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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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