THERE was some great news on the jobs front last week.

Official quarterly figures showed that the number of people employed in Scotland had increased by 15,000.

And, what's more, employment levels have now increased in each and every one of the 13 months up to January, meaning that the level of employment in Scotland is now not far away from pre-recession levels.

The figures also show that Scotland is continuing to outperform the rest of the UK across all of the headline labour market indicators, with a lower unemployment rate, higher employment rate and lower economic inactivity rate.

The unemployment rate in Scotland now stands at 6.9%, compared to 7.2% in the UK as a whole and the employment rate increased to 72.9% compared to a UK rate of 72.3%.

These figures point to a sustained trend of growth in Scotland's economy, which is testament to the hard work of companies and workers across Scotland and the policies of the Scottish Government to create jobs and secure economic growth.

However, although these figures bring welcome news for individuals and families across the country, it is important to remember that conditions remain challenging.

It is particularly hard for young people trying to find employment, which is why the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring there are 25,000 new Modern Apprenticeships every year and is also guaranteeing a place in education or training or education for all 16 to 19-year-olds.

Overall, we must guard against doing anything that undermines the economic recovery that is now taking hold.

That is why the Scottish Government remains very concerned about the cuts to our budget that were confirmed in George Osborne's Budget last week.

Despite all the spin, the fact is that Scotland's budget is being cut by 11% in the period up to 2015/16.

These cuts make it all the harder for the Scottish Government to invest as we want to in the economy and public services.

This is all the more galling when we consider that, over the past five years, Scotland was better off than the UK as a whole to the tune of £1600 per person - money that, had we been independent, could have been invested in the economy, public services and reducing debt.

With just six months to go to the independence referendum - and the polls showing support for a Yes vote is growing - one of the big issues we must consider is whether we should have control of our own resources and the ability to set our own economic policy, or leave these decisions in the hands of Westminster.

Scotland, as an independent country, would be the 14th richest nation in the OECD, which is the club of the world's wealthiest countries.

The UK would be 18th.

With our wealth and the full fiscal and economic powers of independence we would able to take a different approach to that of Westminster's austerity agenda.

We could focus on doing everything possible to strengthen our economy and create jobs.

That is an opportunity we shouldn't miss.