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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 05 June 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, A Future Strategy for Scottish Agriculture, Celebrating Scotland’s Volunteers, Parking (Code of Practice) Bill, Decision Time, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder


A Future Strategy for Scottish Agriculture

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing on the Scottish Government’s response to “A Future Strategy for Scottish Agriculture”. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible.


The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity (Fergus Ewing)

My first Royal Highland Show as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, in June 2016, was somewhat surreal. On the Thursday, I presented key themes that were emerging in developing a new strategy for Scottish agriculture—themes that were upbeat, positive and, I hope, visionary. I believe that people left the session with springs in their steps. However, on the following Friday, we were all reeling from the outcome of the referendum on leaving the European Union, and few felt like springing anywhere.

When it became obvious that Brexit was more a slogan than a plan, it was clear that the strategy’s outlook and work would be needed more than ever. Therefore, in January 2017, I appointed four champions to build on those themes and to make recommendations for a future strategy for Scottish agriculture: Archie Gibson on food and drink, Henry Graham on education and skills, John Kinnaird on sustainability and Marion MacCormick on public value. The champions established working groups with a broad range of contributors from across Scotland. Fifty-five individuals took part in those groups, and I express my gratitude to them all for generously giving of their time, knowledge and expertise.

In November 2017, the champions published an interim discussion document, to which 25 organisations responded. Using all the information, views and ideas received, they then developed their final report, which was published last Thursday with a full set of recommendations on each area.

I want to record my sincere thanks to all four champions, who have invested so much energy, personal time and resource in the task that I set them. Between them, they have lifetimes of experience and expertise, which they applied to their remits, but they also listened and took on board wider views from right across the farming and food and drink sectors. I welcome their report. In particular, I welcome the three statements of ambition for Scottish farming:

“Scotland’s form of agriculture will be enviable for its alignment with our land and other assets, in all their biophysical diversity, supported by tailored policies that lead to real commercial results.

Scottish farming will take the actions that forearm it for difficult times and justify its support from the public purse.

Scottish farming’s stewardship of the countryside will protect and enhance our natural assets and will be valued and supported by society.”

I also welcome the report’s 18 headline recommendations. I do not have time to go over them all, but key ones include the recommendation that

“The public must be better informed about Scottish farming and what it delivers, and policies must be guided by real evidence about what the public values.”

I agree. According to another recommendation,

“a top priority starting immediately is mindset change, to help farmers and crofters to become more progressive, entrepreneurial and resilient”.

We must address that proposition, and I am conscious that change is also at the heart of NFU Scotland’s recommendations for the future. There is no doubt that achieving that ambition while taking people with us will be difficult, but today I commit to seeking to achieve that.

Stewardship of the countryside should be a key part of future policy. I have always maintained that farming has twin roles: farmers are producers of food and custodians of the countryside. Those roles are complementary. In the future, we must maintain those two roles and ensure not only that farmers and crofters play their part in that stewardship and in contributing to our climate change ambitions but, as the champions also recommend, that they are recognised for their positive actions.

A key recommendation is that

“farming must be more visible as a career option and must attract more young people”.

We must ensure that our young people see and grasp the opportunity of working on the land and in related industries as a positive and rewarding one.

Another important recommendation is that

“Government, parliament, industry and others must cooperate on a 10-15 year strategy for Scottish farming ... All must work together to get the best outcomes, facing up to harsh realities.”

I welcome the realism in the report. The champions and others are acutely aware that farming needs a strategy with a timescale that extends beyond one parliamentary session. I hope that we all agree on that and that we can work together to the benefit of Scottish farming in the future.

In addition, the champions recognise that we potentially face the most challenging of times. That leads me to Brexit. If we leave the European Union and the common agricultural policy because of Brexit, it will take time to create a future policy framework for Scottish farming, so I welcome the champions’ recommendation for a transition period. I have previously signalled my preference for such a phase. The champions set out related proposals and measures, which I will consider carefully.

Of course, the lack of certainty and clarity from the United Kingdom Government on what Scotland might expect in the event that we have to proceed with Brexit makes the whole process rather difficult. We were promised that all lost EU funding would be replaced. Despite continued pressure from me, my Cabinet colleagues in Scotland and, indeed, ministers in the other devolved Administrations, current guarantees and commitments fall short of honouring that promise. Despite my best efforts, we cannot even make progress on a convergence review, even though Mr Gove promised to set that up last year. In the absence of such a review and without agreement on a better payment rate, we have very little chance of getting a fair funding settlement that acknowledges and provides for Scotland’s needs and interests.

That lack of information over funding matters. Any business plan with no numbers in it is simply not worth the paper that it is written on. There is no clarity, either, on future trade arrangements, which are so important for not just beef and lamb but dairy produce and our burgeoning fruit and vegetable sectors.

There is still a lack of detail about the position of EU nationals, who contribute so much to our farming and food businesses and, generally, to rural life in Scotland.

We do not even know yet whether we will be able to exercise devolved powers over farming and food production, which were devolved to Scotland in 1998 and which the UK Government is determined to grab for itself on spurious grounds. There might well be a need for frameworks in some areas where powers would be pooled for everyone’s benefit on these islands, but the Conservative arguments come unstuck when we realise that there are currently no barriers to trading in the UK from within a CAP that allows each of the four nations to operate different support schemes, and that there is collaboration on animal health and welfare conducted through relationships of mutual trust and understanding among officials, particularly the chief veterinary officers, without resort to legislation or single systems.

People, including members of this Parliament, want to know what the future for farming and food production in Scotland will look like. However, agriculture is part of the much wider rural economy, and future farm policy should reflect that reality. This Parliament asked me to establish an independent group involving relevant stakeholders to provide advice as to the principles and policies that should underpin options for appropriate rural support beyond 2020. I duly did so, and the national council of rural advisers has been working to deliver that. I expect to receive a further report from the council shortly and I want to consider its recommendations and proposals alongside those of the agriculture champions. Any change that we take forward must also, as the champions point out, be guided by real evidence about what the public values. We should therefore involve the wider public in determining future policy and seek their views and opinions, too.

I will consider the champions’ report fully and carefully as I explore and plan for all eventualities in our future. Although the champions make clear that no change is not an option, I offer this reassurance: wherever Scotland’s future lies and whatever our future holds, in the absence of stability and security from elsewhere, this Government is determined to provide as much certainty and clarity for rural Scotland as we can.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. We will try to allow up to 20 minutes for questions, starting with one from Donald Cameron.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement, and I refer my entry in the register of interests, which mentions farming and crofting.

It is absolutely clear to members on the Conservative benches that the cabinet secretary’s words today and the report published last week do little to alleviate the concerns held by the agricultural sector across Scotland, which is becoming increasingly distressed at the lack of any concrete proposals for funding arrangements post-Brexit, despite the Scottish Government knowing the amount of CAP funding that Scotland is guaranteed to receive until 2022. The Scottish National Party Government’s approach is weak and lightweight and it sits in stark contrast to the comprehensive approach of both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Welsh Government, which have published detailed proposals with various options for post-Brexit support in England and Wales respectively.

The cabinet secretary’s statement ends with a wish to provide certainty and clarity. With respect, Scotland’s farming sector remains in complete limbo because of this Government’s dereliction of duty when it comes to laying out the substance of future support. Almost two years after the Brexit vote, Scotland’s farmers and crofters do not want talk about power grabs—they want detail. So, my question is a simple one to ask and a simple one to answer: when will detailed proposals for Scotland’s agricultural support system be produced?

Fergus Ewing

I think that it would behove any member of this Parliament to address the content of my statement on the agricultural champions’ report. It would have displayed a bit of respect to four experienced individuals who are regarded as impartial and who have expertise in their fields to pay some regard to the content of the report, which is the content of my statement. I suggest that, if Mr Cameron has not applied himself to reading the report, he should do so. Unlike him, I want to listen to what people in Scotland have to say about the future of our policy. It is my desire not to dictate policy from top to bottom but to listen to experts and others, which is why I appointed the agricultural champions. It is also why, following a motion of this Parliament, I appointed the national council of rural advisers.

I can confirm to the member, in providing a response to his question, that following a full and careful study of the report that was published last week from the agriculture champions and following the publication in the coming months of the final report of the national council of rural advisers, we will, of course, respond to those recommendations and put forward our views as to the future.

However, I point out that the document from the UK that he referred to contains no figures at all as to the future post-Brexit. It was his party that promised that, post-Brexit, the totality of the funding for rural Scotland would be at least matched. On that key issue and that key pledge that was made by Mr Gove, Mr Eustice and many other Brexiteers, there has been total silence. Only once we receive confirmation about that information will it be possible to put forward any detailed proposal.

However, we are, of course, working hard to look at the best options for the future for Scottish agriculture despite the enormous uncertainties that are thrown up by the Brexit bungle that is being pursued by the UK Government.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. I also place on record my appreciation to the four agriculture champions for their work and their report, much of which Labour can support.

I share the Scottish Government’s concern about the lack of certainty not only on what the final negotiated Brexit settlement between the UK and the rest of the EU will be but, to be frank, on what the final negotiated settlement will be within the Conservative Party on the UK Government’s position in those negotiations.

However, the Scottish Government cannot use that as a shield not to set out clearly what its vision is for post-Brexit support for agriculture and rural Scotland. I said in the chamber last week that there is frustration among Scotland’s farmers about the lack of detail from the Scottish Government on the issue. Organisations such as NFU Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK are leading the way on exploring alternatives to the common agricultural policy and setting out clear principles behind what that support should look like.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is time for the Scottish Government to do the same and bring together all the key stakeholders to agree a shared vision of what Scotland wants that support to look like, and then to take that case to the UK Government, instead of waiting for it to tell us what to think? In other words, is it not time for the Scottish Government to stop waiting and start leading on the issue?

Fergus Ewing

I appreciate Mr Smyth’s acknowledgement of the good work that the champions have done. That is respectful, and it stands in contrast with the approach of the Conservatives, sadly.

We constantly bring stakeholders together—both I and Roseanna Cunningham have done so on numerous occasions—in order to discuss the best way ahead. That led to the appointment of the agriculture champions, whose recommendations in chapter 3, I would have thought, merit careful consideration, rather than the political approach that the Conservatives have adopted.

In response to Mr Smyth’s question, I note that three elements are fundamental for any business—costs, revenue and workforce. In relation to Brexit, it appears almost certain that, if we are dragged out of the single market, there will be tariffs and costs will go up. That was commented on by numerous spokespeople at the recent National Sheep Association event at Ballantrae, not least by Jim McLaren of Quality Meat Scotland. Costs are likely to go up.

Secondly, revenue is likely to go down. Thirdly, with regard to the workforce, the continuing availability of those people who give of their lives, their efforts and their family lives to work here in Scotland, where they are welcome, has been under a cloud of uncertainty since the Brexit referendum. The three fundamentals for every business are shrouded in uncertainty.

When the UK Government can get round to deciding something on Brexit and putting forward some sort of plan, it may perhaps be possible to address the realities in response to that. Until then, there are no figures, there is no clarity and there is no capacity, therefore, to deliver any clear plan at all. That must be a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to my ownership of a very small registered agricultural holding.

Can the cabinet secretary clarify whether the champions’ vision and recommendations apply only after we have left the EU or whether there are some that we can start work on before then?

Fergus Ewing

I can confirm that the champions’ recommendations apply to the future, whatever it may hold. That is why I am surprised that the Conservatives do not appear in the slightest bit interested in the work that has been done by those leading figures in Scottish rural life—it is very sad, really. The champions have a great deal to say about the future, on sustainability, productivity and skills. They have a lot to say about the need for new entrants, the need for increased productivity and the contribution that farmers already make to the stewardship of the environment, which is of course one of their twin main purposes. I commend to every member, as Mr Stevenson obviously would, that they read carefully the contents and recommendations of the report, which are extremely valuable in forming a pathway ahead for Scotland, whatever happens in relation to Brexit.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing sight of his statement. I also point members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

We have had a statement from the cabinet secretary that says nothing about a plan or a policy. The agriculture champions’ report says:

“Brexit amplifies and makes more urgent some fundamental challenges that farming was already facing”.

The champions have also accepted that the EU will reduce CAP funding in future years, and we know that the UK Government has protected subsidies until 2022. Farmers need a plan for the next five years, which means, cabinet secretary, that you will have to stop dithering and start delivering, so where is the policy? Will you consult farmers before next year’s crops are planned and planted and when will we see it?

The Presiding Officer

I encourage members to speak through the chair.

Fergus Ewing

Mr Mountain says that the UK Government has “protected subsidies until 2022”, but that is simply not accurate. The fact is that the assurances that have been provided do not relate to the totality of rural funding; they relate primarily to pillar 1 and the phrase “farm support”. I would not use the word “subsidy”, because I think that what farmers do is valuable and Mr Mountain’s use of the term “subsidy” implies that he disagrees. The assurances simply do not apply to the totality of pillar 2 payments. Therefore, to say that all subsidies, as he puts it, are protected until 2022 is simply yet another false premise from the Conservatives.

I say again that it really would be more respectful if the Scottish Conservatives paid some attention to the substance of the reports that we have had rather than nit-picking and making party-political partisan points, which seems to be their only contribution to the debate.

The Presiding Officer

I encourage shorter questions and answers, as we have only until 10 to 3 for this session.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the champions’ report.

Food banks are Scotland’s shame. Can the cabinet secretary reassure members and the country that ending food poverty through the principles and structures of support and the development of local and affordable fresh food for our communities in a way that fuses the twin roles of food production and stewardship of the countryside will be at the heart of the Scottish Government’s future policy, whatever happens with Brexit?

Fergus Ewing

Claudia Beamish raises a more sensible point than we have had from the Conservatives today, sadly. Of course food poverty is a blight on our country, and tackling it is a priority for us all. Farmers play a direct part in addressing that by contributing food for the nation. I am engaged in working with and encouraging public bodies, including schools, to ensure as far as possible that food is procured locally for school meals, for example. Some local authorities have had enormous success in that, and the proportion of food that is being procured locally has increased. That contributes to a sufficient healthy and nutritious diet for our children in particular and it addresses the topic that Claudia Beamish has raised in relation to the work of my colleagues across the Scottish Government.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the UK Government’s white paper on the future of farm support. Are there areas in that report that the Scottish Government is likely to support or adopt?

Fergus Ewing

I want to study the report carefully, as I said, and I wish to do so in conjunction with study of the report from the National Council of Rural Advisers. The NCRA was set up at the behest of this Parliament, following the acceptance of an amendment from Mr Rumbles to a motion. Therefore, it is right that I study the NCRA’s report in order to implement the will of Parliament. As Parliament has asked me to do that, it is therefore correct, logically, that we allow time for the NCRA to deliver its final report and that we pay the NCRA the respect that it and Parliament deserve, by studying the report carefully before we announce conclusions. We will do precisely that.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

If I heard the cabinet secretary correctly, just 55 people have been feeding into the critical work on the future vision of Scotland’s food and farming. That is disappointing given that more than 800 people—farmers and growers, food businesses and communities—have been meeting from the Scottish Borders to Shetland in kitchen-table talks to talk about their vision for food and farming, which has now been pulled together and published in a critical report. There seems to be something missing here. Why has the Scottish Government failed to meet its promise to consult on a good food nation bill in 2017? When will that now happen?

Fergus Ewing

If I may, I will correct the member. The first phase of consultation by the champions involved early work with a number of individuals. I referred to the fact that 55 individuals made specific contributions. I do not think that Mr Ruskell picked this up, but I said in my statement that, after the champions had published their initial work last year, they consulted on that work with, I think, around 25 organisations, including Ringlink, RSPB Scotland, the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Those bodies—some of them are membership bodies and some are statutory bodies—reach out to a large number of people. It is perhaps slightly unfair to chide the champions for a lack of consultation. They were, and remain, very open in their work.

The second part of Mark Ruskell’s question is not really the topic of today. However, we wish to progress all the matters that we have undertaken, and I am sure that we will come back to the specific topic that the member raises in due course.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary feel that the champions put enough emphasis on climate change in their recommendations?

Fergus Ewing

The champions have taken that vital matter into full account. Many of the recommendations can help to reduce greenhouse emissions. I commend careful reading of the report. The champions’ approach is strongly consistent with the approach that is set out in the agriculture chapter of the climate change plan, which was published earlier this year. It says that improvements in efficiency, benchmarking and more integrated land use can each help to lower the emissions intensity of Scottish produce. In their report, the champions said:

“Reducing waste will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output.”

Help to improve farm profitability is important, too. That is why those two documents will complement each other in the future.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

The cabinet secretary said in his statement that people, including MSPs, want to know what the future of farming and food production in Scotland will look like. That is too true, but it is his job to tell us, not anybody else’s. Why has he not involved relevant stakeholders as his advisers, as Parliament told him to do in January last year? He has the producers, but where are the consumers and the environmentalists? He has wasted nearly two years. When will he stop making excuses about not knowing the figures and start making the actual decisions that he is paid to make on our behalf?

Fergus Ewing

Mr Rumbles refers to a motion that Parliament agreed to. I believe and understand that I have obtempered to the letter the obligations that it was incumbent on us to carry out under that motion, as amended. I have said that before and I repeat it here.

As for the primary question, we do not know whether Brexit will take place and whether there will be a Brexit deal or whether there will be no deal—[Interruption. ] Well, the UK took us on this course, which Scotland voted against. We do not know whether there will be tariffs or regulatory barriers for perishable goods. We do not know whether our Scotch lamb, for which European markets are essential, will have access to those markets. According to The Scottish Farmer’s reporting, Jim McLaren and many others talked about that at Ballantrae in much more trenchant terms than I am using, to be frank. We do not know whether those who are in the workforce from countries throughout Europe, whom we in Scotland value, will continue to be welcome here.

In light of the complete lack of clarity about Brexit, as a result of the complete failure of the UK Cabinet and the Prime Minister to give any clarity, it is somewhat premature to expect me to have a clear plan for the outcome of all that.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.

The cabinet secretary spoke about tariffs, increased costs, decreased revenue and the uncertainty of Brexit for farmers. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to prepare for the Tories’ Armageddon Brexit, which newspaper reports have suggested could even result in Scotland running out of food on the second day after exit day?

Fergus Ewing

The Armageddon option is not a product of the Scottish Government’s spin doctors or officials; it was set out by advisers to the UK Government, who have said that Scotland and parts of England might run out of food within a couple of days of Brexit. That shows how serious the situation is, but all that we get from that lot in the Conservatives—incidentally, not one of them will say a word against how the UK Government is mishandling Brexit—is a political rant that the Scottish Government must produce a plan. However, we have no idea—and nor does anyone else in Scotland, which voted against Brexit—what exactly is happening down south, which is a complete and utter shambles.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Mr Scott and Ms Martin, as we have no time left for their questions; in fact, we have used up all the time that was available for flexibility in the afternoon’s debate.