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Creating a fair and green Britain

February 17, 2010 6:00 PM
By David Goodall in Fellowship Dialogue Society

Good evening and thanks for inviting me.

This evening I am going to talk about just two things firstly what the Liberal Democrats vision for the future is and secondly why you should vote on 6th May. But first a bit about me

Many of you will have read the brief biography about me, so you will you know I am 47 years old, married to my lovely wife Kerstin for 21 years this year, we that have two boys Wesley and Samuel, who both go Secondary School here in Southampton.

You may have even read more on my website about me leaving school at 16, doing an apprenticeship, getting a degree and eventually becoming a senior consultant engineer and project leader within Siemens.

So here is something you don't know about me. I am interested in genealogy or my familytree research. In the course of which I discovered my great great great grandfather Thomas Figes, in 1819 was living in a place called Northam in the County of Southampton. In actual fact his son Henry my great great grandfather in 1860 was married in the church building just a few hundred yards from tonight's meeting.

Now 190 years ago Thomas was signing a petition to the council and in the past year I too have been gathering signatures to try and improve roads in Southampton and stop Fluoride being added to the water supply. However the ambition of the Liberal Democrats is not limited to road improvements and preventing fluoride the water.

We wish to create a different Britain one which is fairer and greener, but is not a idea which has been that has been formed after discussion with a focus group. It is an idea that comes from our party constitution part of which is printed on every membership card where it says:-

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity"

This is why the main theme of our general election message can be summed up by one word "fairness". We wish to create a fairer Britain in all areas of society, but this evening I wish to concentrate on just four:-

• Creating a fair tax and benefits system

• Giving young people a fair start in life through the education system

• Creating a fair, balanced, affordable and local political system

• Creating green and sustainable economy with fair chances for all

So firstly to the question that always gets more than a little attention at election times -taxation and benefits.

Currently we have a taxation system where the poorest 10% of the population pay a great percentage of their income in taxation than the richest 10% of the population. In view this is unjust and unfair it is a taxation system that has been designed more by the Sheriff of Nottingham than by Robin Hood. And it is a system that must change.

That is why we propose to increase the basic threshold for paying income tax to £10,000 it would remove nearly 4 million of very low earners from paying tax and reduce the tax burden on many other low and middle income earners.

In actual fact it would cut the average working age person's income tax bill by £700 and cut average pensioner's income tax bills by £100. This change would be paid for by closing tax loopholes on high earners, switching taxation from income to pollution and the introduction a mansion tax.

We would also wish to simplify the benefits system. The current system is far to complex. In particular tax credit system is over complex. Each year it leads to billions of pounds tied up either in money owed to individuals or money owed by individuals. And all too quickly many people end up owing money they can't afford to payback because they have been caught out by the complexities of the system.

This time last year the figures showed that:-

On Repeat overpayments

• 1.8 million families have been overpaid tax credits more than once in the four years that the system has been running, an increase of 400,000 in just one year. That is one in five of all families who have claimed in the same period

• And over 60,000 families have been overpaid more than three times

And on Repeat underpayments

• 555,000 families have been underpaid more than once since 2003, an increase of 150,000 families in just one year

• 82,000 families have been underpaid more than twice

• 6,000 families have been underpaid more than 3 times

The real down side to this is that many people who deserve help, and need help, don't get it because the system puts off the very people it is there to help. And worst still the complexity of the system is there to stop people cheating the system. It doesn't even do that.

For example I had a person come to me who had benefit problems. Now to cut a very long story sort the verdict after the official adjudication was:-

• He had not deliberate claimed excess benefit

• He had not received excess benefit

• He had just received benefit from the wrong benefit pot

• So he must repay the benefit - all the benefit he had received that year, about £5,000

• And he would not be entitled to back claim benefit from the right benefit's pot.

I ask you what is fair or just about that.

And what had he and his good lady wife spent this "excess benefit" on, which was the majority of their income that year, well the luxuries of life, of course, like food to eat and heating to keep warm. Still on the bright side he may get the money paid back before his 75th birthday if he can afford the £5 a week cut in his income.

Our proposal is to introduce a single form which will make an assessment of the person's income, their physical needs and their dependant's needs and then make an award, which would be valid for six months. After six months a reassessment would be made, but there would no payback of monies paid out on any award, unless the original award was found to be made under false pretences i.e. they lied at the time

Finally on the creating fair taxes we would abolish the extremely unfair council tax and replace it with a local income tax. People would be taxed on what they could afford to pay rather than type of house they live in. And it would be about £300 million cheaper to administer each year.

Spending tax income on benefiting the country and its people rather than just collecting taxes has to be a good idea.

Giving every child a fair start in life is something that everyone would wish everyone child gets. Sadly this is not always the case and one way a child can help themselves is through the education system.

Yet statistics show us that a clever child from a poor background will be overtaken at school by a less able child from a well off background by about the age of 7.

This is why we have a promise to invest to help reduce class sizes, improve discipline and develop one-to-one tuition.

We will do this through a Pupil Premium; it will concentrate help where it is needed most. So that schools who take pupils from poorer backgrounds will receive extra money, in order that the school can use it to provide greater one to one assistance or generally smaller classes to benefit the pupils.

As a Governor of Townhill Infants, here in Southampton since 2002, I know that the one thing that really helps the kids at that age, is the time they can each spend working in small groups with an adult. That is why we have stretched the budget as much as we can to ensure that every class has at least one teacher and one classroom assist per class. And that is one of the main reasons it has had a outstanding Ofsted report for the last two inspections.

Yet it is not just school pupils that need a helping hand, university students are particular hard at present.

Consider this - currently in this country we ask students to pay for their tuition, their accommodation and their food via a loan because they have other income and restricted entitlement to benefits. Indeed access to the benefit system would be greater if they decided not to improve themselves and sat around at home and did nothing.

The reason for this financial sanction is it is because they are they are full-time students. Why this is an offence punishable I don't know. And the cost on the average student of getting a degree between £15,000 and £20,000

To develop the economy we need for the future we need well educated graduates. We need them, they are our future we should help them into a good job for our benefit and not on to a mountain of debt, before they even get a chance to earn any money.

We need an education system that enables all children to reach their maximum potential, and helps from the home and into the workplace. Sadly the current system does not help those enough who come from poorer backgrounds.

This is why as a party the Liberal Democrats are proposing both a pupil premium and to cut tuition fees.

Now we can only hope to build a fair, free and open society if

• those who govern the country do so a open and transparent manner,

• the parliament fairly reflects the thoughts and wishes of the people

• and all are free participate in it.

And nothing demonstrated the need for reform more than the MP Expenses scandal of last year. After attempts by some members like Lib Dem MP like Norman Baker to get this information published through parliament were blocked, by an unholy alliance of 90 odd labour and conservative members. It took a high court case and finally a leak to a national newspaper before the information on how our money was being spent by our parliamentary representatives.

And what did transparency highlight:-

• A system where MPs did not know what they could and couldn't claim for

• MPs that claimed for excessive amounts or items.

• Plus some MPs who correctly exercised their own judgement and didn't claim for excessive amounts or items.

• It highlighted a fees office that had no clue as what was a reasonable expense and what was not.

• In short it highlighted a system that was a complete mess.

And what will this transparency achieve

Well a better system for MP expenses that both, treats the MP fairly by paying genuine expenses and treats the taxpayer fairly by reducing excessive claims.

This type of improvement is what we wish to achieve across government, just shining a light into the darken corners of government operation will eventually improve it. But only after a lot of pain first.

But MP expenses and greater transparency are only the tip of the iceberg of reform that is required to create a political system that is fair, clean and local.

For many years now we have been the only party committed to real change of our political system. The current British political system is broken. The way this country is run means that the Government does not have to listen to the people. One party can gain control of Parliament even if only a quarter of the people support them. This is wrong

That is why we wish to change to voting system. Parliament must reflect the people's wishes and reflect the make up of the population as a whole. Changing the voting system correctly can start to address this issue plus getting greater involvement from minority groups and women in the political system can finish that particular reform task

The worst cases of abuse in the expenses scandal were by MPs in safe seats, which is why we will allow constituents to recall MPs who have broken the rules and propose a voting system in STV for all elections that would allow the public to choose the party and the person through multiple member areas.

Another area that needs reform is political party funding, for too long big money has dominated politics. There should be:-

• Caps on individual donations to political parties

• Reform on trade union funding, so union members choose where their donation goes to.

• Caps party spending at a local and a national level at all times not just in the electoral cycle.

• And there should be an element of state funding as there is in other European countries based on the parties showing the previous election.

Only changing the funding of political parties will clean up politics and mean that good ideas will succeed over lots of cash.

This is just a small sample of the changes that are required to make our country fairer place to live in. Other areas include:-

• taking power from the state in the centre and returning it to locally elected bodies, whether that is local government, regional assemblies, health authorities or police authorities, enabling

o the number of MPs to be reduced by 150

o the Whitehall bureaucracy to be slimmed down and moved out of London

o the number of ministers to be reduced

• Introduce fixed parliamentary terms of four years

• reform the House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber

• lower the voting age to 16

And we would involve the people in producing a written constitution that would cement all these changes into law.

The current system benefits the Labour and the Conservative parties most as it enables them to swap in and out of power from this and that is why I see no real commitment to the types of changes I have outlined this evening from them, but this not why we want this change.

Liberal Democrats are the only party really committed to these changes because it is why we exist as a political party the preamble to our party constitution also states:-

"We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections."

In effect we are the only party that wishes to gain central government power in order to give it away to lower levels of government.

The final area I wish talk about this evening is how to create a Fairer and greener economy with jobs that last

Most people believe that -

• What out put into life will match by what you get out

• Or that is business work and risk should be balanced by reward

However in today Britain the banking crisis has highlighted that this is not the case.

• The banks made the investments,

• we the taxpayer bailed out the whole sector when those investments turned bad,

• we the taxpayer are still under righting the whole sector,

• banks are still making money

• and the bankers are still getting the large salaries and bonuses.

When in any other sector of the economy the bankers would be out of job. Now is that fair I don't think so. So what should be done:-

• Lending should to much tighter regulated

• The retail banking sector and the casino style commercial banking sector should be split apart.

• In exchange for tighter regulation the retail sector should then received the under righting of their operations, so that the likes of you and me do not lose our savings or our house.

• The commercial banking sector should to have less regulation, but if the investments go wrong the commercial bank should not be bailed out and should be allowed to fail

• regional stock exchanges should be created to bring back competition into finance and support local entrepreneurs to make sure they can get the funds to grow,

• UK Investment Bank should be created to invest the large infrastructure project that are required

The rebuilding of the economy is more than just the banking sector it has to involve the whole economy.

Simply put we need to get back to making things, generating real wealth not just making virtual money in the city of London. We need to invest in the technologies of the future.

For example the UK has 40% of Europe's entire natural wind energy resource, we live on an Island surrounding by a large tidal power resource, and we have some very large rivers.

All of these can and should be used to generate power as we move from a high carbon use to a low carbon use country.

All of these new technologies should also generate jobs in this country. Yet on the London array off shore wind turbine project 90% of the jobs created are being generated aboard, because we don't have the facilities in the UK for very large wind turbine production.

This is why we would invest in the UK's shipyards to develop the facilities to build these huge wind turbines.

This is just one example of where targeted investment can grow are industrial base, others could be solar panels, hydrogen power plants, recycling plants and so on.

The current lack of investment in wind turbines directly led to job losses at the Vesta factory here in Southampton

So Liberal Democrats are aiming to rebuild the economy in every part of Britain in a way that promotes green technology and creates lasting jobs, by:

• By ending to casino banking which we bailed out

• By bring back competition and support local entrepreneurs to make sure they can get the finance to grow, through a UK investment Bank and regional stock exchanges

• And by a dramatic increase in renewable energy technologies and related green industries to create a zero carbon Britain by 2050

All of these areas fair taxes, fair benefits, a fairer start for our children, fair and open democratic process, fairer and greener economy and environment are possible.

And we have ideas and plans for them all, it but depends not on me but on you. As a party we can have all the good ideas we wish, we can have conferences at which we talk and put the 'world to rights' as my mother says.

Yet the power to start the change, the power to create a fairer Britain, requires one simple thing - and that is a cross in a box on polling day.

Voting for a fairer and green Britain is something everyone can do, and remember the only wasted vote is the unused one and if don't vote your decision will be taken but by someone else. So would urge everyone that can vote to vote on polling day.

Thank you for listening to me, are there any questions on any topic whether covered tonight or not