The Food Train arrives in the Parliament

Recently I spoke during my colleague Elaine Murray’s member’s debate on the food train initiative and highlighted the positive example and work of the food train in Stirling within my region.

I previously met with staff and volunteers during an event in Parliament, along with those that benefit from their hard work. It was clear then that it was a valued programme and everyone spoke positively about their experience, which is why I was delighted to speak during the debate and congratulate staff and volunteers from across the country on the work they do. Continue reading

Review of Agricultural Holdings Legislation

Commenting on the Scottish Government review on agricultural holdings legislation, Scottish Labour’s Claire Baker MSP, said:

“This review is to be welcomed and Scottish Labour looks forward to seeing the review’s work and recommendations in due course.
“The review must be seen in the wider context of land ownership, which remains one of the most glaring areas for reform in Scotland. The SNP cannot address one without the other. So while this review is welcome, it raises more questions about why there is no Ministerial lead over the vexed question of land ownership in Scotland.”

CAP Budget Allocations

Commenting on the UK Government’s announcement on Common Agricultural Policy allocations,Scottish Labour’s Rural Affairs Spokeswoman, Claire Baker MSP, said:

“Whilst I am disappointed that Scotland has not received an immediate uplift, as called for on a cross-party basis by MSPs, it is important that all sides continue to try and work together to achieve a fair deal for farmers across Scotland. Continue reading

Claire hosts Microchipping debate

The other week in Parliament I held a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the issue of compulsory microchipping for dogs after a recent poll from YouGov and Dogs trust found that 82% of Scottish adults agree with it’s introduction.

Whilst the vast majority of dog owners are responsible in their duties, we all see the effects of irresponsible dog ownership within our community, from dog fouling, strays or noise pollution. It is important that we instill a responsible approach to ownership to help address these issues. Continue reading

Hydro-power in Scotland

Yesterday in Parliament I took part in the Scottish Government debate on Hydropower. Hydro not only provides electricity and jobs to many rural places across Scotland but can also play a fairly significant part in helping us meet our future climate change targets.

The debate focused on the 70th anniversary of hydro-power in Scotland and I was recently at a dinner during Scottish Renewables hydro conference to mark the occasion. The night and conference was a great opportunity Continue reading

Buy Local Eat Scottish

This week I have spoken about the success and challenges faced by butchers in the current climate during a Scottish Parliament debate on local food. As the granddaughter of a butcher, who worked in the industry since he left school, I understand the skills involved and welcomed the opportunity to have this debate in Parliament.

There are undoubtedly opportunities for local butchers in today’s markets and reports of increased footfalls amongst local butcher shops are encouraging. I also understand that many are now promoting online sales which is vital in today’s marketplace.

There are undoubtedly benefits to shopping locally, a shorter supply chain, higher quality and traceability. However, we can’t hide from the fact that many families across Scotland are facing harsh economic challenges. When faced with the choice of spending £3.24 for a lb of pork sausages at a farmers market or £1.38 at a supermarket many households have to prioritise price before other factors.

The debate was held by Nigel Don MSP who aimed to congratulate farmers’ markets and food purveyors across the country. Nigel Don also hosed a successful Farmers Market in the   Scottish Parliament to highlight Scotland’s finest food and drink, promoting the ethos of ‘Buy local, eat Scottish.’

I was delighted to see that the farmers market in Parliament included two Fife companies, St Andrews Farmhouse Cheese Company and Eden Brewery and was delighted to talk to both them and mention them during the debate along with Fife’s fantastic reputation for food and drink.

Last year I held a debate in Parliament highlighting the excellent work of Fife Diet and their Food Manifesto and I called for a wider debate on our relationship with food, particularly on what and how we eat. The recent revelations that have emerged from the horsemeat scandal shows that a wider debate is still essential. It is important that low income families are not excluded from the benefits that come from shopping locally and regardless of what you can afford for food, you still deserve to have confidence in the quality of what you are buying.

Scottish Labour Calls for Microchipping of Dogs

Today I visited Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre in West Calder to announce that Scottish Labour is supporting compulsory microchipping of dogs.

Microchipping has a number of advantages, it helps return stray dogs, allows easy identification of those undertaking animal cruelty on their dogs, ensures owners of dangerous dogs are held to account and is a deterrent to dog theft.

With their being close to 3,000 stray dogs a year in Scotland, microchipping is a great help is reuniting worried owners. At the same time by quickly reuniting owners there is a saving made on the public purse through reduced kennelling costs.

Compulsory dog chipping is currently in place in Northern Ireland, England is planning on introducing it south of the border by 2016, a consultation on the issue has just concluded in Wales, the results of which are due soon. Currently the Scottish Government has no plans to introduce compulsory microchipping in Scotland.

With plans across the rest of Britain, Scotland face being left behind on the issue of microchipping. It is important that the Scottish Government takes action to ensure Scotland comes into line with the rest of the UK.

Dog owners already have to ensure their dog is wearing a collar and tag but microchipping can hold much more information whilst it cannot be removed.

Dogs Trust, who do invaluable work in rehoming lost and abandoned dogs, microchip dogs for free, helping reduce the costs for the owner. It was great to meet with the staff in West Calder and see first-hand the work they do in chipping, scanning and taking care of their dogs.

Claire calls for Government action over ‘fake’ curries

This week I have called on the Scottish Government to take action to ensure that Scotland’s restaurants are not selling adulterated curries after newspaper reports found that four out of five Indian takeaways and restaurants in Fife have regularly sold lamb curries substituted with cheap cuts of beef. 

The survey, which was conducted across Scotland, found that of the 46 restaurant and takeaways that were selling adulterated curries, 33 did not contain any lamb with the remaining used lamb along with cheap cuts of beef. The meat is being passed off as lamb in popular dishes such as bhoona and korma.

Since the publication of the report the restaurants in Fife that have been found adulterating their curries  have remained unnamedAll restaurants selling beef in lamb curries should be named as soon as possible and a full investigation carried out.

First it was horsemeat and now these shocking revelations show that the average consumer in Scotland is continuingly to be let down. Consumers deserve a right to know what they are eating and this is yet another devastating blow for consumer confidence.

The horsemeat scandal has already raised many questions that the Government still need to answer and this latest news just adds to questions over Scotland’s food chain. The reality is that we will probably never know how long the contamination of food has been taking place nor how much horsemeat or fake curries there has been in the food chain prior to the breakout out of the scandal.

I will be writing to both the Scottish Government to ensure they fully investigate this issue and I will also be writing to Fife Council to see what action they will be taking against the restaurants”

Crofting Debate

Yesterday in Parliament I spoke during a member’s debate brought forward by Jean Urquhart on Crofting. 

The debate was also well timed due to the situation around the awarding of shooting rights in Raasay to firstly an absentee company and then back to the Raasay community.

The Minister still has many questions to answer on the issue, specifically on the issue of whether the Estate Charter brought in by the Scottish Executive in 1999 is still adhered to.

Below you can find a video of yesterday’s debate along with a copy of my speech.

Taken from the Scottish Parliament Official Report: 

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): I congratulate Jean Urquhart on bringing the debate to the chamber. Her speech revealed a real understanding of not just the challenges that crofting communities face, but of their resilience and their reason for being. This is an opportune week for the debate, given that we had a debate on food policy this afternoon and will debate CAP reform tomorrow afternoon.

Crofters play a vital role in the rural economy. As the motion highlights, they maintain land in remote areas, contribute to securing population levels in remote communities, support the larger agricultural sector and make a significant contribution to Scotland’s environment.

I want to cover three areas in this short debate. First, the motion identifies CAP subsidy as a means of support for crofting communities. The process of CAP reform is on-going; we need genuine reform, and there will inevitably be winners and losers, but reform provides an opportunity to direct support to where it can achieve greater multiple gains. Crofting, given the contribution that it makes to sustainable communities and Scotland’s environment, has much to be championed.

Crofting agriculture is generally agreed to be uneconomic, but it delivers much more. CAP reform and the move from historic to area payments in Scotland could give us an opportunity to ensure that appropriate support measures are put in place to protect and enhance crofting agriculture. We need to decide what the best use of the funds is to deliver the greatest benefits to vulnerable rural communities by contributing to their vitality and securing them even where the benefits are not easy to measure.

Secondly, I want to refer to Raasay, which Jean Urquhart has lodged another motion about. Although the fact that the lease has been returned to the Raasay community is welcome, it is for only one year and has cost the Government three times what it accepted as a bid for the rights, so questions remain about how the decision was made.

As land reform legislation passed through the Scottish Parliament, the then Scottish Executive introduced the “Estate Charter”, which set out a series of principles that acknowledged the Scottish Government’s role as landowner, and the impact that poor decisions could have on the viability of communities. The recent decision on Raasay shooting rights has highlighted the charter. The Scottish Government has claimed that ministers were not involved in the decision. Even if that were to be accepted, the question remains, why not? This evening’s debate is perhaps not the appropriate parliamentary forum for the unanswered questions to be answered, but there needs to be parliamentary scrutiny of the decision and the status of the charter.

The minister will be aware of growing concerns, which have been raised by other members, about interpretation of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010. Guidance from the Crofting Commission has informed owner-occupier crofters that they do not have a legal mechanism through which to decroft, and that is creating uncertainty. If the problems are being caused by the 2010 act, steps must be taken to resolve the issue and the Government must provide clarity on how the situation will be resolved.

I thank Jean Urquhart for bringing the debate and for recognising the importance of crofting to the Highlands and Islands.

Scottish Government rethink needed over school meals

Yesterday in Parliament I opened for Scottish Labour on the Food Policy debate calling for the Scottish Government to rethink how they award school meals contracts.

The horsemeat scandal has raised many questions that the Scottish Government still need to answer not least around the issue of school meals. We will probably never know how much horsemeat was in the food chain prior to the breakout of the scandal or how long the adulteration of food had been taking place.

Previously the Cabinet Secretary told Parliament that food and drink contracts are awarded with a balance between price and quality. However it has since came out that the national procurement contract for school meals was awarded with price weighted three times as much as quality and we now know that school meals cost as low as £1.68.

It has since been revealed that the Scotland Excel contract for school catering is awarding a weighting of 65 per cent to price compared with 20 per cent to quality. Cost is therefore given more than three times greater weighting than quality. That is not a balance. Was the cabinet secretary aware of the 65:20 ratio weighting when he made the statement to Parliament? Does he agree that it would have been better to have greater clarity for members and parents?

It has also been announced that the average cost of school meals across Scotland is as low as £1.68 in certain areas. For some children their school dinner is their only meal of the day. For that reason it is vital that the lunch they eat is healthy, nutritious and exactly as described.

Previously I have held debates on the Fife Diet manifesto in the hope to start a discussion on our relationship with food; unfortunately it has taken a food crisis to bring us to this point.

Scotland does produce some of the world’s finest food and drink and that industry is a vital part of our economy, that however does not mask the reality that is a rise in food banks, demand for food parcels and one in six children go to bed hungry each night.

Below you can find a video of yesterday’s debate along with a copy of my speech moving our motion.


Taken from the Scottish Parliament Official Report: 

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): In September I was pleased to bring to the Parliament a members’ business debate on the Fife diet manifesto. I hoped to start or encourage discussion about our relationship with food, how we eat and how we grow and trade food. The need for such discussion has, if anything, intensified in the wake of recent food scandals, and it is unfortunate that it has needed a crisis to bring us to this point.

I doubt that any member disagrees with the cabinet secretary when he says that Scotland produces some of the world’s finest food and that our food and drink industry is a vital part of the Scottish economy. However, although we recognise the contribution of our farming sector and our fishermen and although we welcome initiatives that promote the best of what Scotland has to offer, the stark reality is that food banks are on the rise, the demand for food parcels has doubled and, according to Save the Children, one in six children goes to bed hungry every night.

In the debate in September, members discussed a food sector that is dominated by a few companies. In recent weeks, we have seen how such companies influence the food chain. The horsemeat scandal magnified the issue, implicating large companies that many people considered to be reputable, safe and trustworthy, such as Findus, Birds Eye, Tesco and Asda.

It is right that we challenge supermarkets about their supply chains and that we identify the need for more European Union action on labelling. However, the Scottish Government has responsibility for regulation and implementation in Scotland, and recent events force us to ask whether our system is robust enough to be able to restore consumers’ confidence and trust. The restoration of trust would benefit industry as well as consumers.

We await final results from DNA testing and, given the weekly reports of a new company or product being implicated in relation to food fraud, it seems that we have not yet resolved the problem. It is important that we ask the hard questions. We can acknowledge the strong approach to traceability in Scottish farming and the positives of our food sector, but we cannot be complacent.

Since the cabinet secretary’s statement on the horsemeat scandal, we have learned that two large catering companies, Brakes and Sodexo, which supply the public sector, have been supplying adulterated meat products. Questions about who supplied the companies with those products remain unanswered. Has the cabinet secretary been told who supplied the meat? If so, will he inform Parliament and consumers? If we are to aim for a transparent food chain and full traceability, we need to know where the processed meat originated. If we are to restore consumer confidence, we must ensure that all information is available and that there is full traceability to where the horsemeat originated.

In his statement to the Parliament, the cabinet secretary told us that food and drink contracts are awarded with regard to a balance between price and quality. We were told that quality is vital in the awarding of a contract and that the lowest price will not necessarily win the contract.

It has since been revealed that the Scotland Excel contract for school catering is awarding a weighting of 65 per cent to price compared with 20 per cent to quality. Cost is therefore given more than three times greater weighting than quality. That is not a balance. Was the cabinet secretary aware of the 65:20 ratio weighting when he made the statement to Parliament? Does he agree that it would have been better to have greater clarity for members and parents?

Recently, it was announced that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment would join the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in hosting a school meals summit. We now know that the average cost for a school meal is as low as £1.68. Although we can point towards local authorities such as East Ayrshire Council and its focus on local food sourcing, it is evident that local authorities have been encouraged towards national procurement contracts as a means to deliver best value.

Parents and carers should be able to send their children to school in confidence that the lunch that they eat is healthy, nutritious and exactly as described. For some children across Scotland, the school dinner is their only meal of the day. Transparency, traceability and quality must be higher on the agenda. We look forward to hearing more from the cabinet secretary on the outcomes of the recent summit.

We will probably never know how much horsemeat was in the food chain prior to the breakout of the scandal or how long the adulteration of food had been taking place. It has been clear throughout that the complexity of the supply chains and the relationships between companies have been difficult for people to understand. If the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had not found traces of horsemeat DNA in beefburgers on 15 January, there is every chance that the recall of contaminated products would not be taking place.

The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals believes that there are 70,000 horses unaccounted for in Northern Ireland. Through the close working of the USPCA and the Scottish SPCA, we know that Scottish ports have been used in the transportation of maltreated horses with fake passports. Was the cabinet secretary aware of the conviction and subsequent fine of a horse trader from Northern Ireland in November 2012 at Stranraer sheriff court for transporting maltreated horses with no or fake passports? In the current circumstances, that recent conviction is concerning. Did any information sharing take place on that conviction? Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we can perhaps now recognise that there is a greater need for agencies to share information. Sometimes the connections are not easy to identify.

A national debate started because of the horsemeat scandal, but that has grown into a much wider examination of food standards. Waitrose withdrew a product that was contaminated with pork at its Shettleston plant, which is a major concern for halal customers. There have also been more recent reports that banned mechanically separated meat is being used in the UK to count towards meat content. Only last weekend, questions were raised about the reliability and accuracy of meat dish labelling in restaurants.

Although many of the cases are about mislabelling, there are also public health concerns. George Fairgrieve, the food safety adviser at the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland, recently said:

“A worrying impact of the reduction in the number of inspections being carried out is that the opportunity for fraudulent activity increases and law-abiding traders are disadvantaged …. There are other vital areas of public health that must also be considered, for example preventing or dealing with outbreaks of E-coli O157 and Legionella.”

The latest revelations show once again that it is the average customer who is being let down.

The FSA Scotland’s consultation launch last week was welcome. We must take that as an opportunity to review what is working and what needs to be improved.

Rob Gibson (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP): Does the member agree that cuts in the FSA—the cuts emanated from the previous Labour Government in London and the coalition Government has made further cuts—have made it more difficult for testing to take place, and that that affects people as much in Scotland as it does in the rest of the UK?

Claire Baker: Since 2008, under the Scottish National Party’s watch, we have seen a reduction in the number of meat inspectors and environmental health officers. Under the Scottish Government, cuts have been passed down to local authorities. We see the pressures that they face and, if we work in a light-touch regulatory system, those are seen as easy areas to make reductions.

Last week my colleague, Dr Simpson, asked questions about the FSA’s funding. Although commitments were given on the stability of FSA funding, the new body will have additional responsibilities that will need to be fully supported.

To go back to Rob Gibson’s comments, the debate should give us the opportunity to ask whether we have things right and to recognise where there are mistakes in the current system. Regardless of where those mistakes emanate from, the debate gives us a chance to ask whether we have the regulatory system right and whether we are delivering the best interests of the consumer.

A recent Unison Scotland report raises concerns about the drop in food sampling by a third, the reduction of meat inspectors by 50 per cent and the drop in the number of environmental health officers in local authorities. Some 56 per cent of environmental health officers say that their teams have had major cuts. A further 10 per cent describe cuts as severe and one member said:

“We have not submitted any samples for food in ten months!”

The issue is not only the reduction in staff numbers but the way in which the system operates. Random testing, unannounced visits and a system for whistleblowing are needed if we are to have integrity in the system.

A combination of lighter-touch regulation and financial pressures has resulted in fewer checks and balances. Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling described the risks:

“Declines in meat inspector numbers and local authority food safety officers, along with reduced food sampling, must contribute to a weakening of public health standards and the possibility of criminal abuses in the food system.”

Of course, I recognise the FSA’s work in recent weeks and the additional inspections that have been carried out. However, those are all after the event and I imagine that, even if there had been any problems, the premises would have got their houses in order for preannounced visits. Given what we now know, we need a robust assessment of whether the system provides us with confidence.

Food is a complex issue. The Parliament has been bold in other areas of public health, but our food policy is defined primarily by export levels and quality products. Those are both positive outcomes, but our food policy must work for everyone in Scotland. It is important for our economy, our health and addressing inequalities.

The Government motion does not address the challenges that we face in relation to food, the growing inequality around food and the crisis that has engulfed the sector throughout Europe. Those are the matters that the Parliament needs to address.

I move amendment S4M-05892.3, to leave out from “welcomes” to “policy and” and insert:

“supports the promotion of local produce and sourcing while recognising the need for affordability, particularly as the demand on food banks rises; notes the recent food scandal, including the adulteration of products with horsemeat, which has affected products sold throughout Scotland and, in learning lessons from this, believes that a robust regulatory regime is necessary to ensure the highest standard of food labelling and food safety to restore consumer confidence and trust; expresses concern that a school in Scotland was supplied with adulterated food through a national procurement contract; calls on the Scottish Government to outline what action it will take following the school meals summit; highlights the recent members’ survey by Unison that raises concerns over staff cuts, reductions in food sampling and the future of the meat inspection service and calls on the Scottish Government to outline its response to this; recognises the progress that has been made through the national food and drink policy but believes that there is no room for complacency as it”.