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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 12, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 November 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Rural Payments Strategy 2020-21, Environment Bill, Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Rural Payments Strategy 2020-21

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing on the rural payments strategy for 2020-21. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


Throughout the pandemic, Scotland’s farmers and crofters, their workers and families, and businesses and employees all across the agriculture industry have done what they do best, which is put food on the table. I want to thank everyone in farming and food production for all that they have done for our nation over the past nine months.

There is no doubt that agriculture has not been so hugely affected by the pandemic, but there have been issues. We have all felt the loss of this year’s agricultural shows, including the Royal Highland Show. For an industry that often involves solitary working in remote rural and island areas, with families often being isolated for long periods too, those shows provide welcome, and sadly missed, social opportunities.

Auction and livestock marts have had to operate differently this year. I thank the industry for working with us to create guidance and working practices that have enabled them to continue.

The pandemic created challenges for fruit and vegetable growers in respect of securing a workforce at the right time, but with the support throughout of Mairi Gougeon, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, they have not only provided work for people from home and from abroad, but have kept the supply of Scottish berries flowing right into autumn. The weather has, at times, created adversity, but we have had worse springs and summers. Projected record cereal harvests for this year are testament to that.

In supporting farming and food production, the Government has one key job, which is to ensure that farmers and crofters get their support payments on time. We opened the 2020 single application form window on time and we closed it with no need for an extension beyond 15 May. By June, we had not only paid out all 2019 common agricultural policy pillar 1 payments on time, but had done so at the earliest ever date in this period of the CAP.

We also met the new requirement to make over 95 per cent of pillar 2 payments by the European Union’s payment deadline of 30 June—a new deadline, I may say—and we have been the first part of the United Kingdom to start getting 2020 moneys out to farmers and crofters. Payments under this year’s national loan scheme began on 1 September, and by 30 October 13,652 loan payments, worth more than £335 million to the rural economy, had been processed.

I pay tribute to the Scottish Government rural payments and inspections division teams across Scotland for delivering all that. They shifted 17 area offices seamlessly to home working during the spring and no one actually noticed, which is surely a measure of the success of the operation.

Brexit, of course, looms large over that success, with there being still so many unknowns. We do not yet know the terms of a deal with the EU, or even whether there will be a deal. We know that exporting key food products will be more bureaucratic, but we do not yet know whether they will also face tariffs. Crucially, with exactly seven weeks to go until the end of the Brexit transition period, we know precious little about what funding we will have for 2021-22 across both CAP pillars.

Ironically, if Scotland had been staying in the EU, then like all other EU states—[Interruption.]—I am sorry; I have dropped the rest of my statement. I do not know whether somebody can help me.

We will pause for a moment.

The apparatus for holding my notes has broken; I will just operate without it.

Please continue.

Yes. If I could just find where I was in my notes, that would probably help.

As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, it is ironic that had Scotland been staying in the EU, we would be moving into a period of continued stability from 2021 to 2027, like all other EU states, and we would know what means we had to support our farmers and crofters.

Boris has made a boorach of Brexit—there is no real question about that—but I and this Government are determined to provide Scotland’s farmers and crofters with as much certainty and clarity as we can, so I can advise Parliament that we are publishing our rural payments strategy for the year ahead with the core objective of matching and improving on delivery of the 2019 single application form payments.

Processing of 2020 claims has been RPID’s priority since July, and we intend to deliver the basic payments scheme, and the greening and young farmer payments, at volume in December this year. That means that we are commencing CAP payments two months earlier than we did last year. It is intended that payments under the Scottish suckler beef support scheme and the Scottish upland sheep support scheme will commence in April and May 2021, respectively. That will match last year’s payment performance.

For the less favoured area support scheme, it is intended that payments will commence at volume in January 2021. That, too, is two months earlier than the 2019 system payments. In 2020, EU rules require further transition away from LFASS, meaning that payments have had to be cut to 40 per cent of the 2018 rate. However, as I have stated previously, farmers on hill and upland areas and on our islands will also receive the convergence payments. Those payments will maintain or improve their financial position. It is my intention to deliver the second instalment of convergence funding in January.

Under other pillar 2 schemes, it is proposed that payments for existing contracts under the agri-environment climate scheme, the forestry grant scheme and rural priorities will commence from March 2021. That is one month ahead of last year’s position, and if the opportunity arises to do so, we will commence earlier.

I have set out our 2020 rural payments strategy with confidence that we will meet the timelines. I know that farmers, crofters and agriculture businesses will welcome the certainty that that provides. However, risks to delivery remain—the disruptive effect of a disorderly Brexit being the main one. The strategy might be at risk if we need to deliver emergency support at short notice, if there is a no-deal Brexit.

The on-going prevalence of Covid-19 might also impact on availability of resources. Our staff have adapted extremely well to working from home. However, the continuing situation means that we cannot be certain of future staffing levels. It feels as though the next few months will be precarious for us all, but we must also get on with planning for the future.

In 2018, I promised Scotland’s farmers and crofters a period not only of stability but of simplification between 2021 and 2024. Work to deliver that is now under way; just last week, we laid regulations before Parliament that will mean that businesses are subject to fewer inspections, while there will be increasing support that focuses on outcomes.

We are beginning to plan long-term change to make farming and food production in Scotland more sustainable. In this year’s programme for government, we committed to establishing farmer-led groups to provide information, advice and proposals to cut emissions and tackle climate change in their sectors. The first was set up earlier this year and reported two weeks ago, with strong recommendations on how to adapt our suckler beef sector for the future. Its findings map a route to a low-carbon future—one that remains both profitable and productive. I thank the group’s chairman, Jim Walker, his assistant Claire Simonetta, and all the group’s members for giving so generously of their time and expertise to the work.

This week also saw much attention around the release of the inquiry report from farming for 1.5 degrees. The suckler beef report recommendations are consistent with those of that further worthy contribution. That is particularly true for technical efficiency and conditionality for the sector. That emphasises why it is so important that we accept the suckler beef report, and that we learn by doing.

I want to make real and rapid progress. Therefore, I announce today that we will establish a board to lead activity on how to deliver on the report’s findings. The board will be led jointly by Government and industry, in a strong signal of the partnership approach that will be crucial to success in cutting emissions and changing how we farm and produce food in the future.

There is no doubt that the global impact of the pandemic has reminded us not to take food and food security for granted. It has highlighted the importance of having robust and resilient localised food supply chains. Key to that is ensuring that farmers and crofters get the financial support that they need in order to pay their bills and to make investments for the coming seasons, which in turn helps to support other agriculture businesses and keep the wider rural economy on track. Government’s role is to provide that support at the right time; that, Presiding Officer, is what the rural payment strategy seeks to do.

The cabinet secretary will take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow about 20 minutes for questions. Members who wish to ask questions should press their request-to-speak buttons now.

In jest, I might have said that the cabinet secretary’s lectern had collapsed under a weighty statement, but it was not quite that; it was a lot of things that we have heard before.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s recognition that farmers have been working hard throughout the pandemic. Although it might have left the First Minister confused at points, the Conservatives in this chamber know exactly how essential farmers are.

Can the cabinet secretary, instead of just patting himself on the back, explain where the much-awaited long-term vision for the industry is? Can he also tell us what finally changed his mind about restoring LFASS to 2018 levels, after months of dodging questions from Conservative MSPs?

Where do I begin?

First of all, the statement announced new information about very important matters for farmers and crofters. It has told them when they can expect to get their money. As someone who has been in business—I do not know whether Mr Mundell has been anywhere near business—I can say that it is very important to know when the money is coming in. Just as we are fortunate to get paid every month, and to know on what day we will be paid, it is quite helpful in business to know when the money is coming in.

The statement contains new information. It is designed not for Mr Mundell, but for farmers and crofters, so that they know when they will get their money. I am proud of the RPID staff who have delivered the information. I do not think that his facetious and snide approach does the member any credit at all.

With regard to vision, I have provided a very clear vision of a thriving agricultural sector that produces the highest-quality food in the world, and aspires to do so with the highest-quality environmental standards. I think that that is a pretty good vision, and do you know something, Presiding Officer? I think that more and more people are sharing it. That is why I am determined, working with my colleague Jim Walker, to lead the programme board and to drive it forward to develop a beef herd in Scotland that is not only the finest but the purest in the world, and one that is certainly miles ahead of many of the offerings that arrive from other parts of the world with a huge carbon footprint.

I am also proud of all the other sectors in our very varied farming panoply—from the hill farmers to the vegetable and fruit growers, from our arable sector to our sheep sector and our pig sector, and so on and so forth. My job and my vision is to allow them a secure future.

Lastly, on LFASS, Oliver Mundell’s assertion was complete codswallop—it was the absolute total opposite of the truth. I have made it crystal clear that I have been intent on maintaining hill farmers’ income. I have done that from day 1. Mr Mundell is out on his own with his unfounded Trumpian assertions.

I remind all members of the importance of courtesy in referring to each other in the chamber.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. I also thank all our farmers, crofters, and food producers for keeping Scotland fed in these difficult times.

LFASS is a lifeline for many farmers and crofters, so it really is sleight of hand for the cabinet secretary to use convergence money to plug the gap in his commitment to maintaining LFASS payments at current levels. It is a year since the cabinet secretary allocated the first tranche of convergence funding. Will he tell us how the remaining £70 million will be spent and how much of it he will redirect to plug the funding gap for LFASS? Will he also commit to payments to farmers who are in receipt of LFASS continuing at current levels until a replacement is delivered? When will we have details of what that replacement is likely to be?

I thank Mr Smyth for his remarks about farmers, which I appreciate—as, I think, do we all.

With regard to LFASS, I have made it absolutely clear that the basic requirement is that those who farm on our hill land, on extensive holdings, on our islands, and in our most remote and rural parts, require to be supported for what they provide for Scotland as a whole: for the food that they provide, for the stewardship of the countryside that they deliver, and for their contribution to supporting rural communities throughout the country. I have made it crystal clear that, whatever the schemes are called, that principle must be accepted, and I have been pleased to see that it seems to be accepted across the political spectrum.

I have made it clear that, under the approach of stability and simplicity, we continue broadly with the LFASS approach. I recently confirmed that and I was pleased to see that NFU Scotland—I think, yesterday—has welcomed that approach. I also had very sensible discussions with the Scottish Crofting Federation just last week. That gives us time to work on a replacement.

The last point that I will make is a very simple one. Until such time as we know what the decisions will be in relation to Brexit—in particular, whether there will be tariffs of up to 50 per cent on our lamb exports, if there is a Tory no-deal Brexit—it is impossible to make finalised plans for the future, because we might well require to have an emergency support package for our sheep farmers as a direct result of Brexit. In the real world in which we must make these difficult decisions, we will make them as soon as we can. That will only be once all the Brexit confusion has eventually been lifted.

As a farmer’s daughter, I note that many farmers will already be on to their bank managers to let them know when the money is coming in—it is that important to know how the money is coming in.

The recent report on the suckler beef scheme makes some novel and exciting recommendations in relation to how our food and farming sector can build a sustainable future and contribute to meeting our world-leading climate change targets. Will the cabinet secretary update the chamber on the timescale within which he intends to take forward the recommendations in the report?

I thank Maureen Watt for that question. I am extremely grateful for the work of Jim Walker, Claire Simonetta and the rest of the forward-thinking members of the suckler beef climate group. The report shows how the sector can take a lead in being part of the climate change solution while, at the same time, delivering as a world leader in efficient beef production. I will give more details of how the farmer-led approach will be delivered in the near future.

I want to assure everyone in other sectors that their contribution will be just as important as that of the beef sector. We started with the beef sector because it is associated with methane emissions and we felt it best to start with the most significant contributor, to show that we are tackling—if you like—the most significant issues first. However, all sectors are important.

The last point that I will make is that it is a farmer-led approach—and deliberately so. My view has been that, when we work with farmers, we are more likely to persuade their peers—who have perhaps done things in a similar way for decades, if not for a lot longer—that those changes can be made to work commercially as well as environmentally.

The early signs, from the press reports and the conversations that I have had, are that the farming community not only welcomes the Walker report and the Miller report but is champing at the bit to fire ahead. Although I will not give a timescale today, I hope to revert soon with one, and it will be a short timescale.

I echo other members in recognising the hard work of our agricultural sector and that of agriculture and rural delivery directorate staff during this difficult time.

It is ironic that Mr Ewing trumpets the EU’s move into a period of stability without a mention of the predicted massive cuts in the upcoming EU subsidy budget. I assure Mr Ewing that we all share a vision of a successful agricultural sector, but, while he sets up groups and boards and apparently listens to the industry, there is still no clear direction of travel from him on how the rural sector will get there. When will the cabinet secretary clearly outline his Government’s long-term intentions with regard to support for our farmers’ transition to a sustainable future in relation to business resilience, food production and the environment?

I do not accept the thesis, and I have already answered the question. Let me re-emphasise that, with the benefit of those two reports, which have been so warmly welcomed, my duty is to drive things forward as quickly as possible and to work together with those groups to deliver programmes that will include funding support to deliver the best-quality farming and the best environmental practice in the world. That is my vision, and I think that it is one that most farmers share.

I am determined to drive that vision forward, and I will. We will deliver it, just as we have delivered the fixing of the CAP problems, as I assured the Parliament some years ago that we would. We have done that and we will do the next thing as quickly as possible. We will get on with the job and farmers will lead it, which will be the key to its success.

I remind members in the chamber and elsewhere that these are questions and answers, not opportunities for speeches.

One key part of the claim-processing puzzle has yet to be completed, and that is the sending out of letters on reductions in, and exclusions to, farmers’ and crofters’ claims. Can the cabinet secretary provide some advice on the progress of that work?

Yes, I can. The letters that set out the details of reductions in claims for land and animals have been delayed as a result of the uncertainties of Brexit. However, some progress has been made: I confirm that voluntary coupled support scheme reduction and exclusion letters will start to issue this month and will cover all years.

Further to that, RPID is currently working on the next tranche of letters, which will provide information as quickly as possible to those who had a deduction from payments under the basic payment scheme, greening payments and young farmer payments. More information will follow in due course. Unfortunately, work to correct the situation had previously been delayed because of Brexit and was suspended due to Covid-19, but it has since restarted.

In his statement, the cabinet secretary stated that we are only

“beginning to plan long-term change to make farming and food production in Scotland more sustainable.”

Climate change waits for no one. What other recommendations from the farming for 1.5 degrees report will he take forward in conjunction with farmers, beyond those on suckler beef? When will the long-awaited food and farming report be published, which we all anticipate so much?

I emphasise that a great deal of work that uses CAP funds in both pillar 1 and pillar 2 for the advancement of environmental matters is already happening, and we support it. The additional work to which Claudia Beamish alludes includes our investment in forestry—£150 million of additional resource, which takes the rise in new plantings further upward from 11,000—and in the restoration of peatland, to which my colleague Roseanna Cunningham has been devoted and for which she secured funding of, I believe, £250 million over the next 10 years.

Peatland restoration and afforestation are two parts of it. In addition, agri-forestry and specific aspects of it, have been receiving a particular focus. On top of that, the renewables contribution and carbon capture and storage are key elements of the overall strategy to tackle climate change. The farming and food production advisory group is continuing to complete its work, and I expect that its report should be available later this year, although it is an independent group, so that is up to it.

I am sure that our hard-working crofters and farmers will welcome the information about payments.

The cabinet secretary rightly highlighted that exporting our key food products will be more bureaucratic with the threat of tariffs. The cabinet secretary may be aware that a 27-acre field in Kent has been set aside as a lorry park for 2,000 lorries—it is one of 29 such sites that are being created in England to deal with border issues. Will the cabinet secretary send a clear message to the UK Government that Scottish produce and its producers deserve much better than that, and will he advise it that, even at the 11th hour, dialogue rather than diggers might be the better way to deal with the expected border logjams?

I thank Mr Finnie for his remarks and his recognition of the importance of the payments to farmers and crofters. He raises an important issue that has not been raised thus far. It is absolutely correct that the bureaucratic, practical and logistical problems that are posed by borders, and by being out of the EU, are legion. In the interministerial group meetings and the EU exit operations—XO—committee meetings, which Mr Gove chairs, Ms Cunningham, Ms Gougeon and I have pushed those points on innumerable occasions, and we will continue to do so. Mr Finnie’s remarks reflect a growing undercurrent of concern among primary producers and the whole food and drink sector about how it will work out—or not—on the night.

Both the cabinet secretary and I were members of the Scottish Parliament—as were you, Presiding Officer—when Ross Finnie delivered such payments in December every year. After 13 years, it is good to get back to where we were. It is with good humour that I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement, and I completely agree that farmers and crofters need to know when they will get their funding.

Will the cabinet secretary tell us more about the farming and food production future policy group, which Parliament called for in January 2019? The cabinet secretary set it up and facilitated it, and it was due to produce an interim report at the Royal Highland Show in June. He has already indicated to Claudia Beamish that he hopes to get the interim report by December, but can he give a greater indication of when it might be produced?

I recognise the good work that Ross Finnie did and which he is now doing as chairman of Food Standards Scotland. We work closely with him.

On the timing of the report, I am afraid that I cannot be more precise than that it will be later this year. I stress that it is an independent report. I am not writing the report—I do not think that Parliament expects me to, and I do not think that I should. It is an independent report, so it is up to the members of the group, with the support from the Scottish Government that they enjoy, to come to a final conclusion in what is a complex and challenging area, to be fair to them.

If we look at the composition of the group, there is a wide and distinguished set of personae there, so I am sure that they have had lively discussions. I am informed that they expect to come to a conclusion later this year. The report will be an advisory report—it will advise the Parliament and the Government—and it will be welcome, I am sure.

With the Walker and Simonetta report and the Miller report, we are fortunate to have two thorough and well-received reports that signpost a large part of the way forward. However, we need to take a strategic approach overall. I was pleased that Ms Beamish asked the wider question beyond farming, because, in order to tackle climate change, there will need to be substantial change not just in one sector but in all sectors, and that change will need to be swift. That is why I am intent on getting on with it.

With the Brexit transition period looming, it is astonishing that the UK Government has, to date, given no clarity on funding for the 2021-22 CAP pillars. What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the UK Government on whether it has at least set out a timescale for when it will be in a position to give Scottish farmers the certainty that they need?

Throughout 2020, I have pressed for clarity on funding, but engagement from HM Treasury started only at the end of September, when it presented the devolved Administrations—not ministers, but officials—with a farm support paper.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have common and significant concerns on the proposed funding settlement. The present approach that has been taken by the UK Government fails to respect the devolution settlements, and it breaks the commitment that we would not lose out on essential funding when we left the EU. Currently, we all stand to lose funding, and the commitment of collective engagement to agree the principles for the allocation of funding has not been met. The devolved Administrations issued a joint letter on 30 October, requesting an urgent meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We await a response.

We all know that the three-crop rule system did not suit Scottish agriculture, so I welcome the fact that it is suspended for 2020-21. Is that suspension permanent? Have we seen the back of the three-crop rule, or is that only for one year?

Although I am not a farmer, Mr Chapman is, and I hope that he has received his payment on time.

We have suspended the three-crop rule and have no plans to bring it back. We suspended it because we did not think that it was applicable to the particular circumstances of Scotland. In doing so, we recognised that, for a long time, there had been a clamant call from farmers to tackle it. I was therefore very pleased that we were able to do so. However, I want to emphasise the message that that was against the direction of travel, so to speak. The direction of travel will be to require change in order to meet environmental imperatives. That is a legal duty, but I think that it is also a moral imperative.

Yes, it is goodbye—not au revoir—to the three-crop rule, but further improvements will be needed on a major scale.

That concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Richard Lyle, Stewart Stevenson and John Scott, whose questions have not been reached, but we are well over our 20 minutes. That is a reminder that shorter questions and answers make for more questions and answers.