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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 04 December 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Achieving a Fairer Scotland, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Delivery Charges


Portfolio Question Time

Deposit Return Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. (S5O-03849)

We continue to make progress on implementing our ambitious deposit return scheme as part of our response to the global climate emergency. We want a scheme that is high performing from day 1, and we are working with industry to understand and test the timeline for implementation. We will also take account of feedback received by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, which continues to consider the draft legislation to establish the scheme. Our agreed go-live date will be included in the final version of the regulations, which will be laid before Parliament in the new year.

There is a great deal of support for the principle of a deposit return scheme, but there are also serious concerns in the packaging and supply sectors that having a scheme in Scotland that is distinct from a scheme elsewhere in the United Kingdom will add cost and cause difficulty in the supply chain. Why is the Scottish Government not considering delaying its scheme in order to ensure that the scheme that is introduced in Scotland is similar to the scheme that is introduced elsewhere in the UK, given that the UK Government has indicated that it intends to introduce such a scheme?

The UK Government has said that it intends to introduce such a scheme, and I am very pleased that the Tory manifesto mentions a scheme that would include glass. However, there are no timescales for that scheme; the Scottish Government is much further forward in its arrangements. Given those circumstances, and the fact that this is a fully devolved area of policy, it is entirely reasonable for the Scottish Government to continue its work.

I hope that the work that we are doing will help to inform the UK Government’s progress towards introducing an effective deposit return scheme for the whole of the UK.

The cabinet secretary has mentioned the implementation advisory group many times in committee. Will she expand on the group’s involvement and whether retailers will have input to the group to assist in implementation of the scheme?

The implementation advisory group was set up to work closely with Government officials on the operational aspects of the proposed scheme. It already includes representatives of all sectors that will have ultimate responsibility for day-to-day operation of the deposit return scheme. The group has created a number of working groups that are exploring practical features of the scheme, such as the operation of return points and a potential level for the handling fee to be paid to retailers. The group is working very closely with Zero Waste Scotland on several of those detailed aspects, which, at the end of the day, will best be brought into being by the sector itself.

Question 2 was not lodged.

Oil and Gas Industry (Emissions)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to Oil & Gas UK’s “Environment Report 2018”, which highlights a commitment to “playing its part in building a sustainable industry that is progressively lowering its emission intensity”. (S5O-03851)

I welcome the industry’s commitment to lowering the industry’s offshore emissions. We are committed to achieving a net zero emissions economy and managing that fairly.

North Sea production is highly regulated, with some of the most advanced, and comparatively least polluting, production methods in the world. Maintaining domestic oil and gas production can lead to lower net global emissions.

We are supportive of the sector’s plans to decarbonise oil and gas production and we want to engage the industry in embracing and leading deployment of technologies such as floating offshore wind power, hydrogen production and carbon capture, utilisation and storage.

Statistics that were published by the Government in September 2019 state that, last year, 82 per cent of all UK oil and gas was produced in Scotland and that production increased by 4.6 per cent. Scotland employs 39 per cent of the oil and gas industry in the UK and the north-east is a focal point for that activity. Will the cabinet secretary rule out supporting any proposals for a windfall tax that would risk 26,000 jobs in Aberdeen alone and potentially reverse the good work on emissions that she mentioned?

Frankly, I am not sure that it is within my remit to talk about any tax in that regard, and I am sure that proposals for taxes are being looked at very carefully across the board. As Liam Kerr knows, there is no devolved ability for us to do any such thing in Scotland—yet. So, at the moment, his question is somewhat premature.

Following on from the Offshore Europe conference in September, when the oil and gas industry set out its road map to a more sustainable future, will the cabinet secretary tell us whether—and how—the Scottish Government might be able to advise, monitor and assess the progress of the industry as it shifts towards net zero?

We have a constant dialogue with the industry, which is clearly a key industry in Scotland. We want to ensure that it is able to continue to operate as effectively as possible while reducing its emissions from production.

As Liam Kerr knows, there are two aspects to oil and gas: the consumption side and the production side. On the production side, industries are working very hard to get their carbon emissions down as quickly as possible. They are focused on working towards net zero in terms of production, and we will continue to work directly with them on that. That is important, because it is a key industry. There are a number of aspects of the industry that, for Scotland, go beyond what the member asked about. As she is aware, when we talk about oil and gas in Scotland, there is an issue of just transition. We have to handle the whole industry very carefully. The dialogue is constant.

That measure of carbon intensity tells us nothing at all about the actual impact of the fossil fuel industry and the materials that it extracts from the ground. Given that we are in a climate emergency, when we are talking about carbon extraction we need a response that is more robust than the thin greenwash of talking about net zero.

Does the cabinet secretary recognise that more than 5 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product is spent on fossil fuel subsidies? When will the Scottish Government recognise that we need to redirect that vast flow of money into the transition that is needed, instead of keeping business as usual for the lethal fossil fuel industry?

I do not think that there is anything going on that might be regarded as “business as usual”.

The industry is working very hard to reduce its emissions. We are very aware that there will be a continued role for oil and gas, until we are able to move consumption away from fossil fuels completely. Any suggestion that one can switch away from that consumption before we are able to make the handover misunderstands the massive disruption that would take place and the likelihood of importation from other countries, whose industries are not decarbonising in the way that North Sea oil and gas are.

It is a complex issue, which we continue to address as carefully as possible, but if Patrick Harvie has seen the evidence at the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee from Chris Stark and David Joffe from the Committee on Climate Change, he will understand that it is far more complicated than he makes out.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that by ring fencing the current tax revenues from oil and gas and investing in a just transition, we can support long-term investments to tackle the climate crisis and deliver benefits to communities and our environment?

Most of us in this chamber accept that the oil and gas sector is a key component of our economy and remains integral to a sustainable, secure and inclusive energy transition. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the North Sea will generate further revenues of £8.5 billion over the next five years. Ring fencing those revenues into a net zero fund would indeed unlock significant additional investment into efforts to decarbonise the economy and would also help to deliver a just transition for areas such as Aberdeen and the north-east that currently rely heavily on the oil and gas sector for employment.

Animal Welfare Legislation

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with stakeholders, including the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, regarding reforming its animal welfare legislation. (S5O-03852)

The Scottish Government holds regular meetings with stakeholders on a range of animal welfare issues. That continuous engagement and discussion has helped to inform our current bill on animal welfare and wildlife.

We all know that, unlike domestic or wild animals, the welfare of farm animals is the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, because there are commercial considerations. Surely, the welfare of all animals should be our concern, regardless of commercial considerations. Is it not time for the welfare of all animals to be taken together into one Government portfolio? Does the minister agree that the welfare of every animal is of equal importance?

I do not know whether that is the proper question for the minister, really—

Why is it not a—

No—I am just asking the minister what she wants to do.

I am quite happy to answer the question. I deal with all issues relating to animal health and welfare regardless of whether the animals are domestic animals, farmed animals or wild animals. I take that responsibility absolutely seriously.

If the member wants to write to me to seek further information on the point that he is asking about, I would be happy to respond to him.

The minister will be as bitterly disappointed as I am that the special constables pilot in the Cairngorms has failed to detect any wildlife crime whatsoever over the past two years. Does the minister agree that now is the right time to match the Scottish SPCA’s existing powers in relation to domestic animals with new powers in relation to wild animals, so that it can get on with the job of properly detecting the disgusting wildlife crime that we see in Scotland?

It is only fair to say that we had to undertake that pilot in order to see whether that system would work. I know that a review is currently under way in relation to that.

On the point about the Scottish SPCA, I have not had that conversation with the organisation, and the issue has not been raised with me at all. Therefore, we have not considered including it in the legislation that we have brought forward.

Given what the minister has just said, can she advise what progress is being made on the establishment of the animal welfare commission?

I am happy to update the chamber on that. On 24 September, we announced that Professor Cathy Dwyer had been appointed as the chair of the new Scottish animal welfare commission. I am delighted that she accepted that role, given her wealth of experience.

With the chair appointed, recruitment of members to serve on the commission is well under way. I fully anticipate that the commission will be up and running early in the new year.

Puppy Trafficking

To ask the Scottish Government what information it has regarding levels of puppy trafficking through the port of Cairnryan and how much revenue has been recovered by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs from this. (S5O-03853)

The extent of puppy trafficking through Cairnryan is difficult to accurately determine, given that it is a hidden and illegal activity. However, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advises that 60 puppies have been seized this year by its special investigations unit. Those seizures are attributed to operation Delphin, a multi-agency task force that was set up to target the illegal puppy trade.

The Scottish Government does not hold information on the revenue that is recovered by HMRC from individuals who are involved in the illegal trafficking of puppies, but we know that it takes an active interest in that area, and we continue to work with it and other enforcement bodies through the puppy trade working group.

I understand that puppy trafficking through the port of Cairnryan is on the rise, with many seizures of puppies and large amounts of cash. Given that HMRC will not currently release information on how much cash is seized, can the minister outline how a fair share of that money might come to Scotland?

As I understand it, HMRC’s primary interest is in the recovery of unpaid tax from those who are operating as unlicensed puppy dealers. I am not aware of it seizing large amounts of cash linked to puppy trafficking at Cairnryan. However, I will be happy to engage with it on the issue through the puppy trade working group.

In Scotland, cash can be seized either as a production in a predicate criminal case, as an available asset in confiscation proceedings or, under part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, as part of a civil recovery investigation. If, in due course, the cash is included as part of a confiscation order or is forfeited by the court, it will be remitted to the Scottish consolidated fund.

Question 6 has been withdrawn.

Environment Improvement Schemes (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that schemes to help improve the environment are given long-term certainty over their future. (S5O-03855)

Obviously, many of our environmental schemes are supported and funded by the European Union, such as LIFE, the common agricultural policy and structural funds. I am deeply concerned about the loss of EU funding in relation to the delivery of environmental outcomes.

I have continually pressed the United Kingdom Government to provide clarity on future funding arrangements. In the absence of that clarity, the Scottish Government has published its own consultation on the replacement for the EU structural funds, to give stakeholders the opportunity to bring their experience and expertise to the development of any successor arrangements.

Given what she said, does the cabinet secretary agree that there is a contrast between the actions of her Government and those of the UK Government? For too long, the UK Government has been limited by an embarrassing lack of ambition, not least in its recently published manifesto commitments, which will do nothing to tackle rising global temperatures, which were described by a recent United Nations climate report as “devastating”. Does the cabinet secretary also agree that there is no more time to waste, and that Westminster must follow Scotland’s lead and get its act together on green energy?

In its approach to addressing climate change, Scotland is, in fact, leading the way—not just in the UK, but globally. We continue to press the UK Government on its failure to match its rhetoric with practical actions around renewable energy to support our climate response and match our net zero emissions ambition—some of that goes back to the earlier discussion that we had about moving away from oil and gas. It is disappointing that, in its manifesto, the UK Government has failed to do that. Nonetheless, we are clear that we will continue to lead for the UK on this crucial issue of our times, and allow other parties to trail in our wake.

Environmental Governance

Trailing in her wake, to ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recommendations in the Scottish Environment LINK report, “Environmental Governance: effective approaches for Scotland post-Brexit”. (S5O-03856)

The best way to continue to protect our environment is, of course, to remain in the European Union in the first place. However, I am taking forward the development of new arrangements in a careful and systematic way, based on our best assessment of likely gaps. In October, I announced plans for an interim panel to provide for assurance in that area, should the United Kingdom leave with no deal in place. The report that was published by SE LINK is a valuable contribution to the development of longer-term arrangements. I am considering the recommendations in that report alongside the results of the Government’s own consultation, which was held earlier this year.

The cabinet secretary has acknowledged the concerns about the impact of Brexit on environmental protections. Given that it is a devolved matter, it should be possible, with sensible planning and forethought, to mitigate the worst aspects of Brexit in that area. The report makes it clear that, ideally, new governance structures would include an independent parliamentary commissioner and a dedicated environment court. As neither of those will be put in place quickly, will the cabinet secretary tell us whether she is planning to create those bodies and, if so, what work is under way to bring them into being?

As I indicated in my initial answer, we are looking very carefully at the long-term arrangements that would be required. For example, the establishment of an environmental court goes far beyond our immediate concerns about immediate mitigation of the impact of Brexit, which is why we have had to divert some of our resources to the business of setting up an interim arrangement, should we be out in short order. There would need to be some degree of very careful thought, as well as further consultation, before we could go as far as implementing some of the proposals in the Scottish Environment LINK report, which would require primary legislation. As such, those are things that we need to look at in the longer term. However, those matters are currently very much under discussion and consideration, and we are not, at the moment, ruling anything out. At the moment, we have an interim panel that is ready to go—literally overnight, should that be necessary.

Does the cabinet secretary share my concern at the Tories’ plan to create an office for environmental protection with an apparently UK-wide remit over devolved matters such as climate change?

Although the UK Government’s proposals for an office for environmental protection fell with its Environment Bill when Parliament was dissolved, the Tories have committed in their manifesto to establish such an office, the remit of which—at no notice—was expanded to include issues to do with climate change.

At the moment, the extent of the powers that the UK Government seeks to draw into that is unclear. The Scottish Government will not accept any attempt to pull devolved powers over climate change, air quality or water quality into the remit of that office. However, we need the UK Government to step up to the plate and act on the matters that it is responsible for to help Scotland to reach net zero by 2045, which the UK Committee on Climate Change was clear will be necessary if we are to achieve our targets.

Plant Passporting

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making with plant passporting. (S5O-03857)

The plant passporting regime will change on 14 December as Scotland keeps pace with the European Union by bringing into force the EU’s smarter rules for safer food legislative package. The biggest change, which will be in the timber sector, will involve new procedures for the movement of conifer timber with bark. It is vital that implementation is proportionate and agreed with the sector. Following conversations that I had with ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs earlier this year, the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments have been working closely with the sector to ensure that a new system is in place by the deadline.

What would the consequences be for Scottish businesses if the application deadline was missed? What can the Scottish Government do to support Scottish businesses to meet the deadline on 14 December?

The sector fears that the consequences of missing the deadline and failing to provide a solution could be very serious indeed. It is difficult to quantify, but we are talking about potentially very large costs. That is why I have been pressing the UK for some considerable time to agree a new system to deal with the issue. It was unfortunate that a technical meeting that had been planned for stakeholders to attend on 25 November was unilaterally cancelled by the UK Government. I intervened at that point to ask why, since purdah did not appear to be applicable. I am pleased to say that—probably as a result—the meeting has been reinstated for 5 December, which is tomorrow. However, that leaves little time to put in place a system by the deadline, as Mr Beattie knows. Therefore, there has to be a period of grace to allow the industry to implement the new arrangements. Otherwise, the consequences for the sector could be very serious indeed, at a time when the sawmill sector is experiencing considerable pressure.

Food and Drink Industry (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support it is providing to the food and drink industry. (S5O-03858)

We continue to work with farmers, food producers and industry bodies to drive forward “Ambition 2030: Industry Strategy for Growth”, which is the food and drink strategy. Our programme for government sets out a range of new measures to support the sector, building on work that is already on-going. Direct investment and support to the food and drink sector in Scotland from the public sector across a range of areas including skills, education, research, industry development, standards and capital investment equates to approximately £100 million per annum.

I understand that one measure that is shortly to be introduced will restrict retailers’ promotional activity for and marketing of so-called discretionary foods, including confectionery, sweet biscuits and cakes. At least one retailer has raised concerns with me about the implications of those restrictions for the Scottish Government’s stated ambitions for growth in the food and drink sector. What assurances can the cabinet secretary provide to Scottish businesses that are likely to be impacted by such measures?

As the member should know, those matters are not within my portfolio. They fall within the portfolio of the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Mr FitzPatrick. He and I work closely on those matters, and I know that he is aware of the concerns that industry may have in relation to any such measures. Part of my task is to ensure that we continue to work collaboratively prior to consideration of whether any such measure should be taken forward.

Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns about the details that emerged from Department for International Trade documents that suggest that the Tories are prepared to ditch Scotland’s valuable protected geographical indications, which I have been highlighting since 2016, and that, even in the very early stages, the US is pressing for United Kingdom autonomy from European Union food and health standards?

Those are extremely important matters. The PGIs for Scotch beef, Scotch lamb and Scotch whisky are vital to the promotion of high-quality Scottish produce, and they cement a premium on such products, which helps the profitability and success of the sectors.

Over the past two years, Ms Cunningham, Ms Gougeon and I have repeatedly made representations on such matters to Mr Gove and others in the United Kingdom Government. Even now, after a couple of years’ work and after constant representations have been made about the importance of such matters, we have not made any progress on the detail. Sadly, the UK Government is fixated on Brexit.

We are also now worried that a trade deal with the USA might further compromise the standards of our agricultural produce. Such a proposal would be utterly unacceptable to the Scottish Government.

Farmed Animals (Welfare)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure the welfare of farmed animals. (S5O-03859)

Keepers must meet animals’ welfare needs under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. The Scottish Government introduced the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill to amend the 2006 act by increasing available penalties for cruelty offences and introducing a new procedure to allow animals, including farmed animals, that are taken into possession by enforcement authorities to be sold on or rehomed swiftly without the need for a court order.

We are replacing the codes of practice on the welfare of livestock with guidance that encourages best practice above the minimum legislative requirements, and we are committed to introducing compulsory closed-circuit television into Scottish abattoirs.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government committed to ensuring mandatory CCTV recording in all areas of slaughterhouses where live animals are present, in order to aid those who enforce animal legislation. Will the minister give an update on that work?

The member is, of course, right about our commitment in this year’s programme for government. At present, the welfare of animals at slaughter is ensured by staff from Food Standards Scotland. More than 99 per cent of animals that are slaughtered in Scotland are monitored by some configuration of CCTV coverage.

This year’s programme for government commits the Scottish Government to introducing secondary legislation to make the CCTV recording of slaughter compulsory in Scottish slaughterhouses, and to supporting the industry in introducing CCTV before it becomes compulsory.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Fisheries (Gear Conflict)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it will take to reduce gear conflict in Scotland’s fisheries. (S5O-03861)

The Scottish Government works closely with industry to facilitate better interaction among everyone who uses Scotland’s marine environment, including fishers. Our network of regional inshore fisheries groups, which take a collaborative and stakeholder-focused approach to improving the management of our inshore fisheries, are exploring solutions to improve sector harmony and thus reduce the risk of gear conflict.

That work builds on the recommendations from the gear conflict task force, including those on temporal and spatial separation methods and improvements to visibility and identification of static gear, which we will legislate for in due course.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the work of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, which tells us:

“The removal of the three-mile limit has proven to be an unmitigated environmental and economic disaster of epic proportions.”

I appreciate the cabinet secretary’s response but, given that 85 per cent of gear conflict takes place within 3 miles of land, will he advise on when he expects a conclusion to the work that is taking place?

I am aware of the importance of the work of members of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, as I am aware of the importance of the work that is carried out by all fishers across all sectors.

It is important to avoid any misrepresentation of the position. Gear conflict is not occurring during the majority of fishing trips and occasions; such instances are relatively isolated and not as widespread as Alison Johnstone’s question might suggest. We do not think that setting arbitrary limits is the way to proceed.

Spatial management and other methods of management are very helpful and appropriate. The regional inshore fisheries groups have been very successful, in particular the north-east group, which has engaged with industry representatives to explore solutions that will improve sector harmony. In addition, the programme to equip the scallop dredge sector with remote electronic monitoring systems will provide one of the most significant steps toward resolution of the differing interests between fisheries sectors. We are working hard across the board on a number of matters in that area, and we are happy to continue to work with all stakeholders and MSPs.

The cabinet secretary must, surely, realise that there is also gear conflict between European Union boats and Scottish boats—especially around Shetland—and that the only practical way to reduce that gear conflict is to come out of the EU and the common fisheries policy and take back control of our waters.

No. I do not agree. I noticed today in The Press and Journal that a leading member of the fishing community has said that that is precisely what would be against the interests of the Scottish fishing sector. Mr Chapman should go and read his newspaper, where he will see that fishermen are turning away from Brexit and from the glib and overexaggerated promises that have bored us for far too long.

Moreover, our fishermen are concerned about equivalence: measures that are imposed on them must also be applied to all other fishing vessels from across all nations. That is a factual matter, but we do not hear very much about factual matters from the Scottish Conservatives. [Interruption.]

I understand that use of GPS for fishing vessels for conflict resolution, compliance and research is already committed to by the Scottish Government. However, does the Scottish Government intend to create a clear definition of “fishing vessel”, which could include exemptions for very small vessels, such as rowing boats that carry a few creels? That would be helpful to Scottish Labour in making its decision about support for all vessels.

I am sorry, but the Conservatives’ audible displeasure at my previous answer has meant that I did not hear the first part of Ms Beamish’s question. I am, therefore, not exactly sure what exemption she seeks, but I assure her that I will be very happy to read her question and give her a full answer in writing. I will extend that courtesy and consider her question sympathetically.

Fisheries Negotiations

To ask the Scottish Government whether the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy’s offer to lead the end-year fisheries negotiations in Brussels has been accepted by the United Kingdom Government. (S5O-03862)

I wrote to the secretary of state on 22 November to extend my offer for Scotland to lead the upcoming fisheries negotiations with me as lead minister, working on behalf of the whole of the UK. I am still waiting for a response. However, I hope that my suggested approach is considered as it was intended—as my striving to take a constructive approach that will give welcome certainty and clarity, in these uncertain times, for the UK Government. I believe that accepting my offer would reap the greatest benefits possible for the whole of the UK.

It is disappointing that the cabinet secretary has not received a reply. It seems to me and, I am sure, to every fair-minded person in Parliament, that by allowing Scotland to lead the negotiations on behalf of the UK, full preparations could be made away from the post-election turmoil in London. The UK Government has already made it clear that access to Scottish waters will be on the table in future trade talks with the European Union before the crucial annual EU negotiations take place. We know that the UK will have to abide by common fisheries policy rules during the transition period. If Scotland has to leave the EU with the UK on 31 January, how quickly, does the cabinet secretary think, will the great betrayal of Scottish fishing begin?

I think that we all share and harbour concerns that the UK Government’s promises over the past three years have been glib, boastful and lacking in substance. I say that not least because the withdrawal agreement and the associated documents contain no agreement whatsoever on fishing. It was too difficult for the UK Government to do that; it would not have got the deal that it had boasted it could get. That was too hard, so the documents that are on the table, which are being presented as a panacea for all the ills of Scottish fishing, are simply an agreement to kick the can down the road—an agreement to seek agreement later. The agreement is not worth the paper that it is written on. There is no contract, no certainty, no clarity, no future and no hope. I suspect that the betrayal will begin shortly after voting has finished.

Community Asset Transfer Scheme (Application Refusals)

To ask the Scottish Government how many applications from rural areas to the community asset transfer scheme have been refused following an appeal in the last three years. (S5O-03863)

Since Forestry and Land Scotland opened the community asset transfer scheme in January 2017, 15 requests in total have been received, all of them from rural areas. Of those requests, 11 have been approved, three are awaiting a decision and one has been refused. By 31 March this year, a total of 73 asset transfer requests had been approved by relevant authorities across Scotland.

Recently, a community asset transfer application that was submitted by the Ettrick and Yarrow Community Development Company, for transfer of Gamescleuch forest and the Ettrick marshes, was refused on appeal, despite the fact that an independent panel report that had been commissioned by Scottish ministers following the appeal recommended that the transfer take place. That must be the one refusal to which the cabinet secretary referred in his first answer.

What justification is required for the cabinet secretary to choose not to act on the recommendations of an independent panel, following a community asset transfer appeal?

I start by gently correcting Michelle Ballantyne. That decision was taken by my colleague, Aileen Campbell; it fell within her portfolio and was not my decision to make. However, I will, being generous in answering a question that should really be directed to another cabinet secretary, respond to the question.

The independent panel brought to the issue a wide-ranging understanding of land ownership and the responsibility that it entails. Scottish ministers took its recommendations into account alongside other available information, and although the request was refused, ministers acknowledged the development company’s aspiration to improve the community. That is why ministers have asked Professor Russel Griggs OBE, who is the chair of the south of Scotland economic partnership, to work with the community and with Forestry and Land Scotland to help to identify alternative options, with support from the community ownership support service.

Farming (Support for Environmental Sustainability)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that farmers are supported to operate in an environmentally sustainable way. (S5O-03864)

Environmental sustainability is a key concern for the Scottish Government, and we continue to support our farmers and crofters through direct payments and the Scottish rural development programme.

We have taken an ambitious approach through actions and schemes such as greening, agri-environment and climate initiatives and the Farm Advisory Service. In addition, we have supported and continue to support initiatives including our flagship Farming for a Better Climate initiative and industry-led programmes, such as the Quality Meat Scotland and Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board monitor farm network, in order to support and promote environmental sustainability.

Does the minister agree that the current broad-brush condemnation of red-meat production does not recognise the vast difference between Scotland’s predominantly grass-fed red-meat production system and the intensive feed systems that are used in much of the Americas and Asia, and that we should be supporting our farmers in their continued drive for more sustainable and environmentally friendly food production?

Absolutely. I could not agree more. I believe that Brian Whittle is referring to a programme that aired last week in which there was little, if any, mention—just some throwaway references—of how we farm in the UK. It did no justice whatever to our food production methods, and it did not draw clear enough parallels to highlight how the systems are so intrinsically different.

How we farm in Scotland is completely different to systems in other parts of the world, and we have among the highest animal health and welfare standards. We need to shout about that and spread the message that what we do here, and what we produce, is the best anywhere in the world.

Does the minister share my concern that if the Tories win the UK election and we are forced to Brexit, our current high environmental standards, which protect plant and tree health and animal welfare, will be driven down and abandoned in a race to the bottom in order to win dodgy trade deals?

I share that concern, especially in the light of my previous answer, in which I talked about our having some of the best animal health and welfare standards in the world. We are absolutely committed to maintaining those standards, which is why the Scottish Government is adamant that future trade deals cannot undercut the high agricultural and environmental standards that we proudly uphold in Scotland.

Sustainability and inclusion have to lie at the core of our future trade policy, so we must take a robust approach to monitoring those considerations at all stages of the negotiation and implementation processes.