Unions ready to confront Blair over PFI

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Indy Politics

Trade union bosses are preparing for a showdown with Tony Blair this week after leaked conference documents revealed he will not give way on increased private involvement in public services.

Despite promising consultation with the unions, who meet in Brighton for the Trades Union Congress this week, and pledging to take a "conciliatory tone" in his own speech to Congress, the Prime Minister is to press ahead with reforms.

Documents that will be submitted to the Labour conference early next month make it clear: "The time has come for the NHS to engage more constructively with the private sector." They have angered trade union leaders, fundamentally opposed to privatisation, who were hoping for debate on the issue this week.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, said: "The policy documents prove that the leadership is going to continue with their blinkered strategy of public service privatisation.

"Again we have warm words about consultation and co-operation, but at the end of the day the underlying message remains: 'We will tell you what we are going to do and regardless of what you say we will carry on with it.'

"The fact is the movement is running out of patience with this take-it-or-leave-it style of party management."

Mr Blair, due to speak to the TUC on Tuesday, also faces the wrath of Unison leader Dave Prentis, who will be proposing a strongly-worded motion on public services the following day.

A Unison source predicted a "stormy week" for Mr Blair. The massive public sector union said it would be calling for more funding for public services and telling the Government: "We are the solution, we are not the problem."

The source said: "We have been campaigning and negotiating with the Government and will continue to do so. But they have to understand that there is no great public support for privatisation."

The Unison motion, rejecting privatisation of the public services, also has the support of the Blairite Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU).

However, AEEU general secretary Sir Ken Jackson, in a speech to the TUC on Wednesday, will make it clear that he does not believe the Government's proposed reforms for hospitals, schools and the transport system amount to a programme of privatisation.

Sir Ken will warn his fellow union leaders to avoid "re- running the 1970s". "I just hope we will stop and think about the damage that was done there," he will say. "I feel that this sterile confrontation will cause irreparable damage to our relationship."

He will argue that the choice is not between private finance initiative hospitals and publicly funded hospitals but "between PFI hospitals and no hospitals at all". And he will warn that up to 20,000 jobs in the construction industry are at risk if PFI projects are placed in jeopardy.

Sir Ken's speech is likely to further sour relations within the trade union movement. Unison, the GMB and the Transport and General Workers Union remain opposed to greater involvement of the private sector in delivery of public services. T&G general secretary Bill Morris will use his speech tomorrow to claim the maintenance of public service is a "moral issue".

But Mr Blair will say that the extra investment in public services "has got to be matched by reform".