Meeting date: Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 June 2021
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Tackling Poverty and Building a Fairer Scotland, Business Motion, Decision Time, Tariff-free Trade Deals
- Time for Reflection
- Point of Order
- Topical Question Time
- Tackling Poverty and Building a Fairer Scotland
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- Tariff-free Trade Deals
Tariff-free Trade Deals
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-00058, in the name of Jim Fairlie, on the impact on Scottish agriculture of tariff-free trade deals. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises that agriculture is a vital part of Scotland’s economy, including in the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency; believes that it underpins the food and drink sector and has a huge role to play in achieving the country’s climate change targets; considers that there might be potential for hugely-damaging consequences to the most remote rural communities from any tariff-free trade with major agricultural producer nations, and notes the view that, in its pursuit of trade deals, the UK Government must take due cognisance of the vulnerability of Scotland’s agriculture sectors.17:30
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I finally get the chance to welcome you officially to your new role.
Last week, I met, at its invitation, NFU Scotland to discuss its concerns about the proposed tariff and quota-free deal that is being negotiated between the United Kingdom and Australian Governments. Its briefing paper says that it endorses the commitment that UK farmers should not be undercut by unfair competition and believes that trade deals that include the complete elimination of tariffs across agricultural sectors would seriously impact the farming and the rural communities that it supports.
As the UK Government enters into negotiations on new trade deals with our trading partners around the world, it is important that sensitive sectors are considered. The cumulative impact of complete market liberalisation in future trade deals could be devastating to rural economies that rely on the industry and the jobs that it brings, and once the precedent has been set, it will be difficult to avoid it in any future trade deal.
I have subsequently spoken with representatives of other trade industry bodies including the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, the Scottish Crofting Federation, Scottish Craft Butchers, the Scottish Beef Association, the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association and the National Sheep Association Scotland, as well as numerous farmers in my constituency and across the country. Their excitement at the opportunities of this deal and future deals to be negotiated is palpable—said absolutely no one who understands or cares about the sector.
In the very late 1800s and early 1900s, farming in this country was almost decimated as America opened up and transport became quicker, easier and cheaper. Grain and meat prices collapsed as the UK Government opted for the liberalisation of markets, and that collapse led to many tenants simply packing up their carts and heading for the towns to try to find work. With the Government insisting that cheap food was the priority, land abandonment and degradation and rural depopulation were commonplace.
The farming sector did not recover until during and after the second world war, when the Government realised that German U-boat attacks on merchant ships would starve Britain into submission. The infrastructure that was needed for an entire industry had been decimated through years of inactivity and loss of skill set, and in order to feed itself, the country had to reinvent its agricultural ability. Thankfully, the farmers and the land girls, facing up to the challenge, did exactly that. A support system has been in place ever since, and as a result of revolutionary technological advances, agriculture has resumed its place as the engine room of Scotland’s rural economy and the bedrock of our fastest-growing sector—food and drink.
Despite Liz Truss’s protestations in The Herald, the industry’s very survival is being jeopardised by the proposed trade deal with Australia in exactly the same way as happened with the American and Canadian liberalisation deals almost 100 years ago. The spuriousness of her argument that we in the Scottish National Party are holding back the industry is laughable.
Can the member perhaps indicate when his SNP Government will come forward with an outline of plans for future rural support?
The SNP Government will come forward with a plan for future rural support when it has taken all the information and looked at all the reports that it will get from the five working groups that have been set up to tackle our climate emergency.
As I have said, the spuriousness of Liz Truss’s argument that we in the SNP are holding back the industry is laughable. We have heard about the benefits to the whisky industry and how it will be helped by a deal, but how many family farms will benefit from a 5 per cent reduction in tariffs on whisky to Australia? I would hazard to say very few, if any.
It is clear that the Tories are trying to make this debate out to be one of SNP grievance mongering and anti-Westminster rhetoric. In reality, though, it is not just the SNP that is raising these issues. Indeed, I thank Labour and Green Party members who have signed my motion.
Nor is concern limited to the trade bodies that I have already mentioned. I have been contacted by the WWF, which is gravely worried about the deal’s implications and the UK Government’s determination to offshore its environmental obligations. The WWF has said:
“In a crucial year for climate and nature, a substandard deal with Australia would make a mockery of the UK government’s world-leading plans to support sustainable farming and green global supply chains.”
I could go on, but its document is really damning.
Last week, Kate Forbes challenged Murdo Fraser about the devastation that this deal and future trade deals would have on the sector. His response spoke volumes. He cited South Ayrshire Council requiring public procurement bodies to reduce meat consumption by 75 per cent. If that is the best the Tories have got, I am afraid that they really do not understand what is going on with the industry.
To pick up on his point, the real threat is that, if the deal goes through, and if it is followed by all the other shoddily prepared deals, we should recommend that no meat products go on to the menus for our children if they have been imported from any of the hormone-injecting, intensive feed lot system countries that Westminster is currently falling over itself to do deals with.
The total value of sales into the public procurement sector is £150 million. It is a substantial amount of money—I get that—and I will work with the Scottish Government to improve that.
The problem that the SNP has is that it is fundamentally a party that is opposed to free trade. Tell me one example of the SNP voting for a free trade deal with anybody in any Parliament. Give me one example.
I will give you a wee bit of extra time for the two interventions that you have taken, Mr Fairlie.
The EU. Let me just point out to Mr Kerr—
No! They voted against joining—
Mr Kerr has had his moment—[Interruption.]
Excuse me. Can we have less chat across the chamber, please?
I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but I could not hear myself for the riot to the side there.
I appreciate that, Mr Fairlie. Carry on.
I am referring back to Murdo Fraser’s response last week. As I said, the total value of sales into the public procurement sector is £150 million. That is a substantial amount of money, and I will work with the Scottish Government to improve that and see how much more we can get into the public sector—I take that on board. However, that figure is completely dwarfed by our total grocery sales figure of £12 billion in annual spend in Scotland. There is therefore no way that public procurement sales will salve the pain of destroying our domestic market with foreign imports now that the Tories have destroyed our relationship with the biggest single market in the world.
Let us take that a step further. Liz Truss wants to talk about the great trading opportunity that we have been given as a result of their Brexit. Scotland’s red meat sales to the EU in 2019, pre-Brexit, were £87 million. In the same year, red meat sales to Australia were £142,000. In other words, we would need to do more than 600 Australia-sized deals just to match what we previously had. To describe that as a major opportunity is utterly laughable.
Scotland’s farming community can thrive and meet its climate change targets with the support that the SNP Government is offering. The ambition 2030 strategy is not only hugely ambitious but achievable because of the fantastic co-operative nature that has been built into the sector since 2007, when Richard Lochhead introduced the first national food policy for Scotland—the first one in Europe. I also know that our hospitality sector will have a fantastic future if we continue to build on the reputation that has taken decades to grow.
We will continue to improve the health of our nation and our children by ensuring that they are fed the very best that we can grow and deliver. I point out that 90 per cent of red meat that is currently served in schools is Scotch.
Mr Fairlie, could you please bring your remarks to a close?
All of this can, however, be destroyed by the stroke of Boris Johnson’s pen, signing trade deals that will take us back to the early 1900s. The Parliament, and everyone in the chamber, including Stephen Kerr, should do everything in our power to see that he does not get the opportunity to destroy what we have worked so hard to build.17:38
I welcome you to your new post, Presiding Officer. It is a bit like wishing people a happy new year—I do not know how long, traditionally, we go on welcoming people, but I certainly welcome you. I also welcome the minister to her new post and the debate.
I thank Jim Fairlie for bringing such an important and topical debate to Parliament. I declare an interest as a member of the NFUS and as someone who has been involved in the farming industry for most of his life.
Agriculture undoubtedly has a critical role in Scotland’s economic and environmental wellbeing, employing more than 67,000 people in rural communities such as my Galloway and West Dumfries constituency. Scottish farmers are responsible for delivering the highest-quality food for the Scottish market and the wider United Kingdom market, and their reputation for producing the finest beef and dairy products continues to grow worldwide. Agriculture currently generates £1.3 billion for the Scottish economy. That demonstrates how critical the sector is to all of us.
I welcome the opportunity to recognise Scottish farmers’ commitment to tackling climate change while protecting habitats and wildlife through sustainable innovation, management and careful stewardship, which they have championed for many generations.
Naturally, talk of an Australian free trade agreement has sparked fears in our farming businesses. Much of that has again been fuelled by the scaremongering of the SNP. [Interruption.] I would like to make some progress.
It seems that, while the NFUS and others engage in discussions on that issue with the UK Government, once again the SNP prefers to make political points rather than to work with all partners to get the best deal for Scottish farmers. What hypocrisy there is—this has been picked up on—when an SNP-controlled council suggests that we reduce meat consumption by 75 per cent. Such misguided messages will have more impact on Scottish farming than any trade deal.
On collaboration, has the UK Government fulfilled its promise to have a commission that will engage with farmers before it signs any trade deals?
I am quite surprised that Gillian Martin does not recognise that the Trade Bill and Agriculture Bill process comes between negotiation of the trade deal and its going through Parliament. That is absolutely there, and it will be part of the process.
It is a fact that none of the trade deals that we are signing around the world will undercut farmers here or, more important, compromise our high standards. The UK Government has already made it abundantly clear that hormone beef from Australia is banned and will remain so under any trade agreement. It is not the case that a free trade deal will override our standards—far from it, in fact. Those are principally about tariffs and quotas, not chlorinated chicken. I was waiting for that to come up, and it might still do so. That will not be shipped in from America. That is a complete non-starter, because our imports have to meet our existing world-leading quality and standards.
It is unlikely that Australian products will threaten farmers here, especially as there is currently unused lamb quota. Australia could sell us more right now, but it is not doing so. In many cases, the costs of producing lamb are higher in Australia.
Consumers also have a strong belief in the buy Scottish, buy British approach. Eighty-one per cent of beef that is sold in supermarkets such as Aldi, the Co-op and Morrisons is 100 per cent British beef. Just 0.15 per cent of Australian beef exports are currently UK bound. That compares with 75 per cent that finds its way into the Asia-Pacific markets. The prospects of such exports flooding our markets are therefore slim.
Given Quality Meat Scotland’s fantastic track record, it is increasingly likely that premium cuts of Scottish meat and lamb will find their way on to Australian plates. Exporters here will have the opportunity to expand into the growing new markets in Asia and the Pacific.
No deal has yet been inked with Australia. Instead of striking unnecessary fear among Scottish farmers, perhaps it would be better if the SNP Government concentrated its efforts on helping farmers.
Can Finlay Carson clarify what he means by others striking fear into the hearts of Scottish farmers when it is Scottish farmers who are expressing fears through the NFUS?
Typically, Alasdair Allan is jumping the gun. I am unaware of any trade deal that will be detrimental to our farmers. We are already reinforcing the opinion that the SNP is the party of no deal.
Alongside my colleagues in the Scottish Government and the UK Government, I will continue to consult closely with the farming industry to address its concerns and ensure that it benefits from greater opportunities. It is vital that we protect our iconic Scottish produce. Along with others, I will scrutinise any potential agreement and the trade deal that is yet to be signed. I am confident and have been reassured that the Trade and Agriculture Commission will ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place in any UK free trade deals. [Interruption.]
Finlay Carson is about to conclude.
I am sorry that I do not have any time to take an intervention.
The NFU supports the UK’s broad objective of promoting free trade and shares my belief and that of the UK Government that free trade deals can open up significant new exporting opportunities for the farming community.
I echo the words of the Secretary of State for International Trade in relation to the potential Australia deal. She welcomed an agreement that
“will strengthen ties between two great friends and democracies bound by a shared belief in free enterprise, fair play and high standards.”17:45
I thank Jim Fairlie for moving the motion and I welcome him to the chamber and to his first members’ business debate. His motion rightly recognises the importance of Scotland’s agriculture sector and therefore the importance of any trade negotiations. Scottish agriculture is the heart of our world-class food and drink industry and, beyond its economic value, is central to the viability of our rural communities. The needs of the sector must therefore be an integral part of any trade deals, and those deals should meet the future ambitions of the sector.
At a time when we must continue to drive up standards, cut emissions, use land more sustainably and improve animal welfare, those ambitions cannot be undermined by trade deals.
When the its Agriculture Bill was passing through Westminster, the UK Government claimed that there was no risk to standards. The sector’s fears were dismissed. Legal protections that had been added to the bill by Labour were removed. The proposed trade deal with Australia will be the first test of whether the UK Government’s warm words about supporting the agriculture sector were only that.
The rumoured deal with Australia, which would have no quotas, tariffs or real safeguards, will have a devastating impact on the agriculture sector if it is agreed. More than that, it would signify a willingness to sell out agriculture, not only here in Scotland but across the UK, setting an expectation for future trade deals.
No wonder the sector has been united in its condemnation. Scott Walker, the chief executive of NFU Scotland, said:
“To be crystal clear, an Australian free trade agreement, with no tariffs or quotas on sensitive products, will put some Scottish farmers and crofters out of business and set a precedent that all other countries looking for free access to the UK market in the future will be desperate to replicate.”
If there is any truth to the fears that are being talked up by the SNP, and by the member in his speech, why does Australia not currently take up its whole quota for tariff-free trade in lamb? If we are about to experience a tsunami of Australian lamb, why is Australia not taking up its current tariff-free quota? The arguments that are being made against free trade do not add up.
It is disappointing that Mr Kerr dismisses the comment that I have just quoted from the NFUS. Donald MacKinnon, chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, said that unbridled access to our markets would be
“catastrophic for crofting and hill production.”
Perhaps Mr Kerr dismisses that too, along with the words of the UK farming round table, which called for the UK Government to
“stand up for UK farmers in all of its negotiations”
and said that
“demands for a binding, unconditional commitment to fully liberalise tariff lines in these sensitive sectors should be resisted, as should demands for excessive quota concessions which would have the same effect.”
The sector has been clear and unanimous about the damage that such a deal would do to Scottish agriculture, which deserves better that being used as a bargaining chip and sold out at every step of the Brexit process. The UK Government must listen to warnings from the sector and deliver a deal with the necessary safeguards to protect local producers and protect our world-class standards. The trade negotiations are hugely important to Scottish agriculture and our rural communities.
This is not the only post-Brexit challenge that the sector faces. Although it is a hugely important subject, it is a little disappointing that the first debate on agriculture in this session is a members’ business debate on a reserved issue. Many of the issues facing the sector are the responsibility of this Parliament and of the Scottish Government, but we will not have the opportunity to debate those any time soon.
There is a lack of clarity about the changes that the Scottish Government will make to agricultural support during the transition period, which is already under way, and about its long-term plans to replace the common agricultural policy. The report by the farming and food production future policy group seems to be lying on a shelf gathering dust, a full year after it was supposed to be published. We do not know when, how or even if the recommendations of the farmer-led groups will be taken forward and it is unclear whether the crofting bill, abandoned during the previous session of Parliament, will go ahead in this one.
The clock is ticking towards the end of the transition period and the sector needs answers. I hope that the Scottish Government will make it a priority in this new session to give Parliament and Scotland’s farmers and crofters those overdue answers soon and I hope that, in providing those answers, it will ensure that Scotland’s agriculture sector is an integral part of a post-Brexit, post-CAP, post-pandemic green recovery that delivers a sustainable future for our rural communities.
I call Liam McArthur, who is joining us remotely.17:50
I know that this evening’s debate is heavily subscribed, so I will keep my remarks brief. However, given the fundamental importance of agriculture to the Orkney community that I have had the privilege of representing for over 14 years, I could not let the opportunity pass without offering a few thoughts from an island perspective.
I offer my congratulations to Jim Fairlie for securing the first members’ business debate of the new parliamentary session. I thank him for choosing to focus on a key issue facing our crofting and farming sectors at the moment. I warmly congratulate my friend Mairi Gougeon on her well-deserved promotion to cabinet secretary. I wish her all the very best and look forward to working with her across a range of issues.
There can be few communities as heavily reliant on agriculture as Orkney, which remains economically and culturally shaped by the sector. It is a major employer and a source of income for the islands but also a huge success story. Orkney’s farmers have earned a reputation for high-quality local produce—beef, lamb and cheese—that is part of a genuinely world-class food and drink sector. That reputation is founded on high standards of animal welfare and environmental impact, which involves a willingness to innovate and constantly look at how things might be done better.
However, such commitment comes at a cost. It should not—and cannot—be done on the cheap. That commitment should be matched by those seeking to compete with UK producers in the UK market. Sadly, as NFU Scotland points out, the risk is that UK farmers could be undercut by unfair competition resulting from trade deals struck by the UK Conservative Government, which include the complete elimination of tariffs across the agriculture sector. That has implications for our efforts to tackle climate change, improve habitats and protect wildlife, given the farming sector’s management and stewardship responsibilities. There are also implications for the prosperity, and even viability, of many rural and island communities across Scotland, which are so dependent on farming.
Understandably, the focus has been on the trade deal struck between the UK and Australia, but the concern is also about the cumulative impact that a succession of such deals might have on jobs and incomes in the sector. Once the precedent has been set, it will be difficult to avoid such tariff-free access in future trade deals. However, by the same token, were we to make clear the need for those exporting to the UK to meet the same stringent welfare and environmental standards that we demand of our own producers, it could help to set a more positive precedent and would certainly reduce the risk of our farmers and crofters being undercut. Meanwhile, as the NFUS has explained, recent deals with Japan and Canada include tariff-relief quotas, which trigger safeguard clauses above certain thresholds. That is particularly relevant in sensitive sectors of primary production. There are options available.
On the theme of meeting high animal welfare standards, I ask Mairi Gougeon to update Parliament today, or before the summer recess, on the latest situation with regard to future plans on regulating live animal transport. The proposals that were issued for consultation by both the UK and Scottish Governments earlier this year caused concern among the farming communities of Orkney and Shetland. To put it bluntly, as framed, the proposed restrictions would close down the livestock industry in the northern isles. That would happen on the basis of no credible evidence that the highest animal welfare standards are not already being met.
Once again, I thank Jim Fairlie for giving Parliament the opportunity to debate such an important subject. I look forward to hearing the speeches of other colleagues, as well as the response of the cabinet secretary.
I thank Liam McArthur for keeping to his time—I make no further comment on that.
Given the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Jim Fairlie to move the motion.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Jim Fairlie]
Motion agreed to.17:54
As with lunch, free trade is never free. It can bring benefits, but we must not be blind to the costs, complexity, and potential threats. In principle, I support free trade, given that it can drive economic efficiency and productivity, and reduce the likelihood of wars by creating economic interdependence. It can even reduce political corruption, as powerful interest groups have less scope for manipulating trade policies to serve their own ends.
However, there are many potential hazards with the proposed Australia trade deal, many of which have been powerfully stated by my colleague Jim Fairlie. I also anticipate that my other colleagues will deftly deal with the issues, be they around the environment, our ambitions for climate change, food security and standards, animal welfare concerns, the specific nature of Scottish farming, the paltry contribution that the deal brings to UK GDP—at 0.2 per cent—the lack of consultation or the impact on rural economies.
I will focus on the fact that the financial environment in which our farming businesses operate could be changed significantly as a consequence of both Brexit and subsequent new trading arrangements, whether based on free trade or not.
I want to talk to Scottish farm businesses with loans or overdrafts. Commercial lending for business is vastly different from lending for ordinary consumers. For a start, it is not regulated. That means that commercial contracts with banks are treated in law as a contract among equals. In addition to that, most people, including many businesspeople, are of the mistaken view that the servicing of the debt in the form of regular repayments is sufficient. However, most banks reserve the right to call in a debt at any time of their choosing, regardless of whether the debt is being serviced or the business is profitable. Any change in circumstances—and fundamental changes to the marketplace through a trade deal are certainly such a change—can therefore be used by banks to call in loans, which could have a catastrophic consequence for business.
We know from recent experience that banks in the UK have a blemished record of serving small and medium-sized enterprises. Post-2008, many small businesses had their bank loans called in; owners were sequestrated, and they lost their livelihoods. Worse is that the UK Treasury and the Tory-Lib Dem Government at that time worked with what was the Royal Bank of Scotland to identify businesses that could be pushed into financial distress and then asset stripped. Other banks had similar approaches and justified their actions based on changed business circumstances such as changed valuations. I beg to suggest that trade deals also change circumstances and valuations. I therefore simply ask whether any consideration has been given to the possible attitude of banks to the farming community sector. Given the current high lending to agriculture, has the UK Government carried out any form of due diligence to assess the exposure of SME farming businesses to the actions of the banks? I doubt it.
My final point is that few people understand what it means to be a farmer in your community. We have farming in my husband’s family, and it is about your standing, your family history, and your fundamental identity. Scottish farmers could be looking down the barrel of huge changes, brought in by a Government that Scotland did not vote for, which is implementing a Brexit policy that Scotland did not vote for—[Interruption.]
Ms Thomson is in her last minute.
—and which is pushing for a trade deal without protections, and without consultation, which could do untold damage.
I finish my speech as I started it by saying that free trade is never free. Precisely because of that, we must ensure that Scotland’s farming businesses are not unwittingly sacrificed on the altar of Tory Government incompetence.17:59
Ractopamine, cloxacillin, and butylated hydroxyanisole—BHA—are just a few of the chemicals that I am concerned about with regard to any trade deal. Those chemicals have been banned across the EU since 1981 on health grounds, with restrictions also placed on imports of hormone-treated beef from third countries.
Ractopamine is a growth hormone used to make cattle, turkeys and pigs leaner before slaughter, and the US dairy industry uses it to increase milk production. Cloxacillin is a veterinary antibiotic growth promoter, which is used in Australia but banned for use in the EU, and butylated hydroxyanisole is a toluene-based antioxidant, which is used in the USA in many products, from crisps to sausages. It is known to be a carcinogen and is banned for use in the EU.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this vital debate and I congratulate my colleague Jim Fairlie on securing it. I am concerned about the impact of trade deals on Scottish agriculture. I am also concerned about the drugs that are used on animals.
Will the member say where exactly food health and safety requirements are included in a trade deal? Is it not the case that those and other issues are embedded in United Kingdom legislation and form no part of a trade deal?
Wow—I cannae believe that the member even asks me about that. The trade deals that are being negotiated need to take stock of the production processes for the produce that will be shipped to this country. It is—[Interruption.] I am hearing yitterin from the sidelines, but I want to talk about the growth hormones and antibiotics that are used in the production of American, Brazilian and Australian meat, which Food Standards Scotland deems unsuitable for use here in Scotland.
Will the member give way?
I will give way only if Finlay Carson can give me a 100 per cent guarantee that no food produce that contains growth hormones and antibiotics will come into this country as a result of the trade deal from his Government in Westminster.
I ask the member again: where in any trade deal do chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef come up? Such things are dealt with in an altogether separate manner and form no part of a trade deal. Will the member point me to any trade deal in which conditions such as she is talking about are applied?
I am concerned that any conditions that are applied in the trade deal will open the door to future trade deals that present risks for our food supply chain. I know about antimicrobial resistance; I know about damage to people’s kidneys because we are on the last line of antibiotics. If we do not need to be concerned about the products that I am talking about, maybe we should ask ourselves why they have been banned in the EU since 1981.
The issue is vital to the future prosperity of our industry and the health and security of our nation, and my view is shared by NFU Scotland.
Does the member agree that the problem with the trade deal is that it will set a precedent for future trade deals and that the Americans have already said that there will be no such things as labelling, country of origin and differentiation in the trade deal that they will bring forward—[Interruption.]
Well, we will not get one, then.
Excuse me, Mr Kerr. We must have only one speaker when a member is on their feet. Is that you finished with your question, Mr Fairlie?
I was asking whether the member agreed with me. I was interested to hear Mr Kerr telling us that there will be no trade deal. We will hold the Conservatives to that.
I am interested in what Jim Fairlie is saying. It is also interesting that the Food and Drug Administration in America has a handbook of acceptable levels of defects—the “Food Defect Levels Handbook”—which allows for a maximum level of, for example, rat poo in produce. There is no equivalent in Europe. Conservative members are rolling their eyes at all this, but why does the FDA have a book that sets acceptable levels of mites, dust, insect parts and mammalian excreta in food? That is what we can expect if we move towards the trade deals that the Conservatives envisage.
There are animal welfare issues, too. I am really concerned about how we move forward. I want to stand up for our Scottish farmers and for the safety of the food that we eat. We need to protect our farmers in Scotland; the Government in Westminster is not doing so.
Beatrice Wishart is joining us remotely.18:04
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. Members will not be surprised that I will focus my initial comments on my constituency, Shetland.
Crofting and fishing are the traditional economic and cultural backbones of Shetland. Agricultural businesses in the islands are often small, low impact and high quality. We should thank and support local food businesses for the high quality food that they continue to produce throughout the pandemic.
The increase in the trade of sheep and cattle from the northern isles to the mainland indicates that the quality of the produce and the industry’s high welfare standards are trusted. Supporting rural local businesses is vital—especially post Covid—because they are often disproportionately hammered by Government regulation and the general additional higher costs of island living. The recent consultations on live animal transport are a case in point and could have a devastating effect on the islands—in fact, some in Shetland express the view that the proposals could kill off crofting completely. The agriculture industry has high animal welfare standards, and we want to keep it that way.
Crofters and farmers are committed to sustainable innovation, management and stewardship. Shetland wool week is one such innovation. It celebrates Britain’s most northerly native sheep, Shetland’s textile industry and the rural farming community in the islands. Shetland wool—from fleece to textile products—has a reputation for quality, strength and excellence. In the past decade or so, Shetland wool week has grown into an internationally acclaimed event of exhibitions, demonstrations and classes; it draws hundreds of visitors to Shetland from all over the world for one week in the autumn. It is a phenomenal success for the whole community.
The NFUS briefing shows that the agriculture sector employs more than 67,000 people, resulting in £1.3 billion for the Scottish economy. Not only does sustainable food production have a positive impact on rural communities; it impacts the whole country’s supply chain. We cannot allow our crofters and farmers to be undercut by unfair competition and tariffs, and imports must uphold high standards of welfare.
My input to the debate may have been brief, but I hope that that does not lessen the points that I have made about the significant contribution and value to Scotland of the agriculture sector and the people who work in it. We must protect it.18:07
I thank Jim Fairlie for bringing a debate to Parliament about this important subject so early on in his time as an MSP.
Crofters in the agriculturally least-favoured parts of Scotland, such as my island constituency, are very aware of the words of the former UK Tory Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, who said:
“It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep and those with the hill farms do the butterflies.”
The UK Government seems to be convinced that ad hoc trade deals with individual countries are an adequate answer to that and an adequate replacement for the European single market, which, as Mr Fairlie rightly pointed out, is a vast free trade area from which the UK chose to remove itself.
Does the member refer to an earlier intervention that I made on Jim Fairlie? I asked him the same question that I will ask you: when we were members of the European Union, which trade deal with the European—
Mr Kerr, please address your comments through the chair.
I beg your pardon. Which trade deal that the EU struck when the UK was a member of it did the SNP support in the past 20 years? Can the member give one example of a free trade deal that the SNP has supported?
I hate to be unoriginal, but Mr Fairlie’s example is the best one of all: the European Union and the European single market, which I just mentioned, were supported by us and inexplicably rejected by Stephen Kerr’s party.
In those circumstances, we want to pursue good trading relationships with other countries, but it is significant that some of the countries that we are talking about pursuing those trade deals with would enjoy tariff-free access when many of the countries with which we were most closely associated in the past would enjoy no such relationship in the future.
Crofters and farmers are entitled to ask what that means for them. What safeguards—if any—will the deals include for domestic agriculture? Concerns have been expressed about the country’s market being swamped by cheap food imports.
On another point, why has the proposed trade and agriculture commission for examining such deals not yet been set up—as I understand it? Are we really saying that countries in Europe that have broadly similar standards on animal welfare, the use of hormones and environmental impacts—not to mention a minimum wage for farm workers, although I am not sure whether the Conservatives are entirely signed up to that—should pay tariffs? Why should those countries pay tariffs while countries that may be unconstrained by any of those factors have tariff-free access to our supermarkets?
The point that I think that the Conservatives have missed in this debate is how agriculture in Scotland could compete in the long term on price in a situation of that kind without severely changing or compromising standards. We might begin with Australia, but what do we do if such a deal is then reached with major food producers such as Brazil, whose environmental and other standards are so unlike our own as to raise even bigger concerns? [Interruption.]
If I may, I will make some progress. We have heard in the debate from the Conservatives that somehow others are planting fears in the minds of farmers. The NFUS put it this way:
“As it stands, this trade deal will cause serious issues to the future of Scottish farming and set a precedent for other trade deals, which would further undermine the sector.”
However, if the Conservatives think that that is bad, they might wish to look at what the Scottish Crofting Federation said:
“We have a very high quality product that simply cannot compete in a market flooded with lower-price meat. That the UK government is even giving consideration to a completely unacceptable deal is despicable.”
I will finish with those words from the Scottish Crofting Federation, given that it has grasped the situation much more clearly and expressed it more eloquently than—I regret to say—our Conservative colleagues have this evening.18:12
I thank Jim Fairlie for bringing the debate to the chamber.
My constituency of East Lothian is often referred to as the breadbasket of Scotland. It includes high-yield and high-quality land that employs many people in the county. Farming is the heartbeat of our rural community. East Lothian has more than 180 farms, with a mix of arable farms, dairy farms, pig farms, upland farms, soft-fruit farms and vegetable farms. Thousands of people are employed in the sector, which supports direct farm work. There are also many suppliers of feed, agricultural equipment and support services.
In the past two years, farmers have had to deal with the disaster that is Brexit, which of course Scotland voted against and discussions on which our ministers were unable even to attend. The meat and dairy sectors reported a dramatic fall in EU exports in the first quarter, with falls of 59 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively. As Scotland Food & Drink’s James Withers said:
“There’s no sugar-coating these statistics, they are grim.”
The EU settlement scheme was another disaster waiting to happen for the farming industry. George Jamieson, the NFUS education and skills policy manager, said:
“Keeping good workers makes good business sense for farmers.”
Their knowledge, experience and skills are long-term investments that are hard to replace and are essential for modern farming.
Then, along came the news of the proposed tariff-free trade deal with Australia, and of discussions being under way with New Zealand. We have heard a few members in the debate quote the NFUS. The NFUS president, Martin Kennedy, said:
“Scotland’s beef, dairy, sheep and grain sectors are particularly”
at risk, and that the NFUS believes that the deal could risk
“the future viability of the farming sector.”
He said that the trade deal, as it stands, will cause serious issues for the future of Scottish farming.
Does Mr McLennan support the Trade and Agriculture Commission, as the NFUS does, which sets out to ensure that farmers do not face unfair competition and that our high animal welfare and food standards will not be undermined?
The NFUS has said that there was no consultation whatsoever with it on the trade deal, so it is hypocrisy to talk about it as Mr Carson has. There was no consultation with the NFUS at all on that deal.
NFU Scotland has called for four points—which I think have been mentioned before—to be considered in discussions. The first is recognition of the sensitivities of primary production sectors. We have seen deals being made with Japan and Canada that include tariff-relief quotas, which trigger safeguard clauses above certain thresholds. They should be adopted in future deals in order to secure the future of those sectors.
Secondly, negotiations should not put the farming sector at risk. Continued sustainable food production and its positive impacts on communities should be secured.
Thirdly, high standards of production should be upheld. Imports must meet our high standards of production, and trade policy and domestic policy should work to underpin those standards.
The final point is important. It is that positive precedents that support Scottish farmers should be established. Commitments in areas including animal welfare and climate change will make it far easier in the future to secure similar commitments with other parties. Likewise, total market liberalisation will be hard to avoid in future deals if it is awarded in the first UK free trade agreement that is negotiated.
Consumers in Scotland already enjoy some of the most affordable food in the world, which is produced to the highest standards. Scotland’s voice is once again being ignored by a UK Tory Government that, frankly, does not care.
We cannot sacrifice rural employment. The prosperity of rural areas in East Lothian and across Scotland, and our high standards, should not be jeopardised for the sake of a face-saving deal. I pledge to farmers in East Lothian that I will not sit back and watch Tories damage the farming businesses and our rural economy in the county. It is time that the Scottish Conservatives broke their silence and stood up for jobs in East Lothian and across Scotland.18:16
I welcome Màiri McAllan to her role.
Farmers in Argyll and Bute are very concerned about the precedent that the hastily negotiated tariff-free trade deal between the UK and Australia sets. It was agreed even before the Trade and Agriculture Commission had been set up to scrutinise the economic impact of such deals.
The deal places consumers above producers. Farmers across my constituency work hard to produce top-quality cattle and sheep, and they are central to the communities in which they live. However, as Duncan Macalister, who is chair of NFU Scotland’s Argyll and the Islands region, said to me yesterday, farmers
“are price takers, not price makers.”
Does Jenni Minto agree with the statement by Dr Morita-Jaeger, who is a senior research fellow at the University of Sussex, in which she points out that there is a wider issue that is not just about the producers? Dr Morita-Jaeger said:
“What is worrying on a much broader point is that the UK Government is pushing ahead with a trade deal without any public discussion about what trade policy, what kind of economy and what kind of national food production they are pursuing, if there is any strategy at all.”
Yes, I agree with that. Farming is about more than simply food production—it is also about what it does for the community, including children going to schools and supporting health services and local shops.
Living on Islay, I am surrounded by land that is carefully cultivated and stewarded by farmers. That cultivation has been going on for centuries. The 1799 Statistical Account records that
“The rearing of cattle is a principal object with the gentlemen of Islay, who have the merit of having brought the Islay cattle to vie with the best of their neighbours at market ... they are carried by drovers to Dumbarton and Falkirk, and even to England”.
Islay cattle continue to be of very high quality, with yearlings being sold to the mainland for finishing. A sale at Bridgend mart can yield up to £1 million. Highland cattle are established on the less favourable moorland and produce meat that contains more protein and iron and less fat. They are managed by farmers and their families who are integral to the island’s economy and community, as they are the length and breadth of Argyll and Bute.
Will the member give way?
No, I would like to continue.
In Argyll and Bute, there are 1,944 farms, which employ more than 2,600 people. However, with one quick signature, as Jim Fairlie’s motion says, the tariff-free trade deal could lead to “hugely-damaging consequences” for Scotland’s most remote and rural communities.
On Sunday, I met Scott Mclellan, whose family have farmed at Kilchiaran on Islay for generations. His farm is possibly as remote and rural as it is possible to be. The farm is situated atop cliffs on the rugged west coast of Islay, where Scott farms a mix of sheep and cattle. The farm has a distinctive almost 200-year-old round steading. As Jim Fairlie said, farming has history, and it flourishes through continuity. If broken, that continuity of effort and success might be impossible to repair. [Interruption.]
I am sorry—I will not take an intervention.
Scott Mclellan told me that the Australian farmers have a couple of advantages over Scottish hill farmers: scale and breadth of market. The Asian market will buy every cut of the Australian farmer’s beast, while Scottish farmers make their profit on the prime cuts, because there is little or no market for offal. He accepts that it might take time for the Australian agriculture sector to shift to increase its sales to the UK market, but his real concern is about the much closer and bigger markets of the United States, Brazil and Argentina.
That worry was repeated by Duncan Macalister. He told me:
“We don’t know what the future will hold, but cheaper produce will arrive in our supermarkets, and sadly, though people want to shop local, they shop with money and not their hearts”.
Jim Fairlie’s motion ends by asking that the UK Government take notice of the vulnerability of Scotland’s agriculture sectors. That request is whole-heartedly supported by the farmers of Argyll and Bute.
I will finish by quoting a Scot who emigrated to the United States. The Rev John Witherspoon, speaking in 1776 about American independence, said in his heavy Scots burr:
“Sir, in my judgement the country is not only ripe for the measure but is in danger of rotting for the want of it”.
I suggest that, 245 years later, that is the situation in the country of his birth.18:21
I congratulate Jim Fairlie on being the first MSP to secure a members’ debate in this session. It is on such an important subject—not just for the economy of rural Scotland, but for the public health and wellbeing of the people who live across Scotland in rural and urban areas. This is about the food that we eat; it is about what our bairns put in their bellies as much as it is about the livelihoods of their parents and the communities in which they live.
The debate is also about the environment of the country that they live in—as Mr Fairlie’s constituency predecessor Roseanna Cunningham knew all too well from her role as Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. For years after the Brexit vote, she argued vociferously that if the food that we eat is not grown here, we not only offshore our carbon emissions, but have no control over the welfare of the animals involved. The land management of Scotland, which is key to our becoming a net-zero nation, becomes a real and pressing issue. Members should make no mistake: not only are our Scottish farmers the people behind the quality of our food, they are the custodians of the land and are key to the health of that land, to our livestock welfare and to our net-zero ambition.
Straight after the Brexit vote—[Interruption.] I will not take an intervention; I need to make progress.
Straight after the Brexit vote I was at the Turriff show, meeting NFUS colleagues at a round table with politicians, as we did every summer before the pandemic. Tariff-free deals with places including New Zealand, Australia, the US and South America was the hot topic then. We had just had a snap general election in which Tory MPs had been voted in across my area, with promises of a land of plenty for agriculture. The farmers of the north-east were already very nervous, because promises were being diluted even then.
Michael Gove was there; I remember one particular farmer warning him that the north-east farming community might have lent the Tories their votes this time, but woe betide them if they let farmers down. Characteristically, Mr Gove spoke lots of nice-sounding words by way of response, much like he did on Channel 4 News when he promised that Brexit would benefit farmers, but his assurances were demonstrably untrue. The zero-tariff trade deal with the meat producers of Australia will, if it goes ahead, rip the guts out of the livestock industry in the north-east, much as it will make farmers uncompetitive, as Alasdair Allan mentioned.
Farmers are angry, and rightly so. The agricultural lobby group Save British Farming has relaunched itself in response to concerns about the impact of the Australia deal. Its chairperson said that the deal is an
“existential threat to British farming”.
Martin Kennedy of the NFUS, who has already been quoted in the debate, has pointed to another worry that has been raised today: the lack of consultation with the sector.
Gillian Martin talks about how we need to have confidence in farmers and the importance of food and climate change. However, she will know from her time as convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee that Chris Stark raised concerns months ago about the Scottish Government’s lack of progress. The farming and food production future policy group’s document was supposed to have been published last June. Is it good or bad for farming communities and rural communities that the Scottish Government is still dithering over the future of rural payments?
The term “whatabootery” comes to mind. I must commend Finlay Carson, who has been given his instructions to defend the trade deal with Australia. I know that he is finding it really difficult to do so—but my goodness, he is putting in a right good shift today. Well done.
However, I am not going to move on to another topic altogether. I will continue to quote Martin Kennedy, who said:
“While some additional market access and tariff liberalisation is expected in this post-Brexit era, all deals must be properly scrutinised and ratified to avoid any risks to the future viability of the farming sector.
Rushing through a trade deal without the promised statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission in place prior to the deal being concluded ... sets a damaging precedent”.
Mr Carson seems to think that the commission is in place, but it is not. The deal also came as a surprise to Minette Batters, who said:
“it is wholly irresponsible for the government to sign a trade deal with no tariffs or quotas on sensitive products and which therefore undermines our own domestic economy and food production industry.”
It appears that the answer to my farming constituent who warned Mr Gove a couple of years ago is now much clearer: we cannot trust the Tories with Scottish agriculture.
Jim Fairlie was quite right to bring the issue to the chamber for debate. I will stand with him, my colleagues and Scottish farmers to demand that this vital part of our economy, and of the health of our food and land, is protected.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I omitted to say at the start of my speech that I am still a member of the NFUS, despite the fact that I no longer farm.
Thank you, Mr Fairlie—that is now on the record.
I call Màiri McAllan to wind up the debate. I advise the chamber that this is Màiri McAllan’s first speech to our Parliament.18:26
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
As others have done, I congratulate Jim Fairlie on securing this important members’ business debate. Well done to him for consulting so widely with Scotland’s agricultural stakeholders, which has been sadly missing from the UK Government’s approach. I thank all the members who have stayed to contribute to the debate. Members from all corners of Scotland and all parties—except the Tory members—have voiced their concerns.
I declare an interest as someone who lives on a beef and sheep hill farm and whose partner’s family has lived and worked there for more than 100 years.
If the Presiding Officer will allow me, as this is my first speech in the chamber as a newly elected MSP, I would like to briefly mention my constituency. I believe that Clydesdale, from Elvanfoot in the south to East Kilbride in the north, is the most beautiful constituency in Scotland. One of the things that make it so is its natural environment and the ample agricultural land, which, as my colleagues Jenni Minto and Gillian Martin have pointed out, is so dutifully tended by our farmers. We know that that is a key part of our tourism offer, but, of course, we principally value Scotland’s farmers and crofters because of the work that they do in producing healthy, delicious food that has an international reputation for high animal welfare and environmental standards, and which is increasingly produced via sustainable methods.
Before I move on to trade, it is important that I reiterate the context that we are working in here and the extent to which Scotland, which rejected Brexit, is suffering because of it. Scotland’s farmers cannot export seed potatoes to the EU, there are restrictions on importing honey bees, there are problems with exporting meat, and the historical trade of goats and sheep between Scotland and Northern Ireland has ended without notice. I am afraid that, as my colleague Paul McLennan pointed out, that is evidence enough that the UK Government does not support Scotland’s farmers.
It seems that, just as the UK Government was content to let down Scotland’s fishing industry on trade, it is preparing to do the same on agriculture, because—make no mistake—any tariff-free trade deal will have a devastating effect on Scotland’s farmers and producers. I make it clear that the Scottish Government deeply regrets that we have been taken out of the EU against our will, and it is our intention that we should rejoin as an independent nation.
Despite that, we accept the need to develop free trade agreements in the meantime. The Government wants Scotland’s trade—including with Australia—to increase. Australia is our 14th-largest export market, which, in 2018, was valued at £680 million. We are keen to go further, and we have committed to increasing Scotland’s trade to 25 per cent of GDP by 2019. However, those gains must never come at the expense of our farmers, our food producers and our precious natural environment and world-leading climate ambition.
As Michelle Thomson pointed out, the UK Government’s own scoping assessment concluded that a UK-Australia FTA would benefit UK GDP by a mere 0.02 per cent, while Brexit will lead to a 4.9 per cent contraction in UK GDP over the same 15-year period. It is therefore no wonder that we are questioning why the UK Government is pursuing the deal and are calling for it to explain how it will protect sensitive sectors and the jobs and livelihoods connected to them.
We are not alone. This is not, as some Conservative members suggest, SNP scaremongering. The Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have also voiced concerns, as have Scotland’s farmers and environmental groups. Like Liam McArthur, I am concerned about the precedent that this would set for future agreements.
It is greatly concerning that the Scottish Government has been denied any involvement in crucial negotiations. We have consistently made the case for a guaranteed role for this Government and this Parliament in all stages of the development of trade agreements. UK ministers have repeatedly refused to accept that we have a legitimate interest in these matters. Our engagement is limited to what the UK Government chooses to share with us and does not include detail about tariff and market access offers or of what is on, or off, the table. We have had no information about safeguards for the industries that will be affected by the proposals.
Decisions on agricultural tariffs and quotas cut across all areas of devolved competence and have direct implications for our economy, as members from all parties have eloquently pointed out. It is unacceptable that we are not fully involved and that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, 2020 which this Parliament rejected, could prevent us from upholding the high standards for food and animal welfare for which Scotland is renowned.
The Scottish Government and the farming community believe that there are, as yet, no meaningful safeguards in place to prevent our farmers from being undercut by cheaper and lower-standard products. Finlay Carson made a point to Emma Harper about the role of standards in trade deals. I am sure that he knows that it is possible to include equivalence mechanisms in those deals. However, either that is not being done or we do not know if it is being done. As Colin Smyth pointed out, the Conservative Party disagreed to Labour Party amendments that would have enshrined the protection of standards in trade deals. The Conservatives refuse to accept that.
The Scottish Government has been consistently clear. All imports of Australian agrifood must be produced to standards that are equivalent to those in Scotland. Any increase in imports must be managed by tariff rate quotas. Our farmers, and our world-leading climate action, demand that and it must be a priority. Any deal must not be agreed simply for political reasons—we know that that would not be financially viable. We will continue liaising with the devolved Administrations and the farming sector and will press for an urgent change in position.
I make a call again to the UK Government. First, I ask it to respond to a letter sent by my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, three weeks ago, to which we have had no response. I call for a rethink that will protect farmers across the UK and prioritise our natural environment and I call on it to engage with us, so that the Scottish Government and members from across the chamber can do what we were elected to do: represent the people of our country and build a future for Scotland that is based on our values and priorities.
That concludes the debate.Meeting closed at 18:33.