Somerton & Frome MP makes maiden speech
Yesterday Somerton & Frome’s new(ish) MP Sarah Dyke made her maiden speech in the House of Commons. The speech was made during the debate on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.
By tradition these speeches follow a formulaic pattern describing the constituency. Formulaic it may be, but it is still something of an art. By general consensus it was an excellent maiden speech and following her, arch Conservative, Liam Fox was moved to compliment it.
The text of the speech is as follows:
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor. The hon. Gentleman served his constituents over his tenure in Parliament, and I thank him for his service. He also spoke up for one of the major cultural exports in our region, cider.
Written records of cider production in Somerset exist from as early as the 12th century. Somerset has become synonymous with the cider industry and is proud to be its ancestral home. Cider is so important to our region that until the passing of the Truck Act 1887, which prohibited the practice, labourers were often paid in cider, with some of the top labourers often earning eight pints a day in payment. Although prohibited, I understand that the practice was slow to dry up in Somerset and continued well into the 20th century.
The industry today sustains thousands of jobs and hundreds of farmers. Our cider is renowned for its quality and I will champion the industry during my time here. Somerton and Frome is also a large agricultural base and is home to many of the country’s finest farmers and rural businesses, all producing food for our tables to high environmental and animal welfare standards. Farmers are essential to the UK economy and our way of life. We must back our hard-working farmers and provide them with a fair deal to ensure that we have food security long into the future.
I herald from a family that has been farming in the area for more than 250 years, so I will always stand up and fight for our farmers, who not only produce delicious and healthy food and drink, but protect our precious environment. The importance of improving the environment is critical to a rural area such as Somerton and Frome, because we face the effect of climate change first-hand and the damage it can cause will be devastating for our local communities. I am committed to campaigning on the issue and I call for the positive changes that we need to see.
It is an honour to be elected as the latest Liberal to represent the area, and I am proud to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Hughes and, more recently, David Heath, the last Liberal Democrat to represent the constituency. David is a true champion of this area who fought for 18 years for the people of Somerton and Frome. I thank him for all he has done in Somerset during his career. If I am able to achieve half of what he was able to do, I am confident I will have done a good job.
Leading women are often overlooked, and I would therefore like to recognise some of the pioneering women from my area. I am the second woman to represent the town of Frome, following on from Mavis Tate MP, who represented Frome from 1935 to 1945 and used Parliament to campaign for and champion women’s rights. Alice Seeley Harris, a documentary photographer who helped to expose human rights abuses in the Congo Free State under Leopold II of Belgium, also lived in Frome. Finally, I would like to mention Emma Sheppard, another Victorian pioneer who called for workhouse reform.
From people to places: let us take a short tour of the seat that I am so proud to represent. We start in Somerton, the ancient capital of Somerset, from which the county gained its name. The old English name for Somerset means “the people living at or dependent on Somerton”. The terms Somerton and Somerset derive from “the land of the summer people”, as Somerset was marshy and wet during the winter months and only dry and useful in the summer—that is, until the Somerset levels were drained by the monks to farm there during the middle ages.
We move on now to Langport, which is aptly named as it was a port town. Langport is the natural crossing point on the River Parrett, and the Royalist soldiers fled through the town while being pursued by Cromwell’s forces after the battle of Langport, held on Pict’s Hill nearby. It is also home to the Langport Mummers, who perform the Alfred play, based on King Alfred and his battle with Guthrum, the Viking. Alfred is known to have been based close to Langport before his battle with Guthrum’s great heathen army around the eighth century.
From the westernmost part of the constituency, we move to the south-eastern edge, to King Alfred’s Tower, which was built by Henry Hoare on the county border with Wiltshire. The folly tower is sited where King Alfred rallied his troops before defeating Guthrum and, in so doing, regaining control of Wessex. We must not leave this part of the constituency without mentioning Wincanton, which is close by. In 2002, Wincanton was twinned with Ankh-Morpork from Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series, making it perhaps the only place in the UK to be twinned with a place that does not exist.
Just north of Wincanton is the ancient Selwood Forest, which reaches north to Frome. Unfortunately, Selwood Forest is something of a rarity in Somerset, as the county only possesses 8% tree canopy cover. That figure signifies the urgent action needed for our environment, as does the lack of tree cover across the country. At the last election, all political parties pledged to increase tree cover across the country. I will be working hard throughout my time in Parliament to restore our natural environment, and I hope that progress continues to be made.
We emerge from the Selwood Forest into Frome, the home of JW Singer & Sons art metal works, which represents the industrial legacy of the town. The foundry used to produce iconic monuments such as Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey. Closer to this place, in 1902, the magnificent statue “Boudicca and her Daughters” was assembled on the Thames Embankment on the south-west end of Westminster Bridge, where it stands today—quite some feat, given that JW Singer cast his first brass candlesticks in 1848 using turnips as moulds.
Turning to the current debate, too often when we talk about levelling up we think of urban areas in the north of England. There is no doubt that those areas need support, but rural communities such as mine are often forgotten, and without action they risk falling even further back. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who have worked hard to ensure that rural areas are not forgotten in this Bill. They have tabled amendments to improve rural bus services, which are sadly neglected in Somerton and Frome and other rural constituencies, and to introduce new planning classes for second homes and holiday lets, so that local authorities have more power to limit the impact on local housing supply.
Rural areas such as Somerton and Frome are suffering deeply with the cost of living crisis. The cost of housing is often disproportionate to the level of wages available, and people have to use their cars to travel further for work or to access services such as dentists, GPs, hospitals or schools.
Off-grid fuels have been significantly more expensive than gas in the heating of homes. I will work to ensure that off-grid rural homes never have to face this crisis again. That is why amendment 6, on producing a rural proofing report, is so important. I need not say that the cost of delivering services in rural areas is greater than in urban areas, so it is vital that the Bill takes that into account, and I am delighted that my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place have tabled that amendment. Although I am disappointed that the Government have not gone so far as to support the amendment entirely, their concession is welcome.
Finally, I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I did not mention the importance of local government. We desperately need more powers to be devolved to local government. However, I have deep concerns about the way in which that is sometimes done. Devolution should be implemented with an understanding of what the local area needs; just because it works well in one place in a certain way does not mean it will work in the same way across rural Somerset. I strongly urge the Government to give more powers to Somerset, but in consultation with the people of Somerset, so that we are given greater decision-making powers in our local area rather than just implementing what Westminster thinks we need.
I look forward to being a hard-working Member of this House and a great representative for Somerton and Frome. To all the people of Somerset: Sumorste ealle.
In his response as the MP following her in the debate, Dr Fox (who is Conservative MP for North Somerset) noted: “The hon. Lady, in placing herself in context with a range of well-known predecessors from the part of the country that she represents, who were accomplished in different walks of life, demonstrated a lack of self-absorption that she will find somewhat rare in the House of Commons. I hope that she retains the refreshing self-effacing attitude that she brought to the House today. In the light of her top-to-bottom description of her constituency, if she were ever to leave this House, voluntarily or involuntarily, she is certainly likely to get a place on the Somerset tourist board.”