Hughes: We won’t sign on the dotted line

By Alex Stevenson

The Liberal Democrats will use their party conference to defy the coalition government’s policy, Simon Hughes has told politics.co.uk.

The party’s deputy leader’s comments came as Lib Dem delegates in Liverpool debated a motion expressing concern at education secretary Michael Gove’s proposals on free schools and academies.

“It’ll just remind people the deal that’s been done in the coalition is not the deal the Liberal Democrats would have done on their own,” Mr Hughes said.

“We believe the best way to deal with education, for example, is to make sure you support the existing schools, you fund the existing schools and you keep them linked to locally elected authorities. Let’s see the outcome.”

Today’s motion on free schools states that “conference is concerned by the establishment of academies and free schools under coalition government policy”.

It reasserts party policy made before the general election that local authorities should retain strategic oversight of the provision of school places funded by the use of public money.

It also demands that academies be required to pay the full cost for any services they buy back from local authorities and lists seven “risks” associated with academies.

The decision to position the Lib Dem conference away from coalition government policy has attracted criticism from some who fear party members will not feel a sense of ownership over the administration.

Julian Astle, director of the liberal thinktank Centre Forum, told politics.co.uk: “I think one of the tasks Nick Clegg and his colleagues have got at this conference is to give the party a sense of ownership of the whole agenda.

“They need to make them feel comfortable with, even proud of, what the coalition is doing across a wider range of policy areas than just the civil liberties and the political reform agenda.”

That assessment seems completely at odds with the reality being pursued by the party’s deputy leader.

Mr Hughes added: “This is a conference where Liberal Democrats express what we want to be the solution, and that doesn’t mean we have to sign on the dotted line for everything the coalition government agrees.

“This is our place, our policy… sometimes we’ll say actually we would have done it differently.”