Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:09 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 8:09 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Earl. I think that the Minister will be pleased that I have only two questions to add to the impressive list that has been already been put before him.

As I intend to restrict my remarks to two issues and mainly to the part of the report that deals with UK-EU biosecurity collaboration, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly the reference to my relationship with St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. That relates to the setting-up of BioRISC, a research initiative to provide cutting-edge, evidence-based information about existing and emerging biological security threats and interventions—I can sense those who know me wondering why I am involved in that given my background, but it is proving a significant education to me.

I add to the congratulations and appreciation expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee on this wide-ranging and very good report. As the noble Lord reminded us, biosecurity is an important issue. The Government agree with that. So serious a matter is it that, in July last year, they published a UK Biological Security Strategy. Governments do not publish national strategies unless the nature of the threat merits it. We can infer from the publication of this document that the National Security Council, the main forum for discussion of national security, found agreement that biological security is a priority for our collective security.

The very existence of the strategy leads me to the preamble to my first point. It is astonishing that, in late 2018, when I last looked, a search of Hansard revealed no reference to it—no ministerial Statement, not even when it was launched; no debate; no Written or Oral Question; apparently no committee interest; and no parliamentary accountability or scrutiny whatever. Not only Ministers but Members of both Houses have been largely silent on the strategy. A conversation at least, and in this House, is long overdue. I ask the Minister whether, in government time, we can have a debate on the national biological security strategy.

As on all other issues of national security, the Government rightly say that this strategy cannot be delivered by government on its own. Clearly, there is a role for many parts of society, for industry and for academia. Unfortunately, from my reading of the strategy, it contains lots of statements about what people are doing beyond the Government in relation to biological research, but there is no plan as to how this partnership and its activities will be taken forward. Perhaps in a more detailed debate we could tease out from the Government how they will administer and bring into action their strategic approach to biosecurity. At St Catharine’s, we intend to take advantage of the first anniversary of the strategy and have a conference of experts in order to identify 100 questions that need to be answered to implement it. Thereafter, we intend that these questions will form a coherent programme of academic research and study, perhaps for years to come, to deliver the strategy.

I have no criticism of this important report’s recommendations. On the contrary, I welcome its publication; it does this House and the country a great service. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said the following on its publication—I feel rather awkward having to read his words, when he read virtually none in his wide-ranging speech—which sums up effectively the point that I want to make:

“The existing”— that is, European Union—

“arrangements are far from perfect but significant gaps will be created when the UK leaves them. We rely on the EU for everything from auditing plant nurseries and farms to funding our research laboratories. The UK Government has a huge amount of work to do to replace this system in time for Brexit, and failure to do so could have an economic and environmental impact that would be felt for decades to come."

Those words describe the scale of the challenge that we face at Brexit probably better than I could myself.

I regret that I cannot be so positive about the Government’s response. In it, they rely on various forms of the “we will work to build on existing capabilities”-type statements. For example, the responses to recommendations 10 and 13 are redolent of this approach. This language betrays a lack of recognition that we will be building not on the existing state of capabilities following Brexit but on a reduced set of capabilities, since the EU-based components will be necessarily diminished in various ways and substantial work will be needed to bring those diminished capabilities back up to existing levels to sustain them, never mind to build on them. If anybody has any doubt as to why that is the case, I recommend to them—I shall not read it—Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in June 2018. In it, he spelled out the legal obligations that we among others imposed on the European Union that mean that we will have a necessarily diminished relationship with the European Union. It is impossible for us to sustain anything like the relationship that we currently have with those countries and their institutions.

My second point relates to the topical issue of the threat of invasive species. On cue, we read today of the Costa Rican frog that turned up, apparently healthy, in a shipment of bananas in a Lidl supermarket in Nottinghamshire. It has been all over the papers. The frog has even been given a name by those who discovered it.

Understanding the donor regions, vectors and introduction pathways of invasive species, plant pests and animal diseases is central to the effective prioritisation and management of future biological threats to the UK. Trade patterns have been demonstrated to be central to explaining the introduction of high-profile biological threats into this country, including foot and mouth, ash dieback and many invasive animals and plants.

Post-Brexit, the Government’s policy is that our trading patterns will change considerably. This is likely to have a profound effect on the origin and type of organisms that are introduced into the UK. This is an important point: before we joined the EEC in 1973, the vast majority of invasive species discovered in the UK had first established populations in mainland Europe. In the 40-odd years that we have been in the EU, that has reversed. It comes to us now predominantly from Europe, but that means that we get prior notice and sometimes guidance from them on the most effective management tools.

Changed trade patterns under Brexit are likely to result in the UK changing from being a recipient to being a donor of emerging biological threats to Europe. If the Government build the trading patterns that they anticipate, with countries such as China, the US and the 53 diverse members of the Commonwealth, we will have an enormous responsibility to develop tools for horizon-scanning, early detection, containment and possible eradication, as we will be the recipient and the introducer of many such threats. My question to the Minister is relatively simple: what planning do we have for that significant change, given our new trade policy?