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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 21 December 2016

Agenda: Oath, Portfolio Question Time, Premature Babies (Maternity and Paternity Leave), Illegal Puppy Trade, Protecting Scotland’s Livestock, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Protecting Scotland’s Livestock

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing on protecting Scotland’s livestock. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement. There should therefore be no interruptions or interventions during it.

16:28  

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

Presiding Officer, those of us who were in Parliament in 2001 will probably never forget the devastating impact of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that year. It engulfed Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders and significantly affected rural communities throughout Scotland.

The outbreak had a profound human impact: it ended generations of farming by some families, it haunted communities and it left fields bare and barren. There was a significant economic cost, too—over £8 billion UK-wide, according to the National Audit Office. We should do all that we can to avoid repeating those costs. The 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak taught us lessons about how to protect the health of Scotland’s livestock better. We have not suffered such a debilitating outbreak of a notifiable disease since then.

However, that cannot, and should not, make us complacent. We must have in place the best possible measures to minimise risks to the health of our livestock. That is why, from 1 January 2017, the system that is known as CTS—cattle tracing system—links is being replaced by ScotMoves to record cattle movement data. I announced that previously in response to a parliamentary question on 22 September. I now want to provide members with more detail on why we are making the change and what it involves.

First, we must do all that we can to protect Scotland’s livestock from the threat of notifiable diseases. That requires ready access to accurate information for all cattle movements. Secondly, we must be able to control any outbreak of exotic disease effectively and efficiently. Again, the ability to trace animals between locations is key. Such data enables us to deploy our resources where they are needed. It also allows us to take a proportionate approach to restricting movements and, thereafter, to lifting those restrictions. The longer it takes to trace livestock, movements and disease, the greater the risk that an outbreak will spread.

The CTS links system has served Scottish livestock keepers well, but it had deficiencies. It required the location and movements of animals between linked holdings—for example, when a number of farms are owned by the same family—to be recorded only in the on-farm holding register and not to be reported centrally. The system required only cattle movements between non-linked holdings to be reported to a central database. In recent years, the use of CTS links has become common practice, and there are now around 3,000 cattle holdings sharing 7,000 CTS links. That means that we lack information about the movements of an increasing number of Scotland’s cattle. However, farmers and the public would rightly expect the Government to have that information available in the event of a disease outbreak.

The third reason to change the system is that there is no legal provision in European legislation for the use of CTS links, so the system’s continued use poses a risk of disallowance to the Scottish Government of around £2.5 million initially, and of more than £800,000 per annum thereafter. Moreover, CTS links is a 20th century process when what we need is a 21st century system that best utilises technology and is more efficient for farm businesses to use. Currently, farmers and crofters are required and expected to keep manual records. Cattle tag numbers must be written and rewritten to keep records up to date, which is a burden on farm businesses’ time and resources. The ScotMoves system addresses those issues. It is a further development of the well-proven database that is hosted by ScotEID, which already has robust traceability systems in place for BVD—bovine viral diarrhoea—control.

ScotMoves will enable livestock keepers to record centrally all cattle movements within their businesses. Eventually, all cattle—indeed, all three major livestock species—will be traceable on the same database, and the data will enhance our capacity to respond to a disease outbreak or other emergency. ScotMoves will also allow information to be shared along the supply chain to the benefit of farm businesses—from farms to abattoirs and consumers, and from abattoirs and markets back to farms.

Moving from a paper-based system to an online system will also be more efficient and effective in the longer term, and the development will contribute to our ambitions on provision of efficient public services through enhanced digital delivery. In that context, ScotMoves is a good system that enables regulatory requirements to be met while potentially adding value to all parts of the supply chain.

I reassure members that the development of ScotMoves has been informed by the views and experience of the livestock sector, and that it is supported by key stakeholders and industry leaders. The switch from CTS links to ScotMoves does not mean a substantial additional workload for most farmers: cattle keepers will record the same information as they record now, but in a different way, so that it is available centrally. The ScotMoves system has also been designed to be flexible enough to allow for business development and change. Locally and nationally, we will be able to analyse changes in how individual businesses operate—in respect of the land that they use, the leases that they take, the acquisitions that they make and the diversity of their activities.

I want to reassure people in the sector who are concerned about cross-compliance. To ease the changeover from the old CTS links system, I announced in September that during 2017 we will take a soft-landing approach in order to encourage farmers to use the new system.

I also want to make it clear that the new system is needed for, and will be beneficial to, Scotland’s reputation for quality meat. The ScotMoves system recognises the economic value in a livestock and farming business, as well as its location. The livestock sector is an integral part of Scotland’s rural economy. Farm output of cattle, sheep and pigs is worth £1.1 billion to the Scottish economy, and the poultry sector is worth close to £170 million. We have built an international reputation for quality and excellence that adds significant value to the rural economy, and we must do all that we can to protect and enhance that reputation. The ScotEID system provides for accurate provenance and tracing, which are key to the quality-assured “Scotch” brand that is applied to beef, lamb and pork. If we were to follow the system that is being rolled out in England, we would have different holding sizes for cattle compared with sheep and pigs, which would add unnecessary complexity.

The shift from the CTS links system to ScotMoves, which will take place on 1 January, is about changing from an outdated local recording system to a modern national system that harnesses technology and is sufficiently flexible to grow with businesses as they adapt, innovate and develop. Fundamentally, it is about creating a 21st century national traceability system that covers all cattle in order to protect the health of Scotland’s livestock better against the risk of disease. That traceability will give us the tools that we need to control an outbreak of a notifiable disease effectively, and it will help to maintain and enhance confidence in the provenance of our livestock and of our quality meat. That will help to protect livelihoods, businesses, communities and jobs in Scotland’s rural economy. For all those reasons, the shift to ScotMoves is the right move to make.

The Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, until decision time.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I refer members to the interests relating to farming in my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement.

Back in September, when I raised the issue of the new cattle tracing system with him, the cabinet secretary was incredibly dismissive of NFU Scotland’s concerns, saying that the reported concerns were “unspecified”. If he had been properly engaging with the NFUS and with farmers’ worries, he would know that reporting movements in a 48-hour window will be challenging. Why will his plan not take into account normal working hours? Surely he does not expect farmers to be tied up in paperwork all weekend trying to keep up to date with his Government’s new information technology systems. He must realise that, with just a few minor tweaks to the rules, the move to the new scheme could be much more manageable for farmers, thereby increasing compliance and massively reducing the risk of heavy-handed and disproportionate penalties. Why cannot he extend the ScotMoves reporting window to three days and bring it into line with the cattle tracing system rules?

Fergus Ewing

First of all, Mr Chapman’s premise that I have not engaged with the NFU is quite simply wrong and false in fact. The record shows that and I am happy to share details of the meetings that I have had. As it happens, I am meeting the NFU tomorrow after Parliament closes, so I take exception to assertions that are just false, and I really wonder whether that serves anybody’s cause. Moreover, if Mr Chapman had really studied the matter, he would have ascertained that the NFU was on the working group that we established to look at the very serious issue of how to prevent the huge spread of a disease that decimated the rural community in 2001. It was on the working group and supported the business case. Yes, it had some concerns about timing, but Mr Chapman did not mention that the NFU was on the working group. Would it not have served his cause better if he had not portrayed a selective version of the facts?

On the question of why we are allowing keepers only 48 hours to notify moves when the ScotEID system allows four weeks to register additional holdings, I remind members that the ScotEID office is processing most applications for additional holdings registration within a day or two. It is only those that are more complicated—and some are extremely complicated, particularly for farms that have multiple linked holdings—that take more than a few days.

Mr Chapman’s last point—I am trying to answer all the points that he raised in between making his snide comments—was about penalties. He did not mention that, as we have made clear and as he knows, we want there to be a soft landing. In fact, I will read out that bit of my statement again: for initial breaches, farmers will not be penalised. The purpose is not to punish anybody but to implement a system that will enable us to know, if there is an outbreak of a dreadful disease, where hundreds of thousands of cattle are. I am afraid that the current system does not give us that security. We need a system, as is legally required and as is necessary to avoid disallowance, in which we act on the advice of the chief veterinary officer rather than pooh-poohing it, disregarding it and making snide comments of the sort that Mr Chapman has made.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Given the Scottish Government’s track record on IT systems, has the system been tested to ensure that it is fit for purpose? Is the cabinet secretary confident that it will work properly? The cabinet secretary will be aware that large parts of rural Scotland that will be impacted by the new system do not have access to broadband. How can farmers who cannot access broadband, or whose broadband systems are down, report movements in good time?

Fergus Ewing

Rhoda Grant raises some practical and sensible questions. That was one of the first matters that I raised in the early discussions on the system. We are confident that, because the system already works in other respects, it will be made to work in this respect too. Incidentally, the development and delivery costs are relatively modest, at £125,000 including VAT, and the project has been delivered on time and within budget. To satisfy myself of that, I took the opportunity in the past week to see for myself how the system works with a demonstration at Saughton.

There is no additional burden on cattle holders—the new system simply requires information to be recorded in such a way that enables us to know where those cattle are. We need that information in the event of an outbreak so that we know where to send veterinary inspectors. At present, we do not have that information, so veterinary officers would have to go and inspect cattle in every single linked holding throughout the country, which would waste their time and increase the risk of spreading disease. That seems to be what some Conservatives are advocating—if so, that is the height of irresponsibility.

Lastly, with regard to the impact on crofters, which I know is a subject dear to Rhoda Grant’s heart, there is no change to the well-established rules on the movement of livestock in crofting townships. Cattle that move between a croft and common grazing land do not need to be recorded on ScotMoves, and the township will be considered as a single epidemiological unit. It is helpful to get that on the record for Rhoda Grant’s constituents—and for some of my constituents, given that Inverness-shire is a crofting county—who may be interested to know.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I very much welcome the reannouncement and confirmation of the soft-landing approach in the transition from the CTS links system to ScotMoves. Given that the purpose of the soft landing is to encourage take-up of the new system by farmers, what other steps will be taken to smooth the path and encourage early and meaningful engagement with the ScotMoves system for this important part of our farming infrastructure?

Fergus Ewing

We have adopted several methods to do that. First, the purpose of my statement is partly to draw attention to the importance of taking steps to ensure that, in the event of any exotic disease breaking out in Scotland, we have the most robust and resilient systems available. At present, we simply do not have such systems available. We are required to introduce the system under EU law—we are still in the EU and we therefore have to abide by the law. However, the most compelling reason is that we need to do it on commonsense grounds, based on expert advice.

It is important that we communicate the matter, as the scheme comes into effect on 1 January. That concerned me, because people generally will not be at work that day, but farmers have to work 365 days a year. We recognise that and, at my specific request, we will have a hotline available on 1 January. We have also taken steps to publicise the matter through the specialised and the general press, and we will continue to do so. Plainly, we also rely heavily on our excellent officials in our rural payments and inspections division offices—I think that there are 17 throughout the country, the majority of which I have visited. Staff and other experts, particularly in the Huntly office, will of course be extremely helpful in providing advice, support and back-up, especially in the early days of implementation of the new system.

I inadvertently failed to answer one of Rhoda Grant’s questions. It will be possible to intimate information by paper—by first-class post or by fax—or by telephone. We want to be flexible and introduce the system effectively, and we do not wish to have a punitive regime. Today’s event in Parliament will help us to communicate effectively our purpose, the necessity of the scheme and the fact that it is not something to be feared but something to be embraced and supported.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

As an ex-farmer and businessman from Dumfries and Galloway who was directly affected by foot and mouth, like all my colleagues, I welcome workable, measured and appropriate intervention to avoid such outbreaks happening again. However, the Government has an appalling record on delivering working IT systems for Scotland’s farmers. The cabinet secretary will therefore understand my concerns and those of the NFUS with regard to the relationship between the CTS system and ScotMoves. Will the cabinet secretary agree on the record to protect farmers from being penalised by IT foul-ups by opening the timeframe for registering moves only once the allocation from CTS to ScotMoves has happened?

Fergus Ewing

I have said that, throughout 2017, the soft-landing approach will be applied, and that is what will happen. That will allow more than sufficient time for any initial teething or other difficulties to be navigated successfully and for communication of the scheme to happen.

Reference has been made to the NFU, which supported the basic argument on the need for the scheme. I am pleased that Mr Carson said that he recognised that need, before he went on to the more characteristic tale of woe that we hear from the Conservatives day and daily. He mentioned the NFU, which has seen the map that shows the linked holdings and the movements of cattle across Scotland and which has recognised the obvious risks if there is an outbreak and we do not know where those cattle are. People do not need to be an expert on epidemiology or a chief veterinary officer to see that, at the moment, we do not know where hundreds of thousands of cattle are. Therefore, I had no hesitation, in my role as the cabinet secretary with responsibility for the matter, in accepting that advice and supporting the NFU, which recognised the need to introduce the scheme. I also had no hesitation in making the statement, as part of a responsible method of ensuring that the need for the scheme and the way it operates are effectively and clearly promulgated to all concerned.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary has sought to reassure those in the sector who are concerned about cross-compliance. In his statement, he said:

“To ease the changeover ... I announced in September that we are taking a soft-landing approach during 2017 to encourage farmers to use the new system.”

Will there be a proportionate system of penalties after the first year? Will the cabinet secretary give a bit more detail about the support that farmers will get in the changeover process?

Fergus Ewing

As Claudia Beamish will know, “cross-compliance” is the term that is used to refer to a series of statutory management requirements and standards that cover the environment, public, animal and plant health, and animal welfare. Farmers must adhere to them in order to receive direct subsidy—it is necessary for farmers to comply with cross-compliance rules to qualify. That is respected and understood.

The purpose of the soft landing, which I think Claudia Beamish supports, is to ensure that a penal regime is not introduced as farmers get used to the new system. A year is a reasonable time within which to expect that to take place. Where it is determined that there has been a negligent breach of cross-compliance requirements, a reduction to direct payments of 3 per cent is expected. The reduction can be varied up to 5 per cent and down to 1 per cent. However, as stated, to encourage Scottish cattle keepers to use ScotMoves, negligent first-time breaches of notifications or recording requirements will result in a written warning rather than a financial reduction to a farmer’s direct subsidy. The procedure will be in place for the whole of the next calendar year.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement. Will he, as part of the shift to the ScotMoves system, commit to reviewing the rules on standstill, which currently require livestock holders to hold animals on their land for 13 days before they can move them off again?

Fergus Ewing

The chief veterinary officer has already agreed that that would be a valuable exercise, for the reason that the data that will come forward over the next year through the new ScotMoves system will be of considerable value in reviewing the standstill regime. That is one of the potential benefits of the new system.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance copy of his statement. I certainly welcome the digitisation of public services, although perhaps, with regard to the common agricultural policy payments issue, it has been more of a bumpy ride than a soft landing so far.

When the cabinet secretary went to Saughton house, he would no doubt have spent some time banging 12-digit codes into a computer. He will recognise that the capacity for error is fairly large in that regard. In terms of the penalties that will apply for first-time negligent breaches, what support and advisory work will be undertaken with the farming community to ensure that such technical issues are resolved?

Fergus Ewing

Mark Ruskell makes a fair and practical point, and he is right: when I saw the demonstration of the system, I saw that every animal has its own reference number, which I think is 12 characters. Plainly, accuracy is essential, but I make the point that that the use of such identifiers is not new and it is understood and appreciated by those who hold cattle. There is nothing new about their use in respect of the administration of integrated administration and control system forms, single application forms and so on. It is familiar territory.

The operation of the system, as I saw from the demonstration, is pretty straightforward in practical terms, provided that one has digital capacity. As I said to Rhoda Grant, who rightly raised the point, alternatives will be available for those who do not.

In the second part of his question, Mark Ruskell asked about inadvertent errors. I am speaking from memory, Presiding Officer, and if I subsequently ascertain that what I am about to say is wrong I will correct the Official Report. I mentioned earlier that there is a disallowance for negligence errors. There is separate provision in the EU penalty regime for mistakes that are of an inadvertent nature. Where a mistake is inadvertent, it is possible for a less penal, less harsh, less oppressive and more proportionate result to ensue. I very much welcome that, as I think that Mark Ruskell does—as indeed does Commissioner Hogan, who has used a lot of his time and effort to explore the issue and take it in the direction that Mark Ruskell, I and every other member would wish to see.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

I thank the minister for the advance copy of his statement. The minister highlighted the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 that started across the border in England. He is right to ensure that the risks of such devastating outbreaks are minimised. Under ScotMoves, Scotland will now have a different cattle movement management system than is operated in England. Does the minister really think that that will help him to achieve his aim of minimising risk, especially when the NFU Scotland specifically asked him to introduce in Scotland a system similar to that which was proposed in England?

Fergus Ewing

Mike Rumbles has asked a fair question and he is right that the system is different in England. The proposal to remove CTS links in England and Wales contains complexity and developments that are at odds with accepted policy in Scotland. Examples include registration of temporary land associations at field-identifier level within 10 miles, and use of temporary county parish holding numbers with no distance limit. The major difference in practices, as I am sure Mr Rumbles is aware, is that in England and Wales there is a 10-mile radius, as opposed to the current 5-mile radius in Scotland. The 10-mile radius covers 314 square miles or 81,000 hectares, which is four times the area that is covered by the current 5-mile radius in Scotland. There are already differences. Scotland has well-established 5-mile CPH rules, which have been in place for many years. It is fair to say that those rules are well known to keepers and officials and that they operate effectively across all livestock species. They have also been the subject of EU audit.

It is therefore also fair to point out in response to Mr Rumbles’ question that existing cattle holders are familiar with the different systems that exist in England and Wales, and that there are many practical reasons why the approach that we are taking is the right one for Scotland.

Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned in his statement one of the reasons why we are not following the system that is being introduced in England. Will he provide more information on that, and any other reasons why we are not considering that system?

Fergus Ewing

My earlier answer was rather long but, to supplement it, I can say that if we were to move to a 10-mile CPH rule, that would create more complexity and upheaval and would be no use to the 65 per cent of keepers that use the CTS links and are within 5 miles of the main holdings, nor to island cattle keepers who send animals to the mainland for away wintering.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement and I declare my interest as a beef and sheep farmer.

I am pleased to note and welcome that the cabinet secretary is willing to be lenient in enforcement of the new rules as they are introduced in 2017. However, the penalties that will be enforced for failure to register movements timeously after the grace period is over are apparently excessive—in particular, for genuine and inadvertent errors. As the purpose is not to punish anyone, will the cabinet secretary look again at the cross-compliance penalties and perhaps put them on a sliding scale relative to time? Will he again reassure Scotland’s farmers that genuine errors will not be unduly punished?

Fergus Ewing

John Scott has raised a reasonable point. I am glad that he appreciates our adoption of a soft-landing approach. We have shown that we do not want to introduce a punitive regime; we want to introduce a successful and effective regime that further enhances Scotland’s reputation for producing quality livestock and which keeps us free, as far as possible, from disastrous outbreaks of disease that have caused so much damage, as Finlay Carson rightly said.

On the penalty scheme, I have referred to the disallowance and the statistics already. I would love to see a scheme that is more proportionate and less punitive, harsh and oppressive. As John Scott has, I have over many years taken up many individual cases and sought to argue with my predecessors that those people should not be penalised. All too often, the upshot was that there was no alternative but to pursue the fines, as is effectively prescribed in EU law. I am quite sure that the existence of that disproportionate penalty regime played a significant part in the thoughts of many people in the farming community when they cast their votes in the EU referendum, because it is a regime that few of us in this Parliament have ever sought to defend.

I will, of course, look to see whether there is any wriggle room in relation to what happens after the first year is over and, therefore, the possibility of disallowance exists. I am happy to work with Mr Scott to see whether there is any means whatsoever by which the penalties that are set out in the regulations can be mitigated, precisely for the reasons that he set out.

The Presiding Officer

I said that I would take Colin Smyth. Please be brief, though, Mr Smyth.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. As someone who saw the devastating impact on communities in Dumfries and Galloway of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, I and, more importantly, local farmers fully understand the importance of robust traceability. However, how will the Scottish Government guarantee that no farmers whose animals have been moved more than four times around the same farm under linked holdings will be penalised at slaughter under the new system?

Fergus Ewing

I absolutely assure Colin Smyth that we will take every possible step to ensure that farmers are not penalised for any breach of rules, either harshly or in a fashion that is unduly oppressive. I hope that I have made that clear in response to several questions. The approach that we will take is to ensure the efficient operation of the scheme—it will not be to impose a penal regime.