Power to the poor people?

Observations on vouchers

It may be a cliche to point out that what happens in the US happens here about five years later, but, like most cliches, it's true. Education vouchers, for instance, which give parents a sum equivalent to the money spent on sending their child to a state-run school, are usually dismissed in Britain. They have had a very different history in the US and, thanks to a decision a fortnight ago by the Supreme Court, are now poised to transform American schools. Give it a few years and the same may well happen here - not least because, although few have noticed, the government has already introduced the voucher principle into the NHS.

Although the American left, including the teachers' unions and the bulk of the Democratic Party, oppose school vouchers as firmly as their British equivalents, by far the most vocal advocates are the poverty lobby - and especially the black poverty lobby. The Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, an African-American think-tank, found in a poll in December 2000 that 75 per cent of blacks under 35 support vouchers.

For many years, Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential election, fought a lonely battle, among his fellow Democrats, in support of vouchers. Now he is beginning to find allies. Last year, Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's former labor secretary, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "The only way to begin to decouple poor kids from lousy schools is to give poor kids additional resources, along with vouchers enabling them and their parents to choose how to use them."

The US Supreme Court's decision on 27 June overturned an Ohio Supreme Court ruling. That ruling had banned a voucher scheme in Cleveland, Ohio, as unconstitutional because, in allowing tax money to be spent in a variety of schools, it raised the possibility that some might go to religious schools, thus breaching a hallowed American principle. The ban stalled the introduction of other schemes across the country. The lifting of it will give a corresponding boost.

Three days later, on 1 July, Alan Milburn introduced the first British voucher. He doesn't call it that, but a pilot scheme that allows heart patients who have been on a waiting-list for six months to opt to have their treatment in a private hospital or, if necessary, abroad, is based on precisely the same principle.

Both No 10 and the Department of Health are fascinated with the Danish health service. Earlier this year, the Danish government announced the introduction of an all-embracing health voucher. All patients on a waiting-list of any sort for more than two months are to be given a voucher that can be used anywhere - including outside the state system. The idea is not simply to pacify patients; it is to introduce a competitive pressure into a state monopoly.

The heart patient pilot scheme is clearly designed to prepare for a much wider, Danish-style, NHS voucher. And it shows we're not even waiting the usual period to copy the US: it's here already. First health; education to follow.

Stephen Pollard is a senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank