Blair sets sights on public service reforms

The Prime Minister yesterday used his monthly conference before the national press to set out a robust government agenda on public service reform.

In an assured performance Mr Blair did not dodge difficult topics, as might have been expected in the run up to this Thursday's local elections. Trade unions, LEAs, NHS workers and officials, and Labour traditionalists will find the prime minister's views on foundation hospitals, public service reform, political power on the shop floor and private finance initiatives somewhat challenging.

The prime minister began the press call by saying that the government's aim was to take the 1945 welfare state settlement, and "radically redraw it" away from "top down, one size fits all".

Mr Blair then offered a dogged defence of his government's record on school funding – the sphere of vanishing millions – and set the blame firmly at the door of the LEAs, as his education secretary did last week.

The prime minister said that the crisis in schooling – and the poor reception foundation hospitals has received in some quarters – only served to reinforce the government's intent of setting out a framework for letting "local innovation, diversity, choice, services built around the consumer and the citizen".

Mr Blair highlighted the criminal justice system, the asylum system, schools and the NHS as areas that will be the focus for government in the coming months.

On the international stage, Mr Blair delivered a stark warning to Britain's European partners not to distance themselves too far from the US or NATO - mooting how US/European divisions could sow the seeds for a second Cold War.

"My fear is that if we don't deal with the world on the basis of a partnership between Europe and America, then we will in a sense put back into the world the divisions that we wanted to get rid of when the Cold War finished, and I think that would be just a disaster for the world," he said.

Tony Blair singled out France and Germany, currently in talks over European defence issues (without the UK), and said that his government would not accept anything that either undermines NATO, or conflicts with the basic principles of European defence.

He went on to underscore his government's achievements since first elected in 1997.

"I believe that we have come a long way in the past six years. The lowest inflation, the lowest mortgage rates, the lowest unemployment for decades, and now the most sustained investment in our public services the country has ever seen," he said.

Today, the prime minister arrived in Russia for a summit with President Putin.

The Prime Minister's Official spokesman has said that the purpose of the visit was to review humanitarian and reconstruction issues in Iraq, as well as "attempt to repair the diplomatic strains which had developed over the last few months".

However, the prime minister and President Putin continued to "enjoy a very good working relationship", said the spokesperson.


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