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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 08 October 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, No-deal Preparations, National Islands Plan, Supporting Innovation, Decision Time, Institute of Occupational Medicine 50th Anniversary, Correction


Topical Question Time

State of Nature Report: Scotland 2019

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the report, “State of Nature Report: Scotland 2019”. (S5T-01828)

We take the decline in biodiversity seriously and we do not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead. We are already examining what we are doing to improve biodiversity, where we need to do more, and what we might need to do differently.

Our performance in delivering international biodiversity targets compares favourably with the global picture, but we understand that there is more to do. We are involved in developing a new international post-2020 biodiversity framework, including hosting an international biodiversity workshop next spring. Our new programme for government included a further £2 million for the biodiversity challenge fund.

I thank the minister for her answer and her acknowledgement of the challenges. The “State of Nature” report highlights that we are failing to get to grips with the biodiversity crisis, with 11 per cent of Scottish species being classified as threatened with extinction. As the minister said, the Scottish Government is not on track to meet the 2020 international biodiversity targets: 13 of the 20 targets are unlikely to be met.

Could the minister give more details of the arrangements that are in place for devising a new post-2020 biodiversity action plan to fully address the environment and nature emergency?

Although we are undertaking a power of work on the issue, we recognise, as Claudia Beamish highlights, that there is an awful lot more to do. We are making some progress on the Aichi targets—we are on track to achieve seven of them and are working to achieve more.

In the latest programme for government, we recognise the importance of biodiversity and the complexities and challenges that tackling its loss presents. We have demonstrated our continuing commitment to an ambitious programme of actions to protect and enhance Scotland’s biodiversity. We continue to deliver the biodiversity strategy and to work towards achieving the 2020 Aichi targets. We are working with communities on projects that will benefit ecosystems and waterways and open up Scotland’s natural environment to more people.

We talk about biodiversity on land, but biodiversity is also important in the marine environment. In that regard, we have consulted on the creation of four new marine protected areas. Early next year, we will designate the sites, which will contribute to the protection of biodiversity—in relation to species such as Risso’s dolphins and minke whales—and geodiversity, and to Scotland’s marine geomorphology. Later in the autumn, we will consult on a United Kingdom-wide dolphin and porpoise conservation strategy. We are taking forward work on the seabird conservation strategy, and we will consult on our proposals and adopt the final strategy next year. We are also in the middle of consulting on a deep-sea marine reserve.

I hope that my answer outlines some of the actions that we are taking now, and those that we will take in the immediate future, to tackle the challenges that we face.

Quite rightly, the minister highlights issues relating to land, air and sea. The report shows that Scottish species have decreased by 49 per cent since we began recording Scottish data in this way, in 1994. As a species champion for the Forester moth, I am particularly concerned that moth numbers are down by 25 per cent. We need to protect and enhance vulnerable ecosystems and support moths and other species.

I ask the minister for more detail on how she will ensure that the Scottish Government’s agencies and other organisations will be adequately resourced. Specifically, will she give more detail on how the new biodiversity plans will be taken forward post-2020?

I am happy to meet Claudia Beamish or any other member who is concerned about the issue and wants to discuss the action that we are taking. It is important that we work together and with other public sector bodies to do our best.

We committed to writing to the Parliament this year, and we will write to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee by the end of this year, outlining the actions that we are taking and are looking to take, so that they can be scrutinised.

We are looking at specific measures in relation to the species that Claudia Beamish mentioned. As the report says, about one in 10 species is threatened with extinction. The Scottish Wildcat Action project is working to address threats to wildcats, such as hybridisation, by developing captive breeding and release schemes in order to strengthen wildcat populations in the wild. Through the Working for Waders project, a broad range of land managers and conservationists are doing practical work to support curlews and other wading birds. Work is under way in the forests of the Cairngorms national park to research the cause of declines in capercaillie numbers and to develop practical measures to support them. Many other species benefit from work that is done through the agri-environment climate schemes under the Scottish rural development programme and projects to control non-native species. A lot of such projects will be long term.

Again, I invite Claudia Beamish to meet me or the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to discuss how we can improve on the work that we are doing and take it forward.

Three members would like to ask supplementaries.

One of the best ways to reverse the catastrophic decline of nature on our farmlands since the second world war would be to convert more farmland to organic production. Is the minister aware that in Denmark, 60 per cent of publicly procured food is organic, which provides a strong driver for conversion? Will the minister consider setting similar targets for public procurement for organic farming in Scotland, particularly under the new provisions in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill?

I absolutely recognise the point that Mark Ruskell makes about the organic sector. The fact that the amount of land that is farmed organically in Scotland has reduced has been of huge concern to me. We must tackle that and do something to improve the current situation. We have already committed to working on an organic sector plan, and I am actively looking at what is happening in other countries to see what we can learn from those examples. I would be more than happy to discuss with Mark Ruskell how we can progress that work in the future.

What plans does the Scottish Government have for promoting and enhancing Scotland’s island biodiversity, particularly that of Arran in the west of Scotland, as well as protecting it from key drivers of change, such as invasive non-native species?

I recently appeared before the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in relation to invasive non-native species, because we absolutely recognise the catastrophic damage that the introduction of such species can cause. If there are particular issues that the member wishes to raise with me in relation to Arran or any other specific areas, I would be more than happy to look at those and to pay them particular attention.

I reiterate that, along with Scottish Natural Heritage, we are undertaking a great deal of work to tackle invasive non-native species. Again, I would be happy to discuss that with the member.

As was alluded to by the minister in her response to Ms Beamish and by the authors of the “State of Nature” report, comparisons between the countries of the United Kingdom cannot easily be made. Can the minister expand on how statistics are gathered and whether it is accurate to compare them?

Dr Allan raises an important point, because some of the media reporting of the “State of Nature” report was inaccurate. The Scottish report is based on a separate data set and a different time period. The UK and Scottish reports cannot be compared to show that Scotland’s wildlife is declining faster than wildlife in the rest of the UK. The UK report makes it clear that it is “not appropriate” to compare the species abundance indicator trends between countries, because data from different taxonomic groups has been used. Last week, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB contacted the BBC to highlight the error in the reporting.

It is important to recognise that we welcome the groundbreaking collaboration that has led to the “State of Nature” reports. It has never been more important for us to work together in the face of the growing evidence of biodiversity loss around the world. The joint news release that was issued on the Scottish report includes messages saying that it is not too late to act.

Notwithstanding the fact that some of reporting of the “State of Nature” report was inaccurate, I highlight that, although we are undertaking a lot of work, we recognise that there is always more to do, and we are working to achieve that.

Prestwick Airport Service Fees

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will confirm the amount of service fees reportedly waived by Prestwick airport for the United States military. (S5T-01831)

Glasgow Prestwick airport operates at arm’s length from the Scottish Government on a commercial basis. That is essential to ensure compliance with state aid rules. Decisions on specific commercial deals are made by Prestwick without any involvement of ministers.

Prestwick has provided military handling since the 1930s, and that continues to be an important part of its overall offering. The management of the airport continues to look for opportunities to grow the business, including offering fixed-base operation services to a number of customers. All that has been done on a commercial basis and at market rates.

Generally speaking, all airports seek to package fees and charges in a way that ensures that they remain competitive. That is entirely standard practice, and is consistent with Prestwick’s business plan and its aspiration to grow and to continue to play an important role in the wider Ayrshire economy.

It is not good enough for the Government to hide behind the fact that Prestwick is operated as an arm’s-length commercial company or behind commercial confidentiality. According to the US Defense Logistics Agency’s website, the US military has spent more than $17 million dollars on fuel at Prestwick over the past three years, and The Scotsman reports that, over the same period, hundreds of flights had their service fees waived by the failing Government-owned company. When was the cabinet secretary made aware of that situation?

I am sure that Mike Rumbles recognises the strategic importance of Prestwick to the Ayrshire economy and the Scottish economy as a whole, which was partly why the Scottish Government decided to intervene and purchase the airport in 2013. Since then, the financial provisions that have been made available to Prestwick have been on a commercial basis.

However, to suggest that the Government is in some way hiding behind state aid rules is nonsense. In order to comply with state aid regulations and law, Government ministers cannot be involved in the commercial decisions that Prestwick makes. Providing fixed-base operation services to a range of parties, including the military, has been part of Prestwick’s work over many decades. Its recent success with the United States Air Force is a reflection of its business plan to target increased growth in provision of services, and it has been successful in doing so.

I must emphasise that the Government is not hiding behind anything. It is meeting the requirements that are set out in regulations on state aid. I will not compromise that for Mike Rumbles, nor will I disregard the jobs that are associated with Prestwick, which are crucial to the Ayrshire economy.

The cabinet secretary did not answer my question. I want to know when he knew about the situation, and I want him to answer that when he responds again. Prestwick has not made a profit in the past ten years. The Scottish Government has pumped £40 million into a company that, according to Companies House, owes creditors £44 million, but has assets of only £10 million. Does the cabinet secretary know the difference between bailing out a company with taxpayers’ money in the short term, in order for it to become successful, and continuing to bail out a company that continues to fail?

Mike Rumbles’ disregard for the importance that Prestwick has in the Ayrshire economy is breathtaking. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats have no political or other interest in that. As I already stated to him, decisions on agreements that are entered into by Prestwick and its management concerning services that it provides to operators are commercial matters to which ministers are not party.

This afternoon, it is very clear that the Lib Dems do not care two hoots about the Ayrshire economy and Prestwick’s importance to it.

There is degree of interest in this topic. Four members wish to ask questions. They should be concise questions and answers.

The importance that the Conservatives place on Prestwick cannot be doubted.

The other week at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I asked the cabinet secretary which company he was offering for sale at Prestwick. At that stage, he did not know. Does he know now?

As things stand, those matters are commercially confidential. I also committed to updating Parliament in due course, should progress be made on them. I am sure that Edward Mountain will recognise the importance of the commercial confidentiality relating to those issues.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My problem is that I am looking for an answer to a question. There are six companies related to Prestwick airport. The cabinet secretary must know which company he is offering for sale. I do not believe that that is commercially confidential. I seek an answer. Is there a way that I can, as a member, get an answer, because I could not get one at committee, either?

I recognise the point that the member is making. However, on the point of order, there are many ways to ask questions and pursue the matter. Three other members wish to ask questions. The member himself could ask further questions, lodge a written question or write to the minister, or his party could lodge a motion in Parliament. There are any number ways of pursuing the matter, if the member is unhappy with the response.

I find the “nothing to see here” attitude rather disturbing. In a week in which Scotland’s Kurdish community will be protesting outside the US embassy about withdrawal of US troops, which will leave their comrades vulnerable to attack by Turkey, and at a time when US democratic procedures are investigating conflicts of interests and potential breaches of the US constitution in relation to dealings with Prestwick and Trump Turnberry, is not it offensive for a Scottish publicly owned asset to be, in effect, subsidising the military operations of a dangerous far-right regime?

The airport does not provide any subsidy; it operates on a commercial basis.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that, given that Prestwick is a Government-owned airport, in the interests of transparency the Government should publish the full extent to which the airport relies on US defence refuelling for its income, not least because overreliance on that would raise real questions about the airport’s future sustainability and its apparent financial recovery in recent months, especially given the current US inquiry, which might well lead to a reduction in use by the American military?

Glasgow Prestwick airport provides the relevant information in the public domain through its published accounts. Colin Smyth will acknowledge that the airport operates in a competitive environment, so there will always be information that is commercially sensitive—information that would, were it to be placed in the public domain, put the airport at a disadvantage compared with its commercial competitors. I am sure that the member would not seek to undermine Prestwick airport’s commercial viability. The airport meets all the necessary requirements by publishing the relevant data on its income from its records, as part of what it publishes annually through its accounts.

I acknowledge that Prestwick airport is vital to the Ayrshire economy. The airport has been in public ownership since 2013. When is it likely to return to profit and to private ownership? Is the Government happy for income from military purposes to form part of the airport’s future success?

A key part of trying to do the best thing for Prestwick airport is to resist the temptation to do what some members seek, which would undermine the airport commercially and affect its ability to improve its financial situation.

Since the Government took ownership of the airport in 2013, we have been clear that our desire is to return it to the commercial sector. That continues to be our focus. Jamie Greene will be aware that the management board has published an invitation of expressions of interest from those who might wish to purchase the airport. That process is being undertaken and considered. As I said, once we have reached a decision on those matters, I will keep Parliament informed of the issues. I intend to do that once we are in a position to furnish Parliament with further information.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Five members have just asked specific questions of the cabinet secretary, but none of those questions was answered. I asked when the cabinet secretary knew about the situation, but he would not answer. When the Official Report is published, it will show that he did not answer any of the five questions. How are we supposed to proceed if the Government will not respond to members?

My response is similar to the one that I gave to Edward Mountain’s point of order. I accept that Mike Rumbles and several others are unhappy with the minister’s responses, but it is up to members and the viewing public to make what they will of questions and responses. If the member is still unhappy, it is up to his business manager to pursue the matter, perhaps by seeking additional time, or he can lodge further questions. There are other ways to pursue the matter.