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Report from Ann Black: National Policy Forum  29/30 Nov 2002

The National Policy Forum in Newcastle considered new
consultation papers on the economy; crime and justice; education
and skills; quality of life; transport, housing, local government and
the regions. Charles Clarke thanked officers and staff for support
during his year as Chair, and Ian McCartney was elected by
acclamation as his successor. Gordon Brown and John Reid spoke
briefly, and Tony Blair responded to questions on student funding,
the two-tier workforce and the Middle East. As a parent he worried
about top-up fees like everyone else, and he sympathised with
college lecturers whose income has risen by 5%, against 45% on
average earnings in the same period.
 
Many detailed points were raised, and revised drafts in January will
show how many have been taken on board. On education,
assurances that Labour was not returning to the eleven-plus ignored
the fact that areas like Kent have never left it. Parity of esteem for
vocational qualifications conflicted with targets suggesting that
higher education is superior, and the lifelong learning agenda
should be mentioned.
 
The quality of life paper rightly rejected the false opposition between
science and the environment claimed by the Greens. Many aims
were attractive, but likely to clash with those of other departments.
For instance, where transport policy tries to meet all demands,
sustainability requires reducing those demands. Nuclear waste
creates long-term storage problems, but the Department of Trade
and Industry is bailing out British Energy and talking about new
reactors. The Lottery proved controversial, with Kim Howells stating
bluntly that falling revenue would hit key government programmes.
Some members argued that lottery projects should go to the
poorest areas, who put in disproportionately large amounts.
 
The economy paper overlapped with welfare reform on child and
pensioner poverty, and with trade and industry on the national
minimum wage, where members asked for a higher level, index-
linking, abolition of the lower rate for under-22s, and protection for
under-18s. No-one was happy with including immigration and
asylum under crime and justice, but there was no other place to put
them. Specific questions on decriminalising drugs would be asking
for tabloid trouble, but members are welcome to make suggestions.
On housing, some felt that lengthy consultation on restricting or
abolishing the right to buy would panic tenants into buying before
the rules were changed, and reduce council house stocks to zero.
The government should act without further ado.
 
Other issues went beyond the documents. Record numbers of
submissions are coming in, but continuing failure to respond will
only stoke up cynicism. Constituency representatives agreed that
those on policy commissions should be more proactive in following
contributions through the process. Apparently Millbank is afraid that
individual commission members might stray from party lines, and
that wider circulation through e-mail and the internet would expose
internal divisions. The unanimous constituency response was that
the Forum is on probation with the party grassroots, and the status
quo is not an option.
 
While the Forum works towards the next manifesto, there is still no
way to handle immediate issues. Foundation hospitals, or charging
councils who cannot find homes for bed-blockers, never came
through the forum process, and the 2001 manifesto actually ruled
out top-up fees. Consultation on university funding and energy
policy will be completed without Forum input. Ministerial question-
and-answer sessions are no substitute, because they do not allow
structured debate or decision-making.
 
Relations between the Forum and the annual conference also came
under scrutiny. UNISON delegates pointed out that with a two-thirds
conference majority, an independent inquiry into Private Finance
Initiative schemes was now party policy. However, the resolution
has simply been referred back to the economic commission.
Constituency representatives on the commission felt that
conference posturing had frustrated their efforts to establish
consensus between the key players.
 
More worrying was the latest Forum newsletter, which said that
conference delegates overwhelmingly endorsed a National
Executive Committee statement giving a green light for war on Iraq
without United Nations authorisation. In fact the NEC withdrew this
statement before the debate, because we were told that it would be
defeated. There was no vote. Later editions carry the corrected
account.
 
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-722230,
ann.black@unisonfree.net 
 
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