Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:34 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 8:34 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as recorded in the register.

In rereading this excellent report, it is clear that what is at issue is the scale of damage to our nation if there were to be a serious lapse in biosecurity. My noble friend Lord Teverson and other noble Lords have already mentioned foot and mouth. Who can forget the terrible scenes as farmers and emergency services battled to rid the country of it, or the nostalgia with which we still regret the absence of the majestic elm from our countryside?

The briefing from the Woodland Trust tells us that, during the UK’s membership of the EU, global biosecurity threats—particularly in plant biosecurity—have increased significantly and that the UK’s response has sadly been less than exemplary. The report is therefore timely and very well put together, and I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the clerks of the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee for their skill in helping members of the committee, of which I am one, to access the material to produce such an informative report. I also extend my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Teverson for his excellent chairmanship and masterful introduction to this debate. I will concentrate on two aspects: food safety risk management, which has already been covered by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—although perhaps I can offer something a little different—and compliance and monitoring.

First, what happens to food safety risk management if we do not have a seamless transition from being an integral partner in the EU’s disease notification systems to not having a seat at the table? Just to recap, the four main notification systems are: the animal disease notification system; RASFF, the rapid alert system for food and feed; the European alien species notification system; and the European Union notification system for plant health interceptions. The importance of these early alert agencies has been recognised by the Government, who have stated their intention to retain access to these systems. It is good that the Government recognise that it is important to be part of the discussion that leads to decisions about what information will be put in the public domain and what will not. As the chemists among us will know, after filtration, both the filtrate and the substrate are of interest. However, as things currently stand, the fact is that the only third countries that take part in any of these organisations are those in the animal disease notification system, and they are either candidate or potential candidate countries, or members of EFTA. For the other three bodies, full participation is restricted to member states only.

Can the Minister say how matters stand with respect to gaining access to these important early alert systems? I know that other noble Lords have asked the same question of the Minister, which goes to illustrate how important we think it is that this matter is addressed and that we have clarification. Does he agree that relying solely on public websites will not substitute for the wealth of information and insight that we currently enjoy, nor the influence we currently exercise—and that that applies even if we take part in international information exchange networks like the Food Industry Intelligence Network and the WHO’s International Food Safety Authorities Network? The plan may be for the FSA to step into the breach, but it is not clear when it will be up and running and firing on all cylinders. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has given us a fairly comprehensive run-through of why concerns about the FSA’s role remain. As has been mentioned, it is not clear either that any shadow body that is set up in the interim, until the FSA is up and ready, will be independent of government interference and at a safe distance from the food lobby. I therefore echo the same concerns as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.

It is frightening to think that the Government were once seriously peddling a no-deal Brexit in the knowledge that alternative arrangements for biosecurity, such as they are, were not yet in place and that the UK’s protection from animal pests and disease would have been substandard. It is also concerning that there remain on the Government Benches—and, it has to be said, the Opposition Benches—those who still extol the virtues of a no-deal Brexit. A poorer-quality early alert system, coupled with the proposal for laxer controls on borders, is a recipe for disaster and criminally negligent. Maybe it was merely political posturing and never in serious contention; one can only hope. However, the worry is that the snake-oil proponents of a no-deal Brexit are doing rather well in the polls for the Euro elections next week—a consequence of the failure of the Government and the Opposition to tackle the myth that we can have our cake and eat it, forgetting to mention the listeria or the E. coli lurking within.

The role of monitoring and enforcement is currently filled by the European Commission and the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office, which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Trees, will cover in detail. The FVO carries out regular missions to member states to check practices and compliance with animal health, animal welfare and food safety regulations. It is a valuable independent assessor of risk management. In paragraph 38 of the report, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board ask who will perform this function if the UK leaves. The Welsh Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths AM, said in written evidence:

“There will … need to be a body to replicate the audit and advisory support, post EU exit, currently delivered through the FVO”.

The RSPB raised an important issue about enforcement. I refer noble Lords to paragraph 39, where it said that the text of the invasive alien species regulation,

“requires Member States to report to The European Commission on a 6-yearly basis on actions taken to implement the IAS Regulation”.

The Commission therefore has the power to ensure that member states are implementing the IAS regulation and it can take enforcement action if necessary, along with the European Court of Justice. The result is that we currently have a monitoring and risk assessment agency and a Commission that has a record of taking meaningful action against transgressors.

The Minister’s response to the committee when asked about how enforcement would be dealt with post Brexit, was, if I may say so, rather lackadaisical, given the dire consequences should there be a material lapse in vigilance. The Minister in question is the same Minister who is responding on behalf of the Government today, who said to the committee:

“If we need to look at either remits or additional powers to retain our reputation and our requirements, we will look at that … We will take every opportunity, if necessary, to bolster any existing organisations”.