Speech : Rural Economy (European Union Referendum )

Rhoda's speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

27 September 2016

We in the Scottish Labour Party support the Scottish Government’s aim of getting the best deal for Scotland from Brexit.

Ideally, that means that the Government would respect both mandates delivered by the Scottish people—to remain part of the UK and to remain in the EU—and would forge strong alliances, in which it shares resources and knowledge.

The decision to leave the EU will damage the rural economy. Europe deals with peripherality by seeking to remove barriers and create fairer trading conditions. Governments in the UK and Scotland have not done that; nor, it appears, have they learned from Europe about the need to do so. I cover the Highlands and Islands region, which has benefited hugely from European assistance.

We have built roads and causeways and provided training and support for communities.

We have benefited from CAP payments and rural development funding.

The loss of those things will undoubtedly hit rural Scotland hardest.

As a response to austerity, resources have been centralised and jobs and investment have been pulled from rural areas and concentrated in urban areas.

That does not augur well for Brexit, because it will undoubtedly lead to fewer resources, which will disproportionately impact on rural areas by causing greater centralisation.

If rural Scotland is to be protected, we need to embrace policies that deal with peripherality.

We need to recognise that it will always cost more in rural areas to do business and provide services.

Transport challenges cause problems, as does the lack of economies of scale.

Both Governments need to ensure that rural Scotland does not disproportionately bear the brunt of Brexit.

Our amendment talks about broadband.

A huge amount of work is happening at a European level to ensure access to broadband, which is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

We have already had European regional development funding for our broadband roll-out, but much more will come in future—again, targeted at the areas that have most to benefit but that suffer market failure.

The areas where the market fails are not just in rural Scotland but in urban areas of deprivation—parts of the country that seem always to be at the back of the queue.

Earlier today, I read a research paper from the Carnegie UK Trust, “Digital Participation And Social Justice In Scotland”, which quite starkly makes those exact points.

Not only are applications for welfare payments now made online, but the Department for Work and Pensions looks for electronic job applications as proof of job seeking.

For that, a person must be online, which makes it difficult for those without access to broadband to comply, which leads to benefit sanctions, and it also makes it more difficult for them to seek work in the first place.

The same areas also lose out on access to health and public services.

Access to broadband would allow those services to be delivered to people much closer to home.

We need to provide such services to all of our populations, but that will be difficult to do without the help of our European neighbours.

We will all see the benefit of the EU in relation to roaming charges, as big mobile phone operators are obliged to charge a reasonable amount for roaming.

With exit from the EU, we stand to lose that—we will need to fight to keep it.

I welcome the UK Government’s commitment to protect CAP direct payments until 2020 and the Scottish Government’s decision to pass that on in full to farmers and crofters, to whom it will give some comfort.

However, we need to look further into the future. We know that working the land is not a year-on-year business that can easily adapt.

Land use can sometimes take years to change.

We need to use this breathing space to look at our policy for farming going forward, post 2020.

Many say that CAP payments will be unaffordable in the future.

We need to see whether that is the case and, if it is, we need to start working with farmers and crofters now to help them to build secure and prosperous businesses for the future.

When we look at the system that will succeed CAP payments, we must also re-evaluate the relationship between farming subsidies and ensuring that everyone in Scotland has access to cheap, nutritious food.

Therefore, the Government’s legislation on food is required sooner rather than later.

We already have families who are dependent on food banks, and if food becomes more expensive, it will have a knock-on impact on the nutrition and health of the nation.

The issue concerns not just farmers and crofters but our wider society.

The Government has not given similar guarantees on rural payments that are made under the SRDP.

I heard at the weekend that the LEADER—Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale— programme is closing to new applications.

That was in the context of communities who were looking to build their own rural public transport solutions due to market failure.

It is devastating to rural communities, who need to provide essential services and develop community responses to rurality.

Given the amount of economic benefit that flows from LEADER, we need to try to find a way of replicating it, to guarantee funding and to ensure that rural communities do not lose out.

Fergus Ewing: Does the Labour Party believe, as we do, that the most helpful thing to end uncertainty over LEADER and other programmes under the SRDP would be for the UK Government to confirm that it will meet in full the EU’s planned investment under the SRDP?

Rhoda Grant: Yes, and we need that sooner rather than later, because funding streams are already closing off, two years ahead of any proposed Brexit, so we will lose the benefits that would have flowed over the next two years.

It is important to give a degree of stability to those who depend on that funding.

The position will get worse if we do not do that, and we will lose out on services to our rural communities.

We know that the fishing community was keen on Brexit and I hope that it will not be disappointed, but I fear that it will.

We all appreciate that annual fisheries negotiations left a lot to be desired—exhaustion rather than good management seemed to lead to agreement.

That said, the negotiations with Norway and the Faroes make the CFP negotiations look fantastic.

We do not want to have that type of brinkmanship in negotiations with the whole of Europe.

We stand to lose access to both the European maritime and fisheries fund and EU scientific funding.

Our fishing community has been at the forefront of developing new technology, providing more focused fisheries and minimising bycatch, and we do not want to lose those advantages because of Brexit, and neither do we want vast differences in regulation.

We will have to negotiate with the rest of the EU from the outside.

There will be many pitfalls, so our fishing industry cannot expect an end to red tape straight away.

Indeed, it might not be able to expect that in the future.

We all know that we have much to lose from Brexit, which is why the majority of members in the chamber campaigned against it—something that brought about a different vote in Scotland.

However, we are facing Brexit and it is incumbent on us all to get the best outcome for Scotland and, indeed, the UK.

We want the Scottish Government to be part of the negotiations, but that means that it needs to work as part of the UK. It is not good enough for it to use the negotiations as a platform to promote its own ambitions for independence.

We need both our Governments to work together to protect the Scottish interest. Nothing less will be acceptable to Scotland and the UK.

I move amendment S5M-01669.1, to insert after “between 2014 and 2020”: “and is poised to provide significant funding towards the further roll-out of high-speed broadband to Scotland.”

Later in the debate …

Rhoda Grant :

There is a saying that there are none so fervent as the recently converted, which to my mind sums up the Tories’ contribution to the debate, because it is a leap of faith to go from campaigning for remain to embracing Brexit.

James Kelly made the point that we are in the current position because of party-political expediency rather than what is good for our country.

However, we must all seek to mitigate its effects as much as we can.

Liam Kerr: Does Rhoda Grant agree that, rather than being converted Brexiteers, as has been suggested, we are just providing a voice for the 1 million who voted for us to come out of the EU?

Rhoda Grant: I do not understand how the Tories are speaking for those people today but did not agree with them several short months ago.

It seems strange that they can move their position so dramatically in such a short time.

My colleague Lewis Macdonald made a good contribution in which he laid out the options that we face.

He raised a number of questions about the fishing and farming sectors having access to markets in Europe without access to payments and about whether those industries would have access to markets without tariffs.

We need to find answers to those questions as we look at our farming and fishing industries, which will depend on European trade.

We also need to look at the payments that we will be required to make to the EU if we are to access the single market.

That will tell us what balance we will have left as a country to distribute in payments to people such as our farmers.

All those important questions need answers, but we are struggling to come to terms with them.

We need to set out priorities for what dividends, if any, will be available to us financially.

Leave campaigners made the point that any dividend from leaving the EU would go to the national health service, but we know that health depends on much more than the NHS.

It also depends on diet and on access to services, so to send all the money that would have gone to our farmers and rural communities directly to the NHS would place a greater burden on the NHS and create more problems than it would solve.

To that extent, I agree with Mike Rumbles, because we need to plan and to set our priorities, given the tight timescales that we face.

That is difficult to do because, as we talk about the subject—a number of people have raised questions about organisations that benefit from European funding—we need to work out how we can unpick it all and then put it back together in a way that mitigates the impact on our rural communities.

Farming and fishing stand to lose access to European markets—for example, we know that the bulk of our shellfish and lamb markets are in Europe—so we need to see how we can protect the interests of those sectors and trading partnerships.

The farming and fishing industries also depend on migrant workers—James Kelly said that 5,000 to 15,000 migrant workers are employed in those industries, including those who work as berry pickers, who are crucial for the farming industry.

Some of those jobs are seasonal and people cannot be employed all year round, so we depend on people who travel across Europe to work on different harvests in different countries.

We also know that eastern European workers are the backbone of our fish processing industry.

We want to keep them where they are providing for our local economies. John Finnie mentioned jobs in the health and care sectors that depend on European workers coming in, which we have not talked about before in this context.

We have been talking recently about the general practitioner shortages, and many European GPs are coming to Scotland to provide care for our citizens.

We need to provide certainty to our European migrants who have made their lives in this country and put down roots here that they can stay.

We also have to provide Scottish people who work in Europe with the same certainty that they will not be disrupted by Brexit.

Depopulation is the number 1 threat to local economies in rural Scotland. We need to look at ways of repopulating our rural areas and keeping young people there, but we cannot do that if we are turning away those who have come to live there.

We need to continue to collaborate with our European neighbours on certain issues; that has been very successful.

Gail Ross mentioned North Highland College and UHI.

They have benefited from funding from initiatives such as the northern periphery programme, which shared knowledge among countries with similar rural areas that face similar challenges.

Our rural areas have a lot more in common with those European rural areas than they do with urban areas in our country—Finlay Carson made that point when he talked about a south of Scotland enterprise body that would deal with rural issues there.

I am really pleased that a number of members picked up on broadband, because it is crucial for the rural economy and the way in which we deliver services.

We stand to lose funding from Europe from which we have benefited previously, but we also stand to lose the focus on a level playing field that Europe provides to us.

We need to see how we can replicate that. We will lose the knowledge from the partnerships that we can form with other European countries that face similar geographical disadvantages and difficulties in getting connectivity out to the more rural areas.

We need to see how we can still forge ahead and form those partnerships so that, if we miss out on the funding, we at least do not miss out on the knowledge that they can bring us.

A number of members mentioned PGI status, which Emma Harper went into some detail on.

That status is difficult to obtain.

I was involved in the campaign for PGI for Stornoway black pudding, which took years to obtain but has protected that product throughout Europe.

We need to find ways of protecting products, especially foodstuffs, that have become iconic as Scottish.

If we are out of Europe, that PGI protection will fall.

Presiding Officer, I can see that you are trying to catch my eye to speed me up slightly.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I have obviously been successful—thank you.

Rhoda Grant: I draw to a close by stating that the Scottish Labour Party will always pursue what is in Scotland’s best interests.

Because of Brexit, that is inextricably linked to what the best outcome for the rest of the UK is, which means that the Governments involved have to work collaboratively for the benefit of all. This is not where we wanted to be, but we must seek to protect the interests of our people.