The centrepiece of Social Liberal Forum's Conference programme was the debate on Motion F34: Ensuring Fairness in a time of Austerity. Below are the highlights from the excellent discussion that the Motion inspired - full versions of the speeches can be found on our >Conference Speeches page, including my own speech that I was unable to deliver given how over-subscribed the debate was - Chairman Geoff Payne had to apologise to the 25 people he was unable to call on! Martin Tod's excellent speech outlining the Motion's key policy objectives began the debate. Martin argued that
Our ministerial team is doing great work across all these areas, but this motion unambiguously seeks to strengthen our commitment to tackling the evils of poverty, social injustice and inequality. Hard to do at the best of times. But even harder in a time of austerity.
Martin went on to tackle the issue of wealth and inequalities:
We still live in a country where the richest 20% own nearly 2/3rds of the country wealth. And the poorest half, only have 9%. Wealth taxation isn’t just right. It’s responsible. A recent OECD report made clear that wealth taxes are the least harmful to growth compared to other ways of taxes. But it’s also not straightforward. Transitions can be difficult – particularly on land taxation. But if we’re thinking differently. Thinking for the next election. Thinking before the next election. We need to start now – and this motion calls upon our ministers to get the work done to get the cool, dispassionate look at taxation on wealth – instead of other taxes – as a way of closing the deficit and paying for our public services.
Following Martin's speech three Amendments were tabled; the first addressed the acute shortage of social housing, and in particular the need to protect vulnerable groups from changes in housing benefits; the second sought to protect the universality of child benefit, proposing to subject the payments to progressive taxation as outlined in a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research; and the third called on benefits for the wealthiest to be scaled back before those for the needy are cut. Naomi Smith, member of the SLF Council, spoke with real passion on policies that addressed the financial service sector - asserting
at  the outset that in promoting fairness as a principle of party policy, we must be very specific in terms of the details. “Fairness” is a weasel word if it is not rooted in specifics.
Naomi went on to call for the separation of high-risk investment banking from high-street services, whilst ensuring that the Coalition government takes action that
strengthen[s] and nurture the other end of the financial spectrum. As the motion states: mutual benefit societies, credit unions and regional stock exchanges must be encouraged and fostered.
Naomi's full speech is available here. Lines 38-41 of the Motion proved the most controversial of the debate, with impassioned speeches and one-minute interventions arguing both for and against their retention in a separate vote. Liberal Youth National Chair Martin Shapland made a strong case against any form of graduate tax or contribution, as did Dr. Julie Smith, but in the end Will Hawkins' well-delivered intervention won the day - the Motion as drafted simply called on Liberal Democrats to
possibility of building cross party support around replacing tuition fees and student loans with a graduate tax system
and Will's plea to allow our Ministers the space to explore graduate co-payments was re-iterated by David Hall-Matthews in his summing up, convincing Conference to retain the lines calling for an exploration of a graduate tax to replace fees and loans. David also emphasised that when the Social Liberal Forum submitted this Motion, our
aim was not to embarrass the party leadership or our hard-working ministers – it was to help them, in their negotiations
with the Conservatives over future government policy.
David continued, telling Conference that ensuring fairness in a time of austerity is surely what we are there for. We accept the need for cuts – but the Conservatives don’t need us to tell them to do it – some of them positively enjoy it! But they do need us to tell them how to do it. So it isn’t, to quote a phrase, savage. So that those in the greatest need are still protected – or in fact better protected against the chill winds of Labour’s recession. The point of coalition government is that two parties start with different priorities. Then they negotiate hard. In a civilised fashion, but trying to win battles for what they believe in. And if there’s one word that sums up what Lib Dems believe in, it is Fairness. Freeing people from poverty, not just from the over-centralised state. This last point was, in effect, the overriding theme of the debate - that just as government has a duty to devolve political power to the lowest feasible unit, there is also an onus on the State devolve economic power too - implementing policies that alleviate poverty and economic hardship, raising the capabilities of the worst off. This Social Liberal Forum Motion, passed as Amended, could see the beginning of just that.
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