Posted by: Isabel Hardman21/09/2010
The afternoon sessions kicked off with a grilling from party members on public services and benefits. Sarah Teather, Baul Burstow, Andrew Stunell and Steve Webb were on the receiving end of questions about housing benefit cuts and the Audit Commission. So how did they fare?
On the question of housing benefit, the four managed to sidestep the issue about the severity of cuts now. Instead they decided to focus mainly on how great the long-term reforms would be. But Steve Webb said something interesting: ‘We are not cutting it: it will just not be going up as fast as it was.’
That’s not what DWP figures have been saying about the bill. In our analysis piece which launched the campaign on 16 July, we had a table (not available online, sadly), which showed the bill dropping by a couple of million each year.
Simon Hughes has just finished speaking. No mention of the squabbles over security of tenure that he has been having, but he did say very firmly that Lib Dems would fight to keep policies close to their heart. The audience is clearly very fond of their deputy leader (perhaps more so than of Clegg himself): at one point some members interrupted a rather noisy television broadcast taking place at the back of the room as Mr Hughes was talking, shouting ‘Shut up!’ at the presenter.
On the subject of being misinterpreted, Mr Hughes says the following: ‘For the avoidance of any doubt, I am a rock-solid supporter of the coalition.’
Simon Hughes is speaking now. He says he is rather nervous about this speech, and is aware that it may well be misinterpreted.
Housing charity Crisis is very pleased that the motion on fairness in an age of austerity was passed this morning. Chief executive Leslie Morphy says: ‘The Liberal Democrats have clearly shown that they share our concern about cuts to housing benefit. Nick Clegg must listen to his party and re-think these cuts which will cause hardship and homelessness for some of the most vulnerable in society.’
Here’s my story on pension minister Steve Webb’s concerns about housing benefit and tenure reform. Very interesting comments.
Poor Andrew Stunell. The communities and local government minister has been rushing between events with great alacrity this week. He’s been doing a ‘Simon Hughes’, which is the party byword for trying to be in three different places at once. It’s got so bad that his advisor has taken to telling event organisers that the minister will definitely be late.
Mind you, once Mr Stunell actually arrives at a panel discussion, there’s not a huge amount he’s actually able to say. I’ve been to three fringe meetings where Stunell has spoken so far, and at each he has answered a large number of questions with ‘I can’t tell you until 20 October’. Last night a panel chair directed an audience question to Mr Stunell, adding ‘and don’t you dare say 20 October’.
It is unlikely that Mr Stunell is fobbing people off with the date of the comprehensive spending review, though. Former Lib Dem housing spokeswoman Sarah Teather told the Demos debate yesterday that the government would still be writing the CSR at 5am on the morning of the announcement.
The conference has just voted on the fairness and austerity motion. It carried the motion, and voted for all three amendments, including the one on social housing.
One of the interventions in the debate came from delegate Ros Kayes, who described George Osborn as ‘the reaper of death’ who was running rampage through the welfare system.
Tim Starkey is now attacking the cuts to housing benefit. He says: ‘It would be morally wrong to protect benefits for the most wealthy while at the same time taking it away from the most vulnerable.’ instead, he hits out at the winter fuel allowance for paying out to people who are not in fuel poverty.
An amendment submitted by North East and Stockton Lib Dems to the fairness motion, is asking to insert the following:
‘redressing the situation left by the last government in the need for more social rented housing, while acknowledging the need to put in place measures to protect people who are vulnerable, including children and elderly people, from the threat of homelessness and other effects of a reduced income because of proposed housing and other benefit changes.’
James Graham proposes the fairness motion, saying it will strengthen the hand of Lib Dem ministers in government and create a frisson of tension at the heart of the coalition.
The localism policy motion is carried. Next policy motion, in ten minutes’ time is on ensuring fairness in a time of austerity.
If you’re interested in the details of the policy motion on localism, which is drawing towards the vote now, you can read it in full here.
To summarise, it supports localism and calls for local authorities to receive greater financial autonomy.
Quite a few interesting things came out of last night’s fringe meetings. Andrew Stunell, communities and local government minister, gave us a few more details on a consultation that is due on security of tenure. It is also going to include suggestions on how to reform waiting lists, which the minister admitted would be controversial.
Meanwhile, pensions minister Steve Webb has admitted he is unhappy with plans to scrap lifetime tenancies. He said this would be very unhelpful to the DWP’s plans to encourage more people back into work as it would create a fairly large incentive. That’s the first frontbench criticism of the plans so far: we’ve had rebellion from backbenchers, and from the deputy leader, but not a minister.
The policy motion on localism is rather empty this morning. Cllr Alan Sherwell from Aylesbury is telling the audience that local delivery of the reformed benefits system would result in lower fraud rates and fewer errors. He claims local authorities have already proven that a local approach works with housing benefit and council tax benefit. But he says: ‘There are people in DWP who are pushing in the opposite direction for council tax benefit and housing benefit to be taken back in house and managed by their own system, which would be disastrous.’
From Out of office
What the Inside Housing writers have been up to when they’ve been prised away from their desks