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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 24, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 March 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Tuberculosis Day 2022, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Retail Strategy, NHS Scotland (Pandemic Pressures), Child Poverty, Child Poverty, Building Safety Bill, Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

We move on to portfolio questions, and the portfolio this afternoon is rural affairs and islands. Anybody who wishes to ask a supplementary should press the request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Regional Food Groups (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to regional food groups. (S6O-00911)

We support those groups through a £250,000 annual fund that is delivered by Scotland Food & Drink and which allows groups across the country to resource co-ordinator posts within each group. The fund, which leverages match funding from partners, including local authorities, allows for the establishment of an active network of regional ambassadors who work in conjunction with local authorities to promote regional food and drink and tourism strategies. That support has ensured that we have 19 regional food groups operating collaboratively within their regions and collectively in partnership across Scotland.

As the cabinet secretary is aware, the Ayrshire food an a’ that group in my constituency aims to identify and provide new opportunities for food and drink in Ayrshire, including in areas of activity such as local procurement, education, and skills and training. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that such organisations are vital to continuing the good work that Scotland has accomplished in our cultural approach to food as we strive towards our ambition of being a good food nation?

I absolutely do. It is really clear to me that the regional food groups have an absolutely pivotal role to play in telling Scotland’s fantastic food and drink story. They will also be fundamental to the delivery of the next phase of the ambition 2030 strategy at local and national level.

The work of the Ayrshire food and a’ that group that the member has outlined is exactly the kind of approach that we want to see and encourage. The work that it is undertaking on all the areas that the member talked about, such as education and procurement, will help us build the good food nation and become the good food nation that we want to be. I also envisage the regional food groups playing a key role as we look to develop the national and local good food nation plans set out in the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill. They will also be vital partners in developing our local food strategy, which has been based on our recent consultation.

We have a brief supplementary from Rhoda Grant, who joins us remotely.

Being a good food nation means that people should have adequate access to food, too. This week, I heard of a really sad case of an elderly person who ended up in hospital due to starvation, not because they did not have food, but because they did not have the electricity to cook it. What support has the cabinet secretary given to groups that are trying to help people in that situation access both food and the means to cook it?

The member raises a really important question, and some of that was teased out earlier this week in the stage 1 debate on the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill. We will also be enshrining people’s right to adequate food in Scots law as part of a human rights bill, but we are also trying to give effect to that right through the work that we are undertaking at the moment and through the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill, which provides the legal framework and underpinning in that respect.

However, we are always looking at ways of supporting people. I completely understand the issues that the member has raised, but, unfortunately, we are going to see such situations increasingly often, given the number of people who are—and will continue to be—in fuel poverty. That situation is set only to get worse. Where it is within our capabilities to do so, the Scottish Government is trying to do all that we can to address those issues.

Farm Improvements

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

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to help farmers make improvements to their farms. (S6O-00912)

The Scottish Government supports farmers and crofters to make improvements through a range of measures, including the sustainable agricultural capital grant scheme and access to specialist advice and information through our farm advisory service.

I am also announcing today that we will run a further round of the knowledge transfer and innovation fund in 2022-23, with £1.6 million available to support projects that enable more sustainable and low-carbon farming and crofting. KTIF has a significant track record of supporting projects that enable farmers, crofters and land managers to create improved opportunities for nature, adapt to climate change and benefit from new organic farming materials. That fund has helped us provide funding to some really exciting projects over the past few years, and I hope that people will apply for a share of this year’s fund so that they can play their part in tackling climate change.

There are reports that Lorna Slater is not prepared to convert wild land into farms. Rewilding is important, but this Government must be ready to adapt in the face of rising food prices and shortages. Does the cabinet secretary think that a dogmatic, inflexible approach from the Greens could hold back support for our farmers in response to the crisis in Ukraine?

I know that Alexander Burnett’s colleague is going to ask me a question on that topic later on but, in relation to some of the requests that have been made in that regard, I reiterate the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting our farmers, crofters and food producers. That has been a core part of the vision that we outlined and published earlier this month, and we are committed to continuing that work. The horrendous war and acts that we are watching unfold in Ukraine highlight the vital importance of our food security. We recently established a task force to help us address some of those issues and the immediate matters that we face, and we will also look at what we can do to tackle those issues over the medium and longer term.

Does the cabinet secretary share my dismay at the Tories’ failure to deliver on their Brexit promise to at least maintain current rural funding? Instead, they are now short-changing Scotland in this parliamentary session to the tune of £93 million, which could have been provided to farmers to help them mitigate, address and adapt to climate change.

Yes, I absolutely share the member’s dismay in that regard. The Scottish Government has been clear and consistent that we expect—because we were promised—full replacement of European Union funds to ensure no detriment to Scotland’s finances. We would have expected the United Kingdom Government to fully respect the devolution settlement in any future arrangement but so far, that has not happened. My colleagues in the Administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland share our frustration in that regard.

There was also a Bew review commitment to holding meaningful discussions to agree the principles of future intra-UK allocations. Those discussions should have occurred before the UK spending review, but we are still waiting on the UK Government and George Eustice to meet that commitment.

In response to my colleague, Martin Whitfield, in September, the cabinet secretary said that food should be

“processed as close as possible to the point of primary production”—[Official Report, 2 September 2021; c 46.]

She also committed the Scottish Government to working with any operators that are looking to take forward a mobile abattoir model. Now that six months have passed, can the cabinet secretary update the chamber on what steps she is taking to improve abattoir provision? Will the Scottish Government take forward the mobile abattoir model if no prospective operators come forward?

My previous commitment still stands, and we still stand ready to work with anybody who is interested in taking forward the model. I stand by what the member quoted in the first part of her question, in that we are trying to ensure, as far as we can, that food is processed as locally as possible.

We have been considering all those issues in our draft local food strategy, which has been out for consultation. That consultation closed towards the end of last year; we are still analysing the responses to it and will be setting out our response in due course.

“SnareWatch Annual Report 2021”

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the “SnareWatch Annual Report 2021” from OneKind. (S6O-00913)

I am aware of the report’s findings and I understand the concerns around the use of snares.

We recently concluded a review of snaring, as required by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which we will publish shortly. I have commissioned an additional review, which will look beyond the terms of the 1981 act to consider a potential ban on snaring. It will look at land management aspects of the matter, as well as animal welfare.

In the meantime, Scotland has the most robust laws on snaring in the United Kingdom. We remain committed to the highest possible animal welfare standards.

I thank the minister for that very full answer. Ending cruelty against animals is tremendously important to me and my constituents. With that in mind, will the minister tell us more about the second review that she has commissioned?

I am happy to do so. As I said, the initial review is complete, and I will be pleased to share the detail of it shortly. I have commissioned the further review and we will look beyond the terms of the 1981 act, including at considering a ban. I hope to announce the details of that shortly.

I know how strongly the member and the public feel about the matter. I am clear that we need control measures, but we cannot and must not tolerate suffering. I will look to include that in the terms of the review.

Crops (Gene Editing)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with scientists regarding gene editing of crops. (S6O-00914)

Scottish Government ministers and officials speak regularly with scientists on a range of issues, including gene editing, and we have access to a wealth of scientific expertise, including that of the chief scientific adviser for environment, natural resources and agriculture and the chief plant health officer, and research and evidence provided by centres of expertise such as the Plant Health Centre.

My colleague Rachael Hamilton recently met the Roslin institute, which once again reaffirmed its support for giving gene editing the green light in Scotland. Why is the Scottish Government continuing to fail to support Scotland’s top scientists on the issue?

There are a range of views on the matter, which I am following closely. I greatly welcome scientific opinion on it. However, our policy on genetic modification has not changed. Russell Findlay and his Tory colleagues might be prepared to hurriedly change environmental standards post Brexit, but this Government is not. We will take a considered approach and I am closely following progress at European Union level in that regard.

Can the minister advise whether the Tory United Kingdom Government has shared or provided any cumulative impact assessment of the two trade deals that it has negotiated since Brexit, both of which will, by its own admission, see growth fall in UK and Scottish agriculture?

Minister, that is not relevant to gene editing. Unless you advise me otherwise, I do not think that there is anything that you can add that would relate back to the original question.

Perhaps I could add something in regard to advice received, Presiding Officer, but I will take your view on the matter and will not answer the question.

At the previous rural portfolio questions, the cabinet secretary was clearly confused between genetically modified organisms and gene editing. Now, it appears that the minister is equally confused. Will the minister please take the time to understand the difference between GMOs and gene editing? Scotland’s farmers can see potential benefits in gene editing. Why can the Scottish Government not?

The member need not try to patronise, belittle or outsmart me, because he will not succeed.

I am following closely both scientific and judicial reasoning about the decoupling of GM and gene editing. The latter is a process that it is considered could also have occurred naturally, and not through the gene editing process. However, as I have said to the member’s colleague, our position has not changed, and I am following the EU in this regard.

Farming (Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is putting in place to attract younger people into the farming sector. (S6O-00915)

We recognise that getting young people into the sector is key to driving forward our rural economy, and we know that younger people face a number of obstacles to getting into the sector, which can be off-putting. That is why the Government is continuing to support young people by developing skills and talent through our skills action plan for rural Scotland, and through the skills for farming group, to guide employers on apprenticeships and work placements.

Additional support will continue to be provided by our farming opportunities for new entrants group, the Scottish Land Matching Service and the Farm Advisory Service.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for her acknowledgement that there is a problem, because I have recently been contacted by several younger constituents across Mid Scotland and Fife who are struggling to get into the farming sector. That issue has been highlighted at some local NFU Scotland meetings. Recent Scottish Government statistics show that, since 2016, the Scottish Government’s opportunities for new entrants programme has helped only 76 young entrants to get into farming. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is a disappointingly low number and that a new strategy is required to address that?

We have a manifesto commitment to look at that, which is why I welcome the evaluation that has recently been published. I was pleased to read in the evaluation that the grants were successful in encouraging 254 new younger entrants into the sector, and that we granted more than £11.6 million to allow that to happen.

As the member said, the review highlighted that there are also challenges relating to land availability and the profitability of agricultural businesses. There remain considerable barriers to new entrants, which grants alone will not be able to address. However, as I have just intimated, we will be using the outcomes of the review to help to shape the future plans for new entrant support, in line with our manifesto commitment.

I will take a couple of supplementary questions. Make them as brief as possible, please.

Can the cabinet secretary advise Parliament about the SkillSeeder programme, what it does and how it is being funded?

The SkillSeeder company is delivering an easily accessible rural and land-based training IT platform. Ultimately, that aims to break down the barriers for people throughout rural Scotland and make it easier for people to find the right training for them, and for skill sharers and trainers to easily reach people who need their training. There are already 5,000 courses on the platform, including from colleges, machinery rings, renewable companies and forestry organisations. We recently announced some funding in relation to that, so I would encourage people who are interested in undertaking training to seek out those opportunities.

I call Evelyn Tweed.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Sorry—I mean Audrey Nicoll. I was looking at the wrong paper.

I appreciate that Liz Smith’s questions related to the farming sector but, similarly, the fishing and seafood industries are working hard to attract young people to their sectors. That includes fish processors in my constituency, who are working with Seafish and the Scottish Seafood Association through campaigns such as “Sea a Bright Future”. Will the cabinet secretary give an update on the work that is being done to support young people to move into the fishing and processing sectors?

I like to keep members on their toes.

That is another area where we are keen to see new entrants. The marine fund Scotland has supported new entrants to secure their positions in the fishing industry. For example, we have been assisting young fishers to purchase their first fishing boat or to have a share in a fishing boat. To date, we have awarded around £2 million of funding to assist entry of young fishers to the sector. The fund has also supported new entrants by providing grant support to Seafish to deliver training in Scotland.

Aquaculture (Licensing)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will implement the findings of the first stage of the review on licensing in the aquaculture sector. (S6O-00916)

The review that was undertaken by Professor Russel Griggs is comprehensive and ambitious, and it fulfils the remit that was given to him. I take this opportunity to thank Professor Griggs again for his work and all the effort that he put into producing it.

I have made clear my agreement to all the recommendations in principle, and I will announce shortly the next steps that will take us beyond this first phase. It is vital that we maintain that momentum and approach our commitment to streamline the regulatory process for aquaculture at pace.

I am pleased to hear that there is an intention to proceed speedily. The cabinet secretary will be aware that 600 jobs in Rosyth in my constituency depend on the success of the salmon industry. I therefore ask her to confirm that she will instruct her officials to work at pace to implement the Griggs review recommendations, because that will ensure a better, more efficient and transparent aquaculture regulatory framework, which is essential for future sustainability and competitiveness. Will she also confirm that she will work constructively with industry to get that right?

Yes—that is certainly my intention. Aquaculture is hugely important to Scotland’s economy and I recognise that Rosyth is one of the communities that depend on the success of a sustainable aquaculture industry. As I have mentioned, we are determined to make sure that we continue with that momentum and pace in progressing work that takes us beyond the first phase of the review. We are committed to that collaborative working and we will continue to engage with stakeholders into phase 2 of the aquaculture review and in the production of a Government-led vision for aquaculture.

As part of our manifesto commitments, we said that we would reform and streamline regulatory processes so that development is more responsive, transparent and efficient. To achieve that, we are also committed through our manifesto to implement a process that will bring greater clarity and speed to the process of aquaculture regulation. We appointed Professor Griggs as part of our commitments for our first 100 days. We are now finalising the next steps into phase 2 of the work that is required to move beyond the status quo.

The mortality rate of salmon in Scottish salmon farms was 24 per cent in 2020. Environmental sustainability depends on the robust enforcement of compliance, but the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and NatureScot have recently suffered successive budget cuts. Would any new licence fee be used to pay for the greatly expanded independent monitoring of impacts on fish farms, especially sea lice counts and fish deaths?

As I said in my previous response, we will build on the work that has just been announced and continue that momentum. It would be premature of me to make any specific commitments in relation to what the member is talking about, given the phase that the work is at.

As part of the Bute house agreement, we recognised that an immediate programme of work needed to be carried out in that regard. I highlight to the member and others across the chamber that we set out our response to the salmon interactions working group to try and tackle some of the existing issues while we were undertaking the review.

Agriculture Policy (War in Ukraine)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it is adapting its agriculture policy for crops and livestock due to the war in Ukraine. (S6O-00917)

The Scottish Government recognises the impact that the terrible war in Ukraine is having on global agrifood markets. On 17 March, we announced, jointly with industry leaders, the establishment of a short-life food security and supply task force to monitor, identify and respond to any potential disruption to the food and drink supply chain. It will recommend actions that can be taken to mitigate impacts, resolve supply issues and strengthen food security and supply in Scotland. We remain committed to producing more of our own food sustainably while maintaining and enhancing nature.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the need to support our farmers and growers to deal with crises such as inflationary pressure and the market volatility that they face. Will the cabinet secretary promise that her Government will not approve any more deals to send thousands of sweet potatoes to Russia?

A few points need to be clarified in relation to the issue. The Scottish Government does not approve export deals. We have led calls for businesses to disinvest in Russia as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, and we have communicated that clearly to the sweet potato suppliers concerned. The Scottish Government and its economic agencies will use all available powers not to support trade and investment activity in Russia. When a company makes a decision to export plants or plant products from Scotland, including sweet potatoes, Scottish Government officials are required to carry out various activities, including inspection and certification of goods, but the Scottish Government does not approve export deals.

It was said earlier that the terrible conflict in Ukraine will impact on food security in Scotland. That was highlighted in the debate on the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday. How is the United Kingdom Government involving the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations in discussions and deliberations in that area?

Across the Scottish Government, we are in contact with the UK Government on a range of aspects relating to the conflict and its impact. The First Minister attends a weekly domestic resilience meeting that is chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and Ukraine has been one of the top agenda items at our regular interministerial group meetings with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other devolved Administrations.

I continue to press for further engagement with the Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Victoria Prentis, to ensure that we are closely involved in responding to the fast-moving situation. I did so at the most recent interministerial group meeting, which took place at the start of this week. In that meeting, Victoria Prentis assured all the relevant devolved ministers that there would be on-going close contact and liaison, given that many issues that are impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine are devolved and shared across the UK. I am keen to ensure that that commitment is followed through, and I will do what I can to ensure that it is.

I wish the cabinet secretary well in getting that engagement, because she will know that many Ukrainian seasonal workers are carrying out outstanding work in supporting Scottish agriculture and fruit growing. Although their visas have been extended until December, the visas are valid only as long as the worker stays on their current farm or is placed on another farm by their sponsor. Those workers cannot apply for their families to join them, and they generally have no recourse to public funds.

Will the cabinet secretary consider what more support the Scottish Government could give to those farm workers and, indeed, to help more farm workers to come to Scotland from Ukraine, including support on how they might be able to bring their family over and access public funds and services, given the enormous contribution that all those workers make to Scottish farming and fruit picking?

Absolutely. We are committed to doing that, and we are doing all that we can to ensure that we give that support where possible.

I provide the assurance to members across the chamber that we are engaging closely and regularly with our fruit and vegetable producers. We are, of course, aware that there are workers from Ukraine already here. The plan was for many more to join them as part of the seasonal workforce, but it is clear that that is unlikely to happen. However, we are working urgently with all our stakeholders, and internally, to determine how best we can support those workers. That includes ensuring that they are aware of, and are known to, the parts of the Government that are co-ordinating our action to support Ukrainian refugees.

We have also reached out to RSABI with a view to utilising its seasonal worker helpline, which is already established. We are working closely with it to find out how it can provide assistance.

We want to provide all the practical and emotional support that we can, and we will certainly do everything that we can, with the powers and resources that we have, to provide that.

That concludes portfolio question time. I apologise again to Audrey Nicoll and Evelyn Tweed for the confusion.

I remind members that, if they have a question or intend to ask a supplementary question at portfolio question time, they need to be here at the beginning of questions and remain until the end. I will not name and shame on this occasion, but let that be noted.