Ash Dieback Disease

Part of Opposition Day — [9th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 12th November 2012.

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Photo of George Freeman George Freeman Conservative, Mid Norfolk 6:11 pm, 12th November 2012

I speak as the Member of Parliament for Mid Norfolk, which sits right at the heart of the Norfolk cluster of the disease, and as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on agricultural science, which is taking a close interest in the matter. I know that all colleagues agree that this outbreak is a serious problem for our forestry industry and our landscape. I welcome the urgency of the reaction shown by the Secretary of State and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, and the professionalism with which they have handled the issue. More than 100,000 trees were felled in the summer, and the biggest ever survey of ash trees has been conducted. We have also seen several Cobra meetings, a national summit and an immediate ban on imports.

Outbreaks of disease that affect our biodiversity are never easy to manage, and it ill behoves Mary Creagh to criticise the Government in the way she did. Her words were somewhat at odds with the reaction of the former Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, who I think all colleagues would agree has dealt with the matter in an extremely responsible way. He has also sat in the Chamber today and listened to the entire debate.

Barry Gardiner is a former forestry envoy, and it was interesting that he devoted his speech largely to criticising the Government, rather than talking about the responsibility of the previous Administration. The truth is that this is a wake-up call for us all, as my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith has said, and it is unhelpful wilfully, negligently or merely incompetently to distort the scientific evidence, to peddle petty personal conspiracy theories or to scaremonger.

I welcome the Minister’s clear, careful account of the issue. I particularly welcome his reassurance that the disease is not spreading, and that funding for plant health has not been cut—indeed, it has increased. I strongly endorse his acknowledgement of the role of the many voluntary groups and charities that have helped to support the Department’s work. The key now is to focus on what we can do to prevent the spread of the disease. We must use the British science base to explore all possible avenues—not least, resistance—and to put in place a proper framework for biosecurity.

The Government have taken a series of important steps in relation to prevention, and it is important to acknowledge the Minister’s assertion that the disease is not spreading now. We have some time in which to put in place a proper framework, which is why a responsible reaction from Members on both sides of the House is important. I also welcome the launch of the tree health action plan and the imposition by the Secretary of State of an immediate ban on imports. Unfortunately, however, the scientific evidence shows that because the disease has been allowed to incubate in this country for many years—probably between 10 and 15—we might not be able to eradicate it. Our ash population could be facing a serious epidemic.