The Rt Hon. The Baroness Primarolo, DBE, PC

Doctor of Laws

Thursday 21 July 2016 at 1.30 pm - Orator: Professor Sarah Childs  

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

Like many of you, the Rt Hon. the Baroness Dawn Primarolo, DBE, PC is not ‘of’ Bristol. Rather, she chose this City as a student. She is an alumna of both its universities. Having studied at Bristol Polytechnic, now the University of West of England, Dawn undertook a degree in Social Science and then registered for a PhD on Women and Housing at the University of Bristol; politics got in the way of this.

Dawn decided to make Bristol her home – I suspect some of you may come to the same decision.

This honorary doctorate is not the only commendation that Dawn has received this year. Her first comes from the Chilean Government. Her second award I will return to at the end. But it is one that the women here today should be in great sympathy with. 

It is for Dawn’s political service to Bristol that we are recognising Baroness Primarolo today. Dawn was first elected Labour MP for Bristol South in 1987. She served her constituency for 28 years, before stepping down at the 2015 general election; she really did want to spend more time with her family.

When Dawn arrived at Westminster she was one of only 41 women MPs; 94% of MPs were male. Even today the number of women ever elected is fewer than the number of male MPs sitting on the green benches in this Parliament.

Dawn achieved continuous Government Office in the 1990s and 2000s: in the Department of Children, Schools and Families; Health; and in The Treasury. In the last Parliament she served as a Deputy Speaker. In 2015 Dawn accepted a life peerage, committed to an elected second chamber, and hoping to have been able to vote for it.

Party politicians come in for much criticism, especially the ‘career’ politician.

Dawn was very much an ‘accidental MP’. She was working on her PhD and an active local party member when Labour changed its candidate selection process in the late 70s/early 80s.  Mandatory re-selection coincided with Labour women seeking greater participation as MPs: for this, women had to be willing to stand for selection. Competing against the sitting MP, Dawn was told she wouldn’t get the selection. But she found herself supported by local members, and then by the voters of Bristol South.

Many of you will not necessarily know much of Dawn’s constituency. Hers is not a part of the City that many Bristol students live in, although some may have spent a Saturday afternoon watching Bristol City or spent an evening at the Tobacco Factory.  Bristol South is economically, educationally and in health terms, disadvantaged.

The experiences of Dawn’s constituents - what some belittle as the ‘social work’ dimension of being an MP – would remain central to her parliamentary work. Her ministerial positions reflected her concern for education, housing, social security, health, and - running throughout all of these - equal opportunities. In particular, Dawn’s advocacy of tax credits and Sure Start Centres, which addressed babies and children, parents and parenting, employment and housing, epitomise her politics. She was committed to the building of the South Bristol Community Hospital.

In short, Dawn’s political goals would be about ensuring that aspiration and social mobility are realised; that children in Bristol South would feel that they too had chances; that this wonderful City was for them; that they too could aspire to become University students; attend this University. 

When Dawn received the letter announcing her award from the Chilean Government she was rather surprised: had she really done all that much? Did she merit such recognition? She did. The Special Recognition Diploma was for the assistance she gave to Chilean citizens ‘persecuted by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet’. It was presented at a ‘Ceremony of recognition for the British Community that assisted Chilean exiles’; it was signed by Michele Bachelet.

Sometimes – maybe oftentimes - what we do, can look or feel small. Yet our acts might nonetheless be significant. They may provide succour to those who need political allies. And we might look back at the individual actions we took and see the enormity of their subsequent impact: individually and/ or collectively; symbolically and/ or substantively.

Our actions might also speak to the now: Dawn is reminded of the many Chileans who came to Bristol seeking refuge. Many would return to Chile to first establish, and then secure, its democratic future. This is something she feels very strongly would happen for the Syrian refugees who we might – and in her view, we should - welcome to the UK at this time.

And Dawn’s third award? The Golden Tampon Award. Gordon Brown did not speak of such things in his 2000 Budget. But the accompanying press release stated that from the 1st of January 2001, VAT on sanitary products would be reduced from 17.5 to 5%. This policy change was a clear example of Labour women MPs ‘acting for women’. It had long been a concern for the PLP Women’s Committee, of which Dawn had once been Chair. That said, an early Treasury paper received little traction. A sustained parliamentary campaign by a Labour woman backbencher was undertaken; the issue was discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. And back in the Treasury it would be Dawn’s responsibility to convince the Civil Service that sanitary products were not ‘luxury’ items deserving of VAT. Nor were razors, shaving-foam, or lawnmowers their equivalent.

Today, there are campaigns in many countries to abolish the tampon tax.

This is an issue whose time has come.  Having played a significant part in the first stage of this global movement, women across the UK have much to thank Dawn for.   

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you, the Rt Hon the Baroness Dawn Primarolo, DBE, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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