Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all Bristolians! 2014 has been a busy but exciting year for me as Bristol West’s MP and there are many things that I am proud we have achieved.
The best news from this year is the continuing recovery of the economy and the fall in unemployment around the UK and here in Bristol. Going into the coalition in 2010 was not an easy choice for me or my Lib Dem colleagues, but we were clear that the priority was fixing the mess the economy was in and getting people back into jobs. Just this week, employment figures were released that showed yet another drop in unemployment. Unemployment in Bristol West has fallen over 32% since 2010. However I am under no illusions – while progress has been made there is still a way to go, but I am proud of what we have been able to achieve so far on the economy and many other areas.
As the only current minister who was eligible for free school meals as a child, I am immensely proud that as part of the coalition I have been able to give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a better education and a better start in life. Our manifesto priority of delivering extra funding for schools for each child on free school meals, through the “Pupil Premium” has been shown to be working in its aim of decreasing the attainment gap between poor pupils and their peers So far over £50m has been given to schools across Bristol. On my visits to Bristol West schools I’ve heard many stories about the money has raised the attainment of individual children or helped a whole class have an enrichment experience such as a trip to the countryside or a museum. In the New Year I will be meeting with more head teachers and staff from many schools in my constituency to hear from them directly how the Pupil Premium is working and what more can be done.
We have also been able to implement Free School Meals for all infants, giving 14,500 Bristol pupils a healthy meal in the middle of the day. Good nutrition not only improves health, it also boosts concentration and learning outcomes. The policy also helps family budgets.
Apprenticeships were also a flagship policy in our manifesto and it is great to see that 3000 new apprenticeships started this year in Bristol, with a total of around 14000 since 2010. Vince Cable has worked hard to boost the number of firms taking on apprenticeships. With record numbers of people entering university and the huge fall in youth unemployment, the government has repaired much of the damage done in the recession when young people suffered the most. I will continue to work with colleagues to create more chances for more people, for instance by tackling the high bus fares for getting to college.
The increase in the Personal Income Tax Allowance was another success that I am glad we were able to deliver. Before the last election we promised to increase it from £6,500 to £10,000 by the end of this Parliament. We achieve that milestone in April this year. But we have been able to go further - in the recent Autumn Statement we confirmed that it will be raised to £10,600 next April! Millions of people will have an average £800 tax cut and millions more of the lowest paid workers will be taken out of income tax completely.
Delivering a better deal for Bristol was the reason I got into politics many years ago, and it still drives me today. We are weeks away from becoming the European Green Capital for 2015. I have secured a £7m central government grant to make sure there are tangible outcomes for Bristolians. Nationally too we are investing in a greener, cleaner society. Just last month here in Bristol the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced a further investment of £214m for cycling, including £114m to improve cycling safety and local cycling networks in 8 cities across the UK, including here in Bristol. This brings the total invested in cycling by the government to £588 million – in stark contrast to the last Parliament where the previous Labour government only spent £140 million between 2005 and 2010.
Many green achievements have also been made nationally and internationally this year, with my Lib Dem colleague and Energy Secretary Ed Davey securing an ambitious EU target on carbon emission reductions. I am proud of the action we have taken to help protect the environment for future generations and it is because of the Lib Dems in government that this has been able to happen.
Away from policy and closer to home, I saw hundreds of people at my regular MP surgeries seeking my assistance on a wide range of issues, from rubbish collection to urgent housing or immigration cases. Hundreds more emailed me throughout the year to ask for help or just for my view on things. Bristol West residents are a well-educated bunch of people and have views on everything! They also campaign on a range of issues. The group that has most inspired me this year has been Integrate Bristol, in particular for the work they’ve done to tackle female genital mutilation. They’ve won international recognition for campaigning on a serious issues in an accessible way. I’ve been pleased to work with them and other groups around the country in my role as Minister for Communities. So for an uplifting end to 2014, take a look at their video of various dancing Bristolians and government ministers, including me!
I wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2015.