He said: 'I am setting up a new convention of the Highlands and Islands to strengthen co-ordination among the various economic development interests in the area. By providing a forum to consider new opportunities for working together to promote economic growth and discussing key issues affecting the prosperity of the Highlands and Islands, the convention will, I am sure, help to maximise the effectiveness of the public sector organisations involved in the growth and diversification of the Highland economy.
'By acting as a vehicle to bring together the key players in the economic development of the Highlands and Islands, the convention will also provide an excellent opportunity to ensure that their strategies and policies will be well informed and co-ordinated.
'I have today extended invitations to the MPs and MEPs with constituencies which lie within the area of operation of Highlands and Islands Enterprise to be members, and invited those bodies with a key role in the future development of the economy of the Highlands and Islands to nominate representatives to serve on the convention under my chairmanship. At some future date I may also exercise discretion to appoint other members on the basis of their expertise to ensure that a widespread of experience and knowledge is represented on the Convention. I hope that the people I have invited today will all be able to participate fully and play their part in this exciting and innovative development.
'But there are also unique opportunities for tapping the development potential which the area possesses in terms of the quality of life, the continuing improvements in infrastructure - especially in the field of telecommunications and the knowledge-based information technologies - and its people.
'Those responsible for running the public sector organisations in the Highlands and Islands demonstrate a great deal of commitment and enthusiasm. My purpose is to see that commitment and enthusiasm fully harnessed to ensure it has maximum effect in terms of promoting and developing the area's economic well-being, and in making the most effective use possible of the significant resources available to them. That is why I think that the time is now ripe to set up a Convention of the Highlands and Islands.
'The convention will not substitute or replace the work already carried out by the various local authorities and public sector agencies which operate throughout the Highlands and Islands area. Its purpose is rather to encourage and promote co-ordination and co-operation between them so that they can all work together in still closer partnership for the overall benefit of the Highlands and Islands.
'I have recently consulted a wide range of bodies involved in the economic development of the Highlands and Islands and I am pleased to say that my proposals for a convention received a very positive and constructive response. I have accordingly made some adjustments to my original proposal as set out in the consultation documents, including an amendment to widen the focus of the convention's remit. The views of respondents also helped to develop my thinking on the question of membership.
'In view of the response to my proposals, I have every confidence that people throughout the Highlands and Islands will welcome my initiative to establish a new Convention specifically to look after the interests of their area. I look forward to working together with the members of the convention to do all we can to assist in the future development of the Highlands and Islands so that it is well placed to meet the economic challenges of the future. I am sure that the Convention will achieve a notable impact.
'One of the bodies represented on the convention will be the University of the Highlands and Islands. I share the vision of a University of the Highlands and Islands. I am today pledging a further £1.2m grant which will allow additional investment in IT in the UHI colleges next year. It is on top of £0.7m support I have already announced to be spent this year on support for the project.
'I have also decided to continue the relaxation of the cap on growth in higher education students in the UHI colleges. This will enable the network to build up numbers to achieve university title.
'A study will also begin soon on changing the funding of further education colleges in the Highlands and Islands to smooth the path to their new expanded role as part of the UHI.
'These steps complement the recent welcome news from the Millennium Commission of a grant of £33m for the University Project. I am convinced we are creating in Scotland something which will be seen as a model for other regional universities throughout the world.'
Invitations have today been issued to:
Winifred Ewing MEP, Hugh McMahon Esq MEP, Margaret Ewing MP, Russell Johnston MP, Charles Kennedy Esq MP, Calum MacDonald Esq MP, Robert Maclennan Esq MP, Ray Michie MP, Jim Wallace Esq MP, Brian Wilson Esq MP
Argyll and Bute Council (2 members) Highland Council (2 members) Moray Council (1 member) North Ayrshire Council (1 member) Orkney Islands Council (2 members) Shetland Islands Council (2 members) Western Isles Council (2 members)
Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Argyll and the Islands Enterprise, Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise, Inverness and Nairn Enterprise, Lochaber Limited Moray, Badenoch and Strathspey Enterprise, Orkney Enterprise, Ross and Cromarty Enterprise, Shetland Enterprise, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise, Western Isles Enterprise
Scottish Tourist Board, Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board Argyll, the Isles, Loch Lomond, Stirling and Trossachs Tourist Board Ayrshire and Arran Tourist Board Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board Orkney Tourist Board Shetland Islands Tourism Western Isles Tourist Board Crofters Commission Scottish Natural Heritage University of Highlands and Islands Project (2 members)
The secretary of state will chair theconvention; George Kynoch MP, as minister for the Highlands and Islands, will also be a member, bringing initial membership to 47 in all.