Baroness Fookes Portrait Baroness Fookes (Con)
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My Lords, my name has already been mentioned in this regard and, like others who have spoken, I am fully in sympathy with and support of the thrust of the amendments before us. I worry, however, about what happens if we pass such an amendment and it has to go back to the Commons. I do not know how close we are to a general election, but it is all too easy for things to get lost, particularly when there are other major Bills—perhaps of more interest to others than to us—which might get much further ahead in the queue. Having waited 50 years for a Bill such as this to be passed, I am desperately anxious that it does not fall at the last hurdle. So, reluctantly, I would not wish to vote for this amendment, but my heart is there for it. It is simply a pragmatic reaction.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, in line with the noble Baroness’s comments, I have a lot of empathy with this amendment and indeed the later amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. If they had been incorporated originally, that would have been perfectly reasonable, but alas, they are not in the Bill. This is a very important Bill and to send it back to the Commons would, as has been mentioned, seriously risk losing it. As it stands, it is an important Bill for the improvement of animal welfare. We have had a lot of animal welfare legislation in the last 10 years, but this is one of the more important examples. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, has waited 50 years for it, as she told us on her birthday at Second Reading. Regrettably, I say to my noble friend that I cannot support the amendment.

Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Portrait Baroness Hodgson of Abinger (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, on his first amendment. I, like the previous two speakers, would ideally have liked to see this in the Bill at the beginning. I have not been campaigning for as long as my noble friend Lady Fookes, but I have been campaigning to get this ban in place for a number of years—from the time when I sat on the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which I think started in the 1990s.

I am keen to make sure that there is no excuse not to get this on to the statute book. My noble friend Lady Fookes and I tried to get it into the Agriculture Bill a few years ago. We were told, “Please don’t do it”, but we promised to bring it back in another form, and here it is. I can only echo the words of my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Trees: yes, ideally, it would be good to have this, but let us not hold up the Bill. Please let us ensure that it gets on to the statute book so that animals can no longer be exported for slaughter or fattening.

EU Imports and Exports: Food and Agricultural Products

Lord Trees Excerpts
Thursday 2nd May 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on securing this debate, and declare my interests as a veterinary surgeon and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare.

The introduction of these risk-based checks on imported medium-risk and high-risk animal and plant products from the EU is to be welcomed. As noble Lords might imagine, I will focus particularly on the import of animal products. These checks simply create parity with imports from all other third-party countries, and parity with the checks that the EU carries out on our exports to it in the absence of a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. In that respect, it creates a level playing field for our farmers, and should help rebalance, to some extent, a very distorted trade balance, to which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has already referred. In spite of that, as she also mentioned, the EU remains the UK’s biggest market for agri-food exports.

Apart from fairness, the real importance of these checks is biosecurity. These checks, particularly the physical checks, in a risk-based approach, will reduce the risk of importing to the UK infectious diseases in plants, animals and indeed humans. Since imports from the EU constitute such a large proportion of all the food products of animal origin imported into the UK—80% of all the animal-origin foods in 2022—it is critical that the EU is included in biosecurity checks. Despite the relative sophistication of EU animal disease control and surveillance, a number of animal pathogens occur in continental Europe that we want to exclude from the UK animal population. There are also potential public health threats that we want to exclude from food.

Delays in introducing these checks—there have been five since they were announced in 2021—have, historically, created a vulnerability in our UK biosecurity. During that period we have seen, for example, an outbreak of disease in over 200 people in the UK caused by salmonella, likely to have been imported in frozen poultry products from Poland. The new checks should prevent such issues and, much more importantly, reduce the likelihood of major outbreaks of infectious disease in the UK, such as African swine fever, a highly fatal disease of pigs that is spreading westward in continental Europe and can infect a wildlife reservoir—the wild boar. The UK Government estimate that an outbreak of African swine fever in the UK would cost £570 million-odd per annum. Since we import nearly 1 million tonnes of pigmeat every year, mainly from the EU, and the African swine fever virus will persist for many weeks in pig products, African swine fever poses a potent threat to the UK pig population.

With regard to the new checks, I note there is to be a reduction in physical and identity checks on medium-risk products from the rest of the world. This is of some concern, particularly with regard to diseases of global distribution, such as foot and mouth, the outbreak of which in the UK in 2001 cost £8 billion, which equates to £12.8 billion in 2022 prices. Will the Minister assure the House that this will not increase our vulnerability to globally distributed epidemic diseases such as foot and mouth? I should add that an epidemic of infectious disease in UK animals would not just cause colossal direct losses in animal welfare, our farming economy and food security, but lead to international trade restrictions on our global exports, which rely on our freedom from disease status.

Of course, as has been mentioned, there are costs to the implementation of these controls. Logistical challenges include the time-critical nature of some imports, particularly plant products. Furthermore, despite the Government assuring us that the impact on food and drink businesses will be only 0.2% over three years, other organisations predict larger costs and impacts, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mentioned. However, in the context of the vast costs of epidemic disease control and eradication, and in the absence of an SPS agreement with the EU, the costs of these checks to industry, and ultimately to the consumer, are relatively small. I suggest they should be viewed as an insurance premium to reduce the likelihood of much greater potential losses, which could affect animal and human health, and the whole UK economy.

Chemicals Strategy

Lord Trees Excerpts
Tuesday 30th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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Again, the noble Lord raises a very good point. This is serious stuff which needs to be adhered to in great detail, so I will take his comments back and ensure that we strive much harder this year to get that report out on time.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, antimicrobial resistance is a major global health problem, including in the UK. What are His Majesty’s Government doing regarding surveillance for antibiotics and their residues in aqueous environments and to reduce the contamination of those aqueous environments with antibiotics and residues, which can spread and facilitate the development of antibiotic resistance in humans and animals?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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Antimicrobial resistance has been raised a number of times in the House. I have had several meetings with the noble Lord and his colleagues, talking about the UK’s success story in this area. Antibiotic use has been reduced by more than 50% over the last five years. However, there is more progress to be made and the noble Lord raises a series of very valuable points, which I will write to him on.

Veterinary Medicines (Amendment etc.) Regulations 2024

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Thursday 18th April 2024

(3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Douglas-Miller) (Con)
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My Lords, these regulations were laid in draft before the House on 4 March. They seek to amend the legislative regime for veterinary medicines set out in the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 in respect of Great Britain. The amendments will ensure that the law is fit for purpose to protect animal health, public health and the environment.

We are a nation of animal lovers. Veterinary medicines play a vital role in helping vets and those looking after our animals to maintain their health and welfare. As well as benefiting our much-loved companion animals, medicines also play an important role in supporting the farming industry to maintain the health and welfare of their livestock. This is pivotal to the UK’s food supply. Veterinary medicines are, by necessity, highly regulated goods. Their quality, safety and effectiveness are assured by controls on their manufacture, marketing, supply and use, which are set out in the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013.

However, these regulations require updating to reflect changes and technical advances in industry, to future-proof the regulatory regime and to reduce regulatory burden where possible. I believe that the length of this instrument, at 89 pages, gives an indication of the necessity of such an update. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not go into the full details of all the changes, many of which are very technical; instead, I will summarise the rationale behind some of the most significant amendments.

To market a medicine in the UK, a pharmaceutical company needs authorisation for that medicine from the regulator. A large number of the amendments relate to changes in the requirements for companies that hold such authorisations. These regulations apply in Great Britain but will also facilitate the UK-wide marketing of products. The changes will bring Great Britain’s regulatory regime closer to the EU’s, but it is not simply the case that we are just accepting EU rules. My department actively proposed and participated in the discussions on changes to the EU law when we were a member state and it was always the expectation that these changes would apply in the UK too. Leaving the EU, however, has allowed a more flexible approach to updating our legislation.

The changes to marketing authorisation requirements have been requested and are supported by the pharmaceutical companies themselves. They will allow those companies to submit a similar dossier supporting their application for marketing authorisation to my department, to the European Medicines Agency and to EU member states in order to obtain authorisations in both the UK and the EU. This provides for a consistency in technical and data requirements and is vital in ensuring that the UK remains a competitive and attractive global market for veterinary medicines.

The amendments will also make it possible for companies to use common packaging across the UK. This will reduce unnecessary administrative and regulatory burden on industry and will help ensure that these companies continue to market medicines across the UK.

The instrument also amends the requirements related to where such companies must be based to reflect the current practice of global companies having a European base to market medicines across the European region. This provides a regulatory pathway in the regulations that will allow companies based in the EU to continue to market medicines in the UK to ensure the continued availability of medicines here.

For manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of veterinary medicines, amendments include, for example, the introduction of a registration scheme for manufacturers, distributors and importers of active pharmaceutical ingredients. This will ensure that we have greater oversight in the use of these important, but potentially hazardous, chemicals, which in turn will maximise our ability to take appropriate action in the case of a safety concern or supply shortage.

We encourage appropriate and responsible prescription and supply of veterinary medicines with the amendments, for example, by enhancing the information that must be recorded by prescribers when prescribing medicines. A number of these changes form part of the Government’s plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance to protect human and animal health. Our changes are intended to secure the UK’s significant reductions in antibiotic use in food-producing animals. The legislation will make it very clear that antibiotics are not to be used routinely or to compensate for poor farming practices. The changes will prevent the general use of antibiotics in healthy animals, with exceptions made for where the risk of disease is very high and the consequences likely to be severe. The Third UK One Health Report showed that in 2019 about two-thirds of antibiotics in the UK were for use in humans, compared to one-third in animals. Our antibiotic usage in animals is already lower than in all other European countries with comparably large agriculture sectors. We are keen to maintain a collaborative approach with vets and farmers to ensure a continued and sustainable reduction in antibiotic use. This approach has already led to a 59% reduction in use since 2014.

Other changes include updates to the fees that the regulator charges to industry to undertake its functions. The regulator, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, is a cost-recovery agency, and it is right and proper that the fees are amended to reflect the true cost of providing its regulatory services. These fees have not been updated in more than 10 years.

In conclusion, veterinary medicines are essential to the health and welfare of our animals and to supporting the farming sector in rearing food-producing animals. I hope noble Lords will agree that this instrument is vital to ensuring the continued supply of safe and beneficial medicines while ensuring that my department continues to have effective oversight of how these medicines are manufactured, supplied and used. This includes changes to support our efforts to reduce the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance by further reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals. I hope noble Lords will support these changes. I beg to move.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, first, I say a warm welcome to these new regulations, which are in general welcomed by the veterinary pharmaceutical industry and, I should also say, by the veterinary profession in general, because they are the first major revision of veterinary medicine regulations since 2013. Given the pace of change, technological innovation, pharmacological developments, environmental awareness and, particularly, our increasing awareness of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, these regulations are very timely and welcome.

According to the National Office of Animal Health, the umbrella organisation covering 97% of the UK veterinary pharmaceutical market, the annual sales of veterinary drugs in the UK amount to about £745 million. That is a substantial market and of critical importance, of course, to the health and welfare of animals, food safety and public health. But it is important to recognise as well that, in global terms, this is a relatively small market; thus our alignment, as far as possible, with international standards and requirements is very important to ensure that a full range of products—not only drugs but, critically, vaccines as well—is able to be marketed economically in the UK for the benefit of animals.

In this respect, a general feature of these new regulations is that they rationalise and improve alignment with many aspects of international practice. They attempt to reduce the burdens and obstacles to the global pharmaceutical industry in making veterinary products more readily available on the UK market, which is a very good thing. More specifically, they improve alignment with EU regulations. I hope that this will have a positive effect on the imminent negotiations with the EU to ensure the continuing supply of veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland, for which there is no agreement yet under the Windsor Framework, and which are subject to a temporary grace period. That expires at the end of 2025, which potentially will have quite serious repercussions and lead to quite serious reductions in the availability of veterinary pharmaceutical products for both livestock and companion animals, unless a new agreement is reached.

The regulations involve a number of changes with regard to market authorisation application. Those changes should increase the alignment to facilitate the submission of one dossier to more than one territory, while simplifying labelling and packaging requirements. This should help to optimise the availability of products across the devolved nations of the UK and, indeed, across Europe. A major feature of the regulations is to update controls with regard to antimicrobial marketing, prescribing and classification to help reduce the risk of the development of antimicrobial resistance. There will be further restrictions on the prescription of antibiotic veterinary medicines, so that they are not used routinely as compensation for poor hygiene and low standards in animal husbandry and management practices. That is all an extremely positive development.

It is worth repeating, though, that antibiotics have been banned for use as growth promoters in the UK since 2006. Critically, and of specific importance, is the prohibition of antibiotic usage for any prophylactic purpose except in exceptional circumstances. There is a requirement in these regulations to justify the prescribing of antibiotics in such exceptional circumstances by recording them and making it necessary to conduct a veterinary review of management practices to ensure that there is no recurring need for antibiotic use, where possible.

With regard to antibiotic usage in medicated feed, there is a limit prescribed in the regulations on the time between antibiotics being prescribed and treatment being started, which has been set at no more than five working days. It has been pointed out to me by the aquaculture industry in Scotland, for example, that, given the distances between medicated feed manufacturers and, say, the needs of a salmon farm in the northern Shetland Isles, that five-day period is rather restrictive and may be challenging. I ask the Minister: could such practical issues be taken into account when interpreting that requirement?

Food Security

Lord Trees Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord raises a good point, and I was a little surprised that I did not see him out there when I went to visit the protesters last night. He is entirely correct; they did make a lot of noise. The Government are supporting farmers across a whole range of areas, be it technology, science, financial, or productivity gain. But it needs to be understood that we are going through a transition at the moment, in order to recalibrate and rebalance our food production and environmental benefits in the countryside. The Government are being crystal clear that food production comes first and foremost in that battle.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, further to the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, may I press the Minister a bit further? In negotiating free trade agreements, will His Majesty’s Government set minimum environmental and animal welfare standards which imported animal products must meet, equivalent to those we demand of our own farmers, so that we do not put our farmers at a comparative disadvantage and undermine our food security?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely right about this issue. Both Defra and the Government have been crystal clear that agriculture is at the forefront of any trade deals we negotiate. We reserve the right to pause negotiations with any country if progress is not being made. We recently did this with Canada, which the president of the NFU welcomed as a relief for farmers. All imports need to meet our food safety requirements, and free trade agreements do not change our protections for food safety, animal welfare and the environment.

Environment Agency

Lord Trees Excerpts
Thursday 7th March 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My noble friend is right: local authorities play an absolutely crucial role in protecting the public from flooding. There is a bidding process for funding from the Environment Agency, which looks to assess where funding is most needed to protect and repair the most property and individual life. I appreciate that this is not a perfect system, and I will take this point back to the department.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, what is the Environment Agency doing to improve the detection and, more importantly, reduction of the levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our aqueous environments?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord raises a very topical point. In the wider context, reducing antimicrobial resistance is one of Defra’s key objectives. I am pleased to say that, in the farming community, we have reduced the use of antibiotics by over 50% as part of the antimicrobial plan. I mention this because one of the main causes of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our waterways comes from the agricultural sector. The Environment Agency continues to use the latest scientific tools to monitor and trial interventions against antibiotic resistance in our rivers, bathing sites and coastal waters. In October last year, the Environment Agency published a review of methods used to better survey and understand antimicrobial resistance. These are being fed into the second five-year antimicrobial resistance action plan.

Animal Welfare (Primate Licences) (England) Regulations 2023

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Tuesday 27th February 2024

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Baroness Fookes Portrait Baroness Fookes (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my past and present connections with the RSPCA.

I welcome this SI, but I am sad that it does not go further. I should have liked to have seen a straight ban on the keeping of primates by private owners. If not, there then has to be a whole series of regulations, rules and guidance to try to ensure that standards are sufficiently high. You could cut all that out if you just said a straight no. That is not what we are faced with this afternoon, though I am grateful for small mercies.

I have been and remain very worried about the impact of unnatural conditions on the keeping of primates, which will continue for a couple of years. It is impossible for the bulk of private owners to provide the kind of natural setting which is suitable for these animals.

Even more importantly, they are social animals. They live naturally in groups. In many cases, owners have only one. To me, that is positively cruel. It is the equivalent of solitary confinement for a human being. We all know the impacts of solitary confinement on the psychology and health of people; I believe that it is equally bad for primates. That is a very real concern which I hope can be overcome by the regulations. But will they insist that people have groups of animals? I suspect not, so one of the difficulties will remain.

I do not want to go into detail on the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has already made. I have considerable sympathy with her criticisms. I too am extremely puzzled as to why the breeding of primates is allowed. For me, if flies in the face of what this SI supposedly wants to do. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why he thinks this is a good idea. Furthermore, I would have thought it will ensure that animals continue to be kept ad infinitum. It is a great puzzle to me.

I am equally puzzled by the point that exhibitions will be allowed. What exhibitions? That sounds more like a circus to me. What possible reason can there be to have animals in exhibitions? It is absolutely absurd. I am sorry to be so firm with my noble friend, but I do not like it and I do not approve.

Then there is the problem of enforcement. Rules and regulations are fine, providing they are adhered to strictly. Here we have an added problem. The instrument sets out all sorts of excellent arrangements as to the amount of space allowed and all these other details, but we do not have the guidance before us to indicate how this would be worked out in practice. It is a continual complaint of mine that, when people bring forth the principles of things, we do not get the details, which are absolutely essential. I worry about this considerably.

We then, of course, have the particular worry of the implementation—the interim period, if you like, when I think after 6 April 2026 people will either need to have a licence or be asked to give up their animals. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, already indicated that this could cause a real problem in practical terms. I too press my noble friend the Minister on exactly how the Government propose to deal with this. Will they, for example, set up special sanctuaries? I do not think there will be enough to do the trick, as at present. I should be happy to hear from my noble friend if I am wrong on that, but I suspect there will be a very real problem with implementation.

For that reason, I too would have preferred what is called a grandfather clause, whereby existing owners could keep the animals for the rest of their natural life. Those conditions may not be ideal, but we have to balance that against the possibility of what will happen in practice if they are all flooded on to the market at once, if I may put it that way, and whether their conditions would be any better. If my noble friend can assure me that that will not be so, then I will worry less about the absence of a grandfather clause.

I both welcome this and am disappointed by some aspects of it, particularly considering the absolutely remarkable ability, with modern technology, to see animals in their natural habitat through films and through sound. Why on earth would anyone wish to keep them in artificial conditions, which will be at best adequate and at worst appalling? I really would wish to go further, but as I say, I accept the SI for want of anything better.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register, particularly my role as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare. I apologise that I may well repeat many of the excellent points already made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Fookes, but they bear repetition. I hope the Minister will take them into account, answer them and perhaps address some of them in guidance.

I broadly welcome these regulations, which were a major feature of the kept animals Bill, which was, of course, withdrawn. As has been explained, they concern the keeping of primates by private individuals, but they do not ban such keeping; rather, they license it. As has been stated, primates have very complex welfare and social needs, which are likely to be very difficult to meet in a domestic environment. There has previously been non-statutory guidance, but this legislation strengthens the necessary safeguards for the welfare of kept primates.

--- Later in debate ---
With that, I hope that I have answered your Lordships’ questions and that all noble Lords share my conviction regarding the need for this instrument. As is clear from the debate, animals matter to all in this House, as they do to the British people. This instrument is a step forward and a promise kept by a Government with animal welfare close to their heart.
Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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Is the Minister confident that suitably qualified persons can appropriately inspect and monitor the enforcement of these regulations for primates?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord asks a very good question. One reason for the two-year lead-in is to give us time to assess the qualifications that are needed and put the appropriate training in place to ensure that we can fulfil that obligation.

Peatlands

Lord Trees Excerpts
Thursday 22nd February 2024

(5 months ago)

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Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My Lords, the Government are committed to a range of activities to prevent wildfire. I discussed two of those just now: cutting heather and burning heather. We also have the fire service on standby and are in constant communication with the fire service across the country to address wildfire issues.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, peat has been an important domestic fuel in the Highlands for centuries. Is the Minister aware that bags of peat are still freely available in Scottish shops to burn on open fires? This seems inconsistent with our other policy objectives with regard to the conservation of peat.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord makes a very good point. I am sure that he is aware that peatland matters in Scotland are a devolved issue. I understand that, for historic reasons, there is an inclination towards peat. I hope, as I am sure he does, that it is on the decline.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as in the register. I begin by welcoming the Bill. It has been a Conservative manifesto commitment since 2017 and was one component of the now withdrawn kept animals Bill, and it bans the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter from GB to anywhere outside the British Islands. As such, it will prevent the export of livestock for fattening and slaughter to continental Europe; historically, as has already been mentioned, those animals may have subsequently undergone extremely long-distance travel, with consequent risks to their welfare. It thus fulfils a welfare aspiration of slaughtering livestock as near as possible to their point of rearing and ensures that the exports are on the hook, not on the hoof, as the Minister said.

Before I comment on some specifics of the Bill, I will say that, because of the loss of many abattoirs, the distances many animals now have to travel for slaughter within the United Kingdom can be substantial. I welcome the recently promised support from His Majesty’s Government for small abattoirs, but emphasise the importance of ensuring the sustainable provision of an adequate network of abattoirs within the UK for all species as an essential animal welfare provision and an important underpinning for the rural economy.

Turning to specifics, the Bill extends to England, Wales and Scotland. I am delighted that the Scottish Government lodged a legislative consent memorandum in December last year. Horses are included in the Bill, which I welcome, as does the charity World Horse Welfare. This should put an end to the possibility of any long-distance journeys to slaughter for horses, as we saw in the past. The Bill exempts exports of live animals for breeding and all exports of poultry, although there are extremely low numbers, if any, of exports of live adult poultry. These exemptions are justified, given the importance of the high quality and global significance of UK livestock breeding and genetics. The relatively low number but high value of breeding animals ensures the high quality of care afforded to them in transport. This is especially so for poultry, where the export of day-old chicks of high-value foundation breeding stock originating in the UK provides the progenitors for a very high proportion of the total global populations of commercial meat and egg-layer poultry. These chicks are air freighted with great care, since some are worth as much as £3,000 each.

An important exemption from the Bill, though, is Northern Ireland. I recognise the complex political and pragmatic reasons for that, which are associated with the Windsor Framework and the land border on the island of Ireland between the UK and the EU. But I suggest there are two loopholes associated with this. There is a legal loophole, whereby animals could be born and reared in Northern Ireland and exported legally to the Irish Republic, after which they could legally be transported anywhere in the EU or beyond, subject to EU rules of movement. While legal, this is not in the spirit of the legislation. It would also be possible for unscrupulous persons to export from GB to Northern Ireland and then arrange further export from Northern Ireland, with or without the mandatory 30-day waiting period required. That of course would be illegal, but it is a possibility.

We should note the number of livestock moved from Northern Ireland into the EU. In 2022, 337,000 sheep were exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic for fattening and slaughter. Therefore, it would be very difficult to monitor illegal activities. So will we be carefully monitoring movements in and out of Northern Ireland that might indicate whether there is any organised systemic attempt to circumvent the good intentions of this Bill, which otherwise I warmly welcome?

Biosecurity and Infectious Diseases

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Thursday 18th January 2024

(6 months, 1 week ago)

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Moved by
Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees
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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.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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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.

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Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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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.