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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, June 9, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, NHS Staff Recruitment and Retention, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Census, Covid-19 Inquiry, Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Ukrainian Refugees (Trafficking)


Portfolio Question Time

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the portfolio is rural affairs and islands. If any member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Agriculture (New Technologies)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is supporting farmers to adapt to new technologies. (S6O-01198)

The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater)

The Scottish Government is clear that adoption and development of technology and innovation will be a vital component of our vision for Scottish agriculture. Central to developing solutions to the challenges facing Scottish agriculture is the Scottish Government’s multimillion-pound portfolio of research on the environment, natural resources and agriculture, which launched recently. In addition, measures such as our knowledge transfer and innovation fund play a critical role in supporting new and innovative approaches in agricultural practice and I am pleased to confirm that the latest batch of scheme awards will be announced shortly.

Craig Hoy

The James Hutton Institute, along with a number of Scottish scientists and NFU Scotland, supports the United Kingdom Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will reach its second reading next week. The legislation will allow researchers and farmers to take advantage of crops that are more efficient and more climate friendly. However, the Scottish National Party and Green Government still insists on following outdated European Union regulations that ignore the evidence and, in so doing, dismisses Scottish scientists who stress the benefits and safety of gene editing. Why does the Government continue to ignore Scottish scientists and farmers? Why will the minister not commit to implementing the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in Scotland?

Lorna Slater

We are aware of the debate around new genomic techniques and how they relate to existing genetic modification legislation. In particular, we note the on-going consideration of that within the EU, our biggest international trading partner. The Scottish Government’s policy is to stay aligned, where practicable, with the EU, and we are closely monitoring the EU’s position on the issue.

In response to the UK Government’s invitation to join its Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, Scotland’s position has not changed.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

George Eustice has written to the First Minister about the Scottish Government’s position on the new technologies, and the Scottish Government is considering its position. However, does the minister agree that the UK Government ought to respect the bounds of devolution and recognise that this matter and how to support Scotland’s farmers are matters for the Scottish Government?

Lorna Slater

Absolutely. Decisions on the Scottish environment and Scottish agriculture are matters for the Scottish Government. We want to ensure that Scotland operates at the highest environmental standards, and that we protect the strength of Scottish agriculture and food production. That will ensure that Scotland is able to protect and advance the high standards that we enjoyed as part of the EU, promote market access for our people and businesses, and ease the process of Scotland rejoining the EU in the future.

Rural Payments Schemes (Uptake)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring uptake by farmers of rural payments schemes, including in relation to agroforestry. (S6O-01199)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The agriculture and rural economy directorate and Scottish Forestry operate a number of schemes that are accessible to farmers and crofters across Scotland. The Scottish Government communicates with potential applicants through emails and written correspondence where appropriate, as well as wider communications through social media and the press. In addition, we offer support for potential applicants through the Scottish Government’s network of local offices of the rural payments and inspections division and Scottish Forestry. We also seek partnership working through industry representative bodies such as NFU Scotland, the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Confederation of Forest Industries, to ensure that farmers, crofters and forestry industry representatives are aware of and can access the opportunity to apply for public funding and support where appropriate.

Liam Kerr

The issue is an important one, because the Soil Association Scotland has said that farmers and crofters can play a key role in helping to meet tree planting targets, and that agroforestry—which involves integrating trees with farming systems—could deliver 342,000 hectares of new woodland and trees outwith woodland by 2050. Therefore, will the Scottish Government commit to making changes to the current forestry grant scheme to better meet the needs of farmers and crofters who want to plant more trees on their farms, and to open up new market opportunities for our timber, fruit and nuts?

Mairi Gougeon

The member raises an important issue, which will be one of the matters that we will consider when we have our consultation on the future agriculture bill. I am in regular contact with the Soil Association and am aware of its concerns, and I recently met the Woodland Trust to hear about some of the issues that the member raised.

Of course, we want to make it as easy as possible for people who want to integrate woodland and agroforestry to do so, because we know how many benefits come with that. We want to enable people to undertake such projects, where that is possible, and to make that process as easy as possible. Therefore, I will give the member’s suggestion serious consideration.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Given how effectively agroforestry delivers environmental benefits without distorting the vital role that agriculture plays in our food and rural economies, can the cabinet secretary tell us when we can expect the new agricultural support schemes for agroforestry to come into effect and what she estimates the value of those schemes will be? The Soil Association estimates that the support that will be needed to meet the ambition for 342,000 hectares of new woodland to be planted by 2050 could be delivered at a cost of around £100 million.

Mairi Gougeon

In relation to future support schemes, the member will, of course, be aware that we have committed to our stability and simplicity policy until 2025. As I have said, when we consult on the agriculture bill that we will introduce next year, we will take all such proposals into consideration.

I echo what Colin Smyth said about the importance of agroforestry and all the benefits that come with it. As I said in my response to Liam Kerr, we want to make the process as easy as possible for people to access.

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

Scotland’s ambitious woodland creation targets and the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting active farming and food production mean that it is likely to become necessary to identify opportunities for integrating farming with forestry. How many specific agroforestry applications have been issued by Scottish Forestry for on-farm tree planting?

Mairi Gougeon

Last year alone, Scottish Forestry approved 281 woodland creation schemes. Using its management information, it is possible to determine that 206 of those were for areas of 50 hectares or less, which means that those areas can be categorised as areas of on-farm tree planting. Since 2015, 912 applications for tree planting on areas of 20 hectares or less have been made by farmers and small landholders.

Second Home Ownership (Rural and Island Communities)

3. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government, in relation to its cross-Government co-ordination on islands policies, what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with the social justice secretary regarding the impact on rural and island communities of second home ownership. (S6O-01200)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish ministers continue to work closely to ensure that we take an effective cross-portfolio approach that includes the development of a remote, rural and islands housing action plan. We recognise that concentrations of second homes can affect community sustainability, wherever it occurs, and we have taken action. That includes the introduction of an additional dwelling supplement and a licensing scheme for short-term lets to regulate second homes that are used for secondary letting. We have also ensured that local authorities have powers to vary the council tax discount on second homes. The distinct housing needs of island communities are also reflected in “Housing to 2040” and the national islands plan.

Mark Griffin

In March, when I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government whether she had considered a council tax surcharge on second homes, she said—as the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands has suggested—that the additional dwelling supplement was sufficient to tackle the issue. Have both cabinet secretaries discussed the issue? In Argyll and Bute, 6 per cent of homes are second homes; in Highland, the figure is 3 per cent; and, in the Western Isles, it is 5.7 per cent. Those areas have rates of fuel poverty of around 50 per cent. By the coming winter, second home owners in those areas will have shared in a £4 million windfall from the Scottish and UK Governments related to their council tax and energy rebates, while permanent residents in those areas are really struggling.

Could you come to a question, please?

Will the cabinet secretary commit to engaging in cross-Government working to claw back that windfall and make sure that it is distributed to people in permanent homes who need it most?

Mairi Gougeon

I am happy to commit to working across Government to do what we can for people who live in our most remote and rural areas and our island communities. The member raises an important matter, which is one of the key areas that I hear about when I am out and about and visiting island communities.

The work that we do on the development of the remote, rural and islands housing action plan will be critical to that. We must ensure that we get that engagement right by listening to communities and to island authorities as well as working across Government to ensure that we put the right solutions in place to tackle those problems.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The Government has pledged further action, with additional powers for local authorities, in its “Housing to 2040” plan, but there is very little detail about exactly how that will be done. Rural communities such as mine in the east neuk of Fife are afflicted by too many second homes, depriving working people of local homes that they can afford. When will the Government set out in more detail how we can control the numbers of second homes?

Mairi Gougeon

We will be engaging with stakeholders on how best to support and empower local authorities to allow them to manage the issues relating to second home ownership in their areas. That will also help to improve communities’ say in the way in which homes in their areas are used and make it easier for people to stay in their local area.

It was in order to limit the number of new-build homes becoming second homes that we increased the land and buildings transaction tax additional dwelling supplement in January 2019 from 3 to 4 per cent of the total purchase price for any additional home costing more than £40,000. I would be happy to liaise with my cabinet colleague and to come back to the member with more information about what the timescales might look like.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Scotland’s islands are vital contributors to our environment, society, economy, culture and heritage. Second homes clearly have a large impact on the social and economic make-up of island communities. What action is the Scottish Government taking in relation to the number of second homes that are used as short-term lets in rural and island areas?

Mairi Gougeon

Action taken to regulate short-term lets with licensing schemes and the option for local authorities to introduce control areas to manage the numbers and locations of such lets will be operational from 1 October this year. I know that Highland Council has recently consulted on designating Badenoch in Strathspey as a control area.

We consider that the legislation that we have is appropriate for the whole of Scotland, including for island and rural communities, because it offers local authorities considerable flexibility as to how that is implemented.

Food Shortages and Food Prices

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the impact of food shortages and rising food prices in Scotland. (S6O-01201)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government continues to hold numerous discussions with United Kingdom Government departments on a variety of topics relating to food resilience. This week, I met the Secretary of State for Food and Rural Affairs to discuss the on-going impacts on the food and drink sector.

The UK is facing a serious cost of living crisis, and the latest figures show that inflation has reached a 40-year high of 9 per cent. The UK Government holds many of the levers to address the on-going pressures, but we will continue to use all the powers that we have available to support people in Scotland.

Willie Coffey

We have heard stark warnings about food price inflation from the Bank of England, the chairman of Marks and Spencer and, recently, from the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium. Does the cabinet secretary agree with the comments of the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, Justin King, who has said of the current pressure that

“Well in excess of 40 per cent of our food comes from Europe, so it started with Brexit.”

Mairi Gougeon

I agree with that. I think that many businesses, too, would agree with the member’s comment.

The Scottish food and drink industry currently faces numerous challenging impacts, but the UK Government’s reckless Brexit deal, which removed Scotland from the EU single market, played a huge part in that, alongside the significant loss that we have experienced from the ending of freedom of movement. The food and drink sector has really borne the brunt of the hard Brexit that has been pursued by the UK Government, particularly through the loss of freedom of movement and free trade. We repeatedly warned the UK Government that Brexit would be damaging to business as well as to trade, and we are now seeing that through decreases in our trade with the EU, as well as through a huge increase in food prices in the UK.

We have a supplementary question from Edward Mountain, who joins us remotely.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. One way to prevent food shortages is to empower farmers to plan for the future—something that they cannot do at the moment as they wait until 2024 for the Government’s future policy. The failure to speed things up is not good for our farmers and food producers, who have worked tirelessly, especially during the pandemic. Is the cabinet secretary prepared to meet Opposition parties as soon as possible to explain how the policy’s development is progressing and to discuss whether the date for putting it into action can be brought forward?

Mairi Gougeon

I have already outlined in previous responses today the timescales that we are looking at for introducing future legislation, as well as the consultation that will take place in relation to that.

On the process that we are following at the moment, it is important to note that we are discussing our future policy, of which co-development is a critical part. The agriculture reform implementation oversight board is essential, because it is vital that, when we develop our future mechanisms for support, we do that with the people they are going to affect the most. It is critical that we go through that co-development process as we design our future policy.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Food prices are rising, but the costs that farmers pay for feedstuffs and fertiliser are rising more quickly. What help can both of our Governments give farmers to ensure food security? Will the Scottish Government now implement a human right to food in order to ensure that people do not go hungry?

Mairi Gougeon

The member will, no doubt, be aware that we have had discussions on the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill and that the final stage of that bill is due to take place shortly. It will provide the legal framework, but we have a number of policy initiatives that are about putting in place and delivering on that right to food, which will be incorporated into Scots law in future legislation.

We are committed to doing all that we can to help our farmers and crofters in Scotland where it is within our powers to do so. No doubt, the member will be aware of the specific issues that we have faced in the pig sector, in particular. We have extended our hardship scheme there, recognising the significant challenges that people in that sector—in fact, all farmers—face with all their input costs increasing significantly.

We continue to liaise with the UK Government to see what it can do to tackle some of the bigger issues to do with fuel, energy and other costs that are, unfortunately, not within the Scottish Government’s power to tackle. I find it particularly frustrating that we see initiatives taking place in other countries and other methods being put in place to help farmers that we, unfortunately, do not see replicated here. However, we will continue to keep the pressure on and will do what we can to help Scotland’s farmers and crofters.


To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to help farmers to tackle the reported increasing problem of Neospora in livestock. (S6O-01202)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government does not require farmers to take specific action on Neospora, as it is a non-statutory disease. However, farmers have access, via Scotland’s Rural College veterinary services, to subsidised surveillance to assist with the costs of diagnosing animal health and welfare problems.

Rona Mackay

This month, I will meet a local constituent at his farm to discuss four calves that were aborted during pregnancy due to Neospora. Dogs are a primary host for the parasite, and it can take just one cow grazing on pasture that is contaminated by infected dog faeces for the entire herd to be infected. Can the minister tell me what is being done to educate members of the public that, when walking their dogs, they must pick up their dog mess, bag it and bin it to ensure that farmers’ livestock remains healthy?

Mairi Gougeon

Control of Neospora is particularly difficult because, currently, no drugs are available to control the disease in cattle or to cure animals that are infected with it. However, certain management practices can be applied to try to reduce the risks. The Scottish Government has supported SRUC to make that information available to farmers as well as to vets. However, enforcement is difficult. The Dog Fouling (Scotland) Act 2003, which makes it an offence not to pick up dog faeces, unfortunately does not apply to agricultural land, including grazing land. It is therefore vital that dog owners are reminded about the importance of lifting dog faeces. The Scottish Government has worked with NFU Scotland to publicise the importance of people picking up after their dogs on farmland as well as in urban areas, and we continue to promote that message wherever we can.

Food and Drink Sector (Impact of Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what its latest assessment is of the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s food and drink sector. (S6O-01203)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government repeatedly warned that Brexit would be damaging. Recent trade statistics serve only to underline the negative impact of our exit from the European Union. In 2019, Scottish exports were growing consistently. We now know that Scotland’s trade with the EU was 16 per cent lower in 2021, with food exports to the EU down by £68 million and imports plummeting downwards by £220 million.

The Scottish Government continues to use all available devolved powers to support the sector. However, more needs to be done by the United Kingdom Government—now—to protect our food and drink sector.

Audrey Nicoll

In the past week, local media coverage has highlighted how north-east food and drink small businesses are struggling due to Brexit, the Ukraine conflict, VAT and soaring energy costs—all of which the cabinet secretary has highlighted. Some businesses have had to make difficult decisions, such as reducing their operating hours, increasing menu prices or even removing items entirely. Will the minister give assurances that the Scottish Government will do everything that it can to press the UK Government to do more on issues such as VAT and energy costs, given that most of the problems are the result of the UK Government’s own mess?

Mairi Gougeon

I am happy to give that assurance. We will continue to do everything in our power to help our food and drink sector and to press the UK Government, because the issues are urgent and more needs to be done to address them. We will keep on pressing until they are taken seriously.

Finlay Carson has a supplementary question.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The Scottish Government has long been opposed to the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, but, clearly, it misunderstands the significant difference between genetic modification and gene editing, which it needs to recognise. We know that, rather than basing decisions on science, the Green-Scottish National Party Government simply—

Mr Carson, I take it that we are coming to the substance of the question that is in the Business Bulletin?

Finlay Carson

Yes, absolutely, Presiding Officer.

The Scottish Government’s position is simply to stay aligned with the European Union, putting its constitutional obsession ahead of Scotland’s food security and turning its back on world-leading crop institutions such as the James Hutton Institute and the Roslin Institute—even after the European Commission launched a review on its own rules, concluding—[Interruption.] Presiding Officer, I am sorry—

I think that we can all calm down. Can we get to the supplementary question, please?

Its decision comes after the European Commission launched a review into its own rules—

Could we get to a question, please, Mr Carson? It has been quite a long supplementary.

It is likely that the EU will change its position on gene editing. NFU Scotland and scientists back gene editing, so why does the Government not do so?

Mairi Gougeon

It is a bit rich for the Tories to talk to us about not taking food security and food production seriously.

Where is the UK Government-established task force to look at food security like the task force that we set up in Scotland to tackle the very serious and urgent issues that our food and drink sector and primary producers face? Where is the focus on food production in the English government’s future policy on agriculture? They are completely absent, which is unlike our situation. We have put and kept the focus on food production because we recognise the importance of our food security in Scotland. We take such matters seriously, which is why we have undertaken the work that we have done in establishing a task force, to do everything within our power to help our producers in Scotland.

Allotments and Community Growing Projects

7. Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in relation to the impact on the food and drink supply chain, what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding the availability of allotments and community growing projects. (S6O-01204)

The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater)

The Scottish Government fully supports increasing the land that is available for community growing, but, given that that is aimed at growing food for personal consumption, not on a commercial basis, it has not been considered in relation to the food and drink supply chain. Although allotments and their provision are the responsibility of local authorities, since 2012 the Scottish Government has allocated more than £1.6 million to directly supporting and increasing the land that is available for community growing.

Miles Briggs

The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the issue. It is clear from some of the work that we have looked at already that the local food strategies have not had the desired impact to empower communities to develop new allotments and community growing projects to levels that will help to meet demand. What steps do ministers now intend to take to help to turn that around and address the blockages in the system that prevent people from growing food locally?

Lorna Slater

As Miles Briggs knows, the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee is undertaking an inquiry into whether the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 has improved the availability of allotments and reduced the barriers to accessing them. The committee held the first of three evidence sessions last week, and it has heard from a range of organisations that represent allotments and food growing associations. A local food strategy consultation is under way.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

The Inverness-based community organisation Knocknagael Ltd is awaiting the outcome of its asset transfer request to convert the Scottish Government-owned Smiddy field into a green hub with allotments, an orchard, community agriculture and space for walking and wildlife. However, the local development plan proposes a change of land use, which could allow the site to be sold for volume house building. How will the Scottish Government ensure that communities are supported to develop projects that protect agricultural soil and biodiversity, such as the Knocknagael green hub?

Lorna Slater

As is noted in the question, the land is subject to an asset transfer request. It would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of any of that while the Scottish Government is still considering the request and assessing it against the needs of the farm at Knocknagael and the operation of the crofting cattle improvement scheme. The Scottish Government has already had discussions with the Knocknagael Ltd community group with regard to the asset transfer request and proposed land use change. That engagement will continue through the conclusion of the asset transfer request process.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

Allotments and community growing are undoubtedly important to encourage people to get engaged with the food that they eat. Does the minister agree that, if the Tories are really so concerned about the situations that are impacting the food and drink supply chain, they might want to raise those concerns with their colleagues in Westminster?

Lorna Slater

The Scottish Government takes seriously Scotland’s food security, and it will continue to use all the devolved powers that are available to support the food and drink sector. However, the United Kingdom Government holds most of the levers to tackle the crisis. We will continue to press the UK Government and urge it to do more. More needs to be done now to address those issues and to protect our food and drink sector.

Clyde Islands

To ask the Scottish Government what its priorities are for the Clyde islands. (S6O-01205)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The national islands plan provides a framework for action in order to meaningfully improve outcomes for Scotland’s island communities. The plan sets out 13 strategic objectives that are critical to improving the quality of life for all Scotland’s island communities across all six local authority areas. The Scottish ministers are committed to delivering those improved outcomes through the national islands plan and through other initiatives, such as our programme for government commitment to support six islands on their journeys towards carbon neutrality.

Kenneth Gibson

I am delighted that one of those islands is Cumbrae.

Although Clyde islands such as Arran and Cumbrae are not far from the mainland, assistance is required to sustain their working-age populations. Can the cabinet secretary advise on the Scottish Government’s support for the provision of affordable housing and other on-going efforts to attract more people of working age to live and work on Arran and Cumbrae?

Mairi Gougeon

I absolutely recognise how critical those issues are for our island communities. We have committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, at least 70 per cent of which will be available for social rent. Ten per cent of them will be in our remote, rural and island communities. We are also developing a remote, rural and islands housing action plan to help to attract and retain people in those communities.

We know that housing is not the only challenge and that we have to work closely with regional, local and community partners to address some of the wider challenges that our island communities face. This year, we will progress our commitment to develop an action plan to address population decline.