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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 22:15 GMT

Tory pledge on Europe

Conservative leader William Hague has warned business leaders that this election is the last chance to save the pound.

In a speech in Southport he returned to the theme of Europe, reiterating that Britain should be "in Europe but not run by Europe".

" The Labour Party has let so many prisoners out of jail early that even Ronnie Biggs thought it was safe to come home at the beginning of the campaign "
William Hague

His speech to an invited audience on Merseyside followed a Keep the Pound rally in Northampton earlier on Monday.

But he faced accusations from Labour that he was "running scared" from Scottish voters.

Mr Hague warned: "Only a Conservative government will keep the pound."

He said his party would introduce new legislation to safeguard the UK's powers against European interference.

"If we are not big enough and good enough to run our own affairs, who on earth is big enough and good enough to run their own affairs?" he asked.

He attacked Labour's record in government.

Second chance

"They are not asking for a second term they are asking for a second chance," he said.

He argued that violent crime was rising, patients were waiting longer for operations, secondary class sizes were bigger, the asylum system was in chaos and taxes were increasing.

Mr Hague promised instead a common sense approach on issues such as crime.

He pledged to restore the number of police officers to that under the Conservatives and said there would be an end to early release scheme for prisoners.

"The Labour Party has let so many prisoners out of jail early that even Ronnie Biggs thought it was safe to come home at the beginning of the campaign," he said.

Morale rock bottom

Morale, he said, had hit rock bottom among public sector staff.

This came as Prime Minister Tony Blair set out his goals for future investment in public services and warned against 20bn Tory spending cuts, in a speech in Kent.

But Mr Hague said money would be given direct to schools by cutting red tape.

He said where Labour had failed to deliver on "education, education, education" his party would focus on "discipline, standards and choice".

And he warned that Labour would increase "stealth taxes".

This was indicated, he said, by its refusal to deny that it intended to raise the limit on National Insurance contributions.

He promised a package of measures, including ending tax for a million pensioners.

But Labour accused Mr Hague of "running scared" from voters in Scotland, claiming he had cancelled a visit to Stirling.

On his visit to Stirlingshire, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, said: "William Hague keeps running away, he has ducked doing press conferences nationally."

But a Scottish Tories' spokesman said the visit had not been confirmed and Mr Hague would return to Scotland before the election.

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