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Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013

In my statement to the House on 20 May 2013, Official Report, column 54WS, I announced the publication of the final report of the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce. I set out the Government’s initial response and committed to providing the House with an update before the summer recess, having discussed the taskforce’s recommendations with a range of interested parties.

Last week, I heard from over 80 stakeholders at a summit organised to discuss the taskforce’s recommendations and to report on progress since the report was published. There was universal acceptance of the need for urgent action and a range of constructive ideas about how we should take forward work to safeguard plant health using the taskforce report as a blueprint. The key messages from those discussions were:

We need strong collaboration across the UK and with the Republic of Ireland to ensure effective biosecurity;

At EU level, we need to take a tougher line, seeking protected zone status well before new pests and diseases arrive and only allowing new trades when we are sure that they do not represent an unacceptable risk;

We need to hold other member states to high standards of surveillance and enforcement to ensure that all are playing their part in keeping the EU safe from threats from other parts of the world;

All our actions need to be underpinned by a strong evidence base and effective horizon scanning.

The summit also provided an opportunity to report on action taken since May when I made a commitment to rapid progress on two of the taskforce’s key recommendations: producing a prioritised risk register and improving our preparedness and contingency planning. Stakeholders have said that this was the right place to start and that we need the risk register in place as soon as possible.

Work on the first phase of the risk register has advanced very quickly through several weeks of intensive work with stakeholders to capture the key risks to UK crops, trees, gardens and ecosystems from plant pests and diseases, and the pathways through which they are transmitted. Over the summer, work on the risk register will continue to identify threats against which new action needs to be taken. This will include where regulation needs to be tightened, where we need to fill gaps in our knowledge and where the current approaches are no longer cost effective and should be adapted in the light of new information. Over 700 pests and pathogens will be considered. The first phase of the risk register will be published for consultation in the autumn.

Work on contingency planning to ensure we are prepared to face new threats will get underway shortly, drawing on the risk register. Again, stakeholders will play an important role in helping us develop robust plans.

I will ensure that there is effective leadership for these vital activities. I am announcing today that I will shortly be launching an exercise to recruit a senior-level chief plant health officer in response to another of the taskforce’s recommendations. He or she will play a prominent and influential role in advising Ministers, industry and others about the risks posed by plant pests and diseases. They will also ensure that measures are in place to manage those risks and minimise their impact. In the event of an outbreak, the chief plant health officer will lead the operational response, providing clear leadership and accountability.

Stakeholders have told me that it is vital that the chief plant health officer has direct access to Ministers and the authority to act when necessary. I will ensure that that is the case. I have recently initiated monthly biosecurity meetings to assess the latest risks to plant health, animal health and from non-native invasive species. The chief plant health officer will report directly to Ministers and senior officials at those meetings and will be able to call on the resources needed to tackle threats.

Plant health policy is devolved, but the chief plant health officer will play a role in representing the whole of the UK in EU and international fora. I am writing to Ministers in the devolved Administrations setting out my plans and inviting them to consider how this new role might encourage closer collaboration to improve biosecurity across the UK.

The taskforce also recommended that we review the legislation and governance surrounding plant health. The first phase of work on that will begin tomorrow as we launch the next round of the red tape challenge, which will include a review of existing regulation on plant health and forestry. This will provide an opportunity for all with an interest to comment and identify gaps, overlaps and anomalies, some of which were highlighted in the taskforce’s report. This is the first step in developing a clearer and more effective regulatory landscape for plant health.

As we develop the right framework to safeguard plant health, I will continue to take action to improve our understanding and to tackle current and imminent threats:

We have recently consulted on a pest risk assessment on Cryphonectria parasitica or sweet chestnut blight, and are planning to introduce measures to ban its import from areas where the disease is present before the next planting season.

Since May we have completed this spring’s spraying programme aiming to eradicate oak processionary moth in Pangbourne, Berkshire, and are piloting new approaches to reduce its impacts in London, where tens of thousands of oaks have been treated at 200 sites;

We have recently awarded a £1.1 million research contract for a three-year study of acute oak decline which is present in the UK;

Large-scale field trials are now underway in the east of England to try to identify resistance to Chalara, dieback of ash, and potential treatments for Chalara will undergo field trials this summer;

We have secured funding from the EU Life+ programme to support the development of ObservaTree, a tree health early warning system using volunteer groups.

I will continue the dialogue with stakeholders over the coming months and provide an update on progress. I will publish a full response to the remaining taskforce recommendations later this year.