Clegg at odds with Farron as he rejects calls to restore 50p tax rate

The Lib Dem leader could face defeat this afternoon after he argues against changing "one very specific symbolic tax rate" in opposition to the party president.

Alongside this morning's debate on whether to support "Osbornomics", the Lib Dem conference will vote later today on whether to back the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. While the main motion favours maintaining the current 45p rate, an amendment argues that the party should support the 50p rate, subject to a review concluding that the measure would raise more than it costs. Since the 50p rate, contrary to what some claim, raised £1bn in its first year (and would have raised more had George Osborne allowed it to operate for longer), the case for a Yes vote is a strong one. It would enable the Lib Dems to reclaim ownership of a policy they proposed long before Labour (abandoning it under Ming Campbell's leadership in 2006) and provide a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives.

When I interviewed Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, for the New Statesman last week, he told me: "My view is that we should have that [the 50p rate] in our manifesto and while it raises an amount of money, it’s also a really important statement that we are all in it together." Polling by Liberal Democrat Voice has shown that 90% of party members support the principle of a 50p rate.

But asked on the Today programme this morning whether he favoured the move, Clegg said: "To drive home the message of tax reform I think changing one very specific symbolic tax rate is not really the key part of the matter." He suggested, however, that he was relaxed about the prospect of defeat: "Of course if the party votes to take a decision, that’s one of the joys of the Liberal Democrats...we still retain this thing called democracy and I’m very proud of the fact that I’m, in a sense, just one voice among many and that this is decided democratically."

In arguing for the retention of the 45p rate, Clegg will be aided by Vince Cable, who is due to speak in the debate, which begins at 3:30pm. With the party's pre-eminent economic voice publicly supporting the motion, many will be less inclined to vote for the 50p rate. But the weight of opinion in favour of it means that this could still be the moment that the grassroots choose to deliver a bloody nose to the leadership.

Nick Clegg speaks during a rally at the Liberal Democrat conference at the SECC in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.