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Chamber and committees

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Agenda: Subordinate Legislation, European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1


Subordinate Legislation

Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release etc) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2019 [Draft]

The Convener (Edward Mountain)

Welcome to the fifth meeting in 2019 of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. I remind everyone to ensure that mobile phones are on silent.

Agenda item 1 is subordinate legislation. We will consider one affirmative Scottish statutory instrument: the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release etc) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2019—that is quite a mouthful. The committee will first take evidence from the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, and the motion on approval of the instrument will be considered at item 2. Members should note that there have been no representations to the committee on the instrument.

I welcome from the Scottish Government Mairi Gougeon, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment; Helen Stanley, senior policy officer; John Kerr, head of the agriculture policy division; and Juliet Harkins, solicitor with the legal directorate. Cabinet secretary—

You have just promoted her.

Oh—I have promoted you. Maybe that is wishful thinking.

Minister, I ask you to make a brief opening statement. Please try to limit it to three minutes.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

No problem. I will try to explain this as briefly and concisely as I can. Thank you for inviting me along to consider the SSI and to move motion S5M-15628, which asks that the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee recommends that the regulations be approved.

The primary purpose of the SSI is simply to allow Scotland to do what European Union law intends and bring our current legislation up to date. It provides the Scottish ministers with the powers to continue our policy of opting out of growing future EU-approved genetically modified crops and introduces powers of enforcement in that respect. The Scottish Government’s stated policy is that we will not allow GM crops to be grown in Scotland, and the instrument allows that to continue. The instrument updates out-of-date references and removes outdated provisions in a number of related domestic GM regulations.

In particular, the SSI includes provisions that allow for limits to be applied to the geographical scope of EU marketing consents for GM cultivation, if so demanded by the Scottish ministers or another member state. That means that we can ensure that Scotland is excluded from any consents to cultivate future EU-approved GM crops during any transition period. Of course, if there is no Brexit deal, Scotland’s policy of no GM crop cultivation will continue, as the area is devolved, and any decisions on GM crops will be for the Scottish Government. The SSI also introduces appropriate investigatory powers, offences and penalties to enforce limits on the geographical scope in Scotland.

Although the SSI is not entirely connected to Brexit, it transposes current EU legislation into domestic law, as we made clear we would do in our programme for government, and it sits alongside a raft of other statutory instruments and SSIs to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. The committee will be well aware that, in a separate exercise, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been drafting EU exit amending SIs on our behalf for directly applicable EU legislation, in accordance with a protocol set out by the Scottish Parliament. Those SIs are for a no-deal scenario and are to ensure that appropriate EU rules are in domestic law, which will be important for us to maintain our GM crop-free status.

We will also lay our own EU exit SSI to fix the legislative deficiencies in our principal regulations. Because the SSI that we are considering today is about transposing into our law recent changes that have been made by the EU, we will have to fix the regulations with another EU exit SSI, which we intend to lay later this month. That EU exit SSI will ensure that, on exit day, our two current Scottish statutory instruments on the issue continue to be operable after EU exit.

I hope that that explanation provides some clarity on the purpose and process involved and that members are assured of the importance of passing the regulations into law and will agree to the motion, but I am happy to take any questions that the committee may have.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

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

This is maybe more of a statement than a question, but I fundamentally disagree with the Scottish Government’s position on GM crops, which I think is holding us back as an industry. I accept that, at the moment, there are perhaps no GM crops that we would wish to grow in Scotland but, by turning our back on science, we are doing a disservice to our farming colleagues. The decision to go down that road is fundamentally wrong. I do not expect that I will change the minister’s views in any way, but I feel that it is the wrong policy. It is always a bad idea to turn your back on science. Where is the science to back up the Government’s position that GM crops are all bad and that we should turn our back on them? Where is the science to back up what you are asking us to agree to?

The Convener

Mr Chapman has made an important point. Although I am just convening the meeting and will not be asking any questions, it is important to say that I am also a member of a farming partnership. I say that for openness, not because I believe that it is necessary.

Mairi Gougeon

The member is more than entitled to his opinion on that issue. We have a different take on the policies. The stated policy of the Scottish Government is that we do not allow GM crop cultivation. There is no policy change in the implementation of the SSI. If at any point in the future, the Government wishes not to take the opt-out, the SSI will allow it to do so. However, we believe that it is important to transpose the EU directive that allows us to take that opt-out into Scottish law; that is our policy position at the moment and we do not intend to change that.

I suspect that we are not going to get any further on that.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Just as an observation, I say that I fundamentally disagree with Peter Chapman, but not on the basis of disagreeing on the science, because we oppose the cultivation of GM crops not on the basis of science but on the basis of Scotland being a pure and natural environment in which our wonderful food is produced. That differentiates us from other regimes.

I will make a more substantive point. From reading the SSI, it is clear to me—and I am sure that it is correct—that it refers to the cultivation of crops. Can the minister confirm that it therefore does not apply to animals or the importation of genetically modified material?

The member is correct. It relates just to cultivation.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I have a few quick questions. The paper that we have says that the policy objective of the SSI is to provide the Scottish ministers with the powers to opt out of growing future EU-approved GM crops. Can the minister outline the advice that the Government has taken that underpins its belief that it would have the power to opt out of such EU legislation under devolved competence?

Do you mean in relation to what we currently do or in relation to—

Do you currently have an opt-out?

Mairi Gougeon

Yes. Using the transitional powers, we currently opt out of that legislation. The Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments also intend to transpose the elements from the EU directive that we are transposing, so that they have that opt-out. It is also in use in 19 other member states, I think, and in specific regions within countries which have decided to opt out.

That is very helpful. Is it fair to say that there are no GM crops grown in Scotland, nor have there ever been, and that therefore there will be no substantive change to what happens currently in agriculture?

There will be no substantive change.

Jamie Greene

You mentioned potential transitional deals and the future relationship that the UK might have with the EU. If the negotiation on that involved the UK producing GM crops, would it be the case that those would be grown only in England, and not in any of the other regions where you believe there is a policy differential?

Do you mean if this matter was included in future trade deals?


Mairi Gougeon

That would be a matter of huge concern for us but, as it stands, this is a devolved area. Therefore, even if we ended up with a no-deal Brexit, we would have the powers to make our own decisions in this regard, although there would be powers in the SSI that we would still use in relation to a no-deal Brexit. Ultimately the powers are devolved, but the inclusion of the issue in future trade deals would be a huge area of concern for us.

Could I ask one further question, convener?

The Convener

Yes, but first I want to make a point. Earlier, Jamie Greene made an observation about no GM crops being grown in Scotland. The minister did not respond to that. In fairness, I should say that there was a trial period during which GM crops were grown in Scotland—some were grown in the Black Isle—but none have been grown since then.

I am sorry that I did not respond to that point.

Jamie Greene

I appreciate the convener’s clarification.

Although the Scottish Government has an existing policy position on GM crops—that is quite a catch-all phrase—is it at least committed to maintaining an open mind and continuing open dialogue with the farming industry, in relation to which I have no interest to declare, and can the minister state that the Scottish Government is willing to review the policy as and when further scientific or other evidence is presented to it?

Mairi Gougeon

We always engage with the farming industry and will continue to do so. That is vitally important to my role and the role of the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy. However, at the moment, we are not looking to change our stated policy position on GM crops any time soon. That said, we are happy to continue to engage in on-going dialogue.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Minister, if you are going to turn your back on anyone, please turn your back on those who seek to change the status of Scotland when it comes to the protection of its natural environment.

Being a simple lad, I have gone to the explanatory note, which I accept is not the regulations. It says:

“These Regulations also give effect to Article 4(5) of the Deliberate Release Directive enabling the Scottish Ministers to take measures to ensure compliance with that Directive by introducing investigatory powers, offences and penalties”.

Can you give us some more information on that? Is there a timeframe for those measures being introduced? Would that involve a series of statutory instruments that we are likely to see in the coming months?

Mairi Gougeon

Helen Stanley can answer the question about the timeframe. What I would say is that that provision is to ensure that, if anyone breaches the regulations, we have the enforcement powers that enable us to take appropriate action and to introduce penalties as a result.

Helen Stanley (Scottish Government)

I am sorry, Mr Finnie, but I did not fully understand what you meant when you talked about timeframes. Once the legislation is enforced, any offences and penalties that are within the legislation will take immediate effect. As has been said, at the moment, there are no commercially viable GM crops in Scotland anyway, so it is debatable whether anyone is likely to commit an offence that will result in a prosecution using the new powers.

Does the creation of new powers suggest that there is a deficiency in the existing arrangements?

Helen Stanley

The opt-out involved new powers that were created by the EU, and it is up to member states that wish to use the opt-out to ensure that they have the correct powers in their own legislation. In that sense, because the opt-out was a new thing, new offences and penalties needed to be created to ensure that people were compliant with it.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

First, with regard to a comment that was made earlier, I say that Scotland is a country, not a region.

Is the current policy on GM crops the same one that has been in place for years, minister?

That is correct and, as I say, this SSI would not change any policy; we would simply be continuing with our current stated policy.

Richard Lyle

Unlike Mr Chapman, I agree with the Government’s policy. Am I correct in saying that if we do not pass this SSI, by default GM crops could creep into Scotland, debasing our reputation as a good food nation?


Mairi Gougeon

We have opted out through the transitional arrangements. That is our position and we would still be able to do that if the SSI does not pass. However, the SSI brings our legislation right up to date. It was a programme for government commitment that we would transpose this directive and, even if we end up with a no-deal Brexit, elements of the SSI would still be important to us, particularly in relation to some of the offences and penalties and the geographical scope of the opt-out. The SSI is a continuation of what we are doing already, but it enables us to bring our legislation up to date.

Thank you for your comments on this. I will certainly be supporting the proposal when it comes to the vote.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

There are no GM crops in Scotland. We have never had any GM crops in Scotland, apart from the trials that were mentioned. There are no proposals for having GM crops in Scotland. Nobody has come to the committee to say that there is any issue. The Scottish Government has done all this work on the legislation, but it comes into force two weeks before we are scheduled to leave the European Union and the minister has just confirmed that it does not change anything at all. I have a pretty fundamental question: what is the Government doing here?

Mairi Gougeon

I think that I outlined most of that in my response to Richard Lyle—it is about bringing our legislation up to date. We committed to transposing the EU directive. Other countries across the UK are doing exactly the same. Wales will transpose the directive, and Northern Ireland is looking to do the same. It is vital that we have the provisions in Scottish legislation and that we can use the opt-out, because we have used the current opt-out in relation to some crops that have gone to the EU for approval for commercial cultivation. It is vital for us to have the power and to have the enforcement powers in relation to such crops.

But it might be in force for only two weeks.

Mairi Gougeon

No, that is not the case because, even if we end up in a no-deal Brexit, we would still need elements of the SSI and would want to have them as part of our legislation.

Ideally, we would have introduced the SSI before now but, since the referendum, the main focus has been on making sure that we are ready for departure from the EU when that comes. A lot of resource has been tied into that. You will have seen all the SIs and SSIs that have come through, particularly in relation to the rural economy and the environment, where we have had an awful lot of legislation to deal with. It is vital that we put in place the legislation and that we do so before we leave the EU.

The minister has repeatedly said that we have transitional arrangements and that we have opted out. Can the minister be clearer about what she means by that?

Helen Stanley

I can butt in, if that would be helpful. EU directive 2015/412 contained transitional provisions that allowed member states to opt out of one GM crop that was already approved for cultivation in Europe and a number of others that were pending authorisation at that time. Scotland, as part of the UK, was one of the countries that wanted to use those transitional provisions to opt out of the one GM crop, which was a GM maize, and the others that were pending approval. However, those were transitional arrangements. Countries had to apply to the Commission back in 2015 and there was a deadline for doing that. Transposition of the legislation would allow Scotland to opt out of future EU-approved GM crops—that is, ones that might come on stream in the coming months.

That is my point. The legislation would come into force only two weeks before we leave the EU; we will not be subject to the EU rules after that.

Helen Stanley

We will, if there is a transition period under Brexit.

Why do we not wait to find out?

On this issue, we cannot wait to see what happens.

Why not?

I would much rather that our legislation was in a fit state and ready to go, regardless of the situation.

We have never had GM crops and there are no proposals for GM crops. What is the point of the instrument?

Mairi Gougeon

That does not mean that there will not be proposals in the future. It is important that we have the powers in place—especially in relation to the SSI that is to come, which will correct any deficiencies—so that they are ready to go and we can use them if we leave the EU without a deal. We cannot wait to see what happens; we need to make sure that our legislation is fit for purpose.

Because of all those people who want to—

Hold on, Mr Rumbles. I draw to a close this line of questioning, as you have examined the issue about as far as you can take it. Maureen Watt has the next question.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

It is important to put on record that our world-leading plant breeding and crop research institutes will not be affected. Sometimes, GM crops and plant breeding are mixed up, which is unhelpful.

The minister has partly answered my question, which is about what other devolved nations are doing. Wales is progressing similar legislation. I am not sure how Northern Ireland can do that, although I believe that it wants to. There are now 19 countries in the EU—Germany was one of the first—to use the legislation. Whether or not we leave the EU, that is the norm and not the exception in the EU.

Mairi Gougeon

I agree. Belgium for example, is in a similar situation to the UK, in that one of its regions has decided to opt out. You are absolutely right that 19 countries in the EU—the vast majority—have decided to use the opt-out. Northern Ireland would want to do that as soon as its Assembly is in place.

The Convener

As there are no more questions, we move on to agenda item 2, which is formal consideration of motion S5M-15628.

Motion moved,

That the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee recommends that the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release etc) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2019 [draft] be approved.—[Mairi Gougeon]

Do members have any comments?

Richard Lyle

I agree with the Scottish Government’s policy on GM crops, which it has followed for years. I compliment the minister on her presentation. I totally disagree with members who say that we should allow GM crops. Scotland is a good food nation; Scotland has excellent food. As far as I am concerned, I intend to ensure that it stays that way.

I had hoped that we would not have statements but, as Richard Lyle has made one, I will have to let in other members.

Peter Chapman

I fundamentally disagree with this short-sighted policy. On average, GM crops are cleaner than the old technology, because they always use less fertiliser and fewer chemicals; they are also more profitable to grow. The policy stands in the way of our farmers moving forward and competing in the world marketplace. [Interruption.]

The Convener

Hold on. I say to members that, with the greatest respect, we have already been here. I recognise that everyone has different views, but I have already explained that I find it difficult to hear when everyone talks at the same time. I have never stopped people coming in with their views, and I am happy to let that happen, but I cannot have you all doing it at the same time.

Mr Chapman, you have made your point, and I am now happy for Mr Rumbles to make his. After that, if no other member wishes to make a brief point, I will move to the question whether we agree to the motion.

Mike Rumbles

As this is the debate on the motion, I think that we are quite rightly entitled to make our points.

I shall be supporting the Scottish Government on this matter. My question to the minister was simply about whether we needed to go down this route, considering that, as I said when I asked my question, the instrument will take effect only two weeks before we leave the EU. After all, the legislation is about opting out of EU legislation, which in any case will no longer apply. I just find that a little strange.

As this is a really important issue, in future, we need to have a debate on the science, GM crops and everything else. At the moment, however, it is right that we maintain the status quo. The Scottish Government has done an awful lot of work on the issue. I am sceptical as to whether it was necessary but, given that the instrument has come before us, I will support it.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I have two points. First, on Mr Rumbles’s point about whether the work was necessary, the reality is that the committee and, indeed, all committees are doing a huge amount of work on Brexit, and we do not know whether it is needed, because the totally incompetent Westminster Government has no clear picture. I do not know why Mr Rumbles is picking on this particular piece of legislation, because the same point applies to a lot of other things that we are doing. I fully support the need for us to do that work.

Secondly, on Mr Chapman’s point about the science, the reality is that the science is incomplete. There have been many proposals about and a lot of work on genetic modification and the like, but we have not yet seen the long-term effects on the land, crops and other things over 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. As I said, the science is not complete, so it is misleading of Mr Chapman to say that we are going against it.

John Finnie

To my mind, a lot of this legislation is heavy duty and can be confusing, but it has far greater clarity than the Liberal Democrats’ position on anything. That view has been reinforced today by Mr Rumbles’s confusing position on whether they are for or against GM.

I am not surprised to hear Mr Chapman’s fixation with profit, which—ironically—is at odds with what I thought the committee had collectively agreed when, as part of our salmon inquiry, we said that the precautionary principle should apply. The contingency that the Scottish Government has taken is appropriate, and I fully endorse it and the continuation of the application of the precautionary principle.

The Convener

I will give the minister a chance to respond to any of the comments that have been made, but I remind her that her officials cannot come in at this stage.

The one thing that I would say—and it is not about the motion itself—is that what we do in committee is not best served by members making political comments. It is best to make those sorts of comments in the chamber; we look at the facts and the evidence.

Do you wish to make a comment, minister, or are you happy to move to the question on the motion?

I am happy to move to the question, convener.

The question is, that motion S5M-15628, in the name of Mairi Gougeon, be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.


Finnie, John (Highlands and Islands) (Green)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Ross, Gail (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Stevenson, Stewart (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)


Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)


Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Mountain, Edward (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 8, Against 1, Abstentions 2.

Motion agreed to,

That the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee recommends that the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release etc) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2019 [draft] be approved.

The Convener

I thank the minister and her officials for coming, and I briefly suspend the meeting to allow the panel to depart. I ask members to remain in the room, if possible, so that we can move straight on to the next item.

10:00 Meeting suspended.  

10:06 On resuming—