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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 18 April 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Points of Order, Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Artificial Intelligence


Portfolio Question Time

Community Right-to-buy Applications

To ask the Scottish Government how many community right-to-buy applications have been received in the last 24 months and what proportion has been approved. (S5O-01977)

Since April 2016, the Scottish Government has received a total of 35 applications from 19 different community groups, which is consistent with the number of applications in total since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was passed. Seventeen of the 35 applications have been approved, from 12 out of the 19 groups, and three applications are still under consideration.

Kirkmaiden Community Harbour Trust has had its right to buy Drummore harbour accepted by the Scottish Government but has been waiting for more than a year to hear a final decision from the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer about taking over the running of the harbour. I completely understand that due diligence must be carried out, but a wait of more than 12 months is unacceptable. Will the cabinet secretary intervene in the case to ensure that the trust can take over the running of the harbour without further delay?

It would be helpful if the member wrote to me with the specific detail of that application. If the application has been agreed by me, I would hope and expect it to have been expedited rather sooner than that, but the member will understand that it is a little difficult for me to comment without knowing more of the detail behind the case.

Will the cabinet secretary say what steps the Scottish Government is taking to increase awareness and uptake of the community right to buy, particularly in urban areas? Can she give examples of projects that can inspire other community groups? In my constituency, Stirling, the remarkable project to refurbish Bannockburn house is a fantastic example; any other example that the cabinet secretary can provide would be very useful.

I have visited Bannockburn house and seen the tremendously good work that is being done there. As with all such projects, it will be a long process. If members are looking for really good examples of the urban right to buy, I direct them to Action Porty, which made the first urban community right-to-buy application and successfully completed the purchase of a church in Bellfield Street, in Portobello, at the end of 2017. I know that the group has tremendous plans and every intention that they will come to fruition.

There is a growing interest from urban communities in the right-to-buy provisions. We do as much as we can to encourage urban communities to think about making applications. Last month, Community Land Scotland published a report on community ownership in urban areas, which provides an overview of current urban community ownership. The report is available on Community Land Scotland’s website, for people who are interested.

Electric Vehicle Charging Points

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve the provision and variety of locations of charging points for electric vehicles. (S5O-01978)

As we announced in the programme for government, we are rapidly increasing our efforts to support electric vehicles, to ensure that by 2032 we will have phased out the need to buy petrol or diesel cars and vans. We continue to work with Scottish local authorities and partners to increase provision of charging points across urban and rural Scotland, in homes, workplaces, public and private car parks and housing estates, as well as on street. Details of our plans will be announced in the coming months.

I raise with the minister the case of a constituent who wished to use the Government’s generous scheme to install a charging point but was denied permission to do so by his housing association. Does the minister agree that we should encourage, rather than discourage, the installation of charging points? I invite the minister to have further discussions with the housing minister about encouraging developers to consider the inclusion of charging points in their housing plans.

I have already had a conversation with the housing minister about this issue and he is very much in alignment with the vision.

I know about the case that the member mentions, because he has raised it with me previously and my officials liaised with the relevant housing association to ensure that a solution could be found. I am pleased to say that, following the discussions, the housing association is now applying for a grant to install electric vehicle charging, which will allow residents to make the switch to an electric vehicle. I am keen to see the uptake of electric vehicles across Scotland. Officials will follow up with that specific housing association but, on the back of that, perhaps they should also get in touch with the housing association umbrella bodies across Scotland to remind them of the generous Government schemes, so that more people can take up electric vehicles.

If we have quick answers to the supplementaries, I will be able to get them all in.

In extending the network of charging points, the minister will be aware of the importance of ensuring that they are maintained so that the public can have confidence in their reliability. Will the minister update Parliament on the steps that are being taken to improve maintenance and to ensure that, when there are faults, there is an automatic default to free-vend at these charging points?

I know that the member has an interest in this and that Orkney leads the way when it comes to the number of electric vehicles per head of population. Liam McArthur has raised the point about the reliability of charging points with me previously, so perhaps I can give him more of a detailed update offline. However, his suggestion for the default setting is worthy of consideration and we are considering it fully.

I have had a request from one of my general practitioners to have a charging point installed at his practice. Does the minister agree that, if charging points are installed at health centres and other council buildings and the like, it will encourage more people to switch to hybrid or electric-powered cars? What more can the Scottish Government do to enable the smooth and swift installation of charging points at such locations?

It is worth saying that Scotland has a good network of charging points with around 800 across the country, 175 of which are rapid chargers. The distance between charging points is also very good—the average distance in Scotland is about 2.7 miles compared to 4 miles in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Where it makes sense to install charging points, such as hospitals, GP practices and clinics, our generous schemes should allow that to happen. I will update Parliament in the coming months on our plans and the milestones that we need to reach to ensure an increase in the uptake of electric vehicles. As part of that, I will of course consider the member’s suggestion.

The Government’s targets are undoubtedly ambitious and, according to WWF, we are ranked fifth in the world. However, it is clear that we need to step up our activity and the roll-out of charging points. What consideration is the Scottish Government giving to changing building standards to require all new-build houses to include a charging point?

Some developers have already chosen to take that step voluntarily, and it is positive to see that they are building houses with the right cabling infrastructure to allow for charging points. The issue is part of the conversation that I am having with the housing minister, and I will allow him to keep members updated on that. The member is, however, absolutely right that there has to be a step change in our actions on this. As I have said, we have a comprehensive network of charging points, but that will have to be expanded rapidly in the coming few years. Daniel Johnson’s idea about using building regulations and planning has been considered and, when we are ready to update him and Parliament, I will make sure that he knows.

Will the mandatory inclusion of electric charging points in new housing developments, particularly affordable housing, be introduced in the new planning legislation?

Again, that question is one for the minister responsible for planning. All I can say at this stage is that those conversations have taken place within the Government. Kevin Stewart will know more about the legal ins and outs and, as I have just said to Daniel Johnson, when we are ready to update Parliament, we will do so at the earliest opportunity.

Questions 3 and 4 have not been lodged.

Low-emission Zones (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress with developing the Glasgow low-emission zone. (S5O-01981)

On 20 March, Glasgow City Council published an update report in relation to progress on developing the Glasgow low-emission zone, with a further update expected to be published in June.

A report last year by the World Health Organization found that Glasgow is one of the most polluted areas in the United Kingdom, with poorer air quality than London. I am pleased to hear that the low-emission zone will be implemented by the end of the year, particularly now that the situation has been described as a health emergency.

Can the minister give assurances that the Scottish Government will work with Glasgow City Council to ensure that businesses in the city are not adversely affected, and that we will finally see pollution levels drop?

I can absolutely give that assurance. I have had good and positive discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses and, separately, with the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. It is worth putting on the record the fact that neither of those organisations saw a conflict between business growth, economic growth and the environment and their duties towards it, which I found positive.

The report on the establishment of the low-emission zone in Glasgow is going through its various stages in committees, as people attempt to ensure that it is as ambitious as it should be and, equally, that no damage is done as a result of unintended consequences. I know that all the parties that are represented in Glasgow City Council, including the Conservatives, have supported the principle of low-emission zones, and I hope that that cross-party consensus continues.

One of the requirements around the low-emission zone involves ensuring that all buses are retrofitted in such a way that they are low-emission compliant. More than 3,000 buses need to meet that requirement. Can the minister detail the timescales and associated costs of that work, and is he confident that that target can be met by the end of 2018?

I suggest that James Kelly looks at the report on Glasgow’s plans in order to get a better idea of them. The plans do not suggest that 100 per cent of buses will be compliant with the Euro 6 standard by the end of 2018. As is the case with all low-emission zones, there will be a lead-in time that includes some phasing. If my memory serves me correctly, I think that around 20 per cent of buses will meet that standard by the end of 2018, with around 40 per cent of buses meeting the standard by the end of 2019 and so on. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth have requested that Glasgow City Council should be more ambitious in that regard, and it is of course worth listening to that call to be as ambitious as possible.

We will provide support and funding—a significant proportion of the £10.8 million that we are investing will be for bus retrofitting and abatement. We will do what we can, from a Government perspective. It is right that local authorities give details with regard to what is practically possible while also being as ambitious as possible. As I said, I refer James Kelly to Glasgow City Council’s report, and also suggest that he speaks directly to the council.

Given that the poor, the sick, our children and the elderly are most at risk from the health consequences of air pollution in Glasgow and our other post-industrial built-up areas, such as those in my constituency of Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse and other areas across Lanarkshire, does the minister agree with the British Heart Foundation when it says that now is the time for everyone to come together to implement workable and effective solutions to this problem?

I whole-heartedly agree with the British Heart Foundation that now is the time for everyone to come together to implement workable and effective solutions to the problem. As the member will be aware, the British Heart Foundation joined the clean air for Scotland group, bringing valuable research and campaigning experience to it, and we have committed to introducing low-emission zones to our four largest cities. Of course, we have also established routes by which further air quality management areas can be rolled out in the time after that.

The time to prepare for low-emission zones is now, and I am delighted that the British Heart Foundation is bringing its valuable experience to the table.

Wetlands (Protection of Wildlife)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether its interpretation of the Ramsar convention gives wildlife at wetland sites less protection than that provided by the United Kingdom Government. (S5O-01982)

Ramsar sites in Scotland are given legal protection through co-designation as special areas of conservation, special protection areas or sites of special scientific interest. That is the legal position, which I set out in my answer of 21 February. Further to that answer, I can clarify and confirm that it continues to be Scottish Government policy to apply the same level of protection to Ramsar sites as that which is afforded to designated Natura sites. That provides Ramsar sites in Scotland with the same level of protection as Ramsar sites throughout the rest of the UK.

Given that the Scottish Government has committed to applying that welcome level of protection, how does the cabinet secretary expect that that will affect planning authorities’ consideration of planning proposals that affect Ramsar sites, and Scottish Natural Heritage’s advice to planning authorities regarding them?

I need to be careful not to stray too much into the planning side. There has been no divergence in policy. The policy was expressed in the Scottish planning policy in 2010, which reflects the legal position. We are not aware of non-governmental organisations having raised any issues when the SPP was published.

Nothing has changed since then. It remains our policy to treat Ramsar sites as though they were Natura 2000 sites. I confirm that SNH is aware of the long-standing Scottish Government policy, as well as the legal position in relation to Ramsar sites in Scotland.

Government policy has not changed since it was stated in the answer that was given to a parliamentary question in 2004 by the then responsible minister, Lewis Macdonald.

Marine Environment

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure the long-term protection of the marine environment, in light of reports that humpback whales are returning to Scottish waters. (S5O-01983)

The position shows that our robust approach to environmental management, which is delivered through marine planning, licensing and direct conservation action, is working. Current conservation actions include progressing towards a well-managed network of marine protected areas, which already cover 20 per cent of our seas; improving the protection that is given to vulnerable marine ecosystems; and evaluating options for creating a deep-sea marine reserve.

Dolphins and porpoises are also regularly seen in our coastal waters. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the Scottish Government’s work to conserve those charismatic species?

A dolphin and porpoise conservation strategy is currently being developed to ensure that threats to and pressures on those species are being addressed in United Kingdom waters. As it happens, a two-day stakeholder workshop will be held in Edinburgh tomorrow and the day after to inform the strategy’s development. It is intended that a public consultation on the strategy will begin before the end of the year, with implementation of the strategy expected to begin during 2019.

The strategy is part of our long-term commitment to meet national and international conservation standards for not just marine mammals but the wider marine environment. Regardless of our future relationship with the European Union, the Scottish Government is committed to maintaining protection of the environment to robust international standards where we have devolved responsibility, and we hope and expect that the UK Government intends to do the same.

Given the cabinet secretary’s responsibility for our marine environment, will she outline any discussions that she has had with Marine Scotland with regard to the data that has been recorded on the environmental impact of electrofishing trials that are being carried out in Scotland, and how that data has been collected?

The electrofishing trials that Finlay Carson referred to are a particular policy of the rural economy portfolio. I will ask Fergus Ewing to respond to the member in more detail, but I can say that both Fergus Ewing and I have constant conversations in respect of issues such as data management, and those conversations will continue to ensure that we have the best possible knowledge base to direct future policy in that area.

What plans does the Scottish Government have for managing activities such as the more unregulated type of boat tourism that are most likely to impact on whale and marine mammal recovery?

Neil Findlay will need to give me specific information if there are particular issues in relation to marine tourism, which is a very important part of the rural tourism offer in Scotland. I have not been made aware at any point of there being difficulties, although I understand that there is an emerging concern about potential disturbance. If the member is happy, I will ensure that he gets a more detailed update on the specific issue of that potential disturbance, although no specific concerns have been raised with me directly.

Question 8 was not lodged and question 9 was withdrawn. If we are quick about it, we can fit in question 10.

Animal Welfare (Pets of Rough Sleepers)

I will be as speedy as I can be, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government what animal welfare policies it has regarding pets of rough sleepers. (S5O-01986)

Of course, we take the welfare of all animals seriously and we are committed to policies that improve the health and welfare of animals in Scotland. There are, however, no specific animal welfare policies regarding the pets of rough sleepers. Under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, all owners of animals are responsible for the welfare of those animals in their control.

We do not for one minute suggest that rough sleepers do not provide their pets with the best care that they are able to provide—indeed, there is no information that that is an issue. We are, however, aware that there is good work being done, including the provision of veterinary assistance, by organisations such as the Dogs Trust, PDSA, Street Vet and All4Paws.

Indeed, there is clear evidence that rough sleepers are often particularly kind to their pets.

Only three hostels in Scotland accept pets, and they are all in Edinburgh. Many homeless people may give up the chance of shelter for the night if it means leaving their pets alone. Does the minister acknowledge the importance of the issue to a particularly vulnerable group of people, and will she confirm whether she will consider how access to accommodation for homeless people who own pets could be expanded?

As the member will know, that is probably more a question for the housing minister. However, I would have to have not been reading anything in the press not to be aware of the wider concerns. Indeed, when I have visited animal homes and sanctuaries, I have seen pets, including dogs and cats, that are there because people have changed tenure or moved from one landlord to another and have been unable to take animals with them. That is a particular concern in respect of people who are homeless.

We have a code of guidance on homelessness that recommends that, as a matter of good practice, a local authority should consider providing assistance with the kennelling of any pets if an applicant is not able to keep them in their temporary accommodation. There is also the Pet Fostering Service Scotland—for those who are not aware of it, there is a website where they can get information about that service.

The member may at least be satisfied to hear that I raised the issue directly with Kevin Stewart when I saw the member’s question. I also raised Claudia Beamish’s “paws clause” campaign with the housing minister.

That concludes questions on the environment, climate change and land reform.

Edinburgh South Suburban Railway Line (Passenger Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on reinstating passenger services on the Edinburgh south suburban railway line. (S5O-01987)

There are currently no plans to reintroduce passenger services on the Edinburgh south suburban line.

The Scottish Government will, however, support development work that is to be carried out by Network Rail on the electrification of the Edinburgh suburban line, which will provide a route for freight services. That will enable them to be removed from Waverley station and will provide a diversionary route for cross-border and local passenger services should issues arise at the station.

The matter was last looked at formally such a long time ago that Tavish Scott was the minister who was responsible. Given that we now have trams in Edinburgh, given the concerns about increased traffic and given that the line is going to be electrified, is it not now time to carry out a proper feasibility study into the scheme?

Will the minister agree to convene a meeting with key stakeholders such as Network Rail, ScotRail, City of Edinburgh Council and Transport Scotland to look at how such a feasibility study could be carried out, following on from Tavish Scott’s excellent previous work?

Hear, hear.

I am sure that, like any former transport minister, having seen the beast from the east, Tavish Scott is probably happy that he is no longer the transport minister—but that is enough of the utopian days when Tavish Scott was the transport minister.

The member is right—2008 was the last time that the scheme was in the strategic transport projects review. It was not taken further because the business case was deemed to be poor. At the time, the city council and SEStran—the south east of Scotland transport partnership—were happy with that recommendation.

For the development and enhancement of new rail lines and the additional rolling stock that would be needed, a business case must be put together. We have, of course, agreed to a recent budget that put forward a £2 million rail development fund. Daniel Johnson may wish to look at those details, as it would be for him and the interested parties to put together that business case for the next control period, which will be from 2019 to 2024. We are not closed minded about projects. If there is new information, he and the other partners and stakeholders should put that together. There are appropriate funds to help with its feasibility.

Will the minister speed the answer train up a wee bit, so we can get through all the questions? I will take a supplementary question from Jamie Greene.

Daniel Johnson makes a valid point. There is the potential for tram-trains to run on that line, helping to ease congestion on the roads as well as providing opportunities for freight. The previous ScotRail chief, Phil Verster, supported the idea of tram-trains running on that line. Does the minister know ScotRail’s current position on the matter? I reiterate Daniel Johnson’s question: will the minister or his department agree to meet relevant stakeholders to progress the proposal?

I should have said that there is no problem with Transport Scotland meeting, and maybe guiding, the people who promote particular rail lines or, indeed, stations. We will continue to be happy to do that.

I do not know the current position of the managing director of ScotRail. I would not like to put words in his mouth, but I suspect that it will be not be too different from my position, which is that, if there is a business case, it must go through the appropriate process and we must be sure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. As I have said, a fund is available for feasibility development.

The minister always encourages groups to come to him with proposals about rail although I never hear that encouragement from him in relation to roads. Why will the Scottish Government not take the lead on rail, as it does on road?

The Government does take the lead; the Borders railway is a great example of our doing that in working with local partners. However, there is a process to go through. We are willing to do a lot more on rail, and control period 6—2019 to 2024—provides opportunities not just for local authorities and regional transport partnerships but for the Government to think of enhancements. If Daniel Johnson has suggestions, I will be more than happy to meet him to explore them in more detail.

Food and Drink Sector

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the food and drink sector in developing and growing markets. (S5O-01989)

Developing and growing markets at home and abroad is a key part of ambition 2030, the national food and drink strategy. We are providing £4 million of funding to target new export markets through the Scotland food and drink export plan and are also developing a new United Kingdom market strategy with Scotland Food & Drink to target more opportunities in Scotland and across the UK.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity recently announced funding of £250,000 to establish a new regional food fund, which will provide small grants to enable local producers to grow sales and markets by promoting their food and drink products from throughout Scotland. The fund will be open to applications in May.

Is the minister aware that a recent agreement between the UK and Hong Kong Governments on areas of priority for future trade collaboration made no mention of food and drink? Does he share my concern that one of Scotland’s key sectors might be affected by future trade deals after Brexit? If so, how can that concern be addressed?

I am astounded but not altogether surprised by the agreement. Scottish food and drink makes up more than a quarter—27 per cent—of total food and drink exports from the UK, so it is hugely important. The fact that a trade deal with Hong Kong has been discussed and is at a detailed stage, according to the UK Government, without a mention of food and drink should worry every single one of us. I am used to the UK Government treating Scotland as an afterthought, but, in this case, it seems that we are not even that.

Does the minister agree that, at a time when the food and drink sector is growing, it remains a scandal that many children in Scotland still go to bed hungry at night and that one of the fastest-growing sectors is food banks, which are desperately trying to keep up with increasing demand? Does the minister agree that the forthcoming good food nation bill should be used to enshrine in law the right to food and should pave the way for action to end the national shame of food poverty in Scotland?

We undoubtedly have absolute agreement on the shame of food banks. Most members across the chamber will have visited their local food bank, and all of us will have said the same thing: that they provide a great service but that we wish that they did not exist. There is no doubt that anybody whom we speak to at food banks will say that austerity is one of the driving causes behind people having to visit them.

I will pass the detail of Mr Smyth’s suggestion to the appropriate minister and will ensure that the member receives written details of our plans.

Rural Bus Services

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve rural bus services. (S5O-01990)

The Scottish Government is committed to improving rural bus services. The Government is providing to the bus industry funding of over £250 million in the current financial year to support the overall bus network, to maintain routes that would otherwise not be viable, to help passengers with the cost of fares, including concessionary fares, and to support local authorities to run services that they deem to be socially necessary but that are, perhaps, not commercially viable. The forthcoming transport bill will give local authorities the flexibility to pursue partnership working or local franchising, or to run their own bus services, which will allow them to respond better to local needs.

I thank the minister for that answer, drafted by a civil servant.

Across the country, we see rising fares, routes being cut and communities being left isolated and frustrated. Are services improving or are they getting worse?

There is, of course, a mixed picture. For example, patronage has increased on Lothian Buses but has declined in other areas. That is why I will introduce a transport bill.

I remind Neil Findlay that Labour may well talk the talk, but it is the Scottish National Party Government that walks the walk. In 13 years in power at Westminster and eight years in power at Holyrood, Labour never regulated the buses, and Labour never brought in franchising, but the SNP will. Labour never allowed for municipally owned bus companies, but the SNP will.

Neil Findlay should stick to what he does best, which is bluff, bluster and make jokes that only he laughs at. I will stick to my day job, and I am sure that everybody will be happier for it.

In my constituency of Renfrewshire South, communities including Lochwinnoch have experienced a decline in bus services over the past decade. There is a tension between limited demand and the commercial imperatives of operators. Will the minister outline how the upcoming transport bill can provide an important opportunity for the whole sector to improve bus services and to tackle declining patronage?

The transport bill will contain a range of measures, some of which I outlined in my previous answer. There will be measures on partnership, local franchising, the potential for municipally owned bus companies, more open data and smart ticketing. All those will undoubtedly help, but none of them is a magic bullet. I should say that local action will also be needed. Glasgow has a connectivity commission headed by David Begg that is looking at issues including on-street car parking and bus priority lanes. A mixture of national and local action is needed.

Aberdeenshire Council, which is in my region, has to subsidise 64 out of 123 routes, many of which are in rural areas. Last month, the council announced proposals to remove eight of those routes and to reduce the service on two of them. It had no other option, given that its budget for this year is decreasing by 4.36 per cent in real terms. How can the cabinet secretary continue to say that the Government is improving rural bus services?

I am not convinced that that is what I said. In my answer to Neil Findlay, I said that there is a mixed picture across the country. In some areas patronage is declining, and in other areas there is an increase. The Borders, where Borders Buses has recently been created, is an example of a rural area where the bus market is doing better than it was previously. There is a mixed bag.

The measures that we bring forward in the transport bill will give local authorities more powers to improve bus services, both rural and urban. I look forward to the Conservatives supporting that bill, as I hope will be the case, given what Peter Chapman said.

Extreme Weather (Support for Farmers and Crofters)

As a member for a constituency where there are a large number of people whose families still live as farmers and crofters—

Excuse me, Mr Kidd, but could you ask the question that you lodged?

No problem. I just said that in case my question sounded weird.

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to farmers and crofters who face adverse financial circumstances following the recent extreme weather. (S5O-01991)

There is no doubt that the prolonged adverse weather that has been experienced since last summer has had significant impacts on farmers and crofters in different parts of the country. Acknowledging that, we set up the weather panel last autumn as an effective platform for rapidly sharing information, promoting best practice and encouraging co-operation across the farming and crofting sectors to address both short-term and long-term issues.

I am delighted that we have announced today a package of measures to support farmers, including £250,000 for fallen stock. We are taking steps to open discussions with the industry to explore how we can address shortages of feed and fodder.

We are also conscious that we need to build greater resilience and collaborative solutions across the sector that enable farmers and crofters to work together to get through short-term situations. That will be a key focus for the weather panel in the next few months.

In addition to what that interesting reply contained, with regard to the personal situations of farmers and crofters, what progress has been made to deliver the less favoured area support scheme loans to hill and upland farmers and crofters, who are likely to be feeling the financial impacts of recent weather the most? Those financial impacts are fairly obvious, but less visible is the toll that the weather and its pressures are having on farmers’ and crofters’ wellbeing, and especially their mental health.

That is a good point.

With regard to the LFASS loans, the 2017 loan offers, which are worth £57.4 million, have gone out to 10,828 farmers and crofters, which is 97 per cent of those whom we expect to be eligible for LFASS payments. We are offering 90 per cent of their estimated final payment as a loan, and so far we have processed £44.8 million in loan payments to 7,298 farmers and crofters.

Bill Kidd’s second point is a very good one. I heard Fergus Ewing speaking well on that topic on the radio. It was welcomed by NFU Scotland, which has made a financial donation to the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Society to help that organisation to provide vital practical and emotional support for people who work in the agriculture sector.

For anyone who might not be aware of it, I say that farming can be a very lonely livelihood, and the long winter could have exacerbated unfortunate mental health issues. Therefore the additional support and financial assistance to the RSABI has been welcomed.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Meetings)

I remind Parliament that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary for the rural economy.

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and what was discussed. (S5O-01992)

On 26 March, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity met George Eustice, the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as part of a series of regular ministerial meetings between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations. Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, and officials from the Northern Ireland Executive were also in attendance. The main items that were discussed were the European Council meeting on 22 and 23 March, the UK Government’s proposed fisheries bill and environmental ambitions, frameworks and funding.

I am interested to hear about any welfare issues that might have been discussed. The minister might be aware of various “Take the lead” campaigns, including those that are sponsored by Scottish Natural Heritage and The Scottish Farmer. Those campaigns aim to promote responsible dog ownership—in order to protect the welfare of animals, including sheep—among people who access the countryside with dogs through their preventing their dogs from worrying livestock, wildlife and sheep.

Can the minister outline what actions the Scottish Government is taking to tackle the sheep worrying, mutilation and death that are caused by uncontrolled dogs in South Scotland, as well as in other farming areas?

The Scottish Government takes that important welfare issue seriously. I know that it is an issue that Emma Harper has been campaigning on and championing for a while. The Scottish Government fully supports all steps that are taken to protect sheep from out-of-control dogs. The consequences of sheep worrying can be devastating all year round, and especially during the lambing season.

The Scottish Natural Heritage campaign has our whole-hearted support. It emphasises why dog owners have to act responsibly by ensuring that their dogs are kept under effective control in the countryside, including when they are around livestock.

It might be helpful to confirm that the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 criminalises any dog owner who allows their dog to worry sheep. In addition, local authorities could consider creating byelaw controls for dogs that are an issue. Local authorities can also issue dog control notices, including when an out-of-control dog is close to livestock, under the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010.

The Scottish Government always keeps laws under review and fully supports effective enforcement of the law in the matter by justice agencies and local authorities.

I am sure that the minister is aware that the NFU Scotland and Serco NorthLink have today asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, to come to Aberdeen and see the transport system that ensures that livestock are moved between the northern isles and the Scottish mainland in a way that is entirely consistent with international regulations. Will the Scottish Government ensure that the UK Government does not do anything that stops that? The minister might also want to reflect on the fact that the system was introduced and paid for under a previous “utopian” regime.

I knew that I should not have set that one up for Tavish Scott to volley back.

I will do that and take the issue offline with Tavish Scott. I am due to visit Shetland and Orkney later this month. Perhaps I can engage on that issue when I am up there. I will, of course, mention it to the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity.

Post-Brexit Agricultural Support

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to publish its proposals for agricultural support after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. (S5O-01993)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity set out key principles for the Government’s vision for the future of farming and food production in a keynote speech at the NFU Scotland annual general meeting in February, in which the twin roles of farmers as food producers and custodians of the countryside were highlighted. I hope that the Scottish Tories will fully support those principles and that approach and that they will support the Government’s and the Parliament’s efforts to have all the powers over agricultural policy and funding that we need in order to realise a productive and sustainable future for Scottish farming and crofting transferred from Brussels to Scotland should we leave the EU.

Given that it is outlined in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs document “Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit” that the UK Government is to maintain the same cash total funding for the sector until 2022—Michael Gove has reiterated that commitment—it seems that the Scottish Government’s official line that

“There is a lack of clarity from the UK Government regarding the guarantee of funding”

is redundant. Given that NFU Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates and many others have put their plans on the table in light of those assurances, why has the Scottish Government failed to act?

There is sometimes a lack of self-awareness from the Conservatives that I find remarkable. They are a little bit like the arsonist who asks about health and safety after he has burned down the entire village.

Although the UK Government has put forward what it claims to be a policy, there is, of course, no detail at all on that. To nick a Churchillian phrase, it is

“a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

We have a twin-pronged approach. We have our Government champions, of course, and the National Council of Rural Advisers is doing a heck of lot of work on the agenda. We are waiting for its report, which will come soon; we will then update Parliament.

To end on a positive note, I welcome Liam Kerr’s Damascene conversion. While his Tory colleagues are trying to use the courts to enforce their power grab from the Scottish Parliament, at least Liam Kerr believes that those powers should remain in Scotland. He will get full support on that from the Scottish Government.

Given that the majority of UK-bound less favoured area support scheme payments from the European Union go to Scottish farmers, is the minister aware of any UK Government plans to put in place a similar scheme post-Brexit? Has an impact assessment on LFASS withdrawal from the Scottish agricultural sector been done?

No. The cabinet secretary has, of course, asked time and again for more detail from the UK Government. [Interruption.] I can hear the Conservatives chuntering from the sidelines. Instead of doing that, it would be great if they joined the Scottish Government in putting pressure on the UK Government to give reassurance to our farmers, who are such a vital sector for Scotland. Everybody around the chamber would, of course, be happy to give the Conservatives support in cajoling the UK Government to give that reassurance to farmers, who desperately need it.

That concludes portfolio questions.