Report of Federal Policy Committee meeting – 13 December 2017

FPC met on Wednesday evening for its last meeting of the year. Taking place in the House of Commons, we were regularly interrupted by the results of votes on amendments to the Brexit bill – including the one the government lost!

Tuition fees

Vince Cable – who is chair of the FPC as well as party leader – pledged in his leadership election manifesto to look at party policy on the tuition fees system: ‘We need a solution that keeps the benefits of the current system – relating contributions to income and protecting university funding – but is fairer across the board, including for the 60 per cent who never go to university, many of whom pursue vocational options instead.’ As he reported to conference in September, he asked David Howarth (Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge 2005–10) to consider options for reforming or replacing the current system and present them to FPC as a basis for consultation within the party.

David’s paper, which he outlined to FPC, sets out the benefits and drawbacks of five options. FPC members raised a series of fairly minor issues, but overall were happy with the paper. I won’t attempt to summarise it here, as the options deserve to be read in detail, and it’s not completely finalised yet. We will publish it as a consultation paper in late January or early February and hold a consultative session around it at the Southport conference, on the afternoon of Friday 9 March. Local and regional parties might like to consider organising discussions on the issue in the spring and summer. Based on the feedback we receive, FPC will aim to put a policy motion for debate to the autumn conference.

Education policy paper

Lucy Netsingha, chair of the Education policy working group, presented a near-final draft of the paper, following our discussion on its outline proposals at our previous meeting. FPC members raised a few new issues and resolved a number of others. We left the remaining major issue, on the future of the schools inspection regime and Ofsted, for discussion at our January meeting, when Layla Moran, the party’s education spokesperson, should be able to join us. The paper will then be published and submitted for debate at the spring conference in Southport.

Rural communities paper

Cllr Heather Kidd, chair of the rural communities policy working group, presented a fairly detailed outline list of proposals on access to services (including broadband and phone connectivity, transport, health and social care and community services), housing, economy and tourism, agriculture and flooding. FPC members thought it was a good start but – as Heather acknowledged – needed more work particularly on agriculture and the rural economy and, more importantly, on the overall Liberal Democrat vision for rural areas. This work is already under way, and we should see a full paper at our next meeting; hopefully this will be complete enough to be submitted to spring conference for debate.

Housing policy

John Shipley, the party’s housing spokesperson in the Lords, gave an overview of the party’s existing housing policy and highlighted areas where policy needed to be developed further, including the provision of social housing, the leasehold/freehold issue, safety in high-rise blocks, housing for older people, overseas investors and supported housing. FPC members identified a number of other areas which they thought would benefit from debate, including various aspects of housing supply (new garden cities versus smaller ‘garden villages’, developers sitting on unused land for which planning permission has been granted, the green belt, etc.), housing standards, including in particular energy-efficiency standards, and the question of the right to buy.

We don’t have a housing policy paper in the pipeline, so we are encouraging John and his parliamentary colleagues to work with others in the party – particularly ALDC and the LGA group – to develop policy in this area and put policy motions to future conferences for debate.

Other business

We received a report from the party’s delegation to the Amsterdam conference of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and an update on membership engagement activities, where we continue to develop the policy section of the party website.

Race equality working group

As Geoff Payne noted in his report of our last meeting, we are setting up a new policy working group to produce a policy paper on race equality issues. We’re now inviting party members to apply for membership – see here. The deadline for applications is 2 January, and we will appoint the group at our meeting the week after.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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15 Comments

  • Getting a new conversation started amongst the membership about tuition fees should happen sooner rather than later – hopefully not just the paper but one or more solid articles here or elsewhere by the end of January?

  • Peter Watson 15th Dec '17 - 1:18pm

    On the “Education Policy Paper”, recent party conferences have voted on:

    Grammar schools, calling on “the government to abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools” (i.e. going beyond the previous wishy-washy approach of maintaining the status quo)

    Faith schools, calling for an approach which “ensures that selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over up to six years”

    Neither of these made it into the 2017 manifesto. Are they part of this Education Policy Paper? Will they and whatever is discussed in the Education Policy Paper at the next conference become party policy and feature in future manifestos?

  • Duncan Brack 15th Dec '17 - 6:06pm

    Huw – excellent point, thanks; I will take it up with LDV editors to see what we can do when the paper comes out.

    Peter – we haven’t completely finalised the education paper yet; I’m passing on your comments to the chair of the working group and will raise them, if necessary, at the next FPC. Conference will of course have the right to amend the policy paper if it wants to add to or change its proposals.

    It’s true that party policy on faith schools was not included in the manifesto, but not every policy can be (otherwise the manifesto would be extremely long!). It’s a statement of our priorities, and no one at FPC argued that the faith schools policy should be a higher priority than the policies we did include. It doesn’t stop it being party policy, though, and anyone who enquired would have been told what it was.

    The commitment to scrap the further expansion of grammar schools was included in the manifesto. The motion conference passed in 2016 did not commit the party to closing down existing grammar schools, however – you’re only quoting a part of it.

  • Peter Watson 15th Dec '17 - 6:39pm

    @Duncan Brack “The motion conference passed in 2016 did not commit the party to closing down existing grammar schools, however – you’re only quoting a part of it.”
    Then what was meant by calling on “the government to abandon the selection by ability”?
    Maintaining the status quo, criticising grammar schools and opposing their expansion while being content to keep the existing ones was a depressingly half-arsed, hypocritical and unprincipled approach that looked intended to avoid scaring voters in different parts of the country. I’d hoped that the motion in 2016 marked a step forward, but apparently not. 🙁

  • Duncan Brack 15th Dec '17 - 8:27pm

    If the motion was meant to commit us to closing existing grammar schools, why did it include para 4, which said ‘Calls on the Government to respect the spirit of existing legislation on Grammar Schools and not seek to use loopholes within it to create effectively new grammar schools under the pretext of expansion’? I think it could have been written more clearly – which does strengthen the case for covering it in the education paper. Thanks for raising the issue.

  • Peter Watson 16th Dec '17 - 12:41am

    @Duncan Brack “Thanks for raising the issue.”
    It’s just nice to talk about something other than Brexit (although the Lib Dem position of facing both ways on grammar schools does wind me up), but despite previous thorough debates about grammar schools on this site, I suspect that the only way to spark any interest these days would be to link them to Brexiters! 😉

  • Is there a closed area of the LibDems website where members can raise comment on proposed policy?

  • A Social Liberal 16th Dec '17 - 11:34am

    Defence of their country is a governments first and most important responsibility. This catastrophic Tory government has a woeful defence policy where they save money by cutting the numbers of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen and women despite the existential threats facing the UK and Europe.

    Our Defence policy on the other hand is almost non existent – the only reference to it is the paper debated and taken as policy in 2013. ‘Defending the Future’ failed at the time to realise threats facing our country, the region and the world – never mind todays enhanced threats and yet the policy committee did not deem it important enough to update.

    I know Defence is not deemed the most attractive of government responsibilities but if, when we get into government, we do not sort out this mess then the present egress of serving personnel from the armed forces will get much, much worse. This loss of experienced people will not just hurt our war fighting capability but our ability to deal with civilian emergencies. Imagine, not having the wherewithal to sort out floods in the Somerset Levels, to send help to international disasters and to do the work of our emergency services when they are unwilling or unable to do it themselves.

  • Duncan Brack 16th Dec '17 - 12:29pm

    Thanks for all the comments. Peter, I entirely agree – it’s good to talk about other things than Brexit, though when we’ve published previous reports of FPC meetings, we’ve sometimes been criticised for not talking about it! Jane, there are several Facebook groups you might like to look at, including the FPC’s own Facebook group, which is a closed one (https://www.facebook.com/groups/federalpolicycommittee). A Social Liberal – we do have a foreign policy policy paper scheduled for debate at the autumn conference. It might cover some of the points you raise, though not all. Remember that any local party or group of ten or more party members can submit policy motions for debate at conference; you don’t have to wait for the FPC to produce policy papers.

  • Chris Lewcock 16th Dec '17 - 3:41pm

    Great that this item has been put up on LDV. Thanks Duncan. However, I do wonder if Members should have to depend on occasional (inevitably? rather bland) summaries in LDV or even on Facebook to find out what policies the Party is considering. Neither of them is a formal channel of communication. It is surely much more (differently?) important for Members to be engaged in such debates than eg (as we found during the General Election) being bombarded with near identical repeat requests for money? And that doesn’t allow for the many Members (our Association has a large minority of older Members) who don’t routinely use the internet. Possibly the FPC could give some thought to how two way policy debate (not just communication) could be made more systematic. A start might be to set out a forward timetable – notified in good time to Constituency Officers (HQ has all the relevant names and contact details ) – by which such debate could be properly integrated with Constituency level meetings so feedback can be garnered? A second thought is that it is all very well being able to put forward motions but, as we have found in the past, they are rather easily kicked into oblivion by the FPC. Should there be the possibility of requiring motions getting (say) the support of 100 Members to have a slot at Conference?

  • Peter Hirst 16th Dec '17 - 6:06pm

    What about rural areas providing support to neighbouring towns and cities in terms of food? This would expand the agricultural sector, promote transport links and enhance localism.
    Another idea is the concept of increasing rent so easy to rent for first six months that might enhance living closer to work, making moving flat easier.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Dec '17 - 7:24pm

    Housing needs to include the five new towns which David Cameron vetoed. On the doorstep we need a small number of big hitting issues.
    Murdoch and son are making news. The Financial Times was listening in to a conference call with investors and asked the occasional question. It seems unlikely that James Murdoch would do anything other than get as much money as possible from every subscriber to Sky (previously B-Sky B). Rupert Murdoch has reorganised two businesses to enable a clean takeover bid for 61 % of Sky which could still happen under Disney ownership, but the takeover needs approval of the authorities in the USA, so policy must be realistic about a moving target. It is possible that the terms of the merger could change to a different percentage of Disney shares being issued and the balance in cash or loan notes. Making the Murdochs’ companies the largest shareholders in Disney carries regulatory risks. An all cash offer would presumably need to be financed at the cost of depressing the Disney share price. Murdoch’s threat to close Sky News in the UK needs to be taken seriously, for instance he closed the News of the World and denied to the parliamentary committee that he would start the Sun on Sunday.

  • Duncan Brack 17th Dec '17 - 5:06pm

    Thanks for the further comments. Chris, we do spend quite a bit of time thinking how best to involve members in policy-making outside, and in between, conferences. The idea of publishing a full timetable for policy papers is a good one. We have some of this information already here (https://www.libdems.org.uk/policy-working-groups) but we’ll see if we can put a proper timetable up as well, and will investigate the best ways to use the party’s email mailings. On motions to conference, it’s the Federal Conference Committee (FCC), not FPC, which selects motions for debate; I’ve alerted FCC officers to your comment.

  • Chris Lewcock 18th Dec '17 - 8:49pm

    Duncan, thanks.

  • david thorpe 19th Dec '17 - 10:03pm

    i dont understand your comments about the murdochs richard? they would own 5 per cent of the disney shares and not be involved in running the business, yes james murdoch will be focused on getting the maximum value for his shareholder, thats the job the law requires him to do.

    murdoch wont be closing sky as he wont be owning it, disney and the other, majority shareholders will.

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