Blair Promises to Reform the Welfare State; Premier's Speech Is Long on 'Grand Visions' but Woefully Short of Specifics (Haven't We Heard That One Somewhere Before?)

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Byline: DAVID HUGHES

TONY Blair paraded his ambitions for a third Labour term yesterday with a pledge to rebuild the welfare state from top to bottom.

The Prime Minister sought to ape the achievements of the great Victorian reformers by promising a series of Reform Acts to make the public services fit for the 21st century and create an 'opportunity society'.

He also dropped a heavy hint that his vision involves the public paying something directly towards the services they use as he talked about 'new and imaginative ways of funding'.

But seven and a half years after Labour came to power, Mr Blair's campaign has a familiar ring.

In his first Commons speech as Prime Minister, in May 1997, he told MPs: 'We are undertaking a thorough examination of all aspects of welfare reform.'

His message yesterday was almost identical as he promised once more to transform the welfare state so it 'offers high quality services and the opportunity for all to fulfil their potential to the full'.

Once again, while his speech was long on what he called 'grand visions and great causes', it was remarkably short on specifics.

'The big challenges facing the country - pension reform, childcare, public health, increasing employment, to name just four - will not be met by minimalist politics but by bold and far-reaching reform rooted in the values of fairness and social justice,' he said.

But on all these headline issues Mr Blair promised only that the Government would bring forward proposals 'in the coming months' - including new laws on food advertising and workplace smoking.

Designed to advance a radical modernising agenda to counter the influence of Chancellor Gordon Brown, the speech was greeted with scorn by his party critics.

One leading Brownite described it as a 'damp squib', adding: 'We were promised it would be stuffed full of new policies - and all we got was a plateful of platitudes. …