Q&A: Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity
Q&A with Fergus Ewing
Fergus Ewing - credit: David Anderson
Holyrood: How does it feel getting that call to go and see the FM amid a reshuffle?
Fergus Ewing: The First Minister made clear to me that my job is to drive forward the rural economy and that was music to my ears because it is exactly what I want to do. Having been Business Minister for a number of years and representing a part of Scotland that covers many rural and remote areas, I was already well aware of the challenges and opportunities and happy to be asked to take on a job that is exactly what I want to be doing.
Holyrood: Your last brief had a number of controversial issues still to be resolved, like fracking, how does it feel leaving behind unfinished business?
FE: Well, that’s the nature of work in any profession, when you move posts, you leave one set of issues for a new set. In the Scottish Government we work closely together and I am confident that Paul Wheelhouse, my successor as Energy Minister, has the ability to pick these issues up quickly and decisively.
Holyrood: How badly have issues over CAP payments damaged relations between the Scottish Government and farmers?
FE: Since taking up post, progress on 2015 payments has been my number-one priority. I have met the NFUS a number of times and spoken with individual farmers at events including the Royal Highland Show and the Turriff Show. The vast majority of farmers have now received their basic payments, most of the sheep and beef scheme payments have also been made and we are now focusing on LFASS payments. As I have reassured farmers, there will be no let-up in focus and I am also determined to put the system on a proper footing for 2016.
I will continue to make discussions with farmers a priority and build on a good working relationship with the NFUS. It is good that many farmers, whilst understandably frustrated by the situation, recognise that the issues are beyond the control of the staff in their local office and have accepted that they are doing their best. Generally, I have found farmers appreciate the progress that has now been made with payments.
Holyrood: What skills do you think you bring to this new brief?
FE: I hope that ten years of experience as a minister, and 17 as an MSP of a largely rural constituency have equipped me with an understanding of the problems facing rural communities, but also how to deliver progress in government.
My former life in business, running my own legal practice is useful in helping businesses succeed – and left me convinced of the need for the public sector to help support and facilitate economic development, rather than police, hinder or delay such development.
We have excellent public servants in Scotland, and my job is to harness their energies and expertise to deliver results in driving forward the rural economy.
I hope that I can help attract investment to rural Scotland by persuasion and advocacy of the great results that such investment can bring – because of the many assets and advantages we have to offer.
Holyrood: What does the vote to leave the EU mean for Scottish farmers?
FE: Well, clearly, the direct subsidy payments farmers receive are vital to many and to the wider rural economy. From 2014-2020, Scotland will receive around €4.6 billion (£3.5 billion) from Europe to implement the Common Agricultural Policy – a significant investment in anyone’s book. This is one of the reasons why we are considering all possible options to ensure Scotland’s continuing relationship with Europe and why I have called on the UK Government to make clear what their future plans for these subsidy payments are.
I will continue to make sure our farming leaders have their voices listened to as we move forwards and I will do everything I can to ensure the best possible solution for the agricultural industry in Scotland.
Holyrood: What lessons can you apply from your old portfolio to your new one?
FE: A key priority in my previous role as the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism was working with the Deputy First Minister to grow the economy. This involved working with businesses, business leaders and others to promote investment, support key sectors, encourage employment and training opportunities as well as highlighting the benefits Scotland has as a place to live, visit and do business. In many ways, this was ideal preparation for a role as the Cabinet Secretary responsible for driving forward the rural economy – for example, many of the connections and priorities are relevant to the economy in rural areas.
Holyrood: What are the biggest challenges facing your brief?
FE: Well, I’ve already touched on the need for ongoing progress in improving the system for CAP payments – that remains one of the biggest challenges and my biggest priority. The impact of the EU referendum is also high on my list as for farmers, forestry and food and drink businesses, the impact is potentially very significant, as are the wider effects on the rural economy. Of course, I am also working with the fishing industry to ensure a better mutual understanding of what the differences between our respective positions on Europe means in practical terms.
Increasing productivity across all rural businesses is crucial. Vitally, we need to build on an already impressive track record in growing Scotland’s food and drink sector and, crucially, ensure that our farming and fishing sectors and our rural communities are able to fully play their part in the continuing growth of Scotland’s food and drink industry as well as reap the resulting benefits. I am also particularly keen that we increase woodland planting to meet our annual 10,000ha target. Scotland is a great country for growing trees, providing a valuable crop for our world-class timber industry, whilst playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change. I am committed to removing bureaucratic barriers to tree-planting, speeding up approval times and improving the integration of forestry and farming so that both enterprises can flourish and grow together.
Aside from these individual issues, I am also focused on work to drive forward the rural economy. That’s why I’ve convened a number of sector-specific summits in key areas to bring together government, industry and key stakeholders to discuss priority actions to deliver opportunities and growth.
Holyrood: Has progress towards rural broadband been too slow?
FE: Good quality broadband is a vital part of life for businesses and individuals across Scotland, particularly in some of our remote and rural areas. The Digital Scotland roll-out is progressing really well. We’ve already hit our 85 per cent coverage target – six months early – and have reached around 620,000 homes and businesses across Scotland through our investment programme; almost 50,000 of those in the last three months. We’re on track to hit 95 per cent by the end of next year and we’ve made the commitment that 100 per cent of properties across Scotland will be able to access superfast broadband by 2021.
I recognise that there is frustration out there about rural broadband. Much of that is about the quality of service that people are getting, not necessarily about the progress of the Digital Scotland roll-out. Ofcom’s recent proposals in this area are really important – publishing performance data on all operators, and introducing automatic compensation for consumers and small businesses when things go wrong. That will ensure that telecoms suppliers are held to account for poor performance.
The next few months will be really important. We’ll finalise the coverage footprint that will be delivered by the Digital Scotland projects, which will allow us to let the public know what premises won’t benefit and, crucially, move forward with new procurements and new investment to deliver a solution. The importance of good quality connectivity cannot be overstated and we are committed to ensuring that no part of Scotland is left behind.
Holyrood: Have you ever played a computer game and if so, what was it?
FE: I have never played a computer game, and do not intend to start now. I prefer crosswords.
Holyrood: What is your favourite farm animal?
FE: I awarded the prize at the Royal Highland Show this year of best cattle to Highland cattle from Pollok Estate, Glasgow. They are beautiful animals that are true symbols of Scotland.
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