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Weekly Brief - 26 November 1998

Fairness and modernisation marks second Queen's speech

The Queen's Speech this week takes forward Labour's modernising crusade to transform our country.

On education, on crime, on the economy, on social justice, we are fulfilling our promises to the country. We have done more for the good of our country in 18 months than the Tories managed in 18 years.

Of 177 pledges made in our manifesto, we have delivered 63 of them. Another 109 are on course, and just five have yet to be timetabled.

Inflation is on target. Government borrowing has been cut by 20 billion pounds. Long-term interest rates are at their lowest for 35 years while interest rates are now at 6.75 per cent - compared with the high level of 15 per cent at which they stayed for a year under the Tories. Labour is building a stable platform to deliver jobs and prosperity for the long term.

But it is not just on the economy that we face a challenging year. It will be a challenge to keep delivering on our promises to modernise our country, to build a fair and decent society.

We have done well so far. More than 100,000 infants are already in smaller classes. Waiting lists are coming down. The New Deal has already got 30,000 young people into jobs. Child benefit has been increased by a record amount. Extra help is being given to pensioners and the national minimum wage will put an end to the scandal of poverty pay for over two million workers.

We will abolish the wasteful internal market so that co-operation not competition is at the heart of our health service.

We are bringing forward proposals to reform the teaching profession to carry on improving standards in all our schools. And a new crime bill will introduce effective punishment for young offenders while offering new support to vulnerable witnesses.

We will continue modernising our welfare system based on work and security. There will be a bill to introduce the Working Families Tax Credit, to ensure that no family is left with less than 190 pounds per week.

Labour will continue to give Britain a modern constitution. As promised in our manifesto, we are going to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords.

Our modernisation reforms are under-pinned by our drive to tackle injustice. So we will set up a Disability Rights Commission, introduce fairness at work, in water charging, and in the asylum and immigration system. And there will be new proposals to tackle the causes of ill-health, modernise pension provision, social services and the justice system.

All this amounts to an extensive programme in our second session. It follows the first session which has seen the Labour government carry through 50 separate pieces of legislation. And that is despite the sixth-form debating society antics of the Tories - and their disgraceful use of unelected hereditary peers, representing no-one but themselves.

What the papers say

The Independent

"Many of the measures in the Queen's Speech do New Labour nothing but credit."

The Guardian

"Public services can rejoice and citizens celebrate an overdue modernisation of their country."

Labour's legislative programme

Labour will introduce legislation in the following areas:

access to justice

age of consent and abuse of trust

asylum and immigration

Commonwealth Development Corporation

Disability Rights Commission

Fairness at Work

financial services and markets

Greater London Authority

local government

Lords reform

National Health Service

secure electronic commerce

social security contributions (transfer of functions)

water industry

welfare reform

Working Families Tax Credit

youth sentencing and witnesses

Other bills will include streamlining procedures for recovering from insurance companies the costs for treating road accident victims, and implementing EU pollution directives, and there will be draft bills on Freedom of Information, a Food Standards Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority.

Labour's legislative priorities

We will work with Parliament to prioritise and deliver on the peoples' priorities. To achieve this we will introduce legislation in the following areas:

Youth sentencing

The Youth Sentencing and Witnesses Bill will toughen up handling crime by young people by establishing a new form of sentencing in referring young criminals to a youth panel.

Measures to support victims will help them to come forward to give evidence safely.

We should never forget that under the Tories crime doubled and convictions fell.

Lords reform

The Queen's Speech confirmed that there will be a Bill in this session to remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The 1997 manifesto committed Labour to this move as an initial, self-contained reform.

There will be no indefinite delay before the next steps: the Queen's Speech made it clear that the Royal Commission will be asked speedily to bring forward proposals for further reform.

Labour will not have - and we are not seeking to have - an overall majority in the transitional House (ie after the hereditary peers lose their right to sit and vote) and are committed to retaining an independent cross-bench presence.

The system of nomination will be changed so that the Prime Minister gives up his sole right to appoint life peers. Details will be published in a White Paper later in the session.

The schoolboy tactics of the Tories in recent times to frustrate the will of the democratically-elected House has only strengthened Labour's determination.

The Tories now bizarrely describe themselves as the most democratic political party, but their defence of the hereditary right to make laws affecting the British people shows this up to be the hollow sham it is.

Labour is committed to creating a Parliament fit for the 21st century. The Tories are concerned only to defend their in-built majority in the Lords.

Charter 88

"[We] welcome the Government's commitment to Lords reform and hope it will mark the start of a process of wider reform. The removal of the Prime Minister's power of patronage is also a welcome development."

Welfare reform

Labour will modernise the welfare system based on the principle of work for those who can and security for those who cannot.

The Welfare Reform Bill will take forward the principles set out in the Welfare Reform Green Paper. Subject to consultation, it will reform disability benefits, and widows' benefits and establish new stakeholder pensions for people without access to occupational schemes or for whom personal pensions are not good value. It will establish a single gateway to the benefit system for people of working age and permit pension sharing on divorce.

The Working Families Tax Credit Bill will introduce the Working Families Tax Credit which will, from October 1999, guarantee a minimum income of 190 pounds a week to low paid families with a full time worker and the Disabled Person's Tax Credit which will guarantee a minimum income of 220 pounds a week to the family of a disabled person moving from benefit to full time work.

The Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions) Bill will transfer the National Insurance Contributions Agency from the DSS to the Inland Revenue, cutting red tape for business and leading to greater alignment of tax and National Insurance contributions.

We have already:

saved pensioners 108 pound a year on their fuel bills and 140 pounds for the poorest pensioners

introduced the minimum pension guarantee - 75 pounds a week for single pensioners and 117 pounds for pensioner couples from next April

announced the biggest ever increase in Child Benefit, up 2.95 to 14.40 a week for the eldest child from April 1999.

Under the Tories

up to one million pensioners failed to receive the Income Support to which they were entitled

one in three children lived in poverty, up from one in ten in 1979

one in five households of working age had no one in work, up from one in ten in 1979.

National Health Service

Labour's priority over the coming year is to finally put an end to the Tories' internal market. The NHS Bill will modernise the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales. It will implement those measures in the White Papers The New NHS (England), Designed to Care (Scotland) and Putting Patients First (Wales) which require legislation.

The Bill will end GP fundholding and create Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) which will be new free standing bodies that put GPs and nurses in the driving seat in shaping local health services. It will include measures on prescription fraud, self-regulation of the health professions and other measures.

From April 1999, the internal market will be scrapped in its entirety, cutting red tape by over 1 billion pounds.

A new National Institute of Clinical Excellence will be set up to drive up standards for patients.

When quality standards are not met, the Commission for Health Improvement will be able to intervene - investigating, identifying and remedying the source of the problem.

After years of rises, hospital waiting lists have come down for five months in a row. Labour is raising health spending by almost 21 billion pounds over the next three years. This does not just mean lower waiting lists. It means reforms to raise standards of care and quality of service. It means free eye tests for pensioners, better social services, and better local primary care.

Under the Tories

The Conservatives wasted billions of pounds by creating an unnecessary and wasteful tier of bureaucracy - the competitive internal market. Competition drove up costs and undermined public service values.

Fairness at work

The Fairness at Work Bill will implement the proposals consulted upon in the White Paper of May 1998 for a framework of strong partnerships at work. The measures in the Bill will include:

new rights for individuals in the workplace, including the reduction of the qualifying period for protection against unfair dismissal to one year

new collective rights, including statutory procedures for trade union recognition and prohibition of the blacklisting of trade unionists

new family friendly policies including extended parental leave and time off for family emergencies.

This new legislation will build on the prompt action we have already taken. From April 1999 the scandal of poverty pay will be ended for some two million people with the basic National Minimum Wage set at 3.60 per hour. And no employee can now be forced to work excessive hours.

The Working Time Directive came into effect on 1 October. It entitles all employees to three weeks' paid annual leave and rest breaks during the working day.

Under the Tories low pay was endemic - over 800,000 employees earned less than 2.50 an hour - and some 2.5 million UK employees (one in eight) did not have an entitlement to paid holiday.

John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, welcomed the Fairness at Work Bill. He said: "It promises the basic minimum rights at work that everyone else in Europe takes for granted."

Beef ban lifted

The beef export ban was lifted this week. BSE and the beef crisis was one of the Tories' greatest disasters.

After months repairing the damage, Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown has secured an important deal for British farmers and consumers. The agreement reached with our EU partners in Brussels means that the sale of British beef (off the bone) can now resume - providing it is from cattle born after August 1 1996.

The Labour government has succeeded where the Tories failed. We are committed to the highest possible standards of food safety.

Schools to get 5.4 billion pound modernisation programme

This week, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett announced a 5.4 billion pound investment programme in school buildings aimed at tackling head-on the backlog of school repairs over the next three years.

This week's announcement amounts to 750 pounds per pupil over the next three years. It will help us to transform schools by tackling the repairs backlog which built up under the last Tory government. It will mean a new beginning for thousands of deteriorating schools as their leaking roofs, crumbling masonry and temporary huts are replaced.

Already with a Labour government we have made a cracking start. Over 6,000 schools have had money for badly needed improvements.

New Deal figures distorted by think-tank

Employment Minister Andrew Smith slammed the grotesque distortions and bogus claims in a Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet on the New Deal.

The costs claimed in the pamphlet are a cynical fabrication which bear no relation to reality. The true cost of the jobs secured so far will be around 1,000 pound per job.

It is early days but already over 30,000 young people have moved into jobs because of the New Deal. Over 30,000 employers have signed up to Labour's crusade.