Iain Gray: 'I am ready to serve'

Iain Gray promised to shake up the public sector
Image caption Iain Gray promised to shake up the public sector

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray has declared he is "ready to serve" in office, with a promise to shake up the public sector.

He unveiled plans for a single police force, a single national fire and rescue service and a cut in the 22 health boards.

Mr Gray also told his party conference in Oban he wanted a "zero tolerance of illiteracy".

He announced plans for a national care service to look after older people.

Labour is hoping to win back power from the SNP at next May's Holyrood elections, after their victory in 2007.

To cope with public spending cuts, Mr Gray also said he would take a 5% pay cut if he was elected first minister, as would his ministers.

He also used his speech to attack current first minister, Alex Salmond, saying he had failed Scotland through broken manifesto promises.

The SNP has pledged to look at cutting police forces from the current eight to save cash in back office functions, with similar cuts in NHS management posts.

But, dismissing the announcements as "timid", Mr Gray said: "I believe the time has come for a national police force, but with strengthened accountability for local policing."

Mr Gray added: "We can save headquarter costs, protect frontline policing - we should have a national fire and rescue service too."

He said there were "too many" health boards, adding: "They all have their own IT systems. That is daft.

"We will reduce the number of health boards."

Mr Gray said the reductions would start with a look at the eight specialist boards, which include the ones set up to oversee NHS 24 and the State Hospital at Carstairs.

The Scottish Labour leader also pledged to invest in young people, guaranteeing every 16 to 18 year old a place in work, education or training.

And he said Labour would guarantee an apprenticeship place to every qualified school-leaver who wanted one, but warned: "That will be hard and it will not happen overnight.

"But we do what is hard because it is right. And we will find a way - because I will not stand by and see another generation lost again."

Mr Gray said one in five Scots youngsters suffered from "functional illiteracy".

He said this risked blighted futures.

Mr Gray declared: "We will establish zero tolerance of illiteracy in this country."

The former teacher said he would offer newly-qualified teachers, thrown on the "scrapheap" by the SNP, the chance to join the party's literacy and numeracy drive and deliver one-to-one specialist programmes.

And Mr Gray pledged to end the "postcode lottery" for older people needing help, with a new body to set national standards in care, ensuring it was personally tailored and delivered locally.

"People still get caught too often in the crossfire between the NHS and councils," he said.

"And far too often, we expect the most vulnerable of our citizens at the most difficult time in their lives to negotiate a maze of benefit, health and social care bureaucracies just to get the care everyone knows they need.

"The time has come for Labour to create an integrated National Care Service to stand alongside the National Health Service to meet the care challenge of this century, as our predecessors rose to the health challenge of the last."

Turning to his political opponents, Mr Gray said the "rewriting of history by the Tories and the Liberals", when it came to who was to blame for the UK's economic problems, should not be tolerated.

"Public spending in this country prior to the global financial collapse was not out of control, as they would have the country believe," he said.

"That spending was a necessity to right the wrongs of decades of Tory misrule and rebuild our communities laid waste by Thatcherite dogma."

And on the SNP's record in government, the Scottish Labour leader said Mr Salmond's party had dropped manifesto commitments on scrapping student debt and cutting class sizes, while they had cancelled projects such as the Edinburgh and Glasgow airport rail links.

First minister

He also claimed thousands of teaching and NHS jobs had been cut.

Mr Gray said the SNP leader had "thrown away" the Scotland he inherited in 2007, when unemployment was lower than the rest of the country, and was determined to make Scotland a "brass plate tax haven" through plans for independence.

Hitting back at Mr Salmond, the Labour MSP said: "He called me the invisible man - but Scotland sees right through you Alex.

"You are the banker who got it wrong on the banks. You are the economist who got it wrong on the economy. You are the first minister who gets it wrong for Scotland.

"At a time like this, we can't afford a first minister for funny hats and launching shortbread tins and celebrating world porridge day."

He said: "Scotland deserves better. Alex Salmond - he has to go."

However, Mr Gray warned of a tough election fight ahead, saying the SNP would not give up power in Holyrood easily.

Rallying members of the party faithful, he said: "Where stands Scottish Labour now?

"We stand where we always have - foursquare behind the people of Scotland. Focussed on the better Scotland they deserve. Fearless in our pursuit of the Scotland they can have."

"Ready to work. Ready to fight. And ready to serve."

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