Lord Foster of Bath - or Don Foster, as most people know him - has given a lifetime of public service, not just to the people of Bath, whom he represented in the House of Commons for twenty-three years, but to the country as a whole.
Don graduated in Physics and Psychology from Keele University in 1968, going on to complete a Certificate of Education before entering the teaching profession, starting his career as a science teacher at Sevenoaks School in Kent. This inaugurated his lifelong commitment to education, as a teacher, academic and politician. Moving to the south west, in 1975, he became Director for Avon Education Authority’s Science Project and then a lecturer in education at the University of Bristol. He was awarded his MEd in education here at the University of Bath in 1981.
At around the same time, he set out on his political career. The British National Party held a rally at his children’s primary school and this, along with his growing concern at the poor services available locally for elderly people, motivated him to run for a seat on the council. As a local party activist he was a founding member of the Avon Liberals, and was elected as a councillor to the Avon County Council in 1981. He was the SDP-Liberal Alliance group leader from 1981-6 and then served as the county’s Education Committee Chairman. He remained a councillor until 1989.
His breakthrough into national politics came in 1992, when he was elected the MP for Bath, a seat he held at five general elections until retiring from the House of Commons in 2015.
Upon entering Parliament, he immediately took up the cause of education, taking the post of his party’s shadow spokesperson. He wrote numerous books and pamphlets about education during this time, when education policy was at the centre of national political debate. He became known for his passionate advocacy of education and lifelong learning, and respected across the House of Commons for his knowledge and experience. He was a familiar figure on national television and radio commenting on education policy issues.
After 1999, he moved to shadowing the transport brief, another one of his policy interests. He was able to put this to good use when successfully helping change government policy to enable councils to control tour bus operators, an issue of significant concern to a number of his constituents. He was always active on behalf of local interests as MP for Bath. He successfully campaigned for the government to fund the work on Combe Down Stone Mines and lobbied for extra funding for the Western Riverside development. He also successfully ensured that Stothert & Pitt pensioners were included in the post-Maxwell compensation scheme and saved several local Post Offices from closure. He even hosted a “seagull summit” in 2012 and secured funding for research into the problems caused by seagulls in affected areas.
After the 2010 general election, Don was the first Liberal or Liberal Democrat for 70 years to speak from the government benches when he seconded the Queen’s Speech. He went onto to serve as a minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government in the Coalition government, initiating policy for minimum space standards in new housing developments and taking action against fixed odds betting terminals. In 2013, he was made a Deputy Chief Whip, a critically important post in the management of government business.
Don has spent much of life working with and on behalf of charities. He is a member of Amnesty International and the Child Poverty Action Group, supports a number of local Bath charities, including Ted’s Big Day Out and Julian House, and remains the patron of the Bath-based charity Designability. His main national charity is WaterAid, whose work he has seen first hand in Ethiopia.
Describing his time in Parliament just before the 2015 general election, Don notably remarked that: “…in terms of all of the things that are memorable, I have been shot at, I have been in an ambush…I’ve acted as a shuttle diplomat between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authorities on a secret mission, I helped to pass messages secretly between Tony Blair and President Yeltsin while pretending to be on an education select committee visit... I’ve dug wells in Africa, and I produced some I think quite innovative policy developments.”
These are just some of the memorable moments in a notable career of sustained and committed public service, to Bath and beyond. Chancellor, I present to you Lord Foster of Bath, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
Professor Nick Pearce