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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 March 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, European Union Settlement Scheme, Portfolio Question Time, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2019 [Draft], International Women’s Day 2019, Committee Announcement, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Crofters’ Incomes (Impact of Wildlife)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to a recent news release by the Scottish Crofting Federation stating that many crofters believe that their incomes have been significantly affected by wildlife. (S5O-02955)

I recognise that some wildlife species can have an economic impact on crofters. The Scottish Government works collaboratively with Scottish Natural Heritage and a range of stakeholders to manage and reduce adverse impacts of wildlife on farming and crofting in Scotland. A range of strategies and control measures is in place to help support crofters, for example the sea eagle management scheme.

What steps will the Scottish Government take to ensure that a balance can be reached, so that wildlife does not have a detrimental impact on crofting incomes?

The member raises a fair point. There needs to be a balance. I just came from a meeting with Malcolm and Chris Cameron from the monitor farm in Lochaber, who mentioned that sea eagles are causing the loss of their stock of lambs. I am aware that it is a very serious issue and there is a sea eagle management scheme in place. Finding a balance is the right measure and I am glad that the member has approached the matter in that way. We need to constantly ensure that the measures are sufficient to allow farmers to manage their stock and protect it against what is a source of not just financial loss but personal loss and misery for farmers who care deeply about their livestock.

Sheep Farming (Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the potential impact on sheep farming of Brexit. (S5O-02956)

A no-deal Brexit is by far the biggest threat to farming and to our successful food and drink sector. A wealth of Government and independent research concludes that the sheep sector will be worse off in every possible alternative trade arrangement.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the United Kingdom Government promised, and has failed, to publish its tariff rate quotas. What impact will that failure have on our trade with the European Union of key food products such as Scotch lamb?

It is disgraceful and quite extraordinary that we are so close to 29 March yet still do not know what the tariffs will be. As I understand it, they were supposed to have been published for the past three weeks, but publication has been delayed by the UK Government. It is a very serious point. The sector of farming—and, arguably, of the whole economy—that is most at risk is sheep farming. That is because the EU is a vital export market and, if there is no deal by 29 March, as things stand, we will not even have the legal right to export at all. Even if that right is secured, the tariffs will be above 40 per cent. If the pound depreciates as experts on the economy believe, the combination of the depreciation of the pound and the imposition of a tax of 40 per cent will see a massive loss of market in Europe and a loss of income to primary producers. The saddest thing of all is that Michael Gove understands and agrees with all that, but the UK Government will still not remove a no-deal Brexit from the table. It is not too late to do that and I repeat the First Minister’s call urging the UK Government to do so, not least for the sake of our hill farmers in Scotland.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the UK Government confirmed this week that, because of the uncertainty of Brexit, it is unlikely to introduce a change to sheep ageing for the purposes of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies control. Under the proposed new system, sheep producers would have received far greater certainty on the price that they receive from the abattoir for sheep. Will he take the matter up with his good friend Michael Gove, to see whether the UK Government could instead go back to the previous arrangement that the UK Government assured us that it would achieve?

I am glad that Mr Scott has raised this important matter. We have been working with the UK Government to remove the teething test. I am not a farmer myself so I have had to learn about this test, but every single lamb needs to have their mouth opened to check whether their adult teeth have come through as a proxy to tell how old they are. If a farmer has 500 sheep scattered all over mountains and hills, that is not the easiest thing to do.

My colleague Mairi Gougeon has been working with the UK Government on this and we were confident that a scheme would be agreed to remove the need for the test in a way that was perfectly practical and consistent with animal welfare standards. However, in the past few days, without consulting us, the UK Government has said that it will not go ahead with such a scheme. I find that extraordinary and I very much hope that the UK Government will reconsider its approach. In the meantime, we are having discussions with the National Sheep Association and others. I am keen to keep Mr Scott and others advised on how those discussions proceed. There may be difficulties in pursuing a Scotland-alone project in this case; it would be far preferable if there were a UK solution for the matter.

Wholesale Food Sector (No-deal Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what preparations it is making for business continuity with wholesale food providers in the event of a no-deal Brexit. (S5O-02957)

As it will for all parts of the food and drink supply chain in Scotland, a no-deal Brexit is likely to have serious consequences for the wholesale sector. As it happens, I had a meeting just this morning with the Scottish Wholesale Association, as the member may know. In an interesting discussion the association told me specifically about the disadvantages that are already being experienced because of the possibility of no deal.

Bidfood is a large wholesale provider that is based in Newbridge, in my constituency. These are anxious times for that company. Can the Scottish Government reassure Bidfood that it will get information as soon as it becomes available for contingency planning and that the Scottish Government will do what it can to ensure continuity in the supply chain so that Bidfood can continue trading in the way that it does now?

I am happy to provide that assurance, which I provided to Bidfood’s representative at the meeting this morning.

The wholesale sector says that storage costs are already rising and there is hardly any, if any, chilled storage capacity. There are already price impacts and some instances of stockpiling by major players. I agreed that we would of course keep the wholesale sector, which is an important sector of our economy in the member’s constituency among others, fully advised as far as we are able to. However, we can advise the sector of information only once we have it. Sadly, there has been an information deficit from the United Kingdom Government of late.

The cabinet secretary will have seen reports that some overseas customers have already started buying produce from elsewhere. Does he share my concern about the impact that that could have on exporters and on livestock farmers in particular who, according to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, could face European Union tariffs of 70 per cent on beef and 45 per cent on lamb post-Brexit? What is the Scottish Government doing to help our exporters of food and livestock find alternative markets in that scenario?

We are in regular contact with exporters and their representatives; I have had weekly discussions with them. There is a Scottish Government resilience room—SGoRR—meeting this afternoon, which my colleague Mairi Gougeon will be at. My officials are in regular contact with companies and we provide export assistance in a number of ways, including an element of financial support.

However, there is only so much that we can do and the problems are so serious that—frankly—it may be impossible to mitigate them. The consequences of no deal, particularly for the red meat sector, would be extremely serious. That is why no deal must be removed from the table. It can be removed and not to do so is not just a run-of-the-mill Government mistake. There is no Government in the world that does not make mistakes, but this is negligence, recklessness and culpability, and it needs to be sorted now.

Any delay in transporting fresh food would have a disastrous effect, with whole consignments being lost. What contingencies are being put in place to protect wholesalers and producers who stand to lose those consignments?

Rhoda Grant is quite right. The export of, for example, shellfish from the Highlands and Islands, which is the area that we both represent, is subject to very tight timelines. The supply to markets in Italy and Spain, for example, has timelines that mean that, if there is a delay of longer than a few hours, the whole consignment becomes valueless.

Therefore, we have done a power of work to try to ensure that drivers have permits to drive in Europe—there is a real problem with that. Also, the aquaculture sector says that the number of export health certificates required would rise from 50,000 to 200,000, at an additional cost of £15 million, which is quite ridiculous. We have worked with local authorities to have a contingency plan for export health certificates, which are dealt with by environmental health officers, to deal with a four-fold increase in workload, and we have undertaken other measures to ensure that information is passed out to all processors, so far as we have it.

There is only so much that the Government can do to mitigate and anticipate without the hard information that we need from the UK Government about the impact of whatever it finally decides to do. It is impossible to fully prevent the enormous damage that will be caused, not least to our inshore fishermen and all those who rely on them.

Red Meat Industry

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of the red meat industry and what was discussed. (S5O-02958)

I regularly meet representatives from the red meat sector. Last week, I met the National Sheep Association Scotland and Scotbeef, and in the week beginning 18 February, there was a debate between me and Michael Gove, which NFU Scotland, the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, the National Sheep Association and Quality Meat Scotland all attended. On 19 February, I chaired a food resilience group meeting, at which I held discussions with the industry. Prior to that, I spoke at the NFUS annual general meeting, and last Saturday night, I had the pleasure of dinner at the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association. At lunch time today, I met several farmers in the meat sector from Lochaber.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed answer. Some producers have adopted alternative treatments to nitrites to process meats, in light of the 2015 World Health Organization report that concluded that nitrites can cause cancer. However, nitrites continue to be widely used, and a recent investigation by The Herald on Sunday found that three quarters of Scotland’s councils include nitrite meats on school menus. What is the Scottish Government doing to help the industry to remove nitrites from processed meats?

I understand that my colleagues Mr Swinney and perhaps Mr FitzPatrick are dealing with that primarily. It is not my portfolio area. I am advised that nitrites play an important role in food safety and in helping to reduce the growth of harmful micro-organisms. There are, however, strict maximum permitted limits that can be used by manufacturers in ham, bacon or gammon product recipes.

The European Food Safety Authority reviewed nitrites as food additives in April 2017 and concluded that there was no need to change statutory safe levels. Scottish red meat is a completely appropriate food to serve in school and does not have added nitrites. I know that those matters are under consideration by Mr Swinney, following an extensive consultation that took place last August. We are analysing the responses on those matters carefully. I am sure that Ms Lennon will contact Mr Swinney to get the up-to-date detail on that.

Impact of 20mph Speed Limit on Rural Economy

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural secretary has had with the transport secretary regarding the impact on the rural economy of the proposals in the Restricted Roads (20 mph speed limit) (Scotland) Bill. (S5O-02959)

To date, I have not had any formal discussions with the transport secretary regarding the impact of the bill. However, the member will be aware from the evidence that my colleague Michael Matheson, the cabinet secretary responsible, gave to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee yesterday that Transport Scotland officials are working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Chief Officers of Transport in Scotland to better understand the current barriers to implementation, including the traffic regulation order process, in order to assist and encourage more local authorities to introduce 20mph limits and ensure greater consistency across authorities.

Yesterday, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee heard evidence that the costs of the bill would impact disproportionately across rural Scotland and could lead to the expenditure of tens of millions of pounds of public money. In the interests of joined-up government, will the cabinet secretary express to his Cabinet colleagues those concerns about the disproportionate financial impact on the rural economy?

Yes, I am happy to relay Mr Rumbles’s comments. I will study the Official Report of the evidence that was given yesterday so that I fully understand it—as yet, I have not had an opportunity so to do. I am sure that Mr Matheson will want to give those matters very careful consideration indeed.

In that discussion between the two cabinet secretaries, will the rural secretary acknowledge that the financial modelling for the bill was developed with the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland and that it fully acknowledged the differing characteristics of rural roads? Will the cabinet secretary also acknowledge that dozens of rural community councils support the bill and that a significant number of councils, including Highland Council, Shetland Islands Council, Orkney Islands Council, Angus Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council, Stirling Council and many urban councils, back the bill because they believe that it will be a cheaper and more effective way to save lives?

I have not studied the modelling to which the member refers, but I am sure that Mr Matheson will give serious consideration to those matters. I listened carefully to what the First Minister said in response to the member’s colleague Alison Johnstone at First Minister’s question time today. It is appropriate that careful consideration is given to all of those matters, for which, as the member knows, I am not directly responsible.

The cabinet secretary may be aware of evidence yesterday from Police Scotland that enforcing 20mph zones is not necessarily a priority and that, in rural areas, the majority of accidents happen on country roads where drivers drive at high speeds. Does he therefore agree that any shift in focus from those accident hotspots would affect the overall efficacy of the bill and the policy?

I would need to think about that, so I will not give the member a direct answer, if he does not mind. However, I will say that I have always thought that it is very sensible to listen carefully to what police road traffic experts have to say about road safety. They have to deal with matters that none of us would wish to deal with, and particularly the horrific consequences of road traffic incidents where there is loss of life. As individuals and citizens, and as representatives of the people of Scotland, we need to do a whole raft of things to ensure that road safety is given the priority that it rightly deserves.

With regard to road haulage, can the cabinet secretary advise how many ECMT—European Conference of Ministers of Transport—permits road hauliers in Scotland have applied for and how many they have received back? What impact might that situation have on post-Brexit export and import of key foodstuffs, including in relation to wholesale providers and seafood and fish exporters such as those in north-east Scotland?

We are worried about that matter. We understand that businesses in Scotland have applied for 680 permits for individual lorries that, as I understand it, in most cases are currently used for export purposes. From those 680 applications, only 48 permits have been received, so 632 were unsuccessful. That is a stark illustration of the lunacy of not ruling out a no-deal Brexit. Without those permits, the drivers will not be able to drive to Europe with our shellfish, lamb and other exports. That is a ludicrous and preposterous situation, and I am grateful that the member has given me the opportunity to highlight it.

I am pleased that the minister knew the answer to that question.

Tree Planting Targets

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making in meeting its tree planting targets and creating 10,000 hectares of new trees in 2019. (S5O-02960)

We are making good progress.

Is it good, but undefined, progress? Perhaps I can drill down a little further. The Parliament agreed to the sale of national forest estate land, provided that the revenues that were received would be properly reinvested, so perhaps the cabinet secretary could be more specific in his answer to my supplementary question. Given that 50,000 hectares of land has been sold, how much land has been acquired—in numerical terms? Of the more than £100 million of revenue that has been raised through the sale of that land, how much has been spent on acquiring land and planting trees?

I gave a direct answer to the question that was asked. We are making good progress.

Mr Greene now raises an entirely different issue. As I understand it, I have already provided that information to the committee of which he is a member. I do not know whether the convener has passed on the letter, but it is there.

The apparent attack on Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland seems to be completely groundless. They are reputable, responsible bodies that do a great job and which will be fully devolved very shortly. They sell and purchase land for a variety of purposes, and they invest the money for the purposes for which they were established: to promote forestry in Scotland. If the member is suggesting that money is siphoned off for other irrelevant purposes, I am afraid that there is no evidence to back up that suggestion. I refer Mr Greene to the letter that has answered the matter in great detail.

How does land coverage by forestry compare in each country of the United Kingdom? How much of the UK’s new planting is done in Scotland?

From memory, I think that forestry cover accounts for 18 to 19 per cent of land in Scotland. The figure is significantly less down south so, proportionately, forestry is much more important in this country than it is in the rest of the UK. I am very pleased that we are making good progress in the forestry sector, which is playing a big part in helping to provide employment in rural communities. A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to meet a series of young apprentices who are being taken on by the public sector in forestry at Balloch. I think that the industry will be taking on many more young people, which is good and a sign of its success.