Committee Needs to Ask Questions Over Raasay

Scottish Labour’s Rural Affairs spokesperson, Claire Baker, has criticised the Rural Affairs Committee for refusing to invite the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse to answer questions over the Raasay lease.

Claire Baker MSP, said: “There are many unanswered questions about the way the Raasay contract was awarded and the way in which this decision was reversed.

“It is the job of the Scottish Parliament committees to hold the Scottish Government to account and the refusal of the Rural Affairs committee to ask the hard questions means that we cannot get to the bottom of this debacle.

“Once again the SNP is using its majority on the committee to close down debate. The committee should be shining a light on how this poor decision was made in the first place, but they would prefer to kick this into the long grass.

“Only last week they were able to show flexibility by including a Thursday session to accommodate the Cabinet Secretary. If they can also make time to travel to Brussels to visit the European Parliament, then surely they can make time to question the Minister on an important topical issue?”

Claire closes Aquaculture and Fisheries debate

Last week in Parliament I also closed the stage 1 debate of the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill for Scottish Labour.

Aquaculture production and salmon and freshwater fisheries are worth an estimated £650m to Scotland and the importance of this piece of legislation can be seen with the consultation drawing over 1,000 responses. The responses show that opinions are divided on the issue raised within the consultation.

The Government has since produced a bill and alongside that a documents outlining what issue from the consultation it wasn’t taken forward till a later date – these issues coincidently seem to be the matters that cause the greatest dispute.

There is a need for both the aquaculture and the wild fisheries sector to coexist and as this bill moves forward it is important that there is trust and transparency as we work towards a balance.

The bill was agreed in principle and now moves on to stage 2 where amendments can be made from all parties.

Many issues were raised throughout the debate, from sea lice to illegal cockle fishing and commercially damaging species and it is important that as we move into stage 2 that we produce an aquaculture and fisheries sector that is fit for the 21st centuary.

You can find below a video of the second half of the debate including my closing speech and a full transcript of my speech from the Official Report.

Taken from the Scottish Parliament Official Report: 

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): This has been a wide-ranging debate with many interesting speeches.

I wish the minister all the best in taking forward his first piece of Government legislation. He might get through this afternoon quite comfortably, but stage 2 might be a bit bumpier.

I thank members of the committee for the time that they took to prepare the stage 1 report. They not only considered the proposals in the bill but took the time to consider the broader issues and discuss issues that are outwith the bill’s scope. I know that that involved more than taking evidence in cosy committee rooms. The committee also travelled to salmon rivers, wild fishery hatcheries, coastal netting stations, fish farms and processing plants—we have heard about some of those experiences this afternoon—all in the deepest, darkest Scottish winter. I am sure that that is the kind of team building that companies cannot pay for these days.

The breadth of the issues that have been discussed this afternoon perhaps demonstrated the bill’s limitations. The committee has stressed the need for the legislation to be fit for purpose for many years to come. There are exceptions—the area is complex—but, having introduced legislation as a first step, the Government needs to be careful that subsequent reviews and discussions do not weaken the bill. For example, in her opening speech, Claudia Beamish spoke about the importance of how the bill connects to the marine plan.

In the pre-legislative consultation document that explored the possible content of the bill, the Scottish Government said:

“aquaculture production and salmon and freshwater fisheries are estimated to be worth over £650m … to Scotland … It is important that both sectors—and their interactions—are managed effectively, as part of the wider marine and freshwater environment and to maximise their combined contribution to our aim of sustainable economic growth in Scotland.”

The bill aims to address those issues.

The consultation generated more than 1,000 responses. There is no denying that opinions were strongly divided. It would certainly be difficult to make easy progress on some of the issues that were raised.

However, the Government’s solution to that was to produce a bill that was accompanied by a further document outlining where future action was planned for the matters that were not addressed in the bill—which, coincidentally, also seemed to be the matters that caused the greatest dispute.

Unlike James Isbister, who caught a 6ft ling this week, the Government seems to have cast a line, got plenty of bite but failed to land the big fish.

Although the bill seeks to improve the regulatory framework, it has increasingly been seen as the start of a process, with much work being left to the refreshed ministerial group on aquaculture and a forthcoming review of wild fisheries management.

The committee talks about the need for a

“coherent wild fisheries management structure”.

It is a point well made. The minister must be mindful of the need for continuity and coherence.

Many members referred to the tensions between stakeholders and to the sometimes contradictory evidence that was received—a point that was strongly emphasised in the stage 1 report.

Scotland has a growing aquaculture sector. The Scottish Government recognises its importance to the economy. Scottish farmed salmon is viewed as a high-value, high-quality product throughout the world. It is Scotland’s top food export and is marketed in more than 65 countries, with particular growth in the far east. It employs more than 6,000 people often in rural areas, and there is a target of increasing the production of all farmed fish by 50 per cent by 2020.

Alongside that industry is a wild fisheries sector, which is also highly valued in Scotland and throughout the world. One of Scotland’s most iconic images is of a wild salmon leaping up a river. That fish must be protected, as well as pursued, in its native environment.

In its briefing for the debate, the Scottish Wildlife Trust highlighted the fact that there has been a decline in Atlantic salmon in European waters over the past three decades. It identifies the complex reasons—food availability, water temperature changes, pollution, barriers in rivers, overfishing and the effects of aquaculture—and recognises that probably a combination of all of them has contributed to decline.
Claudia Beamish: I want to stress something about being a sea trout champion that I did not get time to say in my speech. The serious point is the concern that the sea trout is under even greater threat than the salmon. Jamie McGrigor highlighted that as well. I would like the minister to be aware of that issue.
Claire Baker: I thank Claudia Beamish for her intervention.

Although the two sectors need to coexist, an appropriate balance needs to be struck, and there needs to be greater trust and transparency. The level of regulation is crucial. No one wants us to have regulation that would damage an important Scottish industry, but calls have been made for proportionate regulation, in recognition of the fact that across our food chain there is a need—perhaps now more than ever—for transparency and, as my colleague Jayne Baxter highlighted, robust governance.

As many members identified, how we report sea lice is the most contentious issue and, in some ways, it is one that encapsulates the tensions that exist across the sector. It raises issues of proportionate regulation, of transparency, of trust, of consumer confidence and of the importance of a science-led approach. Both sides of the debate make persuasive arguments, of which Graeme Dey gave a good description as he outlined the nature of the debate that has taken place in the committee. I welcome the recent moves by the SSPO to increase its accountability, but I recognise the strong arguments in favour of a more robust reporting system. Although the minister has ruled out a Government amendment on the matter at this stage, the importance that the committee has attached to the issue suggests that we will return to it at stage 2.

In the time that I have left, I will pick up on a few issues that members have highlighted. Graeme Pearson and Alex Fergusson discussed illegal cockle fishing. Thankfully, cases of illegal activity and exploitation in the sector are few and far between, and it is important that we do not allow the activities of a minority to tarnish the reputation of the rest of the sector. I am pleased that the Government has recognised the need to strengthen the legislation in this area. It is important that the Government works with the Scottish police service, the industry and other relevant agencies to ensure that robust further progress is made.

It is interesting that many members have talked about areas that were discussed in the consultation, but which were not included in the bill. That indicates that there is much more work to do.

I will touch briefly on the issue of commercially damaging species. In its report, the committee suggested that the Scottish Government should take the opportunity to re-examine the issue and to consider lodging amendments, but at the moment the minister continues to argue that the current proposals are proportionate. I hope that the Scottish Government will reflect on the committee’s comments as the bill moves forward.

Angus MacDonald and Richard Lyle talked about the potential for the bill to contribute to tackling climate change challenges, as well as the challenges that the sector faces. Rob Gibson and Margaret McDougall spoke about the contentious issue of seals and reflected the committee’s support for greater use of alternative predator controls. Jim Hume discussed escapes and promoted a solution; we await the minister’s reply. The committee recognised that escapes from fish farms are undesirable and stressed the importance of all sectors working together to minimise them.

The report also raised concerns about biomass. Last year in the chamber, I highlighted to the minister the concern that the aim of increasing the production of all farmed fish by 50 per cent by the year 2020 could result in a subsequent increase in the use of chemical treatments. I reiterate that point and ask for assurances that the Government is actively looking into the issue. It is important that the regulatory framework that the bill contains is robust enough to ensure that any increases in aquaculture will be suitably managed and regulated.

It has been an interesting debate, in which there has been as much discussion of what is not in the bill as there has been of what is in it. We might be moving towards stage 2, but wider issues need to be addressed before we can be confident that we have an aquaculture and fisheries sector that is fit for the 21st century, and which will meet the needs of the industry and the wider environment. Those will need to be resolved through the bill or through future work by the Parliament.


Letter to RACCE Committee regarding Raasay

Today I have called on the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and the Environment Committee to invite Paul Wheelhouse to discuss the awarding of the lease to manage shooting and fishing rights on Raasay.

The Government u-turn has raised as many questions as it has answers and it is important that Parliament receives the full facts from the Minister and his department.

It is the role of committee’s in the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the administration of the Scottish Government and I hope they take up my request to invite the Cabinet Minister to ensure lessons are learned.

A copy of my letter can be found below:

Dear Rob,

I would like to suggest that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and the Environment Committee invite Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for the Environment, to the committee to discuss the awarding of the lease to manage shooting and fishing rights on Raasay, along with a wider discussion on how these decisions are made in the future.

The awarding of the lease firstly to South Ayrshire Stalking before latterly being returned to Raasay Crofters’ Association has raised question. I would hope that the Minister’s attendance at committee would provide him with the opportunity to answer questions about how the lease was awarded. It is important that members are given the opportunity to fully understand the issues going forward to ensure lessons are learned for future decision making processes.

I do appreciate that the committee has an agreed work plan. However, I hope that you are able to consider this request at the next committee meeting on the 5th of March and I look forward to receiving your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Claire Baker

Claire calls for consumers’ interests to be put first with new food standards committee

In Parliament yesterday I questioned the Minister for Public Health, Michael Matheson, on Scotland’s new food safety body.

This Ministerial Statement was on the back of the current horse scandal – which I have talked about previously – and an announcement in June of last year that a new food body would be created in Scotland.

The Scudamore report which recommended a new food standards agency reported in April 2012 and the Minister announced he would take this forward in June of that same year so it is unfortunate that it has taken a scandal to force our Government into action.

The horse meat scandal has also brought to light that the FSA in Scotland underspent its budget by 10% and that meat inspectors have halved since 2008 raising questions on just how robust our food regulatory system currently is.

A video of the statement can be found below along with a copy of my question to the Minister and his reply.

Taken from the Scottish Parliament Official Report.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): As the minister will know, the number of meat inspectors has halved since 2008. While that is partly due to a reduction in the number of premises requiring inspection, there has been a move towards lighter-touch regulation, with a reduction in the number and frequency of inspections.

Only today, we hear news of banned mechanically separated meat being used in the UK to count towards meat content. Will the minister respond to Unison Scotland’s warning against the introduction of a new body that promotes lighter-touch regulation? Will he give an assurance, particularly given what we now know about the food chain, that the new system, with a robust regulatory framework that puts consumers’ interests first, will prevent future scandals of this nature?

Michael Matheson: I hope that the member has been reassured by my statement that the primary focus and overall objective of the new food safety body in Scotland will be consumer protection.

The member asked about the number of meat inspectors. Meat inspectors are provided at a UK level and operate throughout UK, rather than specifically through the Food Standards Agency in Scotland. Their numbers have changed for a variety of reasons. For example, the number of abattoirs has reduced. In addition, during incidents such as the BSE and foot-and-mouth outbreaks, inspectors were put into premises but, once the restrictions that followed those incidents were reduced or removed, the number of inspectors that had to be present in those premises also reduced.

The new food body in Scotland and the review group that I have set up give us the opportunity to look at what we have at the moment. Are there ways in which we could do things better? Do we need to look at how we can improve the inspection and regulatory regimes to get them fit for purpose in a way that best suits Scotland’s needs?

There is no intention of having a lighter touch with existing regulation, but we need to make sure that we have a proportionate, intelligence-based system that uses the best science and evidence to support its work.

Claire switches the fish with Sainsbury’s

Claire helped encourage shoppers across Fife to try alternative, lesser known British fish for free when Sainsbury’s gave away fish as part of ‘Switch the Fish Day’.

Customers were able to try lemon sole, mussels, Cornish sardines, coley fillets or loch trout fillets in a bid to encourage shoppers to expand the range of fish they eat and try alternative species as part of the retailer’s continued commitment to sustainable fish.

Claire visited the store in Kirkcaldy to encourage customers to continue to broaden their appetite for fish beyond the ‘Big Five’ species of cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns, which currently makes up 80% of all the fish Brits consume.

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Claire champions Puffins and Lesser Butterfly Orchids

Last week I signed up to Scottish Environment Link’s ‘Wildlife Proclamation’ to become a wildlife champion. By signing up I am promising to work with the organisation, as both an MSP and Scottish Labour’s shadow cabinet secretary for the environment, to make Scotland a better place for wildlife.

MSPs that sign the Proclamation are then allowed to pick from a list of animals and plants under threat to champion throughout the Parliamentary year. I have signed up to champion the Puffin and the Lesser Butterfly Orchid.

Scotland is the capital of British and Irish puffindom and the Kingdom is the home of one of the best areas to spot the animal, with colonies across the east coast and on the Isle of May. Unfortunately the local Puffin bird is under threat due to a decline in food and climate change impacts.

The Puffin bird feeds on the lesser sandeel which is sadly in decline, in part due to the effects of climate change, and this is having a knock on effect on the population of the birds, particularly in Fife, as they are forced further north in search of food.

The lesser butterfly orchid is suffering across Scotland due to inappropriate land management. The orchid suffered a 33% decline across Britain between 1964 and 2002 and remains under threat.

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Biodiversity 2020 Challenge

Yesterday in Parliament I opened and closed the Rural Affair, Climate Change and Environment committee debate on Biodiversity for Scottish Labour. A copy of the motion that was debated along with a link to my speech can be found at the end of this post. The debate gave the Parliament an opportunity to reflect on the submissions received by the Scottish Government consultation on the 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s biodiversity; we will hopefully also have a chance to debate the Government’s response.

Biodiversity has been on the political and global agenda since the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992.  In April 2002, there was a commitment to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level.  In addition, the Aichi Targets set by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called for a step change in efforts to halt the loss of biodiversity and to restore the essential services that a health natural environment provides.  Scotland’s response to this is the 2004 Biodiversity Strategy It’s in Your Hands.

Therefore it is hugely disappointing that Scotland failed to meet the 2010 target, and that this was a global failure. The call to action in 1992 has not resulted in the halt to the loss of biodiversity and The In Your Hands strategy is in need of a redraft – but the failed 2010 target makes it more difficult to reach future targets and we need to redouble efforts if we are to meet the important 2020 targets.

Biodiversity can seem removed for people’s everyday life, irrelevant to a modern, technological age, something to enjoy recreationally but not really impacting on our lives.  But the problems we faced in 1992 are relevant today more than ever.  The international Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 which brings together the Aichi targets, recognises that a functioning ecosystem is “essential for human well-being.  It provides for food security, human health, the provision of clean air and water, it contributes to local livelihoods, and economic development, and is essential for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, including poverty reduction.’  Biodiversity is as much about human well-being as it is about anything else.  If we consider challenges facing communities in Scotland right now – flooding for example – healthy ecosystems can mitigate against the impact.

I was at the Making the Most of Landfill Tax event in Parliament this week, and from memory, it is 5% of the fund that goes to biodiversity project while almost half the fund goes to community assets.  There is a need to capacity build, to improve community understanding of the opportunities there are for biodiversity projects, and for this to play a greater role in achieving the targets.

Marine biodiversity is another area of importance yet is an area which is sadly suffering decline in habitat and species.  There is growing frustration over the lack of a network of Marine Protected Areas and the delay to publication of a Marine Plan. The latter is particularly frustrating as we all accept the need for a plan but, as we wait, marine development moves ahead, pre-empting its publication, and resulting in the plan having to fit around developments rather than be there to set out the strategic direction.

We do need to get on the front foot with marine planning – we all recognise the importance of the marine environment and we must make swift progress in bringing in the necessary protections.  There will be developments – there is great potential in our seas – but it is crucial that we have the proper framework in place to accommodate fisheries, renewables, aquaculture without further eroding our marine biodiversity.

On marine issues, I would just like to raise the proposed closure of the University Marine Biological Station in Millport.  I understand this is being proposed by the University of London in response to the capital challenges as well as the cut to teaching grant, but it is a facility used by Scottish universities and students working in marine and biodiversity fields and it is in a unique location, as well as recognising the contribution the station makes to marine science in Scotland.  I would welcome the Scottish Government offering some leadership on this important resource.

Biodiversity is an area that needs championing – and we can make gains across all sectors from the simplest approach that adapts the immediate environment of a workplace or public place, to the more complex drivers which offer incentives to support biodiversity activity.  It is an area that needs championing and we all have to role to play, from MSPs promoting the importance of our environment to the important role the Minister has to play in Government.  I look forward to a refreshed Strategy which will provide a clear path to success.

Motion for Debate: S4M-05320 Rob Gibson on behalf of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee: Biodiversity—That the Parliament notes that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee will be examining the analysis of the responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity as the government looks to update its current biodiversity strategy against a backdrop of a global failure to meet biodiversity targets set for 2010, the revised target to halt biodiversity loss by 2020 and the related Aichi targets.

Scottish Government ‘too little too late’ in taking action against Ash Dieback

Responding to the announcement that 11 sites in Scotland have now been confirmed with Ash Dieback and that the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse will be convening a summit of key stakeholders this Tuesday, Claire Baker MSP said:

“The disease was first believed to be in Scotland in July yet there was no information from the Scottish Government until last week. Considering the ease with which the disease can spread and the fact the disease was confirmed months before in England, the Scottish Government are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted and failed to be proactive in containing the disease.

“The Scottish Government must answer questions on when they first became aware of the threat of ash dieback and what if any precautionary action did they take.

“The First Minister admitted today that Ash Dieback is seasonal so one must ask why the Scottish Government did not take any action during the height of the season once they became aware the disease had spread to Scotland. The Government may be convening summits and attending COBRA meetings in winter whilst the disease has less chance of spreading but is it a case of too little too late?”

In response to a question Claire asked last week, the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse admitted that the Scottish Government were aware of the disease in the summer, however Parliament was only informed at the end of October.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): The minister will be aware of newspaper reports that the Forestry Commission was aware of the threat of ash dieback as far back as 2009. When exactly did the Scottish Government and the Forestry Commission Scotland first become aware of the threat of ash dieback and what action was taken then to stop the disease spreading?

Paul Wheelhouse: The member is correct in her assessment that Scotland has been aware of the disease. Work is on-going to identify exactly how it is being transmitted to the UK and within the UK. As I said in response to John Scott, the disease was first identified in Scotland in July and was confirmed in August. Until that point, there was no evidence of its presence in Scotland. We are now undertaking extensive survey work to identify the extent of its presence in Scotland. I assure the member that we will do everything that we can to move forward, to manage the disease effectively and to try to eradicate it in the best way possible

Claire raises tenant farmers concerns during CAP debate

Claire Baker has called on the Scottish and UK Government to ensure there are no ‘unintended consequences’ for tenant farmers after an SNP amendment was lodged for the Common Agriculture Policy in the European Parliament.

The amendment from Alyn Smith MEP attempts to deal with slipper farmers but concerns have been raised by the tenanted sector that it could result in confusions over who will own the land.

Speaking during the Common Agricultural Policy debate Claire Baker asked the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead for clarity on the impact of the amendment. Mr Lochhead simply dismissed the issue as ‘mischief making’ from MEPs.

Claire Baker, the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment also called for ‘public confidence’ in CAP in what is a ‘crucial period’ for the reform during the Scottish Parliament debate.

Speaking after the debate Claire Baker said:

“Concerns have been raised by tenant farmers and it was important that these concerns were raised to the Cabinet Secretary in Parliament. I am disappointed that he simply dismissed their concerns as ‘mischief making’.

“Whilst it is important that we curtail slipper farming this cannot be at the cost of tenant farmers who could see their livelihoods at risk.

“I don’t believe that Alyn Smith has genuinely set out to upset Tenant Farmers but unintended consequences are not an issue to simply be dismissed by Richard Lochhead.

“Genuine concerns were raised to me before the debate and both tenant’s farmers and myself were looking for reassurances from the Scottish Government that they make it clear ownership remains with the active farmer and not the land owner.

“I hope the Cabinet Secretary can reconsider his remarks and ensure that the matter is resolved.”


Mid Scotland and Fife MSP Claire Baker attended the Red Squirrel Fun day in Tentsmuir Forrest organised by Fife Red Squirrel Group. The event, which was arranged in conjunction with the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage, was organised to raise awareness of the threats faced by the red squirrel.

The main event took place in the picnic area by Tentsmuir car park and included stalls with games and information, face painting, quizzes, storytelling and ranger-led squirrel walks. Tentsmuir Forrest is an important habitat for wildlife and is home to many red squirrels and roe deer, it is also possible to see seals on the sandbars from Tentsmuir point. The forest has many waymarked trails throughout that allow you to explore either by foot or on bike.

Red squirrels are a protected species as they are under threat nationally largely due to the introduction of grey squirrels to mainland Britain. The North American grey squirrel was introduced to Fife in 1919 and is widespread in central and southern Scotland.

Around 121,000 red squirrels remain in Scotland, which is around 75% of the UK population, in contrast it is thought that the number of grey squirrels in the UK is over 3 million. The main threats facing red squirrels in Scotland are the spread of grey squirrels, habitat loss and fragmentation and squirrelpox virus.

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