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Plant Health and Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Plant Health and Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

My Lords, the Plant Health and Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment) Regulations 2022 were laid before the House on 19 December 2022. Protecting our biosecurity is of paramount importance to addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis. By correcting deficiencies that have arisen from EU exit, this instrument ensures the effective operation of the biosecurity regime in Great Britain. The instrument makes amendments to plant and animal health legislation and, while the provisions in the instrument are merely technical amendments and not a change in policy, I must emphasise that the instrument is urgent.

In recent months, an outbreak of a plant disease near the Wales-England border highlighted an unknown gap in the legislation. This gap prevents the authority in one territory of Great Britain from establishing a demarcated area, based on the findings of a pest or disease in another territory. A rapid solution was needed to ensure that the legislation continued to allow effective action against this disease. Additionally, the withdrawal Act powers required to make changes in this instrument were due to sunset on 31 December 2022. We needed to address the identified deficiency before that date.

On the details of this instrument, these regulations correct the deficiency identified by allowing authorities to implement demarcated areas after a pest outbreak in another territory. They do this by making the following changes. First, they ensure that all relevant pests are included in the legislation for the application of demarcated areas. They also allow authorities in Great Britain to co-operate with one another in demarcating areas affected by certain plant pests. Authorities are then permitted to take measures in their own territory to control the spread of plant pests from a neighbouring territory. For example, a demarcated area could be established, and a restriction put in place on the movement of potentially infected material.

Amendments are additionally made to domestic legislation in, respectively, England, Scotland and Wales to allow notices to be served to establish demarcated areas in these instances. Given the urgency of this instrument, Scottish and Welsh government Ministers have formally consented for amendments to be made on their behalf.

Finally, this instrument corrects errors from earlier instruments made under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018; these amendments have been deemed non-urgent. The corrections include amending a retained EU decision to ensure that certain potato commodities from some regions of Lebanon meet stringent entry requirements.

An animal health instrument is also corrected to ensure the transfer of functions from the EU Commission to the appropriate authority in Great Britain. This will give the appropriate authority the power to change or establish specific rules on the imports of equine animals from third countries.

I am pleased to state that the devolved Administrations have given their consent for these regulations to extend across Great Britain, with some exceptions. Regulation 3 applies to England only, Regulation 4 applies to Scotland only, Regulations 5 and 6 apply to Wales only, and Regulation 8 applies to England and Scotland only.

As I stated previously to your Lordships, this instrument is urgent. As a result, these regulations came into force on 20 December 2022, except for the non-urgent provisions, which will come into force after the approval period for this instrument has ended.

In conclusion, I emphasise that these regulations ensure that effective biosecurity controls are in operation within Great Britain. They also enable co-ordinated action between territories within Great Britain to best manage the outbreaks of certain pests. I hope noble Lords will support these measures and their objectives. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for introducing these regulations, which I broadly support. I have just a couple of points of interest.

I know my noble friend has visited—sometime last year, I think—Fera, based at Sand Hutton near York, which used to be in my constituency. I take this opportunity to praise it for the work it does. Presumably it will have a role to play in identifying any pest and the danger it might hold.

I would like to focus on the position of the Lebanese potatoes to which my noble friend referred. I think the regulations call for demarcation and for controls to be taken at the point of entry. On paragraph 7.9 of the Explanatory Memorandum, I sympathise with the department for the errors it has made and welcome this opportunity to correct them. It begs the question: if we are transposing these regulations into UK law, will they be subject to the retained EU law Bill? Will we ask Defra to lift them? I would be interested to know why we are being asked to look at them this afternoon if they are to be reversed later this year.

I know that it is a slightly separate issue, but it is very difficult to follow the retained EU legislation from looking at the dashboard. Defra does not appear in alphabetical order but has just shy of 1,800 regulations. I know that we in both Houses were involved in transposing these regulations into UK law, but Defra bore the brunt of the 2,700 or 4,000 regulations. I thank the officials for the work they did over a very intensive programme.

Paragraph 7.9 refers to ensuring

“that potatoes from certain regions of Lebanon meet stringent entry requirements.”

Did the checks take place at the port of entry? What is the normal entry route for these Lebanese potatoes? Do they come directly from Lebanon or through the EU? That is my first point of information. If they come through the EU, which is a strong possibility, I draw attention to the concern that the Food Standards Agency raised in its most recent annual report, Our Food 2021: An Annual Review of Food Standards Across the UK, which states at paragraph 8 on page 13:

“The UK Government recently announced that full import controls for goods coming from the EU to Great Britain would be further delayed and replaced by a modernised approach to border controls by the end of 2023.”

I am trying to understand whether that really is the case. If it is, it will put a huge onus of responsibility on local authorities. For information, I would like to know where the entry and route into this country is.

I also raise a question my right honourable friend Kit Malthouse asked in the other place. Ash dieback has taken hold of the country. I think my noble friend will confirm that we have ended the practice of exporting ash seeds and reimporting young saplings into this country from regions such as Denmark and Poland, in which ash dieback is rife. Kit Malthouse asked about ash dieback on Wednesday 25 January when this instrument was debated in the other place. It again begs the question: where are ash trees, whether saplings of bigger trees, being imported to? Where do the checks take place? That is crucial to ensuring that any diseased trees among these imports are taken at a very early stage.

I commend these regulations because there is an animal or plant scare or scandal roughly every 10 years. I think of BSE, foot and mouth, horsegate and, this year and last year, avian flu. The regulations provide the department with the tools it needs, but I have raised concerns that I hope my noble friend will address.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the rationale for this statutory instrument so clearly. It apparently addresses failures of retained EU law to operate effectively following Brexit. It also corrects some errors in previous SIs, including ensuring that potatoes from Lebanon meet stringent entry conditions. Perhaps the Minister can say whether potatoes from Lebanon were entering the country without being properly monitored before this SI was laid.

Corrections are also needed to the Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment and Legislative Functions) Regulations 2022, or the TARP (ALF) as they are called. These ensure the transfer of functions from the EU to appropriate GB authorities, with a change to establish specific rules on imports of equine animals from third countries. Corrections in Regulation 7 in part 2 of the instrument before us deal with the import of potatoes, while Regulation 8 in part 3 deals with the errors in TARP (ALF).

The main body of this instrument deals with plant pests and relates to the devolved Administrations, with Regulation 6 dealing with Wales being in Welsh. These regulations deal with plant health and genetically modified organisms, allowing for the setting-up of demarcation areas on the borders between Wales and England, and between England and Scotland, all to help control the spread of pests. It is important to have demarcation areas on the borders with the devolved Administrations so that territories can be protected from pests and plant disease, outbreaks of which need to be dealt with quickly and effectively. Ensuring co-operation between the devolved Administrations to control outbreaks is vital.

The Explanatory Memorandum refers in paragraph 3.3 to an

“outbreak of a certain pest near the Wales/England border”.

This has flagged up the need to ensure that legislation is corrected to allow for outbreaks of pests to be controlled. I hope that the Committee will forgive my pronunciation in the next part. I understand that this pest is Phytophthora pluvialis, which was first seen in Cornwall in September 2021 and attacks the bark on trees. There are currently six demarcated areas in place in England: Devon and Cornwall, Cumbria, Herefordshire, Surrey, Gloucestershire, and Shropshire, so it would appear to be spreading. Does the Minister think that the measures in this instrument will contain the spread and help save trees in other rural areas, or will more stringent measures be needed to control the spread?

I have looked at photos of the effect of this disease, and it is certainly extremely unpleasant, but until I read this instrument and asked what the pest outbreak on the border between Wales and England was, I had no idea that it had acquired a toehold in England. Perhaps I am the only one and everybody else knows about it. It appears to have spread fairly rapidly over the ensuing 17 months since it was first identified in Cornwall. The Forestry Commission has lifted its original restrictions on the movement of wood, isolated bark and trees affected by this virus. This has been replaced with restrictions on plants for planting within demarcated areas. Can the Minister say whether he feels these restrictions are sufficient to contain the spread of the disease within the current demarcation areas?

I realise that this SI deals with a broad-brush approach to plant health and puts in place legal measures to ensure plants and animal products are protected. However, it provides us with an opportunity to have a debate, albeit somewhat curtailed, on the effects on our trees, which are under attack from all quarters through disease and need constant protection. I support this SI, which is really important, and look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I confirm that we also support the SI and note that the Minister said it is urgent. Our main concern, however, comes from the fact that the 18th report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has once again drawn the attention of both Houses of Parliament to our having a defectively drafted SI in front of us, so we are once again tidying up some mistakes that have come through from previous instruments.

Section 3 of the Explanatory Memorandum notes that the instrument corrects various errors in bits of retained EU law and cites a previous JCSI report. Our concern is really: what is Defra’s resource, since this seems to happen time and again? Are there concerns about the level of resources Defra has to deliver well-drafted SIs? We know that the department will have to accurately review all retained EU law by the end of this year, as envisaged by the retained EU law Bill, so it would be good to have confidence in its resources and ability to do this without errors.

Other noble Lords have talked about paragraph 3.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which refers to the pest outbreak on the Wales/England border. The Minister knows of my concern about trees, ash dieback and the terrible impact of larches being felled; I have mentioned it before. It would be helpful to understand the reaction to this outbreak. What work is being undertaken to ensure that these kinds of outbreaks are brought under control? As we continue to debate EU law, what powers are needed to ensure that we do not have constant new pest outbreaks in this country? The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about ash seeds. It would also be useful to have clarification about this.

Section 7 of the Explanatory Memorandum talks about how previous amendments to retained EU law failed to provide for the new demarcated area system. I would be interested if the Minister could go into a bit more detail on the policy background. I am trying to ascertain whether this would have been possible under the original regulation before it was amended to take account of our departure from EU, or has the power not existed previously? I am trying to understand that better.

I will not go into detail about the Lebanon potatoes. Other noble Lords talked about that.

I appreciate that many of the SIs which Defra has had to deal with following our departure from the EU, of which there are a very large number, are really complicated. I do not want to undermine the officials’ confidence, because I know that there has been an enormous amount of work involved. We have the REUL Bill coming forward. It is important for us to be confident that the Minister and his officials have the resources and ability to function properly in all the work that they have to do.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. They have raised some very good and important points. I will start by addressing those raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh and emphasised by other noble Lords about the risks we face.

At the moment, the main areas of concern which come up at my regular biosecurity meetings with the Defra group include Phytophthora pluvialis. This is an emerging concern. Phytophthora ramorum has been here a little longer. My noble friend mentioned ash dieback, which continues to be a real concern. I see a glimmer of hope there, but I do not want to raise expectations. The horrendous way in which it galloped through our woodlands in recent years seems to have slowed a little. This may be for a variety of reasons. We are working hard to find resistant strains. I recently visited a Forestry Commission site, where we have taken plants from the most resistant species in the eastern areas of England where the disease first hit landfall. We are trying to develop a real understanding of what makes certain ash trees more resistant than others. You can find a relatively healthy tree standing next to one that is practically dead. We are trying to understand the genetics and pathology of this really serious problem in our landscape. We are dealing with a number of different agencies. Fera certainly has a part to play.

We have just published our biosecurity strategy for Great Britain for the next five years. It has been a comprehensive, collaborative piece of work with devolved Governments and a variety of stakeholders across the piece. I think it is one of the most impressive biosecurity strategies you can find anywhere in the world. As I have said in other fora, we can no longer rely on the fact that we are an island. We have to consider ourselves just as much at risk as countries that share land borders in Europe. The globalised economy is moving plant and animal diseases at alarming rates. If there is one that keeps me awake at night it is Xylella, which is absolutely devastating in parts of southern Europe and is moving north.

Of all the plants sold in this country from nurseries, 92% come from overseas. We have to be absolutely clear that we are promoting homegrown products. Our Plant Healthy strategy, which really tackles this, and Grown in Britain—another really good initiative that the Government support—are supporting nurseries to produce more homegrown products. Where they are imported, we are making absolutely sure that they come here in a way that is safe.

My noble friend asked about the Lebanon issue. Changes are being made to specify the relevant labels that should be in English and reference the relevant testing standards that we felt were omitted. These amendments are merely technical. Certain official controls are inserted in one of the intermediate stages of testing for the pest potato ring rot. It is a very small volume of trade—only 20 kilograms have come from Lebanon since 2018—but sometimes a very small amount is all you need to create a massive problem.

A number of issues were raised around the retained EU law Bill. I want to make absolutely clear that our default position is to retain. In no way can we hit our targets for reversing the declines of species, or meet our international commitments and our determination to see our seas and oceans recover to health and many other commitments to support nature and biodiversity, if we just dump regulations that we need. What we need is good regulations, and that is what industry wants—it does not want a bonfire of regulation that could see the wrong kind of people prosper.

I was talking to the Horticultural Trades Association conference this morning, making the point that we really value good, responsible businesses and see them as a key partner, because they are the connection with the customer. There are 30 million gardeners and a great many professional growers, and we need to know that what they are getting is safe and secure and will not pass on diseases in this country. That is a key part of our determined effort to create a proper regulatory regime.

Noble Lords are right: the dashboard has been amended. A great many of the nearly 1,800 regulations that exist for Defra will be retained. A great many of them have nothing to do with the United Kingdom whatever; they are about the export of olives, or relationships between certain countries and their fishing arrangements with other third countries, and have no relevance to the United Kingdom at all. They will obviously go. A number can be reformed and made better, and we see this as an opportunity to do that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, rightly questioned us about our resources. In this Parliament, we have had a Fisheries Act, an Agriculture Act, an Environment Act, a sentience Act, a gene technology Bill, soon to become an Act—and a great many provisions that lie within those Acts have been debated in this Room—and other pieces of legislation. So, yes, we have been running hot in terms of legislation. I would not be so arrogant as to try to pretend we always get this right. Sometimes we need to tweak regulations, and that is what we are doing today, but we need to tweak them for a very good purpose.

On containing Phytophthora pluvialis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, it started in the south-west. There is a depressing map showing it creeping up the temperate west of Great Britain, parts of the Welsh/English border and up into the north-west of England. We want to make sure we are doing everything to contain it. The people from the Forestry Commission who are doing this are remarkable. They are also tackling other diseases, such as oak processionary moth and ash dieback, as I have already talked about. Ips typographus, which has blown in from Europe into the south-east, is particularly devastating for spruce plantations. We are basically trying to eradicate every spruce tree in the south-east of England to make sure there is no foothold from which it can move to other parts of the country.

It feels at times like a war: I spend a lot of time looking at a map and seeing the enemy, in various forms, approaching. The ability of our scientists, agencies and civil servants who help me with these issues is breathtakingly impressive, but these diseases present a growing problem in an age where the climate and people’s habits are changing, with their ability to move around the world. That great British tradition of going abroad, seeing a cutting or plant and putting it in your suitcase has to end—we need to stop that wonderful thing that my mother always did, but must no longer do, because we do not know what we are bringing in. I would like to see an Australian-style culture of biosecurity in this country. We are moving very fast to try to weaponise society in this great endeavour, not just government. It is crucial that we involve other people.

Statutory instruments go through multiple rounds of checks ahead of laying. However, the drafting of the EU exit SIs has proved challenging to the department due to the pressures on legal and policy resources and the complexity of some provisions. It is the department’s intention to correct errors at the earliest opportunity to ensure we have a fully operable SPS regime in place.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about ash imports. There are strong import controls on ash trees and ash wood to reduce the risk of introduction through trade, and a pre-notification of firewood imports. Why are we importing firewood? I was in the Alice Holt laboratory the other day looking at a piece of firewood that had come from eastern Europe. We have a lot of degraded woodland in this country that we need to bring into management, which will be good for our biodiversity and our domestic industry. We are doing a lot to try to encourage homegrown industries so that we do not import firewood. Where we do, we have the strongest measures in place to prevent the risk of any diseases coming into this country. The emerald ash borer is known to occur in some of these species. We want to make sure that we stop them at the border.

My noble friend also asked about checks at the point of entry. We have increased the number of inspectors, in line with the increase in checks we are demanding. Our Animal and Plant Health Agency’s services will see 137 new inspectors, who have already been recruited and performing checks. They will perform a lot of those checks at our new purpose-built BCPs—our border control posts.

At the moment, the checks are at the point of arrival. Many of the nurseries I have visited are incredibly professional and are helping with that. The plant health inspectors are good at spotting a problem and ruthless in dealing with it when one arrives—sometimes at great cost to the company. We want to try to stop these diseases before they get here by digitalised certification and, when they do get here, at the border control posts. We are shortly going to announce the rollout of our targeted operating model, which will see these measures come into place. I am spending a lot of time talking to ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations to make sure that we are working with them. Like nature, diseases know no boundaries. We want to make sure that we are working across Great Britain, and where possible across the United Kingdom, to try to prevent them.

Intensive surveillance, diagnostics and research are being carried out to understand more about Phytophthora pluvialis. This includes extensive UK-wide aerial surveillance, including a ground survey of more than 1,900 sites across Great Britain and comprehensive research modelling to explore factors such as climatic suitability and species susceptibility to inform the management response. In October we published a pest risk analysis assessing the risk posed by Phytophthora pluvialis.

That covers most of the points. I would like to reassure the noble Baroness that while we are running hot on a number of fronts, we are also getting it right most of the time. The vast majority of measures that we bring before your Lordships are properly thought through. The teams involved take them through an exhaustive process of checks to make sure that they are doing what they say.

My eyes should roll when I hear reference to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which the noble Baroness sits on, because time is the monkey on my back, but I applaud it for what it does. Its job is to make sure that secondary legislation works, and we get that right in the high 90s, percentage-wise, of the time. Where the committee pulls us up on something, we try to correct it. If we think it has got it wrong we will sometimes point that out, but that is very rare. I appreciate that the committee is an important part of this process.

I hope I have answered your Lordships’ questions and that all noble Lords share my conviction of the need for this instrument. Pests and diseases do not acknowledge country borders and can spread to any suitable wider environment. As I have outlined, this instrument makes technical operability changes to ensure that effective biosecurity controls are in place within Great Britain. These amendments are crucial for taking effective co-ordinated action between the devolved Administrations to deliver biosecurity and protect the environment of Great Britain in the future. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.