National Policy Forum, 29/30 November 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.