Friday, 12 February 2010

Backing Won For SNP's Priorities

FINANCE has dominated the last 10 days of my work. The third budget of the minority SNP Government was passed last week despite a range of parties' demands and gains.

Nevertheless, while Tories, Greens and the independents voted with the SNP, the Lib Dems abstained and Labour voted against. That is despite real gains for the wishes of each party's negotiators.

The Post Office Diversification Fund, additional support for insulation schemes and the introduction of a boiler scrappage scheme, in particular, all had Labour support.

Yet Labour voted against all of the items in this budget that also included funding for student parents and more help for students.

The SNP's priorities won majority backing and include funding for the council tax freeze and also maintaining or increasing local NHS budgets. This year's SNP budget gives precedence to frontline services and economic recovery, including an increase in the health budget by 2.7 per cent to over £8.5 billion and an increase in the frontline education budget too.

Increased investment of £10 million in offshore and onshore renewables boosts Scotland's green growth industry. Key commitments in rural affairs and justice have been protected and accelerating EU cash for rural development will ensure continued investment in rural industries.

Funding for the council tax freeze puts an average £150 in householders' pockets. Funding that helps to lower prescription charges progresses and continuation of the Small Business Bonus Scheme sees the thresholds increased.

At this point in the political cycle, the SNP Government's key achievements show recorded crime at its lowest for 25 years and police numbers at their highest ever.

Record numbers of new socially-rented homes are being constructed, despite the recession. Council tax has been frozen for three years, with funding committed until 2012. Prescription charges are on their way out by 2011. Class sizes are at their lowest ever at around 23, if not at the desired 18 per classroom in primary years one to three.

The most comprehensive scheme of apprenticeship opportunities anywhere in the UK has been agreed, with incentives for employers to take on and retain apprentices which are vital for manufacturing and many other industries. An investment of a record £14bn over this parliament in Scottish infrastructure allows capital programmes to continue to save and create jobs, such as those in the massive works of Scottish Water and for the building of schools and hospitals.


I NEED to correct the misrepresentation in last week's debate which rejected the removal of statutory notices from local papers, such as the one you are reading.

The origin of the idea came from COSLA on behalf of all the local councils of Scotland, no matter which combination of parties form their ruling groups.

The Scottish Government was pressed by the councils to consult on this move in order to save councils another tranche of cash, and because there is a historic concordat between Scottish and local government this took place.

I find the posturing of opposition MSPs like our own Jamie Stone and David Stewart less than credible. While they tried to make political capital at the expense of the SNP Government, their councillor colleagues in Highland and around the country, of a Labour, Lib Dem or Tory persuasion, were the real instigators. I'm sure the SNP Government will not wish to jeopardise the excellent relations we have with local papers such as the Groat. Nor would I. Watch this space once the consultation is completed.


ON Tuesday the mountain came to Mohammed when the economy, energy and tourism committee sent representatives to London to meet the governor of the Bank of England.

He had steadfastly refused to send a representative to appear at our committee hearings in Holyrood into the future of Scottish financial services that are weathering the storm following the worldwide banking crisis of 2008.

Thanks to the excellent preparations of our committee clerks, the Scottish Parliament gains great kudos from an intelligent examination of what went wrong, what is strong and what is the way ahead for the financial hub that consists of Scotland's banks, insurance offices and asset managers who still steward funds successfully on a global scale.

Lunch with Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, within the august portals of Threadneedle Street, was an education and a half. The governor's calm analysis of the financial sector's self-inflicted problems and his measured grasp of the need for an extended debate before governments reach conclusions about regulatory changes was impressive.

Though the Scottish Parliament has but limited powers at present over financial matters, it is clear that the watchdogs in London were often asking the wrong questions.

Thereafter we were able to attend hearings of the Future of Banking Commission organised by the consumers' association - Which? - before heading home on the train.

Bankers have had a bad press of late but let's reassure the workers in the High Street banks, like those in Wick, Thurso and elsewhere, that they do not deserve to be tarred with the brush of their top bosses' sins.

I'm sure our committee report will be a milestone on the route to Scottish financial enterprises regaining the respect so many of them still deserve, despite the spivs and speculators in some investment banks.

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