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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 11:57 GMT
Government 'chaos' over tax plans
Tony Blair addresses NHS workers in May 2001
Blair backs certain tax rises to fund the NHS
The Conservatives have claimed the government is in disarray over its plans to reform the National Health Service, after Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared to back out of a key spending pledge.

It seems they are all over the place in complete chaos. It's a shambles

Liam Fox, shadow health secretary
Last week in the House of Commons, Mr Blair renewed his promise to raise health spending to the European average by 2005.

But Downing Street has moved to distance Mr Blair from the commitment, first made in a television interview last year.

The prime minister's spokesman said it would not be sensible for ministers to be "pinned down" to a specific target ahead of next year's public spending round.


The apparent climbdown follows reports that the Chancellor Gordon Brown was unhappy about being tied to a specific spending pledge.

Mr Blair had earlier signalled the start of a retreat, telling a Sunday newspaper that he had only been speaking in "broad terms" when he first made the promise.

The prime minister's comments were greeted with astonishment by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, who said that the government's NHS policy had descended into "chaos".


Shadow health secretary Liam Fox said that unless the Prime Minister was prepared to honour his commitment to raising health spending to the European average, he was guilty of misleading MPs.

The British people need to know what is going on

Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat leader
"According to which paper you read this morning you get a different policy on health.

"It seems they are all over the place in complete chaos. It's a shambles," he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy urged him to end the confusion.

"The government are at sixes and sevens over the National Health Service.

"The British people need to know what is going on," he said.

Alternative funding

Meanwhile, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith attacked the government for ruling out any other alternative to a health service funded by central taxation.

Derek Wanless
Wanless: full report is expected next year
Mr Duncan Smith was due to arrive in Sweden on Monday as part of a fact-finding mission to discover what can be learnt from health systems in other European countries.

He said the NHS was wasting 10bn a year and could not currently spend all the money being pumped into it.

"You can go on driving more money into it, but it still isn't going to work because the system itself is designed for an era that has gone," he told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme.

"A Soviet-style system that just doesn't allow people to get choice and doesn't allow them to get the best treatment."

'Pinned down'

The prime minister's official spokesman denied Mr Blair had done a U-turn on health funding.

But he made clear that there would be no specific commitments on spending levels ahead of next year's comprehensive spending review and the final report on NHS funding by ex-NatWest Bank chief executive, Derek Wanless.

"We are not going to get pinned down to one number in advance of all those pieces of work," the spokesman said.

"When you have major pieces of detailed work, which will be looking at figures which cover the next 20 years, it is not sensible to start writing spending budgets now."

In an interview with the Independent on Sunday newspaper, Mr Blair said: "I am not deciding spending levels now.

"I am saying in broad terms what I have said previously. We have in broad terms to match other European countries," he said.

Major shift

In last week's pre-budget statement, Mr Brown signalled a major shift in Labour policy on taxation by saying Britain needed to spend a greater share of its national income on health.

Mr Brown has ruled out raising income tax to pay for reform of the National Health Service.

He said the government would stand by its pledge at the general election in June not to put up income tax or VAT.

But he left the door open for increasing national insurance contributions and introducing new taxes linked to public service improvements.

Speaking on Breakfast with Frost, Mr Brown said he would not rule out tax rises, but added: "We will keep every promise that we made at the general election and in our manifesto."

He called for a debate on linking any additional taxes to public service improvements.

Shadow health secretary Liam Fox
"It's a totally toxic mixture of confusion and incompetence"
See also:

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'
29 Nov 01 | England
NHS manager faces jail over fraud
29 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Wanless 'open' to private finance
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