At home with Antoinette Sandbach - Assembly Member for North Wales
PUBLISHED: 00:17 19 July 2013
What makes a successful London barrister go back to the country roads of North Wales and then head for the Regional Assembly?
WORDS BY SARAH BATLEY PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD WILLIAMS
As a teenager, Antoinette Sandbach was single-minded about what she wanted to do: train to be a barrister and represent those whose voices would otherwise be lost, whether a victim of a crime, or a wrongly accused defendant.
It led her to Indonesia teaching English where at one point she found herself under fire during a riot, then university to read law - including human rights and international law - and a battle to get into Bar School, before landing a scholarship to Lincolns Inn.
So it may seem odd that after 12 successful years in criminal law she gave it up to head back to the family farm in North Wales with her young daughter, and survive on a low wage. And then to forge two more careers, first as a farmer, and then as a politician, pounding the pavements until she was elected as Conservative Regional Assembly Member for North Wales.
Showing the single-mindness she brought to the law, she’s now combined the two, as Shadow Rural Affairs Minister, but doesn’t regret leaving the Bar behind. ‘My name is still on the door at the chambers, but I don’t practise anymore,’ she said.
Instead, those years working on criminal aid cases have given her the perfect grounding in arguing for her constituents, she believes. ‘It was speaking up for people who didn’t have ability to speak for themselves or tell their own story. I worked both as prosecution and defence, so whether standing up for the victim and their evidence, making sure it was understood by a jury, or putting the defendant’s version of events, it was something I believed passionately in – being able to represent people, often at the worst time of their lives.
‘It was hard giving up that career as I had lot of job satisfaction and certain amount of status, because being a barrister is a respected profession and I was giving it up to learn about farming - it was quite daunting.’
She spends her time shuttling between the North Wales home she shares with daughter Sacha, and sculptor husband Matt, with her office in Denbigh and Cardiff’s Senedd, with its committees, group meetings and plenary sessions.
Her family has farmed in the Elwy valley, which runs through Conwy county, for six generations and today her home is a slate-fronted house once occupied by the estate’s foreman and which dates back to 1840. The family can trace their history back through several ‘greats’ to a Lord Mayor of Liverpool, who invested money made in sugar trading into land in North Wales, building a road along the valley, along with the village school.
As a child she looked forward to school holidays, which meant time in North Wales on her grandparents’ farm, and which her father Ian farmed from the age of 21. She recalls: ‘I mostly remember going for walks and being with my grandfather’s dog Fly, a collie. It was always very busy on their farm, with the people who worked for them. That’s where I got my love of the land from - the time spent here absolutely fixes it in your soul.
‘I was about 15 I was taught how to pull (deliver) lambs but I used to help on a nearby farm, they were very willing to teach me, and also they had horses. I learned to ride here when I was about eight and I carried on riding until my mid 20s when my career got in the way.’
When she split from her partner she found herself a lone parent with a hectic career. She decided Sacha came first, and moved back to Conwy, where her daughter enrolled at the village school and Antoinette lived on a low wage, with a part-time job with Clwyd West MP David Jones, now Secretary of State for Wales. There she turned her legal mind to his casework – and realised she loved the challenge.
‘I was horrified at the mount of paperwork farmers had to deal with, and the amount of Government scrutiny of what they do - it seemed to me that you had to be a lawyer to understand the paperwork, rather than a farmer. Most farmers I know don’t like paperwork, what they like about the job is being outside looking after their land and stock, paperwork is not something that comes naturally to them.
‘So I thought better stop moaning about it and try and change it. I also felt, with my legal background, I could use skills I had to help people and I applied for a job with David. I had the most miserable experiences with the Child Support Agency, and I felt that I could use those experiences to help people. I did that successfully in David Jones’ office and it was a natural progression for me to get involved.
‘I believe the voices of women need to be heard, as they often have a different viewpoint from men, and I think that voice needs to feed through into political perspective,’ added Antoinette.
Her aim now is to take Wales from behind its ‘slate curtain’ and promote its products across the UK, Europe and globally - and to fight for a more reliable broadband service, so the country can market itself to the rest of the world.
She plans to stand again in the 2016 Assembly elections, providing she’s selected, adding ‘That’s out of my hands, it’s up to other people. That’s a difficult thing about being politician, there’s no job certainty.’