My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who put his finger on a spot of enormous importance, which is that the Food Standards Agency has been a success story and this should be borne in mind by the Government.
I should mention a past interest: I represented the constituency of Edinburgh West for more than 20 years, during which time I witnessed the way that an alien and enormously destructive bark beetle was able to ravage the arboreal ecological systems in our country. Scotland’s capital city has lost more than 30,000 elm trees since the late 1960s, when the new, virulent strain of Dutch elm disease was brought to the United Kingdom—on, it is believed, logs from North America. By 1980, 20 million trees throughout the United Kingdom had been destroyed, which gives some picture of the enormity of the task facing the Government and our country.
As for the biosecurity of our animal life, the current threat to our pigs from the spread of African swine fever is very dangerous and every effort is being made to keep it at bay and provide a protective vaccine. The shocking fate of our elm trees and the alarming threat posed by the global advance of the virulent and deadly African swine fever offer a stark reminder and a warning about the importance of having truly effective and fit-for-purpose biosecurity systems in place to protect the United Kingdom from imported threats to the health of our plants, trees and animals.
The sub-committee’s report expresses considerable concern over whether the United Kingdom will be able to replace, and in many cases recreate in time for our exit, all the safeguards, alerts and intelligence-sharing put in place over the years by the European Union and which currently help to protect our plants and animals from dangerous invaders. It urges that we should seek continued participation in EU alerts on animal, plant and pest disease threats. I congratulate the chairman of our committee, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his wise and far-sighted advice to the Government. On publication of the report, he said:
“The existing 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”.
I raise with the Minister the vital matter of who will be in place to implement all the new biosecurity checks and inspection procedures that will soon have to be rolled out and put into operation on a UK-only basis. The Chief Veterinary Officer of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Christine Middlemiss, told the committee that,
“within the food chain, a vast majority of vets working are of non-UK origin”.
The British Veterinary Association has said that the majority of these vets are from the EU. The committee also heard from the Equine Disease Coalition and the British Equine Veterinary Association. It was quite clear in what it told us. To quote from paragraph 126:
“A shortage of vets will have an adverse effect on disease surveillance, disease control measures, risk of disease incursions, control of an exotic disease emergency, domestic food safety, loss of high quality reputation for exports and animal disease research. This at a time when the potential loss of harmonised disease controlled trade movements between the EU and the UK will increase the need for veterinary checks and certification to maintain our biosecurity”.
With regard to the public sector in a post-Brexit world, the report acknowledges that there has been recent recruitment of staff in Defra but also urges the department to ensure that enough appropriately trained staff are dedicated to the issue of biosecurity.
The United Kingdom Government are currently engaged in the very important process of devising a new UK immigration policy, so can the Minister guarantee that people such as veterinarians, who are essential to our future biosecurity, will be on what is called the shortage occupation list, which is part of that new policy, and that their profession will be prioritised as part of the new arrangements? I am sure he will agree that no matter how good systems, inspections and regulatory checks are, they are effective only if they are policed by ample numbers of appropriately qualified men and women. I hope the Minister will give this pressing matter of sufficiency of staffing very high priority.
With regard to another aspect of biodiversity, I first thank the Minister for his apparent readiness to support the launching of a global review into the economics of biodiversity which includes biosecurity. In time, such a move might well help save countless lives and perhaps even assist with the removal of plastics from the oceans. Secondly, the initiative to increase the waters designated as marine protection areas is very welcome. The Minister will be well aware of to what extent it affects biosecurity, but it will also greatly increase conservation areas as far west as Ascension Island—conservation of sea life, as well as wildlife, will be very welcome. I wish him every good fortune in the very important task of securing renewed co-operation with other countries’ Governments to enhance environmental purposes and prospects.