SLF Fringe programme at Lib Dem conference, September 2011

Below are reports from many of our fringe meetings at the recent Lib Dem conference in Birmingham – more to follow!

The SLF’s fringe programme at this year’s Lib Dem conference got off to an excellent start, with the panel exploring the Open Public Services White Paper from several angles. Prateek Buch began by introducing the White Paper as having much within it that the party would likely find uncontroversial, such as the insistence on open access to data, a commitment to localism and a level playing field between public and private providers. The question he then asked of the speakers was whether the measures contained within the Paper would make these aims, and that of equality of access, more or less likely to be achieved.

Chris Nicholson then presented preliminary evidence of how choice of and competition between providers can raise standards (contained in this CentreForum pamphlet), but that markets are not appropriate for all services and that tight regulation would be required to ensure equality. Christine Blower followed by agreeing with much of the Paper’s aims but not with what it proposes, including a reflection on how the choice agenda already implemented in education impacts adversely on Special Needs provision and the pensions rights of teachers employed by new providers. SLF’s Linda Jack said she was astonished that a market-oriented White Paper could appear so soon after the controversial NSH reforms, giving examples of poorly managed outsourcing of public services. Lord Oakeshott finished by criticising the approach of treating all public services as the same, arguing that market reforms may be appropriate for some but not all and citing his experience with the London Underground PPP as salient. Questions from the audience on lobbying transparency, procurement skills (or rather the lack thereof) and the State having to pick up the pieces of a competition between providers that creates losers (as well as winners) rounded off an interesting discussion.

Sunday saw a bumper-edition of SLF at LDConf – no less than three fringes either arranged or co-sponsored by the SLF!

Lunchtime was dominated by the appearance of Hugh Grant at a packed fringe on phone hacking, privacy and libel law – Dr. Evan Harris chaired a detailed discussion on media regulation at which Hugh spoke strongly in favour of the quality British press and in scathing terms of the illegal and immoral activities of some media outlets. Index on Censorship’s John Kampfner, the Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh, media lawyer Charlotte Harris and Don Foster MP then spoke of the need to balance press freedom with a high moral standard of journalism, and expressed deep concerns at the corrupt practices the phone hacking scandal revealed – not only in the media but in the police too.

Sunday evening’s fringe, co-sponsored by the Liberator collective, saw Will Hutton, the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley and Julian Huppert MP discuss what the party’s priorities should be in the run up to the next election. Will emphasised the importance of social liberal economics and the need to ensure fair and sustainable economic growth, Jackie spoke of the need to work more closely with the Labour party as the ‘Lib Dems’ natural partners,’ and Julian Huppert MP advocated a clear communication of the values at the heart of the party’s contribution to coalition.

On Monday evening the SLF teamed up with 38 Degrees to host a discussion on the government’s NHS reforms, graced by Baroness Shirley Williams and other leading commentators on the issue. The discussion was largely welcoming of the changes Lib Dems have made to the legislation thus far, but to a greater or lesser extent all speakers expressed their continued dissatisfaction with the direction of the reforms and the need for further changes to be secured in the House of Lords.

Tuesday saw the SLF bring its fringe programme to a close with an excellent, if somewhat technical, discussion on the party’s independence and internal processes, featuring Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael and Deputy Leader Simon Hughes. Both stressed the importance of unity – within the party and in coalition – to ensure Lib Dems were able to deliver our policies. There was quite some discussion on the balance between said unity and the importance of remaining distinctive and true to our values from the chair, speakers and the audience, and this is a discussion that will no doubt be ongoing at future conferences.

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