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Kirsty Williams’ speech to Autumn Conference

September 21, 2010 4:32 PM

"How far do we roll back the state is not the right question for Liberals. It is how far we are able to make the state the agent of change, the instrument of political reform, the vehicle of economic renewal and the guarantor of social justice."

Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Kirsty Williams' speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2010.
Friends, it's great to be in Liverpool. It is a city of enormous cultural diversity but Welsh communities can certainly lay claim to having helped build the city of Liverpool and its world-famous docks. And of course Liverpool has hosted four of our National Eisteddfodau.
For me, the close ties between Liverpool and North Wales - ties that are not always replicated with Cardiff - are a reminder of the need to constantly look at ways of improving our democracy, of taking power closer to people.
2011 will be the biggest year in Welsh politics since the referendum back in 1997 that established the assembly and the elections that followed it.
In 2011, we in Wales won't just be fighting a referendum on fairer votes. We will also be fighting a referendum to ensure that, for the first time, laws that affect only Wales are made only in Wales.
And we will be fighting the Welsh General Election in May, determined to win more votes, more seats and more influence for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
Once, twice, three times, this lady will be leading the fight for change in Wales!
We know that the UK media will be watching. We know that, rightly or wrongly, some will see the results as a verdict on our decision to provide stability for the UK by entering a partnership Government. And I know, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will not let this party down.
For we in Wales have always been at the vanguard of radical political change in the UK.
From Lloyd George's battle for Welsh Church disestablishment and land reform to the great reforming record of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary.
Wales has contributed more than its fair share of great Liberals and great Liberal causes to British politics.
We pay tribute, of course, to Richard Livsey the gentle giant of Welsh politics.
Who combined humility, honour and decency with a determination to fight for his beliefs and his country. Who played such a leading role in winning that referendum vote in 1997 and who was such a knowledgeable champion for rural communities.
He inspired me to join the Liberal Democrats. He was my mentor as I fought my first election in Brecon and Radnorshire and ever since. So many of us owe him a great debt of gratitude.
In fact, so great was Richard's influence on my life that he even introduced me to the man I married!
It is 120 years since David Lloyd George burst onto the parliamentary scene - winning his seat by just 18 votes.
Hes not the only Welsh Liberal to translate a tiny margin into a thumping majority.
Where Lloyd George led, Mark Williams follows. What a result he achieved in Ceredigion in May!
It was during that great period that our party's commitment to devolution was forged. Forged in the coalfields and steelworks, in the rural protests of tenant farmers and the fight for religious, political and economic freedom.
In the century that followed, the goal of Welsh Home Rule was adopted - and abandoned - by others but Liberals have never faltered in our adherence to that great cause.
The establishment of the Welsh Assembly was a huge step forward after years of Tory indifference but when push came to shove, Labour's instinct for centralisation stifled the institution from the start: Tony Blair thought it 'dangerous' to take power closer to people.
After all this time, it is Liberals in Government who will finally deliver for Wales.
Conference, I am proud that as Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, takes forward the greatest package of reform in 200 years, that commitment to Welsh Home Rule is at the centre of the Liberal Democrat's radical reform agenda.
And as he leads the campaign for fairer votes across the UK, he will find enthusiastic support for reform in Wales.
Hobhouse said that "Liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid resolve." In these difficult economic circumstances, more than ever, a progressive party needs to deliver more than just political freedom.
We can be proud of the impact that Liberal Democrats are having in Government.
Whilst the Conservatives broke the pensions link with earnings and Labour failed to restore it, it is Liberal Democrats, in Government, that have now restored the pensions links with earnings.
That is the impact of Liberal Democrats in Government.
Whilst Conservatives cut income tax for the wealthy and Labour increased income tax for the poor, the Liberal Democrats have cut income tax for the lowest earners in society. 50 000 Welsh people lifted out of income tax altogether.
That is the impact of Liberal Democrats in Government
We in Wales will never forget the Thatcher years. When unbridled market forces were unleashed upon the most vulnerable in society and the gap between rich and poor grew. But we won't forgive Labour for allowing the gap between rich and poor to grow still further. That is why I am proud that 100,000 people in Wales are now eligible for an increase in Child Tax Credits as part of a drive to tackle poverty.
That is the impact of Liberal Democrats in Government.
But you know, in Wales, we're still being let down by Labour.
Now, given the bile and the vitriol that spouts forth from Labour politicians about the Westminster coalition, some of you may find it surprising that in Cardiff, Labour say they believe in cooperation and consensus!
Launching the Labour/Nationalist coalition we were told the two parties were:
'United in the belief that a greater good makes this unprecedented course of action worthwhile!
Now, I am not in the business of knocking them for trying to work together but I am in the business of exposing their failure to deliver on their own promises.
Most commentators agree that in Wales, we need to work much harder to strengthen the private sector. But, after over three years of Labour/Plaid rule, Wales still struggles to attract the investment it needs.
The Assembly Government's overseas investment arm has failed to bring businesses to Wales but it was tremendously successful at spending hundred of thousands of pounds on first class flights, expensive rooms in the Mumbai Oberoi and plush offices in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan. And only after sustained pressure from the Liberal Democrats in the National Assembly did the Government agree to take action. And despite all the economic turmoil of the last few years; the mortgage repossessions; the job losses; the human anguish, it took the Labour/Plaid Government three years to get round to even producing an economic renewal strategy.
They spent so long coming up with the plan that they've only left themselves six months in which to deliver it.
Contrast that with the swift action and practical approach of Vince Cable.
Exempting new businesses outside of London and the South East of England from National Insurance payments for their first ten employees. Over 27,000 businesses will benefit directly from a practical measure that will help create jobs and grow the private sector in Wales.
Again, that's the impact of Liberal Democrats in Government
And when Welsh industry really needs support, Vince Cable has been able to offer it. His decision to underwrite the loan to Bridgend Ford, secured Ford's 1.5 billion pound investment in a new generation of low carbon vehicles in a plant employing 2000 people. A decision so significant even Labour's Rhodri Morgan said it was 'great news'.
Again, that's the impact of the Liberal Democrats in Government.
We all know that that education is the ladder out of poverty. In fact, ysgol, the Welsh word for ladder, is also the word for school. We need an education system that gives every child in Wales a fair start in order to reach their full potential, whatever their background.
But after over three years of Labour/Plaid rule, education spending in Wales is over £500 lower per pupil than in England.
The poorest Welsh children are almost three times less likely to leave school with five good GCSEs than their richer classmates. And now, for the first time since devolution, there is a gap opening up as English GCSE and A Level students outperform their Welsh peers.
Welsh kids held back, paying the price for a shameful lack of investment by the Labour/Plaid government.
Contrast that with the approach of the Liberal Democrats in Government:
The Pupil Premium will target extra money at schools admitting disadvantaged pupils. Thousands of children in England will finally be getting the extra support they need to succeed.
That is the impact of Liberal Democrats in Government.
And conference, we need the Liberal Democrats in Government in Wales too so we can have that same impact.
Liberal Democrats understand that climate change is the greatest threat this planet faces.
Over the years, we've had Governments of all colours but none of them have been green: None willing to take the tough decisions to protect our environment, putting vested commercial interests first.
Contrast that with the approach of the Liberal Democrats who within days of taking office had cancelled the third runway at Heathrow, prioritising rail over damaging and unnecessary internal flights.
That is the difference that a Government that actually cares about the environment can make.
And what of the Government in Wales?
Well, their biggest achievement is the creation of Wales' very own internal air link. You think domestic flights from Manchester to London are a scandal? Try Anglesey to Cardiff!
The minister presiding over this scandal is Plaid Cymru's leader, and Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones. His commute? That's right: Anglesey to Cardiff!
No wonder they call it Ieuan Air.
3.2 million pounds of our money pumped into an air link which has in turn pumped thousands of tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere at a cost to the taxpayer of £84 for each and every trip.
And you know, whilst Ministers fly between Cardiff and Anglesey. The empty ministerial limo still makes the trip to drop of the ministerial boxes.
Say what you like about David Cameron but at least he was on a bike!
We can be proud that Beveridge, the architect of the NHS was a Liberal.
And though he was not of our party, I know I speak for many in Wales when I say that we are proud that it was a Welshman, Nye Bevan who brought Beveridges plans into fruition.
But what has happened to Labour's former commitment to the NHS?
The Welsh Government's top priority for the NHS has been to push through yet another reorganisation. Now, I say a reorganisation should transform the experience of those using the NHS but the Labour/Plaid NHS reorganisation hasn't improved services at all. Nor did it reduce the number of managers. What it did is guarantee the pay of top executives, protecting their salaries for up to 10 years. The end result is an NHS in Wales that costs more per head than England.
Recently, the lead representative of NHS finance directors told a Welsh Assembly committee that 20 per cent of its budget was being misspent:
'£1 billion that we are not utilising appropriately.' were his exact words.
If you were Health Minister, wouldn't you want to know why that was? Wouldn't you be concerned? Wouldn't you want to do something about one billion pounds of taxpayers' money being misspent?
But when I asked the Health Minister if she would investigate this startling claim, the answer came back: 'No'.
One billion pounds - one fifth of the Welsh NHS budget - spent on the wrong thing and the minister isn't even interested in finding out why.
The record of the Labour/Plaid administration is one of waste and incompetence at a time when people need a government of thrift and responsibility.
As First Minister I will demand the best value for money from our NHS and begin by ordering the independent, expert review of these claims that Labour/Plaid are so scared of.
Now, we know that governing in partnership requires give and take and it means working with other people and parties. So I understand that Plaid Cymru and Labour had to compromise in order to form their coalition.
Plaid's long cherished goal to separate Wales from the UK, suspended. Labour's steadfast opposition to Welsh nationalism, no longer a deal breaker.
What I cannot accept is the failure of either party to deliver on their own programme for government.
Together, Labour with Plaid, promised to create a daily Welsh Language newspaper that has now been forgotten.
Together, Labour with Plaid promised to give Welsh official language status. A promise since abandoned.
Together, Labour with Plaid promised to provide 6,500 more affordable homes. But they've only managed a third of that.
Together, Labour with Plaid promised to halve child poverty by 2010.
They failed.
And having left us with a country in which one third of children are living in poverty, they've just set another target for 2020 instead.
Labour, Plaid Cymru, with a record like that, don't you dare presume to tell me what it means to be a progressive politician.
With a record like that, Wales needs a strong and independent voice that it can trust. That is the task that falls to the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
Conference, if I have my way, we will soon be in Government in both Wales as well as Westminster. The people of Wales have had thirteen years of a Labour government in Cardiff that wouldnt say boo to the Labour government in Westminster. They don't want a nodding dog. They want to elect leader who will speak up for Wales.
I will always speak up for Wales and I will always speak up for my beliefs and my values.
Now, he may be a saint, but when Vince Cable, before the election, decided to commit our party to cutting the proposed military college at St Athan in South Wales, he soon learnt of my determination to fight for the best deal for Wales and the best defence for the UK.
For that project has been identified by the MoD's strategic defence review as critical to our military capability.
And when we know that money is tight, we Liberal Democrats understand that it is the cancelation of Trident that will make projects like St Athan possible.
That is an argument that I know we are winning in the country and it is one we must win in Government.
Conference, I have spent my entire political life, exposing the unfairness of Labour's Barnett formula. Invented in the 1970s, it deprives not just Wales but the poorest regions of England of millions of pounds each year. Despite this, Labour failed to change the system.
In contrast, we worked with colleagues to commit our party to reform Barnett ' a reform that could save the Exchequer money. The coalition Government is committed to establishing a process, to review the system of devolution funding.
Now, I recognise the priority to stabilise the country's finances. But we must also honour our commitment and announce that timetable as soon as is practicable.
And as transforming the public finances will take time, so will addressing the long term need to improve our infrastructure.
As we switch support from air to rail, we must set out a long term programme of investing ambitiously in the next generation of railways. Giving Newport, Cardiff and Swansea a modern rail link to the rest of the UK will have a huge impact on the economy of Wales, the UK's poorest nation. And in difficult times, the schemes our government backs must be chosen for their economic impact.
People ask me what the impact of Liberals in Government would be in Wales. They are not interested in prestige or power or ministerial limos; they want to know that we will make a difference.
As Liberal Democrats, we have worked in Government with Labour in Wales and Scotland and with the Conservatives in Westminster.
We remain ready to put aside partisan interests to work with others when no single party can deliver the stable government that Wales needs.
Under my leadership there will be no backroom deals, secret understandings or agreements with any other party before people have voted.
People expect us to make a difference, to show that politics can transform lives and change futures. That is the test that we must meet as Liberal Democrats.
In places like Wales, and I know elsewhere too, the state cannot simply be switched off and nor should we want it to be.
Because whilst the state can be an agent of oppression, it can also be the driver of change and reform.
Conrad Russell got it right when he wrote:
'Liberatrians are for minimum Government. Liberals are for minimum oppression.
We want to see all power subject to control. Not just the power of the state'
So my test for a Liberal administration is not how far we shrink the state. How far do we roll back the state is not the right question for Liberals. It is how far we are able to make the state the agent of change, the instrument of political reform, the vehicle of economic renewal and the guarantor of social justice
That is the vision that I will take to the people of Wales next year. And with your help, that is a vision that will ensure we win for the people of Wales next year.