Blair rules out National Insurance rise

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Tony Blair last night appeared to expand Labour's tax pledges as he ruled out increasing National Insurance contributions to fund the NHS.

Tony Blair last night appeared to expand Labour's tax pledges as he ruled out increasing National Insurance contributions to fund the NHS.

Pressed on Channel Four News, Mr Blair said that that National Insurance would not have to rise to fund the NHS after 2008, when the current spending programme runs out. The presenter, Jon Snow, asked: "National Insurance will not go up?"

Mr Blair replied: "Correct".

The Prime Minister added: "I am not writing the budget, but you don't build the same hospital twice. The NI rise takes care of the catch-up that was needed for the health service and by 2008 for the first time this country will be back up to the European average and I think that will be to the great advantage of the country."

Mr Blair's statement ended his party's repeated refusal to go beyond its pledge not to increase the basic and top rate of tax despite predictions of an £11bn "black hole" in the party's spending plans. It will reignite the debate over tax as the parties scramble to maximise their vote during the last full day before voters go to the polls tomorrow.

The Conservatives have seized on Mr Blair's previous refusal to rule out National Insurance increases to claim that Labour would be forced to increase tax after the general election to meet its spending pledges.

Challenged on whether the balance of power between the two men had shifted as a result of Gordon Brown's forceful involvement in the election campaign, Mr Blair responded: "No, I don't agree with that at all, actually. I think, in the end, it is the strength of the partnership that makes the difference and that is what should continue."

Mr Blair's tax statement will, however, reduce Mr Brown's room for manoeuvre at the Treasury. Before the 2001 general election, Mr Blair privately urged Mr Brown to rule out a rise in national insurance but the Chancellor vetoed the pledge. A year later he put one per cent on NI to fund NHS spending.

Mr Blair also suggested yesterday that the downgrading of cannabis from a class B to class C substance could be reversed.

Speaking to parents in Preston, Lancashire, he said there was growing medical evidence that cannabis is "not quite as harmless as people make out". He also warned that youngsters who smoke cannabis may move on to harder drugs.

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