Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:51 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative 8:51 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I have considered it a privilege to serve on the Energy and Environment Sub-Committee as it has dealt with these matters. I offer my congratulations to our chairman on persevering to secure the debate and to the committee staff on producing such a comprehensive report, the measure of which can be seen in the thorough and detailed response from the Government. I think that we sharpened up their approach very considerably.

On Monday, as part of Invasive Species Week, my noble friend the Minister mentioned that he and his colleagues had successfully obtained approval for the UK to have approved third-country status in case of Brexit. I for one feel that he and his colleagues should be congratulated on that because a great threat was hanging over the farming industry.

I declare my interests as detailed in the register as a farmer and landowner in Scotland. Quite a lot of the policy in this area is a matter of devolved competence but the question of Brexit and protection from invasive alien species is bound to be of common interest across the UK. In my small, immediate area of the UK, I have experienced a great deal of the breakdown of biosecurity. We have seen invasive plant species such as giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, to mention a few. Then there are the current invasive plant diseases, in addition to those whose effects have been mentioned by noble Lords. We have seen it in shrubs, rhododendrons and cypresses; these diseases will affect a great raft of areas.

On animal species, my experience goes back as far as grey squirrels and mink but there are other things nowadays, of course. Now, noble Lords concentrate rather more on the topic of animal diseases. We even had an invasive fish wipe out a particularly unique native fish population in Loch Lomond. There are many more such diseases under all these different headings that we watch for and fear.

All of these things involve production and financial losses or expenses for anyone involved in making an income from the land, and much of it has occurred in my lifetime. If the Government’s policy is that we must learn to be more efficient and productive in agriculture, they will have to be much more rigorous in maintaining a true species and sanitary barrier around our shores.

On financial support for agriculture, we are constantly being told that we should try to emulate New Zealand. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned this subject. Anyone who has visited New Zealand will know that border security, even for a passenger, is strict. You are put through a rigorous procedure if there is any suggestion that you may have been on a farm in another country, yet here we allow overseas animals to be delivered to a purchaser and only then subject them to testing.

The committee raised the question, as have other noble Lords in this debate, of whether the UK has sufficient powers to enforce compliance. The Government’s reply suggests that biosecurity is an area where the relevant department probably has sufficient powers to ensure that the full rigour of the legislation is enforced. We hope that that is true because we simply do not want invasive species.

In certain other environmental matters, the EU has operated to a different pattern of discipline in order to deal with 24 different countries. The EU likes to set aspirational targets and regulate with fines. Noble Lords will almost certainly remember that it was a considerable novelty when we passed the Climate Change Act and introduced the target mechanism into UK law. The ordinary citizen now knows what was considered appropriate at that time and can urge the politicians on. The difference between us and the EU is that it was never considered desirable, and we still do not know who will be held accountable if and when the country misses that target. Can the Minister say if in his view it has provided a pretty good incentive which we all have to watch for? What other mechanism would he suggest?

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, considered the variations in the EU list of invasive alien species. He asked what system the Government propose to put in its place. I notice that the Minister gave some consideration to the question in his reply to the report. We all know that variations will occur. The first issue for us will be, as always, whether we feel compelled to act in compliance with what the EU does for the sake of trade. Should we immediately follow suit? But if change is needed, the suggestion is that the Secretary of State will be able to make the changes by order. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether this order will be in the form of a statutory instrument, and if of contentious nature, could it be subject to the affirmative procedure?