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Ash Dieback Disease

Volume 552: debated on Monday 29 October 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the Government’s policy on tackling ash dieback disease.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is today in Cannock Chase visiting woodland, so I will reply in his stead. We are taking the threat posed by Chalara fraxinea—ash dieback disease—extremely seriously. We have today imposed a temporary ban on imports of ash and restrictions on its movement, supported by the results of a shortened consultation with industry on our pests risk assessment. The ban will therefore be effective well before the start of the main UK planting season. Before the ban, the Horticultural Trades Association urged its members to follow a voluntary moratorium on imports throughout the period, which is being well observed.

On discovering Chalara in the UK, plant health authorities took immediate action rapidly to assess ash trees for signs of infection at more than 1,000 sites where ash plants from Europe had been grown or planted in the past five years, and this has resulted in the destruction of 100,000 trees.

I thank the Minister for his reply.

Over the weekend, the risk facing the UK from ash dieback disease has become apparent. Experts fear that it is the biggest threat to British trees since 25 million trees were killed by Dutch elm disease 30 years ago. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State chose to announce the ban in Staffordshire instead of in person to this House.

We welcome the ban, but the question on everyone’s lips is, “Why did it take so long?” Ash dieback was found last February in a Buckinghamshire nursery. Why did Ministers sit back, cross their fingers and wait until the disease was found in the wild in June? Why did the Horticultural Trades Association act before the Government? Why did the Government’s consultation on an import ban on ash start only on 31 August? Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that no infected trees were planted in the spring, especially after the severe winter? Can he guarantee that no infected trees were imported into the UK over the summer while Ministers dithered? How does he know that people did not import saplings into the country in the boot of their car? Why were landowners and local authorities told of the disease just three weeks ago?

How will the ban be implemented and policed, and how much will it cost? On Saturday, the Secretary of State told the “Today” programme that 58,000 trees had been burned since the disease was identified. The Minister said that within that short 48-hour period the number had been revised up to 100,000. Can he tell us what the number will be by the end of the week? Is it possible to treat and store felled wood so that it can be used productively in future? What assessment has he received of the impact of the disease on jobs in the wood services industry?

In autumn 2011, the Forestry Commission’s pathology bulletin carried the headline “One to watch for—Chalara fraxinea”, and stated that it was

“not yet present in Britain”.

On what date was Chalara fraxinea identified as the pathogen that causes ash dieback and when were Ministers informed? They cannot say that they were not warned as an internal Forestry Commission document warned that cuts meant that there would be

“no capacity to deal with the costs of disease or other calamity.”

The Forestry Commission trade unions’ evidence to the Science and Technology Committee stated:

“Forest research in Great Britain is already funded at a minimal level, and will be drastically under-funded as the cuts proceed.”

This Government cut the Forestry Commission’s cash by 25%, closed seven regional offices, and cut 250 staff. They have cut funding for forest research from £12 million a year to £7 million a year. The Forestry Commission’s website details the difficulty that scientists had in identifying the deadly form of the fungal infection, and those cuts reduced the commission’s ability to identify and tackle tree disease.

We welcome the creation of a tree disease taskforce under Professor Ian Boyd to deal with this crisis. We also welcome the app that is being launched to crowd-source the disease—I am surprised that the Minister did not mention it—although with leaf fall already under way this is, again, too little too late. After the forest sell-off fiasco, this incompetent Government have been asleep on the job with ash dieback. Like Nero, Ministers fiddled, and now it is our forests that will burn.

It is sadly predictable that when we have a serious condition that could have enormous consequences with which we are trying to deal as a country, the first thing the hon. Lady thinks is, “How can we blame the Government rather than deal with the disease?” She asked why the Secretary of State was not here today. It is because he is talking to people who are dealing with the disease; he is talking to foresters and making sure that we are taking all necessary precautions.

The hon. Lady asked why nothing was done in February. Of course something was done in February—we acted straight away under the previous Secretary of State. Once the first United Kingdom finding of Chalara was confirmed in March, plant health authorities prepared a pest risk analysis. No previous national or international pest risk analysis existed, partly because until 2010—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady would do well to listen to the background to this. Until 2010, there was widespread scientific uncertainty over the identity of the causal organism. That is actually an international issue, rather than an issue in this country.

Since the disease was intercepted, plant health authorities have been carrying out intensive surveillance and monitoring, chasing forward movements of ash plants from infected nurseries and inspecting trees in the vicinities of infected sites to ascertain where the disease may be present in the wider environment. That enormous ongoing task involves well over 1,000 sites, and it is as a consequence of that that the 100,000 trees have been destroyed.

The hon. Lady asked for a guarantee that no infected material came in during the voluntary moratorium, but of course I cannot guarantee that. I can say that no commercial imports took place, because of the action that we took, but I cannot guarantee that no one brought back a little ash sapling in the boot of their car. I hope that they did not, but I cannot guarantee it.

The hon. Lady may not understand that this is an airborne disease and that the incidence of the disease in mature trees in East Anglia had not previously been suspected—it is likely to have been carried on the wind over the channel. Now that we have discovered it, we have immediately taken the action required.

Finally, the hon. Lady was quite wrong about resources, because there has been no reduction in those for plant health and tree health in this country, as she would ascertain were she to speak to the Forestry Commission.

Order. Many Members are seeking to catch my eye and I am keen to accommodate them, but to do so will require brevity from those on Back and Front Benches alike. I am sure that we will be led in this process by the Chair of the Select Committee.

I welcome these proceedings and congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister. Will he pass on our thanks to the Food and Environment Research Agency in my constituency for its work and to the Forestry Commission? Will he explain to the House that this disease was already treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures? That would help to show that it was already high on the political agenda. Will he ensure that resources are put into urgently investigating the age profile of the disease? Saplings are deemed more likely to die from the disease, but are mature trees equally at risk? Will he also assure the House that none of the other plants that are being inspected by FERA and the Forestry Commission are causing the same concern?

I can certainly confirm that we are taking all measures possible to deploy colleagues in the Forestry Commission, those working in forest services and people from FERA to identify the incidence of disease wherever it can be found. We will look closely at a suspected further case in a mature tree. It is important to realise that there is a national forest inventory through which symptoms of disease are looked at across the board all the time. There were 8,000 inspections of ash trees under the inventory last year and it was found that the trees were, in fact, in very good health. Only 61 cases of any signs of ill health in ash trees were discovered, and none of them was due to Chalara.

There is concern because while it is now late autumn, this was discovered much earlier in the year. Leaving aside that delay, will the Minister give the House an assurance that he will work with the Woodland Trust, which has great expertise in this issue and has a series of asks for the Government?

It is important that we work with everybody; this is not something that we can leave entirely to the scientists and the experts. Anyone who spots an incidence of disease in trees would do well to advise the authorities. We can then use the great body of voluntary organisations that are interested in the health of our forests to do all we can to deal with the disease as quickly as possible. I repeat that there was not a delay over the summer. Planting does not take place during the summer period and, as far as we are aware, the voluntary moratorium has worked very well.

Given the importance of a joined-up approach to tackling the threat to trees and plants, will my hon. Friend tell us the likely make-up and remit of the expert taskforce?

We are keen to bring together experts in plant disease, industry experts and wider forest interests so that we can see what more, if anything, can be done to deal with what could be a disastrous outbreak of the disease. We also need to look at how we will deal most effectively with plant and tree health in future. The Secretary of State and I have discussed that, because we feel that for many years this country has not been as well equipped to deal with plant health as it has with animal health. I would like us to be prepared for all eventualities at all times.

This episode is a terrible indictment of the Government, and also the Opposition, because the Horticultural Trades Association first warned about the disease back in 2009—[Interruption.] Neither of your houses has worked hard or fast enough on this. Will the Minister reverse the 25% cuts that he is making to the Forestry Commission so that it has the resources to tackle this episode urgently and properly?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady simply is not correct. I have explained the sequence of events and the fact that we have in no way reduced the resources available for plant and tree health.

Pound farm in Suffolk is a mile from my constituency boundary, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Will the Minister update the House on what proactive policies are being put in place for local home owners and residents? Will there be a proactive felling and burning policy, and how will it be communicated?

We certainly need to communicate with local people who have forestry interests and trees on their property about what they should be looking for. I will not pre-empt the discussions with the experts on the ground about precisely what is the right action to take, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will apply all available resources to the problem, because we do not want it to spread further if we can possibly avoid it.

The Minister said that he had difficulty identifying the pathogen, but did he or his officials contact Danish scientists who have a decade of experience in the field? Will he publish the scientific research indicating that airborne spores could reach this country from continental Europe?

It was not I who had a problem identifying the pathogen; it was the international authorities, including the Danish authorities that the right hon. Lady mentions, who had reason to suspect that the pathogen was not the one that was initially identified, and that it was less virulent. That was why Europe and the world, frankly, took their eye off the ball to a certain extent and did not recognise the threat that Chalara represented to the Danish forests, for instance. Of course we work closely with our colleagues in other European countries and learn from their information, but I am afraid we cannot second-guess the international consensus.

The ash tree is known as the Lincolnshire tree. Indeed, my home in Lincolnshire is surrounded by them, and if only a couple fell over, my home would be completely demolished. We therefore take the problem very seriously in Lincolnshire. Will the Minister accept that there have been reports of nursery imports carrying the disease coming into Lincolnshire, and that the reason why such diseases have taken off in the past is that Governments have not had sufficient grip and have not been severe—ruthless even—by stopping them at their inception?

As I have indicated, we need to take tree and plant diseases very seriously. There is of course evidence that saplings have brought the disease into the country, which was precisely why we applied the voluntary moratorium and have now moved to a ban, which comes into effect today. That means that no trees have been imported on a commercial basis since early spring.

May I declare an interest as the proud owner of a number of ash trees that I planted 10 years ago?

Will the Minister explain what budget Professor Boyd and his team are working to and where that fits in the cuts that were identified in evidence to the Science and Technology Committee last June?

The team that Professor Boyd has brought together will have all the resources it needs. I do not have a figure to give the hon. Gentleman because that will depend on where the team’s discussions take it but, if he wishes, we will provide his Committee with the information in due course.

I have six forests in my constituency, and I pay tribute to the work of the Forestry Commission thus far. Will the Minister outline what ongoing funding the Government have allocated for research into tree health?

Research into tree health—other than that which takes place within the university sector and independently of the Government—is carried out through the Forestry Commission and Forest Services. The actual amount will be available in the Forestry Commission’s budget, and I will send the hon. Gentleman an accurate figure if he wishes.

What advice would the Minister give to people who might have trees with the disease in their garden? How will he encourage them to come forward if they are concerned that they might be blamed for bringing the disease into the country?

Let me be clear: we are not going to blame anyone for bringing in a tree. The only person engaged in a blame game is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench; the rest of us are trying to find practical solutions. I have no intention of scapegoating somebody who has innocently brought a diseased tree into the country. We will ensure that advice is available through the Forestry Commission, and use every resource, including the press, so that people know the signs they should be looking for in mature ash trees. Meanwhile, it will be for experts to identify the existence of the pathogen in ash trees and to take appropriate steps. Nobody should feel worried that because they have planted an ash sapling, they will be held personally responsible for the outbreak of Chalara.

While the Labour party has been making cheap political points, a consultation has been in progress. What can the Minister tell the House about how effectively that consultation supported a prohibition?

The consultation was about a statutory ban and the responses we received were overwhelmingly supportive of that. In fact, they also provided some further helpful advice about the implementation of the ban, which enabled us to achieve that at the very first opportunity.

I do not doubt the Minister’s commitment to tackling this issue, but when the Public and Commercial Services union made representations to the Government, it stated that cuts in the Forestry Commission would have such consequences. Even if the Minister does not accept that point, we will need additional resources. Will he undertake a swift, independent review of the need for those resources? I assure him that if he requires support in getting those additional resources and lobbying the Treasury, the Labour party will assist him.

May I make it absolutely clear that we will not fail in our fight against this disease through lack of resources? We will make available from the Department those resources that are identified as necessary by the scientific team and taskforce that we have brought together to consider what should be done next.

Has my hon. Friend experienced any resistance from the European Commission or the European Union regarding the import ban, as was suggested on the “Today” programme a couple of days ago? If so, will he make certain that under no circumstances we will allow the EU to stand in the way of the plans that he has announced?

In this instance I can put my hon. Friend’s fears to rest because the EU has not impeded what we have sought to do in any way. Indeed, we have been working extremely closely with colleagues in other countries who, to date, have faced a much larger incidence of this disease than we have. We have been able to learn from their experiences and put those lessons into action in this country.

The Minister will understand that the felling of a large amount of timber may have an effect on the wood services industry and the price of timber. Will he issue advice—perhaps he has advice now—on the safe storage, curing and drying out of wood that has been felled, to ensure that the pathogen does not persist?

We will certainly issue such guidance. The ban also deals with the movement of timber and timber waste products in this country. There is no evidence that the pathogen persists in felled trees and wood products but, nevertheless, we believe that an appropriately precautionary response would be to restrict movements in this country, and that is what we have done.

Ash is not the only tree in this country that is under assault from invasive species. In parts of Richmond park, up to 50% of our great oaks show signs of acute oak decline, and about 70% of horse chestnuts in the country show signs of bleeding canker. Surely we can make better use of our island status and apply stronger and better controls at points of entry.

We can do a number of things. Obviously, we cannot prevent the spread of wind-borne disease, but we can look carefully at where import controls are required. We have instructed the agricultural attachés network in our embassies to monitor local intelligence, so that when there are outbreaks of tree disease, we can deal with them in a timely and effective way. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that ash dieback is not the only disease to consider, because we also have phytophthora, Asian longhorn beetle and sweet chestnut blight. We are having to cope with a number of serious tree diseases, and we are applying the necessary resources to do so.

I understand that an incidence of the disease has already been identified in Scotland. Will the Minister therefore tell the House the date on which the devolved Administrations were first notified?

We have worked very closely with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are aware of what we are doing and that they can take appropriate decisions on what ought to be done. The Forestry Commission works across the border with its counterparts in Scotland to ensure that all scientific information is shared. I am absolutely clear that they will have all the knowledge we have in dealing with this case. I do not think there is any shortage of information.

The House has heard what the Minister said about his Government not second-guessing the international consensus and not being impeded by the EU, but does he not understand the annoyance of my constituents, who care about our precious, ancient Epping forest, at the EU’s lack of action on biocontrol? While EU officials are wasting their time and our money trying to interfere with the work of UK hairdressers, who do not need protection, they are doing nothing for our ancient forests, which need protection from airborne diseases and diseases imported from Europe. Why has the EU not taken action, and will he do all he can to ensure that it does so?

We have brought together scientific experts from all over Europe to deal with this problem. I am not sure that the people dealing with hairdresser regulation are best deployed dealing with tree health. We need to use all available methods to restrict the spread of tree diseases, because there is a very high incidence of several of them, particularly in northern Europe. We should do everything we can do to avoid their coming into this country.

In evidence to the independent panel on forestry, the Friends of Chopwell Wood, which is based in my constituency, said:

“There is a concern that having ‘saved’ our wood from sell-off we may lose it by neglect and disease”

and that that would be caused by “insufficient staff and funding”. Will the Minister give an assurance that that will not happen?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have not yet formally responded to the independent panel on forestry, but we have indicated that we accept the thrust of its recommendations. I look forward to giving a full response early in the new year on that subject. The future for forestry is very bright, despite setbacks of the sort that I have described today. I repeat that we have not cut back on the allocation of resources. I hope we will be able to mobilise not just scientists, foresters and the voluntary groups for which he has spoken up, but everybody who has an interest in trees in this country, to ensure we have a thriving forest—not only today, but in future.

Given that there will be a desire for public vigilance, what will the Government do to ensure that public concern and support for taking action on this issue are properly and effectively harnessed?

I am keen that all of us with an interest in tree health take responsibility for this. We cannot all be experts on fungal diseases of the ash—I do not expect that—but people should report clear symptoms of ill health in trees to the authorities. The Government play their part by ensuring that research programmes into aspects of tree health are augmented, and we will thus ensure that we have healthy forests in the future.

As a representative of one of the areas affected by the disease, may I—in contrast to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), whose principal preoccupation seemed to be to play the blame game—thank the Department and its officials for their rapid action to get on top of this potentially devastating disease, particularly by inspecting more than 1,000 sites over the summer, destroying more than 100,000 trees and introducing an immediate ban? Given that the science of the disease is little understood, will he reassure the House by updating us on what steps are being taken to work with the forestry industry and researchers to understand its epidemiology?

That is absolutely right. We have actually allocated £8 million from existing resources for new research into tree health over the next four years, which I hope will go some way to supplementing what is already in place. There are question marks in the international scientific community over such things as the pathology of the organism and its means of transmission, which we need to explore more fully. The fact that those countries with a high level of infestation—Denmark, Germany, Poland and others in northern Europe—still do not have the answers to some of those questions indicates the complexity of the issue. It is not the case that Britain has not been playing its part; scientific research sometimes takes time.

Will the Minister assure the House that his officials are working with importers and nurseries to ensure that no affected stock remains that may be planted in the future, so that forests such as Sherwood stay not only clean and green, but great places to visit?

We will continue the programme of inspection that has identified those saplings that may be a risk and destroyed them. The ban has been in place on a voluntary basis—it is now on a statutory basis—to ensure that nothing came into the country over this summer and therefore was not available for the next planting season. We can be reasonably assured that infected trees will not be planted this winter—at least those from commercial sources—but we need to maintain vigilance, which we certainly will do. We will also work closely with the industry, which understands how dangerous the disease is and wants to co-operate. I am grateful for the help it has given to the Department in identifying and dealing with the threat at an early stage.

We have already seen one dangerous tree disease spreading into other species—phytophthora. Is there any evidence of Chalara spreading into other species, either on the continent or here?

I do not believe that there is evidence of Chalara crossing species at the moment, but I will check that and give the hon. Lady an accurate response. She is right about phytophthora, which is well evidenced. In the case of Chalara fraxinea, we are dealing with a specific issue for the ash tree but, as she will be aware, fungal diseases are sometimes more easily spread between species than some other pathogens. I will examine all the evidence and write to her if there is any suggestion of cross-species spread.