Blair admits public must pay more for better public services

Consultation exercise to spark debate about funding new programmes

Tony Blair will warn the British people today that they may have to pay more in charges if they want to see improvements in public services.

Launching a major consultation exercise about the challenges facing the country, the Prime Minister will say that there is a limit to the burden that taxpayers can bear and that people may have to accept they will need to pay for the services they choose to use.

The move could pave the way for a nationwide system of road pricing, under which motorists could be charged for every mile they drive on motorways at peak periods and a flat-rate fee for entering town and city centres modelled on the £5-a-day congestion charge in central London.

Some of the planned new charges would be paid only by the better-off while poor families would receive the services free. This approach is likely to apply to child care, which the Government plans to expand by setting up a national network of children's centres.

In a speech to Labour's national policy forum in Newport, Mr Blair will say: "In today's world, the Government can't do it all. What governments should do is be honest about what the choices are."

Downing Street sees widening the scope for charging consumers of public services as a way of meeting the growing pressures for improvements and avoiding a black hole in the Government's finances in the next few years. But ministers have admitted privately that extending charges could provoke a backlash from middle-class taxpayers.

A document to be published today, called A Future Fair For All ­ The Big Conversation, will say that the Government will not bring in user charges for health and education. The document lists more than 100 questions for voters, and surveys to find out people's priorities will be sent to 500,000 homes. The public can take part via a website (bigconversation.org.uk) and by sending e-mails and text messages.

Labour officials say the aim is not to produce a long shopping list of what people want but to urge them to confront the "hard choices" facing the Government. For example, they will be asked whether they would be prepared to accept higher taxes or charges or cuts in other budgets to fund their pet schemes. The questions listed in the document include how to rebalance the criminal justice in favour of victims and witnesses; whether the sick and disabled should have more responsibility to find work; and whether single parents should be offered better child care, training and family-friendly hours in return for more responsibility to work.

* The Conservatives have overtaken Labour in popularity since Michael Howard assumed leadership, according to a new YouGov poll. The survey, published in today's Daily Telegraph, found that 38 per cent of voters support the Tories, giving them a 2 per cent lead over Labour, their strongest position in nine years.

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