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McLetchie: A better alternative

Speech in Edinburgh

"There has been much discussion as to whether, in this new devolved era, Scottish politicians and political parties should confine themselves in this General Election campaign to the reserved issues decided at Westminster and some in the media have been critical of the readiness of parties to blur the distinction.

I think this is mistaken because it confuses the separate roles and responsibilities of the media and politicians.

The media and in particular the broadcasters, have been at pains to explain to voters which issues are reserved and which are devolved. This is a laudable aim in terms of public education. In time, it may lead to people in Scotland focussing solely on the issues decided at Westminster when it comes to a General Election.

However, this is by no means inevitable and what the media cannot do is to force people to vote based on their judgement on these issues alone any more than politicians can.

I accept that when we Conservatives talk about devolved issues, we should explain that we cannot act on these issues in Scotland until after the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2007. This we have done and I would strongly refute the suggestion that we have sought to mislead the public by pretending otherwise. .

However, with that proviso, in this campaign we will continue to address the issues that matter to people in Scotland in their daily lives and to give them a clear idea of where we stand on these issues whether they be devolved or reserved.

It is clear that a number of the issues of greatest concern - such as the state of the health service, crime and standards of discipline in our schools - are now the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. In assessing these issues people are making a judgement on the performance of the Scottish Executive to date and that is a perfectly fair basis for casting one's vote.

SNP are no Alternative

It is interesting to note that the SNP has focussed its attack on the First Minister as it looks ahead to the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2007. This may be a sensible approach bearing in mind how irrelevant the SNP is to the current General Election campaign. However this concentration on personalities completely misses the point as far as I am concerned.

In many ways, the inclination of the SNP to do so tells us much about the current state of their party. Their problems stem from what might be called the 'Salmond Doctrine.'

Alex Salmond believes that all it will take to turn Scotland around is a bit of that Old Eck Magic. Asked during the SNP leadership election what he would bring to the party, he modestly replied 'wizardry'. Even his old pal Mike Russell was somewhat taken aback by this, perceptively pointing out that the party didn't need Harry Potter, it needed some new ideas. That must surely have signalled the end of a beautiful friendship.

The SNP believes that changing the manager is all that is needed. However that will only work if the new manager brings a change of approach.

And that is the real Achilles heel of Alex Salmond and his party for the SNP is a self proclaimed left of centre social democratic party. In other words it is of the same ilk as the current Labour/Lib Dem Executive with whom it shares a belief in central direction and high public spending as the solution to all Scotland's problems.

If we indulge the fantasies of at least some members of the SNP and imagine an independent Scotland, it is not too hard to imagine Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Wallace, Ross Finnie, Jack McConnell and Andy Kerr all sharing one big Social Democratic tent, hell bent on enjoying the perks of permanent power.

But more seriously, it demonstrates that the personal abuse between Labour and the SNP acts as a substitute for a real political debate.

If anything, the SNP are even more prone than even the Scottish Labour Party to knee-jerk, infantile leftism. Witness their opposition to all things nuclear, use of the independent sector in health and education and to profit, which is still a dirty word in the SNP vocabulary. No wonder a former Communist like Jimmy Reid feels so at home with the SNP.

The Choice on Healthcare

The weakness of the SNP case is most obvious in relation to healthcare. They are certainly very good at pointing out the failings of the current healthcare system and how it compares unfavourably with the health service in England. However, that's not too difficult.

Health is the obvious rebuttal of the hollow Labour boast that they are taking Scotland forward not back. The truth is there are over 9,000 more people on waiting lists in Scotland than there were in 1997. Outpatients have to wait over three weeks longer for treatment. The number waiting over a year is up from 626 in 1997 to 7,609 today. More people die each year from infections they pick up in hospitals than on Scotland's roads. And the centralisation of our health service means that more and more local facilities are being run down.

But the SNP analysis of this failure is totally superficial. As much as Labour it is unwilling or unable to ask the really important question which is "why"? Why does the NHS fail so dramatically in so many instances to meet public expectations and satisfy public needs?

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the SNP finds the answer ideologically unpalatable. So they go for the easy option which is to blame the people in charge and pretend a change of name plate on the door will make the difference. It is a cop out.

The SNP launched a poster recently highlighting the fact that people die waiting for treatment in Scotland. I agree. It is a national disgrace. But the reason it happens is due to the fundamental structural faults in our healthcare system. It is too inflexible, too centralised and too bureaucratic to respond to the needs of patients.

The SNP does not accept this analysis and would run the NHS in much the same way as Labour. This is shown by the way they argue over the targets set by the Executive in healthcare. For both Labour and the SNP, targets have become a substitute for effective policy. Yet we know from bitter experience that setting a target does not mean it will be met. Indeed, targets are a symptom of the central command and control system which is the fundamental problem with the NHS. By sticking with this failing approach, the SNP would have no more success than Labour and people would still die waiting for treatment.

Only the Scottish Conservatives have been prepared to challenge the consensus on healthcare in Scotland.

Simply throwing more and more taxpayers' money at a centralised, nationalised monopoly has failed. We need genuine reform if we are going to tackle waiting times and clean up our hospitals. Scottish Conservatives are committed to reducing bureaucracy, empowering local professionals to run our health services and giving patients greater choice.

With the Scottish Conservatives, centrally-set targets will go. Our aim is simple, but much more ambitious than that of either Labour or the SNP. We do not aspire simply to match or be better than the English for they too are laggards in European terms on health. We aspire to match the high standards of those European countries where waiting lists are virtually unknown. That is a really ambitious target for Scotland because if there are no waiting lists, there will be no waiting times.

But we won't achieve it by trying to manipulate the system to produce politically-determined objectives. We need to ensure that patients are treated according to clinical needs, not government targets.

Control over healthcare must be transferred from government to patients. That requires patient choice. Choice gives patients power and makes those who offer a service accountable to those who use it. To make it work, money must follow the choices of patients and patients must have the information on which to base their choices. That is what will happen with the Conservatives. Hospitals will be funded according to the treatments they deliver, rather than through centrally-allocated budgets.

The need to attract patients and therefore revenue will act as the spur to higher standards in our health service. Resources will also be used to best effect as they will go where people want them to and therefore where they are most needed. This will reduce the waste which is so endemic within the current system and mean that local health services which have the support of local patients will stay open and not be closed by bureaucrats.

We will back this up by extending the capacity available to treat patients. Patients will have an unrestricted choice of treatment within the health service or from independent providers who cost no more than the NHS. Where treatment in the independent sector is more expensive, we will make a contribution based on the cost of half the equivalent NHS operation. This recognises the tax these patients have already paid towards the NHS and will help to reduce waiting lists. It will give patients the kind of choice in healthcare that today only money can buy, making the independent sector accessible to far more people. This will provide a boost for the independent sector in Scotland and encourage the new independent providers we need to create a modern diverse health service.

This is another area where the SNP are behind the times. They say they are in favour of Diagnostic and Treatment Centres but only if they are in the NHS. If only they would take off the ideological blinkers they would see that it is the independently-run treatment centres in England which have enabled waiting lists and times to be reduced.

In setting out this approach the Conservatives are providing the real debate on health which Scotland needs. Not a phoney battle based on image and soundbites, but a genuine difference in ideas and philosophies. The failure of Jack McConnell is not because of his personality, it is because of his policies.

The Choice on Education

Labour has also taken Scotland backwards in relation to our schools.

School standards and behaviour in the classroom are closely linked. Bad behaviour is often borne of frustration. Half of Scottish 14 year olds don't meet the government standard for writing and a third don't meet the standard for reading. This makes it hard for them to participate fully in class. We are caught in a vicious circle - bad behaviour undermines standards and poor standards encourage bad behaviour.

Discipline in our schools has deteriorated sharply with attacks on a member of school staff going up from 743 in 1997 to 6,899 now. We are currently in the scandalous situation where there is an attack on a member of school staff every 12 minutes of the school day.

Many small rural schools across Scotland have been closed down and others face closure even though they remain popular with parents and are vital to their local communities.

Scottish Conservatives will ensure proper discipline in our schools by giving head teachers full control in this area. We will not allow a minority to ruin the education of the majority. This is all part of giving schools greater freedom to set their own priorities and budgets with funding following pupils to the school of their parents' choice.

With the Scottish Conservatives, parents will have more choice and control over their children's education as that is the way to drive up standards. Parents will be able to select the school best suited to the needs and talents of their child and we will expand the choice available to them. More specialist schools, more faith schools and a capital element in the payments to enable popular schools to expand and new schools to open.

And we will enable new state-funded but independently-run schools to be established providing free education just as in Sweden. Parents and local communities will also be able to keep open schools that the councils want to close. Parents and teachers can take over their running and receive the same per capita funding. That is especially important in rural areas - no school will be closed which has the support of the local community. That is our rural schools guarantee.

The Choice on Crime

The record in relation to crime is no better. A crime is committed in Scotland every 78 seconds. Violent crime, vandalism, drug crime, rape and homicide have all increased since 1997, yet only 140 police officers are on the beat across Scotland at any one time. No wonder only one in four crimes are recorded by the police.

For us though the acid test of a real commitment to protecting the public has always been the issue of automatic early release. It is a test the Executive has flunked. We abolished automatic early release in 1997 - Labour reinstated it. Then in response to criticism, Jack McConnell set up a Sentencing Commission in November 2003 and asked it to examine the whole issue. It has still to report on this subject.

However we cannot wait any longer. The list of crimes committed by people out on early release just grows longer. If it hadn't been for automatic early release, James Campbell would not have been free to attempt a disgusting rape on a two year old girl. That is the simple truth, as is the fact that Jack McConnell and his complacent Executive are more concerned with emptying our prisons than they are with protecting the public.

Accordingly we will end automatic early release as a matter of urgency to protect the public and restore public confidence. The sentence handed out in court is the sentence that should be served. Anything else is an abdication of responsibility and an affront to justice.

We will combine this with policies which fund the recruitment of 1,500 new police officers in Scotland, radically cut paperwork and make our police officers more accountable to the communities they serve through the direct election of police board conveners.

The Real Alternative

All this makes a complete mockery of Labour claims that they are taking Scotland forwards not backwards. This makes it all the more essential that a real alternative is on offer here in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats are currently billing themselves as just that in the election campaign. For anyone living in Scotland, it must seem like a sick joke.

The Liberal Democrats are no alternative to Labour, for they are Labour's partners in crime in the Scottish Executive. They are equally culpable for the policy failures which have let people in Scotland down. They are no alternative. They offer more of the same.

The record shows that far from going forwards, our public services are being taken in completely the wrong direction. Things were better with the Scottish Conservatives before and will be better again.

We offer a genuine break with the failed methods of the past and a new progressive agenda based on choice, competition and local accountability.

It is a bigger and bolder programme than that offered by Labour or any of the other parties in Scotland.

In this election the answer to the question - has the Scottish Executive improved the quality of our public services can only be a resounding "No".

To the related question - is there a better way? The answer is a definite "Yes" - the Scottish Conservatives."

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