A MASSIVE police operation was put in place in Sheffield on Saturday as protesters gathered outside the Lib Dem’s spring conference to oppose Government spending cuts and increased student fees.
Police defended their decision to deploy around 1,000 officers at the protest in the city centre as an expected 10,000-strong demonstration failed to materialise.
South Yorkshire Police said between 3,000 to 5,000 people took part in the demonstration as Lib Dem delegates debated NHS reforms.
The force was braced for potential trouble and said it faced the biggest challenge since floods devastated parts of the county in 2007.
Today’s protest was largely good natured, although there were a few minor scuffles and a flare was let off.
Despite the low numbers the police maintained a high visibility presence in the city centre.
Today’s march started just after 12pm on Devonshire Green and ended on Barker’s Pool.
On Friday, around 500 people took part in a city-centre demonstration and a bigger protest was expected today.
Sheffield Commander Chief Superintendent Simon Torr said: “There will again be a large number of police officers throughout the city centre as the force can’t take a chance on this event.
“We have been planning for this event for the past three to four months and we are pleased to be playing a part in hosting a major political conference in the county, to showcase Sheffield and prove what we can achieve together with our city centre partners.”
Protesters outside the conference chanted and shouted “Tory scum” at those entering and exiting.
A fringe meeting with Business Secretary Vince Cable was moved from a hotel outside the secure zone to a function room in Sheffield City Hall.
Ministers were also apparently advised to avoid leaving the secure zone if possible.
South Yorkshire Police later confirmed that a 24-year-old man had been arrested for a public order offence and the discharge of a firework in a public place.
He was given a £80 fixed penalty fine and released, a police spokeswoman said. No other arrests were made.
Inside, Nick Clegg suffered a stinging rebuke from his own party over radical coalition plans to shake up the NHS.
Liberal Democrat activists overwhelmingly passed a motion criticising proposals to put GPs in control of commissioning services.
Speaker after speaker called for a rethink. Former Cabinet minister Baroness Shirley Williams branded the changes “lousy”, while backbencher Andrew George insisted the party should not be “the architects of (the NHS’s) demise”.
Amendments to a motion put forward by Health Minister Paul Burstow were passed almost unanimously by activists.
They objected to the “damaging and unjustified market-based approach” being taken by the Government.
“Conference regrets that some of the proposed reforms have never been Liberal Democrat policy, did not feature in our manifesto or in the agreed Coalition Programme, which instead called for an end to large-scale top-down reorganisations,” the text stated.
Lady Williams said she did not want to damage Mr Clegg or the coalition.
But she insisted the Deputy Prime Minister was allowing the “treasured” health service to be put at risk.
“We did not expect a massive reorganisation and one which will fall within a period when many of our fellow citizens are worried about whether they will keep their jobs and how they will pay for petrol and food,” she said.
Lady Williams warned that the “accountability proposals of the new structures are lousy”, and private companies would be looking to “cherry pick” profitable services rather than treat patients in the most need.
She said the party rank-and-file had to “stand up and be counted” by opposing the plans.
“In doing so we will make the coalition a better coalition,” she added.
St Ives MP Mr George told the gathering it was natural for incoming governments to trash the record of their predecessors.
“But don’t trash the NHS,” he added. “This is a dream come true for litigators, lawyers and management consultants.
“The Lib Dems were the architects of the NHS. Don’t let us become the architects of its demise.”
Fellow backbencher John Pugh dismissed plans for more democratic involvement in local health services as a “sop” designed to win over the Lib Dems.
He said the reforms would actually create the “biggest quango in the country”, suggesting that only Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley thought they were a good idea.
“It is no longer the doctors who know best, it is the minister,” Mr Pugh said. “We have the Government on the one side and the NHS on the other.”
Former MP Sandra Gidley asked the conference: “How can it be right to put such power in the hands of GPs who for the most part do not want to do it and are not qualified?”
Responding to the conference’s vote, Mr Burstow said he would be “taking those concerns back to Government”.
“The Liberal Democrats are fundamentally committed to the NHS. We believe in an NHS that is universal, based on need and free at the point of use,” he said.
“There will be no US-style privatisation of the health service on our watch.
“The party has shown its mettle by setting out areas for improvement in the Bill.
“I can assure you we are listening to the party’s concerns and I will be taking those concerns back to the Government.”
Former MP Dr Evan Harris, one of the driving forces behind the main amendment, said he wanted Mr Clegg and the leadership to “seize the opportunity” to secure fundamental changes to the Bill.
And Dr Charles West, who proposed the text, warned that there was a “serious potential for conflicts of interest”.
“Will your GP be looking after you or the budget?” he asked.
He said the coalition’s plans would increase the “creeping privatisation” in the NHS, encouraging “cut-throat competition”.
Shadow health secretary John Healey, who sat in on the debate in Sheffield, said: “This debate has forced a big climb down for Nick Clegg and his ministers, and the conference delegates have made it clear that David Cameron’s reckless NHS plans are not Lib Dem policy.
“They have shown today that they don’t want their party to get dragged down by the damage the Tories are trying to do to the health service.
“The big test now is for Nick Clegg, and it will be for him to persuade David Cameron to make fundamental changes to the planned legislation and reorganisation.
“Ordinary Lib Dem members should make common cause with everyone else who wants to protect the NHS and make sure he does.”
After the debate, Dr Harris said: “Because the health reforms were not in the coalition agreement, today’s vote is the only view expressed by the party on the subject, and sends a very clear message through the minister and our leader to their Conservative Coalition partners that we will not accept market reform of the health service, any fragmentation or destabilisation of NHS services by new private providers or the lack of accountability for the spending of public money envisaged in the model of GP commissioning promoted in the bill.
“The onus is now on the Government to respond fully to the democratically expressed views of the Liberal Democrats.”