Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench 8:43 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee for their excellent report, and I draw the attention of the House to my interests as declared in the register.

We are in a period of human history of an unprecedented degree and pace of change. Many of these changes have undeniable benefits—the emergence of digital technologies being one such example—but we are just beginning to understand the downsides of digital technology and the societal costs which we will have to bear. Another seismic change is globalisation. The scale and speed with which people, animals, plants and their products can move around the world is unprecedented. Although globalisation undoubtedly brings great public good, driving economic growth and political co-operation, there is a cost to it. That cost is reduced biosecurity.

On this island of ours, we have rather taken biosecurity for granted, but we do that at our peril. Although the fruits of globalisation may be measured in billions of pounds in wealth, breaches in biosecurity can be measured in billions of pounds in cost. A recent paper estimated that the cost of dealing with ash dieback, mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will be £15 billion. This cost follows the importation of ash saplings: an indigenous species to the UK which grows like a weed in my Scottish garden. We need seriously to consider the cost/benefits of such trade. I shall return to that later.

Focusing specifically on the consequences of Brexit for biosecurity—although, understandably, I am concerned with the health of trees, I shall focus mainly on animal-related matters—there are challenges and risks and, conversely, opportunities to strengthen our biosecurity. I point out that the ash saplings which may have introduced ash dieback into the UK are thought to have come from the Netherlands.

The increased risks have been raised by many of your Lordships tonight and previously. I must acknowledge that in many cases, the response from Defra has been extremely positive. For example, an internal UK system to replace TRACES, referred to by several noble Lords, the Import of Products, Animals and Food and Feed System—IPAFFS—is, I understand, nearing operational capability. I echo the question of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and ask the Minister for an update on the situation. What current plans are there to continue our participation in the EU animal disease notification system, or develop our own capabilities?

With respect to food safety, there are a number of important issues. I shall say much less than I planned to because it was most ably covered by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I will just reiterate his final, main point and question, because it is so important. Can the Minister assure the House that, in addition to risk assessment, the responsibility for risk management will lie with the FSA, independent of ministerial interference?

The potential shortage of veterinary staff has again been mentioned by several noble Lords. It has been the subject of Defra’s veterinary capabilities and capacity project. Has this project reported to the Government? If not, when might that report be available?

The potential opportunities to enhance biosecurity post Brexit are several and significant. There are real and present animal health risks in continental Europe, and we now have an opportunity to introduce a uniform and tailor-made biosecurity system for the UK. I join the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, in mentioning African swine fever, which can affect not only domestic pigs but, significantly, wild boar, and which has been spreading westwards in wild boar in Europe as far as Belgium, with associated outbreaks in domestic swine. Denmark is currently building a fence across its land border with Germany to control the movement of wild boar. The incursion of African swine fever into the UK would be a devastation for our UK pig industry, and it would be extremely difficult to eradicate because of the potential wild animal reservoir of infection.

Regarding the movement of pet dogs, the pet travel scheme—PETS—has led to a huge increase in the movement of dogs into the UK from continental Europe: from 11,000 in 2000 to nearly 300,000 in 2017. Most disturbingly, criminals have exploited the system to illegally import large numbers of dogs for sale, contrary to the original concept of PETS. An unknown number of these animals may not have received proper rabies vaccination or medication to prevent tapeworm—both measures to safeguard public health. Through its investigations, the Dogs Trust has revealed the inadequate inspection and enforcement capabilities at our ports of entry. What plans do the Government have to tighten biosecurity and public health safeguards for the importation of dogs into the UK?

In conclusion, such is the magnitude of the economic damage that deficient biosecurity can inflict that there are strong arguments for adopting a “white list” of what is permitted in the way of importing living things and their products, in contrast to the “black list” of what is excluded. Whatever legal systems we have, it is essential that we strengthen enforcement at our borders. Finally, will the Government consider an in-depth report analysing the cost/benefit of different levels of biosecurity implementation, given the colossal cost of breaches in biosecurity?