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Plant and Tree Health

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

On 30 April, we published a plant biosecurity strategy, which addresses the recommendations of the Tree Health and Plant Expert Biosecurity Taskforce and sets out a new approach to plant and tree health. We have also produced a prioritised plant health risk register, the first of its kind globally; published a new tree health management plan; undertaken work on contingency planning; continued to commission high quality research; and recruited a senior chief plant health officer.

Given the importance of trees to our economy and environment, not least in my constituency of Nuneaton where we recently lost a number of trees to disease, what action are the Government taking when specific threats are identified?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We have produced a prioritised plant health risk register to identify risk and to agree priorities for action. We have also produced new contingency plans for plant diseases and we will be testing them in an exercise later this year. The measures in the new tree health management plan set out clearly the approaches that we are taking, for example against chalara, phytophthora ramorum and oak processionary moth. As soon as we were aware of a threat to plane trees, we moved quickly to impose an import restriction on them.

May I, through the junior Minister, congratulate the new Secretary of State? I have enjoyed sparring with her in education debates. Sometimes, I have agreed with her, but I have never tried to sit on her. May I send a message on trees and plants? I know that evidence-based policy is what she believes in, so when we are dealing with disease in trees and plants, let us use the evidence and the scientific advice. Can we also do that with badgers?

The Department believes in heeding scientific advice and taking action on it, especially with regard to the issues that are under discussion. The newly appointed senior chief plant health officer, who offers us such advice, is doing incredibly valuable work.

When we see the diseases that are here and that are coming down the track, it is easy to get into a state of despair about how our countryside will look in 10 or 20 years’ time. Will the Minister assure us that we have learned all the lessons from past diseases; that the approach to phytophthora ramorum of destroying millions of larch trees has worked; and that the new chief plant health officer will be able to tackle many of these emerging problems?

My hon. Friend and predecessor is absolutely right to focus on this. As I have said, we have made it a priority in the Department and we have learned the lessons. Any Minister or Department that sat back and claimed they had learned everything would not be telling the truth. We must continually learn from what is out there, and work with colleagues across the world to look for new threats. What we are doing with these contingency exercises is not just to plan for what happens but to walk through it and to ensure that we are aware of the new threats that could arrive in this country.

The recent threat of ash dieback and indeed the horsemeat scandal show that the Food and Environment Research Agency plays a vital role in detecting and responding to threats to our natural environment and the food chain. Does the Secretary of State intend to continue with the privatisation of the research agency?

Because FERA has done such excellent work, we are keen to expand its remit so that it works with partners in the private sector to make sure that all that expertise is used to its full effect in this country and to advise other jurisdictions abroad.