Saturday, 14 March 2009

Scottish Conference: The Economy

Greetings from Perth, where the Scottish Liberal Democrats have gathered this weekend for our spring conference.

There's no doubt what the main theme of the conference is: it's the economy, stupid. Yesterday we passed a comprehensive package of policies to get our economy moving again. You can find details of the policy in the conference agenda. By the way, I would have thought that the Scottish Lib Dem website would have had the policies in an easy to find part of their website rather than just on the agenda, but we don't seem to be updating the site to give people live updates, which seems a bit of a wasted opportunity.

The main features of the policy are investment in the green economy, support for small and medium-sized enterprises and cutting taxes for people on low and medium incomes, paid for by shifting the burden of taxation more on to the wealthiest in society and to pollution.

One of the important things about the policy is that it seeks action at a Scottish, UK and European level, as we recognise that no level of government can possibly tackle all the economic issues by itself.

This policy debate was followed by a question and answer session with Scottish Lib Dem finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis, Andy Willox of the Federation of Small Businesses and St Vincent of Threadneedle Street. It was an interesting discussion, although I don't really have the time to go into detail about it. But it served as another means for some of our target seat candidates to say something which will doubtless be reflected in their local papers in due course.

And this morning we had a debate on financial inclusion. We recognise that many poorer people can find it difficult to access affordable credit to pay for some necessities and are often therefore prey to loan sharks and doorstep lenders who charge a high rate of interest such as the Provident.

Conference supported a policy with three main aspects: a call for legislation to ensure a maximum rate of interest which any loan provider can charge, in line with laws in many other European countries; better financial education and support for alternative financial providers such as credit unions. There was also a call for the Post Office to be able to develop a basic banking service which people across the country can access.

As a former credit union secretary I spoke briefly in this debate, highlighting the important role which credit unions can play on this issue, providing low-cost loans and also helping people break the cycle of debt by encouraging saving. But we need to recognise that credit unions also have a patchy coverage across Scotland and many also suffer difficulties in getting enough of their members to take a role in running them, so they are not a magic solution.

But I am delighted that the Lib Dems are addressing issues such as these and coming up with real practical solutions for many of the tough economic issues we face.

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