National Policy Forum, 8 February 2002

Partnership in Power – Act II Scene 1

The National Policy Forum on 8 February 2002 discussed five policy areas: Britain in the world; democracy, citizenship and political engagement; health; trade and industry; and welfare reform. The documents will be revised, approved by the Joint Policy Committee on 28 February, and then published for party consultation through to September and the annual conference. Charles Clarke promised that electronically-submitted responses would be displayed on Labour’s website, a great opportunity to rebuild communication.

The Forum aimed to produce accessible papers with open-ended questions to stimulate debate, and also to reduce ambiguity. Members were alarmed by the widely-leaked statement that the future NHS would provide “largely comprehensive services, overwhelmingly free at the point of use”. This was intended merely to reflect current charges for prescriptions, eye tests and dentistry, and perhaps future fees for TV or internet access in hospitals, and it will be rephrased to avoid misinterpretation. Plans to increase NHS capacity by using private healthcare suppliers “to the full” still caused unease, but an appendix came down firmly in favour of general taxation as the most efficient and equitable funding method.

Overall, members felt the documents sometimes took a narrow parliamentary view, and should include perspectives from local and regional government, from devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales, and from Europe.

Many specific changes were proposed. The nature of reform and the role of the private sector in public services should be defined, and transferred employees should be safeguarded. National Missile Defense would not protect against 11 September-type terrorist attacks, as implied. The health paper should include dentistry and mental health services. Party policy enabling candidates to stand for public office at 18 should be implemented, and raising turnout and political engagement depended on vision and motivation, not tinkering with the mechanics of the vote. And with the collapse of Equitable Life, the close of final salary occupational schemes, and the falling value of annuities, I would like to reconsider compulsory contributions to universal state-managed pensions, as agreed when Conference debated welfare reform in 1999.

How much difference the Forum made will be seen when the revised papers emerge. They are shorter than last time, and somewhat more readable. But the most important questions are the ones that no-one has thought of yet, a point reiterated at a recent regional conference. If areas or options are missing, constituencies, branches, forums or unions must include them in their submissions.

The Forum will not reconvene until November, and the policy commissions were asked to keep other members informed on feedback and on party views on contemporary issues. The Industry Commission has not received a single letter or resolution since I joined it in October, and assumes universal contentment with employment rights, work/life balance, the national minimum wage, productivity, manufacturing, the Post Office, GATS (the General Agreement on Trade of Services), export credit guarantees for projects such as the Ilisu Dam, controls on selling military equipment, energy policy, and sustainable development. If we are wrong, please send us your suggestions for change.