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Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce

Volume 563: debated on Monday 20 May 2013

I would like to update the House on the work of the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce which publishes its report today. This is further to my written ministerial statement of 6 December 2012, Official Report, column 74WS in which I outlined the Government’s response to Chalara and the early work of this taskforce.

I asked DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, to establish the taskforce in response to the rise in plant pests and diseases that threaten the UK. I welcome the taskforce’s report, and would like to thank the chairman, Professor Chris Gilligan, and the other members, for their hard work over the past few months. I pay tribute to their insightful approach. I believe their recommendations will lay the groundwork for a radical reappraisal of what we can do to protect the UK from these threats. I am placing a copy of the report in the Libraries of both Houses.

Healthy trees are essential to the natural environment in the countryside and in our towns and cities. They are also central to the economic resilience of our forestry industry, and at the core of our commitment to protect, improve and expand forests and woodlands. Crops and horticultural plants are vital to our food supply and our rural economy. Some of the pests and diseases that threaten our trees and crops, such as “Chalara fraxinea” are now established in the UK; there are many others on the horizon which have yet to reach these shores, but may do so in the future unless action is taken. In its final report, which is published today, the taskforce makes recommendations on what we can do—in a national and international context—to manage established pests and diseases and to improve biosecurity at our borders to prevent further incursion.

Given the importance the Government attach to plant health, I intend to act immediately on some of the key recommendations of the taskforce. A single, prioritised plant health risk register will be produced. This will help ensure that we are able to identify risks from specific pests and diseases and agree priorities for action. It will take account of all the potential pathways of entry and establishment that our globalised world presents. Alongside this, new procedures for preparedness and contingency planning will be developed to ensure we can predict, monitor and control the spread of pests and pathogens. This will help ensure the UK is ready to deal effectively with future incursions of diseases into this country and is also better able to respond to those that are already established.

Proposals for a new EU regime for plant health were published on 6 May and provide us with a timely opportunity to strengthen biosecurity across Europe and help protect the UK from pests from around the world. The principles set out in the taskforce’s report will inform our response to those proposals and I will negotiate vigorously to ensure that the new system provides stronger protection for the UK from plant pests and diseases.

Government alone cannot make the radical changes needed to protect our trees and plants from disease. As we implement the recommendations of the taskforce, we will engage and involve industry, environmental groups and the general public who all have a role to play in helping us to protect our trees and plants from disease. The Government will respond more fully to the work of the taskforce before the summer recess once it has had a chance to discuss the recommendations with stakeholders, at which point I will provide a further update to this House.