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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 20:29 GMT
Peace heckler disrupts Blair speech
Tony Blair
Mr Blair wanted to shift attention away from Iraq
A peace protester has shouted down Tony Blair during a speech billed as an attempt to re-focus attention on government plans for reform of education and the health service.

The prime minister was spelling out the vision behind moves such as the proposal to allow English universities to charge up to 3,000 for degree courses when student Iain Wilson stood up and started shouting.

Mr Wilson, 22, who managed to slip into the hand-picked audience after borrowing a friend's Labour Party card, demanded Mr Blair answer questions about Iraq.

Iain Wilson
Iain Wilson said he was "no one special"
He said the prime minister was "missing the point" over a possible war with Iraq and he wanted to have his say.

In reply Mr Blair said: "This is a democracy and you are entitled to make your speech but I am making my speech now and you can go and make yours somewhere else."

To applause, he added that he had spoken about Iraq over recent days and now wanted to talk about public services.

Police and Labour Party officials then escorted Mr Wilson, a student at the London School of Economics, out of the building.

Outside he said: "I just wanted to speak out against the war with Iraq. I managed to get my way through the spin and the rules to get my point across."

Labour aim

As Mr Blair returned to his theme, he told his audience that he wanted to move secondary education "beyond the comprehensive era".

He seemed to go to great lengths to reassure left-wingers that he was trying to achieve the same purpose that Labour has always espoused - equality of opportunity.

He compared the challenge of reform that the party was now facing with the pioneering spirit of the Labour government of 1945 that introduced the National Health Service.

Mr Blair mounted a passionate defence of plans to introduce top-up fees in 2006, which will enable universities to charge varying fees of up to 3,000.

Reform is never easy - but we will succeed because we have the courage and vision to see it through

Tony Blair
He will be keen to see off an expected rebellion when the higher education proposals reach the Commons.

The measures, part of a shake-up of higher education in England, will mean students will not have to pay until they graduate, and begin to earn at least 15,000.

But students and academics warn the plans could lead to a "two-tier" system and could saddle students with increased debt.

'Choice crucial'

Mr Blair argued that if the party fails to improve education and the NHS, those who can afford to will go private, leaving the majority dependent on low quality public provision.

He said the only way to keep middle class parents and patients committed to public services is by offering choice.

The "one size fits all" view of public services was out of date and this meant there needed to be a willingness to use private companies and to challenge the view that services must be identical for everyone.

Mr Blair insisted that the "pursuit of excellence in public services is fundamental" and he urged the party not to "waste this precious period of power"

'Damaging shibboleth'

"The greatest sadness is when people describe the pursuit of excellence as elitism," he said.

"It is surely in the nature of things that some parts of a service perform better than others.

"But it is the oldest and most damaging shibboleth in the left-wing book that levelling down is the route to equality and social justice.

"In fact it is excellence within a public service that provides a spur to greater achievement and the levelling up of the whole service."

  Heckler Ian Wilson
"If we go bombing Iraq it's not really going to achieve much"

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See also:

23 Jan 03 | Education
23 Jan 03 | Education
23 Jan 03 | Health
03 Oct 02 | Politics
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