Major's pitch to middle England

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday promised a package of measures designed to woo back defecting Conservatives, including plans to help people fund long-term care, a new "cottage hospital" initiative and lower water bills. In a pitch to middle class voters, Mr Major also promised more grammar schools and a "capital-owning" democracy with wider employee share-ownership.

At the Conservative Central Council in Harrogate, Mr Major sought to put the beef crisis behind him, and highlight the key principles behind the Conservative election strategy.

The Prime Minister announced plans to help elderly people avoid the sale of their homes when they go into long-term care. He told the conference his starting point was "the classic Conservative theme of partnership. If people take out insurance to help pay for their care, the state will reward their contribution by safeguarding more of their assets when that insurance runs out".

Legislation will be brought forward in the next Queen's Speech to ensure that those with insurance are given a higher capital exemption from the means test applied by local authorities for long term care fees when insurance has expired. Ministers will publish a consultation paper at the end of April.

Mr Major also promised lower water bills through new moves to open the industry up to competition. Tomorrow the Department of the Environment will publish its plans to allow companies to compete with each other using the existing pipe network. Business users will probably be the early beneficiaries of this policy although ministers plan to extend it to domestic customers when possible.

Other populist initiatives include a consultation document from Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, to help general practitioners extend their work. Mr Major said this would include "opportunities for GPs to offer some hospital treatments in their surgeries. "Our aim," he said, "is to allow GPs' practices to become the cottage hospitals of the 21st century".

On education, Mr Major announced his much-trailed intention to allow grant-main- tained schools to increase their selective intake. Party strategists see education as a key area of "blue water" between the government and the opposition in the run up to the next general election. Mr Major said he believed "selection does have a place in education".