On Thursday 25th June North Oxfordshire MP, Victoria Prentis, made her first speech in the Commons.
Victoria was able to make her maiden speech during a debate on investigatory powers. The full text of her speech is below:
Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I am honoured to be called, after such distinguished speakers and in such an important debate, to give my maiden speech.
For me, paying tribute to my predecessor is more than a convention; it is something I do with real affection. Sir Tony Baldry has served our area since I was a little girl. In the 32 years he spent in this place, he helped, as a Minister, to privatise the energy industry, served as Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, and, more recently, sat on the Government Benches as Second Church Estates Commissioner. He acted as the voice of God in this place and was responsible for everything from bats and bishops to blasphemy. Sir Tony believes in God, but he also believed in Mrs Thatcher. In his first political job as a young man, he was proud to act as keeper of the hairspray. He is loved locally as our very own “Sir Cumference”, but it is his loyalty, decency and sheer hard work that will make him so hard to follow.
There is another former Member, now in another place, to whom I must pay tribute. I owe to my father my lifelong knowledge of, and love for, our area and its people. I am one of the very fortunate band of Members able to represent their home-town.
North Oxfordshire is a beautiful place to live. I am sure many Members can picture our river valley, rolling hills and medieval churches encircled by villages. It is true that at home I make cider and keep ferrets.
Four generations of my family have the soil of north Oxfordshire under our fingernails, yet this is only partially a rural constituency. The vast majority of my constituents live in one of our two major thriving and substantial market towns: Banbury and Bicester.
Business is booming. Thanks to the long-term economic plan and the impressive industry of my constituents, we have almost no unemployment. That is not something my predecessor was able to say until the very end of his term here. We excel at food production and engineering, often with agricultural roots; town and country balanced to provide the perfect setting. The Bicester hunt meets in a factory that produces engines for lawnmowers. The diversity of commerce found in converted barns is extraordinary. We have high-end technical businesses, hospitality and national charities where once we had cowsheds.
Many of those businesses now operate internationally. Whatever the result of the referendum, our businesses need an easily accessible market for trade in Europe and strong global trading connections. Bicester village is the most visited attraction outside London for Chinese tourists and is known to many well-dressed Members of this House. All this is, in part, down to our very fortunate geographical position. We benefit from superb road and rail links, with which I am, as a commuter who lives in the middle of the constituency, very familiar. We also have the excellent Horton general hospital, where I was born, which now boasts more consultants than ever before.
It does not surprise me that so many people want to move to our area and join us. The challenge facing us over the next few years is how to manage unprecedented expansion across the area and to ensure that Bicester can blossom into a garden town. We must provide new infrastructure and work hard to ensure that we preserve what matters to us while building for the future.
Although I love my home, I am not blind to its problems. I am proud that this summer, for the first time, students in all our secondary schools will finally be able to take A-levels, but we must raise aspirations much higher. Child sexual exploitation has been a problem for us, but it is being recognised and tackled at all levels, not least by the changes I hope we will make following today’s debate.
As the mother of two girls, I am acutely aware of the pressures now heaped on our children in the social media age. Creative measures to build their self-worth and to protect them must be a priority for us all this Parliament. Only by tackling these difficult issues can we create the one nation we have pledged to deliver. Compassionate Conservatives, such as my predecessor and my father, know that the marginalised and vulnerable must be protected for society to thrive.
As a Conservative, I am committed to standing up for the rights of the individual. I am fortunate to have had a front seat in courts for the development of human rights law over the last 20 years. When I started out as a young Government lawyer, protecting issues of national security, we used to joke that we represented “the powers of darkness”. Since then, battle-hardened by so many inquests into the deaths of servicemen killed fighting for us, those who died in the 7/7 bombings and, more recently, Alexander Litvinenko, it has become ever clearer to me that our Security Services are nothing of the sort. They have been proved repeatedly to be both efficient and decent, and a great example of the values we hold so dear in this country. They, and others in our civil service, get on with the business of protecting us for modest salaries and little public recognition. We are lucky to have them.
We face a grave combination of threats. We must not allow those who mean to harm us to exploit any credibility gap in our regulation of investigatory powers. Checks and balances are welcome, but the process must not become so burdensome as to result in delays that mean we cannot respond to threats as quickly as we need to. As a lawyer, married to another lawyer, I am of course very comfortable with the idea of judicial oversight! This is precisely what judges are trained for and able to provide and they are very good at it, but the system must retain sufficient flexibility to enable us to act at great speed when necessary.
I am indebted to my pupil master, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), for his support throughout my legal career. I was amused to note that he, and several of the initiates on the Opposition Benches, were happy to admit that they find the existing regulatory framework somewhat difficult to understand. I share their concerns, but at this stage of my parliamentary career, I am not going to make any such admissions! Going forward, I would add that we must make sure that the language used is wide enough to encompass threats that have not yet materialised—whether or not they be at a school sports day. Technology is moving faster than regulatory drafting.
Our regulation of investigatory powers should be seen in the wider context of protections that we are fortunate to enjoy in the United Kingdom. As a nation, we should be proud of our record on human rights. In the 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta, our perceptions have quite rightly evolved. The greatness of the common law is that it has evolved with them. The European convention on human rights is a masterful document, and we must remain a signatory to it, but it is very much a product of the cataclysmic events that it was designed to prevent from re-occurring. In this country, the courts are unable to quash an Act of Parliament. It seems we need to re-state that, while our courts should have regard to the decisions of the ECHR, these are on the same footing, and Parliament is sovereign. I am pleased that the Government are consulting wide legal minds in a variety of venues on how to take this forward.
We can now, if we wish, formulate rights for today—including, for example, parental rights and those of children—and we can discuss sexuality and disability rights in a way that would have been unthinkable 65 years ago. I hope that, in so doing, we can deal with some of the more unwieldy aspects of the Human Rights Act. I have seen how the principle of extra-territoriality adds to the burdens on the soldiers whom I was so proud to represent, and how the interpretation of the investigative obligation under article 2 has benefited lawyers rather than bereaved families. I have seen those who face the enemy with bravery quail at the idea of a significant disclosure exercise. We must not allow excessive requests for paperwork and over-burdensome oversight to become themselves deadly weapons.
I am, as I said, battle-hardened, but not battle-weary, and I look forward to fighting hard to represent the people of north Oxfordshire in the years to come.