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Sir Edward Heath
"It's been over fifty years now since I became a member here"
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Tony Benn
"May I thank the PM for all the hard work he's done over the last four years"
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The BBC's Peter Morgan
"The battle ground for the euro deabte has already been stated out"
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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 18:31 GMT
Veterans bow out
Tony Benn and Sir Edward Heath
Former prime minister Sir Edward Heath has used his final speech in the Commons to make an impassioned plea for Britain to "remain a committed player in Europe".

He also called on MPs to defend "robustly" their independence from the government, warning that the public was losing its faith in the parliamentary process.

In the modern world it is only right that we should share our sovereignty with our European neighbours for the benefit of all

Sir Edward Heath
And Labour MP Tony Benn - who is also standing down - has urged the public to make sure they do vote in the forthcoming election.

Sir Edward, the longest serving member of the House, has been a member of parliament for 51 years.

As such, he holds the title 'Father of the House' - at least until parliament is dissolved next week.

The retiring Conservative MP for Bexley and Sidcup made his farewell comments in a personal statement - a privilege given to him as the longest-serving member.

'Proudest achievement'

In a personal speech that made reference to his early experiences as a government whip under the premiership of Winston Churchill, Sir Edward said that taking Britain into what was then the European Economic Community in 1972 had been his "proudest achievement".

He declared: "The United Kingdom has always been a European country.

"We have a shared history and culture."

Sir Edward, who explained that his pro-European outlook had been reinforced by his experiences in the second world war, said he regretted that the UK had "lost the opportunity" to be a founding member of the Community in the 1950s.


But looking forward to campaigning "vigorously" for a 'yes' vote in a referendum on the single currency, he continued: "In the modern world it is only right that we should share our sovereignty with our European neighbours for the benefit of all".

His enthusiastic defence of European integration followed a warning to fellow MPs that their powers were being eroded.

He said: "I cannot help but be saddened at the increasing impotence of this House and the decline in the esteem in which this place is held.

Tony Benn
Mr Benn urged people to use their vote

"The powers of parliament to hold this executive to account have been declining for over a century, under governments of all political persuasions."

Turning to the future, he continued: "I can only hope the next parliament will reassert its authority and robustly hold the executive to account."

Sir Edward picked up on growing evidence that people are becoming disillusioned with politicians.

He said: "It is also the behaviour of us members that has undermined public confidence in parliamentary democracy."

He hoped the new intake after the election would join with existing members to "take note of the need to set an example".

The chamber responded by erupting into applause - an unparliamentary gesture, but one which was overlooked by the Speaker this time.

Earlier at prime minister's questions, Conservative leader William Hague paid tribute to Sir Edward, saying he would be "certainly missed on all sides of the House".

'Hard work'

MPs also heard what is likely to be the last intervention from another veteran - leftwing Labour MP Tony Benn.

Mr Benn - standing down after 50 years - thanked the prime minister for "all the very hard work" he had done over the last parliament, and jokingly thanked William Hague for "the help he's given during that period".

The Chesterfield MP urged the public to participate in the forthcoming general election, saying "many thousands of people sacrificed their lives to give us the vote".

Mr Benn used his final question to the prime minister to address what he regarded as the unfinished business of House of Lords reform.

Most people in the country have a deep respect for his integrity

Tony Blair on Tony Benn
The issue has exercised the Labour member ever since he forced a change in the law to enable him to renounce his peerage to stand for the Commons.

Joking that he was not attempting to make a coded request for another peerage, he said: "I do not honestly believe that in the second chamber, however reformed, it would be possible to pursue an interest in democratic politics".

Tony Blair thanked Mr Benn for his support in the coming election.

Mr Blair said: "Whatever disagreements we may have had within the Labour party, may I say that I think most people in the country have a deep respect for his integrity and his sense of devotion to this House".


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