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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 December, 2003, 13:34 GMT
Blair's New Year message in full
Tony Blair
Blair: Confident about 2004
This is the full text of Prime Minister Tony Blair's New Year message to the country.

We have taken some very tough decisions in the past few years, especially in the last 12 months. They were necessary and I believe they are beginning to pay off.

The decision to go to war in Iraq was the most difficult of all. Our superb service men and women have spent Christmas in Iraq, working day and night to help rebuild the country. As ever, we are hugely proud of them.

The recent capture of Saddam Hussein was a vital milestone on the road to a stable Iraq. Meanwhile constant progress on essential services like electricity and water are sure signs that life in Iraq is slowly going in the right direction.

In 2004 we must stick to the task. There will be no better signal for the Middle East or the world than a democratic, prosperous Iraq replacing a tyrannical, brutal dictatorship.

Libya's courageous decision to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction will also make the world a safer place.

And it shows that the problems of these weapons, can, with determination and good faith, be tackled through discussion and engagement.

Economic growth

On the domestic agenda, here too, I believe tough decisions are paying off.

Britain is now seeing its seventh year of growth under this government. We have seen seven years of low interest rates, of low inflation, of falling unemployment.

We have not gone into recession like many of our competitors and now we are well placed to grow faster in the years ahead.

None of this has happened by accident but because of the hard choices that made it possible - Bank of England independence, tough fiscal rules, two years of tight spending, the windfall tax on the privatised utilities paying for the New Deal.

This stability should never be taken for granted. Boom and bust, economic uncertainty, house repossessions, business bankruptcies used to be the British disease.

We have cured that disease.

In 2004 we will do all we can to sustain and build on our economic strength.

And because our economic decisions are paying off we have been able to invest in and reform our public services.

In doing so we are shaping a new type of government - one that doesn't do everything but gives people the tools and support that they need to get the job done.

Opportunities

In education new opportunities are opening up at every age.

From Sure Start for the under-fives, to better primary schooling, a new 11-14 strategy, modern apprenticeships post 16, more young people going to universities, and adult skills.

Primary schools have seen a step change in performance since 1997 thanks to the hard work of teachers and the literacy and numeracy strategies. We now have the best ever results for 14-year-olds as well.

We now need to see further progress. Secondary schools are being opened up to greater diversity and innovation.

Specialist schools and city academies are leading the way. More than half of our children are now taught in specialist schools.

And people only have to visit a stunning city academy like Bexley in a poor part of South London to see the extraordinary potential these schools have to transform the way we teach. 2004 will see more specialist schools and more City Academies.

In 2004 we will need to take another difficult decision, this time on student finance.

The more people address the real choices in delivering a fair system of student finance that ensures universities are properly funded in the future, the stronger the support for our proposals.

We either have a fair contribution from students or we deny opportunities for hundreds of thousands by cutting university numbers, or we raise taxes for everyone including the majority who have not benefited from the higher earning power of higher education.

I am confident in our plans - free at the point of study, fair at the point of repayment - and believe we will get them through.

'Better healthcare'

The health service is doing better and better thanks to the hard work and dedication of thousands of doctors, nurses and managers, but also because we took two important decisions.

The first was to increase national insurance to give the NHS a record five-year boost in funding to allow us to train and recruit thousands of extra doctors and nurses.

The second was to change the way the NHS provided healthcare. That meant opening up the system, which is why we fought hard to pass foundation hospitals, which is why treatment centres are being set up to do routine operations more effectively.

That is why we negotiated new GP and consultant contracts.

Those decisions are paying off. Waiting is coming down. Deaths through heart disease and cancer are falling. In 2004 that progress will continue.

In 2004 we will extend patient choice further in the NHS so that we give all patients the choices that now only the well-off enjoy.

By the summer every patient waiting six months will have a choice of where to go for treatment in the NHS.

By the end of 2005 you won't have to wait six months before going to the hospital of your choice, instead you will be able to choose at the point your GP refers you for treatment.

We took tough decisions to reform our criminal justice system, reform the police service, increase their numbers and give them more powers.

That is paying off with crime falling 25%.

In 2004 police will have new powers to deal with anti-social behaviour including on the spot fines.

I want to see them used so that low-level crime, which blights too many communities, is tackled swiftly and effectively.

We will also step up the fight against organised crime and drugs in 2004. We are looking specifically at setting up a dedicated national agency for tackling organised crime.

On asylum we will build on the success we had in 2003 in halving the number of applications. New legislation will make it easier to deal with failed asylum seekers.

I recognise that some will criticise our proposals for streamlining the appeals system and reducing support for those who are illegally in the country.

The future

But we are determined to restore integrity into the system, giving more help for genuine refugees with faster action to remove those who aren't.

We have been in power for six years but we remain true to our course and to our values. To build a Britain which succeeds because it is fair. To build a Britain based on social justice.

We are now poised to make lasting change. But as we drive through existing reforms there will be more tough decisions in the future.

Our duty is to face up to those challenges together - to debate them, discuss them, and then to decide how we tackle them.

That is what our big conversation is about. We have had thousands of contributions to that debate already.

And in the New Year I, other ministers and MPs will continue to hold national and local meetings on some of the key questions.

The economic challenge is to build an economy based on human capital and knowledge, science, new technology and innovation.

The challenge for public services is to provide universal high quality services that are also personalised to individual need.

The challenge for law and order is how to recast the system for the 21st century, to put the victim at the centre and to tackle organised crime and anti-social behaviour.

The challenge for families is how to balance work and home responsibilities.

The challenge for politics is how to create a better dialogue between politicians and the people.

So the coming period is about two things. Driving through existing reforms so that we extend social justice and opportunity.

And opening up a genuine dialogue about the future challenges we all face.

Britain is poised to become one of the most successful 21st century nations.

And I am as committed, as optimistic, as determined today as I was in 1997 to see through the reforms that will make it happen.

This is no time to turn the clock back, no time to coast, no time to falter with the job only half done. I relish the challenge ahead and I am confident that in partnership - government and people - we can take the next important steps forward in 2004.




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