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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 6, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 06 June 2019

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, First Responders (Trauma Recovery and Support), Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Rural Economy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is portfolio questions on the rural economy. I will try to get all questions and supplementaries in if members keep their contributions succinct.


Fishing Industry (Compensation)

1. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the fishing industry regarding compensation arrangements in relation to the impact of offshore wind farm developments. (S5O-03340)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy (Fergus Ewing)

The Scottish Government has been working closely with fishermen and stakeholder organisations to improve relationships between the fishing and renewables sectors. We are absolutely committed to trying to put working relationships between the two on a more positive footing. However, it should be recognised that the Government has no formal role or powers in relation to the award of compensation concerning the impact of offshore wind farm developments on the fishing industry, and no legal remit to participate in compensation arrangements.

Willie Rennie

Fishermen who work prawn and creel boats from the Fife ports are anxious about whether the compensation from Red Rock Power and EDF will be enough. The huge cables—the width of a motorway—that will criss-cross the North Sea will be located slap bang in the middle of their fishing grounds and will disrupt routes that they have worked for generations. The fishermen feel powerless in comparison with those massive companies. I have met representatives of EDF and will soon meet those from Red Rock Power. What more can the cabinet secretary do to ensure that the fishermen get fair compensation?

Fergus Ewing

I met some of the fishermen in Pittenweem on 15 April, when I listened carefully to their concerns about lack of engagement in relation to cable burial and the route and timescale for the proposed works. At my behest, officials had a follow-up meeting with them on 30 April. I believe that a further meeting of Marine Scotland officials, developers and fishermen will take place tomorrow. I am determined that we will find a solution that will allow both the renewables sector and the fishing sector to thrive and flourish, which will mean considering the cable issue in particular very carefully. I give Mr Rennie—and Stephen Gethins, the member of Parliament for the area, who has also raised the matter with me—an undertaking that I will consider the issues very carefully, working with my colleague Paul Wheelhouse. On safety grounds and with a view to avoiding damage to fishing gear, it is extremely important that burial of cable takes place wherever it is possible and practical to do so. I expect the direct routes for such cabling to be considered extremely carefully indeed—after all, the fishermen were there first.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We will have a quick supplementary question from Maureen Watt.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Given that the fishermen have in-depth knowledge of where the best fishing grounds are, when it comes to the next round of development of offshore wind farms would it not be more effective simply not to site new developments where such grounds have been identified?

Fergus Ewing

I agree that it is sensible that those who are involved in both sectors should communicate closely. After all, as Maureen Watt well knows, the fishermen have extensive and detailed knowledge of the sea bed in their areas. If there were proper collaboration between them and the renewables sector, such knowledge could be put to good use. In identifying areas for future commercial-scale offshore wind developments, the Scottish ministers use the sectoral marine planning process, which considers a wide range of data that illustrates where fishing takes place as part of an overall analysis of opportunities and constraints. Therefore, I believe that such matters are the subject of proper and appropriate consideration during the development process.


Farm Safety Week 2019

2. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its plans are for farm safety week 2019. (S5O-03341)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy (Fergus Ewing)

The Scottish Government works closely with partners such as the Health and Safety Executive to provide support and guidance to farmers, their employees and their families to help to make farms safer environments in which to live and work. It is also involved in the farm safety partnership Scotland initiative, which has committed to working to reduce farm workplace fatal accidents by 50 per cent by 2023. Farm safety week 2019, to which Ms Harris alluded, will seek to highlight the importance of the issue, and the Scottish Government is considering the role that it might play this year. NFU Scotland has already issued a call for examples from farmers of how they have made safety improvements on farms and, more important, the inspiration behind such changes in behaviour.

Alison Harris

Only a month ago, two people were killed as a result of a tragic accident on a farm in my Central Scotland region. In light of the fact that this week is child safety week, has the Scottish Government made provision for ensuring children’s safety on our farms?

Fergus Ewing

I am aware of the incident to which Alison Harris alludes. Two men died after a tragic accident in which a wall collapsed at the farm, and our thoughts go out to the families involved. The incident illustrates that fatalities and serious injuries on farms are very serious matters.

As all members will appreciate, the prime responsibility for safety lies with us and with employers. We must properly look after ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. It must be said that that principle will never change.

The Health and Safety Executive is a reserved body, but we work closely with it. We part-fund organisations such as Lantra, which provide training. Last year, Lantra provided training courses in the central belt and, this year, it has provided training in Dumfries. The training covers areas such as falls from heights, falling objects, and working with cattle, vehicles and machinery.

I am pleased to answer Alison Harris’s question, because farming is probably the area of life in Scotland in which the level of injury is still far too high. Of course, any death is one too many.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

There are about 1,000 injuries and two deaths each year in Scotland as a result of quad bike accidents. The cabinet secretary might be aware of my on-going campaign to encourage people who ride quad bikes to wear a helmet. Will he join me in encouraging farmers and agricultural workers to wear helmets both on and off the road? Would he be open to meeting me to discuss potential action that the Scottish Government could take to further that aim?

Fergus Ewing

I am aware of the risk to those who drive quad bikes without wearing a helmet. It is not macho; it is stupid. I commend Emma Harper on her campaign, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss whether there is any further work that we can do.


Payments to Farmers

3. Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress being made on payments to farmers. (S5O-03342)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy (Fergus Ewing)

In autumn last year, we made 17,749 basic payment scheme loan offers, which were worth more than £343.6 million. The payments were made earlier than they had been made in previous years, which put cash into Scotland’s rural economy ahead of money going to any other part of the United Kingdom.

Basic payments for 2018 started on 19 March, and more than 14,300 payments, worth £289.8 million, have been made to date. We are on track to deliver pillar 1 and pillar 2 payments in line with the schedule that was published in December last year. We are also on track to meet our regulatory target of making 95 per cent of pillar 1 payments by the end of this month.

Willie Coffey

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the uncertainty that is being caused by Brexit to sheep farmers, including those in my constituency. What is he doing to ensure that they have the financial support that they need in these uncertain times?

Fergus Ewing

I am acutely aware of the uncertainty that is being caused by Brexit and of the worries that are being faced by our sheep farmers and by our hill farmers in general. The issue is very serious, and I am pleased that Mr Coffey has raised it.

What have we done? In March, we announced the introduction of the less favoured area support scheme loan scheme, which gives eligible farmers and crofters access to 90 per cent of their LFASS payment. That practical measure has been appreciated.

In addition, at the meetings that I attend with Ms Gougeon and UK ministers, including Mr Gove, my Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues and I have repeatedly pressed the UK Government to introduce a properly funded compensation scheme, funded by the Treasury, in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, a no-deal Brexit would be utterly catastrophic for our hill farmers and our sheep farmers, in particular, so I very much hope that it will be averted.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will take short supplementaries from Rhoda Grant and Donald Cameron.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Because of the climate crisis, farmers and crofters need to know what assistance will be available to them to reach net zero emissions. Will the cabinet secretary, as a matter of urgency, bring forward a new scheme that will help them to achieve that goal?

Fergus Ewing

In our document, “Stability and Simplicity: proposals for rural funding transition period”, we set out plans that provide something that has not been provided to our farmers’ counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom—namely, relative confidence that the existing support that is enjoyed by Scottish farmers, especially hill farmers, will continue. I think that that is the most important thing.

In “Stability and Simplicity”, we also set out that in the second part of the five-year period, we will pilot ways to promote even more sustainable farming. I am convinced—as I discussed with Martin Kennedy, whom I met last week at his farm in Aberfeldy—that the work that farmers do shows that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. In sustaining ruminants on our hillsides, mixed-livestock production sequesters carbon in permanent grassland. As many members know better than I do, if it was not for that activity, there would be devastatingly bad consequences through the loss of that carbon sequestration.

It is our duty to get such positive messages about farming’s existing contribution to the climate better understood and acknowledged.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

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

The cabinet secretary mentioned LFASS. Does he acknowledge the comments by the chair of the NFUS’s less favoured area committee, Robert MacDonald, who said that a bigger funding issue for our hill farming and crofting sectors is potential cuts to LFASS in 2019 and 2020? Can he give us an update to reassure those farmers and crofters who are worried about the issue?

Fergus Ewing

I know Robert MacDonald, who chairs the NFUS’s LFA committee, well and have met him and his colleagues on several occasions. In fact, I met the NFUS again just yesterday, when I discussed the matter.

I am pleased that this year, we maintained LFASS at 100 per cent, even though our ability to do so became evident only relatively late in the financial year. From memory, I believe that this year, 56 per cent of LFASS recipients have received slightly more than they received previously.

Mr Cameron asked about the next two years. The European Union rules provide that the payments must be reduced over the next two years. I have indicated that we wish to do everything that we can to find a workaround to prevent that from happening. The fact that it is a very technical and complex area is not made any easier by the fact that we do not know whether we will be in or out of the EU, so we do not know which rules will apply.

Be all that as it may, I will do my very best to ensure that our hill farmers receive the support which—my goodness me—they earn.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Questions and, in particular, answers are getting a bit lengthy. They need to be shorter if we are to get through this.


Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime

4. Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work of the Scottish partnership against rural crime. (S5O-03343)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish partnership against rural crime continues to play a valuable role in bringing together key partners from across the rural and justice sectors to tackle all forms of criminality in our rural communities. The partnership recently produced its “Rural Crime Strategy 2019-2022”, which highlights its focus on tackling serious and organised crime as it affects rural communities.

Work is also under way to strengthen local approaches to tackling rural crime across Scotland. Earlier this year, the cabinet secretary participated in the launch of the new East Lothian partnership against rural crime, which is led by East Lothian Council. A similar initiative is about to begin in Tayside, which will bring together local authorities, the police and other partners to strengthen the local approach to rural crime. In April, my ministerial colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs participated in the launch of a new Scottish heritage crime group, which has been formed under the auspices of SPARC, to tackle crime against our historic and cultural sites.

Margaret Mitchell

I thank the minister for that comprehensive answer. She will be aware that the rural economy is negatively impacted by rural crimes, which include not only livestock worrying and theft, but fly tipping, which has a hugely detrimental impact on local authorities, farmers and landowners, who have to bear the costs of clearing up such sites. In order to address that worrying and escalating problem, will the minister support my campaign, which calls for local authorities, agencies and occupiers and owners of land to be given the same powers as their counterparts in England and Wales to make compensation orders, so that they can recover the costs incurred for clearing those sites?

Mairi Gougeon

I am really glad that Margaret Mitchell has raised fly tipping, because it is a serious issue in rural areas that blights our countryside. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform portfolio has portfolio responsibility for the issue, and I know that she would be happy to consider the member’s proposals further. We need to take a look at this very serious issue, and if there are other powers to help tackle the matter, we need to consider them.


Review of Intra-UK Allocation of Domestic Farm Funding

5. Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what information it has regarding the progress being made with the review of intra-UK allocation of domestic farm funding that is being led by Lord Bew. (S5O-03344)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy (Fergus Ewing)

The review panel has been taking evidence, including from me, and I understand that it is close to making its final recommendations. Progress is, however, being hampered by the United Kingdom Government, as Michael Gove has confirmed in writing that he is not prepared to release to the Bew panel previous advice to ministers. That is disappointing as, in a public debate that I had with him, he promised to give that information not only to me, but to Scottish stakeholders. I raised the matter when I met the panel on 15 May and made it clear that, in any future funding arrangements, whether in the UK or the European Union, it would be totally unacceptable if Scotland were to continue to receive payment at the lowest rates per hectare of any country in Europe, which is an outrageous situation.

Keith Brown

Does that mean that the UK Government has given no assurances that the £160 million denied to farmers in Scotland, including those in my constituency, will be returned to Scotland, that a future funding formula will be fair to Scotland’s interests and that the full value of current direct farm support will be provided by the UK Government to the Scottish Government after 2022, once its guarantee runs out?

Fergus Ewing

Keith Brown is right to raise the matter. The EU intended that money to be for Scottish farmers. However, although only Scottish hill farmers were entitled to it, the UK Government diverted the money away from them, to the tune of £14,000 for every farmer and crofter in Scotland. That was a scandalous act. Michael Gove promised that the recommendations of the review, which was first spoken about by Owen Paterson in 2013, would be implemented. He was overruled by the Treasury, which told him that it could not do that. The review is now looking only at a two-year period—it will not explain what happened and why our farmers were deprived of that money.

The fact that the UK Government is concealing the evidence about the advice that was given to it, which is the basis for its decision to divert the money away from Scottish hill farmers and crofters, is one of the most disgraceful acts by Government that I have come across in my 20 years as an MSP.


Orkney Native Wildlife Project (Impact on Agriculture)

6. Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with farmers regarding the impact of the Orkney native wildlife project on the agricultural sector. (S5O-03345)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

The Orkney native wildlife project is being led by Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland. They have been in discussion with local representatives of NFU Scotland about establishing a land access protocol governing the setting of traps for stoats on agricultural land.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I draw to members’ attention my entry in the register of members’ interests. The project’s work to control stoats is at a standstill, with many farmers still refusing access to their land because of their anger that their concerns about goose numbers are not being properly addressed. Farmers want a clear indication that the Government understands the problem, that it appreciates the damage that the geese are doing and that it will act on goose numbers.

The failure to get stoat traps in place in the next few months could lead to an explosion in numbers. Will the minister outline what actions she can take and what resources she can allocate to support efforts to control the goose population in Orkney? In order to break the impasse before the summer, would she consider incentivising farmers to provide access with a bounty on stoats trapped on their lands?

Mairi Gougeon

I am happy to discuss this issue further with the member if he wishes to have a meeting about it. I know that Scottish Natural Heritage has convened an Orkney goose management group to investigate how the future adaptive management of greylag geese can be supported, so the issue is being looked at. As a partnership, the group will look to develop, agree and implement additional measures to reduce the impact of the resident goose population. Again, though, if the member would like to have a meeting, I would be more than happy for that to take place.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Liam McArthur. A short supplementary would be appreciated, please, Mr McArthur.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I welcome the minister’s commitment to meeting to discuss this issue. As Jamie Halcro Johnston has indicated, there is anger at the contrast between the stoat programme receiving funding and the goose management programme having its funding withdrawn, so it would be helpful if the minister were able to discuss with us how the work of the goose management group could now be supported and whether funding could be made available.

Mairi Gougeon

I extend the same offer to Liam McArthur to see how we can move this issue forward.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I must apologise to two members—Rona Mackay and Tom Mason—for not being able to call them. However, I say to all members that I do not want to have to cut people off in their prime either when they are asking or when they are answering questions. This afternoon, we have had quite a few speeches instead of questions. I ask members to discuss the matter within their groups with a view to ensuring that everyone gets an equal opportunity to take part in these question-and-answer sessions.