Ashdown pledges cash for education

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The Independent Online
Reforming a failed political system should be at the heart of tomorrow's Queen's Speech, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said yesterday as he set out his party's alternative programme.

Ranking with Bills to provide for proportional representation in all elections, reform of the House of Lords and home rule for Scotland and Wales would be a cash-backed commitment to drive up education standards.

'If there is one area where we need to invest money now, it is in education,' Mr Ashdown said, restating his 1992 election pledge to put an extra penny in the pound on income tax to pay for it.

Commending one of the main recommendations of the National Commission on Education, the independent body which has just produced its own report, he said a Liberal Democrat Education Bill would guarantee nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents wanted it.

Underscoring his belief that Westminster politicians are increasingly out-of-touch with the lives of those they purport to serve, Mr Ashdown made his 'Queen's Speech' in the inner-city area of Balsall Heath, Birmingham.

Mr Ashdown said he did not believe the Government was addressing the needs of the people of Balsall Heath, of his Yeovil constituency, or of anywhere else beyond the walls of Westminster - and nor would the Queen's Speech. 'In the hot-house of Parliament, commonsense and co-operation goes out of the window and policy-making is driven by unthinking dogma and short-term knee-jerk reaction.'

Ridiculing John Major's 'Back to Basics' initiative, he said it 'conveniently ignored' the fact that the Conservatives had been in power for 14 years.

'What it is about, of course, is replacing the search for ideas, with the search for new people to blame and the search for more money to claw back to pay for their economic incompetence.'

How much better off the country would be if the Government cared half as much for the society it had created as some single mothers cared for their children, he said.

Mr Ashdown's programme would also include Bills to give the Bank of England independent responsibility for monetary policy; to require interest to be paid on late payment of commercial debt; to repeal the rail privatisation Act; and to put crime prevention and the reduction of reoffending at the heart of the criminal justice system.

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