21 February 2012

Budgeting For Growth

It is a testament to the negotiating skills of Finance Secretary John Swinney that the passing of the Scottish Government’s annual budget has largely become seen as an important, but smooth process in the public eye. When the SNP was first elected to Government in 2007, there were many commentators who believed that our then minority administration would collapse at the first budget, unable to secure the agreement needed from other parties for our spending plans.

Of course in the event that budget passed, and with one exception when opposition parties initially voted down the Scottish Government’s budget before passing an identical version of it the following week, every subsequent budget also made it through Holyrood despite the SNP’s then minority status.

The budget for the coming financial year has also just completed its passage through the Scottish Parliament, although given that the SNP has now moved from a minority to a majority government, there was little reason to doubt that it would do so. Yet despite that majority, John Swinney again sought to build consensus across the chamber by listening to the changes other parties and groups across Scotland wanted to see to the plans.

Although yet again no formal amendments to the budget plans were submitted by other parties, additional funding was found amongst other things for supporting college students; for improving broadband infrastructure, particularly in rural areas; for sustainable and active travel; and for more affordable housing. While it is disappointing that most of the other parties failed to actually back these measures that they had been seeking by voting for the budget, it is an important fact that the Scottish Government’s approach was to try and listen to others and attempt to build a consensus.

The budget as it was passed comes against the background of ongoing severe real terms cuts to the Scottish budget, particularly in capital spending, as a result of spending decisions made by the UK Government. Without the powers of a normal independent country, the Scottish Government is simply handed the cuts in its finances and has to adjust its spending plans accordingly.

Without significant tax powers, the main measure that the Scottish Government has to encourage growth is its capital spending budget. It is what creates jobs in our economy, something that is more important now than ever. That is why the decision was taken to reprofile £750 million of revenue spending to capital spending and to use other innovative measures to boost capital spending as much as possible.

This will have tangible effects in Banffshire & Buchan Coast, with funding in place for a replacement prison in Peterhead and for the construction of the AWPR once legal hurdles can be overcome. The improved journey times to and from Banffshire & Buchan Coast from the rest of the country will have a significant economic benefit once the road is complete.

The budget also contains funding to maintain the council tax freeze for another year. Since it was first frozen by the SNP Government, an average band D council tax payer in Aberdeenshire will now have saved £246 compared to what they would otherwise have had to pay.

The Small Business Bonus Scheme which has abolished or substantially reduced business rates for thousands of small businesses across the country, providing an absolutely vital boost to the businesses that are the lifeblood of our economy in these difficult times.

Tough decisions have had to be made, but the budget has done everything possible to boost jobs and economic growth as we continue to work towards economic recovery.

7 February 2012

Tackling youth unemployment

The difficult economic times that Scotland has endured over the last few years has had damaging consequences in a number of areas. It has seen businesses run into extreme difficulties, threatening the jobs and livelihoods of all too many people. It has seen massive budget cuts passed on to the Scottish Government as a result of UK Government spending decisions, hindering our ability to grow the Scottish economy. Yet perhaps the worst consequence of all is the growth in youth unemployment that has accompanied the economic downturn.

The long term impact of youth unemployment should not be underestimated. Being unable to enter the job market at the start of a person’s working life can have hugely damaging consequences for the rest of their life. If somebody cannot get experience of work at the lower rungs of the ladder, they will in time be competing with a new generation of young people for the same positions and struggle to gain employment throughout their life.

The rate of unemployment for 16-24 year olds is unacceptably high, running as it is at 24% - although it should be noted that because of the way the figure is measured, 35% of this figure is made up of people currently in full time education. High youth unemployment risks creating a legacy of people having a lifetime out of work that we will all pay the price for in years to come and is a threat that the SNP Government takes extremely seriously. It would be wrong to suggest there is a single solution to what is ultimately a complex problem, which is why we have appointed a dedicated Minister for Youth Employment to draw together the diverse strands of actions that the Scottish Government is taking on this issue.

Under our Opportunities for All programme, we have given a guarantee to every 16-19 year old not currently in work, training or receiving education that they will be offered a learning or training opportunity. As part of this, there will be 46,000 training places available in every single year of this current parliamentary term. This includes 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships which are directly linked to real jobs, a record number in Scotland.

We have also included a provision in the Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan that every single company in receipt of significant government contracts must produce a training and apprenticeship plan outlining how they will provide opportunities for young people. This will ensure that when major public infrastructure investments are being made, opportunities for training and employment will accompany them. These are important actions and demonstrate how determined we are to tackle this issue.

A future for Sangs

People across Banffshire & Buchan Coast will undoubtedly share my concern over the sudden entry into administration of soft drink producer Sangs in Macduff recently. Whether they are directly affected by the move or simply people who enjoy the fantastic products Sangs produce, it is undoubtedly a matter of great concern to a huge number of people in the area.

It is clear to anyone who knows the business that Sangs remains a wholly viable business, but what is needed is time while potential buyers are identified. Both myself and Eilidh Whiteford MP have met with staff at the company and the Scottish Government is doing what it can to try and secure the breathing space that Sangs needs to secure a deal for the future.

The fact that this has happened is an extremely worrying symptom of the current state of the economy, but everyone involved is working hard to secure a viable future for Sangs and its workforce.

Stewart Stevenson
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