Sunday, 13 March 2011

Lib Dem Conference - report back

I'm just back from two and a half days in Sheffield for Lib Dem Spring Conference.  The Spring Conference is part of the policy making activities of the party.  Its shorter than the more publicised autumn conference but it is just as important in terms of what the party does.

I've come away from this one pretty pleased, albeit pretty tired, as I managed to make progress on some of the issues I am working on or campaigning on.

Firstly the Coalition Government is going to create a Green Investment Bank.  There are quite a few details to sort out before its up and running but some of us are already turning our thoughts to where it might be.  It probably won't employ huge numbers of people but its location would benefit whichever City is chosen (it will be a City as there has to be a financial sector of some sort)

One of the Cabinet ministers involved is Lib Dem Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Environment and Climate Change.  I managed to lobby him about thinking of Liverpool as the location.  He has of course been lobbied by other Cities but he did tell me that Liverpool would be seriously considered and reminded me that he had done his journalistic training at the Post and Echo.  Hopefully that local link is a good sign, although I will obviously follow up on this one in future. (Its taking me a while to get used to the fact that I can go to my party conference and actually lobby the decision makers in Government.  This however is an opportunity I intend to use again and again on Liverpool related things!)

One of the issues I am involved in right now is the problem of a lack of cash machines (ATMs) that let you take your money out without changing a fee.  About 40 percent of the machines in the UK charge, but in some parts of Liverpool we are talking 100 per cent.  And if you have a low income, a £1 75 withdrawal charge each time you get money is a real problem.  In fact I have one constituent who walks for 40 minutes to find a machine that won't charge him.  I was keen to get the Lib Dems to official adopt a policy of a maximum walking distance to a fee free machine.  (After all the tax payer has bailed out some of the banks so the Government should be able to get them to act with social responsibility)  On Friday there was a consultation session on party policy on Inequality.  We have these as a run up to the official policy document.  I raised the ATM issue and it was very well received by the people who'll write the paper.
But, even better than that, I managed to get a line calling for the maximum walking distance (from deprived communities) into a motion which was then passed on the conference floor.  So it's now party policy and hopefully Vince and others can use that as a lever.

In the run up to conference, the Lib Dem group in Liverpool met with some NHS campaigners worried about Andrew Lansley's plans.  I have to say I was pretty worried myself as not only were these not in the Coalition agreement, I can't see that they were even in the Tory manifesto (they weren't in ours). I confirmed to the campaigners that there was a move to amend a health motion to express Lib Dem disquiet (I had signed this amendment as had fellow Lib Dem Flo Clucas).  I bumped into two of the campaigners again in Sheffield.  The strength of feeling from conference reps on this was so strong that the amendment was accepted by health minister Paul Burstow who will now attempt to get things changed within Government.  I was impressed by the health campaigners as they were thorough and polite.  They effectively got the vote they wanted.  ( A side note to this is that the media still can't understand that its possible to have a mature debate within a party and disagree with some of the leadership politely. I really don't recognise the debate from some of the stories and I was in the hall the whole time)

Finally, the conference gives reps the chance to ask questions of our ministers and senior MPs in the main conference hall.  I put in a question to Simon Hughes about his role on access to education. (I was called first which was a bit of a shocker). I have been worried about what Simon will be able to achieve in this role.  I have also worried that appointing him was a sort of fig leaf to buy off criticism.  He disagreed with me and , to be fair to him, listed a long list of initiatives he either was taking or was about to take.  I know his heart is in the right place but I am still uneasy about this one so I guess it's watch this space

Finally, finally  I chaired a packed (heaving would be a better word) fringe meeting on Independence and Distinctiveness organised by the brilliant Social Liberal Forum. We were exploring specifically issues of remaining districtive from the Conservatives.  The panel included James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator (obviously giving  a right wing media perspective) Party President Tim Farron and equalities minister Lynne Featherstone.  Lynne will be with us in Liverpool later this year as she is the guest of honour at Liverpool's Lib Dem dinner.

Conferences can be expensive and exhausting and I have left out lots of what went on.  But I am so glad I went and much of what I did will bring real benefits.

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