THE number of Scots in work is now within touching distance of the level before the recession, after another 15,000 increase over the last quarter.

In the final three months of last year 2,561,000 Scots were in work, just 1000 less than before the recessions sparked by the banking crash of late 2007.

Employment has now increased for 13 months, with the new total 79,000 higher than it was 12 months ago. Unemployment fell over the period November to January, dropping by 6000 to stand at 190,000. This means Scotland's unemployment rate has now reduced to 6.9% compared to a UK rate of 7.2%.

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Education Secretary Michael Russell welcomed the statistics during a visit to Falkirk bus manufacturers Alexander Dennis, as they announced a £100 million contract to supply National Express with 600 buses over the next five years.

He said: "On all three key measures of employment, unemployment and inactivity rates, Scotland continues to outperform the UK."

He said the boost in employment underlined the "strength of Scotland's economy across a range of sectors".

Mr Russell added that independence would allow Scotland to "take a different approach to that of Westminster's austerity agenda, focused on maintaining and building sustainable economic growth to strengthen our economy and create jobs".

Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said the figures show the country is doing well as part of the UK.

He said: "The number of Scots claiming unemployment has now fallen for 16 consecutive months and is now 30,400 lower compared to a year ago. We are doing well."

Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown said "things are moving in the right direction", a point echoed by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie who said: "Today's figures show that by working together across the UK we can continue to share in the economic progress whilst shaping our own domestic agenda in Scotland."

Scottish Labour's Iain Gray said: "The fall in unemployment is welcome but we still have some way to go before the rate is down to pre-recession levels which sat at under 5% in December 2007."

Liz Cameron, the chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, welcomed the increase in employment, but said more needed to be done to help women into work. "Politicians are promising changes in the future, but business needs these changes now."