Ashdown pledges to restore benefits

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GOVERNMENT POLICIES have created a Charles Dickens world of grinding poverty and teenage beggars, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said last night in a personalised attack on the Prime Minister, writes Patricia Wynn Davies.

Voters should use next week's European Parliament elections to send a protest to John Major over his promise to create a 'classless society' and a 'nation at ease with itself', Mr Ashdown said.

Pledging at an election rally in Poole, Dorset, that the Liberal Democrats would restore benefits to 16- and 17-year-olds, he said: 'Mr Major looks back longingly to the world of John Betjeman - of country pubs and old maids - when what his policies have created is the world of Charles Dickens, of grinding poverty and teenage beggars.'

Mr Ashdown said the Tories had failed to invest in the future. In Britain, only a quarter of three- and four-year-olds received nursery education, the worst record in the European Union except Portugal, he said.

Mr Ashdown said the Liberal Democrats were the only party that would restore the benefits to young people. It would cost pounds 140m but it would 'cost the country much more in the long run if . . . we produce a generation of under- educated youngsters who are a drain on society's resources and a potential danger to its citizens'.

He said: 'The Tories have created a society which values money and uses people; we want a society that uses money and values people.'

Andrew Marr, page 17