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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 18, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Road Safety (Falkirk), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Shared Prosperity Fund and Levelling Up Agenda, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Rural Affairs and Islands

The next item of business is portfolio question time, on the rural affairs and islands portfolio. I remind members that questions 3 and 7 are grouped together, and I will therefore take supplementaries on those questions after they have both been answered. Otherwise, if a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate so in the chat function by entering R during the relevant question.


Avian Influenza

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring that keepers of birds and poultry, and the general public, are informed and able to respond to cases of the avian influenza virus. (S6O-00388)

The Scottish Government, through its operational partners, has written to all known poultry keepers in the avian influenza protection and surveillance zone in Angus to inform them of the mandatory biosecurity controls that are in place and where to get help.

The Scottish Government meets key poultry industry stakeholders regularly to discuss the avian influenza situation. Keepers of poultry or other captive birds, as well as members of the public, are routinely informed of current risk levels, disease outbreak information, disease prevention guidance and the introduction of mandatory heightened biosecurity measures through social media, SMS messages, news releases and updates on the Government’s website.

As the cabinet secretary said, there have been cases in Angus, as well as in my Mid Scotland and Fife region. The United Kingdom is currently an avian influenza prevention zone, which means that strict biosecurity measures are in place. More than one million households across Britain now keep chickens, but registration is a legal requirement only for keepers of larger flocks. How confident is the cabinet secretary that those with smaller numbers of birds are keeping up to date with their responsibilities, including self-assessment in relation to the prevention zone status? What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that that is the case?

I completely accept the member’s point and the concern that she raises regarding other keepers; our communications are vital in that regard. The risk of incursion of avian influenza from migratory birds across the globe is continually assessed, and it was the recent reports that triggered the campaign messaging by the Scottish Government to encourage preparedness ahead of the anticipated outbreak season.

As I said in my initial response, the Government promotes preventative messaging using our social media channels, news releases and other media, and we use those methods to reach out specifically to our audiences in rural areas, where much of the livestock are kept. There are challenges in trying to reach smaller backyard keepers of fewer than 50 birds, but I assure Claire Baker, and other members in the chamber, that we are working hard to ensure that our communications reach them.

Given that the outbreak of avian influenza is affecting other UK nations—cases have been recently confirmed in England and Wales—can the cabinet secretary outline what engagement the Scottish Government has had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the matter?

I am happy to do so. The Scottish Government meets daily, in a range of meetings, with DEFRA, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, to take stock of current outbreaks and the on-going actions that are being taken to try to control the disease.

We also meet operational partners and key stakeholders daily, to keep apprised of the current situation, and to share information on actions that are being taken to control the disease at infected premises and the surrounding area and on the tracing and surveillance activity that is required to try to prevent the spread of disease.

The most recent assessment of the current risk for wild birds, poultry and other captive birds from highly pathogenic avian influenza in the UK and Europe was published on 10 November. Work is under way to update that with the most recent findings, and the chief veterinary officers of the UK will need to discuss the assessment’s findings and whether further preventative actions need to be taken.


Rural Economy (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the rural economy in the north-east. (S6O-00389)

The Scottish Government provides significant support to the rural economy in the north-east through its £125 million contribution towards the Aberdeen city region deal, and through a further £254 million investment alongside that to support road, rail, housing and digital projects across the region.

Working with partners, communities and other stakeholders, our investment in innovation, digital connectivity and infrastructure will help to diversify the regional economy, create new jobs and aid in the transition to a net zero economy. That includes work, on which Scottish Enterprise leads, to deliver a number of transformational projects in the north-east. Within the Aberdeen City region deal, the £21 million seedpod project, which has been co-created with industry, will provide support to help the region become a leader in low-carbon food production and environmental sustainability.

Non-delivery of the reaching 100 per cent—R100—broadband programme in the north-east and rural Scotland is seriously hindering businesses, communities and the delivery of national health service care while increasing rural inequalities. It recently emerged in The Press and Journal that the roll-out has slipped again to the end of the 2026-27 financial year. How will the Scottish Government compensate our rural communities for the six-year broadband delay that it has caused?

I am sorry, but I simply refuse to accept the member’s assertion, given that the programme is a reserved matter and that the Scottish Government has gone above and beyond to pay for the roll-out of the infrastructure. That job should have been done, and that investment should have been made, by the United Kingdom Government.

Seed potato merchants in my constituency have been in touch with me to ask for my support for their letter to the Prime Minister, as they face exclusion from exporting to European Union markets and Northern Ireland as a result of the Brexit deal. My constituents say that the UK Government has made no attempt to protect them, and has, instead, allowed EU imports of seed potatoes to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What communication has the Scottish Government had with its UK Government counterparts on that matter, and how is it assisting the seed potato sector, which is vital to the north-east rural economy?

The member is right: it is a vital industry, particularly in the areas that we both represent and across the north-east. The Scottish Government absolutely shares the concerns that the seed potato industry has raised.

The Scottish seed and ware potato industry is a vital part of our successful rural economy, particularly in the north-east as I said. Regrettably, the situation is another example of a Scottish industry being disproportionately impacted by EU exit. It is also an example of the UK Government’s failure to secure through negotiations with the EU an outcome that could have protected that key Scottish industry as far as possible from the impacts of EU exit.

Finding a resolution to the situation is an absolute priority for the Scottish Government. We have raised concerns with the UK Government from the outset about the serious impact on the seed potato market of losing access to the EU and Northern Ireland market. That includes raising the matter in the regular meetings of the interministerial groups, as well as engaging regularly with our UK Government counterparts and seed potato industry representatives.

The Scottish Government has written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to request an urgent update on progress on the UK equivalence application with the EU for our seed potatoes, as well as to seek assurance that Scottish seed potato producers will not be placed at a commercial disadvantage against suppliers from the EU in supplying seed to ware potato growers in England while we do not have reciprocal trade with the EU.


Food and Drink Supply Chain (Staff Shortages)

To ask the Scottish Government, in relation to the impact on the food and drink supply chain, what its response is to a recent survey of 1,000 United Kingdom businesses by Gallagher, which reportedly found that many businesses have been affected by a shortage of staff because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of Brexit regulations. (S6O-00390)

I am aware of the report that Gallagher has published. Although much of the detail covers the retail sector, its findings nonetheless provide further evidence, as Covid-19 continues to ravage our society and economy, of the extraordinary recklessness of a hard Brexit that took us out of the European Union, single market and customs union.

In the light of that research, does the cabinet secretary share my view that the pursuit of a hard Brexit, which has been forced on Scotland at the height of an unprecedented public health crisis, amounts to nothing less than an act of governmental vandalism that put ideology ahead of the needs of our economy?

I absolutely agree with that. More important, industry would agree with that, too. James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, said:

“Brexit has been an enormous shock to the labour market; a Brexit implemented in the middle of a pandemic, when supply chains were already straining.”

There is no doubt that the harm that is being caused by Brexit to Scotland’s economy, especially in the rural parts of it, for which I have responsibility, will be long lasting. The most recent research suggests that many exporters are thinking about relocating to mainland Europe. That is really depressing, if not entirely unexpected, given that our exporters have been facing barriers to trade for nearly a year now, which has created a completely unlevel playing field with importers.

We continue to do all that we can within the powers and resources that we have to support our businesses and exporters. I think that the solution is increasingly clear: for Scotland to vote for independence and rejoin the EU.


Food and Drink Industry and Supply Chain (Staff and Skills Shortages)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent engagement it has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regarding reports of labour and skills shortages in the food and drink industry and supply chain. (S6O-00394)

I have written to the United Kingdom Government a number of times, most recently on 2 November. In that letter, I again requested a meeting with the secretary of state and the Home Office. I await the UK Government’s response to that, as well as to all other previous communication.

Despite agreeing to meaningful engagement on migration, the UK Government has dismissed our proposals for addressing the acute labour shortage crisis. The UK Government simply has to improve its engagement with not only the Scottish Government but all devolved Administrations, as well as with industry.

As was pointed out by my colleague Jim Fairlie on Channel 4’s “The Political Slot”, one of Scotland’s great strengths is our natural larder. Food industry leaders have been clear, however: Brexit has led to a critical shortage of pickers and processors. The UK Government’s ad hoc visa scheme is bureaucratic and is not fit to address the chaos caused by Brexit. Has the minister had any engagement with her UK Government counterparts regarding changes to the visa scheme that would allow us to welcome back valued food workers and to build resilience into our supply chains?

Yes, I have. We have sought to engage constructively with the UK Government on so many different occasions. The frustration is that that has been to little avail. On the back of raising this matter at the most recent interministerial group meeting in September, together with ministers from Wales and Northern Ireland, we had a follow-up meeting with the minister, Victoria Prentis, at which we were assured that our concerns would be looked into and that DEFRA would arrange a meeting between us and the Home Office. That was two months ago now, and we are still waiting on a response to that.

As I said, it is hugely frustrating that we continually pursue these matters, which are critical to our food and drink industry right across the supply chain, but we are repeatedly ignored. This is the single biggest issue that is raised with me by food and drink businesses right across the supply chain. We need the UK Government to listen and to act to address these serious matters.

The cabinet secretary will recall that, earlier this year, a seafood trade group was established within Government to provide additional capacity to help seafood exporters to deal with the increased bureaucracy arising from the UK’s exit from the European Union. Given that the issues facing seafood exporters, including the Orkney Fishermen’s Society in my constituency, are likely to continue for some time, will the cabinet secretary commit to keeping in place that valuable additional resource?

The member is absolutely right. Establishing the group to deal with the issues that we are facing has been a critical piece of work. As I have just outlined, I do not think that the issues will go away any time soon; they will probably be with us for some time to come. I assure the member that our commitment to delivering a seafood trade strategy, together with all the work that is on-going and the work that recognises the importance of sustainable fisheries, will continue, irrespective of the internal structures that we have to deliver that work. I will, of course, consider the issue closely and carefully.

The minister is aware that for those in our most deprived areas, an equally important issue, which is relevant to supply chains and the food and drink industry, is that of affordable access to sufficient amounts of nutritious food. Can the minister explain why the Scottish National Party and Green MSPs failed to support the progress of a right to food bill at the committee stage last month? What action is the Scottish Government taking to address hunger and food insecurity, particularly in our rural communities?

I am happy to provide a response to that question, because we fundamentally believe in a right to food, but we have already said that the vehicle for that will be the human rights bill that will be introduced to the Parliament. The right to food is integral to other human rights, so it is only right and fair that it is considered as part of the bill.

However, that is only part of our work. At the start of October, we introduced the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill to the Parliament for consideration. We have also been consulting on a draft local food strategy, and that consultation is open until 2 December. Again, I encourage members to spread the word about that and fill in the consultation, because it is this Government’s intention to make sure that everybody who lives in Scotland has a right to and is able to access good, healthy, local and nutritious food, and we are absolutely committed to delivering on that.

The northern isles are at the end of the supply chain and rely heavily on lifeline ferry services for incoming freight. What assurances can the Scottish Government give that shortages in the national stock supply chain, which has been impacted by Brexit and the heavy goods vehicle driver issues, will not be the Grinch that steals islanders’ Christmas?

I appreciate Beatrice Wishart’s concern. We are in regular discussion and dialogue with our retailers and across the food and drink supply chain to ensure that that does not happen. I give a commitment that we will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that our islands do not suffer.


Climate Targets (Agriculture)

To ask the Scottish Government what actions are being taken to ensure that the agriculture sector plays a leading role in delivering a net zero Scotland. (S6O-00391)

Agriculture is absolutely taking a leading role, collectively, through the agriculture reform implementation oversight board. On 28 October, I announced a £51 million national test programme that will support our farmers and crofters to learn how their work impacts on climate and nature, and help us understand how sustainable farming can be supported and rewarded in future. That builds on a range of other support, including grants, advice and research, to deliver our vision for Scottish agriculture: to transform the sector to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture, delivering on our ambitious climate targets.

I am grateful for that answer and I am sure that the minister will agree that a one-size-fits-all approach will not be effective. Our local farmers need flexibility, so what steps is the Scottish Government taking to deliver a flexible approach that will enable different farms with different circumstances to secure support to help tackle climate change?

That is an absolutely critical point and the work that we are undertaking through the implementation oversight board is pivotal to that. We wanted to make sure that we had representation across the board, so 21 members represent different geographies and sectors across Scotland, as well as environmental interests. That representation means that we can really help to shape and develop the policy together and make sure that we get it right for the different parts of Scotland and the different needs that exist.

Last week, leading agricultural figures, including Scotland’s young farmers, penned a powerful open letter of concern to Mairi Gougeon. Despite their efforts, hard-working farmers have been demonised over emissions and their morale is low, because of a negative perception that they are to blame for climate change—and that is fuelled by some politicians. Furthermore, it did not help that, recently, when given the opportunity, the First Minister did not deny that one of the Scottish National Party policies to meet net zero is to cull 300,000 cattle.

Rural Scotland is waiting. Presiding Officer, I hope that you will support me when I ask that the cabinet secretary comes to the chamber with a ministerial statement to address the very serious issues that are raised in that letter.

I feel quite fed up of having to respond to that point. I have already responded to that question from Rachael Hamilton three times in this chamber and reaffirmed that it is not—and will not be—our policy to cull livestock. I also confirmed that very clearly in a statement at the NFU Scotland conference on 28 October, and I hope that this response will finally knock that claim on the head.

I completely understand the concerns that have been raised by the Scottish young farmers. I responded to them immediately I saw the letter that they had sent to me on Twitter. I have since followed that up with a letter inviting them to meet me to discuss their concerns.

I am with the industry in that regard. I am taking every opportunity to challenge that negative perception. People are already doing fantastic, pioneering work in agriculture. It is our job to support, encourage and enable that through our transformation programme.

The Scottish Government’s world-leading climate change legislation sets a target date for net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2045. Could the cabinet secretary outline how the recently announced national test programme will lay the groundwork for Scotland’s agriculture sector to be global leaders in sustainable agriculture?

Our positive vision seeks to transform Scottish agriculture to be low carbon and sustainable in the future. Through the national test programme, farmers and crofters will be able to better understand their current environmental performance and efficiency, for example, through undertaking carbon audits and nutrient management plans. That will enable them to mitigate their businesses’ greenhouse gas emissions. The programme will also put in place livestock data and performance systems for businesses in the beef sector, with the aim of improving both business and emissions performance.

Those who farm in the Lomond hills regional park in Fife have a significant role to play in the climate change mitigation efforts, as well as in public access. They do not make a lot of money off the land. Can the cabinet secretary reassure me that the new farm support mechanism will reflect the contribution that they make to climate change and public access, so that they can continue their good work?

Where that good work is happening already, we want to ensure that it continues. As part of the vision for agriculture that I have set out, we want to support active farming and food production, as well as supporting our farmers and crofters to lower emissions to the lowest possible level and to enhance their biodiversity. We have already said that by 2025, we will be making half of all the direct payments conditional. As I say, we want to support active farming and food production and to keep people on our land.


Rural Skills Development

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues and rural businesses regarding action to improve and enhance rural skills development. (S6O-00392)

I keep ministerial colleagues regularly informed and highlight the particular issues faced by rural businesses, many of which are microbusinesses. That has allowed us to invest in rural schools projects and targeted support for employers.

On my visits to rural businesses across the country, skills are always one of the main topics of conversation. Those visits provide me with the opportunity to hear at first hand how employers benefit from investment in the skills of their workforce. Last month, I visited WeCook in Barry near Carnoustie—an award-winning business, which is doing fantastic work with apprentices—to launch a practical toolkit for rural employers to invest in apprenticeships, training and work placements.

Skills planning that meets the current and future needs of Scotland’s rural economy is a vital part of the suite of measures that is needed to develop a highly skilled workforce and deliver sustainable economic growth. Can the cabinet secretary outline how the “Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland: 2019-2021” is working to support rural skills across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders?

The skills action plan has driven forward a partnership approach to developing the skills and talent that is needed to ensure that Scotland’s rural economy and communities continue to flourish and grow. People are the key to driving forward our rural communities, making them sustainable and inclusive places to live, work and thrive. Through the actions identified under the plan’s five priority areas, we will ensure that we have the right people, with the right skills.

We are currently commissioning an evaluation to determine the success of the plan in achieving its objectives, while also reviewing what lessons might be learned from the first two years. That evaluation will help to inform the direction of any future support for skills development and the co-ordination of that in rural Scotland.

To support rural skills, in addition to the national plan that the cabinet secretary just mentioned, will the Scottish Government set up and invest in a land advisory service that would be tasked with supporting the whole sector to become a global leader in regenerative agriculture through training, advisory services, research, improvement of supply chains, support for co-operation, encouragement of farm diversification, knowledge transfer, innovation and marketing?

I hope that the member will understand that I am reluctant to commit absolutely to that project today, because we are considering all those issues and how best to tackle them in the work that we have undertaken with the agriculture reform implementation oversight board. As well as developing the policies that will help with that transformation, we are working with our farmers and crofters to do that too. It is really important that we consider all those issues as part of the board’s work, so that we can develop that project together.

Question 6 has been withdrawn.


Farmers and Crofters (Support Payments)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making on issuing payments to farmers and crofters through this year’s national basic payment support scheme. (S6O-00395)

Scottish farmers and crofters are an essential part of our rural economy. The Scottish Government is committed to supporting them and, once again, was the first United Kingdom paying agency to make available advance loan payments to maintain cash flows through the recovery from coronavirus and to overcome the challenges that Brexit presents.

We started making payments in September, injecting more than £330 million into the Scottish rural economy. Those advance payments are worth up to 95 per cent of final claim value. In contrast, farmers in England will need to wait until December, whereas farmers in Wales and Northern Ireland started to receive advance and full payments from 15 October.

The loan scheme closed on 12 November 2021, with full scheme payments for the basic payment scheme, greening and the young farmer payment on track to commence from early December.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that initiatives such as the national basic payment support scheme demonstrate the Scottish National Party Government’s support for Scotland’s agricultural sector, as opposed to the actions of the Tory Government in Westminster, which has chosen to endanger Scottish agriculture by agreeing trade deals that offer little to no benefit but threaten great harm?

I could not agree more. The Scottish Government is committed to supporting and protecting our farmers and crofters, who work extremely hard to produce quality products to world-leading standards. It is really disappointing—[Interruption.]

Excuse me for a minute, cabinet secretary. Could we have less chuntering from a sedentary position? The cabinet secretary is trying to answer Evelyn Tweed’s question. Please resume, cabinet secretary.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I was saying that I was disappointed that the UK Government disagreed to proposed amendments to both the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill, which would have enshrined in domestic law that agri-food had to be produced to equivalent standards to those of the UK, and would have therefore protected Scottish farmers and crofters.

The agreements were rushed through before the Trade and Agriculture Commission was fully established. No engagement took place with us or other devolved Administrations, or with industry, prior to reaching them, which is in stark contrast to the approach that I believe Australia and New Zealand took with their own industry. All of that was for the sake of an expected increase in gross domestic product of 0.02 per cent from the Australian deal and 0.0 per cent from the New Zealand deal, which simply beggars belief.

Edward Mountain, who is joining us remotely, has a supplementary question.

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

Given that the most inept cabinet secretary for rural affairs that we have ever had in Scotland—who oversaw the failure of the common agricultural policy information technology system—managed to get out all basic single farm payments without any deductions or loans before the middle of November each year, why can the cabinet secretary not do so?

I am sorry—I might have missed elements of that question.

First, the member’s comment about the previous cabinet secretary is an absolute disgrace, which does not befit him.

We have done everything that we can to ensure that our farmers and crofters have the cash flow that they need. We have made our payments at the earliest ever stage. To ensure that continuity and stability for our farmers and crofters, I announced at NFU Scotland’s conference on 28 October that the rate for basic payments will not reduce in this session of the Parliament, and I committed that we will endeavour to get those payments out before December each year through our national loan schemes.