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EU: Xylella Fastidiosa

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the European Union about the Government’s plans to prevent the importation of Xylella fastidiosa.

My Lords, in April, Defra introduced national measures imposing stringent import requirements to protect the UK from Xylella fastidiosa. The Commission reviewed the measures and, in June, published legislation requiring their revocation. We disagree with the EU’s conclusions. The biosecurity threat from Xylella fastidiosa remains, and therefore the reason for introducing national measures has not changed. To mitigate this, we are increasing our surveillance and industry engagement, and will keep the need for further actions under review.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree with me that it is quite outrageous for the EU Commission to bully us in this way, given the gravity of the situation? Xylella fastidiosa is now present in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal and on plants that have been traded in Germany and Belgium. It will have a devastating effect on our trees and shrubs if we fail to keep it out. Will the Minister please do all he can to reverse this decision and allow us, as an island, to protect our trees and shrubs? If this proves impossible, will he make this the number one issue in Defra’s in-tray on the day that we finally leave the European Union?

My Lords, this is a priority. We have intensified our surveillance, inspection and testing regime for high-risk plants. We feel very strongly about this. The Secretary of State has written to Commissioner Kyriakides, and the Chief Plant Health Officer has written to the director of DG SANTE, because we think that this is a mistake and that the EU should be very concerned about the spread of Xylella fastidiosa into other parts of the EU. We are determined to exclude it from this country; that is a priority.

Since we joined the EEC, most plant pests, animal diseases and invasive species discovered in the UK had established themselves first in mainland Europe. Consistently working with our European neighbours, we have been able to benefit from early warning of imminent threats and from guidance on the best management tools. Changing trade patterns under Brexit may result in the UK changing from an overall recipient to a donor of emerging biological threats of concern in Europe. How, and how well, are we prepared for that scenario?

My Lords, we have increased investment in surveillance and inspection precisely for that reason. The United Kingdom has more protected zones for plant pests and diseases than any EU country. We are determined to enhance our environment, and clearly our future arrangements for sanitary and phytosanitary measures post the end of the transition period will be important as we increase biosecurity.

My Lords, the effects of Xylella fastidiosa on our native trees and plants, including oak, plane and sycamore, could be disastrous. The Government have put in place stringent measures in an attempt to prevent the importation of the disease, often carried by the common froghopper. The Minister has given reassurances that these measures will not be weakened, despite pressure from the EU to do the opposite and allow some of its possibly infected olive and almond trees to be imported. Will the Minister say how long the UK can hold out against this pressure?

My Lords, the reason we have intensified our surveillance, inspection and testing regime is to make it absolutely clear that we are not changing our position. The EU has a different starting position with Xylella fastidiosa and canker stain of plane. They are already present in parts of the EU territory, whereas exclusion remains our priority. I assure the noble Baroness that we are absolutely determined to continue to ensure that this country is secure.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a friend of Kew Gardens and a supporter of the national seed bank at Wakehurst Place. I congratulate the Government on what they are doing on this matter, but I remind noble Lords that Xylella fastidiosa is endemic in America and arrived in Europe only in 2013. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to speak to his friends in the Department for International Trade to guarantee that this infection, and ceratocystis platani, which is threatening us as well, are a matter of concern in any international trade discussions with the United States of America that may be forthcoming following our leaving the European Union?

My Lords, we have arrangements with the EU and with the rest of the world, and we are absolutely clear that biosecurity will never be weakened. We will do all that we can on a range of issues, and in the case of Xylella fastidiosa our objective is to keep it out of this country. It is moving in the EU, but it comes from elsewhere. As the Minister for Kew, I am very clear that scientists will work together to ensure that we conquer as many of these diseases as possible.

My Lords, what plans do the Government have to introduce country of origin labelling on imported plants and trees, together with the vital dissemination of information on relevant diseases to UK nurseries and distributers?

My Lords, this is why I am very pleased that the UK Plant Health Alliance steering group is working on a plant health assurance scheme. Working with the industry, the scheme will ensure that there is a secure supply where we cannot supply it ourselves, and that those plant materials are secure. Further, members of the public who want to enjoy their gardens will know that the plants they are buying are healthy. This is a work in progress, but a lot is going on.

My Lords, it has been four years since the referendum, but the Environment Bill is still not on the statute book. Given the delays, can the Minister assure us that the office for environmental protection will be fully functioning and able to take over the role of the European Commission on 1 January 2021?

My Lords, I realise that there is great interest in this House in the Environment Bill, and I am keen that progress is made in the other place. We are in a situation where there is a great deal of legislation before us. The OEP is an important body, but we have always said that we will ensure that there are alternative arrangements if, given the position we are in, the OEP is not up and running by 1 January.

My Lords, this makes a change from Japanese knotweed. Can the Minister tell us how, when plants are imported into this country, they are being checked? How do the Government and the country know whether or not this pathogen is being imported? Is the problem importing plants which are affected by the bacterium, or do the insects have to be accompanying them?

My Lords, we are intensifying this through APHA inspections, sampling and testing. The statutory notification scheme for olive, almond and plane trees means that imports can be traced to premises and inspections can be carried out. For other plant species, such as lavender, risk-based visits are carried out to inspect and sample plants, focusing particularly on recent imports. A lot of scientific work is going on into Xylella fastidiosa, because not all the answers are known. One thing we are most concerned about, and which the EU has not yet acted on following EFSA’s report, is it jumping further distances; we are extremely concerned about that.

I have seen all too closely at first hand the devastating worries over ash dieback, so my noble friend has my fullest support in ensuring that we maintain the tightest possible border biosecurity controls, otherwise the risk is quite clear: if there is a relaxation, as is suggested in Europe, it could be quite catastrophic. I hope the positive statements he has made will be carried steadily forward and maintained in the most effective way.

My Lords, that is why I am again very pleased that science is helping us with ash dieback. We now have an archive of tolerant ash trees so that we can bring forward successors that will be tolerant to ash dieback. We are emphatic that we must protect the United Kingdom.

My Lords, that is why we are improving Grown in Britain and working with nurseries. Yes, we want to have trade but it needs to be safe. That is why we are working with the industry, because we think that there are alternatives.