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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK
Unions ready for Blair battle
Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
Health is one of Labour's key election themes
Prime Minister Tony Blair is on a potential collision course with public sector unions over his plan to bring in private companies to run schools and hospitals.


Don't assume that the public sector never works and that the private sector is the answer to everything

Union official
The proposals are at the heart of Labour's programme for a second term.

But the unions fear it will lead to wage cuts and will not necessarily deliver the radical reforms the Prime Minister has promised.

There are signs that the unions are preparing to fight the plans, if Labour wins a second term.

Shared goal

At its monthly meeting on Wednesday, the TUC agreed to prepare a document outlining its fears, to be published after the election.

The unions are keen to stress that they share the Labour's goal of improving Britain's ailing public services.

One union official, who did not want to be named, said: "All we are saying is don't assume that the public sector never works and that the private sector is the answer to everything."

There also increasing signs that the public is against the private sector playing a bigger role in delivering public services.

A poll for the Indepedent newspaper on Friday suggested four out of five people oppose Labour's plans.

More than 80% of the people polled believed hospitals should be run by the NHS. Only 19% thought they should be run by private companies.

Enthusiasm

Labour has been quick to embrace private finance to pay for new schools and hospitals.

But it has so far avoided bringing in private companies to set up and run clinical health services and mainstream secondary schools.

However, that is likely to change if Labour wins a second term.

Its manifesto is short on detail but Mr Blair has been unequivocal in his enthusiasm for private management.

On Tuesday he told the BBC: "Anyone who comes to me after the election from the very traditional old left and says 'no you cannot involve the private sector in these things', I want to say 'no I made it clear during the election that we wanted a different relationship between the public and the private sector."

'Balkanisation'

The Royal College of Nursing this week criticised Labour for not doing enough to improve the health service in its first term.

And it warned the party not to treat private management as a cure-all for the NHS.

A spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "There is no evidence that private management will produce better quality health services."

However, she did not want to comment further until Labour outlined its plans in more detail.

The King's Fund, an independent think-tank on health issues, has also warned about the "Balkanisation" of the NHS.

"The fragmentation of the railways is a warning about the potential of impact of dividing up public services between multiple private providers," it said.

Union unrest

Several public sector unions have also joined the criticism of Labour's plans.

The left wing Fire Services Union is advising its members to vote against New Labour wherever there is an opportunity.


The Labour government has listened to us

Unison spokesman
The union, which threw its weight behind Labour outcast Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election, has links to the left wing Socialist Alliance.

Postal workers, which this week staged a series of unofficial strikes, are also believed to be unhappy about the direction Labour is taking on private management.

Tube drivers in London are preparing further strike action against the government's plans to part-privatise the Underground.

Unison

Unison, the public sector union which has led criticism of PFI, says it is against private finance in principle.

But it had to put the pay and conditions of its members first.

The union, whose members include many health service workers, said it wanted to work with Labour to improve services for patients.

"Things have improved for our members working in PFIs.

"There is much more consideration being given to their terms and conditions.

"The Labour government has listened to us."

She said using private finance to build new schools and hospitals could also lead to more jobs for Unison members.

On Thursday, Mr Blair repeated his belief that opening the door to private finance should not be ruled out on ideological grounds.

"There are many people within these public services - teachers, doctors and nurses - who support the idea of making change, so that the services they provide for pupils and for patients is better."

But how they far they are prepared to go will only become apparent after the General Election - if Labour wins.

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