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John Thurso
  Candidate For Scottish Liberal Democrats
Statement To the People of Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross

This is an historic election. For the first time we are fighting an election to Westminster with an effective and functioning Scottish Parliament in place. The benefits of a devolved Parliament and of Liberal Democrat involvement in that Government are already clear to see.  In education we have delivered the abolition of tuition fees, a clear result of which is the increase in applications to Scottish Universities, in contrast with England where student applications are not only falling but where students are obliged to drop out through lack of funds. We also promised to do more for teachers and our full support for the McCrone Report is a clear signal of our commitment in this regard.

However this is an election to Westminster and it is important to remember the many key issues which remain the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament, the economy, foreign policy, defence, social security and one I feel particularly strongly about - pensions.  It is clear that the proper funding of pensions in the future will require a different formula from that which we have today. Liberal Democrat policies deal with this radically and effectively. For those of us in work and able to provide for the future this is not a problem. However for today's pensioners, who believed in the contract they made with the State during their working lives and who believed that when they paid their stamp it would entitle them to a proper and secure future, it is too late and we must therefore redress the balance of disadvantage which successive Governments have thrust upon our pensioners. Our campaign over the last two years to highlight pensioner poverty certainly forced Gordon Brown to retreat from his ridiculous 75p, but our policies go much further towards redressing the balance. Our proposals not only include an immediate increase of 5 for every pensioner but also a progressively increasing increase in pensions to restore the incomes of today's pensioners to a decent level.

At a time when the Conservatives feel compelled to retreat into the cul-de-sac of right wing dogma and have produced a Manifesto that can only be described as a Manifesto for Opposition, Liberal Democrats can put before the Country progressive and radical proposals, well thought through, soundly costed and honestly dealing with the balance between spending and taxation.

Like many, when I returned to Parliament in 1997, I anticipated a new start for the Country. I was heartened by the immediate adoption by the Government of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto commitment to an independent

>Bank of England, which has done so much to secure a stable economy. But like so many I have been hugely disappointed by the timid and parsimonious approach of Labour in government. They have, quite frankly, been disappointing. At a time when the Chancellor sits on a surplus of 44billion, it is just plain wrong that those entitled to benefit find them harder to get and that investment in quality services has been so slow.

Contrast this with the growing influence of Liberal Democrats in Parliament. Not only have our 47 MP's offered an opposition to Labour that is both effective and constructive but since the reform of the House of Lords which I welcomed, our Peers have held the balance of power. Not least in the area of Social Security but also in many other areas we have been able to drag the Government further than they would have wished to go to produce a better result for our citizens. Our record shows that wherever we have influence, whether in Government in Wales and Scotland or whether in opposition at Westminster, we have used it wisely. The message is clear, a Liberal Democrat vote makes a difference. At this election we have a real opportunity to achieve real change.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in our commitment to the world community and to the environment. These issues are now inextricably linked.  Liberal Democrats have always been internationalists. We recognise the duty on wealthy nations such as ourselves to help countries less fortunate achieve both economic and environmental sustainability. And as we face the alarming consequences of the breakdown of the Kyoto accord, together with ever more threatening scientific data on the destructive effects of global warming, the need to help find a world solution for this world problem has grown. If there is to be a planet for our children and grandchildren to inherit then environmental issues cannot remain a footnote to political debate. This is why our Manifesto has green policies in every section clearly set out.

Today I want also to talk about the particular problems which we have here in the North and I would divide these into two linked, but separate areas.  First there is the need to create a sustainable local economy by which I mean an economy that does not require constant external support and which is able to take the individual knocks which every economy must suffer from time to time. The second area is provision of services, where great distances and a scattered population bring cost and difficulty. Let me address >services first.

The great fabric of this United Kingdom is both wonderful and diverse. We all have the right to choose where we live and work, whether it be in the North or the South, whether it be in a rural area or an urban area.  But let us be clear what this means, it means different costs for different services in different locations. In cities for example the costs of pollution, traffic control and policing are greater than in rural areas. Whereas in rural areas such as the North or Cumberland or Wales our great distances make healthcare and education more expensive. Nonetheless wherever we live and whichever the services, all our citizens have the right to enjoy an equal quality.

That is why I will always argue that we have just as much right to quality healthcare or quality education as any other part of the United Kingdom. In this regard I do not believe we are supplicant at the Government's table, we merely ask for correct treatment.   Creating a sustainable economic model is however another matter. In this area we have indeed needed help to redress the problems of the past. The mechanics for delivering economic sustainability are in place. Since the inception of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965, to the creation of the local enterprise companies, economic partnerships and forums of today, the infrastructure to deliver economic prosperity exists.

This is now a time of both great challenges and great opportunities.  Our traditional industries are vital to maintaining a viable population in remote rural areas and we must work to support them. To these can also be added newer industries such as tourism, which are capable of delivering even more.  But the real opportunity comes with the many developments in technology which allows so many businesses to be conducted irrespective of location. Modern business works to a dynamic model which favours smaller units which can favour us. Distance need no longer be a barrier. I want to help bring these businesses to the North, to improve our economy and to achieve self sustainability.

I have a clear vision for the North. It is of a community proud of its past and confident of its future. A community where traditional industries and skills flourish alongside modern enterprise. A community where quality services are provided notwithstanding distance. A community whose economy is self sustaining and whose livelihoods are secure. A community that nurtures and profits from our priceless environment. This vision is achievable, for some parts of the constituency it is very near. For other >parts the challenge is much greater but it can be done. Moreover it can be done by Liberal Democrats and by Liberal Democrat policies.

Our message is clear, our policies are sound, campaign with confidence.

John Thurso
Liberal Democrat
22 May 2001