Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee 7:50 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, it is very appropriate that this debate should follow one on defence and security because it has exactly the same theme, except that the bugs are not cyber bugs but actual ones, since those still exist. It is also appropriate because I understand that this week is Invasive Species Week; the first such week took place in 2015. I know that the Minister, who is very involved in this sector, has also been involved in a number of other initiatives. The other reason this debate comes at exactly the right time is the publication of the report by the intergovernmental committee on biodiversity and ecosystems, which laid out how the numbers of species within the ecology across the globe were threatened. One thing it highlighted, which was perhaps not publicised quite so strongly in the press, was that alien and invasive species are a severe threat to biodiversity across the globe—including Europe, obviously, and our own country. That is why this subject is so important.

Also, to reflect some of the comments in the previous debate, if Brexit happens, although we will be leaving the European Union, we will not be leaving the European biosphere. We share its marine and aerial environments, and we are only 22 miles away from its terrestrial environment. The question to which my committee particularly wanted to find an answer was to work out whether, post Brexit, our ecology will be as protected on invasive species and biosecurity as it was during our membership of the European Union. Can we even improve on the situation that we have at the moment?

The threat is very real. I am sure that all of us will remember the foot and mouth outbreak back in the early 2000s. That cost the country some £8 billion, but in some ways that was nothing compared to the effect it had on farming communities and rural communities throughout the kingdom. We know that we now have ash dieback disease; a recent report from Oxford University suggests that the total cost of that disease will be some £15 billion over 100 years, half of that—£7.5 million—coming over the next 10 years. These threats are real and they are about real organisms. There is the Asian hornet and the American skunk cabbage, which I am sure the Minister will talk to us more about later, although I had never heard of it before. It is also about oak disease and a number of other threats to our ecology at this moment.

We are not only a part of the European biosphere but absolutely integrated into the systems of the European Union in this area of national security and defence. Let me remind Members of four of those systems: the animal disease notification system; the alien species notification system; the rapid alert system for food and feed; and lastly, the plant health interception system. While I very much welcome the Government’s response—they wanted to remain a part of those systems—one of my first questions to the Minister is: has that bid progressed in any way? Are we at all confident that we will be able to participate in those systems, and if there is no deal in place do we have alternative systems? Most importantly, I am aware that, through those systems and that shared intelligence among the communities of scientists and researchers in those areas, we have advance warning of these organisms approaching us across the continent. We are able to prepare and plan for those potential invasions. How will we be able to continue having those connections and those sorts of systems once we are outside the European Union?

On day-to-day issues, the IT system called TRACES is absolutely fundamental in tracking the progress of trade between European Union member states of animal and plant products. We have had assurances from the Government that we now have an alternative to that system. Has it been truly tested yet? Will it be able to integrate with the TRACES system, allowing us at least to approach on the phytosanitary side the frictionless trade that will be so important between us and Europe on food and animal products in future? Those are clearly key issues.

Other issues that came out of the report are, first, around trade. I have mentioned EU-UK trade, which is very important for the farming industry in this country. But will we be able to have the systems that we will need to cope in the future? It particularly concerns me that the Government are clear in making the point that from day one, when we leave the Union or end the transition period, we will have exactly the same list of potential threats to biosecurity. We will have the same lists as parts of those systems but, clearly, they are likely to diverge quite significantly over the first one to three years. How will we deal with frictionless trade at the point when we have that divergence on scientific advice? Will we instead ensure alignment well into the future?

The greatest concern is about new trade deals. We often talk about America and the great leverage it would have on a trade deal with us. On the details of that trade deal, we are far from confident that environmental and biosecurity issues will be at the top of that list. Will they be a sine qua non, without which we will not do that deal? Can the Minister assure us that that is still the case? We know that even with China, there are huge issues with food quality. A lot of the problems with invasive issues in foodstuffs have been to do with Chinese products, as is a lot of the protection. Again, there is huge leverage there so, as a nation, will we be so concerned about having those trade deals post Brexit that we will not pay sufficient attention to those areas?

I come on to resources. We know that Defra has in the past been under huge constraints and reductions in funding. We know that large resources have been taken in there for Brexit planning. Will they remain there to ensure that our biosecurity is there well into the future, rather than just on Brexit day one?

I come back to a theme that my committee has often talked about and taken evidence on: the veterinary profession. On the front line of industrial veterinary work, something like 95% of staff are EU citizens. The committee went to the London Gateway port two weeks ago, where we met the veterinary team on the front line. Of that team of eight, the lead and six others were Spanish, and one was Italian. There is a real issue about keeping those people here. Most of them will earn less than £30,000 and, under the present government proposals, they will not be able to enter the system.

Our research laboratories are the pride of the country; we are the European Union experts on foot and mouth disease, bluetongue disease and many others. We have access to the rest of that network of research laboratories, with all their scientific evidence and expertise. In addition, there is a collegiate feeling among the scientists and researchers in that community. How will we replace the research laboratories that concentrate elsewhere in the EU on other diseases and threats that do not exist here?

On the island of Ireland, the issue is different from the normal one about customs and borders, as bugs know no borders. Can we keep the island of Ireland as a single biological territory in terms of rules, regulations and biodefence? Will that be possible?

I have laid down a long list of challenges. However, we recognise that Brexit will give the United Kingdom the ability to make its own rules and regulations about biosecurity. Witnesses have looked at the very strong rules that New Zealand and Australia have to protect their bio-environment. Does the Minister see what areas of greater protection we might have, taking into consideration that those southern ocean territories are much more isolated from other territories than we are from Europe?

This is sometimes seen as rather a niche subject, yet it is a key part of the defence and security of our nation. There is already a threat and it is costing us £1.7 billion annually to make this defence effective. We are looking to the Government to assure us that once we leave Europe—if we leave Europe—we will have the same defence that we have now.