Biosecurity agency cut by Labour experiences 1000 per cent increase in workload

The Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service has experienced over 4000 calls in the last six months about the chalara outbreak.

The Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service (THDAS), a sub-section of the Forestry Commission which was defunded by the last Government, has experienced over five years worth of enquiries in the last six months due to public fear over the chalara disease, which causes dieback of ash trees.

In a normal year, the service receives a combined total of 750 enquires. But in autumn 2012, the UK saw multiple cases of chalara, a serious disease of ash trees which is caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea. According to Forest Research, the disease "causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees, and usually leads to tree death in younger trees"; as a result, "it is being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures", and Forest Research is asking that suspected cases be reported.

Since then, THDAS has received over 4000 enquiries from England and Wales alone (as well as approximately 200 from Scotland), a workload ten times higher than normal.

That massively increased workload comes as the service struggles with budget cuts introduced in the years leading up to the 2010 election.

Las Autumn, the Times' Oliver Moody reported on the numerous cuts made to biosecurity programmes run by the Forestry Commission:

  • In 2010 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary at the time, signed off a strategy paper making biosecurity the Forestry Commission’s least-funded field of research, with an annual budget of less than £1.2 million;
  • David Miliband presided over a 20 per cent cut in biosecurity funding in 2007 alone;
  • In the last financial year for which figures are available, 2010-11, just £50,000 was spent on Forestry Commission research into invasive diseases. This was in spite of a £130,000 external grant for the work;
  • Between 2004 and 2010 the “monitoring and biosecurity” budget was cut by almost 60 per cent in real terms.

Those cuts came despite warnings from Scandinavian scientists in 2007 that chalara outbreaks had been reported, and could spread to the UK. Roddie Burgess, then head of plant health at the Forestry Commission, told Moody that he had sent a pest alert to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that year, but still the cuts came. As THDAS attempts to cope with its 1000 per cent increase in calls, that is starting to look like a false economy.

Discoloured leaves hang on an infected ash tree in near Ipswich, United Kingdom. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.