Blair urges bold welfare reforms

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair today pledged "no retreat" from the New Labour doctrine if he wins a third term in Downing Street.

In a keynote speech in London, the Prime Minister set out his vision of the "opportunity society" that will be his mission for a third term in office.

He promised welfare reforms intended to give people chances rather than respond to their problems.

In his address to the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, Mr Blair spoke of his ambition to create "genuine opportunity" for people to make the most of their talents.

Mr Blair said: "In my judgment, this can't be done within the existing structures of state and government.

"In the first two terms, we have successfully made radical improvements to the existing 20th century welfare state and public services, and we have begun to alter its structures.

"But now, on the foundations of economic stability and record investment, the third term vision has to be to alter fundamentally the contract between citizen and state at the heart of that 20th century settlement - to move from a welfare state that relieves poverty and provides basic services to one which offers high quality services and the opportunity for all to fulfil their potential to the full."

Mr Blair added: "So, far from retreating from New Labour, we need radically to extend its reach."

The Prime Minister argued that his vision - which he said amounted to being prepared to "go big" in tackling social problems - was a marked contrast to Tory leader Michael Howard's "minimalist" politics.

Mr Blair rounded on Mr Howard over his speech to the Tory annual conference last week, in which the Conservative leader sought to boil down his core message to the voters into just 10 words.

The Prime Minister argued: "There is a sense that in these days it is better for politicians to reject grand visions and great causes and go, as the Tories have done, for 'minimalist politics', an offer so bare that its very paucity is supposed to give it credibility.

"However, the big challenges facing the country - pension reform, child care, public health, increasing employment, to name just four - will not be met by minimalist politics but by bold and far-reaching reform rooted in the values of fairness and social justice."

Mr Blair rejected the idea that Britain was a country in decline, pointing to an economy which has recorded a record number of quarters of uninterrupted growth.

He insisted: "The reason we can and should 'go big' in the vision we put forward is precisely because we can be proud of a solid record of achievement."

But the Government's work was not complete.

"There are still too many denied opportunity. Too many hard-working families in difficulty and distress. Too many of the elderly insecure and fearful of the future. Until Britain is a land of opportunity for all, we cannot rest."

Despite the Government's achievements since 1997, social mobility had scarcely shifted in the last 30 years.

Changing that would require more than providing relief from poverty and access to basic services.

"It means creating genuine opportunity to make the most of your talent, and to access the best services, from whatever walk of life you come."

That goal could not be achieved within the existing state and government structures, argued Mr Blair.

It would require a new model welfare state focused on providing high quality services and the opportunity for all to fulfil their potential.

The state had to move from a mass production approach to the services it provides to one centred around the individual.

He stressed that the nature of provision - public, private or voluntary sector - should be considered less important than the delivery of the service.

And there should be "new and imaginative ways" of funding some services.

Mr Blair said: "All of this requires an inversion of the state/citizen relationship, with the citizen not at the bottom of the pyramid taking what is handed down; but at the top of it with power in their hands to get the service they want."

He continued: "The implications are large. It means deepening and following through the logic of the existing reforms in the NHS, schools and law and order ..."

Mr Blair launched a staunch defence of some of the most controversial measures introduced by New Labour - and acknowledged that his determination to press on down the New Labour road will provoke opposition from the Left as well as the Right.

Mr Blair argued, for example, that specialist schools have outperformed "standard" comprehensives.

And he predicted that eventually the reforms to student finance "will be seen to have saved and enriched university opportunities".

Mr Blair argued: "So the lesson is clear: press on with confidence; don't hang back in hesitation; point out the changes in Britain that really have made this country fairer and stronger; and use the experience of the first two terms to drive through lasting change in the third."

Mr Blair predicted: "Parts of the Left still won't accept that the only reason we won two elections was precisely because we were New Labour, fighting in the centre ground, rejecting past dogmas and avoiding the mistakes of the 70s and 80s.

"As for the Tories, they have looked at their polling and focus groups and decided to retreat to where they are most comfortable, beguiled by apparent support for hard right positions on issues like immigration and Europe. This is an error, the full significance of which they will realise later."

Mr Blair warned that the Left is in danger of wanting to deliver on higher expectations for the public services but losing sight of tax and spending issues.

"This is why the continuing reform programme is so crucial. It is only by changing the system we will make it more effective... If we take the new challenges, they won't be solved simply by spending more money within existing Government and state structures."

Mr Blair said five-year strategies on education, health, law and order and transport, published in July, would see the Government "follow through hard" on reform.

He said: "In health, we will open up the system further to meet demand from NHS patients and entrench choice. We are planning a significant increase beyond that already announced, in the NHS's spending on independent providers of diagnostic and treatment services.

"There will be a second wave of procurement worth £500 million, producing an extra 250,000 elective procedures a year."

He went on: "In education, specialist schools will become near universal, and there will be 200 entirely new academies - free to parents, with no selection by ability - run by independent sponsors in areas where schools have been weak or failing in the past.

"I will be happy to see these sponsored not just by individual entrepreneurs but also by companies, by churches and other faiths, and by the independent school sector. Two hundred is what we believe we can achieve. But if we can do more, we will."

The Prime Minister said he wanted to see Britain move from an employment rate of around 75% to around 80% - or 1.5 million more people in work.

"This would be real full employment - closing the gap between the regions and ensuring that everyone who wants to work has the help, support and encouragement they need to get into work."

On savings and pensions, Mr Blair said the public should have more choice over how they plan for retirement.

"We must change the culture that can write people off at 65, if not 60 or 55, whether they want to work or not," said Mr Blair.

On public health, Mr Blair said the forthcoming White Paper on the issue would set out the Government's ideas for "making it easier for people to make healthy choices about eating, living and working in smoke-free environments, and taking more exercise".

He added: "We will look carefully at measures that protect young children from pressures to make unhealthy choices - such as those from the excessive advertising of foods high in sugar, salt and fat."

And he said he favoured "tough measures" to tackle the drug and alcohol abuse which fuels crime, which would include putting in place "a whole new national infrastructure capable of tackling drugs effectively".

Mr Blair promised: "In all the areas I have highlighted, we will be publishing substantial forward policy strategies in the months ahead.

"Each of them, together with the four public service reform strategies we published in July, will then form the basis of our third term manifesto, to be followed, should the people elect us, by a series of Reform Acts in each area to drive forward change."

Mr Blair summed up his programme by saying: "I believe it is as compelling a vision for Britain in 2004 as was that of Beveridge in 1942.

"It is as relevant to the needs of the day, as progressive and radical in its means - and it will underpin the reforming passion of Labour in power for a third term."