Equality of Opportunity Must Be First Step to Give Us All Some Human Dignity; When First Minister Rhodri Morgan Set out the Stall for Welsh Socialism within the Labour Party He Ruled out the Notion of a Minister for Social Justice, Proposed by His Welsh Liberal Democrat Partners in Government. Deputy First Minister MICHAEL GERMAN Explains Why We Need Such a Minister to Oversee the War on Poverty in Wales

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Byline: MICHAEL GERMAN

IF I wasn't already so involved in politics there is one issue that would make me sign up immediately: poverty.

No one who believes in the strength and vitality of the human spirit can rest easily while so many people around us lead their lives in great hardship, with the odds stacked against them and with so many opportunities denied to them.

The reports detailing the hardship mount up. Just last week a series of Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports were added to a recent study by Save the Children to show the extent of the problem in Wales.

Most indicators place Wales as one of the poorest parts of the UK. Levels of unemployment, sickness and benefit entitlement are all worse in Wales. Our whole economy is at the bottom of the pile. But, in a sense, it is not the statistics that matter: it is the pregnant woman found sleeping rough, the young lad stealing to fund a drug habit, the isolated farmer's wife unable to get to town to meet friends, the former miner still dependent on his wife's part-time cleaning job.

There are tens of thousands of individuals like these in Wales, leading difficult lives, trying to make ends meet, trying to retain some human dignity.

It is to end this hardship and to restore this dignity that Welsh Liberal Democrats are driven. Looking back on the National Assembly's first term, including the past two years of the Partnership Government, I think we have been a little too focused on the need to justify the new institution's existence in every area where it has a responsibility. We should have been more focused on our real priority: tackling the poverty so endemic in Wales.

Sure, we have made some important progress. Communities First is an innovative community regeneration programme targeted at the 100 most deprived parts of Wales. We have provided support and encouragement for the growing Credit Union movement and for post offices as a linchpin of community life. And, through the Entrepreneurship Action Plan, the Community Loan Fund and the forthcoming Community Development Financial Institution we are providing active suppo rt for community-based social enterprises and new businesses.

But we need to do more and we need tobe clearer about our priorities. That is why I am proposing that the new government, after the election in May 2003, should appoint a Minister for Social Justice and Communities who should lead and coordinate government action to beat pover t y.

One of the central problems facing the minister will be the word itself. Poverty carries stigma. People, understandably, do not want to be labelled as poor.

There is also an outdated link in people's minds between the problem - poverty - and the assumed answer: equality of outcome. It is almost as though the whole concept has been hijacked by socialism.

That may have been the story of the 20th Century but the lessons learned are clear. Socialism doesn't work and equality of outcome is neither possible nor actually desirable.

With socialism dead, the challenge for the 21st Century is whether liberal democratic values can overcome an increasingly prevalent authoritarian managerialism.

Welsh Liberal Democrats believe that you do not stop truancy by fining parents. You do not stop vandalism with curfew orders. You do not improve the NHS by leaving so-called failing hospitals with less flexibility to manage themselves than the so-called good ones. You do not take account of a local school's difficulties by funding it directly from Whitehall.

Thankfully, the Welsh Assembly Government has been able to stop many of these authoritarian New Labour Knows Best wheezes at Offa's Dyke.

The liberal democratic approach to government in Wales starts with the individual. I believe that every citizen in Wales has the potential to make a positive contribution to their community. …