Q&A with Fergus Ewing
Q&A with Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity
Fergus Ewing - image credit: David Anderson
How will Brexit affect the powers at your disposal and would you expect more to be repatriated to Scotland?
We have been quite clear and consistent that there can be no question of the UK Government using EU withdrawal to take power in areas which the Scottish Parliament is responsible for – which includes agriculture, fisheries, and environmental policy. These must be fully devolved to Holyrood.
We have entirely different circumstances in farming today in Scotland and different policies are needed to address and provide for these circumstances.
Once resolved, and where it is sensible or desirable, a common framework covering certain issues where it would make sense to share power and responsibility on a UK-wide basis could be introduced to replace that provided by EU law. But that framework must be agreed between governments and parliaments, not imposed by the UK Government. This is a matter for my colleague Mike Russell to resolve in the first instance.
Does Brexit pose a risk to the future of Scotland’s food and drink industry?
Absolutely. The EU is currently our biggest international food and drink export market, and a hard Brexit is only going to bring uncertainty to an estimated 8,000 non-UK EU nationals employed in that sector – not to mention the 15,000 non-UK seasonal migrant workers employed to harvest soft fruit and veg in the summer and autumn. Many businesses depend on these workers, and there are no clear options for their replacement.
A hard Brexit also likely means a significant increase in costs to Scottish businesses, thanks to the introduction of trade tariffs, and the uncertainty which Brexit brings could have a detrimental effect on investment.
The most important thing in the short term is to get clarity and certainty from the UK Government about these very real and practical concerns we have for future trade, jobs, funding and standards. In the meantime, we are doing everything in our powers to ensure that the people of Scotland have a choice about the future direction of the country, once the terms of Brexit are clear.
What has the Scottish Government learned from failings in the CAP payment system and how do you win back the faith of the farmers?
I’m acutely aware of the frustration that any farmer, crofter, or land manager whose payments have been delayed [has experienced] but I also hope that by putting in place a loans scheme for basic payments, which provided over 13,000 farmers and crofters with 80 per cent of their payments last November, and an LFASS loans scheme this spring providing a further £51m to over 8,400 farmers and crofters so far, I have shown that I am determined to do all I can to ensure that businesses get the support they need. Getting CAP payments onto a better footing has been my top priority since day one in this job. A huge amount of effort has been devoted to sorting out the IT problems and getting vital payments and loans out to support the rural economy. We recognise the scale of the IT challenges and must learn from that.
Progress has been made, but I’m under no illusions that we have to do better. Only once we get back to making payments to a regular timetable can we expect to regain the trust of all farmers and crofters.
What will replace CAP payments after Brexit?
The immediate concern is to receive assurance from the UK Government that Scotland will continue to receive its current levels of funding if we have to leave the EU. Scotland receives 16.5 per cent of the UK’s CAP funding – any change to that level of funding would have dire consequences for Scottish farming and food production. To prepare for that eventuality, I have also established a National Council of Rural Advisers to provide advice on the implications of Scotland potentially leaving the EU, as well as make recommendations on future policy and support regarding the rural economy.
Unfortunately, considerable uncertainty exists as a result of Brexit and lack of clarity from the UK Government. They have undertaken to provide funding for Pillar One schemes until 2020, but have provided no guarantees beyond that or for Pillar Two schemes like LFASS. Moreover, their whole approach to Brexit seems designed to take powers and control back to the UK Government, with a lack of clarity over what happens thereafter. Agriculture is one of many areas potentially affected.
Has the SNP Government lost touch with rural Scotland?
We are doing more than any previous government in Scotland to build growth all across rural Scotland. We’re making rural areas more accessible than ever before, thanks to our superfast broadband programme, and by investing in major transport infrastructure projects, like the Borders Railway, and the dualling of the A9 motorway from Perth to Inverness.
We continue to fund the delivery of the Rural Parliament, which provides opportunities for people with an interest in rural communities to share ideas, consider issues and debate solutions – strengthening the voice of rural communities and helping them to influence the decisions that affect them.
And we remain committed to growing Scotland’s food and drink sector and the many jobs and businesses it supports, particularly in rural and coastal communities, where the fishing industry alone supports a huge number of jobs and businesses. The industry’s food and drink strategy – Ambition 2030 – aims to target key markets, boost innovation and support local producers, in order to double the value of the industry to £30 billion by 2030. We’re strongly supporting that and, in March this year, we announced our £10 million funding package to bolster the strategy, which should go some way to helping those ambitions to be realised.
How can the Scottish Government encourage more young people to stay in or move to rural communities?
I want to ensure that our young people have the opportunity to build careers and prosperous futures in the areas where they grew up, and we’ve been working hard to make that happen.
I believe that the key lies in the provision of affordable housing, supporting and stimulating business in rural communities, and by improving infrastructure and connectivity.
In terms of affordable housing, we have committed more than £1.75 billion over the next three years, which included the announcement of a recent £10 million fund with Highland Council, and the £25 million Rural Housing Fund.
And last year we announced the Rural Supplement, designed to offset the sometimes higher costs of taking on apprentices in rural areas. We also helped a number of young farmers to get into business, by grant aiding them via the Young Farmers’ Start-Up Scheme.
Those are just a few examples of a range of initiatives we have in place to support rural skills and keep talent in those communities.
And of course, we are the only administration in the UK committed to giving every home and business access to superfast broadband, which is becoming increasingly essential to an area’s economic prosperity.
Is there a tension between growing Scotland’s rural economy and protecting the natural environment?
I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It’s no secret that the natural environment is one of Scotland’s greatest assets, making a major contribution to our economic growth. It’s estimated that the output from activities which depend on the natural environment is around £17.2 billion a year; and it supports an estimated 242,000 jobs – from farming and fishing, to energy and tourism.
Our natural environment is also a priceless resource for the people who live or visit there, and for the animal and plant life which depend upon it. It also provides major health and wellbeing benefits – both directly and indirectly.
Of course, it’s about finding a balance, and identifying initiatives where both business and the environment can thrive. Fortunately, there is plenty of scope for that, with clear potential for sustainable economic growth in, for example, tourism, food and drink, renewables and forestry. We’re always working to identify and pursue those opportunities, as well as working to address any potential barriers to their growth, such as a lack of required skills, for example.
What will you do to ensure promises on superfast broadband connectivity are delivered for rural communities?
We are absolutely committed to achieving 100 per cent superfast broadband access across Scotland by 2021. That’s despite the fact that broadband and mobile telephony are the responsibility of the UK Government to fund and deliver. However, as our aspirations outweigh those of the UK Government, we decided to press ahead and make progress on our own.
And we’ve already made a significant contribution to connectivity across the country, having invested over £400 million in a digital programme which is on track to deliver fibre broadband access to 95 per cent of premises across Scotland by the end of 2017. Without this investment, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles would have no access to fibre broadband at all, and access in the Highlands would only be at 21 per cent. In Dumfries and Galloway, that access would only be slightly higher at 26 per cent.
We’re also launching new procurement activity later this year to deliver new investment, focused on bringing superfast broadband to the hardest to reach premises – those that won’t benefit from commercial deployment or publicly funded programmes.
They say a week is a long time in politics but over the last 12 months we have had an EU referendum, a Scottish Parliament election, local government elections and a general election. How has it been for you?
Busy! Being appointed and serving for over a year now as Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity is a huge privilege, one which I feel honoured to be allowed to do. There are many challenges, not least in also contributing politically to all the different election campaigns. But as a constituency MSP for 17 years now, I have learned one thing above all, which is never to take the trust of the electorate for granted. Trust is earned and has to be re-earned and that means getting out there, finding out from people who live and work in rural and coastal communities what they need from government and trying your best to do it. That is also one of the most enjoyable parts of the role and I remain firmly committed to listening and acting and working hard for everyone in rural Scotland for as long as I have the privilege of serving in this role.
What is the naughtiest thing you have ever done?
My job requires me to spend a fair bit of time walking through fields of wheat (amongst other crops), but it’s usually with the farmer’s consent!
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