National Policy Forum, 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. 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.