I welcome this opportunity to take part in this debate on the Finance Committee's draft budget report. It is important that we remember the financial situation that the Scottish Government faces, even after the UK chancellor’s recent autumn statement. According to the updated figures that were issued after that statement, the Scottish budget is being cut by £3.1 billion or 9.9 per cent over the current five-year spending review period. However, despite that substantial cut, Scotland continues to outperform the rest of the UK. The Scottish economy grew by 1.8 per cent over the year to June 2013, while the UK economy grew by just 1.3 per cent. Over the past year, Scottish employment increased by 83,000 and now stands at 72.6 per cent, which is higher than the UK rate of 72.2 per cent. Moreover, at 7.1 per cent, Scottish unemployment is lower than the UK rate of 7.4 per cent.
Over the past five years, the rate of youth employment in Scotland has continually been higher than the rate in the UK as a whole, with Scotland achieving more than 53 per cent employment for 16 to 24-year-olds compared with a figure of less than 50 per cent for the UK as a whole. The budget will also continue to support the 25,000 modern apprenticeship new starts every year to enable employers to strengthen and grow their business.