To build on reforms

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

The Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, in its second term in office, has many challenging tasks ahead.

THE historic second landslide victory in the June parliamentary elections for the Labour Party has given Tony Blair an opportunity that no Labour Prime Minister in Britain has had before - a second term of office. For the first time a Labour government can build on its work and set in place radical reforms to realise its long-term ambitions. The government is clearly determined to get cracking with its challenging legislative programme, much of it controversial.

Tony Blair knows that the electorate expects Labour to use its second term to deliver on its promises to improve public services and he knows it will not be easy. So reform of the public services - particularly health and education besides crime-busting - is at the heart of the government's ambitions.

The last four years saw a Labour government with a tough approach to economic management. This has brought down debt and given Britain the lowest unemployment figures for decades, freeing up more money for public services. So the new Parliament will continue to increase steadily spending on schools and hospitals and maintenance of law and order in order to create the first-class services that everyone wants to see. The billions of pounds of extra funding should, in time, deliver the badly needed additional numbers of teachers, nurses and doctors. But this increase in funding is to be matched by radical reforms. The key to these reforms is to give power and resources to the front line; to create greater diversity; to establish high minimum standards; and to build the services around the needs of the people using them - the patient in hospital, the child in school and the victim of crime.

Estelle Morris, the new Secretary of State for Education and Skills, will take charge of the radical overhaul to modernise secondary schools and raise standards. More comprehensive schools will be encouraged to become specialist schools. The government is determined to see through its controversial plans to involve private or voluntary organisations to sort out failing schools.

But some public service unions are not happy with the proposals. They believe the government is placing too much emphasis on using private companies to provide public services. But the involvement in any way of any private management in public services is being labelled 'privatisation' when it is no such thing. What the government is giving is a vision of how public services can be improved to bring hospitals and schools up to scratch. It is investing in health and education for the future - not selling off and privatising schools and hospitals. Health Secretary Alan Milburn stated that the plans were not about the 'privatisation' of public services. He said, "While the National Health Service (NHS) will forge a new relationship with the private sector, it is just that, a relationship, not a takeover." The government knows that it cannot promise an overnight transformation of the health service but it needs to deliver progress. It is to press ahead by overhauling adoption laws, abolishing community health councils and giving family doctors greater powers over their budgets. It also wants to see a much more decentralised decision-making structure in the NHS. This makes good sense when you consider that with a million people working in the NHS, the system is far too large and complex to be run efficiently from the centre.

David Blunkett, the new Home Secretary, has the job of steering through legislation bringing in tougher sentences for persistent criminals, providing new powers to seize the assets of major criminals and effecting a shake up of police training. Chief Constables will be expected to cooperate with neighbouring forces and spend their money more wisely. Judging their performance in comparison with other police forces may well be the incentive needed to improve police efficiency. Much of the rest of David Blunkett's programme is concerned with practical ideas to improve the criminal justice system. The big exception is the controversial proposal to abolish the 'double jeopardy' rule in murder cases, under which someone acquitted would face trial again if new evidence emerged. Some lawyers believe it is wrong, in principle, that the stigma of guilt would remain even after a person has been found innocent.

On the economy, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has said that the government must build upon the foundations of its hard-won economic stability to create a more prosperous and competitive Britain and a more prosperous and competitive Europe.

He confirmed that the Labour government believes in principle that British membership of a successful single European currency would offer clear benefits, particularly in regard to trade, costs and currency stability, and that it would help Britain create more productive investment and greater trade and business in Europe. The commitment to a referendum on joining the Euro was promised in the Labour party's election manifesto. But Gordon Brown dampened speculation about an early referendum. He made it clear that while the government believes the single currency can bring real benefits to Britain, it is important to join when it is in the national interest to do so. The government and business must now work together to put a powerful argument for Britain being in Europe - creating a stronger Britain on the basis of a strong and secure relationship with Europe.

Tony Blair has promised in the past that the Labour government keep in step with the people and the country. He must now deliver on the public's priorities of the economy, health, education and law and order. "Good public services are the vital infrastructure for rising prosperity in our country," he said recently. During its previous term the Labour government laid the foundations for this prosperity and it is now time to deliver it.

Glyn Ford is a Member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom.

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