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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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