Federal Policy Committee Report – 11 May 2016

The Federal Policy Committee had its most recent meeting on 11th May 2016. The agenda was a fairly light one with two major substantive items.

Further Discussion on Liberty and Security Working Group Paper

Brian Paddick attended the committee again to discuss the progress of this working group. It is nearing its closing stages now and will report to conference in the Autumn.

The group has consulted very widely throughout the party; firstly at a consultation session at Spring Conference which was extremely well attended, secondly, through an online survey that was promoted on Twitter and Facebook, thereby doubling the number of responses, and finally through actively soliciting submissions from various groups within the party.

There was a short paper presented to the committee setting out various provisional conclusions that had been reached and that formed a basis for discussion.

The areas that are to be addressed in the paper will follow the remit that was set. Those areas include the range and severity of the threats to the country arising from terrorism, extremism and cross-border crime, the necessary powers of the police and security services in order to deal with those threats, online surveillance by the authorities, the regulation and accountability of the police, the encroachment on individual liberty by entities other than government such as private companies and news media and, finally, the steps that government can take to reduce threats to public safety other than through the police and security services.

It would not be right for me to go into the conclusions of the group now and before the release of the final paper. That said, the paper will cover issues such as the current threat level facing the United Kingdom and the sources from which that threat is derived, the Investigatory Powers Bill and its predecessors, secret courts, the PREVENT strategy and potential changes to it, data collection by private companies, the stripping of citizenship and the potential for someone to be left stateless, covert human surveillance, the Digital Bill of Rights, data protection, trust in the police and the effect of government foreign policy on community relations and perception.

There was a range of comments from members of the committee. There was an extremely interesting discussion about bulk data collection, dark areas of the net and social media and the ability of the security services to access that material and those areas. There were also comments about PREVENT and CHANNEL, Secret Courts and a new requirement to prove nationality if a person is stopped that the government has imposed.

The final paper will return to the Federal Policy Committee on 8th June 2016.

Agenda 2020

This working group has a remit that requires it to analyse the challenges facing the country at present, identify a liberal response to them and finally to set out a policy development programme that will allow the party to meet those various challenges.

The group brought a paper to the committee setting out the structure of the final document that will be taken to conference. The group intends to set out a concise statement of our beliefs and values setting out our campaigning priorities for the remainder of the Parliament. There will then be a series of new working groups proposed on a range of issues. It is envisaged that there would be one paper per Spring Conference and three per Autumn Conference. It will be through those groups that the party will develop the policy that will underpin its campaigns and form the basis of its next General Election manifesto. The group has also set out various ways in which a Liberal Democrat vision might be articulated in a pithy and accessible way.

There was an extensive discussion at the Federal Policy Committee. The committee agreed to set up four Working Groups that were to report to Autumn 2017.

Those are, in broad terms,

  1. (a)  Sustainable prosperity/21st Century Economy,
  2. (b)  Education,
  3. (c)  Rural Communities including agriculture, farming and food,
  4. (d)  Britain in the World.

We will be advertising for chairs and members of those groups shortly. The remits will be considered at the next meeting. If you, or anyone you know, would like to serve on any of those groups, please do let me know.

There was a proposal to draft a new statement of beliefs for the party. There was a proposal from Your Liberal Britain for them to draft a document that they could put to conference. Federal Policy Committee stated that it would wish to comment on drafts but would not take control of the process.

Federal Policy Committee response to the Governance Review

The Governance Review remains ongoing. It conclusions will have a far-reaching and dramatic effect on the entire structure of the party including the Federal Policy Committee. The committee has already responded to the consultation.

The only issue that remains outstanding was the question of who should chair the committee.

Federal Policy Committee has traditionally been chaired by an Member of Parliament (in the Commons) who is elected by his or her colleagues. In practice, the Leader has almost always chaired the committee. That system has generally worked very well over the years. That said, the Governance Review proposes to change it in the interests of conformity with the other committees.

There was a general discussion about this. It was felt that it was a very positive for the Leader to be chairing the committee and that should be written specifically into the constitution. Several of the problems that have occurred in the past have come about if there is a disconnect between the Leader and party spokespeople and the committee.

Membership Engagement in Policy Working Groups

It has been a bugbear of mine for some time that it has not always been easy to participate in or contribute to Policy Working Groups. Things such as time, money and a lack of knowledge of the subject area can get in the way. The committee has recently made some changes in order to make it easier.

For members of the groups, there are now dial-in facilities for meetings including from abroad. We have also taken evidence on Skype from people in other countries.

For those who wish to contribute, consultation sessions are now more lively and better attended. We have run online surveys on key topics both for party members and the general public and, as set out above, we have promoted them heavily on social media. We have run Twitter polls.

In the future, we are looking to advertise to targeted our policy development to numbers of Facebook users, develop more packs that can be used as a basis for Pizza and Politics sessions run by Local Parties, develop a website forum for discussion, provide details of working groups and members of the groups on the website together with contact details and biographies, ensure that each group as a member responsible for communications, and have a regular item on the Federal Policy Committee agenda to go through online policy feedback.

In the longer-term, some major work needs to be done to the party website and a searchable database of policy created. We also need to make sure that our policy documents are accessible and written in plain language.

* Geoff Payne is the Chair of Federal Conference Committee.

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