Blair will praise public sector in attempt to head off union revolt

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Tony Blair will heap praise on public-sector workers next week in an attempt to quell the rebellion by trade unions opposing the Government's plans to bring in commercial firms to run some state services.

In a keynote speech to the TUC's annual conference in Brighton on Tuesday, the Prime Minister will insist his proposals do not amount to "privatisation", as his union critics claim.

He will stress his support for the traditional public-sector ethos in health and education and praise the level of commitment shown by employees. He will tell TUC delegates his reforms will not amount to a "takeover" by commercial firms but a genuine partnership under which the public and private sectors can learn from the strong points of each other. However, Mr Blair will make it clear that he will not retreat from bringing in private-sector expertise where this can improve standards of service.

Blair aides yesterday described his draft speech as a "middle way" but insisted it would not amount to a climbdown. They said no "vested interests" – including the unions – could have a veto over the Government's public-sector reforms. "No change is not an option," said one source. "If we don't get it right, then a future government not committed to public services would be able to sell them off or dismantle them. We want to work with the employees to make sure this can never happen."

Mr Blair's conciliatory words for workers in the state sector are a tacit admission that the public-private plan has not been handled well since it was launched in Labour's general election manifesto. But ministers claim their detailed proposals, which are still being drawn up, will not prove as controversial as the unions fear.

TUC officials have been heartened by the limited approach to the use of commercial firms outlined in talks with Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, and Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Mr Blair may still face a hostile reception at the TUC conference, though, which is expected to pass a motion attacking the Government's plans the day after his speech.