Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:10 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:10 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, is right in his final remarks. I promise that I will write more fully because, given the force of argument in this debate, it will not be possible to adequately answer all of the questions in the time I am permitted. I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and all committee members because this is a valuable report.

It is appropriate that this debate takes place during Invasive Species Week. Yesterday I was in a ditch in Kent with volunteers digging up American skunk cabbage. I was delighted to be speaking alongside the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, at the Wildlife and Countryside Link panel on invasive species.

My noble friend Lord Selkirk referred to the overseas territories. The hope factor is important in all of these issues, which I take seriously. On South Georgia, the eradication of the rat has now made that island as pristine as it was before Europeans arrived there, and the pintails and the pipets are back in rapid profusion.

The Government welcome this report. I am the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, and having a Minister with responsibility for biosecurity is not only daunting but essential. As has been said, plant and animal pests, diseases and invasive species pose a considerable threat to our country’s environment and economy and it is important that UK biosecurity involves the co-operation and collaboration of our friends and partners on the continent.

The Government agree with all the observations on the need to maintain high standards of biosecurity and, yes—the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, made a pragmatic reference to this—we also want to improve upon them. I am not satisfied that we should just be seeking to maintain. We need to consider these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to ash dieback and to what we did then. The lessons we have learned include the appointment of an outstanding Chief Plant Health Officer because we got things seriously wrong.

International co-operation is important. The eastern counties of England have got it naturally, because the fungal spores have not travelled far enough. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose mentioned that New Zealand and Australia are biosecurity conscious—we permitted far too many invasive species into those countries following our arrival—but biosecurity is much more straightforward when you have enormous oceans between countries. There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned, but there are proximity issues, and that is why we need to work so closely together.

Much of our biosecurity legislation is underpinned by EU regulations covering all these issues. We have made clear our intention to bring back all relevant aspects of EU law—many noble Lords have been involved in this—so that we have fully operable legislation to protect our biosecurity. Indeed, since the report was published, I think the vast majority of all the statutory instruments required have been laid and will come into force when we leave.

On 9 April, the European Commission called a meeting of the relevant committee—SCoPAFF—to consider the UK’s third-country listing application and made it clear that it required all relevant animal health legislation to be in place by that date. I am very pleased that member states voted unanimously to list the UK as a third country, if that had been necessary. The committee proposed an independent and effective domestic enforcement mechanism to take on the role currently filled by the Commission. Through legislation made under the withdrawal Act, we are bringing over into UK law all relevant legislation and associated reporting requirements on exit day.

On our enhancement of enforcement controls, the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 ensures that the principal EU regulation on the prevention, management, introduction and spread of invasive alien species will be effectively enforced at the UK border. We have robust legislation on diseases and pests which allows enforcement of domestic legislation. The Animal Health Act sets out clear powers of access and enforcement, while individual orders made under that Act identify which breaches and non-compliances are punishable under the Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and my noble friend Lord Selkirk mentioned the Food Standards Agency—a non-departmental public body—maintaining its independence of government. Although the FSA works very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, I meet Heather Hancock and officials with biosecurity issues and food safety in mind. It is important that that independent body can provide the information. When I get to it in the list of replies, I will refer to some of that in rather more detail. We will continue to review what, if any, additional measures need to be taken if we are concerned about further enforcement issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, spoke about co-operation. Ongoing co-operation with our friends and partners in the EU is essential so that in any trade we have, we and they do not increase the risk of animal and plant diseases, pests and invasive non-native species entering this country. We remain committed to engaging with the EU and international partners to maintain and enhance networks. As many noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, know, we have significant scientific expertise. Many international experts will continue to sit on international advisory boards, including the European Food Safety Authority. The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Plant Health Officer are outstanding, as are their teams. Having travelled with them in Europe and the United States, I know that their reputation is very considerable indeed and we should be proud of our country’s reputation for world-class science.

On trade and inspections, the committee highlighted a number of areas which might change as our relationship with the EU develops. The disease and pest risks posed to the UK by the EU will not change overnight, so we are confident that our plans are proportionate and practical. The Government consider that controls on imports should be risk-based and proportionate, taking advantage of available technologies, which we believe will help us facilitate frictionless trade.

Continued participation in EU pest and disease notification systems is of course desirable, and we would like to retain full access to the EU systems. Indeed, there is some precedent for third-country access to EU notification systems, and it is clearly something that we will want to negotiate. These public notifications will be supplemented with extensive intelligence-gathering from other organisations, agencies and networks, and will be supported by enhanced bilateral relationships with key trading partners and our nearest neighbours.

Defra works closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the regulatory regime for food safety remains robust when the UK leaves in order to protect public health and retain the confidence of consumers and international partners.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the issue of TRACES. We recognise the important role that TRACES plays in monitoring the movement of animals, animal products and high-risk food and feed, and in minimising biosecurity risks. The UK replacement, which the noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to—the Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System, or IPAFFS—has been built and was deployed in mid-March for import agents dealing with countries outside the EU. We are continuing to develop IPAFFS. I emphasise that the Government are seeking a deal and a negotiated arrangement. However, should the UK leave without a deal, EU imports of live animals, germinal products and certain animal by-products could be notified using IPAFFS.

For plants, we will operate a risk-based verification system, allowing inland surveillance to confirm that certification requirements are being met. The existing EU plant passport will be replaced by the internationally recognised phytosanitary certificate.

I turn to some of the specific points that were raised. My noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked how the UK is performing against the targets set out in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. We are making progress but fully recognise that we need to do more. The convention has 20 targets, and we have, for instance, expanded our protected areas at sea and have provided new funding for woodland expansion and peatland restoration. While I was on Dartmoor on Saturday, I saw some of that peatland restoration work.

My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to the Action Oak campaign. This was a partnership that I was very keen to start up. My noble friend Lord De Mauley may have thought that he was going to set it up but it was actually my privilege to do so. It is a great partnership and we want to address urgently the research needs for the protection of a very significant tree. It is host to 2,200 species, many of which rely solely on the oak.

My noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, both referred to trees. To respond in staccato to the question of what trees to plant: definitely oak, grown in Britain and UK-sourced. Of course, we need appropriate trees for appropriate places, and the Forestry Commission can give very good advice on that. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that our discussions with the Horticultural Trades Association are much stronger and we have very close collaboration with it. Guidance is an issue. Xylella is certainly making nurseries very conscious of enhanced biosecurity. In fact, it was the Secretary of State who most strongly pushed for further restrictions and action in the European context. If that had not been forthcoming, which it was, I would have been very keen to take national measures, as we have done on other occasions. Something that will be very interesting when we have our own responsibilities is the speed with which we can make decisions. It was a point I made, and which was raised with me, when I gave evidence.

On disease awareness, my noble friend Lord Caithness asked about plant health and the plant health portal. We have a risk and horizon-scanning system which looks very closely at all global threats. We liaise with embassies in countries where there are plant health problems. Outbreak assessments for animal diseases are published on GOV.UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, raised the BioRISC project. Defra is fully engaged in that and we are looking forward to the debate at St Catharine’s College in July. I know that Professor Nicola Spence, our Chief Plant Health Officer, will be part of those deliberations.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, also mentioned the biosecurity strategy. The governance board has been set up at director and official level, there is a working group, and there are monthly meetings across government. The Government are very active on this. I am sorry these replies are rather staccato, but I want to get through as many as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned RASFF and rapid alert access. Negotiations are ongoing. We are also strengthening our links with the WHO’s International Network of Food Safety Authorities—INFOSAN—which includes 180 countries.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, also raised concerns about guaranteeing that imported food will continue to be safe. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for and absolutely committed to ensuring that imported food continues to be safe for our consumers, and that will of course continue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked whether standards will change after exit. The UK is considered world-leading in standards of food safety and quality and these are backed by a rigorous legislative framework. We will maintain those high standards. The Secretary of State has been clear on a number of occasions that we do not intend to compromise our high food standards in pursuit of trade deals. We are committed to upholding and indeed strengthening our high standards in food, public health and safety, product performance and environmental protection. I am very happy to put that on the record again in your Lordships’ House.

Turning to vets, I declare that two members of my family are in the veterinary profession. We have been strengthening this area by working with official veterinarians. We now have 300 additional approved OVs. I am told that I have three minutes left, so I will write more fully on that. My noble friend Lord Selkirk referred to plant health inspectors and we are also increasing the number of plant health inspectors and support staff.

On legal powers to protect biosecurity, we will certainly give consideration to the extent to which we implement aspects of revised arrangements to be introduced in the EU from December 2019 through the new plant health official controls regulation. Indeed, the UK had significant influence in shaping those new arrangements.

There are a number of other points I should raise. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose spoke about amending the list of invasive species. The Secretary of State will have power to make regulations to change the list of species of special concern. The power can be exercised only with the consent of Welsh Ministers and DAERA and, in so far as it concerns import and export controls, the Scottish Ministers. Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise any regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to veterinary investigation centres. There are 10 across England and Wales. Also on the very important issue of vets, the Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to review the composition of the shortage occupation list. The department responded with the request to include vets on that list. Preparations are being made should there be no deal before the office for environmental protection is established.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, also asked whether we will have agreed continued access to the European alien species notification list. The EU system enables critical information to be shared quickly. Clearly, future access is dependent on negotiations. We are developing contingency plans but, again, co-operation is hugely important.

I have not mentioned much in my speech the APHA’s vital role in this work. The rapid risk-assessment processes are absolutely essential. I am informed on a daily basis about outbreaks around the world. We also have very close co-operation with Ireland. The epidemiological status of the island of Ireland is so important and must continue. Indeed, through the British-Irish Council, the whole United Kingdom, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the Republic are closely engaged on this and all of them are involved in Invasive Species Week.

I am very sorry that there is so much more I would like to have said, but I will write to your Lordships, in particular in reference to the point the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made about risk management. This is clearly a matter for both departments, but also for the independent Food Standards Agency. That independence is so crucial. I thank your Lordships, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee. It is very important that biosecurity has the highest possible profile. Much damage can be done if we do not look after our biosecurity.