Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is very appropriate that this debate should follow one on defence and security because it has exactly the same theme, except that the bugs are not cyber bugs but actual ones, since those still exist. It is also appropriate because I understand that this week is Invasive Species Week; the first such week took place in 2015. I know that the Minister, who is very involved in this sector, has also been involved in a number of other initiatives. The other reason this debate comes at exactly the right time is the publication of the report by the intergovernmental committee on biodiversity and ecosystems, which laid out how the numbers of species within the ecology across the globe were threatened. One thing it highlighted, which was perhaps not publicised quite so strongly in the press, was that alien and invasive species are a severe threat to biodiversity across the globe—including Europe, obviously, and our own country. That is why this subject is so important.
Also, to reflect some of the comments in the previous debate, if Brexit happens, although we will be leaving the European Union, we will not be leaving the European biosphere. We share its marine and aerial environments, and we are only 22 miles away from its terrestrial environment. The question to which my committee particularly wanted to find an answer was whether, post Brexit, our ecology will be as protected on invasive species and biosecurity as it was during our membership of the European Union. Can we even improve on the situation that we have at the moment?
The threat is very real. I am sure that all of us will remember the foot and mouth outbreak back in the early 2000s. That cost the country some £8 billion, but in some ways that was nothing compared to the effect it had on farming communities and rural communities throughout the kingdom. We know that we now have ash dieback disease; a recent report from Oxford University suggests that the total cost of that disease will be some £15 billion over 100 years, half of that—£7.5 billion—coming over the next 10 years. These threats are real and they are about real organisms. There is the Asian hornet and the American skunk cabbage, which I am sure the Minister will talk to us more about later, although I had never heard of it before. It is also about oak disease and a number of other threats to our ecology at this moment.
We are not only a part of the European biosphere but absolutely integrated into the systems of the European Union in this area of national security and defence. Let me remind Members of four of those systems: the animal disease notification system; the alien species notification system; the rapid alert system for food and feed; and, lastly, the plant health interception system. While I very much welcome the Government’s response—they wanted to remain a part of those systems—one of my first questions to the Minister is: has that bid progressed in any way? Are we at all confident that we will be able to participate in those systems, and if there is no deal in place do we have alternative systems? Most importantly, I am aware that, through those systems and that shared intelligence among the communities of scientists and researchers in those areas, we have advance warning of these organisms approaching us across the continent. We are able to prepare and plan for those potential invasions. How will we be able to continue having those connections and those sorts of systems once we are outside the European Union?
On day-to-day issues, the IT system called TRACES is absolutely fundamental in tracking the progress of trade between European Union member states of animal and plant products. We have had assurances from the Government that we now have an alternative to that system. Has it been truly tested yet? Will it be able to integrate with the TRACES system, allowing us at least to approach on the phytosanitary side the frictionless trade that will be so important between us and Europe on food and animal products in future? Those are clearly key issues.
Other issues that came out of the report are, first, around trade. I have mentioned EU-UK trade, which is very important for the farming industry in this country, but will we be able to have the systems that we will need to cope in the future? It particularly concerns me that the Government are clear in making the point that from day one, when we leave the Union or end the transition period, we will have exactly the same list of potential threats to biosecurity. We will have the same lists as parts of those systems but, clearly, they are likely to diverge quite significantly over the first one to three years. How will we deal with frictionless trade at the point when we have that divergence on scientific advice? Will we instead ensure alignment well into the future?
The greatest concern is about new trade deals. We often talk about America and the great leverage it would have on a trade deal with us. On the details of that trade deal, we are far from confident that environmental and biosecurity issues will be at the top of that list. Will they be a sine qua non, without which we will not do that deal? Can the Minister assure us that that is still the case? We know that even with China, there are huge issues with food quality. A lot of the problems with invasive issues in foodstuffs have been to do with Chinese products, as is a lot of the protection. Again, there is huge leverage there so, as a nation, will we be so concerned about having those trade deals post Brexit that we will not pay sufficient attention to those areas?
I come on to resources. We know that Defra has in the past been under huge constraints and reductions in funding. We know that large resources have been taken in there for Brexit planning. Will they remain there to ensure our biosecurity well into the future, rather than just on Brexit day one?
I come back to a theme that my committee has often talked about and taken evidence on: the veterinary profession. On the front line of industrial veterinary work, something like 95% of staff are EU citizens. The committee went to the London Gateway port two weeks ago, where we met the veterinary team on the front line. Of that team of eight, the lead and six others were Spanish, and one was Italian. There is a real issue about keeping those people here. Most of them will earn less than £30,000 and, under the present government proposals, they will not be able to enter the system.
Our research laboratories are the pride of the country; we are the European Union experts on foot and mouth disease, bluetongue disease and many others. We have access to the rest of that network of research laboratories, with all their scientific evidence and expertise. In addition, there is a collegiate feeling among the scientists and researchers in that community. How will we replace the research laboratories that concentrate elsewhere in the EU on other diseases and threats that do not exist here?
On the island of Ireland, the issue is different from the normal one about customs and borders, as bugs know no borders. Can we keep the island of Ireland as a single biological territory in terms of rules, regulations and biodefence? Will that be possible?
I have laid down a long list of challenges. However, we recognise that Brexit will give the United Kingdom the ability to make its own rules and regulations about biosecurity. Witnesses have looked at the very strong rules that New Zealand and Australia have to protect their bio-environment. Does the Minister see what areas of greater protection we might have, taking into consideration that those southern ocean territories are much more isolated from other territories than we are from Europe?
This is sometimes seen as rather a niche subject, yet it is a key part of the defence and security of our nation. There is already a threat and it is costing us £1.7 billion annually to make this defence effective. We are looking to the Government to assure us that once we leave Europe—if we leave Europe—we will have the same defence that we have now.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Sadly, I was not a member of the committee, but I thank its members for all their hard work. The report has been well received and was very well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who has great experience in this area.
Biodiversity is not just a national or a European problem—it is a worldwide matter of huge concern. I congratulate the Government on their commitment to maintaining internationally recognised environmental principles, whether or not we leave the EU. Can my noble friend Lord Gardiner tell us what progress has been made on the 2020 global framework updating the UN Convention on Biological Diversity? If we get it right at a global level, we have a better chance of getting it right at a national level.
In our discussions on leaving the EU, we tend to think of EU standards as very good—but they are not always. Dutch elm disease reached us before we joined the EEC, but since then our trees have been infected with phytophthora ramorum; red band needle blight has resurfaced; and we have ash dieback, sweet chestnut blight and horse chestnut leaf miner. We are encouraged to plant more trees, and this was reinforced by the climate change committee’s recent report. What trees does my noble friend recommend that we should plant that our grandchildren might be able to enjoy? What action has there been on Action Oak, which was launched by my noble friend Lord De Mauley when he was a Minister?
There are plenty of diseases in Europe which might come our way and cause us a lot of trouble. We need to be constantly vigilant. Can my noble friend update us on the spread of xylella fastidiosa? What extra measures are we taking to prevent it coming here? Does he agree with me that planting mixed species and preferably managing woodlands on an uneven-aged basis with no clear felling is better for our biosecurity and biodiversity than the current system of planting trees in straight lines and single crop? I have been arguing that for 50 years, and perhaps my time is coming.
Disease and pests have affected not just trees. We imported the Obama flatworm from Holland, and the free movement of plants under the single market, which came into force in 1993, has been a mixed blessing. Invasive species are costing our economy at least £1.7 billion annually.
I should like to pick up quickly on two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. He asked about advance notice—I suggest to him and to my noble friend that one area that could be used for advance notices is our embassies. They should be reporting regularly to us on the spread of diseases, so that in London we are fully up to date.
The committee was absolutely right to stress, as it did in the last sentence of the report’s summary:
“The need to facilitate trade post-Brexit must not be allowed to compromise the UK’s biodiversity”.
That is a point that the British Veterinary Association raised with me this morning when I telephoned. It is a major area of concern and a potential weak spot. What is being done to ensure that all departments in London and the devolved Administrations are joined up in their thinking and action on this?
Turning to animals, will my noble friend give us an update on where we are in creating a system to track stock imported and exported? Will the EU allow us to link into the trade control and export system if and when we leave? On the trade in animals, the Government need to pay as much attention to biocontainment—keeping problems at home—as to biosecurity, keeping problems at bay. We know how quick the French are to stop trading in animal products if there is a problem in the UK, and they will be even quicker when we leave the EU. Can my noble friend advise us on what actions the Government are taking with regard to biocontainment?
Leaving the EU is a unique opportunity for the Government to review our entire biosecurity structure. It is up to them to do this and to raise standards well above those of the EU as and when necessary. I believe that that is what is needed.
Before my noble friend sits down, has he had the opportunity to see the briefing produced by the Woodland Trust identifying what it thinks is the way forward on what it calls an effective biosecurity strategy? I wonder whether the Minister has seen it. I seriously recommend it to anybody who is concerned about this subject—it sets out exactly what we should do to protect our trees.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Earl. I think that the Minister will be pleased that I have only two questions to add to the impressive list that has already been put before him.
As I intend to restrict my remarks to two issues and mainly to the part of the report that deals with UK-EU biosecurity collaboration, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly the reference to my relationship with St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. That relates to the setting-up of BioRISC, a research initiative to provide cutting-edge, evidence-based information about existing and emerging biological security threats and interventions—I can sense those who know me wondering why I am involved in that given my background, but it is proving a significant education to me.
I add to the congratulations and appreciation expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee on this wide-ranging and very good report. As the noble Lord reminded us, biosecurity is an important issue. The Government agree with that. So serious a matter is it that, in July last year, they published a UK Biological Security Strategy. Governments do not publish national strategies unless the nature of the threat merits it. We can infer from the publication of this document that the National Security Council, the main forum for discussion of national security, found agreement that biological security is a priority for our collective security.
The very existence of the strategy leads me to the preamble to my first point. It is astonishing that, in late 2018, when I last looked, a search of Hansard revealed no reference to it—no ministerial Statement, not even when it was launched; no debate; no Written or Oral Question; apparently no committee interest; and no parliamentary accountability or scrutiny whatever. Not only Ministers but Members of both Houses have been largely silent on the strategy. A conversation at least, and in this House, is long overdue. I ask the Minister whether, in government time, we can have a debate on the national biological security strategy.
As on all other issues of national security, the Government rightly say that this strategy cannot be delivered by government on its own. Clearly, there is a role for many parts of society, for industry and for academia. Unfortunately, from my reading of the strategy, it contains lots of statements about what people are doing beyond the Government in relation to biological research, but there is no plan as to how this partnership and its activities will be taken forward. Perhaps in a more detailed debate we could tease out from the Government how they will administer and bring into action their strategic approach to biosecurity. At St Catharine’s, we intend to take advantage of the first anniversary of the strategy and have a conference of experts in order to identify 100 questions that need to be answered to implement it. Thereafter, we intend that these questions will form a coherent programme of academic research and study, perhaps for years to come, to deliver the strategy.
I have no criticism of this important report’s recommendations. On the contrary, I welcome its publication; it does this House and the country a great service. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said the following on its publication—I feel rather awkward having to read his words, when he read virtually none in his wide-ranging speech—which sums up effectively the point that I want to make:
that is, European Union—
“arrangements are far from perfect but significant gaps will be created when the UK leaves them. We rely on the EU for everything from auditing plant nurseries and farms to funding our research laboratories. The UK Government has a huge amount of work to do to replace this system in time for Brexit, and failure to do so could have an economic and environmental impact that would be felt for decades to come."
Those words describe the scale of the challenge that we face at Brexit probably better than I could myself.
I regret that I cannot be so positive about the Government’s response. In it, they rely on various forms of the “we will work to build on existing capabilities”-type statements. For example, the responses to recommendations 10 and 13 are redolent of this approach. This language betrays a lack of recognition that we will be building not on the existing state of capabilities following Brexit but on a reduced set of capabilities, since the EU-based components will be necessarily diminished in various ways and substantial work will be needed to bring those diminished capabilities back up to existing levels to sustain them, never mind to build on them. If anybody has any doubt as to why that is the case, I recommend to them—I shall not read it—Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in June 2018. In it, he spelled out the legal obligations that we among others imposed on the European Union that mean that we will have a necessarily diminished relationship with the European Union. It is impossible for us to sustain anything like the relationship that we currently have with those countries and their institutions.
My second point relates to the topical issue of the threat of invasive species. On cue, we read today of the Costa Rican frog that turned up, apparently healthy, in a shipment of bananas in a Lidl supermarket in Nottinghamshire. It has been all over the papers. The frog has even been given a name by those who discovered it.
Understanding the donor regions, vectors and introduction pathways of invasive species, plant pests and animal diseases is central to the effective prioritisation and management of future biological threats to the UK. Trade patterns have been demonstrated to be central to explaining the introduction of high-profile biological threats into this country, including foot and mouth, ash dieback and many invasive animals and plants.
Post-Brexit, the Government’s policy is that our trading patterns will change considerably. This is likely to have a profound effect on the origin and type of organisms that are introduced into the UK. This is an important point: before we joined the EEC in 1973, the vast majority of invasive species discovered in the UK had first established populations in mainland Europe. In the 40-odd years that we have been in the EU, that has reversed. It comes to us now predominantly from Europe, but that means that we get prior notice and sometimes guidance from them on the most effective management tools.
Changed trade patterns under Brexit are likely to result in the UK changing from being a recipient to being a donor of emerging biological threats to Europe. If the Government build the trading patterns that they anticipate, with countries such as China, the US and the 53 diverse members of the Commonwealth, we will have an enormous responsibility to develop tools for horizon-scanning, early detection, containment and possible eradication, as we will be the recipient and the introducer of many such threats. My question to the Minister is relatively simple: what planning do we have for that significant change, given our new trade policy?
My Lords, I declare my interests as recorded in the register and thank the chairman of our committee, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his excellent leadership as well as his superb introduction to the content of the report.
I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would be happy to place a bet that, within the next 10 years, we will have a major biosecurity crisis in this country. Why? We have just to look back in history. We heard in earlier speeches about foot and mouth disease—which came in 1967 and again in 2001—Dutch elm disease and ash dieback. I will add to that list BSE. So the record of the past is that at least once every 10 years we have a major biosecurity crisis, but for at least the last 40 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, so clearly articulated, we have been under the shelter of a Europe-wide system of protection. As we move out of that protection system, the chances of a biosecurity crisis, as others have said, will increase rather than decrease. In that context, I want to focus specifically on food safety and biosecurity.
Noble Lords will recall that in the wake of the biggest food safety and biosecurity challenge of the past 100 years, namely the BSE crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Government of the day established a new, non-ministerial department, the Food Standards Agency in 2000—I should declare that I was its first chairman—to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food safety and biosecurity. Following our model, in 2003 the European Union established a Europe-wide agency, EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, based on the UK model. Indeed, it pinched the chief executive of our Food Standards Agency to become its first chief executive. As a consequence of the arrangements set up in 2003, we are now part of the Europe-wide system for risk assessment, biosecurity and other food safety alerts, and risk management, as the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Browne of Ladyton, emphasised. As a result of Brexit, if Brexit happens, we will leave this well-established and effective system and replicate it, as best we can, on our own.
I am confident, because we took evidence from its chairman, that the Food Standards Agency will do its utmost to ensure that food safety and biosecurity standards are maintained. Nevertheless, the UK will lose out. We will no longer, as others have said, have immediate access to the rapid alert system and the real-time, helicopter view of biosecurity that this system provides. We were told that the Food Standards Agency has made thorough preparations for the post-Brexit world and has been provided with extra resources to do so, which is very much to be welcomed. However, one crucial aspect of the new FSA role remains to be clarified and I hope the Minister will be able to provide a clear and unambiguous answer today. When the Food Standards Agency was set up, its role was to both assess and manage risks. This was crucial because the whole point of an independent department was to ensure that political considerations and conflicts between consumer and producer interests, which were perceived as important in MAFF’s attitude to food safety management and biosecurity, did not influence decisions. The Food Standards Agency, in its 19 years of existence, has been successful in rebuilding the shattered trust in the UK food system and associated biosecurity, which had reached a low point as a result of BSE and salmonella in eggs, for example.
Since the EU-wide system was established, risk-management decisions have been made at the European level by a committee on which the UK is represented by the Food Standards Agency. What will happen after Brexit? Initially, it appeared that Health Ministers wished to seize back control of risk-management decisions, leaving the FSA in a purely risk-assessment role. I quote from a letter written to the committee by the then Minister for Public Health, Steve Brine, who wrote on 3 December last year:
“Ministers will then take the final decisions”.
At that time it appeared that Ministers either had no knowledge of the history of why the Food Standards Agency was set up or were suffering from severe amnesia. However, subsequently the same Public Health Minister seemed to confirm that he had changed his mind. When he gave oral evidence to our sub-committee on 6 March and was asked whether it would be his intention to hand risk management back to the Food Standards Agency, he replied:
“It most certainly would, yes”.
So I seek confirmation from the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, this evening whether it is indeed the position of the Government that, after Brexit, the Food Standards Agency will have responsibility not just for risk assessment but also for risk management in relation to biosecurity as it affects our food. Furthermore, if the Government’s position has changed, as indicated by Steve Brine on 6 March, will the Minister inform us when the formal powers to undertake this role will be given to the Food Standards Agency?
Finally, very briefly, while I am talking about biosecurity, I should like to mention another aspect of the agency’s work, namely labelling of food. This is important for consumer choice and protection. As the Minister will be aware, in 2010 the Government decided to strip the Food Standards Agency of its responsibility for nutritional and food labelling. The logic of this decision was never properly explained: it was generally assumed that it was the result of pressure from the food industry, objecting to the agency’s effective role as a regulator. Food labelling is an EU competence, so Brexit provides an opportunity to hand back to the FSA part of its original remit. In light of the recent concerns about allergen labelling and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a review of labelling, this is surely the moment to rethink departmental roles. Furthermore, the FSA has responsibility for labelling in Northern Ireland and Wales, as does FSA Scotland north of the border. Does the Minister therefore agree that Brexit provides an ideal opportunity to bring England into line with the rest of the United Kingdom?
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who put his finger on a spot of enormous importance, which is that the Food Standards Agency has been a success story and this should be borne in mind by the Government.
I should mention a past interest: I represented the constituency of Edinburgh West for more than 20 years, during which time I witnessed the way that an alien and enormously destructive bark beetle was able to ravage the arboreal ecological systems in our country. Scotland’s capital city has lost more than 30,000 elm trees since the late 1960s, when the new, virulent strain of Dutch elm disease was brought to the United Kingdom—on, it is believed, logs from North America. By 1980, 20 million trees throughout the United Kingdom had been destroyed, which gives some picture of the enormity of the task facing the Government and our country.
As for the biosecurity of our animal life, the current threat to our pigs from the spread of African swine fever is very dangerous and every effort is being made to keep it at bay and provide a protective vaccine. The shocking fate of our elm trees and the alarming threat posed by the global advance of the virulent and deadly African swine fever offer a stark reminder and a warning about the importance of having truly effective and fit-for-purpose biosecurity systems in place to protect the United Kingdom from imported threats to the health of our plants, trees and animals.
The sub-committee’s report expresses considerable concern over whether the United Kingdom will be able to replace, and in many cases recreate in time for our exit, all the safeguards, alerts and intelligence-sharing put in place over the years by the European Union and which currently help to protect our plants and animals from dangerous invaders. It urges that we should seek continued participation in EU alerts on animal, plant and pest disease threats. I congratulate the chairman of our committee, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his wise and far-sighted advice to the Government. On publication of the report, he said:
“The existing arrangements are far from perfect, but significant gaps will be created when the UK leaves them. We rely on the EU for everything from auditing plant nurseries and farms to funding our research laboratories. The UK Government has a huge amount of work to do to replace this system in time for Brexit, and failure to do so could have an economic and environmental impact that would be felt for decades to come”.
I raise with the Minister the vital matter of who will be in place to implement all the new biosecurity checks and inspection procedures that will soon have to be rolled out and put into operation on a UK-only basis. The Chief Veterinary Officer of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Christine Middlemiss, told the committee that,
“within the food chain, a vast majority of vets working are of non-UK origin”.
The British Veterinary Association has said that the majority of these vets are from the EU. The committee also heard from the Equine Disease Coalition and the British Equine Veterinary Association. It was quite clear in what it told us. To quote from paragraph 126:
“A shortage of vets will have an adverse effect on disease surveillance, disease control measures, risk of disease incursions, control of an exotic disease emergency, domestic food safety, loss of high quality reputation for exports and animal disease research. This at a time when the potential loss of harmonised disease controlled trade movements between the EU and the UK will increase the need for veterinary checks and certification to maintain our biosecurity”.
With regard to the public sector in a post-Brexit world, the report acknowledges that there has been recent recruitment of staff in Defra but also urges the department to ensure that enough appropriately trained staff are dedicated to the issue of biosecurity.
The United Kingdom Government are currently engaged in the very important process of devising a new UK immigration policy, so can the Minister guarantee that people such as veterinarians, who are essential to our future biosecurity, will be on what is called the shortage occupation list, which is part of that new policy, and that their profession will be prioritised as part of the new arrangements? I am sure he will agree that no matter how good systems, inspections and regulatory checks are, they are effective only if they are policed by ample numbers of appropriately qualified men and women. I hope the Minister will give this pressing matter of sufficiency of staffing very high priority.
With regard to another aspect of biodiversity, I first thank the Minister for his apparent readiness to support the launching of a global review into the economics of biodiversity which includes biosecurity. In time, such a move might well help save countless lives and perhaps even assist with the removal of plastics from the oceans. Secondly, the initiative to increase the waters designated as marine protection areas is very welcome. The Minister will be well aware of to what extent it affects biosecurity, but it will also greatly increase conservation areas as far west as Ascension Island—conservation of sea life, as well as wildlife, will be very welcome. I wish him every good fortune in the very important task of securing renewed co-operation with other countries’ Governments to enhance environmental purposes and prospects.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as recorded in the register.
In rereading this excellent report, it is clear that what is at issue is the scale of damage to our nation if there were to be a serious lapse in biosecurity. My noble friend Lord Teverson and other noble Lords have already mentioned foot and mouth. Who can forget the terrible scenes as farmers and emergency services battled to rid the country of it, or the nostalgia with which we still regret the absence of the majestic elm from our countryside?
The briefing from the Woodland Trust tells us that, during the UK’s membership of the EU, global biosecurity threats—particularly in plant biosecurity—have increased significantly and that the UK’s response has sadly been less than exemplary. The report is therefore timely and very well put together, and I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the clerks of the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee for their skill in helping members of the committee, of which I am one, to access the material to produce such an informative report. I also extend my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Teverson for his excellent chairmanship and masterful introduction to this debate. I will concentrate on two aspects: food safety risk management, which has already been covered by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—although perhaps I can offer something a little different—and compliance and monitoring.
First, what happens to food safety risk management if we do not have a seamless transition from being an integral partner in the EU’s disease notification systems to not having a seat at the table? Just to recap, the four main notification systems are: the animal disease notification system; RASFF, the rapid alert system for food and feed; the European alien species notification system; and the European Union notification system for plant health interceptions. The importance of these early alert agencies has been recognised by the Government, who have stated their intention to retain access to these systems. It is good that the Government recognise that it is important to be part of the discussion that leads to decisions about what information will be put in the public domain and what will not. As the chemists among us will know, after filtration, both the filtrate and the substrate are of interest. However, as things currently stand, the fact is that the only third countries that take part in any of these organisations are those in the animal disease notification system, and they are either candidate or potential candidate countries, or members of EFTA. For the other three bodies, full participation is restricted to member states only.
Can the Minister say how matters stand with respect to gaining access to these important early alert systems? I know that other noble Lords have asked the same question of the Minister, which goes to illustrate how important we think it is that this matter is addressed and that we have clarification. Does he agree that relying solely on public websites will not substitute for the wealth of information and insight that we currently enjoy, nor the influence we currently exercise—and that that applies even if we take part in international information exchange networks like the Food Industry Intelligence Network and the WHO’s International Food Safety Authorities Network? The plan may be for the FSA to step into the breach, but it is not clear when it will be up and running and firing on all cylinders. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has given us a fairly comprehensive run-through of why concerns about the FSA’s role remain. As has been mentioned, it is not clear either that any shadow body that is set up in the interim, until the FSA is up and ready, will be independent of government interference and at a safe distance from the food lobby. I therefore echo the same concerns as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.
It is frightening to think that the Government were once seriously peddling a no-deal Brexit in the knowledge that alternative arrangements for biosecurity, such as they are, were not yet in place and that the UK’s protection from animal pests and disease would have been substandard. It is also concerning that there remain on the Government Benches—and, it has to be said, the Opposition Benches—those who still extol the virtues of a no-deal Brexit. A poorer-quality early alert system, coupled with the proposal for laxer controls on borders, is a recipe for disaster and criminally negligent. Maybe it was merely political posturing and never in serious contention; one can only hope. However, the worry is that the snake-oil proponents of a no-deal Brexit are doing rather well in the polls for the Euro elections next week—a consequence of the failure of the Government and the Opposition to tackle the myth that we can have our cake and eat it, forgetting to mention the listeria or the E. coli lurking within.
The role of monitoring and enforcement is currently filled by the European Commission and the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office, which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Trees, will cover in detail. The FVO carries out regular missions to member states to check practices and compliance with animal health, animal welfare and food safety regulations. It is a valuable independent assessor of risk management. In paragraph 38 of the report, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board asks who will perform this function if the UK leaves. The Welsh Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths AM, said in written evidence:
“There will … need to be a body to replicate the audit and advisory support, post EU exit, currently delivered through the FVO”.
The RSPB raised an important issue about enforcement. I refer noble Lords to paragraph 39, where it said that the text of the invasive alien species regulation,
“requires Member States to report to The European Commission on a 6-yearly basis on actions taken to implement the IAS Regulation”.
The Commission therefore has the power to ensure that member states are implementing the IAS regulation and it can take enforcement action if necessary, along with the European Court of Justice. The result is that we currently have a monitoring and risk assessment agency and a Commission that has a record of taking meaningful action against transgressors.
The Minister’s response to the committee when asked about how enforcement would be dealt with post Brexit, was, if I may say so, rather lackadaisical, given the dire consequences should there be a material lapse in vigilance. The Minister in question is the same Minister who is responding on behalf of the Government today, who said to the committee:
“If we need to look at either remits or additional powers to retain our reputation and our requirements, we will look at that … We will take every opportunity, if necessary, to bolster any existing organisations”.
I am sorry—I am just about to finish.
It sounds very much like we would be willing to shut the stable door once the horse has bolted. I hope that the Minister is now of a more proactive frame of mind. It is much more cost effective to address and manage the risks before catastrophe strikes and farm animals, lives and livelihoods are lost. I hope, if nothing else, that the Government will now take heed of that message from this report.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee for their excellent report, and I draw the attention of the House to my interests as declared in the register.
We are in a period of human history of an unprecedented degree and pace of change. Many of these changes have undeniable benefits—the emergence of digital technologies being one such example—but we are just beginning to understand the downsides of digital technology and the societal costs which we will have to bear. Another seismic change is globalisation. The scale and speed with which people, animals, plants and their products can move around the world is unprecedented. Although globalisation undoubtedly brings great public good, driving economic growth and political co-operation, there is a cost to it. That cost is reduced biosecurity.
On this island of ours, we have rather taken biosecurity for granted, but we do that at our peril. Although the fruits of globalisation may be measured in billions of pounds in wealth, breaches in biosecurity can be measured in billions of pounds in cost. A recent paper estimated that the cost of dealing with ash dieback, mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will be £15 billion. This cost follows the importation of ash saplings: an indigenous species to the UK which grows like a weed in my Scottish garden. We need seriously to consider the cost/benefits of such trade. I shall return to that later.
Focusing specifically on the consequences of Brexit for biosecurity—although, understandably, I am concerned with the health of trees, I shall focus mainly on animal-related matters—there are challenges and risks and, conversely, opportunities to strengthen our biosecurity. I point out that the ash saplings which may have introduced ash dieback into the UK are thought to have come from the Netherlands.
The increased risks have been raised by many of your Lordships tonight and previously. I must acknowledge that in many cases, the response from Defra has been extremely positive. For example, an internal UK system to replace TRACES, referred to by several noble Lords, the Import of Products, Animals and Food and Feed System—IPAFFS—is, I understand, nearing operational capability. I echo the question of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and ask the Minister for an update on the situation. What current plans are there to continue our participation in the EU animal disease notification system, or develop our own capabilities?
With respect to food safety, there are a number of important issues. I shall say much less than I planned to because it was most ably covered by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I will just reiterate his final, main point and question, because it is so important. Can the Minister assure the House that, in addition to risk assessment, the responsibility for risk management will lie with the FSA, independent of ministerial interference?
The potential shortage of veterinary staff has again been mentioned by several noble Lords. It has been the subject of Defra’s veterinary capabilities and capacity project. Has this project reported to the Government? If not, when might that report be available?
The potential opportunities to enhance biosecurity post Brexit are several and significant. There are real and present animal health risks in continental Europe, and we now have an opportunity to introduce a uniform and tailor-made biosecurity system for the UK. I join the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, in mentioning African swine fever, which can affect not only domestic pigs but, significantly, wild boar, and which has been spreading westwards in wild boar in Europe as far as Belgium, with associated outbreaks in domestic swine. Denmark is currently building a fence across its land border with Germany to control the movement of wild boar. The incursion of African swine fever into the UK would be a devastation for our UK pig industry, and it would be extremely difficult to eradicate because of the potential wild animal reservoir of infection.
Regarding the movement of pet dogs, the pet travel scheme—PETS—has led to a huge increase in the movement of dogs into the UK from continental Europe: from 11,000 in 2000 to nearly 300,000 in 2017. Most disturbingly, criminals have exploited the system to illegally import large numbers of dogs for sale, contrary to the original concept of PETS. An unknown number of these animals may not have received proper rabies vaccination or medication to prevent tapeworm—both measures to safeguard public health. Through its investigations, the Dogs Trust has revealed the inadequate inspection and enforcement capabilities at our ports of entry. What plans do the Government have to tighten biosecurity and public health safeguards for the importation of dogs into the UK?
In conclusion, such is the magnitude of the economic damage that deficient biosecurity can inflict that there are strong arguments for adopting a “white list” of what is permitted in the way of importing living things and their products, in contrast to the “black list” of what is excluded. Whatever legal systems we have, it is essential that we strengthen enforcement at our borders. Finally, will the Government consider an in-depth report analysing the cost/benefit of different levels of biosecurity implementation, given the colossal cost of breaches in biosecurity?
My Lords, I have considered it a privilege to serve on the Energy and Environment Sub-Committee as it has dealt with these matters. I offer my congratulations to our chairman on persevering to secure the debate and to the committee staff on producing such a comprehensive report, the measure of which can be seen in the thorough and detailed response from the Government. I think that we sharpened up their approach very considerably.
On Monday, as part of Invasive Species Week, my noble friend the Minister mentioned that he and his colleagues had successfully obtained approval for the UK to have approved third-country status in case of Brexit. I for one feel that he and his colleagues should be congratulated on that because a great threat was hanging over the farming industry.
I declare my interests as detailed in the register as a farmer and landowner in Scotland. Quite a lot of the policy in this area is a matter of devolved competence but the question of Brexit and protection from invasive alien species is bound to be of common interest across the UK. In my small, immediate area of the UK, I have experienced a great deal of the breakdown of biosecurity. We have seen invasive plant species such as giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, to mention a few. Then there are the current invasive plant diseases, in addition to those whose effects have been mentioned by noble Lords. We have seen it in shrubs, rhododendrons and cypresses; these diseases will affect a great raft of areas.
On animal species, my experience goes back as far as grey squirrels and mink but there are other things nowadays, of course. Now, noble Lords concentrate rather more on the topic of animal diseases. We even had an invasive fish wipe out a particularly unique native fish population in Loch Lomond. There are many more such diseases under all these different headings that we watch for and fear.
All of these things involve production and financial losses or expenses for anyone involved in making an income from the land, and much of it has occurred in my lifetime. If the Government’s policy is that we must learn to be more efficient and productive in agriculture, they will have to be much more rigorous in maintaining a true species and sanitary barrier around our shores.
On financial support for agriculture, we are constantly being told that we should try to emulate New Zealand. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned this subject. Anyone who has visited New Zealand will know that border security, even for a passenger, is strict. You are put through a rigorous procedure if there is any suggestion that you may have been on a farm in another country, yet here we allow overseas animals to be delivered to a purchaser and only then subject them to testing.
The committee raised the question, as have other noble Lords in this debate, of whether the UK has sufficient powers to enforce compliance. The Government’s reply suggests that biosecurity is an area where the relevant department probably has sufficient powers to ensure that the full rigour of the legislation is enforced. We hope that that is true because we simply do not want invasive species.
In certain other environmental matters, the EU has operated to a different pattern of discipline in order to deal with 24 different countries. The EU likes to set aspirational targets and regulate with fines. Noble Lords will almost certainly remember that it was a considerable novelty when we passed the Climate Change Act and introduced the target mechanism into UK law. The ordinary citizen now knows what was considered appropriate at that time and can urge the politicians on. The difference between us and the EU is that it was never considered desirable, and we still do not know who will be held accountable if and when the country misses that target. Can the Minister say if in his view it has provided a pretty good incentive which we all have to watch for? What other mechanism would he suggest?
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, considered the variations in the EU list of invasive alien species. He asked what system the Government propose to put in its place. I notice that the Minister gave some consideration to the question in his reply to the report. We all know that variations will occur. The first issue for us will be, as always, whether we feel compelled to act in compliance with what the EU does for the sake of trade. Should we immediately follow suit? But if change is needed, the suggestion is that the Secretary of State will be able to make the changes by order. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether this order will be in the form of a statutory instrument, and if of contentious nature, could it be subject to the affirmative procedure?
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee for this excellent report on biosecurity in the context of the Brexit challenge. The report is part of a series of reports on different environmental, agricultural and trade aspects of Brexit that it is important to debate and consider together. I congratulate the committee on its work and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his introductory remarks. This has been an excellent debate and I declare my interest as noted in the register.
The report highlights four strands to the inquiry: the biosecurity implications of leaving the EU in relation to animals and animal products, plants, food safety, and invasive non-native species. I thank the Minister and his department for the Government’s extensive 15-page response. I think this shows that the Government are by and large aware of all the issues and have covered the implications under a no-deal exit scenario through the immense number of statutory instruments brought before your Lordships’ House over recent weeks.
From recent experiences, Defra could be said to be well equipped to deal with the import and export of animals and animal products. I refer to the lessons learned from BSE, FMD, avian flu and potential zoonosis diseases. While the report highlights the dependence on EU systems, the UK in many regards shares and reciprocates the data and monitoring necessary. The debate has also shown that complacency must be guarded against. Veterinary scanning surveillance enables early detection and investigation of new or re-emerging animal diseases. The diagnostic service is the cornerstone of the scanning surveillance system. In England and Wales it is delivered by APHA’s network of VI centres and partner providers contracted by APHA. It will be important to ensure that the capacity and capability of the domestic surveillance system, which has been under financial pressure for many years, continues to work effectively. Can the Minister inform the House how many VI centres remain in the UK and whether they are still adequately positioned within an hour’s travel from farms, to ensure relevance for disease monitoring to be able to be fed into the national surveillance system and to improve detection and animal management on farms?
The Government state that UK laboratories that lose EU reference laboratory status have already been provided additional funding, and that this will ensure a strong level of expertise and research resource. However, the Government have no immediate plans to introduce an independent body to replicate the audit and advisory support of, for example, DG SANTE in Brussels to ensure biosecurity standards in non-EU countries. This new entity could reduce biosecurity risks posed by trade. Will the Government commit to review the situation in the light of any final outcome, not only to EU negotiations but to future international trade agreements?
Quite distinct from reference laboratories, biosecurity facilities will need to be developed further at entry points to the UK. What is the Government’s intention regarding entry and exit points for trade—ports and airports? Is it the Government’s intention that all ports for trade will be facilitated equally for inspections, certifications and monitoring, or will the Government concentrate on specific reference status points for enhanced protocols, such as may be required of the UK to abide by the new biosecurity phytosanitary certificates necessary following the UK’s change of status to that of a third country?
The Government are correct to recognise the importance of a balance between rights and responsibilities in international trade, underpinned by biosecurity being the definitive requirement that will not be compromised by any future trade deal.
The report highlights the staff requirements and underlines the reliance on vets from overseas. Can the Minister update the House on the shortage occupation list in the new immigration policy proposals? The reliance on EU veterinary surgeons is particularly acute in the meat hygiene sector, where 95% of the veterinary workforce graduated overseas. This inspection work is crucial to food standards and labelling, necessary to minimise the risks of food fraud in the international food chain, to promote animal welfare and to provide public health reassurance to consumers at home and overseas.
All biological trade is accompanied by documentation under TRACES. The Government’s preferred option is to retain access while developing a UK notification equivalent. It must be recognised that this applies only to commercial activities, and the protocols around the pet travel scheme appear to have been abused through the option to trade as non-commercial rather than under TRACES. Will the Minister commit to review the pet travel scheme of 2012 in the light of the undercover investigations by the Dogs Trust and others that reveal serious loopholes in biosecurity measures, highlighting ineffective border controls and negligible sharing of evidence, the falsification of data and treatments, and a lack of sufficient penalties?
Following ash dieback, first identified as resulting from imported nursery stocks in 2012, the Government have moved quickly to bring about plant biosecurity under a more robust system, commensurate with the standards pertaining in the animal sector. The spread of the disease in the UK, through the planting of infected nursery stock and wood, can also be enhanced by the wind-borne distribution of fungal spores, such that the disease could well have been in the country much longer.
I thank the Woodland Trust for its briefing on the report, and for its proposal to the Government that a wide assurance scheme be introduced for all plants on sale in the UK. The Woodland Trust created its UK-sourced and grown assurance scheme to ensure that all native tree stock is healthy and pest free. Assurance schemes are well understood and recognised in the animal sector, and I ask the Minister to take this idea back to his department and consider extending it to plants, alongside developing and providing best practice guidance on how to deal with affected trees and broader messages to the public.
The need for symmetry of controls for biosecurity across both plant and animal risks and threats needs to be recognised. The Government have committed to implement the new EU plant health law in the UK. The report also highlights the importance of similar clarity on the EU animal health law which is under development.
The last of the four strands concerns invasive non-native species, or invasive alien species. This is intrinsically a cross-border undertaking, given that organisms do not respect national boundaries and can enter the UK via land, sea or air. The UK will continue to need the benefits of EU data sharing, collaboration and cross-border liaison to keep indigenous flora and fauna safe in the future. The report urged the Government to ensure ongoing access to the EU IAS information system. The Government’s response did not answer this point. Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to negotiate continued participation in as many of the EU’s notification and intelligence-sharing networks as possible, including continued access to the EU IAS information system?
The EU IAS regulation provides some preventive, reactive and management measures for tackling IAS, and includes the responsibility of restoring damaged and destroyed ecosystems based on the “polluter pays” principle. An amendment to the withdrawal Bill to enact this measure was not accepted by the Government. This measure, together with the creation of the environmental protection office, is due under the future environment Bill, as the UK faces a governance gap because there is no independent authority to which reports on actions on invasive species can be made or by which any UK biosecurity failings can be held to account. Will the Minister explain how the governance gap will be filled in the interim? Will a new biosecurity Bill be brought forward to prevent the introduction of unwanted invasive species with additional unknown pests and diseases? The Government’s response under paragraphs 43 to 186 of the report suggests that proposals are being developed to provide further clarification on this and on the land border on the island of Ireland being treated as a single epidemiological unit. That would be extremely timely.
The report also highlights the challenge to the UK framework from the devolution settlements and the various differences in approach. The need for a close working relationship between all parts of the United Kingdom is recognised, so that all parts can play a full role in developing a UK-wide biosecurity framework, where ecological and geographical differences that give rise to different solutions do not create either internal borders, vulnerabilities or trade distortions. While the Government’s response does not comment on this, I am sure the Minister may wish to underline its relevance in the debate.
With the backcloth of the Chatham House report on the threats to biosecurity against the imperative action needed on climate change, this report is timely in the consideration of threats to the UK ecology and recognised way of life.
I am well aware of the timings. I thank the noble Baroness and I am drawing my remarks to a conclusion.
As the future trading relationships behind the glib phrase “global Britain” still need to be agreed and reconciled, this report has underlined the most important relationship of all—how the UK interacts with its nearest neighbours. The Minister has a long list of questions to address on a wide-ranging report with many serious risk management issues.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, is right in his final remarks. I promise that I will write more fully because, given the force of argument in this debate, it will not be possible to adequately answer all of the questions in the time I am permitted. I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and all committee members because this is a valuable report.
It is appropriate that this debate takes place during Invasive Species Week. Yesterday I was in a ditch in Kent with volunteers digging up American skunk cabbage. I was delighted to be speaking alongside the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, at the Wildlife and Countryside Link panel on invasive species.
My noble friend Lord Selkirk referred to the overseas territories. The hope factor is important in all of these issues, which I take seriously. On South Georgia, the eradication of the rat has now made that island as pristine as it was before Europeans arrived there, and the pintails and the pipets are back in rapid profusion.
The Government welcome this report. I am the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, and having a Minister with responsibility for biosecurity is not only daunting but essential. As has been said, plant and animal pests, diseases and invasive species pose a considerable threat to our country’s environment and economy and it is important that UK biosecurity involves the co-operation and collaboration of our friends and partners on the continent.
The Government agree with all the observations on the need to maintain high standards of biosecurity and, yes—the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, made a pragmatic reference to this—we also want to improve upon them. I am not satisfied that we should just be seeking to maintain. We need to consider these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to ash dieback and to what we did then. The lessons we have learned include the appointment of an outstanding Chief Plant Health Officer because we got things seriously wrong.
International co-operation is important. The eastern counties of England have got it naturally, because the fungal spores have not travelled far enough. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose mentioned that New Zealand and Australia are biosecurity conscious—we permitted far too many invasive species into those countries following our arrival—but biosecurity is much more straightforward when you have enormous oceans between countries. There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned, but there are proximity issues, and that is why we need to work so closely together.
Much of our biosecurity legislation is underpinned by EU regulations covering all these issues. We have made clear our intention to bring back all relevant aspects of EU law—many noble Lords have been involved in this—so that we have fully operable legislation to protect our biosecurity. Indeed, since the report was published, I think the vast majority of all the statutory instruments required have been laid and will come into force when we leave.
On 9 April, the European Commission called a meeting of the relevant committee—SCoPAFF—to consider the UK’s third-country listing application and made it clear that it required all relevant animal health legislation to be in place by that date. I am very pleased that member states voted unanimously to list the UK as a third country, if that had been necessary. The committee proposed an independent and effective domestic enforcement mechanism to take on the role currently filled by the Commission. Through legislation made under the withdrawal Act, we are bringing over into UK law all relevant legislation and associated reporting requirements on exit day.
On our enhancement of enforcement controls, the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 ensures that the principal EU regulation on the prevention, management, introduction and spread of invasive alien species will be effectively enforced at the UK border. We have robust legislation on diseases and pests which allows enforcement of domestic legislation. The Animal Health Act sets out clear powers of access and enforcement, while individual orders made under that Act identify which breaches and non-compliances are punishable under the Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and my noble friend Lord Selkirk mentioned the Food Standards Agency—a non-departmental public body—maintaining its independence of government. Although the FSA works very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, I meet Heather Hancock and officials with biosecurity issues and food safety in mind. It is important that that independent body can provide the information. When I get to it in the list of replies, I will refer to some of that in rather more detail. We will continue to review what, if any, additional measures need to be taken if we are concerned about further enforcement issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, spoke about co-operation. Ongoing co-operation with our friends and partners in the EU is essential so that in any trade we have, we and they do not increase the risk of animal and plant diseases, pests and invasive non-native species entering this country. We remain committed to engaging with the EU and international partners to maintain and enhance networks. As many noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, know, we have significant scientific expertise. Many international experts will continue to sit on international advisory boards, including the European Food Safety Authority. The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Plant Health Officer are outstanding, as are their teams. Having travelled with them in Europe and the United States, I know that their reputation is very considerable indeed and we should be proud of our country’s reputation for world-class science.
On trade and inspections, the committee highlighted a number of areas which might change as our relationship with the EU develops. The disease and pest risks posed to the UK by the EU will not change overnight, so we are confident that our plans are proportionate and practical. The Government consider that controls on imports should be risk-based and proportionate, taking advantage of available technologies, which we believe will help us facilitate frictionless trade.
Continued participation in EU pest and disease notification systems is of course desirable, and we would like to retain full access to the EU systems. Indeed, there is some precedent for third-country access to EU notification systems, and it is clearly something that we will want to negotiate. These public notifications will be supplemented with extensive intelligence-gathering from other organisations, agencies and networks, and will be supported by enhanced bilateral relationships with key trading partners and our nearest neighbours.
Defra works closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the regulatory regime for food safety remains robust when the UK leaves in order to protect public health and retain the confidence of consumers and international partners.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the issue of TRACES. We recognise the important role that TRACES plays in monitoring the movement of animals, animal products and high-risk food and feed, and in minimising biosecurity risks. The UK replacement, which the noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to—the Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System, or IPAFFS—has been built and was deployed in mid-March for import agents dealing with countries outside the EU. We are continuing to develop IPAFFS. I emphasise that the Government are seeking a deal and a negotiated arrangement. However, should the UK leave without a deal, EU imports of live animals, germinal products and certain animal by-products could be notified using IPAFFS.
For plants, we will operate a risk-based verification system, allowing inland surveillance to confirm that certification requirements are being met. The existing EU plant passport will be replaced by the internationally recognised phytosanitary certificate.
I turn to some of the specific points that were raised. My noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked how the UK is performing against the targets set out in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. We are making progress but fully recognise that we need to do more. The convention has 20 targets, and we have, for instance, expanded our protected areas at sea and have provided new funding for woodland expansion and peatland restoration. While I was on Dartmoor on Saturday, I saw some of that peatland restoration work.
My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to the Action Oak campaign. This was a partnership that I was very keen to start up. My noble friend Lord De Mauley may have thought that he was going to set it up but it was actually my privilege to do so. It is a great partnership and we want to address urgently the research needs for the protection of a very significant tree. It is host to 2,200 species, many of which rely solely on the oak.
My noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, both referred to trees. To respond in staccato to the question of what trees to plant: definitely oak, grown in Britain and UK-sourced. Of course, we need appropriate trees for appropriate places, and the Forestry Commission can give very good advice on that. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that our discussions with the Horticultural Trades Association are much stronger and we have very close collaboration with it. Guidance is an issue. Xylella is certainly making nurseries very conscious of enhanced biosecurity. In fact, it was the Secretary of State who most strongly pushed for further restrictions and action in the European context. If that had not been forthcoming, which it was, I would have been very keen to take national measures, as we have done on other occasions. Something that will be very interesting when we have our own responsibilities is the speed with which we can make decisions. It was a point I made, and which was raised with me, when I gave evidence.
On disease awareness, my noble friend Lord Caithness asked about plant health and the plant health portal. We have a risk and horizon-scanning system which looks very closely at all global threats. We liaise with embassies in countries where there are plant health problems. Outbreak assessments for animal diseases are published on GOV.UK.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, raised the BioRISC project. Defra is fully engaged in that and we are looking forward to the debate at St Catharine’s College in July. I know that Professor Nicola Spence, our Chief Plant Health Officer, will be part of those deliberations.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, also mentioned the biosecurity strategy. The governance board has been set up at director and official level, there is a working group, and there are monthly meetings across government. The Government are very active on this. I am sorry these replies are rather staccato, but I want to get through as many as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned RASFF and rapid alert access. Negotiations are ongoing. We are also strengthening our links with the WHO’s International Network of Food Safety Authorities—INFOSAN—which includes 180 countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, also raised concerns about guaranteeing that imported food will continue to be safe. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for and absolutely committed to ensuring that imported food continues to be safe for our consumers, and that will of course continue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked whether standards will change after exit. The UK is considered world-leading in standards of food safety and quality and these are backed by a rigorous legislative framework. We will maintain those high standards. The Secretary of State has been clear on a number of occasions that we do not intend to compromise our high food standards in pursuit of trade deals. We are committed to upholding and indeed strengthening our high standards in food, public health and safety, product performance and environmental protection. I am very happy to put that on the record again in your Lordships’ House.
Turning to vets, I declare that two members of my family are in the veterinary profession. We have been strengthening this area by working with official veterinarians. We now have 300 additional approved OVs. I am told that I have three minutes left, so I will write more fully on that. My noble friend Lord Selkirk referred to plant health inspectors and we are also increasing the number of plant health inspectors and support staff.
On legal powers to protect biosecurity, we will certainly give consideration to the extent to which we implement aspects of revised arrangements to be introduced in the EU from December 2019 through the new plant health official controls regulation. Indeed, the UK had significant influence in shaping those new arrangements.
There are a number of other points I should raise. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose spoke about amending the list of invasive species. The Secretary of State will have power to make regulations to change the list of species of special concern. The power can be exercised only with the consent of Welsh Ministers and DAERA and, in so far as it concerns import and export controls, the Scottish Ministers. Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise any regulations.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to veterinary investigation centres. There are 10 across England and Wales. Also on the very important issue of vets, the Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to review the composition of the shortage occupation list. The department responded with the request to include vets on that list. Preparations are being made should there be no deal before the office for environmental protection is established.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, also asked whether we will have agreed continued access to the European alien species notification list. The EU system enables critical information to be shared quickly. Clearly, future access is dependent on negotiations. We are developing contingency plans but, again, co-operation is hugely important.
I have not mentioned much in my speech the APHA’s vital role in this work. The rapid risk-assessment processes are absolutely essential. I am informed on a daily basis about outbreaks around the world. We also have very close co-operation with Ireland. The epidemiological status of the island of Ireland is so important and must continue. Indeed, through the British-Irish Council, the whole United Kingdom, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the Republic are closely engaged on this and all of them are involved in Invasive Species Week.
I am very sorry that there is so much more I would like to have said, but I will write to your Lordships, in particular in reference to the point the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made about risk management. This is clearly a matter for both departments, but also for the independent Food Standards Agency. That independence is so crucial. I thank your Lordships, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his committee. It is very important that biosecurity has the highest possible profile. Much damage can be done if we do not look after our biosecurity.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on pronouncing “epidemiological” correctly. I was trying to avoid it and find an alternative all the way through my speech. The committee and I absolutely recognise his dedication to this area. We welcome his taking the responsibility so seriously and the way he has responded to the debate. We look forward to him writing to us as well.
It is the end of the day, so I thank all those who have contributed, including committee members. It is also great to see some recent former members, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Trees. I thank him for all his excellent input on the veterinary side and broader areas during his membership of the committee. I also thank the Deputy Speaker, the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, who has presided over the debate and was an important member of the committee until recently. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and the noble Earl, Lord—
I know the noble Earl so well by his forename that I sometimes forget his title. He regularly contributes to these events. As others have, I thank Alexandra McMillan and Jennifer Mills, the clerking team for this committee. They have been absolutely excellent.
I sum up by saying that I welcome everybody’s concentration in bringing this matter to the fore, but it will get more difficult to contain, not just, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, said, because of increasing global trade, but because of climate change and the proliferation of personal travel. Yet it is so important that it is contained. I am positive about the way the debate is being taken seriously and has been responded to by the Government. I thank the Minister for that. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 9.34 pm.