HC Deb 05 February 2004 vol 417 cc897-8
13. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

What progress is being made in preventing the spread of sudden oak death. [152876]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

We are continuing to survey and take eradication action against phytophthora ramorum, the cause of sudden oak death. Spending by DEFRA and the Forestry Commission has increased by approximately 50 per cent. on eradication, import control and research into this very worrying disease.

Mr. Swayne

Notwithstanding that increase in expenditure, the tenor of representations that I have received from nurserymen from the National Farmers Union and the New Forest Committee is that given the catastrophic effects of the disease, the Government's response has been complacent, at least in respect of imports. What can the Minister say to counter that criticism?

Mr. Bradshaw

I reject it entirely. This Government, as I learned this week on a visit to California, the part of the world most severely affected by the disease, have acted more swiftly than any other Government, not just across the Atlantic but also in the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the seriousness of the disease, and we very much appreciate the co-operation we have had from the nursery industry. We are in discussion with it, and have been throughout. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has drawn the disease to the attention of the House, because it is not an exaggeration to say that it has the potential to be at least as devastating to our landscape as Dutch elm disease a generation ago.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

But it is not only oak trees that are under threat. The national orchard—the nation's supply of fruit trees— has declined by a staggering 25 per cent. since 1997. Bearing in mind the fact that those trees are good for the environment and that the people who farm them are unsubsidised and produce food that is good for the nation's diet, what steps is the Minister taking to encourage people to plant more fruit trees?

Mr. Bradshaw

That has nothing to do with sudden oak death. There is no evidence, either here or in the United States, that fruit trees are susceptible to the disease.