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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 16:39 GMT
Health pledge confirmed by Blair
Tony Blair addresses public service workers in October 2001
Tony Blair had said his pledge was in 'broad terms'
Prime Minister Tony Blair has insisted the government is committed to increasing UK health spending to match the European Union average by 2005.

The pledge was first made last year, and repeated in Labour's 2001 election manifesto, but at the weekend a retreat was signalled when Mr Blair claimed he had originally been speaking in "broad terms".

We will meet the European average and we will meet it because we are committed to putting more resources into the NHS

Tony Blair
Opposition parties seized on what they saw as a U-turn in the wake of Chancellor Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report commitment to dramatically increase NHS spending.

But, challenged at question time by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy to clarify the issue "once and for all", the prime minister replied: "Not merely do we stand by it, it is actually in our manifesto that we will raise spending to the EU average."

He said it was impossible to predict what other countries would spend over the next few years, but added: "The EU average has remained roughly 8% over the last decade."

Saying the "real issue" was whether the NHS needed increased spending - Labour believed it did - he challenged other parties to state their position.

Blair 'making it up'

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith demanded to know how much what was now a commitment would cost in extra funding.

"It's clear that the prime minister spends his time making it up as he goes along," Mr Duncan Smith told MPs.

"It's a commitment today, it's a possibility tomorrow, it's a percentage here - but for people on low earnings they have to pay for it."

Earlier in the week both the Tories and Lib Dems said government health policy was in disarray with the conflicting signals over the EU spending commitment.

Rift claims dismissed

They included Downing Street saying it would not be sensible for ministers to be "pinned down" to a specific target ahead of next year's public spending round.

There were reports preceding the apparent climbdown that the chancellor was unhappy about being tied to a specific spending pledge.

But Mr Blair sought to dismiss that in the Commons, saying both he and Mr Brown were in complete agreement about how the extra resources needed by the NHS should be raised.

"I agree with exactly what the chancellor said, we want the money done through general taxation," he said.

Spending 'on target'

Later, the prime minister's official spokesman said the government could not exactly predict what proportion of GDP the UK would need to spend to meet the pledge because it "couldn't write other country's budgets four years in advance".

He said the European average had been roughly 8% of GDP, and that the government was on target to reach 7.7% by the end of 2003/ 4, which marks the end of this three year Comprehensive Spending Review period.

But the spokesman would not speculate what would happen should the European average be higher than 8% in 2005, saying that was a hypothetical question.

Asked whether the pledge to match European spending was not just an off the cuff remark by the prime minister, the spokesman said that Mr Blair "thinks very carefully" before speaking.

See also:

04 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Health battle on the home front
03 Dec 01 | UK Politics
NHS reform row intensifies
03 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Government 'chaos' over tax plans
01 Dec 01 | Health
NHS management review ordered
30 Nov 01 | UK Politics
'Blind panic' jibe on NHS funding
30 Nov 01 | Health
'Chaotic NHS cannot improve'
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