Holyrood Headlines with First Minister Alex Salmond

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Small Business Bonus Achievement

Last week the Scottish Government announced that £420 million worth of relief rates have been awarded across Scotland since the introduction of the bonus scheme in 2008. Here in Aberdeenshire, businesses have saved £20.6 million which has proved vital in ensuring they weather the storm of the recession.

The Small Business Bonus Scheme (SBBS) is just one element of a relief package worth over £500 million this year, which has helped to make Scotland the most competitive environment for business in the UK. A Federation of Small Business survey from 2009, in the midst of the last recession, suggested that the SBBS was assisting one in eight recipients stay solvent, allowing them to save up to £4,500 annually.

This week in Ellon I saw on a first-hand basis how the scheme has supported businesses in my constituency, and it was clear to me that the SBBS has been instrumental in facilitating investment in their businesses and expansion.

It is vital that this programme continues to assist small companies in the area and across Scotland, which is why the Scottish Government pledged to continue the funding throughout the lifetime of this parliament.

Stamp Price Hike

The news of the SBBS achievement has come at a time when small businesses have been forced to plan how they’ll cope with the huge increase in the price of first class stamps, which came into force this week.

Many constituents have relayed their concerns over the hike in price, which has seen the cost of a first class stamp soar from 46p to 60p – a rise in the region of 10 times the rate of inflation. With first class stamps now costing the public 60p, there is also the worry that this 30 per cent increase will result in a huge drop in people sending letters which could in turn lead to even higher prices.

Small businesses, especially those in Aberdeenshire, rely on the Royal Mail’s service to deliver letters and products around the country. As of this week, many will have no choice but to use second class postage, effectively rendering them less competitive. Last week I made representations to Royal Mail, on behalf of such businesses, who were unable to purchase second class stamps due to shortages and subsequent rationing. Although this issue was resolved within the week, the shortage (largely due to panic-purchasing) highlights the level of concern locally.

My colleagues at Westminster have led calls for action by Ofcom and the UK Government, to better protect consumers using postal services against this serious blow.

Council Tax Benefit Support

I welcome the announcement that the Scottish Government and COSLA have reached an agreement on a programme to help Scotland’s most vulnerable people, protecting them from UK Government cuts to council tax benefit.

The UK Government will abolish the existing council tax benefit in April 2013 and will cut the successor budget by 10 per cent. However, the Scottish Government and COSLA have agreed to cover the cost of the cuts, totalling £40 million in 2013-2014.

Over half a million people in Scotland on the lowest incomes currently receive this benefit. In Aberdeenshire, this move will ensure the protection of benefits for nearly 13,000 residents, including pensioners, carers and those who cannot work because of disability.

These measures are a continuation of policies put in place by the Scottish Government to reflect fairness and look after household budgets following on from the council tax freeze, the abolition of tuition fees and the implementation of free prescriptions. By working in partnership with COSLA, the Scottish Government is working hard to protect vulnerable individuals.

Funding Boost for Veterans

On Tuesday Veterans Minister, Keith Brown, announced £80,000 of funding from the Scottish Veterans Fund, which will go to projects across Scotland to support ex-servicemen and women re-entering civilian life.

Since the creation of the Fund in 2008, the Scottish Government has provided £400,000 to support veterans’ projects on a national and local basis. This extra award will provide assistance to veterans, their families and dependents as they embark on this transition.

Administered by Veterans Scotland, sailors, soldiers and airmen will receive help in a range of areas including accessing the job market, combating stress disorders and planning housing requirements.

It is vitally important that such projects are readily available to provide the best possible care and support to those who have served in the armed forces.

Local Funding Success Story

I was especially pleased to hear of a funding award made to a community group within my constituency over recent weeks.

Strichen Community Park Committee was awarded funding from the Big Lottery to complete their project at Strichen Lake. As a local resident and the MSP for the area, I had been closely involved in this project since its inception. I’m delighted that the Big Lottery has supported the park’s refurbishment and the establishment of facilities, including a restaurant using locally sourced produce.

The Committee has worked tirelessly to provide this fantastic development and I’d like to thank them for their time and efforts in securing the park for generations to come. I encourage everyone to visit the park and café to enjoy the delights on offer.