David Laws MP keynote speech to the Orange Book 10 Year Conference

26 June 2014

Liberal Democrat minister David Laws MP delivered this speech to the Orange Book 10 Year Conference on 24 June 2014. Check against delivery.

STARTS

Origins.

Paul [Marshall], thanks to you and to CentreForum for hosting this event.

Politicians write remarkably few books about political issues and political philosophy.

Those that we do write tend to disappear without trace.

How many such volumes can you remember over, say, the last third of a century? Not many. 

So I am very proud that we are here today, 10 years after the Orange Book was published, to consider its significance and to consider where the liberal agenda should go next.

Paul played a very crucial role in the decision to publish this volume, and in its success.

I think the idea of the volume was his, along with its catchy title.

I distinctly remember his disapproving look when I suggested the title should be “Reclaiming Liberalism: a liberal agenda for the Liberal Democrats.”

“No”, he said.

It needed to be something memorable. Something catchy. Something that people would remember in, say, 10 years time.

Eventually he came up with the idea of “The Orange Book”. 

He was funding the book, so – begrudgingly – I agreed. 

He was, of course, right.

Aims.

We had two aims.

One was to showcase the Party’s emerging talent, largely on the backbenches of the UK and EU Parliaments.

The other was to reassert the party’s traditions of liberalism in our policy making.

On the first, I think we were undoubtedly successful.

Though we missed a trick in failing to ask Steve Webb to write the chapter on pensions. If I am honest, I think we were worried about what he might write.

But our chosen authors, then rather insignificant politically, have made a notable impact in Govt.

All but one has gone on to be a Minister.

Our chosen ones have now included:

One transport minister.

A notably successful pensions minister.

Two Climate Change Secretaries.

A Business Secretary.

And a Deputy Prime Minister.

Not bad for talent spotting.

But our real aim was to shake the party up in its policy thinking and to ensure that if this collection of talented individuals did find a role in government, then we would have a properly liberal agenda to take forward.

And we did not pull our punches.

My opening essay “Reclaiming Liberalism,” really makes the case which Paul and I were committed to. In fairness, I should say that the other authors held a mixture of views about my approach – something which really only emerged after the book was published.

I argued that the Liberal Democrats were insufficiently liberal in many areas of policy.

We wanted freedom, but also talked about banning the use of goldfish as prizes at fairs.

We wanted to devolve political power, but were too associated with an over-mighty European Union.

We were supposed to be economic liberals, but too often our economic and social policies relied on excessive state control, state monopoly and a lack of appreciation of the benefits of choice and competition.

In my essay I argued against “a nanny state liberalism, or liberalism a la carte, which would be no more than a philosophy of good intentions, bobbing about unanchored in the muddled middle of British politics.”

The reaction.

The book received a reasonable amount of press coverage.

You might have thought this would be welcomed in a party where the daily press cuttings which mentioned “Liberal Democrats” sometimes only ran to 5 pages.

But no.

Many of my colleagues didn’t like the book at all.

And they assumed that I was arguing not for a synthesis of economic and social liberalism, which was my central proposition, but for the displacement of social liberalism by dry old Gladstonian economic liberalism.

One Lib Dem MP, now a senior ministerial colleague, went to see Charles Kennedy to press for my dismissal from my modest post.

A 2½ hour parliamentary party meeting which discussed only the book led to me being attacked by almost every speaker.

The book launch at the September 2004 Conference had to be scrapped.

And the Party’s Chief Executive told me, only half jokingly, that he was buying up every available copy of the book to store in his garage and later burn, before the electorate could get sight of it.

Only Paddy Ashdown amongst the leading echelons of the Party was robustly supportive.

He liked the book and argued that in the long term ideas are what count in politics and that risks have to be taken.

Impact.

Although the book was controversial with many, it also had its supporters.

And there was, in truth, no alternative philosophy or policy agenda on offer.

So, gradually, the thinking of the Orange Book became more influential in the Party.

Out went the totemic commitment to a 50% top tax rate.

In came lower taxes on those on low and middle incomes.

Out went tax and spend.

In came “save to invest”.

Out went automatic support for state monopoly provision.

In came privatisation of the Royal Mail, Sponsor Managed Schools, and an embrace of markets and the value of choice.

And there was, in social policy, more focus on opportunities through education and employment and less focus on dealing with all our social problems through larger and larger income transfers.

All of this was important in policy terms.

It was also important politically too.

The 2010 Coalition Agreement with the Conservatives was not a consequence of the Orange Book. It was more a product of parliamentary arithmetic.

But it would have been much more difficult to achieve this Coalition agreement if we had fought the 2010 election on our 2005 Manifesto. Of course, David Cameron’s party was also seeking to change and that was important too. 

Much that we have done in Government together has been based on the Orange Book agenda of promoting personal, economic, social and political liberalism:

  • Abolishing ID Cards.
  • Equal marriage.
  • Raising the tax free allowance.
  • Pensions reform which promotes individual responsibility and choice.
  • Public Service Reform, promoting choice and competition.
  • Royal Mail privatisation.
  • The Pupil Premium.
  • Universal credit and better childcare, and many more policies. 

Of course, not everything has gone precisely according to the Orange Book script.

Vince Cable has taken forward his Orange Book proposal to transfer the Royal Mail to the Private Sector, and the Chancellor has taken forward Vince’s proposal for an independent fiscal policy watchdog.

But progress by Vince on his other key pledge – to abolish the Business Dept – has been somewhat slower!

Where Next for Liberalism?

Looking beyond the period of this Parliament, where next for liberalism?

On personal, political and economic liberalism, I am an optimist.

It seems to me that the rise of personal liberalism is likely to continue, with greater respect for personal freedoms and for the rights of minorities.

But liberals should never be complacent. 

We must remain watchful about the intrusions of state power which can easily arise during what Charles James Fox described, over 200 years ago, as “those violent times when, instead of being guided by reason, we are put under the dominion of wild passion, and when pretended alarms were to be made the pretexts for destroying the first principles of the very system which we ….revere”.

Recent developments at here and abroad show that those pressures remain real. 

On economic liberalism, I remain an optimist too.

We have just been through an extraordinary and prolonged economic slump.

You would have thought that this would have produced a counter-revolution in economic philosophy and thinking, as occurred in the 1930s and 1980s after the economic crises of those times.

Instead, economic liberalism rides high, here and abroad.

Is it that employment outcomes have been better than expected in many countries during this downturn?

Or that governments have shared the blame with markets?

Maybe.

But I think the real reason is that there is no longer any convincing alternative to economic liberalism on display, though Ed Miliband seems determined to test that idea to destruction.

On political reform, I am an optimist too.

Look through the setbacks on voting reform and House of Lords – little local difficulties in the UK – and I maintain the view that in 20, 30 and 40 years time the western democratic model will assert itself over the competing models of China and the Middle East.

Challenges

So where are the challenges for Liberals?

I think there are two in particular.

Without Government intervention, I think we can see that free societies can also be grossly unequal ones.

Liberalism is founded on the equal value of human beings and it is unacceptable that inequalities of opportunity and outcome are so wide.

Liberal democracies such as the UK and US are increasingly places where people are judged on their abilities and not on their background.

But unfortunately the chance of acquiring these displayed skills and qualifications is hopelessly unequal.

It is unacceptable that in advanced liberal democracies who your parents are and what their income is plays such a huge role in people’s life chances.

This is one of the things liberals have sometimes been too complacent about.

But we can see the real possibilities for improvement when we do invest early to give people chances. Look at the transformation in London schools, for example.

That is why first class education for all must remain a top priority for liberals as an economic and a social priority.

And as a society grows wealthier, the expectations of health care and education rise. A liberal state must continue to invest in first class education and health services, even as it seeks to contain the share of GDP consumed by the state.

The share of GDP consumed by the state and the level of tax rates likely peaked over the last 30 years, and liberals will want both to decline further over time.

Tax rates of 50% and more sit unhappily with liberalism.

And state spending at 40% of GDP should not be necessary or desirable over the medium and longer term as we reform welfare, raise employment rates, reduce crime and are able to shrink the share of GDP committed to defence and – eventually as developing countries develop – overseas development assistance.

But reducing the state’s claim on GDP this will not be easy in the UK given the effects of an ageing population and the pressure for higher quality education and health services, funded collectively. The disciplines and innovation seen since 2010 will need to be developed over the years ahead. 

Secondly, Europe.

The Orange Book looked forward to an era when citizens would be more content with a Europe which concentrated on areas where international competition could be useful or necessary, while avoiding micro-managing at a national level.

The entry into the EU of Eastern European countries has impeded the onward march of European centralism – probably permanently in my view, and in a manner which liberals should welcome. 

But we have clearly so far failed to persuade our population that the right relationship has been established, and the gains from the entry of Eastern European countries in terms of promoting a more devolved UK vision of the EU have been lost amongst public concern over very high degrees of EU immigration.

Liberals who believe in open markets and increasingly open borders have to work much harder to assure our citizens that these trends are something which they should support.

This is something which our own party particularly needs to give priority to, as the European election results show.

In Conclusion

Let me say this in conclusion.

The case for liberalism is as strong as ever.

And the case for a liberal party to promote liberalism is as strong as ever.

I would not trust the Conservative Party, alone, to be the guardian of either social or personal liberty. What would have happened on equal marriage if left to the Conservative Party? Who would have made the case for taking those on low incomes out of tax in May 2010, when the Conservatives were pressing for inheritance tax cuts for millionaires to be the priority.

Nor should we trust the Labour Party on either personal liberties or on economic liberalism, as Ed Miliband demonstrates with each new pledge to interfere in markets and undermine choice.

But my parting thought today is for my own party.

Being in Government is tough.

Being the small party in Coalition is always a big challenge.

There will undoubtedly be some in the Party in the future who will want to draw the wrong conclusions from our 5 years in government.

They may even toy with a return to the soggy socialism, recycled corporatism and superficial populism with which some once dressed their political platforms.

That would be a great mistake.

As Jo Grimond said in 1980:

“We should, I hope, agree that there is no purpose in keeping a Liberal Party alive unless it promotes liberalism”.

The period ahead will be a fertile one politically for liberals who are willing to make the liberal case.

This is no time to leave others to play the best political tunes of all – the Liberal tunes.

ENDS

 

Co-producing public services could save billions, says government czar

21 May 2014

Public service users working alongside professionals could save taxpayers billions each year, a new report from CentreForum suggests.

Written by the government’s independent reviewer of public services David Boyle, the report sets out ways that ‘co-production’ of services can be applied more widely in health, housing, social care and other contexts.

Co-production is described as “the type of service delivery model that the father of the welfare state, Sir William Beveridge, envisaged six decades ago”. But the report says the way public services have evolved in Britain has precluded it from being widely applied.

“Co-production denies that professionals are the only people required to do practical things”, writes Boyle. “It also denies that everything necessary for support – whether in health,education or social care – can be paid for. Both of these were understood very well by Beveridge, but have been sidelined in the UK, and disastrously so.”

Examples of co-production already in practice include citizen justice panels, co-operative nurseries as well as time banks, where people offer services to members and can choose services they would like in return.

The report says that there are clear social benefits from producing services in this way. It argues that service users, their friends and families, are able to build a much broader range of activities and gain the respect that goes with being “equal partners”. 

In addition, the report finds that there are significant savings to be realised through co-production. Research has identified that it could cut NHS costs by at least 7% (£4.4 billion) a year and potentially up to a fifth.

David Boyle said:

“The great divide in public services, between exhausted professionals and their clients, who are expected to stay passive to make them easier to process, is corrosive and hugely wasteful.”

“The key issue in public services is how to unleash the huge resource that is represented by service users, their families and their neighbours, to make the system more human and more effective.”

Scots deserve facts when voting on independence, says think tank

14 May 2014

Think tank dubs SNP’s independence plans “unrealistic” and urges Westminster to table legislation for further devolution and a federal UK

The Scottish National Party’s blueprint for an independent Scotland has huge holes in it, a new report from CentreForum warns.

The think tank says that the SNP has been unrealistic in projecting what will happen if Scottish people vote for independence this September.

It urges the UK government to seize the initiative by tabling legislation for further devolution in the event of a “No” vote.

Toby Fenwick, CentreForum research associate, said:

“The SNP can’t fulfil key promises it has made because its plans don’t add up. Scots have a right to know the facts when voting on their country’s future.”

“The UK government should seize the constitutional initiative by putting forward legislation for further devolution and a federal UK.”

The CentreForum report ‘Scottish independence: an economic and political appraisal’ reaches the following conclusions.

On North Sea oil: With declining North Sea oil revenues and a 2016 budget deficit of more than 5%, Scotland faces difficult choices. The SNP’s proposed “oil fund” will require a combination of higher taxes, more borrowing and/or spending cuts. Yet the party has pledged to keep taxes the same and maintain a big state, posing serious questions over how the funding gap can be filled.

On financial services: It is inconceivable that British legislation will allow the Bank of England to act as lender of last resort for an another country’s financial sector. With Scotland’s financial sector having liabilities of 1254% GDP, the risk is simply too big for the Scottish government to take on. The financial services’ exodus that will follow a ‘Yes’ vote will leave a blackhole in Scotland’s revenue base. There are currently 97,000 financial services jobs in Scotland.

On retaining sterling: The potential costs to the UK taxpayer of a Scottish bank bailout mean that currency union with Scotland is a practical political impossibility. There is no evidence that it is in the interests of the rest of the UK to enter one.

On national debt: The SNP’s stated response to the UK deciding against currency union is to dump an estimated £143 billion* of national debt on England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But defaulting will damage Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK and make borrowing much costlier. Contrary to what the SNP says, an independent Scotland will almost certainly take its share of the national debt which is equivalent to £27,000 per person.

On EU membership: While long term EU membership is likely, an independent Scotland will have to apply post independence. It will take 24-36 months to gain membership, and the UK’s opt outs will not be available. Losing tariff free access to the EU for an indefinite period of time will be disastrous for Scotland because 65% of its exports go to the rest of the UK.

NOTES

* £143 billion is Scotland’s population proportionate share of the projected UK national debt in 2016/17

Ageing alone launch

29 April 2014

Launch of CentreForum’s Report ‘Ageing alone: loneliness and the oldest old’ Committee Room 4, House of Lords, Westminster, SW1A 0AA

Speakers

  • James Kempton, Associate Director, CentreForum
  • Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director, Age UK
  • Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Minister of State for Care and Support

The afternoon of the 29 April saw the launch of CentreForum’s report ‘Ageing alone: loneliness and the oldest old’ at the House of Lords. The launch was chaired by James Kempton, an associate director at CentreForum and the report’s co-author, and attended by leaders and innovators in the voluntary and community sector, and politicians and policy makers in both central and local government. 

James Kempton began by outlining the twin social and economic costs of loneliness. He stressed that loneliness is not only a painful emotion for older people, but also has a demonstrable impact on their health. Helping people to alleviate their loneliness, therefore, not only enhances their general quality of life, but can also improve their health and wellbeing, reducing health and social care costs in the process. 

The over-85s are more severely affected by loneliness, with almost half reporting that they feel lonely most or some of the time. Moreover, with rising life expectancy we need to pay attention to the issues for this age group which is set to double in the next 20 years. Despite this, tackling loneliness is not being regarded as a key public health priority.   There is strong evidence that community-level activities provide a good social return on investment, but it is essential to develop a sufficiently robust evidence base to persuade Health and Wellbeing Boards to direct funding towards tackling loneliness. 

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director of Age UK, who sponsored the report. also stressed the need to reframe loneliness as a public health priority, pointing to the centrality of social connectedness in equipping older people to lead happy and healthy later lives. Society should be cautious about thinking technology could be a universal remedy for social isolation. Community action, she argued, often had the most material impact on older people’s later life experiences, this may be particularly so for the over-85s. 

Caroline also made the point that the effectiveness of local projects often depends upon outstanding individuals. She highlighted the need to encourage social entrepreneurship, and foster effective and sustainable local infrastructures at times of public funding constraints. Lastly, Caroline stressed that the purpose of such community interventions was not to impose solutions on older people, but rather to create the conditions within which older people can help themselves and each other. Successful local services enable older people to forge friendships and enjoy each others’ company, and thereby (re)construct their own social networks. 

Norman Lamb MP, Minister of State for Care and Support, welcomed the report, and thanked both CentreForum and Age UK for producing it. Isolation among older people was gaining prominence as a critical issue –as people live longer and extended families disperse. The minister shared some of his personal experiences of shadowing a care worker around West London, and how struck he had been by the narrowness, boredom and loneliness of many of many older service-users’ lives. He also discussed the significant benefits that reconnecting older people with their local community could bring about. Citing two organisations which he had encountered – the ‘Penwith Pioneer’ (linked to one of the case studies in the CentreForum report, the Newquay integrated care pathway) and ‘Friends and Neighbours’ in Sandwell – he discussed how both projects had recorded significant reductions in older people’s dependency (in terms on their reliance on social care and the frequency of their admission to hospital) as they experienced greater companionship and community integration. 

A number of issues were raised in general discussion by the people attending the launch, including the stigma around loneliness. Getting vulnerable people to access services was a challenge given the reluctance many felt to even admit to feeling lonely.  This was especially true of men. There was also support for one of the key findings of the report about the importance of organisations acting as “brokers”, joining up potential volunteers with older people in their community. This was felt to be a crucial role, as there was strong evidence that people were keen to get involved but wanted to do so through a structure that that gave ‘permission’ rather than approach older people informally or directly as might happen in less disconnected communities.

There was a gap to be bridged between what commissioners and academics considered robust evidence and what was appropriate to collect at a community level.  Professionals and practitioners needed to develop a shared understanding of what good data and good local practice looked like. While useful, the randomized controlled trial was not necessarily right for evidencing the value of local interventions. One contributor challenged the research sector to change its own culture, and broaden its definition of admissible evidence from numerical, quantitative data, to more qualitative and narrative evidence.

Many of the organisations represented were already actively engaged in collecting and disseminating data in order to prove the efficacy of their work in tackling loneliness and in that way building a more robust evidence base. The minister acknowledged the importance of strengthening the evidence base for interventions that tackled loneliness and encouraged community projects to evaluate their impact in this way. 

Report by Vicky Pearce