 1992 and not doing very well. Unemployment was very high and we were very short of money, but I thought that I could afford to recruit three young people. At the time the Government had a very simple scheme: it was for one year; the employer paid the young person £30 a week; and the Government made up the balance. So, I went to a jobcentre on the Monday, and three young people started on the Tuesday. I am told that that process is impossible today, with audits, safety checks, people going to appraise the business and everything else. Somehow, we have to be able to give people a chance so that employers can decide, “Enough of all this. I want to recruit people, I want to give them a chance. If it works out, it does. If it doesn’t work out, well I’m sorry.” I hope that this Government will be able to change the environment into one that makes people want to take a risk, take a chance and not have all those reasons for not doing so.

For that reason, I am very pleased to support, among many other things, everything that I have heard in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope that the Government will continue with that kind of operation.