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Biosecurity and Infectious Diseases

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 18 January 2024

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of biosecurity, and the threat of infectious diseases for human, animal and plant health, in an age of globalisation and climate change.

My Lords, after that I think I had better get a move on. First, it is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the House and his new role; I wish him well and look forward to working with him. This is a major topic, so it is something of a baptism, but I hope fire will not be involved. I also thank all those who put their names down to speak; I am very grateful indeed. Finally, I draw attention to my declarations in the register.

In 1624, when John Donne wrote

“No man is an island …

Every man is …

A part of the main”,

he could not have imagined how prophetic that might be—although perhaps not in the way he intended. The movement of humans, animals and plants, and of animal and plant products, is now at a speed and scale that John Donne could not have imagined. We now exist in a global village, potentially shared with global pathogens. In 2001, the then director-general of the WHO, Gro Brundtland, commented rather less poetically than John Donne that

“with globalization, a single microbial sea washes all of humankind”.

Of course, the same is true for animals and plants.

This debate has a very broad scope, including human, animal and plant infections, and that is deliberate, in view of the interrelatedness of many of the issues, as recognised in the One Health concept. This debate is about biosecurity in the United Kingdom, so it concerns the threat of geographic spread of pathogens and pests to the UK and also of their potential establishment in the UK. The former can be very serious, even without the possibility of the latter, but if both conditions are met—spread, incursion and sustained transmission, as in Covid-19, foot and mouth and ash dieback—the consequences can be catastrophic.

Climate change is one driver of changes in infectious disease geography. A major recent review concluded that over half of infectious diseases of humans can be aggravated by climatic hazards. This is particularly relevant not only to the spread of pathogens but to their establishment as transmitted infections in new locations if vectors such as insects and ticks are involved.

While some pathogens are spread by the movement of free-living wildlife or invertebrate vectors such as insects, most human, animal and plant pathogens are spread by human-mediated transport, which means that they can travel vast distances in very short times—frequently shorter than the time it takes for their signs and symptoms to become apparent, which is very significant. The scale of global movements is now huge. In 2022, 224 million passengers passed through UK airports. In 2021, we imported food from 161 of the 195 recognised countries in the world. In 2022, we imported 18.6 million forest trees. Animal products can be in the UK in less than 12 hours from countries such as Mexico or Thailand.

A good example of the effect of host movement and infection spread to the UK is with respect to dogs and dog pathogens since the abolition of quarantine for rabies control and its replacement with rabies vaccination in 2000. This has had the effect of vastly increasing the number of dogs coming into the UK every year from around 5,000, which had previously spent six months in quarantine, to now in excess of 300,000 arriving within a matter of hours. We are fortunate that this has not yet resulted in any epidemic disease in dogs, but we have seen an accumulation of novel, previously exotic infections in our UK dog population. The latest of these is Brucella canis, a bacterial infection that is transmissible dog to dog but is also zoonotic—that is, transmissible to humans—which is a matter of particular concern.

With regard to plants, the effect of imported tree pathogens has been particularly devastating. A whole generation of British children has grown up who have not seen a full-grown elm tree, as a result of the ravages of Dutch elm disease, imported with elm products from Canada in the 1960s. This has been followed by the import of ash dieback disease affecting ash trees, which it has been estimated will cost us something like £15 billion to clean up and deal with.

Finally, with regard to human health, a number of infections are regularly reported in immigrant communities, such as malaria and TB, which fortunately do not spread easily in the UK, but some infections, of course, particularly respiratory viruses such as the virus causing Covid-19 and flu viruses, can spread rapidly from travellers to the resident population, with devastating consequences.

What of current threats? With apologies to Donald Rumsfeld, there are infections we have had in the past and might have again in the future, such as foot and mouth disease, which might be regarded as the known knowns. There are also infections that we have not experienced in the UK but which we are aware of and recognise that they present a new threat. African swine fever in pigs is a good animal example—perhaps a known unknown. Of course, there are unknown unknowns: infections yet to emerge from wildlife or plants, or newly evolved drug-resistant pathogens, escapees from laboratory research or creations of bioterrorism.

In humans, a major disease risk yet to reach the UK is the mosquito-transmitted dengue fever virus. This has spread north and west in continental Europe—from eight to 13 countries just in the last 10 years—and has caused locally acquired infections in the Paris region: as close to the UK as that. Transmission in the UK would require its mosquito vector to be established, but conditions are already favourable in the south—for example, around London.

In animals, avian influenza is a major current problem. That presents particular biosecurity challenges since it is introduced into our domestic and wild bird populations by migrating birds. African swine fever, which I have already mentioned, is a disease that has been expanding its range in continental Europe. It is carried by wild boars and causes serious disease in domestic pigs. It survives in meat products for many weeks, or even months, so there is a very real threat of its introduction to the UK through the 1 million tonnes of pigmeat we import annually, the vast majority of which comes from Europe.

In plants, our ambitious goals for the reforestation of the UK, which include planting 30,000 hectares of new woodland annually, are threatened by a host of tree pathogens that could spread to the UK. We risk losing more trees than we can possibly plant. For example, in 2020-21, more than 1,300 hectares of larch trees had to be felled in Wales to control a pathogen causing severe larch dieback. That was more than twice the area of new larch tree planting that year.

What is being done about these risks? The Government are to be congratulated on publishing the UK Biological Security Strategy in 2023. What progress has been made in enacting the commitments made by the Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, in the other place in June 2023? Other developments have included the replacement of Public Health England with the UK Health Security Agency. A number of other different organisations and academic groups have been established or have evolved in response to biosecurity challenges. Time forbids me to mention these in detail.

Ironically, while, after Brexit, we now have the legal ability to regulate importations from continental Europe, we have not yet fully used those powers, although our proximity to Europe and our still substantial trade links mean that it is a likely source of a number of animal and plant pathogens. For example, there has been a recent outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in humans in the UK as a result of the importation of infected poultry products from Poland. This emphasises the importance of the new import inspection capability—the so-called border target operating model, or BTOM, which has been much delayed. Can the Minister say when BTOM will be working at full capability and with adequate human resources, especially of veterinary surgeons?

Given the scale of the surveillance challenge regarding imported goods or the movement of live humans, animals and plants into the UK, it will be essential to harness and further develop modern technologies for detecting pathogens and identifying high-risk situations. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to support and encourage research and development of high-throughput, high-technology biosurveillance tools to provide a metaphorical biosurveillance door through which all risk items pass?

Another important element is raising awareness—in the public, as well as in industry and commerce—of the challenges of biosecurity and, where relevant, the importance of travel vaccination. In 2018, the House of Lords EU Committee produced a report on the effects of Brexit on biosecurity in animals and plants. It highlighted the example of Australia and New Zealand, which have a highly effective biosecurity arrangement achieved through both legislation and public awareness. Can the Minister highlight what His Majesty’s Government are doing to increase public awareness of biosecurity threats?

While globalisation has brought great economic benefit, there is a cost to it—namely, the almost inevitable financial catastrophes from breaching our biosecurity, some of which I have outlined. These events can severely affect other attempts to improve human, animal or plant health, improve the environment and enhance biodiversity. We are spending millions in taxpayers’ money coping with the catastrophic impacts of imported diseases once they arise. Should we not be investing more in measures to try to prevent those happening? A major recent review of the costs of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and of global measures which might help prevent or reduce the inevitability of further pandemics, concluded that the associated costs of pandemic prevention and response efforts would, for 10 years, be only about 2% of the total cost of the global Covid-19 pandemic—estimated at between $8 trillion and $15 trillion.

Given that trade is a vector for pathogen transfer, on the same principle as for the environment where the polluter pays, should not those who benefit financially from trade have to bear some responsibility when biosecurity is breached? The EU Committee report of 2018 commented that the facilitation of trade post Brexit must not be allowed to compromise the UK’s biosecurity—a matter of considerable and continuing concern.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that there are very significant risks to the UK’s health security for humans, animals, plants and indeed the environment, and plenty of evidence that these risks are increasing because of climate change and globalisation. Although it may be difficult—indeed financially, practically and politically impossible—for us to prevent the emergence of infectious disease threats in other parts of the world, we do have the ability to try to reduce the risks of incursions of infectious diseases into the UK while allowing, as far as possible, unhindered trade. Just as we are increasingly recognising the importance of energy security and food security—the latter of which may be imperilled by the introduction of new animal and plant pathogens—I suggest we should equally recognise the importance of biosecurity.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trees. He is a distinguished Member of this House and this is an important topic. I might tend to disagree with some of what he said—probably because of my slightly different job as a horticulturalist. But I certainly join him in welcoming our new Minister. He knows that he has a hard act to follow, but all of us who heard him at Question Time on Tuesday will know that he is a fine appointment.

I must declare my interests in the register, but I think my background in the horticultural and farming business is probably more important. I shall concentrate on horticulture, hoping to show that international co-operation is the most important way in which we can deliver biosecurity.

Perhaps I might be excused some personal history. I left school at 17 and went to work in the family bulb-growing and farming business. I was ambitious for its success. I went to work in the Netherlands at a nursery and bulb farm. I learned an important lesson—they were very good at their horticulture. Although they were competitive and entrepreneurial, they worked together and shared, even across borders.

Which brings me to the substance of this debate. The sciences were what I knew about, and it became clear that science lay at the foundation of biosecurity. Discovering the cause of pests and diseases was also its remedy. Eventually, as the result of my interest in science and the regulation of commerce, I chaired the European Bulb Committee, which was set up in Brussels to advise on the integration of horticulture within Europe, its regulatory framework, co-operation and product biosecurity across what became the European Union.

However, here comes the rub. Without doubt, Brexit has hindered this trade, particularly with the Netherlands, in both additional bureaucracy and costs. Biosecurity is about international co-operation. Nothing demonstrates this better than plant breeding, in providing new varieties to protect against evolving pest and disease pressures. It is an expensive business: up to 25% of a plant breeding business’s income can be spent on R&D, according to the British Society of Plant Breeders. It is also a risky business: roughly half of plant breeding research is focused on disease resistance and tracking the genetic battle between plants and disease. This battle is why the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which we passed in the previous Session, has been so important.

However, as the British Society of Plant Breeders has pointed out, regulatory separation between us and our trading partners in effect doubles the cost of registration and delays testing, trials and certification, which are all part and parcel of making sure that the remedy is effective. Noble Lords will see that I am of the view that we need to find ways of working together again, trusting our differing and diverging regulatory systems, if we are successfully to deliver resilience and responsiveness to present and future disease threats—both at home and abroad—and to provide the biosecurity and trade that the world needs.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trees—he is my noble friend; I hope that I am allowed to use that term—on securing today’s important debate. I welcome those Members who are here to take part in it. Frankly, I wish that we had more debates of this kind in the Chamber. I will do my best to bear in mind what was said earlier about the time limit. The introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Trees, was masterly and comprehensive. I wish the Minister well in his maiden speech at the Dispatch Box.

I know that noble Lords have received useful briefings from organisations with an interest in this broad subject. I thank them all. I pay tribute to the valuable briefing from our own House of Lords Library and the briefing produced by POST in April last year. I recommend that today’s readers of Hansard should consult them all.

I want to use my time to convey some of the points raised with me by the Royal Society of Biology, in particular its science policy team. The House will know that the Royal Society of Biology is the major scientific society covering the biological sciences; I should draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register of interests as a fellow. The RSB submitted evidence to the UK Biological Security Strategy in 2022 and to the Emerging Diseases and Learnings from Covid-19 inquiry in 2023.

It is the view of the society that, in responding to threats to UK biosecurity, government policy-making should take into account all available evidence from all available sources, whether environmental or concerning human or animal health. Frankly, we cannot take a piecemeal approach to biosecurity because, if you do not consider the issue in the round, the risk is that you displace one problem with another. Action on one specific front is not going to be enough. The Government should optimise the use of evidence synthesis so that our society and its ecosystems, its health systems and the food, feed and fuel—even the construction material production systems—that we rely on are able to avert and be resilient to disease, biological attacks and other biological risks.

By construction materials I mean, for example, wood. The health of trees is of huge importance, especially when considering the threats from overseas; mention has already been made, quite rightly, of ash dieback. I think this is one of the reasons why Members have taken quite an interest in the recent Bill to facilitate the CPTPP: because of the biosecurity risks that arise from trade in that part of the world. For example, a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa—I hope I pronounced it right—has not yet been detected in the UK but is known to have been responsible for major outbreaks in Europe. It causes disease and plant death in more than 650 plant species, including crops such as plums, cherries, almonds, blueberries and rosemary. Other hosts include tree species such as oak, elm, ash and plane—all of which, as we know, we have here in the UK. Stricter measures are necessary, especially at our borders, to prevent the import of biosecurity risks.

Another risk that we should take extremely seriously concerns the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animals, which is all too prevalent in parts of south and south-east Asia. I shall return to this in a moment.

It is fundamental that the evidence base used by the Government to decide their policy incorporates the One Health principles and that these are incorporated into future policy-making decisions. This is an important point that I would like to emphasise. The One Health principles are an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimise the health of people, animals and ecosystems. It recognises that the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants and the wider environment—including ecosystems—are closely linked and interdependent. The Government must co-ordinate their efforts with funders and other stakeholders to enhance and incentivise One Health research and education. They must also integrate One Health into their evidence base and take it into account alongside their long-term strategy to tackle current and future threats. One Health policy must not be solely human and animal focused but should encompass as broad a range of aspects as possible, including plants and other organisms, environmental factors and the interactions between these.

There are different types of threats to UK biosecurity. It is vital that the funding for and prioritisation of zoonotic diseases do not detract from resources focused on the continuing threat of other pandemics. Emerging infectious diseases in plant populations can seriously jeopardise food security, biodiversity and the natural environment, with serious health and economic consequences. Insufficient biosecurity measures have increased the risk of pandemics across species, including what you might call the silent pandemic of antimicrobial resistance, as well as hampering the treatment of current and emerging infectious diseases. I hardly need to tell your Lordships that AMR remains a major threat that faces us all. If we cannot keep one step ahead of nature’s ability to adapt and develop resistance to antibiotics, we will go straight back 200 years to the early 19th century, when a cut on your knee could lead to infection and death; to be more up to date, treatments that we now have for HIV, as well as hip and knee operations, would be too risky to attempt and deaths would soar as a result.

My time is coming to an end so I will finish by saying this: this biosecurity debate is one side of a coin that has climate change on the other. It will benefit us all if we understand how important that is because we have lots of threats facing us in this country, and biodiversity loss and climate change are two of the most important.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate; as ever, he was very thought-provoking. I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Trees on not only his excellent and thorough introduction but on securing this very important debate. I also welcome the Minister and wish him good luck in his maiden speech.

I start by declaring my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chair of the UK Squirrel Accord. I am heavily involved in the complex issues surrounding the difficulties caused by invasive alien grey squirrels destroying our native broadleaf trees. In May 2023—here, I go back to something that the noble Viscount just said—the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, said that

“you cannot have net zero without talking about trees”.—[Official Report, 22/5/23; col. 598.]

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber today would agree with that. At the same time, many sources have concluded what the UK Squirrel Accord knows to be true: the biggest threat to our broadleaf woodlands is the grey squirrel. They ring-bark trees aged between 10 and 40 years, making them susceptible to a host of pathogens and thus killing many and damaging much, if not all, of the rest in affected plantings. This greatly reduces the yield and quality of the timber. This has resulted in many landowners and managers in England simply not planting the native broadleaf trees that are needed as a significant part of our net zero strategy.

The UK Squirrel Accord is the coming together of 40 organisations of the United Kingdom to address this unpleasant truth. It comprises the four Governments, their nature agencies, the main voluntary sector bodies and the principal private sector players. The accord has not only ensured good communication among member bodies but allowed scientific research to be commissioned together. Quite a lot has been achieved in laying the groundwork for a major initiative in reducing the number of grey squirrels—in large part, through the use of fertility control.

This exciting research is being led by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, or APHA, which is based outside York. It includes strands on the fertility control substance itself, the hoppers that will be used to distribute it, and, most importantly, the rigorous computer modelling that underpins the rollout strategy. The research phase is now in its fifth year, which will give way to the landscape trials phase and then a licensing phase, before the rollout. The Minister has ministerial responsibility for APHA, and the Defra family and APHA have been very helpful and involved in the accord since it came into being. Does the Minister agree with the essential proposition that fertility control research represents the outstanding near-term option as a key weapon for grey squirrel control?

The APHA research has been funded in part by the Defra family, but just over £1 million has been raised from private UK individuals and trusts. I thank very much those people. Some of these generous donors have also brought the welcome offer of help in the large-scale field trials, when the time comes. I hope that it does not seem ungrateful to the Minister to observe that much larger sums of government money are being spent in other individual areas of disease and invasive alien species. Given the central need to deal with this issue, for net-zero reasons alone, I urge the Government to consider upping the resource that they devote to it.

Before I close with some specific asks, I congratulate APHA on what it has achieved so far in the research. It is a remarkable institution, filled with dedicated and expert staff. There are various areas where the Government can help. One is around the speed and cost of the licensing process that we are about to undergo, both for the hoppers and for the substances that will be left behind in them. Another is around increasing the co-ordinating resource that the UK Squirrel Accord has available for the next phases. We have been correctly resourced in people and monetary terms up to now, thanks to much generosity from the 40 accord members. However, there will be a step change in what we need to do going forward, and this needs more resource. The Forestry Commission recently came up with an important part of what we need in the field, for which I warmly thanked it. However, we need a small amount extra at the centre. It will take a lot of effort at the centre to deal with further planning, engagement and the education of people up and down the country, and there are a number of other issues as well. If we have a bit more resource now, we will make a better job of dealing with the squirrel. Will the Minister agree to meet, as an introductory thing, to discuss these matters?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and to throw in some good news about grey squirrels, which is the increasing spread of pine martens. Early evidence shows this to be having a positive impact, in reducing grey squirrel populations through natural means. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for securing this crucially important debate and for his expert introduction to it. I join others in welcoming the Minister to the Front Bench and to your Lordships’ House; I am sure that in the future we will have many debates discussing driven grouse shooting, but not today.

We are speaking in what is now an age of shocks. We have the climate emergency and the collapse in biodiversity, and we have choked our planet in plastic and other novel entities such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Our biogeochemical flows are hopelessly out of balance. We have exceeded so many planetary limits. Within that environment, diseases present far more threats than they have in the past. Biosecurity is now a much more pressing issue. In bringing the Green approach to this debate, it is really important to stress the precautionary principle and the sense that what will protect us ultimately is a healthy natural world, healthy people and a healthy environment—the One Health approach, which has already been mentioned several times. If we think about many of our plants, we find that we have bred them in ways that have removed their natural protections. We need to have a diversity of crops and to look at natural ways in which we can manage the threats that are presented.

During Covid, we were all acutely aware of the phrase, “No one is safe until everyone is safe”. I very much fear that, since then, the acknowledgement that we need a healthy world, and humans to be able to be healthy all around the world, has really slid off of the agenda. Of course, the cuts to the official development assistance have certainly seen the UK doing a lot less. Vaccine inequality is one of the issues that absolutely needs to be put on the agenda here. One statistic that might shock your Lordships’ House is that, still, in low-income countries, fewer than 25% of people have had even a single Covid vaccination. That is despite all the wonderful scientific discoveries and the effort that was made. The effort has not been shared around the world, which is a huge problem for us all.

It is tempting to think, as we have already heard and will hear a great deal more, that biosecurity means that, essentially, we have to put up walls to keep these threats out. Of course, that is something that we have to do. Mention has already been made of food security. Traditionally, from this Government and others, there has been a belief that we do not have to worry about producing our own food because we will just import it from around the world. That is a huge risk, as has already been referred to in the example of African swine fever, given by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. It is a security issue for all of us, to make sure that we do not import more food that is necessary. What if we build those walls to keep out biosecurity threats? Take the example of flooding: the risk with the flood wall is that, if it is overtopped and built too high, the impacts are very great. When we talk about biosecurity, we have to think about the security of the whole world.

We also have to think about the security of our own environment from the One Health approach. We still do not have the UK national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides. If we are thinking about a healthy environment in the UK, that is crucial. If we think about a healthy environment around the world, so many actions in the UK are having massive impacts. Many Members of your Lordships’ House are champions of efforts to prevent deforestation. Deforestation is a crucial contributor to damage to the idea of “one health”, through the spread of human, animal and, potentially, plant diseases.

I had a meeting yesterday on this and will in future be bringing to your Lordships’ House the idea that, in all our companies and supply chains, there needs to be a duty to prevent environmental damage and human rights damage. Those things are also a biosecurity issue, and we need to see this in a holistic way. In thinking about the whole issue, and looking at the themes, I think diversity is the key to health. One of the things that we are seeing is the great microbial extinction—something that has come to scientific attention only in the last year or two. That is a real threat to the balance we have, and to the rise of diseases, as we have taken away beneficial microbes.

I could mention many diseases here but I will finish by focusing on the threat that is presented to all our health and to animal health from factory farming. We have already talked a great deal about antimicrobial resistance. I believe that it is this threat that will demand the end of factory farming. However, when people talk about factory farming, they are usually thinking of it being on land, but in UK salmon farming we have seen a significant increase in antimicrobial use—it is broadcasting antibiotics into the sea to spread around the world. Such behaviour has to stop.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and to speak in this debate. I declare my interest as chair of Peers for the Planet and should perhaps declare an interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases. I share that honour with the noble Lord, Lord Trees, who introduced this debate so effectively and comprehensively that none of us should go over six minutes in our contributions, because there is no need to repeat the devastating analysis he gave of the risks to the UK. I will focus on the risks that come in response to climate change, particularly of vector-borne diseases, which are so susceptible to changes, sometimes very small, in climate.

I remember talking to physicians in Texas many years ago about their concern at seeing locally transmitted cases of dengue. These had never been seen before in Houston but were growing in response to different climatic changes and, of course, population changes. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, said that no man is an island—that is the phrase we always use—but, these days, no island is an island either. We cannot protect ourselves totally by putting up barriers to the importation of these sorts of diseases. I believe that means that, while we are focusing today on the risks to the UK, we have to understand that the burden of many of these diseases and their increase is being felt not in the future for the UK but in the here and now in parts of Africa and Asia, where they are spreading.

That makes me ask the Minister—who, like everyone else, I welcome—to perhaps say something when he replies about the support we are giving in other countries, as part of a global responsibility for health and as self-protection for this country in not putting barriers up, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was saying, but taking away the threat of that disease importation and the threat caused by the other health effects of global warming and climate change that lead to instability, mass migration and refugee problems, of which we have a very Eurocentric view. There are huge refugee problems caused by the effects of climate change in areas other than the ones that we are talking about in this debate.

We should never forget the health effects of pollution. The burning of fossil fuels, leading to the pollution of the atmosphere, particularly in cities, is thought to cause 7 million premature deaths annually. The air quality in areas of cities, not just in Europe but in India in particular, can be catastrophic when they then have extreme heat events. We have to recognise that heat stress, pollution, flooding and drought—all those effects of climate change—have profound effects on health.

It was significant that last year’s COP 28 was the first COP with a whole day relating to the health effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. It brought forth a declaration, signed by 143 countries, agreeing that they needed to facilitate collaboration on human, animal, environment and climate health changes, such as by implementing a One Health approach addressing the environmental determinants of health, strengthening research on the linkages between environmental and climatic factors and antimicrobial resistance, and intensifying efforts for the early detection of zoonotic spillovers. I hope that the Minister can say what we as a country are doing to implement that declaration.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on securing this debate, introducing it so comprehensively and demonstrating its importance. The Government’s Plant Biosecurity Strategy for Great Britain says:

“Since our departure from the EU, the number of plants and plant products entering Great Britain that require inspection has increased significantly”.

I want to explore why, what those inspections will involve and how effective they are likely to be.

As I understand it, before we left the EU in January 2020, we relied on plant passports for higher-risk plants. These were issued by growers who themselves were subject to inspection from time to time. Henceforth, all consignments that used to come with a plant passport must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate issued by the exporting country’s plant health service. We also recruited 200 extra inspectors, presumably to carry out our own additional inspections. Does this requirement for increased inspection reflect a new and enhanced threat?

The Forestry Commission says that there seems to have been an increase since 2002. Indeed, there has been one new outbreak affecting trees every year, although there were far fewer before that date. As far as I can see, there is no evidence of any recent acceleration, but I may be wrong. When new controls were announced as coming in shortly, the Government cited African swine fever and another disease, whose name I forget. I certainly see signs in France and Italy about the danger of African swine fever. If there are specific threats, should the checks not be focused on those? Is that the intention, or will we spread the checks more widely?

Are we introducing these controls simply in retaliation because the European Union applies its SPS rules to us? We know that its SPS rules quite often go beyond what is required for health and are somewhat protectionist in their intent. If so, I would counsel against that. Tit for tat is always a bad approach. We should threaten to do things only if it is part of a bargaining strategy with a realistic prospect of us reverting to a situation of mutual recognition, which we had before leaving.

Will the controls be a significant burden on trade? I understand—and I am grateful to the CEO of Fera for this information—that in 2021 a quarter of a million consignments were notified to the PHSI, 30,000 were tested and 6,000-plus were found to contain pests, with more than one pest or problem in some, so there was a 2.5% success rate, as it were, in those consignments assigned. In future, will we be testing a far greater number? Are we expecting any great increase in effectiveness as a result, or are we doing it simply because, as is so often the case, regulators have a natural desire to increase their powers and budgets? Some of the lobbying I have received certainly has a whiff of that about it.

Let us suppose that what is being proposed and introduced is necessary, will be effective and will not induce a great extra burden on our businesses. In that case, we should all welcome it as a great Brexit benefit—something we could not have done while we remained a member of the EU.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and to join others in congratulating my noble friend Lord Trees on his excellent introduction to this important debate. I also join others in welcoming the Minister and look forward to his maiden speech. I should declare that, among my interests in the register, I am a scientific adviser to Marks & Spencer.

In recent decades, this country has experienced four major farm animal disease outbreaks caused by breaches in biosecurity. First, there was mad cow disease, or BSE, in the 1990s. Here, the deregulation of the manufacture of meat and bone meal and the consequent lapse in biosecurity allowed the disease to spread within the cattle population. The infective agent, the prion protein, could pass on the disease via meat and bone meal because the rendering temperature had been reduced.

Secondly, there was foot and mouth disease in 2001. This epidemic was the result of inadequate biosecurity and monitoring. It originated from infected imported pork products fed as pig swill, and it spread rapidly throughout the country because of movement of livestock. MAFF was slow to recognise the scale of the problem and to implement appropriate biosecurity measures.

The third disease, bovine TB, has been an ongoing problem in this country since the 1980s. Here, there are two biosecurity issues: the transmission from wildlife, primarily badgers, to cattle and transmission from cattle to cattle within and between farms. Although the randomised badger culling trial showed that the latter is more important than the former, in the past 13 years emphasis in policy has been placed on killing badgers rather than on measures to prevent the spread of the disease among cattle. The fact that the comparative skin test for bovine TB in cattle has a sensitivity of only around 50% in field conditions means that there continues to be a hidden reservoir of infection in our cattle population.

The fourth disease caused by problems with biosecurity, referred to by my noble friend Lord Trees, is avian flu. As he said, this poses a particular problem because it is spread by wild migrating birds. What lessons have the Government learned from these four major problems that we have faced in recent times? Have those lessons been enshrined in Defra thinking and in policy for the future?

I will now briefly look to the future. The risks, as my noble friend Lord Trees expressed so clearly in his introduction, include a mixture of unknowns—for example, mutations of pathogens, just as BSE may have arisen from a mutation of the scrapie agent—and other risk factors that are known and more predictable. We have already heard about these: international trade, wildlife reservoirs, climate change, drug resistance and animal husbandry, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

I will ask the Minister about two aspects of planning for the future. The first is early warning. The Government have a programme to monitor pathogens called PATH-SAFE, described in their literature as

“a three-year project to develop a pilot national surveillance network, using the latest DNA-sequencing technology and environmental sampling to improve the detection and tracking of foodborne and antimicrobial resistant pathogens through the whole agri-food system from farm to fork”.

Can the Minister update us on the progress of that project?

My second point about the future is import controls, already mentioned by a number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. As we heard, since Brexit there have been no border checks on imports from the European Union, but the new risk-based approach to inspections, the border target operating model, which has been delayed five times, will finally kick off at the end of this month. It will go through a series of phases in April and October until its introduction is complete. The model relies heavily on documentation rather than physical inspections. What proportion of checks will be physical, rather than looking at pieces of paper? Will port health authorities have the required resources to carry out paper and physical checks?

This applies only to legal imports, and illegal imports are likely to pose much greater risks to biosecurity. We know from the experience of Dover Port Health Authority in October 2022 that there are major consignments of illegal meat coming in from eastern Europe and, importantly, there are still ongoing imports of bush meat from Africa—which is completely unregulated—that could carry major disease risks. What is the Government’s estimate of how much illegal bush meat and other meat is imported into the UK and what is being done to bear down on that and enhance our biosecurity?

My Lords, we should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Trees for securing this wide-ranging debate. I will focus on the threat of global pandemics to humans.

Covid-19 was a wake-up call. The published national risk register had been inadequate. No pandemic other than flu was rated as a major threat. Covid was primarily a medical catastrophe but it cascaded into other sectors: to schools and, through its impact on supply chains, manufacturing. There needs to be more joined-up government thinking and firmer guidelines about who, regionally and centrally, has authority in emergencies.

It is welcome that the risk register has been improved. Especially welcome are the comprehensive Biological Security Strategy, published just last September, and the strengthening of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention at its 2022 review. The 100-day mission concept to have a vaccine within 100 days of identifying a threat was launched at the G7 in 2021 when the UK held the chair. Can the Minister provide an update on what has happened to follow that up? All these measures need to be global. The earlier a new virus can be identified, the greater the head start in responding before a global spread.

Importantly, pandemics not only spread faster and more globally than they did in the past but cause far worse societal breakdown. European villages in the 14th century continued to function even when the Black Death halved their populations. In contrast, societies today are vulnerable to serious unrest as soon as hospitals are overwhelmed, which could occur before the fatality rate is even 1%. That is why we need to contemplate a societal or ecological collapse that would be a truly global setback. Covid-19 is not the worst that could happen.

The origin of Covid-19 is controversial. A leakage from the Wuhan lab cannot be ruled out. Be that as it may, we cannot rule out future lab leakages. I recall, for example, that a foot and mouth outbreak in the UK was caused by a leakage from the Pirbright lab in 2007. There is surely a case for enhancing security and independent monitoring of the level 4 labs around the world that are researching these lethal pathogens and, more importantly, ensuring that experiments on lethal pathogens are not done in less secure labs.

Can we rule out a future release that is intentional rather than accidental? To be sure, Governments and even terrorist groups with specific aims will always be inhibited from releasing engineered pandemics because no one can predict where and how far they can spread. The real nightmare would be a deranged loner with biotech expertise who did not care who became infected, or how many.

In contrast to the elaborate, conspicuous equipment needed to create a nuclear weapon, which can feasibly be monitored by international inspectors, biotech involves small-scale, dual-use technology that will become widely accessible. There are thousands of academic and industrial labs around the world where dangerous pathogens are being studied and modified. An increasing number of individuals will acquire the requisite expertise. The dangers are looming even larger. Regulation of biotech is needed ever more today.

However, what is really scary are doubts about global enforcement. Could the regulations be enforced throughout the world any more effectively than drug or tax laws can? Whatever can be done may be done by someone, somewhere. This is the stuff of nightmares.

The rising empowerment of malign, tech-savvy groups, or even individuals, by biotech will pose an intractable challenge to Governments and aggravate the tension between freedom, privacy, and security. The world is unprepared for the moral and practical challenges posed by burgeoning biotechnology in general. These scenarios call for clear thinking and well-crafted policies that recognise both biotech’s stupendous potential for human flourishing and its huge potential risk to our safety—indeed, to humanity itself.

We must hope that vaccines and antidotes become ever more effective and speedily produced, in step with the growing threat, and that the UK can indeed achieve influence in what has to be a global programme.

My Lords, it is both a delight and an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and to join other noble Members in congratulating and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for securing this debate and for his excellent opening speech. We are fortunate in this House to have the benefit of their respective world-class scientific expertise, communication skills and deep commitment to the cause of increasing our biosecurity.

As is now clear, climate change is a driver of multiple other risks, from emerging zoonoses and disease transmission to compromised food security and an increase in drug-resistant infections. The Covid-19 pandemic is a lesson on the degree to which the entire world is vulnerable to a pandemic or another, as yet unanticipated, major public health event. It is sobering that by near-universal consensus, this vulnerability is set only to increase. The IPCC’s Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report could scarcely be more unequivocal on this specific question. It predicts that, in the near term, we will face

“multiple risks to ecosystems and humans”,

including a greater incidence of

“food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne diseases”.

These are not merely warnings of a possible dystopian future, but something that already is crystallising into observable reality. We are seeing spikes in malaria transmission in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the first ever locally acquired cases of malaria in Florida and Texas, and, as has already been mentioned, outbreaks of dengue fever in Paris. In 2022, there were more cases of dengue fever in Europe than in the entire preceding decade. Forecasts suggest that, owing to a rise in global temperatures, malaria transmission seasons could be up to five months longer by 2070. Malaria rates in Mozambique are at their highest since the current reporting phase began in 2017. Over 70% of anti-malaria drugs in Africa are imported; what are we doing, or encouraging the international community to do, to stimulate local manufacture of drugs to ensure that weaknesses in the international supply chain do not result in preventable deaths in Africa?

What are the Government doing in either conducting or commissioning predictive modelling of the expected impacts of climate change on current and future disease transmission? If we are to equip ourselves adequately to deal with this crisis, a reactive approach will be insufficient. I welcome the new US-UK Strategic Dialogue on Biological Security and would be grateful for an explanation how, in granular terms, such co-operation will enhance our ability to anticipate future biosecurity threats.

On globalisation, I turn now to recent representations to the Government by port health officials in Dover. Since September 2022, when checks were first introduced, 57 tonnes of illegal, non-compliant pork imports have been seized in Dover alone. The Dover port health manager describes the scale of these illegal imports as “unprecedented” and suggests that for every tonne seized, multiple tonnes are going undetected. These illegal pork imports significantly increase the risk of African swine fever entering the UK, something that would have a devastating impact on agriculture and, in turn, offer a further incentive to those who wish illegally to import meat.

Given that the cost of living crisis has led to an increase in the illegal food trade, can the Minister elucidate the reasons for the proposed shift in customs checks from Bastion Point to Sevington, 22 miles from the Port of Dover itself? Defra’s rationale thus far seems to focus on cost but, given that concerns have been raised by industry sources at Defra forums, I suggest that it may be worth thinking again. The Dover Port Health Authority suggests that this change could easily lead to unexamined goods travelling 22 miles across the UK, with all of the attendant risks of possible infection, diminishing UK biosecurity. It claims it has not received appropriate assurances from Defra as to how existing standards could be maintained and that the Sevington facility, unlike Bastion Point, will not be operational 24 hours a day. Given the degree of concern expressed by the health authority and the UK food industry, does the Minister not agree that further work is needed before this change responsibly can be put into effect?

To return to the broader themes of this debate in the little time remaining, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Government’s 2023 biosecurity strategy. Its ambitions, if realised, would make a genuine and substantive contribution to enhancing our biosecurity. I agree with the Centre for Long-Term Resilience that sustained resourcing will be critical in making its implementation a success. While the £1.5 billion being spent annually is welcome, have the Government considered a longer-term, multi-year funding settlement that would enable implementation to proceed securely and at pace?

I remind the Minister that the Government’s first biological security strategy was published in July 2018, just as Parliament was rising for the Summer Recess. To my knowledge, it was never debated in Parliament and while it warned of the need to co-ordinate government actions better and for a “truly comprehensive approach” to meet risks, including pandemics, it manifestly failed so to do, to such an extent that the parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, in its December 2020 report, found that Covid-19 exposed “profound shortcomings” in Britain’s approach to biosecurity.

As this debate makes clear, we face a variety of long-term biosecurity threats, and our response to these risks must be considered, proactive and durable to ensure that we keep this country safe.

My Lords, the House has not seen much of me this last year, because last year I was one of the 100,000 people to be admitted to hospital in the UK with cellulitis, going on to septicaemia, which then progressed very rapidly to sepsis. I owe my life, or at least my legs, to flucloxacillin. So I thought I would talk about antimicrobial resistance today. I am perfectly well now, by the way, so no worries for the future.

First, antimicrobial resistance in humans is due to inappropriate or excessive prescribing by doctors, of whom I am one, not just in the UK but worldwide. Some 58,000 people in England were reported to the UK Health Security Agency—probably an underestimate, of course—to have had a resistant infection in 2022; that was a rise of 4% in a single year. With Klebsiella pneumoniae, for example, which is a very common cause of sepsis in this country, 30% of the bug’s subtypes are now resistant.

Pre-pandemic, there was a very healthy drop in prescriptions, which was due to doctors’ efforts to reduce the number of inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions, which are usually given out for very mild virus disorders, of course. But this has not been maintained after the Covid pandemic; in fact, they are on the rise again, and we need another big effort. What are the Government doing? I realise that I am asking for some Department of Health wisdom here, as well as the Minister’s own.

The second issue, of course, is, as we have heard from everybody, the global impact of antibiotic resistance, which is brought by travellers from abroad. At the moment, Asian and Asian British ethnic groups have almost double the proportion of antibiotic resistant infections—35%—compared with only 19% in white British ethnic groups. This is probably because of antibiotic overuse in south-east Asia.

I was sceptical about this—I thought it could not be happening that quickly—but recently an elegant study looked at subtypes of enterobacteria causing dysentery that are currently found in India and Pakistan, and you can map the progress of the subtypes cropping up all over the UK, so it is due to international travel. The Hospital for Tropical Diseases recently reported 92 travellers arriving in Britain from south Asia and Nigeria with enteric fever caused by salmonella and found that 30% were multiple drug resistant.

Globally, the financial costs of resistant strains of malaria, HIV and TB are directly related to poor prescribing and inadequate courses of treatment. In this age of global travel, as we have heard from others, the transmission of resistant strains of tropical diseases is of increasing importance. The ill-educated beliefs of patients impact very much on doctors’ prescribing habits. We know that GPs who do not prescribe antibiotics tend to be less highly rated and less popular. In Romania, Greece and Hungary most people buy their antibiotics over the counter and there is very little control indeed. In Cyprus, Estonia, Italy and Spain, most patients get antibiotics left over from previous courses—and I bet there is not anyone in this House who has not done the same. We use antibiotics from last year if we think we have something that we need to use them for. We need a real effort to reduce these.

Finally, I want to mention the issue of antibiotics in livestock. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has brough the issue of fish farming to our attention because it is one area where we are not making progress. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his brilliant personal briefing on this. We are making good progress on tackling resistance in animals by the improvement of their environments so they do not get infections in the first place, the control of veterinary medicines and the excellent work done by vets in the UK. However, as we have heard, that is not necessarily the case in other countries. We have achieved a 42% reduction in fluoroquinolones and reductions in other important drugs, such as cephalosporins, that are important to human beings.

So we are making good progress. We probably do not need to make it statutory by banning things; it is always better to do it with the co-operation of the agencies, individual professionals and farmers involved. However, we need to make greater progress on antimicrobial resistance. I know the Government were negotiating with the pharmaceutical industry to see what could be done. Can the Minister tell us how far have we got on our project there?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on securing this debate, and I welcome my noble friend the Minister to the House and the Front Bench.

The human devastation wreaked by Covid-19 has demonstrated the huge potential impact of zoonotic diseases and the need to use every scientific tool at our disposal to prevent and guard against future outbreaks. The role of science and innovation is critical in providing potential solutions.

I am glad to say the UK ranks third in the world in agricultural research. To pick up almost the last point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, world-leading progress is being made by UK scientists using the most advanced genetic techniques to develop animals that are resistant to many of these potentially zoonotic diseases. Scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh pioneered the gene-edited trait conferring complete resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome in pigs. The first PRRS-resistant pigs are expected to be approved for commercialisation in the United States later this year but not in the UK. Our scientists are at the forefront of research to combat infectious diseases such as avian influenza in poultry and African swine fever in pigs. What are the Government doing to unlock the potential of these advances for British farms more quickly?

With reference to the precision breeding Act, will the Minister reconsider the imposition of extra animal welfare hurdles in relation to precision-bred animals, which do not currently apply to conventionally bred animals, because the underpinning rationale of the legislation is that precision-bred organisms could equally have been produced using conventional breeding methods?

Infectious diseases do not differentiate between animals reared intensively or extensively, and the biosecurity associated with modern housed livestock systems is more effective at keeping disease out or keeping disease in. Thus, does the Minister agree that good intensive livestock farming may be the key to reducing the risk of future pandemics? Bird flu, for example, is spread by migrating wild birds, so the response to an outbreak is not to increase the extent of free-range systems but to keep all farmed poultry indoors. The recent news from the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency that an unprecedented and highly contagious bird flu outbreak in the sub-Antarctic has spread to mammals there is a further sobering reminder of the ability of these emerging infectious diseases to cross species barriers. Can the Minister please give the House an update on that position?

The crossing of species barriers takes me on to wild animals and plants. There are increasing calls for species reintroductions to help to meet government biodiversity and species abundance goals and to build resilience in ecosystems by reinforcement, assisted colonisation, reintroduction and translocation. The number of new pests and diseases affecting trees in the UK has increased by almost 500% over the last 20 years, and most of those have come from imported stock. Why is Defra not following best practice in vetting for disease in its code and guidance on reintroductions of plants and animals? The [ recommends that a disease risk analysis is carried out for all conservation reintroductions and translocations.

The House of Commons EFRA Committee’s recent inquiry into species reintroductions highlighted Natural England’s evidence to it that disease risk is a weakness in the current Defra code and guidance, and it recommended the need for any reintroduction or translocation risk assessment to include disease implications. Only 10 native species are subject to the Defra code. Consequently, most native species translocations, even outside their current or historic geographical range, are unregulated and the risk of the spread of disease is not addressed.

When Covid-19 struck we turned to the best available, most advanced genetic technologies for solutions, and we celebrated the scientific developments in both the public and private sectors that made this possible. We must apply the same science-based principles to the use of new genetic technologies in agriculture to improve prospects for the control of infectious diseases. That is essential for the health and welfare of animals and plants, and to reduce the risk of future pandemics in the human population. The very essence of biosecurity is that preventing something arriving is much more effective and cost-efficient than trying to eradicate it once it is here.

My Lords, I welcome this important and topical debate, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for initiating it. I also believe he may have had something to do with the headline in today’s Financial Times, “Dover Port warns of food safety risk”. The article says that health inspectors at Dover have warned that a proposed 70 per cent cut in government funding poses a risk to food safety and animal health. This should be a matter of great concern to the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Browne.

I declare my own interests, as set out in the register, in farming and woodland. The debate covers a wide variety of issues, but I would like to confine my remarks to the central importance of healthy trees and woodland when we address biosecurity and climate change.

In 2020-21, around 13,500 hectares of new tree planting was undertaken in Great Britain, of which England and Wales accounted for only 2,500 hectares. Driven by achieving net-zero carbon by 2050 in the 2019 climate change legislation, the English tree strategy of 2021 identified, as we have heard, a target of 30,000 hectares of new planting a year by 2025—next year. We therefore have a huge mountain to climb in terms of planting trees, made even more complicated by diseases such as ash dieback and, of course, climate change. That leaves aside the fact that appropriately fertile land, and alternative uses of that land driven by profitability calculations, taxation considerations and much else, can be a major disincentive. We still await the Government’s promised land use framework, which will attempt to reconcile the competing demands of food production, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, forestry, flood management and much more. Perhaps the Minister could use his influence to accelerate the promised framework, in which climate change factors are major ones.

Today we are focusing on biosecurity, diseases and climate change, which, together with increased tree-planting targets to assist our carbon strategy, mean that every effort must be made to improve and increase our source of trees through careful selection, based on genetic diversification, in order to breed more resistance to diseases and better-quality hardwood. This can be achieved by genotyping basic materials to ensure high and representative genetic diversity.

Simultaneously, we need to increase the availability of the improved planting material of native and non-native species. We need to look at importing, both to increase conventional seed supply and to identify planting stock from warmer climates. This needs to be carefully controlled; we are lucky in this country to have scientific research organisations such as the Future Trees Trust doing precisely this. With improved planting stock, there are other major advantages such as faster establishment, reduced mortality and a reduced need for herbicides, resulting in improved timber quality and, of course, earlier carbon capture. Much of this improvement in planting stock mirrors what has been done in the farming industry in identifying new seed varieties to increase yields and provide greater resistance to pests and diseases. The passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act last year has given this research a major boost.

A highly important aspect of the likely requirement to import seed and plants from overseas is to enhance and promote the plant certification scheme in nurseries to ensure traceability and engender confidence in our imports. This was a major issue raised by the House of Lords Horticultural Committee in its recent report. I would be interested to hear from the Minister, if he has time, of any further government plan to support, widen and strengthen that scheme, including making it compulsory.

I am particularly glad to follow my noble friend Lord Carrington because he has enabled me to, among other things, shorten my own remarks.

“Thanks noble Trees, our Entish Lord

For laying bare the grievous ills

Impending on our scepter’d isle.

England, set in a silver sea

That doth no longer serve us

In the office of a wall or as

A moat defensive to a house,

Is subject to mounting threats”.

It is perhaps not usual to address your Lordships’ House in blank verse, but it may be a modest way of indicating the severity and scale of the challenges we face. After all,

“A verse may find him whom a sermon flies.”

The poets have long understood what the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, have impressed upon us: the importance of a One Health approach. They have also long understood that we live in an entangled world, including and beyond the wood-wide web, and that the health of our trees reflects and influences our state of mind, our health and our economy.

“The bay-trees in our country are all wither’d”

says Shakespeare in “Richard II”, and the play is full of the reverberations between the life of trees and plants and the state we are in as a country.

In that very helpful briefing paper produced by Fera, there is a horrifying Forestry Commission graph showing the cumulative increase in the number of new pests and diseases affecting trees since 1971, and the particularly alarming increase in the frequency of such outbreaks since 2002. Over the last 20 years there has been a 500% increase, keeping pace with the increased globalisation of trade.

The admirable Woodland Trust publishes an invaluable up-to-date list of the key pests and diseases affecting our trees, along with, crucially, guidance on how to recognise them and report them. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Trees, there are some pests and diseases already with us but there is a worrying number waiting in the wings. The elm zig-zag sawfly is the newest threat to our badly damaged elm populations. The emerald ash borer has killed billions of ash trees in the US; if it arrives here, it will further damage our vulnerable ash populations. Likewise, the North American native bronze birch borer could decimate our own birch trees.

One of my favourite native trees is the juniper. It now faces a dedicated pathogen, phytophthora austrocedri, which infects juniper trees and then kills them. Time does not permit me to anathematise any further the red-necked longhorn beetle or the sirococcus tsugae. But the Government are aware, as previous speakers have noted, of the scale of the challenges. In particular, can the Minister update us on the results of the three-year trial of the proposed invasive species inspectorate? The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already alluded to that theme. Is this vital contribution to our biosecurity to be established on a permanent basis?

There are many other things which can be done, as other noble Lords have pointed out. I would underline the value of investing more in the proven capacity of citizen science monitoring and reporting programmes. That would contribute to raising consumer awareness of the problem, as would the inclusion of a biosecurity warning in air-steward cabin safety briefings. We have been talking about international travel; one thing that could be done, just by passing a regulation, is to add to those safety briefings in international air flights some biosecurity warning. At the same time, as my noble friend Lord Carrington said, as far as possible it is clear that we ought to source and grow trees in the UK and, crucially, invest in the skills needed to cultivate them.

“Let us lift high the phytosanitary shield

To repel the pests and contagion,

Lest child child’s children, cry against

Us, woe!”

My Lords, I am not going to attempt to replicate the approach of the previous speaker. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for introducing this important debate. It is, in truth, an honour and a privilege to be able to take part, given the eminence of the speakers who are contributing today. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who is not in her place, referred to the need to avoid repetition. At this stage of the debate that becomes increasingly difficult, but I say also that repetition is sometimes important as a form of emphasis—we need to emphasise the issues here, so if anything I say is too repetitive, I do not apologise, because I think the points need to be emphasised.

It is important that we discuss this critical issue of biosecurity in an era characterised by globalisation and climate change. The interconnectedness of our world has brought unprecedented benefits, but it also exposes us to new challenges. Today, we are talking particularly about infectious diseases that can threaten human, animal and plant life. Where people, goods and information travel across borders with unprecedented speed, infectious diseases do not recognise geographical boundaries. As we know all too well, a virus originating in one part of the world can swiftly find its way to distant continents, crossing national borders before we can appreciate the scale of the threat that is posed. This demands a collective and co-ordinated effort on a global scale. So I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government recognise the scale of the measures that are needed to combat the threat of infectious diseases.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has already referred to the story in today’s Financial Times, but it merits further emphasis and a demand on the Minister to provide a satisfactory response. For those who have not seen it, today’s Financial Times reports that inspectors at Dover, the UK’s busiest port, have warned that they are facing a 70% cut in central government funding which they say will pose a risk to British food safety and animal health. The Dover Port Health Authority told the Financial Times that Defra plans to impose the funding cut to its inspection team at Dover from April and stated:

“The impact of the cuts will be significant and increase the threat to GB safety by an order of magnitude”.

That was a statement from the head of the port inspectorate. I think the House requires a specific response to that story, albeit at short notice.

Given the importance of these issues, what else should the Government be doing? I shall just suggest some particular issues on which I ask the Minister to respond. First, I think the Government’s approach should be proactive rather than reactive, which perhaps it has been in the past, and also on the precautionary principle: we should always err on the side of safety, rather than hoping for the best. Specific proposals that perhaps the Minister could respond to include the issue of the Non-native Species Inspectorate. Will the Government be making an announcement on whether this process will be made permanent? It is an essential part of a precautionary approach, so perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

Another specific proposal that has been made is that there should be a positive list for exotic pets: rather than having a list of species that cannot be imported to become pets, there should be a list of those pets we know are safe, and anything else should be subject to restriction, inspection and, if necessary, investigation of whether they are acceptable.

Finally, can the Minister give us reassurance about the position on freeports? The Government trumpeted their policy of allowing freeports greater freedom and fewer restrictions. Will the rules apply equally to freeports as they do more generally?

My Lords, I have yet another thank you very much to my noble friend Lord Trees for what has been a quite exceptional debate. It is interesting that it is exactly four years to the week since this subject was last debated in your Lordships’ House, and a lot has moved on in that time. I declare my interest as a trustee of the International Dendrology Society and, not surprisingly, admit that my remarks are somewhat limited to the plant end of the spectrum of this wide-ranging debate. For those whose Greek is on a par with mine, dendrology is the science and study of woody plants; specifically, their taxonomic classifications.

It is rather hard to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, and even the most recent speaker, because they enunciated a number of the things that I wanted to mention. But, as we have heard, some repetition is not a bad idea. In the past 10 years, much has changed in the world of plant health and protection—and here I unashamedly issue a compliment to Defra, where the chief plant health officer for the UK, Professor Nicola Spence, has been a sure and steady hand in moving forward the health of our plant stock. We have also seen, as we have heard, Defra’s 25-year environment plan, which includes, in recent years, a tree heath resilience strategy, a Great Britain biosecurity strategy and a plant health research and development plan.

The arrival of Brexit has complicated the biosecurity landscape but has allowed us to get away from the EU’s one-size-fits-all approach to the subject, which tended to mean that problems originating in Mediterranean countries would inexorably find their way here, through common trade and travel arrangements. In that time also, the advance of gene sequencing for plants has given us a much greater understanding of the nature of the problems we face, and of the susceptibility of individual plants to the diseases attacking them. As has been mentioned, citizen science is now being employed to report infestations and diseases, and such reports to the chief inspectorate are now running into many thousands per year.

In summary, we are increasingly well protected by an ever-more alert department and its agencies, not to mention the financial side of things, but the work they are doing has been well received in the industry. All of this is well known and understood by those interested in the trades associated with plant health and movement, such as forestry and horticulture. It is also pretty well understood by those who live and make their livelihood in the countryside. But the great multitude of our increasingly enormous population have little idea of the problems which face us, and with which these agencies must deal. A cynic might add that a large proportion of them care even less. The real issue facing us, therefore, is awareness. As we have heard, the cost of the Chalara Fraxinus, or ash dieback, epidemic has been estimated at about £15 billion over the next few decades. That is a huge figure and, if you look out of the window of a train or at home, you see skeletons wherever you look. These have all got to be cleared and someone has to pay for that.

On the other hand, the value to the national balance sheet of our plant stock, both trees and the agricultural and horticultural sectors, is reckoned at £175 billion—in other words, it is worth looking after them.

There is an urgent need for continued, and increasing, training and awareness campaigns focused on all the sectors previously mentioned, and especially on a mobile, travelling public. This increased awareness must also extend to the amateur gardening sector—no more returning from trips abroad with sponge bags full of likely specimens and the soil in which they grew. To illustrate the size of the problem, there are reckoned to be 90 pests that can attack oak trees, 165 for potatoes, 130 for roses and 160 for tomatoes.

Possibly the two most high-profile concerns at present, both of which have been mentioned in passing, are the bacterial disease Xylella fastidiosa, which has devastated the olive plantations of Italy, France and Spain—olive is much more important than the other plants mentioned, but nevertheless they are all part of it—and the emerald ash borer, a beetle that attacks ash trees, especially when they are already weakened by another pathogen, the ash dieback. This pest is spreading across the world from its origin in the Far East and has reached Ukraine, which does not have a lot of time to deal with it. It has equally devastated the American ash population. I therefore have two questions for the Minister. What is the latest situation on these two pests, Xylella and ash borer? What measures are being taken to combat them?

There are some advantages to our being an island, and there is no doubt that our moat helps to keep things at bay, but many insects can travel over water. The Asian hornet and longhorn beetles have both arrived on the wind.

One area I find hard to understand is the behaviour of our nursery and horticultural trades in importing large volumes of plants that we can perfectly well grow ourselves. It should be impossible to obtain an import certificate without offering proof that the plant in question is not available from growers in this country. This is not a matter of civil liberties. It is a matter literally of life and death to the plant populations concerned, and to the livelihoods of our growers.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Trees on raising this topic in the House and on his detailed introduction. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and wish him all the best in his maiden speech. I declare my interest in this matter, working for a large group of vets with an interest in both the farming and companion animal sectors.

My colleagues who specialise in farm animals were delighted that this subject was being raised in the House. Their initial comments and concerns were that the UK does not value its biosecurity, as there is little public awareness of this matter and the potential dangers to public health and animal health from new infectious diseases.

As mentioned by my noble friend Lord Trees and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, African swine flu is currently a major concern for the pig industry. The disease grows ever closer to the UK. It is now well established in eastern Europe, not only in farming herds but in the wild boar population, where its presence is a lot more concerning, with cases being reported as recently as September in Sweden. The effect of this highly infectious disease on the UK’s pig herd is significantly more than on many other nations, as at least 50% of our breeding sows are housed outdoors, and therefore the risk of infection is significantly higher. If the infection were to get into the national outdoor pig herd, it would potentially be as devastating as the foot and mouth outbreak back in the early 2000s.

The most likely route of this infection to outdoor pigs is by their consuming infected meat discarded by a member of the general public. This could be a ham or bacon sandwich, made from contaminated meat illegally imported from areas where African swine flu is established, thrown away close to a field of outdoor pigs. As my noble friend mentioned, the importing of illegal meat has become a real issue. As reported in January, the Dover Port Health Authority has seized more than 57 tonnes of illegal meat, possibly a fraction of what is coming into the country from restricted areas in eastern Europe.

We welcome the introduction of the border target operation model that will introduce some border controls at the end of January, but there are concerns, as mentioned by other noble Lords, about its funding and the number of inspections that can be done. Can the Minister guarantee resources for these inspections?

A very simple threat to our biosecurity is the threat from the general public when they bring food back into the country on return from holidays. The public are totally unaware of the potential danger to our national pig herd. There is little or no public information service explaining the potential threats to our nation’s biosecurity by bringing food or plants back to the UK. This is the opposite of the island countries in Australasia, which have huge biosecurity controls when you enter their country, and publicise them.

Mosquito-transmitted diseases are another threat to our nation’s animals. Currently, we have two outbreaks of such a disease. Bluetongue is a disease that affects both cattle and sheep, and we have outbreaks in Kent and Norfolk. The current infection is a great worry to farmers and vets in the UK, as the outbreak first occurred in November at the very end of the normal danger period when the cold weather normally reduces the number of mosquitoes being blown over from Europe. The warming of the climate means that these mosquitoes are more likely to survive longer. It is hoped that the cold weather will hold back the current outbreak from spreading further around the country, although some cases have been reported in the last few weeks in the current infected areas. The other concerning feature of this current strain is that there is no vaccine for it, which potentially could allow bluetongue to become a significant disease within the UK cattle and sheep population.

The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, mentioned antimicrobial resistance. As a nation, we tackle issues that we foresee as long-term problems for human and animal health. An example of this is antibiotic resistance. We have reduced antibiotic sales for use in production animals by 57% since 2014, and human use has also fallen over this period. But what do we do as nation? We import foodstuffs from nations that do not have the same restrictions on the use of antibiotics, or policies to reduce their usage. Therefore, we are importing antibiotic resistance from other nations.

As we continue to seek new international trade agreements with other nations whose biosecurity policies may not be as robust as the UK’s, we need to ensure that biosecurity is on the negotiating table to protect our nation and not undermine what we are trying to do in this country.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his mobilisation of this excellent debate and congratulate the Minister on hitting the ground running with his splendid response to OPQ on Tuesday. It is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, whose remarks were very apposite.

We are still recovering from Covid, the massive global pandemic. As the Minister during that time, I am only just recovering myself. There is a psychological tendency to try to avoid thinking about something that was so uncomfortable, so unpleasant and so damaging for so many people. I want to focus my comments on the gap that I see between the very good and well-intended biosecurity strategy published in November last year and what is actually happening on the ground, particularly—but not only—in the medical sphere.

The biosecurity strategy has a very clear vision that, by 2030, the UK will be resilient to a spectrum of biological threats and a world leader in responsible innovation. The timing of that is quite a long way out—six years. The very slow pace of the Covid inquiry shows us how difficult we are finding it to come to terms with the lessons from our response to the Covid pandemic. That is hitting us hard in trying to put in place the necessary measures we need to be ready for the next big hit.

Readiness, response to a pandemic and resilience are three areas where I think there is severe deficiency. On our pandemic readiness, and on vaccines, there are some encouraging signals that there is focus, including the deal with Moderna, the future manufacturing hub and the UK Vaccine Network. However, a lot of it is subscale and is taking a lot of time. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rees, that the 100-day ambition is something that we have not heard a lot about. I echo his request for an update from the Minister.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned how slowly both international and domestic surveillance systems are moving. The WHO and the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board are struggling for funds and political momentum. It would be good to see Britain leaning in on that. On our investment in high-throughput biosurveillance, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, quite rightly pointed out that a lot of that capacity has been stood down. On wastewater analysis, the good functionality that we had put in place during the pandemic has now been taken apart. Our efforts on international data sharing and the standardisation of reporting—quite a dull-sounding subject but very exciting to those of us, like me, who take these things seriously—have, I am afraid to say, stalled since we were pushing it under our G7 chairmanship.

On response capacity, I will spotlight two areas, one of which is health. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, pointed out, the integrated national public health function in the UK has fallen back rather than being invested in. UKHSA funding has been reduced; the public health grant to local authorities has been reduced; OHID has been embedded into the Department for Health and Social Care, rather than being empowered; capacity on the ground for DPHs has been reduced; tracing capacity has been wound up; and the integration of the national and local response is extremely unclear, to put it mildly.

On vaccinations, many of the habits that were in place have fallen back. Many noble Lords will have read about the measles outbreaks in the Midlands, and now, it seems, in London. When it comes to the strain on the NHS, we have fallen back a long way.

On government leadership, we have not got a Taiwan-style pandemic Act in place. The management of our borders—and here I mean for people—in order to use our island status to protect ourselves has also fallen back.

On resilience, the health of the nation is deteriorating rather than improving. Part of that is because the drivers of poor health are still in place: mouldy homes, junk food, the internet and dirty air. They are resulting in an increase in obesity, diabetes and so on.

We can rebuild and make Britain a healthier country. We can put in place the infrastructure necessary to respond to a pandemic. However, this will take government leadership. What does the Minister think the Government can do to empower the biosecurity strategy and make it move faster, and to deliver the kind of infrastructure we need, so that we are truly ready for the next pandemic?

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister and join the House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on securing this debate. I draw the attention of the House to my role at the Oracle Corporation. I also apologise in advance to the medical profession if I mispronounce any medical terms—sadly, I am not a qualified doctor, much to my father’s disappointment.

It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and I will cover some of the same ground. The threat of infectious diseases is both demonstrable and significant. The threat is growing, as today’s debate and the forecast from the integrated review of security and the UK Health Security Agency confirm. I therefore welcome and support the Government’s response, with the updated UK Biological Security Strategy. The key, as in all such strategies, will be in its effective implementation.

For the purpose of this debate, I will focus on human health in two areas: data, including data security, and international co-operation. During the pandemic, multiple data sources were used creatively: medical, social and environment. The CDC used Google searches on symptoms, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, mentioned, we used nascent waste monitoring capability. Sometimes the data lagged events and was manually derived, such as claims data in the US, but had that real digital data been available, it could have enabled Governments and health authorities to pinpoint and target more effective ways of resolution. What is being done to improve our continued access to timely, digital, broad-ranging data sources? The security of that data, particularly personal medical data, and the public faith in its usage, is critical. What is being done to clarify the security ground rules and standards for such use? The Government have committed to building a national biosurveillance network. Now is an ideal time to start developing the rules of engagement.

As I said, access to personal health records will be key and the Government have correctly committed to using anonymised data, with only very limited exceptions. Encouragingly, recent poll evidence suggests that 81% of the public support health data sharing to develop new treatments, while 74% believe that they should be involved in how that data is used. As the issue is both technical and cultural, perhaps the Government could consider engaging now in a study to see which aspects the Government can support ex ante and begin constructive dialogue on those ground rules.

Beyond personal data, the Government must also identify and protect data at risk from hostile actors. By necessity, that must include dual-use technology and research. By their very nature, many of our extraordinary biotech advances have the capacity to do ill as well as good, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, highlighted. If you can build a therapeutic protein that binds to a human receptor, you can also create a virus that does the same. The Government will not only need to establish clear standards but must require a very clear accountability at department level to enable timely responses. The aim must be for those responses to create the “biosurveillance door” referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, while not crushing innovation from our brilliant life sciences and biotech sectors. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on those issues.

For data and data security, the presumption should be that we work with our international partners, because, as many of your Lordships have said, diseases recognise neither political nor geographical boundaries. Our international partners need to work with us to share their own data. Importantly, as the approach to data security differs around the world, they each must have the autonomy to decide what they share. In the end, we need to see whether we can have a ground rule for what data can be shared. In this area, perhaps modelling offers some opportunity, as it typically brings lower security risks. But to maximise the benefits of sharing, consistency in terms and approaches will be critical.

That brings me to the broader point of international co-operation. Our goal must be a global biosurveillance capability. During the Covid-19 pandemic, international data sharing increased dramatically. The UK played, and continues to play, a leading role in multinational organisations such as the World Health Organization and the OECD to help other countries. This is a vital area, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, highlighted. The origins of many infectious diseases are inevitably outside our shores, but a global biosurveillance network surely offers us the best chance to detect and understand outbreaks early, to minimise the effects of future outbreaks and to protect us today and for generations to come. I look forward to any update on the implementation of our biosurveillance strategy that the Minister can give.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Front Bench and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on his very comprehensive introduction to the debate. I also welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, back to good health and to the Chamber; she made a very important speech today.

When we were a member of the European Union, we benefited from sharing with other members measures to prevent plant and animal, as well as human, diseases. We shared intelligence of disease threats; common rules on phytosanitary standards, border security and animal health; world-leading scientific and pharmaceutical developments; and veterinary expertise. Since we left, we have had to invent our own system and develop partnerships where we can. Our developing border controls regime, some of which came into effect only this month, is very important in that respect. We have heard very important points from several noble Lords on that subject, including the noble Lords, Lord Taylor, Lord Lilley, Lord Krebs and Lord Davies of Brixton.

As a botanist, I will focus on diseases of plants, including those that we eat and those that we need for other purposes. Half of all emerging diseases of plants are spread due to the increasing globalisation of the trade in plants and plant materials, including soil, by both traders and individuals. Natural spread, assisted by weather events, is the second most important factor. Global warming can also enable the establishment of pests that would otherwise not survive a winter here in the UK. As we know, our country has just had the warmest year for decades, and that affects our economy and biodiversity.

As a former member of your Lordships’ recent special inquiry into the state of the UK horticulture business, I will mention some of our findings on plant diseases and the effect on our economy of poor control. Sandy Shepherd, managing director of Ball Colegrave, told us, as a witness from the industry, that biosecurity is

“the fundamental thing that we worry about in our business”.

All our witnesses were particularly concerned that bringing infected plants from abroad could infect UK stock. The UK Plant Health Risk Register contains 1,423 pests and pathogens that have been assessed for the threat they pose to the UK, of which 998 have been spread via live plant movement. Although I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on grey squirrels, they do not fall within that category.

Fruit trees and bushes and forest trees are particular issues. The Woodland Trust tells us that we import about 19 million forest trees every year and that 20 serious diseases of trees have been identified through imported trees since 1990. That has accelerated the loss of tens of millions of trees. Given the Government’s ambition to plant millions of trees for carbon capture and biodiversity reasons, it is vital that we minimise the risks to the survival of those trees from imported diseases. The Woodland Trust told the committee:

“The single most effective biosecurity safeguard is to reduce the need for imported plants and source all trees for planting in the UK, from stock that has been grown its entire lifespan in GB”.

It suggested to us that an improved labelling system for UK-grown trees would enable consumer confidence that the product they are buying is biosecure and UK-grown for the whole of its lifespan, not imported and just grown on in the UK for a couple of weeks.

For imported plants I know that the Government are working with the Plant Health Alliance on a voluntary certification scheme but, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, the committee recommended that this be compulsory. However, we felt that more support for compliance would be needed for SMEs in the industry. Both the RHS and the National Trust support the Plant Healthy scheme, but Martin Hillier from Hillier Nurseries told us that the accreditation scheme was a good start but should be compulsory and set at a higher standard.

The Woodland Trust tells us that the overall ambition to reduce reliance on tree imports will be realised only if we invest in the UK nursery sector to equip nurseries with the skills, labour, funding and policies that enable the scaling up of production of UK-grown trees. This will also create green jobs to benefit the local and national economy. The committee agreed with that and called on the Government to improve recruitment of people into horticulture and increase the training opportunities for them, from T-levels in schools to apprenticeships and higher education, as well as careers advice. In addition, the timescales of many growers are long and require long-term planning, which is difficult without a clear UK strategy for horticulture, and preferably a Minister with responsibility for ornamental and environmental horticulture as well as the edibles part of the industry. Will the Minister take this back to the department? Without this support UK growers will struggle, and we will have to rely on imports with all the consequent biosecurity risks.

We also need a high-level quarantine scheme for high-risk hosts based on scientific research. For example, olive trees, which were mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, when infected with Xylella—a serious pest for our native trees—can remain without symptoms for 12 months, so they should be quarantined for at least that length of time. We were promised that that would be explored in the GB plant health strategy, but it has not yet been done. Can the Minister say when it will happen?

Another effect of climate change which impacts UK growers, especially in the south-east, is shortage of water. If the UK horticulture industry is not supported to transition to sustainable water management practices, it will jeopardise our ability to grow our own trees and be self-sufficient. The Plan for Water is welcome but water management in the horticulture sector requires more effort, such as looking at the planning barriers for small reservoirs on growers’ and farmers’ own land.

Horizon-scanning for new and emerging threats, research and risk assessment are essential if we are to keep track of incoming diseases and those that are becoming more prevalent. Here the International Plant Sentinel Network, co-ordinated by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International and supported by Defra, plays a key role. I must declare an interest here as I was the honorary chair of the board of BGCI for 10 years and retain an interest in its work. The IPSN uses plant species held in botanic gardens’ collections outside their natural range as sentinels to gather evidence on new and emerging pests and diseases and novel host-disease interactions that can affect UK biosecurity. It provides an early warning system for emerging pest and pathogen risks and is a pivotal partner in the UK biosecurity strategy, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords.

Tools developed include digital plant health checkers to enable non-specialists to monitor plant health issues. For example, the emerald ash boring beetle, which was mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, and the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, is a great danger to our ash trees, and is common in eastern Ukraine and western Russia but fortunately not in the UK—so far. The tool helps people to recognise it to enable early warning in case it comes in on imported plants. Another initiative involved citizen scientists in identifying the sap-sucking insects that can transmit Xylella.

Botanic gardens also use alien plants in their collections to monitor for dangerous pathogens. Related to this work, may I ask the Minister whether there is any consideration of the inclusion of invasive alien plant species in the biosecurity strategy, due to their potential to host key pests and pathogens?

So much of this work depends on data and IT systems. I was therefore concerned when I read that Gareth Davies, chief executive of the National Audit Office, in his annual statement yesterday, said that three-quarters of the Defra IT budget is spent on maintenance of out-of-date IT systems. Given what we know can go wrong when IT systems go wrong, is the Minister confident of the robustness of the department’s disease surveillance system?

Finally, I have one more question, about surveillance of risk. Due to complex and expensive biosecurity regulations related to the movement of plant material nationally and internationally, it is becoming near impossible for scientific institutions to exchange material to support research into pests and diseases. Would the Government consider exemptions for bona fide research institutions contributing to the management and control of plant pests and pathogens?

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register and that I am co-chair of the APPG for the Timber Industries. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his excellent introduction and for bringing this important debate to us today; and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s maiden speech.

The debate has focused on a number of areas of concern. First, on health, noble Lords talked about how Covid-19 exposed a lack of preparedness for biological hazards, and about our vulnerability, which my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton particularly pointed out. My noble friend Lord Stansgate talked about the importance of One Health principles around people, animals, plants and ecosystems, which was then picked up by other noble Lords. We also heard that the number of emerging zoonoses is increasing globally; several noble Lords talked about the global challenges we face. Most notably, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, talked about the global impacts on health, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. My noble friend Lord Davies of Brixton also drew attention to the fact that infectious diseases do not, of course, recognise borders.

In this challenging context, we need to recognise the importance of understanding, monitoring and preparing for any future pandemic. The threat of an influenza pandemic, for example, has regularly topped the UK National Risk Register for most impactful hazards. We need to understand the evolutionary pathways by which things such as avian flu could jump to humans and how non-human flu could become a human pandemic; and we need better comprehension of the consequences of failing to address the rise of antimicrobial resistance infections. I welcome back the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, and her speech on this issue.

Invasive non-native species of plants and animals are one of the greatest global threats to biodiversity. Their introduction typically leads to a reduction in species richness and abundance, and degradation of the environment; they often outcompete and prey on native species, bringing disease and pathogens. FERA has been mentioned in the debate, and the important briefing that it sent to noble Lords. It talked of the significant increases in the volume of plants and plant material potentially infected with harmful organisms being sent from the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate to its diagnostics laboratories. Every interception is a potential biosecurity risk that has been successfully neutralised, but a disease has to enter the country only once and not get picked up in order to become established and have a potentially devastating impact on our economy and biodiversity. For example, within our borders, the number of new pests and diseases affecting trees in the UK has increased by almost 500% over the last 20 years.

RSPCA and Born Free research has highlighted that zoonotic disease spread by the import of exotic pets into the UK is an overlooked risk to human health. Several European countries have adopted a positive list of species that can be kept, provided that the conditions meet welfare and safety criteria, with potential exemptions for conservation work in zoos. Will the Government consider this precautionary approach? Government should ensure that the same level of sanitary protection applies to imported wildlife as applies to our livestock and fish industries, with improved border controls, quarantine and testing for pathogens identified as threats to UK biodiversity.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talked about the need for imports to be managed correctly, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about border controls and mentioned Dover in particular. I therefore wonder whether the Minister saw yesterday’s report in Farmers Weekly about the Dover Port Health Authority urging Defra to reconsider plans for a 70% funding cut to its work in seizing illegal meat imports, a move that the authority says could jeopardise efforts to keep African swine fever out of the country.

The National Pig Association says that cutting the budget could be “catastrophic” for the pig sector and the British Poultry Council has stated that the current situation for poultry meat businesses remains critical following avian flu, drastic increases in costs of production, energy and feed, labour shortages and difficulties with trading. Are the Government looking at the areas that they have requested—investment in robust biosecurity and the viability of vaccination in commercial property?

There are many examples of invasive species causing huge problems for biodiversity, and we have heard about many of them today. Signal crayfish carry crayfish plague, which kills the UK’s only native species, the white-clawed crayfish, which is now recognised as globally endangered. Buglife’s “PotWatch” survey identifies increased reports of non-native flatworms, which can reduce local earthworm populations by 20%. Invasive pests, pathogens and diseases are commonly spread through horticultural imports. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, mentioned the huge increase in trade and imports and the impact of this. We know that invasives can travel in live plants and plant products, through the soil and the packaging they are conveyed in, and that routes for invasives to spread often bring about significant breaches of UK biosecurity.

We have heard that climate change is exacerbating these risks, as it makes it easier for invasive species from warmer climates to establish themselves in the UK. Furthermore, as new trade routes and freeports open, there is a greater chance of new species entering the UK, as biosecurity measures at international borders have not kept pace with the growing volume, diversity and origins of global trade and travel.

Trees have been a central part of today’s debate. The Woodland Trust has been mentioned by noble Lords; it has clearly demonstrated that the UK has an unsustainable rate of new tree threats, significantly compromising government aims, as we have heard, to create new woods and trees for biodiversity, carbon and people. Many noble Lords have mentioned the importance of tree diseases such as ash dieback—a clear example of how tree imports can have a catastrophic impact on our trees and woodlands. We now expect to lose anything between 50% and 80% of our existing ash trees. I am sure that anyone who walks in the countryside or even drives along its roads can see the sad state of our ash trees. We also have severe dieback of larch trees in the UK, which has been mentioned. The problem is that it can jump to other species, which is why so many larch trees are being cut down. When I walk my dog in the woods in Cumbria, it is heartbreaking—areas are completely devastated, with every single tree gone.

The cost of dealing with new pests and diseases often falls to farmers and land managers as well as to government, and ash dieback has been predicted to cost around £15 billion. To put this into perspective, that is almost twice the estimated cost of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. We have to protect our precious woodlands and trees from these increasing pest and pathogen arrivals. Prevention is cheaper than cure. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, the overall ambition must be to reduce reliance on imports, properly equipping nurseries with skills, labour and funding.

Buglife sent a good briefing on how concerned it is that current phytosanitary requirements for imported goods are simply not fit for purpose and are significantly weaker than the exporting standards required to trade to the EU. Can the Minister explain why this would be the case? It is really difficult to detect many small species, such as ants, snails, slugs and beetles, in imports. Will the Minister look at Buglife’s suggestion that the most suitable preventive measure is to end the importation of soils and potted plants containing soil? Other countries do it, so why is this not something that the UK could look at?

We have also heard about the Government’s commitment to a three-year trial of an invasive species inspectorate. As this trial is now nearly complete and inspections have revealed high levels of non-compliance, are the Government thinking of making this permanent? It would clearly make a huge difference.

In conclusion, public awareness was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, specifically the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford. This is an important part of the battle against our problems with biosecurity. There is a compelling need for the UK Government, industry and society as a whole to invest in redoubling efforts. We need a proper, evidenced-based way to identify emergent issues and tackle them.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and other noble Lords for their very kind words. I am honoured and privileged to be giving my maiden speech in this afternoon’s debate. The key issues impacting our environment, such as biosecurity and species loss, are not only close to my heart but one of the central challenges we currently face. I shall return to this subject in a minute.

In researching maiden speeches, I was struck by two recurring themes. The first is a desire for brevity—a subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, this morning. My wife’s grandfather, Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport, was a prominent Member of the other place. He provided some formative training in this area. Whenever anyone stood up to make a speech, including the vicar for his Sunday morning sermon, he would mutter in a terrible stage whisper, “Five minutes”. If anyone dared to exceed the allotted time, he would follow up with an even worse stage whisper, “The fellow doesn’t know when to stop”.

The second theme is consistent reference to the warm welcome that new Members of this place receive from Black Rod and the many others who make up the wonderful team here. I add my own thanks for the very warm welcome that I have received. I am also grateful to my noble friends Lord Benyon—currently in Guatemala—and Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie for introducing me to the House just before Christmas. Both have offered me useful advice on how to navigate this place. I hope that your Lordships will bear with me as I find my feet in this unfamiliar landscape.

I am conscious that I have two tasks today—to respond to this debate and to give your Lordships a little personal background on my journey to this Dispatch Box. Let me start with a brief summary of the latter. In my working life, I have held a number of different jobs. I have been a soldier, a retailer, a commercial property manager and involved in quite a few start-up businesses.

I have also had the great privilege of working with some of our country’s most prestigious conservation charities and NGOs, most recently as chair of the Atlantic Salmon Trust. Like many other conservation charities, the Atlantic Salmon Trust is an amazing organisation, fighting to preserve the iconic wild Atlantic salmon from further decline. One of the most valuable things I learned about wild salmon is their importance in maintaining the health and biodiversity of the ecosystem they live in. The recovery actions that benefit a keystone species such as wild Atlantic salmon also benefit every other species in that ecosystem. If we are serious about reversing biodiversity decline, focusing on these keystone species is a very good place to start.

Running concurrently with my various day jobs, I have been a hill farmer and land manager for more than 30 years in the Scottish Borders, where I live with my wonderful wife, three children and a menagerie of other animals. The backbone of our farm is a flock of hardy blackface sheep. It is just as well that they are hardy, as our farm starts at a height of 600 feet and climbs to a little over 1,700 feet. At the top of our hill is open moorland—a hunting ground for golden eagles, peregrine falcons and a range of other raptors. It is also home to mountain hares, lapwing, grouse, snipe, golden plover, curlew, adders and many other rare species. They are all abundant, due to our careful habitat creation and targeted predator management—two essential ingredients in reversing biodiversity loss. One of the great joys of my life is that I can hear the eerie and evocative call of the curlew from my bedroom window in the spring and summer months.

Our constant objective and overarching aim is to balance nature recovery with farming and food production. As many in this place will know, balancing these two sometimes contradictory objectives is not easy. The time and cost of implementing nature recovery on the farm can create some difficult economic frictions and the very process of farming can present some really hard choices—choices that reflect the realities of life and nature on the front line. This balancing act—it is perhaps better described as a rebalancing act—represents one of the most difficult and important policy challenges for government today. Not only will it guide the future prosperity of our farming and rural communities and help secure domestic food production, it will be the main driver in delivering species recovery and climate change mitigation. I know that getting this balance right is no easy task, but it is certainly not mission impossible—the rather surprising view expressed in my introduction to your Lordships’ House before Christmas.

My second, rather more important, task this afternoon is to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on securing this debate and to thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions. This has been a stimulating debate, with the full spectrum of views expressed—so much so that my support team have run out of paper with the number of messages that they have been sending to me.

The noble Lord, Lord Trees, is absolutely right to highlight globalisation and climate change as the key issues impacting biosecurity. Pests and diseases know no borders, while new and emerging threats are often the result of trade and globalisation and can be further exacerbated by climate change. In addition, upholding high biosecurity standards is paramount for food production and food safety, for human and animal health, and to support our economy and trade. Plant diseases alone are estimated to cost the global economy more than $220 billion annually, and up to 40% of global crop production is lost to pests each year. These are huge numbers that are unlikely to reduce as climate change drives the geographical expansion and the host range of pests and diseases.

Healthy plants and animals are not just an important tool in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss; they directly contribute to many of the UN sustainable development goals, in particular to end hunger, to achieve food security, to improve nutrition and to promote sustainable agriculture. I assure noble Lords that this Government are focused on not only responding to these changing threats but protecting animal, environmental and plant health. The Government published their biological security strategy last summer, aiming to build UK resilience to the increasing spectrum of biological threats. The strategy specifically highlights the interdependencies between environmental, plant, animal and human health—a subject raised by many noble Lords this afternoon.

Let me assure noble Lords of the robust measures that we have in place to maintain and improve our ability to detect, prevent, respond and recover from outbreaks. Surveillance and detection are key to minimising risks from imports. We monitor and respond to trade and movement threats and have a strong information-sharing relationship with our European and international partners; for example, when EHD, a disease acute to deer, appeared on the continent, we stopped imports from affected countries and enhanced post-import testing from neighbouring regions. Our strong sanitary and phytosanitary standards are upheld by checking products in their final form and by assuring the whole production chain of our trading partners.

Our new border target operating model further sets out how we will introduce a new global regime that better targets high-risk commodities while simplifying processes for trade where it is safe to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, talked eloquently about the need for us to balance the sanitary and phytosanitary risks with the need for trade to flow freely. Having recently visited one of our border control posts and seen for myself the work taking place, I am confident that we have the balance about right for the upcoming rollout of the new BTOM system, which starts in earnest in April this year.

Our world-leading science and research capabilities further support our biosecurity. The UK’s health, agriculture, plant, environmental, and life science sectors are supported by a large cadre of expertise—of international standard reference laboratories and innovative research programmes. Research on new diagnostics, vector-borne diseases and veterinary vaccine technology, are just some examples. Indeed, our globally respected scientists at the Animal and Plant Health Agency require world-class facilities. I was delighted to see first-hand on a recent visit why our Weybridge laboratory is internationally recognised for diseases such as avian influenza and rabies. In fact, it has the largest number of internationally recognised reference laboratories anywhere in the world, something that we should be justifiably proud of.

The first stage of the Government’s £200 million redevelopment of this vital facility has begun. Once completed, it will be a world-leading facility. It will not only cement the UK’s global science status—since almost two-thirds of infectious diseases in humans originate from animals—but safeguard and enhance the UK’s capability to respond to the increasing threat from zoonotic diseases, protect public health and underpin the UK’s trade capability with animal export products, which are worth over £12 billion per year to the UK economy. I am committed to working with colleagues in the Animal and Plant Health Agency and across government, including His Majesty’s Treasury, to move the next stage of the Weybridge development forward.

On the plant side, the £5.8 million Holt Laboratory in Hampshire opened in 2022, conducting world-leading research on plant pests and disease threats. The Fera Science laboratory in Yorkshire, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and many others, is our science reference laboratory for plant and bee health. Its work is vital for our success.

As many noble Lords have noted, despite our best efforts we cannot keep every disease and vector of disease out. Therefore, it is vital that we promote strong biosecurity and maintain our response capabilities. Unfortunately, in recent years we have had several opportunities to test these capabilities, including responses to the Asian hornet and the oak processionary moth, and on the animal side, avian influenza and, most recently, bluetongue virus.

We continue to regularly test our capabilities through exercises and horizon scanning, we learn lessons when outbreaks do occur, and we invest in improvements. We work closely with sector groups on our preparedness and outbreak response, and we remain ever grateful for their insight and commitment.

I am conscious of the time and the length and breadth of noble Lords’ questions. It would probably take me more than my 20-minute slot just to answer those. If I fail to answer anybody’s questions, I will write and place a copy in the Library.

The noble Lord, Lord Trees, and many others, asked about the progress on the biological security strategy. Defra is a key delivery department in the UK Biological Security Strategy published last June. It commits the Government to addressing biological threats, including those related to animal and plant health and invasive non-native species. Defra is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to lead the “respond” pillar. This includes having robust contingency plans for biological threats; ensuring that the UK border maintains biosecurity with a new BTOM system, which is going live this April; and establishing a new inspectorate to tackle invasive non-native species, which is now up and running. In parallel, our Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 set out how we will improve our environment at home and abroad, including through biodiversity.

The noble Lord also asked when the border target operating model would be working to full capacity. When the new certificates for EU imports come into force in January, they will need to be signed by an official veterinarian from the exporting country to confirm their safety of origin. It is the responsibility of that country to appoint official veterinarians who are qualified and authorised to do that job. Our Chief Veterinary Officer has been in constant contact with her colleagues in Europe on this subject.

On the number of vets we have here, I should probably declare an interest: my son’s partner is a vet, and I understand some of the issues around retaining young vets in our country. More than half her intake from the University of Bristol just three years ago have ceased to practise. Retaining and recruiting young vets over here is very important. We are aware of this issue and the high demand for this vital profession.

The noble Lord also asked questions on how Defra works to improve public awareness of threats to plant health and how to prevent them. The Government cannot act alone on plant health: we have a collective responsibility to keep our plants healthy. Campaigns are ongoing to raise awareness of plant health and biosecurity. This includes pests that are already present, such as oak processionary moth, as well as threats that are not yet present, such as Xylella. There is active join-up across the Defra family group with external stakeholders on plant health communications, including an annual collaboration campaign for National Plant Health Week.

Other noble Lords joined the noble Lord, Lord Trees, to ask about preparedness for a future pandemic. The Covid pandemic has focused us on being better prepared. Disease events that we once thought would happen once in a lifetime have increased and may be at least once a decade now. Globalisation and trade, the demand for imported food, and cheap travel all enable diseases to spread silently and far more easily. The UK is strongly advocating for international collaboration on pandemic preparedness and working towards better early-warning systems; more sensitive, cost-effective and faster diagnostics; and improvements in vaccine development.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, the noble Baronesses, Lady Murphy and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised the important issue of antimicrobial resistance. I am unlikely to share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on the proven benefits of grouse-moor management, but I think we will agree that the issue of increased antibiotic use in the salmon farming industry is alarming. Antimicrobial resistance is a global threat. It can lead to untreatable or difficult-to-treat infectious diseases in humans, animals and plants. We are vigilant to its spread. We have a well-established surveillance programme that monitors the use of antibiotics in animals and resistance in major food-producing species. To tackle antimicrobial resistance, we are committed to reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals.

I am conscious that there were many other questions from noble Lords but, as I said, I would prefer to write to them and leave copies in the Library.

In bringing this debate to a conclusion, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for securing this timely debate and allowing me the opportunity to reinforce my department’s commitment to biosecurity. Protecting the biosecurity of the United Kingdom is at the forefront of this Government’s agenda, as our extensive and ongoing investment into the science capability at Weybridge demonstrates. This Government’s One Health and climate-focused approach is a key element of our biological security strategy: supporting efforts across environmental, plant, animal and human disciplines to safeguard our biosecurity. My department and our key partners across government are committed to this strategy. Not only does it address biological threats but it will deliver on our pledge to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than when we inherited it.

My Lords, I am conscious of time constraints, particularly after the remarks of the Leader of the House, so I will not say as much as usual and will be constrained in what I say with regard to the Minister having given his maiden speech. One usually says rather more, but we met for the first time only last night and I hope he will forgive me. I am grateful for his willingness to meet, and I very much look forward to working with him. With a background as a farmer and keeping sheep, he will know all about diseases, parasites and other useful things, and his knowledge of wildlife, conservation, food production and land management will be great assets in his role. I am delighted to note that he has a vet in the family, which I am sure will help.

I thank all the speakers. I never cease to be surprised and impressed, although I should not be, by how, without connivance, so many different facets are raised in debates in this Chamber. People bring different views on a subject and they are always articulated eloquently and with great knowledge. There is some repetition but, as several speakers mentioned, repetition has its place and virtues, and can do some good. I hope that we have helped raise the profile of this important subject. It was gratifying that there were so many speakers, which is testimony to the importance of biosecurity in all its facets. I am pleased that my good friend, our convenor, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, managed to get his grey squirrels into the debate. The only thing left to do is to agree the Motion.

Motion agreed.