Brown: We’ll cut, but not on the front line

By Alex Stevenson and Ian Dunt

Gordon Brown has finally admitted Labour will cut public spending in a speech to delegates at the TUC conference.

But the prime minister insisted there would be no cuts to front line services.

“I must tell you the tough truth,” he said.

“Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets.

“But when our plans are published in the coming months people will see that Labour will not support cuts in the vital front line services on which people depend.”

Mr Brown said £500 million would be saved by reforming Whitehall’s early exit scheme, which pays out for early retirement.

“These high costs prevent us giving more people jobs,” he told his audience, which sat in silence throughout this section of the speech.

The Tories quickly claimed the speech gve them a political victory.

“Leadership is about telling people the truth. That’s what David Cameron and I did when months ago we levelled with the public that there would have to be cuts to deal with the nation’s soaring debts,” shadow chanceloor George Osborne said.

“Gordon Brown, by contrast, spent months avoiding the truth and being shifty with people. Now today reality has caught up with him. He has conceded that it was the Conservatives who got the first big economic judgement about the economic recovery right.”

Mr Brown included some encouragement for union members.There was a pledge that the minimum wage would rise year after year, a promise to put apprenticeships on a statutory footing and build more affordable houses.

Mr Brown spent a considerable portion of the speech talking to the audience outside the hall, as he called on the British public to not give up on the financial actions currently being taken before the recession had definitely passed.

After 12 years of Labour government, the prime minister faced a tough test at the Liverpool conference.

Yesterday, delegates at the conference backed calls for industrial action against planned job cuts in public services.

Recent rumours of public spending cuts have created an aura of suspicion between the government and unions. Downing Street had briefed beforehand that today’s speech would include the key admission that spending cuts are required.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “I wanted to hear that public services would not be cut. But I want to know what he means by ‘cutting waste and inefficiency’ and ending some budgets. And it was worrying that he was suspiciously quiet on whether Labour would continue with the privatisation of our public services.

“It’s great to hear that vital ‘front-line’ services will be safe, but does that mean that the cleaner, the porter, the dinner ladies who allow those services to be delivered are expendable?”

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was more positive saying “this was a jobs versus cuts speech, and he chose jobs”.

Following recent speeches by chancellor Alistair Darling and business secretary Peter Mandelson acknowledging the government will have to begin identifying areas where spending must be cut, Mr Brown’s challenge was in convincing union leaders this could be achieved without damaging public services.

The prime minister met union leaders at Chequers on Friday. Their “constructive and wide-ranging discussion” – according to Downing Street – found agreement on the importance of job security and creation in the coming months.

This morning the prime minister’s spokesman called the TUC address “an important speech”.

“The prime minister has been entirely clear throughout that this is about tough choices in public spending,” he added.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne and Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable both spoke about their party’s plans to cut public spending this morning.