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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 21 February 2018

Agenda: Urgent Question, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, St John’s Hospital Children’s Ward


Portfolio Question Time


To ask the Scottish Government what future it sees for Scotland’s fishing sector. (S5O-01794)

Currently, the overall mood in Scotland’s fishing sector is positive, as demonstrated by the new vessels that are on order and the value of landings during 2017 being at record highs. That is due in no small part to the efforts that have been made by the Scottish industry to improve sustainable fishing practices, including moves to more highly selective gears. That has contributed to a situation in which the state of fish stocks shows a healthy picture. The number of stocks set in line with maximum sustainable yield continues to increase: of the 13 stocks against which the Scottish Government measures its sustainability performance, nine have been set in line with MSY.

In light of the cabinet secretary’s answer, does he agree with Ruth Davidson that Brexit will allow us to create a better fisheries policy by designing

“a world class management system that delivers the maximum possible sustainable yield for UK fishermen while also protecting the marine environment and encouraging species growth”?

No, I certainly do not agree with Ruth Davidson, for a number of reasons. First, I have repeatedly asked Mr Gove and Mr Eustice to confirm that, post-Brexit, they will not seek to trade away access to Scotland’s waters, and answer there has come none. Secondly, I have asked the UK Government to confirm what its plans are to allow EU nationals to continue to do the good and essential work that they do onshore and offshore in the fishing sector, and answer there has come none. Thirdly, I have asked the UK Government to confirm what plans, if any, it has to replace the £95 million that has been enjoyed in Scotland since 2014 under the European maritime and fisheries fund, which has been essential for the fishing sector, and answer there has come none. Maybe Mr Cameron could use what influence he has, if any, with the UK Government to try to get a few answers, and then Scotland will be in a better position to judge whether Miss Davidson is talking nonsense.

Instead of agreeing with Ruth Davidson, I encourage the cabinet secretary to agree with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, which has submitted a catching policy proposal to his office. When the cabinet secretary gets the chance to visit Shetland, maybe he will meet the association to discuss that, particularly the proposals on reducing discarding, which involve fishermen and scientists working together. There are innovative ideas in the proposals, so will he undertake to look into them and see whether such an approach could be introduced as soon as possible?

That sounds like a preferable option. As the member knows, I hope to visit his constituency in the relatively near future, and I have undertaken to meet representatives of Shetland fishing, who as the member will know are a diverse group of people. I will meet various fishing interests when I am there. I recently met the Shetland representative on the regional inshore advisory group and was extremely impressed by the profound and practical grasp that she had of all these matters. We will most certainly take account of the experts in his constituency who really know what they are talking about.

Rural Economy (European Union Migrant Workforce)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the importance to the rural economy of an EU migrant workforce. (S5O-01795)

It is crucial. The interim report of the National Council of Rural Advisers recommends a tailored approach to migration that supports entrepreneurship and innovation in Scotland’s rural economy. We have submitted clear evidence to the Migration Advisory Committee and in “Scotland’s Place in Europe” that the crucial role of migrants in rural Scotland is one of the key reasons why a one-size-fits-all approach to immigration is not appropriate for Scotland’s needs.

It is clear that the cabinet secretary is as concerned and dismayed as I am by the reports that farmers in Scotland are having to leave quality produce to rot in fields because they do not have enough workers to harvest everything. NFU Scotland notes that, this year—before the United Kingdom has even left the EU—there has been a shortage of between 10 and 20 per cent in seasonal workers coming from the EU. Will the cabinet secretary set out why this is such an important matter for not only our rural economy and communities but Scotland as a whole?

Mr Dornan is absolutely correct. To answer his question, our rural economy depends significantly on the 10,000 people from the EU countries who are estimated to work in the food and drink sector and the up to 22,000 seasonal migrant workers who are employed in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors. It is no hyperbole to state that food is starting to rot in fields. It is simply a fact that, increasingly, we hear from all sectors in the farming industry, particularly those in which seasonal migrant workers are important, concerns that there will simply not be enough of the people who used to come and who are welcome to come to Scotland to give of their labour and effort.

On my recent visit to the extremely successful Glenrath farm, it was interesting that Polish workers who had planned to stay in Scotland said that their view of a country that welcomed them with open arms is being soured by a sense that their families and kin will not be able to join them if they need to live with them. Their feeling that it is not just the people who are here who are not welcome, but their families too, under the Brexiteers’ view of Britain, is extremely and profoundly alarming.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the great majority of workers in the fish processing sector in the north-east of Scotland are citizens of other European countries, and a majority of them would like to continue to work here. Has he engaged with the trade unions that represent those workers to hear their concerns and with the employers to hear their future plans for the sector? If not, will he undertake to do so?

I can certainly confirm that I have engaged extensively with the onshore and offshore fishing sector and the processing sector. Those sectors are important in Mr Macdonald’s regional constituency and I am due to visit the north-east shortly to meet various stakeholders.

Lewis Macdonald is absolutely right to say that people who have come from other EU countries—who work extremely hard in fish processing operations and as crew on fishing vessels offshore in large, medium and small boats—are crucial to the operation of the fishing sector and many other rural sectors. Without them, one wonders whether businesses will be able to operate as they do, if at all. The issue is extremely serious. We have made clear that Scotland welcomes people from those countries with open arms and the First Minister has extended that welcome since the day of the European referendum. We are now a short number of weeks before the proposed Brexit day and we are absolutely no further forward. There is no clarity whatsoever from the Conservative Party—there is complete silence about the issue, which is demeaning from the point of view of Conservative members. It is about time that the UK Government brought forward proper plans on the matter.

Rural Economy (Large-scale Developments)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that the rural economy is not adversely impacted on by large-scale developments. (S5O-01796)

The Scottish Government supports sustainable growth and investment in our rural areas. Planning policy is in place to manage the impacts of development on the rural economy, environment and communities.

Research that has been carried out by Mountaineering Scotland indicates that there is a drop in the number of jobs related to tourism—which is an important part of the rural economy—when turbines are built in our most scenic places. However, the reverse appears to be true in other areas. Does the cabinet secretary agree with Mountaineering Scotland that more detailed studies are needed to help to guide planners when they consider new wind farm projects? Will he endeavour to speak about the issue to Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government and Housing?

I would have thought that Graham Simpson would know that I am no longer responsible for energy policy or tourism policy. I used to be, which may be why he asked the question. The matter is not in my portfolio, but I may as well answer the question.

I assure Graham Simpson that tourism has been hugely successful in Scotland. All the evidence that I am aware of suggests that people continue to come to enjoy the scenery, and that their enjoyment is not hampered by wind farm developments. At the celebrations for Diageo’s successful Glenkinchie distillery visitor centre, Danish students told me that they had come to Scotland specifically to see the wind farms. That is real-life information for Graham Simpson. I suggest that he spend less time here in the chamber and go out to find some facts of his own.

Forestry (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to the forestry sector. (S5O-01797)

The Scottish Government provides significant support to the forestry sector, which is worth nearly £1 billion annually to the Scottish economy and supports 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

In the current financial year, support has included more than £40 million for forestry grants, including £34 million for new woodland creation; £7.85 million to the strategic timber transport fund; and nearly £1 million for Scotland-specific research into timber development and tree health. In addition, our national forest estate generates more than £1 million per day gross value added to the Scottish economy.

I am pleased to hear about everything that the Scottish Government is doing. However, I am concerned that the amount of planting of new trees has fallen since 2013. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the Forestry Commission Scotland regarding the decline in new planting?

The amount of planting is not falling; it is rising. The statistics—which I am happy to share with Alison Harris, if she wishes to seek out the information from me—demonstrate clearly that the amount of planting is rising substantially. I am completely bemused about where she has got her figures from. She has not consulted me about the matter, as far as I know, but she is welcome to do so if she has an interest in the topic. I will be happy to provide her with some facts.

Will the cabinet secretary set out how the track record on tree planting of this Scottish Government compares with that of the Tory Government in England and the Labour Government in Wales?

Since 2016, 9,400 hectares of new woodland have been created in Scotland, compared with 1,900 hectares in England and 500 hectares in Wales, so Scotland has accounted for almost 80 per cent of new woodland creation in Great Britain during that period, with much more being planted currently, and approved to be planted, over the coming years.

Our ambition is to plant 10,000 hectares a year, and I expect that we will achieve that pretty soon. The United Kingdom Government’s ambition is to achieve the planting of 11 million trees by the end of the decade, which translates into 4,500 hectares a year. The only word that I can come up with that accurately describes the limitation of England’s ambitions in that respect is not particularly parliamentary: the word is “piddling”.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the deep concerns of tenant farmers on the Buccleuch estate in Eskdale, that incentives for planting will potentially lead to loss of their tenancies because of plans for extra planting. What does the Scottish Government intend to do to protect the interests of those tenant farmers?

The funding that is available for assistance towards the cost of forestry—it is a contribution to costs, not the total cost—is a sensible way of encouraging forestry. I think that that is recognised by parties around the chamber. Forestry is a long-term business; there is in most cases, other than income from thinning, no substantial income for a minimum of 40 years, even for the species that reach maturation most rapidly.

On the matter that Colin Smyth has raised, the Scottish Government believes that an integrated approach to policy management in rural Scotland includes places for farming and forestry, and we go to considerable lengths to encourage the growth of forestry developments on farms. There are a number of projects about which I would be happy to share information with Mr Smyth, if he is interested. Farming and forestry can both be accommodated.

I cannot comment on the particular details of negotiations between individual parties on the Buccleuch estate because that would not be appropriate, but I would be happy to meet Mr Smyth if he has specific concerns that he wishes to discuss with me.

Fisheries Negotiations (Brexit Transition Period)

To ask the Scottish Government to what extent any transition period for Brexit is likely to affect Scotland’s influence on future fisheries negotiations. (S5O-01798)

The Scottish Government has consistently made clear its support for a transition period to avoid damaging uncertainty for individuals and businesses after Brexit. Although the European Union has been clear that a steady-state transition could be agreed, the United Kingdom Government’s selective definition of the parameters of such a transition has resulted in a vague and incoherent approach. We continue to make it clear that where Scottish interests—such as those on fisheries—are at stake, the UK Government must ensure that pragmatic arrangements are made that will allow Scotland to continue to participate in specific EU decisions, such as those on the annual fishing quotas, during that period.

Many people might consider our departing the common fisheries policy to be one of the few silver linings of Brexit. The leave campaign and the Conservatives promised that Scottish waters would be returned to Scottish control in March 2019.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if the transition period is agreed in such a way that decisions on the fate of Scotland’s fishing communities continue to be taken in the EU when the UK is not officially a member of the EU, that would not only be a breach of faith with Scotland’s fishing communities by the Conservative UK Government, but would be the worst of all worlds? That is because we would not be there to influence the decisions that affect the fate of fishing communities for the duration of that transition period. Does he agree with the Scottish White Fish Producers Association and the Shetland Fishermen’s Association that such a position would be “extremely damaging” and “completely unacceptable”?

Yes—I agree with those bodies. That is a distinct risk.

Our long-standing position has been that the common fisheries policy is cumbersome and unduly burdensome on the Scottish fishing industry. That is largely because we have very limited scope to influence or to shape the policy, but what if we have even less influence over that key policy and have no one at the negotiating table in December during the fisheries talks? Richard Lochhead knows more about that than anyone else in Parliament: he knows just how important it is to be at the discussions at that table, involved in deals, sorting things out and getting the best deal for Scottish fishermen. If there is no one there, how, for goodness’ sake, can we expect anything other than a very disappointing, and possibly even an extremely bad, outcome to the negotiations? That shows the utter incoherence of the UK Government’s position on the matter—if, indeed, it has a position: I may be giving it too much credit in suggesting that it does.

Aberdeen Green Belt Development (Environmental Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the potential environmental impact of developing on the green belt around Aberdeen. (S5O-01804)

It is for the relevant planning authority to consider the impact of any proposals for development on the green belt around Aberdeen.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be aware of the public concerns about the proposed Kingsford stadium’s environmental impact on the green belt and about traffic congestion. Aberdeenshire Council objected to the development and Aberdeen City Council approved it. Will the cabinet secretary explain how two sets of planning officials recommended taking opposite positions on the protection of the green belt? Given that split decision, does she know whether the Scottish ministers will call in the planning application to allow the independent reporter to look at the case?

The member must be well aware that his question is not one for this portfolio. I advise him that local authorities are responsible for the designation and the protection of green belts to help to direct developments to the right locations, which they do as part of a local development plan process.

It is not appropriate for me—or, indeed, any minister—to comment on the merits of any application. I am aware of the debate about the Aberdeen football stadium. The application, which was notified to the Scottish ministers on 2 February, is being assessed. I cannot in all conscience say anything more about it.

Environmental Protection (Scottish Borders)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports environmental protection in the Scottish Borders. (S5O-01805)

The Scottish Government is committed to protecting and improving Scotland’s environment, which is achieved through the setting of policy frameworks and the funding of public bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. That commitment applies to the Scottish Borders, as it does to elsewhere in the country.

Statistics from Scottish Natural Heritage reveal that 23.7 per cent of protected nature sites in the Scottish Borders, including famous spots such as the Moorfoot hills and locations along the River Tweed, are classified as being in “unfavourable condition”, with a further 10.6 per cent recovering from such a state. The figures remain far too high, particularly for a region of such natural beauty.

The Scottish Government says, in the context of its national indicator on improving the condition of protected nature sites:

“80.3% of ... protected nature sites”


“in favourable condition.”

That puts the Borders at below the national average. What steps will the Government take to remedy the position?

I, and I hope the member, would look directly to Scottish Natural Heritage, as the body that is responsible for the protection of sites. SNH has a great responsibility in that regard and does exceptionally well. If the member wants to raise issues to do with particular sites in the Borders, I strongly advise her to raise them directly with SNH or via me, if she wishes to do so.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that one of the biggest threats to environmental protection throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole is Brexit and the UK Government’s failure to meet the ambition of the Scottish Government and other European Union member states? [Interruption.]

I can hear that it is a matter of great boredom to the Conservatives when anyone mentions Brexit. It might be of interest to members to know that I am going to Cardiff on Monday to discuss a number of Brexit-related issues that relate directly to my portfolio.

Emma Harper is absolutely correct to raise concerns about the impact of Brexit on the environment. Membership of the EU has driven significant progress in environmental protection throughout Scotland and the UK, as well as providing funding and collective initiatives that have enabled us to make a good impact—and to do better than the UK as a whole across a range of issues.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill threatens our ability to deliver Scotland’s environment and climate ambitions. Devolution has allowed us to be more ambitious, and my view is that we should continue to be so. It is essential that no constraints are placed on Scotland’s ability to mirror EU environmental protections and adopt higher environmental standards than the UK Government adopts. I do not want Scotland to be held back.

Central Scotland Green Belt Land (Environmental Protection)

To ask the Scottish Government what importance it gives to the environmental protection of green belt land in the Central Scotland region. (S5O-01806)

As I said in response to question 1, local authorities are responsible for designating and protecting green belts, to help to direct development to the right locations. They do that as part of the local development plan process.

My question was deemed suitable for the cabinet secretary’s portfolio, so I ask her whether she agrees that time spent in the natural environment helps to reduce levels of anxiety, stress and depression, and whether she thinks that developing on green belt land at Woodhall and Faskine, between Airdrie and Coatbridge—towns in which we have some of the most deprived areas in Scotland—would be contrary to the valuable contribution that green belt land makes to the mental and physical health of people in built-up ex-industrial areas. Will she support the campaigners who are trying to stop the development and instead have the land designated as a park and nature reserve?

The member knows perfectly well that it is improper to ask a minister to intervene in any way in a planning application. I am absolutely of the view that time outside is incredibly important for people’s health and wellbeing, which is why we do a great deal of work across Government to make that happen. I am happy to make that comment, but I cannot comment on individual planning applications.

Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the Scottish Government’s support for the Central Scotland Green Network Trust is helping to deliver important environmental benefits across the central belt?

That is one of the good investments that deliver on some of the issues to do with health and wellbeing that Elaine Smith raised.

I was environment minister when the central Scotland green network began to be put in place, and I very much agree with the approach, which delivers not only important environmental outcomes but the social and economic benefits that I know that many members want to see. The CSGN focuses on improving green spaces in the most deprived communities in the central belt and it benefits wildlife and people. That is why the central Scotland green network is a priority in the programme for government and national planning framework 3, and it is why we continue to provide financial support to the Central Scotland Green Network Trust.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the central Scotland green network should be beefed up, have more powers and be a statutory consultee on planning matters? I know that planning is not in her brief, but that would give the CSGN more of a say.

If Graham Simpson wishes me to do so, I will have a conversation about that with my colleague the planning minister. I am not entirely certain whether the way that the CSGN is constituted would allow that to happen. Graham Simpson is absolutely right to comment that it is not a matter for me in any case.

Mobile Marine Species (Protection)

To ask the Scottish Government what actions it is taking to protect mobile marine species. (S5O-01807)

Scotland has a marine protected area network to be proud of. It covers approximately 20 per cent of our seas and comprises 168 sites. Current actions are progressing protected areas for marine bird species and the development of a dolphin and porpoise conservation strategy. In addition, Marine Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage have begun preparation for public consultation on four marine protected area proposals, three of which are principally for marine mobile species.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be aware that WWF believes that, by moving ahead, we will be creating the world’s first protected areas for basking sharks, minke whales and Risso’s dolphins. Will the cabinet secretary commit to ensuring that all those with an interest, including marine tourism operators, local communities, fishers and environmental organisations, will have the opportunity to input into the consultation on designation and management measures?

I was not aware of the WWF belief, but if that is true, it is great news for Scotland and members can be absolutely sure that I will mention it frequently.

The extensive consultations that we undertake on those matters is, of course, one of the reasons why they take time. Sometimes people become impatient with the time that a consultation takes. However, all the work that goes into the kind of consultation that Ash Denham has asked about is incredibly important to improve the status of the marine environment. It is underpinned by good scientific evidence and invaluable stakeholder engagement. There will be a formal consultation on the four MPAs as well as other opportunities to engage with local interests in regional consultation events.

Given the serious damage that has been caused to the reef in Loch Carron and the Firth of Lorn sea bed by illegal dredging, can the cabinet secretary provide assurances that Marine Scotland has the resources that it needs to effectively safeguard all marine species in marine protected areas?

Yes. Marine Scotland does an extremely good job in that regard and is involved very closely in the work. The work that is done in Scotland is of not just national but global significance.

Wetlands (Ramsar Convention Protection)

To ask the Scottish Government whether wetlands sites in Scotland that are covered by the Ramsar convention are given the same level of protection as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. (S5O-01808)

I cannot speak for the rest of the United Kingdom, but, as stated in Scottish planning policy, protection for Ramsar sites in Scotland is achieved through such sites being either Natura 2000 sites or sites of special scientific interest. That means that they are protected by the relevant statutory regimes associated with those types of designation, which is entirely compatible with the requirements of the Ramsar convention on wetlands.

For a development proposal that is likely to have a significant effect on a Ramsar site, how would the Scottish Government expect the impacts of the planning application be assessed by itself or by the local authority?

We have had quite a few references to the planning process in this question time. The local authority, as the principal planning authority, will look for advice, and Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency will be involved in any such consultation. In those circumstances, all that I can say is that, as far as I am aware, the planning process works remarkably well. In areas in which major national issues need to be dealt with, a particular planning application might end up being called in. However, I cannot talk about generalities; things will depend entirely on the specifics of an individual planning application.

Peat-based Horticulture Products (Phasing Out)

6. Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will set a target date for phasing out the use of peat-based products in horticulture. (S5O-01809)

The use of peat in horticulture is a global challenge. The horticulture industry has committed itself to work to support making retail supplies peat free by 2020 and for commercial horticulture to end peat use by 2030. I have asked the Scottish Natural Heritage-led national peatland group to consider how it can further support those efforts to end such use.

The cabinet secretary will note that in its 25-year plan, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a commitment to end peat use in horticultural products by 2030. Why has the cabinet secretary not committed to that aim in Scotland, given that Scotland’s peatlands play a vital part in carbon sequestration, and when will she come up with a target?

The 25-year environment plan commits to phasing out the use of peat by the following mechanisms: continuing to fund research jointly with industry to overcome the barriers to peat replacement in commercial horticulture—the findings of that research will be reported in 2020—and continuing to support the industry as it puts the growing media responsible sourcing scheme into practice.

The text in that plan is essentially a restatement of the position that DEFRA set out in 2013. At that time there was a pre-existing task force, about which DEFRA wrote to us in 2010, I believe. DEFRA advised us that it was planning to take forward work on an England-only basis. We asked to be involved in that work and we have been involved. The work was completed, and in response the above commitments were made.

We have continued to offer support for the phasing out of peat use, but we are limited in the hard actions that we can take. For example, product standards and taxation are reserved matters. If Maurice Corry is a convert to those matters being devolved In order that we can take those decisions, I welcome him to the cause.

I remind Parliament that I am parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary. She might have just answered my question; I was going to ask her whether she believes that the Scottish Government has sufficient powers to do what Mr Corry is asking.

As I indicated, to deliver a legislative approach to ending the use of peat, we would have to have powers that we currently do not have.

However, I support the United Kingdom Government’s commitment to phasing out the use of peat, and I would be perfectly happy to work with the UK Government and others to end its use as quickly as possible, if there is an intention to take concrete action.

That concludes portfolio questions.