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Britian's Labor Party Unveils Sweeping Legislative Proposals

By Fred Barbash
The Washington Post
LONDON

Britain's new Labor government signaled Thursday that it would move swiftly to carry out its campaign pledges, including consideration of the country's first freedom of information act and its first laws regulating campaign fund raising by political parties.

The legislative program of Prime Minister Tony Blair, scheduled for formal presentation Wednesday by Queen Elizabeth II, will include 17 to 20 proposals, officials said following Thursday's inaugural meeting of the new cabinet. The agenda is unusually ambitious for a fledgling government, or for any government here in recent years.

The program, to be carried out over the next 17 months, likely will include a reordering of education spending to reduce class sizes for preschool and primary education, a new "welfare to work" regime for recipients of state benefits, a management reorganization of the National Health Service, imposition of a system for setting a national minimum wage, and machinery for referendums on decentralizing some legislative authority from the capital to Scotland and Wales.

All were promised in the campaign platform, which helped Blair and the Labor Party win a landslide victory in the May 1 general election that ended 18 years of Conservative Party rule. The surprise, from a leadership that spoke during the campaign of moving slowly, would be the speed of implementation, a bonus made possible by the huge 179-seat House of Commons majority won by Labor. The party secured a legislative freedom greater than Blair has said he imagined in his most optimistic pre-election dreams.

There are now so many Labor members of parliament - 419 - that the prime minister had to rent a private hall Wednesday to greet them because no public room other than the Commons chamber itself would hold them all.

Among the greatest changes to government would be enactment of a freedom of information act, creating a right of access to official documents comparable to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and various "sunshine" laws in the states.

While no information legislation will be proposed Wednesday, according to a Downing Street spokesman, Blair will outline his ideas and order a study of the scope of such an act. However wide or narrow the access granted, it will be broader than anything that exists now. Britain is among the most secretive of Western democracies, with little legal obligation to provide information to anyone on any subject and a traditional inclination not to.

Similarly, any campaign-finance proposals applied to Britain's political parties will go beyond current law, which restricts spending for individual House of Commons candidates but leaves the serious campaign spenders, the parties, free to accept any amount of money from any source without disclosure.

The new administration has said it favors a ban on contributions from foreign sources, who have tended to make large gifts to the Conservative Party, and a disclosure requirement for contributions more than about $8,000.

The plans for the overburdened, increasingly expensive National Health Service - the government-run health-care system - are unclear. Before the Conservatives took power, it was operated essentially as a vast single agency.

The Tories - first under Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher and then under the just-departed John Major - decentralized the National Health Service, creating a system of internal markets and trusts to run the system in individual jurisdictions as if they were independent businesses, purchasing supplies and services on a competitive basis to bring down costs.

Labor argued that the reforms resulted in a mass layoff of medical staff and a mass hiring of managers, swallowing more than $2.5 billion annually. Blair promised to eliminate the internal markets, using the savings to provide medical care and reduce what are now long waiting lists for many types of treatment.

The new government demonstrated its determination to move rapidly on its economic proposals earlier this week when it surprised the financial community here by transferring the power to set base interest rates from the chancellor of the exchequer, who is the equivalent of the secretary of the treasury, to a new panel of the nation's central bank, the Bank of England.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, meanwhile, has been touring Europe, attempting to mend fences broken by the Major administration in its combative approach to the European Union.

Also Thursday, the new government team responsible for Northern Ireland met with Irish Prime Minister John Bruton to consider ways of reviving the moribund peace process there.