I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the protection of British flora from imported diseases.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am extremely grateful to have been grated this debate, particularly as this is such a pertinent issue; the Forestry Commission recently stated:
“The threat to our forests and woodlands has never been greater.”
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and former Mayor of London pledged that 2 million trees would be planted in London between 2009 and 2025. By 2012, I understand only 100,000 had been planted. The current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, promised before his election in May 2016 to plant 2 million trees in his first term, but for some unknown and unwise reason, he abandoned that policy just five months later, in October 2016. Can the Minister cast light on any of that? Can any pressure be brought to bear on all our city mayors to plant more trees? Should that not form part of the Government’s plans to tackle pollution, particularly in our inner cities?
UK imports of live plants have increased by 71% since 1999. There are now more than 1,000 pests and diseases on the UK plant health register. The Royal Horticultural Society has, however, clamped down on imports. All imported semi-mature trees will be held in isolation for 12 months before they are planted at RHS gardens and shows, and evaluation of plant health risk will be incorporated into judging criteria at RHS flower shows. Services relating to our almost 9.3 million acres of forests, woodlands and other trees are estimated to have an annual value of £44.9 billion to the UK economy. Such services include wood processing, recreation and landscaping, as well as biodiversity.
In my part of the world, the beautiful county of Devon in south-west England, a number of diseases have already been found in trees, including phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen called a water mould, which has infected large trees widely grown in the UK for the timber market and rhododendrons. Phytophthora ramorum causes extensive damage and death to a large number of trees and other plants.
Red band needle blight, which particularly affects the Corsican pine, is found in most parts of the UK. A five-year moratorium on the planting of the species has been established for Forestry Commission plantations. Here I pay tribute to a fellow Devonian, Sir Harry Studholme, who does such important work as chairman of the Forestry Commission.
Ash dieback is an extremely serious disease of ash trees caused by a fungus. It causes wilting leaves and crown dieback, most usually leading to tree death. Ash dieback was discovered in Devon by the county council, and in February 2016, Natural Devon published a strategy entitled, “Devon ash dieback action plan: an overarching plan to identify and address the risks of ash dieback disease in Devon.” The plan states that there are more than 1.9 million ash trees in Devon, and goes on to say:
“Today we probably have more such trees because many hedges have been permitted to develop into tree lines. The 2012 estimate of nearly half a million roadside ash trees bigger than about 7.5 cm in diameter…confirms that the 1.9 million figure represents only larger trees, and that the true number of non-woodland ash in the county is much greater.”
Finally, sweet chestnut blight was discovered in Devon in December 2016. It is a plant disease caused by the ascomycete fungus, which causes death and dieback in sweet chestnut plants. Restrictions are in place in Devon on the movement of sweet chestnut material.
All of that comes on the back of the change to our landscape. We all remember the devastation that Dutch elm disease caused to the English countryside in the late 1960s and 1970s. That in turn preceded the unprecedented storm of 1987, which uprooted and killed so much woodland. It is unthinkable that we might lose any more of our flora. Act we must.
However, we must give the Government credit here. The Minister will make his remarks later, but I welcome some of the actions taken by the Government and his Department, not least under the stewardship of my former boss in the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am extremely pleased to see him in his place. I believe he intends to catch your eye later, Sir Henry.
The appointment in 2014 of Professor Nicola Spence as a chief plant health officer was a huge step forward. She has invested £4.5 million in new patrols and inspectors, which hopefully will stem the flow of diseases entering the United Kingdom. I also very much welcome the appointment this month of Sir William Worsley as the Government’s tree champion. That appointment meets one of the key commitments in the Government’s 25-year environment plan.
Sir William’s task of driving forward planting rates will help raise awareness of the impact our flora have on our planet. Such action by Government will teach us all further about the impact that diseases have on our environment and our economy. When the Minister gets to his feet, I hope he will confirm that Sir William will be fully resourced—or is he to be just another Government tsar with no power? How will his success be measured? Will he have full access to Ministers? I hope to hear positive answers to those key questions on the role of our excellent new tree champion.
I also very much welcome the work of the Action Oak partnership, supported by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, a man who is always ahead of the curve on all matters environmental. The partnership will, among other things, fund research to improve the understanding of the threats to our oak trees and inform best management practices. I understand that it is looking to raise £15 million. Can the Minister confirm how much has been raised since its launch at last year’s Chelsea flower show and say whether the Government will make a financial contribution to that important project?
One of the common threats is xylella from continental Europe. I pay tribute to Country Life magazine and the RHS for bringing it to my attention. Xylella has not yet reached our shores, but it could pose a severe threat to our flora if it does. It was found in the United States, Taiwan and Italy, where it has destroyed olive groves in the southern part of the country. Subsequently, it has been discovered in Spain, Germany and France, along with some of the Baltic states. According to Mark Griffiths in Country Life, the EU’s reaction to xylella has been “authoritarian”; its vectors have been
“subjected to mass insecticide, an action that has turned plant disease into an ecological disaster”,
through a policy of fighting the disease by eradicating everything that might possibly succumb to it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reasons for many of these diseases reaching us are twofold: climate change and the movement of people? Her Majesty’s Government should understand that it is in our economic, social and environmental interest to have as much early warning as possible of such diseases moving up through Europe. Does he agree that we should require our embassies and other agencies to give much earlier warnings as diseases approach, so that we on these islands can develop strategies to tackle them before they get here?
My right hon. Friend is precisely right. Forewarned is forearmed, and the more we can publicise these impending diseases coming to our islands, the better. He will acknowledge, as a former Environment Minister, that in some respects the problem is already here. It is about how we stop it from spreading and try to contain it where we can. He has a record second to none on environmental matters, and I am extremely pleased that he is here and taking an interest in the debate.
This rather follows on from what my right hon. Friend said: there have been reports that if the British Government were presented with the problem of xylella, they would destroy not only the infected plant, but all plants within a 100-metre radius. I am concerned that that would amount to uprooting parks, gardens and the greenery of entire neighbourhoods. I would appreciate it if the Minister could confirm what action the Government would take in the event of a xylella outbreak in the UK, and what precautions he is taking to prevent such an outbreak.
As in many of our discussions nowadays, the Commonwealth has its part to play, with the invention of the Queen’s Commonwealth canopy. That initiative, which aims to involve all 53 Commonwealth countries and was first conceived by, among others, Frank Field, will hopefully save one of the world’s most important natural habitats, forests. Three UK projects are involved: Epping forest, Wentwood in Wales and the national forest, which covers parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Those of us who saw it enjoyed the ITV documentary in April, “The Queen’s Green Planet”, with the legendary Sir David Attenborough, in which Her Majesty the Queen and Sir David discussed the importance of the Queen’s Commonwealth canopy. I particularly look forward to planting a tree in the name of the canopy in Devon in the near future. Will the Minister say what the British Government are doing to raise awareness of and support this Commonwealth initiative?
That leads me on to the defining issue that the United Kingdom faces: leaving the European Union. I am well aware that there is a small amount of irony in the fact that while this debate is about indigenous British flora, many trees and plants in this country are not originally from these shores. Indeed, without our great plant-gatherers of the 18th and 19th centuries, we would not be enjoying many of the trees, shrubs and plants that we have come to know and love. However, I believe that we have a real chance to deliver a green Brexit by ensuring that trading incentives are used to improve biosecurity in trade, including green trade deals. We have a chance to be a pioneering force in having the greenest possible free trade deals, and I hope the Minister will have a positive view of that suggestion.
I commend the millennium seed bank at the royal botanic gardens, Kew, which achieved its initial aim of storing seeds from all the UK’s native plant species in 2009, making Britain the first country in the world to have preserved its botanical heritage. The current phase of the millennium seed bank project is to conserve a quarter of the world’s plant species by 2020. I hope that the Commonwealth, and in particular the Queen’s Commonwealth canopy, will help with the project through their extensive global contacts, and that the British Government will support those efforts.
My hon. Friend the Minister, who represents another wonderful constituency in the south-west, a bit further to the west than mine, will be aware that I always approach these debates with a shopping list. I have some key asks of him this afternoon, which I hope he will address. I welcome the Government’s announcement of £37 million in funding through the tree health resilience strategy. However, how will it be divided up? How much of that money will go to the new tree champion?
Will the Minister commit to tightening up and enforcing more strongly the rules concerning which plant materials can be imported into the UK from the EU and further afield, and how will that be affected once we leave the European Union in March 2019? Could biosecurity be incorporated into any transition deal that the Government agree with Europe? Further to the remarks by my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon, what instructions can be issued to our embassies and high commissions around the world to identify the threats to the United Kingdom, and some of those plants and trees, to prevent people from trying to export them to the UK?
I am much heartened by the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee’s inquiry on plant and animal biosecurity after Brexit. Will the Government implement the Committee’s recommendations when the report is published, if they are in line with the stated ambition under the 25-year environment strategy and the tree health resilience strategy?
I could go on much longer on this extraordinary subject, but those with greater knowledge of the subject wish to contribute to the debate. I will conclude by saying that many of us spend our recreational time walking the British countryside. It is the envy of the world. How distraught would we be if it were to be further decimated by diseases that killed our flora? I call on us all to act now to protect our green and pleasant land.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and a great honour to follow my ex-Minister of State in Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire. We worked very closely together. He made a fine speech, and I congratulate him on bringing this important issue before us. I put on the record that I am delighted that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will answer the debate. He also served under me, as did my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon, who was a junior Minister while I was at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am among friends.
When I came to DEFRA, I set the Department four simple priorities over a kaleidoscopic variety of responsibilities. The first was to grow the rural economy. The second was to improve the environment—not protect it, but improve it. The third was to protect the country from animal disease. The fourth, which is relevant to the debate, was to protect the country from plant disease. Little did I know when I came to DEFRA what I was about to walk into.
Back in 1992, Chalara fraxinea had been found in Poland and was decimating ash trees there. It later struck me— my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury made a pertinent observation on this—how extraordinary it was that our embassies and consulates were not reading horticultural magazines and reporting back. If we had known then what was about to come to us, we could possibly have done more about it.
However, this terrible disease, which will ravage the 80 million-odd ash trees in this country, came west, probably not helped by the foolish practice of sending seedlings to Holland and then bringing them back as whips and saplings to grow into full trees here. Shortly before I came to DEFRA, the disease was found in a nursery in Buckinghamshire during a routine inspection by the Food and Environment Research Agency, and by the autumn, shortly after I took over, we were in a full-blooded crisis, in which we were trying to handle the issue.
We saw immediately that the disease had clearly followed the Schmallenberg virus, which had blown in, according to the maps, to the eastern tip of Kent and of East Anglia. However—this was unprecedented for DEFRA—we then had a most extraordinary exercise in which, over a week, we mapped the whole country, with amazing co-operation from the public and voluntary organisations and the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I also very much pay tribute to the Republic of Ireland, which played a part in this. We established spots of Chalara infection where trees had quite clearly been unwisely brought in from the continent. That immediately set in train the need to set about doing something.
It seemed crazy to me that we had a chief vet, but did not really have anyone in charge of tree and plant health, so I commissioned Professor Chris Gilligan, professor of mathematical biology and head of the school of biological sciences at the University of Cambridge, to chair the tree health and plant biosecurity expert taskforce, which we set up—all helped by Professor Boyd, the chief scientist at DEFRA. The taskforce produced a really good report.
My speech will be quite brief, because I would really like the Minister to reply—I tipped him off about this yesterday—on how many of the report’s key points have been implemented. The taskforce’s final report came out in May 2013, and DEFRA produced a plant biosecurity strategy in April 2014 that adopted nearly all the key recommendations, the first of which was to set up a UK risk register.
Are there still monthly meetings at DEFRA? I chaired meetings with my chief vet and the newly appointed chief plant health officer at which we monitored all diseases coming towards this country, and those that were already here, which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has rightly mentioned. Those were really valuable meetings.
The other key recommendation, which we adopted very early on after receiving the taskforce’s interim report, was to appoint a chief plant health officer; as I said, we had a chief vet but not an equivalent in plant health. We rapidly appointed Professor Nicola Spence. She had been a visiting professor at Harper Adams University, which is near my constituency, and is very distinguished. We put her in post, and I remember our benefiting very quickly: as soon as she was appointed, there was a case of a shipment of, I think, heavy electrical plant cables from Turkey. The dunnage—the wooden packing—was infested with some form of insect that was very unwelcome in this country. Professor Spence asked what to do, and I told her to send it back. We sent it back, which I said would send a striking lesson to the whole industry that, now that she had been appointed, I would back her all the way.
That is why the monthly meetings were really important. We would discuss these individual cases, and sightings of diseases—both plant and animal—in distant countries and here. I would like reassurances that those meetings are going on.
We also talked about getting much better intelligence. That was one of the key recommendations. On that front, I went to Russia, primarily to promote exports at a big Russian food exhibition. I visited the really interesting and top-class Russian institute for plant health, which had amazing, state-of-the-art facilities. We agreed with the Minister that we would have regular meetings of scientists and, once a year, a ministerial meeting. Many of these diseases have come from east to west, Chalara being the most obvious one. It would be nice to know that we have kept up those meetings.
While we were in Moscow, Martin Ward, who was chief plant officer at DEFRA, was elected chairman of the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation, on which there are 50 countries; it goes well beyond the EU. I would like to know what our contacts are with that organisation, because I thought that was a thoroughly worthwhile body to be part of and keep beefed-up. Martin Ward was a key man when he was in DEFRA and did a great job. I hoped that we would pick up a lot more intelligence there about where the diseases were coming from. We were going to look at procedures for preparedness. For instance, we planted 250,000 saplings to stake out and see where there might resistance be to Chalara; we found that that was in a tiny percentage of trees. The tragedy of all that was that we could have done so much work, if we had known back in 1992 that this disease was out there. I would like to know what other programmes DEFRA has embarked on.
There was going to be much tighter protection of borders. Around the same time, I went to Australia and New Zealand. I was absolutely stunned by the incredibly vigorous measures taken there. I remember seeing second-hand JCBs being stripped down and steam-cleaned at Sydney port before being allowed entry. No mud or dust was allowed in. In New Zealand, I saw intelligence-based monitoring of every single passenger at the airport. Everyone was monitored. There were sniffer dogs and x-ray machines. There were amnesty bins with warnings for anyone who had a sandwich or an apple. It was made absolutely clear on the aeroplane that we were not allowed to bring plant or animal products into either of those two countries.
I noted that Heathrow had virtually no notices and no alerts on the plane. Changing that would not have been an expensive exercise, and we set that in train when I was at DEFRA. I would like to know how we are getting on there. We agreed to give passengers far more early warning that they should not bring these products in, and to print leaflets in various languages, with an easily communicable message, for passengers coming in. I would like to know what we are doing at borders, because there is so much we could learn from countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
With Brexit, we will have a wonderful opportunity. Everybody talks about human movement at the borders; what about the movement of plants, both healthy and unhealthy? The European Union assumes that all plants are healthy, but sadly they are not. I have had meetings with Matt Shardlow of Buglife, which does splendid work on this. He reckons that invasive, non-native species are costing the UK economy £1.7 billion every year, which is shocking. There is a particularly disgusting invader called the Obama flatworm, an invasive flatworm from Brazil. It is already a threat in France, and one has been found in a pot plant in a garden centre in Oxfordshire. It was originally imported from the Netherlands.
As you know, Sir Henry, you will not find anyone in the House of Commons more in favour of free trade than me, but we need free trade in healthy products. Interestingly, in its latest publication, Buglife goes so far as to say that we should ban all pot plant imports, which would be a very strong measure. In DEFRA, we were looking at much more vigorous quarantining. Some of these imports are mad; for example, bringing from south-east Asia a reasonably mature tree with half a tonne of earth on it is just inviting trouble. Even the smallest pot plants can include a few eggs. We were going to look at longer quarantine periods, so that the bugs could incubate, and then have much more vigorous measures for sending them back. We will be able to do that after Brexit. We will be able to run and control our own borders.
I hope that the UK will become a haven for healthy plant products. I want to say the British Isles, because we worked extremely closely with the Government of the Republic of Ireland. They were really co-operative, and they have a massive interest: think of the tragedy of the decimation of ash populations across northern Europe. I had hoped we could begin to develop healthy plants and repopulate. We could be a reservoir of healthy plants that could be used to repopulate parts of Europe that had been blighted.
Other Members want to speak, and we very much want to hear from the Minister. I would like a résumé of where we are up to. Lastly, we promised we would increase skills and get more people interested in this area, and in training in plant diseases; we were going to put more money into that. I heartily congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon on this debate on a really worthwhile subject.
I will adhere to the five-minute limit, Sir Henry. First, I congratulate Sir Hugo Swire on presenting the case so well. He said others with expertise would speak after him, but he spoke at the beginning with a lot of expertise, as did Mr Paterson, and we appreciate that. I have not held any of the positions that the right hon. Gentlemen used to hold, but I come as an MP from Northern Ireland, so perhaps that gets me into the club. I am not sure whether it does or not, but there we are. It is always a pleasure to speak on these issues. In his introduction, the right hon. Member for East Devon referred to the beauty of his constituency, but my constituency of Strangford, which the right hon. Gentleman has visited on numerous occasions, is equal to his, if not better.
The issue of protection for our habitats is something that I have a great interest in. Whenever I get off the plane from Heathrow to Belfast City, the advertising on the walls clearly states, “No plants and no food”. It is very strict. That is what we see displayed at Belfast International airport, Belfast City airport and also Londonderry airport, so it is clear that we have a policy in place.
On my farm I have planted some 3,500 trees and created duck ponds. My sons and I are fastidious about pest control to encourage a thriving fauna haven, and I am not alone, as many country sports enthusiasts have the same passion for conservation and the issue of protection, as does the right hon. Gentleman. I was pleased to learn that there would be tighter controls on importing plants to prevent pests and diseases from damaging our native trees. The right hon. Gentleman has said that, and I will say it from a Northern Ireland perspective.
We have had numerous ash dieback outbreaks in Northern Ireland, some in my constituency. In Ballywalter, not too far away, Lord Dunleath’s estate has had an outbreak in the past. Oak and ash trees are among the species at risk from imported diseases and pests such as xylella and the emerald ash borer beetle. Xylella was first detected in 2013 when it destroyed olive trees in southern Italy. It spread to France, Spain and Mediterranean islands. It could arrive in Britain in imported plants such as rosemary, lavender, olives, oleander and almond.
In my constituency, Japanese knotweed is a major issue with people not understanding that trying to pull it out or cut it down merely spreads the problem. We must do more to educate people about the dangers of dealing with foreign plants, along with our own. Although the nurturing of Japanese bonsai trees for 50 years is a lovely thought, try dealing with Japanese knotweed that attacks plants and undermines the very foundations of homes and buildings throughout the Province. Japanese knotweed has become a real problem in my constituency around some of the houses, and land has been blighted. An area in the centre of Newtownards cannot be developed for six years because of the presence of Japanese knotweed. Weed killing has been undertaken, but a period of time has to be allowed to make sure that the incubation has not arisen again.
When I tried to help a constituent address their knotweed issue, I ran into problem after problem with Government Departments unwilling to step in and stop the spread. Instead of one garden being sprayed by a specialist at the right time of year for the prescribed time, a row of houses is now literally infested and losing their plants, and possibly their foundations. We were told that the weed killer was reasonably priced and the constituent could do the job themselves, but that did not really work. We need a targeted effort from Government Departments and the local councils to address the diseases and stop them from destroying our beautiful UK.
I want to ask the Minister a quick question. There is a farmers’ market event today in the Members’ Dining Room, and I spoke to some of the people there. Different regions of the United Kingdom are represented, including Northern Ireland. I understand that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland have a cross-border body that involves the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other Government bodies. However, although the framework is in place, there is no financial assistance for that cross-border body so that it can move forward and address the issue of invasive species coming to Northern Ireland, but also to the Republic. We need to dedicate funding to that purpose for the greater good of all our plants and fauna. I ask the Minister whether there is any intention to widen the attack on the invaders in our gardens.
I fully support the Department’s decision to implement stricter controls, yet it is a matter of closing the gate after the horse has bolted—we have all these foreign invaders already attacking our trees and wildlife and we must defend them. That needs to be targeted and done on a UK-wide basis. Across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we need to encourage the growth of our own beautiful plants and wildlife, free from attack by other plants that have no right to be thriving on our shores.
It is a great pleasure to be involved in this very important and timely debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also say that I am a trustee of a charity called Plantlife, which is doing a lot of work on invasive species and plant health and trying to encourage wildflowers.
As my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, a former Secretary of State, said, invasive species are costing our economy at least £1.7 billion a year. I remember the plant retailers coming to me, when I was in his Department, to whinge about the increased biosecurity measures that he was rightly implementing. I listened to them, but I am afraid that I just said to them, “Look, you really have got this wrong. Your industry is in part responsible for a devastating effect on our natural environment. You have to face facts: we are now moving into almost a military-style campaign to attack the invasive species and the diseases that are coming to this country, and you have to wise up to it.” They were quite shocked, but I was in turn quite shocked at their lack of biosecurity over decades, at the failure of Governments over decades to implement proper biosecurity, and how we were happy to import nearly all the stock of young trees of certain species that we were planting.
As my right hon. Friend said, we have followed the progression of Chalara as, like Schmallenberg disease and blue tongue, it has progressed across the country. At the weekend, I was looking at a wood in Berkshire and I estimated that about one third of the canopy was ash, and that will be gone in a very short space of time. We can learn from this. We can prevent other diseases that could be devastating to the remaining stock of trees and plants if we learn from our mistakes in the past. My right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire is absolutely right to say that.
I hope that the Minister will, in his reply, comment on Action Oak, which is spearheaded by Woodland Heritage. It is based quite near Alice Holt forest, and there is good reason why it should be there and able to build on the information at that centre of excellence. But funding is the key. We welcome the £500,000 that DEFRA promised, but £15 million is needed, and it would be great to know how close we are to getting to that.
Plantlife has identified what it calls its dirty dozen of invasive species, including American skunk-cabbage, broad-leaved bamboo, giant rhubarb, cotoneasters, Himalayan balsam, the Hottentot fig and Japanese knotweed. These invasive species are not only causing huge environmental damage, but creating a huge cost for us to deal with. What my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire did at DEFRA was quite right. He applied a logistician’s approach. I can remember that as a result of foot and mouth, when we had a very serious drought—this was before he was Secretary of State—we developed the same concept as was applied at the time of foot and mouth. It was called birdtable meetings. All the experts were brought in on a regular basis. They were very executive: they were called birdtable meetings because no one sat down—rather like the Privy Council—people just got the business done and then everyone went away and got on with it. I think that that kind of approach is required now to deal with this issue.
Of course, one measure that we need to talk about is husbandry. If dealing with Chalara requires the ash tree to be cut down and burned or taken away, or just cut down at the first sign, that is easy for a larger state or an organisation such as the Forestry Commission, but it is hard for a small farmer or someone with a few ash trees in their garden. Who will take responsibility for encouraging people to do the right thing? It requires a logistician’s approach to dealing with it.
We should beware easy solutions. I remember people coming to see me and saying that we should spray acres of woodland with copper sulphate. Instead of listening to those people, who seemed to have lifted their solutions off the internet, I listened much more readily to the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said that that would have a much more malign effect on our biodiversity and plant life.
I, too, have visited New Zealand and Australia. While I was still many thousands of miles away from arriving, I was hit by how hard-wired biosecurity is into every aspect of the travelling experience. The airline and the airport staff are tuned in to it, and there is signage, so it is impossible to move without it being apparent. We need to develop a much more overt and proactive form of biosecurity. I hope the Minister will give us some reassurance about that.
It is a pleasure to sum up for the Scottish National party with you in the Chair, Sir Henry. I congratulate Sir Hugo Swire on securing this debate and on his speech, which I will come to. Given the subject of the debate, it would be remiss of me not to put on record my congratulations to Mairi Gougeon MSP on her nomination to the Scottish Government as the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment. It is a nomination because it is the practice in Scotland that Government nominations to ministerial office must be passed by Parliament. One of her early introductions might be to read the Hansard of this debate to get a sense of some of the challenges that she will face in her job, not least from the likes of ash dieback.
The right hon. Gentleman made a typically forthright and challenging speech to the Minister. He spoke of the rate of planting trees elsewhere in these isles, but he did not mention that Scotland created 73% of all new woodland in the UK in 2016-17. Its target is now 15,000 hectares of new woodland by 2024-25, which is ambitious but achievable.
The right hon. Gentleman obviously spoke about ash dieback, which is a considerable problem in Scotland. Some 20% of all 10 km grid squares in Scotland have confirmed ash dieback. It appears that some ash trees may have some tolerance or resistance to infection, so it would be interesting for scientists to get to the bottom of how that came about. I take the point that mistakes were made in how we targeted prevention, but we need to ensure that a new strain of ash trees can be bred for the future.
The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about xylella, which I understand is the subject of EU emergency measures to control the movement of affected species such as plane, elm and oak. He also posed some questions to the Minister about strategy should it arrive in this country. He made a forthright and knowledgeable speech, to which I am sure the Minister will seek to respond.
The speech by Mr Paterson was obviously partly influenced by his time in ministerial office and the knowledge he gained there. He also posed several questions to the Minister, and we look forward to hearing the answers.
Jim Shannon spoke of his contribution to the flora of Northern Ireland. He rightly spoke about the pervasive problem of Japanese knotweed, which is a horrendous issue. From personal experience of constituency cases in Airdrie and Shotts, I know that it is expensive and challenging to deal with. Richard Benyon described a military-style campaign, and that is exactly what is often required to deal with Japanese knotweed. It is a horrendous issue. He also spoke of the major challenges of ash dieback, and not just for larger organisations. He rightly emphasised the challenges faced by smaller landowners in ensuring that they can respond if an outbreak sadly arrives in their area.
I should mention briefly some of the areas that we are working on in Scotland. Plant health is at the heart of Scotland’s thriving natural environment, our rural economy and our wellbeing. The aim of the Scottish plant health strategy is to safeguard agriculture, horticulture, forestry and the wider environment from plant pests, from 2016 to 2021 and beyond.
One of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide is invasive non-native species. That threat is particularly pronounced for fragile island ecosystems—I am not just talking about the British Isles, but the islands within the British Isles. Disease has already been spoken about by the right hon. Member for East Devon and the hon. Member for Strangford, and I think particularly of Japanese knotweed.
Scotland has led the way in the UK in creating a statutory framework to prevent the introduction and spread of non-invasive species, but we have concerns about the UK Government’s Brexit strategy and the power grab, including over environmental protections. We are not opposed to UK-wide frameworks when they are in Scotland’s interests. However, they must be agreed rather than imposed, and they must happen in a manner that respects and recognises devolution. The Scottish First Minister has been clear that any threat to Scotland’s distinctive and ambitious approach to environmental standards and climate change would be completely unacceptable. Imposing a UK framework could result in substantial damage to the work that has already been done by the Scottish Government.
For example, we used EU rules to ban genetically modified crops in Scotland to protect our environment and support Scottish agriculture, and there is no such ban in England. A UK-wide framework in that area could see the ban lifted, thereby threatening Scotland’s clean, green brand and the future of Scotland’s £14 billion food and drink sector. Scotland has gained international recognition for our work on climate change and the circular economy, so we clearly do not want to put that at risk.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate Sir Hugo Swire on securing this debate. Biosecurity is a huge issue that does not often get its turn in the spotlight.
Mr Paterson, Jim Shannon and Richard Benyon all made important points. I share their concerns about the problems we have with the many invasive species. In our village, we have had to deal with Japanese knotweed, and we have huge issues with Himalayan balsam. Until I was elected to this place, I had a personal mission against Himalayan balsam encroaching on to our land, which I have now handed over to my husband. Removing invasive species is a terribly difficult, time-consuming and costly exercise. There is then the dreadful problem of dealing with diseases such as ash dieback, which we have also discussed.
Biosecurity is terribly critical but perhaps does not get enough attention. It is also vital for our biosecurity that we retain access to EU markets. We have to make sure that the right resources and infrastructure are in place to handle the continued movement of animals and plants. We need our trade with the EU to continue to be as frictionless as possible. Most importantly, regulatory standards must not be compromised by Brexit. The right hon. Member for North Shropshire said that we need to trade in healthy plants and I could not agree with him more.
Prospect recently submitted evidence to an inquiry by the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee into biosecurity, recommending better training for plant health officers, an issue that has already been mentioned. We need to establish a viable training programme for new and established inspectors, plus joint training ventures with the Horticultural Trades Association and the Royal Horticultural Society. The evidence also recommends more long-term investment in agricultural and environmental science, as well as that Ministers should put together a plan to deliver future biosecurity collaboration with the EU post-Brexit.
There are significant worries that we may weaken biosecurity protection and open ourselves up to risks and threats through trade deals, unless we do everything we can to ensure that sufficient checks and resources are put in place to mitigate those risks. Brexit could mean the end of shared biosecurity information—such as that provided through the European rapid alert system for food and feed, and through the European Union notification system for plant health interceptions—for the intercepting of pests and diseases on imported goods.
We are at the end of a huge plant supply chain from other EU states. This could be significant for the future of British biosecurity. The current system of sharing intelligence of biosecurity threats within or bordering the EU must continue in some form. Given the volume of UK-EU trade, it is critical that we continue to collaborate. The cost of dealing with pests and pathogens once they are in the UK is significantly more expensive and much more challenging than preventing their introduction in the first place, as has been mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members. That shared expertise is vital to being able to plan and prepare for future challenges. Any loss of that integrated approach would pose a risk to UK biosecurity. Will the Minister commit to retaining the precautionary principle in implementing biosecurity legislation?
We need a closer relationship with EU standards post-Brexit, but that may not provide the protections we need in the future, because we will have to continue to update legislation and practices, to tackle any new challenges and threats as they emerge. We know that climate change is spreading pests and diseases to new locations, and new trade deals will require new supply-chain assurances and the expertise to manage those risks. New legislation also needs to be flexible enough to enable quicker reaction to new threats and to improve the move from pest eradication, to containment, to management.
Another problem is that we simply do not know how much plant material is imported from the EU every year, as it is not checked, so we do not have any idea what resources we will need to check it. Have any estimates been made of the volume of plant imports from the EU? If those imports are not checked properly, does the Minister agree that there will be risks for biosecurity?
The current assumption on checks is that they will have to happen at supermarket distribution centres, for example, because we do not have the capacity to do so at the points of entry. There is a risk that inspectors could be overwhelmed by the volume of additional inspections and therefore miss dangerous pests or diseases in other imports. To combat that, I understand that the Animal and Plant Health Agency is recruiting about 40 new inspectors and seven new mangers, which is excellent news, but it is hard to see how they can be trained in time. There has never been a requirement for training on this scale before. Will the Minister comment on that and let me know if the training is being done face to face or online, as there are clearly concerns about the issue?
Currently, non-EU imports are managed through an HMRC customs computer system. The volumes are relatively low and require advanced notice. Inspectors are asking whether that system is appropriate for EU imports and whether it could cope with additional volume. Does the Minister believe that the current HMRC plant import customs IT system will be able to deal with the imports from the EU? Has any assessment been made of that? Is a new system being designed? If so, on what basis and will it be ready in time?
I am aware that I have posed quite a number of questions to the Minister and I appreciate that he may not be able to answer them all today. If that is the case, I would be grateful if he would write to me with the answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire on securing this debate.
As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, protecting our country from pests and diseases is vital to safeguarding our environment. The loss of veteran trees, some of which have been around for hundreds of years, due to some of those diseases, is particularly tragic. I remember as a boy growing up in Cornwall that we had beautiful elms right around the farm. I can remember my father having to cut them down, year after year, because they had died. It was a tremendous tragedy, and since then threats to plant health have only increased. That is why, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, we have to be constantly on our guard and strengthen our responses.
My right hon. Friend highlighted in his comprehensive speech many of the current threats. As he pointed out, we have the problem of ash dieback, which prompted changes to our plans some years ago. In the west country we have a particularly problem, as he said, with Phytophthora ramorum, which is particularly prevalent in areas of the country with wet conditions and species that are prone to that disease. We have, with our iconic oaks, the problem of oak processionary moth and acute oak decline, which has been around for a number of years. As he pointed out, recently in his part of the world we have seen the arrival of sweet chestnut blight. In addition, we are now monitoring and are vigilant against threats, including xylella at the top of the list, and others such as plane wilt, which would be a major threat to some of our trees in urban areas such as London, and the emerald ash borer.
My right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, who was the first Secretary of State I served under in my post in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I think we are now on to Secretary of State No. 4—asked a very specific question with, I have to say, a hint of scepticism in his voice. He wanted to know whether the recommendations of the tree health and plant biosecurity initiative expert taskforce, which he commissioned and which reported in 2014, had been implemented. He will be delighted to know that those recommendations have been implemented, and many of the important changes that he put in place are still with us today. In fact, we have built on some of the architecture and infrastructure that he put in place.
For instance, we now have a chief plant health officer; indeed, Nicola Spence, our current chief plant health officer, is here today listening to the debate. We have also developed a prioritised UK risk register, which has in the region of 1,000 pests registered on it. We have strengthened governance arrangements. My right hon. Friend asked—with, I think, an especial hint of scepticism—whether our monthly biosecurity meetings, which he used to chair, continue. Perhaps he thought that they had fallen by the wayside after he had gone, as meetings often do. I reassure him that that monthly biosecurity meeting is critical and still takes place. He will be delighted to know that my noble Friend Lord Gardiner, who leads on that element of the DEFRA portfolio, is every bit as tenacious as he was in identifying threats and ensuring that we take them seriously.
The fourth recommendation was that there should be improved border security and strengthened import regulations, which I will deal with a little later. The final recommendation was that there should be a new plant health information portal. We have introduced all those recommendations and taken them further.
As a result of the biosecurity strategy launched in 2014, the plant health service now operates, pre-border, things such as systematic screening of risk, at-the-border checks—inspections at entry points—and also an inland strategy that uses both aerial and ground surveillance to reduce the risk of pests and diseases entering the country, and to manage the impact of established pests.
Turning first to the pre-border checks, we try to stop pests and diseases before they even arrive, and our international horizon scanning helps us spot new risks and take action to stop them. Risks are tracked through a fully published UK plant health risk register, which, as I have said, now has more than 1,000 plant pests and diseases registered on it. Where necessary, we take action to drive up international biosecurity standards, ensuring that regulations are robust in both Europe and beyond. For instance, we secured stronger EU-wide protections against the threat of xylella.
Turning to the border, we have invested more than £4.5 million to strengthen our border security, recruiting new plant inspectors and enhancing training. Our border inspectors carry out more than 100,000 document checks and 30,000 physical checks a year of consignments deemed to be of higher risk. They are highly effective in comparison with their peers, so the UK consistently makes more interceptions of harmful organisms than any other EU member state. In fact, the interceptions we make account for about 40% of the total number of interceptions that take place at EU level.
I referred earlier to the fact that there is a skeletal body in place in Northern Ireland and the Republic—it involves the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and others from the Republic of Ireland—but it has no funding. I do not expect the Minister to have all the answers—that would be unfair—but will he come back to me with an answer about the funding, so that we can get it going?
I was going to try to touch on that; it was on the long list of issues that I wanted to cover. There is already an all-Ireland approach to plant health between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and we co-operate closely with the Republic of Ireland on plant health. For instance, we invite it to the UK plant health co-ordination meeting. A lot of joint working takes place in that regard.
In 2016, some 445 different pests were intercepted and identified at UK points of entry; in 2017, the figure was 401. We cannot eliminate all the risks, but we have robust contingency plans in place so that we can take prompt, effective action to tackle the pests and diseases that make it through. In February 2017 we published the generic contingency plan for plant and bee health, which sets out how the DEFRA chief plant health officer will co-ordinate and lead the response to an outbreak of pests or diseases in plants or bees in England.
We also have ongoing extensive aerial and ground-based surveillance programmes, including Observatree, a nationwide network of more than 200 volunteer surveyors trained by the Forest Research agency and the Woodland Trust. We have increased national protection at home by introducing statutory notification schemes for certain tree species and securing protected zones, which prevent the import of trees that do not meet stringent conditions. A protected zone effectively bans the import of trees unless they have been grown in an area free of the relevant disease and are accompanied by a plant passport certifying that. We have introduced more protected zones than any other member state. Since the introduction of statutory notification schemes for imports, there has also been a significant reduction in the number of tree imports. For instance, we have seen a 60% reduction in plane tree imports.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon raised the issue of budget, which is obviously important. There is a £37 million budget for tree health between 2012 and 2020, which has been spent on research, monitoring, risk assessment, surveillance and management and will support the priorities of our tree health resilience strategy. He also asked about Sir William Worsley, our new tree champion. I know the budget is being discussed and any budget he needs will be funded out of the provision we have for tree health, alongside other priorities. Having that tree champion has been an important step forward.
Both my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon raised the issue of the Action Oak programme, which was launched only recently by my noble Friend Lord De Mauley. We have made progress with it: so far, £1.6 million has been raised towards it. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire raised the issue of border controls. This week, we are running a “Don’t Risk It” campaign, with visible posters and information for the public.
Finally, on the issue of the European Union—no debate in this place is complete without contemplating what might happen with Brexit—leaving the EU is an opportunity to examine all our national biosecurity measures, to ensure that they are as robust as possible and that we are doing everything we can to protect our country. We are working to secure the best EU exit deal, balancing frictionless trade in plants with robust protection against pests and diseases from day one, but certainly there will be opportunities as we leave the EU to adopt a slightly different approach where we deem it necessary to protect our trees and promote plant health in this country.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members from the Conservative party, the Scottish National party and the Democratic Unionist party, and the rather lonely spokesman for the Opposition Labour party, for taking part in this debate. It is a subject that I would have thought would interest hon. Members from all over the country, and I hope that when we debate these matters in future, as I am sure we will, we will have greater representation. I think we are all agreed, in a rare form of consensus, that this is a serious problem and one that we need to get a grip on if we are to preserve our landscape for future generations.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the protection of British flora from imported diseases.