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Exiting the European Union (Plant Health)

Part of Delegated Legislation – in the House of Commons at 3:49 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 3:49 pm, 8th October 2019

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—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 19 March, when this regulation was last considered, my hon. Friend for Ipswich said:

“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, 19 March 2019;
c. 6.]

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 10 December 2018. The agrilus planipennis is incredibly damaging to the European ash trees, and so the Government are correct to legislate against its introduction to the UK to protect our own trees. Why was this not implemented when we last considered this area? Can the Minister explain to the House what process her Department is undertaking to look at the statutory instruments that have been passed by Parliament to check that there were no omissions, especially in that real surge of statutory instruments in February and March of this year before one of the early exit dates.

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 31 October, although I suspect many of us think that it will not—will it be ready? How many interceptions and incursions does the Minister anticipate the system recording, and what action will be taken to contain them as they are identified?

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.