Read minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs Ed Davey's speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in full:
Conference, governing in Coalition - with a party you have opposed all your political life – isn't easy. So when you're taking difficult decisions, you need to have some guiding principles. Sometimes, you need to be difficult – and block what you think isn't in the national interest. You don't win everything, but you fight the hardest for what you fundamentally believe in. A guiding principle is not complaining about being in power. But seizing the opportunity. The opportunity to secure, in government, Liberal ideals. So I want to talk about three ideals we've all campaigned so hard on, over those long years of opposition. Stronger communities. Fairness for families. Powerful consumers. Three ideals we can now campaign for, on our record.
We are at our best, when we campaign on a record of achievement, for our communities, on our councils and now in government. So today I've got three new campaigns of success for you. On post offices. On better workplace rights for families. And on a new deal for consumers. Being a junior minister can be the best or the worst job in the world.
Like most jobs, a good boss makes all the difference. If you are unlucky you end up working for someone who can't delegate, who doesn't like you, and who wants all the glory. And, in a coalition, you might end up with a boss whose ideas, frankly, you have spent a lifetime opposing. So I am lucky. My boss is Vince Cable. I've known Vince for 20 years. Our constituencies are next door to each other. We've worked together on developing our economic policy. That puts fairness at the heart of what we do.
Fairness means lifting millions of low paid people out of tax – so they keep what they earn. Labour failed to do it in 13 years. And does anyone think a Conservative government would have done it?
It's taken a coalition – with Liberal Democrats at the centre, to make it happen. And, friends, we should be shouting this, from the roof tops. And frankly I don't think we are making anywhere near enough of it. For my message to you today, is that we need to understand how we campaign as a party of government. Because I believe it's a huge opportunity if we get it right. Like many of you, I've knocked on a fair few doors this summer – not least because we had a by-election in my constituency last Thursday.
We had won Surbiton Hill ward off the Tories for the first time ever in May 2010. And there was a Labour history in the ward, and Labour were really trying, for the first time for a decade. It was a tough defence. But we ran on our record. We talked about our achievements. Local and national. It was a great campaign. We won. Well done, councillor John Ayles and the team!
Today I want to talk about three campaigns that show how Liberal Democrat ministers are making life better for people. So first off, the post office. We know post offices are at the heart of stronger communities. That's why, for years we have campaigned to save individual post offices. Sometimes we would win, but more often than not we would lose. The reality was that New Labour just didn't get it. Post offices just weren't cool enough for Tony Blair and his cool Britannia mates. The fact that old people, poor people, real people depended on them didn't matter to the likes of Peter Mandelson.
That is why we had the obscene spectacle of a Labour government – a Labour government - paying the owners of sub-post offices to pack up and go home.
While we will work with communities to find replacements when the sub-postmaster retires, Labour just closed them down. With your money. Well, not any more. The days of closure programmes of local post offices are over.
Now that doesn't mean I have a magic wand. But it does mean I have a responsibility. A responsibility to come up with a plan. A plan that gives post offices a role that works.
Let me tell you about it. I want the post office to become the "front office" for government. National and local. It is beginning to happen. Earlier this year Westminster council awarded the post office a contract for 6 services, including council tax payments and parking permits. Westminster councillors are a hard-headed bunch of people. They didn't do this for a cheap headline. They did it because the post office is great at what it does. Westminster is not the only council seeing the potential of the post office. Sheffield council has a pilot strategic partnership with the post office. And now, advised by councillor Richard Kemp, I believe we should explore the links between councils and post offices even more.
Later this month I will be writing to 25 councils asking them to join in. If you are one of the people who I write to, say yes! No guaranteed contracts here – post office will have to compete. But I'm telling every post office manager there's a business opportunity here they can seize. And it isn't just councils and the government that see the post office as an attractive partner. Many banks - Barclays, Co-op and Lloyds for example – let their customers use the post office for banking. And I'm delighted to tell you that, from this coming Friday, for the first time, Nat West customers will be able to do so as well. In fact, just two banks are holding out – HSBC and Santander. Frankly, that's really disappointing. So today, I hope you will join me in calling on them to think again.
And if they don't respond, maybe we need another campaign. To tell these banks they have a responsibility to their customers and local communities. And if they still don't listen. Well, I hope you will think about switching your account to another bank.
Now to be successful the post office has to be modern and efficient. And that takes real investment. And that means help from Liberal Democrats in the Treasury. Help and the Treasury? Not words that normally go together. Well, that's why I want to thank Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, for his amazing work. Even when dealing with Labour's debt meant cuts left, right and centre, Danny still found more than £1bn to modernise the post office. Because of the tough decisions our country needs, some question Danny's commitment to Liberal values. He delivers on our promises and our values. Even in the toughest times.
As a result of this new investment, four thousand post offices will be transformed over the next few years. With self-services machines, to cut queues, and new technology, to meet customer needs. And our local post offices will be revolutionised too. Today too many small sub-post offices are forced to have their own dedicated counter, and a specific member of staff, with all the costs that entails. We want to free up such sub-post offices, to help them integrate the post office with their regular business. So they can share a counter and staff.
This small change will make a huge difference. Cutting costs and queues – while increasing opening hours to match the store's. This is the reality that we are delivering.
We already have more than 100 pilots in operation. And guess what? It works. Customers are delighted – more than 9 in 10 say they like it. And sub-postmasters do too.
That's why other post offices are queuing up to join in. Conference, we are on our way.
Viable post offices in the heart of our communities are here to stay.
Now that's delivering Liberal values. In government. Something we can be proud of - and campaign on! But there's more. We need to make sure that post offices are never again ripped out of our communities. That is why today I'm putting forward this proposal to make the post office into a mutual, a co-operative, instead of being a nationalised industry. This is the best way – our way, the Liberal way. Ensuring that sub-postmasters, employees and local communities work together making the post office everything we want and know it can be.
Conference, we have campaigned for years about post offices. Let's shout about how we, in government, aren't just saving them. But building a real future for our post offices, in every community. Here's another idea we can be proud of. Another idea we can campaign on. Another idea that will win us elections. Making work, work for families.
We inherited a system of maternity and paternity leave that was inflexible. It was bad for families and firms alike. Some people suggested to me that we should abolish maternity leave. That isn't my policy. It isn't our party's policy. And because we are in government, it isn’t government policy either. But we do need reform. Reform that works for mums and dads – and the firms that employ them.
Our proposal is simple. It is radical. And it is right. It's not the state who should decide who looks after a child. It's their parents. Couples should decide who gets the leave: the mother, the father, or both. Of course there has to be an initial period of maternity leave. Women give birth, and men don't. But mums and dads would be able to share the rest of the leave in a way that works for them. And we should be proud that it is the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who has led the way. Nick is championing our modern approach. For mums, for dads, for families across Britain.
Remember what it says on our membership cards? "No-one shall be enslaved by conformity". We are delivering an end to conformity in maternal and paternal leave.
Everyone to be able to make the choice that works best for them and their family. That's what being a Liberal Democrat is all about. Along the way, we would also abolish the crazy rule that says that if a mother returns early to work part-time, agreed with her employer, the state says she must lose all her statutory maternity pay and rights. How crazy is that? Well let me tell you conference: this rule is out.
Some people have told me they are worried about the government's agenda on employment regulations. That it's not a Liberal Democrat agenda. Well, as minister responsible, I promise you that I am delivering on the principles we share. Regulations that stop job creation betray people who want to work. For too long, our employment tribunal system has been bad for employers and bad for employees – but very good for lawyers. It needs a radical shift from confrontation to conciliation. That is my driving passion. But it's not the only one. I'm especially proud to have signed an order to end legalised age discrimination at work. A law that allowed firms to force people to retire at 65 - even when they were good at their job, and did not want to go. From better rights for families to ending age discrimination. The Liberal Democrats have shown that - in government - we can and we have helped people and businesses – and we should campaign on that success.
OK – here's my third campaign. For years some of our big supermarkets have not played fair. They have hit farmers and they have hurt customers. They have hit farmers by agreeing one price, taking the goods, and then – at the end of the year – demanding some of the money back. It just isn't on. They hurt consumers by demanding payments from suppliers just to put the product on the shelf. This means small firms don't get a look-in.
It means we don't get the chance to buy the full range of products available. That's bad for small firms, and it's bad for consumers.
The Competition Commission has criticised the supermarkets for exactly this. Well, no more. Our party stands against vested interests, ripping off customers and playing dirty.
It doesn't matter how big and powerful you are. We will stand firm. That is why we are creating a permanent supermarket adjudicator. Their job will be to enforce a tough new code of practice and stamp out bad behaviour. My colleague Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St. Ives, has worked tirelessly on this issue. I am hugely grateful to him – Andrew, this wouldn't have happened without you. We should be telling people across the country how Liberal Democrats stood up for farmers, stood up for small businesses and stood up for consumers. And how we took on the powerful supermarkets and won.
This matters and it's a vote winner.
Conference, so much is being achieved. But we have much still to do. For example, we have started work on a new Consumer Bill of Rights. It will be in simple English – making it easier for consumers and business alike. A bonfire of red tape that will make the consumer stronger.
Colleagues, it isn't easy being in government. In hard economic times. In coalition.
But we have an opportunity. And we have the ideals we've fought so long and hard for.
Powerful consumers – getting a better deal from big supermarkets. Fairness for families – mums and dads better able to share in the delightful challenge of being a parent. And stronger communities – with post offices at their heart. Liberal Democrats – these were our campaigns in opposition. They are our actions in government. Thirty years ago David Steel told us to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government. Well, we're there. So I say this. Go back to your constituencies and campaign on our record in government. We can do it. We must do it. And when we do it, we will win.