The latest published figures show that Scotland has the highest employment rate in the UK: 71.1 per cent compared with the UK average of 70.5 per cent. In the last three months of 2010, Scotland was the only part of the UK where unemployment actually fell.
While those figures are to be welcomed, we are far from being complacent. On the contrary, we are doing everything within the limit of our devolved powers to help even more people back to work. In the coming year, we are committed to delivering a record 25,000 modern apprenticeship starts, 14,500 training places for the unemployed and 7,000 flexible training opportunities for smaller businesses that want to invest in their workforce. We have also announced a £10 million package of support for small businesses that recruit the long-term unemployed and a further £10 million community jobs fund to offer work opportunities to young people in the third sector. In uncertain times, I believe that those measures will help to consolidate further Scotland’s labour market position.
Does the minister recognise that the recession has hit young people particularly hard? For example, in East Renfrewshire, youth unemployment has more than quadrupled over the past year. As well as the measures that he has outlined, will the minister pledge his support even at this stage for Labour’s future jobs fund?
I admire the proposition that the member puts forward. It is entirely right that we focus on unemployment and unemployed young people. Unemployment is impacting on them very badly. Having economic recovery and high levels of employment is the main focus of this Government, and it will continue to be so.
I turn to the competing fund from Labour. Our funds are on the table; they are in action and working. In putting the proposition and such questions to ministers, there needs to be a certain humility on the part of Labour. It was Labour that denied this country the resilience and increased competitiveness that greater autonomy and independence would have brought it; it was Labour that kept Scotland in the branch economy, vulnerable to downturns; it was Labour that created the downturn and committed a gross failure of stewardship; and it was Labour that initiated the cuts on Scotland that were too fast and too deep.
Surely advances in communications technology enable us to tackle rural unemployment by relocating more Government jobs to communities in the Highlands such as Lairg, Golspie, Wick and Thurso. Does the Scottish Government support that proposal? Will it bring maximum pressure to bear on Her Majesty’s Government in London to do likewise, rather than to scrap rural jobs by virtually closing the HM Revenue and Customs office in Wick?
I note the fervour of the question. I know that the member is now well connected in high places in London and can get that message across directly. Yesterday in Edinburgh, Richard Lochhead and I attended an event on rural broadband. Real lead is being put into the pencil of rural broadband. The member knows about what is happening with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and projects in its area. That creates a situation in which such jobs and private sector jobs can be relocated to the Highlands and Islands and the rest of rural Scotland, so that people can move to a rural setting to do the work that they have done in cities in the past but in a much better place with better quality of life.
I would love to have a full day to discuss that. Although I will leave politics in May, I will continue to be part of that process, which is the direction of travel. The current position is the ratcheted thin end of a wedge that will go further and further. Scotland will become independent, because people always adopt what works.