News from the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth

23 Sep 04
Liberal Democrats have distanced themselves from proposals they fear could lead to a more market-driven approach in the key campaigning areas of health and education.

24 September 2004

LibDems claim the centre-Left

Liberal Democrats have distanced themselves from proposals they fear could lead to a more market-driven approach in the key campaigning areas of health and education.

Following a debate on the pre-manifesto – launched last week – at this week's party conference in Bournemouth, party members voted overwhelmingly to include an explicit commitment to a health service free at the point of use and funded from general taxation.

The orange book: reclaiming liberalism – a collection of essays on possible future policy direction – included a call from LibDem Treasury spokesman David Laws to introduce a social insurance system for health care.

Although the party has rejected Laws' proposals, grassroots members were keen to reinforce their hostility to the approach.

Moving the amendment, Donnachadh McCarthy, former deputy chair of the party's federal executive, said: 'We are the Liberal Democrats, not the Orange order.

'It is wrong to argue for more Tory policies in order to win Tory seats. We do not need to follow New Labour to the Right. We remain progressive centre-Left.'

Despite these quibbles, there was enthusiastic support for the pre-manifesto, which activists said presented them with an effective ten-point plan they can present to the electorate as campaigning gains momentum. It includes commitments to abolish university fees, provide free personal care, raise the state pension and replace council tax with a local income tax.

Party chair Matthew Taylor said: 'Our pre-manifesto offers a cogent alternative to the pointless debate the other two parties are having about choice… The truth is, Labour and Conservative talk about choice because on quality they've failed to deliver.'

But the question of choice continues to vex the LibDems. Earlier, following a lively debate on the party's education policy, delegates voted by 149 votes to 102 to abandon Labour's specialist schools programme in favour of diversity of provision in all schools.

But others in the party said specialisation added to a school's quality. James Kempton, executive member for education at the London Borough of Islington, said: 'We should be inviting other partners into our schools and making something of their contribution.'

Child agenda 'at risk' from Gershon cuts

The efficiency requirements on local government could put the child protection agenda in jeopardy, a leading education expert has warned.

Speaking at a Local Government Association fringe event on children's services, Paul Roberts, director of education services at the Improvement and Development Agency, said: 'There is so much to be unravelled on Gershon.

'I don't know what the answers are and it's complicated by the unravelling of budgets that are currently in different departments. It could become a major impediment to the work we want to do here.'

Roberts told the meeting that the Children Bill, which requires closer working between local authority education and children's social services, contained 'daring and ambitious' ideas that would require 'chess-like forethought'.

He said requirements in training, leadership and information sharing all posed huge challenges for local government.

Annette Brooke, LibDem spokeswoman for children, echoed Roberts' concerns on training. 'Changing the structures is not in itself going to change matters or improve them. It's the people who will change things and they're going to need a lot of training,' she told the September 20 meeting.

Brooke later told Public Finance that the LibDems would be pushing to ensure that the post of children's commissioner for England, which is created by the Children Bill, is free from ministerial interference. The government plans to overturn House of Lords' amendments to the Bill, which guarantee the commissioner's independence.

Cable sets out tax rate of 50% for top earners

The drive for greater social justice needs to be balanced by economic discipline and credibility, Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor Vince Cable told the conference.

He reminded delegates of the need to face up to 'painful economic realities'.

'Budgets have to add up. Choices are needed in public spending.'

Cable said the current tax system was unfair, with the poorest 20% paying a higher percentage of their income in tax than the richest 20%.

The party is proposing a 50% tax rate on every pound earned over £100,000 – a levy that would generate £5.2bn to fund the introduction of free personal care and the abolition of university fees.

The LibDems point out that their spending commitments have been costed. Cable said a further £5bn a year could also be saved by slimming down Whitehall and abandoning some spending programmes, including the identity card scheme and child trust funds.

In addition to scrapping the Department of Trade and Industry, the party would abolish the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, distributing its functions among other departments.


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