Blair signals review of top-up fees with prospectus promise

Tony Blair hinted yesterday that he might water down plans for university top-up fees after running a "listening to Britain" exercise that he will launch next month.

The Labour Party will publish a prospectus on the Government's strategy at the start of what Mr Blair hopes will be the country's biggest public consultation exercise.

His aides said the precise details were still being worked out.

Asked yesterday whether the Government would change its mind on tuition fees if strong public opposition emerged during the consultation, Mr Blair replied: "We can alter or adjust policy as a result of what we hear."

The most likely change is to ensure that more students from poor families are exempt from top-up fees. "We are looking at how we can provide help for the poorest students," Mr Blair told his monthly news conference at Downing Street. "We are not giving a firm commitment on that until we have worked it through but we are looking at it and it is perfectly consistent with what we have said before."

The Prime Minister joked about his health but declined to give any further details of his heart scare on Sunday.

He invited the journalists present to "decide how the patient is" and allowed the press conference to run for almost an hour and a quarter, until reporters tired of the proceedings.

He quipped that he knew what they would write about - his health - if he cut it short.

Asked how long he intended to stay in Number 10 and who he wanted to succeed him, the Prime Minister replied: "I think you are chancing your arm a bit. I mean, I know I had the medical scare at the weekend but my defences aren't down that much."

Mr Blair said he backed a national identity card scheme "in principle" but had an "open mind" about whether the proposal from David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, would work in practice.

"I think these arguments have gone far beyond the old civil liberty arguments about it and are really to do now with cost and efficacy," he said.

The Prime Minister declared he was "not in favour" of a local income tax (LIT), one option being considered by the Government as it reviews council tax.

He said LIT would raise the standard rate of income tax by 6p in the pound.

He dismissed reports that the Government would impose a capital gains tax on house sales and insisted its spending plans could be afforded from existing revenues.

Mr Blair launched a passionate defence of his strategy of being a bridge between Europe and the United States, warning his critics that they would not make him choose between the two.

He stressed that plans for a European Union defence capability would not undermine Nato. "We should have both; we can have both, provided they are consistent with each other and they will be."

He said a decision would be taken "one way or the other" in the next few weeks on the British terror suspects being held by the US at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, but did not say whether they would face trial in Britain or America.

The Prime Minister hoped a way could be found to give Ulster Unionists the reassurance they need on the IRA's latest act of decommissioning.

"They need to know that from now on there is going to be a cessation of all paramilitary activity, that is what they need to know and it is entirely reasonable. They want to know details of this decommissioning act and I think it is understandable why they want that confidence and I hope we can give it to them."

He said he had been "appalled and shocked" by the BBC television investigation that uncovered racism at a police training college in the North-west. But he insisted that the "vast bulk" of police officers were "not in any shape or form racist" and urged that they should not be tainted by the actions of a small minority.

BLAIR ON . . .

. . . his health

"I mean, I know I had the medical scare at the weekend but my defences aren't down that much."

. . . his relationship with the Chancellor

"Gordon and I will carry on working in partnership, as we always do."

. . . tuition fees

"We are looking at how we can provide help to the poorest students."

. . . ID cards

"It is not something I think that is considered completely noxious to do."

. . . weapons of mass destruction

"Look at the Iraq Survey group and what they have already found and the huge network of concealment they have already uncovered."

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