Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:03 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 8:03 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Sadly, I was not a member of the committee, but I thank its members for all their hard work. The report has been well received and was very well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who has great experience in this area.

Biodiversity is not just a national or a European problem—it is a worldwide matter of huge concern. I congratulate the Government on their commitment to maintaining internationally recognised environmental principles, whether or not we leave the EU. Can my noble friend Lord Gardiner tell us what progress has been made on the 2020 global framework updating the UN Convention on Biological Diversity? If we get it right at a global level, we have a better chance of getting it right at a national level.

In our discussions on leaving the EU, we tend to think of EU standards as very good—but they are not always. Dutch elm disease reached us before we joined the EEC, but since then our trees have been infected with phytophthora ramorum; red band needle blight has resurfaced, we have ash dieback, sweet chestnut blight and horse chestnut leaf miner. We are encouraged to plant more trees, and this was reinforced by the climate change committee’s recent report. What trees does my noble friend recommend that we should plant that our grandchildren might be able to enjoy? What action has there been on Action Oak, which was launched by my noble friend Lord De Mauley when he was a Minister?

There are plenty of diseases in Europe which might come our way and cause us a lot of trouble. We need to be constantly vigilant. Can my noble friend update us on the spread of xylella fastidiosa? What extra measures are we taking to prevent it coming here? Does he agree with me that planting mixed species and preferably managing woodlands on an uneven-aged basis with no clear felling is better for our biosecurity and biodiversity than the current system of planting trees in straight lines and single crop. I have been arguing that for 50 years, and perhaps my time is coming.

Disease and pests have affected not just trees. We imported the Obama flatworm from Holland, and the free movement of plants under the single market, which came into force in 1993, has been a mixed blessing. Invasive species are costing our economy at least £1.7 billion annually.

I should like to pick up quickly on two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. He asked about advance notice—I suggest to him and to my noble friend that one area that could be used for advance notices is our embassies. They should be reporting regularly to us on the spread of diseases, so that in London we are fully up to date.

The committee was absolutely right to stress, as it did in the last sentence of the report’s summary:

“The need to facilitate trade post-Brexit must not be allowed to compromise the UK’s biodiversity”.

That is a point that the British Veterinary Association raised with me this morning when I telephoned. It is a major area of concern and a potential weak spot. What is being done to ensure that all departments in London and the devolved Administrations are joined up in their thinking and action on this?

Turning to animals, will my noble friend give us an update on where we are in creating a system to track stock imported and exported? Will the EU allow us to link into the trade control and export system if and when we leave? On the trade in animals, the Government need to pay as much attention to biocontainment—keeping problems at home—as to biosecurity, keeping problems at bay. We know how quick the French are to stop trading in animal products if there is a problem in the UK, and they will be even quicker when we leave the EU. Can my noble friend advise us on what actions the Government are taking with regard to biocontainment?

Leaving the EU is a unique opportunity for the Government to review our entire biosecurity structure. It is up to them to do this and to raise standards well above those of the EU as and when necessary. I believe that that is what is needed.