HC Deb 12 April 1983 vol 40 cc738-51

'In section 2 of the 1964 Act the following subsections shall be added (6) For the better protection of genetic resources essential to plant breeding every applicant for plant breeders' rights shall provide samples of plant genetic resources held in his own gene bank to a national research centre gene bank in the United Kingdom as well as to the appropriate international gene bank organised under the auspices of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources. (7) Failure to comply with the requirement set out in subsection (6) above may result in the withdrawal of rights by the controller, subject to a right of appeal by the applicant to the Tribunal.". '—[Mr. Hooley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hooley

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause deals with a matter of fundamental importance for the whole range of plant breeding activity. It is concerned with the preservation and conservation of genetic resources, and it endeavours to ensure that they shall not be destroyed or lost—whether by malice or accident—but shall be kept in proper gene banks either nationally or internationally, or both.

The clause is intended to place a statutory requirement on plant breeding companies to provide samples of plant genetic resources either to national research centres in the United Kingdom or to the appropriate international gene banks that already exist.

The conservation of genetic material has become a matter of concern to the international scientific community. It has been argued that neither the public nor the private sector is doing an adequate job of germ-plasm storage. The problem is more acute in the private sector, where companies may not have adequate storage facilities, or may even discard potentially valuable material because of lack of storage facilities.

I understand that in the United Kingdom only three private companies are listed as storing crop genetic resources in the European directory published in 1981 by FAO and UNDP. A conference was held in the United States on biological diversity in November 1981 at which it was argued that the private storage of germ-plasm was poor.

The making available of germ-plasm to other scientists does not have a good record in the private sector. Indeed, that applies also to the public sector. I understand that the Agricultural Institute in Dublin has been imposing restrictions on making material available to anyone not in one of the UPOV countries.

At the American conference, to which I have referred, a Dr. Jim Murray made the following comment: Some companies treat their germplasm as a proprietary resource. In addition, secrecy has become a dominant characteristic of private sector genetic engineering efforts, and this secrecy is already being extended to private germplasm collections … But without considerable effort on the part of the public sector, especially public organisations already working to preserve biological diversity, the private sector is more likely to be a hindrance than a help. The new clause does not affect plant breeders' rights in respect of profits or royalties. It does not restrict their rights. It does not restrict the patenting of particular types and varieties in any way. It is intended to make sure that vital genetic material is preserved and can be made available.

The question of access is important. In this respect I want to quote from a letter written by Dr. Lupton of the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge to a Miss Wilkinson of the world development movement. Dr. Lupton—incidentally this is on 16 February 1983, less than two months ago; it is not years back—says: Your paper draws attention to problems of genetic erosion, arising as limited numbers of more sophisticated varieties become widely distributed. This problem is certainly a real one, but I do not think it is fair to blame it on plant breeders' rights. He goes on to say: The problem is well known to plant breeders, who are setting up a range of internationally co-ordinated gene banks in which to store seed of old and new varieties as a source of variation for future generations of plant breeders. You are I know aware of the gene bank at Wellesbourne, and may have heard of others, such as those at Braunschweig (West Germany), Gatersleben (East Germany), Ban (Italy), Lund (Sweden), Leningrad (USSR) and Bettsville (USA). Setting up the gene banks is however only half the problem—it is essential to know what they contain. This question of having access to them and knowing what they contain is a matter which has been exercising the FAO. Indeed, I was interested to hear the Minister in the previous short debate speaking in glowing terms of international co-operation and the need for it in these matters. I want, therefore, to raise with her one or two points about FAO activity.

In November 1981—less than two years ago—there was an FAO conference at which a resolution was passed calling for a legally binding international convention to govern the exchange of germplasm between countries. The resolution was supported by all the Third world countries, as far as I know, and many industrialised countries as well, including some fellow members of the EC, no doubt, but this Government opposed it. I think that we are entitled now, particularly in the light of remarks made by the Minister a few minutes ago, to explore why the Government opposed it and what their position is, because the matter is going to be discussed again. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think there is to be another FAO meeting later this year at which the matter will come up again.

I believe that it is important to quote to the House some extracts from the resolution passed in 1981, which the United Kingdom could not be bothered to accept—in fact, actually opposed. It began with the usual kind of preamble: Recognising that plant genetic resources are indispensable for the genetic improvement of cultivated plants, and that they are in danger of erosion and loss". That is a considered statement by the world body concerned with agriculture matters—"they are in danger of erosion and loss". The resolution adds: "Recalling further that in 1974 with the support of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) was set up for which FAO provides the Secretariat. We have some international machinery which could be used for the clause that I am proposing if it is accepted by the Government. We would not have to establish any massive new bureaucracy.

8.45 pm

The resolution then states: "Considering that there is no international agreement for ensuring the conservation, maintenance and free exchange of the genetic resources of agricultural interests contained in existing germplasm banks". I understand from the Minister's remarks that she would be keen to see such an agreement. I hope that that is correct and that she will confirm her keenness. I hope that she will confirm that the United Kingdom, when the FAO reconvenes later this year, will actively press for support for the promulgation of such an agreement. If that is done, it will make all the easier the acceptance of the clause, which is designed to ensure that the genetic resources held now can be deposited and maintained under international auspices.

The substantive paragraph of the resolution states: Requests the Director-General to examine and prepare the elements of a draft international convention, including legal provisions designed to ensure that global plant genetic resources of agricultural interest will be conserved and used for the benefit of all human beings, of this and future generations, without restrictive practices that limit their availability and exchange, whatever the source of such practices. The clause does not seek to undermine plant breeders' rights or prevent plant breeders from getting their royalties. Its purpose is to ensure that they deposit the germ-plasm and the seeds that they hold in their gene banks with international bodies or, as appropriate, with the responsible national United Kingdom bodies.

Paragraph 2 of the resolution states: "Requests the Director-General to prepare a study on the establishment of an international bank of plant genetic resources of agricultural interest under the auspices of FAO, taking into account the provisions of the proposed international convention as well as on-going national, regional and international efforts in this field in particular those of the IBPGR. I make no apology to the House for quoting at length from the FAO resolution, which I consider to be fundamental to the problem of ensuring that the genetic resources that are available for plant breeding are properly conserved and that those who hold private stocks of these materials shall be required to deposit samples of them with bodies competent to conserve and look after them in the United Kingdom and internationally. The clause is moved in the spirit of the FAO resolution, parts of which I have quoted.

In case the Government feel that this is anachronistic, that it does not matter or that it will be forgotten, I remind them that the matter will be discussed at the UNCTAD VI conference, which will take place in June in Yugoslavia. The issue will come up within the FAO and Third world countries will press it at UNCTAD.

By accepting the new clause, the Government will acknowledge the problem of genetic erosion, about which all qualified scientists in this subject are worried, and make a move towards dealing with the problem.

Mrs. Fenner

The Government fully share the anxiety which underlies the new clause, that there should be properly structured arrangements, both national and international, for the conservation of plant genetic resources, and to a large extent such arrangements exist already within the United Kingdom. The Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge holds the seed of 25,000 cereal varieties; the National Vegetable Research Station Association has capacity for the seed of 12,000 varieties of vegetables; and the Royal Botanic Gardens has storage capacity for 40,000 mainly wild accessions. There are many other smaller collections.

The public sector is not alone in maintaining these facilities. Although the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) has criticised the private sector's contribution, I should like to assure him that breeding firms in the private sector have to retain comprehensive collections of genetic material as a basis for their future development programmes. There is no loss of genetic resources as a result of plant breeders' activities. Indeed, they are taking the lead in conservation.

If valuable genetic material is being lost—I do not accept that it is, within the United Kingdom—the causes are complex and international. Unilateral action by the United Kingdom will not resolve the problem successfully. It is an international problem. Although the new clause is sincerely motivated, it is unrealistic in that respect.

I should like to correct a point made by the hon. Member for Heeley: the 1981 FAO resolution was not opposed by the United Kingdom. It was accepted by all member states of the FAO. I do not know how this misconception arose. It has been quoted before. We are participating actively in discussions in furtherance of this resolution.

Mr. Mark Hughes

At the second sitting of the Committee on Tuesday 8 March, the hon. Lady said: The study and resolution of the FAO, to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) referred, will be discussed later this month. However, it concluded that the cost of establishing and running a single central gene bank would be prohibitive. That is why the United Kingdom voted against it." —[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 8 March 1983; C. 47.] A month ago the hon. Lady said that we voted against the resolution. Did we vote against the concept which is enshrined in the new clause or just against the single international centre?

Mrs. Fenner

We voted against the concept of the gene bank but not against the resolution which was accepted by all member states in the FAO. We voted for the principle but not for the way that it was wished to carry it out.

The text of the new clause refers to the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources which was established in 1974 by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The board's main function is the organisation and promotion of an international network of gene banks. It has been most successful in this task. It has reached agreement already with 38 centres in 28 countries to hold base collections of 33 crops, including the major cereals and legumes.

Discussions are in train within the FAO on the construction of an even stronger system based upon this firm foundation and the United Kingdom is participating fully. There lies the best way forward to more effective conservation of genetic resources.

The effects of this clause would be wholly unacceptable in practice. Were it adopted, a plant breeding company engaged upon development of a new group of varieties would be forced to release its advanced breeding material at risk of samples of it being obtained by their competitors. That would seriously erode its competitive position. It would remove its incentive to produce improved varieties—to the inevitable detriment of our farmers and horticulturists.

There would also be problems of enforcement. Policing of the requirement sought by the amendment would involve the power of entry to breeders' premises and the examination of their stocks of genetic material. That would be a distasteful and unjustifiable invasion of commercial privacy.

The Government believe firmly in the progressive development of the existing national and international network of gene banks. Success here depends on the cooperation of breeders in both public and private sectors. Acceptance of this clause would destroy much of thus cooperation.

The hon. Member for Heeley made a particular point about commercial secrecy, and to some extent secrecy is necessary during breeding programmes to protect the commercial potential of varieties. Once a variety is marketed it can be and is used by other breeders in research programmes. Advanced breeding lines—those in the course of development—would be of commercial value to the breeder only as long as he had exclusive use of them. To release them prematurely would destroy the commercial base of the private plant breeder. After the varieties are on the market, everybody has access to them. In conservation of plant genetic resources, the effect of plant breeders' rights is positive. There is no good case for the proposed restrictive measure.

Mr. Spearing

Once again I press the Minister on two matters. First, she claimed that the new clause would give rise to the risk of competitors getting in illegally and taking away the fruits of the labours of the breeder. There is no reason why—perhaps not through this clause but in principle—such material should not be deposited, rather as one deposits books in the Bodleian or university libraries. The deposit could be made subsequent to the commercial release of the varieties. The hon. Lady may say that other breeders can go out and buy the varieties, but the Bodleian library could buy its books. Would that not cover the point that the hon. Lady made about commercial risks—even if the point is valid, and I am not conceding that it is?

The hon. Lady spoke of the risks in connection with gene banks in this country and the appropriate international gene banks, but if they are not secure and have been shown not to be so they would not be appropriate for the purposes of the clause. There could be some selectivity about this. The hon. Lady said that the clause would not solve the problem and that the solution must be arrived at on an international basis. Even if we accept that argument, would not this provision go some way to deal with the problem, given that the security aspect could be overcome?

Secondly, will the hon. Lady define further the reply that she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes), who properly intervened to ask about the way in which Britain voted? The Minister told us in Committee that we did not vote for the international gene bank because she feared that it would be too big, too bureaucratic, too expensive and too low a value for money.

I can understand the Government's hesitation at that vote, but the question put at that vote is all-important. Is the hon. Lady against the concept of an international organisation which uses existing gene banks, which could perhaps be given accreditation in the international agricultural community? There could be a common exchange of these materials with proper safeguards under such an arrangement, to which Her Majesty's Government could give approval. If the hon. Lady is in favour of such a move, what is she doing about it? Surely there is a big difference between establishing a new orgainsation such as the one she described in Committee and promoting some form of genuine international co-operation.

9 pm

Mr. Mark Hughes

The Minister's reply was not wholly satisfactory. It was based primarily on the commercial problems facing the establishment of gene banks.

One understands that a private research station faced with the 10 or 12-year time span to bring a new variety on to the market does not want to give public access to the genetic material from which it starts because that will be to the advantage of potential competitors. I do not believe that the new clause as drafted makes that inevitable. It is still available to a gene bank or a national research centre gene bank in the United Kingdom, organised under the auspices of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, to accept material and hold it incommunicado from potential competitors until such time as its commercial importance to the donor has been realised. I do not believe that that argument against the new clause stands up. It is entirely possible within the wording of the new clause for such gene banks to be established and for the organisers of the gene banks to restrict access to the material contained therein until such time as the commercial value to the donor has been safeguarded.

I believe that the Minister's arguments both in Committee and today were based on a reluctance to work towards a gene bank. When the Government go to the FAO and try to establish an arrangement which, from their replies, they have shown they wish to seek, their argument will be much strengthened if new clause 2 is accepted as part of United Kingdom law. That would set out the framework within which they would understand and comprehend the international arrangement to work. Therefore, I urge the hon. Lady to consider this matter carefully. Neither of her arguments about confidentiality and competitiveness is insurmountable as the clause is drafted. It would strengthen the Government's hand when they go to the FAO if the new clause were incorporated into the Bill as an earnest of the way the United Kingdom wishes to consider the problem of genetic material preservation.

Mr. Hooley

I find the Minister's reply unconvincing, for the reasons given by my hon. Friends, and I wish to make three brief points.

First, the Minister said that we have important facilities in this country for preserving genetic material. Of course we have. If we did not, the new clause would make no sense. As I said earlier, we have enormously important and prestigious institutes with international recognition and outstanding reputations. That is the basis on which the new clause is drafted.

Secondly, the Minister said that there must not be premature release of germ-plasm or other genetic material from private plant breeders. The new clause says nothing about premature release. It does not say that anyone has to release anything prematurely. It simply says that if seeds, cuttings or other propagating material is there—it can be patented and the plant breeder's rights established—a small sample must be provided for the United Kingdom recognised institute and the international one. That is all. It does not say that the plant breeder has to release the material prematurely, give it to his competitors, lose his rights on royalties, or anything of the sort. That argument is nonsense. There is no such implication.

In a sense, the provisions of the new clause are on all fours with copyright laws and the legal requirement to deposit a copy of any book published in the copyright library of the British museum. That in no way infringes the author's rights to income or royalties or the publisher's right to market the book. The new clause makes a comparable proposal. Unless my knowledge of the English language is extraordinarily faulty, there is no reference to the word "premature" or anything like that at all. I simply cannot understand the Minister's argument.

Thirdly, with regard to the FAO convention, the Minister completely misled me—unintentionally, I am sure—as I had the distinct impression on Second Reading that the Government had opposed the FAO resolution, or certainly the spirit of it. Indeed, according to the quotation given by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes), the Government actually voted against it. Perhaps they voted against something else, but when the Minister replied to me in Committee she certainly gave the impression that the Government had opposed the resolution. Indeed, she spelt out various reasons for so doing. She said that it was bureaucratic, cumbersome and expensive. She gave all kinds of reasons why the Government did not like it. Now she tells us that they did not oppose it at all.

I accept the Minister's good faith in her statements in Committee and in the Chamber today. I am sure that she is doing her best to explain to the House and to the public at large exactly what the situation is, but so far she has not made herself very clear. We are entitled to a clear statement on the Government's attitude and policy at the forthcoming FAO meeting on this issue. Do the Government intend to support an international convention and the establishment of the international gene bank system and to accept the new clause so that effective use may be made of it? We need more clarity. I certainly do not accept the arguments so far adduced by the Minister against the new clause.

Mrs. Fenner

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) does not accept the arguments. We believe that the new clause would have an adverse effect on the commercial freedom and performance of the plant breeding industry, which would be compelled to release the material that was being developed for the production of new varieties. It is not exactly the same as a book. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred to the Bodleian library.

I should like to reassure hon. Members about the Government's support in FAO and what is happening at the moment. At the meeting from 21 to 30 March the FAO committee on agriculture examined a report discussing the possible establishment of an international gene bank and outlining the elements of a draft international convention on the conservation and exchange of plant genetic material. At that meeting there was widespread support for the principle of the convention, but opinion was divided about the international gene bank. The United Kingdom welcomed the idea of a convention, but expressed doubt about the need for a new gene bank as such facilities already exist under the IBPGR, which should be strengthened and encouraged.

Those issues will be considered further by an ad hoc working group that has been set up to assist the Director-General in preparing his report to the FAO council. The United Kingdom will be a member and intends to play a full and constructive role. Decisions on whether to proceed with the convention and the international gene bank will be taken by the FAO conference that follows the council in November this year. Any convention would be unlikely to be adopted before the next FAO conference in the autumn of 1985.

At that meeting, several delegations, principally from Latin America, saw the need for an international gene bank or a network of gene banks under United Nations control. They considered IBPGR inadequate in not being subject to such control. The United Kingdom believes that unless and until it is demonstrated that the IBPGR is failing and cannot be improved it would be wrong to change the existing institutional arrangements. We believe that we should seek to strengthen them.

During the nine years of the existence of the IBPGR, it has developed a worldwide programme in nearly 100 countries. Its achievements were highly praised by delegates at the meeting. The board consists of 17 members, at least four of whom must be from developing countries. I am sure that it will reassure hon. Members to know that currently seven on that board of 17 are from developing countries. It was established by and is funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which in turn is co-sponsored by FAO, the World Bank and UNDP.

Therefore, with an organisation of such impressive standing already in operation, it seems superfluous and an imprudent use of money and resources to set up another international body. Opposition Members sought my reassurance on the Government's attitude to the present FAO discussions. I hope that I have been able to reassure them on that.

Mr. Hooley

I am encouraged by what the Minister has said. Will she confirm that it is the United Kingdom's policy to strengthen the existing system under the IBPGR?

Mrs. Fenner

That is what we believe. We believe that we should strengthen the organisation. Setting up a new gene bank is another thing altogether. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured about that.

Several hon. Members have said that the clause as drafted does not force the breeder to release material, but it does. It would force the breeder to release all material within his possession, not just protected varieties I can only reiterate that we believe that that would be such an invasion of commercial privacy as to deter plant breeders. If they were deterred, undoubtedly that would be to the detriment of agriculture and horticulture.

Question put and negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

9.14 pm
Mrs. Fenner

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

If hon. Members have any additional points to make, I shall, with leave of the House, be happy to answer them.

9.15 pm
Mr. Mark Hughes

I hope that the Third Reading debate will be brief. We have had a fascinating Second Reading and Committee stage. I reiterate my regret that the Government chose not to submit this Bill to the Special Standing Committee procedure as we were faced with a set of highly esoteric and scientific bits of conflicting evidence about which hon. Members on both sides of the House had great difficulty in finding adequate sources of expertise on which to make judgments. We were forced to make judgments and divide in the absence of sufficient information. I regret that the Government did not see fit to use the Special Standing Committee procedure. This is a classic example of a Bill which is not party political or partisan in any sense but contains matters of deep scientific and chemical complexity. Every hon. Member on the Committee would have been helped by that procedure and having experts to advise us.

Although I understand and ultimately accept that there is a great need to protect the plant breeding industry in Britain as a commercially viable and profit-making organisation and to protect a public sector plant breeding facility, to do so at the risk of causing deep offence to our colleagues in the Third world may be a price that we are unwise and should be unwilling to pay.

When we embarked on this Bill, few of us realised the depth and intensity of feeling among many people in the Third world about plant variety protection in general and this Bill in particular. Had I been aware of the strength and complexity of feeling back in November when the Bill first appeared in another place, I should have requested that the Second Reading be on the Floor of the House and that the Bill receive far wider publicity.

The Bill extends ultimately to some deep theological and philosophical points. I regret that such are the procedures of the House that we have not done justice to the internationalism, the Third world element and the philosophical element behind the Bill. Despite the best endeavours of my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), to whom I pay great tribute, to bring the subject into a wider context, we have been restricted to discussing whether cut flowers from protected varieties that are reimported should be protected and whether the period of protection should be confined to 25 or 23 years and so forth.

We have been limited to the narrow parameters of the Bill and have lost a major opportunity to discuss the ecological role of plant breeding. Since the original Act was passed in 1964 the opportunities for irradiation and other highly sophisticated methods of genetic manipulation have increased beyond the imagination of our predecessors who passed the original Act. We have done a disservice to ourselves as legislators and to the country by the way in which we have treated the Bill.

9.19 pm
Mr. Hooley

I entirely endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes). It is a great pity that the Leader of the House did not see fit to use the important new procedure of half Select Committee, half Standing Committee, to deal with the Bill. The procedure was used to great effect on the Bill about the law of the sea, and was extremely valuable in unravelling scientific, technical and legal matters that were difficult for hon. Members to follow. The Bill contains scientific matters of profound concern, and it would have been of great assistance to hon. Members in Committee to have had the opportunity to call witnesses and cross-question them, and to discover matters of which they were ignorant and of which they could have only partial or uncertain knowledge. I hope that the Government will take to heart my hon. Friend's strictures and the representations that I and my hon. Friends made to the Leader of the House at the time, that such a Bill, which deals with rather arcane and scientific matters of great public importance, should be properly considered under the procedure devised and ratified by the House. The Government urged the House to accept it when it was introduced a few years ago. I hope that the lesson has been learned.

The Bill is restrictive and monopolistic, and I am mildly astonished that a Government who continually praise competition and market forces should have promoted such a Bill. It extends plant breeders' rights, but does not extend public safeguards against the possible abuse of those rights. But the basic problem is how far along the road Britain and other countries wish to go with the concept of patenting living matter. As a layman, I am willing to accept that when people have invested time, energy and money in inventing artefacts, machines or tools, it is reasonable that patent protection should give them a special reward for their effort and prevent others from copying or pirating them. But the patenting of living organisms is different.

How far should we push this? As my hon. Friend said, a biological revolution occurred during the past 20 years. Scientists have unravelled the fundamental structure of animals and plants and have devised methods of manipulating that structure. How far along the road are we going when, as a result of that manipulation—genetic engineering or biotechnology—people are entitled to patent and draw royalties on such material, and perhaps even to exclude others from access to it and its products? Although the Bill amends an Act passed 20 years ago when the implications of the biological revolution were only beginning to be appreciated, we should perhaps pay closer attention to the implications of such legislation for Britain and other countries. We have had some useful debates in Committee and in the House this evening, and I hope that there will be, at least in some quarters, and possibly in the scientific community, close consideration of the implications of the legislation.

As my hon. Friend said, it is not the Opposition's intention to vote on the Bill tonight, but it needs much careful scrutiny, and I hope that the scientific community will do that, and examine its conscience and practices to see whether we wish to have such legislation on the statute book.

9.24 pm
Mr. Spearing

I share the views of my hon. Friends the Members for Durham (Mr. Hughes) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) about the fundamental philosophical and theological nature of the Bill.

The Government will have to consider these issues again and, if not come back with another Bill, examine the coming revolution and assess what they will have to tackle. The House is sometimes accused of not looking ahead. Very often the House does look ahead in debates such as this, but it is not always well reported.

I agree with the comments of my hon. Friends on procedure. Unfortunately, the new procedure of a short Select Committee hearing before the Standing Committee proceedings was not available to the Leader of the House. After the Second Reading in Committee, a motion was put on the Order Paper to refer the Bill to a Select Committee so that various points could be elucidated. The Government could have agreed to that, but they did not. I regret that and I trust that the Minister does so even more than the Leader of the House, who I hope will heed these remarks.

The principal question in Committee was whether the Bill was necessary. There was some doubt whether the privileges accorded to plant breeders should be extended. I am not saying that they should not have some privileges, but they do have responsibilities. I pay tribute to their work. Although the House often mentions the vast increase in agricultural productivity, especially in the United Kingdom—it has doubled since the end of the war on rather less acreage—a high proportion of the increased productivity has been due not only to the skill of farmers and farm workers, who have not done very well financially out of the increased productivity, but to the activities of plant breeders. Once the permutation in certain varieties has occurred, the plant breeder is well on his way. We have to thank bountiful nature for the increase in productivity, rather than any inherent skill other than that of the plant breeder.

Discussions in the House have been concentrated on cereals, which is a current agricultural topic. The discussions might have been better if they had concentrated on grass, which is the prime agricultural crop of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, due to an ill-suited common agricultural policy, it has not been given its required prominence. Hon. Members may think of Sir George Stapleton, a pioneer of grass development, and his Aberystwyth station as well as the part played by the public plant breeding establishments in this country, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley referred. A dominant theme in Committee, which has not been mentioned in the debate, was the anxiety expressed about the increasing concentration of the plant breeding industry. The Minister kindly wrote to me referring to some statistics that I used in Committee that illustrated that anxiety, especially in respect of cereals. The hon. Lady qualified the figures that I quoted, but did not doubt their accuracy.

In a letter dated 30 March the Minister set out in a table some of the main conclusions to be drawn from figures that have been quoted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in its lists of agricultural plant species. I shall quote them bacause they show a trend that will cause some anxiety. Spring barley accounts for 31 per cent. of our cereal crops. Nickerson has 19 per cent. of the market. It is an old-established firm, now owned by Shell. Miln Masters (Cardo) has no less than 34 per cent. of the market and, surprisingly, 33 per cent. of the spring barley market is taken by Hurst, which acts as agent for an East German variety. In other words, despite our political differences, a significant contribution to our spring barley comes from East Germany.

Winter barley is 22 per cent. of the cereal crop—Nickerson accounting for 80 per cent. That is Shell once again. Winter wheat is 44 per cent. of our cereal crop. Nickerson accounts for 9 per cent. and the National Seed Development Organisation—the publicly owned farms—accounts for 80 per cent. Therefore, Shell is clearly in a strong position, at least in respect of winter barley. There is some concern that oil-based firms that have a natural interest in oil-based and other chemical fertilisers are also into the seed business. That gives rise to concern, particularly when it reaches a multinational level.

There is great concern throughout the kingdom and in all parties for our natural environment, of which seeds and seed varieties are part. It could just be that the development in the past few weeks of the Environment or Green Party in West Germany will not be paralleled here—I do not say will be prevented—because we already have a sufficient number of people who not only have green fingers, but are concerned for our natural environment. They are also concerned about conservation, without necessarily being Conservative. This issue should not necessarily become party political. However, that depends on the attitude and behaviour of the party in government.

The Bill has demonstrated, alas, that the Government are not yet sufficiently sensitive to such issues. I hope that the Minister and her right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and. Food will take these lessons to heart as the Bill receives, with some reservations, an unopposed Third Reading.

9.31 pm
Mrs. Fenner

As the comments made by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) are still fresh in my mind, I should like to follow them up. The Government will certainly stand on their record of introducing the Wildlife and Countryside Act in their concern for conservation. The hon. Gentlema referred, in particular, to the letter that I sent him. I hope that in some way it has ameliorated his concern about the multinationals. He mentioned the spring barley proportion of the total market and pointed out that it was in the hands of Nickerson, but he did not mention the winter wheat proportion of the total market. Spring barley is 31.89 per cent., whereas winter wheat is 44.78 per cent. of the total market. In that seed, the state organisation owns 80.95 per cent. compared with Nickerson's 9.85 per cent. I wanted to reiterate that point to console him a little about multinationals.

Mr. Spearing

I should like to get things right. I thought that I quoted 44 per cent. With respect, and to get the record straight, I think that the Minister got it wrong in her letter. Spring barley is 31 per cent., of which Nickerson has only 19 per cent. Therefore, it has not got a strong hold on that section.

Mrs. Fenner

My point was the high NSDO percentage relating to the highest percentage cereal winter wheat.

The Bill in no way alters the fundamentals of the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1954 which established the system of plant breeders' rights in the United Kingdom. It is widely acknowledged that the introduction of this system has been of immense benefit to the United Kingdom plant breeding industry, which had previously been in decline, and to our farmers and horticulturists who have been provided with an increased number of improved plant varieties. The hon. Member for Newham, South paid his own tribute to the yields involved in those new varieties. Countries abroad have also benefited from the growth of our plant breeding industry. Many of our good plant varieties are exported, some to developing countries.

Until this Bill came before Parliament there had been no criticism of our plant breeders' rights system or any suggestion that it was fundamentally misconceived or harmful in its effects. It has been in existence since 1964. The current attack on aspects of the Bill and our system results from a worldwide campaign, mainly stimulated by the International Coalition for Development Action, against the whole concept of plant breeders' rights. There is no doubt that this campaign is sincerely motivated and laudable in its desire to ensure that the world's plant genetic resources are kept safe for posterity.

As the hon. Member for Newham, South mentioned the role of the multinationals, I say again, as I said in Committee, that there is no denying that some breeding firms have been taken over by big companies. This feature is not confined to plant breeding. It happens in other sectors of industry. From time to time some plant varieties produced by one or other of the big companies—some of which have been mentioned today—hold a dominant position temporarily in the market. It is a matter of balance. At one time one is dominant, and, as the hon. Member for Newham, South said, at another time another variety holds sway. However, there is no evidence that this is having an adverse effect on the plant breeding industry in this country or on the growers who are eager to buy its products. It provides no basis for an attack on the plant variety rights system in the United Kingdom which gives protection to small and medium-sized enterprises by ensuring that in the matter of grant of rights their varieties are treated on exactly the same basis as those of the large companies.

If there is any well-founded anxiety about possible deleterious effects of structural changes in the United Kingdom plant breeding industry, there are proper channels for expressing it through the Monopolies and Mergers Commission machinery.

Reference was made to the involvement of large companies in both the plant breeding and the agrochemical industries, with the apparent implication that this is sinister in the sense that these companies may produce certain plant varieties not for their high quality but for their susceptibility to diseases or pests and calling for intensive chemical treatment. Surely no company would be foolish enough to risk its reputation in that way. If that allegation is seriously being made, it is up to those who are pointing the finger to produce convincing supporting evidence.

Removal of plant genetic material from developing countries must be a cause for concern and raises important international issues. I accept the philosophical approach of the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) to this matter. In fairness, however, it should be remembered that such material is a world heritage—arguably not the private property of any single country or group of countries—and that its migration and exchange has been going on for centuries.

I understand the wish of Opposition Members to have a Special Standing Committee procedure on the Bill. However, they were present when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not invoke such a procedure. As the Bill makes no fundamental change to the 1964 Act, but merely extends the limits, I understand why my right hon. Friend felt that it did not require that special procedure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.