Blair to fast-track reforms in bid to secure his legacy

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Indy Politics

The Cabinet will agree today to push a raft of new reform Bills through Parliament this year if Labour wins a third term.

Tony Blair wants changes to incapacity benefit, child care, maternity and paternity leave, skills training, pensions, housing, the police and public health to dominate a marathon Parliamentary session that would last from May until November next year. There are also plans to delay current measures scuppered by a May general election

The move is seen by Cabinet colleagues as an attempt to secure his legacy before he stands down as Prime Minister and will increase speculation that he would quit if he loses the referendum on the European Union constitution, expected in the spring of next year.

"He is making it clear he wants to do an awful lot in the first Parliamentary year," one minister said yesterday.

Mr Blair wants to "hit the ground running" after the election expected on 5 May to head off allegations that his administration has run out of steam. He has told ministers to draft "fresh" legislation implementing Labour's election manifesto to avoid a repeat of the Parliamentary vacuum which arose after the 2001 election.

The flagship reform bills in-cluded in the first Queen's Speech of the new Parliament will be given priority in the period before the summer recess, while most of the measures scuppered by the calling of the election will be delayed . These could include a shake-up of the laws on gambling and consumer credit, tackling organised crime, extending drugs testing and the merger of the prison and probation services. However, two existing measures that would be brought back swiftly if they are stalled by the election are identity cards and the EU referendum. The measure allowing the Crossrail project in London would continue because it would not have to start from scratch, unlike other Bills halted by the election.

When the election is announced, probably in the week beginning 4 April, there will be discussions between Labour and the opposition parties about which bills can be rushed through in the few days before Parliament is prorogued. The Tories, who have hardened their stance on the Identity Cards Bill, may block the measure on the grounds that there has not been enough time to debate it. Labour would then accuse them of being "soft" on a measure designed to combat terrorism.

The Opposition may also block the Gambling Bill unless the Government drops its plans to allow super casinos. Ministers have warned they would rather see the measure delayed rather than bow to pressure from casino-owners to prevent American firms entering the British market.

Another casualty of the election could be the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill - unless Labour bows to Tory demands to abandon the clause creating a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

The combination of Mr Blair's "fresh agenda" and the need to reintroduce measures halted by the election means that some 35 Bills are on the provisional list for the Queen's Speech to be discussed by the Cabinet at its weekly meeting today. Privately, ministers admit there would not be enough Parliamentary time for them all to become law by November next year and that some would slip to the following session.

Mr Blair has promised the platform on which he fights the election will be "unremittingly New Labour".

The Prime Minister has said he intends to stand down before the election after next but to serve virtually a full term. Many Labour MPs suspect he will resign well before the following election - especially if Britain votes 'no' in the Europe referendum.

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