Conference news reports from the Liberal Democrat spring conference held in Harrogate on March 46

10 Mar 05
The Liberal Democrats are aiming to slash the number of public sector inspectorates and load their responsibilities on to the Audit Commission.

11 March 2005

Plan to supersize Audit Commission

The Liberal Democrats are aiming to slash the number of public sector inspectorates and load their responsibilities on to the Audit Commission.

Ed Davey, who shadows the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for the LibDems, told Public Finance that the party's election manifesto would include a commitment to merge nine existing inspection bodies into one.

'We think the Audit Commission is the most independent and capable of the inspection agencies. We want to give it [inspection] all to the best,' he said, talking on March 5 at the Liberal Democrats' spring conference in Harrogate.

Under the LibDem proposals, the Audit Commission would take on the functions currently performed by Ofsted, the Adult Learning Inspectorate, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate, the Housing Corporation and the Fire Service Inspectorate.

Davey said the criminal justice inspectorates would remain independent in the medium term.

The new LibDem policy goes much further than current government thinking in this area. Ministers are widely expected to back plans to replace the existing plethora of inspectorates with four key bodies focused on education and children, health and social care, criminal justice and local government.

Davey said there was little evidence to justify the increased cost and burden of inspection. According to the LibDems, costs have rocketed from £250m a year to more than £650m since Labour came to power.

'We need a properly independent, streamlined and focused approach to inspections. The present system is unwieldy, expensive, duplicates effort and gives too much influence to government departments,' he said. 'We need to get central government off the backs of local government to get Whitehall out of the town hall.'

LibDems are confident their local government policies will propel them to significant success at the forthcoming election.

Davey told PF that council tax was likely to emerge as a major issue and is touting the 'axe the tax' policy as a 'tax cut for the many, not the few'.

The party has also been buoyed by research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which found that half of households would be better off under the system of local income tax it is proposing.

Party agrees strike ban for vital services

Strike action that threatens to damage the UK economy or bring public services to a grinding halt would be outlawed under a new policy approved by the conference.

Although the party ruled out a ban on the right to strike, it does want ministers to be able to interfere in industrial disputes that could jeopardise the national interest.

'The government can't stand idly by if strikes threaten the economy,' Alan Sherwell, an Aylesbury councillor who chaired the policy working group, told delegates on March 5.

'When the normal negotiation process failed, if Parliament agreed, the government would impose binding independent arbitration. Strike action could not legally proceed but the workforce would win their case if their argument was strong enough,' he said.

Sherwell added that, under the LibDem proposals, the recent fire dispute would have escaped the 'malign and backdoor government interference' that blighted it.

Linda Jack, a Unison branch secretary and the LibDem candidate for Luton North, called on union bosses Dave Prentis and Tony Woodley to recognise the LibDems as the party best placed to defend and invest in public services.

'Most gains in employment law have come from Europe, not the Labour Party,' she said.

The LibDems also propose to strengthen the employment rights of home and agency workers and introduce a system of managed migration to fill labour shortages. Public sector employment would be governed by a UK-wide framework setting out minimum terms and conditions with scope for locally negotiated top-ups.

Direct payments can be spent on dogs

Man's best friend is playing an important but hitherto unacknowledged role in the government's plan to give people more control over their social care.

Liberal Democrat local government spokesman Ed Davey, addressing a conference fringe session on the role of choice in public services, revealed that some recipients of direct payments were electing to spend money on a specially trained dog rather than human help.

'It's not right for everybody but for those who want it, it extends choice in a small and pleasant way,' he said.

Dogs can be taught to perform up to 100 tasks from drawing curtains to emptying a washing machine, providing valuable support to people with visual, hearing or mobility impairments.

Ministers have confirmed to Davey that money distributed under the direct payment scheme can be spent on pet food and vet bills for assistance dogs.


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