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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, December 22, 2022

Agenda: Presiding Officer’s Rulings, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Climate Change Committee Reports, Decision Time, Maternity Services in Moray


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is rural affairs and islands. [Interruption.] I ask members who are leaving the chamber to do so quickly and quietly.

Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button—or, if they are joining us online, type RTS in the chat function—during the relevant question.

Highly Protected Marine Areas (Impact on Fishing)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact that proposed highly protected marine areas will have on the fishing industry. (S6O-01708)

The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

On 12 December, I was delighted to announce our consultation on our proposed approach to designating at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as highly protected marine areas. As well as publishing the consultation document, which sets out the background, process and rationale for the consultation, I published a policy framework that sets out the Government’s proposed definition of HPMAs, site selection guidelines, a partial islands community impact assessment, a partial business and regulatory impact assessment and an initial sustainability appraisal, which comprises two parts: an initial strategic environmental report, which assesses the environmental impact of the policy; and an initial socioeconomic impact assessment, which identifies and assesses potential economic and social effects of the policy and proposes a methodology for carrying out site-specific SEIAs.

Rachael Hamilton

The minister will be aware that Scottish fishermen believe that they are running out of space. The Scottish Government’s HPMA proposals would take even more away from them. Last month, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon, joined me at a Scottish Fishermen’s Federation reception in the Parliament, at which she heard at first hand about fishermen’s concerns.

On the basis of those concerns, will the minister—and, possibly, the cabinet secretary—commit to postponing the proposed implementation of HPMAs until such time as she can tell fishermen, in all honesty, that those proposals are not a threat to their livelihoods?

Màiri McAllan

I will not do that. The development of HPMAs marks the opportunity to make a step change in the protection of our precious marine environment. However, we are at the very beginning of a process, to which we committed in the suite of documents that we published on 12 December. Consultation and meaningful engagement have been a significant part of getting us here, and that will continue to be the case. On that note, I direct the member specifically to the stakeholder engagement document, which we published on 12 December.

There are a number of requests for supplementary questions. I hope to get all of them in, but they and the responses will need to be brief.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

No-take zones, from Lamlash bay in my constituency to the Palau islands, have shown that both fishers and the environment can benefit from conservation. Does the minister agree that it is crucial that we ensure the sustainability of Scotland’s commercial fisheries and that highly protected marine areas will go a long way towards achieving that goal? How will she engage with the fishing sector to ensure that it is not treated with the contempt that has been shown by the Tories, who made fishers Brexit promises that they have not kept?

Màiri McAllan

HPMAs will deliver both protection and recovery of marine ecosystems, such as blue carbon and critical fish habitats. That will help to enhance our natural capital, which is the bedrock of sustainable marine industries. In collaboration with all sea users, the Scottish Government wants to ensure that the rich biological diversity of our seas is protected, enhanced and, where appropriate, restored, so that our marine ecosystems continue to provide economic, social and environmental benefits for the people of Scotland.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The Government has uniquely united fishers and environmental groups, which agree that a clear spatial plan for Scotland’s seas is lacking. What is the minister doing to ensure that HPMAs are part of a coherent management plan for inshore fisheries as a whole that specifically incentivises, among other things, low-impact fishing?

Màiri McAllan

Our pursuit of the HPMA policy is our opportunity to make a step change in marine protection. I remind the chamber that 10 per cent of our seas will become highly protected areas, with all extractive activity banned in inshore and offshore space. That will complement our suite of marine protected areas, which currently cover 37 per cent of our seas. By 2024, we will complete the management measures for those MPAs, and we will work on the priority marine features that are most at risk from bottom trawling.

Our work on HPMAs, together with the completion of the management measures relating to MPAs and the work on priority marine features, provides the holistic approach that Colin Smyth has asked for.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Given the restriction on inshore fisheries that the Government recently announced, why will scientific evidence be used only to reduce fishing activity, not to increase it? Why do we not follow the science wherever it takes us?

Màiri McAllan

I do not agree with the characterisation that the member has set out. We will absolutely follow the science and consider the socioeconomic impacts of our actions. As I have said to Rachael Hamilton, we are at the very beginning of what will undoubtedly be a complex process, but one that will nonetheless—if we successfully pursue it—make a step change in the protection of our marine environment, which is, of course, important for our sustainable fishing industry.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I am sure that the minister will be aware of research from England that shows that marine protected areas that exclude the most destructive activities can boost fish population by almost 400 per cent and the numbers of commercially important fish outside those MPAs, too.

Does the minister agree that HPMAs will be essential in recovering fish stocks and supporting the development of a sustainable fishing industry that thrives within environmental limits?

Màiri McAllan

I agree. As I have said, the HPMAs will, when in place, deliver protection and recovery of marine ecosystems and enhance our natural capital. All of that is the bedrock on which our sustainable marine industries can exist successfully. As part of the development of that policy, I am committed to meaningful, on-going engagement with the suite of stakeholders who have an interest in Scotland’s marine space.

Food and Drink Sector (Impact of Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what its most recent assessment is of the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s food and drink sector. (S6O-01709)

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

The food and drink sector has borne the brunt of the hard Brexit that the United Kingdom Government pursued, particularly through the loss of free trade and free movement. Many of Scotland’s food producers are still suffering from lower exports to the EU, including a 48.8 per cent fall in exports of fruit and vegetables and a 15 per cent fall in exports of dairy and eggs in the first nine months of 2022 compared with the same period in 2019. That is not to mention the products that we now cannot export to the EU at all, such as chilled meats and—an industry that is important to Scotland—seed potatoes.

Fulton MacGregor

Research from the London School of Economics suggests that household food bills have gone up by £210, mainly due to the extra cost of goods checks and requirements caused by Brexit being passed on to customers. Scotland did not vote for Brexit, as we all know, but people in Scotland continue to pay the price for it. That deliberate act of Tory policy is magnifying the cost of living crisis and the misery that it causes. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that, now that Labour is decidedly pro-Brexit, only the Scottish Government can be trusted to stand up for the interests of our world-class food and drink sector?

Mairi Gougeon

We have clear evidence that Brexit is causing food bills to rocket and that we are absolutely all affected by that. We know that many factors influence food inflation, but, thanks to Brexit, the UK faces one of the worst cost of living crises and is suffering more than countries elsewhere. The latest forecasts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund show that the UK is set to have one of the highest inflation rates in the G7 in 2022 and 2023. That is all because a Brexit that we did not vote for was forced upon us. We have also been dragged into trade deals that work against the interests of producers here in Scotland. The Scottish Government has stood up, and will continue to stand up, for our producers and for Scotland’s wider food and drink sector.

There is a little bit of time. If members wish to ask questions, I encourage them to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Seed Potato Sector (Impact of European Union Withdrawal Agreement)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is addressing any impact of the EU withdrawal agreement on the seed potato sector. (S6O-01711)

The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

Brexit, which the United Kingdom Government pursued during the pandemic, meant that Scotland’s seed potato export market was lost at the stroke of a pen. That was due to the UK Government’s failure to secure an equivalence agreement for seed potatoes. To put that in context, Scotland previously exported about 20,000 tonnes of seed potatoes to the European Union and 2,000 tonnes to Northern Ireland annually. The loss of that export trade has resulted in the loss of £11 million annually.

It is vital that options to resolve that situation continue to be explored, and we have been pursuing those since the disastrous Brexit agreement was reached. After a spate of UK ministerial changes over the summer, I wrote most recently to Mark Spencer. I am awaiting a response. I also raised the issue today with Lord Benyon. [Interruption.]

Mr Carson, I have already said that members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak buttons and I will do my best to call them.

Gillian Martin

The minister has largely answered my question. I cannot believe that I have just heard a Tory shout out that this is the fault of our “EU pals” when it is the fault of bad negotiators from the UK Government who made the Brexit deal.

The seed potato sector, like much of Scotland’s rural economy, was either betrayed or totally ignored by the Brexit crusade of the Tories, who want to paint themselves as the champions of rural Scotland, despite the obvious harms that they have imposed through their act of deliberate policy.

The minister mentioned a letter. What recent discussions has the Scottish Government had with the UK Government regarding its obligation to fix a problem of its own making? That problem continues to create severe challenges in my constituency, which grows some of the best-quality seed potatoes in the whole of Europe and previously exported seamlessly to the EU.

Màiri McAllan

I know that the matter is of particular concern to Gillian Martin, because of her constituency. I said that I had most recently written to Mark Spencer. I await a response to that letter and will chase that up very shortly. I also took the opportunity to raise the issue with Lord Benyon today, when writing to him about a separate, but related, matter.

The cabinet secretary and I have, for months—and for longer than that in her case—been raising such matters with the UK Government during interministerial meetings, sadly to no avail. This is a result of Brexit, which Scotland did not vote for. The hardest of all possible Brexits is being imposed on us by a UK Government that refuses to commit to dynamic alignment. It is Scottish industry that suffers. The UK Government has been willing to sell out Scottish industry in pursuit of its ideological Brexit.

Avian Influenza

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to prepare for any potential surge in avian flu cases over the winter. (S6O-01712)

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

The Scottish Government and its operational partners have in place a robust and regularly tested control strategy and contingency plans, as well as a proven track record in dealing effectively and rapidly with the control of outbreaks to prevent the spread of infection to other premises.

We responded quickly to the increasing risk of avian influenza from migratory wild birds by introducing an avian influenza prevention zone in October, which made it a legal requirement for all bird keepers to follow strict biosecurity measures to help to protect their flocks, such as cleaning and disinfecting footwear and maintaining high standards of cleanliness.

Carol Mochan

We have seen particularly large avian flu outbreaks in the north-east of Scotland, as well as the infection of many coastal birds in my South Scotland region, followed by a recent outbreak at Coalhall in East Ayrshire. That led, quite rightly, to strict biosecurity measures being introduced in November, which are undoubtedly very necessary.

However, has the Government considered the financial implications for farmers of the new housing measures for birds? What is being done to help them with the financial burden, given that we know that the winter will make flu infections more likely?

Mairi Gougeon

That is a significant concern, given the period that we are in. We are currently dealing with the worst outbreak of avian influenza that we have ever seen. The member mentioned biosecurity, and it is really important to emphasise the message about just how important the high and strict levels of biosecurity are. We know that, if those are implemented, we can see a forty-fourfold reduction in the risk of avian influenza, which can be compared with a twofold reduction in risk from the housing of birds.

I note that there are other issues. I recently met the president of NFU Scotland and its poultry chair to talk about some of those. In particular, we discussed what we can do to promote the messages around biosecurity, as well as the challenges to do with finance and insurance that the industry is facing. We are working closely with NFU Scotland to look for solutions.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Last month, the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee heard from the chief veterinary officer, who said:

“Flu viruses generally like cold and damp conditions, so they survive much better in the winter”.

On biosecurity, which the cabinet secretary mentioned, the CVO pointed to a study that indicated that

“biosecurity improved things by a factor of 44, while housing improved things by a factor of 2.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, 30 November 2022; c 26, 33.]

That underlines the crucial role of biosecurity.

What can MSPs from all parties do to get out the message that biosecurity is really important and that we must focus on the crucial role that it can play?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank the member for giving me an opportunity to reiterate what I said, as I cannot emphasise enough just how important high biosecurity standards are when it comes to tackling this disease among poultry. The measures include cleansing and disinfecting equipment, clothing and vehicles; preventing contact with wild birds and vermin by storing feed and bedding under cover; and ensuring that buildings are maintained to prevent ingress from flood water.

As MSPs, we all have a role in trying to promote that message. As I mentioned in my previous response, I met the NFUS recently, and part of what we discussed in relation to biosecurity was how we can try to promote that message as much as possible. As a Government, we try to do that through all the channels that we have available, but I encourage MSPs to get on board as well and help to share the message so that everybody is aware of the measures that they can take to, hopefully, prevent avian flu from spreading.

Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

There have been differences between the way that Scotland has handled outbreaks of avian flu and what has been done in the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly on housing orders. Will the minister confirm how the Scottish Government has been working with the rest of the UK on the issue? Will she clarify what science or guidance the Scottish chief veterinary officer is following to justify the differences in managing outbreaks and preventing future ones?

Mairi Gougeon

When we look at the outbreaks, it is important to remember that we are not comparing like with like. Of course, we take any evidence, and I rely on the expert advice and expertise of our chief veterinary officer and our animal health team when it comes to that. As I have said to the member when he has asked questions on the subject previously, we continue to monitor the situation and keep it under review, but I emphasise again the important biosecurity measures.

On engagement across the UK on animal health and combating such disease, we have strong working relationships—we need to—when it comes to tackling issues.

It is important that, when making decisions on housing for example, we consider the wider impact that that would have on smaller keepers, as well as the wider implications for animal welfare. That is not a simple decision, and that is where I depend on the advice and expertise of our CVO. We continue to monitor the situation.

Beatrice Wishart joins us remotely.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Seabird populations have been decimated by avian flu. Has the Scottish Government made the public fully aware of the actions that they can take to mitigate the spread of avian flu—for example, if they are out walking over the festive period and come across sick or dead birds?

Mairi Gougeon

Yes, we try to do that as much as possible.

Previous questions have asked about communications and about what MSPs can do in that regard. I would welcome any help that members from all parties can provide in sharing some of the messages as to how the public should handle such situations, and in getting those messages out to commercial keepers about the importance of biosecurity, as well as how to handle outbreaks or suspected cases. I am more than happy to circulate that information to all members, so that they have it to hand.

Question 6 has been withdrawn.

European Union Replacement Funding

To ask the Scottish Government when it last engaged with the United Kingdom Government on the subject of EU replacement funding with respect to the rural affairs portfolio. (S6O-01714)

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

We no longer have long-term certainty of funding, as a result of Brexit. The unilateral choices that have been imposed by the UK Government provide insufficient replacement for the EU budget.

The UK Government promised full replacement of and collective engagement on future funding. Previous secretaries of state have reaffirmed that commitment, but the UK Government has failed to deliver on that so far. At past meetings of the interministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs, Scottish ministers have raised the issue of EU replacement funding in relation to the rural affairs portfolio, and we continue to make representation to the UK Government that it should fulfil its commitments.

Emma Roddick

Scotland has been short-changed across the board by the Tories and their Brexit obsession. As part of the EU, we could have accessed a multiyear allocation for marine funding of £62 million, while the UK Government has allocated only £14 million a year to Scotland. Reduced funding means reduced opportunity to realise benefits for coastal communities and businesses. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the obvious conclusion is that the EU placed greater value on coastal communities and businesses in places such as my region, the Highlands and Islands, than is placed on them by our supposed partners in the union?

Mairi Gougeon

I fully share Emma Roddick’s view that coastal communities and businesses have been short-changed through the Brexit process. The UK Government has not demonstrated the same commitment to those communities as we would have seen were we still part of the EU, as has been highlighted by the figures that she mentioned.

Brexit has not only introduced hugely damaging impacts on small coastal communities through barriers to trade. We have also seen the loss of that multiyear funding. That removes the opportunity to deliver long-term planning and certainty, which impacts on trade and serves to stifle innovation.

In addition, the UK Government’s approach to the Brexit problems, which it has created, is to establish the UK seafood fund and award itself £100 million of funding. The fund simply causes duplication and confusion by undermining the devolution settlement, thereby making a bad situation 10 times worse.

Question 8 has not been lodged. That concludes portfolio questions on rural affairs and islands.