Blair talks tough over truancy

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Councils should not shrink from using court action against parents who allow their children to truant from school, Tony Blair said last night.

The Labour leader also used the annual Spectator lecture in London to deliver similarly strong backing for tough measures, including eviction, against noisy tenants and those failing to control children, rubbish or dangerous dogs.

A pointed assertion that "parents have a duty to their children and to others affected by their children", and that "those who are housed by the state have a duty to behave responsibly", came in Mr Blair's first public dissection of "the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe", a phrase included in the revised Clause IV which is set for approval at next month's special conference.

Welcoming plans to give local councils powers to confiscate hi-fi equipment, the Labour leader also pledged to examine cheaper and speedier eviction procedures, while safeguarding the rights of decent tenants.

A society built on duty, Mr Blair emphasised, "allows us to be much tougher and hard-headed in the rules we apply, and how we apply them."

Mr Blair promised to make education "the passion" of a future Labour government. "But it cannot be dependent on teachers and government alone." Some inner city classes were depleted by truancy rates of up to 30 per cent, he said.

Many people have forgotten the "absolute" legal obligation on parents to send their children to school. "Some cases do end up in court. We should not be squeamish about that."

Mr Blair put colleagues on election alert at last night's Shadow Cabinet, declaring that while the most likely prospect was that the Government would last the full term, the Tories' "discipline is now so seriously broken down, we must be prepared for any eventuality, including a change of prime minister and an early election."

He said Labour was now looked on as a government-in-waiting. "We will, therefore, be under intense scrutiny which requires us both to develop our strengths and eliminate our weaknesses," he said.

Mr Blair's remarks on truancy and noise pollution are bound to have resonance among "middle" England voters on whom his electoral fortunes will turn, as well as the politically disillusioned in housing estates.

Michael Dobbs, a deputy Tory party chairman, told a Westminster dinner: "Every Labour government there has ever been in this country has introduced more bureaucracy, more inspectors, more controls. And every Labour government there has ever been in this country has put up the level of unemployment and left office in chaos."

But the latest Mori/Times poll today shows Labour maintaining a big lead. They have 57 per cent, over the Conservatives who are still trailing at 25.