Public Services: Blair will warn unions not to stand in his way

Prime Minister faces a rough ride today after public sector workers give short shrift to government attempts to mollify them
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will attempt to quell trade union opposition to his plans to reform the public sector today by insisting that the changes will not amount to full-scale privatisation.

In his speech to the TUC conference in Brighton, the Prime Minister will stress his "absolute commitment" to public services, praise public sector workers and say that he wants to forge a partnership with them to improve services.

Mr Blair's conciliatory words will aim to reassure the unions over what they call "creeping privatisation". A Labour source said: "We don't want confrontation with the unions; we want to nail this dispute."

However, his speech may not go far enough to prevent a hostile reception, since he will not announce any significant changes to the policy which has put a cloud over relations between the Government and the unions.

Mr Blair's message is likely to be a bitter-sweet one for the unions. While stressing that state-run services have a "vital" role to play in today's Britain, Mr Blair will warn the unions they will not be allowed to stand in the way of his reforms – including changes to working practices. "The enemy of public services is not reform but the status quo," he will say.

The Prime Minister will claim that Labour has a mandate to modernise public services after winning the June general election.

"We are committed to getting the investment in. Unless that investment is accompanied by reform, we won't see the real change that everyone wants," he will say.

Mr Blair will tell TUC delegates: "Everyone who uses, and works within, our public services knows that in some cases we have the best that could possibly be found. However, in too many cases, they are not."

He will stress that he values public-sector workers, pointing out that the Government wants to improve their pay and conditions and that their wages are rising faster than in the private sector. He will cite a 20 per cent increase in the starting salary for graduate teachers since 1997 and a 30 per cent rise for nurses, taking their starting salary to more than £15,000. "Golden hello" payments for teachers in subjects where there are shortages and help for key workers to buy homes will be cited as further evidence of the Government's commitment.

The Prime Minister will also highlight the Government's decision to raise education spending by 5 per cent a year on top of inflation, higher than any other European Union country, and the fact that the National Health Service is growing faster than health service provision in any of the other leading EU countries.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "Our position is pragmatic. There is a world of difference between using the private sector when it has a particular expertise and something to offer – such as reducing [NHS] waiting lists – and the wholesale privatisation of our public services. Where it works and could bring something to the table then we will look at using it. Where it doesn't, we won't."

He stressed that the use of private firms was only one element in a wide-ranging strategy which also included recruiting more staff, improving working conditions, improving standards through inspection and setting benchmarks.