Meeting date: Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 November 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Remembrance Commemorations, Business Motion, Decision Time, World Stroke Day and Stroke Care (Covid-19)
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Remembrance Commemorations
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- World Stroke Day and Stroke Care (Covid-19)
Topical Question Time
Tackling Climate Change (Support for Farmers)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support farmers to help meet Scotland’s climate ambitions. (S5T-02518)
We are working with partners from across industry to take a holistic approach to agriculture, land use and food production while protecting our environment and enhancing biodiversity.
The recent suckler beef climate group report delivered a set of practical actions that will lower our carbon footprint, enhance the environment and boost business. It is important that that report, alongside others such as the farming for 1.5 degrees inquiry’s report, is fully considered in the development of policy.
We continue to support farmers, crofters and land managers to meet Scotland’s climate and environment ambitions. A third of our current common agricultural policy schemes provide environmental funding, and we have received more than 3,000 applications for our pilot sustainable agriculture capital grant scheme.
The minister mentioned the independent farming for 1.5 degrees inquiry, which recognises farming’s unique opportunity. Farmers have to improve their own performance as well as contribute to wider emissions reduction targets.
Can the minister provide an update on how many farmers can access LEADER funding to help them diversify, and on the potential implications of the loss of that funding as we leave the European Union, with no detail so far on the proposed United Kingdom prosperity fund?
The LEADER fund has supported more than 100 new farm diversification projects, which has been worth nearly £6 million. There could well be other diversification projects that are being supported and which are part of wider co-operative projects.
One of the strengths of the LEADER programme is its impact on our rural communities and the sheer diversity of the projects that it funds. It has funded everything from tea farms to local community cinemas and community builds. It is a vitally important fund for our rural community.
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in an event with the Angus LEADER programme to launch its legacy report, which went into the detail of the programme there—what worked, what did not work and how any future scheme should work—and which highlighted the importance of LEADER.
The Scottish Government absolutely believes that our rural communities should continue to be supported to deliver that locally led development, because it is inclusive growth at its best. That is why we have been absolutely clear and consistent in insisting that we expect full replacement of EU funds from the end of this year, to ensure that there is no detriment to Scotland’s public finances as a result of Brexit. We expect the UK Government to fully respect the devolution settlement in any future arrangements, but unfortunately we do not have any clarity on that, yet.
The minister mentioned the suckler beef climate group report. Aberdeenshire suckler herds form the backbone of quality beef production in Scotland. Can the minister provide an update on the support that has been made available to that sector? To what extent does the report provide a blueprint for emissions reductions in food and farming production in Scotland and a sustainable future for one of Scotland’s most important industries?
I would echo what Gillian Martin said: it is one of Scotland’s most important industries. Jim Walker, who is the chair of the suckler beef climate group, said:
“The Scottish suckler beef herd is the engine room that drives economic activity and environmental management across”
“swathes of rural Scotland”.
As far as funding is concerned, £40 million is allocated annually to suckler beef producers through the Scottish suckler beef support scheme. That sits alongside other investment and support under pillar 1 of the CAP and the Scottish rural development programme.
The Government obviously very much welcomes the recent report by the suckler beef climate group, because it recognises the need for the beef sector to significantly reduce its emissions while increasing efficiency, productivity and overall profitability for beef producers in Scotland. The proposed scheme sets out the practical ways that beef producers in the supply chain can reduce emissions and capitalise on the resulting green credentials that would flow from that. We are confident that the scheme lays the foundation for sustainable farming in Scotland. We are currently considering all the details that have been published in the report and hope to set our next steps very soon.
Does the minister recognise that maintaining food production on Scottish farms at current levels is vital to delivering on our wider climate change obligations? Does she agree that policies that simply incentivise our farmers to farm less and outsource production to other countries—many of which have lower environmental standards—will do nothing to help our planet?
We certainly would not want to see outsourcing anywhere, especially if things are produced to lower standards than our own, given that we have some of the highest and best environmental standards anywhere in the world.
I have highlighted the suckler beef climate group report and farming for 1.5 degrees group’s report. There is also the work of the farming and food production future policy group. All that work is vital. Farming for 1.5 degrees and the suckler beef climate group in particular have developed measures from farmers and people who work in the industry. A lot of the recommendations that farming for 1.5 degrees has proposed have come from people involved in farming, people with research and scientific backgrounds, and environmentalists, which is important, because we need to have buy-in to any measures that are produced. With the different inquiries and reports, we are gearing up to have a sustainable future for Scottish farming in a way that drives down emissions in a sustainable way.
I look forward to laying out our next steps once we have considered all those reports.
The farming for 1.5 degrees group’s report is another useful contribution to the debate on the future of agricultural support. However, organisations are once again being left to fill the vacuum left by the lack of policy from the Government. When will the farming and food production future policy group’s report be published? More significantly, when exactly will the Government set out in detail its own vision for agricultural support beyond 2024?
I know that Colin Smyth will remember our debate back in January 2019, when we established the farming and food production future policy group. That was to help us to create and establish the policy, taking into account all the wider considerations.
We absolutely recognise the urgency of the situation. We are in a climate emergency, and there is a lot of work to be done. All the reports from the various groups are vital, especially the farming for 1.5 degrees report, which Colin Smyth mentioned. It highlights actions that can be taken in the short, medium and longer terms, including vital practical actions that can be taken.
We have to consider all that information in the round to inform and develop our policies, and we hope to be in a position to lay out the next steps in relation to those reports very soon.
The farming for 1.5 degrees report clearly states that our subsidy system needs urgent reform if we are to achieve our climate goals, but the only scheme that is currently available to farmers specifically to tackle climate change is the agri-environment climate scheme, which is closed indefinitely to new entrants. Can the minister confirm what the future is for that scheme and when farmers will be able to access the financial support that they need to transition to low-carbon farming with the urgency that is needed, particularly given that we are trying to help the economy to recover after Covid?
I appreciate Mark Ruskell’s point, and we absolutely recognise the urgency.
The main issue with the agri-environment climate scheme, which Mark Ruskell mentioned, has been that we do not yet have certainty about the replacement of EU funding, despite repeated requests to the UK Government. Once we have clarity and certainty on how wider rural support and, in particular, current pillar 2 activity will be funded, we will be able to decide how we will proceed with that scheme. We are still to determine whether to open the scheme for applications to be funded in 2022, but we will absolutely ensure that, whatever we decide, there is appropriate funding and support for farmers and crofters to play their part and do more to farm sustainably, enhance our environment and help to cut carbon emissions.
As part of that, we recently had the pilot sustainable agriculture capital grant scheme, which closed to applications in October. There were more than 3,000 applications to that scheme. That fwas a £10 million fund to help fund agricultural equipment deliver reductions in direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. Also, £1.5 million has been provided for forestry grant schemes.
There are, therefore, other things that we are looking at. We absolutely recognise that there is urgency. We are in a climate emergency, and we want to do all that we can to tackle that as best we can.
Mental Health Support (Police Officers and Police Staff)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to improve the mental health support available to police officers and staff, in light of the service reporting increasing numbers of absences. (S5T-02521)
First, we are all incredibly grateful for the hard work of all our police officers and staff. Throughout the pandemic, they have shown incredible professionalism.
The wellbeing of police officers and staff is of great interest to me and to the chief constable. He and I speak about the issue on a regular basis. Police Scotland has been clear that maintaining and supporting the health and wellbeing of its workforce is a key priority.
Police officers and staff can access a wide range of services to care for their physical and mental health through the your wellbeing matters programme. Police Scotland provides a range of support mechanisms to colleagues, including counselling services, post-incident trauma support and proactive screening. There are also 200 wellbeing champions across the organisation who offer peer support. Officers and staff can download the Backup Buddy app to their mobile devices. The app has been specially developed in recognition of the need to support the mental health of those in policing.
Police Scotland and the Government recognise the impact of Covid-19 on the wellbeing of officers and staff and quickly set up a wellbeing hub to co-ordinate information on support services that the workforce can access. Although a number of officers and staff are absent due to Covid-19, Police Scotland reports that the current level of absence is causing no significant issues operationally for the force.
We of course owe a debt of gratitude to our police officers and staff and no doubt Covid has made matters considerably more difficult. However, those figures were on the rise well before the pandemic hit.
A year ago, in response to figures that the Scottish Liberal Democrats compiled on working days that were lost to mental health issues, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice said that he was “very satisfied” with the support that was being offered to police officers and staff. Days later, independent research that was commissioned by the Scottish Police Federation showed that half of officers were stressed because they lacked resources and that one in 10 was using drugs or alcohol to cope. Freedom of information requests now show that more days than ever are being lost to mental ill health. What is going on?
Nobody argues that the job of police officers is not incredibly stressful. Officers deal with trauma day in and day out, and Police Scotland recognises that it has to have a unique approach to mental health and wellbeing.
In my first answer, I rifled off a range of the initiatives that Police Scotland has to support individual police officers and staff with their mental health and wellbeing. In addition, the Scottish Government provided an extra £138,000 in financial year 2019-20 to extend the Lifelines Scotland wellbeing programme that is available for blue-light responders, which includes Police Scotland.
I am more than happy to sit down with the Scottish Police Federation to discuss its research in more detail. I had a teleconference with the federation a couple of weeks ago, but I would be happy to touch base with it again to get more details on that research.
The research was carried out almost a year ago, so that meeting should have taken place well before now.
The cabinet secretary did not refer to a staff survey. A full police staff survey is needed to properly understand whether staff needs are being met. Last time round, only 8 per cent of staff thought that the national force cared about their wellbeing. I have been calling on the justice secretary and police chiefs to conduct a survey for years. One was due in 2017, but it is still somewhere on the to-do list. How many more ministerial commitments and police meetings is that going to take?
I am sure that Liam McArthur is aware that it is not for me to direct the chief constable on when to carry out the wellbeing and engagement survey. That is an operational matter. It is a source of frustration—although it undoubtedly comes from a good place—that Liam McArthur continually asks me to direct the chief constable to do a survey that is very much in his operational responsibility.
That said, the chief constable and Police Scotland senior management have told me that they intend to hold the survey in February 2021. Of course, they might have wanted to do it earlier, but we all know the pressures that the force has been under in the past seven to eight months.
Recent figures show that there has been a cut of more than 650 divisional police officers since the creation of Police Scotland. Could there be a relationship between such a concerning rise in mental health absence and there being so many fewer officers? If so, will the cabinet secretary take steps to reverse the fall in numbers?
First and foremost, there are more than 1,000 more officers than there were when we took office. That is in stark contrast to the cuts to police officer numbers after Liam Kerr’s party came into office, as part of the United Kingdom Government. I am proud to stand on our record.
With regard to resource, the Scottish Conservatives pushed us to increase police funding in the current budget by £50 million. We increased it by £60 million, so we are very much putting our money where our mouth is.
When it comes to divisional versus national resource, that is, again, an operational matter for the chief constable. However, groups such as Rape Crisis Scotland have noted that, with the creation of the national force, the national approach to tackling issues such as sex offending has been much better. Therefore, I think that investing in national capabilities for a consistent approach across the country has been a welcome step. Ultimately, however, those are operational matters for the chief constable.