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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 September 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Decarbonising Scotland’s Transport, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

The first item of business this afternoon is rural affairs and islands portfolio questions. I remind members that questions 3 and 5 are grouped and that I will take any supplementaries on those questions after both have been answered. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, please press the request-to-speak button or indicate that in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question.

Brexit (Food and Drink Industry)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last discussed with the United Kingdom Government the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s food and drink industry. (S6O-00183)

Impacts of the exit from the European Union on Scotland’s food and drink industry are raised frequently in meetings between the officials of respective Governments. The Scottish Government is clear that the United Kingdom Government must make emergency changes to the immigration system to combat acute post EU exit skills and labour shortages.

This week, I met Victoria Prentis, the UK minister of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to further raise the need for the UK Government to address immediately the disruption and labour shortages caused by EU exit. That followed a similar meeting that the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, had with the Secretary of State for Scotland just last week.

My constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden has a large number of food and drink retailers who are feeling the brunt of Brexit consequences, like the rest of Scotland. Does the minister agree that the UK Government was warned about the damaging consequences to our world-leading food and drink sector, but went ahead with Brexit regardless and is entirely responsible for the difficulties being faced by retailers and consumers today?

Absolutely. The Scottish Government repeatedly warned the UK Government about the damage that would be caused by its hard EU exit. It is astonishing that it was so recklessly pursued in the middle of a pandemic.

The food and drink sector in Scotland is a major contributor to our economy. In 2018, it generated turnover worth approximately £15 billion, and added £5.6 billion in gross value added.

Scottish businesses are being burdened by EU exit red tape, which is making it harder for our exporters to ship Scottish goods to Northern Ireland and to the rest of the EU. In addition, last week, it was announced—unilaterally, with no consultation or discussion with devolved Administrations—that import checks would be delayed. That was met with anger by industry, which has been forced to prepare for ever-changing deadlines that put our exporters at a specific disadvantage. The UK Government needs to re-engage in good faith with the EU to find pragmatic solutions to the challenges that businesses across Scotland face.

Last week, the cabinet secretary said that plans for a border control post at Cairnryan were on hold because of uncertainties over funding. I would have thought that funding would have been agreed before the proposal was announced. What contingency plans will now be put in place if new checks are required from January? Will the cabinet secretary give an assurance that no food and drink business that transports goods across the Irish Sea will experience additional delays as a result of the decision not to go ahead with the control post?

The member makes a point about costs as though that has been entirely within our control, rather than simply being the nature of the situation in which we have found ourselves in dealing with the UK Government. We absolutely regret the decision that the UK Government announced last week to delay UK border checks. It was taken without transparency and without any discussion with, or warning to, the devolved Administrations that it directly affects.

We are, of course, working on contingency plans, because we will have to make import checks at some point. We are currently considering what our options will be in that regard and whether to choose to operate different arrangements for Scotland, instead of waiting until the July 2022 deadline, given that sanitary and phytosanitary standards policy is devolved to Scotland. This is another area in which Scottish food and drink businesses and our exporters are being put at a specific disadvantage because of decisions taken by the UK Government.

Inshore Fisheries (Activity Cap)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will begin consulting on a cap on fishing activity in inshore waters. (S6O-00184)

A cap on inshore fishing activity is one of the measures that were outlined in the recent co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party. Those measures will help to ensure that Scotland leads the way on marine environmental protection, will enhance our reputation for providing quality sustainable seafood and will position us well to deliver a green recovery.

Early preparatory work is already under way, and we will consult as soon as is practicable. We will, of course, ensure that all stakeholders are encouraged to take part in the consultation, including our regional inshore fisheries groups.

Given the importance of fishing to my constituency, can the cabinet secretary say anything about the likely timescales involved, or give an assurance that an islands community impact assessment will be carried out before any changes are introduced?

The Government will test the potential impact of capping activity in inshore waters so that the needs of our island communities are specifically considered. We will engage with our island-based regional inshore fisheries groups, as well as all other relevant stakeholders, throughout the process. As part of the process, all the relevant statutory assessments will be undertaken, including an islands community impact assessment. We will look to do that early in the process so that it can help to shape our policy as it develops.

How will the Scottish Government consider NatureScot’s advice regarding the impact of mobile fishing on maerl beds and other habitats when it establishes the cap on fishing activity in inshore waters?

We want to base our decisions on the best scientific evidence that is available. In looking at capping activity in inshore waters and in going through the process of designating highly protected marine areas, we will engage and consult thoroughly to make sure that any designations that we make or any decisions that we take on such matters are based on the best available scientific evidence.

Crofting Legislation

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

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it did not commit to introducing a crofting bill in its programme for government. (S6O-00185)

The programme for government is largely a one-year delivery programme, which does not include all the activity that the Government plans to undertake over the full parliamentary session. Therefore, although crofting reform has not been included in the current programme for government, work will be undertaken during this parliamentary session, as stated in our 2021 manifesto.

In the 2016 programme for government, the SNP promised to deliver a new crofting bill later in that parliamentary session. That did not happen. In this year’s programme for government, there was no reference at all to a new bill, leading to the Scottish Crofting Federation describing the Government’s approach to crofting as “jaundiced”, given that it had failed to deliver what had long been promised.

Will the Minister confirm whether the SNP-Green Government still intends to introduce a new crofting bill, whether that will be introduced during this session of Parliament and, specifically, when it will be introduced?

I can confirm that. That is what was stated in our manifesto and we fully intend to take that forward and to implement it. Mr Cameron and other members will understand that we were unable to introduce such a bill during the previous session. As was the case for a number of other pieces of legislation that could not proceed, the work that had to be undertaken in relation to the exit from the European Union and the impact of the pandemic affected the workings of the Parliament. We committed to a crofting bill in the manifesto. I have explained why it was not in the PFG and its exact timing is yet to be discussed by the Cabinet as part of the future legislative programme. We made the commitment in our manifesto and we fully intend to introduce a bill.

Crofting Reform

To ask the Scottish Government what steps will be taken over the current parliamentary session to deliver crofting reform. (S6O-00187)

I reiterate that our 2021 manifesto contained a commitment to

“reform the law and develop crofting to create more active crofts”.

Through the Crofting Commission’s development officers, work has already begun on implementing actions contained in the Scottish Government’s national development plan for crofting, including bringing more crofts back into active use. We will continue to modernise crofting law during this parliamentary session and that will be timetabled in due course.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer and note her previous answer to Donald Cameron. The Scottish Crofting Federation has expressed bitter disappointment that the crofting reform bill has not been included in the programme for government. Donald MacKinnon, the chair of the federation, described it as “galling” that neither the bill nor any actions specific to crofting were included in the programme. The working group on the bill, which is the voice of crofters and communities, was disbanded when the Government abandoned the process. Will the minister clarify the Government’s position on the progress of the bill and will she reconvene the group as soon as possible in order to explain her decisions to stakeholders and to re-engage on these important issues?

I understand the frustration that the member expresses. I met the Scottish Crofting Federation and other stakeholders when the issue was raised. I made a commitment then and have made one again here today to follow through on our manifesto, which stated our intention to modernise crofting law. We will look at how that will be done, and what bodies will be established to look at that, as we progress and introduce the bill.

In 2014, the crofting law sump report identified 17 high-priority areas, and the 2017 report on crofting by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee reinforced that. It proved difficult to action those reports. I have heard what the cabinet secretary has said today. Will she give an assurance that those areas will be dealt with by the end of 2022, or will she dither and delay as her predecessor did?

I completely reject Edward Mountain’s comment. This is not dither and delay. I have explained why the legislation could not be taken forward in the previous session of Parliament, just as happened with other pieces of legislation at that time. As I said in my previous answers, we will bring out a timetable in due course. We have committed to modernising crofting legislation in this session of Parliament.

Through a Scottish land fund development application, the Islay Development Initiative has secured 264 acres of Cornabus forest. A range of options, from affordable-to-buy housing to woodland crofts, is being scrutinised. Will the cabinet secretary outline what support the Scottish Government currently gives to new entrants to crofting?

The Scottish Government is proud of our crofting heritage and is committed to continued investment in crofting. The Government provides croft businesses with more than £40 million every year. Alongside the pillar 1-type payments, a range of support is made available through the croft house grant scheme, the crofting agricultural grant scheme, the crofting cattle improvement scheme, help with vet bills and access to the Farm Advisory Service. To give an idea of just some of the sums that have been involved in that, I note that, since 2007, we have approved croft house grant payments of over £22.8 million, which has helped to build or improve over 1,055 croft homes, and that since 2015 over £15 million in crofting agricultural grant scheme funding has been approved, helping over 3,000 crofters with their businesses. That represents about 85 per cent of all eligible applications being approved.

Brexit (Labour Shortages)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the reported labour shortages being faced by food producers in Scotland following Brexit. (S6O-00186)

The decision to leave the European Union was, of course, taken against the wishes of the people of Scotland. We are already seeing in retail and other essential sectors of our economy supply chain pressures that are attributable to the loss of freedom of movement.

The Scottish ministers have written to the United Kingdom Government 19 times requesting meetings and further discussions on the impact on Scotland of its points-based immigration system, with little meaningful response. Subsequently, I and my fellow Cabinet members have written to the UK Government to highlight the impacts of existing labour and skills shortages on the food and drink industry, and we have asked for immediate action. [Interruption.] As recently as last week, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture met the Secretary of State for Scotland and further emphasised how issues with the UK immigration system have exacerbated skills shortages in Scotland.

I ask that conversations are not continued in the chamber while the cabinet secretary is responding. Thank you.

On-farm labour and haulage driver shortages are leaving broccoli and cauliflower growers with losses of between £10,000 and £90,000 every day. Recent comments from the managing director of the Fife-based East of Scotland Growers highlighted the emotional toll that the on-going labour shortages are causing for Scotland’s food producers. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government must act now and take all necessary measures to ensure that the sector can get the employees it desperately needs?

I absolutely agree. It is heartbreaking and shocking that so much good food is going to waste. That should not be happening. The figures that we have seen from East of Scotland Growers are staggering and I sympathise with the businesses involved. This just demonstrates further the disastrous effect that leaving the EU has had on Scotland.

We will continue to liaise with producers and the trade bodies to mitigate the effects where we can, but I say again that it should not be the responsibility of the Scottish Government to continually mitigate and mop up the mess that has been left by the UK Government’s bad decisions. We see that happening time and again, whether in our food and drink industry, social security or other areas. We deserve better in Scotland. We can do better and we need the levers of power to enable that to happen.

Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board (Recommendations)

To ask the Scottish Government when the agriculture reform implementation oversight board will publish its recommendations on future agricultural policy. (S6O-00188)

On 13 September, I co-chaired the first meeting of the agriculture reform implementation oversight board. The board is committed to working at pace to agree a national test programme of funded measures to assist in reducing livestock emissions by the time of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. The package, which will be based on the recommendations of the farmer-led groups, should be implemented by the spring of next year.

In the longer term, we expect the board to support the work to bring forward a new agriculture support system. In particular, the board’s work will support a consultation next year to inform the introduction of a Scottish agriculture bill in 2023.

The board’s establishment is welcome, if long overdue. As the president of NFU Scotland said,

“the time for talking is over”

and now is the time to deliver. Farmers in Orkney and across Scotland urgently need clarity on future funding and regulation in order to be able to plan ahead, but they also need reassurance that the circumstances in different parts of the country will be reflected. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the board will be tasked with ensuring that any policy changes reflect the specific needs of island farmers and crofters? Can she guarantee that on-going support for new entrants will form part of the new regime?

I am happy to give the member the reassurance that he is looking for. That is exactly why the implementation oversight board has been established in the way that it has. Geographical representation—ensuring that we have representation from Scotland’s different geographies and land types—is considered to be vital. Any considerations in relation to our islands and other parts of Scotland will be taken into account and factored into the process.

We have committed in our manifesto to look at a new scheme for new entrants, so I give that commitment again.

The clock is ticking and rural Scotland is losing patience with this Scottish National Party Government. After numerous boards and working groups, the cabinet secretary’s Government has failed to publish the farming and food production future policy group’s report and give clarity on the replacement for the agri-environment climate scheme. Farmers need answers now, so when will the Parliament see the first draft of the new agriculture bill?

We established the board to drive forward and deliver the recommendations of the farmer-led groups. We have had the first meeting of the board, which was positive. Everybody on it is looking to do exactly the same thing. We have set out the ambitious timeframes in which we expect to deliver a package of recommendations. We are very much getting on with that job: delivering what we set out in our manifesto and delivering for agriculture in Scotland.


To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to ban the use of snares to capture wild animals. (S6O-00189)

We currently have the most robust legislation in the whole of the United Kingdom to regulate the use of snares. However, I understand the concerns and why some people would wish to see snares banned on animal welfare grounds. Snaring is reviewed every five years under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the next review is due to be completed by the end of this year. I will consider recommendations from the review and take further action if necessary.

OneKind, the League Against Cruel Sports and the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have continually called for an outright ban on the use of snares in capturing wild animals, and I would argue that action by the Scottish Government is imperative. Britain is one of only five European countries where the use of snares is still permitted. It is archaic, indiscriminate and cruel. Why is banning the use of snares not specifically listed in the review of animal welfare legislation if the Government is as committed to animal welfare legislation as it claims to be?

As I explained, the terms under which snaring is reviewed are set out in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The act requires reviews to look at the conditions around identification, the regularity with which snares are checked and record keeping. However, as I said, I am listening to the concerns of those who would like to see snares banned on animal welfare grounds and I will consider whether this year’s review should look at other aspects. I would be happy to engage with the member on that.

A recent Royal Society for the Protection of Birds report put the UK at the bottom of the G7 league table for how much biodiversity it has left, although it noted that Scotland had the highest level of biodiversity intactness of all UK nations. Does the minister agree that the Scottish Government can be rightly proud of its comprehensive efforts since 2007 to protect Scotland’s wildlife?

[Inaudible.] that Scotland should be ranked highest of the UK nations for biodiversity intactness. However, we know and have already been clear that a lot of work still needs to be done.

Our December 2020 statement of intent set out our ambitions on biodiversity, which include a commitment to increase the percentage of Scotland’s land that is protected for nature to 30 per cent. We are also leading the Edinburgh process as part of the 15th United Nations conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and we will set out an updated biodiversity strategy in autumn 2022.

Does the minister recognise that snaring is a vitally important land management tool that enables land managers to protect livestock and ground-nesting birds effectively, particularly in scenarios in which other methods of control, such as shooting, are not practicable? What is the minister’s preferred method of control?

I do not personally have a preferred method of control. I recognise that, as with all matters to do with animal welfare and wildlife, and land management on the other side, we need to take a balanced approach.

As I have set out, we will undergo a review as part of statutory rules under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I will consider whether the terms of the review are sufficient with regard to the position in Scotland on the use of snares.

Agriculture (Fruit and Vegetable Sector) (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide additional financial support for the fruit and vegetable agricultural sector, in light of the losses incurred as a result of labour and logistics issues. (S6O-00190)

The position that our vital fruit and vegetable sectors have been put in is a result of United Kingdom Government decisions on Brexit, and it should be the UK Government that funds the costs of its actions. Without changes from the UK Government, our industries will continue to suffer. Therefore, we will continue to make representations to the UK Government. We will also work with stakeholders to explore ways in which we can help the situation.

As I stated in response to earlier questions, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture met the Secretary of State for Scotland on 16 September to raise again the need for the UK Government to address immediately the disruption and labour shortages that have been caused by Brexit. I met the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister, Victoria Prentis, with other devolved Administrations to discuss the same issues, because the matter is critical for all nations.

I heard the cabinet secretary’s earlier answers and I understand the frustration regarding the reckless actions of the Conservative Government. However, the sector is important for the Scottish economy, so it is important that the Scottish Government does all that it possibly can. If I heard a hint from the cabinet secretary that she is prepared to consider financial support, I would welcome that, because it will be important that we keep capacity in the sector strong if the sector is to double by 2030. Could I hear a little bit more? Will the cabinet secretary provide financial assistance?

I come back to what I said to Willie Rennie in my response to his first question. We work closely with industry and we would like to assist in whatever way that we can.

However, the most critical issue right now is labour and we need to solve that problem. As I said, we have contacted the UK Government on a number of occasions in the hope of addressing the problem, but we have had very little response from or engagement with UK ministers. The Scottish Government should not have to continually clean up the mess that has been made by the poor decisions of the UK Government. It should be up to the UK Government to compensate and make up for losses that have been suffered as a result of its decision making. We will continue to do what we can within the powers that we have to assist industry.