Blair takes on motorists with city centre tolls

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TONY BLAIR began the countdown to the next general election yesterday by unveiling a wide-ranging legislative programme for what he intends to be the last full Parliamentary session before he seeks a second term.

The 28 bills announced in the Queen's Speech included "tough" measures on crime to bolster Labour's appeal to the middle classes, but also risked alienating motorists by giving local authorities the power to charge people for driving into town and city centres.

Labour MPs warned immediately that ministers could face significant backbench rebellions on three key measures. The most vulnerable is the plan to partially privatise the air traffic control system, with many Labour MPs deeply worried about safety following the Paddington train crash.

In an attempt to head off the revolt, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, will include extra provisions on safety in his Transport Bill. Safety regulation will be retained in public ownership and the Government will keep a veto over strategic decisions by the National Air Traffic Service after 51 per cent of its shares have been sold.

Labour MPs also plan to amend a Bill to give the Post Office greater commercial freedom, and will seek to beef up Britain's first freedom of information law, regarded by many as too cautious.

Mr Blair also faced criticism last night over the "illiberal" streak in measures such as curbing the right to trial by jury; mandatory drug- testing for some suspected criminals; tougher anti-terrorism laws and the removal of social security benefits from young offenders who disobey court orders.

The Prime Minister told MPs: "The civil liberty most prized by British citizens is the freedom to go about their daily life free from crime and harassment, and when crimes are committed for people to be properly punished." Mr Blair said the central theme of theprogramme was "enterprise and fairness."

He may also have trouble getting some of yesterday's proposals through the House of Lords, despite the absence of the 600 Tory-dominated hereditary peers from the second chamber. The "interim" Lords may fire a shot across Mr Blair's bows next week by attacking the "incoherence and lack of vision" in the Government's programme. For the first time in 50 years, the Tories have tabled an amendment to the Queen's Speech, to show that the new-look Lords will not be a pushover. "Labour can't complain if we bite them on the backside," a senior Tory source said last night.

In a confident Commons performance, William Hague declared: "There is nothing in this Queen's Speech to make next year anything other than another year of no delivery ... there is nothing for families, nothing for savers, nothing for schools, nothing for the NHS, nothing to help businesses."

Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, criticised the programme for its "timidity" and branded some measures "illiberal".

Further reports, pages 6 - 9

Leading article, Review, page 3

Roy Hattersley, Review, page 4


t Crime and Probation Bill: drug-testing of suspected criminals; more electronic tagging.

t Transport Bill: congestion charging; Strategic Rail Authority.

t Welfare Reform Bill: streamlines Child Support Agency; new state second pension scheme.

t Freedom of Information Bill: gives first access to information held by public bodies.

t Local Government Bill: more city mayors; new penalties for corruption.

t Countryside Bill: right to roam; protection for wildlife from development.

t Terrorism Bill: extended powers for police.

t Postal Services Bill: converts Post Office to state-owned plc.