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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)10 March 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Motion of No Confidence, University of St Andrews (Degrees in Medicine and Dentistry) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Financial Services Bill, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform

Good afternoon, everyone. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the whole campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please only use the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

Question 1 is from James Dornan. [Interruption.] Perhaps. If it is acceptable to members—[Interruption.] Oh—we now have Mr Dornan. I know that he is very acceptable to members.

Flapper Skate Protection

I am delighted that I came in at that point, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking regarding the consideration of protection for flapper skate. (S5O-05090)

I am pleased to announce the urgent designation of the Red Rocks and Longay marine protected area, which is located in the inner sound of Skye, to protect flapper skate. That action is complemented by an urgent marine conservation order, and both orders will take effect on 17 March 2021. The MPA, which will cover approximately 6 square kilometres, will provide strict interim protection for a nationally important nursery area and will support conservation of this critically endangered species. Our proposal for permanent protection of the location will be the subject of a public consultation during 2022.

Do we have James Dornan?

Yes, I hope so.

Can the minister explain why it is important that we take that action urgently? What is the scientific basis for the designation?

Protection of the site is vital to support the conservation of this critically endangered species, which is protected internationally. Historically, flapper skate were abundant in the north-east Atlantic, but their range has reduced significantly. This is the first skate egg habitat of this scale to be found in Scotland and little is known about flapper skate breeding. We have therefore taken the precautionary approach of providing interim protection from all activities that could affect the area while we develop proposals for permanent protection.

Does the minister agree with the Our Seas coalition, which is concerned that the Scottish Government’s claim that 30 per cent of our seas are protected is misleading because many of those supposed protected areas do not actually have protective measures in place?

As the member knows, the Scottish Government is firmly committed to our marine protected areas, including the site that we are discussing. A hundred sites have fisheries management measures, of which 26 are specifically for nature conservation purposes. The Scottish Government is committed to the effect that the marine protected areas have and to the need for them in order to protect the species that we all treasure across the country.

Cetaceans (Acoustic Deterrent Devices)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is protecting cetaceans from disturbance and injury caused by acoustic deterrent devices. (S5O-05091)

The Scottish Government is committed to protecting marine wildlife, including whales, dolphins and porpoises. The current regulatory framework provides a high level of protection for cetaceans, with rigorous processes in place to ensure that action can be taken where required.

A report on the use of acoustic deterrent devices at fish farms was laid in Parliament on 1 March, as required under the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020. The report explores the sufficiency of the regulatory framework and identifies where further action is required, and we will work with the sector and relevant stakeholders to take that forward.

That report, which was published to Parliament last week, made no firm conclusion beyond requesting more data gathering and research. Can the minister confirm how many licences for the use of ADDs Marine Scotland has granted under the European protected species scheme? Will Marine Scotland pursue legal action against fish farms that continue to use the devices without a licence, especially when the use of thicker nets to protect against seal damage would be a reasonable alternative?

I refer the member to the report. As he will be aware, it concludes that, if necessary, additional measures will be introduced to ensure that a consistent approach is taken in order to meet international obligations. Following the review that Marine Scotland instigated last year, there are no licences under the European protected species scheme for the use of acoustic deterrent devices at fish farms.

Marine Scotland has criticised fish farms that are not sticking to the rules on properly reporting the shooting of seals under licence. What action is being taken to ensure that those rules are being properly enforced?

As the member will be aware, on 1 February, a change to the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 came into force that removed two grounds under which the Scottish ministers was able to grant a licence to kill or take seals. As would be expected, the appropriate bodies are enforcing the legislation.


To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on working towards making Scotland the world’s first rewilding nation. (S5O-05092)

We are committed to tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, which are among the most important challenges of this generation. Tackling them is central to our green recovery from Covid-19. We are leading the world in our move to end climate change and restore biodiversity in Scotland.

Our high-level statement of intent on biodiversity, which was published in December, set out our ambition, including our commitment to protect at least 30 per cent of our land for nature, as well as the 37 per cent of our seas that are already protected.

The new nature restoration fund—the additional £10 million agreed in Green negotiations with the Scottish Government—has been welcomed by ourselves and others, including the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and RSPB Scotland. However, it is clear that we need more than investment; we need action. Protected areas are key to being a rewilding nation, but we need more than just lines on a map.

The Scottish Government likes to boast about how much of Scotland is protected, but it is possible to dredge a marine protected area, have driven grouse shooting in a national park and even build a golf course on a site of special scientific interest. Does the minister agree that that is unacceptable? What action will he take to ensure that protected areas mean that nature is actually protected?

The protections and requirements are set out in the primary legislation that we have agreed as a Parliament. The investment that was agreed in the budget yesterday, which the member alluded to, will make an important difference. I am sure that in the next session, the Parliament will look at how we can continue to strengthen our measures on these matters as appropriate and for the benefit of tackling climate change and preventing biodiversity loss, while considering the other factors and interests of which we all have to be mindful.

Vitally important as the issue undoubtedly is, does the minister agree that, for many fragile communities in the Highlands and Islands, repeopling is also a—[Inaudible.] Of course, rewilding and repeopling are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Does the minister agree that we should pursue policies that are aimed at either rewilding or repeopling with the agreement and participation of those communities?

The sound was not great there, minister. Did you catch it all or get the gist of it?

I caught enough, thank you, Presiding Officer.

I am grateful to Alasdair Allan for highlighting the importance of our local communities; as a former migration minister, I very much agree with that.

Securing for the future the benefits that nature provides to people is at the heart of our efforts to stem the decline in biodiversity loss. I mentioned our biodiversity statement of intent, which was published in December. It includes a strong focus on the role of local communities alongside a commitment to engage with stakeholders in the development of a new biodiversity strategy and associated action plan.

Local biodiversity action partnerships provide a model for effective encouragement and co-ordination of local action. We strongly encourage local communities to seize opportunities to manage and improve their environment.

East Lothian Council (Climate Change Strategy)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with East Lothian Council regarding its “Climate Change Strategy 2020–2025”. (S5O-05093)

The Scottish Government is committed to working closely with local government to facilitate high ambition in tackling the global climate emergency. Ministers and officials across the Scottish Government frequently meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including East Lothian Council, to discuss support across a broad range of issues.

Climate change officials last met East Lothian Council on 28 October 2020, and discussed the recent Scottish Government climate change plan update and how it aligns with the ambitions that are set out in East Lothian Council’s “Climate Change Strategy 2020-25”. Climate change officials also interact frequently with East Lothian Council on the climate emergency through public sector leadership forums such as the Sustainable Scotland Network, among many others.

East Lothian Council’s strategy is already driving real change. The council has worked with the People’s Energy Company to launch an affordable energy tariff for county residents. Household recycling rates have been increased to 55.3 per cent of total household waste and there has been great progress on the installation of solar photovoltaics in the council’s housing stock. Most recently, the ambition to develop the East Lothian climate forest has been added, with the aim of planting 2 million trees across the county over the next decade. All that good work is taking place in the face of a £4 million shortfall in funding for the council. How can the Scottish Government provide real and practical support to the strategy?

I pay tribute to Iain Gray, because this is probably the last time that I will interact with him in his work on behalf of the people of East Lothian.

In the 2021-22 budget, which was agreed yesterday, East Lothian Council will receive a total funding package of £203.6 million to support local services. That includes an extra £5.5 million to support vital day-to-day services. I am sure that there are other aspects of tackling climate change that the council will be looking at, such as the Scottish Government’s low-carbon fund and the vacant and derelict land fund, which is to support local authorities in expanding green space.

In my previous role as Minister for Public Finance and Migration, I had very good engagement with East Lothian Council. If there is capacity between now and the election period, I would be happy to receive correspondence and, potentially, to engage with it on its priorities.


To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action that it is taking to tackle littering. (S5O-05094)

We are clear that litter is a blight on our landscape and that there is no excuse for it. Our national litter strategy is coming to the end of its five-year lifespan. We have been assessing progress, and we will shortly publish a report on it.

Later this month, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform will contribute to a litter summit, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the current situation, including the impact of Covid-19, and to look ahead to future priorities for tackling litter and improving our local environments. That will be the first in a series of opportunities to consider the next steps through working collaboratively with key stakeholders.

I am glad that the minister agrees that litter is a blight. In every town, city and country lane, we can see that litter levels have grown hugely since lockdown. Is it not clear that councils are simply unable to cope with that under the current budget settlement and with year-on-year cuts to their budgets? Will the minister make the case for giving councils back the cash to deal with that blight on our communities?

Cleaning up litter costs public bodies £53 million a year—clearly, that is money that could be better spent on other services. As Neil Findlay said, local authorities are responsible for—and are best placed to do so—making decisions on prioritisation of local waste services, and responding to litter at local level. Local councils have engaged through creating their own innovative responses. For example, Perth and Kinross Council has created a small fund to support local land owners to clean up fly-tipping.

Tackling littering and fly-tipping is a collective endeavour—they require a collective response. The Scottish Government is very engaged with local authorities and other partners on how we will continue to tackle those issues together.

It is important to emphasise that we all, as MSPs, have a role to play. I pay tribute to Neil Findlay’s public service. In his remaining weeks, he will be part of that collective effort to encourage people to stop littering and to move towards a Scotland in which we reduce littering significantly and achieve that together.

Is it not true that part of the issue is the powers that local authorities have to deal with litter and fly-tipping? Can the minister give an update on whether the Scottish Government is considering making legislative changes that would allow local authorities greater powers to intervene?

No legislative changes are pending in the immediate term. However, I am sure that the matter will, as we continue to evaluate our strategies, continue to be a priority for members who are returned in the next Parliament.

Can the minister give any detail on the deposit return scheme, beyond his commitment to commission an independent gateway review? The scheme has already been delayed, as he will know, until July 2022.

I refer members to the Government-initiated question S5W-35780, which was answered on Monday. That answer gives the latest update on the deposit return scheme.

Agriculture (Climate Change)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the recommendation by the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change that policies for the agricultural sector must be created rapidly to protect the environment and meet emissions targets. (S5O-05095)

The climate change plan update provides a pathway to transform Scotland’s food and farming sector so that it can continue to produce high-quality and sustainable food, while reducing emissions and enhancing the environment. We are taking action now—the policies are intentionally front-loaded in order to achieve early progress.

We are making rapid progress through our farmer-led groups. The suckler beef climate group’s report offers practical recommendations for lowering emissions, enhancing the environment and boosting business resilience. The programme board is working at pace to consider implementation of those recommendations. Four more groups will report in the spring, with recommendations for other key farming sectors.

Many farmers are not credited with the positive work that they do to reduce carbon emissions. Does the minister agree with me that it is time to carry out baseline surveys, as doing so would provide a more complete picture of how farmers are part of the solution and not the problem?

My understanding is that that is among the recommendations that we have received.

Does the minister agree that the additional funding of £5 million in the budget for agri-environment measures is very welcome? Can he outline other measures in the budget that will support our farmers to adapt their production methods so that they are more sustainable in the long term?

A third of common agricultural policy schemes provide funding to support farmers, crofters and land managers in addressing climate change and achieving wider environmental benefits. The 2020-21 budget includes £40 million to support agricultural transformation. That will be supplemented by the additional £5 million of capital funding.

To support that transition, there is an additional £3.9 million for the Farm Advisory Service to ensure continued provision of high-quality advice. After a number of years spent working for a fairer allocation for Scotland, the Bew funds, totalling £25.7 million, will also be provided to farmers, crofters and land managers to aid transition in 2021-22.

Green Recovery (Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that Scotland has a green recovery as it moves out of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05096)

As Scotland moves out of the pandemic, we are committed to rebuilding in a way that delivers a greener, fairer and more equal society, and which helps us to meet our world-leading climate targets. A green recovery is at the heart of our programme for government, and our climate change plan update, with more than 100 new policies, will help us to secure a just transition to net zero. That is supported by the £2 billion low-carbon fund, a record £1.9 billion low-carbon spend in this year’s budget, and more than £8 billion in our five-year infrastructure investment plan to decarbonise across sectors while creating good green jobs.

Despite the delay to the UK budget, I was pleased to see the Scottish Government prioritising a green recovery in its budget. With the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—taking place in Glasgow this year, can the minister set out what the Scottish Government is doing to encourage other countries to adopt Scotland’s ambitious approach to a net zero transition?

One of our key objectives for COP26 is to support an ambitious global deal to tackle climate change in a way that is fair and will enable a just transition at home and abroad. This week, we have announced an international net zero futures initiative, in partnership with the Under2 Coalition and Bloomberg Philanthropies, to strengthen state and regional leadership ahead of COP26. Through that initiative, we will create a unique and dedicated space for state and regional Governments to foster peer learning, to share technical expertise, and to learn from examples of good practice on setting net zero targets and pathways to achieve them.

We will also publish Scotland’s contribution to the Paris agreement, which is an indicative nationally determined contribution, ahead of COP26. That document will focus on the fact that Scotland has already set world-leading climate targets, and it will summarise our plans to reduce emissions and to adapt to climate change in a just way.

Natural Assets

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to conserve and grow Scotland’s natural assets. (S5O-05097)

The Scottish Government is committed to conserving and growing Scotland’s natural capital, which underpins our society and our economy. We have made large-scale long-term investments in our natural capital through policies such as the Scottish rural development programme. Our updated climate change plan extends that through long-term investments in woodland expansion and peatland restoration, as nature-based solutions to climate change.

Our commitment to publishing a blue economy action plan will also support the protection of our marine natural capital.

Scotland’s natural environment is our greatest national asset, but global assessments have highlighted the level of threat and the scale of the action that is needed in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change and to help to halt loss of our biodiversity. What progress is Scotland making in response to that crisis, and what actions are being taken to ensure that the assets are protected and conserved for future generations to enjoy?

Our climate change plan update sets out our ambition to manage land in response to the climate emergency, especially in the agriculture, land-use change and forestry sectors. Our biodiversity statement of intent, which was published in December 2020, signalled our ambition for biodiversity in Scotland, and included a commitment to extending the area that is protected for nature to at least 30 per cent of our land by 2030. Since 2015, we have committed more than £200 million in agri-environment contracts to protect and enhance our environment across Scotland. We have also made a commitment to invest £250 million in peatland restoration in the next 10 years.

Tourism Sector (Summer Holidays)

To ask the Scottish Government what criteria the tourism sector must meet to ensure that people’s summer holiday bookings will be honoured. (S5O-05098)

The main criteria, which all operators must satisfy, are that they are following the guidance and not acting outwith the regulations at any time. The precise legal requirements for the summer season are not yet known. We continue to pursue a cautious and gradual path out of lockdown, but we are hopeful that the Scottish domestic tourism sector will be open in time for the summer season, due to the efforts of all of society and the progress of the vaccine programme.

I am sure that those hopes will be shared by all members across the chamber, as they will be by all who are involved in tourism and hospitality in Scotland. Although people understand the Government’s difficulty in setting any dates at the moment, they are keen to know which criteria will have to be met before that can happen. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it would be valuable to identify the triggers that will lead to tourism businesses being given the green light to reopen, for the sake of both their own forward planning and that of their customers?

We are all keen to see tourism restarting, but it is correct that we take a cautious approach. The triggers for restarting will, of course, be based on an assessment of the relevant public health evidence from epidemiologists, and will proceed on that basis. However, we are hopeful that we will see significant progress, given the success in tackling the virus combined with the fact that we have delivered more than 1.7 million doses of the vaccine and our aim is for every adult to be vaccinated by the end of July.

When restart happens—plainly, consideration is being given to precisely that—we will of course proceed in a gradual way. For example, last year, we started off by reopening self-contained premises such as self-catering accommodation, including caravans and caravan sites, because they allow people to have a holiday while staying within their bubble. Such an approach might commend itself again this year.

I am working hard with the sector and am engaging with it every day. In the past three days, I have had five meetings with various tourism interests. It is most certainly an issue on which there is an appetite for the provision of further information as quickly as possible, so we are working towards that end as I speak.

Two members wish to ask supplementary questions. I will try to take them both if everyone is quick.

Will the Scottish Government provide additional support for travel businesses that have been devastated by the current crisis? Will it also outline a road map for the eventual reopening of the industry, given that travel has been the service sector of our economy that has been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic?

We have been providing additional financial support for the sector. We also wish to provide as much clarity as possible on a road map for its eventual reopening. It is important to say that the section of the Scottish tourism sector that relies on international travel has been hit hardest of all. I take this opportunity to stress just how important international inbound travel is. Only this morning I was speaking to tour operators who stressed that people who come to play golf in Scotland or to enjoy the excellent hospitality, food and drink in our fine hotels and restaurants are a vital part of their businesses. Many such businesses—particularly those in our cities, but also those in rural Scotland—depend on international inbound custom from visitors, which prior to the Covid crisis was collectively worth £2 billion. I mention that because it is easy to neglect that segment of our tourism sector. I am delighted to have the chance to put that right now.

I apologise to other members who requested to speak; I will have to move on.

Tourism Sector (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to support the tourism sector in response to reports that TUI will reduce its flights to Aberdeen airport. (S5O-05099)

Through the Scottish tourism emergency response group, the Scottish Government is working with enterprise agencies, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, VisitScotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance to develop a five-year recovery plan for the tourism sector in Scotland. Short-term measures have already been introduced, in the form of £129 million in business support. We expect to announce further measures shortly.

TUI’s decision to reduce flights to Aberdeen airport, which was reported last month, impacts on the outbound market and Scottish tourists travelling abroad rather than on the domestic market. Nevertheless, we recognise the impact that it will have on travel agents and airport employees. We will continue to consider what further support could be made available.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but we need to be clear. TUI announced that it is axing more than half its flights to Aberdeen specifically due to a lack of clarity from the Scottish Government. As the cabinet secretary points out, Aberdeen airport reports that that will inevitably lead to significant direct job losses unless more support is given to safeguard routes. What, precisely, is the Scottish Government doing to support Aberdeen airport and the north-east tourism sector? Does that include a north-east-specific and industry-specific recovery plan?

The member is asking about the north-east. I have engaged with tourism interests in the north-east from the outset, and quite rightly so. That included a call with VisitAberdeenshire’s chief executive, Chris Foy, just this week, and I have had numerous engagements with that agency, which has informed me about the situation in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

I understand that the BBC has reported that TUI hopes to continue to take customers on summer holidays from Aberdeen to locations in Turkey and to Corfu and Palma.

We require to do this, and I hope that the Tories understand it. We must maintain measures to manage the risk of importation of the virus from areas of high prevalence, and that includes travel restrictions and managed isolation. Have we not learned the risks of importing the virus? We cannot discount or ignore those risks. As tourism minister, I am keener than anybody else in the chamber to see restart, but we have to be sensible about it and to listen to the evidence.

Inverclyde Hospitality and Tourism (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how much financial support in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been given to hospitality and tourism businesses in Inverclyde. (S5O-05100)

The Government has provided a range of support to businesses in Inverclyde as part of our overall package to mitigate the economic impact of the virus. That includes providing non-domestic rates relief to retail, hospitality and leisure premises worth £8 million in Inverclyde in the current financial year. We have also provided direct grant support to businesses in Inverclyde that have been obliged to close or to operate under restrictions. Between 2 November 2020 and 22 February 2021, more than £2 million was provided to businesses in Inverclyde through the strategic framework’s temporary closure and restriction funds, and £2.4 million has been paid out to 377 businesses in hospitality, retail and leisure top-up payments.

The financial support that has been provided to hospitality and tourism businesses in my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency is welcome, and I thank the cabinet secretary for that, but will he confirm that applicants from the rural parts of my constituency can apply for the increased rural tourism infrastructure fund? Will the cabinet secretary consider introducing a Clyde coast tourism fund to help the four local authority areas of Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire and Argyll and Bute, which have greater tourism potential as well as local economic challenges?

Mr McMillan has doggedly and continuously advocated tourism on his patch and, more widely, marine tourism, as other members have argued robustly for interests in their areas. Were I to promise a fund for every single MSP, I would be going further even than Father Christmas. Much as I may resemble that character, that would be an imprudent thing for a Government minister to do.

Nonetheless, I can confirm that we had unabated generosity in the budget in respect of the increase in the rural tourism infrastructure fund from £3 million to more than £6 million. I can confirm that the fund is open to applications from the local authority in Mr McMillan’s constituency.

I will not suggest which fantasy character the cabinet secretary resembles.

The cabinet secretary mentioned fine hotels and restaurants in his previous answer. Many of those hotels, restaurants and hospitality businesses, including those in Inverclyde, have been given substantial amounts of state funding during the Covid lockdown. However, far too many of them are still very bad employers and treat their workers in a very bad way. What has the minister been doing to negotiate with them so that, when we come back to a more normal situation, we do not return to staff being exploited?

The member knows that the Scottish Government has consistently and rightly advocated the payment of the living wage and fair remuneration and treatment of all employees. That has been a theme and practice of the Scottish Government in this session of Parliament and before, and rightly so.

Secondly, obviously we welcome the fact that the furlough is available to assist businesses in meeting their staffing costs. However, Neil Findlay may or may not know that the furlough does not cover all the costs; it covers around 80 per cent of them. It does not cover, for example, national insurance or pension payments.

Businesses have fixed overheads. I want those businesses to survive. That is the point of what we are doing. We are trying to provide lifeline support, not to replace all revenue. Surely it is better that those businesses survive so that their employees have a job to come back to. I would therefore have thought that the support that we are providing to those businesses—which I believe is more generous than that down south—will directly benefit the employees. That is a good thing, is it not?

Beef Farming (Brazil Memorandum of Understanding)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the potential impact on beef farming in Scotland of a memorandum of understanding with Brazil. (S5O-05101)

I have previously written to the UK Government on that matter, expressing strong concerns about any increase in imported beef through the Mercosur free trade agreement.

I am aware that the UK Government struck an agreement with Brazil last October to establish a joint agriculture committee to look at sanitary standards. Unfortunately, the UK Government has not engaged with us, despite standards in Scotland being our responsibility.

It is our belief that significant quantities of imported South American beef could have a damaging effect on Scotland’s highly acclaimed beef production, potentially undermining our high regulatory standards and impacting on domestic trade. Fundamentally, I cannot and would not support any increased quota.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is not simply a matter of sanitary standards and that the importation of hormone-treated beef from pastures in felled rainforest being shipped here to compete with our premium hormone-free Scotch beef is problematic on several levels, including that of climate change?

Yes. I have said time and again that we would not tolerate any trade deal that allowed imports of hormone-treated beef. The Trade and Agriculture Commission, who I met on Monday, recommend that any trading partners wishing to import into the United Kingdom shall demonstrate equivalent production standards. That assurance from Tim Smith, the chief executive, was welcome. That should be implemented across all the UK’s trade deals, ultimately banning the import of hormone-treated meat.

Crofting Commission

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to enhance the capacity of the Crofting Commission. (S5O-05102)

The additional funding that I announced in July 2020 has allowed the Crofting Commission to establish four posts in the Western Isles and increase its development activities. That will allow the commission to continue its work in establishing new grazing committees, ensuring that our common grazings are managed effectively and encouraging diversified activities, such as agri-tourism, peatland restoration, habitat improvement and forestry. It will enable the commission to support the strengthening and diversification of crofting. The new officers will liaise with crofting communities to encourage croft occupancy and use. Finally, the commission will also further its work in tackling neglect of croft land, to create opportunities for new entrants.

I am encouraged to hear about the new staff that the cabinet secretary mentions.

I am often contacted by constituents who are frustrated at delays that they experience with paperwork that is submitted to the commission. I make absolutely no criticism of the commission staff, who have a difficult enough job as it is. However, I would be grateful to know what is being done to ensure that the commission is able to meet the needs of crofters in that respect.

I am aware that there have been such issues, but the additional funding that we have provided this year has enabled the commission to take steps to make improvements to its information technology infrastructure, which will enable efficiency savings, and to the commission’s website, which will improve the customer experience.

The new officers, for which Dr Allan has campaigned for some time, will be based alongside crofting communities on islands within his constituency, with a key aim of helping to build local relations in the crofting communities and generally furthering the cause of crofting and the interests of crofters.

I remind members that, if they have a numbered question on the bulletin, they do not have to press their request-to-speak button in the chamber. The button should be pressed only for supplementary questions.

Tourism (Scottish Borders and Midlothian Councils)

I know that that was directed at me. [Laughter.] You kept putting it off and I kept putting it on, but there we go. Now I know why.

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Scottish Borders and Midlothian councils concerning the impacts on tourism in their areas as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05103)

I am somewhat reluctant to interrupt that exchange.

VisitScotland engages regularly with local authorities and has recently met with Midlothian Council to discuss the Covid response and recovery. It also engages with Scottish Borders Council weekly.

We engage through our enterprise agencies, along with VisitScotland, to continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic on the sector. The data will inform the five-year investment plan that is being developed as part of our response to the tourism recovery task force recommendations.

As the cabinet secretary is aware, my constituency of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale covers both local authority areas and has many outdoor tourist attractions. For example, we have horse riding schools, mountain biking and gardens such as Dawyck botanic garden and Kailzie Gardens—all closed. Will the cabinet secretary consider early opening of such outdoor attractions, which are relatively safe?

Yes, of course we are considering all those matters very carefully. We are aware of the value of participating in outdoor activity, including exercise, and that consideration is obviously relevant to the decisions that have to be taken by the Cabinet overall. Christine Grahame has made a very good point, as well as delivering a brief gazetteer and almanac of the attractions in her constituency.

The largest market for tourism businesses in the Borders and Midlothian is the rest of the United Kingdom, especially the north of England. In the past year, there have been more stringent travel restrictions between Scotland and England than between the different parts of Scotland. If the Government continues that approach as we ease out of lockdown, what additional support will it provide to businesses in the south of Scotland that, by definition, are more adversely affected by those restrictions?

We try to treat all businesses with parity of esteem and to be consistent in providing lifeline support. That has been, I think, the correct principle to apply throughout. Colin Smyth has made a very fair point that businesses in the Borders area, and in Dumfries and Galloway, have a particular reliance on the market of visitors who come from England. That is absolutely understood. In fact, I discussed the issue this morning in a call with representatives of the Scottish weddings sector—which is, of course, concentrated in Gretna—including Alasdair Houston, who made those points very crisply and effectively.

We are acutely aware of the importance of the issue. We all wish to see a reopening of the market and to welcome again our good friends from England—our nearest neighbours—to continue to enjoy Scottish hospitality and custom, just as soon as we can safely do so.

Tourism (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to boost the tourism sector in the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane constituency. (S5O-05104)

We remain focused on immediate business support. We are keen to help as many businesses as possible to reopen viably, once conditions allow. Our focus has therefore been on developing and distributing the £129 million tourism support package. Looking to the future, the £15 million culture, heritage and tourism fund, which has been agreed through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, will play a key part in recovery. Finally, VisitScotland is working with Discover Clackmannanshire on its access Forth valley visitor campaign. When the time is right, VisitScotland will look to promote the region as part of its regular marketing activity.

As the cabinet secretary knows, the Stirling and Clackmannanshire region provides a truly world-class offering, and visitors spend more than £350 million annually in the local economy—at least, that was the case before the pandemic.

How will the Scottish Government support development in the sector through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, to ensure that the sector grows? For example, does the cabinet secretary have more detail on the culture and tourism elements of the deal?

Yes. The Scottish Government is a full partner in the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal and we are contributing £45.1 million over 10 years, with additional investment of £5 million over the same period. The key tourism project, which I touched on and which Mr Brown was correct to mention, will be the £15 million culture, tourism and heritage programme, which includes key partners such as VisitScotland, who will work with the private sector to strengthen the regional economy’s tourism offering. I welcome Mr Brown’s consistent lobbying on the issue, which is bearing fruit.

Tourism Sector (Recovery)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has for the long-term recovery of the tourism sector. (S5O-05105)

Recovery proposals for a five-year period are being developed by the Scottish tourism emergency response group, in consultation with members of the Scottish tourism recovery task force. Ministers are currently considering eight short-term proposals and hope to make an announcement on those shortly. Short-to-medium-term recovery proposals should be developed by May.

We are already delivering measures, through the provision of £129 million in targeted sectoral support schemes and the launch of the tourism and hospitality talent development programme, through the Scottish Tourism Alliance and the Hospitality Industry Trust.

Following the First Minister’s commitment on Tuesday to give indications about the reopening of hospitality and tourism—something for which the sectors have been hoping for weeks—will the cabinet secretary set out the steps that his Government and its agencies will take to market Scotland as a destination for travel from the rest of the United Kingdom, given the importance of visitors from the rest of the UK and the success of the UK’s Covid vaccination programme? Does he agree that clarity should be provided to the sector on when travel to Scotland will be encouraged again?

Clarity has been provided, through STERG and through our constant engagement with representative bodies in the tourism and hospitality sector. This week, so far, I have had five meetings with tourism bodies, including two with the STA and meetings with representatives of the hotel management, Scottish wedding industry and tour operator sectors.

Our engagement with the tourism and hospitality sector allows us to inform our plans for recovery, but, of course, there is no point spending money on marketing until we are ready to restart. However, I assure the member that VisitScotland has, rightly, been working for a considerable time on restarting tourism.

I emphasise that the market in England is essential and that we want to welcome our friends from south of the border to come and enjoy Scottish hospitality again, just as soon as we can safely do so.

The First Minister gave me an assurance a week or so ago that she would discuss with the cabinet secretary the difficulties that the bed-and-breakfast sector faces and how to overcome them. Will the cabinet secretary please say what progress has been made on that?

I had welcome engagement with the First Minister on tourism earlier this week, in an evening discussion with colleagues. The issue is extremely important, and I recognise that Mr Scott has, quite fairly, pursued it on various occasions.

I am pleased that Fiona Campbell, from the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers, and David Weston, of the Bed and Breakfast Association in Scotland, welcomed our recently announced additional support, under the strategic framework business fund, for premises that do not pay business rates but pay council tax, which will have access to a payment of £2,000 per four weeks, which will be backdated to January. I am pleased to say to Mr Scott that that additional support has been warmly welcomed by the sector and as tourism minister I am delighted that it will enable some smaller accommodation providers, who do such a good job for Scotland, to survive and make it through to the end of the pandemic.