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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 9, 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Human Rights Day 2021, Portfolio Question Time, Culture, Budget 2022-23, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place. Face masks should be worn when moving around the chamber and the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on rural affairs and islands. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Connectivity (Islands)

1. Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding cross-Government action to improve connectivity for Scotland’s island communities. (S6O-00506)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

As Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, it is my responsibility to ensure cross-Government co-ordination on islands, which involves regularly meeting ministerial colleagues across all portfolios, including the Minister for Transport. Work continues across both the rural affairs and islands and transport portfolios, at ministerial and official level, to ensure a co-ordinated response to the challenges that arise for our island communities.

Sharon Dowey

Services, tourism and cultural events are essential to islanders, but failing ferries put their local economy at risk. The message from ferry bodies in the Scottish Government is now that islanders’ expertise should not even be represented on the boards of CalMac Ferries and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd—CMAL. Why is the central belt-focused Scottish National Party Government ignoring islanders, and what action will it take to ensure that the voices of islanders are heard?

Mairi Gougeon

I refute that claim straight off. This is not a central belt Government. I represent a rural constituency, as do many of my colleagues, and that fact is at the heart of the work that I do as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands.

In relation to the point that the member has raised, we are committed to ensuring that the views of island residents and communities are represented appropriately, and we have asked the new chair to consider how that objective might be achieved as a priority.

Residents of island communities are free to apply to become members of the David MacBrayne Ltd—DML—board if they wish. We advertised the recent chair position and three non-executive director positions widely, including on the vessels that travel to our island communities, and board members were appointed on the basis of their abilities. An understanding of the role of transport, including ferries, and of the maintenance of the economic and social integrity of the Highlands and Islands is a requirement for all board members.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

Transport links are integral to rural, disparate communities. The island of Jura, in my constituency, has had a 40 per cent population increase in the past 10 years, but their transport links need some improvement. What plans does the Scottish Government have to engage with island residents regarding their connectivity needs as it progresses its commitment to deliver the islands connectivity plan, to ensure that our island communities flourish?

Mairi Gougeon

Responsibility for ferries actually lies with Graeme Dey, the Minister for Transport. However, as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, I understand the interdependency of transport and the wider challenges of island community sustainability. I was happy to convey that message in my recent engagement with the ferries community board.

I remain committed to ensuring that the Scottish Government continues to engage on population challenges, including island connectivity needs, through the development of positive policies that we have talked about previously in the chamber, such as the islands bond, carbon neutral islands and the islands connectivity plan. The latter will replace the current ferries plan from January 2023 and will include a long-term investment programme for new ferries and development at ports to improve resilience, reliability, capacity and accessibility, in order to meet the needs of our island communities.

Fisheries Negotiations

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the implications for the fishing sector in Scotland of the outcomes of the sea fisheries negotiations. (S6O-00507)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

Our aim across all negotiations is to find a balanced and sustainable outcome for the Scottish fishing industry, supporting the sector today as well as ensuring its future.

I am pleased to say that the coastal states consultations have successfully concluded. We have reached agreement on 2022 catch limits for mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring, and we have a work plan to continue sharing discussions in early 2022. We estimate the value of that deal to be around £186 million for Scotland through to 2022.

Our bilateral talks are on-going. Although we do not have the final outcomes, I assure members that we are engaging constructively with our international fishing partners to get the best possible outcome for Scotland. I will notify the Parliament of the outcome of all the negotiations when they are complete.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm the change to tonnage in fish exports from Scotland and whether, perchance, it reflects the improvements that were promised by proponents of Brexit?

Mairi Gougeon

We have data that was obtained from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It shows that, for the first two quarters of this year, the tonnage of fish that was exported to the European Union from Scotland was just over 68,000 tonnes, which is a 13.5 per cent decrease from the amount exported over the same period in 2019. That is clear evidence of the disastrous impact of Brexit on the Scottish seafood sector, which relied heavily on the EU for trade.

In 2019, more than 70 per cent of Scottish seafood exports went to the EU and were worth more than £770 million. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation reported losses of at least £11 million in January alone as a direct result of the changes that were brought about by Brexit. Additionally, Scottish Salmon now estimates that businesses are spending around £200,000 a month in dealing with extra paperwork. The loss in trade to the seafood sector since early January 2021 offers the clearest evidence that we have seen so far of the additional costs and associated impacts of becoming an EU third country and of the trade frictions that that has introduced.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will want to ensure that new offshore wind developments do not interrupt established fishing operations. Earlier this week, the Shetland Fishermen’s Association highlighted a number of concerns around data use, noting a lack of reflection on movements of non-Scottish vessels and a lack of consideration of issues caused to fishing activity outwith bottom trawling. Will the cabinet secretary look into those concerns and, if required, take action to support the industry when developments are being considered?

Mairi Gougeon

I assure Jamie Halcro Johnston that my officials and I have regular engagement with the industry. If there are particular concerns that the organisation wishes to discuss with me, I am more than happy to look into them.

Beavers (Compensation for Farmers)

To ask the Scottish Government what compensation will be made available to farmers who have been impacted by beaver activities. (S6O-00508)

The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater)

The reintroduction of beavers represents a step forward in restoring Scotland’s biodiversity. We want to ensure that more of Scotland benefits from the biodiversity enhancements that are brought by beavers.

NatureScot will continue to support land and fisheries managers who are experiencing negative beaver impacts by providing free advice and help with practical management through the Scottish beaver mitigation scheme. We want to work with land managers to find ways of co-existing with beaver populations. Developing support mechanisms for land managers who are delivering positive biodiversity outcomes will be more productive in the longer term than providing compensation that is based on negative impacts.

Murdo Fraser

The Government’s recent decision to allow the expansion of the beaver population into new parts of Scotland has been welcomed by some, but many farmers are already suffering significant financial loss—for example, due to beaver damage to flood banks or beavers cutting down trees, resulting in the loss of crops. Hearing that they will be offered free advice will be of very little comfort to them when they are facing significant financial loss. I ask again what new financial assistance will be made available to farmers who are suffering as a result of this Scottish Government decision?

Lorna Slater

The NatureScot beaver mitigation scheme is now in place and can offer land managers advice and practical assistance with mitigating the impacts of beavers, including by taking proactive measures to prevent impacts. That includes the protection of high-value trees—heritage trees, landscape trees and amenity trees—the installation of flow devices in beaver dams and, where appropriate, beaver exclusion fencing. NatureScot will continue to work with stakeholders in developing the mitigation scheme with new and innovative approaches. Licensing approaches are available to prevent serious damage where mitigation cannot resolve issues.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

As Scottish Environment LINK’s beaver champion, I am delighted that beaver populations will now be allowed to expand across the country. It will mean that many more people will benefit from the ecological benefits that beavers bring as ecosystem engineers, as well as from the sheer joy of once again sharing our natural environment with these charismatic animals. I am sure that there are many land managers who would benefit from receiving beavers that are unwelcome elsewhere. Will the minister advise what they need to do to receive a translocated beaver family?

Lorna Slater

I thank the member very much for her question and for her work as Scottish Environment LINK’s beaver champion.

Many people in Scotland would love to have beavers on their land, if they had the appropriate environment for them. Any land manager who is interested in having translocated beavers on their land should contact NatureScot through the email and contact details on its webpage: [email protected] or 01463 725264. NatureScot will discuss the different aspects of translocating beavers to a site, including scoping site suitability; carrying out effective public engagement and consultation; the practical aspects of trapping and transportation; captive holding while animals are being health screened; and some level of post-release monitoring.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

There is no doubt that there are farmers not far from my and Mr Fraser’s constituencies who have looked to get beavers translocated to their land. I accept that they make an important contribution to restoring Scotland’s natural environment, but, in some places, their modifications to the environment can have a negative impact on agricultural land. Can the cabinet secretary provide further information about what the support from the Scottish Government will be, particularly for the flood defences that Mr Fraser mentioned a minute ago, to negate the negative impacts of beavers being introduced?

Lorna Slater

The member is quite correct in saying that the reintroduction of beavers demonstrates our commitment to protecting and enhancing biodiversity. Beavers have a positive impact on biodiversity by creating new wetland habitats for a range of important species. They also help to reduce flood risk by slowing down flows, and they improve water quality by filtering out sediment.

The NatureScot beaver mitigation scheme is in place and can offer land managers practical assistance in mitigating their impacts in ways that I have already listed: protecting high-value trees, insulation of flow devices and, where appropriate, beaver exclusion fencing. NatureScot will continue to work with stakeholders to develop the mitigation scheme to make sure that landowners and land managers can live alongside beavers.

Questions 4 and 5 were not lodged.

Farming (New Entrants)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work, outlined in the programme for government, to determine how best to support new and young entrants into farming. (S6O-00511)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

We are continuing to work on options that will best add to the existing support provided by our farming opportunities for new entrants group, the Scottish Land Matching Service, the Farm Advisory Service and direct payments. Our aim remains that the outcome will be announced soon.

Sandesh Gulhane

Despite the Scottish National Party throwing taxpayers’ money at encouraging young women to join the agriculture industry, the young farmers start-up grant scheme handed out funding to only 62 women across Scotland in four years. In 2019, there was only one successful applicant. Young farmers deserve better than that, especially young women in rural areas. Does the cabinet secretary believe that a single successful applicant in one year is an acceptable return on the investment? Will she outline exactly what measures she is taking to improve on that abysmal record?

Mairi Gougeon

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we have more new entrants to farming. Just this week I visited an opportunity that has been made available through the farming opportunities for new entrants programme, and we are looking at the opportunities that could be offered through public land to encourage new entrants.

Can we do more about getting more women and more diversity into agriculture? Absolutely; I agree with that. That is why we made specific commitments in our manifesto to getting more women into agriculture and to making Scottish agriculture more inclusive. Women living and working in Scottish agriculture are an essential part of the future of the rural economy, and developing and expanding their skills will ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector.

This financial year, we have committed £300,000 to finding practical solutions to support women, including the wider roll-out of the “Be your best self” programme, personal development training, a pilot of agricultural business skills training, a project to test innovative solutions for childcare, and the development of SkillSeeder, which is a skills-sharing app that encourages greater participation in rural and land-based learning. During the current parliamentary session, we will double to £600,000 funding to support women in agriculture.

Livestock (Avian Influenza)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is putting in place to protect livestock against avian influenza. (S6O-00512)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The chief veterinary officer for Scotland confirmed a second outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 at premises near Gretna in Dumfries and Galloway, on 3 December. As with the earlier case in Angus, protection and surveillance zones were immediately established around the infected premises, which puts in place a range of mandatory disease-control measures, including restrictions on the movement of poultry, domestic mammals, carcases, eggs and other poultry products.

In response to an increased risk of spread of disease from migratory birds, the Scottish ministers introduced a national avian influenza prevention zone on 3 November. On 29 November, those measures were enhanced to require housing of all poultry and captive birds and the application by keepers of further robust biosecurity measures, which are key to preventing the spread of disease.

Advice from public health officers and from epidemiologists is that this strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza represents a very low risk to human health and to mammals. Investigations into the source of the infection and links with the premises and livestock that are currently infected are an element of the wider epidemiological investigation process to ensure that the disease is stamped out as quickly as possible.

With Covid-19 impacting businesses in various ways, what support is in place for bird keepers if the worst should happen to their livestock?

Mairi Gougeon

Compensation is paid for birds that have to be culled as part of our disease response in line with valuation tables, which are updated regularly by the Animal and Plant Health Agency on behalf of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government does not compensate for dead or visibly ill birds, which is in line with policy elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

If a larger poultry or captive-bird business is in a disease-control zone, there might be trade issues that are associated with regionalisation. The Scottish Government works with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs market access and veterinary trade facilitation teams, which liaise with poultry industry stakeholders and the APHA centre for international trade to understand and address the issues and priorities for poultry exports.

DEFRA market access also liaises with British embassy colleagues globally to answer trade-related queries from central competent authorities, to provide updates to third-country trading partners and to seek clarity on the terms of trade, where that is required.

The Scottish Government will liaise with NFU Scotland and the British Egg Industry Council to support affected businesses, where that is required.

I emphasise that it is extremely important for keepers to practise good biosecurity in order to reduce the risk of their birds being infected by a notifiable avian disease.

Net Zero (Agriculture and Fisheries)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the agriculture and fisheries sectors to play a leading role in delivering a net zero Scotland. (S6O-00513)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government is committed to driving action to support all sectors to transition to net zero and to ensuring that that transition is a just one. It is clear that agriculture and fisheries must play a leading role in that process. Policies and programmes such as the blue economy vision, the future fisheries management strategy and the agriculture reform implementation oversight board, as well as practical measures such as the marine fund Scotland and the national test programme, are enabling conversations and supporting innovation, as well as helping farmers and fishers to understand how their work impacts on climate and nature, and what they can do to deliver change.

Colin Smyth

The partnership agreement between the Greens and the Scottish National Party has nothing to say about ending overfishing, ending the wasteful practice of discarding or landing a bigger share of the catch closer to home in Scottish ports. Does the cabinet secretary think that that is consistent with securing sustainability and environmental recovery for our inshore seas and fisheries?

Mairi Gougeon

Our co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party is highly ambitious in a lot of areas, and it seeks to protect our marine environment. The fact that some specific elements are not listed in the agreement does not mean that they are not important.

As part of our future fisheries management strategy, we have set out the steps that we intend to take to make sure that our marine environment is a healthy one and that we continue to fish in a sustainable way.

I will take a few supplementaries.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

There are plans to locate offshore wind farms in rich fishing grounds west of Shetland to provide electricity for oil and gas installations. Shetland Fishermen’s Association has highlighted flaws in the offshore wind farm consultation process, to which Jamie Halcro Johnston alluded earlier. Will the Scottish Government commit to gathering and fully assessing data on all fishing activity in the areas in question, and to listening to local fishermen’s concerns?

Mairi Gougeon

I reiterate my previous response to Jamie Halcro Johnston. I am the fisheries minister: it is critical that I listen to the concerns that are voiced. I am more than happy to engage with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and to listen directly to their concerns.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

In light of the climate emergency and the urgent need to give farmers, communities and landowners clarity about net zero, will the Scottish Government join Scottish Conservative calls, backed by the Woodland Trust Scotland, to simplify and make changes to grant schemes for riparian planting now, rather than waiting until 2024 when it might be too late to save iconic species, such as salmon?

A number of pieces of work to protect our iconic species are on-going. I would be happy to contact Rachael Hamilton about her suggestion regarding how riparian tree planting will be considered in the future.

Can the minister provide any further details about the steps that are being taken to reduce ammonia emissions in the agricultural sector?

Mairi Gougeon

We have updated the regulations that govern controls on storage and application of slurry and digestate. By introducing a legislative requirement to use low-emissions precision spreading equipment, we can reduce the ammonia emissions that are caused by agriculture by up to 70 per cent. That protects our vital water environment and reduces the impact of agriculture on climate change.

That will also make an important contribution to our commitments to reduce air pollutant emissions that are caused by agricultural activity. Those are set out in our new air quality strategy, which was published earlier this year. The national test programme, which I announced at the end of October, will also provide support for nutrient management plans through supporting more efficient fertiliser use and thereby reducing ammonia emissions.

That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a slight pause while front-bench members change places before the next item of business.