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Chamber and committees

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Agenda: Agriculture Bill, Financial Scrutiny, European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and Agriculture Bill


Agriculture Bill

The Convener (Edward Mountain)

Good morning, and welcome to the committee’s 24th meeting in 2020. The meeting will be conducted in a hybrid format, with three members—John Finnie, Emma Harper and Stewart Stevenson—and our witnesses participating remotely.

The first item on the agenda is the Agriculture Bill, which is United Kingdom Parliament legislation. We will take evidence specifically on a legislative consent memorandum, LCM(S5)38b. I welcome the panel from the Scottish Government, who are giving evidence remotely: Fergus Ewing is the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism; John Kerr is head of the agricultural policy division; George Burgess is deputy director, food and drink, in the international trade and investment directorate; and Andy Crawley is a lawyer in the rural support team in the legal directorate.

Before we hear from the cabinet secretary, I invite members to declare any interests.

I declare an interest as a partner in a farming business in Aberdeenshire.

I jointly own a very small registered agricultural holding, from which I derive no income.

I declare an interest in a family farming partnership.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Thank you for inviting me to give evidence on the LCM, which is the second supplementary LCM for the UK Agriculture Bill. The initial memoranda identified a number of provisions contained within the UK Agriculture Bill that alter the executive competence of the Scottish ministers and that fall within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, where the Scottish Government was recommending consent. Those provisions related to food security, fertilisers, the red meat levy and, following amendments agreed during the House of Lords committee stages, include statutory consent locks, organic products and the identification and traceability of animals. Those provisions appropriately respected devolution and, in the case of the red meat levy clause, had actually been promoted by the Scottish Government.

The UK Government has now tabled amendments to the Agriculture Bill in relation to the rollover of European Union legislation into domestic law, the duty of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to report to the UK Parliament on UK food security and the power to make consequential et cetera provisions. Those amendments were agreed on report, with further amendments on the rollover of EU legislation lodged for the third reading. As a result of that, there is a requirement for additional consent from the Scottish Parliament in relation to the rollover of EU legislation into domestic law, as that is not covered by the terms of the legislative consent motion agreed to by the Parliament on 1 September, although that consent motion does cover the amendments proposed in relation to food security and consequential powers.

I regret the need to trouble the committee and the Parliament with the matter again. Ensuring that EU legislation rolls over effectively into domestic law is of paramount importance, which is why we and our colleagues in Wales have been pressing the UK Government for assurance that the complex interplay of EU law with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 actually works. We have had that assurance, but the UK Government has now had second thoughts, or perhaps 11th-hour thoughts, and has brought forward these changes for the avoidance of doubt. The draft motion set out in the supplementary memorandum clearly identifies the specific provisions that the Scottish Parliament is being asked to consent to.

Finally, members should be aware that the third reading of the bill will take place in the House of Lords tomorrow.

I and my officials are happy to take questions from committee members.

The deputy convener has a question.

If the bill is at the third reading stage in the House of Lords and then has to come back to the Commons, might we yet have to consider further LCMs?

Fergus Ewing

I do not think that one could exclude that possibility. As the deputy convener says, the UK parliamentary process has not been exhausted or completed. It is therefore possible that we could be required to consider other matters in relation to the bill. The LCM that we are considering today is the second supplementary one. I cannot recall ever having spoken to a second supplementary LCM, so in that respect this second LCM is a first. I do not know whether we will have to consider a third.

It is a bit of a shame that, because of Brexit, we are having to spend all this time on the matter. We could have pursued our own agenda, including the crofters bill and the good food nation bill, if we had more parliamentary time within our control, rather than having to implement Brexit, which is a policy of which, frankly, we do not approve—

The Convener

Cabinet secretary, with the greatest will in the world, that is a political statement that drifts a long way away from the subject of the LCM. I would cut off any witness who made such a statement. You have made your point—we will leave it there.

Do members have any other questions?

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I am pleased to hear from the cabinet secretary that the issue regarding the red meat levy has largely been resolved. The cabinet secretary, and other members who were in the Parliament in the previous session, will recall the stushie—for want of a better word—regarding the retention of that levy, which was extremely unfair. There was consensus across the chamber that Scotland’s share of the levy should be repatriated. I am just wondering whether there is any chance that that could be backdated.

Fergus Ewing

As far as I understand it, to do so would not be within the powers that would be conferred by the Agriculture Bill. Were it to be within those powers, of course we would want to have it applied to the past. That wrong has been going on for several years, so the repatriation should be backdated.

At the end of the day, we reached a compromise with the UK Government. It is absolutely essential that there should be no further delay in implementing the repatriation of the red meat levy. I assure Mr MacDonald and other members that we continue to press George Eustice and Victoria Prentis, the UK Government ministers on the matter. If this is a stushie, it is a seven-figure stushie. We are talking about millions of pounds that should have been used in years past to promote high-quality Scotch meat, but which have not been available despite the fact that everyone recognises that that has been unfair to Scotland and our farming community.

We are working with the UK Government and will hold its feet to the fire on the implementation of the clause as quickly as possible, and without any backsliding.

I will bring in Emma Harper, who wants to come in very briefly, and then go to the cabinet secretary’s colleague George Burgess, who wants to add something.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

My question will be brief, convener, because I think that the cabinet secretary has just responded to it. I was curious to know how much money we were talking about. He has just said that it amounted to millions, so his further answer might be short.

I will go to George Burgess now and then come back to the cabinet secretary, in order to keep to the sequence that I mentioned.

George Burgess (Scottish Government)

At this stage, our priority on the bill is to work towards the implementation of its red meat levy provisions, which we hope will come into force by 1 April for the start of the new financial year. Not only are we holding the UK Government’s feet to the fire; we are actually holding the poker, in that we have taken the lead in developing the steam that will be required under the bill to make the scheme work. We are leading on that piece of work.

The scheme will not be retrospective. However, for the past, I think, two years, we have had in place a ring-fenced fund with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Hybu Cig Cymru in Wales, which means that at least a sum of money is held for the benefit of producers and processors across the four Administrations.

To respond to Ms Harper’s question, the sum is considerable. The cost depends on the precise flows of livestock in any given year, but it is at least £1 million a year.

Does the cabinet secretary feel that George Burgess has answered the questions sufficiently? Are you happy with his answers?

Fergus Ewing

I am always happy with George Burgess’s answers, and this occasion is no exception. I am delighted to hear that there is a new precedent of my officials wielding pokers, because that can result only in even more prompt action.

The Convener

I am not sure from whom and where the pokers are being wielded—we will leave that to people’s imaginations.

We have come to the end of the questions. Are members content to recommend in the committee’s report to the Parliament that it should agree to the draft motion, as set out in the LCM?

Members indicated agreement.

That completes our consideration of the LCM. I thank the cabinet secretary and his team for participating in the meeting.