Last week, the SNP Government set forth its Programme for Government 2016/17 with our priorities for the coming year.
The appointment of Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP as Education Secretary speaks volumes about the importance being placed on raising standards in schools and closing the attainment gap between children who do well at school and those who don't.
It will come as no surprise that the SNP Government will also continue to protect free university tuition. We believe that the opportunity to go to university should be based on the ability to learn, not ability to pay and aim to have 20% of university entrants from the 20% most deprived backgrounds by 2030. Furthermore, 116,000 full time equivalent college places will be maintained and there will be 26,000 Modern Apprenticeship starts this year.
Of course, investing in education begins at a much earlier stage. Therefore, the latest extension of the Scottish Attainment Fund saw new funding for 46 primary schools in the most deprived areas. North Ayrshire was one of the first local authorities to benefit from the fund with £1,965,000 allocated last year. Over the next five years £750 million will be invested across Scotland to close the attainment gap.
An example of how the SNP supports employment is the £6.1 million investment in Community Jobs Scotland to create more training opportunities for 16 to 29 year olds. We also continue to support the oil and gas sector through the Energy Jobs Taskforce; retaining and growing talent and skills in the industry and supporting those facing redundancy with re-training. Such initiatives have ensured that the decline in North Sea jobs has not impacted as adversely on the Scottish economy as was feared. Indeed, Scottish unemployment fell 29,000 in the last three months to 130,000 and at 4.7% is lower than the rest of the UK.
England and Wales voting to leave the EU has resulted in much uncertainty and the SNP Government Programme reflects a clear commitment to invest more to grow the economy in the face of whatever lies ahead.
The Scottish Growth Scheme will provide up to £500 million of investment guarantees and loans to start-up companies with potential to grow and export. Additionally, 100,000 premises are receiving full rates relief, helping them thrive. Construction employment will be created and sustained by an investment of over £572 million this year in affordable housing.
Scots living increasingly longer is good news but presents new challenges to the NHS, local authorities and third sector. The SNP Government Programme commits £250 million each year to integrated health and social care partnerships. Unlike in England, eye tests and prescriptions remain free, as well as personal and nursing care for older people. A new dementia strategy will explore delivery of more accessible services. By the end of this Parliament the health budget will have risen by at least £500 million more than inflation.
Amongst 15 new pieces of legislation to be delivered this year, newly devolved powers will allow us to cut Air Passenger Duty and introduce a Scottish Social Security Bill. There will also be Bills on important subjects from Domestic Abuse and Housing to Forestry and Islands leading to communities such Arran getting more powers.
On Superfast broadband, 95% of homes and business will be connected by the end of next year. This will transform connectivity, improving economic productivity and prospects.
It is of course impossible to capture the entire 92 page Programme for Government here. Nevertheless, I hope this gives you a flavour of some SNP Government plans for the coming year. More can be found here.