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.