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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 19, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 19 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Union Canal: 200th Anniversary, Portfolio Question Time, Long Covid, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Rural Affairs and Islands

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio question time. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question. As ever, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and answers in order to get in as many members as possible.


Regional Food Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how the regional food fund is supporting the promotion and advancement of Scotland’s produce. (S6O-01102)

The regional food fund plays an important role in supporting regional activities, local community events, networks and other collaborative initiatives with small grants of up to £5,000. That, in turn, delivers long-term benefits to Scotland’s local food and drink sector. Since its launch, in 2018, the regional food fund has provided over £550,000 to 121 projects the length and breadth of Scotland. The 2022-23 round, which closed for applications on 9 May, will provide even more support for great local food initiatives across the country.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. Ayrshire boasts some of the best food that Scotland has to offer, and organisations such as the Ayrshire Food Hub in Crossroads, in my constituency, which has a unique farm shop that is run by the local community, are central to showcasing this world-class produce. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that such organisations are crucial in ensuring that it becomes the norm that all Scots take a keen interest in their food, valuing it and knowing what constitutes good food, as we strive to become a good food nation?

I absolutely do. I recognise that Ayrshire is, indeed, famous for its food. Ayrshire Food Hub received nearly £5,000 from the regional food fund in January 2020. I know that a delay to its progress was caused by the pandemic over the past couple of years, but I am delighted that, as we emerge from the pandemic, it is now successfully operating a cafe, a farm shop, a training kitchen, an events space and a community garden, all with the aim of promoting the best of the area’s produce.

The member is absolutely right in saying that such initiatives are fundamental in helping us to achieve our vision of Scotland being a good food nation. The project embraces everything that we want to see as part of that. It involves the community and showcases local produce, and there is the education and training element. I wish the project every success.

NFU Scotland has called for a greater commitment to funding the sustainable agriculture capital grant scheme to assist farmers to use resources more efficiently, and for the temporary suspension of the ecological focus areas component of the 2022 greening requirement in order to bring additional arable land back into productive use, with a focus on EFA fallow land being used for nitrogen-fixing protein crops. That is not being delivered, despite the fact that the Scottish Government has the powers to do it now. When will the Scottish Government relax the EFA rules? Where is the extra funding that is needed for the SACGS to support farmers and food producers?

In relation to the EFA areas that the member mentioned, I have addressed that question a number of times in the chamber.

The Government is clear in its commitment to support farmers and crofters to produce more of our food more sustainably, but it is important that we maintain and enhance our efforts and do not scale them back when it comes to tackling the climate and nature emergency. Events that are on-going in Ukraine only strengthen the case for doing more, because, ultimately, that is how we can make our farms and food production systems more resilient.

When it comes to changes to greening, there are a number of considerations that we have to take account of. However, there is flexibility in the greening rules for farmers to apply them according to their own circumstances. For example, they could choose options other than to fallow, such as green cover crops or catch crops. We are working and will work with the industry to promote the flexibilities that already exist. We will continue to work with it to find practical solutions to bolster food production in these times of uncertainty while continuing to contribute to the achievement of wider climate change and biodiversity objectives.

This week, the Scottish Food Coalition wrote to the First Minister, calling for the establishment of an independent food commission to drive forward the change that we need in order to make Scotland a good food nation. We have a land commission, a social security commission, a poverty and inequality commission and a just transition commission, but, so far, the cabinet secretary does not think that food policy merits an independent food commission.

Will the cabinet secretary listen to civil society, local authorities and the majority of members of the Scottish Parliament, avoid destroying the consensus that we have seen in our journey to become a good food nation and give her backing to an independent food commission?

It is not really fair of the member to categorise it in that way—especially to accuse me of ignoring the calls that are out there. I think that I made it perfectly clear during stage 2 consideration of the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill that I am open to considering the options and the oversight functions. In fact, the member will be aware that we will have a meeting shortly, ahead of stage 3 consideration of the bill, to discuss what that might look like.

I am open to considering those options and trying to build consensus across the chamber.

Before I call question 2, I make a plea again for short, succinct questions and answers; otherwise, we will not be able to get through all the questions.


Seafood (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether, following the United Kingdom Government’s launch of a seafood exports fund, it will launch a Scottish seafood fund. (S6O-01103)

We already have an established fund—the marine fund Scotland. In recognition of the lack of UK Government support following Brexit, we funded Seafood Scotland to the tune of £1.8 million in 2021-22 to enable it to carry out export support activity that is identical to what is now being proposed in the £1 million seafood exports pillar of the UK Government’s UK seafood fund.

It is entirely appropriate that the UK Government has, belatedly, taken responsibility for some of the costs of an imposed Brexit that has inflicted significant and lasting damage on Scottish seafood markets. The £1 million package that is being offered by the UK Government is a paltry amount compared to the real costs of Brexit. The UK Government must also take responsibility for those, as well as honouring its promise to replace lost European Union funding in full.

I thank the cabinet secretary for not directly answering my question. The success of seafood exports—and, indeed, food security, which the cabinet secretary said recently is as important as energy security—depends on our fishing industry’s ability to catch. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has flagged that recent developments such as the expansion of floating offshore wind, marine generation and associated connections could have an impact on fishing grounds and the Scottish fleet. What steps are being taken to ensure that the future sustainability of our fishing industry in producing climate-smart food is not relegated to collateral damage in an increasingly crowded marine environment?

I am sorry that the member did not appear to listen to my response to his first question, which directly answered the question.

In relation to his second point, which was on a vital issue that I have discussed with the fishing industry, including with the SFF, I direct him to our blue economy vision, which sets out what we are looking to achieve for our marine sectors and industries in Scotland and our ambitions for the future. The vision clearly points to the importance of the fishing industry in Scotland. The industry produces a carbon-neutral and sustainable source of protein, which is important now and which will be important in the future.

On how we manage our marine resources in an increasingly cluttered space, there are a lot of competing interests that we need to take account of, but we are trying to manage our way through that as best we can, taking account of all the different interests.

One million pounds to help exports hardly seems like fair compensation, given the utter havoc that the Tories’ hard Brexit has wrought on the fishing and seafood industries. They were completely ignored during the negotiations that brought about the trade and co-operation agreement, and it now seems likely that the Tories will, once again, throw our fishers and those in the seafood industry under the bus in a trade war with the EU. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that, if that happens, it will put beyond any doubt the UK Government’s disinterest and the contempt that it has for Scotland’s seafood sector?

The funding that has been offered by the UK Government is little more than a sticking plaster when we compare it to the huge costs that have been incurred because of the new trade barriers and avoidable bureaucracy arising from the UK Government’s Brexit deal. Ever since the 2016 referendum, successive UK Governments have completely mishandled relations with our closest allies and partners in the European Union. The interests of Scotland and its people have suffered grievously as a result of that, and no group has suffered more than the Scottish seafood sector.

I agree with the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, who said, earlier this week:

“Today’s announcement that the UK Government are now intending to legislate to enable unilateral action to disapply parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol is deeply concerning. Let us be very clear—to breach an international treaty, signed in good faith and hailed by the Prime Minister as a ‘fantastic’ moment, is bad enough. To contemplate this action when facing a cost-of-living crisis is unthinkable and indefensible.”


Farming (Technological Advances)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting farmers to utilise new technological advances. (S6O-01104)

Technology is vital to address the economic and environmental challenges that the agriculture industry faces. We continue to offer meaningful technical and financial support in that area.

For example, the Farm Advisory Service offers a range of high-quality advice to facilitate the uptake of technology in order to maximise profitability and enhance sustainability. Technology-based projects have the opportunity to apply for funding through the knowledge transfer and innovation fund, to demonstrate the practical application of technology in agricultural businesses.

This Monday, innovation funding was removed from the Scottish Government’s environment, agriculture and food strategic research programme. Can the minister explain why that happened, and can she reassure farmers and the agri-food industry that the Scottish Government is still committed to supporting innovation in new farming methods and technology?

The Scottish Government has launched the knowledge transfer and innovation fund, which is exactly for innovation. In April, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands opened the fund for applications and offered up to £1.6 million of support for projects looking to support the uptake of technology, among a broad range of topics. The application window has now closed, and applications are being assessed for that award.

On the subject of support for farmers, it is the Scottish Government that remains committed to supporting active farming and food production, while other parts of the United Kingdom are offering farmers money to leave the industry. Does the minister share my view that the Scottish Government needs to take no lessons from the Tories on how to support Scotland’s agriculture sector?

That is not on the subject of the question.

I remind members that I am in the chair and will decide what is relevant and what is not, and that I do not appreciate a lot of sedentary comments, as I think people will now be aware.

The Government is determined to support a sustainable and vibrant rural economy. We will provide stability to farmers while supporting them and other land managers and rural stakeholders to deliver our climate change and biodiversity objectives. That is why we are collaborating with the industry through the agricultural reform implementation oversight board, which the Government set up, and are providing a budget of £680 million in 2022-23 for agricultural support and environmental payments, including direct payments and funding for the Scottish rural development programme and agricultural transformation.


Islands (Population)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to increase and retain the population of Scotland’s islands. (S6O-01105)

Supporting islands to increase and retain their populations is an ambition across all parts of the Scottish Government, as demonstrated by this year’s programme for government. Within that, there is a range of commitments that could help to address our population challenges, including support for the national islands plan, as well as national commitments such as developing rural visa pilots and a remote, rural and islands housing action plan.

The objective of attracting and retaining population in the islands, and the funding that has been made available, are welcome. However, the cabinet secretary will be aware of my concerns, which are shared by many of my Orkney constituents, about the proposed islands bond scheme. Will she therefore consider using that funding in ways that make island communities more resilient and offer more employment opportunities for islanders, such as introducing a third aircraft on Orkney’s internal routes, which could use low-emissions fuel and could be funded partly through green transport innovation funding? That would undoubtedly help to attract and retain population not just on one island but across the outer isles in my constituency.

I know that the member has raised concerns about that issue previously, but I repeat that the islands bond scheme has never been presented as some sort of silver bullet that will address all the population challenges on our islands. It is just one element of our wider work across all of the Scottish Government to support island communities.

The islands bond consultation, along with our on-going engagement, will help us to understand the challenges in greater detail. We will continue to work with local authorities, our island communities and other island stakeholders to try to address those issues.

The on-going crisis with our ferries continues to impact on individuals, small businesses and the agricultural sector. As well as harming existing residents and businesses, it has made our islands less attractive places to live, work and do business in. Has the cabinet secretary made any serious assessment of the economic impact of the on-going issues with ferry routes that connect our islands?

I reiterate what I said about the islands bond scheme. We know that the issue is multifaceted, and we know the problems that our island communities experience in relation to transport and housing. It is about how we tackle all those issues in the round.

Jamie Halcro Johnston will no doubt be aware of the £580 million investment that we have planned over the next five years and the on-going work in relation to the islands connectivity plan, a draft of which will be published towards the end of the year. It will address some of those problems.


Remote and Rural Communities (Lothian)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to remote and rural communities in the Lothian region. (S6O-01106)

In the previous LEADER-funded programme, the Tyne Esk area, which covers Midlothian and East Lothian, was allocated £3.5 million, and West Lothian was allocated £2.1 million over the six-year programme. In 2021-22, the Scottish Government made available more than £100,000 of ring-fenced funding for rural communities in the Tyne Esk and West Lothian areas. More than £360,000 will also be made available this financial year to continue valuable community-led work in rural communities across the Tyne Esk area and West Lothian.

Support in Mind Scotland believes that there needs to be increased opportunities to talk about mental health and wellbeing in non-medical environments, such as clubs, venues and meeting places, and that a light model of social prescribing should be adopted in which individuals are informed of support or opportunities in their community to tackle loneliness. Will the cabinet secretary commit to exploring that approach to support people in rural communities, especially in my region?

I am more than happy to look at any initiatives that can help in offering that support. I know that people are under a lot of pressure right now, particularly in our rural communities. I am happy to engage further with Jeremy Balfour on that matter.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that many of my constituents in the Linlithgow constituency in West Lothian who live in rural and remote communities rely on liquefied petroleum gas and oil heaters in off-grid homes? Prices for home heating oil are increasing by as much as 126 per cent, and households that rely on heating oil are not currently subject to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets price cap, which leaves them vulnerable to uncontrolled price increases. They face a very difficult winter. Will the cabinet secretary commit to working with Cabinet colleagues to identify what specific immediate support can be made available to those individuals in rural and remote areas, many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes?

I am more than happy to commit to that, because I know that heating oil and LPG consumers face significant increases in their energy costs. Of course, powers relating to energy pricing are reserved, which means that the Scottish Government cannot act to provide additional protection for those consumers, but we have engaged with the United Kingdom Government to raise concerns about the recent unprecedented rises in heating fuel costs for off-grid customers in parts of Scotland, and we have stressed the urgent need for protections for those consumers.

Nonetheless, we are doing everything that we can with the powers that we have to assist those who are worst affected. We have recently allocated a further £10 million to our fuel insecurity fund. That fund is delivered through trusted third sector partners, including the Fuel Bank Foundation and Advice Direct Scotland, which administers our home heating support fund. I urge those who are in need of that support to get in touch with those organisations.


Post-Brexit Border Checks (Impact on Agriculture and Food and Drinks)

I would like to ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the continuing delays to post-Brexit border checks on imports from the European Union.

I am looking at the actual wording of the question in the Business Bulletin. I remind members that the actual wording in the Business Bulletin must be read out into the record, so I ask Mr Fairlie to read out the actual question as it appears in the Business Bulletin. I hope that he has that to hand. If not, perhaps a kind member could assist. I see that Mr Alexander Stewart is doing so. Thank you very much, Mr Stewart. Mr Fairlie, will you please read out the question as it appears in the Business Bulletin?

My sincere apologies—I am not quite sure how I got that mixed up.

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the impact on agriculture and the food and drinks sector in Scotland of reported continuing delays to post-Brexit border checks on imports from the European Union. (S6O-01107)

On 28 April 2022, the UK Government made an announcement about further delays to the introduction of controls on imports from the EU without any consultation or meaningful engagement with the Scottish Government, failing to use any of our channels of communication. Such conduct is just not acceptable.

On 4 May, I wrote to George Eustice expressing my deep frustration and concern regarding the continuation of biosecurity risks and the uneven playing field between Scottish importers and exporters following that latest delay, and I have urged the UK Government to begin meaningful dialogue on future borders policy.

Recently, the NFU Scotland president, Martin Kennedy, spoke in scathing terms of

“the prolonged failure of the UK Government”

regarding exports to Europe, and how that showed

“an astonishing level of incompetence and failure to support Scottish producers and our food and drink sector.”

Yesterday, at the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, I put those views to George Eustice, who cited the potential to exacerbate the cost of living crisis as the reason that the UK Government is giving for continued delays.

Given that Brexit has been a driver of the cost of living crisis in the first place, does the cabinet secretary share my utter bewilderment at the UK Government’s use of a crisis largely of its own making as a reason for not fixing a shambles that is also of its own making?

The UK Government’s announcement is the fourth delay to import checks on goods from the EU since Brexit. With every delay, the UK Government has continued to ignore the uneven playing field that exists between our Scottish importers and exporters.

We have written repeatedly to the UK Government to highlight our concerns about the effects of its bad Brexit deal and, just last week, the finance secretary wrote to the UK chancellor highlighting the damaging effects of the delay on multiple sectors, including specifically our food and drink sector.

The food and drink sector in Scotland and in the UK has borne the brunt of the hard Brexit deal pursued by the UK Government, particularly through the loss of freedom of movement and free trade. In my opening response, I touched on the very real biosecurity risks that are presented by that. I met Paul McLennan and one of his constituents, who is a pig farmer, and I have spoken to other pig farmers, who are all seriously concerned about diseases such as African swine fever, and the devastating impact that that could have if it reaches our shores. I only wish that those concerns were treated as seriously as they need to be.


Croft House Grant Scheme (Western Isles)

To ask the Scottish Government how many grants have been awarded through the croft house grant scheme in the Western Isles since 2007. (S6O-01108)

The Scottish Government has a track record of investing to improve croft housing. Since 2007, we have approved over £23.6 million in croft house grant payments, helping to build and improve over 1,085 croft homes. Of those, 526 grants have been awarded to recipients in the Western Isles, with a total grant award of over £11 million, or around 47 per cent of all grants approved.

The croft house grant scheme is an excellent method of helping crofters with the cost of housing and retaining families in island communities. Does the cabinet secretary have a view on whether the astronomical recent rises that we have seen in the cost of building materials will need to be taken into account in the scheme?

The United Kingdom Government holds most of the levers to address the pressures on the cost of living. However, the Scottish Government is providing support where we can to ensure that all those who live in rural areas, as well as communities and businesses, are given as much support as possible to deal with those issues.

Croft house grants can be used towards a new build or towards house improvements, which I agree provides helpful support for crofters and the wider crofting communities, but it is important to remember that the grants can also be used in conjunction with the self-build loan fund, which offers loans of up to £175,000 to eligible applicants for development costs to support build completion of a new house.

Let us be clear: the croft house grant fund that Mairi Gougeon is talking about paid out £6.2 million out of a total designated amount of £11 million. That is vital funding for crofters, for new entrants, and for people to upgrade their houses and make them energy efficient.

Is it not about time that the cabinet secretary supported crofting communities? When will we see a cabinet decision on crofting reform?

To address Rachael Hamilton’s first point, I would like to highlight how the croft house grant scheme works. It is a demand-led scheme and no scheme application has ever been refused because of a lack of budget.

Funding for the croft house grant scheme is provided retrospectively in up to three stages. For that reason, funding that is committed in any financial year will be claimed by applicants and will be paid in both the current year and the following two to three financial years. The scheme has been developed following extensive engagement with key stakeholders.

I have said in the chamber and in committee to Rachael Hamilton that we have made a commitment to look at reforming crofting law, but, of course, that depends on the decisions that are taken by the Parliament about the legislative timetable. However, we have committed to that, and I have every intention of delivering on that commitment.

That concludes portfolio questions on rural affairs and islands. I apologise for not being able to reach question number 8. I indicated on several occasions that that was what I feared would come to pass, and it did.

There will now be a short pause before we move to the next item of business.