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Lait: Scotland deserves better

Speech to 2002 Scottish Conservative Party Conference

Ladies and Gentleman, before I begin, I have to make an announcement.

A diary has been found, and it is clearly the property of someone who probably wants it back as soon as possible. It is a big - rather grand affair - BUT looking through it, it is pretty empty. It might help identify the owner if I read out a couple of the entries, in fact given how little of substance there is in the diary, I'm tempted to read out a whole week. - But I won't!

Whilst there is little real work listed, there does seem to be a lot of travelling, a lot of party meetings, and plenty of social events. There is even a reference to mid-week, mid afternoon French Lessons!!! It sounds just like Helen Liddell's week and, so if she is watching, and lets me know, I will be happy to pass it to her.

Since I accepted the Leader's invitation to shadow Helen Liddell, I have been sad to see how the great office of Secretary of State for Scotland has been reduced. We now have a Cabinet Minister paid a salary of almost £120,000 who has so little to do that she spends an hour in the middle of the working week learning French. If she worked a 40 hour week, and took these lessons every week for a year, that would mean you and I paying £3000 to her to learn French. Now I know that we Scots have always had an affinity with the French, but I wonder how many of you think the Auld Alliance is worth paying for like this.

Having a French surname as I do, you won't be surprised to learn that I'm not anti French, in fact, I like them - but I don't expect the taxpayer to fund me to learn their language!

I believe that Scotland has a right to see the position of Secretary of State made to work properly. Scotland deserves a Secretary of State who does a full time job.

Helen Liddell has my sympathy; after all, it cannot be easy sitting in a Cabinet with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who both think they own Scotland. Where every political event is interpreted as a power play between them with Robin Cook as a bit player in the wings. BUT if neither will back off and Tony Blair won't give her the authority to do her job properly, she should resign. Wining, dining and learning French may be a nice way to spend her time. But what would serve Scotland better, some more nurses or a continuation of her part-time tenure? I know which I would vote for!

Now it may of course be the case that our Secretary of State is actually far more active than we perceive. But she does little to make me believe it, for example, every time I ask her in the Commons to detail the action she is taking for Scotland she attempts to fob me off with empty and meaningless answers. Personally, I don't doubt for a minute that there is a real job to do. However, the clear perception of many of those I talk to is that the once proud position of Secretary of State has become a part time job. Scotland needs and deserves a strong voice in the Cabinet, and to borrow a couple of well worn political slogans - Scotland deserves better, or to put it another way - Helen, it's time for a change.

But she need not go, if she is prepared to fight Scotland's corner. To do this properly would mean standing up to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I doubt she will ever be able to do this, but I live in hope that she will. TIME WILL TELL. Scotland needs and deserves someone at Westminster to fight our corner in Cabinet. What we do not need is an expensive ceremonial position.

At last year's Conference, despite our great success in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, we were rather low but I think that as we look ahead now we can draw strength from the new realism that has gripped the Party - both North and South of the Border in the last 6 months. Yesterday, we heard from Murdo Fraser, Brain Monteith, David Mundell, Bill Aitken, Lord James Douglas Hamilton and, of course, David McLetchie, about the future that faces us. What is clear to me and will, I am sure, be clear to you is the fact that as a Party we are now prepared to recognise that the world has moved on from when we last won power.

Here in Scotland, we now have a new approach with a new team. We have elected representatives at every level, from local councils, to the Scottish Parliament, Westminster and the European Parliament and I am delighted as I look around the Hall today to see so many of you representing the Conservative Party in all our democratic forums. Whilst everyone has been returned by the will of the Scottish people, I feel that I should especially congratulate Councillor Alasdair Hutton, who took a Liberal seat in a by-election in Kelso. Now, the Liberals are always saying that by-elections show the way ahead. In Kelso this certainly seems to be true.

Since the Scottish elections in 1999 we have been winning seats from the other parties; in all the council by-elections since then our vote has gone up more than the other main parties.

In my time as Shadow Secretary of State, I have come to realise the depth of talent we have in our team. I must briefly thank a number of people for the support they have given me, and for the work they have put in fighting for Conservative commonsense in Scotland. This battle is fought on a daily basis by our MEPs, John Purvis and Struan Stevenson who has the crucially important portfolio of chairman of the EP fisheries Committee, our MP Peter Duncan who is a true support to me and in the short time he has been in Westminster has shown himself to be both a great fighter for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale and an effective performer in the Commons. In the Lords, the Duke of Montrose and his team are able to hold this overweening government to account and do so on your behalf on a daily basis. And could anyone forget Tom Strathclyde, Leader of the Conservatives in the Lords, architect of many government defeats!

In Holyrood David McLetchie and the MSPs he leads deserve special praise for the extremely effective way they are working as a group in the Scottish Parliament. They are the real opposition to the leftwing hegemony of Labour, Lib-Dem and SNP. I am particularly impressed by the way David is preparing our Party for next year's elections. I look forward to the battle to win more first past the post seats as well as more list places.

Increasingly in Council Chambers around Scotland, our councillors have flown the flag and they and our candidates will be a crucial part of the election battle next May. At all levels our elected representatives have been supported very effectively by the team in Central Office in Princes Street. They in turn have worked closely with our small but dedicated team of professional agents and I thank them all for all they do. They are often the unsung heroes.

This leaves one group, our volunteers and members. Since my appointment I have visited about a third of our Scottish constituencies and already there are many more visits booked. I am always pleased to receive invitations to support the vital work you do. You, above all, deserve our thanks, for it is you who make our party work, and work it will do - once again.

The recent past has not been kind, but the future offers us the opportunity to re-establish ourselves as the party that represents Scotland's interests. Most people I know in Scotland are increasingly fed up being told what is good for them. They are not convinced that the only way to sort out issues like the NHS is to throw vast sums at it, they see the need for real reform, not more central directives. Especially when it is their money that the Government is throwing at the problem.

As I have visited different parts of Scotland, from Easterhouse to the high technology businesses of British Aerospace and Scottish Power, I have found a wish amongst many of those I have spoken to to see a real challenge to Labour in Scotland. Whatever they may claim, the Lib Dems will never offer this. - And the SNP are now more interested in the return of their former leader than in the people of Scotland. As I have talked to people - both on my own, and with Iain, and with David McLetchie it has become crystal clear that when Labour came to power with the slogan "things can only get better" they misled huge parts of Scotland.

Time after time, Labour and the Liberals seek to imply that as Conservatives, we don't care about those in need, and that we have no right to be involved with the vulnerable. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am fed up being told by a bunch of left wing politicians that they have cornered the market in caring. Throughout my political life, I have fought to improve the lot of those less fortunate than myself. I have worked with drug and alcohol projects, mental health charities and the families of missing people. In fact only yesterday, in my position as a trustee of the National Missing Persons Helpline, I started the Missing Miles Walk in Glasgow.

I have done my bit for charity, because I believe in the important role charities play in our society. AND you know what, it never ceases to amaze me how often those I meet when visiting charities in the daytime turn out to be the same people I meet in the evenings when I visit Conservative Association events. Time and again, I find charities staffed by the same people who keep our party going, So let's not take lectures from our opponents about caring!

And let us put an end to the fantasy that our opponents are business friendly. The businesses I talk to are increasingly fed up with a Government that talks about delivery, and yet is really only interested in headlines and spin. They are frustrated by a Government that claims to be business friendly but that ties their businesses up in red tape and bureaucracy. And they are fed up with higher business taxes than in England. After all, a country that gave the world many of its greatest inventors and engineers suffers more than most when it is ruled by a Party that has an innate hatred and mistrust of initiative and enterprise. Can anyone imagine Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell or John Logie Baird supporting a Government that cares so little about business it chooses to raise National Insurance on both employees and employers in the budget.

In many areas of Scotland, we have seen the equivalent of a one party state ruling in local government. And what exactly has this one party state delivered? Housing schemes like Easterhouse, Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park (?)

As a journalist remarked to Iain during the historic visit to Easterhouse, 'this is Labour territory, what are you doing here?' And our Leader, very reasonably replied 'yes, look at it.'

The Lib-Lab pact running the Scottish Executive is equally prone to one party state thinking - perhaps Jack McConnell should not be called First Minister, but, more accurately, Third Minister.

However, let us not fall into the trap of assuming that because the Scottish Executive is not popular, this is also true of our new Parliament. The Parliament is here to stay, and as Conservatives we need to recognise that it is our responsibility to return enough MSPs to have a real say in how it affects peoples lives, as David McLetchie put it so eloquently yesterday. That means we must vote and use all the votes we will have to vote Conservative every time. As I go around, the complaints and concerns I hear relate not to the Parliament but to the Lib-Lab Pact running the Scottish Executive. They are the real culprits.

We must be clear what we want for the future.

Labour have backtracked over their legal commitment to reduce the number of MSPs in the face of resistance from those who fear losing their jobs. We however want to see fewer of them and we will not back down on this. Scotland needs a smaller Parliament. The Scotland Act specifies a reduction in the number of MSPs. We want to see the numbers fall from 129 to 108. Let those who oppose the reduction explain just what extra benefit the 21 extra MSPs bring to the average taxpayer. Each one draws a salary, expenses and the cost of staff and offices. Surely, if Labour wanted to put the voters first, it would direct this money to delivering services, not simply keeping its favourites in jobs. And, it is not just the Back Benchers who need culling. Scotland has 20 Ministers. We do not need more than 10! This would still be twice as many as the old Scottish Office.

But don't expect action just yet. It's amazing those who used to despise the trappings of power become attached to those very trappings: once they settle down in the comfy back seat of their Ministerial cars.

Politics is about people, and good politics is about making peoples' lives better. Sadly, for the people of Scotland the Prime Minister, his Ministers and his MSPs only seem to care about staying in office. Come the next election Scotland will, I am confident, be choosing between a Conservative Party that has looked, listened and adapted, and a Labour Party that has failed to deliver at almost every level!

It is there for us to win.

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