Tories try to plug the policy gap with public service plan

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The shadow Cabinet unveiled proposals yesterday for rolling back the power of the state in an effort to rebut charges that the party remains light on policy and reluctant to modernise.

The shadow Cabinet unveiled proposals yesterday for rolling back the power of the state in an effort to rebut charges that the party remains light on policy and reluctant to modernise.

The move was designed to distract attention from the sniping at Iain Duncan Smith's leadership that has overshadowed the start of the party conference in Bournemouth today.

The connecting theme is the need to improve the quality of life in Britain and to entrust people with greater power over their public services.

State scholarships

Parents with children at failing comprehensives would be given a "state scholarship" of up to £5,000 a year to send them elsewhere, probably to private schools. Parents would also be encouraged to pool their money to set up schools run by charities, community groups or private companies.

The Tories say the move would break the monopoly link between state funding of education and state provision of schools, to rescue children receiving poor teaching. Although they refuse to use the word, the new policy is reminiscent of the controversial "nursery vouchers" initiative towards the end of the last Tory government. Critics will argue that the scholarships will prove impractical, potentially creating a mass of parents with money for education, but without enough school places.

No extension of charging in the NHS

The Tory leadership has made a definitive pledge not to widen the existing range of charges on the NHS. Shadow ministers have toured much of Europe, looking at countries where charging for treatment is a feature of the health systems. But they have concluded that the move would undermine an NHS available to all regardless of ability to pay.

Fines for missed appointments

Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, will today float the idea of charging patients for missed appointments with family doctors, local nurses and hospital consultants. There are 15.5 million missed GP appointments a year, costing the NHS about £12 each, while 14 per cent of patients fail to report for hospital appointments.

The Tories will consult health bodies on the proposals. Details that need to be sorted out include ensuring that patients with reasonable excuses for missing appointments are not penalised and people do not run up huge fines.

Foundation hospitals

Based on a system operating in Spain, foundation hospitals would have the freedom to borrow, invest and set their own pay and conditions for staff. Alan Milburn and Gordon Brown are locked in a battle over plans for such hospitals, but the Tory proposals go much further. Crucially, all hospitals will be allowed to apply for foundation status. Mr Milburn's plans envisage awarding new freedom to only the best performing trusts, so-called three-star hospitals. However, the Chancellor is baulking at allowing them to borrow outside government spending limits.

The Tories are proposing a system that is similar to the grant-maintained schools set up under Margaret Thatcher. Just as GM schools remained within the state sector, the new foundation hospitals will stay within the NHS to avoid any charges of "privatisation".

Crime

Longer and more constructive sentences based on "reform of character" will be the centrepiece of Oliver Letwin's proposals to combat youth crime. Primary legislation would be introduced to extend sentences for juvenile offenders by sending them to "open units", modern versions of borstals.

The new units, which would allow inmates freedom to attend outside training and jobs, would ensure a period of rehabilitation aimed at giving them new skills to prevent reoffending once they are released back into the community.

Savings

A Lifetime Savings Account, available to everyone in work, would encourage saving by offering a government "top-up" that will build up a pot of money that can act as an extra pension. Details of how much would be added are to be decided.

Account-holders will have access to their savings during times of financial need, such as buying a house. The intention is to reverse the slide in savings ratio since Labour came to power, while encouraging financial independence for all, no matter what their income.

The "no risk" element of a government account is aimed at persuading those worried about private pensions and unconvinced by the stakeholder pensions devised by Labour.

Today's agenda

Afternoon: Opening address by party chairman Theresa May; debates on schools, universities, public transport, motoring and healthcare.

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