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Remembering Srebrenica

April 17, 2014

Peering out of the plane window as we descended into Sarajevo I could see the large detached houses with low pitched roofs that are a feature of the Bosnian countryside. Images flashed back into my mind of houses like these on fire.

My vivid memory was from twenty two years ago, when the full horror of the Bosnian civil war was beamed into our living rooms every night for three years. Sarajevo was under siege.  The ghastly phrase “ethnic cleansing” became part of the language of war zone reporting. Such scenes were taking place in modern Europe, a half century after the continent had last been convulsed in a war where civilians were the main casualties. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it seemed that at last west and east Europe were past the age of dictators and would enjoy peace, democracy and prosperity. But as Yugoslavia unravelled into its ethnic components, I was angry that the promise of a new Europe was slipping away as the EU, NATO and the UN seemed impotent in the face of well armed aggression, in particular from the Serbs who had seized most of the Yuogoslav federal army’s hardware.

Now I was visiting Bosnia for the first time, not as an angry young politician, but as a government minister, leading a delegation of young community leaders most of whom were infants in the 1990s with no contemporary memory of the civil war.  Our visit was organised by the charity, Remembering Srebrenica. The massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 when 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by the Bosnian Serb army is recognised as an act of genocide, along with other post 1945 killing fields in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur. The government is funding the charity to enable over 700 young British community leaders to visit Bosnia to reflect on how advanced countries can so easily slip into barbarism and also to make a pledge to enhance community relations in our very diverse 21st century Britain.

Our three day visit started with a talk from the Director of the International Commission for Missing Persons. The ICMP was set up to deal with one of the grisly consequences of ethnic cleansing, a countryside pocketed with mass graves of unidentified bodies. As we soon learned, the bodies still being discovered are actually partial remains. The victims from those burned out villages, mainly men shot in the back of the head, were initially buried in mass graves. But soon after, in a desperate attempt to conceal the extent of their war crimes, the Serb soldiers dug up the pits with excavators , breaking up the bodies in the process and then scattering the remains over several sites many miles apart.

The full horror of this was revealed the next day (last Thursday) when we travelled to the ICMP’s mortuary and lab in Tuzla. In a chilled room, on shelves that resembled an archive or filing store, were bags of different sizes. Each bag contained unique remains, separated from each other by DNA testing. But these were not cadavers, rather they were skulls, femurs or just pieces of a rib cage.

In the lab we saw how the ICMP extracts DNA from the bones and then tries to make a match with the database of blood samples taken from Bosnians who are missing a family member.  So far, over 6,000 matches have been made. Forensic science thus gives some closure to grieving relatives and also adds to the evidence of war crimes.

The Tuzla part of the trip was horrific, but the war was still to me something that I had studied in the media, books and now with what later generations would see as grisly archaeology. History would come alive when we travelled to Srebrenica, on the border with Serbia.  Outwardly, it’s an unremarkable small town. But its name will surely be infamous in European history for many years. There we met survivors of the massacre that took place in July 1995.

First we met the Mayor, Camil Durakovic. Now in his mid thirties, he was just 16 when Serb forces surrounded his mainly Muslim town. He was the youngest member of the “death march” of men who fled into the mountains and forests to escape to the safe haven of Tuzla.  Srebrenica itself should have been safe, as there were Dutch UN peacekeepers nearby. But in one of the most shameless episodes in the history of that organisation, they cooperated with the Serb forced evacuation of the town. Camil told me that only one of his school class mates survived.

We then visited the memorial at Potocari, a mile or so up the road, opposite the battery  factory that had been the base of the Dutch soldiers, where many civilians had fled, hoping for protection. The field has 8,372 white marble columns, in the traditional Islamic design of gravestones. There is also a frieze, with each of the names of the victims.  Our guide was Hasan Hasanovic. His story was particularly upsetting, as he had lost both his father and his twin brother, Husein. He introduced us to one of the most remarkable group of people I have met in my life, the Srebrenica Mothers. Most are widows as well as grieving mothers. We sat and listened in stunned silence as they told their stories. One woman had lost fifty five relatives.  Almost twenty years on the anger was still burning and the grief palpable. They still seek justice and recognition from the rest of the world.  The encounter will probably be the longest lasting memory of the delegation.

The next morning we met the spiritual and political leaders of the Bosnian Muslims. The Grand Mufti of Sarajevo told us that the Serbs were really victims too, as they have to live with the knowledge of the war crimes that many of them had committed or condoned.   I spoke with the President, Bakir Izetbegovic (son of the leader who was a familiar presence on TV twenty years ago) about British government support for Bosnian membership of the EU and NATO.  I believe that this is the political hope for the future. Slovenia and Croatia are already members of the EU.  Two years ago I was in Macedonia, helping with their EU accession preparations. Serbia is also likely to be a member soon. Then the European family of nations can live up to the promise of the removal of the Iron Curtain. While this Easter we watch events in Ukraine, another cocktail of languages, religions and painful memories, let’s hope diplomacy triumphs.

Finally, what have we learned? On the wall of the photograph display in Sarajevo about Srebrenica is the quote attributed to my Bristol MP predecessor Edmund Burke, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” We can certainly reflect on that while looking at Ukraine or, on a more ghastly scale, Syria. But soon I will meet up with my new young friends from the delegation, to discuss what we can do to make our own towns and cities more cohesive and happy places to live.

 

What has the Budget done for Bristol?

March 31, 2014

The 2014 Budget came amidst some promising economic news. Economic growth is the strongest in the European Union and one of the most impressive in the world. Inflation is down to 1.7% – the lowest level in five years. UK income inequality is at its lowest level since 1986. In Bristol West, unemployment was down 11.4% at the end of 2013 compared to May 2010. Nationally there are now 1.26 million more people in work than when the Coalition Government took office. This is all good news, but there is obviously still a way to go.

A number of the core components of this year’s Budget had a very distinctive Lib Dem feel about them. Listening to the Chancellor’s speech there were some obvious yellow lines that would not have been present without the Lib Dems in government.

At last year’s Budget the Lib Dems were able to deliver on our manifesto pledge to increase the personal Income Tax allowance to £10,000 – this will start on 6 April 2014. That was a great victory, as I acknowledged at the time when I was the party’s Treasury Spokesman. The headline for this year’s Budget is yet another increase in the personal tax allowance secured by the Lib Dems, raising it to £10,500 from April 2015. This is a huge benefit to millions of low paid and part time workers.

So far the Lib Dem rise in personal Income Tax allowance has seen 2.7 million people removed from Income Tax completely, and another 24.5 million people receiving a cut in their tax bill. In Bristol alone this is 17,570 people removed from Income Tax and 173,100 benefitting from a tax cut. These impressive numbers are set to increase again in April 2015, with the typical basic rate taxpayer being £800 better off thanks to the Lib Dems delivering on this key election promise.

Apprenticeships are another key policy that we have been pushing hard on, and the Budget delivered more good news. In both 2014-15 and 2015-16, £85 million will be provided to extend the Apprenticeship Grants for Employers scheme (AGE), funding over 100,000 additional incentive payments for employers who take on young apprentices. There will also be £20 million of funding to support employer investment at the top end of apprenticeships degree and masters level apprenticeships.

While there is a high demand from young people to do an apprenticeship, not enough employers are coming forward and offering them. This extra funding will encourage more employers to offer apprenticeship places to help meet that demand from young people. These places are vitally important to our continued economic recovery, with the National Audit Office estimating that for every £1 spent on apprenticeships the wider economy benefits by £18. I am proud we have been able to create over 1.6 million new apprenticeships and am delighted that we are continuing our drive to offer the best opportunities to young people. I have made many visits to Bristol businesses that are expanding the number of apprentices.

There is good news on pensions, too, with radical changes announced that will offer more options to people over how they use their pension savings. My Lib Dem colleague Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister, has worked tirelessly to ensure that security in retirement remains a central part of this government’s pension reforms.

The new changes being brought in provide greater choice for those retiring this year, allowing people aged 55 or over with defined contribution pension savings to withdraw these savings (subject to their marginal tax rate). To go along with the increased choice people have, the Government is ensuring that everyone approaching retirement receives free and impartial face-to-face guidance. Thanks to the Lib Dems in government, pensioners now have more flexibility than ever over their own finances.

As you may be aware, in the 2013 Budget we announced the Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme in order to provide £3.7 billion of investment in England and to support up to 74,000 home buyers of new build properties by 2015-16. In the first 10 months of the scheme, over 25,000 people reserved a new build home and 89% of these are first-time buyers. Every home built under the scheme is a new-build home, so not only is this helping first-time buyers afford to get on a foot on the property ladder, but it is providing an effective catalyst for house building right across the country. The scheme will undoubtedly help stimulate new house building in Bristol, for instance at Wapping Wharf, which I have visited twice in the last six months to see this large site take shape.

There was also good news for drivers and other road users (on top of the freeze in fuel duty) in the form of extra funds for pothole repairs. Over £180 million will be divided between councils to help repair roads, with Bristol receiving around £340,000.

The Chancellor also announced that all the regulatory hurdles had been cleared for tax relief to be given to the film, television and computer games industries.  This follows his confirmation to me last year that relief would be given to the makers of “high end” tv drama, childrens tv and animation.  This will be a huge boost to Bristol film makers such as world famous Aardman Animations as well as the thousands of people who work in the creative industries cluster that is developing between Bristol and Cardiff.

I am pleased to see  Lib Dems, as part of the Coalition, delivering a whole host of positive policies to further boost the economic recovery we are seeing today. But this Budget is as much about what we have been able to block as it is about what we have been able to announce. The Conservatives would have slashed welfare spending, for instance by removing housing benefit from the under 25s.  We did not allow this to happen. We understand that welfare spending has to be brought under control and we are doing this through the welfare cap, which will ensure that money is spent efficiently, but we are also insisting that this is not done at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

I am committed to delivering a stronger economy, set on a path of sustainable growth.  I also want to balance the nation’s books so that we only spend what we raise in taxes.  But I am determined that sound finances will not be at the expense of the poor and that the recovery gives everyone a chance to make their way in life.

Thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27, 2014

Today I attended the national event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz the gathering at Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre heard readings and testimonies from survivors of the holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe.  I  met Mrs Aaronson, who survived the evacuation of the Lodz ghetto by being forced to clear up the area by the SS.  She was sixteen and had lived in the ghetto for four years.  Now she visits schools for the Holocaust Education Trust, telling her story to today’s teenagers.

We also heard from survivors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Among the other speakers was Ed Miliband, who spoke movingly of the local people who saved his father’s family in Belgium and his mother in Poland.  The theme of  the 2014 commemoration is “journeys” and each contribution was followed by someone carrying a traditional leather suitcase onto the stage.  I was reminded of the pile of discarded suitcases I saw on my visit to Auschwitz 21 years ago.

I walked over to the conference centre with Dr Azmi, the Chairman of the Remembering Srebrenica project. The Department of Communities and Local Government has funded the project to enable visits to Bosnia, the scene of the most atrocious massacres in Europe since 1945.  We also fund the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and I sit on its advisory board.  Parliament also marks Holocaust Memorial Day each year and I gave the speech on behalf of the government.  Here is what I said:

“I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for leading us in this debate. Many of his remarks had a profound effect on me. To summarise, he said that although the holocaust is in many ways a story of hopelessness and humiliation, it also provides many examples of courage, stoicism and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—she is my hon. Friend—in saying that it has been a privilege to listen to all the speeches that have been made in this debate. That is not always our experience in this Chamber, but everyone has listened intently to every word that has been said today. I have been moved by many of the remarks that colleagues have made. We have shared our different experiences, the ways in which we have encountered the holocaust and how we have responded individually. Perhaps more importantly, we have resolved to act together.

The British mainland escaped the horrors of Nazi occupation. Although some European Jews were able to flee here, most notably through the Kindertransport, for most of us the holocaust is not a family experience. I note that it is for some Members who have spoken. For most of us, our witness and understanding has come through history, literature and perhaps film.

My first knowledge of the holocaust was as a 13-year-old watching the TV series “Holocaust” in the late 1970s. That spurred me to read the only book about the holocaust that I could find at the time, which was “Scourge of the Swastika” by Lord Russell of Liverpool, who was involved in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. I have never forgotten the table of categorisation in that book for the Nazis’ targets for imprisonment and murder. We are all familiar with the yellow star and the armband, but less often mentioned are the colours and symbols that were used for Gypsies, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the disabled. I was most alarmed by the pink triangle for homosexuals, because at that age I was just coming to terms with what I was.

The first reason to remember the holocaust is to understand that minorities are our friends, our neighbours and our work colleagues. In the twisted minds of those who hold a prejudice, the minority could be ourselves. That is why we should be thankful that we live in a society in which human rights are upheld and in which minorities are our fellow citizens, not outsiders who are confined to legal or physical ghettos.

In recent years, mass knowledge of the holocaust has come through the films with which we are all familiar, but literature and celluloid are no substitutes for real-life experience and testimony. We have all mentioned speeches and visits to museums and monuments. I first went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1992, when frankly it was not usual to do so, during a visit to Poland while inter-railing. I will never forget it. There were very few visitors at that time, and when we followed the line to Birkenau, I climbed the gatehouse tower and looked at the scale of the camp. To those who have not yet been there I say that that is the memory that will live with them; the scale and the industrialisation of mass murder. I was there entirely on my own—no one else—visiting on a hot summer’s day in 1992, and it gave me my own time of quiet contemplation. It is not a visit I have ever wanted to repeat, but like the shadow Minister, I think it is perhaps something I should now do.

I have since been to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House, and I have also seen the pink triangle memorial in that city—the only known monument to gay people who were murdered by the Nazis. In 2012, I went to Yad Vashem with the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and I was familiar with many of the historical displays there. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire said that he was profoundly affected by the children’s memorial, and no one could not be. What most affected me was the hall of names, where one looks up at a cone of photographs—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs of people who were wiped out by the Nazis, reflected in a dark pit below. I really could not hold it together on that occasion.

The holocaust is a unique event and must be remembered and understood, particularly by young people for whom it is an historical event that took place long before they were born. It is right for the Government to support that, and many hon. Members have mentioned that they work with the Holocaust Education Trust, led by Karen Pollock. It facilitates school visits to Auschwitz, as well as talks in schools, such as those that took place in my constituency, to give young people a vivid account and an unforgettable memory. Of course the most powerful testimony comes from holocaust survivors, such as Auschwitz survivor Freddie Knoller, who is still speaking in schools at the age of 92.

Last Monday I joined several other people now in the Chamber—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) mentioned this—at the Holocaust Educational Trust annual Merlyn Rees memorial lecture, to listen to Thomas Harding tell the fascinating story of his Uncle Hanns and the arrest of the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss. Thomas Harding discussed how people can turn from being loving fathers to murderous monsters. We are all familiar with the phrase from that time and the excuse that was often used about following orders, but he said that that was perhaps better described as people surrendering their capacity to think to others.

In more recent massacres and genocides we have seen how easy it can still be for people in advanced societies to slip from civilised values into thoughtless barbarity, whether in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, or the current horrific scenes in Syria, where reporters are using the holocaust as a context in which to explain a tragedy unfolding before our eyes. People can still all too easily be led into acts of cruelty and murder.

That is why it is right that this Government—as did the previous Government—support the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, led by Olivia Marks-Woldman. Its annual act of remembrance on 27 January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, will be marked around the country on Monday. This year’s theme is journeys, and those of us who have seen at Auschwitz the pile of leather suitcases will certainly appreciate the resonance. Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Prime Minister has set up the Holocaust Commission, chaired by Mick Davis, president of the Jewish Leadership Council. That is because real-life memories are fading as people who remember the holocaust or who were told stories by their parents die. The work of the commission will be to consider how we can keep that testimony live and real, and ensure that those of the next generation comprehend the history, and also learn how to shape their future.

Next year will also be the 20th anniversary of another horrific episode in the history of Europe: the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. I was particularly struck by the two interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who served with NATO in Bosnia. Last year, my Department supported Ummah Help’s Remembering Srebrenica project. We will continue that support in the next year.

History is not just a moment in time studied for curiosity or even for leisure; it also gives us lessons we should learn. Not learning those lessons is a warning about the future. I will end my remarks by quoting a survivor of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, who went on to win the Nobel peace prize:

“To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”

 

If you want to read all twelve speeches (and they were all excellent) you can do so here http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140123/debtext/140123-0003.htm#14012382000002

 

That Syria vote and why I am a liberal interventionist

August 31, 2013

When the result of the division on the Government motion was announced I was stood at the back of MPs crowded at the entrance to the Commons.  So I didn’t see the Labour whips move to the position where the winners of the vote get to shout out the result. The stunned silence quickly gave way to tasteless Labour cheers.  Low politics had collided with complex diplomacy.

The Prime Minister and the Deputy PM had recalled Parliament to stage the first defeat of the Coalition. And I was on the losing side with them.  Everyone seemed pretty stunned by the result.  It may have been avoidable if Ministers had been able to invest more time in winning over sceptical colleagues, like the Obama Administration is doing with Congress.  But that would have depended either on Labour shrugging off the shadow of Iraq or some Tories embracing internationalism over isolation.

So where does this leave Britain’s place in the world?  In the short term, just a bit muddled. But pretty quickly we have to decide whether our future foreign policy is predicated on Britain being an outward looking international player or a shrunken hulk of isolationism.  There are those on the right of the Tory party, haunted by UKIP, who want Britain to withdraw from the European Union and don’t seem to place much value on the US “special relationship” either.  Bizarrely, some of the same people want to increase defence spending and renew Trident.

Labour are desperate to put the spectre of Iraq behind them.  But Syria is not Iraq.  Assad has weapons of mass destruction and is prepared to use them.  When we voted on Thursday it was not at the last moment with hundreds of thousands of UK and US troops poised at the border, as in March 2003.  There had been no “dodgy dossier” or partial advice from the Attorney General. The Coalition Government cooperated with the Opposition on the motion and promised a second vote ahead of any military strike against Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons again.  Unlike 2003, the government was proposing joint action with a Democrat US President, with a Socialist French President on board too.  Labour MPs might think that the defeat of the Coalition’s motion was smart domestic politics, covering up Miliband’s lacklustre summer and putting distance between them and the Blair legacy.  But I think they will soon regret ignoring the case for humanitarian intervention.  It’s a long way from the spirit of the socialist international brigades and Spanish civil war posters saying “if you tolerate this, then your children will be next.”

I voted with the government because I am a liberal internationalist.  I want Britain to play a full role in an enlarged European Union.  The EU’s newest member is Croatia.  Macedonia is next in the queue.  In the mid 1990s I was ashamed that the Major government did not do more to restrain Milosevic’s ethnic clensing in Bosnia.  I applauded Blair for acting swiftly when people were burned out of their villages in Kosovo.

I believe it is the duty of advanced democracies to use their resources to advance and protect human rights around the world.  In the main, that should be through peaceful means.  Trade agreements, cultural exchanges and a generous aid programme are all part of the mix.  I am proud of the fact that the Coalition government will this year hit the forty year old target of 0.7% of our national income being allocated to international aid.  We will have almost doubled the budget of the International Development Department in a time of fiscal austerity elsewhere in government.

But sometimes we have to wave a big stick against regimes that are not interested in diplomacy and human rights. That’s why I voted to intervene in Libya two years ago, to avert a massacre by Gadaffi. That’s why I would still vote to support British participation in a surgical strike against Assad’s ability to mass murder Syrian civilians.  It would not be about regime change or taking sides in a civil war. It would certainly not be an Iraq style invasion.  But it would be about doing what we can to protect the lives of innocent people from the barbarous actions of a brutal dictator.

My conscience is clear after Thursday’s vote.  But I am worried about Britain’s place in the world and whether people fearing oppression and destruction will in future look to us for hope and salvation.

The Future of Bristol Train Travel

July 31, 2013

Imagine the scene in four years time.  You’ve been on the train from London for the last one hour and twenty five minutes.  The journey has been smooth and quiet, on one of the new inter-city trains, powered by electric.  As the train approaches Bristol Temple Meads you see to your left a boat docking by the wharf next to the hotch potch of different building designs that make up Bristol Media Village.  Beyond looms the roofline of the recently opened arena.

The train pulls into the grand Passenger Shed, the original terminus of Brunel’s trains in 1841. Your fellow passengers have been chatting about their options for reaching their final destination.  A lawyer will walk to her office in Queen Square.  A tourist  is intending to pick up a Brompton and cycle to the SS Great Britain.  A group of students will get the bus to the Triangle.  One of them prefers to get a taxi from the new rank on Isambard Walk, next to the new terminus.  A family plan to catch the harbour ferry in order to visit M Shed.

And you?  You now have a choice of how to get home to St Andrews on the North Bristol Circle Line.  Your nearest station is Ashley Down. The train via Horfield leaves in ten minutes.  The one via Clifton leaves 5 minutes sooner and you could catch that…but it means walking up the hill from Montpelier.  Besides, a wait gives you more time to visit the station shops.  You then join the rowdy crowd on the anti-clockwise train who are off to watch some Twenty Twenty cricket at the revamped County Ground.

Tomorrow you will choose to trundle your suitcase down to Montpelier in order to catch the Portishead train.  You’ll be getting off at Portbury to be met by the luxury coach that will take you to the quayside where the Queen Mary is waiting to take you and hundreds of other Bristolians on the maiden voyage to New York.

Fanciful stuff?  Not really.  There’s a consensus, at least among Bristol’s MPs, Mayor and councillors, that rail has a great future.  The electrification of the main line was agreed by the Coalition in 2011. The first gantries are already going up around Reading.  Track capacity between Temple Meads and Parkway is to be increased, enabling the re-opening of stations at Ashley Hill (or Ashley Down as it should really be called) and Horfield.  Network Rail is planning to take over the operation of Temple Meads and has ambitious plans for a complete revamp of the station experience.

Last Saturday I joined Charlotte Leslie MP, First Great Western managers and a great crowd of Bristol transport campaigners for a trip up Filton Bank, around the “Henbury Loop”, up to Severn Beach and back down the existing branch line via Clifton to Temple Meads.  Much of the track infrastructure for new passenger services is already in place. The Lib Dem administration of Bristol City Council successfully launched the concept of a Bristol Metro last year, endorsed by neighbouring authorities and transport campaigners. Investment will be needed in signalling and new stations.  But above all we need all the stakeholders to get their ducks in a row and agree a rapid timetable for bringing this vision into reality.

And a liner to New York? Why not?  Brunel would approve.

To add your voice to my campaign to get a new station at Ashley Down, go here http://www.ashleydownstation.com/

To support Charlotte Leslie’s campaign for the line through Henbury, go here http://www.henburyloop.bristolpetitions.com/

Added 13 Sept 2013 – Cllr Sean Emmett has a petition to support the reopening of a station for Lockleaze and  Horfield  

http://epetitions.bristol.gov.uk/epetition_core/view/HorfieldStation

Campaigning for more jobs and apprentices

July 15, 2013

Bill Clinton had a slogan in his Presidential campaign headquarters – “It’s the economy, stupid!” What was true 21 years ago in the US has even more validity in Britain today. I never miss an opportunity to talk up Bristol as England’s most prosperous city region, a powerhouse of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

Prosperity means jobs.  Across the country over 1 million new jobs have been created since 2010. Unemployment has been falling steadily in Bristol for the last year and the number of people in work is at an all time high.  Our city is a centre of excellence for aerospace, digital media and professional services.  Those sectors are complemented by two universities that excel in research and technical training.  A great example would be the Robotics Centre, run jointly by Bristol University and UWE.

Government is contributing to the growing Bristol economy by some targeted investment in the region.  Vince Cable often mentions the National Composites Centre, which he opened in 2011, where there is the combination of research and innovation necessary to keep Britain a world leader in aerospace.  The centre is modelled on the German “catapults” that have kept Germany ahead of the rest of Europe in manufacturing.  As Secretary of State for Business, Vince is reviewing each sector of the economy and making sure government is a facilitator not an obstruction to growth.

The German lead in manufacturing is not just down to their technical innovation.  They also have a highly skilled workforce.  Britain is now catching up, with a massive expansion in the number of apprentices.  Over the last year I have been visiting a variety of Bristol businesses in order to meet their apprentices. These have included world leading large companies such as Rolls Royce as well as smaller businesses in the aerospace supply chain.

An apprenticeship is a great way to acquire a well regarded qualification.  Not every young person has achieved the good grounding at school or college to start an apprenticeship.  Charities such as the Prince’s Trust can get people on to the right path.  The government is going to help soon as Vince wants to push “traineeships” as a bridge to an apprentice place.  Youth unemployment is much lower in Britain than most European countries but I want Bristol to be a city where no young person who can work is left languishing on welfare payments.

So the focus of Liberal Democrats in government is on growing a stronger economy and a fairer society where everyone can get on in life.  I wish our coalition partners would realise that banging on about whether Britain should stay in the EU puts at risk our future prosperity. Bristol and Britain will prosper  only if we remain a strong participant in the world’s largest single market.

 

Note – this article was written for the Bristol Post and published on 12th July 2013.

A visit to the Parliamentary Archives

July 9, 2013

Everyone is familiar with the Clock Tower of Parliament, housing what must be the most famous clock  in the world.  Tours up the tower to see the clock mechanism and the Big Ben bell itself are very popular with Bristol West constituents.  The Clock Tower is now officially named the Elizabeth Tower, in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  But the taller and larger tower at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, named after the Queen’s great great grandmother, is far less well known.

But the Victoria Tower houses a treasure trove of artefacts much more significant than a clock. Here we are concerned with chronology rather than horology.  The tower is home to the Parliamentary Archives.  I’ve just had a fascinating visit to see a selection of the Parliamentary records and political collections held in the archive.  The primary collection is the original copy of every Act of Parliament.  I asked the chief archivist when was the first Act?  It’s not easy to identify the precise moment when Parliament became a legislature, initiating measures by itself rather than endorsing the wishes of the King.  But the first Act held in the Victoria Tower dates from 1497 and was for the regulation of apprentices working in the Norfolk wool worsteds trade.  Since then there have been over 64,000 Acts of Parliament!

The original Bills are written on sheep or goat skin vellum.  They are rolled up and stacked upon row after row of shelves, arranged by reign.  The fattest rolls are finance bills….and having just sat through several weeks of the Finance Bill 2013 (a mere 230 clauses and 49 Schedules) I can say nothing has changed!  The thinnest rolls are private family Bills, dating to the times when Parliament had to grant divorces.

Medieval Bills, like modern ones, were subject to amendment.  These days amendments are printed and if passed the Bill is reprinted for its later stages.  But to avoid the laborious process of rewriting rolls of vellum the medieval Parliamentary clerks devised a simple solution.  They wrote out the amendment and then sewed it onto the side of the Bill roll.  Sounds much simpler than dealing with “tracked changes” in a Word document!

The archives also hold some of the records of politicians.  The most famous is that of my hero, Lloyd George.  This was the actual reason for my visit, as a follow up to the recent exhibition in Parliament marking the 150th anniversary of his birth.  I was shown some notes passed across the cabinet table between Lloyd George and Churchill at the outset of the first world war.  The Lloyd George Archive is the most popular source consulted by visiting historians.

For more about the Parliamentary Archives see here http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/parliamentary-archives/

For my motion on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lloyd George see here http://www.parliament.uk/2012-2013/931

 

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