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Last Updated: Friday, 28 November, 2003, 03:59 GMT
Blair to start 'Big Conversation'
Tony Blair in his party political broadcast
Tony Blair appealed for views in a Labour broadcast
Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to launch what he is dubbing the biggest consultation exercise ever seen in Britain.

The "Big Conversation" aims to deliver on the prime minister's pledge to keep "in touch with the people".

Labour is publishing an overview of its future plans and the problems faced on the economy, education and health.

But critics have derided the scheme, suggesting ministers are not really prepared to listen and change tack.

The move follows Wednesday's Queen's Speech, which laid out Mr Blair's agenda for the next parliamentary year.

For the consultation's official launch on Friday, Mr Blair is travelling to Newport in south Wales, where he is also meeting Irish premier Bertie Ahern for the British-Irish Council.

The documents to be released at the launch were only agreed by Labour's Joint Policy Commission on Thursday.

Labour has been ignoring people for years now, this simply makes it official,
Matthew Taylor
Liberal Democrat chairman

The economic chapters include plans to impose tougher checks on jobless benefit claimants to ensure they are really looking for work.

He used a Labour party political broadcast to appeal for people's views and their number one priorities.

The "Big Conversation" website is already running and the public are also being encouraged to send text messages as part of the consultation.

The prime minister trailed the scheme in his party conference speech in September, saying he wanted a "vibrant debate" about the country's future.

'Choices for all'

In Wednesday's party broadcast, Mr Blair said: "There are important choices for the future. Choices, not just for politicians but for all of us.

"So we want to begin a conversation with you about how together we can make the future fair not just for some but for everyone."

David Willetts
Willetts: Ministers "riding roughshod" over public views
But Labour's opponents cite Mr Blair's famous declaration that he has "no reverse gear" as evidence that the scheme is a gimmick.

Conservative head of policy co-ordination David Willetts told BBC News Online: "I hope he really does listen. The trouble is all the evidence is he won't.

"After all, he's just announced this week that he's bringing in top-up fees and - that is not something students want, it's not something we want and it's not something many of his backbenchers want."

Mr Willetts accused the government of "riding roughshod" over public opinion one day and promising to listen the next.

'Resentment'

Liberal Democrat chairman Matthew Taylor was also dismissive.

"Labour has been ignoring people for years now, this simply makes it official," he said.

"E-mail your views, but everyone knows that from foundation hospitals to war in Iraq and tuition fees, Labour doesn't listen."

Labour backbencher Paul Flynn said the first line for consultation should be the party's MPs.

"But there's been a feeling of resentment among many MPs that things like top-up fees or foundation hospitals did not come from any party or public consultation," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Internet boost

Labour officials say nothing will be off limits and Ann Black, elected to Labour's National Executive Committee by grass roots members, said issues like higher taxes for top earners should be considered.

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the Amicus trade union, was concerned the consultation came after Labour had announced its programme leading towards the next election.

"The government feels very much that it hasn't explained its position very clearly and possibly wants to use the consultation exercise more as explaining their position," he said.

But Labour backbencher Tom Watson, who was the first MP to start a web log, told BBC News Online it was a big advance for the internet's involvement in politics.

He urged people to be open-minded, predicting the scheme would produce new policy initiatives.

"Governments should never stop listening but occasionally we need to take time out and really make an effort to go out there," he said.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Tessa Duggleby
"This is just one way that ministers are hoping people will tell them what their priorities should be"



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