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22 February 2011

Boosting Scotland’s recovery

Anyone in politics who is able to remember Norman Lamont’s ill judged claims that he could see the green shoots of economic recovery has a natural wariness of making similar claims. When times are hard economically, the last thing that struggling households want to hear is that their government does not understand how difficult their situation is.

It is an unfortunate certainty that for many people times will remain tough, with interest rates having reached 4%, double the 2% target. This means the price of everything we buy will rise and as incomes will not, almost every household’s purchasing power will be reduced as a result.

However, despite the enormous challenges that remain ahead of us, there is some comfort that can be drawn from recently released employment figures in Scotland. In the last quarter, unemployment in Scotland fell by 13,000 while employment rose by 23,000 – the seventh consecutive reported rise. Contrast this to the figures for the UK as a whole which are moving in the opposite direction with unemployment rising by 44,000 and employment falling by 68,000.

The employment rate in Scotland is now 71.1% compared to 70.5% for the UK as a whole. The figures show that Scotland was the only UK nation with rising employment and falling unemployment over the quarter, and this trend in the statistics is no accident.

The Scottish Government has been working hard since the start of the economic crisis to secure the recovery in Scotland, by putting in place a robust and comprehensive Economic Recovery Plan to support jobs and training. The employment figures show that this action is paying off and the budget which was just passed in Holyrood will go ever further with this approach.

The SNP Government has committed to creating a record 25,000 modern apprenticeships in the next financial year, which will provide real help for young people - who are amongst those currently struggling the most - to increase their skills and make it into work. The budget also contains more support for Scotland’s small business community, with funds to help them take on a member of staff and create valuable employment opportunities.

There is still a long and difficult road ahead of us as Scotland’s economic recovery continues, but the Scottish Government is demonstrating its effectiveness in tackling the problems it has power to address. Even as budgets are squeezed as never before, I know that the SNP Government will not let up in its determination to further improve Scotland’s economy and help support hard pressed families across the country.

Progress on discards

I have written many times about the efforts of Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry to lead innovation across Scotland in fishing both sustainably and profitably. One such measure which was successfully trialled last year was the catch quota scheme, which allowed the 17 vessels taking part to catch less, but land everything they catch. The amount of cod skippers can land increases, while discards are reduced.

This scheme has now been expanded to 26 vessels following negotiations in Europe by the Scottish Government. This is a welcome step forward, although given that 58 skippers or around half the whitefish fleet applied to take part, it is disappointing that other countries blocked greater expansion in the scheme.

Although it will undoubtedly be disappointing for those vessels not able to take part, the expanded scheme does present a real opportunity for Scotland to demonstrate once again it can lead the way and strengthen the case for responsibility for fisheries to be managed on a regional basis.

8 February 2011

Setting Scotland’s Budget

There can be no doubt that one of the most important points in the annual parliamentary calendar is when the Scottish Government’s budget is set. More than at any other time, it demonstrates just how reliant the Scottish Government is on securing the support of other parties when the SNP wish to pass legislation. As a minority government with no overall majority and just one seat more than the next biggest party, getting a budget passed is an extremely challenging process.

In 2007 when the SNP took office, many commentators predicted that our first budget would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle and the Government would fall. Yet we now find ourselves approaching the end of our first four year term and setting our last budget of this parliament.

That budget is undoubtedly more challenging than any other since devolution began. Without control over our own finances, Scotland has been handed a £1.3 billion cut to our budget and that will inevitably have a real impact. The challenge before us is to ensure that the reduction is managed wisely and money is allocated in the most effective way possible.

The SNP has recognised that there is a social contract which exists between people and Government and that when times are tough, ordinary people should not pay the price through massive tax rises or savage cuts to the services they rely on.

That is why the Scottish Government has made clear its determination to fund the council tax freeze, which has already saved substantial sums for people the length and breadth of Scotland. To protect the National Health Service, which will actually see its funding increase despite the financial pressures we face, because of the extraordinarily important work that it does. And to maintain the 1,000 additional police officers that have been recruited under the current Scottish Government and who have helped bring levels of crime in Scotland to a 32 year low.

I believe that the Scottish Government has made the right choices in its budget, particularly for the North East given that it contains funding for the AWPR and recently announced upgrades to the A90. I believe that it makes the right choices for Scotland in these difficult times and that opposition parties should give it their backing. More than anything else, however, they should resist the temptation of uncosted spending demands and blind opposition that has all too often characterised their approach in the past.

Repairing our roads

The severe winter conditions we have experienced in recent weeks have been difficult for many people. Yet with the snows having cleared, at least for now, one of the big challenges the conditions have left behind is the state that many roads have been left in.

Potholes are an inevitable consequence of freezing conditions and it is a regular battle to repair them as quickly as possible. Having seen some of the worst conditions in living memory, the Scottish Government has taken the welcome decision to provide an additional £15 million towards road maintenance. Although it is local councils who are responsible for maintaining local roads, the extraordinary circumstances we have faced make this the right decision.

Aberdeenshire will receive an additional £1,336,000 as part of this funding, a welcome recognition that the area faces one of the biggest challenges to maintain roads at this time of year. Although the amount of repairs and maintenance necessary will take time to complete, I know that there are a large number of people working hard to deliver and that this extra funding will undoubtedly help.

Stewart Stevenson
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