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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, World Refugee Day, Urgent Question, Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Motor Neurone Disease (Housing Needs), Correction


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and responses.

Avian Influenza

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how avian flu is affecting bird populations. (S6T-00803)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The winter of 2021-22 has seen the United Kingdom’s largest outbreak of avian flu, with commercial and backyard captive flocks and wild birds being affected.

As of 21 June, ten captive bird premises in Scotland have been infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1. In the same period, the virus has been detected in 1,253 dead wild birds across Great Britain, with 467 findings in Scotland in 24 bird species.

Although the impact of the outbreak on wild bird populations is currently unknown, there have been reports of significant mortalities in Scottish seabird colonies.

Ariane Burgess

Gannet and great skua populations in Shetland are being decimated as we speak. Gannet colonies are strewn with dead birds. Fishers are seeing carcases floating at sea, and they are washing up along Shetland’s coastline.

What actions can the Scottish Government take to limit the threat to internationally important breeding grounds on Shetland and elsewhere?

Mairi Gougeon

I say to members across the chamber that the Scottish Government is taking the situation very seriously. We are working with a range of partner organisations to monitor and respond to the situation, where action needs to be taken.

Avian influenza is a highly infectious disease. The current strain is causing significant mortality in seabird colonies across the UK. Even though little can be done to limit the spread within colonies, yesterday, NatureScot announced that it was going to suspend all ringing activities in seabird colonies for the remainder of the breeding season, in order to try to reduce the risk of onward transmission from infected colonies to uninfected colonies in other locations and to try to minimise additional stress on potentially infected birds.

The Scottish Government has published advice for local authorities, landowners, wildlife rescue centres and members of the public regarding how to report, and giving information about collection and safe disposal of, dead wild birds. We will keep that guidance under continuous review as the situation develops.

Ariane Burgess

I would like a little bit more detail. Seabirds across Scotland are now being affected by avian flu, and I am particularly concerned by the news that it has reached the world’s largest gannet colony, on the Bass Rock.

RSPB Scotland is calling for better monitoring of the virus and greater clarity about how dead seabirds are being collected and disposed of in order to avoid further spread. Can the cabinet secretary provide clarity on those points?

Mairi Gougeon

NatureScot is monitoring the numbers of dead wild birds that are reported by reserve managers and, where possible, it is carrying out surveys of the affected colonies. As the situation stands, it is not possible for us to assess with any certainty the extent of the population-level impact. We are working in collaboration with NatureScot, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, RSPB Scotland and the British Trust for Ornithology Scotland to collate colony-level demographic data and identify how the data can be analysed to offer information on the population-level impact.

I emphasise that our current advice is that wild bird carcases should be left in situ unless landowners consider it necessary to remove them. As I said in a previous response, we have published updated guidance on the safe removal and disposal of carcases when that is required. The disease is spread mostly through live birds, rather than dead birds.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

As, I know, the cabinet secretary is aware, there are seabird populations of international significance in my Highlands and Islands region. Where are we on implementation of the Scottish seabird conservation strategy?

Mairi Gougeon

The Scottish seabird conservation strategy is currently undergoing amendments to ensure that the actions that are derived from it are timely and will be effective in optimising the conservation prospects of seabirds in relation to existing and emerging threats. That includes in relation to disease threats such as avian influenza. We aim to consult on that in the autumn. Although the strategy has not been implemented yet, that does not restrict the Scottish Government in responding to the issue or in making plans for future instances of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

The images from the Bass Rock in East Lothian, which is home to the largest colony of northern gannets in the world, are truly shocking. The Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick has said that it feels powerless watching avian flu spread across the colony. East Lothian countryside rangers have the heart-wrenching job of cleaning up dead birds that wash up on our popular coastline. I pay tribute to those rangers.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether any additional Government resources will be made available to the East Lothian countryside rangers and similar services and agencies that have been hit by avian flu in other parts of Scotland? Will the minister redouble her efforts and support the call from the Scottish Seabird Centre for acceleration of the national seabird conservation strategy? The need has never been greater.

Mairi Gougeon

I welcome that question. Craig Hoy is right to mention how horrendous some of the images have been. I know that the rangers have the unenviable task disposing of carcases, which is a horrendous task in itself.

I hope that my previous response to Emma Roddick answered the member’s latter question about the conservation strategy. As I said, we are consulting on that. However, even though the strategy has not been implemented, that does not prevent us from taking action to deal with some of the threats that we currently face. I emphasise the points that I have made about the importance of gathering data. We take the threat particularly seriously, which is why we are working with our partners to do all that we can to tackle the issues that are arising.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the avian flu outbreak has been particularly devastating for overwintering geese on the Solway and has killed an estimated third of the world’s population of Svalbard barnacle geese. Sadly, more and more of my constituents are commonly finding dead birds strewn along paths on the shore.

Given the devastation, does the cabinet secretary accept that there is a need for more action to build resilience in the long term by looking again at measures such as restrictions on sand eel fisheries and properly ending bycatch in order to build resilience and better conserve our seabirds?

Mairi Gougeon

I accept that all those points are important. Màiri McAllan and I had a meeting with organisations last month to see what other action we could take. I emphasise that we take the issue very seriously, which is why our partnership and collaborative working with other organisations is critical. We want to do everything that is within our power to tackle the issues. I will give close consideration to the points that Colin Smyth has raised.

Gene-edited Crops

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported warnings from a leading scientist that its opposition to gene-edited crops goes against the scientific consensus. (S6T-00818)

The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

In Scotland, we are committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We remain opposed to the use of genetic modification in farming in order to protect the clean, green brand of Scotland’s £15 billion food and drink industry.

The use of genetic technologies is a complex and emotive area. Indeed, the UK Government’s public consultation last year saw the public reject the changes that the UK Government is now pursuing. Although I am closely following scientific and other considerations on the decoupling of genetic modification and gene editing, our position has not changed and the UK bill does not change that.

Rachael Hamilton

The minister continues to miss the point. Yet again, she deliberately conflates the two issues of gene editing and genetically modified organisms. That is disingenuous and only weakens the Government’s untenable position on the issue.

It seems that the minister wants to wait for the European Union to tell the Scottish Government what to do, but when its own former chief scientific adviser says that the Government is “out of kilter” with scientific evidence, does the minister not agree that she should have a serious rethink of the Scottish National Party’s position and stop holding our farmers back?

Màiri McAllan

First and foremost, I am more than happy to confirm to Rachael Hamilton that I am absolutely up to date on the issues. I am not deliberately conflating GM and gene editing, but I remind her that she is in a Parliament in a country in which gene editing is still part of the definition of genetic modification.

I absolutely welcome—and hold in the highest regard—the views of our scientific community, including Professor Dame Anne Glover, our academic institutions and our farmers and food producers. I also value the views of the public. This is an emotive and complex area, and matters must be considered very carefully. In that regard, I agree with the professor on The Nine yesterday evening, who said:

“As a scientist, I think it’s a very interesting technology, but I do think that, at the end of the day, it’s up to politicians to decide, using all the evidence available. Some of that will be scientific evidence, some of it is economic and some will be ethical and some of it philosophical.”

Those are exactly the issues that I am considering—unlike the UK Government, which is hurriedly pursuing post-Brexit deregulation.

Rachael Hamilton

Farmers in my constituency are extremely worried that, if the SNP-Green Government does not give its backing to gene editing, they will be at a major disadvantage compared with their neighbours just south of the border. That concern is shared by NFU Scotland, the James Hutton Institute and the Roslin Institute. Gene editing technology would give our farmers a much-needed boost to drive down food prices, help our current food security issues and support climate change goals.

The minister needs to examine what her priorities are. Are they constitutional obsessions and grievances? Will she listen to the experts and work with the UK Government to achieve positive change?

Màiri McAllan

Conversely, it is the member’s constitutional obsession—her and her colleagues’ desire for unity at all costs—that is the problem here. I wonder whether she has read the joint statement, which, on 10 June, was issued by 30 groups including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association and Compassion in World Farming. They said:

“This bill represents a significant change in the law and has huge implications for farming, food, animal welfare, the environment, the UK’s internal market and its trading relationships with key global markets. It is clear that, in its haste to deregulate, the Government has not adequately considered these implications.”

I hope that Rachael Hamilton and her colleagues will consider that.

Equally, though, she talks about the threat to Scotland’s farmers. Of course, the real threat to them is an ideological Brexit—the hardest of the possible options—that was pursued during the second wave of a deadly virus and is being made worse by trade agreements that undermine standards in welfare and the environment and that also undermine farmers’ livelihoods. Where was Rachael Hamilton’s concern for farmers when her colleagues were negotiating that?

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

Setting aside the science of the matter for just a moment, on a practical level, the fact is—[Interruption.] I know that the Tories do not want to hear it, but they should just listen.

The fact is that Scotland was invited to participate in creating the legislation the day before the bill was introduced at Westminster. Requests for sight of a draft of the bill were ignored until the afternoon before it was introduced. That is disrespect, verging on thinly veiled contempt, from a Tory Government that is encroaching on the devolved competences that are within the remit of this Parliament. Does the minister share my view that, if the Tories in London want Scotland to consider its legislative proposals, they must learn to treat our Parliament and the Scottish Government with some respect?

Minister, I ask you to respond briefly, as we are very quickly running out of time.

Màiri McAllan

That is fine, Presiding Officer.

Jim Fairlie is absolutely right: there are substance and process here, both of which are important factors. I have expressed my disappointment with the timing of the UK Government’s letter that included the invitation for Scotland to join consideration of the bill coming the day before it was introduced to the UK Parliament. The UK Government was briefing the media at the same time as it was doing so. Discussions of that nature should have taken place prior to the introduction of the bill, to enable the consideration of any divergence. If the UK Government was genuine about its commitment to devolution, it would be serious in its co-operation with Scotland and the other devolved Administrations.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I welcome what the minister said about being led by evidence. It is wrong to set aside the science, as Jim Fairlie just suggested. We should be looking very carefully at what the science offers us as a potential benefit.

As the NFUS said in a statement, it believes that

“GE offers the potential for Scottish farmers to ... meet challenges such as climate change, plant and animal health, and market competitiveness”.

When will the minister next meet the NFUS, and will she engage in a positive conversation with it and with the UK Government about the potential benefits that will accrue to Scotland because of that science?

I will meet the NFUS when I attend the Royal Highland Show, this week. I have no doubt that this issue will come up, and I look forward to discussing it with the organisation.

That concludes topical question time.