Val Feld

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Valerie Breen Turner, politician: born Bangor, Caernarvonshire 29 October 1947; Director, Shelter Cymru 1981-89; Director, Equal Opportunities Commission Wales 1989-99; Member (Labour) for Swansea East, National Assembly of Wales 1999-2001; married 1969 John Feld (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1979); died Swansea 17 July 2001.

Val Feld was one of the most highly regarded members of the National Assembly for Wales. That view was not confined to her Labour colleagues – it was widely shared across the political spectrum, not least because she was one of the leading architects of devolution achieved by a whisker in the referendum following the 1997 election. More than that, she was largely responsible for promoting women's participation in Welsh politics. The fact that 25 of the 60 Assembly members are women is testimony to a determination honed during 10 years as director of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Wales.

The daughter of a dentist in Bangor, North Wales, she was educated at the Abbey, a boarding school in Malvern Wells. After a brief spell in London she moved to Chorley in Lancashire, where she became a councillor and worked as a welfare-rights and housing officer. Returning to Wales she became Director of Shelter Cymru in 1981, a time when the charity's services were much needed.

She was appointed Director of the EOC in Wales in 1989 after completing an MA course in Women's Studies at Cardiff University. The decade in that post involved dealing with what has been described as Wales's macho culture. She was instrumental in ensuring that the Government of Wales Act of 1998 included clauses requiring the National Assembly to pay due regard to equal opportunities.

A long-standing member of the Labour Party, she played a crucial role in the achievement of Welsh devolution. In the 1979 referendum there was a four-to-one vote against. Gloomy predictions that the poll on 18 September 1997 would confirm Wales's reluctance to make the break abounded. However, the "Yes for Wales" campaign confounded those predictions. The organisation embraced Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru supporters as well as a host of organisations and individuals. As treasurer Feld tirelessly quartered the country bringing her persuasive powers to bear on waverers, of which there were too many for comfort early on.

In the event the "Yes" vote won the day by the slender margin of 559,419 votes to 552,698. It was a remarkable turn-round from the crushing defeat 18 years earlier.

During the troubles over the leadership of Alun Michael, eventually replaced as First Minister by Rhodri Morgan, Feld won wide respect for her calm and principled contributions to debates which sometimes generated as much heat as light.

In autumn 1999 she became chair of the Assembly's economic development committee, taking over from Ron Davies, who stepped down after his Clapham Common walk. It was a role she fulfilled successfully by adopting a strategy of gathering information, listening to disparate views and seeking to reach agreement.

The committee has a crucial input into Welsh governance at a time when the economy is still moving from long reliance on heavy industry to a new scenario where the service sector and electronics are, despite blips occasioned by decisions in faraway boardrooms, both expanding.

She always recognised the need to challenge what she described as "the over-arching deployment of power". That fuelled her challenge to one of the last bastions of Welsh male chauvinism – the Cardiff and County Club in the Welsh capital's Westgate Street, a men-only establishment where, it is widely believed, the great and the good from the media, business, academia and politics get together to discuss matters mutually advantageous.

She was instrumental in establishing a coalition of women's organisations to interface with the Assembly and helped set up a network of women in Wales's ethnic communities. In all this she always maintained a close relationship with her Swansea East constituents. In May, however, cancer forced her to step down as chair of the economic development committee.

Rhodri Morgan said yesterday: "I believe I speak for the whole of Wales when I say that the death of Val Feld is a grievous blow for us all."

Tony Heath