A second MSP hits out at the planned budget cuts by the Scottish Government for Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in last week's Scottish Budget (Thursday 6 February).

The draft Scottish Budget shows a cut to HIE from £61.1m in 2019/20 to £58.2m in 2020/21. This is a further fall from 2018/19 when the budget was £71.7m.

Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant, who is also Labour’s Shadow Finance Secretary, said: “The fact that HIE has suffered another cut in its funding rings alarm bells that the Scottish Government still has the organisation’s merger within its sights.

“This seems to be the death by a thousand cuts.

“When the Government did a U-turn and retained the board of HIE three years ago, I suspected this would not be the end of the fight.

“It would appear that money is being taken away from this region to fund the creation of South of Scotland Enterprise. This is ludicrous as HIE never covered the south of Scotland.

“It is stealing from Peter to pay Paul.

“Kate Forbes, in her new role, needs to get a grip. She of all people should understand the challenges that the Highlands and Islands economy faces.

“These cuts will create further damage.”

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron had reacted angrily on Friday (7 February) to the Scottish Budget announcement: “I find it quite extraordinary that the SNP Government has decided to target HIE for cuts of this magnitude.

"This is the second year in a row that HIE funding has seen a significant reduction. Much of the region is facing the immense challenge of depopulation and losing our young people, and HIE is the agency we look to for encouraging economic development, creating jobs and sustaining our communities.

“With local councils across the Highlands and Islands struggling to deliver basic services due to years of unfair financial settlements from the Scottish Government, the SNP has now unbelievably decided to take the axe to the one agency which might have mitigated the impact of those cuts.

“Once again, we have confirmation that Nicola Sturgeon only seems to care about the Central Belt.”

The Scottish Government says it “is committed to the creation of a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish through increased wellbeing and sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

“This national purpose is underpinned by the National Performance Framework and our efforts to build a Wellbeing Economy, where improvements in living standards and our environment are as important as, and fundamental to, improvements in our economy.

“The Scottish Government's tax and spending plans for 2020‑21 reflect this vision and commitment. This budget of nearly £50 billion seeks to strengthen our economy and support the path to net‑zero carbon emissions, while tackling inequality through the delivery of first‑class public services and providing support for those who need it most.

“This approach, supported by a commitment to progressive taxation, forms a strong social contract between the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland.

“This Budget builds on the current Programme for Government, the National Performance Framework and the Medium Term Financial Strategy, which made clear that our plans would be focused on supporting our public services, building national wellbeing, boosting inclusive economic growth, building sustainable places, responding to the global climate emergency and tackling child poverty.”

The Budget was presented to the Scottish Parliament by Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes, the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Deputy Finance Secretary following the overnight resignation of scandal-hit Derek Mackay as Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work.

Kate Forbes thus became the first woman to deliver the Scottish Budget - prior to this, no woman had delivered a Budget in either the Scottish Parliament or at Westminster.

Ms Forbes, aged 29, only entered Holyrood in 2016 but was praised across the political divide for her steady performance after being given just a few hours’ notice to prepare.

Setting out the Government’s draft tax and spending plans for 2020/21, she warned opposition MSPs they would cause a meltdown in Scotland’s fledgling welfare system if they refused to back the budget when it comes to a final vote on March 5.

She said it included an extra £3bn because the Government becomes financially responsible for new devolved benefits from April, including Personal Independence Payments and Disability Living Allowance.

However if the budget fell, spending would be capped at last year’s £35bn, throwing the system into disarray.

She said it would also scupper plans to raise NHS funding by £1bn to £15bn and give £500m more to councils.

She said: “But worst of all, – as a consequence of the further devolution of social security payments – nearly £3bn of vital support will be denied to those in our society who need it the most. Now is not the time for brinkmanship.”

Ms Forbes announced there would be no change in income tax rates, a marginal increase in the thresholds for the lower rates to help the low paid and a freeze for the higher rate thresholds.

But Scottish Labour Finance, Jobs and Fair Work Spokesperson, Rhoda Grant, a Highlands and Islands MSP, said: “Despite the additional powers that have come to the Scottish Parliament over the last decade the SNP Government have failed to maximise their use, leaving our economy, our people and our essential services worse off. They have endeavoured to hide this through smoke and mirrors but they must come clean with the Scottish people.

“Scottish Labour wants transformational change, we want investment for the future. We know that we cannot reverse 13 years of mismanagement in one budget.”