Although people's thoughts are at this time invariably focused on the international situation, we all reflect that the war in Iraq is, in part, about establishing a democratic society that has free elections like the one in which we will participate on 1 May.
I return to domestic concerns for my question to the First Minister. After four years of this Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive and no fewer than 53 tax increases, many people in Scotland will be disappointed that violent crime continues to rise, that 19,000 more patients wait for hospital treatment and that the number of new business start-ups has decreased. People will also have been disappointed to learn recently that more than half of the pupils in the second year of our
Contrary to what Mr McLetchie says, our many achievements include the highest standards in reading and writing that we have seen in our secondary schools in my lifetime and substantial improvements in support for business, not only for business start-ups, but in support that allows existing businesses to grow. We have not only ensured that we have better paid staff and better equipment and facilities in our hospitals; we have brought down waiting times for Scotland's key killer diseases.
I assure Mr McLetchie that, not only have we made those achievements, we have many ambitions. There is much more still to do—that is the challenge for the Parliament in the next four years. We will build on that record and I am sure that it will educate us and lead us to meeting the challenge, and to meeting it successfully.
The big problem is that the record completely contradicts all the First Minister's assertions. Is not it about time that the he admitted that the centralising and top-down approach to running our public services that has been the feature of the Administration for the past four years has not worked and that it will not work?
Will he explain to people in Scotland why he did not cut his bloated Government down to size by halving the number of ministers who interfere in the running of our affairs? Why has he not cut the rates burden on Scottish businesses that puts them at such a competitive disadvantage compared with businesses south of the border? Why has he not given our doctors and nurses far more say in the running of the national health service in Scotland? I am thinking of foundation hospitals and general practitioner fundholding. Is not it about time that we had a Government in Scotland that does something about such problems rather than one that ignores them?
I am delighted to take up the member's challenge. On a top-down approach and not giving enough local power, not only has the partnership Administration devolved more powers to local authorities and bodies in Scotland than any other Administration in my lifetime, but it has done so successfully. It has worked in partnership with local authorities and many other bodies that deliver services at a local level. We are also devolving power to front-line managers of services who need such power in order to make the right priority decisions at local level.
Furthermore, we have cut the rates burden for Scottish businesses by freezing rates for next year and by giving a firm commitment that, in future
In the next parliamentary session, it is important that we build on our achievements not only by maintaining smaller class sizes in primary schools, but by reducing class sizes in secondary schools. Not only did we build on the 20,000 modern apprenticeships that we promised to deliver, but 30,000 apprenticeships have been delivered for young people. We have put behind us the absolute hopelessness of the 1980s and 1990s and built a Scotland that is fit for the 21st century.