Back to National Policy Forum Directory

Report from Ann Black: National Policy Forum, Durham 2/4 July 1999

Going through the motions

National Policy Forum members had just a week to read the
draft final policy documents on health, welfare and crime and
justice; formulate amendments; and find seven other people to
support them.  We also had hundreds of pages of feedback
from local forums, constituencies, branches, unions and affiliates
- wonderful stuff, and in future maybe we can see smaller
quantities at more frequent intervals.

Nevertheless, 215 amendments were submitted by 28 different
people.  Scottish CLP representative Colin Dingwall led with
27, far ahead of runner-up Anne Gibson of MSF with 17, and
some suggested rationing the number per person.

We did not see anyone else's amendments, or the Joint Policy
Committee's views of our own, until we arrived at Durham on
the Friday and went straight into meetings with ministers. 
Although we were told that all eight supporters of amendments
had to be there at 2 p.m., only the formal proposer was allowed
in, with a friend if there was space.

Some of this was useful in clarifying wording and removing
contradictions.  However, there was a great deal of pressure to
withdraw or modify any amendment that was not acceptable,
before the Forum opened on Saturday. Alterations needed
endorsement by eight people, and though our deadline was
extended to midnight, it acted as a disincentive because the
original amendment already had eight supporters. 

As decisions lay with the proposer, one person could prevent
the rest of the Forum even discussing benefits for asylum-
seekers, uprating the Invalid Care Allowance, or raising the
3,000 savings cut-off for pensions.  I believe that once
submitted, amendments should become the property of the
Forum.  This had some support, particularly where people
would have liked to accept part but not all of an amendment.  

Only six people kept non-endorsed amendments in, asking that
the Forum should discuss them and, where they had substantial
support, send them forward to Conference as minority reports.  
This was regarded as unhelpful, and the aim seemed to be to
agree all the conclusions before the Forum opened.

Day Two

On Saturday Robin Cook stressed how much we were
delivering to our heartland vote: the minimum wage, the New
Deal, child benefit, free eye tests for pensioners, workplace
rights.  Other measures such as the 10p tax band, low interest
rates and tackling crime helped both our traditional and our new
supporters.  Frank Dobson, Paul Boateng and Alistair Darling
introduced the three policy documents, after which we talked
through the amendments in small groups.  

People had little to say about the majority where agreement had
been reached.  There was no opportunity for proposers of the
others to explain them outside their own group, either then or on
Sunday, where all were put to a vote without debate.  They
gained between six and 16 votes from the 90 members present,
just half of the 175-strong Forum.  All other amendments will be
incorporated, with the final documents published around the end
of the month for approval by Conference in September.

Changes made as a result of consultation are far from trivial, and
Conference delegates will decide whether the process indeed
gives members a new and influential voice.  The following
sections illustrate what happened to party views on a selection of
issues.

Equal Before the Law

The consultation showed near-universal concern about focusing
only on benefit fraud.  Both the welfare and the crime and justice
papers have changed significantly to reflect this.  White-collar
crime will be tackled as seriously as other offences, tax fraud
and benefit fraud are equally condemned, and Labour will aim
for 100% take-up of benefit entitlements as well as zero
tolerance of fraud.

Weeding out Trouble

Many forums and meetings had discussed attitudes to illegal
drugs.  A majority favoured at least considering the
decriminalisation of cannabis and the legal status of other drugs,
though a minority agreed with the government that any sign of
tolerance would send the wrong message.  No Forum member
explicitly proposed such an alternative, and the few amendments
on the subject were withdrawn. 

I didn't submit an amendment on this because I prioritised other
issues, and drugs do attract disproportionate media attention. 
The Independent headlined drugs in a story about the Forum,
though it was clearly not on the agenda.  However, I was
disappointed that it was not debated, given party interest.

Buy Now, Pay Later

UNISON agreed an amendment on the Private Finance
Initiative which removes the requirement to privatise non-clinical
services (cleaning, catering, portering) in health schemes, though
it is still an option. Staff transferred to private consortia will keep
their conditions of employment, though I don't know if this
applies to new recruits.  Clearly it is good news for UNISON
members, as it allows room for manoeuvre on a case-by-case
basis.  Amendments restricting PFI projects to those which
represent value for money for the NHS and patients, and
exploring alternative methods of public capital funding, were also
accepted.

But the pre-Forum negotiations meant that the rest of us did not
discuss the wider economic implications, where payments to the
private company are ring-fenced for up to 60 years, and
efficiency savings can only be made by closing beds or cutting
staff.  The new hospitals announced this week will be popular
initially, but may be a Faustian bargain, and still look like the
actions of a government which does not expect to be around
come payback time.

Bad Hair Day

Turning to crime, many submissions felt that it was not only cost
which put people off legal remedies, but ritualistic and arcane
court procedures.  Where children are witnesses or victims,
barristers and officials can be ordered to remove wigs and
gowns.  Paul Boateng opposed extending this to all cases, partly
because it was a matter for the legal profession, and partly
because people lie more readily than before.  Swearing on the
Bible, or affirming, are no longer treated seriously.  The
costumes create a sense of solemnity which intimidates people
into telling the truth.

This was a serious response, even if you didn't agree with him,
but some delegates treated the whole idea as a joke.  I found
this discourteous not only to Forum members, but to the people
at the SouthEast regional policy forum in Ashford who put it
forward.

Welfare Revisited Again

By far the biggest disappointment was the rejection of any
alternative positions within the welfare document.  We were
asked to withdraw all amendments on pensions, the Minimum
Income Guarantee, job-seeker's allowance, benefit levels in
general, and national insurance, in favour of a T&GWU
amendment which says:

    ". . .  we believe that the Government should lead a national
    debate on the future of the welfare state from first principles.

    The welfare state matters to all of us.  It should offer
    security and opportunity to everybody.  We must
    make sure it is fit for the 21st century.

    Today too much of what is done by the welfare state is
    out of date, or done in an out of date way.  The result is
    that some people are poorer than they need be, others
    dependent when they should not be, and still others are
    neglected when they should not be.

    We want a welfare state that works for all the people.  It
    must provide the security of a safety net but it must also
    be a springboard to opportunity: people must be helped
    to help themselves.

    The absence of full employment has placed a great strain
    on the welfare state.  The process of reform must be
    underpinned by policies aimed at promoting job
    opportunities and allowing everyone to make the most of
    their potential.

    Our debate will be grounded in our fundamental values:
    social insurance, inclusiveness, the promotion of equality
    and the contributory principle, including those paid
    below the National Insurance threshold and carers.

    The debate will discuss how we get a fair deal for
    people in retirement and abolish pensioner poverty,
    examining contributory conditions for State and private
    pensions and how increasing economic prosperity
    makes possible a rising Basic State Pension which will
    remain the foundation of pension provision."

While this sounds great, we have already had the pensions
review after the 1996 Conference.  Tony Blair launched a
national debate in January 1998 with the welfare reform
roadshow.  We have just completed two years of extensive
consultation outside and inside the party.  We do not know how
this latest debate will be conducted, and when it will reach a
conclusion, but it is hard to believe that there is anyone who has
not yet been asked, or who has anything new to say.
`
Most members understand why we promised not to increase
income tax rates before the 1997 election.  We had to make
absolutely sure of winning, and the size of victory was only
obvious with hindsight.  But continuing to cut taxes, while
demands and expectations increase, defies political and
economic gravity.

Nuts and Bolts

I proposed a number of amendments on tax fraud and benefit
take-up which were accepted.  Others not accepted were

*   making eligibility to Incapacity Benefit dependent on four
    weeks' contributions in any two years, not necessarily
    the most recent (though an amendment to tackle the
    needs of low earners, carers and people with
    degenerative illnesses was accepted, which may lead to
    the same conclusion);

  *   removing the 50% tax on occupational pensions for
    people receiving Incapacity Benefit (though another
    amendment concerned about possible disincentives to
    save was accepted)

*   reducing Housing Benefit bills by rent controls rather
    than by penalising the tenant (this can be pursued
    through the ongoing Environment, Transport and the
    Regions consultation)
 
  *   prioritising cuts in marginal tax rates for people moving
    from welfare to work, still over 70% for many, before
    tax cuts for higher earners (this can be taken up under
    the Economy paper);

  *   recognising the budget increase in the employee's
    National Insurance threshhold as a first step, not the last
    word, to a fairer system of contributions, with the aim of
    raising it over time to the bottom of the 40% tax bracket;

  *   universal benefits funded through progressive taxation in
    preference to means-testing, to promote stakeholding
    and minimise administrative costs.  This did not propose
    abolishing all existing means-tested benefits, as we have
    to start from the system we inherited.

  I   also supported amendments on

  *   re-indexing the basic state pension to earnings, and
    restoring its real value over time to the level before the
    Tories broke the link.  (After hearing all the arguments I
    was persuaded that there might be better options, as
    people with incomplete contribution records do not get
    even this pittance.  However, half of all the submissions
    asked for this, and I felt they really should not be
    ignored);

*   removing age discrimination in benefits to young people,
    including 16/17-year-olds, and the under-25s who are
    currently paid at a lower rate;

*   extending measures to tackle causes of crime, and to
    implement the recommendations following the Stephen
    Lawrence inquiry (though the document includes a fair
    amount in both these areas);

  *   sentencing policy based on rehabilitation rather than
    locking more people up, with performance indicators for
    prisons and evaluation of community sentences in
    reducing reoffending (Paul Boateng accepted the latter
    suggestion, but reiterated the mandatory three-year
    prison terms for third-time burglars, regardless of
    whether they are cost-effective in actually cutting crime);

  *   maintaining the current rights to choose trial by jury; 

* continued availability of legal aid, in particular for personal
injury claims, subject to means;

Sir Jeremy Beecham, not a noted leftie, voted for the last two,
but a number of people who expressed agreement privately or in
the workshops felt, I think, that it would be disloyal to go against
the majority. 

Immediately after the votes, some began wondering how to
explain all this back home.  Hazel Blears was concerned that it
might look like old-style deals rather than new politics.  Diana
Jeuda asked if we were supposed to decide for ourselves or
reflect wider views even if we didn't agree with them, and
worried about appearing to close down rather than extend
debate.

We touched briefly on other aspects..  What is the relationship
between long-term policy development and day-to-day
decisions in government?  How do we deal with areas of
responsibility devolved to Scotland and Wales, while maintaining
a National Forum?   What do we do after next year, when
preparation for the manifesto is complete?  How do the Policy
Commissions operate? - we heard that Health works well, with
awaydays and regular meetings, while Environment, Transport
and the Regions, with its huge remit, appears barely functional
after almost two years.

So it was an interesting weekend, even if old-style compositing
meetings were transparent and inclusive by comparison.  I'm not
sure we achieved as much as we could, but do not yet see how
to achieve more.   Winning votes in the Forum was the easy
part.  Have we come up with ways of working that members
trust, and policies on which members will campaign?  You tell
me . . . now, or at Conference.

Ann Black, National Policy Forum representative,
SouthEast CLPs, 11 July 1999

 

Back to top