It is a great pleasure to be involved in this very important and timely debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also say that I am a trustee of a charity called Plantlife, which is doing a lot of work on invasive species and plant health and trying to encourage wildflowers.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), a former Secretary of State, said, invasive species are costing our economy at least £1.7 billion a year. I remember the plant retailers coming to me, when I was in his Department, to whinge about the increased biosecurity measures that he was rightly implementing. I listened to them, but I am afraid that I just said to them, “Look, you really have got this wrong. Your industry is in part responsible for a devastating effect on our natural environment. You have to face facts: we are now moving into almost a military-style campaign to attack the invasive species and the diseases that are coming to this country, and you have to wise up to it.” They were quite shocked, but I was in turn quite shocked at their lack of biosecurity over decades, at the failure of Governments over decades to implement proper biosecurity, and how we were happy to import nearly all the stock of young trees of certain species that we were planting.
As my right hon. Friend said, we have followed the progression of Chalara as, like Schmallenberg disease and blue tongue, it has progressed across the country. At the weekend, I was looking at a wood in Berkshire and I estimated that about one third of the canopy was ash, and that will be gone in a very short space of time. We can learn from this. We can prevent other diseases that could be devastating to the remaining stock of trees and plants if we learn from our mistakes in the past. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is absolutely right to say that.
I hope that the Minister will, in his reply, comment on Action Oak, which is spearheaded by Woodland Heritage. It is based quite near Alice Holt forest, and there is good reason why it should be there and able to build on the information at that centre of excellence. But funding is the key. We welcome the £500,000 that DEFRA promised, but £15 million is needed, and it would be great to know how close we are to getting to that.
Plantlife has identified what it calls its dirty dozen of invasive species, including American skunk-cabbage, broad-leaved bamboo, giant rhubarb, cotoneasters, Himalayan balsam, the Hottentot fig and Japanese knotweed. These invasive species are not only causing huge environmental damage, but creating a huge cost for us to deal with. What my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire did at DEFRA was quite right. He applied a logistician’s approach. I can remember that as a result of foot and mouth, when we had a very serious drought—this was before he was Secretary of State—we developed the same concept as was applied at the time of foot and mouth. It was called birdtable meetings. All the experts were brought in on a regular basis. They were very executive: they were called birdtable meetings because no one sat down—rather like the Privy Council—people just got the business done and then everyone went away and got on with it. I think that that kind of approach is required now to deal with this issue.
Of course, one measure that we need to talk about is husbandry. If dealing with Chalara requires the ash tree to be cut down and burned or taken away, or just cut down at the first sign, that is easy for a larger state or an organisation such as the Forestry Commission, but it is hard for a small farmer or someone with a few ash trees in their garden. Who will take responsibility for encouraging people to do the right thing? It requires a logistician’s approach to dealing with it.
We should beware easy solutions. I remember people coming to see me and saying that we should spray acres of woodland with copper sulphate. Instead of listening to those people, who seemed to have lifted their solutions off the internet, I listened much more readily to the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said that that would have a much more malign effect on our biodiversity and plant life.
I, too, have visited New Zealand and Australia. While I was still many thousands of miles away from arriving, I was hit by how hard-wired biosecurity is into every aspect of the travelling experience. The airline and the airport staff are tuned in to it, and there is signage, so it is impossible to move without it being apparent. We need to develop a much more overt and proactive form of biosecurity. I hope the Minister will give us some reassurance about that.
(The full debate, including the Minister’s response, is published in Hansard here.)