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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 2, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 September 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, McVitie’s Factory Glasgow (Proposed Closure), Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Supporting the People of Afghanistan, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and around the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including while entering and exiting the chamber, and to please only use the aisles and walkways to access their seat or when moving around the chamber.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on rural affairs and islands. Members who want to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the course of the relevant question, or press R in the chat function if they are joining us remotely.

Covid-19 Restrictions (Monitoring Island Economies)

To ask the Scottish Government what monitoring it has undertaken of island economies following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. (S6O-00081)

We have been monitoring economic conditions across Scotland throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so as and when restrictions ease. Our new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation will set out the steps that we will take to deliver a green economic recovery and support new green jobs, businesses and industries for the future for all Scotland.

Recovery from the Covid restrictions across island communities has been mixed. Some islands have been able to benefit from the process of opening up, while others, such as some of those that the summer ferry crisis has affected, have not. I raised that issue with the cabinet secretary yesterday and did not get an answer. In her role in cross-Government co-ordination of islands policy, what has she done to address the on-going issues? Will she support the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport coming to the chamber to make a statement as a matter of urgency?

I hope that the member has raised those particular points on ferries, which he raised today and in yesterday’s debate, with the Minister for Transport, Graeme Dey. We realise how critical those lifeline services are. That is why the Minister for Transport has made addressing those issues his absolute priority. I hope that the member will raise the matter with the relevant minister.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that while we are coming out of the pandemic is the worst possible moment for many island businesses to have to cope with staff shortages caused by the Brexit deal? Does she agree with many island businesses that emergency Covid work visas for European Union citizens would at least alleviate some of the mess that Brexit has created?

Scotland has to be able to attract talented workers from across Europe without excessive immigration barriers. Under the new points-based system, the main visa routes are for high earners, with almost no route at all for those who come below the threshold, who are so desperately needed across many sectors. That, along with the United Kingdom Government’s decision to delay the implementation of the majority of regulated qualifications framework levels 3 to 5 roles eligible for the shortage occupation list, risks continued labour shortages, particularly in areas such as our islands.

The scale of the situation that is faced by island businesses is a direct consequence of the UK Government’s approach to Brexit and its refusal to listen to the repeated warnings of the Scottish Government and sector stakeholders.

Last week and this week, we have heard calls from across the food and drink industry as well as NFU Scotland for urgent action to address those problems. I have also followed up on that in my correspondence with the UK Government. The crisis situation is of the UK Government’s making, through the reckless Brexit that it pursued, and the UK Government now needs to fix it.

Sustainable Farming

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it will take to support more sustainable farming. (S6O-00082)

The economic and environmental sustainability of Scottish agriculture is paramount. I recently announced the appointment of an agriculture reform implementation oversight board and a consultation, building on the recommendations from the farmer-led groups. In order to deliver early action on implementing measures, the board will develop a preliminary package of funded measures for agreement by the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. That will be based on the work of the farmer-led groups and will have an early focus on livestock emissions.

I look forward to working together on that vital change programme to give farming and food production the long-term, sustainable future that we are all committed to delivering.

Fibre production for the textile industry, using materials such as nettles, offers farmers an opportunity to support a sustainable supply chain, while strengthening their own businesses. Will the cabinet secretary consider supporting the development of regional textile brands based on sustainability credentials to incentivise that fibre production?

I thank the member for raising that point. If he has had approaches on that particular issue I would be more than happy to meet the people who are taking it forward and to see what we can do to develop and support that. Such initiatives are vital as we look to be more sustainable and to create a circular economy. If the member wants to contact me about that, I would be more than happy to look into it.

One of the many areas that I am particularly proud of in the Green-Scottish Government agreement is the targets to expand organic food and farming, which will restore the environment and support rural economies. Does the cabinet secretary see those targets as helping to drive the demand for organic food in our schools and other public kitchens? Will it provide greater certainty for farmers that they can convert to organic food and farming, knowing that there is a stable market?

Absolutely. That is why we committed in the manifesto and the recent co-operation agreement to at least double the amount of land that is farmed organically by the end of the parliamentary session. Previously, we have seen that the amount of land that was being farmed organically was going in the wrong direction. That is why I am committed to working with the sector to see what we can do to improve that.

The member also mentioned some important initiatives that are making a difference, such as the food for life scheme, which has run for several years and which several local authorities take part in. We are keen to see what we can do to harness the procurement power that we have in the public sector to encourage the food for life scheme to expand into other areas and encourage organic production. We can see from the food for life scheme the many benefits that come from organic production, including improving our health and our local economies. We want to see how we can develop and build on that.

Mobile Abattoirs

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any progress that has been made on the use of mobile abattoirs. (S6O-00083)

The feasibility study that was commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in March last year provides details of what would be required to operate mobile abattoirs in Scotland, including the regulatory framework, and it offers a cost benefit analysis of possible operational models. However, the report also highlights the difficulty in achieving a sustained economic return from a mobile abattoir in Scotland. Any next steps would be for a commercial operator who wishes to take such a plan forward. The Scottish Government, in conjunction with Food Standards Scotland, would of course be willing to discuss that in more detail with any organisation that is considering operating mobile abattoirs in Scotland.

In recent evidence to the United Kingdom Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister Lord Benyon committed the UK Government to “supporting new initiatives” such as mobile abattoirs to help support local demand. The very report that the cabinet secretary mentioned recognised that there are areas of Scotland where animals have to be moved more than 100 miles before they reach an abattoir. Given that, as far back as January 2019, NFU Scotland highlighted that there has been a

“steady and worrying loss of small abattoirs”

over the past few years, when will the Scottish Government match the UK Government’s commitment, and when will it happen?

As I outlined in my opening response, we wanted to undertake a study in this area to see whether it would be feasible, and we have committed to work with any operators who would be keen to take the model forward to see whether we could make it work in Scotland. I absolutely understand the point that the member has raised. Ideally, we want food to be processed as close as possible to the point of primary production, and we are keen to work with anyone who is willing to take the model forward.

We have a couple of supplementaries; I hope that both questions and answers will be brief.

What support is the Scottish Government providing to Scotland’s quality pig producer sector?

I was really pleased to announce on Monday this week that we have opened the Scottish Government’s pig producers hardship support scheme for applications. The scheme will provide up to £715,000 of financial support to pig producers who were affected by the temporary closure of the abattoir in Brechin earlier this year. We have worked closely with the sector to ensure that the fund provides affected farmers with financial support for the losses that they incurred through no fault of their own. The scheme is open for applications until 26 September, and I encourage people to apply as soon as possible.

We on the Conservative side of the chamber agree that mobile abattoirs are important. However, the Scottish National Party Government must support livestock farming to ensure its sustainability. Will the cabinet secretary confirm or deny that her civil servants suggested that Scottish livestock farmers should slaughter thousands of cattle, and will she tell members why the suckler beef climate group has been ignored since March?

As the member will know, I refuted that statement yesterday during the debate on the food and drink industry. I said that it was nonsense then, and it is still nonsense today.

Farm Support Payments

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the future of farm support payments. (S6O-00084)

On 25 August, as one of our first 100 days commitments, I announced the establishment of the agriculture reform implementation oversight board. It will contribute to the Scottish Government’s work to implement policy reform through incorporating the relevant recommendations of the farmer-led groups to cut emissions across agriculture, support the production of sustainable high-quality food, and design a new support system and approach. A national test programme will include early progress on reducing livestock emissions, and the package should be implemented by spring 2022, with recruitment of farmers and crofters expected to begin this autumn.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her reply, but farmers have little certainty about future payments, and the Scottish Government has been called out by Chris Stark, the chief executive officer of the United Kingdom Climate Change Committee, regarding the overdue national agriculture policy. Does she really think that new committees to replace old ones, and another consultation document, are the answer? More deliberation and dilly-dallying is a disaster for the sector. Why will the Government not make decisions now?

We think that it is vital that we include in our decision making the people whom the decisions will affect. As I said, there now exists the agriculture reform implementation oversight board, which I will co-chair with the president of the NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, to drive forward the work of the farmer-led groups, which was an SNP manifesto commitment. That is what we have committed to, and that is exactly what the board will deliver. I have set out those actions today because we want the board to get to work and deliver.

We covered a lot of this ground in the debate yesterday, but I am keen to take two supplementaries.

I welcome the long-overdue establishment of the agriculture reform implementation oversight board and the proposals from the farmer-led groups, which I hope will be implemented. Given the Government’s dithering over the past few years, and the fact that the cabinet secretary said that a lot of the proposals will not be introduced until 2022, is she absolutely confident that we will, over the next few years, meet the targets for reductions in agricultural emissions that are set out in the climate change plan?

I will, of course, do everything in my power to make sure that that happens, which is not to say that many of the measures will not be delivered next year. That is a specific piece of work for which we have tried to set out a timeline.

I want the agriculture reform implementation oversight board to get to work on delivering early on the recommendations of the farmer-led groups. It is only right that we involve farmers, crofters and land managers in discussions as we move forward to establish a new payment scheme for after 2024. It is important to have stability and simplicity to ensure that farmers can rely on the payments and know what is coming over the course of the next few years. It is also important to get going on tackling our emissions reductions. The sector is keen to get going on that and I want to work with it.

How will the policy that the cabinet secretary will develop differ from that of the UK Government?

I note that the UK Government’s spending review provides insufficient budget to replace European Union funding that is being lost to Scotland. There is still little clarity on replacement of EU programmes—in particular, on structural funds. We get only a single-year guarantee from the UK, compared with the seven-year EU budget guarantee. There are also key concerns about the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which represents a clear assault on devolved spending powers. Between now and 2024-25, Scotland will lose up to £170 million of funding, and the current one-year settlement does not provide the assurances that we need.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced a move away from direct payments and supporting food production to a focus on what it calls “public goods”. That is certainly not the direction in which we intend to go.

Agriculture (New Entrants)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to support new entrants to the agriculture sector. (S6O-00085)

Reports such as “Farming for 1.5°—From here to 2045” underline the stark challenges that Scottish agriculture faces. They highlight the continuing role for skilled and innovative young and new-entrant farmers and crofters. We agree with that view and we continue to support new entrants through a number of measures, including the farming opportunities for new entrants programme and the land matching service, which we fund the NFU Scotland to deliver.

The national reserve provides new farmers and crofters with an allocation of payment entitlements under the basic payment scheme, as well as the young farmers basic payment top-up. In line with our manifesto commitment, I will announce how we intend to support new and young entrants through a specific fund during this parliamentary session.

The importance of new entrants and young farmers cannot be overstated, nor can the importance of attracting applicants from all walks of life. With that in mind, what action is the Scottish Government taking to encourage black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants to the agriculture sector?

Pam Gosal has raised a vital point. It is right that we try to encourage diversity where possible. I would be more than happy to meet her to discuss actions that we can take in that regard.

What is the Scottish Government doing to encourage more young people to get the skills and education that are needed to become farmers or crofters, or to take up other land-based career opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, in order to tackle depopulation?

The Scottish Government recently announced the establishment of a commission for the land-based learning review, which was part of our first 100 days commitments. We intend that the review will consider the learning pipeline from early years to adults with a view to increasing opportunities for more people—in particular, more women—to gain qualifications and employment in the land-based and aquaculture sectors. Agriculture is one of the key sectors to be included in the review, which will support the Scottish Government’s ambition of delivering a just transition to net zero and a climate-resilient Scotland by ensuring that our learning system equips people with the skills and knowledge that are needed to work in Scotland’s land-based and aquaculture sectors.

United Kingdom Seasonal Workers Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Rural affairs and Islands has had with the UK Government regarding the UK seasonal workers scheme. (S6O-00086)

Food production is critical to the success of our economy, and the edible horticulture sector has to be equipped with the necessary tools in order to continue to flourish. Unfortunately, the seasonal workers scheme is not working for employers or seasonal workers. Scottish ministers have listened to the sector and, on 16 March, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment and the Minister for Europe and International Development wrote to the UK immigration minister, urging him to make the necessary improvements to that route to make it fit for purpose.

Despite migration impacting on devolved areas, the UK immigration minister has refused to recognise the interests of this Parliament and the role of the Scottish Government, and has failed to respond positively to 19 requests for meetings from the Scottish Government minister with responsibility for migration.

I have written to the UK Government this week to highlight the impacts of existing labour and skills shortages on the food and drink industry. I await a response to that.

Over the past week I have met representatives of Dundee Cold Stores and Highland Game, which are in my constituency, and both of which are crucial businesses in the food supply chain that rely on being able to access sufficient labour, especially during the peak season. The Food and Drink Federation Scotland warns that businesses are now rapidly approaching a crisis, and the NFU Scotland is calling for an improved permanent seasonal workers scheme.

Can the cabinet secretary offer an assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to make representations to the UK Government to ensure that both agriculture and the wider food and drink supply chain are able to recruit and retain the necessary staff, as well as to access haulage to get their products to market, on which both sectors depend?

Can I also ask the cabinet secretary whether she will visit—

Cabinet secretary.

Joe FitzPatrick has highlighted an absolutely critical issue. Members will all have seen the letter—referenced in his question—that was sent from representatives of the food and drink industry to both the UK and Scottish Governments last week, highlighting the crisis situation that they now face in relation to labour. I have responded to the industry regarding our asks, and we will continue to work with it to assist in any way we can.

As I have just said, I have written to the UK Government this week to highlight the impact of existing labour and skills shortages on the food and drink industry. We also wrote to the UK Government in July to push for changes to UK migration policies and to highlight the impact of licensing delays for the heavy goods vehicle sector.

Scottish ministers will continue to discuss those issues in our on-going engagement with the UK Government and other devolved Governments, and we will continue to press for urgent action.

Seafood (Brexit Export Challenges)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with the seafood sector regarding any export challenges as a result of Brexit. (S6O-00087)

We have engaged regularly with the sector to mitigate the impact of European Union exit on seafood exports, and the impact’s associated challenges. For instance, the food sector resilience group has met regularly to address the on-going challenges that EU exit has caused the Scottish seafood sector. In addition to that, the Scottish seafood exports task force, which included UK Government representation, met regularly between February and July this year, and it published its final report on 26 August.

Over the summer, I met representatives of seafood businesses first hand and visited fish farms, fish markets and processing businesses to hear directly from those who work in the industry. My officials have been in regular contact with a range of industry representatives to discuss specific issues, such as the introduction of new export health certificates, and to explore medium-term and longer-term recommendations about how best to support the sector.

Over recess, I visited Peterhead producers market and spoke with seafood industry leaders who are working hard to future proof the industry from the unmitigated disaster that is being inflicted by the damaging UK Government Brexit. Although the UK Government has clearly sold out Scotland’s fishing communities, can the cabinet secretary outline what steps the Scottish Government is taking to mitigate the damage and to support seafood businesses to diversify in the face of the Brexit challenges?

Our local food strategy consultation and the development of a “Sustainably Scottish” brand will both support and grow Scottish seafood as a sustainable low-carbon food. Along with our work on a new seafood trade strategy, we have awarded £1.8 million to Seafood Scotland to revitalise the domestic market and to help to develop new global markets. We have also provided more than £800,000 for seafood businesses—including for storage facilities at a major seafood processor and for seafood businesses in the north-east—to develop seafood processing and training. In addition to that, £5.2 million was awarded to Peterhead Port Authority for harbour and market improvements.

The seafood and other sectors in the northern isles have been battling Brexit disruption along with ferries’ freight-capacity limitations. How does the Scottish Government plan to mitigate the twin challenges of Brexit and freight capacity on lifeline services, in order to ensure that produce can get to market on time?

I hope that I was able to address at least the first part of Beatrice Wishart’s question in responses that I gave earlier. We are working tirelessly with the industry to try to mitigate the impact of Brexit and to do whatever we can to tackle it, but unfortunately many of the levers for that are simply outwith our control. On the freight issue, I urge Beatrice Wishart to raise it with the Minister for Transport, who I know has been looking at those issues and dealing with them.

Draft Co-operation Agreement (Protection for Farmers)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will protect the interests of farmers under the draft co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party. (S6O-00088)

The Scottish Government and others across the chamber and the country believe that Scotland should be a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. We will ensure that we continue to support the sector to produce high-quality food while we take action to make the emissions reductions that are required to contribute to Scotland’s world-leading emissions targets to support and deliver nature restoration and a just transition to net zero. I outlined my approach of having farmers, crofters and land managers at the heart of developing new policy, which is why I launched the agriculture reform implementation oversight board last week.

Does the cabinet secretary understand the fear among farmers in my constituency that the Scottish Government now includes members who have previously advocated for a drastic reduction in livestock production and have talked up the prospect of covering 40 per cent of Scotland in forestry?

Similar points were raised during the food and drink debate yesterday. I would ask whether Oliver Mundell has read the co-operation agreement, in which we have outlined our approach. I have established the board to ensure that we can deliver the recommendations of the farmer-led groups and make sure that we have a sustainable future for Scottish farming.