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Animal Health, Plant Health, Seeds and Seed Potatoes (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:30 pm, 3rd April 2019

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Many of us have been battling over these statutory instruments in so many areas. There may well be other opportunities, but I wish to record the enormously constructive way in which we have worked together, whatever our views, to get the right result for the statute book. Biosecurity in this area is absolutely paramount. I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that I accept responsibility for any errors. I am a person of detail. I do not like errors, but I am prepared to apologise and say I am sorry about it. The instruments have all gone through the normal checking process, including checks by Defra and other government lawyers as second and third eyes. They have also been scrutinised by the JCSI. Sometimes mistakes are made and I regret that, but a lot of the reason for having this discussion today is to ensure, as we always wanted to do, that what is on the EU statute book is accommodated in our own.

I am very grateful that my noble friend Lady Byford opened her remarks on the question of buffer and demarcation zones, precisely because of the considerable section of this statutory instrument that deals with Aromia bungii—the red-necked longhorn beetle. It is a really damaging, wood-boring pest, native to Asia, that has arrived in Naples. We wanted to ensure that this provision was on our statute book. Looking through the SI, the majority of its pages are arrangements for the buffer zones and the demarcation, which is specifically lifted from the EU decision and statute on dealing with that pest. That is why it is a full package. I say to her that these are all the elements of what we will have at our disposal, in the European Union and in our country, to deal with this invader—although, of course, this is all designed to stop its arrival.

My noble friend Lady Byford asked about the reference to GMO. The reference is to ensure that any variety of potato that is a GM variety complies with the relevant GM legislation. There are no GM varieties of potatoes authorised for marketing in the UK, so this provision is to ensure operability after exit in that situation.

The question of passenger luggage is obviously important. There is no policy change but the clarity of the text is to provide that legal certainty. As we have said on a number of other areas, when we leave, on day one, there will be the same biosecurity risk from within the EU. But we want to ensure that our message is to encourage passengers always to be biosecurity-aware, wherever they are coming from, because of the arrival of pests and diseases.

My noble friend Lady Byford also mentioned the use of “extensive”. I am obviously interested in that word because, as I have sought to explain to your Lordships, of the intricacies and detail of these new points that have come in. The large, extensive area is to deal with the beetle; that is how I would interpret the word because I have described all the key elements involved in this statutory instrument.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, rightly raised the subject of her knowledge of the wild boar. What has happened in eastern Europe, and with the jump to Belgium, is that the disease has rapidly spread in the wild boar population. There is of course the concern for commercial pig production. In the commercial pig units in that area of Belgium, I am afraid that all the pigs had to be put down because of the concern about the spread of the disease. That is why it is absolutely imperative—I assured your Lordships specifically on this—that we had the powers to deal with this matter. This goes back to biosecurity; the jump of African swine fever came when it arrived in the Czech Republic, with a weak connection to someone dropping a pork product. We do not have that confirmed but it is very likely to be the same in Belgium. That is why to raise awareness we have, for instance, put out a lot on the biosecurity imperative in the newspapers in languages for people from eastern and central Europe, and about not bringing in pork products for all those reasons. I reassure your Lordships that our communications team is working with industry. In the pig industry, it is absolutely imperative that the personal biosecurity of everyone who works in a pig unit is of the highest order.

I also take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, about accumulations of wild boar populations. Mature consideration about how we manage wild boar is needed, not only in relation to adjacent commercial pig production but in general. I know that there is widespread concern among communities in the Forest of Dean about how best to manage an increasing population of wild boar.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised a point about ash. I am very much aware not only of the travails of the ash here but of the threat posed by the emerald ash borer in Russia and the United States. That is why it is important that we have a systems approach. The wood must be debarked; it must be heat-treated and dried to strict specifications. This is an area where biosecurity in terms of the protocols around importing wood is so important; I say that to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, spoke also about unlisted EU vegetable varieties. I am very pleased that she mentioned the kalette. We often see in shops nowadays all sorts of different produce that we might not have seen before, but it is a really important part of agricultural, horticultural and vegetable innovation and good-quality food. Many of these varieties are bred in the EU, particularly in the Netherlands. We want UK growers to have early access to seeds. In addition to kalettes, there are also lettuce varieties with resistance to downy mildews, for example. I say again that unlisting is not about any biosecurity concern; it is about where vegetable varieties have not been registered.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, mentioned the devolved Administrations. I assure them that all four Administrations have co-operated. In many cases, the same changes have been made deliberately to avoid disruption to businesses. I think that it is fair to say that, in Scotland, seed potatoes are an iconic feature of production. If we have a devolution settlement, and if an Administration wish to bring forward their own arrangements, there are the frameworks and there is the work that we have all been doing to ensure a consistent approach. There is obviously merit in consistency but, if an Administration feel that they would like to put it on their own statute book in their own way, that should be seen as a force of how devolution settlements work.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, raised an important point on systems. There is precedent for third-country access to EU notification systems, which we will of course seek to negotiate. That is obviously desirable and I hope that we are successful but, in case we were to lose such access, we are developing our own database to capture details of interceptions. We have our own dedicated risk and horizon-scanning team. As noble Lords will know, we have a monthly biosecurity meeting with the Chief Plant Health Officer and the Chief Veterinary Officer.

We are absolutely rigorous in our own horizon-scanning. I accept that international collaboration, not only within the EU but around the world, is not only desirable but imperative, so we are negotiating, as I say. There are publicly available elements of all EU systems and we will continue to be able to access those. I see this very much as a mutual interest. Again, we in this country have some of the best scientists and advisers and we need to collaborate across the world. I am looking at the noble Baroness, mindful of Rothamsted and her knowledge of that great institution, but also of others and the innovation that is happening through agri-tech investment, public and private. That will be very important at home and abroad.

On the question of our own situation, I have mentioned before that we have our own publicly available plant health risk register. Unfortunately, more than 1,000 pests are currently recorded on the risk register. I also regret that the numbers are increasing, which shows how vigilant we must be. Through this screening process we are able to identify significant threats and prioritise our actions and resources accordingly. I endorse all the work that Defra, APHA, the Forestry Commission and our colleagues in the devolved Administrations are doing together on this.

A few years ago we were not as advanced in plant biosecurity as we were in animal health and biosecurity, but an enormous effort has gone into advancing it. The horticultural sector is very much more aware of it and Grown in Britain is important. Also important is biosecurity in the sources from which we buy our plants—this is something we need to work on with our friends and partners in the European Union, because it is where some of the loose connections have been in the past.

Turning to the issue of close collaboration, we are working extremely closely with all the devolved Administrations on the matters before us and more generally. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we have arrangements in place for the additional training of official veterinarians and the arrival of certification support officers who are to assist them: we place great importance on that work and the whole biosecurity situation. As for APHA and the increase in the number of inspectors for transit goods, in terms of arriving sealed and the inspection, all this is predicated on our view that, on day one, biosecurity for trade within the EU is not going to change. That is why, quite rightly, we want to continue facilitating the import trade, but we are conscious of the need to keep a careful eye and scrutiny going forward. I would be very nervous of giving lectures to British horticulturalists or, indeed, to many of the gardeners I know, so this may not have been the best language to describe the fact that although we have extremely experienced horticulturalists, we also think there are opportunities from elsewhere.

On the point in paragraph 2.10, this went through the negative route as business as usual. That enabled the amendments that we needed to bring forward in this instrument. I am sorry it is so convoluted.

I should perhaps have declared my farming interests—I apologise for the lateness; it just occurred to me. Although I do not grow vegetables or have pigs on the farm, it is appropriate I declare that connection.

I will look at Hansard to see whether there are any specific points I may not have covered. I do not resile from the point that biosecurity is paramount. Lack of biosecurity has in the past caused great damage in our country. Biosecurity is a global matter; a lot of problems have arisen because, in my view, we all need to concentrate more on biosecurity around the world, as I have said to Ministers within our European friendship. It would be disastrous if the travails with xylella in Italy and parts of Spain and Portugal came here. We must do all we can. This is a very useful further instrument.

Motion agreed.