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Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Getting back to basics
BBC News Online political reporter Mark Davies offers his view of events at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.

The key debate on Wednesday will see delegates assessing the work of the party's policy review on public services.

The working group chaired by Chris Huhne MEP has proposed a dedicated NHS tax, local income taxes and proposals aimed at giving local authorities more power.

There will also be an emergency motion on Iraq, debates on Gibraltar, organ donation, mental health and identity cards.

With the party leadership away for the recall of Parliament, it was a chance for delegates to get back to basics.

After all, while the cat's away, the mice will...assess the draft outline indicative provisional budget.

In case it's not immediately obvious, the Lib Dems rejigged their conference agenda so that their key policy debates didn't clash with the Iraq debate in the Commons.

So on Tuesday afternoon, membership fees were increased, a group representing scientists and engineers won party recognition and two men in chinos debated the minutiae of the party's financial accounts.

Who said nothing gets done at party conferences?

Of course such matters are important to party delegates.

And there were impassioned speeches on undeniably important issues like human trafficking.

Few MPs were there to hear them, but some had hung around instead of heading for the Iraq debate in Westminster.

"There will be plenty of bigger egos in the Commons already," said one. "No need for me to go back."

Scottish Lib Dem leader Jim Wallace recalled the unkind words of ex-party leader Paddy Ashdown in relation to Scottish Tory chief David McLetchie - "if Thomas Hardy had known him, he would have written 'Jude - The Relatively Well Known'."

Julian Gold, an 81-year-old delegate from north Norfolk, made his first ever conference speech in the debate on pornography.

Perhaps he should have started his speaking career earlier. He made a witty and thoughtful speech which brought the conference to life.

For a party newsletter called Informed. "I think they should save the trees to be honest," delegate Peter Tyzack told the conference.

"It may seem a long way from banning pictures of a three-in a-bed romp to banning political debate" - a Lib Dem delegate reasoning why he supports lifting restrictions on pornography

Delegates got a sneak preview of the party's next party political broadcast, with government and Tory "spin" the target of the film.

The mainly black and white broadcast features spinning plates and washing machines - geddit? - before finding colour with an appearance by Charles Kennedy to hammer home the party's message.

Matthew Taylor's proposed NHS tax isn't the only piece of hypothecation on the agenda at conference.

This year's Lib Dem conference appeal will be directed in its entirety to the party's gender balance task force.

Attempts to bring in a cut price membership fee were thrown out by delegates amid warnings that it could make the party vulnerable to "entryism".

The RSPCA stand has been attracting delegates in their droves as they seek information on animal welfare issues.

At least it could be that. Or it might be the fluffy hedgehog and duck keyrings on offer for a small donation.

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