Howard promises consumer choice in schools and health

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Michael Howard put schools and hospitals at the heart of Tory policy yesterday as he sought to steer attention away from the party's losses in the European elections.

Michael Howard put schools and hospitals at the heart of Tory policy yesterday as he sought to steer attention away from the party's losses in the European elections. The Conservative leader said Britain's health and education systems were "trapped in a time warp" and said that in the NHS, only greater choice for patients would improve standards.

Launching a "summer offensive" on public services, Mr Howard announced the Tories would inject an extra £49bn a year into health care and schools. In a keynote speech in London, he promised that under the Tories "the consumer would be sovereign" and politicians would cease meddling in health and education policy, allowing teachers, doctors and nurses the space to deliver.

Mr Howard ditched the terms "patients' passport" and "pupils' passport", and hinted at changes to the policy framed under Iain Duncan Smith.

He attacked Labour's record on schools and hospitals, arguing that Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands produced "much better results than we get here in Britain". In France, he said, there were no waiting lists and patients had "routine access to quality of health care we don't think is possible in Britain". And, he added: "One in three British children leave primary school unable to read or write properly or to perform basic arithmetic."

He said: "When you look at the performance of the NHS and the education system now, both fail the poorest and most frail members of our society.

"Choice is not a leap in the dark. It is about learning from what works best in other countries and intelligently applying it in Britain. The right to choose is the way to raise standards for all."

Mr Howard warned that Labour's "scare machine" would "become more extreme and shrill" as the election approached, releasing a "firestorm" aimed at discrediting Tory policies.

But Labour accused Mr Howard of stealing its colours over choice. Tony Blair committed the Government to expanding choice for parents over schools for their children, while an aide of John Reid, the Health Secretary, said choice in hospital care had been in operation in the NHS for more than a year and was being extended.

The Independent has learnt that Downing Street has ordered Dr Reid to bring forward the five-year plan to next week to give the impression that the Government is regaining its momentum after the setbacks over Iraq in the local and European elections. It had been planned to announce new commitments to improve the NHS in July.

Mr Blair's promise on education choice - including the expansion of popular schools to take more pupils - put him on a collision course with leading figures in his own party.

Frank Dobson, a former health secretary, said on BBC Radio: "What people want is for their local school to be good enough for their children or to be confident their local hospital will provide top quality treatment. They don't want choice."

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