Blair dashes public sector's hopes

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has succeeded in dramatically lowering public sector expectations of a Labour government, according to a survey conducted by The Independent.

Schools, NHS hospitals, universities, housing and social services departments - and to a lesser extent Training and Enterprise Councils - are all complaining vociferously of underfunding in the run-up to the general election.

But a survey of more than 100 senior managers across the public sector shows there are low expectations of higher spending from a Labour government. The survey covered NHS and TEC chief executives, university vice-chancellors, head teachers and directors of housing, education and social services.

Aside from a few limited initiatives - such as Labour's pledge to cut infant class sizes and its promise to boost home building by a phased release of the pounds 6bn that local authorities hold in capital receipts - few senior managers believe Labour will boost spending in real terms above the rate of growth the Conservatives have allowed.

And in significant parts of the public sector - the NHS particularly - senior figures who will be charged with delivering Labour's policies say they are still unclear precisely what those policies are or what practical effect they will have. Many said they believed a Labour government would make no difference in their area.

In both education and health, there are strong pleas for stability and for no further radical change after the turmoil over organisation and structure in the years since 1988.

But despite low expectations - at least in the short term - and doubts that Labour's policies will bring significant improvements, there is a desire for a change. Among those questioned, only amongst the heads of grant maintained schools - who fear loss of independence to local authorities - was there a majority who wished to see the Conservatives remain in office.

As one director of social services put it, summing up the odd mix of low expectations and anticipation which characterised many of the replies, "my highest hope is that the centimetre of difference between Labour and the Tories will make life under them more tolerable".

The survey showed that among those questioned, university vice-chancellors are by far the most disillusioned and disaffected with the Government's policies - citing chronic underfunding and a belief that it is now inevitable that fees will have to be charged for university tuition. Few see Labour as riding to their rescue, however.

The most buoyant sector was the Training and Enterprise Councils. Even there, almost half of chief executives cited shortage of funds as a major worry, but just under half expected real resources to rise under Labour, given the party's commitment to training.

No other group was so optimistic. Social services and housing directors feared spending would lose out to schools and health. But only three out of 20 hospital and community health service chief executives believed Labour would be more generous than the Tories have been, and only eight out of 20 school heads expected real resources to rise under Labour. There was widespread disagreement over where Labour's priority for any extra spending should be. Only amongst head teachers did a majority believe their own area should come first. Among social services directors, reducing unemployment was most important, while several NHS chief executives placed a higher priority on housing than on the NHS.

Opinions were sharply divided on whether the election of a Labour government would lead to an explosion in public sector pay demands. University vice- chancellors are seriously worried about academic pay levels. Around half of social services and housing directors foresaw pressure for pay increases but had few hopes that a Labour government would help meet them. Around half the school heads thought pay pressures would rise.

Labour doubts, page 6

Hattersley's warning, page 2

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