National Council of Rural Advisers

– in the Scottish Parliament on 14th June 2018.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing, on an update on the work of the National Council of Rural Advisers. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

In January last year, Parliament agreed to establish

“an independent group involving relevant stakeholders to provide advice as to the principles and policies that should underpin options for appropriate rural support beyond 2020”.—[

Official Report

, 19 January 2017; c 115.]

The National Council of Rural Advisers was duly established, with 14 individual members drawn from a variety of backgrounds and appointed on the basis of their expertise in operating and supporting rural enterprise. It was important to me that we appointed as many women as men; their voices and experiences are often, wrongly, absent from rural policy debate. It was also important to me that a number of younger people were also involved. Our approach was embodied in the appointment of co-chairs in Alison Milne and Lorne Crerar.

The national council was asked to provide advice for the Government on the implications of Brexit for rural Scotland, as well as recommendations on future rural policy and support. The paper that was produced last November largely confirmed what we knew—the implications will be far reaching and extremely challenging, particularly through the loss of people and skills, and continued membership of the single market and customs union is the least damaging Brexit outcome.

That finding is reinforced in the discussion paper that was published on Tuesday. I agree whole-heartedly with the national council’s conclusion that

“Brexit weighs heavily on the future of our industries.”

The paper also makes clear that rural Scotland is capable of building on its inherent resilience and creativity to overcome such barriers and challenges. As the national council puts it,

“with the right focus and energy we can achieve a new rural economic strategy which puts people at its heart.”

One of the core strengths of the national council’s approach has been that willingness, through 11 rural thinks workshops around Scotland and engagement with stakeholder organisations, to listen closely to others. That process, backed by the evidence, suggests that there are strong and resolute foundations on which to drive forward Scotland’s rural economy.

Research produced by the Scottish Government to better understand the rural economy shows that the strongest economic growth in Scotland between 2007 and 2015 was not in urban areas but in what is termed mainly rural areas, with strong growth in the value of goods and services also in island and remote rural areas. The national council challenges us to produce a better way of measuring economic growth in rural areas, and it is a challenge that I readily accept.

The national council’s call for a defined and ambitious strategy for Scotland’s rural economy that

“develops natural and human capital, competitiveness, robust infrastructure and social inclusion” is compelling.

The national council’s discussion paper identifies three key themes for that strategy: vision, people and infrastructure. The vision on which such a strategy is based must accentuate the many positives and strengths in the rural economy as well as acknowledge the barriers and address the challenges. I particularly welcome the focus on inclusive growth, tackling inequalities in the rural labour market and creating quality job opportunities. That is key to attracting people to move or return to live and work in rural Scotland and to developing the talents of those who live and work there currently. Through the Scottish Government’s current Scotland is now campaign, we will continue to do all that we can to make clear that Scotland is a positive and inclusive country and that, for example, migrant workers are welcome to make their lives here and contribute to our rural economy.

Rural Scotland needs people to stay on the land and in our remote communities in order to thrive, and, as the national council has uncovered, the best people to lead rural Scotland are the people who live there already. That is why this Government is already investing in their skills and talents. We core fund Scotland’s Rural College, the University of the Highlands and Islands and all its associated colleges, the University of Glasgow’s Crichton campus in Dumfries and the University of the West of Scotland’s campus in Ayr, as well as providing rural campuses with a £9 million rural premium. The 21 regional action groups for developing the young workforce cover all of rural Scotland; we have introduced a rural supplement to training providers delivering modern apprenticeships in remote and rural areas; and we have funded almost 1,400 modern apprenticeship new starts in land-based frameworks over the past three years

The third theme that matters is infrastructure or, as one rural thinks participant put it, multilevel connectivity. This Government is already working hard to create the physical infrastructure that Scotland’s rural economy needs. We are making the biggest public sector investment of any Government in the United Kingdom in broadband, providing £600 million to deliver access to superfast broadband to 100 per cent of homes and businesses by the end of 2021. The reaching 100—R100—programme prioritises the most remote and rural areas of Scotland that currently have the least access to broadband connectivity. We are building more than 50,000 new homes, with £25 million specifically dedicated to housing in rural and island communities; and, just this weekend, we committed to creating a further 3,000 homes through the building Scotland fund. We are creating Scotland’s first dualled, electric highway on the A9; the Aberdeen bypass will be completed later this year; we will undertake a feasibility study into improvements to the A75; and we continue to provide support to Highlands and Islands airports and lifeline ferry services.

Through the food processing and marketing contract since 2015, grants have been made to invest in the supply chain infrastructure for rural businesses, like the £4.5 million grant that was announced during a visit that I made last week for ABP Food Group to develop further its facilities in Perth. We are also investing in communities’ own capacities by transferring assets to local communities from the national forest estate, including the three projects that were announced just yesterday; investing in fisheries local action groups in coastal communities; seeking to support more women into farming through the women in agriculture task force; and providing over £71 million to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to provide economic development support and establish a new enterprise agency for the south of Scotland.

I accept the need to ensure that rural areas enjoy the same opportunities and access to services as urban areas, and that we need more streamlined and cohesive support mechanisms to better help businesses. What we support in the rural economy in the future, and how we do that, must reflect the Government’s aspirations and objectives but also be informed by real evidence of what the public value, as the agriculture champions state. As one recent rural thinks participant put it,

“policy is driven by people”.

I can announce that the work of the National Council of Rural Advisers will continue over the summer with a consultation on nine key questions arising from the key themes in the discussion paper. That consultation, which opened on Tuesday, marks the start of the rural civic conversation called for by the agriculture champions. The NCRA will use the information gathered, alongside evidence already collected, to refine its recommendations, and I anticipate that its work will be complete in the autumn.

The NCRA and its 14 members have already made a significant contribution to our discourse on the future needs and interests of Scotland’s rural economy. I have found them to be insightful and willing to challenge, questioning the status quo and generating fresh ideas. I thank them all for what they have achieved to date and for their enormous effort and contribution to the task. Our continuing to support their work over the summer will allow them to complete their deliberations and produce comprehensive recommendations that will help to create the vibrant, sustainable and inclusive rural economy that we all wish to see.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for sight of his statement and refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I welcome the work of the National Council of Rural Advisers, which has identified many of the challenges that rural Scotland already recognises. Many highlanders—and, indeed, the cabinet secretary, I am sure—will take huge issue with the suggestion on page 16 of the report that Urquhart castle is in the Kyle of Lochalsh. We both know that it is not.

The report contains no hint of a strategy or policy, which the cabinet secretary suggested only last week there would be, so I ask how long it will take to get one. There will be a six-week consultation, followed by a six-week period to analyse the responses and probably six weeks for the cabinet secretary to consider that analysis; if we are generous to the cabinet secretary, there will be at least another 16 weeks to come up with a policy. That is eight and a half months in total, from today, to draft a rural strategy, so we probably will not hear any ideas from the Government until February 2019. Frankly, that is too long. When will the cabinet secretary have a plan? When will he stop dithering and start to deliver a plan for our farmers and the rural economy?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am pleased, I guess, that Mr Mountain welcomed the work that the NCRA has done, although that was the end of any positive content in his remarks. It would behove the Scottish Conservative Party to recognise that the 14 individual council members have no political perspective but, rather, the viewpoint and perspective of those who have contributed enormously to the rural economy in Scotland and whose efforts should therefore be appreciated. I also point out that the NCRA is a group that I was asked—indeed, instructed—by the Parliament to appoint. Therefore, it seems churlish to say that we should pre-empt the work that Parliament has asked us to do by ignoring the council’s work and recommendations, which will be forthcoming in the autumn.

I assure Edward Mountain that we shall respond to the final report when we receive it, as well as to the report of the agriculture champions, which we received last week. It is really rather negative of Mr Mountain to ignore completely the offering that is produced in this excellent discussion paper. Some of the people who produced it are here today listening—just bear that in mind. It is an excellent paper, with the slogan,

“together we can, together we will”.

That is a positive slogan and perhaps that is why the Scottish Tories are not keen on it, since the three main activities that they appear to be interested in are nit picking, nat bashing and power grabbing.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement and I thank the National Council of Rural Advisers for the work that it has done on its very positive and important report.

To those of us who represent and live in rural areas, the questions that the report asks were familiar and I have to say that they reflect the disappointing progress that has been made in building strong, sustainable rural communities over the past decade—even without the challenges that we face with Brexit.

The cabinet secretary said that he particularly welcomes the focus on inclusive growth, but the reality is that not one but two Government economic strategies have given commitments to regional equity but have failed to deliver it, as low pay is still rife across rural Scotland.

The report highlights the digital divide, whereby the roll-out of fibre broadband in recent years has left—and still leaves—many rural communities behind.

There are omissions in the report and the cabinet secretary’s response to it. There is no mention of the utter scandal of rural poverty and there is not enough emphasis on the value of our natural environment. Tackling poverty and protecting our environment must be key principles at the heart of agriculture and rural support post-Brexit. I ask again whether the cabinet secretary will give us an exact timetable for when the Government will set out a shared vision of what Scotland wants that post-common agricultural policy support to look like and take that case to the UK Government, instead of waiting for the UK Government to tell us what to think. In other words, once again, when will the Scottish Government stop waiting and start leading when it comes to supporting our rural communities?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am pleased that Colin Smyth acknowledges the good work that the advisers have done—that is genuine and welcome.

On the timescale, I confirm what I have already made clear: the final report from the NCRA will be available in the autumn. We will consider it and then we will respond in detail to it, along with the work of the champions.

Members should bear in mind that this is a consultation document. We want to hear what the public have to say. [

Interruption

.] There is lots of heckling and negativity coming from the Conservatives, as per the norm. On the positive side, the 127 people who took part in the 11 rural thinks meetings throughout Scotland—that was a huge commitment by those people, which I would have thought would have been welcomed—said that they want policy to be made by listening to people. We will listen to the people and then make the policy, not devise policy without listening to them, particularly given that Parliament asked us to do that.

I do not accept the premises of the assertions that Mr Smyth made. We are doing a considerable amount of work, as I said to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee last week, to prepare policy making in the future. Of course that is a serious task. However, until such time as we know what the budget, tariffs and costs will be, it is impossible for anyone to produce a plan with figures and clarity. I assure all members that we are dealing with all these matters on a daily basis and I hope to say more about that relatively soon.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I remind the chamber that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.

I welcome the report and its central recommendation to create a rural economic strategy and agree absolutely that people living and working in rural Scotland need to be involved in policy making. How will the civic conversation that is being launched with this consultation ensure that women’s voices and the views of young people are heard and listened to?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

That will be an important part of the response. We are very keen to hear from females and young people in rural Scotland. Emma Harper is aware of the women in agriculture task force, which I co-chair with Joyce Campbell. It is addressing specifically some of the gender inequality issues, which, as this discussion document highlights, are quite extreme in parts of rural Scotland. The disparity between the median female and median male earnings is particularly stark in some parts of rural Scotland. We will encourage people throughout rural Scotland to respond to the consultation and submit their views, and I hope and expect that they will. We want to hear what they have to say, study it carefully and take it into account when we move forward.

Photo of Peter Chapman Peter Chapman Conservative

I declare an interest as a partner in an agricultural business.

Here we are, a whole year after the council was formed, and this is all we have: a document with no answers, only questions. Frankly, it is very disappointing.

The cabinet secretary mentioned just a few seconds ago that he has no idea about budgets. Let me tell him that in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs document “Health and Harmony”, it states categorically that funding for pillar 1 and pillar 2 farm support will be delivered at the same rate until at least 2022. Therefore, I ask again: when is the cabinet secretary going to give us any positive ideas for our rural economy and start to deliver a plan for our farmers’ future?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

First, I must, I am afraid, correct Mr Chapman. It is not correct to say that the Scottish Government has received assurances that pillar 2 payments, beyond those contracts that have been entered into prior to Brexit day, will be honoured. No such commitment has been made, as Mr Chapman should know, so his assertion that that is the case is in fact incorrect. It follows, therefore, that the conclusions he draws from that are also, sadly, wrong.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, because we have gone over all this ground ad infinitum—we have spent endless hours of parliamentary proceedings going over the same old negative moaning and whining from the Conservatives—what is really disappointing is Mr Chapman’s assertion that there is nothing positive in this report. Either he has not read it or he is unwilling to hear what it says.

There is a whole series of recommendations in the report about how rural Scotland can go forward. The emphasis, though, is on looking at the successful ventures that are created by businesses in rural Scotland. It is about looking at the positives and the opportunities to see how we can help people achieve even more by addressing the three strands: the vision, the people and the infrastructure. I set out in my opening statement many ways in which the Scottish Government is doing that and I am not going to repeat them now, the Presiding Officer will be pleased to hear.

This is an excellent, positive report and I am really quite shocked to hear Mr Chapman’s incorrect and quite insulting characterisation of it.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

If anything demonstrates the damaging impacts of Brexit that the report has highlighted, it is the issue of migrant workers being able to continue to contribute to our rural businesses and the wider economy.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Tories have an utter brass neck to be carping about the time that is being taken to deliver the rural strategy when they have had two years—two years—since the Brexit vote to address worries over access to seasonal workers and have done nothing?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I agree, and the National Council of Rural Advisers confirmed that migrant workers make an enormous positive contribution to this country. Mr Dey obviously represents Angus growers; on visits that I have made to Angus, I have spoken to many of the migrant workers and many of them are genuinely concerned about whether they will be welcome here. That is quite an appalling predicament to put people in. It is unsavoury.

Of course, we did not vote for Brexit in Scotland anyway, did we? No, we did not. [

Interruption

.] The Conservatives are laughing—I do not think that it is very funny. I point out once again that Mr Gove, when he spoke to the

National Farmers Union south of the border earlier this year, said that there would be a scheme and that it would be introduced relatively quickly thereafter. It has not been. I have asked him about that at meetings and I am afraid that that scheme has not been introduced.

Rather than berate us about something that is not a devolved responsibility, why do the Conservative MSPs not join with us in saying that this Parliament should have the power to deal with these matters, because plainly, the UK Government has got no appetite or intent to do so?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The cabinet secretary alluded to the gender pay gap. The report says:

“Women living in remote rural Scotland have the lowest annual income of any group, and the largest median gender pay gap at £5,076 when comparing annual median wages. This means that in remote rural Scotland women earn 17% less on an annual average than men.”

That is down in part to seasonal, part-time and low-paid work, as well as falling public sector employment. The cabinet secretary says that he is committed to tackling inequalities. What action will he take to tackle the gender pay gap?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

That was, indeed, the section of the NCRA report to which I alluded, so I am pleased that Rhoda Grant has identified it. It is useful that we have the benefit of the report so that we can see the situations that we need to address. There are many things that we need to do to address pay inequality. The Government is doing a great many of them because they cover a range of issues—childcare, employment and access to opportunities and training, as well as transport. We are committed across all the Government’s responsibilities to doing what we can to tackle those matters more fairly and to doing our best to reduce the inequality gap over time.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I welcome the report as a starting point in the conversation, although there are more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese. There is no mention of the environment, which underpins our rural economy, of the future of Scotland’s rural development policy or of issues that affect people in rural areas, such as access to childcare.

In spite of the uncertainty over Brexit, the Welsh Assembly has produced a vision for rural support post-Brexit. When will we see the Scottish Government’s vision for rural support and the SRDP post-Brexit?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

It is a bit unfair to say that the work of the NCRA does not recognise those things. I am aware that it does and, if the member looks at its interim recommendations from last November, he will find that it has done so in many respects.

I welcome the contribution from the member and his party to the consultation. I hope that there is a good response to it. I assure him that the NCRA is absolutely committed to the twin imperatives of agriculture: producing food and tending to the landscape in an environmentally friendly fashion. That is an extremely important element of the approach that the Scottish Government has taken and will continue to take.

I have repeatedly made it clear that my vision for the rural economy is to use our natural assets to best advantage, to—as far as farming is concerned—ensure the primacy of producing high-quality food in a way that is sympathetic to our landscape and to use our people, who are the best resource of all. I have made that clear on countless occasions and will continue to do so. However, I am particularly pleased that the NCRA has produced a vision that is entirely aligned with the one that we have already set out.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The question is vision. Will the cabinet secretary tell us what his vision is for the future of Scottish agricultural financial support post-Brexit, without criticising the UK Government, which we can all do?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I have already set out in response to Mr Ruskell an abbreviated version of the vision that I see and will continue to see for rural Scotland. I want the financial support for rural Scotland to continue to be provided at the level that all the Brexiteers promised during the Brexit campaign, which is currently £500 million.

I also want to be paid back to Scotland the £160 million that was intended for Scottish farmers but was siphoned off by the UK Treasury under Conservative leadership—with, as I recall, a bit of help from the Liberals; I point out to Mr Rumbles that it was during Mr Alexander’s term in the Treasury. I want that money back for the Scottish rural community. It was intended for Scottish farmers. We now have the ridiculous situation that, next year, the amount per hectare in financial support for Scotland will be the lowest in any European Union country or state. That is what happens if we allow the Conservatives to run Scotland.

The Presiding Officer:

There are still six members who wish to ask a question, but there are only two minutes left.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I draw members’ attention to my agricultural holding and the fact that I will be a R100 beneficiary.

In connection to that, I wonder whether, when looking at the contracts for R100, preference will be given to those with future proofing so that, when the backhaul is eventually upgraded, we can have 300 megabits per second and 1 gigabit per second delivery to rural locations, thus enabling us to have an advantage over urban areas where presently we have a disadvantage.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Mr Stevenson makes a good point. The answer is yes. The way in which the contract is being taken forward in the procurement stage is to anticipate the future need and desire to move from superfast to ultrafast broadband. My understanding is that the use of fibre enables that process to take place; therefore, that forms part of our thinking. Although we cannot mandate one technology over another because of state aid rules, encouraging bids for the tender that reference the extent to which achievements will be reached by provision of fibre rather than other methodologies—precisely because of the point that Mr Stevenson makes—and scoring the tender accordingly will empower those in rural Scotland, perhaps in some cases to an even greater extent than urban dwellers, as it means that they will have ultrafast broadband in years to come.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The cabinet secretary talks about improving connectivity in Scotland’s rural communities, but the reality is that a catalogue of recent failures on the CalMac network has left many island communities far from connected. CalMac admits that there is zero resilience, no additional capacity and a significant risk of further breakdown this summer. What does the cabinet secretary have to say to those communities, which have been so badly let down in recent months? Will he tell members today what immediate steps have been taken to ensure that ferry services to every island in Scotland will be safeguarded this summer?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am not quite sure what that has to do with the National Council of Rural Advisers. It is a little bit insulting that members choose to ask anything on any topic that they wish, instead of addressing the good work that those individuals have done. It is really quite insulting and I cannot recall anything quite like it, but there we are—that is the Conservatives for you.

To answer Jamie Greene’s question, we have of course provided resources to CalMac in terms of the tender that has allowed it to expand. We are providing extra vessels and we have dealt with difficult situations that have arisen. The difficulties are partly due to the problems of successes such as the growing economies of the islands, growing tourism, growing populations and the road equivalent tariff leading to more people choosing to use the ferries. Those are the problems of success—the Scottish Conservatives would not know much about that.

The Presiding Officer:

There are four members who still wish to get in, but I am afraid that we have run out of time. I remind members to keep their questions short and ministers to keep their replies equally succinct, so that we can get through more questions in the allocated time.