My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee for this excellent report on biosecurity in the context of the Brexit challenge. The report is part of a series of reports on different environmental, agricultural and trade aspects of Brexit that it is important to debate and consider together. I congratulate the committee on its work and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his introductory remarks. This has been an excellent debate and I declare my interest as noted in the register.
The report highlights four strands to the inquiry: the biosecurity implications of leaving the EU in relation to animals and animal products, plants, food safety, and invasive non-native species. I thank the Minister and his department for the Government’s extensive 15-page response. I think this shows that the Government are by and large aware of all the issues and have covered the implications under a no-deal exit scenario through the immense number of statutory instruments brought before your Lordships’ House over recent weeks.
From recent experiences, Defra could be said to be well equipped to deal with the import and export of animals and animal products. I refer to the lessons learned from BSE, FMD, avian flu and potential zoonosis diseases. While the report highlights the dependence on EU systems, the UK in many regards shares and reciprocates the data and monitoring necessary. The debate has also shown that complacency must be guarded against. Veterinary scanning surveillance enables early detection and investigation of new or re-emerging animal diseases. The diagnostic service is the cornerstone of the scanning surveillance system. In England and Wales it is delivered by APHA’s network of VI centres and partner providers contracted by APHA. It will be important to ensure that the capacity and capability of the domestic surveillance system, which has been under financial pressure for many years, continues to work effectively. Can the Minister inform the House how many VI centres remain in the UK and whether they are still adequately positioned within an hour’s travel from farms, to ensure relevance for disease monitoring to be able to be fed into the national surveillance system and to improve detection and animal management on farms?
The Government state that UK laboratories that lose EU reference laboratory status have already been provided additional funding, and that this will ensure a strong level of expertise and research resource. However, the Government have no immediate plans to introduce an independent body to replicate the audit and advisory support of, for example, DG SANTE in Brussels to ensure biosecurity standards in non-EU countries. This new entity could reduce biosecurity risks posed by trade. Will the Government commit to review the situation in the light of any final outcome, not only to EU negotiations but to future international trade agreements?
Quite distinct from reference laboratories, biosecurity facilities will need to be developed further at entry points to the UK. What is the Government’s intention regarding entry and exit points for trade—ports and airports? Is it the Government’s intention that all ports for trade will be facilitated equally for inspections, certifications and monitoring, or will the Government concentrate on specific reference status points for enhanced protocols, such as may be required of the UK to abide by the new biosecurity phytosanitary certificates necessary following the UK’s change of status to that of a third country?
The Government are correct to recognise the importance of a balance between rights and responsibilities in international trade, underpinned by biosecurity being the definitive requirement that will not be compromised by any future trade deal.
The report highlights the staff requirements and underlines the reliance on vets from overseas. Can the Minister update the House on the shortage occupation list in the new immigration policy proposals? The reliance on EU veterinary surgeons is particularly acute in the meat hygiene sector, where 95% of the veterinary workforce graduated overseas. This inspection work is crucial to food standards and labelling, necessary to minimise the risks of food fraud in the international food chain, to promote animal welfare and to provide public health reassurance to consumers at home and overseas.
All biological trade is accompanied by documentation under TRACES. The Government’s preferred option is to retain access while developing a UK notification equivalent. It must be recognised that this applies only to commercial activities, and the protocols around the pet travel scheme appear to have been abused through the option to trade as non-commercial rather than under TRACES. Will the Minister commit to review the pet travel scheme of 2012 in the light of the undercover investigations by the Dogs Trust and others that reveal serious loopholes in biosecurity measures, highlighting ineffective border controls and negligible sharing of evidence, the falsification of data and treatments, and a lack of sufficient penalties?
Following ash dieback, first identified as resulting from imported nursery stocks in 2012, the Government have moved quickly to bring about plant biosecurity under a more robust system, commensurate with the standards pertaining in the animal sector. The spread of the disease in the UK, through the planting of infected nursery stock and wood, can also be enhanced by the wind-borne distribution of fungal spores, such that the disease could well have been in the country much longer.
I thank the Woodland Trust for its briefing on the report, and for its proposal to the Government that a wide assurance scheme be introduced for all plants on sale in the UK. The Woodland Trust created its UK-sourced and grown assurance scheme to ensure that all native tree stock is healthy and pest free. Assurance schemes are well understood and recognised in the animal sector, and I ask the Minister to take this idea back to his department and consider extending it to plants, alongside developing and providing best practice guidance on how to deal with affected trees and broader messages to the public.
The need for symmetry of controls for biosecurity across both plant and animal risks and threats needs to be recognised. The Government have committed to implement the new EU plant health law in the UK. The report also highlights the importance of similar clarity on the EU animal health law which is under development.
The last of the four strands concerns invasive non-native species, or invasive alien species. This is intrinsically a cross-border undertaking, given that organisms do not respect national boundaries and can enter the UK via land, sea or air. The UK will continue to need the benefits of EU data sharing, collaboration and cross-border liaison to keep indigenous flora and fauna safe in the future. The report urged the Government to ensure ongoing access to the EU IAS information system. The Government’s response did not answer this point. Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to negotiate continued participation in as many of the EU’s notification and intelligence-sharing networks as possible, including continued access to the EU IAS information system?
The EU IAS regulation provides some preventive, reactive and management measures for tackling IAS, and includes the responsibility of restoring damaged and destroyed ecosystems based on the “polluter pays” principle. An amendment to the withdrawal Bill to enact this measure was not accepted by the Government. This measure, together with the creation of the environmental protection office, is due under the future environment Bill, as the UK faces a governance gap because there is no independent authority to which reports on actions on invasive species can be made or by which any UK biosecurity failings can be held to account. Will the Minister explain how the governance gap will be filled in the interim? Will a new biosecurity Bill be brought forward to prevent the introduction of unwanted invasive species with additional unknown pests and diseases? The Government’s response under paragraphs 43 to 186 of the report suggests that proposals are being developed to provide further clarification on this and on the land border on the island of Ireland being treated as a single epidemiological unit. That would be extremely timely.
The report also highlights the challenge to the UK framework from the devolution settlements and the various differences in approach. The need for a close working relationship between all parts of the United Kingdom is recognised, so that all parts can play a full role in developing a UK-wide biosecurity framework, where ecological and geographical differences that give rise to different solutions do not create either internal borders, vulnerabilities or trade distortions. While the Government’s response does not comment on this, I am sure the Minister may wish to underline its relevance in the debate.
With the backcloth of the Chatham House report on the threats to biosecurity against the imperative action needed on climate change, this report is timely in the consideration of threats to the UK ecology and recognised way of life.