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Meeting date: Thursday, January 13, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament 13 January 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Holistic Family Support, Portfolio Question Time, Car Travel, National Mission on Drugs, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place, and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on rural affairs and islands. Questions 1 and 5 are grouped together. I will take supplementary questions on those questions after both have been answered. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should indicate so during the relevant question by pressing their request-to-speak button or entering the letter R in the chat function.

Rural Economy (Arran)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent actions it has taken to support the rural economy on Arran. (S6O-00608)

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting our rural economies, including that of Arran. Last June, I launched the islands communities fund, of which the Community of Arran Seabed Trust is already a beneficiary, receiving £130,000. The Arran Pioneer Project has received £14,508 through the healthy islands fund. Through the islands infrastructure fund, North Ayrshire Council will receive £259,000 to spend on infrastructure on Arran and Cumbrae.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the problems associated with the ferry cancellations that affected Arran this month. I understand that the islands connectivity plan is overdue. How does that plan link with ferry service levels and contingency plans for the islands when problems associated with ferry cancellations occur? Would the cabinet secretary be willing to meet passenger groups to discuss the challenges?

I am sure that the member will be aware that a lot of those matters, particularly in relation to ferries, are the responsibility of the Minister for Transport. However, I try to engage as much as I can, given my overall responsibilities for the islands.

We are aware of the impacts of the pandemic and Brexit on Arran and other island communities, and how frustrating it is when, at short notice, ferry services are affected. We cannot lose sight of why those are lifeline services. Children need them to get to school, residents need them to access services on the mainland, and public services and local businesses need them to get their workers back and forth.

I use this opportunity to emphasise that we need everyone to consider carefully both the current advice, which is to stay at home as much as possible, and whether their ferry trip is essential. Every time someone takes the virus on board a ferry it puts the health of the crew at risk, which puts the service at risk, which has significant wider impacts, some of which we have seen recently. We all need to work together in the short term to minimise the impact of the variant and try to sustain those lifeline services for island communities.

I would be happy to get back to the member with further detail on the islands connectivity plan, which is due to commence and be published this year.

Island Economies (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what preparations it has made to support the rural economies of Scotland’s islands, in light of the anticipated impact of the omicron variant. (S6O-00612)

The Scottish Government continues to support our island economies and communities. We recognise the difficulties presented by our updated Covid-19 guidance, which has been put in place to protect public health. That is why, before Christmas, we announced our £375 million support package for businesses. That is in addition to our £30 million islands programme investment to support delivery of the national islands plan over the next five years.

This Government is also investing up to £50 million through the islands growth deal over the next 10 years.

Island economies are facing serious challenges as a result of Covid and its variants, and they have lost almost £20 million of funding following Brexit. That is reflected across all Scotland’s islands, where many residents feel abandoned and unable to afford housing and transport. Can the cabinet secretary outline whether the currently outdated assessment of the needs of islanders and the industries connected to island tourism will be reviewed in light of the now worsening impact of Covid?

I completely understand the issues that the member has identified, whether that is in relation to the impact of Covid-19 or that of Brexit, which she also highlighted. Housing was also touched on. We recognise the issues with that; it is a critical issue that I hear about repeatedly when I am engaging with different stakeholders and communities. We have the remote, rural and island housing action plan, which will be developed and which, hopefully, will alleviate some of the issues that are being experienced.

However, of course, we cannot just look at each of those issues in a silo; there are a number of different issues that we are looking to address. For those that relate to connectivity, there is the £580 million investment for ferry services over the next five years, and there is the investment through the islands programme. We hope that, together, those will have a positive impact for our island communities.

I will take some supplementary questions. The first is from Alasdair Allan, who joins us remotely.

Clearly, supporting business has a key role to play in supporting island economies and communities. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that the planned funding is being delivered timeously?

We are working with local authorities. We also work closely with our enterprise agencies and other key partners to try to ensure that the additional funding that is coming forward reaches businesses as soon as possible. Work began before Christmas with a view to getting those payments issued at the earliest opportunity. All partners are clear that providing that funding to businesses that need it is an absolute priority.

Businesses on Arran are absolutely scunnered by the endless disruptions to services that are not caused by the weather, Covid or Brexit but are everything to do with mechanical failure and the fact that their new ferry has not yet arrived. Will any of those businesses be compensated for loss of revenue or income as a result of mechanical failure or unreliable vessels?

As I have said in previous responses today, ferry services are key to supporting the economic, social and cultural development of our island communities, and operators will ensure that, where possible and when it is safe to do so, lifeline services are provided to connect remote island and mainland communities, when opportunities arise. As I previously touched on, the Scottish Government announced on 4 February last year a £580 million five-year investment plan, as part of our infrastructure investment. That substantial funding will improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years, as part of our wider infrastructure investment.

Ferries are of crucial importance to Arran’s economy. So, too, are workers. The average house price of more than £272,000 puts houses beyond the reach of young families, and only 11 per cent of Arran’s housing is social rented housing. The Scottish Government allocated £2.38 million to North Ayrshire Council to build 34 council houses—£70,000 for each home. Given that 86 Arran homes—3 per cent—are lying empty, what further steps will the minister take to bring those properties back into use and to enable the construction of more affordable homes across Arran’s rapidly ageing communities?

As a Government, we have committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, with 70 per cent of those for social rent and at least 10 per cent in remote, rural and island locations. Planned investment in North Ayrshire Council over this parliamentary session is more than £81 million, which is an increase of £14 million on the previous session.

The member has talked about empty homes. Tackling that remains a key priority. The actions in “Housing to 2040” will help to ensure that those wasted resources are brought back into residential use. As I have touched on, we are also developing a remote, rural and island housing action plan to ensure that we meet the needs of those areas.

Before I call question 2, I alert members, including the questioner, Mark Ruskell, to the fact that the Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform, Màiri McAllan, was primed to answer it but is participating remotely and is having technical difficulties. Hence, the question will be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands. I call Mark Ruskell, who also joins us remotely.

Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I, too, have had some technical difficulties.

To ask the Scottish Government when the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands last met Marine Scotland to discuss Scotland’s marine assessment 2020. (S6O-00609)

The previous Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform last met Marine Scotland on 10 December 2020, specifically to discuss Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 before its publication on 21 December of that year.

I regularly meet Marine Scotland officials to discuss a range of marine issues, which are captured in Scotland’s marine assessment. The Scottish Government is committed to protecting our natural environment and to ensuring that human activity in and around our seas is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. The measures in support of marine environmental protection that are enshrined in the Bute house agreement clearly demonstrate that commitment.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that reassurance. The Bute house agreement includes a whole suite of commitments to strengthen protections for the marine environment by supporting sustainable management of our fisheries. I am encouraged by the news today that the protection for cod spawning in the Firth of Clyde will be reintroduced this year—critically, with no exemptions. Will the cabinet secretary comment on the action’s objectives and the benefits that it aims to deliver?

In line with the Bute house agreement, we want to restore marine habitats in Scotland’s inshore waters, which is why we have decided to continue the February to April seasonal Clyde cod spawning closure for 2022-23 without exemptions. Unfortunately, despite the seasonal closure having been in place since 2002, the stock has shown very little sign of recovery. It therefore seems sensible to maximise any potential benefit from the closure to assist that stock recovery. We acknowledge that that will have a short-term impact on local fishers, because the closure will be for a period of 11 weeks. However, we believe that it will provide a higher chance of stock recovery and contribute to a more sustainable fishery in the west of Scotland.

I will take some supplementary questions. Rhoda Grant joins us remotely.

What confidence can the cabinet secretary have in the assessment and implementation of the marine plan when the front-line workers involved in policing it are facing a real-terms pay cut? Marine Scotland’s seafarers are among the lowest paid in the public sector. That leads to a loss of experienced staff and, as a result, patrol vessels are often tied up because they cannot be fully crewed. Will she deliver a fair pay settlement that brings their pay into line with that of other public sector workers?

I will be happy to look into the issues that the member raises and get back to her with a full response.

Jenni Minto is also joining us remotely.

What is the Scottish Government doing to tackle the persistent problem of marine litter, which has such an impact on water and environmental quality and, crucially, can cause real harm to marine wildlife?

The member is right about the harms that are caused by marine litter resulting from improper waste disposal on land and at sea. The Scottish Government has developed legislation and policies under its marine litter strategy and the national litter and fly-tipping strategy in order to reduce that form of pollution. That includes bans on many single-use plastic products that are commonly found in beach litter, such as cotton buds, as well as encouraging recycling with a planned deposit return scheme for drinks containers.

Both of those strategies have been reviewed recently, and refreshed versions with new actions are currently open to public consultation. Those consultations are open until 22 March 2022 and 31 March 2022, respectively. I urge and encourage people to take part in a consultation and ensure that their views are known.

The fishing fleet at Pittenweem and other harbours in Fife feel that they are being squeezed out by the increasing number of offshore wind farms in the Forth. Can the cabinet secretary guarantee that further applications for such wind farms will consider the cumulative impact on an important industry?

I thank the member for raising that important point. Having met some of the fishers who are impacted by the issue and having met the member to discuss the matter, I completely appreciate the concerns that fishers have. As a result of the meeting that I had with the member, we are taking away several actions for consideration. As the fisheries minister, it is my responsibility to engage and ensure that concerns that are raised by our fishers are taken into account when such decisions are taken.

Fishing Quotas (Sustainability)

To ask the Scottish Government how the fishing quotas secured during the trilateral negotiations will be distributed to fishing businesses to incentivise more sustainable practices. (S6O-00610)

I am pleased that we have concluded the trilateral negotiations between the United Kingdom, the European Union and Norway for 2022, securing an estimated benefit to Scotland of £97 million.

The Scottish Government has made efforts to allocate quotas to incentivise more sustainable practices. For example, in recent years, we have allocated a greater share of the available mackerel quota to our inshore vessels, to be caught by hand line. In 2021 alone, the mackerel fishing opportunity was utilised by more than 300 inshore vessels. We estimate that those vessels landed more than 1,300 tonnes, worth around £1.6 million. In 2022, we will continue to allocate quota to our inshore vessels to allow for increased diversification opportunities and fishing methods associated with a lower environmental impact.

The negotiations showed that we are still way off the mark when it comes to sustainability. For example, the Government’s own agreed records of the negotiations showed that 47 per cent of plaice and 30 per cent of haddock that were caught in 2021 were discarded.

Section 25 of the Fisheries Act 2020 specifically requires ministers

“to incentivise ... the use of selective fishing gear, and ... fishing techniques that have a reduced impact on the environment”

when distributing quota. However, as the cabinet secretary has set out, that still does not go far enough as far as the Government’s own measures are concerned. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that changes are made to the way in which quota is distributed when the Government sets out its new future catching policy, to ensure that sustainability is given a far higher priority?

I can clarify that the Scottish Government allocates fishing quota in line with the United Kingdom Fisheries Act 2020 and that, when it came to the allocation of quota this year and in 2021, we sought to widen the socioeconomic benefit and reduce the environmental impact by allocating that quota to methods of fishing that are associated with a reduced environmental impact, as I outlined in my initial answer.

The way that we allocate additional quota—that is, the changes to the UK’s quota share as a result of Brexit—is to be the subject of a Scottish Government consultation this year, and it will take effect in subsequent years.

How is the Scottish Government supporting new entrants into fishing and ensuring that development in aquaculture is sustainable?

The Scottish Government is supporting new entrants into the fishing industry through the marine fund Scotland and the future fisheries management strategy. The marine fund Scotland can assist young fishers to purchase their first fishing boat or to have a share in a fishing boat, and it promotes greater diversity in the industry and training through the industry body, Seafish. It also supports aquaculture with projects to ensure a sustainable future as well as the economic benefits that come from that.

Having announced awards from the fund, we have already heard back from recipients about the profound and positive impact that it has had on them. That is a really good example of how the Scottish Government is working to support our rural communities.

We are also committed to the sustainable development of aquaculture. We will set out how we will do that through our vision for sustainable aquaculture.

Farming Charities (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to farming charities. (S6O-00611)

In the past financial year—2021-22—the Scottish Government has provided £1,263,800 in funding from the rural budget to a range of farming charities in Scotland. That includes the provision of funding to the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland and the Royal Highland Education Trust, including for food education; to GrowBiz to support learning and training; and to the national rural mental health forum and Support in Mind Scotland to support mental health and wellbeing. We also provide funding to the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution to help it to operate a helpline for seasonal agricultural workers, as well as support for young people and women in agriculture.

Over the past year, all those organisations have undertaken invaluable work that has supported people in agricultural and rural communities across Scotland. I thank them for the tremendous difference that they have made.

Farmers and those who work in the agricultural and rural sectors have experienced great difficulty with mental health and loneliness throughout the pandemic. Lockdowns and self-isolation have added to those difficulties. The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution’s “The Big Farming Survey” has revealed that 35 per cent of the entire farming community have described themselves as “probably” or “possibly” depressed. The figure for women in agriculture is higher, at 43 per cent. What will the cabinet secretary do to support farmers and farming charities to deal with the mental health crisis in our rural communities?

The figures that Jeremy Balfour has outlined are really concerning. That is why we have offered the levels of funding that we have over the past year. We all know that this has been a really difficult time, but it has been particularly isolating and difficult for those who work in our agricultural sector, as Jeremy Balfour has outlined. That is why we are committed to maintaining support and supporting those charities and organisations.

As I said in my initial response, we have supported Support in Mind Scotland with £150,000 of funding to support work in our rural communities. We have provided the national rural mental health forum with £200,000 worth of funding since 2017-18, and we are continuing to fund the RSABI, because it undertakes such critical and important work.

We continue to engage with the charities to see whether there is more that we can do to try to alleviate the pressure that a lot of people are experiencing. That is why the work that they do is so important and why we are determined to continue to support them.

Emma Harper, who joins us remotely, has a supplementary question.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that isolation can be a key issue for the mental health and wellbeing of people living and working in remote rural areas. Will she join me in congratulating Sheena Horner on her success with her #Run1000 initiative, which is now in its second year?

Absolutely. I am delighted to congratulate Sheena and the other members of team Scotland on their success in taking part in #Run1000 last year, as well as all the participants this year. I see constant tweets about it on my Twitter feed. I tried to sign up to it myself, but I have been unable to connect my Strava to it as yet. It is such an important initiative, and Sheena Horner has done fantastic work.

For those who are not aware of the initiative, participants walk or run during the month of January, and they are doing that this year. Every step that they take counts towards their country’s collective miles—the activity is also taking place in other countries across the United Kingdom. It was such a tremendous achievement to raise so much money for RSABI.

Sheena has rightly been nominated for, and won, awards for what started as an idea to support her own wellbeing in lockdown. As the member will be aware, and as I have stated, #Run1000 is back for a second year this year, with participants taking part in the mental health fundraiser again. The initiative will return for a battle of the nations across the UK—and, for the first time, New Zealand is joining in, too. I again take the opportunity to highlight the amazing work that Sheena Horner has done and to congratulate her for it.

I make a plea for succinct questions and answers. If that happens, we will be able to get everybody else in.

Carbon-neutral Islands

To ask the Scottish Government how it is progressing plans for carbon-neutral islands. (S6O-00613)

We recently announced our intention to support six, rather than three, Scottish islands through the carbon-neutral islands project, and work is under way to consider the selection process for that. Our intention is to start work with the selected islands and their communities this year, as is outlined in the programme for government.

In September 2021, a report by the Scottish Affairs Committee concluded:

“Locational transmission charges weigh more heavily on developers in Scotland when projects in other areas of the UK, like Wales, are paid to connect to the grid.”

Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that that unjust situation will hamper the progress of renewable energy development in Scotland’s island communities?

I share the member’s concerns. Scotland’s islands have been leaders in renewable energy development and innovation, and that is why we are determined to harness that potential and build on that success to meet Scotland’s 2045 net zero ambitions.

The higher transmission network use of system charges remain a key barrier to net zero in Scotland. The analysis by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets—Ofgem—shows that, by 2040, Scottish renewable and low-carbon generators will be the only ones paying a wider transmission network charge, with all others, including gas generators elsewhere in Great Britain, being paid credits. In our response to Ofgem’s recent call for evidence on the transmission network use of system charges, we have made it clear that a new approach is needed—rather than small modifications to the existing methodologies of Ofgem’s charging reviews and decision making—that fully takes into account the effects on renewables project costs and ensures that they do not present barriers to investment and progress in Scotland.

The Scottish National Party Government is failing to deliver carbon-neutral islands, with a £20 million cut to the agricultural transformation fund for crofters, peatland restoration targets not achieved and a falling proportion of low-emission ferries—they have not been delivered.

With net zero targets to meet, why is the Government failing to deliver carbon neutral for islanders and for crofters?

I completely disagree with the assertions that have been made by the member. The initiative cannot have failed, because it is yet to begin, and the work to deliver it is on-going.

Question 7 is from Gillian Martin, who joins us remotely. [Interruption.]

Excuse me for a second, colleagues. [Interruption.] We will seek to come back to Ms Martin later; we will now go to question 8, from Pam Duncan-Glancy.

Dog Breeding (Legal Requirements)

8. Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to strengthen the legal requirements for dog breeding. (S6O-00615)

Last year, we introduced new animal licensing regulations, which significantly updated and strengthened the legal requirements in Scotland for anyone breeding three or more litters of puppies in any 12-month period. Those new requirements came into force on 1 September.

We recognise, however, that more needs to be done to tackle the scourge of low-welfare breeders who operate outwith Scotland but illegally import puppies for sale here. Earlier this week, the Parliament gave its consent for certain provisions of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill to apply in Scotland. The bill provides Scottish ministers with regulation-making powers to prohibit the importation of dogs under six months old and late-stage pregnant dams.

The introduction of those measures has the potential to impact significantly on the activities of those who import illegally bred puppies, and we will seek to introduce new legislation that uses the powers that are set out in the bill at the earliest opportunity.

The animal welfare regulations that were introduced last year updated the licensing system for dog breeders and brought the threshold for breeding registration from five down to three litters a year. The Kennel Club anticipated that that would require an additional 98 breeders to register with it. The Dogs Trust has said that the threshold must be reduced even further to include anyone breeding a litter.

Additional regulations, such as the mandatory inclusion of breeder registration and licensing numbers, must be introduced to ensure that we can effectively tackle the issue of unscrupulous breeders and dealers, especially as more families work from home and take on puppies, and as prices soar.

Does the Scottish Government intend to publish any evaluation or analysis of the impact of the 2020-21 animal welfare regulations, and does it have any plans to revisit their provisions?

I assure the member that we are in regular contact with all our key stakeholders. She mentioned the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust, with which I met towards the end of last year to hear their thoughts on the new regulations. Those regulations have just been introduced, of course, so we will continue to monitor the situation closely.

We are serious about tackling that massive problem, which has only got worse during the pandemic. To do so, we are committed to taking action where that is necessary.

I can get a few supplementaries in if we have succinct questions and answers.

Maurice Golden joins us remotely.

Unfortunately, thieves often target particular breeds, with breeders and sellers having to take extra precautions. Does the cabinet secretary recognise the need to strengthen both deterrents and protections for breeders to help to stamp out that practice?

Absolutely. Again, we continue to engage with all our relevant stakeholders to consider what more we can do to tackle some of the problems that we see.

Some of the powers that we will receive through the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, through the legislative consent motion that was agreed to this week, as well as the regulations that we introduced last year will go a long way towards tackling some of those issues.

We continue to monitor the situation to see what else we can do to tackle some of those issues.

I am aware that the cabinet secretary was involved in the Buy A Puppy Safely campaign, which sought to provide the public with information on how to identify puppies that were bred from puppy farms and what to do in such circumstances. Can the cabinet secretary outline what to look for when buying a puppy and how to avoid buying from puppy farms?

Briefly, cabinet secretary.

Many key safeguards exist, and people can do many things to guard against buying from puppy farms. I advise anyone who is looking to buy a puppy ideally to avoid buying them through online ad sites, and instead to look at established reputable breeders. People should be prepared to wait to receive a puppy, because reputable breeders have waiting lists for a reason.

I also advise people never to buy from a breeder who does not let them see the pup with its mother, and to always try to get the puppy’s paperwork, which should include the vaccination and microchip records, when they collect the puppy. If there is no paperwork, it is likely that people are buying an illegally bred puppy.

If buyers have any concerns, I advise them to walk away and get in touch with the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to look into any concerns.

That concludes portfolio questions.