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SPEECH BY JOHN PRESCOTT, ENVIRONMENT SECRETARY: 'OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL'

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I am very pleased to be here in Gillingham and in the Medway towns once again, especially in the year of Labour 100...
I am very pleased to be here in Gillingham and in the Medway towns once again, especially in the year of Labour 100th birthday.

When 129 delegates met in London, a hundred years ago, and on a resolution moved by Keir Hardie agreed to form the Labour Party,

I wonder if those Labour pioneers imagined that, by the end of the century, Labour would have introduced:

a welfare state to combat poverty

social housing to combat squalor

the goal of full employment to combat idleness

universal education to combat ignorance

and a national health service to combat disease.

And by the start of a new millennium, we would have:

parental leave as of right,

a minimum income guarantee for pensioners,

the removal of the stranglehold on our law-making held by hereditary peers

and a national minimum wage for everyone at work,

all delivered by this Labour government

and a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair , who is right up there with the best in our history.

When Tony Blair adopted the name New Labour he was signalling change. Modernising the Party, updating our policies and widening our appeal.

Nearly 20 years of opposition taught us some painful lessons. We had to change.

As you know, I have long been an advocate of 'traditional value in a modern setting'. And adapting our traditional values to the modern day is what this Labour government is all about. We need to retain the trust of the electorate by showing that we deliver as promised. And by showing that our delivery comes from a strong sense of social justice.

We have made enormous progress over the last three years in getting away from the Tory 'boom and bust' economy, which gave us 3 million unemployed. doubled the national debt. and put up the interest rate on a mortgage, so it was twice as high as today.

Our economic performance is now second to none in Europe and unemployment is at its lowest level for a generation.

The gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' is narrowing and people are better off. But prosperity is not everywhere. There are still disparities between regions and within regions.

That is why we have set up regional development agencies in every English region - to match those in Scotland and Wales -

securing thousands of jobs,

providing new work sites,

promoting regeneration

and reclaiming derelict sites.

But it's not about one region thriving at the expense of the other. We want all our regions firing on all cylinders, to drive the British economy forward. Meanwhile, we will fight poverty, unemployment and poor housing wherever they exist and where the need is greatest.

Today I'm in Gillingham in Kent. The south. Middle England some might say. On Friday, I'll be in the Gateshead. The north east. Our 'heartlands'. And I'll be making the same points and setting out the same arguments, and I'll tell you why.

Because the people of Gillingham want the same things from their Labour government as the people in Gateshead:

- the rock of economic stability so that they will not be swept aside by Tory boom and bust;

- better schools so that their children get the chances taken for granted by the people the Tories fight for;

- better hospitals;

- a better transport system.

They want to live in a world free from bigotry but not from rules, so they back the police in the fight on crime and drugs.

They want to see the welfare system reformed, so that it helps people who need help, and assists people into jobs.

And they want the chance to work for people who need work.

I travel the country, and they are the people's priorities wherever I go, north, south, east, west. England, Scotland or Wales.

I was born in Wales, brought up in Yorkshire and the north west, and I have lived in the north and in the south.

I was educated in a primary school in Yorkshire and a secondary modern school in Merseyside. I went to university in Oxford and Hull. I worked from ports in Liverpool and Hull, as well as London and Southampton.

There are of course vast differences between these areas. But what people fundamentally want from life is essentially the same.

Because the heartlands and middle England are united by the same basic decent values; above all, a belief in fairness, in social justice, a belief that everyone deserves the chance to get on and make the most of themselves.

This government's mission is to deliver opportunity and security in a world of change. That is what we're all about. About giving to the majority of people the life-chances taken for granted by the privileged few.

And we do it, as a Labour government, more ideologically united than at any time in our history. Yes, Tony Blair is the great moderniser, and I come from the traditional wing of the Labour Party.

But we both share the same basic values of the majority of people in this country. We both share an absolute determination to give everyone the opportunity to succeed.

When I was at school, only about 7% of kids went on to university or higher education. Today, it's more likely to a third.

But Tony and I want more than that. I failed my 11-Plus, and it spurred me to fight to make the most of myself. But for a lot of people, it was the end of the opportunity road.

And we know that in today's world you don't write people off at 10, or 20, or 30, or 60, or at any age.

When I went to Ruskin College, thanks to support from the trade union movement, I felt lucky. Because there were many people I felt had equal ability, but just didn't get the chance to develop it.

It is not only immoral to write people off like that, it doesn't even make economic sense. Because in a world of change, learning and adapting is the key to success, for individuals and for the whole country.

And we still haven't gone far enough. So don't be surprised that this Government wants to get more comprehensive children into the top universities and the civil service, just as we want to give working people the chance of lifelong learning.

Why? Because where there are barriers to learning and opportunity our job is to take them down. Because only if we use the talents of all our people will we truly succeed as a nation. For all our people.

No-one has a longer record than me of standing up for the north. But we don't just stand for the north. No-one is more committed than Labour to stand for the poor.

But we don't just stand for the poor. It would suit the Tories down to the ground if we made the mistake of thinking we only represented some regions, some industries, some sections of society, because that way lies another Tory government.

That is a dangerous Tory trap, and we must not fall into it.

The government's mission is to deliver opportunity for all and security for all in a world of change.

That is the big difference between us and the Conservatives. Opportunity for all. Security for all.

So the Tories opposed the New Deal and continue to oppose it, though it has helped thousands of young people into work. We want to extend it. The Tories oppose us, when we get help to the poorest pensioners. They resist our efforts to raise standards in comprehensive schools,

They resist our NHS reforms, because, when push comes to shove, the Tories stand for the few who can buy their way out of problems, rather than the majority who want us to raise standards for everyone.

Not just in the heartlands, not just in middle England, but in the whole country.

So, when it comes to how the government spends its money - which never let us forget is the taxpayers money - then we spend it knowing that the priorities in the heartlands are the same as the priorities in middle England.

Gordon Brown has said that opportunity for all will be the theme of the spending review that will be completed in July.

From expanding Sure Start to help give our youngest children a better start in life,

To funding Regional Development Agencies to tackle adult skills problems, to making sure our universities are able to attract and develop the brightest and the best (regardless of their background), the focus will be on breaking down the employment, economic, educational and social barriers to opportunity that still exist in Britain today with improved cash allocations, based on agreed targets and securing better results.

So when we invest record sums in the National Health Service, the idea that it is only the heartlands that care about driving up standards of health care is absurd.

The whole country wants and needs a better NHS and this government, having put in the resources, we will now drive through the reforms to deliver it.

The idea that only the heartlands care about unemployment is a nonsense. Every unemployed person, wherever they live, whatever their background, represents wastes potential.

And every one of us gains as we get more people off benefit and into work. heartlands and middle England alike.

On education, nobody should be surprised if the spending review widens opportunity in university, or provides the resources for schools to combat under-achievement, wherever it may exist.

In the heartlands or middle England. Because only if we make the most of the talents of all our people will we truly succeed as a nation.

On transport, we are sorting out long term problems with long term solutions. We will all benefit from a better, more integrated transport system - north, south, east or west - and our ten year plan we are publishing in July, backed by proper investment, will produce that.

On crime, whether on a run-own estate or in a market town, fighting crime and drugs will be right at the top of people's fears and people's priorities. The whole country will benefit from a government that is tough on crime and its causes.

We were elected to govern for the whole country, and that is what we are doing.

We are not against wealth.

We are not against success.

But we are determined that everyone should have the chance to share in wealth, share in success. Remember the new Clause 4 of our constitution. Power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few.

That's what we said. That's what we're delivering. That's the message in Gillingham.

That's the message in Gateshead. That's the message in the whole country.

We have long-term solutions to address the long-term problems we inherited, and we are delivering.

The Medway towns and the Thames Gateway have had their own share of troubles during the past twenty years. Unemployment is above the national average.

Just like many parts of the north, it has had to deal with unemployment, industrial change, and the worst effects of the Tory years. And throughout those years, the Tories showed too little commitment and too little ambition.

What this Labour government is now proposing for the whole Thames Gateway is, I can assure you, not short of vision or commitment.

Our aim is to make the Thames Gateway one of the biggest and most innovative developments in Europe. The Medway is a vital part of that success.

With a sustained programme of public and private investment in land-reclamation, transport, housing and public services, we can create the critical mass that has been missing for so long.

It won't happen overnight, but the potential is huge and getting it right will not only bring benefits to the area, but also get the whole region firing on all cylinders.

I understand one or two of you are supporters of Gillingham Town Football Club. When I came here at the last general election, the club was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Last year they just failed to gain promotion in the play-off, after a penalty shoot-out. But they did not give up.

On Sunday, in a thrilling game at Wembley, they won promotion to division one for the first time in their history. That's the sort of spirit I want to see in Gillingham and the Medway.

That's the sort of progress I want to see for the whole Thames Gateway. And that's the sort of progress we want for the whole of Britain.

That is why we are backing the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which will be so vital to growth in the Medway.

Just as we have backed the extension of the Tyneside Metro in the north east. Because, unlike the Tories, we stand up positively for the whole of Britain.

Every day, the Tory strategy becomes more and more exposed. Willie Whitelaw used to talk of going round the country stirring up apathy. Today, Tories are going round the country stirring up cynicism.

If jobs are going up, and crime coming down, they don't want you to know Labour's policies have helped.

When people see their new school buildings, the Tories don't want you to think it's anything to do with the fact you've got a Labour government.

Instead they try to 'con' pensioners, mislead the public, and all the time seek to spread cynicism. And the Tories want a sort of national memory black-out of everything that happened in the 18 years before May 1997.

Do they think pensioners don't remember that the Tories stopped free eye tests for pensioners, the Tories broke the earnings link with the pension, and the Tories over-saw the scandal of the mis-selling of private pensions which cost a massive£3bn?

Now they claim to want to raise the state pension. But it turns out, they want to abolish the tax-free winter fuel allowance, add it to the state pension, then tax it.

Who do they think they are kidding? They had nearly 20 years to stand by the pensioners and they failed. They failed at every turn. Everybody knows, you just can't trust the Tories with your pension.

The Tories nowadays just bounce around from issue to issue, headline to headline,

behaving every day more like a pressure group than a serious party of opposition, let alone a serious party of government.

And when we come to the next general election, we will stand proudly on our record, our values, our beliefs and our commitment, because we are the party of social justice.

Of course, being in government means making difficult choices. It was Nye Bevan who said 'The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.'

But when we talk of what's still to be done, let's just remind ourselves of what we have achieved in economic progress and social justice.

Of course we have to enthuse our supporters, show we are delivering, and make sure nobody ever forgets that the only alternative is a Tory government that would take away help for the poor, remove individual rights and bring back the 'boom and bust' economy.

The Labour Party is, always was, always will be, the party that fights for a better chance for the majority. The Tory Party is, always was, always will be, the party that stands up for a privileged few.

Remember the 1997 Election Campaign. Two of the things that stick in the memory are: that song 'Things can only get better' and our pledge card.

We are delivering on our pledges, in a way which is grounded in our passion for social justice. We pledged to cut class sizes for 5 - 7-year-olds. Already, we are halfway to our target.

But we didn't just reduce class sizes, we shifted the resources from the assisted places scheme. Money which is now helping all our children. Isn't that better?

We pledged to cut debt and set the economy on a steady course - and we have. With three-quarters of a million extra jobs. Under the Tories we have mass unemployment. Now we can talk of the goal of full employment. Isn't that better?

On crime, we said we'd speed up the youth justice system and we have. But we did something else.

We said we would ban handguns. Ann Widdecombe said it was 'authoritarian'. But we believed it was right. So we banned handguns. Isn't that better?

And remember we said we would be tough on the causes of crime as well - and one of the causes of crime, mass youth unemployment, has been drastically reduced.

We said we would offer a quarter of a million places on the New Deal. But we did more than that. We financed it with a windfall tax on the excess profits that the Tories had allowed to build up in the privatised utilities. Isn't that better?

On health, we said we would cut waiting lists. And we have reduced them already by 100,000 already, as we promised in our pledge card. We have 5,000 more nurses. Of course there is still a lot to do.

Because we have a strong, stable, growing economy, and because we took the difficult decisions early on (yes, to accept tight spending programmes in our first two years), that's why we are able to deliver greater social justice in our public services.

That is why, in the last budget, Gordon Brown was able to commit a rise in health spending from£44bn to£69bn a year - the biggest ever increase in NHS spending.

And now we have settled the issue of resources, we are putting together the plan for the future, the big reform that will make those resources deliver better patient care.

Because we believe in the principle of a National Health Service. The Tories opposed it. Beveridge proposed the Liberal concept of health care based on national insurance. It took a democratic socialist, Nye Bevan, to introduce a health service based on need, not ability to pay. The greatest gift we ever gave to the British people.

So in our hundredth year as a Labour party, we can be proud of what we've achieved. The 20th century saw many great advances in technology- the computer, the microchip, the man on the moon.

But the greatest achievement of the Labour movement was to civilise the 20th century. Advancing the aim of full employment, widening education and opportunity, tackling poverty, creating the National Health Service.

Now we are putting our traditional values in a modern setting, for the 21st century.

So let's be proud of what we have done. And let's be clear. We are governing for the whole of the United Kingdom: heartland and middle England, town and country, north, south, east and west.

We have achieved a lot. But there is still a lot to do. And, let everyone remember, there is a lot to lose, if we ever let the Tories back into power.

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