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Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Volume 800: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, the regulations amend earlier EU exit regulations relating to plant health, to update the Plant Health (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and ensure that recent EU-derived protective measures against the introduction and spread of harmful plant pests continue to remain effective and operable on leaving the EU. The Plant Health (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were debated in this House on 25 March, are an important element of the EU exit legislation that we have put in place for maintaining plant biosecurity. They set out the list of harmful pests and plant material that will continue to be regulated.

It is our responsibility—particularly mine, in my role as Minister for Biosecurity—to protect biosecurity across plant and animal health and the wider ecosystem. It is also important that we have a robust process of ongoing review to strengthen biosecurity protections, where this is possible and necessary after we leave. The regulations are specifically about protecting plant biosecurity. The amendments address technical deficiencies and inoperability issues relating to retained EU law on plant health that could arise when we leave.

I should make it clear that all the amendments introduced by the instrument are simply technical operability amendments and do not introduce any policy changes. They ensure that existing measures set out in EU legislation and national measures introduced under the EU’s plant health directive will continue to apply to the UK after we leave. The majority of the changes update the list of regulated plant pests and plant material and associated import and movement requirements relating to host material in the Plant Health (EU Exit) Regulations. They reflect recent amendments to the plant health directive made by Commission implementing directive 2019/523, as a result of technical changes in the assessment of risks presented by particular pests and diseases.

I would like to explain what all that means by way of a number of examples. The lemon tree borer is native to New Zealand. Despite its name, the larvae are generalist feeders, boring into the wood of a wide variety of trees. When Captain Cook first arrived in New Zealand, his naturalists collected a lemon tree borer in their first collection made between 1769 and 1771. This oldest collected specimen can be found in the British Museum and our aim is to ensure that it remains the only specimen in the United Kingdom. Adding the lemon tree borer to the list of regulated pests will mean that countries where it is present must ensure that consignments of plants for export are free of it and officially certify that that is the case. The UK pressed for this change to be made to EU legislation following occasional interceptions of the pest on imported plants, and this instrument will ensure that the new requirements will remain operable after exit.

The tobacco whitefly is one of the most economically important agricultural and horticultural pests in the world, due in part to its adaptability, wide host plant range and capacity to vector more than 110 plant pathogenic viruses. Despite its establishment in the EU, the UK remains free of the pest and has protected zone status. The changes included will further strengthen our protections against this damaging pest. In particular, they broaden the list of plant species that are subject to official control as well as the scope of those controls, requiring greater official oversight and pre-export inspections of those pathways which have most frequently been the cause of interceptions in the UK. I should add that this is a glasshouse pest and not a threat to the UK’s wider environment. As such, interceptions can be dealt with effectively, without the likelihood of longer-term establishment of the pest. Nevertheless, we will continue to ensure that our import requirements are as robust as needed to mitigate the threat of infested plants being imported, which is why we will continue to review the effectiveness of these strengthened measures to check that they are achieving the desired outcome. If not, we will not hesitate to take further action.

The pine processionary moth is another pest for which the UK currently has protected zone status due to its establishment elsewhere in the EU. Its caterpillars are a threat to the health of pine and some other conifer tree species as well as a hazard to human and animal health. The caterpillars feed on the needles of pine trees and some other conifer tree species, and in large numbers they can severely defoliate trees. Like the oak processionary moth, pine processionary caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs containing an irritating protein, which, if they come into contact with people and animals, can cause painful skin, eye and throat irritations and rashes and, in rare cases, allergic reactions. That is why it is so important that we continue to exclude this pest and keep our protections up to date. There is new information to confirm that cedar is a host of the pine processionary moth, so we have taken early action to ensure that this host is added to the scope of EU legislation on this pest, maintaining the robustness of our import protections. There have been no findings of pine processionary moth since the UK was designated a protected zone and we aim to keep it that way. These are some examples from directive 2019/523 which we intend to and must keep operable after exit.

The instrument also covers other recent EU decisions, most importantly from the UK perspective, to better protect against the emerald ash borer. Decision 2018/1959 suspends an option for the import of ash wood originating in Canada and the United States, which has been assessed as not being complied with reliably. In addition to these changes in EU legislation, the list is being updated to incorporate specific national measures that have been introduced under EU provisions to protect against the rose rosette virus and the oak processionary moth. These national measures reflect our proactive approach to plant health. We are taking timely, robust and technically proportionate actions in response to new risks.

Rose rosette virus is an extremely damaging disease of roses, widespread in the United States and part of Canada—where it has caused devastating impacts—and was found for the first time in India in 2017. The virus affects all roses, and it and its mite vector may be present in both plants and plant parts. Current EU regulations restrict the import of plants for planting from non-European countries to plants that are dormant and free from leaves, flowers and fruit, but this is not sufficient to prevent the entry of this virus.

When this was picked up in our horizon scanning, we worked in partnership with others to develop a Europe-wide risk assessment through the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization. This risk assessment has provided the technical basis to introduce national protections that must continue to be retained in future. It is worth noting that the EU has reviewed the UK national measures and decided to introduce EU-wide protections, which have just been published this month through decision 2019/1739.

Oak processionary moth, native to southern Europe, causes human and animal—as well as plant health—impacts, and the majority of the United Kingdom is designated as a protected zone against this damaging pest. The pest is established in many parts of Europe, and there has been an expansion of its distribution. Following a number of interceptions in the UK this year, we quickly identified that the current import requirements were deficient and took rapid action to strengthen them. In particular by taking national measures, we have removed altogether the option that allows larger oak trees to be imported from open nurseries in areas where OPM is present. This has essentially closed off all imports of such trees from countries such as the Netherlands, where the pest is established. At the same time as strengthening the legislation, the Forestry Commission and the APHA took swift action to eradicate findings in the protected zone, including surveillance, tracing work and the destruction of caterpillars and infested and related trees.

The instrument also amends primary legislation to remove references to EU obligations. These changes have no operational impact but simply remove redundant and inoperable references to EU obligations.

As is customary, we have worked closely and extensively with our devolved counterparts, with Regulation 2 of this instrument applying to Great Britain, Regulation 3 to Northern Ireland and Regulations 4 and 5 to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government are replicating the changes in Regulations 4 and 5 to provide a UK-wide approach. In this area, the way in which we work with the devolved Administrations is not only common sense but absolutely the right way forward. I am pleased that we have that very collaborative approach and will continue to do so.

For the reasons I have outlined and because of some of the examples of the pests we are contending with, I beg to move.

My Lords, I welcome this measure by the Government, because we all find plant health extremely important in this country. As somebody with some small woodlands and gardens, I am conscious of diseases and things that have affected the country.

Presumably the plant health regulation was initially to do with diseases that were not in the EU. I was glad to hear my noble friend the Minister outlining that his department has picked up on diseases already in the EU. We need our own protection to prevent them being brought into this country.

I have just had a quick glance through the paper. The range of plants included is amazing: prunus, apples, roses and oak trees. I see, from the list of diseases the Minister is on the lookout for, that we need very good protection, and I am glad to think that the department is putting in place all this detail.

Most of these are things which we wish to keep out of this country. I just noticed in tidying up the legislation the restated phytophthora ramorum, which we already have in this country and which is causing a bit of damage, although not as much as some of the other diseases going about. We have had a lot of trouble with the other one—phytophthora lateralis—which is attacking ash trees across Scotland. I gather that the Government’s approach is to leave it to work and see whether we have any ash trees that will resist it, which is a fairly low-key, not very active approach. Let us hope that it has some success.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive introduction to this very important matter for the UK. I am grateful to him and his officials for their time in providing a very helpful briefing.

Some of the language in this extensive SI is unfathomable to anyone not steeped in the science. As just one example, Regulation 4(6)(b)(ii) in Part 3 refers to,

“an official statement that it has been squared to entirely remove the natural rounded surface”.

This seemed an absurd statement to me and I am extremely grateful for the explanation that squaring a tree trunk removes the bark, which harbours many pests and diseases. This bark is then chipped or made into sawdust. The SI sets out regulations for how that by-product is to be treated, dependent on the country of origin, before importation, thus avoiding the transfer of disease.

The biosecurity of our native trees, shrubs and plants against pests and diseases is one of the most important aspects of ensuring that our countryside and way of life are preserved into the future. When and if we leave the EU, being confident that imported pot-grown oak trees are free from oak tree moth is vital. The oak tree is such a national icon that it would be devastating if it were to suffer the fate brought by Dutch elm disease and ash dieback. There appear to be a number of processionary moths attacking our trees, as the Minister has said, from oaks through to pines. It will be important to try to ensure that imports come only from areas and countries which are declared protected zones and to import at the time of year when the pests are known to have died off due to temperature or are dormant.

I turn now to cut flowers and pot-grown plants, some of which are seasonal. We are currently approaching the season when hundreds of thousands of poinsettias will appear in nurseries, florists and supermarkets. Some of us may even be given them as gifts. Poinsettias are grown under glass in cold climates, but in the open in warmer areas such as the southern states of the USA. Plants grown under glass are susceptible, as the Minister has said, to tobacco whitefly, which is undetectable to the naked eye. This pest spreads a virus which, if imported, could get into our salad crops, which are also grown in glass-houses. In an age where climate change is high on everyone’s agenda and in which we should be moving towards more self-sufficient, homegrown food production, the protection of salad crops is extremely important.

Another flower import is the cut rose. Most of these come from EU countries or east African countries such as Kenya. All come from protected zones, free from the rose rosette virus, which causes leaf curl and flowers to drop. India and the Americas are not protected zones and have the virus. It is obvious that importing cut flowers from across the world by air is not sustainable and doing little to help with climate change, but buying flowers only in season is a difficult message to get across to the public.

On 14 February and Mother’s Day, vast quantities of roses will be imported, especially long-stemmed red roses. Those coming from protected zones will be flown to airports close to our flower markets, such as the one in Bristol, in my own area. Can the Minister say how many flower markets there are in the UK and whether they receive roses and flowers imported from rose rosette-free zones? I regret that I can envisage a scenario where unscrupulous flower sellers and importers looking to make a quick buck will see the opportunity, especially around 14 February, to buy and import roses from unprotected zones such as Canada, America or India. This could be devastating for one of our country’s national treasures: the English rose. Will the Minister give assurances that there will be measures in place to prevent this happening? Will licences for importation be scrupulously checked around these sensitive dates in our calendar?

While it is very touching to receive a bouquet of red roses on Valentine’s Day, personally I would much rather have a bunch of UK-grown daffodils and tulips. These flowers bring such colour and hope to us all when they start to emerge in the spring, heralding the passing of winter.

Lastly, I understand that in the UK we have 24 protected zones. Will the Minister say where the protected zones are around the country?

This is an extremely important SI which will help protect our trees and plants. I fully support the measures we are debating this afternoon.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his excellent introduction to the regulations before your Lordships’ House this afternoon. I am very grateful to him and his officials at the department for the detailed briefing they organised yesterday. I declare my interest as a farmer in receipt of EU funds.

As the Minister said, these regulations include the latest updates agreed at EU level. I commend his department for taking the lead in EU discussions on protection against the rose rosette virus and extra protection measures against the oak processionary moth. But that begs the question: what mechanisms do the Government envisage are necessary to continue the UK’s influence and the exchange of information should the UK leave the EU? What are the sharing arrangements around biosecurity post EU exit date? Under the withdrawal Bill, will the UK still have access to the surveillance notification systems of the EU? What contingency arrangements are in place in the event of there being no access, which would occur if the UK was so careless as to let a no-deal scenario come to pass? Will the Minister at least assure me that all future updates that the EU may undertake are being carefully monitored?

As the Minister explained, these new regulations follow the latest risk assessments to protect biosecurity while facilitating the exchange, trade and movement of plants and plant material. There are many reasons for such movement, from access to genetic material, research and development and commercial trade to the movement of plants and food for retail to the consumer. The overriding and most important factor is to reduce all risk to biosecurity. I approve these technical amendments as being necessary to ensure that all EU protective measures against the introduction and spread of harmful organisms are in place and effective on any EU exit date.

Controls must take precedence over and above commercial pressures. Nevertheless, the Government must ensure that trade is facilitated within these parameters. For example, one of the measures taken is against tobacco whitefly, which pose risk to greenhouse produce through the supply of poinsettias, which are much in demand at Christmas. The pest is endemic in regions that produce poinsettias. Is the Minister satisfied that the APHA will have the necessary resources available to cope with supply chains sensitive to such dates, whether it be poinsettias for Christmas, roses for Valentine’s Day or flowers generally for Mother’s Day? What contingency arrangements are in place to deal with seasonal spikes in demand?

One of the points of discussion yesterday involved protected zones whereby the UK recognises zones as free of certain risks to enhance exchange with biosecurity. Interestingly, many of these areas are in Ireland. Can the Minister say whether these zones will continue to be recognised and even increased to include areas outside of the EU? Will other defensive measures be taken to restrict areas and entry points? In the canopy of agencies and inspectorates, is the department developing strategies around controlling access to specific entry points, ports or airports, or even restricting trade to disease-dormant limited periods in the calendar, in order to spread not only the load of biosecurity but also the risks of any breaches? Are there any such restrictions in place at the moment and is the noble Lord confident that such controls are working and sufficient?

The oak processionary moth is a case in point. First found in 2006, it has gained a foothold in Greater London, where further imports could lead to an expansion of its range. OPM caterpillars have been recently identified on trees from the Netherlands.

At present, the EU plant health directives require checks on material imported from third countries at the point of entry into the EU. However, following EU exit, is it correct that such material from other third countries would be allowed to enter and pass through the EU on their way to the UK without any checks at any EU border, which could then lead to some oversight risks and confusion? Does the Minister share the concern that such material will no longer be checked and inspected until it has arrived within the UK?

Among the discussions yesterday was the issue of harmful organisms through wood originating in Canada and the US. The regulations make specific references to necessary paring down of the timber to exclude bark and therefore dust and offcuts. Can the Minister confirm that APHA’s responsibilities cross over to include monitoring the sustainability of woodchip imported as part of the supply chain for biomass plants? Is he confident that measures are in place through export certificates and APHA registration to ensure frictionless trade, not only into the UK but exports, following future growth and prosperity in the sector concerned? Is he confident that future tariff arrangements will not jeopardise trade?

Turning to the devolved Administrations, as mentioned by the Minister, given the sensitivities around the union at the moment, are there any measures the Government could undertake to minimise any possible risk of divergence in the future? It is recognised that, to date, the communication between the devolved Administrations has been excellent and has produced consistency between them.

On the issue of any future policy proposals for a different plant health regime once the UK leaves the EU, can the Minister give the House any indication of whether and how this may differ from that of the EU and when any proposals may come forward?

Your Lordships’ EU Committee’s report Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity advised that the best way to maintain the free flow of goods is for the UK to remain aligned with the EU’s biosecurity policy and regulation, even if the UK’s influence were to diminish. Any deviation in standards or practice would result in the EU insisting on additional checks for conformity for UK products to maintain the integrity of its market. In addition, any more stringent measures the UK might determine would, by their very nature, restrict the movement of goods across UK/EU borders. Has the Minister any initial proposals on how to balance any conflicts this may bring between international trade and strong biosecurity arrangements?

I thank the noble Lord for taking us through so many of the examples in the regulations today and, with appropriate assurances and explanations, I am happy to approve them.

My Lords, it may answer some of the general points that the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, raised if I start by saying that protecting biosecurity is of supreme importance, not only to the Government but to the arrangements in this country. We are still free of very damaging pests, and we wish to remain so. We are undertaking research, which is the perhaps for another time, but some of the research on tree health and so forth will be tremendously important to us.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, spoke about trade. Clearly it is important to facilitate the importation and movement of plant material, but it must be done in a biosecure way. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to material that is homegrown, and to seasonality. These are areas which we should think of more as consumers. I think that growing trees, shrubs, plants or flowers in Britain for environmental reasons, and for seasonality in the case of cut flowers, is the best and I actively encourage it.

My noble friend the Duke of Montrose referred to UK measures and the protections we have. We have had very good relationships with our European friends and partners. The Chief Plant Health Officer often gives a lead on these matters. On the real worry of Xylella fastidiosa, which has decimated the olive groves in southern Italy and is in other places, this country has been instrumental in driving stronger legislation which now applies across the EU for certain high-risk hosts. We are working very closely with the Horticultural Trades Association and the National Farmers’ Union to ensure there is guidance on Xylella to encourage good practice when sourcing plants. Work is going on in the Horticultural Trades Association on assurance schemes and on ensuring that when people buy British plants and trees they come with a high provenance. These are areas which we should work on.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, I read the SI and came across squarings and roundings. Many of the pests that we have reflected on in this debate, and others, are in the bark. That is why we need to have wood square for inspection so that there is no bark, which is one of the major sources and pathways for disease. Like her, I sometimes find statutory instruments impenetrable, so I always go to the Explanatory Memorandum first. I assure her that the regulations may be convoluted to us but they are very well understood by those who need to ensure that they are compliant.

The noble Baroness also mentioned oak. We have set up Action Oak and are doing research work with great institutions and universities to see what we can do to counter the travails of our wonderful, iconic national tree. If we are to import, we clearly must ensure that imports are pest-free.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to cut flowers. I spent a day working with the inspectors at Heathrow, because a lot of our cut flowers come through it. If I have any further detail about other sources—I am mindful of her reference to Bristol—I will let her know. There is strong inspection of flowers coming in from non-EU sources, and there is the facility at Heathrow which I visited. However, she is right about cut flowers. We are taking these measures because of the rose rosette virus, of which we need to be very mindful. We have a specific risk and horizon-scanning team in Defra that monitors evidence and information, which, along with intelligence from the APHA inspectors on the ground, is fed through monthly in an attempt to identify and respond to new threats. She is also right about vertical salad food production and that whole area of innovation. Clearly, we need to be extremely vigorous in stopping the arrival of the tobacco whitefly.

On the regulation of pests and diseases and their impact on food production, we already have measures in place to protect important food crops such as potatoes and cereals. This instrument includes provisions that strengthen protection against certain pests that affect important food crops. As we have mentioned, the tobacco whitefly can spread viruses to salad crops, and the potato psyllid can spread a bacterium that causes zebra chip disease in potatoes. That, again, is an area where we have been instrumental in pressing for strengthened measures to protect our food crops.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right about peak dates such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day. The Netherlands is a prime source of flowers from the EU. East Africa is another source, and that is where most of the non-EU flowers and plants that are inspected as they are flown in come from. I have seen the inspections and can report that they are very effective. Timber inspection is carried out at many arrival points, and Heathrow, London Gateway, Felixstowe, Dover, Southampton, Liverpool, Humber and Teesport are all areas where we receive goods of which we need to be watchful.

The protected zone is an EU concept, and the UK is the most prolific user of the protected zone scheme. When we leave, these designations will no longer apply but we will maintain the same protections through our list of regulated pests and import and movement requirements. We will redesignate protected zones that apply only to certain parts of the UK as pest-free areas, in line with international standards. This applies mainly to protected zones currently in force in Northern Ireland. We will of course keep under review the need to introduce new pest-free areas in the future. I have a list of them and it might facilitate better understanding if I circulate a map and a list—that might help to bring the picture alive.

We obviously hope that we will be able to negotiate successfully with the EU on third-country access to the EU notification system, not only because that would be in our interests but because, candidly, as I hope I have outlined, this is an area where the UK has made a major contribution in seeking to enhance biosecurity both here and within the EU. I very much hope that this will be an area where mutual working can continue, as pests and diseases do not respect borders or even the 22 miles of the channel. All EU systems have publicly available elements that we will be able to access, although we have of course developed fallback positions should we lose access. As I said, this is an area where it is common sense for us to collaborate.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to the importance of recruiting inspectors. At the end of October, APHA will have recruited a further 107 full-time equivalents as PHSI inspectors and administrative staff. APHA is reviewing operational procedures to mitigate any resourcing and ensure that all services are delivered as and when required, as I said.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about our overall protection from plant pest threats. One of the great things that I have discovered as Biosecurity Minister is that we have a monthly biosecurity meeting with all the top officials, experts and scientists. One of the key features of that is horizon scanning all around the world. I have a list of every conceivable animal and plant disease along with their profiles and information on whether they are increasing, holding their own or reducing. This is an important element of our ensuring that the threats are kept at bay.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred, for example, to woodchip particles. The regulations apply whether the material is intended for manufacturing, amenity use or industrial power. That is why it is important to regulate all possible pathways by which a pest can be introduced, whether via plants, timber, woodchips or bark.

Another issue mentioned by the noble Lord brings me to my final point. I have outlined, adequately I hope, that the Government are absolutely staunch on the issues of plant and tree health, investment and research, at both commercial and public level. Our policies on plant health EU exit instruments are risk-based and proportionate; that is clearly how we want to do things from day one but we will be considering anything that comes forward from the EU. It is important, since we have often been a leader, that we continue this collaboration. If, indeed, there were any new decisions from the EU on things that we had not already done and need to do—although I hope that we would already have done them—I can assure your Lordships that this is an area where, through Defra, the Food Standards Agency, APHA, and all the agencies, we have a prime responsibility to keep our country safe.

I will look at Hansard because there may be other distinctions, but I hope that I have explained why this instrument is important for us as part of our biosecurity regime.

Motion agreed.