Interview with Kirsty Williams: Welsh Liberal Democrat leader

SATURDAY the 15th of November saw the Welsh Liberal Democrat autumn conference set up shop at our very own Medrus conference facility in the Penbryn building on campus. The event, boasting the ‘highest attendance since records began’ (at least in the memory of one party official), saw Liberal Democrats from across Wales gathering to discuss and vote on policy issues, membership, and a host of other different issues. I was invited along to interview their leader, Kirsty Williams – Assembly member for Brecon and Radnorshire since the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999.

I started off by asking Kirsty about the University’s decline in the league tables.

JH: Is the University’s fall down various league tables worrying and what can be done about it?

KW: I’m sure it’s of great concern to the university; this is a fantastic institution with a long, proud academic history and historic institutions don’t become bad ones overnight. What we have here is the opportunity to regain a better position. I think what we do need to look at, is what we can do in Welsh government terms for the education sector here in Wales. This is one of the reasons why, in our Liberal Democrat higher education paper, we disagree with the policy that is being pursued by the Welsh government. They have really denuded Welsh higher education of funds that it needs to invest in teaching which is absolutely crucial, as well as research potential and good quality facilities. The Welsh government have taken a political decision and we’d like to redress that. It’s all very well having a tuition fees policy that is undoubtedly one that is generous to students, but it’s not going to be good enough if Welsh institutions become weaker and weaker. There has to be a balance between investment in individual students and investment in institutions as a whole. Universities are huge economic drivers that help create prosperity, and I’m very confident that Aberystwyth will be back where it belongs in higher education provision – not just in Wales, but across the UK – before too long.

Do you think more should be done to keep more Welsh students studying in Wales?

As someone who chose to study outside Wales and came home (Kirsty studied at Manchester University and the University of Missouri), I’ve never been very comfortable actually with the idea of saying to people you have to stay here to study. Welsh students need to have the opportunity to study wherever they want, doing courses, and at institutions, that suit them. The best way we can improve Welsh study at Welsh institutions is to make sure that those institutions are on top of their game, and are the institutions to study specific courses at. You don’t stay because you’re Welsh; you stay because that institution offers the best course in your chosen area of study. They are strong institutions that offer a high quality education and the prospect of a real job when people graduate. That’s how you convince more people to stay.

Is the University exploring the establishment of a veterinary school a positive step? Especially with regard to expanding the number of Welsh vets?

It is clearly a very exciting proposition to establish a Welsh veterinary school here. Aberystwyth seems the very best place to establish a vet school, due to its already strong performance in the rural sciences. There is an issue in Wales regarding the recruitment of veterinary surgeons, especially Welsh-speaking ones. This is causing problems to the Welsh agricultural community. But an Aberystwyth Veterinary school does sound like an exciting proposition.

Can I ask you about the state of the NHS in Wales and, more specifically, core provisions being moved from Bronglais hospital?

It is absolutely crucial that we keep services at Bronglais and insure that as many services as possible are brought to Bronglais. We have seen an emphasis on taking things away but now the Welsh government needs to start talking about what things they’re bringing back. This is the nearest hospital for a number of my constituents and, as you say, a number of them are traveling significant distances to get here. The government should be looking to repatriate services back to Bronglais. On the whole, the NHS has got to work smarter.

On recalling AMs/MPs:

This a very important principle that politicians should be recalled. At the moment, the reality is, that unless you’re convicted and sentenced to 12 months in prison you cannot be removed. Having a recall mechanism is important for democracy and would be a procedure that is fair. It is important that it doesn’t allow for the system to be abused. The main point here is that people (the electorate) should be able to hold their members to account.

Kirsty Williams Credit - Welsh Liberal Democrats

Kirsty Williams
Credit – Welsh Liberal Democrats

What is the biggest challenge facing Wales at the moment?

It is important to see the Welsh economy grow and unemployment is down, but there is still a long way to go. We need to create conditions that mean that private companies want to start up here and  that they want to employ people here. The major issue facing Wales is that of low wages. The Liberal Democrats are determined that people on the lowest incomes don’t pay income tax. We managed to lift thousands of people out of income tax. This in turn leads to growth which allows us to invest in valuable public services, such as Bronglais hospital or transport for example.

We’re trying to campaign at the moment for a minimum nurse staffing level. We know, at the moment, that Welsh nurses are looking after more patients on their wards than they would be if they were in England. The legislation that we’re trying to bring forward would change that.

Again, key to a successful future economy are skills; ensuring that we get our education system right for everyone. Too many of our children, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, are not getting the education qualifications that they need. It’s a vicious circle we find ourselves in because if people are looking to set a business here then they’re looking to set up in an area where there is a good, skilled workforce. We’ve been successful in managing to row back some of the cuts that the Welsh government were going to make to apprenticeships. We’ve spent a lot of time in this interview talking about higher education; that’s not the route for everybody and we need to make sure that if people don’t go down the higher education route, they have the opportunity to train in skills via apprenticeships. So for me, the challenges that face Wales are how can we  ensure that we have a well-qualified workforce with jobs for those people to do and good and sustainable public services that people depend on.

What do you see as your greatest achievement as Welsh Liberal Democrat leader?

The establishment of a pupil premium. I went in to politics to make a difference, and sometimes as a Liberal Democrat that can be quite challenging. I am really proud that children from the poorest families will have an extra £1000 spent on their education per annum. We have also been able to extent that to nursery places. If I never achieve anything else in politics I’ll be happy with that, but we’re not stopping there – my ‘more nurses bill’ is introduced in the National Assembly next month. If we can get that through the Assembly then it will probably rival the pupil premium.

Finally, what’s the mood in the party like ahead of 2015 (General election) and 2016 (Assembly election)?

We are ready for the fight, and are relishing the fight. We know that these are challenging elections that we face, but we’re absolutely determined to tell people about what we’ve been able to achieve as part of the coalition. We’ve been able to start to turn the economy around but I’m under no illusions that there is a long, long way to go. For families and individuals things still feel really difficult, but we’re beginning to see the turnaround in the economy. Looking forward to the opportunity, as public finances improve, to getting to a system where we can start really investing in services that others aren’t interested in such as mental health, which the other parties haven’t been interested in addressing. We’re ready for the fight and looking forward to it.