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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Lib Dems attack public sector plans
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy addresses the party conference on Monday
Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy spoke on Monday
The Liberal Democrats are calling for a moratorium on further private finance initiatives (PFI) for the NHS until a full investigation of the whole concept behind the schemes is ready.

The party are accusing the government of having a "dogmatic" desire to increase the role of private companies in public services like schools and hospitals.

At the very least this is gross incompetence but there is a growing suspicion that there has been a deliberate massaging of the figures in favour of the private sector

Matthew Taylor
Lib Dem treasury spokesman
And they accuse the government of "fiddling" the figures in favour of the private sector on PFI.

The claims came as the Lib Dem conference turned to domestic politics with a debate that laid bare party splits on the public-private debate.

On Monday they focused on the aftermath of the US terror atrocities.

'Fiddled figures'

Speaking in Tuesday's debate, Mr Taylor accused the government of "fiddling" figures on a series of major projects, including the Channel Tunnel and London Underground to show using private funding provided better value.

"At the very least this is gross incompetence but there is a growing suspicion that there has been a deliberate massaging of the figures in favour of the private sector," he said.

New dogma

"New Labour has followed Conservative dogma that the public sector is always bad and private good.

"This is just as blinkered, just as narrow minded as the old Labour ideology of public good, private bad."

Mr Taylor said his party is "not ideological" on about the issue but is opposed to "match-fixing".

While his motion called for independent evaluation of PFI and public-private partnerships (PPP) was passed, so was an amendment insisting on a moratorium on further PFI schemes until that process was complete.

'Secretive scheme'

Proposing that amendment, health spokesman Lord Clement-Jones said: "PFI is opaque, it is not at all clear that any meaningful commercial risk is being transferred to the private sector. It is secretive and expensive."

While he was not against some private involvement, the Lib Dem peer accused Chancellor Gordon Brown of "mortgaging the future on the worst possible terms" through the scheme, whose critics argue only defers the debt.

Others went further in opposing private sector involvement on principle.

East Devon councillor Andrew Toye said: "We are a political party, why can't we have an ideology?"

And another delegate, Baldev Sharma, echoed that view, saying: "There is no place for the private sector in major public services whatsover.

"It's the responsibility of the government to run these services and no one else."

'No certainties'

But there were also strong arguments raised in favour of PFI schemes, with Sutton councillor Anne Gallop saying it had proved a remedy for London's ageing fleet of fire engines.

Acting Deputy First Minister of Wales Jenny Randerson said that being in government meant there could not be "black and white certainties".

What services were delivered was "non-negotiable", how they were delivered was not.

Tuesday's conference agenda also included a speech from Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

In a keynote speech, Lib Dem education and skills spokesman Phil Willis announced a review of the party's education policy and attacked government plans for new specialist schools.

And a wide-ranging debate on transport policy underlined the need for an integrated transport network and called for a new over-arching body for all modes of transport to replace the Strategic Rail Authority.

Lobbying changes

Later, the political lobbying activities of some party spokesman in the House of Lords will come under scrutiny too in a motion which could embarrass some key party figures.

Specifically, it also asks all current Lib Dem MPs or peers or their staff to stop lobbying work within two years.

Party officials insist it would only affect Lord Clement-Jones, who would make his own decision if the motion were passed.

See also:

03 Sep 01 | ppp
Is PFI a good deal?
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