Conference news from the Liberal Democrats spring conference, held in Harrogate on March 35

9 Mar 06
The Liberal Democrats must review their policies on local accountability of public services.

10 March 2006

Regional policy must be revised, says Davey

The Liberal Democrats must review their policies on local accountability of public services.

That call came from the party's then education spokesman Ed Davey at its spring conference in Harrogate, where new leader Sir Menzies Campbell told the party its policies had to be able to withstand 'new levels of aggressive scrutiny' by the media and opponents.

Davey told a meeting organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research's northern region that the policy of devolving control of services to regional governments would have to change. Voters in the Northeast defeated the idea of an elected regional assembly in a referendum 18 months ago.

Davey said: 'The party has very radical ideas on public services and we need to revisit them because the ground has moved on.'

Regional government had been a cornerstone of LibDem public services policy. Although it was quietly dropped last year, it has yet to be revised.

Davey, given the trade and industry brief this week, said: 'We must look again at local accountability, the commissioning role, how the money flows round the system and at central government's role. If the commissioning means anything, it means control of money. We need to call Tony Blair's bluff .'

Councils that commission services should also be able to provide them if they chose, he said.

Local government spokeswoman Sarah Teather later promoted to take over Davey's education brief told the meeting that central government's involvement in local services was excessive. She said: 'It is ridiculous that if anything goes wrong in health or education, the secretary of state is the first elected tier that can get involved.

Teather said the party's starting point was: 'Everything that can be done at the local tier should be, and local authorities should have powers to raise and spend money.'

She said the party would answer charges that it wanted to create a 'postcode lottery' by saying that localism inevitably meant there would be differing standards, resulting from choices by voters.

Campbell slams Labour's failure on child poverty

Labour has failed on welfare reform and created worse child poverty than existed 50 years ago, new Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell told the conference.

In his first speech as leader, Campbell said: 'Labour's record on social justice is a sorry one. Over a million children live in slums in this country. One of the biggest scars on our society is child poverty. It is worse today than when I grew up in Glasgow.'

Campbell said it was his party's job to 'reshape our welfare system, to build a society secure against poverty, and create a system founded on opportunity and responsibility with incentives to work and to save'.

He told the party that it had to be clearer about what it meant when it argued for localism.Voters would remember previous Labour and Conservative attacks on local government and 'know that only Liberal Democrats are credible when we advocate the reduction of excessive Whitehall power', he said.

But he added: 'We need to explain in clear terms how localised school and health systems would work, how we would move from central targets to local accountability.

'We need to explain how we would maintain national standards, while creating a climate that would allow local diversity to flourish. Localism necessarily means that things will be done differently in different places.'

Campbell said he wanted to shift the burden of taxation away from those on the lowest incomes, but without an overall tax increase in the present economic cycle.

Money would be freed by scrapping the plans for identity cards and by abolishing the Child Trust Fund and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Call for action on NHS deficits

Urgent action is needed to tackle the National Health Service's huge deficits, the conference decided.

Members backed a motion calling on the government to get to grips with the long-term causes of the debts, which health spokesman Steve Webb noted had been estimated as high as £1.2bn.

The motion called for joint commissioning by primary care trusts and local authorities to improve efficiency, and for an end to the target-based system 'to allow clinicians to make judgements based on clinical need'.

Webb told the conference that the deficits particularly threatened the existence of community hospitals, whose closure would hit vulnerable users hard.

He said: 'Constant revolution in the NHS is creating serious financial instability. Ministers are making it impossible for trusts to plan ahead.'

Webb accused ministers of trying to sort of out long-term financial imbalances 'at breakneck speed, to deliver a legacy for the prime minister before he retires'.

He called instead for a 'managed transition to more efficient ways of working', with greater local democratic accountability.


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