Tom Richmond: Conferences miss the target over political accountability

Becky Addlington
Becky Addlington
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THE 2013 party conference season will reach its dénouement next week with Tory triumphalism over the fledgling economic recovery, but the more pertinent question is whether these gatherings still have any place in contemporary politics.

The tribal gatherings of the Lib Dems, Labour and Tories in that order are still covered extravagantly by the BBC – I’m sure Andrew Neil does not present the Daily Politics for free – but they’re increasingly becoming a means for politicians to make promises without undergoing proper scrutiny at Westminster.

Take this year. After the emergency recall of Parliament for the Syria vote, the House of Commons then sat for 10 days in early September before adjourning for three weeks for the conference season.

This session of the Commons is still a fairly recent addition to the Westminster calendar – it was only introduced after voters questioned the wisdom of Parliament not sitting from late July until the beginning of October.

Yet it’s not as if the main parties have the mass membership of the past when conferences were major set-piece occasions. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s iron-like “the lady’s not for turning” speech in 1980? Or Neil Kinnock’s spine-tingling clash with Militant in 1985 and his condemnation of the “grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”?

These were standing room only occasions. Now the main parties struggle to get enough delegates to fill the conference hall – the Tory membership has nearly halved to 134,000 since David Cameron became leader. Labour’s membership has dipped below 200,000, while the Lib Dems have just 42,500 paid-up activists.

My point is this: why do parties not hold party conferences at weekends so the scrutiny of conference policies, like the financing of the extension of free school meals to primary school children, can continue throughout September?

Or is it because too many leaders are too afraid to have their decisions scrutinised, and that they’re still in the pocket of those corporate giants who lobby Ministers, MPs and leading politicians at the conference venues?

A WORD of warning about “targets” – a political notion that the Conservatives will twist to suit their own needs at their party conference.

Home Secretary Theresa May said there would only be one target when crime commissioners were introduced – the need to cut crime. Now police have to conform to dozens of objectives.

Ditto the NHS. David Cameron promised to free the Health Service of red tape. Now he’s administering the precise opposite following a succession of care scandals that have rocked patient confidence.

The latest wheeze is hospital wards listing the number of staff on duty.

Yes, I’m sure this idea was thought through by one of Cameron’s policy groups – but it misses the point.

Writing as someone who has had rather too much first-hand experience of the NHS, the issue is not necessarily nurse numbers – but the care afforded to patients.

If more people received the right diagnosis and treatment in the first place, Yorkshire’s hospitals would not be under such strain. And that’s down to the quality, not quantity, of medical practitioners.

HERE’S an idea to breathe new life into struggling high streets who are losing out to out-of-town shopping complexes and the online retail revolution – use the £30m paid by motorists in parking fines each month to fund innovative schemes like free parking.

My basic mathematics calculates that there is a fighting fund of £360m available. The problem is getting hold of this money when councils need the revenue to pay for traffic wardens – and when the Government desperately wants this money to prop up the Treasury’s finances.

Yet, unless something drastic happens, it will only increase the influence of an organisation like Amazon – a company which remains at the centre of a financial storm after paying just £2.4m in corporate taxes last year on the back of retail sales that were worth £4.3bn.

A SAGA over who was responsible for a broken drain cover in the vicinity of Richmond Towers has left me even more dismayed at the competence – or otherwise – of Yorkshire Water and Leeds Council.

If both were preoccupied with trying to repair a health and safety hazard, rather than passing the buck, they might command more confidence.

Joe Public cannot be expected to understand the vagaries of laws on drains – they just want the damn things repaired.

It’s not rocket science – each drain and manhole cover should be marked on a map with a symbol denoting whether the water company, homeowner or council is liable. Yet what do you expect when Yorkshire Water is too busy looking at ways to avoid corporation tax – and when Leeds Council was authorising five-star expenses for bosses at its marketing agency?

GOOD to see a community bobby on patrol the other day in my part of Leeds. He said he was monitoring the movement of people after a sharp spike in the number of burglaries.

His advice was simple – keep your doors locked because 50 per cent of incidents are walk-in thefts committed by opportunists.

What a sad indictment on society that you can’t keep your door open while pottering about in the garden or washing the car.

THOUGHT for the day: if students are so financially impoverished because of tuition fees, how can so many undergraduates afford to run a car, never mind insure the said vehicle and pay for its running costs?

SO the Queen is not a fan of John McCririck, the bewhiskered and larger than life betting pundit.

According to North Yorkshire commentator Derek Thompson’s memoir Tommo, he invited Her Majesty to appear on The Morning Line – Channel Four’s Saturday morning racing show.

“Does that mean I would have to meet Mr McCririck?” asked the Ascot Gold Cup-winning owner.

“Yes Ma’am, I’m afraid you unfortunately would,” said Thompson.

“Well therefore Mr Thompson, I might have to decline your invitation,” replied the Queen.

Another winning move in her long and glorious reign.

FIVE years after super swimmer Rebecca Adlington won two gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and the powers-that-be are finally realising that this sport is one of life’s essential skills.

Only now are our politicians realising the stupidity of shutting down public baths when campaigners like the recently retired Adlington say every child in the country should be able to swim 25 metres.

Her recent visit to Sheffield highlighted this.

Yet, if this dream is to become a reality, it will need there to be lifeguards and swimming coaches at those pools in private health clubs that are used by an increasing number of families.

Such support is available at council-run facilities, but it continues to amaze me that parents can leave their children in private pools with no supervision while they go and relax in the sauna.

To me, health clubs should conform to the same safety requirements as local authorities.