Yesterday, 27th September 2016, John spoke in the Scottish Government’s debate, ‘Securing the interests of Scotland’s rural economy following the European Union referendum’. The motion debated was
“The Scottish Green Party will support the Scottish Government’s motion at decision time. I never thought that I would commence a speech by agreeing with David Mundell, but the cabinet secretary quoted David Mundell saying that
“the risks … are … too great”,
and Mr Crawford outlined what Mr Mundell said about the severity of the implications. Those implications are not simply economic; social benefits will also be affected. My Highlands and Islands colleague Rhoda Grant talked about the infrastructure benefits that have come to the Highlands as a result of membership of the EU, which are apparent to everyone.
The big question is what our countryside should look like. The Scottish Green Party’s view is that our rural and coastal communities should be vibrant places where lots of small communities own, respect and benefit from natural resources. There should be adequate housing, local schooling and access to a range of public services. For that reason, we will support the Labour amendment, which reminds us of the importance of broadband.
On our rural economy, 98 per cent of Scotland’s landmass is rural, and 18 per cent of its population, 16 per cent of its employment, 30 per cent of its enterprises and 40 per cent of its small and medium-sized enterprises are rural. Rural communities are vibrant but fragile places. Their hallmarks are multiple job holding; underemployment; seasonal employment, which is often linked to housing availability; and sectors that depend on migrant labour, as more than one member has outlined. Therefore, we cannot deal with the uncertainty that Brexit has visited on us.
The motion mentions
“membership of the single market”.
It is about not access but membership. That is important.
The motion also mentions freedom of movement. The Scottish Green Party certainly takes the view that the Prime Minister should spell out her intention to safeguard the free movement of people, however likely that is, and she should allow for a separate membership deal for Scotland if that is necessary. That would better reflect how we voted.
The economic benefit to the UK of EU migrants is well documented. I will give a figure from research from 2014. During the period from 2001 to 2011, the economic benefit from them was £22 billion. More recently, an HM Revenue and Customs report said that EU migrants made a positive contribution to the UK public finances in 2013-14 of more than £2.5 billion, which is a significant figure. That positive contribution is keenly felt in rural areas, with their agriculture, hospitality businesses and social care services, which are important for a growing and ageing population.
There is an opportunity to review our policies regardless of what happens with the EU. We clearly want to stay in it, but people have acknowledged that it is not without its flaws. I will give another example. The virulently anti-EU newspaper owner Mr Paul Dacre, who is a resident of the Highlands and Islands, landed more than £250,000 in EU subsidies for his sporting estate in Wester Ross and another €13,000 in direct farm payments.
The previous Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment opposed payments to sporting estates. I understand that he made representations to the EU but that the proposals were said to be too loosely defined. I hope that the Scottish Government continues to hold that position and that it will pursue the matter.
I am grateful to the various organisations that have provided briefings. The Scottish Wildlife Trust talks about four significant issues that will need to be addressed to achieve the best possible outcome for Scotland’s natural environment. It talks about the future of environmental legislation. We know that the EU has been responsible for a considerable volume of quality legislation that has made the world a better place. It talks about funding to support sustainable land management, which is an important issue. Obviously, I welcome the land fund. It also talks about how Scotland achieves healthy seas. That is about sustainable fisheries management and local fisheries management. It is about acknowledging that fish do not recognise international boundaries and that international co-operation will be required. The trust’s final point is about ensuring that Scotland remains a centre of excellence for science and knowledge exchange.
There has been cross-party consensus—it is perhaps rare—on post-study work visas, which the situation will have an impact on. It is unfortunate for Scotland that the UK Government did not pick up on that.
The Scottish Government recognises the importance of our rural communities, and natural capital is a key priority of its economic strategy. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity talked about the potential loss of 40 million trees, which arises with a well-known dip coming in our timber production.
The Greens see a different emphasis. We like smaller units of agriculture rather than the large agricultural businesses. Only £350 million supports the agri-environment schemes. That is paid through the SRDP in pillar 2 payments.
It is not just us who think that there are flaws; the recent Audit Scotland report on the current CAP programme confirms that view. That is understandable, given the failures of the current scheme. Obvious benefits are associated with the direct payments to support food production, but Scots throw away 600,000 tonnes of food and drink every year, which costs £1 billion. Agriculture and related land use contribute to 20 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland. In the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee meeting last week, we heard that steps are being taken on that. Intensive farming makes a significant contribution to pollution.
We draw a contrast with the relatively small amount of money that is spent under agri-environment schemes through pillar 2, which incentivises land managers to deliver public benefits by improving, promoting and providing public access, creating new habitats, removing non-native species, expanding native species, planting native woodland, supporting conservation grazing and restoring peatlands.
One of the briefings that I read was from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which said that
“establishing new frameworks for all of the areas currently covered by EU legislation”
was “a major task” and questioned the resilience of Government staff to do that. We very much rely on the staff in the various Government directorates and, if we leave the EU, that will be a huge challenge.
It is vital for the Scottish Government to be fully involved in negotiations. Unless other parties wish to say otherwise, I understand that the Scottish Government is charged with representing and protecting Scotland’s interests in the negotiations. The Scottish Green Party certainly wishes to see that continue and appreciates the Government’s efforts thus far.
It is clear that the impacts of Brexit are far reaching and that there will be challenges for Scotland’s natural capital. It is vital that we have vibrant and viable coastal and rural communities. It is important that we determine how best taxpayers’ money is spent to maximise the benefits and achieve sustainable land management. We want that to take place within the EU; we want that within the single market. We want freedom of movement, which is a red-line issue for us. If we fail to get that, we will chart our own destiny.”