I beg to move,
That the draft Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on
These regulations amend the Plant Health (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 to ensure that recent EU-derived protective measures against the introduction and spread of harmful plant pests continue to remain effective and operable on leaving the EU. The 2019 regulations, which were debated in this House on
It is our responsibility to protect biosecurity across plant and animal health, as well as to protect the wider ecosystem. It is also important that we have a robust process of ongoing review to strengthen biosecurity protections, where this is possible and necessary, as we leave the EU. These draft regulations are specifically about protecting plant biosecurity, and the amendments address technical deficiencies and inoperability issues—that is quite a mouthful—relating to retained EU law on plant health that could arise when we leave the EU. I should make it clear that all the amendments introduced by this instrument are simply technical operability amendments and do not introduce any policy changes. They ensure that existing measures set out in EU legislation and national measures introduced under the EU’s plant health directive will continue to apply to the UK as we leave the EU.
First, let me say what a joy it is to see the Minister in her role, and I wish her well in that position. In recent times, and in many of the papers I have had the chance to read, alien species, be they plant or animal life, have become a growing issue. Does the Minister feel that the legislation coming forward—I am mindful that the Minister has said that this is not a change—will be able to ensure that those alien species, wherever they come from, be they from the sea or land, become a thing of the past, rather than something we have to endure and live with?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he will know, I have an interest in this area, and I wish to give assurances that this Government are taking alien species extremely seriously. We do not want invasive species coming into this country, and we will give assurances that we will have the highest level of protections and standards as we go forward, as this example today on plant biosecurity will demonstrate. This is a belt and braces step we are taking today.
I have a quick question for the Minister. Many of us are very concerned about regulated plant material coming in from third countries via the EU. What will happen with the checking? Many of us are very concerned about what this could mean in terms of pests and diseases?
Again, the hon. Lady raises a good point. We are setting up the most stringent system and checks. I will perhaps make some references to that in my summing up at the end, because people are concerned about it. However, we are revered for our standards on these things already, and we will be strengthening our checks and balances, because it is so important to us as an island that we address these things.
The majority of the changes update the list of regulated plant pests and plant material and associated import and movement requirements relating to host material in the 2019 regulations to reflect the recent amendments to the list in the plant health directive made by Commission implementing directive 2019/523, as a result of technical changes in the assessment of risks presented by particular pests and diseases. Important changes are included, regulating against new threats, such as the lemon tree borer, which affects a great deal more species than just lemon trees, including species in this country, and strengthening protections against the tobacco whitefly and the pine processionary moth, for which the UK currently has protected zone status. In addition, the list is being updated to ensure that specific national measures that have been introduced under EU provisions to protect against the rose rosette virus and the oak processionary moth remain operable after we exit the EU. I thought I would just say a bit about those two things because they are the new things we are ensuring protection against.
The rose rosette virus is an extremely damaging disease that will affect our wonderful roses. It is already widespread in the USA and parts of Canada, where it has had devastating impacts, and it was found for first time in 2017 in India. The virus affects all roses—
I shall just finish describing the horrific effects of this virus, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. The virus affects all roses and its mite vector may be present in both plants and plant parts. Current EU regulations restrict the import of plants for planting from non-European countries to plants which are dormant and free from leaves, flowers and fruit, but this is not sufficient to prevent the entry of this devastating virus, which is why we introduced national protections, which we want to retain into the future. Can you imagine, Mr Deputy Speaker, if the virus got a hold in our gardens, where we love and revere roses so much? It would have a terrible impact, as it would have on our high-quality rose breeders and the whole of that industry. It is extremely serious. Interestingly, the EU is now following our lead and is going to copy what we do. That sets us up as leaders.
That intervention leads me neatly to the other thing that we are protecting, so I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question shortly. The oak processionary moth is native to southern Europe. Its caterpillars eat the leaves of oak trees, thereby affecting the health of the trees. They also shed poisonous hairs that can cause adverse reactions in humans. The majority of the UK is designated as a protection zone against this damaging pest. It is established in many parts of Europe and its distribution has recently expanded, including in the UK, where some cases were found earlier this year. Fortunately, the Government took rapid action—this answers the hon. Gentleman’s question. We have in place a good system: first, we strengthened the existing national protections against the pest by tightening import requirements. The Forestry Commission and the Animal and Plant Health Agency then took swift action to eradicate any signs of the moth, its larvae or its caterpillars. An excellent surveillance system swung into action and lots of work was done to trace the creatures and destroy the caterpillars and, indeed, infested and related trees. All the infested trees were intercepted in the protection zone and any signs of the moths and the trees they attacked have been destroyed. It is important that we ensure the continued operability of the strengthened import requirements, to ensure ongoing protection. That is why we are proceeding with this legislation.
The Minister has given a full and interesting answer. Global warming is upon us, and of course as global warming proceeds, various species of animals and flowers are migrating ever northwards to the British Isles and across Europe. I plead with the Minister to consult our scientists and experts at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and St Andrews on what dangerous species might be tempted north, even into my constituency, by what is happening in the world.
That is very much on the Government’s radar. Indeed, DEFRA is really strong in this policy area and works constantly to see what new threats might be coming into and out of the country. As an island nation, it is important that we are really on the ball. We are going to remain part of the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation, which involves many more European countries, as well as many others, all working towards the same goal.
I am going to press on, because time is tight.
The instrument will amend primary legislation to remove references to EU obligations. The changes have no operational impact, but simply remove redundant and inoperable references to EU obligations. The devolved Administrations have provided their consent for the changes to be made for the whole UK—I think that answers the question that Jim Shannon was going to ask.
The instrument’s purpose is to ensure that an operable legal framework is in place on EU exit day and to facilitate the flow of goods while preserving the current plant health regime’s overall aim of preventing and managing pest and disease threats. For those reasons, I commend the regulations to the House.
May I welcome the new Minister to her place? As a south-west MP, it is good to see a south-west combo on both sides of the Dispatch Box. It is also good to see that she is in a position of responsibility where she will be able to use her considerable knowledge on the area of soil health, which is kind of related tangentially to plant health. She knows that, like her, I feel strongly about that issue.
Let me start by saying that the Opposition will not be opposing this statutory instrument today. We are grateful that the Government have chosen to correct mistakes and omissions in previous SIs on this matter. Once again with the plant health regulations, we are here to make amendments to amendments because the previous amendments fell short of what was required at the time. Regular watchers of these SI debates on parliamentlive.tv—I am sure that there are many of them—will know of the concerns shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Dr Drew), for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), the shadow DEFRA team. We are concerned that these SIs are sometimes being rushed through, and that mistakes—or gremlins, as I call them—can be baked into them not only in the work of the officials, but as a result of the lack of time for proper scrutiny by Members and by stakeholders. This SI confirms just that; legislation that is rushed through will need further amendment in the future because of omissions. That creates the potential for a polluted statute book, which is something that we all want to avoid, especially in an area as important and technically detailed as plant health. Indeed, on
“I confidently predict that there will be mistakes—perhaps not in these particular SIs, but in some of them—and that they will have serious consequences for our residents and businesses over and above the massive overarching mistake, which is the way in which this Government are failing to handle Brexit.”—[Official Report, Twenty-third Delegated Legislation Committee,
Ignoring the bigger Brexit position that my hon. Friend was talking about, I think it is important to say that when the Government do find errors and omissions in SIs, as we have here, we support them in bringing amendments to the Chamber, which is why we are not opposing this one today.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out in a tongue twister of a speech that there were technical deficiencies and inoperabilities with this regulation in the past, but this was not in her bailiwick at the time. I think that this SI was in the flood of statutory instruments that were proposed by her Department in the lead-up to one of the early exit dates in a bid to push through as many as possible. At the time, the Opposition raised concerns about how comprehensive those SIs would be.
Let me turn briefly to the explanatory memorandum, because, sometimes, it is just as important as the regulations themselves. It suggests, implicitly, that this is a mere updating of the previous SI with new regulation. However, if we take one example, the EU Commission Implementing Decision of 2018/1959, which concerns preventing agrilus planipennis being introduced into the EU, was passed on
The previous SI, which this one amends, was needed to correct errors and omissions in the Plant Health (EU Exit) Regulations. Does the Minister concur with our assessment that the process that was followed in some of those SIs was unsatisfactory and that improvements to the process could be made? If she does agree with that, can she set out how her Department is addressing that? I think there is cross-party agreement that getting this right is important, but sometimes getting right things that are very technical can take a few attempts, but we want to make sure that the system the Minister is using is as robust as possible.
The Minister may know that one of my penchants with statutory instruments is to look at the impact assessments, and I will not disappoint anyone who is concerned about the impact assessment on this particular SI. I am not a fan of the phrase that there is “no, or no significant impact” in impact assessments in explanatory memorandums. It is important to state that “no impact” and “no significant impact” are two very different things. The phrase “no impact” suggests that there is no change, and “no significant impact” suggests that there is change but that it has not been measured. In this case, there is no impact assessment to enable us to understand whether or not there is an impact. I encourage the Minister—I have done so with every one of her predecessors in this role—to work with the House authorities and the Leader of the House to correct that language. There is a difference between “no impact” and “no significant impact” and, as we know, this SI is a correction of the previous SI that corrected regulations. We need to be getting this right.
Let me turn briefly to biosecurity and Northern Ireland in relation to customs. The Minister has set out the territorial application of this instrument, which affects different parts of the UK differently. Given the volume of UK-EU trade—especially across the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, which we hope will not be diminished as a result of any of the Brexit arrangements her Government are pursuing—the current system for sharing biosecurity intelligence with EU countries risks being lost if there is not an agreement to ensure that information sharing takes place. In the past few days, we have seen a potential threat to information sharing between the UK and our EU friends as part of the posturing around the Brexit deal negotiations. Will the Minister set out clearly for the House that information sharing on biosecurity and plant health security, especially regarding invasive species, will not be affected by any posturing from Downing Street, and that these regulations include the ability to share properly the information that we need between ourselves and our EU friends?
In the previous Statutory Instrument Committee on plant health, the Minister’s predecessor referred to contingency plans to develop a database to capture interceptions and incursions, and to share information with the European Union when such incursions have been recorded. Is that database ready? If not, how long after the proposed exit day—for the sake of argument, let us assume that it will be
The report of the House of Lords EU Committee states:
“The need to facilitate trade post-Brexit must not be allowed to compromise the UK’s biosecurity.”
That is probably something with which everyone on both sides of the House would agree, so will the Minister tell us how her Department will guarantee that we face no increased biosecurity risks and that we maintain alignment with the EU—especially in data sharing—in any Brexit arrangements?
These regulations set up lists for England, Wales and Northern Ireland that seek to replicate the current set of EU lists on plant health. They ensure that protected zones can continue to be protected from pests, and that emergency measures can continue to be applied where necessary. However, it is proposed that a large raft of the EU legislation that accompanied the lists be revoked. As mistakes were identified in the previous SI, may I just check with the Minister that it is still her intention to revoke those parts of the EU regulation? I just want to ensure that there are no errors or omissions in that respect.
My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones mentioned that the EU plant health directive requires checks on material imported from third countries at the first point of entry into the EU. However, once we have left the EU—if that happens—the intention is to allow plant material from third countries to enter and pass through the EU without checking at the border, and to rely on checks at the destination premises of the importers. How does the Minister intend to ensure that all plant material brought into this country in that manner from third countries—without checks—will actually be checked? It is important to ensure that there are no invasive species, pests or diseases on containments of plants that can escape into our natural environment. As the Minister set out in her speech, there are a number of different pests and diseases that can affect UK species and which we would want to avoid, especially as we see the effects of climate change. The number of diseases and pests that can thrive in the UK environment has changed since regulations on pests were first introduced.
I know that this is the Minister’s first outing, so I apologise for the large number of questions that I have fired at her, but there is cross-party support for robust biosecurity in relation to plant health.
In case hon. Members were unaware, Extinction Rebellion is in New Palace Yard today, providing a free tree for every Member. I have collected mine; I got an English oak with my name on it. In fact, I walked past the Minister’s tree, which is sitting outside and which I am sure she will collect in a bit.
Ensuring that we have robust plant health and biosecurity for our natural habitat—especially the native species that Extinction Rebellion is giving out—is going to be very important whether we remain in the European Union or not, and we need to ensure that we have robust systems in place. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed a few of my questions when she responds.
I welcome the Minister to her new position. She is my neighbour and was a great member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I look forward to great work from her.
I echo what Luke Pollard said: there are trees out there, waiting for us to collect them. I too have collected an oak tree. Let us see if the soil in Tiverton is better than the soil in Plymouth. We will see how fast the trees grow and how much carbon they capture.
As the Minister will know, ash dieback—I am not as good at Latin as the shadow Minister—was introduced to this country after seed was taken to the Netherlands and grown into trees, which were brought back here. We can make Britain a bastion of trees that are not diseased. We should do everything we can to make sure that trees we import are healthy, and to grow many more of our own. There could be a real benefit from this statutory instrument, but let us make sure that we get it right. Again, I welcome the Minister to her new role.
I, too, welcome the Minister to her Front-Bench position. I absolutely acknowledge her in-depth knowledge of the subject. She will know that the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government have made plant health a priority. I would be grateful if the UK Government stated fully and frankly which standards, if any, they intend to alter, and whether plant health is to be targeted.
Plant health is at the heart of Scotland’s thriving natural environment, our rural economy and our wellbeing. However, there are increasing pest and disease threats to our plant health, particularly through increased globalisation of trade and other factors such as climate change. The aim of the Scottish plant health strategy is to safeguard agriculture, horticulture, forestry and the wider environment from plant pests from 2016 to 2021 and beyond.
The strategy requires an integrated approach to ensure effective collaboration between all interested parties. That approach builds on work already undertaken by the Scottish plant health service, but recognises that Government alone cannot tackle current and future plant health challenges, and so has a focus on working in partnership with others to build and strengthen relationships. It sets out how together we can protect crops, trees and other plants from new and existing pests and diseases. That underpins the development of the economic potential of the Scottish agriculture, horticulture, forestry, rural land use and food and drink sectors, which in turn enhances production efficiency, protects the natural environment, including amenity sites and gardens, and maintains wholesome environments for rest and relaxation.
It is my job, and that of my fellow SNP Members, to make sure that powers devolved to Scotland are protected, and not taken back by Westminster, as that would prevent us from meeting the ambitions that we share. Scotland’s rich and diverse natural environment is a valuable national asset. Its continued health and enhancement is vital for the health and wellbeing of all, and for sustainable economic growth.
In Scotland, we have the largest green space project in Europe—the central Scotland green network. It receives and welcomes some 25 million tourist visits per year, which generate around £63 million for the Scottish economy. In my constituency of Falkirk, I witness local people enjoying the results of the Scottish Government’s ambition to enable and deliver a happier, more active lifestyle, particularly through the active travel hub plan; through encouraging walking and cycling, which everybody seems to enjoy in the area; and through connecting the magnificent Kelpies to the Falkirk stadium. There are also the canal paths to the world-famous Falkirk wheel, and of course there is the Antonine wall, a world heritage site. Local people, and people from all over Scotland and the rest of the UK, walk, cycle and use the canal boats, alongside visitors from all over the world, including Europe, all enjoying each other’s company. Long may this continue.
For your information, Mr Deputy Speaker, Scotland was the first country in Europe to implement a land use strategy. That allows our strategic approach to land use to account for the full range of benefits that our land resources provide. For example, Scotland created 73% of all new woodland in the UK in 2016-17. Furthermore, Scotland’s new target of 15,000 hectares per year from 2024-25 is both ambitious and achievable. The Scottish Government’s 2017-18 programme for government was described by no less a person than Richard Dixon of Friends of the Earth Scotland as “the greenest” in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
The EU has provided significant funding for Scotland’s biodiversity. The EU’s nature policy and legislation are effective, ambitious, far-reaching, robust, consistent and well enforced. EU-wide implementation allows it to function on a supranational scale, thereby acknowledging that nature does not observe national boundaries and recognising the importance of promoting habitat connectivity, which allows biodiversity to thrive and adapt in response to anthropogenic pressures such as habitat fragmentation and climate change.
Regulations on animal and plant health and food safety remain essential for Scotland’s reputation to access EU and other international markets. These regulations are vital to ensure certainty of policy for Scotland’s future and must be respected and remain in the Scottish Government’s powers.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. There were a great many more interventions than one might have expected, and I am heartened to hear that so many people are interested in plants and our biosecurity, which is extremely important to all of us in so many ways. I particularly want to thank the shadow Minister, Luke Pollard, for kindly welcoming me to my place—we are going to be a south-west stronghold. I am delighted that he is supporting the regulations. I also thank the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, for his kind words, and John Mc Nally, with whom I had many enjoyable times on the Environmental Audit Committee. Working together on these things is important.
In order to prepare for the UK leaving the EU, it is essential that we have the right legislation in place to continue to protect plant biosecurity, while facilitating the trade and movement of plants and plant material around the world. We have a great many plants coming into the UK, but equally we export a great many plants. That must continue, but it must be safe, and we must be sure that any diseases or pests are under a tight microscope.
I take slight issue with the shadow Minister, because I do not believe that this statutory instrument has been rushed. Importantly, as I mentioned—I am sure he was listening—these regulations update legislation to include the particular biodiversity threats posed by the rosette virus and the oak processionary moth. Those threats have come to light since
A number of points were raised, and I will whizz through a few of them. Jim Shannon asked what we are doing about alien species. As I said, we work with evidence to develop a risk-based and proportionate approach to plant health measures. We have in the past introduced precautionary national measures to protect the UK against threats that we see arising elsewhere in the EU and beyond. A good example is the stronger national legislation we put in place against Xylella fastidiosa in response to the situation elsewhere in the EU. We are now introducing national legislation to protect against the oak processionary moth and a potato pest called Epitrix.
Susan Elan Jones raised a question about material in transit from third countries. Regulated material will transit in sealed conditions through the EU with a phytosanitary certificate. Material entering England via the roll-on roll-off ports will need to transit to a point of first arrival in England, where plant health inspectors will carry out plant health checks. A very definite system is set in place, and people exporting and importing plant material have all had notification of this, so it is quite clear what is going to happen. Such material must be pre-notified to the APHA, which will inspect it before releasing it, and direct third-country imports, sea and air freight will be checked at the border, as currently.
Briefly on that point, in an SI Committee in which we talked about checking air freight, a Minister mentioned containerisation, but did not mention any containers coming via a rail link. Given what the Minister has said today, can she say whether that includes any freight that comes via rail?
Early warning systems for new threats were raised in the debate. As I think I suggested, pest, plant and disease experts in DEFRA, the APHA, the Forestry Commission and the devolved Administrations all work together already, providing an exceptional capability to protect plant biodiversity in the UK. All those bodies will continue to function and collaborate as we leave the EU.
Global warning threats were mentioned. Again, specialists will continue to work with pest and disease specialists in UK universities to inform our understanding of the risks. That is really important, and it is absolutely on the radar—for example, there is modelling of trade pathways for pests to arrive in the UK and the potential spread of outbreaks. Specialists will continue to collaborate with industry and stakeholder groups, and to develop citizen science capabilities and systems so that the public can help identify and report pest risks. Such citizen engagement is actually very useful in these areas.
I will move on to some of the points raised by the shadow Minister. He raised the issue of potential errors, given the number of changes being made and the errors being corrected. Our intention to retain relevant EU legislation has inevitably meant that it was not possible to include everything in earlier SIs, as EU legislation is updated frequently, especially in this kind of area. The purpose of this instrument is to introduce certain provisions that could not be included in earlier EU exit SIs, principally because they concern recent changes in plant health legislation. These changes are necessary to ensure that all deficiencies have been fully addressed. I hope he is happy with that answer.
The shadow Minister also asked whether we can be confident about the accuracy of other EU exit SIs. As I am sure he knows, such instruments go through the normal checking processes for draft SIs, including second and third pairs of eyes, and checks with DEFRA and other Government lawyers. They are also scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The principal focus of this instrument concerns operability, and the need to make technical changes and introduce certain provisions developed and agreed subsequent to earlier SIs.
The shadow Minister asked what consultation or impact assessment has been carried out, with whom and when. No separate formal consultation with stakeholders or impact assessment was undertaken because this instrument, as I have mentioned, makes many technical amendments, the purpose of which is to preserve biosecurity protections and assurances when the UK leaves the EU. It is not intended to change substantive policy.
The database for sharing information on biosecurity threats was mentioned. There is some precedent for third-country access to EU notification systems, and we will seek to negotiate such access with the EU. However, DEFRA has developed fallback positions for the eventuality of our losing access to EU notification systems. We are developing our own database to capture details of interceptions and incursions from day one to inform our decision making. All EU systems have publicly available elements that the UK will continue to access after exit. Our dedicated UK-wide risk and horizon-scanning team will continue to gather intelligence on plant health risks, including from other organisations, agencies and networks, and by increasing bilateral relationships with key trading partners and our nearest neighbours. Functionality has been added to the UK-owned plant portal to replace some EU notification systems. It is something that we take incredibly seriously, so under no circumstances would the Government let any of that slip, because it is crucial for all of us.
I shall touch quickly on a couple of points made by the Scottish National party spokesman. On the right for Scotland to make its own arrangements, plant health unfortunately is devolved, and Scottish Ministers have made the decision that they will deal with technical deficiencies relating to plant health legislation in Scotland, which will arise when the UK leaves the EU, by introducing their own EU exit SIs in Scotland. We are working closely with the Scottish Government, as ever, and the other devolved Administrations on a UK framework for plant health, including governance to minimise the risk of divergence, while respecting the devolved settlement, as the hon. Member for Falkirk will know. We will always work together closely.
The hon. Gentleman asked about protecting against future threats in the plant health regime. Policies in our EU plant health EU exit instruments are risk-based and proportionate, and will apply temporarily from day one until we develop our future plant regime. That will include consideration of the new plant health and official control regulation that will apply in EU member states from December 2019. In future, the Department will seek to take advantage of available technologies to facilitate as frictionless trade as possible while continuing our risk-based and proportionate approach to maintaining high standards of biosecurity. Again, DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency are working together closely to develop proposals on that.
I hope that hon. Members fully understand the need for the regulations, which has been made quite clear today. As I have outlined, they correct technical deficiencies and ensure that existing regimes for safeguarding UK biosecurity will continue to operate effectively from day one after exit. They ensure that newly regulated pests, plants and other material continue to be regulated after exit and provide for an internal market in plant material. I thank everyone for their input, and I very much look forward to collecting my tree. It is protecting such trees that the SI is all about.
Question put and agreed to.