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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, October 28, 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Offshore Training Passport, Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service Endowment Funds, Covid Recovery Strategy, Points of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio questions. In order to get as many people in as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions, and answers to match.

Islands Bond

To ask the Scottish Government what specific targets it will apply to the islands bond. (S6O-00285)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

One of the key measures in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 is to ensure that we engage and involve people in businesses from our island communities and other stakeholders, including local authorities, in consultation on the development of new policies such as the islands bond. That process is under way, and I expect that matters such as targets, as well as other indicators and desirable outcomes that we might all wish to see from the policy, are being discussed. Should there be a strong appetite to have targets included in how we deliver the commitment, we will give that full consideration.

Richard Leonard

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response. I accept that the consultation on the practicalities of providing 100 islands bonds of up to £50,000 just closed on Monday of this week, but does the cabinet secretary not accept that—notwithstanding that some progress has been made in recent days—if it dropped its plan to centralise air traffic control in the Highlands, the Scottish Government would keep more than 100 families on the islands, and that it would cost considerably less? Further, does she accept that the bonds will risk inflating island house prices, driving them up even further, beyond the reach of young locals—so having the opposite effect to the one intended? Why is the Government giving with one hand and taking away with the other?

Mairi Gougeon

That is not the case at all. I suggest that, if Mr Leonard has particular issues around Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, he should raise them with the Minister for Transport, Graeme Dey.

We are undertaking that process with the islands bond and consulting to ensure that we get the measure right when the bond is introduced. Of course, it cannot tackle depopulation in isolation, and that is why a host of other measures are being considered. For example, the production of an action plan on rural and islands housing, which we committed to, should go some way towards addressing some of the concerns that Mr Leonard has raised.

The islands bond is not something that we are doing in isolation. We also have a population task force, which has been established to consider, across Government, what we are doing to tackle many of the issues, so that we can give a full and considered response and tackle a lot of the problems.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Making communities more resilient is the best way of attracting and retaining population in our islands. Rather than bribing individuals to remain in or move to islands, will the cabinet secretary commit to ring fencing the funding for that gimmick to support broadband and transport links instead, as they allow people to live, work and study in our islands?

Mairi Gougeon

I have to refute the language used by Liam McArthur. The bond represents a really positive step, to which we committed in our manifesto as one tool to tackle depopulation and protect our fragile communities. It is not a bribe or a gimmick; it is meant to work alongside some of the initiatives that I mentioned in response to Mr Leonard. It is about job opportunities and housing, as well as a number of funding strands that we have through the islands programme to tackle many of the problems that we see on our islands.

I tried to get out and about as much as I could over the summer to speak directly to people who live in our island communities and to understand more about the issues there. The measure is one initiative that we hope will help to tackle some of the problems that we see. We are determined and absolutely committed to listen to communities as we develop our proposals.

I call Craig Hoy.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration the rural affairs secretary has given to ensure that fish farms have the support they need to meet environment standards, in light of reports that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has rated one in 10 as “unsatisfactory”.

The Presiding Officer

Sorry—I think that there has been a misunderstanding, Mr Hoy. You have question 5, but your question appeared as a supplementary. We will come back to you in due course.

We will move on to question 2. I call Christine Grahame.

Rural Economy (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale)

2. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

Craig Hoy is a lucky man: he gets two bites at the fish.

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it has taken to improve the rural economy in the Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale constituency. (S6O-00286)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government is investing in a range of activities across Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale to create jobs and support businesses and communities.

Through our regeneration capital grant fund, we have invested almost £2 million in various locally developed projects, each as part of wider place-based approaches, in order to deliver regeneration and economic growth.

Our enterprise agencies are providing support to businesses across the area to promote and create jobs. Since April last year, South of Scotland Enterprise has provided grant funding of £2.1 million to sustain businesses and communities in the constituency, including funding for the Pavilion Cinema in Galashiels and the Peebles Community Trust.

The constituency will also benefit from our support for the Borderlands deal, in which we are investing £85 million, and the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland deal, in which we are investing £300 million, to support a range of projects and programmes across those regions that are designed to stimulate economic growth.

Christine Grahame

I welcome the support for the various businesses across my constituency. However, connectivity is essential for people living in my constituency—for business, pleasure and essential medical treatment, for example. I welcome any funding that the Government has recently put into rural buses, but in the forthcoming Cabinet deliberations on the budget, can the cabinet secretary use her considerable skill and charm to push the case for extra funding for rural bus services in the remoter areas of my constituency?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank Ms Grahame for her compliment. We recognise the distinct challenges in delivering viable bus services in rural areas, which is why we continue to provide financial support, including up to £210 million to maintain services while patronage is reduced. We also set out in the programme for government that we would introduce a community bus fund to support local transport authorities to improve public transport in their areas. We are also supporting pilots of digital solutions through the mobility as a service investment fund.

I am happy to raise Ms Grahame’s question with the Minister for Transport, Graeme Dey.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

My constituency and Ms Grahame’s constituency have experienced heavy rain and flooding in the past 24 hours. Hawick now has a major incident situation and the situation in Newcastleton is of particular concern—the water is close to homes and a number of people are being advised to evacuate.

Given the debacle of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency cyberattack, climate change, the increased risk of flooding and the risk to rural livelihoods and the economy, can the cabinet secretary tell me what the Scottish Government has done since the most recent flood and storm damage, which I know she was involved in addressing?

Mairi Gougeon

I am sorry to hear about the events happening in Rachael Hamilton’s constituency right now. As she mentioned, I visited Newcastleton after the most recent flooding incident there, which I know was devastating for the community.

On the activity that has taken place since then, I am happy to look into that and come back to Rachael Hamilton with further information and, of course, to see what support, if any, we can offer those communities if they are struggling further because of those events.

Rural Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support sectors in the rural economy to tackle rural poverty. (S6O-00287)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

We are committed to doing all that we can to tackle poverty in Scotland, including in rural and island communities, and, through specific measures in the programme for government, to strengthen our rural economy and address rural poverty. Our new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation will set out the steps that we will take to deliver our economic recovery and to support new green jobs, businesses and industries that will deliver sustainable and inclusive economic prosperity for all of Scotland’s people and places.

However, as Ms Duncan-Glancy will be aware, we have only limited powers and resources available to us. Rural Scotland is particularly vulnerable and fragile to the harmful impact of Brexit, as well as to issues such as hikes in the cost of fuel and food. We know that the Westminster Government’s policy decisions have a huge effect on rural poverty.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

The cabinet secretary will be aware that fuel poverty in rural areas is 5 per cent higher than it is in urban areas, and that levels of fuel poverty for rural households are higher than they are for households in all other locations and have been increasing. I am sure that she will agree that ensuring that people have enough money to heat their homes through winter must be a priority. What action does the Government intend to take to reduce levels of rural fuel poverty this winter and to support those in rural areas to meet the costs of their rising energy bills?

Mairi Gougeon

We recognise the unique challenge that households in Scotland’s islands and remote communities face when it comes to keeping their homes warm for an affordable price.

In developing the legislation that became the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019, we undertook an islands community impact assessment in order to fully consider the implications for households on our islands. The feedback that we received contributed to our decision to incorporate adjustments to the United Kingdom minimum income standard element of the new fuel poverty definition, in order to take account of the generally higher costs of living in Scotland’s remote and island communities.

Through our energy efficiency schemes, we already spend more, per head, on energy efficiency in remote rural and island areas, where installation and labour costs are higher. Our warmer homes Scotland scheme has introduced additional renewable enabling measures, including ground-source heat pumps and microwind, microhydro and micro-combined heat and power systems, which will be of particular benefit to households that are living off the gas grid, as is the case for most island-based communities.

As we prepare our fuel poverty strategy, we are committed to continuing to take full account of the special circumstances that are faced by those who live in our rural and island communities.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The benefits of digital inclusion are well documented and have been proven not only to reduce social exclusion, loneliness and depression but to produce higher employability, increase earnings and, therefore, reduce poverty. A report that was produced by the third sector in Dumfries and Galloway has revealed that more than 20,000 people are missing out on being able to access key services for improving employability that are now on offer on digital platforms.

What can the cabinet secretary do to ensure that my constituents do not lose out? How can she mitigate the impact of the broken commitment to roll out superfast broadband in my constituency? That will now not be completed until 2025—four years after the date that was originally pledged by the Scottish Government.

Mairi Gougeon

The opportunities that come with digital connectivity—to better connect us all, to improve employment opportunities and to open up opportunities for remote healthcare—are all vital. That is why a number of pieces of work have been under way to tackle the digital divide that can sometimes exist. In order to sustain our rural communities, we want people to live and work in those areas. It has been proven that we can work remotely and in a hybrid fashion. Such work should be open and accessible to everyone, and we need to address the challenges where they exist.

As I have said, a number of pieces of work are under way to tackle the digital divide. I will be happy to update the member and to give him further information on the work that is under way.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that one of the biggest contributors to poverty in rural and island communities for years to come will be the economic and social harm caused by the loss of freedom of movement and trade following Brexit? What does she make of the many UK parties, including Labour, that appear to have enabled that Brexit?

Mairi Gougeon

Exit from the European Union has absolutely led to challenges, including the labour and skills shortages that have, of course, had an impact on food supplies, costs and household incomes. That issue has been raised with me at pretty much every stakeholder meeting that I have attended in the past few months.

According to the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility—the UK’s fiscal watchdog—the impact of Brexit on the UK economy will be worse than that which has been caused by the pandemic. Yesterday, he stated that

“In the long term it is the case that Brexit has a bigger impact than the pandemic”.

The OBR reported that leaving the EU will reduce UK gross domestic product by about 4 per cent, whereas the effect of the pandemic will reduce GDP output by a further 2 per cent.

Despite agreeing to meaningful engagement on migration, the UK Government has dismissed our proposals for addressing the acute labour shortage crisis. It should re-engage in good faith with the EU to find pragmatic solutions to the blockages that are confronting businesses.

As a supporter of Brexit, the Labour Party is deeply complicit in the difficult financial circumstances in which many of our communities find themselves.

Food and Drink Producers (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it can support Scottish food and drink producers, in light of reports of empty supermarket shelves. (S6O-00288)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

We have committed support of £10 million between 2020 and 2022 for the food and drink sector’s recovery plan, which contains 50 actions to help businesses across Scotland to recover from Covid-19 and the disruptions of Brexit. We are in regular dialogue with the industry through our food sector resilience group meetings in order to understand how best we can further support the sector.

However, the most important solutions to combating the supply chain issues that we face lie with the United Kingdom Government. We will continue to press it to take urgent action to address labour shortages, which we have already discussed, and other significant issues that businesses face.

Willie Coffey

Many fabulous locally produced Ayrshire products do not feature on the shelves of our biggest supermarkets—for example, Dunlop cheese, Ballochmyle brie, Mossgiel and Coo Shed milk, many brands of Ayrshire tatties from Dowhill farm and others and the world-famous Kilmarnock pie, which only Sainsbury’s has the good sense to stock. Will the cabinet secretary encourage supermarket operators to procure more food locally, so that we are less reliant on transporting food over great distances, and to put more local products such as those that I have described on their shelves, so that local food producers can play their full part in feeding the nation?

Mairi Gougeon

Willie Coffey raises a hugely important point. Over the past 18 months, the Scottish Government has had positive engagement with grocery retailers and Scotland Food and Drink in order to do exactly what he suggests and to explore how best retailers can provide support for our hard-working Scottish food and drink producers and get more Scottish produce on their shelves.

The importance of ensuring that quality local produce is available to Scottish consumers has never been greater, and I encourage retailers to continue the work that they are doing in the area and to explore all the opportunities for sourcing as much of our fantastic Scottish produce as possible, including the many great products that are available from Ayrshire, which Willie Coffey has delightfully taken us through.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Pig farmers have been hit hard by Brexit. Their processing factories were staffed by eastern European butchers, many of whom have understandably returned home. We are now importing pork to meet public demand while our domestic producers struggle to get their pork to market. What further support can the Scottish Government give to that important industry?

Mairi Gougeon

We continue to engage with the industry on the pressures that it encounters as a result of labour shortages that have been caused by Brexit and on what we can do to alleviate the situation. This morning, I announced a private storage aid scheme for pig meat to aid with the backlog of pigs on farms. That will sit alongside the £715,000 that we provided to the sector earlier in the summer to help with costs and issues arising from the pandemic. The levy holiday that Quality Meat Scotland is providing for producers, which the Scottish Government supports, amounts to, approximately, an additional £40,000 of support.

I highlight to the member that, in addition to that, we will provide additional support to assist increased abattoir throughput. I will provide more details on that in due course.

Fish Farms (Environmental Standards)

5. Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration the rural affairs secretary has given to ensure that fish farms have the support they need to meet environment standards, in light of reports that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has rated one in 10 as “unsatisfactory”. (S6O-00289)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The report that the member refers to is stolen information and I cannot therefore comment on its contents.

However, in answer to the question, I can say that the Scottish Government provides financial assistance to the sector, funding projects that aim to reduce the environmental impacts of fish farming. Past projects have included the development of non-medicinal treatment technologies such as the thermolicer and trialling of freshwater treatments for gill disease.

We established the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre to support the sustainability of Scottish aquaculture and improve understanding of environmental interactions and the sector’s environmental performance. For example, SAIC recently announced a project that aims to more accurately model salmon farms’ environmental impact, and it launched another project to develop DNA-based environmental monitoring.

Other key initiatives include the farmed fish health framework, which brings together regulators, salmon and trout producers, the Scottish Government and the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre to collaboratively address key health and welfare issues, which has influenced changes to sea lice policy and regulation.

Craig Hoy

The industry is worth millions of pounds to the Scottish economy and accounts for more than 12,000 Scottish jobs, including in my region. To support the industry, will the cabinet secretary accelerate the implementation of the SEPA environmental framework for controlled activities regulations licences, which will show the progress that the industry has made?

Mairi Gougeon

I understand how vital the aquaculture sector is to our remote and rural communities, in particular. As part of the co-operation with the Scottish Green Party, we have set out a number of actions that we are looking to take on that, because, as much as we support the sector, it has to develop in an environmentally sustainable way. We have undertaken a number of commitments and actions in relation to that. I would, again, be happy to get in touch with Craig Hoy to outline all of that, but he is probably already aware of some of the actions that we have initiated. We have given a response to the salmon interactions working group that also contains a number of actions, and we are undertaking an external regulatory review. That will contribute to the sector as a whole and make it more environmentally sustainable.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

The salmon farming industry has made investments that have benefited communities across the Highlands and Islands. Homes and businesses on the Knoydart peninsula and Loch Nevis have benefited from superfast broadband thanks to a collaboration between Scottish Sea Farms and a rural broadband company. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the aquaculture industry has a positive role to play in sustaining the social and economic vitality of many rural and island communities?

Mairi Gougeon

Yes, I do recognise that. As I illustrated in my response to Craig Hoy, I recognise how important the industry is to our remote and rural communities. It has a really positive role to play in sustaining the social and economic vitality of communities. I talked about the contribution that it makes. Aquaculture and its wider supply chain generated £885 million gross value added in 2018 and supported 11,700 jobs, many of which are well-paid, highly skilled roles in some of our most fragile and rural communities.

I welcome the support that is provided to communities by the fish farming industry and commend its commitment to do even more through the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation’s sustainability charter. I was delighted to have the opportunity to see some of that work in the summer, when I visited Colonsay, where I saw in action the positive impact that the sector can have on local communities through affordable housing investment. That is vital for economic growth and it is helping to sustain that remote community.

Illegal Trawling

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it will take to address illegal trawling. (S6O-00290)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Marine Scotland directorate of the Scottish Government uses its air, sea and land assets, including a 24/7 monitoring centre, to respond to reports of illegal fishing and associated activity. Any evidence that is gathered through monitoring and inspection at sea and in ports that suggests illegal activity will, depending on the severity, result in one of a number of enforcement options ranging from fixed penalties to criminal proceedings by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Our approach to sea fisheries compliance is already world class, but we want to enhance our capabilities and demonstrate our role as a leading fishing nation. As is reflected in our fisheries management strategy, the introduction of remote electronic monitoring to key fishing fleet segments will play an important role in that. The Scottish Government will shortly consult on the mandatory roll-out of REM to the scallop and pelagic sectors in 2022, along with consideration of further roll-out to other fleet segments using a proportionate and risk-based approach.

Gillian Mackay

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Loch Gairloch has suffered several times from illegal dredgers and trawlers and that, following the destruction caused by two dredgers in 2018, Parliament voted to deliver robust and tamper-proof vessel tracking on all Scottish fishing vessels. However, three years later, not all of those vessels have been fitted with any additional equipment.

The first of last week’s incidents was reported to Marine Scotland officers in the morning, but there was no officer available to visit and the protected area was breached again that very evening. There are also reports that the £2,000 fine for abusing no-take zones is inadequate and too easily dismissed as a business expense. As the current measures are not posing a sufficient deterrent, is the Scottish Government considering additional measures to prevent illegal fishing, particularly in our marine protected areas?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank Gillian Mackay for raising that point. In relation to the reported activities, it was really unfortunate that an officer was not able to attend and look at the circumstances. I outlined the assets that are available to us—three vessels and two air assets—but they have a vast area to cover. I would have to look into the particular circumstances, but I am happy to do that and get back to the member with further information, so I do not want to comment much on that now. Of course, we want to ensure that we are doing the monitoring that we need to do with the resources that we have.

I have no doubt that Marine Scotland follows up every report of illegal activity that it gets. I really want to give an assurance to the member on that, so, as I said, I will get back to her with further information about the specific incident that she mentioned.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

Rural Economy (Workforce)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the rural economy in light of the reported increased workforce pressures. (S6O-00292)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The United Kingdom Government’s position of driving forward a hard European Union exit has led to challenges in Scotland’s workforce, resulting in labour and skills shortages across a number of sectors. That happened at a time when the country was facing impacts on our society, economy and labour market as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

My ministerial colleagues and I have made repeated representations to the UK Government to make not only emergency changes to the UK immigration system to combat skills and labour shortages but fundamental changes to the way in which immigration works. We need an immigration system that is fit for Scotland’s needs and that gives Scottish ministers a formal role in determining what works for Scotland.

We are supporting the rural economy. “Covid Recovery Strategy: For a fairer future” sets out our actions to ensure that existing economic, social and regional inequalities are not worsened. During this parliamentary session, we will invest an additional £500 million to support new jobs and skills. Over 2020-22, we have also committed support of £10 million to specifically support Scotland’s food and drink sector’s recovery plan.

Stephanie Callaghan

Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that the unfettered access afforded by the Tory UK Government to Australia and New Zealand in recent trade deals will merely add to the workforce pressures that have been identified, which will place further constraints on the rural sector, with potentially devastating consequences for our farming communities and the supply chains that also service Scotland’s urban areas?

Mairi Gougeon

Absolutely—I could not agree more with the member. This morning, I attended the NFU Scotland autumn conference, at which exactly those concerns were reiterated. There is serious concern about the trade deals, which have been made without any involvement of, or consultation with, the Scottish Government let alone the Scottish industry that they affect.

Scottish ministers have repeatedly highlighted our concerns about the impact on Scottish agriculture of the UK free trade agreements that have been agreed in principle with Australia and now with New Zealand. However, the concerns that we and the industry have repeatedly expressed have been continually ignored.

The deals will lead to a sustained increase in imports of agri-food from Australia and New Zealand that is produced to lower standards and with lesser environmental commitments than those to which we expect our farmers and producers to work—all for a negligible benefit. The Australian trade deal is expected to benefit gross domestic product by 0.02 per cent and the New Zealand trade deal to benefit GDP by 0.01 per cent.

We have serious concerns, but we will continue to stand up for our industry in the face of those challenges, as we always do.