Farewell to dear Prudence

4th February 2000 at 00:00
IT SEEMS Prudence's days may be numbered. After three years as the darling of new Labour, this winter's crisis in the health service has put her place at the heart of policy under threat.

Concern about the health service led Tony Blair last month to announce, on live TV, that the Government would be ploughing about pound;11 billion a year extra into health by 2006.

This immediately sparked fears that education would lose out. It was reported that David Blunkett was putting pressure on Downing Street to ensure education got its fair share of the next three-year settlement, due to be announced in the summer.

Education ministers are worried that the recent improvements in national test results, and a shift in public concern to health, will weaken Blunkett's bargaining position. Why bother to meet targets if the reward is to lose out on future investment?

But Number 10 was quick to reiterate that education remains the number-one priority. So can it expect an equivalent bonanza?

Perhaps, but it i far from clear that the Government will even meet its new commitment on health. Treasury spin-doctors have told journalists that Blair's announcement was an "aspiration" rather than a pledge. It seems the PM failed to check his figures with his Downing Street neighbour.

But the episode may be the start of a sea-change in attitudes at the top of government. The crisis has shown Blair that spin alone cannot change people's real experiences and he must invest in public services.

Like health, education spending is below the international average. In 1995, the UK spent 4.6 per cent of national income, compared to a developed country average of 4.9 per cent.

In its manifesto, Labour pledged to raise education spending as a share of national income. But, over the lifetime of this parliament, a smaller share of resources will go to education than during the last five years of Conservative rule.

David Blunkett will be hoping that the summer does indeed see less prudence and more purpose.

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