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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 November 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Nuclear Test Veterans, Portfolio Question Time, Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

European Union Regulations (Standards and Protections)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the level playing field provision.

Mr Torrance, that is not the question that I have in front of me, which is about the impact on Scotland’s rural economy of the UK Government moving away from European Union standards and protections.

I apologise, Presiding Officer. Someone has printed off the wrong question for me.

All right.

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact could be on Scotland’s rural economy of the United Kingdom Government moving away from the standards and protections that are offered by EU regulations. (S5O-03719)

The UK Government’s decision will have a detrimental effect on all aspects of Scottish rural life and will remove the standards and protections that Scotland is currently afforded. It puts Scotland at a competitive disadvantage in terms of exporting our produce to European markets, and our organic produce will lose its recognition status on the European Union market. Scottish produce could also lose the geographical indication protections that we currently enjoy.

Those are just some of the reasons why the Scottish Government entirely opposes the UK Government’s position.

Boris Johnson wrote to Donald Tusk last month to say that the UK Government wants to move away from the standards and protections that are offered by EU regulations. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that represents a threat to the future of the common frameworks project, given the implications for significant areas of devolved competence, such as environmental protection, regulations on genetically modified crops, marine policy and energy?

Yes. The agreement in October 2017 to the joint intergovernmental programme of work on common frameworks was reached when all four Administrations agreed that level playing field commitments should be maintained, should the UK leave the EU.

A move away from that shared assumption of continued regulatory alignment would have implications for the development of common frameworks, because it would widen the scope for policy divergence between the Administrations in the different parts of the UK to a much greater degree than was anticipated when work on the project began. That could be damaging to Scotland’s interests, not least in maintaining high standards in animal welfare and plant health.

I declare an interest: I am a farmer.

The UK has led the way on standards, as far as animal welfare and environmental issues are concerned, for a long number of years and there is no reason to believe that that will change, post-Brexit. Our standards could rise, post-Brexit. Does the minister recognise that?

Perhaps they will in Scotland, but I have serious concerns about that elsewhere. When we compare the previous protocol with what we have now, we see that the previous protocol set out specific environmental and climate change commitments, including non-regression in the level of environmental protection, respect for environmental principles, commitments to joint setting of minimum air quality standards and other such measures. Those commitments are not included in the revised protocol.

That is seriously concerning to the Scottish Government, as I said in answer to David Torrance.

Agriculture Support (Convergence Money)

Presiding Officer, do I have to declare an interest again?

Members: Yes!

Well, I will. I am a partner in a farming business.

To ask the Scottish Government how it proposes to spend the £160 million in convergence money to support agriculture. (S5O-03720)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy announced last week that £80 million will be paid by the end of March 2020 to Scotland’s active farmers and crofters. The anticipated remaining £80 million will be paid by the end of March 2021, once it has been delivered by the United Kingdom Government.

The cabinet secretary has since announced that the Scottish Government will provide an extra £10 million in 2019-20 to people who are farming and crofting Scotland’s most challenging land. That money is additional to the £80 million that is being provided in this financial year and will be drawn down early from the second £80 million tranche of convergence money.

We have established that £13 million of hard-won convergence money has been used to replace less favoured area support scheme funds that were taken from the budget and spent on other things by Derek Mackay. We also know that £10 million of extra funding to crofting communities has been borrowed from the second tranche of £80 million that is due next year. I am very concerned that the further £40 million will be used to fill next year’s LFASS shortfall. Can the minister confirm that that is not the intention?

First, I want to say that when I saw this question from Peter Chapman, I thought that it was particularly brave of him to raise convergence in the chamber, especially given that it was the Conservative Party that withheld that funding from the people to whom it was due in the first place—Scottish farmers and crofters—and distributed it everywhere else bar Scotland. That was a historic injustice that the Prime Minister admitted to. He said that it is an injustice and that he will try to right it, but his own party in Scotland has never once admitted that.

It is only because of the Scottish Government, and those ministers who have been in the rural economy portfolio since the time that the money was first withheld, that we got the £160 million back, and it is only because of the Scottish Government and the pressure that we put on the UK Government that we have been able to get the first tranche of that £80 million in funding now.

I am not surprised that we will be criticised by the Tories no matter what we do. If we had not pressured for that funding and we were taking too long—guess what?—we would have been too slow. Then we are criticised because we are acting too fast. I recognise that there are strong views on either side about this funding; that is why we are trying to make the process as straightforward, open and transparent as possible.

I must address some of the comments that Peter Chapman made last week, after the statement in which the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy updated the chamber on the convergence moneys. To state that that money has either been stolen or spent elsewhere shows that the Tories are either completely ignorant of how the system works, or that they are deliberately trying to mislead people. I do not know which is worse.

A long time ago, when it was proposed that we could move from the LFASS system to areas of natural constraints, the consensus among stakeholders was that the preference was to stay with LFASS, even though we knew that those reductions would take place. That is why we are attempting to use the money where it is needed most—in helping and supporting the farmers and crofters.

I welcome the fact that the cabinet secretary met the Scottish Crofting Federation this week and that the agreement that has been reached to move things on has been cautiously welcomed by the federation and others. What else is the Scottish Government doing to support crofting and crofters?

The Government has a strong track record of investing in and supporting crofting in Scotland. In the last financial year alone, we have approved and provided croft businesses with over £46 million in common agricultural policy and other payments. Since 2007, we have approved over £20.3 million in croft house grants for croft housing and helped to build and improve over 970 homes for crofters and their families. We have also provided subsidised rates for crofters to hire health status bulls, subsidised veterinary support, and discounted fees for consultancy services through the farm advisory service for over 2,000 crofters who subscribe to it

The Government values crofting and the contribution that it makes, particularly to keeping people on the land in island and remote and rural areas, and we will continue to support and invest in it.

As the minister said, the cabinet secretary announced that £10 million of the second round of funding will be brought forward to this year, leaving £70 million to be allocated. Does the Government still intend to continue to use this funding to plug the growing shortfall in LFASS and, if so, how much of the £70 million will be used to plug that gap and what will be left?

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy will bring forward plans at that time as to how that further tranche of funding will be spent.

Agrifood and Nutrition Hub for Innovation (Aberdeen)

I declare an interest as an Aberdeen city councillor.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the proposed agrifood and nutrition hub for innovation for Aberdeen. (S5O-03721)

The project will build on the strengths of the food and drink sector in the region, providing essential development space that will support the creation of start-ups and accelerate the growth of small businesses. The business case received approval in January 2019 and construction is due to start in 2020.

I welcome progress towards the implementation of the project. My region accounts for 17 per cent of the food and drink sector’s gross value added and 18 per cent of its employment. Excluding whisky, the region contributes around 20 per cent of Scotland’s output, approaching 25 per cent of Scotland’s primary agricultural output, and 50 per cent of its fish landings. In contrast to the innovation hub, the Scottish Government has announced the good food nation bill four times since 2016 and we are still waiting for its introduction. The innovation hub will be a huge step forward for the north-east and for Scotland as a whole, so will the minister commit that it will be delivered on time?

On Tom Mason’s point about the good food nation bill, I would not want to take too much away from my response to the question that James Kelly will ask later on.

As far as I am aware, the project should be running to plan—I have not heard anything different. If that changes, I am sure that the member will be made aware.

Brexit (Scottish Seed Potato Exports)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure the continuation of Scottish seed potato exports in the event of a no-deal Brexit. (S5O-03722)

The Scottish Government has met regularly with Scottish seed potato representatives to understand the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit. Most recently, I raised those concerns directly with United Kingdom Government ministers at a meeting that was held with the devolved Administrations in Edinburgh on 10 October.

The Scottish Government has also written to the UK Government seeking assurances that Scottish seed potato exports to third countries would not be impacted by a no-deal Brexit.

This is yet another sector of the industry in which there is unacceptable uncertainty. Egypt and the Canary Islands are two of Scotland’s major export markets for our seed potatoes, and there is a strong case for the rolling over of existing export agreements with them. Will the minister continue to impress on the next UK Government the need to protect the export market for the 60,000 tonnes of seed potatoes that are exported from Scotland under current trading arrangements?

I can give Angus MacDonald an absolute assurance on that. Our seed potatoes are prized around the world because of their high health status, and we simply cannot afford to have that business put at risk by Brexit. The issue disproportionately affects us in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK. I have been in regular contact with the British Potato Trade Association to hear its concerns and, in turn, to impress those concerns on the UK Government.

It will not surprise anyone in the chamber to hear that people in Scotland did not vote for Brexit. Despite that, this is another example of a very successful sector in the Scottish rural economy that might have to pay a high price because of Brexit.

On a number of occasions, I have raised with the UK Government the issues of tariffs and future trading arrangements with the likes of Egypt and the Canary Islands—I wrote most recently about those issues on 2 October. We still have absolutely no clarity about what future trading arrangements will be and whether the sector will be affected. We will continue to work with the sector and to press the UK Government to get a positive outcome for our seed potato producers.

Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the latest applicants to the knowledge transfer and innovation fund. (S5O-03723)

The knowledge transfer and innovation fund assessment committee approved six applications on 6 September this year and my officials are currently finalising contract arrangements with the beneficiaries. Once concluded, that will bring the total number of approved projects to 33, with a total commitment of just under £5.8 million in the Scottish rural development programme 2014 to 2020 programme period.

We are scheduled to assess another round of applications in February 2020. Those innovative projects will focus on restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems that are dependent on agriculture and forestry.

I thank the minister for her very helpful answer. Will she confirm whether she is referring to operational groups? That is the question that I am getting from some farmers. Will the minister also tell us exactly how many people have been enrolled in the scheme?

I would have to check and get back to Liz Smith with that information. The fund is very important because it is vitally important that we see innovation in rural communities, where I have personally visited some of the projects. I will get the information on her specific points to Liz Smith.

Good Food Nation Bill

To ask the Scottish Government when it will publish the good food nation bill. (S5O-03724)

Work is under way to draft 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.

Prompt action would be welcomed by all parties. Will job insecurity and low wages in the food industry be considered in the bill, in order to ensure that workers in that industry are better paid and better protected?

The wider work that we are doing on our way to becoming a good food nation encompasses many different areas. Of course we want more people working in our food and drink industry. We need to employ more people, and addressing the working conditions for people in the sector is a vital part of that work. I cannot say for certain whether such provisions will be included in the bill, but those issues will be looked at as part of the overall package of work that we will do as we progress towards becoming a good food nation.

Clearly, introducing a bill is important for Scotland’s ambition to become a good food nation, but achieving that ambition will require more than legislation. Will the minister outline what else is being done to support the ambition?

As we confirmed in the report, “Good Food Nation: Programme of Measures”, which was published last year, much is already happening across Government to make Scotland a good food nation. In the programme for government, we committed to publish a progress report on that work, and that report will be published shortly.

As an example of the work that is being done, through a further round of the highly successful regional food fund, a further £100,000 has been made available this week to new collaborative businesses and projects to promote Scotland’s world-leading food and drink sector. The fund has already supported 57 innovative projects across Scotland to the tune of £259,000. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the Stranraer oyster festival, which the fund has supported for the second year running. I saw at first hand the benefits that such support brings. It was an absolutely fantastic festival, and I could tell that it does so much for the local community. The fund helps our local economies to grow, and it plays a major part in promoting the importance of locally produced food and drink and the environmental benefits of sourcing produce close to home.

Forestry and Land Scotland (Leasing of Holdings)

To ask the Scottish Government what income is generated, and how many jobs are supported, by the leasing of holdings from Forestry and Land Scotland. (S5O-03725)

This year, the forecasted gross income from leases from Scotland’s national forest and land is about £20 million. Of that, about £12 million is from leases of land to wind farm developers and operators. Just last week, a further two new wind farms have been announced by Scottish Power Renewables for developments on Scotland’s national forest and land in Argyll and Caithness.

Unfortunately, Forestry and Land Scotland does not hold jobs data for those who lease land on Scotland’s national forest and land. However, renewable energy projects create employment and local economic activity, as well as providing annual local community benefit payments in excess of £3 million.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Pitlochry—


Yes, I know where it is, Deputy First Minister. We visited Pitlochry because we had tickets for the enchanted forest show, which was excellent, well attended and very well organised. Will the minister join me in complimenting the people who run the enchanted forest, and Forestry and Land Scotland for its involvement in the project? Will she encourage Forestry and Land Scotland to look at the possibility of such a show taking place in other areas in Scotland?

At the risk of upsetting the Deputy First Minister, I must admit that I have not had the opportunity to attend the enchanted forest, but I will definitely make the effort to do so. I am happy to join Richard Lyle in commending the work that Forestry and Land Scotland does with communities across Scotland to encourage and enable events such as the enchanted forest. I also commend the work that is done by the community interest company to put the event together—it is an innovative and stunning use of forestry.

Forestry and Land Scotland actively supports such work, and it is open to proposals from groups and communities that are looking to develop and deliver such events.


To ask the Scottish Government how it promotes venison as a nutritional food. (S5O-03726)

Last year, I visited apprentices at Downfield farm, in Fife, to help the industry to launch the first-ever strategy for Scotland’s wild and farmed venison sector. The strategy includes action to build on the good work that is already being done in schools and communities to promote the nutritional benefits of venison as a low-fat and high-iron quality food. That work has included recent events that have been delivered in partnership with the Royal Highland Education Trust at the Gilston estate in Fife and at the Luss estate, with about 600 primary-aged children in attendance.

More broadly, we will continue working with stakeholders in the venison sector to take forward wider actions in the strategy to develop more consumer-driven communications campaigns to a wider audience.

Everyone in the chamber will be aware that we have issues with peri-urban deer, and lowland deer stalkers do a great deal of work in that regard to keep our roads and urban areas safe. However, I have often thought it a loss that in urban Scotland we do not promote venison as the healthy and nutritious food that it is. I have previously raised the issue of venison larders in urban settings. Will the minister let me know whether that is being actively discussed?

Through its beyond the glen strategy, the venison industry intends to invest in area-based facilities to maintain wild carcase quality and open new routes to local markets. That includes working with deer groups in the lowlands to implement a scheme around co-operatively owned and operated chillers and larders to meet that market’s needs. There are existing legal routes to market through licensed venison dealers for deer that are shot locally for onward sale, and discussions are under way with Scottish craft butchers to enhance the promotion of those channels next year.