Tory leader promises to 'save' public services

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Iain Duncan Smith will declare on Wednesday that his personal mission is to rescue Britain's ailing public services to the extent that Margaret Thatcher transformed the economy.

In his speech to the Blackpool conference, Mr Duncan Smith will say: "The sad fact is this: a generation ago Britain was the sick man of Europe. Today Britain is the last place in Europe any man or woman would want to fall sick."

The Tory leader will risk Labour allegations that his party would privatise public services by promising to bring "an open mind" to the task of reforming them. Although he will not go into details today, Mr Duncan Smith is expected to produce proposals to encourage people who can afford it to take out private health insurance. He has ordered his frontbench team to study how services are provided in other European countries, where people spend more on private health care than in Britain.

He will tell the conference: "Our European neighbours enjoy better hospitals and schools because they put the needs of their people before the needs of dogma. If we are to live up to the demands of the new century, we must do the same."

Mr Duncan Smith's allies deny the proposals will amount to privatisation, pointing to the hospice movement as an example of how the NHS can be backed up by other providers.

He will say: "That is our greatest mission over the coming years: to assemble the coalition of charities and churches, the public and private sectors that will deliver results."

The Tory leader will devote more than half of his speech to the war on terrorism, pledging his unequivocal support for Britain's servicemen and their families, as well as Tony Blair and President George Bush.

He will declare: "Bin Laden claims to speak for Islam but he cannot. His is a cynical and suicidal cult dedicated to the destruction of civilisations and lives, irrespective of their faith. This is a man who sends young acolytes to die for his own pathological purpose, while he himself skulks in caves. This is a man who prefers martyrdom at a distance."

Yesterday, Liam Fox, the Tory health spokesman, called for greater private-sector involvement in public services. He said: "As long as better health care is available to all, and free at the point of use, people in Britain are not concerned how it is provided."

The Conservatives promised tough action to improve discipline in Britain's classrooms, having listened to emotional warnings about a "heart of darkness" in schools.

Frances Howard, a teacher from Salisbury, Wiltshire, won a standing ovation when she told an audience about the "diabolical" behaviour of some children. She said: "I was once allowed to set standards for behaviour in my classes. Now they should out 'you can't afford the fine for excluding me'. They are drunk on power but if I complain, I am punished, not the pupil."

Damian Green, the party's education spokesman, said: "We can't instil any values of knowledge when schools are stopped from imposing proper discipline. Headteachers need to know that they are in control of their school."