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Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK

UK: Scotland

Wallace defends pact with Labour

The conference speech received a rousing reception

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats has defended his party's coalition with Labour in the Scottish Parliament at the UK party's annual conference.

Westminster Correspondent David Porter at the Lib Dem conference
Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace told delegates in Harrogate that more things unite the coalition parties than divide them.

In a keynote speech at Charles Kennedy's first conference as UK leader, he said: "We believe that the prizes of cooperation - the things we can do for people - mean more than the things that divide us."

The speech, which received a standing ovation, was the first from a serving Liberal Democrat minister to the party conference since Sir Archibald Sinclair in 1945.

[ image: Jim Wallace:
Jim Wallace: "Partnership government"
He said the partnership with Labour in Scotland was helping the party to achieve its policy objectives.

The deal, he said, meant 1,000 extra teachers for schools and £80m of new investment in education.

A reduction in Scottish NHS waiting lists was being achieved, voting by proportional representation was being delivered for local government and a Scottish Freedom of Information Bill had been announced.

However, Mr Wallace said he accepted that the Liberal Democrats had been unable to persuade Labour to reinstate tuition fees - an issue which has led to strains within the coalition.

He said: "I don't pretend that building coalition government has always been easy.

"Our view is clear. Liberal Democrats are committed to the abolition of tuition fees, not just in Scotland but in every part of the UK."

Mr Wallace said Liberal Democrats had to accept that the British political landscape had been "redrawn".

'Requires courage'

"Recognising this has been one of the biggest challenges for our party in the last five months. It requires courage to match responsibility."

Four Liberal Democrats were appointed as ministers in the Scottish Parliament under the coalition, formed after Labour failed to win an overall majority in the election, which took place under a system of PR.

Mr Wallace said his party's negotiations with Labour had been "tough and sometimes difficult" but had succeeded in delivering "a partnership government".

He told delegates Scottish Liberal Democrats were "prepared to go into government" and put principles into practice.

"That is why I want this day to be remembered not as the end of 50 years out of government but the start for the Liberal Democrats of 50 years and more at the very heart of government."

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