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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 3, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 February 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Coastal Communities, Portfolio Question Time, Cost of Living, ScotRail, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Rural Affairs and Islands

Good afternoon. I remind colleagues that Covid-related measures are still in place and that face masks should be worn while moving around the chamber and the wider Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio question time. On this occasion, the portfolio is rural affairs and islands. As ever, any member who wishes to ask a supplementary should request to do so during the relevant question. There is a lot of interest in this afternoon’s questions, so I would be grateful for brief questions from members and, as far as possible, brief answers from the ministerial team.


Food (Country of Origin Indication)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to a recent survey, which found that 65 per cent of those asked preferred to see the national flag of Scotland on their food. (S6O-00708)

The Scottish brand, whether it is the saltire or a Scottish label, is a key provenance mark and a signal of quality. It is no surprise that people in Scotland recognise that and are proudly enjoying our world-class produce. Through our local food strategy and the development of our sustainably Scottish brand, they will have even more opportunities to access food that is produced locally and to be confident that it is produced to rigorous environmental standards.

To assuage any worries on behalf of some members of the Parliament, I point out that the national flag will be on the label, not on the food itself.

In recent weeks, the United Kingdom Government has moved closer to allowing gene-edited crops. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the identity of Scotland’s world-class produce must be protected from any action in that regard that threatens its brand reputation and provenance?

I am aware of the UK Government’s plans to change English regulations to enable the use of gene-editing technologies. Scotland’s policy on genetically modified organisms has not changed. We remain opposed to the use of genetic modification in farming, to protect the clean, green brand of Scotland’s £15 billion food and drink industry.

I am also aware of the current debate around novel genomic techniques and how those relate to existing GM legislation, and of the on-going consideration of that at European Union level. The Scottish Government’s policy is to remain aligned with the EU, where practicable, and we are closely monitoring the EU’s position on the issue. We will continue to engage with the Governments of the UK, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that devolved competences are respected in charting our future direction.

The Scottish Conservatives are proud to support the Scottish dairy industry. Embarrassingly, the Scottish Government’s milk and healthy snack scheme has been branded unlawful by Lord Braid. That is yet another example of the Scottish National Party letting down rural Scotland. Small Scottish dairies are being impacted because childminders who are in receipt of funding through the scheme are forced to source Scottish milk from larger suppliers. Why is the SNP letting down small Scottish milk producers?

That question’s link to the original question was very tenuous. If there is anything that you wish to add, cabinet secretary, please do so.

Obviously, we are committed to supporting our producers in Scotland. I would be happy to contact the member on the specific issue that she raised and to provide her with further information.


Fish Catching and Processing Sectors

To ask the Scottish Government how it will support the fishing industry to grow to meet any increased capacity within the catching and processing sectors. (S6O-00709)

The Scottish Government is supporting the seafood sector through the marine fund Scotland. To date, around £13 million has been awarded across a range of projects, including supporting young fishers to enter the sea fisheries industry, vessel refurbishment and new, more sustainable fishing gear. That is in addition to the £40 million that we provided under the European maritime and fisheries fund to support an innovative and competitive sector, which also helped to build capacity.

Clearly, we would like to continue supporting the sector, but the United Kingdom Government has cut the funding that is available to Scotland now that we have left the European Union. Instead of the £62 million that we should be getting, we are now receiving only £14 million, which clearly limits our ability to provide as much support as we did in the past and would wish to in the future.

Scotland is the biggest fishing nation in the UK, yet five wealthy families control a third of Scottish fishing quotas and have minority investments in companies that hold a further 11 per cent. Therefore, almost half of the entire Scottish fishing quota is held by just five families. Does the minister agree that that concentration of private ownership of a natural common asset is completely unacceptable in the long run?

We have undertaken an analysis of that and of quota distribution in Scotland. When we did that in 2016, it demonstrated that there was a diversity of ownership. That is in contrast to the situation in England, where the separation of small-scale and large-scale vessels is more pronounced.

The headline figure suggesting that access to fishing opportunities is very limited is misleading. The reality is that holders of pelagic quotas appear to own huge shares because of the number of quota units they have, but they actually hold very little in terms of other species. That significantly distorts any representation of holdings across all fish stocks.

There are a number of supplementary questions. I plead again for brief questions and responses.

There is huge potential in the fishing communities around the Scottish coast, but that needs joined-up thinking. We need investment in neutral science and work within the environment that allows good management as well as permitting fishing businesses to plan development.

Sadly, last week, two young Scottish skippers revealed that they are now re-evaluating a long-term career in the wake of the embarrassing boorach surrounding the Clyde cod closure announcement.

What plans does the cabinet secretary have to promote stability, co-management, capacity building and, most importantly, trust in order to deliver sustainability and investment in the fishing industry?

The course of action that we have taken since the closure was announced is the right one. We have listened to our stakeholders. We got scientists, fishers and environmental organisations together to try to chart a way forward. That is how we should continue to work when we deal with such vital issues. I do not know whether the member would prefer us not to have listened and taken action on the back of the information that we received and the discussion that we had with our stakeholders.

I believe that the position that we have taken is the right one. We are keen to work with our stakeholders as we move forward and look to introduce measures such as highly protected marine areas.

Questions and answers will have to be a bit briefer.

Since its introduction, the annual closure of the Clyde spawning ground has included exemptions to allow nephrops trawlers and creels and scallop dredgers to continue to fish. However, there will be no exemptions to the imminent Clyde closure from 14 February to 30 April because exemptions did not lead to fish stock recovery. Will the cabinet secretary tell us what positive impact she anticipates that the albeit temporary closure will have on future fish stocks?

Stocks have so far shown very little sign of recovery under the previous measures. That is why the measures that we announced to increase protection are required. The scientific evidence that we have shows that spawning cod can be disturbed by any fishing gear that operates within 10m of the sea bed. Because fishing methods such as trawling, dredging and creeling, which were allowed under the previous exemptions, all operate within 10m of the sea bed, removing those methods will significantly reduce the likelihood of spawning cod being disturbed.

During the closure, we will increase monitoring of activity and catches to assess, in particular, whether and where cod are being caught outside the closure area and whether they are mature enough to spawn. We intend to hold a meeting with stakeholders at the end of the 2022 closure to reflect on the effectiveness and practicality of the revised closures.

The chief executive of Seafood Scotland recently said that the United Kingdom Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy is preventing new people from coming into Scotland’s seafood workforce and that, as a result of that, an average of 20 to 25 per cent of vacancies throughout the industry are left unfilled, particularly on fishing vessels and in processing facilities. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that a Scottish visa is greatly needed to support the fishing and seafood sectors?

Please answer as briefly as possible.

I do, but the UK Government has, unfortunately, dismissed our proposals for a 24-month visa for all sectors to mitigate the crisis of acute labour shortages. It has ignored calls from businesses to create appropriate migration routes for vital workers to come to Scotland. Its short-sighted fixation with restricting migration is devastating our businesses and communities.

Several of my constituents have been denied support through the marine fund for new entrants because of arbitrary grant criteria. Those are young people who are looking to invest in the modern Shetland fleet and to become the next generation of fishers. Will the minister commit to reviewing the criteria, and will she consider those applications anew in order to help future fishing capacity and to match the ambition of young fishers?

This is the first year of operation of the marine fund Scotland. We will, of course, monitor and review the fund as we look to establish it in future years. We will consider the issues that the member raises.


Geographical Indication Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its position on the effectiveness in Scotland of the United Kingdom geographical indication scheme, which replaced the European Union protected geographical indication scheme. (S6O-00710)

Scotland’s GIs, including Scotch beef, Scotch lamb and Scotch whisky, are rightfully world renowned for their quality and provenance, and they deserve protection from imitation. The UK scheme mirrors the EU scheme. All existing GIs from both the UK and the EU were recorded on the UK register from January last year and they continue to be recognised in the EU. New applicants can apply for protection through the UK scheme. The Scottish Government continues to support our applicants and work with the UK Government to ensure that the scheme continues to benefit our producers.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that Scotland’s produce is internationally renowned. Figures show that total food and drink exports to the EU in 2019 were worth around £2.6 billion to Scotland, but, in the first nine months of 2021, Scotland’s exports to the EU were 12.1 per cent lower than in 2019. In addition, the industry bodies have shared their concerns that the new UK GI scheme—

Question.

—provides inferior legal protection. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that Brexit has not provided a single benefit to rural communities? Will she outline what communication the Scottish Government has had with the UK Government and industry regarding the seemingly inferior UK GI scheme?

I agree with the member. We already know that there are going to be more barriers to our exporters and importers along the line. Only this week, the UK Government extolled the benefits of Brexit in a publication that, curiously, omitted the damning figures that Emma Harper has highlighted.

We have supported our food and drink sector to the tune of £10 million over the course of the past couple of years, in order to mitigate the effects that Brexit and Covid have had on the sector and the communities that it supports. In the meantime, of course, the UK Government continues to talk in a way that is pie in the sky, instead of tackling the real issues that have been brought about by its calamitous Brexit policy.

I encourage members to look at the questions that they are intending to pose and cut them back if they think that they are not going to fall into the bracket of brevity.


Agriculture (New Entrants)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is supporting new entrants into agriculture. (S6O-00711)

We are supporting new entrants to agriculture through the Farm Advisory Service, the Scottish Land Matching Service, the farming opportunities for new entrants group and direct payments. I am also exploring options to further develop support for new entrants in line with our manifesto commitment.

There is currently a serious issue in rural Scotland with soaring land prices, which is mainly driven by corporate entities buying up large tracts of property for the planting of trees in order to meet environmental obligations. Encouraging tree planting is clearly good for tackling climate change, but that has the effect of taking marginal land that could be used for food production out of agricultural use. It is also making it harder for new entrants to agriculture to either purchase land or expand holdings. Is the Scottish Government aware of that issue? Does it have any concerns about what is going on?

I thank the member for raising that really important point. The issue has been raised directly with me by NFU Scotland, and I and the Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform had a meeting with its president and vice-president to talk it over. I highlight to members that the Scottish Land Commission was tasked with undertaking an urgent piece of work to examine the issue and look into it in more detail. We are currently awaiting the outcome of that.

The recently published Women in Agriculture research report highlights the unique challenges that key workers—women in agriculture—continue to face. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is vital to the future of our rural communities that we support women who are new entrants to the agricultural sector in a way that addresses those challenges?

Absolutely. I want to see more women like those in Banffshire and Buchan having the opportunity to develop their skills, their talents and their careers. Supporting a new generation of women into agriculture will ensure its long-term sustainability. That is why, in addition to the new entrant support that is available through the Farm Advisory Service, we have committed £300,000 in the current financial year and £400,000 in the next financial year to bring about some practical solutions to support women, including through the wider roll-out of the be your best self personal development training, the pilot of agricultural business skills training and SkillSeeder, which is a skill sharing app to encourage greater participation in rural and land-based training. During the current session of Parliament, we will double the Women in Agriculture funding to £600,000.

Emma Roddick joins us online. I ask her to be brief.

On Saturday, the NFU president referred to post-Brexit trade deals, saying:

“My greatest fear was that we would be used as a pawn in trade deals and effectively that is what’s happened.”

Does the cabinet secretary share my view that a more prudent question might be: when will the UK Government stop discouraging new entrants to agriculture by undermining the industry with what Ms Batters described as

“really bad trade deals for the UK”?

Be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

Yes. I share the views that Minette Batters expressed, and I have repeatedly expressed my significant concerns to the United Kingdom Government on the impact of post-Brexit trade deals on Scotland’s agricultural sector. Farmers and crofters continue to be undermined and undercut by the UK Government, which has shown little care for the future of the Scottish rural economy. The UK Government’s actions are damaging the attractiveness of the sector to new entrants.

Although the Scottish Government has not been afforded a meaningful role in trade negotiations—

That is enough, cabinet secretary.

—we will continue to press for full involvement.


Allotments and Community Garden Spaces (Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it will provide to help increase the numbers of allotments and community garden spaces available in Edinburgh. (S6O-00712)

Allotments and their provision are the responsibility of local authorities. That is set out in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. However, since 2012, the Scottish Government has allocated more than £1.4 million to directly support and increase the land that is available for community growing.

More widely, our £50 million vacant and derelict land investment programme supports a variety of community regeneration projects, and our Scottish land fund, with a budget of £10 million, supports communities in taking ownership of land and buildings, which can include the provision of allotments.

Clearly, those things are not having the desired effect in the capital. In Edinburgh, people’s average wait for access to an allotment is more than eight years; in East Lothian, it stands at more than 15 years. Currently, 4,259 people in the capital are waiting for an allotment. Will the minister agree to my request to take forward a national allotment viability study, with all Government agencies looking at what potential land they could use to develop allotments and community growing spaces?

I am aware of the concerns in Edinburgh. I know that 1,900 allotment plots and 69 community growing projects are managed by the City of Edinburgh Council. I am also aware that the pandemic had the effect both of encouraging people to take up allotments and of making that a very crowded landscape. However, as I said in my initial answer, and for more specificity on the point that was raised, I direct the member to the City of Edinburgh Council, whose statutory responsibility allotments in Edinburgh are.


Young Farmers (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding support for young farmers in the north-east to support and promote good mental health and wellbeing. (S6O-00713)

The Scottish Government takes mental health and wellbeing seriously. That is why, last year, we launched the communities mental health and wellbeing fund. We will continue to support those who are supporting the mental health and wellbeing of all farmers throughout Scotland, including young farmers in the north-east.

During this financial year, we gave a total of £450,000 to the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution, the National Rural Mental Health Forum and Support in Mind Scotland, specifically to support the mental health of our rural communities. Officials are actively engaging with the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs board and chief executive to discuss potential projects, including mental health support for young farmers. Those initial discussions are on-going.

Farming has the poorest safety record of any occupation in the United Kingdom and a higher than expected suicide rate. Last year, the Farm Safety Foundation’s research found that 92 per cent of Scotland’s farmers who are under 40 say that mental health is one of the biggest hidden problems that they face, and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution’s big farming survey revealed that more than one third of farmers are “probably” or “possibly” depressed. Financial uncertainty about the replacement of funding for European Union farm payments, powerful supermarkets’ dictating of challenging prices, and poor connectivity are just some of the contributing factors. What more can we do to ensure that we support farmers as part of strong, resilient and connected communities in our rural areas?

I want to address quite a few points in that but, first and foremost, I highlight the likes of organisations such as the RSABI and the important work that it does. If people have concerns, I urge them to contact the RSABI. The Minister for Environment and Land Reform and I met it last week and heard about some of the cases that it has been involved in. We recognise that there is serious concern, especially given the huge costs that everybody faces at the moment—in agriculture, that can be seen in the increase in the price of fertilisers and energy, and all those other issues. We can therefore only anticipate that some of the current problems will get worse.

Again, I am happy to write to the member to provide more details about the organisations that can provide such help and support. I also highlight that we have tried to give as much certainty as possible to our farmers and crofters, through some of the payments that we have delivered and the commitments that we have made on the rates of payments that we will be making over this parliamentary term, and through the schemes that we have announced recently, such as the less favoured area support scheme, which has started.

Tess White has a supplementary on the theme of mental health.

More than one farmer a week dies by suicide in the United Kingdom, and the suicide rate among vets is at least three times that of the general population. Given the particular mental health challenges faced by the agriculture-related professions, does the Scottish Government have any plans to explore more widely the underreporting of mental ill-health in rural areas?

We of course want to get to grips with the issue as much as possible and understand its scale. The member touched on an important point about our vets. I have had recent meetings with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association to discuss the issues that they are seeing and experiencing. Of course, we are committed to tackling the issue as best we can and I am happy to get back to the member with further information.

Pig farmers in the north-east have had a particularly challenging time, which has affected their mental health. How has the Scottish Government’s pig producers hardship support scheme been helping them?

Last year, I was delighted to launch the pig producers hardship support scheme, which was worth £715,000. As the member rightly highlights, the sector is one of those that have been most impacted. The scheme supported farmers who were affected by the temporary closure of the abattoir in Brechin last year and the subsequent suspension of its China export licence. We have recently announced that we will extend that scheme, recognising the support that pig producers need. We are providing additional financial support, worth more than £680,000, to pig producers at a time when they need it most, and we are encouraging all those who are eligible for the funding to apply for it.

Michelle Thomson joins us remotely.


Agriculture (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support the agricultural sector receives in Scotland, and how this compares with the rest of the United Kingdom. (S6O-00714)

The 2022-23 budget provides £680 million in on-going agricultural support, including direct payments, the Scottish rural development programme and agricultural transformation. Agriculture is devolved and it is for each part of the UK to develop policies for its own circumstances, although we are not unhindered by the very real threats that we face from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, the subsidy control regime, and the lack of replacement European Union funding.

An example is our commitment to support those farming and crofting in constrained areas. We commenced less favoured area support scheme 2021 payments last month, and by 31 January 2022, more than 9,000 businesses had been paid £46.8 million.

I welcome the LFASS funding that was announced this week, and the support that it provides to farmers operating in some of the most challenging parts of the country.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the Tories’ insistence on including agricultural support in the Subsidy Control Bill, despite no other state or country in the world taking similar measures. How might that impact Scotland’s ability to support its farmers to meet our needs and interests?

We have serious concerns about the Subsidy Control Bill, not least because it risks constraining our ability to develop in future policies that are specifically tailored to meet the challenges faced by Scottish farmers and crofters. LFASS is an excellent example of that, because it provides central income support to farming businesses in remote and constrained rural areas, of which Scotland has significantly more than other parts of the UK, yet that support would not be compatible with the principles that have been set out in schedule 1 to the bill.

My officials and I continue to raise our concerns about the potential impact of the bill on Scottish agriculture at every available opportunity. We are not suggesting for one minute that agricultural subsidies be completely exempt from any form of subsidy control but, as the member highlighted, they are already subject to specific controls and requirements under the Agreement on Agriculture, and they will remain so, to meet our World Trade Organization obligations.


Fox Hunting (Ban)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will consider a complete ban on fox hunting. (S6O-00715)

As we set out in our 2021 programme for government, we will introduce a bill during this parliamentary year to strengthen the law relating to the use of dogs to hunt foxes and other wild animals, as well as introducing other measures, such as preventing trail hunting.

Of course, the bill has been beset by multiple delays, so it is welcome to hear that there is a commitment again in this parliamentary session.

Along with complaints in my region, we have heard that a hunt in Kelso, where a dog was taking down a fox, has been reported to the police. Will the minister consider including in the bill a complete ban, without a licensing scheme for hunting with packs of dogs, which could act as a new loophole and has been raised as an issue of concern by campaign groups?

I am aware of the on-going investigation, which I will not comment on, for obvious reasons.

I agree that the act of chasing and killing a mammal with a dog for sport or otherwise has no place in modern Scotland. I am seeking to close loopholes that exist which allow that already illegal activity to persist, and my aim is to do that in a way that ensures the greatest possible animal welfare while facilitating legitimate control in very limited circumstances.

I know that the Scottish Government takes seriously animal welfare standards for both wild and domesticated animals. However, it is also very clear that foxes can do real damage to livestock and livelihoods. Does the minister appreciate the need to maintain a balance that allows farmers, smallholders and rural businesses to retain the ability to control foxes when they are pests?

I absolutely appreciate the need for farmers to retain the ability to control foxes, and I am very aware that foxes can cause significant harm to livestock. It is important that land managers have access to control measures that are efficient and humane. As we have previously set out, we are not seeking to implement a ban on predator control; we are looking to tighten the legislation to reduce the occasions when a pack of dogs can chase or kill foxes or other wild animals accidentally or otherwise.

That concludes portfolio questions. I thank members and the ministerial team for their co-operation in getting through a fair number of questions.