The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con)
My Lords, I declare my membership of the International Dendrology Society and my farming interests. I have planted a few trees and have seen them, particularly the jubilee copse I planted in 2012, suffer from grey squirrel damage.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for securing, at last, this important debate, and to all noble Lords who have contributed. I can say with assurance after reviewing the speakers’ list that the expertise your Lordships bring to this debate can surely not be surpassed in any other legislative Chamber in the world.
While it is a privilege to be Biosecurity Minister, I am constantly concerned about the matter. I cannot stress enough the importance I place on keeping our country safe from all invasive species, pests and diseases which present a threat to our trees and plants.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked whether we should be doing more. My answer is a resounding yes, which I shall expand on during this debate. Whatever our view on leaving the European Union, I see it as an opportunity for us to heighten our biosecurity. It is an issue that we discussed when I gave evidence. One of the opportunities is that we are going to be able to act faster than we have during our membership.
There are so many ways in which our plants and trees are vital natural capital. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, spoke about our ecosystem, and other noble Lords spoke about the history of our country. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans spoke about healing powers and green prescriptions, and my noble friend Lady Byford spoke of inspirational work in the national forest.
Tree planting is fundamental to reducing net emissions and responding to climate change. We are committed to increasing planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. Supported by our nature for climate fund, we will overhaul our approach to tree planting and in the spring we will launch our consultation on the English tree strategy. Our proposals for environmental land management will be one of the most important environmental reforms for 40 years. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on his speech, in particular his reference to the net gain in having development that communities choose, in working with developers and in those developments enhancing the environment rather than detracting from it.
Biosecurity needs to be at the heart of all our plans for environmental improvement, so we can do all we can to protect our trees. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Caithness that there have been mistakes in the past. We must address them. We also need to improve variety and the quality of woodland management. Indeed, it is important that we think of our responsibility for the management of the countryside.
My noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, spoke of deer management. It is right that the responsibility for deer on private land lies with individual landowners, who are encouraged to participate in local deer management groups where deer are causing damage. There is also support for deer management under the countryside stewardship scheme, which provides funding for deer management plans and capital items, such as high seats. Forestry England has a programme for deer management across the entire public forest estate. I think we all recognise that more needs to be done.
This year is an incredibly commanding year for plant health as it is designated the United Nations International Year of Plant Health. This is a major opportunity to raise awareness and strengthen biosecurity further. Defra’s Chief Plant Health Officer and I will be playing a full role in the UK’s contribution.
On the sourcing of trees, we support the Grown in Britain agenda. Indeed, 90% of trees planted in a forestry setting by Forestry England are UK grown, and that has been the position for the past three years. Initiatives which increase domestic production to grow ever more trees and plants in this country are warmly to be welcomed. Tree planting and UK production will be supported by the nature for climate fund and our forthcoming tree strategy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned trade. Easier global travel and trade mean there is now greater diversity of plants and plant products entering the UK than ever before. We trade 22 million tonnes of plant products every year, worth around £14 billion. I hear the calls to prohibit this trade, but we have to recognise—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised this—that that would not always be the silver bullet. The biogeography of the British Isles means that some invasive pests and diseases cross the channel unassisted in the air, as happened with ash dieback, particularly in the eastern counties, although I do not deny that we have made some grave errors which we are now having to cope with.
I agree with a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Framlingham and Lady Fookes, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, that we need to work on increasing capacity and capability in our nurseries to meet demand. Increasing domestic production and growing ever more trees and plants in this country is essential. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we need to think about this in the whole system of plants as well as trees. They go together.
Wherever trees are sourced, be it at home or abroad, we must place the strongest emphasis on biosecurity, a point made by my noble friend Lady Byford. At border entry points and nurseries, our officials are on the front line and are targeting their inspections on the highest risk plants and plant products. The Government invest more than £30 million per year in our plant health service. Our inspectors conduct more than 46,600 physical checks per year of high-risk consignments imported from across the world, and they are highly effective. Indeed, I have been to Heathrow and seen that for myself. The UK currently has 24 protected zones for non-native plant pests and diseases. They ban the import of any host plants, unless they meet prescribed requirements to ensure freedom from the relevant pest or disease and are accompanied by a plant passport certifying that. In the UK, we have augmented these measures with national notification schemes for imports of oak, pine, sweet chestnut, plane, prunus and elm and for consignments of solid-fuel wood. These schemes provide intelligence and enable targeted checks. On the point my noble friend Lady Fookes made, later this year we will launch a consultation on quarantine arrangements for those plants deemed to be the highest risk. I should not say this, but I am rather keen on that.
We have introduced new registration requirements for all those who produce, store, move or sell plants and plant products. We have increased the number of goods which require a phytosanitary certificate, so that all plants and living parts of plants, except for five tropical fruits, now require certification upon import to the UK from outside Europe; and 38 high-risk plants, including native trees, are now provisionally prohibited from being imported into the UK from outside of Europe until a full assessment has been carried out.
A number of noble Lords asked what has been done with the tree health resilience strategy. Considerable progress has been made with the establishment of the UK plant biosecurity alliance, the launch of the HTA plant healthy management standard and self-assessment, the recruitment of more plant health inspectors at the border, the launch of Action Oak, the publication of our oak and ash research strategy and the planting of 3,000 tolerant trees in the UK’s first tolerant ash archive. Later this year, we will launch a formal consultation measure on quarantine.
On dealing with outbreaks, unfortunately we cannot eliminate all risks, but when outbreaks occur, the government plant health service, led by our Chief Plant Health Officer, has stringent, tested contingency plans. Last year, following six years’ surveillance, we announced the eradication of the Asian longhorn beetle from Kent. I am very pleased that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, mentioned the isolated outbreak of Ips typographus in Kent. It too is now under eradication. Last summer, we responded swiftly with emergency legislation to stop the trade in oaks from Europe taller than 1.2 metres—that is the height from which they are susceptible to oak processionary moth. Furthermore, all oaks from outside Europe are now prohibited.
I say emphatically to my noble friend Lord Framlingham that I was furious about this issue, but I can assure him that all the oak trees in the counties that he outlined in his question were located and destroyed. In London and Surrey, where we are seeking to contain oak processionary moth—an issue raised by my noble friend Lord Caithness—the Forestry Commission, local authorities and land managers are working on a programme of treatment and surveillance. I attended a day at the Royal Parks, where trees with 60 nests were being removed. The highly toxic nature of these pests means that we need to work on this.
Xylella was raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. We are playing a leading role in monitoring the risks from Xylella, ensuring that we have the most robust protections in place. We already have stringent import restrictions on the highest-risk hosts, such as olive trees, and we are reviewing what additional requirements are needed. I assure your Lordships that we will not hold back from introducing further measures; the Chief Plant Health Officer knows of my appetite on that.
Ash dieback was raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery. I remember from my childhood the loss of elm in the Vale of Aylesbury, and in the farm at Kimble where we lost great friends in those trees. I want to offer some hope amid this gloom. We have published our research strategy, and indeed invested money, with renowned institutions such as Kew, Cambridge, York, the James Hutton Institute and the John Innes Centre, to assemble the genome of the pathogen, estimate the ecological impacts of the disease and conduct the world’s largest genetic screening trials for disease tolerance. I mentioned the archive of 3,000 tolerant ash trees; this tolerance is hereditable. We are looking to use those trees in—I emphasise the words—an escalated and accelerated breeding programme to repopulate our landscapes. This is not only for the trees themselves but because of the ecosystem consequences.
I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that we recommend felling only if it becomes a safety issue. I say also, to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that we are supporting landowners to manage diseased ash, establishing an ash dieback health and safety task force, and providing guidance and grants to replace trees. We are also working with local authorities because, clearly, that is extremely important. As far as private landowners are concerned, government grants are provided to support the felling of infected ash under the Countryside Stewardship scheme and grants for restocking are also available.
My noble friend Lord Home spoke about resistant elm cultivars. The most recent report of the trials—one of which has been initiated in Hampshire—was produced in 2019. Our research shows that the prospect for ash is far more favourable than for elm over the long term. Part of what we know is that the genome of the ash is much wider than the elm.
I turn to the grey squirrel. How could I not acknowledge the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and all that he and the UK Squirrel Accord are undertaking? With support from Defra, the accord’s research to develop an oral contraceptive as an effective method for controlling grey squirrel populations is delivering promising initial results. Fertility control has the potential to reduce grey squirrel populations and the spread of the squirrel pox virus. I am very much aware of our responsibilities—a point raised by my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Colgrain. Our commitments under the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 are hugely important. We recognise that we need greater resources for prevention and response to invasive species, and this will be under consideration.
On scientific expertise, the UK has been at the forefront of plant science for many years. Kew is a global and unparalleled resource for plant and fungal knowledge and collections. The Forest Research agency is the largest employer of forest scientists in the UK. I say to my noble friend Lord Framlingham that our UK Plant Health Risk Register contains details of more than 1,000 plant pests and pathogens. We are investing in research and evidence to understand pests and diseases and find new ways to tackle them; we invested more than £37 million between 2012 and 2019.
Last year, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Defra announced a new £13 million research fund to address threats to plant health from bacterial pathogens. I acknowledge the work of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and all at Powderham for their co-operation in the ongoing work on sweet chestnut blight. Research is under way to inform long-term management and investigate whether an effective biocontrol can be developed in the United Kingdom. I say to my noble friend Lord Colgrain that Action Oak is a pioneering, collaborative partnership, raising funds for ambitious research. Under this umbrella, we are funding seven new PhDs on oak, and the University of Birmingham is investigating the natural resistance of native oaks in the arms race with pathogens.
I say also, to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we are advising diversifying species and provenance to help woodlands become more resilient to pests, diseases and climate change. I have a list before me—aspen, beech, birch, cherry, field maple, hornbeam, oak, lime, rowan, sycamore, willow—and then the words “et cetera”. The importance in biosecurity is to make sure we have variety and range.
The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, raised phytophthora. This is clearly an issue of great concern. The Government have had a comprehensive programme of disease control in England since 2012; over £30 million has been provided to fund surveillance, detection, disease management, and so forth. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about the choice of tree species. The point again is that diversity in our woodland species, and genetics within species, in adapting to climate change is hugely important.
Any future changes to plant health and official controls legislation will continue to be based on principles of providing high levels of biosecurity. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that my ambitions are to raise biosecurity. On tax incentives, this is way above my pay grade and something for the Chancellor, but we are preparing to consult on an English tree strategy, which will explore what policies are needed to support our domestic nursery sector.
Nurseries, foresters, landowners, landscapers, charities, trade bodies, gardeners and scientists all have a major role to play. Defra has worked with industry to establish a senior UK plant biosecurity committee of representatives from across these professions—indeed, we will be meeting in Kew next week—with the aim of constantly raising biosecurity standards in the UK. The Plant Healthy assurance scheme is an initiative of this new alliance and will be launched by the Horticultural Trades Association, in collaboration with Grown in Britain, this year. Across the country, consumers will be able to recognise the Plant Healthy brand—I am so relieved that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was able to provide assurances about poinsettias—and buy with greater biosecurity confidence, which is so important. Raising awareness of good biosecurity is essential. The Government promote the Keep It Clean and Don’t Risk It! campaigns.
We are all united in our determination to protect our trees. We must invest and use the scientific expertise we have in this country, while also—I emphasise—working closely with other countries across the world as well as with the devolved Administrations. We all have an interest in enhancing our abilities to counter threats and diseases. In this battle—it is a battle—I am in no doubt that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and all your Lordships, will be in the vanguard of these vital endeavours.