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Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) on his maiden speech: he spoke with conviction, eloquence and a manifest desire to get things done, and I wish him well.
It is with a sense of privilege and perhaps some trepidation that I rise to speak on this first occasion. It is a great privilege and honour to be here. Like all right hon. and hon. Members, I look forward to working hard on behalf of my constituents to the very best of my ability. Let me record my appreciation to all Members, and to the staff and officers of the House, for the warmth of their welcome and their support over the last three weeks. Any new role in life is a challenge, and election to the House is no exception.
According to the convention of the House, I am required to pay tribute to my immediate predecessora task that I happily undertake. Simon Thomas was a decent and principled man, who worked hard in the House and the constituency. I have learnt quickly from all sides of the high regard in which he was held. He
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spoke with authority and dedication, not least on the challenges that we face environmentally and on wider global issues, and he was a valued member of the Environmental Audit Committee. During the three elections in which we fought each other we enjoyed a good personal relationship, as is often the case, and I genuinely wish him and his family well.
I am privileged indeed to represent Ceredigion, which is the most beautiful constituency in Wales, if not further afieldalthough in normal circumstances Members may wish to debate that, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). Ceredigion stretches from the banks of the River Dyfi in the north, with the spectacular beaches of Borth and Ynys Las, down to the market town of Cardigan on the banks of the River Teifi, thus including much of the beautiful Cardigan bay coastline.
Historically, while beautiful, the land is also demanding. Its farming economy has seen difficult times, producing the culture of work and thrift whence the Cardi's legendary cautious approach to all things financial emanates. It boasts a strong entrepreneurial spirit, but also a radical one. In the 19th century, Cardigan was one of the areas most notorious for the eviction of tenants who voted contrary to their landlords' wishes. One still meets constituents who talk about that.
Ceredigion has some of the best standards of learning in Wales, and per capita spending on children is the highest in Wales. Until a fortnight ago I was a teacher in a small village school in Llangors, in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), and I can vouch for the huge challenges facing rural schools. Small fluctuations in roll numbers can have a dramatic effect on budgets and staffing, and thereby on children's education. We need stability and a wider assessment of the implications of school closures. All too often, the school is the focal point of the local community.
Ceredigion boasts some of the great institutions of Welsh public life. The university of Aberystwyth, which was my initiation to Ceredigion some 21 years ago, is a fine institution at which to study. Two of my election opponents studied there as well, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), who I noticed was proudly wearing his Aberystwyth college scarf on his first day here. There is a particularly acclaimed international politics department, soon to be housed in a new building, and with 10,000 students and nearly 600 staff, the institution is critical to our local economy. No wonder issues of student finance and the funding of higher education are so important to us locally. I look forward to the publication of the Rees commission's report tomorrow, and welcome yesterday's vote in the National Assembly. The university college of Wales Aberystwyth was established in 1872, and was founded very much on the principles of stewardship. It was founded on the basis of "people's pennies"some 100,000 individual donations, which is a testament to the high esteem in which education is held in Ceredigion.
Aberystwyth is also home to the national library of Wales, which dominates the landscape of Penglais hill. It is the largest library in Wales and one of the world's
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largest research libraries, and houses the archives of Lloyd George and Saunders Lewis, priceless mediaeval documents, and church and chapel registers.
We also boast Lampeter university, the oldest degree-awarding institution in Wales, which is, again, critical to the local economy, and there is a healthy town and gown relationship between students and local residents.
The bulk of Ceredigion is farming country with smaller towns such as Aberaeron, Pontrhydfendigaid, Aberporth and Tregaron, which boasts one of the only two functioning farming marts in the county. That is perhaps a sad reflection of the continuing hard times that agriculture faces, which is of importance in a constituency where 10 per cent. of the population are actively employed in the industry. The two biggest concerns of the farming community are excessive regulation and the burgeoning influence of supermarkets. Ceredigion's small family farms remain the backbone of the economy as well as the guardians of much of what we value in the environment.
One particular community has become infamous in some circles: the village of Llanddewi Brefi, home to Dafydd in TV's "Little Britain". Hon. Members who wish to visit that communityCeredigion has always welcomed visitorsshould beware. Llanddewi Brefi is no longer signposted, as eager Dafydd fans have made off with anything bearing the Llanddewi Brefi name, much to the consternation of local residents.
The seaside town of New Quay has worthy associations, too. Dylan Thomas's stays in the town provided much of the inspiration for "Under Milk Wood", although that is open to much debate with the residents of Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, who also claim him as their own.
Such communities epitomise the third fundamental part of Ceredigion's economy after education and agriculture: tourism, particularly along the coast. Many tourist enterprises have been supported by European funding through objective 1. I pay tribute to the work of the local objective 1 partnership. Over the past four years, 1,098 jobs have been created or protected. Some £58 million has been injected into the local economy. I look forward to guarantees from the National Assembly that such provision will continue for West Wales and the Valleys after 2007.
That funding has greatly enhanced the community fabric of my constituency. Two particular schemes are of note: the quayside regeneration and development in Cardigan, and the restoration work under way at the historic Cardigan castle, which was the scene of the first national Eisteddfod in Wales in 1176.
Before I finish, I wish to pay tribute to my last Liberal Democrat predecessor in Ceredigion: Geraint Howells. He served in the House from 1974 to 1992, and then as Lord Geraint of Ponterwyd in another place until his sad death last year. He was held in great affection across the House. He was a true son of Ceredigion; I am an adopted one. He worked tirelessly for all. He was passionate about protecting rural areas from what he perceived as a remote Government, and sought to represent them effectively in Parliament. I hope to follow in that tradition.
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Geraint Howells passionately believed in a Welsh Parliament with full legislative powers on a par with the Scottish Parliament. I applaud the recommendation of the all-party Richard commission that the National Assembly should have full legislative powers by 2011. In that vein, I look forward to the Government's White Paper, the Bill that is to follow and the debate that will ensue.
"It often strikes me as ironical that Cardiganshire gives its children an excellent education, culminating in a range of higher education, only to find . . . there is no work in the county to offer them." [Official Report, 14 March 1974, vol. 870, c. 430]
In the Ceredigion of 2005, it is the issue of affordable housing that determines my constituents' capacity to stay. I do not claim any uniqueness for Ceredigion on that issue. Many hon. Members have mentioned it this afternoon. Few communities across Wales are unaffected. What is different is that many of the youngsters who have been forced to move away are Welsh speaking, and 59 per cent. of the people in my constituency speak Welsh as their first language. Therefore, such moves inevitably have a negative effect on language and culture. That is a widespread feeling in my constituency and I share it. With average house prices in Ceredigion more than six times the average income in Ceredigion, I am glad that the Chancellor has started the debate on what needs to be done.
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