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Labour National Policy Forum July 2000

Notes by Ann Black:   

    National Policy Forum, Exeter, 6/9 July 2000
   
    This meeting finalised the six policy documents on Britain in the
    World; Democracy and Citizenship; the Economy; Education
    and Employment; Environment, Transport and the Regions; and
    Industry, Culture and Agriculture.  After agreement at
    Conference, these will form the basis of Labour's general
    election manifesto, together with Crime and Justice, Health and
    Welfare, discussed last year.
   
    Forum members submitted 658 amendments.  Of these, 213
    were accepted initially; 30 were ruled out of order; 148 were
    withdrawn in favour of others on the same subject; 229 were
    accepted after negotiation at the Forum; and 38 were not
    accepted.  Amendments needed 35 votes to go forward as
    minority positions for Conference to decide, and seven of the 38
    achieved this.  Two were carried outright and 29 were lost.
   
    A collective report from SouthEast representatives at the Forum
    is being prepared for constituencies, and will give an overview of
    the six areas.  However it's impossible to cover everything, so if
    your particular concerns are not covered, please get in touch
    and I will track down chapter and verse
   
    Conference Choices
   
    The two amendments which were carried call for 18-year-olds
    to be able to stand as councillors or MPs, and for a review of
    standing charges in paying for utilities.  The seven decisions for
    Conference are:
   
-   whether the reformed House of Lords should have a majority of
    elected members;
   
-   whether Labour should consider initiating consultation on lowering
    the voting age to 16;
   
-   whether Sure Start should definitely be extended in the next
    parliament, or whether its extension should be urgently considered;

  -   whether the Tory legacy of crumbling schools should be tackled
    through the New Deal for schools, or whether a variety of
    approaches including the New Deal should be considered;

  -   whether education funding should be based on a block grant with
    specific grants to encourage innovation and pilot new ideas, or
    whether we should wait for a green paper which will consider this
    and other options;

  -   whether directors of polluting companies should personally face
    penalties, in addition to higher fines for their companies;

  -   whether TPWS [Train Protection Warning System] should be
    introduced as a preliminary to ATP [Automatic Train Protection] as
    soon as possible on all lines or on all high-speed lines.

      Amendments failing to reach the 35-vote threshold - most of
    which I supported - included
   
    - rejecting performance-related pay for teachers;
    - abolishing the charitable status of private schools;
    - legislating against discrimination on grounds of sexuality;
    - taking back public control of the rail network;
-   accepting whatever funding model is recommended for the Tube by
    the Mayor's panel;
-   reducing the 55% taper on the Working Families Tax Credit or
    increasing the top tax rate of 40% so the lower-paid are liable for
    less tax than the higher-paid;
    - phasing out the upper National Insurance earnings limit;
    - opposing the Private Finance Initiative;
    - renouncing Trident;
    - ending the voucher system for asylum-seekers.
   
    None of these will be debated at Conference.  However, many
    positive moves were agreed   On the Tube, the government
    "welcomes the Mayor's panel to assess the funding options [and]
    will work with the Mayor to put in place the funding needed to
    bring the best deal for Londoners."  UNISON won further
    assurances that PFI would only be used where it showed best
    value, and new safeguards for members. 
   
    And there are commitments to "rectify any negative
    consequences of the new legislation on the proper rights and
    support given to those seeking asylum" and to evaluate the
    voucher system against "provision of an adequate standard of
    living and security of income; integration of asylum-seekers into
    the communities in which they live in Britain; building the
    confidence and maintaining the dignity of individual asylum-
    seekers; developing support systems for individuals following
    their experiences of persecution and oppression; its contribution
    to the elimination of child poverty."
   
    All amendments on pensions and benefits were ruled out of
    order.  Many unions and constituency representatives who voted
    against the pensions/earnings link last year protested that they
    would like to vote on it again, but were told that the whole point
    of the rolling programme was that we didn't revisit past decisions
    no matter how electorally damaging they turned out to be.  The
    Economic Policy Commission will present a statement on
    pensions to Conference for discussion, but there will no chance
    to amend it, and it will surely contain enough goodies - a bigger
    rise in the basic pension, help for pensioners just above income
    support level, the new pensioners' credit - to be carried
    overwhelmingly.
   
    Forging Consensus
   
    There were many changes between amendments as submitted
    and amendments as eventually incorporated after discussion with
    ministers.  Each is a story in itself, and below are just a few
    illustrations:
   
    1. Tax, National Insurance and Benefits
   
    The initial amendment said:
   
    "As we continue to reform tax and benefits we will
    further raise the upper earnings limit for National
    Insurance contributions so that it least keeps pace with
    inflation"
    
    This was accepted as:
   
    "We will continue to reform tax and benefits in order to
    achieve a fairer system that assists the lower-paid".
   
    2. Export Credit Guarantees/Ilisu Dam
   
    The initial amendment said:
   
    "We will ensure that where British businesses require
    export credit guarantees, those guarantees are
    conditional on the business and the contracting
    government complying with human rights and
    environmental standards.  In particular we will ensure
    that the Ilisu dam, proposed by the Turkish government
    and to be constructed by Balfour Beatty backed by
    export credit guarantees, will not infringe the human
    rights of the local Kurdish population and that it will
    comply with environmental standards."
   
    This was accepted as:

    "We will ensure that where British businesses require
    export credit guarantees, those guarantees are
    conditional on the business and the contracting
    government complying with human rights and
    environmental standards, an example being the recent
    environmental impact appraisal order by the Labour
    government into the Ilisu dam project."
   
    3. Comprehensive Education
   
    The initial document included the statement:
   
    "The comprehensive system, developed in the 1970s
    and 1980s, has not delivered what its advocates hoped
    for, never mind what we require for the 21st century." 
   
    An accepted amendment changed this to:

      "The comprehensive system, developed in the 1970s
    and 1980s, has delivered much that its advocates
    hoped for, nevertheless further improvements need to
    take place in order to achieve what we require for the
    21st century
   
    4. Ballots on Grammar Schools
   
    Initial amendments said:
   
(a) "[Labour] will introduce further measures to end
    selection and bring the few remaining grammar schools
    within the comprehensive system."
   
(b) "Labour reaffirms its commitment to the
    comprehensive ideal, which gives equal opportunities
    for all to fulfil their potential, and will tackle both
    systematic and individual failings which have held back
    too many children.  The outdated selective system
    gives privileged access to the few and denies
    opportunity to the many.  Instead of empowering
    parents to choose schools, it allows schools to choose
    pupils.  Most children are classified as failures at the
    age of ten, pupils were denied places in their
    neighbourhood school by outsiders, and grammar
    schools cream off the top 20%.  As we enter the 21st
    century we cannot afford to waste so much human
    capital. 
   
    In line with bringing decisions closer to the people, the
    government has introduced local ballots to determine
    the future of grammar schools, where they remain. 
    However, practical experience has shown that the
    rules as currently framed raise near-impossible
    obstacles to holding a ballot at all.  They can also give
    most weight to those who succeed under the status
    quo, including those living outside the area, while
    excluding the rejected majority within the community. 
    The government will therefore modify the procedures
    to facilitate rather than to obstruct the expression of
    local opinion, to explain the arguments in favour of
    equal opportunities, and to ensure that all stakeholders
    within the community, losers as well as winners, have
    an equal voice."
   
    These were accepted as:
   
    "There should be no return to the 11-plus, which
    divides children into successes and failures at this early
    age . . . We should address concerns about the
    technical details of the ballots [on retaining grammar
    schools]".
   
    5. Genetically-Modified Organisms
   
    Initial amendments said:
   
(a) "Labour will examine the case for pursuing a
    moratorium on GM crops whilst meeting our
    obligations under international law."
   
(b) "Mindful of the public's concerns in this area, scientific
    field trials of GM crops will be suspended.  The
    government will explore alternative methids of
    investigation before proceeding further with a view to
    bringing forward new proposals during the next term."

    These were accepted as

    "Whilst recognising that the only means to obtain the
    necessary evidence about the impact of GM crops on
    the environment is through the field-scale trials, we
    accept that there could be long-term risks as well as
    many potential gains associated with GM.  For that
    reason we believe we should proceed with great
    caution.  However, we cannot seek a moratorium or a
    ban under international law unless we can show that
    GM crops represent a risk to human health or the
    environment.  No such evidence exists at present. 
    Only the field-scale trials might produce such evidence.
     We do, nevertheless, recognise that in the course of
    carrying out the field-scale trials itself, there could be
    cross-contamination of surrounding fields.  For that
    reason, we are currently reviewing the traditional
    separation distances with a view to meeting public
    concerns by minimising cross-pollination.  Labour will
    also be looking to boost public involvement in the
    consultation over GMOs, not only through the
    Agriculture and Environment Research Commission
    we have already set up for that purpose, but also
    through new mechanisms such as Citizens'
    Commissions."
   
    6. National Minimum Wage
   
    Consensus was hammered out in marathon negotiating sessions
    between unions and ministers, with constituency representatives
    rather left on the sidelines.  The resulting amendment stated that
    the Low Pay Commission will be made permanent and asked to re-
    examine the age at which the adult rate is paid, and to report
    regularly on rates and other aspects of the minimum wage and
    poverty pay.  Mark Seddon and I proposed an amendment calling
    for annual uprating linked to average earnings, real increases where
    prudent, and phasing out the youth rate for under-22-year-olds
    doing an adult job.
   
    Members had to choose between these.  Supporting the second
    would have lost the commitment to the Low Pay Commission, and it
    attracted only 19 votes.  Unfortunately other amendments which
    asked the Commission to suggest an uprating mechanism, and
    could have bridged the gap, were withdrawn. 
   
    7. Electoral Reform
   
    A deal on the future voting system for the Commons was
    also settled before the Forum proper.  The Labour
    Campaign for Electoral Reform agreed the following words
    with anti-PR unions:
   
    "Whilst remaining committed to the holding of the
    referendum before any change to the House of
    Commons electoral system was introduced, Labour will
    allow the changes introduced for elections to the
    European and Scottish Parliaments and for the Welsh
    and London Assemblies to become familiar and allow
    time for all their consequences to be felt before deciding
    on any further proposals for electoral reform.  Labour
    has conducted a consultation on the issues raised by the
    report and which is contained in a separate document. 
    There were serious concerns about the acceptability of
    AV-plus.  It was strongly felt that the electoral system
    for the House of Commons needs to maintain the
    constituency link, encourage stable government and take
    account of proportionality of power as well as that of
    representation."
   
    LCER were worried about losing the referendum and any
    chance of change. They needed sufficient consensus to fend
    off a hardline first-past-the-post position, which gained only
    19 votes.  Mary Southcott has written a blow-by-blow
    account which I can forward to anyone who is interested.
   
    Two final points.  First, consider what would have happened
    under the old procedures.  On Education, the  paper would have
    been presented by the NEC and carried, with its negative view
    of the comprehensive system.  Composites demanding abolition
    of grammar schools, free student grants and tuition, and a dozen
    other clauses would have been discussed but almost certainly
    lost, and if carried, they would have been ignored as inconsistent
    with the main paper.  So the outcome of the new process may
    be an improvement.
   
    And second, I would like the whole system opened up to
    members, with feedback from regional forums, reports from
    policy commissions, free discussion on the Internet, more direct
    input to National Policy Forum negotiations, and, as a last
    resort, the chance to make changes at Conference beyond the
    Forum's limits.  But what matters to most people is the results. 
    If the policies are right, members will worry less about how they
    emerged.  If they are wrong, I'm sure that you will let us know.
   
    Ann Black   

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