I beg to move,
That this House notes that ash dieback, which could affect 80 million native ash trees, has been identified in 115 sites; further notes that Government ministers were informed of the disease on 3 April 2012; regrets that the public were not informed about the disease this spring and that a thorough survey of woodland was not carried out this summer; further regrets that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has circulated a briefing to hon. Members from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, but not the Opposition; recognises that 530 staff posts have already been cut from the Forestry Commission, including 38 posts in Forest Research which investigates tree diseases, and that the Forestry Commission budget will be cut from £47.5 million in 2010-11 to £36.2 million in 2014-15; calls on the Government to issue clear advice to tree growers and the public as to the best way to prevent disease spread and to work with all hon. Members, including the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, as well as councils and other affected stakeholders to fight this disease and ensure that lessons are learned; and further calls on the Government urgently to assess whether the Forestry Commission has adequate resources to guarantee that there are enough Forestry Commission staff and scientists to carry out further tree health surveys and to commit to work with all stakeholders to overcome the environmental, economic and ecological impact of this terrible disease.
May I begin by saying what a disappointment it is to see that, once again, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has delegated the challenge of explaining ministerial inaction on this disease to his colleague the Minister of State? I heard on this morning’s “Farming Today” that the Secretary of State was on a plane to China, yet Ministers were aware last Thursday that this debate was taking place. I believe it is a matter of courtesy to the House that Government business of this nature comes first. We wish him well on his trip to China, but we hope that he will, eventually, turn up in the House to tell us what he is doing.
I honestly think that if the hon. Lady believes that the Secretary of State should have cancelled a mission to the largest market in the world, where he is trying to promote British produce, in order to come to argue with her on her rather ridiculous motion today, her sense of priorities is very distorted indeed.
I will leave the public to decide whether flogging fromage to the Chinese is more important than explaining to the British people what action the Secretary of State is taking on a major environmental and ecological disaster that is unfolding on his watch. [Interruption.] I believe that “flogging fromage and fizz” are the words he used the last time he went off to France, so I am using his own words back at him. Clearly, it would be much more comfortable to be going off to China than to be in the hot seat, where the Minister of State finds himself.
The scale of the ash dieback emergency is now clear. It has been found in 129 sites in England and Scotland, including 15 nurseries and 50 recently planted sites. The most worrying discovery is that the disease is present in 64 woodland sites. That number will rise sharply as more trees are surveyed. Professor Michael Shaw from Reading university has described it as “catastrophic”.
Scientists believe that most of our 80 million ash trees will face a long, slow decline over the next 10 years. The tree that accounts for one third of our native broad-leaved woodland will all but disappear. A few resistant trees will survive and their seeds will be carefully stored to restock the forests when our children are already grown. Lichens, moths, beetles and bugs that rely on the ash’s alkaline bark will suffer. The 27 species of insects that depend on the ash as their sole food plant might become extinct. Plant nurseries and woodland owners will lose thousands of pounds as they destroy ash saplings, and the wood industry will suffer as wood prices rise. Timber that was planned for will not reach maturity. Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback, will change our landscape for ever. It is an environmental, ecological and economic disaster.
On that point, the hon. Lady will be aware that in my part of the country, in East Anglia, the disease has been found in mature trees that we know have had no contact with nurseries that have imported ash plants. Wind-borne fungus is therefore certainly a possibility. In the interests of clarity and empirical evidence, will she acknowledge that that might be the case?
I am going on the empirical evidence, and I shall spend an extensive part of my speech reviewing the scientific facts, seeing how they have changed since they were first published last Wednesday—because they have—and going into great detail on that point.
Before the hon. Lady develops her theme of the Government’s having been caught short and not reacting properly, does she agree that the Department was alerted to the problem as far back as 2007, two years earlier than has been reported, and that the budget for studying tree disease was cut by more than half in real terms in the years leading up to 2010?
There has been confusion on both sides of the House about what the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is in his place, did or did not do. He asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to do a thorough search of all the ministerial papers he saw on ash dieback, which has shown that he did not see the correspondence between the Horticultural Trades Association and the Forestry Commission about a possible import ban. The only mention of ash dieback was in a briefing note in February 2010, in which the disease was listed as absent from the country. The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) chairs the all-party group on life sciences, so he should know that the way the disease has been discovered is still evolving.
In 2009, it was thought that the fungus that caused ash dieback was already present in the UK. It was only subsequently that a new virulent species causing ash dieback was discovered. The science changed in 2010, when a new pathogen, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, was identified as the fungus causing the disease. I advise all hon. Members to read an article by Andy Coghlan in the New Scientist of 31 October that gives the scientific chronology of the disease. I also have a copy of the scientific paper in Forest Pathology in which the change was first discovered, which was printed in 2011.
What did my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central do? He published the “Forestry Commission: Science and innovation strategy for British forestry 2010-2013” on 1 April 2010. It stated:
“Over the next five years we will increase our budget for monitoring and biosecurity research particularly with regard to tree health to 15% of our research spend.”
Even as late as autumn 2011, the Forestry Commission pathology bulletin confirmed that Britain was clear of the pathogen.
The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) made a fair point about the possibility of airborne transmission. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) agree that there may be connectivity with nurseries to which seedlings were imported? It is quite possible that, over a year, there was airborne transmission to trees, as the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds suggests, from those imported seedlings. That is not incompatible with his point.
It is much more likely that the disease spread from imported seedlings transplanted from nursery stock than that it blew in, on great gusts, over the North sea. We will examine that in more detail later. [Interruption.] Ministers can chunter; the science is not politically convenient for them, but we will stick to what continental scientists have discovered until those facts are disproved.
The disease was discovered in imported saplings in February this year. When did the public first hear that the infection was on UK soil? Was it in April, when Ministers were told that it had been discovered in a nursery? No. Was it in June, when it was discovered in newly planted sites, and there was increased risk to mature woodland, as the disease could blow in from those sites? No, it was not. We finally heard on 25 October, when the Secretary of State announced that he would ban ash imports during Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions in the House—a full eight months after the disease first appeared.
Ministers could have started the consultation on a ban back in April, instead of leaving it until the end of August. The question on everyone’s lips is: “Why didn’t they?” The Secretary of State told the House on 25 October:
“The minute we heard about this, we launched a consultation.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 1066.]
Does he understand that a consultation is not a ban? Why did Ministers keep the public in the dark? This really matters, because scientists have lost eight months in our fight against ash dieback, as the diseased leaves have already fallen. I congratulate the university of East Anglia on its ashtag.org app and website, but what a shame it did not know that there was a problem in April, when Ministers did. Ministers’ incompetence has meant that we are behind the curve of the disease’s spread. This matters because we, the public, who love our forests, may have unwittingly spread the disease from June to October, the main fruiting season for the fungus. Had we known in spring, we could have completed a comprehensive survey this summer, using public good will. Ministers’ incompetence has helped the disease spread and will cost the taxpayer money.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need for public awareness. The nursery men—the people working closest to the new saplings coming in, and planting them out—say exactly the same: they were unaware. This is a very complex issue. Some 7,000 young saplings have been burned near Honiton, and the disease has turned up south-west of Exeter; we are really worried in the south-west. Should the Government not have given more information earlier?
If the Government had blown the whistle when Ministers first found out in April, the saplings would probably have been destroyed earlier, but nursery owners would not have lost the income that they spent over the summer tending and caring for those saplings, and they certainly would not have entered into any more contracts. The problem is that they have entered into contracts to buy from overseas, and that will be hugely problematic. Nursery owners have planted the tree seed and spent the money, and all those saplings will now be burned. Also, there has been unprecedented tree planting this year to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee. That tree-planting effort by the nation to mark a very special event in the nation’s life could unwittingly have spread the disease, so Ministers’ incompetence has cost money.
I want to finish with a chronology of what happened. Even when the ban was announced, it was done quietly. The Minister of State, who is pretty heroic in these sorts of things—he gets all these battlefield commissions—was forced to come to the House to answer my urgent question. There had been no written statement from the Secretary of State and no oral statement. Why are the Government so keen not to talk about ash dieback?
On Friday 2 November, the Secretary of State convened Cobra to discuss the emergency response to ash dieback. That same day, a briefing letter went out—but only to Government MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) raised a point of order with the Speaker about this extraordinary behaviour. Does the Minister not think that, with a national emergency of this size and scale, her Majesty’s Opposition should be kept informed? Why was only one part of the House informed? Do our constituents not deserve to know what is happening to their trees? [Interruption.] I just want to finish this point about biosecurity. May I warn the Minister about the dangers of contradictory advice? The Secretary of State has advised people to wash their children and their dogs when they go to a wood to make sure that they do not transfer the disease to the next wood. On Monday 5 November, however, Martin Ward, chief plant health officer at DEFRA, contradicted him on the “Today” programme:
“It’s not a matter of scrubbing off all of the soil from boots. It’s just a matter of cleaning off the dead leaves…to stop the disease moving…from one site to another.”
Has the hon. Lady looked at the map showing the distribution of Chalara? Is she suggesting that there are no imports in the south-west or anywhere in the west of the country? How else can she explain the distribution map and the epidemiology of the spread of Chalara? It is quite clear that she is just trying to make cheap political points. She needs to look at the map.
As a scientist, does the hon. Lady understand epidemiology? The dots are all different colours: the red ones represent mature woodlands, and there are others for trees planted out in newly planted sites and nursery sites. The ones in the south-west are in nursery sites: there are no red dots in the south-west, ergo the disease seems to have spread from—[Interruption.] My theory, and it has yet to be disproved—[Interruption.] No, I shall come on to that, but I wish to make progress. I shall explain it to the hon. Lady.
No, I shall make progress.
We had a 15-minute briefing from the Secretary of State last Wednesday, for which I am grateful, and we discussed the spread of the disease with Ian Boyd, DEFRA’s chief scientist. A document containing 10 key scientific facts was produced last Wednesday. Bullet point 10 said:
“Wind-blown spores may be dispersed up to 20-30 kilometres, (high confidence)”.
I was therefore surprised at the briefing to hear that the infection had blown in on the wind across the channel and the North sea, even though the channel is 30 km wide at its narrowest point. I was even more surprised, as the week went on, to learn that it had blown hundreds of miles across the North sea to infect mature trees in Northumberland and Scotland.
The key scientific facts document is quite clear:
“Longer distance spread occurs via infected plants or potentially via wood products”.
That would explain the infection in the south-west that the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) is worried about. However, it is politically inconvenient to have a disease which Ministers knew was in the country, with saplings left to infect their wild and mature cousins. I grew suspicious when I realised that the Forestry Commission's key scientific facts, published on Wednesday, changed over the weekend. Bullet point 10 now says:
“Wind-blown spores cause the disease to spread up to 20-30 km per year”.
The inconvenient fact that the wind blows the spores just 20 to 30 km has completely disappeared. A whole new fact, however, has emerged:
“On occasions, spores may disperse much further on the wind.”
However, unlike every other key scientific fact that is categorised as low, medium or high confidence, there is no scientific reference to back up this new scientific fact, because there is none. As yet, I have not seen any evidence to back up Ministers’ claims about the wind. The disease has moved slowly and predictably across Europe, yet now it has developed new powers to cross great seas on the wind.
Is an alternative scientific theory possible? Is it not possible that ash dieback has spread to mature trees in Northumberland and Scotland from the infected saplings that were planted out last winter and on which the fungus fruited this summer? It is certainly possible, and I would argue more probable than those gusts of wind.
Nurseries have indicated that hundreds of thousands of saplings that they imported from Europe came in because of the “chaotic and unpredictable” system of grants for tree planting on the UK mainland. Is the hon. Lady aware of that? If so, does she think that the disease and the reasons for its spread go much deeper than they appear to do?
One can argue about the system for woodland grants, but we would argue that it may be much cheaper to grow the ash saplings abroad, which is perhaps one of the reasons landowners choose to buy them from abroad. It is also perhaps why the Horticultural Trades Association wanted the Government to regulate back in 2009, so that there was a level playing field in the industry and so that it did not impose its own voluntary moratorium, allowing others to import cheaper saplings and undercut the market.
What happens next? The Forestry Commission has conducted a tree survey over 29,000 hectares, an area the size of Wales. It has sampled four woodland sites in each 100 square kilometres, giving us a rough idea of where to look next for the disease. As the surveys continue this winter, more disease sites will be found. I have a number of questions for the Minister. First, will he now review the scientific advice he has been given on other tree diseases? Does he have any plans to restrict trade in other species of trees on a precautionary basis? Does his import ban apply to resistant strains of ash species, which are now present in Denmark and, I believe, Lithuania?
Secondly, have the detection and management of the disease been hampered by the cuts to the Forestry Commission? Its budget is being cut from £47.5 million in 2010-11 to £36.2 million in 2014-15. Some 530 staff posts have already been cut and seven regional offices closed. Thirty-eight posts have been cut in Forest Research, with another 22 earmarked to go. These are the scientists and experts who lead the fieldwork on tree health, and they are in the front line in our fight against this disease. Will the Minister review their posts? What assessment has he made of the impact of his Government’s cuts to the Forestry Commission on tackling tree disease?
Thirdly, in 2009, at the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, the former Secretary of State, the Forestry Commission established a biosecurity programme board, bringing together the industry, NGOs, Forest Research, the Scottish Government, and the Food and Environment Research Agency. What has happened to that board? It appears to have met just twice—in November 2009 and July 2010. The minutes of the final meeting on the Forestry Commission website show that forestry staff had concerns about the Government’s publicity freeze and cancellation of much of the publication budget, yet I know from my discussions over the weekend that the board appears to have continued meeting informally. Was it affected by the re-organisation and cuts at the Forestry Commission?
The Secretary of State told the BBC last Friday that he is re-ordering his Department’s priorities and said:
“There will be some things we do in DEFRA now that we are going to have to stop doing.”
What are those things? And how does he know that not doing them is not storing up a fresh disease problem in the future in another area? Other areas of DEFRA will be quaking as they anticipate fresh cuts on top of the worst settlement of any Government Department.
What contact has the Minister had with councils that are in the front line of dealing with this disease? What advice has he provided to them about council parks? Should they be undertaking surveys of their own trees? The Local Government Association has informed lead officers, but nothing seems to be coming out of the Department for Communities and Local Government.
On that matter, I wrote to my local authority, Rossendale borough council, to which I had this reply:
“The council have not received any prior notification”—
this was last week—
“regarding the disease and only became aware of the issue when it was announced in the media last week.”
Is that not a shambles? Does my hon. Friend not find that staggering?
I find it amazing that a Department that is presumably present at a Cobra meeting to co-ordinate a national emergency response to a disease is not putting out any formal guidance to councils. Perhaps the Minister can explain that gross dereliction of duty.
Were Transport Ministers present at Cobra meetings? The Highways Agency is constantly planting new trees along its motorway network. What about Network Rail, which has been undertaking a tree-felling programme this summer along the east coast main line, perhaps unwittingly spreading the disease up the east coast? We need answers to these questions.
In conclusion, the British public care deeply about their forests. We saw that in the overwhelming opposition to the Government’s plans to privatise them last year. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) in her place; perhaps she can shed some light on some of the history of the disease. The forests now face a new and devastating threat from ash dieback disease. There is a bitter irony here: the Government who wanted to privatise the forests have now been forced to make further drastic cuts in order to fight tree disease. As the triennial review of Natural England and the Forestry Commission approaches, we will watch carefully to ensure that the Secretary of State does not embark on a further round of destabilising upheavals.
We await the scientists’ first report, which will be available by the end of November. We will support the Secretary of State when he does the right thing, but we will challenge him when we feel that he is taking a wrong turn. We will not be excluded from his decision making. This is a vital issue for the British countryside and for our natural environment. All parties must learn the lessons of this disease, slow its spread and safeguard our forests for the next generation to enjoy.
Earlier today I had an opportunity to see for myself the effects of Chalara fraxinea in woodland near Canterbury and to meet some of the 500-plus people who have worked around the clock to complete a survey on an unprecedented scale aiming to identify signs of the disease. I want to offer my sincere thanks to them all. They are not all Forestry Commission staff or employees of the Food and Environment Research Agency; a great many others have joined in and worked so hard to complete what has been a massive undertaking, including volunteers who have given up their time to help. As of today, the results of the survey show 155 cases of ash dieback caused by Chalara across Great Britain: 15 in nursery stock, 55 in recently planted sites and 85 in the wider environment. Further suspect cases are currently under investigation and we will continue to provide updates on confirmed cases on the Forestry Commission website.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for giving me the opportunity to set out for the House the decisive action the Government have taken to tackle the threat from Chalara fraxinea and to lay to rest some of the myths she has perpetuated in recent weeks.
The Minister said that he has received an assessment of the number of trees infected. Perhaps he could enlighten me on the answer I have received from Rossendale borough council. It states:
“Currently we are not aware of any infected trees in Rossendale. However, the announcement regarding the disease came when our ash trees had already dropped their leaves for winter and, therefore, it is not possible to identify symptoms positively until next spring at the earliest.”
Clearly we need to educate the hon. Gentleman’s borough council a little more on the signs and symptoms to look for with regard to Chalara fraxinea. It is possible to see retained leaves that are diseased and lesions on the bark, as I saw this morning. Summer is not the only time of year when it is possible to see dieback. I understand that the borough council officials have been unable to see signs of Chalara in his area, but that is because we have found no signs of Chalara in the area either. It is a long way from the English channel.
Ash dieback is caused by a fungal pathogen that has been present in Europe since 1992, when the disease was first discovered in Poland. Since then, it has spread to much of central and northern Europe. However, before 2010 the European scientific evidence indicated that the organism responsible for ash dieback was native in Great Britain. It was Hymenoscyphus albidus, which was drawn to the attention of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) at the time. I understand perfectly his position at the time, because the advice was that it was unlikely to cause significant harm. That belief meant that it would not have been appropriate to use import restrictions to control the disease.
In 2010, new scientific evidence identified the pathogen that caused the disease, which was not known to be present in the UK. That meant that it was identified as a potential threat alongside many other potentially harmful organisms. In the light of that evidence, between 2010 and 2012 the Forestry Commission inspected ash trees across Great Britain—15,000 individual trees located in 8,310 groups. Only 103 trees were found to be suffering from disease, and in none of these was the cause identified as Chalara.
That position changed in February this year, when a routine check by Government plant health inspectors discovered Chalara in a nursery in Buckinghamshire. This finding was confirmed on 7 March, and the UK plant health authorities acted immediately.
With the potential loss of a third of Plymouth’s ash trees, there is real worry about this. Given that the disease was beginning to be understood some time ago, what work was started on disease-resistant seeds and young saplings, and is that work ongoing, so that when, we hope, this moves on, we can start to replant?
It is certainly ongoing; I will return to that shortly. What the hon. Lady must realise is that we did not believe that we had Chalara in this country. Indeed, there was some suggestion that our native ash was, in part, resistant to the disease. That might be one of the reasons the spread had not been observed until that point.
The honest answer to the hon. Lady is that, surprisingly, very little work has been done on this. As she may imagine, we have reviewed all the scientific work that has been done across Europe, not only on pathogen identification but on silviculture, to see how to mitigate the effects of the disease. We have all been struck by how little work has been done and the great need for us better to understand the disease, how it develops, and how to develop proper resistance to it. She raises a perfectly proper point to which the answer, our scientists having reviewed all the literature and talked to their European counterparts, is that we are not as far advanced in our understanding as we perhaps ought to be given how long the disease has been endemic across the continent.
The Minister is being extremely generous and courteous in giving way so often; I am grateful. He said that the first time the disease was positively identified was in April this year in stocks in a nursery. Can he therefore explain to the House, because this question is being widely asked, why it was not considered appropriate at that point to introduce a ban on imported ash seedlings? Many people look at this and say, “It was found in a nursery and we knew that these were imported seedlings, so why was the ban not put in place at that point?”
The answer is that we do not import at that time of year and therefore no imports were coming in. The most important thing to do was to carry out a very detailed search as to where imports had taken place, going on from there to identify where sales and possible plantings had taken place so that we could identify any infected seedlings and have them destroyed. That was the thrust of what we were doing. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we also then went to consultation on the import ban, but we needed to know exactly the extent of what was happening, and the time scale meant that there were no plantings going on at that time of year.
This calendar is very important to hon. Members’ understanding of exactly what has happened. For instance, a lot of people have the mistaken impression that we are now finding that the disease is suddenly spreading. It is not; it does not spread at this time of year because we are out of the sporulation season. We are identifying possible symptoms of disease, most of which have been there for a very long time—two years, three years, or perhaps more—in the trees in the wider environment that we had discovered to be infected. It is very important that people understand what is happening now.
Let me return to my point. When Chalara was discovered, additional resources were deployed to trace ash trees known to have been supplied from infected nurseries, and over the summer 100,000 young ash trees were traced and destroyed. In parallel, the authorities developed the pest risk analysis that was required to support the precautionary action taken and to justify continued intervention—that is part of my answer to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). Such analysis was the basis for a fast-track consultation to strengthen evidence and seek views on an import and movement ban on ash trees. As I said, that took place outside the main planting season, but the industry took the sensible precaution of instituting a voluntary moratorium on imports of ash-planting material.
We can be reasonably sure—not absolutely sure—that no ash seedlings were imported during the summer, other than through very casual means such as if someone brought one back in their car boot. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) asked me in an urgent question whether I could guarantee that no one had brought back an ash seedling in their car, but I am afraid I have not looked in every boot of every car, so I cannot give that guarantee. I can, however, give a reasonable assurance that commercial imports of ash seedlings did not take place during the summer.
The Minister says that a ban on imports was not considered necessary because it was not believed that there would be imports at that time of year. Does he therefore accept that the horticultural trade and industry would have suffered no commercial detriment by the imposition of such a ban, and that prudence and risk analysis might have led him to do so?
Again, I return to the fact that to impose a statutory ban, we must have evidence to suggest it is necessary. That is why we developed such evidence, which was put out in the consultation. The most important point is that plant importers recognised the potential damage the disease could do, and imposed a moratorium that stopped trees coming into this country over the summer. A statutory ban was not needed for that, but we ensured nevertheless that it was introduced at the earliest possible opportunity.
None of that activity was compromised by cuts to the Forestry Commission budgets, as the hon. Member for Wakefield suggested. Although its overall budget has taken cuts since 2010, funding for plant health has not been reduced. Indeed, a bigger share of the Forestry Commission’s budget is now dedicated to plant health than previously, and spending by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in that important area has increased. The hon. Lady knows that to be the case because she asked questions and got answers, even if she is not prepared to accept them.
Extra costs will clearly be required to monitor and tackle this disease. Will the Minister confirm whether he is prepared to go to the Treasury for those extra resources, and that they will not be taken from elsewhere in DEFRA’s budget?
May I ask the Minister to correct the record? Although it is true that the Forestry Commission programme shows an increased spend under the heading “tree health and biosecurity”, figures under the heading “tree breeding for increased resilience and improved markets” show a 52% cut over the lifetime of the review.
The hon. Gentleman chairs the Science and Technology Committee, which I know will want to look at this issue in more detail. I invite it, however, to look at the totality of spend in this area, not all of which goes through the Forestry Commission—there are other heads. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at that spend, as I am sure he will, and come to an objective view about how much is being spent on this important matter.
On Friday 26 October, the consultation, which I mentioned, closed. It demonstrated overwhelming support for import and movement restrictions, and on Monday 29 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a ban on the movement of ash from anywhere that is not a designated pest-free area—I should point out that nowhere is labelled a designated pest-free area. There is now a criminal offence, carrying a maximum fine of £5,000.
On 24 October—during the consultation period—Chalara was confirmed in the wider environment in East Anglia. The trees had no apparent connections to nurseries. Since that finding, the Government have taken action on an unprecedented scale to tackle the problem. At the beginning of November, we initiated a rapid survey of the whole of Great Britain. More than 500 people worked around the clock to survey 2,500 10 km squares for signs of disease. That massive undertaking was completed by 7 November, and gave us an initial picture of the distribution of ash dieback caused by Chalara. We have also received valuable intelligence from organisations including the Country Land and Business Association and the Woodland Trust, which has mobilised its members to look for signs of the disease.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has adopted additional safeguards to ensure that there is no infiltration of ash plants. It has adopted a “Fortress Northern Ireland” approach—in other words, nothing gets in and nothing gets out. Perhaps that has happened in the past, but even with those strict rules and legislation, there is an outbreak in Leitrim in the Republic of Ireland. Will the Minister confirm and assure the House that every step is being taken to stop ash dieback in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that there is direct consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?
I can indeed confirm that. Ministers or officials from all three Administrations have been involved in every one of our consultation meetings on the subject. We want to ensure that they have access to all the information we have, and that we have all the information they have. I ought to mention that we have been working closely with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, because we obviously need to co-ordinate our efforts to ensure that we understand how to treat cases, and particularly those in the wider environment, and how to preserve as far as possible the whole of the British Isles as a disease-resistant or disease-free area.
One infected area is just a few miles north of my constituency. What work has been done to get an idea of the possible spread of the disease within urban areas, as well as in more rural and forested areas?
We divided the country, including urban and rural areas, into 10 km grid squares. Every square where there is known to be ash trees has been examined, although there are only very few in some urban areas. Nevertheless, we have examined ash trees in all those areas, so the results of the findings cover the whole country, including urban areas. I am most grateful for the active interest of Scottish Government Ministers, who have been involved in our discussions from an early stage.
I thank the Minister for giving way once again—he is generous with his time. He has spoken to the devolved Administrations, but has he consulted his counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government and spoken to the Local Government Association about the role of local authorities in tackling the disease?
I can confirm what the hon. Lady asks—the DCLG and the LGA specifically attended Cobra meetings, so they are fully in the loop. We have given advice to the LGA for dissemination to local authorities, which understand their responsibilities. The Highways Agency is also involved—a point about transport links was made earlier. We are conscious of the fact that some new plantings are inevitably associated with major road systems—and, indeed, the railways—and we are taking great care to ensure that those trees are inspected and appropriate action taken.
Most of the cases confirmed in the wider environment are clustered in the east and south-east of England—in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent. A few cases have been found further west or extending north up the east coast. The disease is present in mature trees in those areas. That pattern suggests two things. Chalara fraxinea first came to Britain through spores blown on the wind from continental Europe, and the advice from the specialists who know about these things is that it has been here for some time—at least two years, and possibly more.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again so generously. The scientific advice that we have received says:
“Local spread may be via wind, rain splash or even transmission by insects. Over longer distances the risk of disease spread is most likely to be through the movement of diseased ash plants.”
That does not accord with the idea that the disease first had its impact on these shores after being blown across the North sea or the channel by wind; it suggests that it would have come here in saplings with the contagion then spread on the wind locally.
The hon. Gentleman’s theory—it is also the theory of the hon. Member for Wakefield—does not accord with the advice of the leading experts—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady talks about “scientific facts”. I think that displays her underlying problem with understanding how science is developed. We can deal only with the most probable reason for the evidence that is put before us. The leading experts from the United Kingdom and Europe—whom we brought together over the last two weeks under the leadership of DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd—have reviewed the evidence and said that what they see is consistent with a view that the disease is brought in by wind-blown spores.
In a moment, because I want to correct the nonsense that the hon. Member for Wakefield is promoting.
When the hon. Lady talks about the disease’s speed of progress being 20 to 30 km, we are talking about the front of an epidemic; therefore, it is the speed at which a front in a forest develops over mainland Europe. That does not mean that a spore cannot be carried on the wind for further than 20 or 30 km—that it somehow drops out of the sky when it reaches the 30 km mark and feels it cannot go any further. That is not what the science is saying; what the science is saying is that this is the most likely outcome. Anyone who looks at the distribution will see that it is entirely consistent with wind-blown spread. In fact, many people have said to me that it looks very similar indeed to the distribution of blood tongue, when that hit these shores. [Interruption.] I see the right hon. Member for Leeds Central is nodding, because he knows that that is the case, and that—[Interruption.] Yes, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) knows better than the scientific experts and a former Secretary of State; he knows that none of this can happen.
I find it extraordinary that the original version of the “Key scientific facts” document from Wednesday said:
“Longer-distance spread occurs via infected plants,”
whereas version 2—or version B, or whatever it is—from over the weekend contains this miraculous new scientific fact:
“On occasions, spores may disperse much further on the wind,”
albeit without any scientific reference at all. It seems as though the scientists are desperately trying to cover Ministers’ backs.
Yes, I am sure the hon. Lady is right: we have an international conspiracy of all the leading forestry scientists in the world, who have decided they want to manufacture evidence to fit some theory concocted in the bowels of my Department. I mean, really, grow up! Look at the map, look at the facts, look at the evidence.
Clearly wind has a role to play locally. No one is denying that. The issue is whether the wind is one of the primary vectors. Let us consider tree diseases more broadly. Does the Minister accept that since 2000, more than twice as many tree diseases have entered the UK as entered it in the whole of the last century? Does he want us to believe that it has been incredibly windy since 2000, or is it the case that the number of imports has increased vastly in that time?
No, I do not want the hon. Lady to believe that. Actually, I believe that there has been hugely greater mobility of goods and people in recent years, which has spread disease. That is of real concern to all of us, and we need to deal with it. All I am saying is that, according to a detailed analysis, the incidence of ash dieback disease in this country is consistent with its having been brought in by wind-blown spores. That is what all the leading scientists are telling us, and I see no reason to disbelieve them or to involve some conspiracy theory.
I am very grateful to the Minister. He has said that, according to the scientists, the incidence of the disease is consistent with its having been carried in by the wind. Of course I take his word for that, but he has used the same phrase repeatedly, which has led me to worry. Are the scientists saying that the incidence of the disease is consistent with its having been carried in by the wind, or are they saying that the wind is the most likely vector for its transmission? What do they believe is the most likely vector?
The hon. Gentleman, who purports to know about science, really ought to understand scientific method. I think that a theory from our chief scientific adviser, supported by all the experts in Britain and Europe, is rather better than one propagated by the hon. Member for Wakefield to support her conspiracy theory.
As I have said, these conclusions have been endorsed by the leading experts, who have reviewed the evidence about Chalara to help us to understand how it is spread, its impact on our ash trees, and how we might tackle it. A summary of their conclusions was sent to all Members on 7 November and published on 9 November. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in a written ministerial statement last Friday, the advice from the scientists
“is that it will not be possible to eradicate Chalara.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2012; Vol. 552, c. 49WS.]
The experience in the rest of Europe is that there is no effective treatment. However, that does not mean the end of the British ash. While young trees succumb to the disease fairly quickly, mature trees with the infection can live for many years. We know that the Danes have identified a small number of trees that seem to be resistant to Chalara. That knowledge buys us some time, so what can we do?
It is clear that the Government alone cannot tackle this threat. On 7 November, we convened a summit that brought together more than 100 representatives of the forestry and horticulture industries and environmental groups to advise us. There was a broad consensus on the evidence and on the action that we should take. The strong message is that we should not be panicked into taking draconian action that could be futile or counter-productive. The lesson of the Dutch elm disease of the 1970s is that much of the costly action taken then simply did not work. We have a window over the next few months while the disease is not spreading, and that will enable us to develop the right approach. The disease is not spreading, incidentally, because this is not the sporulating season for it. There are no fruiting bodies, and there are therefore no spores—unless the hon. Member for Wakefield has a theory that there is winter sporulation as well.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—he is being very generous with his time—but why has he not written to local authorities about this? He has written to neither Hyndburn borough council nor Rossendale borough council. Will he tell us, and the local authorities, when he intends to write to them explaining how he will intervene to tackle the issue?
I expect local authorities to show a little common sense. The whole country is benefiting from the very good Forestry Commission website, which is providing all the information that they need in order to identify the disease. We bring the Local Government Association into the inner workings of government at the Cobra committee, so it can provide information to local authorities. I do not think there needs to be a letter from me just to add to the pile of correspondence—and reduce the number of trees in this country in the process—rather than authorities taking sensible advice.
Building on the advice of the summit, on Friday the Secretary of State announced the immediate action we would be taking. Newly planted diseased trees and diseased trees in nurseries will be traced and destroyed, as young trees that are infected succumb quickly. Mature trees will not be removed, however, as they are valuable to wildlife and take longer to die. They can help us learn more about the genetic strains that might be resistant to the disease. Infection does not occur directly from tree to tree—a point which, again, is lost on some.
Better understanding of the disease will be built through research and surveys, looking not only for diseased trees, but for those that show signs of resistance to Chalara. The search for the disease will include trees in towns and cities—a point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)—as well as in the countryside. It will also include building partnerships with a range of organisations beyond government and providing advice to foresters, land managers, environmental groups and the public about how to identify diseased trees and those likely to be resistant to the disease, and what to do with that information.
Organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the National Trust have endorsed this approach. None of the action we have taken to date or that is planned involves restricting access to the countryside. The scientists are clear that there is no need for that. We want to ensure rural businesses continue to operate and that people who want to enjoy the countryside can do so.
These are just the first steps, and by the end of November we will have developed a comprehensive control plan that will set up longer-term action to tackle Chalara. It will consider measures such as designating protected zones and improving diagnostics and biosecurity. Our approach will, for the first time, look at how we can mobilise the many people who love our countryside and value the trees in our towns and cities, in order to help us tackle this disease. For the longer term, we will learn the lessons from the response to Chalara and use them to consider our strategic approach to plant health. The Secretary of State has already told the House that he is prepared to look at radical options. He will come back to the House in a few weeks to report on progress.
I believe we have taken all appropriate actions to deal with what is a very serious situation.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister has not mentioned one very important point: the cost to the landowners in my constituency who have bought many thousands of saplings and who are now having to destroy them.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
As I was saying, this is a very difficult situation, and I believe we have taken all appropriate steps. To repeat something I said in response to the previous urgent question, we are not going to engage in the blame game. This is not a question of attributing blame to anyone; it is a question of getting things right, by working with everybody who has a genuine interest in the future of our forests and woodlands and making sure they are mobilised in the most effective way to deal with Chalara. Those who want to peddle conspiracy theories can do so if they wish; we will get on with dealing with the disease.
Order. This is a time-limited debate and the winding-up speeches will start at about 6.40 pm. As a large number of Members wish to contribute, there will be a six-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions, with the usual injury time for two interventions.
I want to deal with the issue of process. According to the DEFRA website, the ash has a high conservation value, and we all agree with that. I presume that in the national risk register of civil emergencies ash dieback fits into the category of
“an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of a place in the United Kingdom—where environmental damage is defined as ‘contamination of land, water or air with biological, chemical or radio-active matter, or disruption or destruction of plant life or animal life’”.
There is a definitional issue, but will the Minister confirm that that was the basis on which Cobra was convened?
The national risk register—a first-rate document—offers enhanced guidelines for the creation of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. I am unclear—the DEFRA website does not refer to it one way or the other—whether the group has been constituted under the rules in the risk register and is managed as a SAGE process. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that. I presume that this fits into the level 1—significant emergency—category, which has a wider focus and requires central Government involvement or support, primarily from a lead Government Department or devolved Administration, alongside the work of emergency responders.
It seems that that process has been adopted, but it is not as clear as the Government intended when they established the register—a document that I confirmed to the Minister for the Cabinet Office to be first rate—earlier this year. It is a pity that DEFRA has not followed the rules set out in the document. Only a few months ago, the Select Committee on Science and Technology heard from the Forestry Commission trade unions that about 66 of the 230 members of staff in the Forest Research agency will be lost as a result of cuts. There is also a significant cut in tree breeding for increased resilience, which I am sure, in hindsight, the Minister agrees is a pity.
I am interested to hear my hon. Friend’s analysis, but does he share my concern that people with expertise in how to protect not only the ash but the wider eco-system—the insects and flora and fauna that depend on the ash—will be among those losing their jobs? Is he concerned that we are not thinking beyond the current crisis?
That is precisely why I began by referring to the definition on DEFRA’s website, which encompasses the broader conservation issues. The National Trust, of which I am proud to be a member, welcomes the Government’s commitment to further research and calls for money to be committed to plant health, which is hugely important.
In my capacity as Chair of the Select Committee I wrote to the Minister on Friday—it is perfectly reasonable that he has not replied yet; I do not criticise him for that—asking what scientific evidence there is to support the theory that cases of Chalara fraxinea in East Anglia were caused by airborne spores from Europe. Will he put on the record the scientific citations that support that? He cannot do so because there are not any. An eminent group of people for whom I have the greatest respect has come up with possible explanations, but the Minister did not say that, given the way fungal infections spread, it is equally possible that these cases started some time ago and came from imported seedlings. He does not know the answer and perhaps he will confirm that.
The hon. Gentleman is being fair. With epidemiology there are never definite answers, but I hope he will agree that the distribution is not entirely consistent with the view that this came from imported seedlings—one would expect a much more rational distribution across the country than the eccentric distribution shown in the tests.
I referred to the SAGE precisely because the Select Committee’s report on scientific advice in emergencies called for an opening up of the process. I believe that one alternative explanation has not been rigorously tested, although it could be by an open call for evidence from the Minister. Nurseries in places such as Lancashire, from where the trees I planted 10 years ago were sourced, source their trees from locally grown seedlings, whereas closer to the European mainland the probability is greater that seedlings were sourced from within Europe. That possibility needs to be tested, and by opening up the SAGE process I invite the Minister to do just that and close the missing link.
There are issues on the DEFRA website that concern me. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) spoke of how the website had changed miraculously, but I remind the Minister that the changes were made without any reference to scientific citation whatsoever, and that must be examined.
Chief scientific advisers ought to be able to give scientific advice, based on the science, freely and openly to the Government, and it is not for Ministers to reinterpret that on their Department’s website. That is an improper use of the scientific advice, which should be available to the whole House and indeed the whole country. There is no reason that the process cannot be conducted most transparently, and if it is we will suck in all the information necessary to solve the problem once and for all. It is a challenging issue, but I hope the Minister takes my advice.
I welcome the recent action that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has taken to tackle ash dieback, imposing an import ban and restrictions on movement; initiating a national survey to map the extent of the disease; and hosting a summit of forest experts to identify ways of tackling ash dieback in the short term and tree health generally in the long term, on which point I wish to focus briefly.
It is hugely worrying that, as we heard from the Minister, there are 150 confirmed sites with ash dieback, but we need to keep sight of the fact that this is just one of many of the growing number of invasive pests and diseases threatening the UK’s native trees. Seventy per cent. of horse chestnut trees are affected by bleeding canker in some parts of England. Our iconic English oaks are in serious trouble, wilting under assault from acute and chronic oak decline. In part of my constituency, up to 50% of our oaks show signs of acute oak decline. It has been claimed by The Daily Telegraph—so it must be true—that there are more ancient oaks in Richmond park than in all of Germany and France combined. Even if we halve that and allow for a little exuberance, it is still a tragedy to think that these great oaks are facing a very serious threat.
In March, the usually fatal sweet chestnut blight was found to have hopped the channel from France. Sweet chestnut is the main tree species in an estimated 30,000 acres of woodland in Britain. According to a recent report by Robin Maynard of the Countryside Restoration Trust—I declare an interest as a trustee of the CRT—25 new pests and diseases are already established, recently arrived, on their way or seen as likely threats to our trees. Clearly, that is not just a rural problem; a high proportion of the trees under threat are planted in urban areas. For instance, plane trees constitute one 10th of all trees in the capital, and the plane wilt fungus has ravaged 80% of plane trees in France. Last year, French officials revealed that all 42,000 plane trees lining France’s historic Canal du Midi, a world heritage site for the past 10 years, in southern France, would be felled because of the disease.
What is happening? Research implicates a greatly expanded horticultural trade in imported species as the main Trojan horse for new pests and diseases. It accounts for up to 70% of invasive introductions to the US and anything up to 90% to the UK. It is believed that Phytophthora ramorum in larch came in on one viburnum shrub imported from the EU to a nursery in Cornwall in 2002. A batch of maples imported into the EU and Britain from China was found, despite being certified pest-free by the Chinese authorities, to be infested with Asian longhorn beetles. Oak processionary moth infestations have been tracked back to one large specimen oak brought in from Holland. It came in roughly six years ago, and in my constituency it has grown exponentially. The tragedy is that the annual cost of just managing the oak processionary moth is probably what it would have cost to deal with it outright in the year when it was detected. It costs £200,000 a year in Richmond park alone, not to mention Kew gardens and other such areas.
The Woodland Trust has pledged to support community and local tree nurseries to help to ensure that new tree planting is rooted in the community. Obviously, that is welcome. One thing many of us can do is ensure that, when we plant trees, they are UK-grown and disease-free. It seems absurd that we are importing ash trees, when there are hundreds of millions in the UK already.
The famous Mrs Beeton advised in her “Book of Household Management”:
“No matter how small your garden, always ensure you leave at least three to four acres for trees”.
[Laughter.] It was a different time. Small gardens do not normally have four acres sitting idle, but at one point or another most of us will plant a tree, so this is a lesson we can learn. As the Institute of Chartered Foresters has pointed out, the difficulty is that, whatever we do now, the arrival of more pests and diseases is inevitable. We therefore require new and more resources, if we are to get to grips with this growing problem, and we need to build greater resilience into our woods and forests.
DEFRA had reallocated £8 million over four years for new research into tree health. In the context of this discussion, that is not enough. Let me put that figure into perspective. The annual cost to UK forestry from pests and diseases has been put at about £130 million. That is bound to be an underestimate, reflecting the low value we attach to trees, not just in industry but culturally, socially, environmentally and so on. If the Asian longhorn beetle were to become established in the UK, based on the experience of the US authorities in eradicating it, it would cost £1.3 billion to attempt to do the same here —and there would be no guarantee of success either.
Yes. We know the benefits of trade, but they pale in comparison with the costs of unwanted stowaways, so we need to take a far stricter approach to restricting imports, particularly for larger trees, which have become increasingly fashionable. The ones with large earth balls allow even greater opportunity for the introduction of unwanted species.
In his written ministerial statement on Friday, the Secretary of State said that he was prepared to consider radical proposals. I want to add one thing. As well as encouraging more local sourcing of trees and greater vigilance by the horticultural trade, I urge the Government at least to consider requiring the relevant horticultural sectors to contribute more to the cost of inspection services and forestry research. With 90% of invasive tree pests and disease attributed to imports, the horticultural and landscaping sectors should surely bear a proportion of the costs of preventing and containing outbreaks. It is a sad reflection on successive Governments that it has taken this tragedy to focus minds on the issue of tree diseases. This must be a turning point.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who made many of the points I wished to make.
Serious and genuine questions need answering about the genesis of Chalara fraxinea in the UK. Did the Horticultural Trades Association warning in 2009 go unheeded by DEFRA officials? Were Ministers made aware of that warning? When they were informed on 3 April of the infection in Buckinghamshire, why did they not impose a movement ban? When Crowders nursery in Lincolnshire notified officials in June this year that the disease was found in 15 of its trees, did DEFRA officials really issue it with a notice to stop it taking action? Did they put trade rules above environmental health? When the disease began to take hold in Poland in 1992 and other parts of continental Europe later on, did the EU take adequate steps to regulate and control its spread?
Is it credible to claim that wind-blown spores reached the UK from across the sea, from Denmark, given that scientific advice states that wind-blown spores can spread 20 to 30 km per year and that local spread may be via wind, rain, splash or even transmission by insects, but that over longer distances the risk of disease spread is most likely to be through the movement of diseased ash plants? Given that the UK introduced national measures to prevent the entry and spread of the disease on October 29, why did it claim that it could not do so to nurseries and growers previously? Did UK nurseries that became aware of the danger of Chalara fraxinea then stop importing seedlings from suppliers in infected countries, or did they rely on Government advice, rather than their own trade association?
All those questions will no doubt eventually be answered, and no doubt not all of them without embarrassment to politicians, officials and the industry. My focus today, however, is on examining the response that the Government must make to the increasing threat that our landscape and biodiversity face from climate change and the new vectors of disease that climate change has brought with it. In its excellent report published earlier this year, the Independent Panel on Forestry specifically addressed the need
“to see our wooded landscapes, in both rural and urban settings, being better protected from, and more resilient to future risks such as climate change, pests and diseases.”
It specifically recommends that the Government
“should speed up delivery of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan by additional investment in research on tree and woodland diseases, resilience and biosecurity controls.”
The key question arises: have they speeded up the delivery of the action plan? I remind the House that the body meant to examine this was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2010. The key diseases and pest identified at that time were sudden oak death syndrome, oak processionary moth and Phytophthora ramorum in larch. I believe that Chalara fraxinea was mentioned only as a disease predominantly in Europe that might manifest itself in the UK.
Perhaps one of the more foolish cutbacks imposed by the Government has been the freeze on public information spending. I ask the Minister how on earth the Government propose to combat infectious diseases in plant health if they constrain their own ability to communicate directly with growers and the industry, and rely on the passive mechanism of their own website. It has been estimated that the changing risks arising from climate change and the new vectors of disease will result in a decline in timber yield in England of up to 35% by 2080, according to the Forestry Commission’s report “Climate Change Risk Assessment”, published in February.
In the past 12 months, the Forestry Commission has reported increasing incidence of Phytophthora lateralis, which attacks Lawson cypress, Phytophthora ramorum, which attacks beech and rhododendron—itself a non-native invasive species, but now a part of the UK landscape—acute oak decline and Cryphonectria parasitica, which affects sweet chestnut. To these diseases, we must add pests such as the Asian longhorn beetle in broadleaf woodland, the pine tree lappet moth on native heath land, and oak processionary moth in beech and hornbeam—to name only a few of the most serious new threats.
The number of outbreaks of these pests and diseases has risen more than twelvefold over the past 40 years. It is one thing to identify these risks to our landscape, but it is quite another to develop a mitigation and adaptation plan to combat the way in which they might impact on our biodiversity and on the ecosystem services that our forests provide. Such a plan will not be cheap. Last year in the United States, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s eradication programme for the Asian longhorn beetle alone cost US$33 million.
I urge the Government to understand that it is not enough to have a plan to tackle Chalara fraxinea. They must develop a framework in which all the new vectors of risk that threaten our landscape can be tackled. That means having a clear understanding of the value of the ecosystem services that our trees and forests provide. The Government must look to the national biodiversity action plan and the national ecosystem assessment for a blueprint for a comprehensive response. The key message of the UK national ecosystem assessment begins:
“The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making.”
Natural capital has not been properly accounted for, and the services that our forests provide through provisioning, habitat for pollinators, watershed protection and soil stabilisation are considered—
I speak as the Member of Parliament for Mid Norfolk, which sits right at the heart of the Norfolk cluster of the disease, and as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on agricultural science, which is taking a close interest in the matter. I know that all colleagues agree that this outbreak is a serious problem for our forestry industry and our landscape. I welcome the urgency of the reaction shown by the Secretary of State and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, and the professionalism with which they have handled the issue. More than 100,000 trees were felled in the summer, and the biggest ever survey of ash trees has been conducted. We have also seen several Cobra meetings, a national summit and an immediate ban on imports.
Outbreaks of disease that affect our biodiversity are never easy to manage, and it ill behoves the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) to criticise the Government in the way she did. Her words were somewhat at odds with the reaction of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who I think all colleagues would agree has dealt with the matter in an extremely responsible way. He has also sat in the Chamber today and listened to the entire debate.
The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is a former forestry envoy, and it was interesting that he devoted his speech largely to criticising the Government, rather than talking about the responsibility of the previous Administration. The truth is that this is a wake-up call for us all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has said, and it is unhelpful wilfully, negligently or merely incompetently to distort the scientific evidence, to peddle petty personal conspiracy theories or to scaremonger.
I welcome the Minister’s clear, careful account of the issue. I particularly welcome his reassurance that the disease is not spreading, and that funding for plant health has not been cut—indeed, it has increased. I strongly endorse his acknowledgement of the role of the many voluntary groups and charities that have helped to support the Department’s work. The key now is to focus on what we can do to prevent the spread of the disease. We must use the British science base to explore all possible avenues—not least, resistance—and to put in place a proper framework for biosecurity.
The Government have taken a series of important steps in relation to prevention, and it is important to acknowledge the Minister’s assertion that the disease is not spreading now. We have some time in which to put in place a proper framework, which is why a responsible reaction from Members on both sides of the House is important. I also welcome the launch of the tree health action plan and the imposition by the Secretary of State of an immediate ban on imports. Unfortunately, however, the scientific evidence shows that because the disease has been allowed to incubate in this country for many years—probably between 10 and 15—we might not be able to eradicate it. Our ash population could be facing a serious epidemic.
Seven or eight outbreaks of the disease have been identified in mature woodlands in my constituency, yet in one of those woodlands no ash trees have been planted for 20 years. Is it not therefore plausible to suggest that it could be carried in on the wind or by birds, especially in the light of the maps of the infected sites?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point based on the evidence in her own constituency, which also sits at the heart of the East Anglian cluster. She allows me to draw attention to the map, which is extremely compelling. It shows that 90% of all incidences of the disease are down the east coast, and most of those are on the bit of the east coast that is closest to Europe and that is affected by the prevailing winds from the east.
I am quite pessimistic about the long-term prospect of our controlling and stopping the disease, but there is a glimmer of optimism in the science of resistance, and it is to that subject that I shall now turn. There are signs that some of our older ash trees might have developed a resistance to the disease, and we now have an opportunity to show scientific leadership by throwing as much resource as possible into identifying a solution.
I stand corrected if I said “prevailing”. There are frequently winds from the east and the north-east and, as the map demonstrates, it is perfectly possible that the disease could have been carried over from mainland Europe.
The scientific research into resistance offers us an important opportunity to identify genetic markers and traits that would allow us to establish a breeding stock of clean, new ash strains, and to unlock as much funding as possible from the European budget to support UK leadership in that field. This is an opportunity for us to promote British plant and forestry science in the context of the European market. I should like to make a small plea to the Minister on behalf of Norfolk. It is perhaps the worst-affected county. It is also home to the John Innes Institute and the Norwich research park, and if there is any scientific work to be done in this regard, I should like us to be at the front of the queue. Our county has a lot to offer.
My hon. Friend has considerable knowledge of these matters, and I am sure he is aware that where the disease has been established for longer, there is a greater chance of finding resistant varieties. The Poles believe that they might have some resistant varieties, but there is now great disappointment in continental Europe because it was thought that we might have resistant varieties because there was no incidence of the disease here.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State. I am sure that the Minister will pick up on her extremely well-made point.
In the context of biosecurity in the UK, this is a wake-up call for us all. For far too long, we have not taken our biosecurity seriously enough. Over the past 15 years, we have seen a significant—and generally all to the good—globalisation of trade in commodities and products. We have also seen substantial climate change.
My hon. Friend makes a good point.
This outbreak presents us with an opportunity to establish our leadership in this important area of science. Over the past 15 years, we have seen a huge globalisation of trade in agriculture, plants and other commodities, as well as substantial climate change. That changes the context in which we should view the import and export of those goods. The UK’s biosecurity is of strategic national importance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park eloquently pointed out. Colleagues who have visited Australia and the USA recently will know how seriously those and other countries take these matters. A person can hardly leave an aircraft without being sprayed, disinfected and checked, and without having their luggage checked for seeds. The outbreak represents a wake-up call for us in that context as well.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s strong leadership on this matter, and his highlighting of the potential for Britain to grasp the nettle and set out a new framework for biosecurity. If we can draw on our strengths in plant science, we will be able to turn this crisis to at least some advantage for the UK, and to establish ourselves once again as an island of biosecurity in a Europe that is awash with a number of plant and animal diseases, to the benefit of our landscape and of our agriculture and forestry industries.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that he was determined to learn the lessons of this outbreak, because inadequate biosecurity has been a problem under successive Governments. Instead of arguing about wind direction, we need to ask more fundamental questions about the role of trade and imports. The present situation reminds me of the stories that were put about on bird flu when we were first invited to believe that it was spread purely by wild birds, rather than, as it turned out, as a result of the increasing international trade in poultry and eggs.
In April 2012, in a paper in the scientific journal Nature, scientists warned of wider threats, pointing out that the past two decades have seen an increasing number of virulent infectious diseases in natural populations and managed landscapes. The authors warn that in both animals and plants an unprecedented number of fungal and fungal-like diseases have recently caused some of the most severe die-offs and extinctions ever witnessed in wild species. That has serious implications for wildlife and food security.
On the import of trees, a strong scientific case is being built for more radical controls to tighten biosecurity. Hon. Members may have read in the press the views of senior scientist Dr Stephen Woodward, a specialist in tree disease research at the university of Aberdeen. He advises that the Government must now ban imports or use quarantine for other iconic trees such as oak, pine and plane if they are to be saved from disease. I believe that we have to take that call seriously. Dr Martin Ward, DEFRA’s chief plant officer is also warning that ash dieback is just one of what he calls a “tidal wave of pathogens” that are arriving in Europe. He rightly describes the situation as terrifying, and he warns:
“Unless we have better bio security in the EU it will be very difficult to stop them coming in.”
The scale of the trade in plants for forestry planting is absolutely vast. Approximately 10 million plants are imported for forestry planting every year. That means we need to take much more account than we have done until now of the potential for environmental damage from such trade. For example, in Australia, there are much stricter rules around quarantine, and my understanding is that what happens there is much more effective than anything we have in place in Europe. If plants that could be known to be carrying pathogens were quarantined, we might be able stop at least some of these diseases spreading and slow down others. The case for an import ban, if quarantine conditions are not met, must also be thoroughly and urgently considered.
We also need to look at why we have exposed ourselves to the risks that imports bring. Hon. Members may have read reports of the comments by Dr Jon Heuch, a member of the Forestry Commission’s biosecurity programme. He reports that the seed of the ash is frequently sent abroad from the UK and the trees grown from these seeds are then imported back and sold as having UK provenance. Indeed, there seems to be an extraordinary trade in plants and saplings that are grown in other parts of Europe simply because mass production there means that it is cheaper. Half a million ash trees are imported in the UK every year for use in woodland and gardens. The Horticultural Trades Association admits that many saplings are labelled as British because customers like “local provenance”.
Considering the importance of forestry and woodland as a tourist resource, does the hon. Lady agree with me that it was rather odd that it took nine months from the onset of the disease here for DEFRA to effect a ban? Would she like to shed some light on that in the context of plant biosecurity?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I hope she will forgive me if I agree with her point, but stress that what I want to underline right now—we have already had quite a lot of focus on the timetable and how long it took DEFRA and the Government to declare an emergency—is the central issue of the imports. I am really concerned that we are going to overlook the role of trade and imports when it comes to the vulnerability of the UK in particular and Europe in general to more and more of these diseases that are coming towards us.
Let me say a few words about the forestry grants system. In a sense, it also seems perversely to encourage greater imports. As I understand it, grant agreements specify the type of trees and how much will be spent, including the conditions for the money and specific type of tree, but this could be agreed much more quickly so that UK growers have time to be able to grow them here in the UK rather than feeling forced to source them from abroad. Because the Government tend to agree to these grant schemes very late, it does not give enough time for confidence to grow in the UK market. When they are eventually agreed, we do not have time to grow the saplings, so the foresters go abroad. The Government could usefully look at the whole issue of the forestry grants, and some of their perverse implications when it comes to promoting more and more of this sourcing of our saplings from overseas. Once the seed is grown in the UK, it then goes overseas and then we bring it back again. It seems a crazy system, and it is also very costly when we understand what it is doing to our vulnerability.
I want the Minister to look at two other pieces of legislation, which, although they deal with non-native species, could have some useful read-across for us. A forthcoming EU legal instrument, due in draft imminently, will look at forestry in particular. Scotland has new INNS—invasive, non-native species—legislation, which is far ahead of what we have here in the UK when it comes to biosecurity.
I hope that the Secretary of State will respond positively to early-day motion 663, tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). Since he did not mention it, I will underline it for him now, because it calls precisely for increased resources to ensure both a rapid response to other disease outbreaks and greater screening and control of imports to minimise the spectre of disease.
Finally, let me underline what other Members have said, which is that it is not enough for the Secretary of State to say that he will move resources from elsewhere in DEFRA to deal with this problem. If he does that, we will not know what robbing Peter to pay Paul will actually mean in practice. We need to find new resources to tackle this issue; we need to look again at the resources for the Forestry Commission; and we need to learn the lessons so that we have much stronger biosecurity in the future.
I do not believe the response to this disease will be improved by playing a blame game or by a partisan approach. The seriousness with which Members of all parties take this issue is evidence of how determined we are to tackle it.
It is to the credit of the Secretary of State, who cannot be with us today, that he has acknowledged that his predecessors acted on the advice they received at the time—essentially the same advice as was outlined by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) who speaks for the Opposition—that ash dieback was listed as being absent from the country. When I came into office, the list of serious exotic diseases brought to my attention included sudden oak death syndrome, bleeding canker in chestnuts, red band needle blight, oak processionary moth, as well as Phytophthora ramorum, which has meant that hundreds of thousands of larches have already been felled.
My response was to produce a tree action plan on tree health and biosecurity—so the fightback has started. In the elaboration of this plan, tree experts provided a horizon scan of upcoming diseases, which we could build into our decision making. Members who return to this country from a third world country will have heard the DEFRA announcement on planes, which warns travellers not to import plant material into this country. That is just one of the improved biosecurity measures.
I have heard the argument that the cuts are to blame for the proliferation of ash dieback. I think we have now satisfactorily demonstrated that an extra £8 million was spent—on top of the protected budget for tree health research. I warn the Opposition to be careful with the argument that it is all about money, because no amount of money will stop wind blowing from continental Europe bearing diseases in this direction. That is just a fact.
The importing of ash is a paradox. Growers were supposed to have asked my predecessor, and challenged the Government, to introduce a ban. What I fail to understand is why, if they saw that as a risk, they continued to import the ash. I did not see that letter either.
I want to avoid misunderstanding. The Horticultural Trades Association wrote to the Forestry Commission in autumn 2009. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) made clear in her speech, I asked DEFRA to check whether I had seen the correspondence, and I had not.
I think that clarity is helpful. I had not seen it either.
The crux of the problem is misdiagnosis. Ministers do not have microscopes on their desks, so before we single out some hapless scientist in forestry research for blame, we should consider carefully how many other people failed to spot the problem as well. When the first case of the new ash fungus was confirmed, trees were felled as a precautionary measure, and a voluntary ban was put in place straight away, so there was no delay. The key to tackling this disease, as was argued earlier, is to find the resistant varieties.
Going forward, the EU plant health regime needs reform. Former and present Members of the European Parliament can perhaps help us with that. We stand some chance, as islands, of being able to have better biosecurity, and we need to fight for that now. In parallel with the EU review, the Government updated their own plant health strategy, deploying more inspectors at points of entry to our country to control imports and piloting new tools of detection. Passenger baggage conditions were reviewed; more funding was released for inspection at growing sites; and better co-ordination of research between the Food and Environment Research Association and the Forestry Commission was achieved. Common sense should tell us that, if tree experts, dedicated woodmen and woodland charities all failed to spot its presence earlier, this disease must be hard to diagnose. It is not helped by the fact that there are other forms of ash dieback, and that other tree diseases were listed ahead of ash dieback as priorities.
If ash dieback had been seen as the big threat we now believe it to be, all relevant stakeholders would have signalled that to me in the numerous face-to-face meetings I had with them during consultations on the public forest estate, or on the extreme weather conditions we experienced in 2011 and 2012. Meetings with the chairman of the Forestry Commission did not have this item on the agenda.
I am not going to give way again. Moreover, one might have expected the trade press to have expressed its concern on the front pages of its publications.
We all need to share some responsibility and to redouble our efforts to spot the disease. I applaud the volunteers who have helped with the unprecedented survey of our woods and trees. As my action plan stated, collaborative working—of landowners, industry, academia, civil society and Government—is required better to protect the health of our nation’s trees. We need to pull together, not against each other, in the fight for tree health.
I am very pleased that the debate has adopted a rather calmer and more constructive tone than the one it started with. Trying unsuccessfully to land political blows on the Department will do nothing to sort out the problems we face today. I compare this situation with the time when I entered this House and foot and mouth was rampant; a much more considered tone was adopted then.
I want to emphasise the international approach to dealing with these problems. The international community is much better organised at dealing with animal health than with plant health. The whole scientific scene seems to put much more emphasis on animal science than plant science, and we probably do not have the botanists we need to address these problems.
We have rightly been told that in Australia and the United States there is much better organisation and greater care taken in ensuring that those who enter the country bring no plant or animal material with them. In this country, we have the international observatory for foot and mouth, so whenever that disease is identified across the world, the variety in question is brought here and compared against other varieties. We need something of that nature to deal with plant health, and I am sure that Britain would be very well placed to achieve that.
I want to end on a fairly optimistic note. The disease has been compared to Dutch elm disease, but there are considerable differences. For instance, the English elm is reproduced by suckers, which means that almost every tree has the same genome as any other. Therefore, if one tree is susceptible to the fungus attack, all the trees will be. However, ash is propagated by cross-pollination, which means that there are a great variety of genetic types. As has already been said, some resistant varieties can be identified. The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) pointed out that we have the skills in this country to do the plant-breeding work that could yield a tremendous benefit not only for this country’s ash population, but right across Europe and the world.
We face a particularly difficult disease that could affect our whole landscape, but we are in a better position to deal with it than we were with Dutch elm disease.
It is very sad that the House of Commons cannot come together today to tackle this disease. The Opposition’s attempt to land a blow on the Government in this regard is absolute nonsense. There is no doubt that, as the relevant map shows, a lot of the disease comes across from the continent. No Government, irrespective of their political persuasion, can stop what blows on the wind. Therefore, we must concentrate on how we are going to deal with this disease. We must look for ash trees that will be immune in future, so that we can take the seeds from them and grow them. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said, we do not want to see the decimation that we experienced with Dutch elm disease. Indeed, I saw that on my own farm: the decimation of massive trees that were hundreds of years old. We have never really recovered from that: every time a tree grows, it catches the disease again perhaps 10 or 15 years later. We want to ensure that the ash tree is there for the future.
We must also be certain that the single market, the great wonder of the European Union, is not abused. The trouble is that no Government can stop the import of ash trees until they have proved that they have the disease, and by that time it is too late. That really has to be put right. We are surrounded by water—let us hope that not every disease can be blown across the channel—and Britain could develop the same methods that Australia and New Zealand have developed in trying to keep disease out of the country. We must ensure that we breed ash trees in this country—that we do not export the seed to Holland, where the trees are then grown, and then import the trees back again. The industry itself must take some responsibility here. When the disease is on the continent, it is absolute nonsense to keep this trade going backwards and forwards. Given the existence of the single market, it is very difficult to stop it, but we need to change things.
I want Britain to have beautiful trees into the future. As Members have pointed out, there are many diseases out there that we need to tackle, so let us adopt a positive approach. I praise what Ministers and the Secretary of State are doing to analyse where all the diseased trees are located, so that we can act quickly. We cannot simply stop the disease by chopping down all the ash trees that have it—the saplings, yes; but the mature trees, we cannot. Let us hope that some of those trees survive and that from those, we can grow the great ash trees that we want to see.
The lesson in all this is that we cannot keep exporting and importing trees, bringing disease with them. I look forward to a positive message from Ministers on research and maintaining “fortress Britain” so far as growing trees and keeping out disease is concerned, and then perhaps repopulating trees across Europe. I repeat my first point: I am very sad that the Opposition have made such a thing of this. I respect what the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) did while he was Secretary of State; he has taken a much more responsible attitude.
In the two minutes remaining to me I would like to say that, despite the rancour between the Front Benchers at the beginning of the debate about whether the disease was blown in on the wind or imported, in the letter the Secretary of State sent to colleagues, he took quite a balanced view. He said:
“The infections in the nurseries were caused by imported plants; those in the wider environment have no identifiable links to the nurseries and are likely to have been carried on the wind over the Channel.”
I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here today to develop remarks that were apparently attributed to him by The Times. It stated on Saturday that he proposed to “take on the EU”, and that:
“He warned that the free movement of trees and plants within the single market was putting the British countryside at risk, and pledged to challenge European laws to prevent more diseases from entering the country.”
That shows at least an acknowledgement of the significance of the element of the problem that has been imported.
It is right that I should get the tail-end Charlie slot in this debate, because fortunately, the wonderful New Forest does not have many ash trees. However, we could be next in line, and this is where the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is so important. There is a vast array of pestilences and diseases just waiting to hit us. According to yesterday’s edition of The Sunday Telegraph, the Woodland Trust now says that for the jubilee woodland project, it will use species such as oak and birch instead of ash. Well, if something were to hit oak and birch, the effect on the New Forest would be devastating. Therefore, I make one simple point: it is one thing to try retrospectively to address the problem with ash, but what we have to do is proactively to put measures in place—this is what all the experts are telling me—to prevent the importation of other diseases in the future.
May I begin with an apology to those on the Treasury Bench? I have a mild chest infection, so if I cough at any point, I would not want the spores to carry across the debating Chamber and then for me to be blamed in a couple of days’ time if they come down with the dreaded lurgy. May I also say how delighted I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) will be responding on behalf of the Government? I look forward to that, as I know that he takes a close and personal interest in our country’s forests.
I have enjoyed today’s debate, almost as much as I have enjoyed watching the permanently confused faces of the Ministers. Some excellent contributions have not only highlighted Government failings, but have offered us a way forward, and I hope that the Government have listened. This dreadful disease will subject 80 million ash trees to a slow decline over the coming decades, changing our landscape for ever. It will hit the pockets of the nursery owners, the timber merchants and the taxpayer, and it will wreak untold damage on our biodiversity, pushing species that rely on ash towards extinction.
The reality of the problem in front of us is stark, and it was ably described by the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). Ash dieback disease has been confirmed in 155 sites, including 15 nurseries that had imported infected plants and 55 plantations that had received young trees. Most worryingly, it has now been found in 65 established woodland sites. Scientific opinion is, sadly, now unanimous: trying to stop the disease is a lost cause.
So how did we get to this situation? I ask Government Members who complain about political points being made during this debate to have a quick look at the letter they received from their Whips Office, as it will have the words “Opposition day debate” on it. It is the job of my party to oppose the Government, and that is what Labour Members are doing. It is our job to expose the failings of Ministers when that is necessary, and it is necessary now.
Despite recent personnel changes, it is not difficult to identify Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers. They can be identified by their permanently bewildered and startled expressions, and by their tendency, as they stagger from urgent question to statement and back again, to mutter curses against their civil servants along the lines of, “Why wasn’t I told about this before now?” What a terrific record Ministers in this Department have. Having refused to ban wild animals in circuses because it might conflict with their human rights, and having postponed the badger cull because no one told the Department that London was hosting the 2012 Olympic games, DEFRA Ministers found themselves in charge of a new national crisis when the fungus that causes ash dieback was discovered in England. What could possibly go wrong?
As soon as the UK presence of Chalara was confirmed to Ministers, on 3 April, they leapt into action in a veritable blur of activity. The alarm was raised and, with breathtaking urgency and efficiency, the dynamism for which DEFRA is known became all too evident. Before we knew it, a mere five months later, a consultation was launched. On behalf of a grateful nation, let me just say, “Phew!”
The Secretary of State, sadly, misspoke when he told the House:
“The minute we heard about this, we launched a consultation.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 1066.]
That would be an absurd statement, heavy with subconscious irony, even if it were true—but it was not. There was a completely unacceptable and unnecessary delay of five months between Ministers being told about the Chalara infection and the consultation being launched—why? That is the equivalent of seeing a burglar breaking into a neighbour’s house and responding by writing a stern and urgent letter to the local police to ask their opinion on local crime-prevention initiatives, and then posting it with a second-class stamp.
Of course, the current Secretary of State cannot be held entirely to blame for his Department’s peculiar reluctance to act when it should have done so seven months ago. [Interruption.] The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), is chuntering from a sedentary position—highly appropriate. After all, the current Secretary of State has been in his job only since early September. Had he been in post back in April, and had a civil servant perhaps dared to interrupt the latest of his many graphic demonstrations of, “How to drown a badger the proper way” with news of the Chalara infection, he might have acted immediately, and not with a consultation but with an immediate import ban and a public information campaign. Yet, when the ministerial car dropped him at DEFRA for the first time 10 weeks ago, and he walked into his new office clutching his good luck card from the Northern Ireland Office and his Brian May dartboard, was he even briefed as to the seriousness of this infestation? If he was, did he even ask officials’ advice as to whether he could end the consultation early and impose an immediate ash import ban? Did he even question the reasons behind having a consultation in the first place? Surely he recognised that every day the consultation lasted was an extra day in which the Chalara spores could, and certainly would, spread.
On Friday 2 November, seven months after Ministers were told, the Secretary of State finally found time in his diary to convene a Cobra meeting to come up with a plan to respond to the disease. But on the same day he used the functions and resources of his private office and the civil service to write an exclusive briefing letter for the eyes of colleagues on the Government side of the House only. That explains to the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) why the words he read out were completely new to Opposition Members. We were not worthy of receiving this great letter from the Secretary of State—only Conservative and Lib Dem MPs were. I ask the Under-Secretary, because I know him to be a reasonable man, whether he honestly believes that when his boss decides to brief only Conservative and Lib Dem MPs, that is a proper action for a Secretary of State to take. I think I know what the answer will be publicly, but the Under-Secretary is an honourable and understanding gentleman, and I am sure that he understands that that was a gross disservice to the House. This is not an issue that demands a secretive, high-handed approach. This is an issue that demands that everybody involved from the top of government to the general public, and everybody from across the political spectrum, pulls together and takes the necessary steps to fight against a destructive and devastating disease. With that in mind, will the Under-Secretary now promise to keep Opposition Members informed throughout this process? Everyone in this House has a right to know what is going on, as do our constituents.
On the topic of sharing intelligence, why was advice to tree growers and the public on the best way to spot the disease and prevent it from spreading not issued immediately after Chalara’s presence in the UK was confirmed? Does the Minister seriously believe that the delay was acceptable? Is he telling the House that if he could turn back the clock, he would do the same thing all over again? What early estimates has the Department made of the cost to the Exchequer of fighting this disease? The Minister of State said that lessons will be learned. How can lessons be learned if no mistakes have been made? If mistakes have been made, what mistakes were they? I have no doubt that Ministers will do what they always do whenever the Opposition have the bare-faced cheek to oppose them on anything: blame the last Labour government—I prefer the phrase “most recent Labour Government” to “last Labour Government”. But perplexing as it is, these Ministers are in government and we are not, and it is they who, at least occasionally, must take responsibility for the running of the country. If they do not blame us—and they will—they will blame something else, such as the weather or the wind. Science says that it is a possibility that the spores were blown across the sea from the continent to the UK. That small possibility has been turned by every Government MP into a cast-iron fact; it is a “fact” that is simply not supported by science.
Ministers have a great deal to answer for. That is less a partisan political point than a simple statement of democratic principle: this happened on their watch and it is not good enough for them to try to wriggle out of the responsibility they bear. The inaction, the dithering and the delay Ministers have shown is tantamount to a dereliction of duty, and the mishandling of this sorry episode is symptomatic of the dearth of leadership and the abundance of incompetence inside the Department. Government inaction has left our forests exposed. Government ineptitude has put us in the terrible situation where the disease is beyond containment and spreading rapidly. It is now the Government’s duty to face up to their responsibilities, admit that they got this one wrong and work towards overcoming the huge environmental, economic and ecological impact this terrible disease will inevitably bring.
Despite some of the remarks that have been made, this has been an interesting debate with some good contributions from Members on both sides of the House. The ash is one of the best-loved species of tree in this country—it is one of my favourites. It is fundamental to our landscape, our ecology and our ecosystems. It is not just an important economic and environmental issue; it is deeply emotive, too. The House should remember that we are at our best when we join together to face a national crisis of this kind, and at our worst when we seek to trivialise and to make cheap party political points.
The Opposition could have handled the debate differently. Sadly, they have cheapened the subject through the wording of the motion, which they know cannot be supported. They could have been bigger than that, treating the matter as a serious one that concerns people outside this building: not just rural communities but urban communities that are worried about the loss of a much-loved tree. It is a great shame they did not do that.
Let me address one point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State updated the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on this issue on 6 November. He met the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to discuss ash dieback, also on 6 November, and the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on 7 November. He issued a science factsheet, sent to all Members, on 7 November and published a written ministerial statement on 9 November. I am beginning to wonder what more he could have done to keep hon. Members informed.
For those of us old enough to remember Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, which was mentioned by many hon. Members, the prospect of our ash trees suffering the same fate is deeply depressing. Although the scientists tell us that we will not be able to eradicate Chalara, they have also given us hope. By acting now and learning from experiences in Europe, we might be able to slow its spread and find resistant strains. To do that, we need the resolve to work together. We should not waste energy blaming each other. Above all, mobilising all those whose care for these trees in both town and countryside can assist Government to find a way forward.
Government cannot do this alone. Industry must be involved, and land managers, environmental groups and the public can all play their part. We know that there is a real will out there to do that. We will play our part, too. We are investing in world-class research and surveillance and improving our ability to diagnose the disease quickly. We are putting tools and advice in the hands of those who live and work among the nation’s woodlands.
I particularly pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), who pointed out that, long before Chalara hit the headlines, the Government recognised the increasing threat to the health of our trees. In October 2011, we launched the tree health and plant biosecurity action plan, which sets out a UK-wide integrated approach to dealing with serious tree pests and pathogens. The plan included a commitment for £7 million of new funding for tree health research, which was increased to £8 million earlier this year and is available until 2015-16. That has unlocked a further £4 million from research councils in support of long-term support initiatives, led by Living With Environmental Change. We have grasped the very good points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who, along with other colleagues, addressed important points about the potential threat from other diseases and how we must work to see what is coming and to be better prepared for such diseases.
Let me comment on one point made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). We convened Cobra because this is an important issue, both for the rural economy and for the environment. It is important that we draw together a range of different stakeholders and players, particularly from local government, as has been made clear. We should not quibble about why we are doing that; it is a serious matter and it is important to see the involvement of government across the piece.
Other Members raised important questions about other tree diseases, such as Asian longhorn beetle, Phytophthora ramorum, oak processionary moth and sudden oak death syndrome. Those are all serious. I agree with hon. Members who have raised points about the need to promote home-grown industries for saplings and plant propagation. We must take that forward in the work we do.
I do not hold with those who believe that there is some dark conspiracy. I can honestly say that the scientists I have met to discuss the issue are not the sort of people to be pushed around by politicians to make points that would assist them. They give us advice and we take it; we have had some very good advice on this important issue.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who stated accurately that such outbreaks should be a wake-up call to us all. He gave a responsible message from one of the areas most affected by the disease and talked about the importance of a science of resistance, promoting a centre of excellence in this country that can take forward work in UK plant sciences. There is a good economic reason for doing that. I have just returned from New Zealand and completely concur with the many points made about countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. DEFRA has made big steps forward in trying to get that message across and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned the warnings that are now given on aeroplanes about the importance of biosecurity. We can do much more not just in the United Kingdom but in Europe.
I take the point that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made about the grant schemes. We will consider that. When we get resistant species, some work could be done to encourage people to plant them as part of their grant schemes.
The key message that the House needs to recognise is that the Government acted straight away to deal with Chalara fraxinea as soon as it was identified in England. We will focus our efforts on reducing the rate of the spread of the disease. We will continue to trace recently planted saplings and nursery stock and will destroy infected trees, as we have been doing through the summer. We are getting the public to help to identify diseased trees through raising awareness. We are looking for genetic strains that are resistant to the disease and getting land managers to look for healthy trees in affected areas.
We have taken swift action to identify where the trees were being sent to and arranged for infected trees to be destroyed. We have worked with the industry to deal with infected plants and encouraged best practice in sourcing plants. We have been the first to produce pest-risk analysis on the issue, ensuring that our approach is technically and scientifically robust. We have provided all relevant groups with an opportunity to contribute to how things are being handled through a consultation process.
We are now doing all we can to protect our native ash trees. A ban on imports is now in place, well before the start of the planting season. We are taking the threat to ash trees extremely seriously. Work is being done to control the spread of the disease; we have undertaken an unprecedented, rapid and intensive survey of Britain’s established woodlands; and much more action is being taken besides. However, although there has been a lot of urgent action to get a grip on the problem, more can be done.
There is a long-term commitment to tackling this disease, and it has made us take a long, hard look at the way we respond to plant health risks more widely. Other threats, as hon. Members have said, are on the horizon. As the Secretary of State announced on Friday, we are reviewing the current arrangements and are prepared to introduce radical reforms if necessary.
Key work is being done by Professor Ian Boyd’s tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce, which is made up of an eminent group of scientists. Its interim report will be available at the end of the month. The Secretary of State has given a commitment to update the House on proposals for controlling Chalara.
The motion is nothing but a cheap party political game when we are dealing with a problem. I urge the House to reject it.