National Policy Forum, 14/15 January 2006

The Forum was opened by the new slimline Ian McCartney, welcomed back after heart surgery and unanimously re-elected as Chair, with Anne Begg MP, Simon Burgess and Billy Hayes unopposed as vice-chairs. Over the weekend we heard from Tony Blair, John Hutton and Ruth Kelly, discussed topical issues with members of the local community, and reviewed the policy commissions’ work plans. Unfortunately there was no chance to talk about the Partnership in Power process as a whole, but I have attached a description of how I think it will work, including the reorganised policy commissions and their e-mail addresses. In this cycle there will be more emphasis on current events, and the first mailing to constituencies will include the commissions’ priorities for the year ahead, though as usual members should write about anything, whether or not it is in the plan. The rolling review leading up to the next manifesto will kick off in summer with a Big Conversation-style paper, followed next year by documents which focus on key challenges, and in 2008 by the final round-up.

Ministers at the Forum

Tony Blair saw imitation by David Cameron as a compliment. We were the rock of stability around which other parties swirled, and we must meet new challenges as New Labour, not retreat to our comfort zone. He assured us that Gordon Brown would lay out the next stage of the prospectus, and extended olive branches to those who shared his general sentiments while disputing his ideas for reform. But he argued that his programme reflected a coherent philosophy for advancing individual interests through collective power, and described the Tory council house sales as the biggest con ever, giving away enormous public assets. To members who said that voters wanted good local schools and hospitals, he replied that they also wanted choice, empowerment and personalisation. He promised more education on the immediate and long-term effects of alcohol abuse, and was mildly in favour of unitary authorities. He agreed that it would be hard to meet voluntary carbon reduction targets beyond the Kyoto minimum, but argued that the real impact would come from China and India.

Overall he was optimistic about Labour’s prospects, but said that Ian McCartney was reviewing the whole machine, and how the party worked. Later Jack Dromey spoke about leading a renewal of democracy, including how the government could help the political process. We already have some state funding, and should debate how it is used, without seeing this as a panic measure, or an attack on the trade unions’ historic role in the party. I will try to find out what all this means.

John Hutton stressed Labour’s successes, including the New Deal which cut youth unemployment from 400,000 to 6,000. The aim was to raise employment to 80% of the workforce by moving a million people off incapacity benefit (IB), and a million older people into jobs along with 300,000 lone parents. In contrast with press reports he stressed that the IB changes would be supportive not punitive, and though they must be affordable, this was not a cuts-driven agenda. Up to 90% of IB claimants wanted to work and Labour’s duty was to help them, while providing more for those genuinely unable. Existing claimants would not be affected. Because of his assurances, questions centred on how to persuade employers to offer jobs to people seen as high-risk, especially where up to 40% of those on IB have mental health problems, on the 16-hour rule which prevents people improving their skills, and on sickness policies which allow businesses to sack people for being ill.

Ruth Kelly opened by saying that Britain had the tightest child protection policies in Europe, before going on to defend the education white paper. Concerns included the lingering 11-plus which still fails thousands of 10-year-olds, the loss of national employment conditions for support staff in academies and trust schools, the divisive effects of faith schools, the problems of bad local education authorities, and above all the fear that trust schools controlling their own admissions will lead to competition rather than co-operation. This was echoed by heads of Nottingham secondary schools in a seminar with Forum members, worried that long-standing collaborative relationships would be undermined. The seminar also heard from an inspirational primary headteacher, who praised Labour’s capital investment and said that though his LEA allowed him to innovate, he would go for trust status so that this freedom would be a right, not a favour. However he criticised league tables as failing to reflect the holistic nature of primary education, and said that some of the highest-scoring provided the worst education because they focused narrowly on the tests.

Policy Commission Workplans

Below is a list of commissions and current priorities, with some comments from the seminars I attended. Each paper was discussed by six groups, so other points will have been raised elsewhere.

Britain in the World (the future of Europe, international development after the G8 / EU presidency, global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, promoting human rights, peace and democracy). Ministers stressed the role of British troops in earthquake relief in Kashmir, ambitious targets for relieving AIDS and poverty, and continuing challenges in Afghanistan, and suggested that the Americans could not deal with Iraq because unlike us, they had never been a colonial power. A decision on replacing Trident should be made in this parliament, in the light of threats 20-50 years ahead. I suggested adding Fylingdales and National Missile Defense to the debate, and looking at the best use of defence money, rather than Trident in isolation. Iran’s president was democratically elected, so voting does not solve all problems. Russia’s ability to cut off gas supplies, used briefly against Ukraine, raised fears about new forms of aggression and issues about energy self-sufficiency.

Creating Sustainable Communities (empowering local communities, affordable housing, climate change, traffic congestion, preparing for the 2012 Olympics/Paralympics). Labour must acknowledge that conference had twice supported the “fourth option”, a level financial playing-field for council-owned housing. New buildings especially should be energy-efficient, with solar panels and combined heat and power units. Winning the Olympics was the easy bit, now we must deliver, and involve the whole country. And can we bid for the 2018 World Cup if Wembley stadium is finished by then?

Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities (respect, protecting against terrorism, elections and renewing democracy, reducing re-offending, widening access to justice, equalities and human rights). Hazel Blears emphasised that the respect agenda is not just a crackdown, but puts real money into activities for young people and help for problem families to change their lives. Similarly tackling terrorism includes building strong community relations. Members suggested adding asylum issues, and the need to progress Lords reform and keep an eye on identity cards.

Education and Skills (the schools white paper, academies, childcare, special educational needs, healthy schools/school sport, staying-on rates and skills). Minister Philip Hope talked passionately about skills initiatives – Train-to-Gain is free for anyone with fewer than five GCSE A-C grades, and training tailored to employers’ needs can be delivered on-site or at college, at every level. Personal / community development (life-long) learning is important, and charges may vary – people learning Spanish before retiring abroad can probably pay, those on low incomes should get it free. Highly-recommended as a speaker. Other points included the need for evidence supporting SureStart, and monitoring the effects of student fees, especially for disadvantaged groups.

Health (primary and community care services, NHS finances, improving public health, mental health, dentistry). Specific concerns were failure to feed older people in hospital, and sexual health. The role of the private sector should be discussed. Ministers claim that most financial problems are in Tory areas, but in my (Labour) seat, telling hundreds of voters that they must now pay privately for their own hernia operations and cardiac procedures like Tony Blair’s is not a doorstep winner.

Prosperity and Work (competing in the global economy, full employment, productivity, child poverty, pensions, world-class public services, women in work, energy and the environment, international development). Overall, slanted towards past achievements rather than future challenges. Flaws in the tax credit system, including clawback of overpayments, were undermining confidence among those who need Labour most, and this was not just media exaggeration of single cases. The exodus from final salary pension schemes and concerns that the pension protection fund is insufficient should be added to the pension debate. An adult discussion of tax would counter the myth that people could have good public services for nothing. Managerial skills need improving to raise productivity.