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Francis: Promiting culture and the Welsh language

To the Welsh Conservative Party conference in Llandudno.

"Boneddigion, Boneddigesau, Annwyl Gyfellion- Bore Da i chi gyd.

Mae'm arbennig o dda i weld chi i gyd yn edrych mor hapus, a dy ni wedi cael Cynghadledd llwyddiaunus ac yn wych yma yn Llandudno.

This, I am sure you will all agree, has been a wonderfully upbeat and uplifting conference.

For those of you who travelled here from South, Mid and West Wales through the fantastic winter wonderland scenery at the weekend, you will have had an opportunity to see 'God's Own Country' looking its most spectacular and stunning.

And last Friday, as I drove up through the mountains of Meirionnydd I became a little nostalgic (as is perhaps my want). For it was here that I spent the early part of my life and where back in 2001, I fought my first election.

In those days of course, I was just a mere political GNU- oh sorry, that's a typo- I mean political ingénue.

And, fighting the constituency of Meirionnydd- (often described by some as Plaid Cymru's safest seat) or, 'Bandit Country' to the uninitiated, certainly represented something of a 'Baptism of Fire' for me.

My fantastically energetic and committed Campaign Team and I used to joke that within this territory, being a Conservative was akin to missionary work, and quite literally, an uphill struggle!

And, driving though the magnificent Cader Range last Friday I was particularly reminded of the day when I had canvassed a convent perched high on a hill.

The nuns who lived there were a closed order and when I went to see them we spoke though a grill in the wall.

It was a strange, yet very interesting experience! When it was time to leave I made my way through to a courtyard where one of the sisters who had been tending to the garden, unlocked the gate to let me out.

As she did so, she turned to me and in a lovely lilting Irish accent she said:

'Oh child I think you're really very brave fighting a seat like this - and you've really got your work cut out! In fact, I'm going off now to light a candle for you and have a little word with St Jude'.

Now, I'm afraid I don't know my saints too well but naturally curious; I made it my business to investigate. What I later found out, is that 'St Jude' is the patron saint of lost causes.

That, was how it was back in 2001. But let me tell you this morning ladies and gentlemen.

That what is apparent how in March 2006, and what is abundantly clear from conference this weekend, is that the times they are a changing.

The theme of this morning's conference is: 'The quality of Life' and this encompasses the policy areas of culture, art and our beloved Welsh language.

Within the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group, I am proud to have these particular subjects within my portfolio.

The arts uplift and enrich our lives; they inform us, they broaden us, sometimes they challenge us and give us an opportunity for reflection in our all too often frantically 'time-poor' and busy lives.

Importantly, and as we all too often forget, they also can make us laugh.

Welsh, our own unique and special language is inextricably interwoven with our heritage, culture and history and be assured that Welsh Conservatives will always protect and nurture that.

Lately, you will be aware that the Welsh Language and the Arts in Wales have been in the news quite a lot and sadly, for all the wrong reasons.

Under the watch of Kommissar Alun Pughskie of the Politburo of Cultural Correctness (otherwise know as the Welsh Labour Minster for the Arts and Culture); neither has been enjoying a particularly enlightening or uplifting period.

Yesterday, Nick Bourne told you that in the Assembly we had managed to force Welsh Labour to rethink its proposals to bring the strategic planning functions of the Art Council for Wales under Government control.

We have also managed to halt Labour's proposals to directly fund six national art companies.

This would have led to self-censorship within those companies.

But what was concerning was that in the lead up to these proposals, the Labour Government could not tell us what the potential benefits of such a move would be.

As we have come to expect from Labour, the proposals were ill-researched. I personally believe that these plans (had they gone though) would in addition, inevitably have led to a more controlling and overt influence of policy direction in what is still by Royal Charter, an independent body- the Arts Council of Wales.

In respect of this direct funding of the arts companies, one famous theatre director did actually go public saying he approved of it.

So convinced was he that this could be the best thing to do that he even suggested that the Minister for Culture should seriously think about making the same arrangement for the National Eisteddfod of Wales (which incidentally last January re-established itself as a charitable company).

What is it with this Labour obsession for complete control?

Can you imagine our most precious iconic National Treasure, our very own All Wales AGM, the Eisteddfod, under the thumb of Welsh Labour?

Over my dead body!

Kommissar Pughskie, I warn you now- Don't even go there; Hands off!

Otherwise you will have me, Elinor and Dorothy Gardner from the Gower and thousands of other formidable culture loving Welsh Conservatives to answer to!

I am so glad that we have been able to stop this type of political interference in the arts. By their very nature, the arts are not an instrument of Government, but the expression of creativity in Wales.

They have a fundamental role which is to "express" (both implicitly and explicitly), and thereby guarantee the pluralism on which a healthy democracy depends.

I am pleased that now, over the next few months, we have secured a review of the arts in Wales.

The best and most positive way to progress is for the Arts Council to work alongside politicians with other practitioners as well as audiences to achieve the most satisfactory solutions.

And we have a real opportunity, to undertake a 'pukkah', proper job of reviewing Arts & Culture in our country.

We now have the potential to come up with some ground breaking ideas which would put Wales at the forefront in this particular field! I look forward to that.

What has been disappointing in the wrangling which opposition parties have had with Welsh Labour over the politicisation of the arts in the last few months, has been that the government has demonstrated that they have lacked the intelligence to afford any real level of understanding of the problems that dedicated and under-funded arts groups are faced with on a daily basis, and this has caused instability within the sector.

The minister says he wants access to the arts for the poorest in society and no-one disagrees with that.

But, what is that actually about is discussing and enacting policies that can enhance experiences for as many people in Wales as possible.

Also symptomatic of the Government's desire to control those things which are meant to 'uplift and enlighten us' is their desire to bring the Welsh Language Board under their control, severing the important independent 'arms length principle'.

The Welsh language has come a long way since the language protests of the 60s and the 70s.

Today, we can thank and pay tribute to Lord Roberts of Conwy for his work in enabling the Welsh Language Act of 1993; the creation of S4C (our wonderful Welsh Language TV station), the protection of the Eisteddfod and the foundation of the Welsh Language Board.

And, what that did was to take the language out of a fraught political environment, according it the specialist expertise it deserves. Today, the Welsh Language belongs to everyone.

Mae'r iaith Cymraeg yn perthyn i bawb!

More people are learning Welsh than ever before. However, changes to agriculture, the issues of rural deprivation and inward migration have changed those areas once regarded as our Welsh-speaking heartlands forever.

It is a fact that the Welsh Language is now more reliant than at any other time in its history on the support of the state and of English speaking parents who chose a bilingual education for their children.

The way to enhance and protect the language in the future will be though Welsh medium and bilingual education.

At a time when the Chief Inspector of Schools warns that there needs to be improvements in teaching the Welsh Language, there is currently very great concern that not all County Councils conform to the contents of their language schemes when they seek to change or review educational provision in predominantly Welsh-speaking-areas.

This will inevitably lead to small school closure and has already been proposed in areas like rural Carmarthenshire.

But more than threatening the survival of the language, it is our culture and the very heart of village life which is at stake when closures such as these take place.

Welsh conservatives recognise it is our duty to protect these things which are so dear to us.

And we will do it by trusting the people, by sharing responsibility.

Labour have put their faith in legislation, regulation and bureaucracy- it's completely barmy- we are a nation of 3 million people.

We will give faith back to the people.

We will make sure that our village schools, village life, communities, all of which are integral to our culture, heritage and history are revitalised and that they flourish again.

We will do this because we believe that personal freedom has always been rooted in a strong society.

Annwyl Gyfellion, heddiw, mae gwawr newydd yn torri dros Cymru.

Today, no more candles for St.Jude, we face a bright new dawn in Wales!

Diolch yn fawr am wrando arnai."

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