Kirsty Williams describes how her party put a break on the Chancellor’s budget plans
I think it is fair to say that 2012 will be remembered for the successful Olympics that dominated our lives for a month in the summer, the celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Leveson inquiry looking into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. For a few weeks in the summer, the country had an opportunity to come together, celebrate and be distracted from disappointing economic news. While the British and Welsh economies have not grown as quickly as we may have wanted, there have been signs during the latter half of the year that our economy is starting to pick up. This is, of course, welcome news but we still have a long way to go.
Looking ahead to 2013
For me personally, there are several other key moments that stand out in 2012. Amid the media frenzy of this year’s autumn statement was an important announcement by the UK government that it was not going to press ahead with regional pay. The Welsh Liberal Democrats fought tooth and nail to stop the Chancellor’s plans to extend local pay. It is understandable why this announcement didn’t grab all the headlines. This was a U-turn that the Chancellor very much wanted to keep quiet – reversing a policy that he actively supported. On the other hand, I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats put a brake on his plans. Yes, we need to rebalance the economy, but regional or local pay certainly isn’t the answer. The Conservatives can stick this policy in their manifesto in 2015 but I can guarantee that it will not be in ours.
A few weeks before the autumn statement, we saw the Silk Commission report on the first part of its work. The Silk Commission is made up of representatives across the political spectrum and civil society and I was, therefore, pleased that a cross party consensus was formed with regards to the future direction of Wales. The Welsh Liberal Democrats’ vision for devolution has always included ensuring the National Assembly has the best range of powers available to improve the lives of the people of Wales. The idea that the National Assembly can make laws and spend money, but can’t control how much tax is collected has always been an anomaly and that is why we are delighted that the Silk Commission endorsed our view.
What is going to be essential in 2013 is that the UK and Welsh governments work quickly and cooperatively to explore ways to implement the Silk Commission’s significant recommendations. A new Wales bill in this Parliamentary term is crucial for the implementation of Silk’s recommendations. We have been arguing for greater devolution for over a century. This is the latest step in our long campaign for a federal UK. It will strengthen Wales and help make a real difference to the lives of people across the country.
Around this time last year, the Welsh Liberal Democrats agreed to support the Welsh Labour Government’s annual budget in exchange for Wales to receive its very own Pupil Premium. Thanks to Welsh Liberal Democrat influence, in 2012 schools in Wales started to receive an extra £450 for every pupil eligible for free school meals. This money is making a huge difference to the lives of children all across Wales.
However, it is disappointing that this year the Labour Government didn’t want to increase the amount of money going to our poorest pupils in the budget. This is a double blow for our education system as the Coalition Government has just announced that the poorest students in England will receive even more funding towards their education. I am very worried that as the funding gap between England and Wales continues to grow, we will see an increasing divergence in the standard of the two education systems too.
Over the coming year, my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will be working hard to ensure that the Welsh Government properly funds our education system and we will continue to hold the Welsh Government to account to ensure that it helps get our economy moving. For all of us, the coming year will bring both uncertainty and great opportunity. I am optimistic that a year from now, we will be looking forward to 2014 in good heart and in better shape.
My very best wishes to everyone in Wales for a prosperous and successful 2013.