I would like to open this speech with a thank-you to Tim Farron for his leadership over what, unquestionably, has been the toughest period this party has ever faced.
At our lowest point, Tim stepped up to the plate, helping reverse our fortunes.
In an unexpected election, Tim nearly doubled the number of seats we held in Parliament, and took our membership to over 100,000. A record.
As I look across the room and see plenty of new faces, Tim can rightly be proud of the liberal vision that he put forward that attracted so many new people to our party.
I would also like to thank Mark Williams. Wales has lost a tremendous MP, and a strong advocate for radical Welsh Liberalism.
Mark worked tirelessly for the communities of Ceredigion, dealing with thousands of pieces of casework, leading major campaigns such as changing the legal definition of child neglect, and continuously being a strong voice for rural Wales.
Mark, we thank you.
Now, conference, despite our solid performance in the General Election, it is clear that many shifted back to the old way of doing things: red versus blue. Left versus right.
Increasingly, people are feeling powerless, neglected, excluded.
Some look to exploit those fears. Exploit them with easy answers. Tell them it’ll all be ok if we just turn back the clock.
Sometimes back to the 1950s, sometimes 1970s… sometimes the 1670s if you’re Mr Rees-Mogg.
But liberal values haven’t gone away. The populist voices have just got louder. Shouting down all that disagree.
Too often, especially in recent years, the louder voice has won the day.
Well here’s an idea – isn’t it time the liberal voice was heard again?
There are people across Britain looking for reasons to support us.
We must provide the leadership Britain needs, standing up for what is right.
It’s our turn to be loud.
Building a coalition that fights for fairness. Fights for reason. Fights for tolerance.
Conference, we must fight to win today’s arguments – so that we can win for tomorrow.
It’s 75 years since William Beveridge published his ground-breaking report.
After a war that brought turmoil to millions, an exhausted Britain was preparing for reconstruction.
Beveridge supplied the ambitious, optimistic blueprint that we desperately needed.
When he chose ‘ignorance’ as one of his five evils which no democracy can afford among its citizens, he was making the case for improved education.
He was right then. It is right now.
People don’t expect government to perform miracles. They know it isn’t the answer to every problem.
But what we do expect is government to help provide a level playing field. The opportunity to succeed.
Division and fear rise up when people feel helpless.
To fight this, we as liberals have always believed that education is the key to empowering people.
It’s at the heart of what we stand for.
We’ve shown this in Wales with our actions.
In the last Assembly, which party prioritised education in negotiations with the Welsh Government?
Was it Plaid? No.
The Tories? Not once.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats? Every. Single. Year.
Because of our determination, we secured the Welsh Pupil Premium, over £300m funding for our schools.
One to one tuition, extra staff, outreach programmes - all supporting our most disadvantaged pupils.
And now, with a Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Secretary, we can do even more.
In just a year, we’ve extended the Pupil Premium to all three year old looked after children,
We’ve extended it to pupils whose education happens outside of school,
And conference, we have doubled the Pupil Premium for our very youngest learners.
This policy embodies all that we stand for. Times are tough. Austerity continues. Hard decisions will be made.
But let me be clear: our work is not done until every child, EVERY child, gets a fair start in life.
That is our national mission. That is the mission for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
Conference, compromises have to be made in all walks of life. Government is no different.
But as Education Secretary – my promise to every parent, teacher and child in Wales is that I will never compromise on raising standards in the classroom.
In my first year in office, every decision, every policy, every priority is focused on raising standards and closing the gap for pupils from the poorest backgrounds.
Too often, people make it a false choice between equity and excellence in our schools. I’m not ashamed to say I want it all – and pupils across Wales need it now.
It pains me to say that until recently there were secondary schools in Wales where not a single pupil did a science GCSE. Not a single pupil.
In a combination of cynicism and lowered ambitions, many schools were just entering pupils for the easier to pass BTECs – meaning that, in 2016, 99% of pupils passed the Level 2 BTEC science.
It’s right for some pupils, but not for the majority.
This poverty of ambition simply narrows the future opportunities of our pupils and the future vibrancy of our economy.
And it must end. We’re now making the necessary changes and I’m pleased to see a huge increase in pupils now studying science at a higher-level, including triple science.
We’ll also look at the emphasis on C grades. The current system motivates schools to support students to reach a C or above, which schools have done, and that’s to be welcomed.
But it has unintended consequences. For too long we’ve told schools that for all pupils a C is as good as an A.
That shouldn’t be the case. For some, we’re just settling, rather than challenging. We will take action to support our more able pupils.
And then there is the issue of early entry, where many students miss out on a whole year of academic study.
This Summer, around 65% of 15 year olds took their English Language GCSE a year early.
Schools were putting forward whole cohorts in some cases.
Don’t get me wrong, for some, early entry works. But for others, it can be so damaging to their confidence.
Many schools who enter pupils a year early also bank a C, rather than look to improve the following year, as they feel that is all that’s needed.
Conference, this damping down of ambition will end on our watch.
There may be resistance, but I am not afraid to ensure that every pupil can reach their potential.
We are introducing new, rigorous GCSEs and A Levels. We’ll introduce performance measures rewarding excellence at all levels. And we will take action on early entry.
Raising attainment for all.
Standards, standards, standards. That is our focus. That will be our legacy.
Conference, our national mission reaches beyond the school gates.
We must deliver excellence at all levels of education.
Our reforms are wide reaching.
We’re establishing a new strategic authority to oversee skills and higher and further education sectors.
Working lives are getting longer, jobs are changing rapidly.
That’s why we’re building a system that makes it easier for people to learn and acquire skills throughout their careers: ensuring high-quality options and outcomes for all.
The Tory Government may think the answer is only more privatisation.
We’ve more imagination, ambition and aspiration than that.
Drawing on best international practice, we’ll build a sector that is coordinated, coherent and places learners at its centre.
It will help link vocational education with business, it will better connect higher and further education, and we will maintain the link between teaching and research.
These are radical, but necessary changes.
You may have seen recent media stories on University Vice Chancellors’ pay.
I agree restraint must be shown, but I have to be honest, my priority, and I believe our priority, must always start at the other end of the scale.
This issue isn’t just about senior pay, but ensuring a fair wage for everyone
I was shocked when I became Cabinet Secretary to discover that Cardiff University and the OU were the only universities in Wales to be accredited Real Living Wage employers.
Since then, I’ve consistently challenged universities, publically and privately, on this issue.
Universities’ commitment to a civic mission requires reach beyond just teaching and research.
It should be demonstrated in how they value their staff and students. They must be examples of progressive and fair employers.
Since then, Wales’ sector has risen to the challenge.
I am delighted to say that every single university in Wales are due next year to become Real Living Wage employers, while also signing up the Government’s Code of Practice on Ethical Procurement.
That Conference is real progress we can all be proud of.
We are also transforming student finance.
I know this is a difficult issue for our party. That is why I’ve been so intent to get it right.
Learning lessons from the past, we went into the Assembly elections with a clear and achievable policy.
We knew, and said so, that Wales’ higher education system was unsustainable.
More importantly, we recognised it was living costs, not fees, that deterred more disadvantaged people from going to university.
In government, we’re putting that right, putting our principles into practice.
We’re securing stable and sustainable funding for higher education. And unlike the Tories who don’t offer a single penny, we will support our students.
Because of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, students will receive the equivalent of the Living Wage while they study,
Because of us, we’re introducing the first system in Europe that is fair and consistent for full time, part-time and post graduate students,
And because of us, Wales will have the most progressive system in the UK.
And you know what – English Vice Chancellors and students have noticed and are demanding that that England follows Wales’s lead.
We’ve learnt our lessons conference. Be proud, the Liberal Democrats are leading the way.
Now, conference, it’s been just over a year since the Progressive Agreement was reached with the First Minister and I became Education Secretary.
It’s difficult to imagine a busier year.
NUS Wales described our reforms as “nothing short of revolutionary”.
With the reforms already mentioned, along with introducing a completely new school curriculum, I can see their point.
Policy after policy, we’re delivering on our manifesto.
We said we’d improve broadband in schools – and we are, with millions of pounds of extra investment ensuring every school has access to superfast broadband.
We said we we’d support rural schools – and we are, by changing the school organisation code and investing over £10m to raise standards.
We said we we’d support teachers – and we are, by improving teaching training and introducing new standards to promote excellence and support career-long professional learning.
We said we we’d establish a Leadership Academy – and we are, preparing all leaders with the right skills to benefit pupils.
And we said we’d reduce class sizes – and now we are, with investment worth £36 million.
I could go on, and that’s just education.
Let’s not forget: 20,000 new affordable homes, £40m additional support for our farmers, more nurses on our wards, support for first time home buyers, extra investment into mental health services.
Yes we’ve taken some knocks, but conference, I can guarantee you one thing:
The Welsh Liberal Democrats will always deliver for our communities.
Now, our party is nothing if it’s not optimistic.
Our belief in the common good and community,
Our ambition for equality of opportunity,
Our passion for internationalism and fighting intolerance.
This optimism has never been more needed.
We’ve been here before, and we’ve come up with the answers.
We need that conviction again.
Because millions of liberal-minded people need a voice that is optimistic, effective and credible.
We know that bouts and bursts of anger and frustration are never a long-term solution.
We know that the politics of envy will keep letting us down.
No other party is thinking about a positive, optimistic future.
A future where science and technology will create new jobs if we get the skills offer right,
A future where everyone has the chance to learn throughout their lives,
A future that ensures dignity, fairness and opportunity in education, in the workplace, on boards and across government.
Conference, it’s now fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abortion act, and the first ever Welsh Language Rights legislation.
LGBT rights, feminism, bilingualism - the arc of history has bent further towards progress on each of these issues and more.
But we can’t rest on our laurels.
These victories are fragile. More fragile than we ever imagined.
When a large section of society believe liberal values only benefit others, then they might just think there’s nothing lost in resisting them.
Yes we must continue to stand up and be counted, fighting for individualism, identity and differences,
But in doing so, we must have the courage, conviction and clarity to say that these liberal causes are for everyone and exclude no-one.
Raising everyone up is to the benefit of our society as a whole.
We must inspire and persuade people from all backgrounds that we all benefit from liberal values and ideas.
Freedom. Fairness. Opportunity.
These aren’t just nice-to-haves,
Not pet projects,
Not niche and on the margins.
We must be at the centre of political life.
We must fight for every argument, every vote, every seat.
And conference we must be ambitious. We must fight for everyone.