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Willy_Bach.jpgWilly Bach reflects on a recent visit to Beirut, almost 50 years since he was last there

Imagine if you can, if all of the schools in Birmingham and Manchester were closed and their pupils forced to enrol in London. Imagine the upheaval, the confusion, and the impact it would have. Not just on the children from Birmingham and Manchester, but those in London whose classrooms were a lot more crowded, whose teachers were much more over-worked. While this scenario is unlikely, something very similar has occurred in Lebanon. So many refugees have fled the neighbouring war in Syria, they now make up roughly a quarter of the country’s population.

I visited Beirut recently and learnt of a project that tries to help manage this enormous change, and ensure the Syrian refugee children do not suffer any further disruption. Accessing Education: Language Integration for Syrian Refugee Children is a British Council project co-funded by the European Union. By working with Lebanese partners and the Institut Francais du Liban, the project is striving to assist the country’s school system in dealing with such a large influx of new pupils and mitigating some of the effects of refugee displacement.

Better access to education is being provided, and students are gaining transferable skills as a consequence of teacher training for 1500 Lebanese state school teachers. And that training is also helping teachers handle issues of inclusion, tolerance, and anti-discrimination in the classroom. Thanks to such support, the project has now reached 90,000 refugee children since the start of this year.

I was in Beirut in my role as Chair of the British Council's All Party Parliamentary Group. Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Nigeria, and see first-hand the justice sector projects being carried out in partnership with DfID. As a legal-aid advocate, I was fascinated to learn more of Africa's largest country, its legal system and how the British Council was helping to improve access to justice for all. The visit to Beirut however, also focussed on areas less familiar – but no less interesting – to me: civil society, the arts and of course, education.

Although a short visit, I'd like to think I was able to begin to grasp Lebanon today and its challenges and opportunities. I also met with Lebanese and Syrian artists, and learnt of their efforts to provide an artistic component to humanitarian aid. Having travelled down the coast to Saidon, I met with young people involved in the British Council's ‘Active Citizens’ programme and was heartened to see how they were working with like-minded young people in the UK on projects focused on equality, justice, human rights and environmental protection. Their greatest challenge was the lack of space in which they felt able to express themselves. Work however, with local government had made some steps to correct that, leading to an impressive collaboration around waste management.

I was last in Beirut in 1966, and remember a glorious, beautiful city. A difficult history between then and now has not, in my eyes, dimmed that beauty. But it is now accompanied by something else: resilience. Despite all of the challenges thrown at Lebanon, the country continues to move forward, helped in large part by its greatest asset – its young people, and the work of the British Council. Long may that continue.

Lord Willy Bach is Shadow FCO Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @FightBach

Published 18th November 2014

Beauty - and hope - undimmed

Willy Bach reflects on a recent visit to Beirut, almost 50 years since he was last there

ElunedMorgan4x3.pngEluned Morgan on making Wales central to unfolding debates about the future of the UK constitution

Before the summer, many of us warned that the referendum in Scotland was likely to change the nature and tone of the debate of the Wales Bill currently going through Parliament – and so it has turned out. Our piecemeal approach to constitutional change is no longer sustainable and there is now a need to review of the entire structure of the UK.

As with Scotland, there are many people in Wales who feel cut out from the political process and want their voices heard. But where there is a clearly an appetite for a further devolution of power from Westminster, support for independence has fallen to an all-time low of 3%. So for Scotland, do not read Wales.

The Wales Bill, now at Report stage in the House of Lords, is a hotchpotch of ideas containing a broad but unstructured approach to a new devolution settlement, including electoral arrangements and new tax raising powers. Labour supports the latter, as it would enable Wales to access borrowing powers – critical for economic development, at a time when the Coalition has slashed infrastructure funding by 35%. We are reluctant however, to embrace partial income tax raising powers without a review of the current underfunding system. To do so would lock in a long term financial disadvantage to Wales.

We also want to see an immediate move to simplify the system of devolution, with the introduction of the ‘Reserved Powers Model’. This would define much more clearly where power lies in relation to policy. The current Heath Robinson system of a ‘Conferred Powers Model’ has caused chaos, with nobody quite sure which institution is responsible for what – leading to numerous Court challenges by the Coalition, each costing £150,000. On every occasion the UK government has lost, but even the Tories have now seen sense and agreed that a new simpler model should be introduced – albeit with the killer caveat “not just yet”.

We are also trying to introduce two further electoral measures in the Bill.

The first is to allow anyone over the age of 16 to vote in Welsh Assembly elections or referenda. After the enthusiastic and intelligent response of many 16-18 year olds in Scotland to the referendum debate, it seems odd not to extend this facility to the whole of the UK. (Indeed, should Scotland’s 16-18 year olds be disallowed from voting in the upcoming general election, it will be the only occasion in world history where a group were given the vote and then had it taken away – in a democracy, at least.)

The second measure is to introduce a system to make it much easier for young people to register to vote. This follows a campaign vigorously promoted by Bite the Ballot, which has also highlighted how, in 2011, only 35% of young people voted in the Welsh Assembly elections compared to 70% of over 65s. The measures proposed are incredibly simple and have proved successful in both Northern Ireland and the US. A tick box method would enable Welsh citizens to opt in and join the electoral register when filling in details, for example, on passport or driver’s licence applications. This should be rolled out alongside a schools initiative programme to give Election Registration Officers greater responsibilities to register people from under-represented groups.

More generally, the Wales Bill as a whole now feels a bit out of date, and not just because of Scotland’s ‘Crie de Coeur’ and what is happening post- referendum. That is why Labour’s calls for a constitutional convention are so important. Radical change is necessary for the UK but it must take into account the relative balance of power between its constituent parts. And as we all reflect on what has happened recently and rethink and reframe the debate, Wales must be central to the discussion.

Baroness Eluned Morgan is Shadow Wales Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @Eluned_Morgan

Published 10th November 2014

 

Assembly points

Eluned Morgan on making Wales central to unfolding debates about the future of the UK constitution

BryonyW4x3.jpgBryony Worthington on the environmental checks needed if we’re to truly benefit from fracking

Last week, the citizens of Denton, Texas, voted through a ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – for the extraction of shale oil and gas.  Those supporting the ban described it as a “last resort”, after they had grown frustrated by the industry working around regulations to control any environmental impacts.

That a town, right in the heart of the oil and gas shale boom, should have taken this step reflects the fact that fracking, while delivering many benefits in the US, is not without its controversies. Ensuring we set off on the right foot in the UK, is of paramount importance if we are to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits shale gas could bring. 

Over 40 years ago, the discovery of North Sea oil and gas brought a similar economic boost. Wells drilled miles offshore delivered fossil fuels to power our cars, heat our homes and drive our industries. Few people were aware of where it came from or were exercised by any potential environmental consequences. Fast forward to today and it is clear that some in the UK do have concerns over the development of on-shore oil and gas using fracking.

Patchy regulatory standards in the US allowed unfortunate scare stories to take root in the public discourse, and these are now hard to dislodge. Concerns about climate change are also more high profile here and so more needs to be done to ensure fracking can co-exist with, and even help to meet, our greenhouse gas emissions targets.

The Coalition has so far handled the issue very badly: over-hyping the potential and doing too little to address people’s genuine concerns. Plus, failing to comprehensively assess whether our regulatory framework is up to the task of ushering in this new industry safely and with public confidence.

Onshore extraction of fossil fuels needs careful independent regulation. Fracking is a relatively complex extraction process, involving the use of large volumes of water with novel additives, generating contaminated wastewater and risking fugitive emissions of powerful greenhouse gases. Individually, none of these elements presents an unsurmountable problem. However, fracking necessarily takes place in many distributed locations and this only serves to heighten the need for careful oversight.

Today in the House of Lords, we will debate proposals to close a legal loophole regarding trespass, which if left unchanged will be exploited to block any attempt to investigate and exploit new natural resources. We support the government in this approach. But we have also tabled two amendments that seek to establish a clearer regulatory framework for mitigating any environmental impacts from fracking.

In drafting these amendments, we drew from the excellent work of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee and its recent inquiry into the potential economic benefits of fracking in the UK. In their report, the members of the Committee set out a number of key recommendations necessary to build confidence, including the need for independent inspectors and on-going monitoring of fugitive emissions. We however, have added the need for Environmental Impact Assessments to be conducted as a matter of course (something the industry supports), and a requirement for baseline monitoring to be undertaken.

These are genuine attempts to address the public’s concerns about this new industry and how it will be allowed to develop. Our country has few places that are uninhabited or uncherished for their wild beauty. If fracking is to be integrated into our society, it will need to be done in an environmentally sensitive way under the independent oversight of our world class regulators. The Coalition has not introduced a single new provision to ensure this is what can happen – a failure that Labour is committed to correcting.

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow DECC Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @bryworthington

Published 10th November 2014

Protect and survey

Bryony Worthington on the environmental checks needed if we’re to truly benefit from fracking

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