1 Lord Davies of Brixton debates involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Biosecurity and Infectious Diseases

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 18th January 2024

(6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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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?