Speech

Public Affairs Cymru speech

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech to the National Assembly for Wales at Ty Hywel, Cardiff Bay.

Good evening and thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

I want to talk to you about the new politics we are bringing to government and how it will help us deal with the challenges we face here in Wales.

As someone with proud Welsh roots it is a great honour to have been appointed Welsh Secretary, and to be the first woman in this office and the first Welsh woman.

Politics at Westminster has entered a new era. 

With our coalition, we have made a fresh start.

And that was right we did.

The old way of doing things, the old politics was broken and beyond repair.

So now, at Westminster, we have a new kind of government and a new emphasis in our politics, we believe the national interest trumps party interest.

And where mature attitudes of co-operation and also believe compromise are signs of strength not weakness.

The old adage that two heads - or two parties - are better than one could not be more accurate as we face up to the current challenges of government.

The changed architecture of government has meant the chance for a new relationship between Westminster and Cardiff.

Uniquely all four parties in Wales have a stake in its governance of Wales.

This unique situation in British politics I believe presents us with opportunities.

In Westminster, we can learn valuable lessons from the Welsh experience of coalition politics.

We should not be afraid to look at Cardiff, or Edinburgh, or Belfast or to Europe to see how governments operate.

Or to ask the devolved administrations for their views!

Westminster doesn’t always know everything - and after hundreds of years a bit of fresh thinking is not going to go amiss.

But before I look at the challenges we face and how we will work together to tackle them, I want to talk briefly about the reforms and change of direction that has got us where we are today.

Historical role of the Welsh Office

Fittingly, it was the leader of the UK’s last coalition government, Winston Churchill, who first appointed a Minister of Welsh Affairs at the start of his second period in office in 1951.

This was a small first step but for someone of Churchill’s character, I would imagine it was a pretty big one for him to take.

His second appointment to the role was Gwilym Lloyd George, younger son of David Lloyd George and obviously a Welsh politician in his own right.

Acting as Home Secretary and Minister for Welsh Affairs at the same time. A task that would be unimaginable today and not something I would want to take on - though doubling up on ministerial jobs is not a unique experience for Wales!

The Welsh Office itself was created in 1965 through another step change in Welsh politics.

At its head was Jim Griffiths, a campaigner for the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Wales since the 1930s.

Harold Wilson persuaded him to delay his retirement and serve in the role he had long-argued for.

For this and for many other achievements, the late Lord Callaghan called Jim Griffiths “one of the greatest sons of Wales” - that is high praise indeed.

The first Welsh Language Act followed, formally giving Wales separate legal recognition in Bills debated at Westminster.

And over the next decade and more, the Welsh Office expanded its remit to encompass many functions some of which have indeed now devolved here to the Welsh Assembly.

These changes undoubtedly represented the view of the successive governments that Wales faced unique challenges that needed to be dealt with using methods that were different to the rest of the UK.

But at this stage it was not devolution.

That would require another step change.

Devolution

Lord Callaghan led the pursuit of devolution for Wales and in 1979 that represented a new way of thinking.

He attempted to deliver what we now have, ultimately failed, it is right we recognise what he tried to do for Wales in the annual Callaghan lectures, one of which I delivered last week. His contribution was great.

People were not ready then for the great changes he tried to enact.

When devolution finally came in 1999, it required more changes in the way the Welsh Office and indeed the whole of Whitehall worked.  Now we have a complex system. government both here and in Westminster has adapted, the Wales Office is playing an increasingly important role in facilitating the business of government.

Government, both here and in Westminster has adapted and so has the Wales Office, playing an ever growing role in inter government liasion.

Challenges: tackling the deficit

In terms of the challenges facing this government our top priority is tackling the deficit we inherited.

It is an issue for all of us across the UK.

The actions we are taking to tackle it will touch many people’s lives in the coming years.

Make no mistake - if we did not act, the consequences would be grave.

Our children and grandchildren would be saddled with a legacy of debt while confidence in the UK economy will have been seriously undermined, perhaps even compromised.

Would you ask your grandchild to pay off your credit card?

We need top take swift action on the deficit and whilst we do not relish having to take these difficult decisions, we certainly will not shy away from them.

While we may have inherited a momentous economic and fiscal mess, to fail to address it would be irresponsible.

And we would only have ourselves to blame.

Fixing the economy and tackling the deficit are central to everything we want to do as a government.

Without stable finances and economic growth we cannot do the things we want to do to support vulnerable people, to invest in public services, in infrastructure, to back business, and spread prosperity.

That’s why the coalition government I represent does not regard the savings we must make as a barrier to making progress as a nation.

And let’s not forget Labour had signed up to a programme of cuts.

£44 billion of unspecified cuts over 4 years.

So I look forward to hearing more from Ed Miliband about his plans in the weeks and months ahead but even he has already acknowledged that cuts are necessary and should not be opposed simply for the sake of party politics.

In the meantime our programme for government is, I believe, an ambitious five year plan that will change Wales and the rest of the UK for the better.

Dealing with this will require thought, determination, and co-operation.

Challenges for Wales: economy

I have spoken before about the economic challenges facing Wales and my belief that the private sector has a lead role to play in generating wealth and attracting investment.

Wales certainly shared in some of the UK’s growth prior to the recession.

But it remains the poorest nation in the UK and that has to change.

The recession has hit Wales hard.

Unemployment remains unacceptably high - one of the highest rates in the UK.

Too many people - almost half a million - are economically inactive.

Long-term unemployment is growing, and too many people are living in workless households where being out of a job - or never having one in the first place - has in itself become a psychological  barrier to finding one.

We need good quality sustainable jobs so that those who are able to work can work.

And that those who are unable to work are supported through a properly targeted benefits system. We also need to make sure that people are better off in work than on benefits.

I also believe we can no longer afford to ignore the widening wealth gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The statistical sophistry of some politicians has to end.

Long-term trends are hard to refute. And the fact Wales has slipped to the bottom of the prosperity league table - and stayed there for many years - cannot be ignored.

It should be an alarm call to politicians of all parties.

I could easily point fingers but playing the blame game will not suffice. And it will not solve anything.

That’s why I want politicians of all colours to work together to try and tackle it.

We must also harness the talents of Wales to bring this about.

It cannot be right that only two out of five Welsh graduates stay in Wales to work.

We need to create the right conditions to provide our highest academic achievers with high quality well paid jobs so that they put their hard-earned qualifications to good use here, where they are needed.

Developing the knowledge economy in Wales is a vital component in attracting investment, developing skills, and retaining talent.

The last decade has shown that these issues cannot be tackled simply through public subsidy.

I welcome the fact the Welsh Assembly government has recognised this through its Economic Renewal Programme.

The days of endless grants and publically subsidised work placements are over and the Labour/Plaid coalition have realised that.

But to achieve results the Welsh Assembly government cannot do this alone. Instead, I believe, we must work together across the Welsh Assembly government and the UK government to create the right conditions for the private sector.

Challenges for Wales: environment

Our next challenge is global and requires nations, as well as governments to co-operate.

Climate change affects us all and there is no doubt that the only way to address this is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by generating energy in new and innovative ways of producing energy.

I welcome the fact my colleague Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, has invited an assembly minister to join the UK delegation at the next global climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.

This is a sensible step and recognises the role devolved governments can play in tackling climate change more locally while contributing to global action. 

Wales, in particular, has good opportunities - through its natural advantages - to be at the heart of the government’s new agenda to use more renewable sources of energy.  This would be beneficial to the Welsh economy and the environment. 

For example, I support plans to create an Energy Island on Anglesey. That will bring in much-needed investment and jobs to an era which badly needs it.

The UK government has plans for a Green Investment Bank, a full system of feed-in tariffs for electricity and a reform of energy markets.

We will also introduce measures to promote the increased use of energy produced from waste so that we have more facilities.

More specific to Wales we have a legacy of former industrial sites that must be regenerated.

My minister David Jones visited the former steel works site in Ebbw Vale earlier this month and was impressed by the scale and the ambition of the regeneration plans there.

I have visited the Tata plant in Port Talbot myself and seen the efforts they are making to ensure that their heavy industry fits in with the surrounding community. As it was put to me, their environmental ideal is “steel manufacturing in a garden.”

As a government we must encourage plans such as these across Wales to give back the cores of our communities.

Challenges for Wales: communities

The sense of community is one of our greatest strengths.

But our cities, towns and villages face their own challenges.

We live in a digital age yet many rural communities struggle to get access to broadband.

At a UK level, our broadband service was last year ranked behind Bulgaria and Latvia.

Our three market testing projects will explore how to bring superfast broadband to rural areas to prevent the digital divide growing wider.

I am talking to ministerial colleagues about one of these projects being in Wales and how we can work with the Welsh Assembly government to achieve this.

Our Big Society theme and our Localism agenda both underpin community involvement in schemes such as these so that access to services is inclusive, not exclusive.

There are many examples of the Big Society in action already across Wales from community-run post offices to redevelopments  partly designed by the people they will serve.

These are projects that we can learn from across the rest of the UK as we take the Big Society forward.

We will support these schemes and their development so more of them to make sure our communities thrive.

But we recognise these challenges are not small.

And we recognise that to address them we must share our expertise and resources across government.

In Wales and at Westminster.

To do that requires another step change in the attitude of government.

A new role for my office.

And a new context for relationships between Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

New politics, new role

It was no accident that one of the first visits the Prime Minister made after forming a government was to Wales.

In opposition David Cameron was a frequent visitor to Wales.

And he said then, as he does now, that Wales matters to him.

This was not a throwaway remark.

When he became the first sitting Prime Minister to visit the Senedd, when he and I met the First Minister and the Presiding Office less than a week after the coalition government was formed, we did that for a very good reason.

We know we can’t do everything on our own.

We in Whitehall need the Welsh Assembly government to work with us if we are both to deliver what we both say we want good outcomes for the people of Wales.

This is where the role for the Welsh Office comes in, taking on a complicated communication and liaison job so that the Welsh Assembly government has the opportunity to work with us to resolve common problems.

Ultimately we want the same thing - getting the best for Wales.

I see my office as a bridge between Wales and Westminster, representing Wales in Whitehall through closer liaison with other Departments, as well as Westminster’s voice in Wales. It does - and must - work both ways.

Since becoming Secretary of State I have seen new heart in the Welsh Office.

An approach of cooperation rather than confrontation is new for politicians and I hope to nurture and improve communication.

I have attended meetings with other departments alongside Welsh Assembly government Ministers. We have issued joint press releases, demonstrating our common ground and the goals that we share.

I have ensured we have delivered on our legislative commitments, such as the devolution of new powers of affordable housing - an issue that was stuck in a logjam for far too long and ultimately became a political tool of the last UK government.

This government will not play those games.

For too long there has been a fractious relationship between London and Cardiff.

With Labour in power in both places, I would have expected a more functional relationship.  I was disappointed with what I found.

That’s why we are changing things.

I meet regularly with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and have addressed the Welsh Assembly government Cabinet and the Welsh Assembly. The Prime Minister will soon do this too.

These meetings allow us to discuss common problems and work toward common solutions.

This is grown up and respectful politics at its best, ensuring we deliver for those to whom we are ultimately accountable - the people of Wales.

Wider political reform

More widely, this government wants to change politics.

As I said earlier, the old system is broken and needs fixing.

We will introduce fixed-term Parliaments - an innovation you are already familiar with in the Assembly but new to Westminster.

It will take the decision to call a General Election out of the hands of one person and end destabilising political shenanigans.

I accept some people oppose the idea of holding the next General Election on the same day as the 2015 Assembly elections.

We have said we will look at that and I have discussed it with both the First Minister and colleagues at Westminster.

But there is no doubt in my mind fixed term parliaments are good for the political system of this country.

We are also pushing forward on the referendum for the Alternative Vote system and on boundary reform so that the votes of electors will finally carry equal weight across the country. WE will be reducing the number of MPs at Westminster.

Early next year, we will have a referendum on giving the National Assembly primary legislative powers on the existing devolved areas.

As this was the WAGs top priority, I gave it my full attention on taking office and I welcome the constructive positive engagement I have had with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on bringing this about as this was their major objective.

It is, I believe, a further sign of the UK and Assembly governments  working togetheras a matter of routine than always wasting energy on friction and division.

As you know, the First Minister did provide me with his preferred date - March 3.  Barring any accident, I hope we can oblige him.

Next month I intend to lay the Order in Parliament which will take this process forward.

These are real commitments that will require close cooperation if we are to see them through.

Conclusion

These are just some of the challenges we face in Wales and I hope today I have given you some idea of how this government intends to deal with them.

I do not see deficit reduction as heralding “dark times” ahead for public services as some prophets of doom have predicted.   You can be rest assured that I am fighting for Wales - in Westminster - every day!

I am also seeking to change the way we work together so we can tackle the challenges we face together and deliver the best for the people we all serve.

The new politics means doing things differently.

It puts people first not parties or politics.

It signals an era of co-operation, compromise and respect.

Co-operating in the national interest.

Compromise to find a middle way which takes on board all ideas and all points of view.

And respect for devolution, and governments’ right to do things differently.

Because what makes sense in one part of the country might not be for another.

So I see exciting times for public affairs in Wales.

With the evolution of Welsh devolution and big changes to the way we operate with the private sector, the public sector and the voluntary sector which always follow a change of government there are many opportunities that will arise for those working in public affairs.

Thank you.