Willie Rennie speech to Scottish Liberal Democrat conference


Speech from leader of the Scottish Liberal Democats Willie Rennie MSP to Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Dunfermline:

Thank you to everyone who sent kind wishes following my period of absence from the political stage. I was undergoing an operation to replace a mangled disc in my neck. 

 

It was an emergency, not for any medical reasons, but because our campaign director Adam Stachura said it was hindering my canvassing technique.

 

Lying on the theatre trolley as the needle was about to be injected into my hand the doctor declared she knew exactly who I was.

 

It was even more alarming that she looked remarkably like Nicola Sturgeon.

 

I started to wonder if Alex Salmond would emerge from behind the curtain with scalpel in his hand and oxygen pipe under his foot.

 

Of course the treatment was excellent.  Mr Ballantyne and his staff at Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital were a great team.  Great care, brilliant staff, our NHS. Thank you very much.

 

However, even when in recovery I was watching closely.  Alison McInnes stood in at First Minister’s Questions. 

 

She was doing so well I had to return to work early.  Left any longer and I may not have had a job to return to.

 

Thank you, Alison. You were brilliant.

 

In her first question she asked about mental health.  This built on Jim Hume’s sterling work which included a debate in the parliament earlier this year that secured cross party support.

Just as we strive for ever rising standards of care for physical illness we must set equally high standards for mental illness. 

 

In the middle of Dunfermline there is a house.  It’s a very ordinary looking house.  But inside that ordinary house extraordinary things happen with some extraordinary people.

 

The Scottish Association of Mental Health run a service called Going Forth.  I was a board member and saw first-hand the work that they did.

 

It’s a social space.  It a place where people can access training, advice on benefits and courses on confidence building.

 

The support staff help people reach their dreams and goals.

 

One client said “The service helps me realise that although I have a mental health problem, I also have a life that is worth fighting for.”

 

We know one in four people are likely to suffer from mental health problems at some point in their lives.

 

But equally a survey showed almost one in four people were not comfortable to make friends with someone with depression, to have them as a work colleague or even for them to move next door.

 

The UK Coalition Government has written into law that, for the first time ever, mental health and physical health deserve equal recognition.

 

Achieving that equality is essential to improving people’s well-being and delivering significant improvements in the way our health services work. 

 

Getting the right combination of public mental health, anti-stigma, timely access to therapy, and reliable crisis and emergency care will all be part of the picture.

 

Our young people are facing long waits to begin treatment at mental health services. Too many wait six months to access treatment.  That is an indefensible waiting time for a young person at such an important time in their lives.

 

So I make a plea to the new First Minister.  Let’s work together to change attitudes, to reduce the stigma and to guarantee that people with mental illness are treated equally to those with physical illness. 

 

In her programme for government – to be announced next week – let there be a New Mental Health Bill to give mental health the boost it needs.

 

 

To tackle stigma

To improve lives

To give everyone a chance

Let's make that happen next week.

 

George Lyon.  One of my greatest disappointments this year was losing George. For five great years he served us well. 

 

He negotiated with governments across the continent on the budget, led for Scotland on Agricultural Reform and won huge special funds for Scotland.

 

When he was our MEP farmers gained.

The rural community advanced.

Scotland won.

 

George – you should be proud of your achievements and today we salute you for your energy, determination and above all grace under pressure. 

 

You are an inspiration for us all.

 

The referendum was the biggest democratic experience of my life.  Britain will never be the same again.  Although we won, two million people are apparently not convincing enough to close the issue for a generation after all. 

 

The growth in the nationalist movement must be a red warning that we cannot return to politics as usual.  There must be no complacency.  We must treat every election from now on as if independence could be round the corner.

 

Remember a decade ago the SNP would put independence at the bottom of a long list of priorities. 

Those days are long gone. 

Now it is at the top. 

 

The SNP in the Scottish Government spent so long campaigning for independence they took their eye off the ball on day-to-day services.

 

As a result, tens of thousands of college places were lost,

hospitals faced a beds shortage and targets for cancer treatment were missed.

 

No longer can people vote for the SNP with impunity. 

Voting for the SNP is no longer just a vote for an SNP government; it’s a vote for independence. 

 

That’s why they exist. 

 

They will keep on asking you the question until you give them the answer they want.

 

Let’s face it, everyone is pretty excited the first time they are called and told how much money they might get from PPI claims. But the second call isn't so good. And the two hundredth time is off the scale.

 

My message to the SNP is this:

 

The result was clear, legal and decisive.

 

Accept it and get on with your job.

 

Three years ago this conference held in this venue agreed to commission Ming Campbell and a selection of fine Liberal Democrats to write our plan for more powers.

 

It was published one year later proposing a massive transfer of financial and constitutional power. It forced the other parties to develop their plans. 

 

I then commissioned Ming to write another report - Campbell 2 - to spell out the process for delivering those powers. 

 

It advocated an all-party discussion - including the SNP - to agree a joint platform for the General Election.

 

Now it would be inappropriate for me to reveal the discussions I had with the Leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties about these matters in the months and years running up to the referendum.

 

But, suffice to say, they were not in complete agreement with what I proposed.

 

Well....not at first.

 

The Smith Commission is a product of Liberal Democrat thought, planning and determination. 

 

Using our history and principles to lead the thinking on radical powers.

 

Using our hunger for change to set out the ambitious delivery plan.

 

Alistair Carmichael even recruited Lord Smith to the job.

 

And Mike Moore and Tavish Scott are leading for us on that Commission.

 

This is a remarkable time.  For the first time in Scottish history we have all parties in the one room to shape the constitution of our country.

 

Inclusive, radical -  and Liberal Democrat.

 

I recognise that some members and supporters of our party voted yes in the referendum. 

 

I want you to know that whilst the party will continue to oppose independence that there will always be a place in the Liberal Democrats for those who support independence. 

 

You should feel free to debate, discuss and argue for what you believe.

 

Although we are not nationalists, we are liberal and we are democrats.

 

Conference - be proud that Liberal Democrats are at the heart of Scottish politics. Bringing people together, getting the job done.

 

You know that I am very proud of the work of the Campbell Commission. 

 

Its plan has stood the test of time.

 

We want a parliament that raises the majority of the money it spends.

 

And a parliament that is entrenched in the UK so it is treated as a partner.

 

But the referendum was an extraordinary experience.

 

Whilst we decided to remain in the United Kingdom people expressed a clear desire for even more decisions to be made here in Scotland.

 

The Campbell Commission clearly set out that the benefits system should be something we share across the United Kingdom in its entirety. 

 

Conference, I need to report to you that I have reviewed that position in light of the referendum.

 

I have asked the team to explore the transfer of a major package of welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament. 

 

We have seen the weight of submissions from a wide range of charities and experts.

 

We have heard about the way that caring services and benefits to people in need could be linked to theiradvantage in Scotland.

 

We know it could mean more decisions can be made here whilst sharing risk and reward with the United Kingdom.

And I am persuaded by the case for change.

It is consistent with our liberal values.

 

It reflects the debate in the referendum

 

And, if we are successful, it will be good for Scotland.

 

The opportunity is now great. 

 

With good will and effort we will have an agreement next week that we can all be proud of, that meets the expectations and the spirit of the referendum and which can shape Scotland for the better.

 

Liberal Democrats will always do what is necessary to create a liberal Scotland.

 

So we are leading on more powers.  But that is not the only area we're leading on.

 

This week I asked the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon about the use of stop and search. 

 

I told her that we now know stop and search is seven times higher in Scotland than south of the border. 

 

But just this week Edinburgh University highlighted that police carrying guns used stop and search powers 8,000 times in just one year.

 

That's over 150 searches every week by officers carrying guns on routine duties.

 

Now the Chief Constable has taken all armed officers off routine duties. 

 

However, that decision could be reversed at any moment. Without notice and without consultation. 

 

We know, because that’s what happened last time.

 

So Alison McInnes has rightly called for the powers of the Chief Constable to be set down. 

 

For the checks and balances to be strong. 

 

For people to have a say in how our police force is run.

 

A police force with no democracy is no police force FOR a democracy.

 

The relationship between our communities and our police is something we must cherish. 

 

And something Liberal Democrats will make stronger.

 

And we have been making a difference on so many others areas too.

 

Thousands of two year old children across the country are now enjoying 15 hours of nursery education every week. 

 

Scotland is still lagging England in provision but, without the efforts of Liam MacArthur, the SNP would have ignored their needs completely.

 

It was the Liberal Democrats who have led the way on childcare.

 

Why should thousands of two year olds miss out? 

 

If they miss out now, they’ll miss out forever.

 

So, SNP, instead of promising to make changes only in the next parliament you should be acting now in this parliament. 

 

By force of argument we also secured an agreement from the government to reverse savage cuts to colleges.

 

We're making the powerful case to treat mental illness on a par with physical illness in our NHS.

 

We are seeking to get the transport investment that the Highlands and North East deserves.

 

Holding the Scottish Government to account on justice. 

 

Without the leadership provided by the Liberal Democrats all that would not have happened.

 

If it had not been for the sheer grit and determination of Alison McInnes, Kenny Macaskill would still be slouching in his ministerial chair with his feet on his ministerial desk.

 

We may be only five in Holyrood but our political weight is far heavier.

 

Combine that with the biggest transformation in our tax system in the United Kingdom for decades, the resurgent strength of the state pension and the recovery from one of the deepest recessions since the 1930s we have a powerful record in government and in opposition.

 

Just when our party is under its greatest stress is the time when we are delivering most for the country.

 

To those who still doubt the Liberal Democrats, judge us by the many things we have achieved rather than the one we didn't. 

 

And now the Liberal Democrats will create opportunity for everyone by building a stronger economy and a fairer society.

 

The Labour Party wasted their chance and ruined the economy, destroying jobs and slashing incomes.

 

In power by themselves they will borrow too much and risk the recovery, sacrificing opportunity for everyone.

 

You can’t trust Ed Miliband and Ed Balls with the economy.

You just wouldn’t.

 

And you can’t count on the Tories to care, because we know they only care about themselves.

 

Without Liberal Democrats in government to stop them, they would have cut public services deeper and faster, making the poorest bear the heaviest burden – exactly what George Osborne says they plan to do if they win the general election.

 

So the choice at the UK election is clear:

Labour will borrow too much, risking the economy.

The Tories will cut too much, sacrificing the least well off.

 

We will balance the budget, make the tax system fairer and ensure decent public services, creating opportunity for everyone.

 

And our candidates, standing across the whole UK, will be campaigning to transfer power away from London, to rebalance the economy.

 

That means a stronger Scotland inside the UK and it means we are the best party to deliver more powers for Scotland.

 

You know I have a soft spot for Dunfermline.

 

After all it was this city that had the good judgement to elect me as their Member of Parliament in 2006.

 

I do like to remind people with every chance I get.

 

We achieved something special here against the odds.

 

You'll remember we had no national leader, the party was in a bit of a fix.

 

We were written off. 

 

But in just three weeks secured victory in a seat that is so red it used to elect a communist.

 

I tell you this story again as too often others underestimate us, and we sometimes underestimate ourselves. 

 

That's why I know there is a route to victory for

Mike Crockart in Edinburgh West,

Mike Moore in the Borders,

Tim Brett in North East Fife,

Bob Smith and Christine Jardine in Aberdeenshire,

Danny, Charles,  Alan, John and Alistair in the Highlands and Islands

and Jo in East Dunbartonshire.   

 

They can all win.

 

On being the local champion.

On getting the economy back on track.

On increasing pensions, with more to come

On cutting taxes with, more to come

On increasing childcare, with more to come

On more powers

On mental health

It is the Liberal Democrats.

A record of action, a promise of more

A unique liberal plan.

For a fairer society, a stronger economy, opportunity for everyone.

 


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