Let's go to war on poor schools and hospitals

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The Independent Online

The year is ending with the shadow of war hanging over us all, memories of terrorist atrocities in Bali and Mombasa still fresh, and new fears about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. Yet now is the moment when instinctively we feel we should raise our glasses to toast the coming months, to ring in the new. Never has it been more important to face the future with resolve.

The year is ending with the shadow of war hanging over us all, memories of terrorist atrocities in Bali and Mombasa still fresh, and new fears about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. Yet now is the moment when instinctively we feel we should raise our glasses to toast the coming months, to ring in the new. Never has it been more important to face the future with resolve.

First, the threat of war. This newspaper stands resolutely opposed to military action against Iraq. Saddam poses no threat to the United Kingdom; nor does Iraq support al-Qa'ida, which remains capable of wreaking devastating harm on this country's citizens. We have consistently called on the Government to seek alternatives to conflict with Iraq, and we will continue to do so, urging instead that Britain maintains a policy of deterrence and containment. Second, the threat to the economy. A war with Iraq, however short, is bound to mean further stock market shivers and a jump in oil prices. At home, a shaking of confidence is causing a dip in spending. House prices have stopped soaring into orbit, and National Insurance increases will hit pockets in April.

This will no doubt combine to disgruntle voters, causing them to question the Government's record. They would be right to do so. We have long urged Mr Blair to modernise our services. Transport remains gridlocked, due to jams on our roads and the incompetence of rail companies. The Hatfield crash exposed the state of our rail network, yet not enough has been done, despite a change in minister. Mr Blair needs to take personal control of the crisis in our rail services.

Radical surgery is needed in the health service. This is no time for sentimentality. Labour cannot plead special treatment because of its role in founding the NHS. Continental countries, with their greater reliance on social insurance, receive better health care. Reform here is long overdue, with the working practices of NHS staff ripe for an overhaul. On education, the Government is right to seek change, and Mr Blair has promised not to introduce top-up fees. He should not break that promise. The way to deal with the shortfall in university funding is to introduce a graduate tax that will force well-paid degree holders to fund their successors. Secondary education also demands attention which, so far, the Government has directed towards the primary sector. Bog-standard comprehensives, as Alastair Campbell called them, require anything but a bog-standard position in New Labour thinking. It is possible for governments to display courage, even if it involves a change of mind. Labour has already shown it is prepared to do so: after our Mental Health Campaign, supported by doctors, lawyers and charities, it was brave enough to review its proposed reforms, including its plans to lock up people before they had committed any crime. We similarly took a stand in our asthma campaign, urging greater help for asthmatic children, and demanding more effort to counter environmental pollution, long suspected of playing a role in the increase in the disease.

Next year we will be as determined as ever to speak about the issues that matter to readers: the environment, public services, and perhaps most important of all, our place in Europe. By June, the Chancellor should have decided whether we pass the five economic tests for joining the euro, thus triggering a referendum. As Sir Edward Heath writes today, many of the benefits of the past 30 years of first EEC, then EU membership, will be lost if we vote to stay isolated. Like him, we look forward to campaigning for full membership of the euro. A prompt poll on the euro is vital.

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