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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 6, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 06 February 2020

Agenda: Point of Order, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Cancer Day 2020, Education, Portfolio Question Time, Budget 2020-21, Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 1, Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Economy

The next item of business is portfolio questions on the rural economy. Members should note that question 4 has been withdrawn and that therefore only questions 6 and 8 are grouped.

Agriculture and Climate Change Strategic Group (Meetings)

1. Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when the agriculture and climate change strategic group will next meet. (S5O-04103)

The group’s most recent meeting was on Monday this week, and I attended it for the first half.

The minister will know that media reports suggest that agriculture in Scotland is responsible for 23.9 per cent of all emissions. Despite that, the NFU Scotland reports that

“The greenhouse gas footprint of beef produced in the UK is 60 per cent LOWER than the average for the rest of the world”.

What more can the Scottish Government do to ensure that the Scottish public feel that they are supporting local beef producers and are not contributing to climate change problems?

That is exactly what we want to do, and what we are doing. I want to give the clear message that the Scottish Government sees farmers not as the problem, but as very much a part of the solution. It has not helped that, in recent times, we have seen downright misrepresentation in various television programmes that have conflated systems around the world with farming systems here, when they are absolutely nothing like them.

There is a lot of work to be done. We need to acknowledge better the good work that farmers are doing, and to consider how we can better advertise that and get the word out about what is happening.

To that end, we are working on various schemes. One is the carbon positive initiative, which I believe was referred to in The Press and Journal this week. That work, which is being led by the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, with financial support from the Scottish Government, aims to gather data on soils, woodland, livestock and renewable energy in order to provide a complete picture of what farms and crofts are doing to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, that will be a national online programme for the farming industry that will give farmers all the information that they need about their contribution to, and mitigation of, climate change.

The SAOS is also working with the James Hutton Institute and Scottish Forestry to gather data for the sector on carbon sequestration, and with the ANM Group, which is a north-east farming co-operative that is involved in the livestock part of the programme through its farm profit programme.

Using the information from all that work, we need to get the message out, and enable farmers to get the message out, about the positive contribution that they are making.

Good Food Nation Bill

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when it will publish its good food nation bill. (S5O-04104)

Work is under way on drafting the bill, and we plan to publish it as part of the legislative programme that is set out in the programme for government for this parliamentary year.

We know that food bank use has soared in the past decade and that the Government cannot rely on donations and people’s good will to feed the poorest people. What does the cabinet secretary envisage the bill will do to tackle food poverty? Will it include a statutory right to food?

Mary Fee raises an important point about the sad consequences of the policies of austerity that have been pursued by the London Government for far too long. It is important to say that the Scottish Government has done a huge amount to ameliorate the poverty that has, sadly, resulted from the period of austerity. For example, in 2018-19 we invested more than £1.4 billion in targeted support for low-income households, including more than £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of United Kingdom Government welfare cuts, and we have increased our fair food fund to £3.5 million this year, in order to provide continued support.

Our consultation did not recommend inclusion of a right to food, but proposed that Scottish ministers should have regard to international obligations that are wider than just the right to food, when developing statements of policy on food. We look forward to publication of the bill in due course.

Can we keep supplementary questions short please?

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

How is the cabinet secretary supporting local authorities’ environmental health departments at a time when numbers of plant-based and vegan food and drink outlets and producers are increasing?

We do a wide range of work with local authorities—for example, we have the food for life programme, through which we work with local authorities, encouraging them to provide fresh and local food and locally procured food. Many local authorities are doing a terrific job. I visited Crown primary school in my constituency, which provides a wide variety of nutritious meals—obviously including fruit and vegetables—to its pupils, and also uses a local butcher that supplies a large number of schools. That is the sort of work that stands Scotland’s children in good stead.

Scotch Beef (DNA Traceability)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to provide full DNA traceability to the Scotch beef brand. (S5O-04105)

The Scottish Government knowledge transfer and innovation fund recently awarded Quality Meat Scotland almost £100,000 in grant funding for a project looking at Scotch beef protected geographical indication traceability.

It is clear that there would be benefit to our world-class beef industry from a DNA traceability system, which would take the existing quality assurance and brands’ integrity measures that are currently in place to a new level.

However, does the cabinet secretary share my concern that following the second reading of the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill on Monday 3 February, the Tories have shown their true colours, with the bill being set to grab devolved powers on farming and food production, and with a negotiating approach that would see a trade deal with Donald Trump undermining world-renowned Scottish produce, including our world-class Scotch beef and lamb?

Angus MacDonald has raised a matter that is of concern not only to farmers on this side of the border, but to farmers throughout the United Kingdom. I read of a demonstration that is planned by farmers who are taking their case to Westminster.

The Scottish Government will not support any proposed future UK trade deals that would not only undermine our high-quality regulatory standards, but would lead to consumers unwittingly purchasing products that are produced to a lower welfare standard. I made that position clear to UK ministers, and Roseanna Cunningham and I will make it clear again at the next interministerial meeting on 17 February.

It really is sad that the UK Government has provided no clarity at all on the topic. I understand that the UK Minister of State for International Trade, Mr Conor Burns, indicated in an exchange with our Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, Ivan McKee, that he expects there to be reciprocal trade with the United States in agricultural produce. It also seems to be pretty clear that the President of the United States will be determined to get his agricultural produce into the UK market.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

GrASTech Project

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to support the GrASTech project, which aims to develop existing livestock farming technology to monitor and reduce methane production. (S5O-04107)

GrASTech is a cross-Europe collaborative project to tackle the issue of methane emissions from livestock, which is a topic of significant interest for both the Scottish Government and Scottish agriculture. The Scottish Government currently invests £7.2 million annually in longer-term agricultural and rural research at Scotland’s Rural College. That investment underpins the SRUC’s success in securing the £250,000 grant provided by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for GrASTech. Scottish Government officials will work with DEFRA to ensure that the results of the project are used to help inform our future policy in that area.

I declare an interest as a partner in a farming business. The GrASTech project aims to develop an accurate way of measuring the methane produced by livestock reared outside on grass. Ninety per cent of Scotland’s cattle are outdoors for a significant amount of the year and it is hoped that the project will identify sensible and practical measures that the farming industry can use to continue its already substantial efforts in the fight against climate change. I hope that the project will also produce hard facts and dispel some of the myths that have been circulating regarding the farming sector’s effect on the environment.

What measures is the Scottish Government taking to further support farmers in their fight against climate change and what does it intend to do to challenge some of the dishonesty circulating regarding the industry’s effect on the environment?

We are doing a number of things there anent. First, I welcome the range of on-going activity, including Quality Meat Scotland’s better grazing project, which works with livestock farmers across Scotland. I have mentioned our substantial support for the SRUC. I have had the opportunity to discuss with farmers the work of the monitor farm on improving the quality of grass. I have also seen improved agronomy techniques in minimising the use of fertiliser.

We will soon be bringing forward more details on plans to further encourage sustainable and low-carbon farming. I am very pleased that it is a topic on which members across the chamber share an approach to ensure not only that our farmers are producing some of the highest-quality meat in the world, but that they are doing so in a way that is sustainable and friendly to the planet. I am pleased that that meets with approval from members across the Parliament.

A short supplementary question, please.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that many farmers and crofters are already shifting to a grass-fed approach for their livestock, as it is more sustainable and efficient. How is the Scottish Government further supporting that activity?

Emma Harper is right to say that our livestock farmers play a key role in protecting our permanent grassland and the historic carbon sinks beneath it. We want all farmers and crofters to make the best use of their grasslands, produce high-quality food, improve sustainability and help to achieve our long-term environmental and climate targets.

There is a lot more that I could say, Presiding Officer, but as you know, I always try to be brief.

Food and Drink Sector (Impact of Proposed Immigration Controls)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the United Kingdom Government’s proposed immigration controls could have on Scotland’s food and drink sector. (S5O-04108)

The Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development (Ben Macpherson)

Current UK immigration policy does not recognise the needs of Scotland’s key industries. James Withers, chief executive officer of Scotland Food & Drink, has stressed that the food and drink sector employs 40,000 European Union nationals, with a further 46,000 roles needing to be filled by 2030.

The UK Government’s proposals will restrict labour market access and could leave many of those roles in one of Scotland’s critical industries unfilled. Our proposals for a Scottish visa would allow Scottish ministers, accountable to the Scottish Parliament, to develop a tailored policy within the UK immigration system to meet Scotland’s distinct needs.

The minister will be aware that many EU citizens living and working in Scotland are employed in the food and drink sector, including at Burton’s Biscuits in my constituency. Does he agree that instead of putting up restrictive barriers to our valued EU citizens staying in Scotland, the UK Government should drop the settled status scheme and introduce a system based on a declaration of proof of status?

The Scottish Government has consistently sought to be constructive and solution focused in respect of the clear deficiencies within the UK Government’s approach to the rights of EU citizens. We have long argued that, in place of the EU settlement scheme, the UK should adopt a declaratory system with the option of physical proof for those who desire it. That would avoid the need for people to make applications and would remove the threat of refusal, except in the most extreme circumstances.

As things stand in the current scenario, we are supporting EU citizens around Scotland to stay in Scotland, because that is what we want. We have provided significant resource, including to Citizens Advice Scotland, to support them in that. I am grateful to all those who are helping to support EU citizens to stay in Scotland, and I encourage more employers and MSPs to get behind that effort.

Proposed Scottish Visa (Impact on Rural Economy)

To ask the Scottish Government how its proposed Scottish visa could impact on the rural economy. (S5O-04110)

The Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development (Ben Macpherson)

The current migration system is not working for our rural communities. The Scottish visa and rural migration pilot schemes, in line with the recommendation from the Migration Advisory Committee, could have a significant positive impact on the growth and sustainability of our rural economy. Those measures would allow Scotland to attract and, crucially, retain people with the skills and attributes that we need for our communities to flourish.

The UK Government should engage positively and work with us to develop the pilots and to trial them in Scotland to encourage people to move to, and stay in, our rural communities.

Does Ben Macpherson share my concerns about reports from a recruitment agency based in my constituency that specialises in sourcing staff from Europe for the rural hospitality sector, for which there is limited local seasonal labour, that in a recent recruitment drive only three people applied for positions, instead of the usual 40-plus applicants? Does he agree with the United Kingdom Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation that the UK should pilot tailored approaches for rural areas, and will he make a request for Scotland to host such pilots to address labour shortages in sectors such as the rural hospitality industry?

I very much share Keith Brown’s concerns. The example that he cites shows that the fact that we have now left the European Union makes us less attractive to migrant workers. We are competing with EU countries that want to attract the same individuals to work in their economies.

As Keith Brown said, and as I mentioned in my previous answer, pilots should be hosted here in Scotland. We have consistently said that to UK ministers and the Home Office since the previous Home Secretary mentioned the pilots on 23 January 2019. We will continue to engage with the UK Government and to press ministers to undertake the pilots, which will be to the benefit of the whole of Scotland.

Environmental Sustainability (Farming)

7. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support environmentally sustainable farming practices. (S5O-04109)

The support that is provided to farmers, crofters and land managers clearly contributes to environmentally sustainable farming practices. Those receiving funding as direct payments must adhere to agricultural practices that are beneficial to the climate and the environment.

Our agri-environment climate scheme has successfully funded a range of activities that help to maintain and enhance our rich and varied natural environment, with almost 1 million hectares of land under environmental management.

Our new agricultural transformation programme will encompass the now statutory commitments on whole-farm emissions accounting, sustainability, innovation and an agricultural modernisation fund, in line with the climate emergency.

I thank the minister for that very full answer. The minister will be aware that Boris Johnson has made it clear several times that he intends to allow genetically modified crops to be grown in England. What consultation has there been with the Scottish Government on that? Will the minister provide reassurance to concerned citizens about the Scottish Government’s position on GM crop cultivation?

I can simply say that the United Kingdom Government has not consulted the Scottish Government on the matter. However, it is a devolved matter and I can categorically say that our position on GM has not changed. We have brought in domestic legislation that aligns with European Union law and allows us to maintain our opt-out of GM crop cultivation. We urge the UK Government to continue to align with EU standards on GM in the future.

A new agricultural support system will be key to supporting environmentally sustainable farming and it is important that the transition period is used to prepare for that. When will the Government bring forward details on how the pilot schemes to develop the new system will be funded? Is it still the intention to cap direct payments to fund those pilots?

A short and quick answer from Mairi Gougeon, please.

I am happy to get back to the member with more detail on that, but a pilot is under way with Scottish Natural Heritage. I will get back to the member with further detail on how we plan to take that forward.