Q&A with Fergus Ewing
Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy Fergus Ewing on aquaculture, Brexit and rural business
Image credit: David Anderson
Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy
- What are the biggest challenges facing Scotland’s rural economy?
Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge facing Scotland’s rural economy is Brexit, and the uncertainty it is causing. Aside from the continuing lack of clarity on how the Treasury plans to make up the shortfall of nearly £500 million per year that Scottish farmers receive through EU payments, or who is going to harvest our fruit crops when seasonal workers are no longer able to travel freely to Scotland, we’re also getting no answers on important matters relating to the EU’s protected designation of origin (PDO) scheme, which is so important to Scotland’s food and drink sector.
In short, the problems relating to Brexit are all-encompassing, and unravelling further all the time.
Brexit aside, the Scottish Government is continually working to find solutions to mitigate against sparsity, remoteness and isolation in Scotland’s rural areas, all of which make providing services like transport, housing, schools, shops and health more difficult. Our efforts to mitigate against those issues are myriad, but I would draw particular attention to the significant improvements we’re making by overhauling large parts of rural Scotland’s transport infrastructure, and by revolutionising Scotland’s mobile and superfast broadband coverage. Those are the foundations upon which other improvements can be built.
- A recent report from the Environment Committee found that fish mortality was at "unacceptable levels" in fish farms, while warning that the industry would cause "irrecoverable damage" to the marine ecosystem if environmental concerns are not addressed. In that context, how can you justify plans to double the size of the industry?
We are constantly working to maintain a balance between supporting the industry and protecting the environment. Within that context, I have repeatedly made it clear that we do not accept ‘growth at any cost’. Growth must be sustainable.
With the support of the industry, we recently published a framework for farmed fish health which will look to proactively tackle some of the biological challenges affecting marine mortality. The framework will ensure that fish health and sustainability rightly remain the focus of production and growth in Scotland.
- Brexit will have huge implications for rural businesses, how worried are you?
In my role as Scotland’s rural economy secretary, I’m fortunate to get to meet with a great many people within that community, and the feedback is usually the same: that great concern is being caused by the lack of answers coming from Westminster.
Of course, the Scottish Government isn’t going to just sit back and wait for answers that are not forthcoming, so we have been working to put the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure that problems are being addressed or planned for. One of those measures was the introduction last year of an independent group of expert advisers (the National Council of Rural Advisers), whose remit is to provide advice to Scottish ministers on the implications of Scotland leaving the EU, and to recommend actions to sustain a vibrant and flourishing rural economy.
In many areas, we are already making progress in achieving the NCRA’s ambitions, through improving physical and digital infrastructure, investing in people and skills and by continuing to promote Scotland as a welcoming and inclusive country.
However, I recognise that there is more still to do and I continue to work with the council, and other stakeholders to ensure that we create an environment across rural Scotland that nurtures creativity, protects our unique natural resources and provides welcoming and vibrant communities that people want to live, work and thrive in.
- You have the benefit of longevity in this role, what do you see as the main priorities going forward and how do you intend to tackle them?
My priorities are to continue to support farmers and crofters through the ongoing uncertainty being caused by Brexit – ensuring that a long-term alternative to EU payments is guaranteed by the Treasury; to continue to build our flourishing food and drink sector, which enjoyed a record £6 billion in exports last year, by identifying new markets internationally and developing our status within current markets; by building on the principles outlined in our Forestry Bill, which we introduced last year, to modernise that sector and make more effective use of Scotland’s public amazing natural assets.
Another important part of my portfolio is of course animal health and welfare, which has also taken on a new significance in the context of Brexit. The Scottish Government is committed to ensure that animal health and welfare standards – both domestically and during the export process – are at the very least, maintained to the same level as now.
- How would you like to see offshore fishing managed after the UK leaves the EU?
The Scottish Government has always championed Scottish fishing interests. As a leading European fishing nation, we have consistently called for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.
It’s my job to ensure that we secure the best deal possible for the Scottish fishing industry and help realise legitimate aspirations to grow the sector, while also being mindful that a final settlement with the EU must also take account of wider marine and seafood interests.
In order to do that we need more information from the UK Government than we’re currently getting. The UK has genuinely not been engaging with us, and sharing strategies, and thereby making it extremely difficult for us to ensure a positive outcome.
Most importantly, we cannot and will not have Scottish fishing interests being put at risk by UK ministers unilaterally making important decisions without our input. Fishing is integral to our rural economy, our coastal communities, and to our increasingly valuable food industry.
In order to do that, I’ve been writing to UK ministers for months, to confirm that devolved powers over fisheries management would transfer to Scotland, and to secure guarantees that Scotland will be fully involved in negotiations and discussions around determining future policy on international trade deals on issues such as fishing, where Scotland holds a clear majority interest in terms of landings, value and managed sea areas.
There are real practical issues that need addressed, issues that if they are not may have dire consequences for many fishing businesses in Scotland. The potential delays in the process of exporting shellfish, for example, where a 24-hour delay could render quality Scottish seafood worthless. There are several similar, practical issues which we have to resolve before leaving the single market and customs union.
I’m particularly concerned about the continuing absence of a replacement for the hugely-successful European Maritime Fisheries Fund, which has awarded over £25 million to 200 projects over the past two years. That funding has been used to improve or modernise ports or vessels, as well as fund research – to the benefit of the whole sector. It’s very important that the UK Government provides an alternative and some certainty.
- You are one of the most experienced MSPs in terms of ministerial roles, what advice would you give to new ministers who are experiencing being in government for the first time?
It is a great privilege to be a minister. My advice is to listen strenuously to those who have expertise and experience in the area of your portfolio, and to study all the papers that come before you carefully, in case you miss something! Remember that officials need clear and fair leadership and that each day you have a precious opportunity to do good for Scotland and the voters.
Also, as the Permanent Secretary told me on my first day in office, “Remember – everything you say – you say as a minister!
- What are the challenges of balancing the competing aims of the Good Food Nation Bill?
There’s already a lot going on across the Scottish Government that contributes to our Good Food Nation objectives, for example, in public health, we’re taking a strong stance in tackling diet and obesity; in procurement, we already encourage the public sector to offer local and healthy products; in food education, we are supporting careers and opportunities for young people in the food and catering sector; and for the industry itself, we provide significant food processing and marketing funding.
So we are already balancing a lot of those aims, and we’re looking forward to working in consultation with stakeholders from various sectors, to take forward our vision for health, environmental sustainability, social justice, and prosperity, and ensure that Scotland continues to grow as a Good Food Nation.
- You’ve recently bought a sports car, what would be your dream road trip?
Anywhere, so long as I only need to take my partner and daughter with me and no ministerial box!
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