PODCAST: Q&A with Business, Innovation and Skills team

Earlier today, Simon Hughes, Lorely Burt, Vince Cable and Ed Davey joined chair Sal Brinton to answer questions from the audience about post offices, tuition fees, the education maintenance allowance and cutting red tape for small businesses.

You can hear the session in full by clicking the “play in a new window” link below.

Coming up later today: our podcasts of the Nick Clegg Q&A and a recording of our own fringe meeting, which is happening right now.

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PODCAST: Cabinet Minister Q&A

Our final podcast from the conference floor was the penultimate session, a Q&A with cabinet ministers Danny Alexander, Chris Huhne, Michael Moore and Vince Cable.

The last session at Lib Dem conference is usually reserved for the Leader’s Speech – but that was not possible this time as Nick Clegg had to fly out to the UN.

It’s quite a shock for Liberal Democrats to get to quizz cabinet ministers, but it’s something they took in their stride with relative ease. This was taped from the reserved press section – and it’s interesting that over a dozen journalists had stayed till this last minute to see what might be learned.

The questions take a wide variety of topics, and bring some interesting answers. Danny Alexander confirms that all departments will have to do equality and carbon impact assessments when preparing cuts; Vince reveals a new hobby; and there are some strong answers to strong questions about cuts to science funding.

CommentIsLinked@LDV: Vince Cable doesn’t know when the economy will recover

Our Vince penned a piece for the Daily Mail yesterday with the  delicious title “The economy is now sitting up and showing signs of recovery

In it, Vince made the startling admission that he is not, in fact, an all-seeing mage with black powers over the future of the economy:

I am often asked to play the part of Nostradamus. Since I had been a reasonably successful prophet of doom, I am now assumed to know when the economy will turn round. I don’t. No one knows.

It does seem likely, however, that a major disaster has been averted. We are no longer in a downward spiral of falling production, falling wages, falling prices and Thirties-style dole queues. Armageddon didn’t happen.

Opinion: Cameron’s vision for local government is bleak

Last week’s Local Government Association conference was addressed on its final day by three representatives from Westminster who’d made the journey northwards to Harrogate to face the serried ranks of senior local government councillors and officers.

The Lib Dems were represented by Vince Cable MP, given an early morning slot that not everyone got to. He was warmly received by all those who were there, in any case, which may represent that it was just the Lib Dem LGA group present. His speech covered his history as a councillor himself in the early 1970s when local government had greater discretion – but when many of his colleagues had ended up in prison as a result of decisions they had taken. He covered how localism has come to mean different things to the different parties and how we are all proponents of localism, but mean different things by it:

There is the ‘localism’ which involves strengthening the autonomy of schools, colleges and other bodies by stripping local authorities of their role. There is the localism which really means individual choice at the expense of local community choice. There is localism in the form of regional devolution; devolution to local authorities; and devolution within local authorities. I want to talk about localism in the traditional sense of decentralisation to local communities and their elected councils: not just because I am talking to you but because I believe it is right, and an urgent priority. That is what my party means by localism though I am not sure it is true of our opponents.

Cllr Tim Ball has the full text of Vince Cable’s speech; and Iain Browne of Birkdale Focus gives an account and his reaction to it.

Labour sent their new-in-post Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to the antepenultimate slot of the day. Twitter’s CllrTim thought the Tory and Lib Dem groups had been warned to stay away, and indeed the hall was pitifully empty by the time he took to the podium. I’m sure that rather than any organised boycott, delegates were aware the minister had been in post scant minutes, would have little new to say, and were aware of how hellish it is to leave Harrogate in peak traffic.

As it was, John Denham gave a good round up of the current awful state of Government policy in regards to local government. He even defended the Comprehensive Area Assessment, Labour’s latest wheeze for Whitehall to inspect Town Halls and bestow them with red and green flags (red flags being bad, much to the chagrin of some of my Labour colleagues in Nottingham). Earlier in the day, Vince Cable had promised to remove almost all of the inspection process and save some £800m.

Finally David Cameron, who bounded onto the stage just before lunch to a packed auditorium. The Conservatives control the LGA as they have the majority of the nation’s councillors, and so they were there in number. Contrasted with the other speakers, Cameron has never been a councillor himself. But he has spoken to the LGA three times, and he knows what buttons to press.

Many of the promises he made to councillors were welcome, if they can be believed. Like Vince, he promised less regulation and fewer inspections; an end to the Standards Board and an end to top-down reorganisations.

But the quid pro quo of the greater powers and the higher responsibilities was that a Tory government will give no more money to councils. Any further improvement or achievement will have to come as a zero sum game. His model for this was the supermarkets, and he mocked Labour’s view that cuts in expenditure necessarily lead to cuts in services by calling on the slogans our supermarkets use:

“Good food costs more at Sainsbury’s”.

“At Tesco every little bit doesn’t so much as help – in fact it’d be a 10 per cent cut in the quality of the food”.

Asda wouldn’t boast “permanently low prices – but “permanently more and more cuts in quality and service”.

But to use the supermarkets as the model for local government in the future is a deeply depressing outlook. Those low prices come from an almost monopolistic market position that local councils can never have and from an abysmal, abusive relationship with suppliers that is not a model for anyone, least of all local authorities. I well remember my student and summer work in supermarkets. They were not not the decentralised beacons of autonomy Cameron earlier said he wanted for local government: I can remember night shifts restocking shelves based on a map from head office that showed precisely what went where and hanging advertising banners from the roof based on diagrams from HQ. Even our interactions with customers on the checkouts were precisely defined: opening all conversations with references to loyalty cards with the threat of mystery shoppers to enforce it; the tills monitoring our transaction speeds and getting operators to tap in data on the shopfloor – QUEUE LENGTH??

And the spectre of less money is one that will resonate with those who were in local government during the last Conservative government. My council chamber frequently resonates with the sound of waxing lyrical along themes of schools starved of capital investment, where boilers failed and roofs leaked; of roads in states of disrepair for decades; of the one investment in transport for an entire year, a single set of traffic lights (long since removed as pedestrianisation swept in).

Dave’s final point however was an interesting exercise in transparency pinned around a phrase of “Google Government”. His idea was that councils should make available everything they spend their money on, after a model of Windsor and Maidenhead who make public every item of expenditure over £500. (Mind you, I have looked at their website, and can’t immediately see where they are doing this). The idea is that bloggers, opposition activists and councillors can more immediately hold councils for account for the spending decisions they make – and even that providers can undercut each other in a savage, dog-eat-dog frenzy that leads to local government paying you to empty your bin.

This has begun to begin in Nottingham and there are already local bloggers – some staffed by disgruntled ex-council employees who know where the bodies are buried – who are fast becoming thorns in the sides of the City Council. One of their key tools is FOI legislation, and the handy portal What Do They Know. So maybe Google governance has traction. But in £500 increments? Nottingham City Council now spends over £1bn a year – who has the stones to inspect up to two million expenditure entries? And how are we to meaningfully publish that? And ultimately – is it the sort of top-down imposition that Cameron opened his speech by saying he would abolish?

Alex Foster is a councillor in Nottingham City and attended the LGA conference for the first time last week.

Daily View 2×2: 9 July 2009

Happy Independence Day, Argentina! And happy birthday to Paul Merton and Tom Hanks.

Two big stories

Murdoch Papers hack phones
The Guardian has the story of Murdoch titles doing dodgy things with mobile phones – and it backfiring on them to the tune of at least £1m. There are clear links to current Conservative communications chief Andy Coulson.

There’s an awful lot of this story on the Guardian’s site – including an interview with hack victim Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes.

I hope this story has legs. This was shoddy journalism that should have serious consequences.

Darling’s banking reforms attacked
The FT looks closely at yesterday’s announcements about how the government will regulate banks in future. Says Vince Cable:

“almost all of the important recommendations” made by Mr Darling would not happen until after the next election, rendering the white paper the equivalent of a “living will for the chancellor”.

Two must-read blog posts

Today I’m picking this story about Leominster’s MP Bill Wiggin for no other reason other than Leominster (pronounced Lem-ster) was the town where I did half of my growing up, and it doesn’t get mentioned very often. And Bill Wiggin is the MP I wrote to urging him to vote to equalise the age of consent for young gay men, an age ago. He responded after the vote to tell me that I would no doubt be pleased with the result, as it passed. He neglected to mention voting against the measure.

And I rather enjoyed this rant from Bracknell Blog about the irritating self-service tills many supermarkets are introducing. I find them irritating, because having been a cashier in a supermarket, the self-service tills are much slower at reading barcodes than real checkouts.

On LDV later today

It’s Thursday, so look out for our regular Question Time open thread. The programme is on BBC1 at the usual time of 2235, but is also available on a one-off basis live at 8pm on BBC3.

I’ll also be bringing you two pieces on the LGA conference last week.