My Lords, plants imported from third countries must have a health certificate. Hosts of the fungus, Phytophthora ramorum, must come from disease-free areas or from nurseries that are regularly inspected and found clear. Within the EU, checks at nurseries allow issue of passports for rhododendrons and viburnums, which are the plants most often infected. Our monitoring inspections are now being stepped up, and we continue to destroy plants that are infected or do not have the right documentation.
My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for that reply. I understand what he is telling us about destroying plants that already have the disease or fungus. However, does he agree that, if the fungus gets hold and proves as devastating as Dutch elm disease, this Government will never be forgiven? Will the Minister please take action and ban imports immediately, as other European countries did when we were exporting our beef? Not all the research into BSE had been undertaken, but a ban was introduced.
We must stop the disease getting into the country. Will the Minister introduce a ban immediately so that we can save our beeches, horse chestnuts, holm oaks, red oaks, yews, rhododendrons and azaleas?
My Lords, there are already very substantial controls on imports, both within the EU and from elsewhere. It is a fact that there have been a number of outbreaks within the UK of roughly the same order as in a number of individual European countries. A total ban on EU imports would therefore appear disproportionate, so long as the EU rules are being obeyed by other EU countries. The noble Baroness is right that the rhododendron is the most difficult of all the plants affected, but the outbreak is spreading internally rather than through imports at this point.
My Lords, not if they are of British stock. The nursery, rather than the consumer, is required to check the plants and make that kind of inspection. There have been more than 300 cases, most of them in nurseries, and we have found in some nurseries that rhododendron and viburnum stock is infected. In a very few cases, the infection has spread to the mature trees to which the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, referred.
My Lords, at this time of year the fungus is relatively small and difficult to detect. It becomes larger and darker later in the year.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. While the import controls are vitally important, they are not the only answer. Will the Minister confirm that approximately 70 per cent of the findings of Phytophthora ramorum have been on plants of UK origin? Will he further confirm that the Forestry Commission and Defra share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, that we must do everything in our power to arrest the spread of the disease? We are currently embarking on a further phase of surveying 1,000 sites, which will be completed by the end of March, in less than three months. That will give us a better indication of how widespread the disease is in British forests and shrubs.
Yes, my Lords, my noble friend is correct in saying that more than 70 per cent is in stock of British origin. Therefore, at this point the main issue is the internal spread. I should like to record my gratitude to the Forestry Commission in diverting substantial numbers of its own staff to the inspections, which will detect whether the disease is significant within our woodlands. A number of areas may be exposed, of which the most important so far has been the nurseries. If it spreads into woodlands more generally, we would have a real problem on our hands.
My Lords, the work that the Forestry Commission is doing is very welcome. However, does the Minister understand that there is a real fear among people who have heard about the disease or discovered and experienced it that this could be another epidemic such as Dutch elm disease? Does he understand that there is some concern that there seems to be a blanket of secrecy about where the 300 outbreaks in nurseries and garden centres and the 30 or 40 outbreaks that have been found in the wild, as it were—in gardens and other established sites—have occurred? Would it not be much better if there was a policy of openness and frankness from the very beginning, so that people know where the disease is and those who have land and trees can watch out for it?
My Lords, there are arguments for having a completely transparent situation, but it could be a disproportionate reaction in relation to nurseries in which there has been an individual case, and their consumers might react disproportionately to that. Normally, when an outbreak is found, the neighbouring landowners will be involved in the efforts of Defra to restrict the disease and engage in the destruction of plants that show symptoms of the disease.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that his plant health inspectors will ensure that proper quarantine arrangements are in place for the importation of rhododendrons, viburnums and camellias? We keep hearing about imports from Holland that grow so quickly; could it not be that they have overgrown their strength and lost the ability to resist disease?
My Lords, the horticulture industry in the Netherlands is very successful, and occasionally allegations are made about it that may not be entirely accurate. There is no justification for suggesting that this disease originated in the Netherlands. Clearly, it hit Europe and North America some time during the 1990s, but it is unlikely that it was caused by imports from the Netherlands. We keep in very close contact with colleague plant inspectors in the Netherlands, who are particularly robust in ensuring that the appropriate controls and documentation are provided.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has already touched on the question I was going to ask. Will the noble Lord say, without naming particular nurseries, in what sort of geographical locations the disease has been found? Is it starting at one end of the country and spreading windward, or is it very widespread over the country?