Speech to the Scottish Conservative Spring Conference
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here in Glasgow today. And I am delighted that Iain Duncan Smith is with us. Iain is a great supporter of the Scottish Conservatives. On his recent visits to Scotland to Easterhouse, Gallowgate, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and the Borders he has highlighted key issues such as the failure of our criminal justice system and public services to help our most vulnerable communities, the destruction that the European Union has wrought on our fishing industry and the growing pensions crisis for which Gordon Brown's iniquitous tax bears a heavy responsibility. These are the issues that really matter to people in Scotland. And I am determined that our Party will continue to speak up for them, to talk to them and not among ourselves.
They're certainly ready to listen. We've had four years of Lab/Lib Government in Scotland. Six years of Labour Government in the UK. And what is there to show for it? Precious little. There is no disguising the disappointment and disillusionment felt by many people. But let us be quite clear who is to blame - Labour and their Liberal Democrat allies. It is pretty clear what the Scottish people expect from their Government. They want to live in safe neighbourhoods and communities; they want to know that if they are ill, they will be treated speedily and effectively by our health service; they want to know that their children are being properly educated to give them the best possible start in life; and they want the opportunity to improve their standard of living. In Scotland today these basic requirements are not being met. We must do something about it.
It is my most fundamental political belief that a safe and law abiding society is the foundation on which everything else is built. In Scotland today crime and disorder and the menace of drugs blight far too many neighbourhoods and communities. Crime affects all of us to a greater or lesser extent whether we live in urban or rural environments. But, cruelly, it impacts disproportionately on some of the most vulnerable people in our society - the poor, older people, youngsters drawn into drug abuse and many within our ethnic communities.
Too many people are resigned to this state of affairs because they think that nothing that can be done about it. They are wrong.
I am determined to reduce crime and the fear of crime and to dispel this grim pessimism. Above all, this requires political will. Clear and unequivocal support for a zero tolerance approach, which tackles crime at its roots by challenging the graffiti, vandalism and yobbery which undermines communities, saps the human spirit and creates a culture of crime. This approach means putting far more police officers on our streets. A visible police presence, not just to detect crime, but to deter it.
And we know it works. Between 1992 and 2000, police numbers in New York increased by nearly a half and crime fell by two thirds.
But numbers alone are not enough. If we are to succeed police forces must be more accountable to the communities they serve and focussed on clear crime-fighting objectives. Which is why we will ensure that crime figures are published on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis and regular public meetings are held to ensure that the public are informed of progress. This will ensure that the most effective measures are adopted, but we should not be afraid to review the boundary between operational freedom and accountability to give the public the service it demands and deserves.
And if we catch more criminals, we must be capable of dealing with them. An enhanced prosecution service, a more efficient court system, more places in secure accommodation to take persistent young offenders off the streets of the communities they terrorise and enough prison places to meet the demands of justice. It's been said before but is worth repeating - prison works. It protects the public and deters criminal behaviour. It isn't perfect and we need to do more to prevent re-offending, but let us never forget that our number one priority must be the protection of the public. So criminals must serve the sentences they are given and any remission should be strictly limited and would have to be earned not granted automatically. And any alternatives to prison, such as community service or tagging, can be no soft option. They must be properly supervised and the public must be able to have confidence in them as punishments, as deterrents and as roads to rehabilitation and a way back into mainstream society.
Of course, we don't deny that all this will cost money. It is a question of priorities. Choices have to be made and we are not afraid to make them because maintaining and enforcing justice is, and must be, the prime duty of any government. We can do something about it - with the Scottish Conservatives.
A Modern Health Service
However, a secure society requires more than just law and order. It requires first class public services. I care passionately about our national health service. I depend upon it. My family depends upon it. My wife Sheila works in it as a nurse. We all depend on it. I understand the deep attachment that people in this country have to its ideals of high quality healthcare available to all irrespective of their ability to pay. It is important not just for our individual wellbeing, but because it provides us all with a collective sense of security - being there when we may need to call upon it. And I freely acknowledge that, just as we did in government year on year, the Scottish Executive is spending even more on the health service - nearly two billion pounds more than in 1999. Now the people of Scotland have paid the extra taxes to finance this spending and they are entitled to a better service in return. But the reality is that, despite all the extra millions of pounds that have been poured in and despite the enormous efforts of frontline staff, the NHS is not delivering as it should - what was once considered the jewel in the crown of our public services now lags far behind the healthcare enjoyed by all citizens in many other European countries. Spending may have risen by 34 per cent over the last 4 years but the number of patients treated from the waiting list has actually fallen by 6 per cent. Taxes up, spending up, treatments down. And patients have to wait longer on longer waiting lists - up by 19,000 patients from the time when Labour and the Liberal Democrats came to power. The acceptance that some patients may have to be shipped overseas in order to receive the treatment they need in a reasonable time is a stark and sobering reminder of how far we have fallen and how far we have to go. We must do something about it.
Ladies and gentlemen, Scottish Conservatives understand that to be true to the ideals of the NHS, we need to put the needs and expectations of patients at the heart of the service by giving them real choice over the treatment they receive and encouraging diversity of provision. That is why we will devolve power to GPs so that they will have the freedom to commission all healthcare, including community care, on behalf of their patients. GPs and their patients will be able to choose the speediest, most convenient care whether in the public or the independent sector. Of course, our opponents will scream privatisation - they always do. But I would remind them that the independent sector consists of more than just commercial organisations. Indeed, charitable, voluntary and not for profit organisations already play an important role within our health service. I know this from personal experience of the wonderful care provided in our hospices. The continued deliberate attempt by the socialists in all parties to belittle and obscure this contribution and what more it can offer says more about their closed minds and ideological blinkers than it does about us.
And we will free up our hospitals as well. We'll turn them into foundation hospitals - not-for-profit organisations which can respond flexibly to patients' needs. All of this will break down the virtual monopoly which exists in the provision of acute health services. Money will follow the patient and doctors will respond to the clinical needs of their patients, not the politically-imposed targets or dictates of central government. Greater independence for our hospitals will be particularly good news for district hospitals throughout Scotland, such as Stobhill or Perth Royal Infirmary threatened with closure or the loss of services such as A and E and maternity units. We will empower GPs, patients and local communities to support their local hospital.
If a lot of this sounds like fundholding. Well it is. Fundholding was already leading to major benefits for patients, before Scottish Labour strangled it in its infancy because it was an affront to their dogma. We will restore it and let it develop fully so that its benefits accrue to all patients in Scotland. We make no apologies for this. It was right for Scotland then. It is right for Scotland now.
So we can do something about it - with the Scottish Conservatives.
Standards and Choice in Education
I am equally passionate about our education system. As Scots, we rightly take great pride in our tradition of learning. It is a passport for progress for individuals and for society . We need a system which caters for the needs of every individual child and in which no child is left behind. However, the reality of our one-size-fits-all comprehensive system, which was supposed to be about equality, is an enormous gulf between the best and worst performing schools. Far too many of our children are trapped in poor schools. Standards of discipline in our schools are falling. Attacks on teachers are rising. There are now seven times more attacks than there were in 1997 - 5,412 last year alone - one every fifteen minutes of the working day in Scottish schools. Headteachers feel constrained by Labour's targets to reduce pupil exclusions and are powerless to remove violent and disruptive pupils from the classroom where they cause mayhem. Is it any wonder that more teachers are off work through job-related sickness and stress? Is it any wonder that an HMI study published this month found that two thirds of pupils in the second year of Scottish secondary schools did not meet national standards for writing and more than a half didn't meet them for reading? Jack McConnell and his Scottish Executive may promise 'Excellence for all', but the reality is mediocrity, or worse, for far too many.
We must do something about it.
The key is to embrace the principles of choice, diversity and decentralisation. We would give parents choice from a diverse range of schools. There are nearly 1,000 secondary schools in England specialising in business, engineering, maths, technology, languages, sport and the arts. This number is expected to double by 2006. And what is the situation here in Scotland? A paltry 7, with no increase in prospect. What a scandalous poverty of ambition!
And denominational schools are an important part of that diversity. Catholic schools are popular in Scotland, not just because of their religious affiliation, but because of their strong emphasis on moral education and high standards of discipline. Clearly, they are doing something right because studies show that their pupils, and particularly those from less well off backgrounds, achieve better results than those at schools with comparable intakes. Yet still some politicians try to blame Catholic schools for sectarianism. It is entirely baseless and is a disgraceful slur. We strongly support Catholic and other denominational schools. Indeed, where there is a demand from parents we would like to see more faith based schools in Scotland as part of extending choice and diversity. If there is one lesson we should have learned over the last 40 years, it is that trying to make all schools the same doesn't work. It simply means that your postcode determines your education - denying opportunity and perpetuating social division.
And so we will release young people from their catchment area prisons. We will extend choice through a major expansion in the number of specialist secondary schools and allow parents to set up their own schools with state funding as happens in Denmark and the Netherlands. And we will ensure that parents throughout Scotland are guaranteed the same choice by establishing a rural schools fund to sustain popular and successful schools which are the heart of many small communities.
We will combine this with giving all our schools the freedom to develop in their own way and enable head teachers to deal with problems such as discipline without interference from this government. Head teachers must be able to exclude disruptive pupils. So we will scrap Labour's politically-correct targets to reduce exclusions and give teachers the right to refuse to teach violent pupils.
We will apply the same principles of choice and diversity to further and higher education. Young people not suited to an academic education should be able to go to further education colleges from the age of 14 to learn skills and trades which will be of practical use and value to them and to us in their working lives - a lot more plumbers and joiners - far fewer graduates in media studies. And we will ensure a fair university admissions policy. Our pledge to students and parents is that any institution receiving public funds will have to admit students entirely on merit and qualifications, not social background or class labels. Anything else is a betrayal of the Scottish traditions of excellence and opportunity. Moreover Labour's social engineering will harm the very people it is intended to help, stigmatising them as the holders of third rate degrees from second rate universities. Labour is tackling the problem from the wrong end - we shouldn't be dumbing down our universities - we should be raising standards in our schools and ensuring that money follows qualified students to the university of their choice.
We will back this up by fulfilling our promise to end tuition fees in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats claim to have done it. It's a lie and our students are bright enough to know it. And so we will abolish their £2,000 graduate tax which is simply tuition fees deferred and have no truck with top up fees. Young people have enough financial burdens as they start off in life without us adding further to them. Do you realise that, thanks to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, young graduates on £10,000 a year will be paying 22 per cent in income tax, 11 per cent in National Insurance and 9 per cent in Graduate Tax - an effective tax rate of 42 per cent on every extra pound they earn. That's more than the richest man in Scotland pays on his investment income. And they call this social justice.
Ladies and gentlemen, we can do something about our schools and universities - with the Scottish Conservatives.
A Dynamic, Competitive Economy
However, education on its own does not extend opportunity for all. A dynamic and competitive economy is ultimately the only means of creating wealth and jobs, which are essential if we are to improve living standards and raise the quality of our public services. That's why I am so committed to improving the performance of the flagging Scottish economy. Labour's return to tax and spend and its obsession with piling on new regulations threatens to impoverish us all.
Against this background, is it any wonder that many people see no point in setting up their own business or are reluctant to take on extra employees. We must do something about it.
Let's start with regulation. We are determined to Cut Unnecessary Red Tape In Scotland. We will demand that every government department scour the statute book and bring forward to Parliament for repeal all laws and regulations of no proven worth or need. In the last 4 years the Scottish Parliament has passed 54 Acts and 1253 SSIs - it's never mind the quality feel the width. It's about time we reversed this trend.
And then there's taxes. When we were last in Government, we worked long and hard to establish a Uniform Business Rate throughout the UK - a level playing field for our businesses. Along came the Scottish Parliament. Along came Labour and this hard won parity was casually tossed out of the window. Our businesses, large and small, now pay a rate poundage which is nine per cent higher than their competitors in England. And so we will cut business rates in Scotland. Gordon Brown is putting up taxes on businesses and their employees next month with his National Insurance increases. By reducing business rates, we will bring them down to repair some of this damage. And let's not forget the much-needed improvements to our transport network. With an election on the horizon, Labour has miraculously started to promise money left, right and centre. But this won't make up for the backlog caused by their years of inaction - their freeze on the Conservative roads programme. It's time to get Scotland moving again. So we will invest in the road and rail improvements which are so essential to our export-oriented economy.
Ladies and gentlemen we know there is a price tag for this. That is why we will redirect £250 million from the overall Enterprise budget to cut business rates and improve transport links. We are determined to focus spending on practical measures to help all businesses in Scotland, not just the favoured few.
And we will ensure that all parts of Scotland benefit from our approach. It's about time our rural economy got a fair deal from the European Union and from this Executive. The CFP is well past its sell by date. It has failed fishing communities like those in Peterhead and Arbroath which I visited with Iain Duncan Smith in January. We will return control of fisheries to local fishermen. And we will invest in forestry roads and IT infrastructure to enable rural businesses to compete in global markets.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we can do something about it - with the Scottish Conservatives.
Scotland the Best
My vision for Scotland is clear. As I said in my speech at Hampden before the last election, I am immensely proud of our country. I defer to no one in my determination to do what is in Scotland's best interests. I will never accept a Scotland that is second best whether it be the standard of our public services or the performance of our economy. I want the best for Scotland - all of Scotland. Unlike Labour, I recognise that diversity is one of our defining characteristics and greatest strengths as a nation. They have imposed their urban values on everyone. We will respect the differences that are the source of so much strength and champion the rights of Scotland's rural communities.
The reality is that in too many areas rule by Labour and its Lib Dem allies is failing to deliver for our people. Despite all the higher taxes - 53 increases since 1997 and more on the way - our public services are worse, not better, our economy is growing more slowly and no one could seriously claim that society is more cohesive.
This has happened because none of the other parties in Scotland trust the Scottish people. The Nationalists may say they would set the Scottish people free, but in the last analysis all they offer is a change of passport - not a change of policy. None of these parties have any faith in the Scottish people or belief in individual freedom and responsibility. So more government interference and spending is seen as the answer to all our problems. Sadly, things are not so simple. This centralising, nationalising approach is failing Scotland, just as it did in the past, because so much money is being wasted.
We must do something about it and we will because not all parties are the same.
We will start by cutting government in Scotland down to size. Labour in Scotland has always been a byword for waste. But never more so than now. The new Parliament building at Holyrood or more accurately 'Follyrood' is the perfect symbol of the waste, incompetence and perverse priorities of the last four years of Labour/Lib Dem rule. The fact that the cost has gone up by £300 million is nothing short of a national scandal and we know who is to blame. Labour chose the site. Labour rejected a fixed price tender. Labour ruled out PFI. Labour and their Lib Dem lackeys voted for the project to proceed on 4 separate occasions and they continue to abdicate their responsibility and sign the blank cheques - Money down the drain which could and should have built schools hospitals and roads - and not a palace for politicians.
The people of Scotland deserve better than this. They deserve a government and a Parliament that provides value for money. And that's what we offer. Halve the number of ministers, fewer MSPs, a streamlined committee system, fewer bureaucrats and spin doctors, and a Parliament that focusses on real issues, not politically correct nonsense such as fox hunting and land reform which have been the staple diet for far too long.
And I make the same commitment that I made before the 1999 Scottish Elections - we will work with anyone to turn these policies into reality. But we will do this on the basis of principled agreement, not the political opportunism of the Liberal Democrats who will hop into bed with whoever offers them the most places round the Cabinet table. Our principled position is part of our commitment to make devolution work for Scotland within the United Kingdom. Scottish Conservatives continue to believe that Scottish interests are best served within the United Kingdom. We are Scottish and British - proud to be both and proud of what our partnership has achieved in the past and what it can achieve in the future.
Scotland needs a Government that understands this.
A Government that stops wasting money and spends it wisely on our public services.
A Government that backs up our doctors and nurses, teachers and police officers.
A Government that trusts the Scottish people.
That's what I stand for. That's what the Scottish Conservatives stand for.
Together we can do something about it.