HL Deb 08 March 1979 vol 399 cc288-93

3.3 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to take any action regarding the apparent presence in this country of wilt disease in oak trees.


My Lords, no evidence of oak wilt disease has been found in Britain. The disease is known to occur only in North America. Our present wood import regulations are designed to prevent its introduction into this country and they already reflect the controls to be introduced under the EEC Plant Health Directive. The EEC Plant Health Working Group, however, is now discussing a possible extension of the controls against oak wilt contained in the Directive and we would of course put any such extension into effect in this country.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, may I ask whether he would agree that a stitch in time saves nine? Bearing in mind the environmental disaster we have suffered in this country through the destruction of our elm trees as a result of Dutch elm disease, would he not agree, despite what he said, that to protect our oak trees—after all, our oaks are traditionally the most famous trees in this country—it might be prudent to ban the import of oak in the round, in trunk form, from those countries where oak wilt is present?


My Lords, I agree that if we lost our oaks it would be the greatest natural tragedy of modern times. I am taking a personal interest in this and I am in direct touch with my right honourable friend over it. The situation is that with the regulations, the Importation of Wood and Bark (Prohibition) (Great Britain) Order 1977 prohibits round wood being imported with the bark on and the wood also has to be dried. I am glad to say that the EEC Plant Health Working Party has now agreed that sawn squared wood should be included in the regulations. The next step is that the EEC Commission are considering the draft regulations and discussing this proposal with all the interests concerned. The Forestry Commission has recently written to all the trade and forestry interests in Britain advising them of the latest proposal and seeking their comments as a matter of urgency.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his reply on that subject, may I ask whether Her Majesty's Government are prepared to risk a 100 to one, a 1,000 to one or even a 1 million to one chance remembering what happened over elm disease, when one log caused the entire situation to erupt? Do the Government not feel that they should extend the ban, if they are considering it, to cover American imported chestnut which is capable of harbouring the fungus as well as the oak species referred to by my noble friend?


Home-grown oak plays an important part in our industrial scene, my Lords, but we are nevertheless heavily reliant on imported wood. Some of our oak is not regarded as suitable for all purposes—for the whisky trade and for reproductions of antique furniture—and that is one of the things we are discussing with the distillers and furniture manufacturers before we decide what to do.


My Lords, in joining other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for his reassuring words, may I ask whether he recollects that many people made reassuring noises—I agree, not the noble Lord—about Dutch elm many years ago, since when we have lost about 16 million elm trees through that disease? Does he agree it really would be a desperate tragedy not only to the timber trade but to our countryside if the same kind of thing were to happen to our oak trees? Will he ensure that extreme vigilance is exercised by all Government Departments regarding this threat to our oaks?


Yes, certainly, my Lords. The 1970s saw the extinction of the elm population. I am determined that the 1980s will not see the extinction of the oak population.


I do not think the Minister answered the question about chestnuts, my Lords.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

Was he asked about chestnuts, my Lords?

Several noble Lords



Put them on the fire.


My Lords, with regard to all trees, the Forestry Commission are at present drafting an order to lay before Parliament seeking the necessary powers to deal immediately with any new non-indigenous tree pests and diseases for all trees, including the oak and the chestnut. That is the other action we are taking, apart from the new EEC regulations.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether his reply, implying that this remote bureaucratic organisation in the EEC is going to do something about it, means that our own dendrologists, and the people who know more about oak wilt disease than anybody else, will do nothing until the Common Market tells us? They are messing about with Welsh leeks already.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, with the present weakness of the dollar, there is a tendency for the importation of oak from the United States to increase? Is he aware that, although English oak is not suitable for all purposes, there are other places besides the United States from where oak could be imported? Would he not therefore give further consideration to Her Majesty's Government acting to prohibit the importation of any oak from the United States until we are absolutely assured that there is no danger of infection to our own white oak trees?


That is a matter which will of course be considered, my Lords. One of the difficulties is that Japanese oak which was used by the distillers until recently, has, owing to monetary exchange values, become too expensive for their purpose, and there is also difficulty for them in obtaining Spanish sherry casks. This is of great importance to the distillers' trade, and it is one of the factors which, I am afraid, must be taken into account.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether his considerations extend to the disease which descended upon the beech tree, which is perhaps the most beautiful of all our trees in this country?


My Lords, I should say in reply to the noble Earl that this matter will be covered by the new order which is at present being drafted, and which will shortly be before your Lordships.


My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm whether Her Majesty's Government know whether the French Government plan to take unilateral action on the importation of North American oak? If the French Government take unilateral action, will we be prepared to follow them, or would it not be better if we gave the lead and pressed the Commission, under President Roy Jenkins, to get on with the job of preparing a draft EEC regulation, so that the whole Community can ban American imports of oak as soon as possible in order to prevent danger to our oak trees?


My Lords, the French authorities were considering banning the importation of American oak, but they are not now, in view of the agreement reached by the EEC Plant Health Working Party.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell me how one makes antique furniture out of modern oak? I thought that an antique had to be at least over 100 years old.


Yes, certainly, my Lords; I should have thought that mock Tudor furniture should be made from British oak, but of course this is a matter for the furniture trade.


My Lords, does the Minister agree that the only reason for the wilt occurring is in the bark, and that North American oak could be imported, provided the bark had been removed? If the bark could be banned, the problem would be solved.


My Lords, this happens at present with round wood under the existing regulations, as I said earlier. The bark has to be removed, and the round wood has to be dried. We are now trying to extend this action to sawn wood.


My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether wilt disease applies only to oaks, because there are distinct signs of it in Her Majesty's Government?


My Lords, there is no wilt so far as I am concerned. Your Lordships are preaching to the converted. I feel very strongly about this matter, and I am in direct touch with my right honourable friend. I cannot do any more, but I am not going to rest until the matter is put right.


My Lords, will my noble friend consult his colleague, the Secretary of State at the DES, regarding more university scholarships for tree surgeons?


My Lords, I am sure that that is a very useful suggestion, and I shall be glad to pass it on to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that living materials—I am referring particularly to nursery transplants of oaks—from North America are prohibited?


Not without notice, I am afraid, my Lords.