Scotland politics

Scottish government budget plan approved in principle

The Scottish government's budget plans for the year ahead have been approved in principle by parliament, in the face of calls to reverse college cuts.

The £28.6bn proposals will aid economic recovery despite the global economic downturn and Westminster funding cuts, Finance Secretary John Swinney said.

Opposition politicians said colleges were being "hammered", despite their key role in training people for work.

The SNP government's Budget Bill still requires final approval by MSPs.

Speaking at the Scottish Parliament, Mr Swinney said his government's budget, funded by the Treasury, was being cut by about 8% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15, as Westminster ministers seek to cut the spending deficit.

The finance secretary said his plans would create jobs and support business, as well as keep up spending on infrastructure projects and public sector reform.

Mr Swinney also said help for young people included the offer of education or training to unemployed 16 to 19-year-olds and maintaining college student numbers.

"I believe this budget provides a bold and ambitious programme of investment in our people and infrastructure, in the context of the most challenging financial environment Scotland has faced since devolution," he said.

"The government has taken decisions to prioritise employability and economic recovery, to build for the future and to ensure that our public services are supported in the years to come."

Labour's Ken Macintosh said there were some areas of agreement between his party and the Scottish government, but added: "We are divided on the SNP's claim that this is a budget for jobs and growth, when all the evidence points to the contrary."

Mr Macintosh said an extra £35m could be found for colleges from efficiency savings and cutting "profligate government vanity projects".

He added: "Last year, the cabinet secretary was forced into an 11th-hour U-turn on cuts to college funding, but despite that, the college budget was still slashed by £52m, with the result that there are 70,000 fewer people at college this year than there were three years ago.

"This year, the SNP's choice is to hammer colleges yet again - and let's be in no doubt, this choice has not been forced on him by Westminster, this is a decision made in Scotland."

Tory MSP Gavin Brown said "almost nobody" had accepted the government's argument that the budget supported jobs, when the plans were first launched in September.

He said: "We've all seen the very depressing youth unemployment figures in Scotland, and indeed across the United Kingdom, but still we see a drastic reduction to the colleges budget next year.

"It's £546m, according to the government, in the current year and it will be £511.7m, according to the Scottish government, next year."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said his party would support the budget if more cash was put back into colleges, adding: "Colleges do play an important role in making sure that we have the workforce ready for boosting the economy."

Mr Rennie also said 40% of the poorest two-year-olds should get 15 hours of nursery education each week.

Mr Swinney has offered to work with opposition parties on the final budget, but said alternative proposals must be funded by savings elsewhere.

MSPs backed the general principles of the Budget Bill by 66 votes to 41, with 12 abstentions.

The legislation still faces two further stages of scrutiny at Holyrood before being finally passed.

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