THE Scottish Government is facing fresh pressure to reverse a £35 million cut in college funding and produce a “budget for growth” when its spending plans come before MSPs at Holyrood today.
Opposition parties also want more cash for housing and railways and there have been calls for nationalised utility Scottish Water to be taken out of public hands to save hundreds of millions of pounds.
But finance secretary John Swinney insists that the current climate of spending cuts has left him facing “tough choices” and opposition parties must show what they will cut to fund extra spending demands.
Mr Swinney’s budget for 2013-14 came under fire just days after it was published in September last year, when a Holyrood report by economist Professor David Bell found there was “no evidence” that it was aimed at boosting growth.
Ministers have been under pressure over proposed mergers and cuts in Scotland’s colleges, while student hopefuls are being turned away by institutions because of a lack of places.
Both First Minister Alex Salmond and his education secretary Michael Russell have been forced to apologise to parliament recently for claiming that funding in the sector rose last year, when it fell.
Labour finance spokesman Ken Macintosh said yesterday: “The Scottish Government’s claim of a budget for jobs and growth has been nothing more than a convenient soundbite, which is not borne out by their own spending decisions.”
He branded the £34.6m cut in college funding “unbelievably short sighted” at a time of chronic unemployment, adding: “Reversing those cuts will give people the opportunity to get the skills needed to get into a tough labour market.”
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie backed the call to reverse college cuts and called for a budget which “opens doors” for people.
He said: “Our college sector enables thousands of young people to get on in life. But only recently, we learnt, under the SNP, thousands of suitable applicants are being turned away from our colleges due to a lack of places.
“This doesn’t help our young people and it doesn’t help our economy.”
But Mr Swinney insisted the budget provided an immediate economic stimulus of £385m over two years, for construction, skills, employment and green jobs. He added: “I have had to make difficult choices in order to deliver a sound Budget, and I would call on those who wish to make changes to face the same discipline.
“Scotland lacks the full powers of an independent nation and must operate within fixed resources.”
The Lib Dems will also urge ministers to extend free childcare to more two-year-olds, allowing more women to return to work, while providing jobs in a sector dominated by women.
The Conservatives want nationalised utility Scottish Water to be taken out of public hands in a move that could save £250m in subsidies over the next two years.
The party would use £70m of the cash freed up to restore the housing budget to previous levels, while using the rest on new capital projects.
CBI Scotland assistant director David Lonsdale said the bill was a “missed opportunity” to deliver on public service reform.