Meeting date: Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 14 September 2016
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, European Union Referendum, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Reusable Nappies
- Portfolio Question Time
- Point of Order
- European Union Referendum
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Reusable Nappies
Portfolio Question Time
To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the importance of deer control in urban settings. (S5O-00121)
Deer management and control in urban and lowland settings is just as important as that carried out in upland Scotland or any other land type. The likelihood of increased public presence in urban areas will always be a key consideration in ensuring that deer management is delivered safely and with appropriate consideration for deer welfare.
Does the cabinet secretary recognise the importance of local operatives, such as members of the South Lanarkshire deer management group, in controlling the unique peri-urban deer situation? Does she also recognise the potential of the work that has started to identify local facilities in which to chill, store and prepare venison for local consumption? Does she agree that such an approach is good for the environment and good for health?
The Scottish Government supports sustainable deer management that protects the public interest. We welcome the contribution of the South Lanarkshire deer management group and others in the lowland deer network Scotland who have an interest in deer management and welfare in lowland Scotland.
Lowland deer provide a range of benefits, including support for biodiversity, venison as a healthy food source and the experience of nature for many urban dwellers. However, deer have impacts on crops and trees and need to be managed to reduce the risk of deer-vehicle collision.
The Scottish Government is keen to support the development of more local food supply chains—I am sure that my colleague Fergus Ewing, who is sitting to my left, would endorse that. I understand that grant assistance can be given for capital costs and co-operative marketing activities to assist with projects such as the development of a community deer larder in the central belt of Scotland, to enable venison to be used locally.
The development of a robust count programme is crucial to our understanding of deer numbers in urban settings. Following research in 2009, Scottish Natural Heritage pledged to use thermal imaging technology to monitor deer populations. How accurate are the current estimates of urban deer populations?
I will ensure that SNH gives the member a detailed response to his question. Counting deer is a constant issue, whether we are talking about urban lowland or rural Scotland—deer numbers are a concern for everyone. It is important to assess the numbers and to keep the assessment up to date. I will get SNH to write to the member on the technical issues that he raised.
Has SNH considered urban deer as part of its 2016 review of deer management, and is a recommendation for advice and training in urban deer management for local authorities being considered?
SNH is finalising its report on the review of deer management, which is to be submitted to me by 31 October—it is imminent. The report will cover a range of issues. In considering the arrangements for the sustainable management of deer in Scotland it will no doubt cover the issue that Mr Chapman raised, as well as considering whether the current voluntary system is working.
The review covered all deer, so we can assume that the issues about which Claudia Beamish is concerned will have been included. Specifically, the report will include an update on the work of the lowland deer network. I hope that I have said enough to enable Claudia Beamish to look forward to the report’s publication with interest.
Question 2 has been withdrawn.
Green Belt (Protection)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to protect green-belt land from developers in order to achieve outcome 3 of the 2020 challenge for Scotland’s biodiversity. (S5O-00123)
The Scottish planning policy sets out a range of policies to conserve and enhance nature, green space and landscapes. Planning authorities can identify green belts or review boundaries within local development plans. Those plans should also identify the most sustainable locations for longer-term development.
The failure of the Scottish Government to seek the removal of the Cammo estate from Edinburgh’s local development plan in its recent report will lead to the loss of natural heritage and biodiversity in my constituency of Edinburgh Western. In recent years, the west of the city has experienced a proliferation of house building, the eradication of green-belt land and the placing of unsustainable pressure on arterial routes. In 2015, St John’s Road and Queensferry Road were named as two of the most polluted roads in Scotland. Given that air pollution causes 2,500 early deaths every year, will the cabinet secretary work with her ministerial colleagues to do more to protect our green belt in new legislation, and, in particular, call in any future applications that are associated with the Cammo estate?
Alex Cole-Hamilton should be aware that I will not be calling in applications—that is a matter for my colleague Kevin Stewart.
I have frequent conversations with Kevin Stewart, as I do with all my colleagues. Scottish planning policy supports the redevelopment of brownfield land before new development takes place on greenfield sites, and that will continue to be the case.
Green belts are a planning designation that is used to direct development to appropriate locations, to protect and enhance the character of the landscape, setting and identity of a settlement and to protect and provide access to open space. With regard to all those factors, it is fair to say that decisions are taken on the merits of individual cases.
Biodiversity is critically important in urban and rural environments. How many biodiversity surveys have been conducted by Scottish Natural Heritage and related non-governmental organisations in the past five years, and what plans are in place to develop a baseline for biodiversity in Scotland?
I will ensure that SNH gives the member the detailed information that he requires.
Disposable Nappies (Cost of Disposal)
To ask the Scottish Government what the annual cost is to local authorities of sending disposable nappies to landfill. (S5O-00124)
Zero Waste Scotland estimates that around 55,000 tonnes of absorbable hygiene products—which include disposable nappies—were sent to landfill or energy recovery facilities in 2014. Disposal fees for that amount of material are estimated to cost local authorities around £5.5 million a year.
The cabinet secretary will agree that the financial cost to local councils and the environmental cost to us all that arises from the widespread use of disposable nappies can ill be afforded. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to alleviate the situation?
I remind the member that that £5.5 million a year figure is not solely the result of the use of disposable nappies. However, I agree that we would all prefer it if our communities could save money and our councils could invest in improving services rather than spending money to dispose of material in landfill.
Zero Waste Scotland has promoted the use of disposable nappies through its volunteer network and, for those who choose to use real nappies instead of disposable nappies, local real nappy networks and the real nappy information service offer parents advice and support.
To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making toward compiling an open, transparent and comprehensive land register. (S5O-00125)
The land register that is held by the Registers of Scotland has been operational since 1981. In May 2014, the Government invited the keeper of the registers of Scotland to complete the land register by 2024, with all public land being registered by 2019. Work is well under way to meet those targets.
On 11 September, we launched our consultation on proposals for a register of controlling interests in landowners and tenants, which arises out of the land reform legislation that was passed by this Parliament earlier this year. The regulations that we take forward following the public consultation will help communities and the wider public know and understand more about the people who control landowners and tenants in Scotland.
The 2015 Scottish vacant and derelict land survey highlighted that there were 12,674 hectares not in productive use across Scotland, which could provide the space for more than half a million homes. How does the Scottish Government intend to encourage development in those areas to protect arable land from future housing developments?
That question links back to the earlier question on green belts. Scottish planning policy places a strong emphasis on achieving the right development in the right place and sets out guiding principles for development plans to promote a sustainable pattern of development appropriate to the area.
Particular decisions to identify housing developments on vacant and derelict land would be a matter for individual planning authorities in their development plans. The vacant and derelict land fund can be used to cover a variety of costs associated with the remediation of vacant and derelict land so that, in future, it can be brought back into productive use. That could range from industrial, recreational, farm or forestry activities to mixed-use development that could also include housing elements. Such decisions on the future use and development of vacant and derelict land would be dealt with through the planning system.
Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the holy grail of land reform must be a fully open and transparent land register? That means no front companies, no shady shell PLCs and no multinational tax havens registered in Panama. The history of land reform in the Highlands and Islands is littered with examples of abuse of power and privilege, and now is the time to open a fresh page on land reform.
I can hardly disagree with the member, whose intentions for the future of land reform are certainly mine as well. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government does not have power over all of those issues; I would very much like it to do so, and I invite the member to join me in calling on the Westminster Government to devolve the areas that would require to be devolved in order to achieve the outcome that we both want.
Question 6 has not been lodged.
Land Reform Legislation (Young People)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that its land reform legislation does not have a negative impact on young people. (S5O-00127)
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 introduced a number of key provisions to reform agricultural holdings legislation for the industry and to provide more positive opportunities to young people to gain access to tenant farming opportunities. Those provisions were developed in discussion with agricultural and tenant farming stakeholder organisations, including the new entrants advisory panel that was appointed by the Government to provide advice on issues around support and assistance to new entrants. We listened to those groups to ensure fairness to all, regardless of their age. Land reform legislation as a whole helps to facilitate the development of sustainable communities that have at their heart the need to provide local employment that will keep population, including young people, in the area.
I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be aware of the recent debate in The Scottish Farmer, in which the fear was expressed that the absolute right-to-buy entitlement is likely to create a barrier to new tenancies for young people, because landowners will not create new tenancies while the threat of being forced to sell their land hangs over them. Will the Scottish Government give priority to the farming industry and reassurance to young tenant farmers by guaranteeing no absolute right to buy when secondary legislation on the 2016 act comes forward?
The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, is muttering at me that that is a question for him. I am aware of the debate that has been taking place, and I am conscious that there is a discussion going on about the future of tenant farming.
There is funding available to new entrants, and start-up finance is also available. We are already doing work to enable younger people to have access to land; for example, an independent group was set up in 2015 to examine ways of increasing the number of starter opportunities on publicly owned land. We are doing what we can to try to encourage more young people on to the land in order to ensure that there are young people to provide that generational input at the younger age range and that the age gap that is beginning to grow does not make things worse. I am sure that my colleague Fergus Ewing will come back to the member if he feels that there are more specific issues that he would wish to discuss with her.
Puppy Trade (Control)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to control the trade in puppies. (S5O-00128)
The breeding and sale of puppies is strictly regulated by the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, as amended by the Breeding of Dogs Act 1991 and the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999. Commercial breeding and sale of puppies can take place legally only under the authority of a licence that has been issued, under that legislation, by the local authority.
Stricter measures, which ensure that a dealer who is selling more than two dogs aged under 12 weeks in any 12-month period needs to obtain an additional licence, were introduced by the Licensing of Animal Dealers (Young Cats and Young Dogs) (Scotland) Regulations 2009.
As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has identified the port of Cairnryan near Stranraer as a crucial point at which the illegal trade in puppies can be disrupted. Many of my constituents in the south-west have expressed concern to me about the issue on animal welfare grounds; some have even formed an action group.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that a public information campaign highlighting good practice among breeders will encourage people to be vigilant when choosing whom to purchase a pet from and contribute towards disrupting this illegal and cruel trade?
There is already a great deal of information available; unfortunately, some people continue to choose to ignore it. The Scottish Government code of practice for the welfare of dogs, which was approved by this Parliament in 2010, advises potential purchasers about the aspects to consider when obtaining a puppy and how to purchase it from a reputable source. The code of practice also provides details of animal welfare organisations that provide advice on the purchase of a puppy.
The Scottish Government is currently commissioning research to consider how the demand for illegally traded puppies in Scotland can be addressed.
The cabinet secretary will be aware of the outstanding work that is taking place in Cairnryan involving the Scottish SPCA, the council’s trading standards team, the police, the ferry firms and, indeed, the local community to crack down on the illegal dog trade industry.
Will the cabinet secretary ensure that that work is properly resourced by the Scottish Government and that the current legislation is tightened up to support that work?
The Scottish Government supports action being taken by local authorities and the Scottish SPCA regarding illegal sales and imports of puppies. We also support the work of the pet advertising advisory group, highlighting the internet advertising of illegally traded puppies, so we are already in the business of supporting that work.
I am aware of the local group in Cairnryan that was mentioned. I know that a number of members in the chamber have had conversations with that particular group and I think that the group has had a considerable number of conversations with officials on some of the issues around illegal trading. I look forward to there being continued communication between my officials and the group on its work and, as I indicated before, the Scottish Government is putting in support to local authorities to ensure that they are able to do what they need to do regarding the illegal import of puppies.
I would like to know when the research that the cabinet secretary referred to will be published and the timescales associated with it. Also, could she detail the support that is being provided to local authorities in relation to the illegal transport of puppies?
As I indicated, the research is in the process of being commissioned, so I am afraid that information about timetabling will not be available until we proceed with the commissioning.
The member asked for details on the support that we are putting in place. As I indicated, we are supporting local authorities and the SSPCA on illegal sales and imports of puppies. We are also doing what we can on penalties and on ensuring that information is available to all of those people who are thinking about buying a dog. However, a considerable amount of the work that is involved is the responsibility of local authorities, which of course operate under a bigger financial deal than simply the specifics of this.
Climate Change (Sectoral Targets)
To ask the Scottish Government whether its climate change plan will contain sectoral targets for waste, buildings, heat and transport. (S5O-00129)
The climate change action plan—the third report on policies and proposals—will set out how we will meet Scotland’s next batch of statutory climate change targets to 2032. We are already working to identify the best way to deliver those targets, including the contribution from individual sectors.
In developing the action plan, we need to consider all options for reducing carbon across the economy, as well as look at the interaction between sectors. To support development of the plan, the Scottish Government commissioned an energy modelling system—known as TIMES—which provides insight into future technologies and energy sources. That modelling allows us to develop scenarios for delivering the targets in least-cost ways by assessing how effort is best shared across sectors.
Fifty-nine percent of Scotland’s properties are rated A, B, C, D or worse, and the Scottish Government will not meet its target to eradicate fuel poverty by November 2016. Leading economists from the University of Strathclyde and the London School of Economics said this week that if all homes reached energy performance certificate C standard, 9,000 jobs would be created, fuel poverty would be cut, emissions would be reduced and ill health would be prevented. Does the minister share the Scottish Conservatives’ ambition to achieve an EPC C rating on all properties by the end of the next decade at the latest?
There are key policy issues that need to be addressed in the climate change plan. They include investing in the national infrastructure priority to improve the energy efficiency of homes, so I hope that the Conservatives will be supporting the Government’s proposals. We will introduce a warm homes bill to support accelerated deployment of renewable and district heating; and we will reduce transport emissions as well.
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve the quality of urban broadband. (S5O-00131)
Although commercial investment is the key driver of the quality of urban broadband networks, our investment through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme is improving coverage in a number of urban areas. At the same time, we engage regularly with telecoms suppliers to encourage investment, and we are working with Ofcom to ensure that the regulatory environment stimulates that investment and ensures quality of service.
During the election campaign and in recent weeks, I have met a number of constituents who have outlined to me the poor broadband levels that they are receiving in some parts of Edinburgh. The capital city has some of the greatest differences in broadband download speeds, with recent test results ranging from 0.47 megabits per second in Craiglockhart to 109.6 Mbps in Morningside. What action is the Scottish Government taking to address those urban variations in broadband provision, and when will the suppliers and providers of broadband be asked to address the variations?
I have met a number of the companies involved since I was appointed as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity. Plainly, our ambition is for everyone in Scotland to have a high-speed broadband connection, so we have set out a path to do that within the period that we set out in our manifesto.
However, the duty to provide service in city areas rests primarily with the commercial operators—it is not an obligation that rests on the public sector. I am sure that Miles Briggs did not intend to imply that it did, although many may have inferred just that. I am able to reassure him that where our responsibility rests, which is in tackling the gaps in other parts of Scotland, we are discharging that duty. As I have nine further questions on this, I hope to have ample opportunity to expand on the subject.
You have more than that, minister.
Can the cabinet secretary advise how much the Scottish Government has already invested in fibre broadband and how many premises in Scotland now have access to it?
That is an extremely helpful question. Thank you. [Laughter.]
I think that the public will wish to know the facts. The digital Scotland superfast broadband programme is delivering £400 million of investment, with the Scottish Government and public sector partners investing approximately £277 million to deliver fibre broadband coverage to at least 95 per cent of premises by the end of next year. I see a lot of faces on the Conservative side of the chamber—not all of them are smiling yet, but there is time.
The cabinet secretary will be aware of lower than hoped-for broadband speeds in my constituency of Ayr, particularly in the Wellington Square area, which is the heart of the business community and—coincidentally—where my office is located. Can he do anything to further encourage those who could provide us with better broadband speeds to do so forthwith?
The issue does not seem to have impeded the efficacy of John Scott’s output, so I am pleased about that. However, he has raised a perfectly good point, as have all members who have commented. The issue is plainly one of the priorities for us all across these islands over the next few years. It is absolutely serious, so it is vital that we work together—while not letting the commercial operators off the hook—collectively to deliver a better service. Without that, as Mr Scott pointed out, it is not possible for businesses to do their business and be open to market. It is a perfectly fair and reasonable point, so I am keen to work with all members to achieve the objectives that we have set out.
Beef and Lamb (Exports to USA)
To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the US Department of Agriculture regarding relaxing the import restrictions on Scottish beef and lamb. (S5O-00132)
Meetings with the US Department of Agriculture with regard to imports are carried out through the United Kingdom export certification partnership and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A number of those meetings have taken place to push for progress on opening the US market for United Kingdom beef and lamb. The US lifted its ban on European Union beef in 2014.
The previous rural affairs secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP, visited the US and Canada last year and secured a commitment from the USDA to set a clear timeline for the approval process for the importation of Scotch beef and lamb. As a result—largely, I may say, due to the efforts and persistence of my predecessor, Richard Lochhead—I am delighted that the US recently opened for consultation a proposed rule change to lift the ban on EU lamb.
Can the cabinet secretary indicate the value of the lifting of those restrictions to our red meat industry? Does it mean that haggis will finally be able to be served at Burns suppers in the US?
I cannot give a precise estimate, but I can say that the Republic of Ireland’s meat sector gained access last year and that exports of approximately £3 million of fresh and frozen beef were made to the US.
I would be absolutely delighted if haggis could once again be presented on the dining tables of the US of A. I would be happy to address personally the
“Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race”
on the occasion of a Burns supper held specially to celebrate the legalisation of haggis in the US.
I welcome the news that, in February, Scotch beef and lamb exports landed in Canada for the first time in 20 years. Can the minister provide an update as to the success or otherwise of red meat exports to the Canadian market?
I can certainly provide Mr Chapman with details of that. I will get the precise information on what data there are. I am really determined that we make progress with the lifting of the BSE ban. We have been BSE free for the requisite period and we are proceeding with the consultation as quickly as possible. I have had a meeting with meat wholesalers’ representatives and I am extremely well aware that there is now a great head of steam behind the application. Quality Meat Scotland has done great work. I am hopeful that we will see the lifting of the ban and the achievement of BSE-negligible status, which I think would be endorsed by all members.
To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making in providing high-speed broadband to rural areas and town centres that are served by exchange-only lines. (S5O-00133)
The Scottish Government is making substantial progress on the issue. Although delivering fibre broadband to exchange-only lines is more time consuming and complex, our investment through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has so far made available extended fibre broadband access to more than 170,000 homes and businesses served by exchange-only lines—with more being connected every day—in some of the hardest to reach communities across Scotland, as well as towns and cities.
Permit me to declare an interest in that, since superfast broadband came to my town of Stonehaven over three years ago in a blaze of publicity, I have still been unable to obtain a connection, as I am on an exchange-only line. Correspondence with digital Scotland has indicated that there is no timescale in place. Given the promises that the Government has made in recent months, would it be possible to achieve a programme and a timescale that will tell individuals who suffer from this disadvantage exactly when their problems will be solved?
I will certainly look into the position of Alex Johnstone’s case. The Scottish Government is committed to delivering 100 per cent superfast broadband across Scotland by 2021. Members will be interested to know that last week we published the prior information notice, which is the latest step in achieving that ambition. I am not entirely certain whether that procedure is appropriate for the problems relating to Alex Johnstone’s house, because I do not know its exact whereabouts, nor how it is classified. I would be happy to receive an invitation to it, which would help to put that right.
It is fair to say that all members across the chamber have had this issue raised by many constituents, and it has been raised by a great deal of businesses. We see that the issue has moved to the top of the agenda in Scotland, both for individuals in their ordinary lives and for businesses, and that is precisely why we have devoted so much public money to tackling the problems, while acknowledging that commercial operators should do their bit and pressuring them to do so. If I am asked more questions about the issue I will be very happy to elaborate further.
Although tens of thousands of homes have benefited from the Scottish Government’s investment in superfast broadband, there is some frustration among homes, particularly in rural areas, that are still without and are seeing other homes getting even faster broadband speeds. Can any pressure be brought to bear on BT to demand that it prioritise such homes, rather than be solely numbers driven?
We are in a contract with BT in the Highlands and Islands Enterprise area, as Richard Lochhead well knows, and we are in partnership with BT. The contract has proceeded well. In fact, as BT has gained more than the anticipated number of customers that was set out in the contract, under a gainshare clause we have received more money back to reinvest in additional coverage. That is evidence that our contract is fairly well framed and is delivering more benefits than were originally intended.
Of course, Richard Lochhead is absolutely right that some people are still not covered, and for them it is very little consolation that a great deal of people are now receiving coverage and have adequate broadband speeds.
We are pressing BT. Last week, when I met Brendan Dick and representatives of Openreach, I said that Openreach and BT need to improve their performance in Scotland. I was pleased that the tone of the meeting was constructive. In a number of respects, BT has indicated that it wants and plans to do more. I urge all members to join Richard Lochhead and me and make it known to BT and Openreach that Scotland deserves the best possible service. BT, in the position that it operates in, is of course the major player in providing the commercial solutions that are required.
Given concerns regarding BT’s monopoly position in delivering superfast broadband via exchange lines—not always efficiently—will the Scottish Government consider supporting other forms of delivery to homes and businesses, such as white space broadband?
We are open to various methods of delivering the objective that we all seek. A number of mechanisms are possible, and Kenneth Gibson mentions one that may fall into that category. One condition attached to the United Kingdom Government’s new state-aid scheme for broadband is that all major new public investment in broadband must be delivered via new procurements. That should allow us to drive more competition and deliver a better outcome, and we anticipate that reaching 100 per cent superfast coverage will involve a mix of technologies and delivery models, potentially including TV white space, which is currently being trialled in Orkney as part of the Scottish Government’s demonstrating digital programme.
The cabinet secretary said in his previous answer that BT had reached more people than had been intended under the contract. What percentage was in the contract? As I understand it, the promise made to Scotland was that 75 per cent of households would be reached by superfast broadband by the end of this year. My understanding is that in parts of the Highlands and Islands the figure is a little over 50 per cent. I would be interested to know what was in the contract.
It is fair to say that the progress that we have made has been acknowledged by Audit Scotland but there is much more to be done.
I will provide the member with the precise figures in relation to gainshare. I know that she has a serious interest in the issue and I apologise for being unable to meet her at lunch time today because of other matters; I meant to do that privately, but there we are—it is on the record. In all seriousness, I will provide her with full details and I will be happy to discuss that at our meeting, which I look forward to with great pleasure.
I noted with interest the cabinet secretary’s response to the question on the white space project that is being piloted in Orkney. Obviously, a wide range of technological solutions can help to deliver the superfast broadband commitment of 100 per cent by 2021. Will the cabinet secretary reassure my constituents that, if those in more outlying areas have access to it, they will not pay through the nose for it or pay far more than constituents in other parts of the country will pay?
Liam McArthur raises a fair point, which is well made. Of course, we do not want anyone in Orkney or any other rural or island community to pay more than someone in an urban community. That happens in many other cases. I see Mr Scott nodding sagely even as I speak—he does not really nod in any other fashion.
It is a perfectly fair point to make. I am not passing the buck when I say this, because it is a matter of fact that responsibility for the regulation of telephony rests with the United Kingdom so it is a matter for the Office of Communications and the UK Government, supervising Ofcom. Recently, I had a productive meeting with Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, as a result of which a number of things were to be taken forward. I am grateful for Mr McArthur’s point and will add it to my list.
Superfast Broadband (Impact of European Union Withdrawal)
To ask the Scottish Government what impact withdrawal from the European Union would have on the digital Scotland superfast broadband project. (S5O-00134)
The potential withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU will have no immediate impact on the Scottish Government’s digital Scotland superfast broadband programme—that is always a bit of a mouthful, Presiding Officer. The DSSB project covering the rest of Scotland benefited from funding from the 2007 to 2013 European regional development funding programme, but that has been drawn down in full.
The cabinet secretary will also be aware that changes to mobile roaming charges are due to be introduced in 2017. Is he concerned that Scots who are travelling in Europe will miss out on that benefit if Scotland is taken out of the EU against our will?
Ofcom sets the UK’s telecoms regulations in line with the principles that are set out in the EU’s regulatory framework. It is not yet clear how the UK Government will take forward post-Brexit telecoms regulation or to what extent it might diverge from the status quo. That includes the position on the imminent abolition of mobile roaming charges, which we all welcome.
I therefore recognise that there could be a need for the Scottish Government to engage with Ofcom and the EU regulatory bodies to protect Scotland’s interests on roaming charges and more widely to ensure that the regulatory framework continues and does more to improve rural coverage. I am delighted that Mr Russell and Ms Hyslop, who have the responsibility of ensuring that Scotland gets the best possible deal in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, will be taking the issue forward with me.
Farmers in Debt (Government Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to farmers who are in debt. (S5O-00135)
We are committed to providing support across the agricultural community. The whole farm review scheme provided financial advice and action planning to support farmers and crofters. It is now closed for applications and we will be announcing a new support scheme in the near future. The Scottish Government also works with the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution, having donated £50,000 in August 2015 to help the charity to fund financial assistance and support to people who have worked in Scotland in land-based occupations and who are suffering hardship.
Statistics that were released on Monday show that farm debt has risen to the highest level since records began in 1972. NFU Scotland says that increased debt has been caused by late support payments and lower market prices. Can the minister guarantee that the common agricultural policy payments will be made on time next year?
As I said yesterday, we have announced a package that will inject up to £300 million, and the aim is to do that in the first fortnight of November. I was very pleased that NFU Scotland welcomed that measure as an enormous contribution to the rural economy.
On the issue of debt, I appreciate fully that many farmers have had a difficult time because of a number of factors, including difficult prices across a range of their activities. I would also point out, however, for the sake of accuracy—it was somehow omitted from the points that other members from the Conservative ranks made on the same issue yesterday—that, although the level of debt among farmers has risen by a certain amount in Scotland, it has risen by a greater amount south of the border. Farmers right across the UK have increased their debt and it is entirely wrong to say that it is a Scotland-only matter. Nevertheless, it is a serious issue, so we continue to work with the banks, which have provided enormous help. I am slightly surprised that we have not heard some recognition of that support from other members, but perhaps that is just an inadvertent omission.
I thank the cabinet secretary for his comprehensive answers, although I apologise to all the members whom I was unable to call.
NextPoint of Order