Wales politics

Our world has completely changed, Kirsty Williams says

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Media captionKirsty Williams: "Tomorrow can and will be better"

The Liberal Democrats must show leadership in "worrying times", Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has told her party's conference in Swansea.

She cited President Trump's election, last June's Brexit vote and the election of seven UKIP AMs as evidence "our world has completely changed".

"People are feeling ignored, marginalised, forgotten, but we are listening," Ms Williams said.

Welsh Lib Dem leader Mark Williams said May's local elections were "critical".

Ms Williams suggested the Liberal Democrats had a "new-found confidence".

"We know that it's dealing with the present, shining a light into the future and rejecting a false nostalgic nationalism that will make a real difference to people's lives," she said.

The party hopes to improve on its tally of 75 councillors in May's local elections.

Across the UK, the party has seen its share of the vote increase in parliamentary by-elections, including winning Richmond Park from the Conservatives in December.

But party leader Tim Farron is not attending the annual conference.

Ms Williams told BBC Wales earlier: "I understand it clashes with a significant family event for Tim."

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Media captionMark Williams: "Our politics is an unpredictable and dangerous place"

Last June, First Minister Carwyn Jones brought Ms Williams into the Welsh Government, after Labour fell just short of a majority in the previous month's elections.

Since taking office she has dealt with a series of critical reports on the state of Welsh education, including a claim from watchdog Estyn that the quality of teaching was "weak".

On Saturday, she told activists schools would need "strong leaders" if Wales was to rise up the PISA international rankings for education, and re-iterated plans for an academy to teach leadership to teachers.

Her plans to spend £36m reducing infant class sizes would be a vote winner in the local elections, she said.

She said: "We have elections coming up. Tell people about this policy on the doorstep. Tell them we have listened. Tell them we are delivering it in government.

"The Welsh Liberal Democrats are raising standards for all."

Changes to student finance, including scrapping the grant that covered tuition fees, had been difficult, she said.

But she added that the Lib Dems had been "brave and honest" to include the idea in their 2016 assembly manifesto.

"We learnt lessons from the past and this time went into the election with a clear, but also achievable policy," she added.

Image caption Peter Black was one of four Lib Dems who lost their assembly seats in 2016

Former AM Peter Black told BBC Wales the party backed Ms Williams's decision to take a cabinet job.

"What she is doing is delivering Lib Dem policies in what is in effect a coalition cabinet," he said.

"The vast majority of party members realise that despite being down to one AM we're still influencing policy - that's what we're about, not swanning about in ministerial cars."

In the afternoon session the conference passed a motion opposing Welsh Government plans to scrap tenants' right to buy council homes.

It leaves the Liberal Democrats officially opposed to a flagship policy of the Labour-led administration Ms Williams is part of.

Image caption Kirsty Williams seated alongside Mark Williams before her speech

Welsh party leader and MP Mr Williams told the BBC the local elections were "critical" for the future of the party.

Mr Williams, MP for Ceredigion, called the 2016 assembly election, in which the party lost all but one of its AMs, a "great low" and said he would be "bitterly disappointed" if the Lib Dems did not increase its representation in council chambers.

Addressing the conference, he urged party members to be "unashamedly parochial" in their campaigns on the issues that matter to their communities.

He said the Welsh Liberal Democrats would "never give up", despite being reduced to one MP and one AM.

Mr Williams accused Theresa May's Conservative government of pursuing the "hardest of hard Brexits" despite "the damage it does to our economy, no matter what hurt it causes families across this country, no matter how isolated we become from the rest of Europe".

"But here in Wales, a country that relies more than most on two great industries, manufacturing and farming, the creep towards a hard Brexit is something that fills many of us with dread - not just those of us who voted Remain," he said.

"Our departure from the EU cannot take place at the expense of Wales, yet we are hearing little from the government that give us assurance that the needs of Wales are being recognised or met."

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