What will 1997 bring? Our experts predict

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The Independent Online
Environment

By Geoffrey Lean

Next year will show whether the world is serious about tackling global warming. International negotiations will culminate in a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, to determine whether the industrialised countries will cut pollution to mitigate the climate change. So far, few look like fulfilling even their present promises - to level off emissions by 2000 - but there are some signs of new resolution, particularly from the United States.

In June, world leaders meet in New York on the fifth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit to review progress since - and, just possibly, resolveto do better. And there will be renewed controversy during the year over whether to continue banning trade in ivory to save elephants.

The election will probably force the departure of John Gummer, who has, to universal surprise, turned out to be the best Secretary yet. Whether Labour would do any better is an open question: it has a far-reaching environment policy document but this does not yet figure at all in its election preparations. The answer will probably come down to personalities. Labour would be likely to ban foxhunting and put organo- phosphate pesticides under heavy restriction.

Whoever wins, there will be more rows over fishing, more road protests, and debate over house-building in the countryside as the economy picks up and ministers decide where to put new homes. And the Department of the will start the year by moving from one of the ugliest buildings in Europe to a new, relatively eco-friendly headquarters. Let's hope it is an omen.

Education

By Judith Judd

Universities will be centre-stage in 1997, whoever wins the election. Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education, which reports in June and has Conservative and Labour backing, will recommend that students should take out loans for at least part of their tuition fees. At present loans are just for living costs and the taxpayer funds fees.

A Conservative win at the polls will bring a lurch to the right in education. Gillian Shephard will be sacked as secretary of state and replaced by a right-winger who will be less kind to teachers.

The new government will redouble its efforts to privatise education, inviting companies to take over and invest in schools. A growing number of schools will take advantage of new legislation to select more of their pupils by ability.

If Labour wins the election, its first budget will disappoint parents and teachers.David Blunkett, the new secretary of state, will be so tough on standards and bad teachers he will make his Conservative predecessors look like wimps.

Technology

By Charles Arthur

In the worlds of science and technology, 1997 is likely to be the year when the Internet finally makes people realise that phone-in polls are a waste of time. This year the BBC TV Sports Personality of the Year and a poll about the Duke of Edinburgh's opinion on gun control were exposed as deeply flawed, because highly opinionated "voters", rather than interested members of the public, were encouraged to make their voice known. Perhaps other polls in 1996 were also "fixed" - who knows?

More families will buy connections to the Internet, raising more fears about "child pornography" until they understand it. Meanwhile, any PC bought at Christmas will be out of date within months, especially as Intel plans to launch a faster processor chip in January.

In science, meanwhile, expect more research strengthening the link between BSE - mad cow disease - and the fatal human illness Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease (CJD). Sadly, there is little hope of any therapies for about 10 years.

Employment

By Barrie Clement

Those expecting that the economic recovery will at last translate into higher paid, more secure jobs will be disappointed. Whichever party forms the next government, Britain faces global competition which dictates that people will have to be flexible whether they are accountants or production workers. The rich will get richer and the poor will get the blame - as they always did.

Britain has been unable to fulfil its ambition to raise the quality of its goods and therefore occupy lucrative niche markets for specialised products which sell for high prices. The much-vaunted revolution in vocational training has not happened and we will continue to compete with the Pacific Rim, where wages are normally lower, and increasingly China, where they are lower still.

If Labour forms the next government, employees can expect a little more protection. But most jobs created next year will continue to be part- time and temporary. Late in the year, after deliberation by the new Low Pay Commission and the Labour Cabinet, there will be a statutory minimum wage, set at a relatively low level, around pounds 3.25. A million or so of the very lowest paid will benefit. And where a majority of workers want a union to negotiate on their behalf, a law will enforce it. Whether such legislation will be introduced in 1997, however, is a moot point, and no one in the Shadow Cabinet seems to have much idea of what the legal redress will be if an employer defies his workers' wishes.

Mr Blair's emerging Europhobia will continue to grow and there will be no immediate signature on the social chapter of Maastricht.

Law and order

By Patricia Wynn Davies

New Year's Day will usher in a historic increase in law-and-order measures. It will not matter whether Labour wins the election or not, unless John Major is forced to go to the country dramatically earlier than planned. Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, scourge of squeegee merchants and defender of crime victims, with the firm backing of Tony Blair, supports the thrust of each and every one of the initiatives contained in six Bills now going through Parliament, all of which the Government plans to have passed by Easter.

Thus mandatory heavier sentences will be brought in for a range of offences for the first time, along with new moves aimed at tackling firearms, knives, paedophiles and stalkers, and wide powers for the police to bug homes and offices and conduct covert searches. Whether crime levels will fall significantly, more big-time criminals will be caught and the measures will provide more protection for the public are the big questions, which cannot be answered in the next 12 months. But there are serious doubts whether some of the initiatives - the paedophile register, or "naming and shaming" juveniles - will achieve their purpose.

What is known, however, is that the prison population is already rocketing as sentencers, in advance of the new laws, respond to a now avowedly anti- liberal political climate. Ministers, whoever they turn out to be, will be praying that the year will not be blighted by a riot in an overcrowded jail, or another tragedy involving an unlawfully held gun or combat knife.

Health

By Liz Hunt

Hospitals nationwide are short of cash and staff are praying for a mild, flu-free winter while bracing themselves for a tough first quarter of 1997. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, has won extra funding for the NHS from April, but until then an emergency- only hospital service will be the norm in many parts of the country. Waiting lists will continue to grow.

In the election campaign, Labour, which sees worries about the NHS under the Tories as a potential vote-winner, will seek to publicise the failings of the service in the care of the elderly and the very young - as it did in the 1992 election. Despite Labour's criticisms of the "reforms" which launched the market-driven NHS five years ago, it is unclear what immediate changes - if any - aLabour government would make. Certainly many reforms would be retained. Budget-holding GPs, for example, would be transformed into commissioning agencies or groups of GPs in an area able to "buy" care from a provider - hospital - as now.

The primary healthcare service, run by GPs and their health-centre staff, is ripe for expansion whichever party wins, because of its potential for providing some treatment cheaper than hospitals.

The rationing of healthcare will continue to be a topic of impassioned debate, with more health authorities taking the plunge and banning or restricting certain treatments on the NHS. And following the Mandy Allwood debacle, fertility treatments and ethical and moral issues surrounding their provision are unlikely to be out of the headlines.

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