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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 23 October 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Survivors of Child Abuse in Care (Response to Recommendations on Financial Redress), National Health Service (Performance), Scottish Screen Sector, Business Motion, Decision Time, Fife Out-of-hours General Practitioner Services (Closure)


Topical Question Time


I extend my sympathy to farmer Thomas Jackson and his family and thank the minister and her team for their speedy response and openness to sharing information. I note the farming interests in my entry in the register of members’ interests.

To ask the Scottish Government what assurances it can provide that it has taken all required steps to protect consumers, food safety and the farming industry, following the discovery of BSE on a farm in Aberdeenshire. (S5T-01261)

I thank the member for his opening remarks.

It is extremely disappointing to have a confirmed case of BSE in Scotland, but I can provide full assurances that all required steps have been taken to protect consumers, food safety and the farming and food sectors. We have put in place a co-ordinated response, which has been led by Scotland’s chief veterinary officer and the animal health and welfare team in the Scottish Government. The response has involved the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Food Standards Scotland and Health Protection Scotland. I can provide the following details.

First, I want to be clear that the animal that was positively diagnosed for BSE was not destined for the food chain and that its carcase was disposed of appropriately. Very strict controls are in place to protect consumers from the risk of BSE, including controls on animal feed and the removal of the parts of cattle that are most likely to carry BSE infectivity. Consumers can be reassured that those important protection measures remain in place.

Secondly, animals on the holding were put under movement restrictions to prevent their movement off the holding. A small number of animals on the holding will be culled this week and tested as a precaution, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency will conduct a detailed investigation to seek to identify the source of the disease.

Thirdly, controls to protect animal and public health that were in place before this case remain in place. That includes controls on the content of animal feed and the removal of the parts of cattle that are most likely to carry BSE infectivity.

What progress has been made in identifying all the necessary information about the animal and, more important, about all its offspring, including where they are?

I assure Mr Burnett that we are taking that issue very seriously and that detailed investigations are under way. We will not see the conclusions of some of those investigations or identify the source or cause of BSE, if it is possible to discover that, for at least a month and perhaps longer.

There have been four cohorts, and one of the offspring of the affected animal will be slaughtered. As I said in my initial answer, the animals will be tested purely as a precautionary measure to help with the very limited investigations that we have been able to do so far. We await the outcome of the further investigations, which I hope will provide some more conclusive information that I will be able to bring to Parliament. We have not identified any particular problem in the feed, but we have been able to undertake only preliminary investigations. As the details become clearer, and as the investigations are completed, I will bring back that information to the member and the chamber.

What guarantees can the Scottish Government provide that all fallen stock on Scottish farms were tested for BSE prior to this outbreak?

As devastating as the outbreak has been for not only the farmer involved but the wider industry, because of the shock that the case will have caused, it shows if anything that the surveillance and the measures that we have put in place since the original epidemic in the 1990s are working. We were able to identify the case quickly and, as soon as it was identified, the other precautionary measures were put in place immediately. That shows that the surveillance measures that we have in place are effective and are working. For example, we test around 20,000 fallen stock every year, which shows that our surveillance system is very good. The fact that we were able to identify the case so quickly and react in the way that we did shows that the work and the precautionary measures that we are undertaking are working.

The British Veterinary Association has said that it is

“pleased that the comprehensive and robust veterinary surveillance system was able to quickly and effectively detect this potential risk. Both the farmer and the vet involved deserve praise for their part in identifying this case, allowing the authorities to put in place appropriate precautionary measures.”

What impact might the case have on Scotland’s BSE negligible-risk status?

The recent case means that Scotland loses its negligible-risk status. That means that we have controlled-risk status, which is the same as in the rest of Great Britain. We can reapply for negligible-risk status, but we can do so only after 11 years from the birth of the affected animal. We have seen similar situations in other countries across Europe that have been affected by BSE, such as the Republic of Ireland and France, which, shortly after gaining negligible-risk status, had isolated cases of BSE that meant that they lost that status. We could well be in the tail end of the epidemic that we saw in the 1990s. We can reapply for negligible-risk status, but we now have the same status as the rest of Great Britain.

What implications does the change in our status have for our beef exports?

As far as we are aware, there will be a negligible risk—that is our determination. Other countries in a similar situation that have lost their negligible-risk status and returned to controlled-risk status have not seen any impact on their trade or on their wider beef sector, so we hope that this will not present too much of a problem for the beef sector in Scotland. We will be keeping a close watch on the matter.

Although Scotland has one of the most rigorous regimes in the world for monitoring and detecting BSE, are Government vets reviewing our processes to see whether this drives a need for that regime to be changed or tightened further?

As I have said, the controls and the measures that we have in place have been shown to work by the very fact that we were able to pick up this case so quickly and act on it in such a responsive way. Of course, if the investigations identify any possible areas for improvement, we will look very seriously and closely at that, and potentially take forward improvements, if there are any to be made.

I declare an interest as a farmer. It is important that we all send our support to the farmer concerned, Thomas Jackson. I am reliably told that he is devastated by the case of BSE on his farm, and we must make it clear—it is important to put this on record—that he has done nothing wrong.

Will the minister tell us what extra costs and procedures are involved at slaughter because of our downgrading from negligible-risk status to controlled-risk status?

I completely echo the member’s sentiments about the farmer involved—this is obviously no fault of his. It is understandably devastating for him and his family.

We have seen isolated cases happen elsewhere, and countries have lost their negligible-risk status. We await the outcome of the investigation into the case in this country to see whether we are in a similar situation.

We are working with the farmer, and we will do all that we can to support him.

On the question of the extra costs that could be involved as a result of the loss of negligible-risk status, I will have to look into the matter in order to give the member a detailed response.

As the minister and others have mentioned, the discovery of BSE in one of his herds has been devastating for Thomas Jackson and his family. What support are he and his family being given? What should other local beef producers do should they have any questions about the situation?

I understand that the Animal and Plant Health Agency has been in close contact with the farmer and has passed him details of the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution, which is a charity that offers practical and emotional support for the wellbeing of farmers and their families. NFU Scotland has also been in contact with the farmer, and I understand that it is also providing support and assistance. I know that Mr Burnett is also keen to provide support where that might be relevant and appropriate.

I completely understand the member’s point about the wider concern among the Aberdeenshire farming community. I urge any farmer with concerns to seek immediate veterinary advice. This Friday, I will attend the Thainstone mart, where I will be on hand to discuss any concerns that farmers may want to raise with me directly. If they feel that we could be offering more support or assistance, I will listen to those concerns to see whether there is anything else that the Government can do to help support them.

A83 (Investment at Rest and Be Thankful)

To ask the Scottish Government what investment is planned for the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful. (S5T-01259)

The member will be aware of the significant landslide that closed the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful on Tuesday 9 October. At 3,000 tonnes of debris, it was the biggest landslide at the Rest and Be Thankful in at least a decade. Further deteriorating weather conditions during storm Callum caused additional secondary landslips.

Since 2007, we have invested £69 million in the maintenance of this trunk road, including £11 million on landslide mitigation measures at the Rest and Be Thankful and on the local old military road diversion. The mitigation measures have had an impact, with some 2,500 tonnes of debris being retained by the nets on Tuesday 9 October.

In the current financial year, a maintenance programme for the A83 totalling £6 million is being delivered. That includes £1.7 million being spent on new roadside catch pit works for further landslide mitigation at the Rest and Be Thankful. That is part of a £4.4 million investment in work that started in 2017-18 and will run into 2019-20.

I have arranged for an A83 task force meeting to take place on 15 November, at which the recent incident and wider issues will be discussed with local and regional stakeholders.

I know that the cabinet secretary visited the site of the A83 landslip during the nine-day closure and I am grateful to him for doing so. He will be aware that this coincided with the closure of the old military road, which was the usual diversionary route. As a result of the closure of both, in many cases people had to travel an extra 58 miles.

Although the Rest and Be Thankful is technically in my constituency, the impact of closure is most keenly felt by residents and businesses in Mike Russell’s constituency, Argyll and Bute. I know that Mike Russell has been active in raising the issue in the Scottish Government.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in thanking the staff who worked tirelessly to return both roads to use? Will he ensure that the task force, which is due to meet soon, will draw in all interests to work on a solution?

I am grateful for the member’s question and I join her in thanking the staff who worked tirelessly, over an extended period and in very difficult circumstances, to restore the Rest and Be Thankful.

When I visited the site on Friday, it was clear that a very significant landslip had taken place. In fact, when I arrived, a further landslip had just occurred on the site. The secondary landslip breached the fencing and reached the old military road, so the decision not to open up the old military road on the Tuesday was the correct one, given the events that unfolded. The staff did a fantastic job in restoring the road and getting it open on 18 October.

The task force will have a debrief on the events that took place over the past couple of weeks, and Mike Russell and Jackie Baillie have a standing invitation to attend. It is important that we get an understanding of what happened, where we are with the mitigation measures that are being put in place at the moment and whether further measures will need to be implemented in the months ahead.

The cabinet secretary will be aware, of course, that this is not the first time that the Rest and Be Thankful has had to close, notwithstanding the welcome mitigation measures.

The consequences of each closure for the local economy and local people are hugely significant. Many people now believe that a permanent solution is needed. Will the cabinet secretary, first, agree to meet Argyll and Bute Council to discuss the matter, and secondly, commission a full options appraisal, to deliver certainty for the local people and businesses who rely on the A83?

I recognise the significant inconvenience for and frustration of the people in Argyll and Bute who are affected by the closure of the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful, which is to be regretted.

A significant amount of work has been undertaken to implement mitigation measures, which have had an impact on the site. In the past couple of years, nets have prevented closure of the route where that would have happened in the past.

However, given the events of the past couple of weeks, we clearly need to revisit the issue. The most recent report was completed in 2013 and work on the red-corridor recommendation that was taken forward is still going on. There is also work, part of which has been completed, to install catch pits. When I was on site, I discussed with Transport Scotland’s representatives whether there was other work that we could do more quickly to speed up the mitigation work. I know that they are also very close to securing the land to allow tree planting to take place. If we can speed up that process, that will also support the mitigation work. However, I am also open to looking at whether further measures need to be taken to address the issue permanently. If such measures are identified, I will make every possible effort to ensure that they are realised.

I, too, commend the staff for their hard work following recent events on the A83. It is the main trunk road coming into Argyll, and its closure leads to people suffering fuel poverty and isolation and being unable to access vital services such as hospitals. If the most recent landslide had occurred hours later, there could well have been fatalities. Does the cabinet secretary agree that no other trunk road, such as the M8, the M74 or the M9, would be allowed to function at that level of disruption?

As I have just mentioned, I regret the disruption that was caused by the landslide. Anyone who knows the site will know the particularly challenging topography of this part of the road, on which such issues have been long standing. The mitigation measures that are being taken are to address such concerns but, clearly, given recent events and the scale of that landslide, we need to look at whether further measures need to be taken as we consider its impact. I am committed to ensuring that we do so, and I have no doubt that the task force will want to give due consideration to that when it meets on 15 November.

I thank the cabinet secretary and members. Apologies to John Finnie and Donald Cameron that we were not able to take any further supplementaries; we are a little bit pushed for time this afternoon.