Federal Policy Committee report, 21 March 2018

FPC met for three hours on the evening of 21 March. The first item on the agenda was a discussion with the Leader; Vince is chair of the FPC, but inevitably his parliamentary and party duties mean he can’t attend every meeting, so we were pleased to have this opportunity. He updated us on three separate pieces of work under way on aspects of tax policy: on business tax, on the prospects for land value tax, and on options for a wealth tax. He hopes to be able to publish short ‘spokesperson’s papers’ on all of these and submit motions on them to the Brighton conference, though that depends on sufficient progress being made before the motions deadline in late June. We discussed how the proposal for a wealth tax could form part of a wider set of proposals on issues of income and wealth inequality, and/or whether its revenue should be hypothecated to funding something like education and training.

We also discussed how best to take forward the work on tuition fees; as you may remember, we published a consultation paper on this in February. At the consultative session at the Southport conference there was general (though not universal) support for the replacement of tuition fees by a graduate tax, but there was also a strong feeling that it would be better to consider the issue in the context of post-16 education funding more broadly, rather than look at it in isolation. We will come back to this after discussing it further with Layla Moran MP, the party’s education spokesperson.

Denise Baron, from the party’s campaigns and communications staff, gave us a presentation about the work the party is doing to refine its messaging, in the sense of the words and concepts we use to promote our vision and beliefs. This is directly relevant to the ‘policy themes’ paper that FPC is preparing for debate at the Brighton conference, which is intended to be a concise summary of what the party stands for. Obviously, we know our core beliefs, and our specific policy proposals are those agreed by conference, but there is a wide range of different ways in which all these can be communicated, which policies we stress and which we don’t, and so on, and the messaging exercise should help us with that. It’s still under way, so we only had a brief discussion of possible structures for the themes paper; we’ll return to it in much more detail after the local elections.

The longest single item for discussion was the final draft of the ‘Britain in the World’ policy paper. Martin Horwood, the chair of the working group, and several members of the group, attended to take us through the paper and its key proposals. Overall, FPC was very happy with the draft; we agreed a few changes, but otherwise we thought the paper was very good. We will finalise it over the next few weeks and submit it for debate to the Brighton conference.

We appointed chairs of two of the new policy paper working groups we’re establishing, after inviting applications a few weeks ago. The Committee agreed to appoint Tamora Langley and Ian Mack as chair and vice chair of the health and social care group. I was honoured to be appointed to chair the group on climate and energy policy, with vice chair still to be appointed (I should also point out that I was not in the room for that part of the discussion!). We will advertise for the full membership of both groups soon, with the aim of getting them going in the summer, preparing consultation papers for either autumn conference this year or spring next year, and final policy papers for the autumn conference 2019.

We decided not to appoint a chair of the third group we had advertised for, on crime and policing, as we now think that the original remit was probably too broad, and we are considering splitting it into two; watch this space. We also noted the question to the FPC report at the Southport conference about the need to make it easier for people from outside south east England to participate in policy working groups, and we’ll come back to this at our next meeting, when we have time to discuss it fully.

Finally, Sal Brinton, the Party President, discussed with us the implementation of the Alderdice Report, Race, Ethnic Minorities and the Culture of the Liberal Democrats, and its aim of ensuring the party becomes much more welcoming to the involvement of people from BaME communities. From FPC’s point of view, this affects us primarily in how we advertise for and appoint to policy working groups, who the groups take evidence from in drawing up their draft papers, and how we assess the drafts for the impacts of their proposals on equalities outcomes – where we have a system already in place, led by Lizzie Jewkes.

* Duncan Brack is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and chaired the FPC’s working group that wrote Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe.

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  • Mick Taylor 26th Mar '18 - 6:14pm

    In the Liberal Party days the party operated a pooled fares system that enabled people who came from a long way away to be subsidised. It is ludicrous that the Lib Dems don’t have a system that enables more people who live outside the SE to be on working groups. At the very least the party could organise accommodation with fellow Lib Dems so that people who can’t come for a meeting and then go home could at least not be faced with a hotel bill on top of the fare!
    If we want to be inclusive then we have to take this problem seriously.

  • Duncan Brack 27th Mar '18 - 9:33am

    Mick, thanks for the suggestion. Some working groups have operated this system, in fact; we’re considering whether we should make it compulsory.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Mar '18 - 10:57am

    This was what the National Liberal Club was for.
    There are stories of David Penhaligon MP staying overnight and having long conversations with another MP and a large pot of tea. Sadly the bedrooms are now a business. I stayed there once when I missed the last train to Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells and was unable to negotiate a fee lower than £100.

  • Sensible meeting times and plenty of advanced notice would help long distance travellers to get cheaper rail fares That said, it still costs me around £50 return for a London meeting held in the afternoon and booked 12 weeks in advance with a senior railcard. In my only experience of pooled fares the system collapsed because the local members didn’t like subsidising the others.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 27th Mar '18 - 11:53am

    Shouldn’t all members of working groups have their travel costs paid for by the Party, even those who are travelling only a short distance?
    After all, they are giving up a good deal of their time, on a completely voluntary basis.
    This is the only way to make sure that people on low incomes are able to participate.
    Also, to make it easier for members outside the London area to participate, couldn’t each working group meet in a number of different cities across the UK on different occasions, on a rota basis?

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Mar '18 - 1:30pm

    On a different tack, I find I’m completely bewildered about how various work on our values leading to policies are going to be coordinated. First of all, there is the work of Your Liberal Britain, then there is the paper published by David Howarth and his colleague, whose name my M.E. Brain has forgotten, and then there will be the paper from the FPC. Will the FPC paper incorporate the other two and is there a danger that work is being duplicated?
    Does the party have a mechanism for accepting motions that are important and not an emergency? The work that is being done on taxation (and also economics) seems to me to be crucial to any other policy development. It’s vital that this work is debated at the next conference because some members are concerned that they don’t know where the party is going apart from its opposition to Brexit. Is there a mechanism for a holding motion or an option to consult members to waive the deadline?
    I’m concerned that are party rules may be operating against us when we are fighting against the odds so desperately.

  • Duncan Brack 27th Mar '18 - 2:26pm

    Thanks for the various points on pooled fares – as I said, FPC will discuss at its next meeting whether to make participation in a pooled fares system a requirement of working group membership. Catherine, there is no budget for this and as far as I’m aware the current state of the party’s finances would not support it. The technology for remote participation in meetings is better now than it used to be, and much of the work of the groups is carried out by email or through various web tools, so a physical presence in the meetings is not essential – though I agree it is desirable.

    Sue, we’re aware of the work of Your Liberal Britain and David Howarth’s and Bernard Greaves’ paper – and very much welcome them and any similar publications, like the Social Liberal Forum’s recent book. But none of these are part of the party’s democratic policy-making process, unlike the policy themes paper, which will be submitted to conference and be debated and voted on, and will be subject to amendment.

    I’m afraid I don’t understand the point about motions that are important and not an emergency. The deadline for motions for Brighton in 27 June; FPC certainly hopes that all the papers we’re working on, including the themes paper, will be ready by then and if they are we’ll be submitting motions to accompany them. The various pieces of work on taxation aren’t being carried out by the FPC, but we are encouraging their authors to submit motions on them to Brighton as well. Hope that answers your question.

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Mar '18 - 7:04pm

    Duncan, thank you for answering my query and I’m sorry I didn’t express myself clearly on the taxation policy point. Vince was saying he hopes to bring motions to the next conference but this depends on meeting the June deadline. I know emergency motions can be accepted at a later date but wonder whether we should also have a category of important motions having more leeway too? This could be any motion coming from the leader, perhaps supported by the parliamentary party, or policies which underpin our ability to afford other policies like taxation or economic policies. Unless we know we can afford to implement our policies I don’t see how we can change our society to become one which is acceptable to Lib Dems.
    I’m so glad that the FPC is going to put a policy themes paper to the next conference. I am hoping that this will reflect the other work being done in the party. If we can have tax and economic policies together with a policy themes paper at our next conference then members will know exactly what the party stands for and how we can proceed. I would also hope policies on the Left Behind will be part of the policy themes.

  • Duncan Brack 27th Mar '18 - 7:36pm

    Sue, thanks – now I understand. I don’t think it’s good practice to let a motion, however important it is, be submitted late (even if Conference Committee would allow it!), as that would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to submit amendments to it – and, in general, amendments tend to be the main focuses of debate. Particularly on something as important as tax policy, it’s really important that conference owns it and has had a chance to discuss and debate it in full. I was just being careful when I said the tax motion or motions would be submitted if the work was complete; at the moment we expect it to be.

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Mar '18 - 10:45pm

    Duncan, thanks. I very much agree that conference, and indeed the wider membership, should be able to own our policies.

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