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 Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Tory and Lib Dem Budget wishes
Michael Howard
Howard says the decline in competitiveness must stop

As Gordon Brown prepared his Budget, BBC News Online asked the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats what they would do.

Shadow chancellor Michael Howard says the state of public services is at the centre of the Budget debate this year.

But he believes that delivering good schools and hospitals depends on having a strong economy.

Mr Brown should therefore move to "reverse the decline" in UK competitiveness which Mr Howard blames on increased burden on business.

He says that public services "are letting down patients, parents and passengers alike, and reversing this decline must be the overriding priority".

The price of a closed mind is a willingness to condemn future patients to more of the same

Michael Howard
Mr Howard further argues that weak public services can damage the economy and arresting their decline should be the "number one concern".

"This requires new thinking. Last year Gordon Brown himself insisted that 'any additional resources [for the NHS] must be matched by reforms so we get the best value for money. There is not to be one penny more until we get the changes.'

"Unfortunately, however, it seems he did not mean it."

Mr Howard says the way other countries run health systems does not involve "one big bureaucracy with centralised dinner menus for hospitals".

"And often their people get better healthcare - so much so that constituents of mine have been sent to hospitals in France for operations which they could not get in time here," says Mr Howard.

The former Conservative home secretary expresses surprise that while the government is prepared to fund overseas operations for UK citizens, it will not import any of the ideas that "could drive up standards for the vast majority of patients here".

"The price of a closed mind is a willingness to condemn future patients to more of the same," he says.

Blinkers?

Despite Labour's promise to drive up standards in public services in return for raising taxes, Mr Howard argues things are actually getting worse.

"So what I want to see in this Budget is evidence of a genuinely open mind about learning from health care systems in other countries, so that we can start down the road to world class healthcare ourselves," he says.

"But all the evidence suggests that we will not get that from Labour.

"Unless the chancellor takes his blinkers off, this Budget will not be the Budget for healthcare that it is billed to be."

Liberal Democrats

For the Liberal Democrats there are four main issues that need to be addressed in the Budget.

First, they are concerned at the two speed economy, which they say is caused largely by the exchange rate.

Matthew Taylor, Lib Dem Treasury spokesman
Matthew Taylor wants taxes made simpler
Treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor says that a more competitive pound would help "correct the imbalances in the economy which are described by the Monetary Policy Committee as the main risk to the British economy today".

On public services the Lib Dems express the hope that Labour has reached its "road to Damascus and is beginning to accept that real increases" in taxation are required.

"Economic growth alone won't deliver, since in any economy GDP growth is largely absorbed in better pay," says Mr Taylor.

"However, it is vital that any tax increases are fair, transparent and well spent.

Deficit wipe out?

"And, if you were wondering, Labour's stealth tax rises after 1997 were used to wipe out the deficits built up under the Conservatives, not to improve investment, which is why services like hospitals and public transport remain so poor."

As well as money, the Lib Dems believe the public services need reform hung around the principles of "transparency and decentralisation".

Mr Taylor also wants the tax system to be simplified for business.

"Liberal Democrats want to see a fundamental review of the tax system designed to greatly simplify it - a campaign we will be launching soon," he said.

"Keep taxes simple - business success should not be about chasing tax breaks."


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