Saturday, April 10, 2021
A tribute to Kirsty Williams
This is my tribute to Kirsty Williams published in the latest edition of Liberator magazine:
When I first met Kirsty Williams, she was a recent graduate living with her parents in Llanelli, having been brought into the Liberal Democrats a few years earlier by her teacher, the late and much-missed Nick Burree.
She had just won (or possibly lost) the toss of a coin and had been appointed the agent in a local council by-election on the now defunct Llanelli Borough Council in a ward briefly held on Dyfed County Council by the current Conservative Secretary of State for Justice. The other half of this act of chance was the candidate.
It is fair to say that there was not much experience of community campaigning in Llanelli, but Kirsty took on the role enthusiastically. Perhaps. though she should not have listened to those who told her election day was a formal occasion. I am sure she still regrets wearing high heels for the good morning delivery.
By this time, I had been a Swansea Councillor for a decade and was involved in helping to run the Welsh Party, as a result I brought Kirsty to meetings and got her involved at a national level.
She was asked to speak at a Welsh Party Conference rally and made a huge impression on everybody there. Subsequently, Kirsty came on board as part of the small team of politicians tasked with running the 1997 General Election in Wales.
At the same time, she agreed to be our candidate in the Ogmore constituency, an area we had not contested for some considerable time. It was my turn to be her agent, though, apart from one public meeting, neither of us spent much time there, concentrating instead in helping Richard Livsey regain Brecon and Radnorshire, and organising daily media conferences.
Kirsty was heavily involved in the 1997 referendum campaign that narrowly voted in favour of setting up a Welsh Assembly and was subsequently appointed as the Welsh Liberal Democrats representative on the National Assembly Advisory Group by the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, tasked with drawing up the first standing orders for the nascent body.
During this period she was also thinking about her own future, showing the sort of single-minded determination that has characterised her political career by winning a selection battle to be the candidate in Brecon and Radnorshire against local councillor and the future MP for the area, Roger Williams.
In May 1999, Kirsty was elected as the Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and almost immediately thrown into the deep end as chair of the body’s Health and Social Care Committee and as the party’s health spokesperson.
She embraced the role and made it her own, impressing everybody with the way she quickly became an authority on health matters and marshalled experts within the party to support her work.
In the 2006 Welsh Yearbook Political Awards, she was voted "Member to Watch 2006”.
The biggest test of leadership for Kirsty came with the decision of the group after the 2007 Assembly elections, by a slim majority, to become part of a rainbow coalition government with Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives.
It was a decision that Kirsty and I bitterly opposed, taking our resistance to the Welsh Executive, and a subsequent special party conference. The failure of that initiative led eventually to the resignation of Mike German as Welsh Party leader, and on 8 December 2008, Kirsty became leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, having defeated Cardiff Central Assembly Member, Jenny Randerson.
Unfortunately, Kirsty’s first Assembly election as leader was a hard one. The party’s agreement to enter a coalition at a UK level had left us defending some difficult decisions and contending with growing unpopularity.
As a group we made our opposition to the tripling of tuition fees clear and struggled to keep up with a raft of policies and budget announcements, so as to defend them in the chamber and build our own initiatives around them. At one stage Kirsty had to publicly admonish Vince Cable for proposing that a planned £13bn defence training academy at St Athan be scrapped, without first notifying her or consulting us.
As a result, we barely survived the 2011 election, being reduced from six AMs to five, largely as a result of a small reduction in the Plaid Cymru vote that enabled us to hold on in the regions. Kirsty comfortably held onto her Brecon and Radnorshire seat due to her own personal popularity and hard work.
The party though was in a strong position to influence the agenda of the Welsh Government, with Labour having failed to secure a majority and not wishing to enter into another coalition.
As Finance spokesperson, I worked under Kirsty’s leadership to ensure that we gained significant concessions in return for our support in getting Labour’s budget passed.
In 2011, we agreed to support the Welsh Labour Government's 2012–2013 £14.5bn Budget on the basis, amongst other things, of securing the Welsh Pupil Premium, an extra £20m to spend on the education of the poorest pupils.
Teaching Unions welcomed the deal, with ATL Cymru director Philip Dixon saying, "Our children are our future and investment in them is investment for all. Labour and the Lib Dems deserve credit for ensuring that our children, especially those in most need, will now get a better start in life.”
In 2013, we more than doubled investment for the Welsh Pupil Premium in exchange for abstaining on the Welsh government's annual budget. In 2012, the Welsh Government agreed to take forward the Welsh Liberal Democrat idea of a Health Technology Fund to allow patients better access to innovative treatments.
The following year, under Kirsty’s leadership we got a further £9.5m investment into the Health Technology Fund as well as the establishment of a £50m Intermediate Care Fund to drive integration of health, social services and housing
In December 2012, Kirsty won ITV Wales' Assembly Member of the Year Award in a ceremony at Cardiff's City Hall. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2013 she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire for public and political service.
Kirsty has never forgotten her roots as health spokesperson and in fact retained that role throughout her leadership, taking up the cause of a long-running ‘More Nurses’ campaign for a law requiring minimum staffing levels for nurses in Welsh hospitals.
She was successful in a legislative ballot on 11th December 2013 and given leave to proceed with her Bill. On 21 March 2016 the Nurse Staffing Levels Bill became law in Wales, one of only two private members bills to be passed that term, the other was my own on Park Homes.
Nevertheless, the 2016 Assembly elections were to prove even more difficult than those five years earlier. The Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly group was all but wiped out as a result of continued unpopularity from the coalition and a rise in the UKIP vote in anticipation of the Brexit referendum six weeks later.
Only Kirsty held her seat, with an increased majority and, as the sole Liberal Democrat representative in the new Assembly, she stood down as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats the day after the election.
On the first day of plenary she voted with the Government on the appointment of the First Minister effectively torpedoing a Conservative/Plaid Cymru/UKIP attempt to put Leanne Wood into the office.
Labour though only had 29 seats and after consulting with a special Welsh Liberal Democrats conference, Kirsty agreed to become Education Secretary to enact a programme that included our policies on a wide range of areas, including reducing infant class sizes, employing more nurses, in more settings, through an extended nurse staffing levels law, funding 20,000 extra affordable homes, introducing a new ‘Rent to Own’ housing model and ending mental health discrimination.
All of those policies have been put in place over the last five years during a period as a government minister in which Kirsty has shown what an outstanding political talent she is, demonstrating what Welsh Liberal Democrats can really do when given the opportunity.
The reforms that Kirsty has brought in as Education Minister are not just ground-breaking and far-reaching but will benefit young people for some considerable time. She has been the stand-out performer in the cabinet during the pandemic, handling the crisis with the sort of competence and imagination that Westminster has been crying out for.
While MPs were squabbling amongst themselves over the campaign led by Marcus Rashford to provide free meals for poorer children during the school holidays in England, Kirsty got on with the job. She put £11 million aside to provide free school meals over all holidays until at least Easter 2021, determined that no child should go hungry.
Kirsty also provided over £420,000 to help to deliver free meals to students who are shielding or self-isolating, announced that new starter teachers will receive an 8.48% pay rise, backdated to 1st September, and provided £2.3 million for schools and colleges to make face masks available for students so that they and staff felt confident and safe to return to their learning environment.
She introduced a capital grant for schools so they could accommodate smaller class sizes and ensured that all schools in Wales have superfast internet. She has also put in place a new school curriculum, which introduces a whole school approach to mental health, truly inclusive lessons on relationships and sexuality, a modern approach to modern languages, trusts teachers by giving them the freedom to be creative with lessons, and makes Welsh history, citizenship and identity compulsory for all pupils.
In addition, Kirsty has announced an extra £30 million to develop new Welsh- medium education. This capital investment aims to help reach the longstanding target of one million Welsh speakers by 2050, by supporting young learners to become Welsh speakers by the time they leave school.
I am proud to have worked alongside Kirsty and to see what she has achieved as an individual and as a Welsh Liberal Democrat. With her decision to stand down in the forthcoming election she has left a massive gap both in the party and in the Senedd itself.
Once more we face a difficult election, this time without Kirsty’s popularity and experience to guarantee us representation in the new Senedd and to help us move forward. After twenty-three years in front line politics, she has left Wales in better shape than when she started. Now, at last, she can rest and enjoy some family life.
It is regrettable that some dinosaur councils still have not got the message that smaller schools work and persist in centralising, to the detriment of pupils' development and of the environment. It is to be hoped that the new education secretary after the Senedd election will accept Kirsty's legacy wholeheartedly and drive it forward.