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National Policy Forum, Newport, 28/29 November 2003
 
The first day saw Tony Blair launch the long-awaited Big
Conversation, an honest and serious debate between a modern
empowering government and active, responsible citizens. The 80
pages and dozens of questions gave plenty of food for thought.
Crime had fallen, but people did not feel safe. How could we
replace anti-social behaviour with respect? How far should we
trade civil liberties against the need to break up organised crime?
How did we balance liberating people from dictatorships against
traditional respect for territorial integrity? Should pension
contributions be compulsory? Even if all countries implemented the
Kyoto agreement, greenhouse gases would only fall by 1%, and a
60% cut was needed by 2050. How could we achieve this? And so
on. Ian McCartney promised a user-friendly toolkit to help local
parties take the conversation to the community, and regular
feedback. By Saturday afternoon 4,000 people had sent
contributions by e-mail, and the next day 30 of these were displayed
on the website www.bigconversation.org.uk 
 
Members asked whether the agenda was truly open. The exercise
was imaginative but risky, and people must feel that they have been
genuinely heard. What about taxing incomes above £100,000, and
were top-up fees set in stone? Tony Blair stressed that this was not
policy-making by opinion poll. As always the party would make
decisions according to its values, and the people would decide in
the general election. Labour had shown it could listen over the 75p
pension rise. (Not the best example, as the leadership over-rode
90% of members’ views in the 1999 National Policy Forum, and only
a pensioners’ revolt and the loss of several hundred council seats
changed the policy.)
 
Gordon Brown said that Labour had won the argument for raising
National Insurance to invest in the NHS. Any case for tax had to be
argued openly with voters, and council tax in particular had to prove
its value. He emphasised the longest period of economic stability
for 100 years, with more people in work than ever, and youth
unemployment down from 250,000 to nearly nothing. The Tories
had opposed every anti-recessionary measure, and would abolish
the New Deals. Integrating taxes and benefits into a single system,
through the various tax credits, removed stigmatising distinctions
between claimants and contributors. Instead people paid in or drew
out at different stages of their lives. Children and pensioners were
steadily being lifted out of poverty.
 
Guest Speakers
 
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, expressed
disappointment over the two-tier workforce persisting in health, and
government opposition to European directives on agency workers
and long hours. He recognised that the unions were seen as
ungrateful, but stressed that when Labour and the unions fall out,
only the Tories gain. A shared positive agenda on productivity, skills
and safety would benefit both partners. Carey Oppenheim, special
adviser on family policy to Tony Blair, considered how best to help
disadvantaged children. Most money goes into schools and higher
education, but the key need is for investment in early years and
childcare. By 22 months the social gap between classes is already
evident, and never remedied. And Gareth Thomas MP spoke of the
need to devolve further powers to individuals. Several football clubs
were owned by supporters’ trusts, and foundation hospitals should
ensure that the professionals answer to local people.
 
Friend or Foe?
 
David Blunkett held a session on his plans for ID cards.
Unforgeable proof of identity would help to tackle organised fraud,
health tourism and clandestine working – currently there are 10
million more national insurance numbers than British residents - and
the United States would soon require biometric identification for
visitors. From around 2007 passports and driving licences would
function as ID cards by including fingerprints, iris patterns and facial
recognition as they are renewed, with plain cards mandatory for
foreign nationals staying more than three months, and available for
everyone else. Compulsion would be considered only after most of
the population were already covered. The charge would be about
£35, with cards free to under-16s and £10 for those on low incomes.
 
There were some concerns about who could access the
information, but more about practicalities. Large information
technology projects had a poor record, as illustrated by the Passport
Agency fiasco. Anyone checking identity, in social security offices,
doctors’ surgeries or universities, would need the technology for
taking fingerprints and other measurements to check people against
their cards. Iris recognition is only 99% accurate, according to New
Scientist, which would limit its use because each card would have
600,000 matches on the UK database. Politically, the costs are paid
upfront by the individual but the benefits are long-term and general,
with no immediate or obvious personal gain. Selling the idea would
need positive messages, not just the language of restraint and
control. Debate will continue, around the Home Office publication
Identity Cards: The Next Steps, and within the justice, security and
community policy document.
 
Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been . . . ?
 
The day ended with election of Forum officers. Ian McCartney was
unanimously acclaimed as Chair. Each Forum member had two
votes for the two Vice-Chair places, of which Margaret Wall gained
81, Anne Snelgrove 64, and Tony Robinson 48. Tony allegedly lost
out because he was seen talking in a friendly manner to people
associated with the centre-left grassroots alliance, a sinister cult
which sticks pins into wax effigies of Tony Blair and asks awkward
questions about foundation hospitals and top-up fees. Sadly
paranoia still gnaws at the heart of the Millbank machine, and
unless it is dealt with, we shall all lose.
 
Tomorrow is Another Day
 
However food, wine and a rousing after-dinner speech from Rhodri
Morgan papered over the cracks, and the next day it was Forum
members’ turn to talk. We worked through revised documents on
justice and security, local government and transport, education and
skills, quality of life, and the economy. These will be published for
party consultation between February and May 2004, returning to the
Forum in July. Throughout discussion I was reminded again of the
wide range of experience that Forum members bring, from the
sharp end of public services, from personal experiences with drug
addiction, from council and voluntary work, from school governance
and from business.
 
As usual the papers are stuffed with detail, but some general
themes emerged. Differences arising from devolution should be
acknowledged, with Wales abolishing tests at Key Stage 1 and,
along with Scotland, rejecting foundation hospitals. Regional
disparities affect economic policy, employment and housing, with
too few affordable homes in the SouthEast and unsaleable
surpluses in some northern towns. Cities have traffic congestion,
rural areas have empty roads but poor public transport. Choice can
be a metropolitan concept, only meaningful if many schools or
surgeries are within reach. It also makes the “school run” problems
worse as parents transport children over greater distances.
 
Measuring success in education solely through GCSEs devalues
vocational achievement and perpetuates skills shortages. In some
counties the 11-plus still blights the life-chances of most children,
and Labour should finally grasp the selection nettle. Children in
care are too often forgotten, and fall through the gaps between
services. Young people should not be feared as an alien and
threatening species, but recognised as people with their own needs
for security and respect, and generations need bringing together
within communities. The case for managed legal immigration is
well-argued, but does not begin to nail the tabloid myths about
asylum-seekers.
 
The range within policy areas is best illustrated by the quality of life
document, which moves from safeguarding the planet against
resource depletion and irreversible climate change straight to
cleaning up the litter at the end of the road. The latter may win or
lose the next election, but the former will determine the fate of
voters whose grandparents are not yet born. Over to you.
 
Full reports from the National Policy Forum and the NEC are
available at http://www.annblack.com  or from
Ann Black, ann.black@unisonfree.net 

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