HC Deb 30 October 1990 vol 178 cc898-902

.—(1) The Secretary of State shall maintain a register ("the register") containing prescribed particulars of or relating to

  1. (a) notices given or other information furnished under section 102 above;
  2. (b) directions given under section 102(8) above;
  3. (c) prohibition notices;
  4. (d) applications for consents (and any further information furnished in connection with them) and any advice given by the committee appointed under section (advisory committee for purposes of Part VI) below in relation to such applications;
  5. (e) consents granted by the Secretary of State and any information furnished to him in pursuance of consent conditions;
  6. (f) any other information obtained or furnished under any provision of this Part;
  7. (g) convictions for such offences under section 112 above as may be prescribed;
  8. (h) such other matters relating to this Part as may be prescribed;
but that duty is subject to section (exclusion from register of certain information) below.

(2) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State—

  1. (a) to secure that the register is open to inspection by members of the public free of charge at all reasonable hours; and
  2. (b) to afford to members of the public facilities for obtaining copies of entries, on payment of reasonable charges.

(3) The register may be kept in any form.

(4) The Secretary of State may make regulations with respect to the keeping of the register; and in this section "prescribed" means prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Trippier]

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in paragraph 1(d), after "below", to insert "or any other committee".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment (b) to the Lords amendment; and Lords amendment No. 251 and amendment (a) thereto.

Mr. Morley

The issue of genetically modified organisms has not received the attention that it deserves, although it has far-ranging consequences. I hope that new developments in this country will be beneficial, and the research has a potential for good for our food and agriculture industries. However, there is no doubt that we need a tight framework to ensure that such research—especially that involving the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment—is carried out in a way that is tightly controlled and open to public scrutiny.

I am grateful for the concessions accepted in the Lords amendments. I am aware that the Government appreciate the importance of these issues and that they have gone a long way towards dealing with some of the worries expressed by the Opposition and other organisations.

We welcome the significant changes in Lords amendment No. 250, particularly the setting up of a register of information for the regulatory procedure. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment will have its advice published in the register for the public to see, but other committees, particularly the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification, do not seem to be empowered in the new clause to have their recommendations and advice published for the public to see. I imagine that there may be an amalgamation of advice from both committees and from the Health and Safety Executive, so it would make sense if the Government accepted our amendment to allow other relevant committees to have their advice published for the public to see.

As for amendment (b), although we accept that applications for consent will be registered, the Lords amendment does not seem to provide for information on future revocations or variations of consent to be registered. I know that it was argued in the Lords that there are registers under subsection (1)(c) and (d), but it does not seem clear whether that will be allowed under the Lords amendment, even though I appreciate that the Secretary of State has powers under subsection (1)(h) to prescribe other matters, and that he can use those powers to clarify the situation, whether or not the information is included in the amendment.

We need to examine commercial confidentiality. I realise that, when research involving the release of genetically modified organisms is being carried out, people may for various reasons want to sabotage the experiments by undermining them commercially; so many people would accept that it is reasonable to keep secret the details of a site where the experiments had been carried out. But it is not justifiable to keep secret details about the company or institution carrying out the experiments. Such information must be available to the public. General information about the operation should also be made public, so that people can see what is going on.

I know that there are difficulties in keeping a site where genetically modified organism experiments are taking place secret, but it is not unreasonable to expect general information about such experiments to be provided. I see no reason why the names of the companies and institutions concerned should not be provided for people who have an interest in these matters—that is merely part of the accountability which I am sure the Government would accept is essential for sensitive experiments of this nature.

5.30 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This is a legal minefield. Because of time constraints, I will ask the Minister only one question. Is there any working party or group in the Department of the Environment or in any of the other Ministries—such as the Department of Trade and Industry—that may be as directly or more directly involved in the thorny, difficult and intractable question of the patenting of animals? It raises many difficult issues of patent law, and it is crucial that someone should sort them out.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I associate myself with the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), and agree that genetically modified organisms have considerable potential for benefiting mankind, but that they must be carefully controlled and managed. Like all scientific advances, they offer the potential for harm as well as good.

The Lords amendments give statutory backing to our previously declared policy on public access to information about part VI matters, and establish a public register of information. Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 250 would require details of advice given to the Secretary of State for the Environment by "any other committee" to be recorded in the register. That is not necessary, because information on the register will relate solely to part VI, and only the committee established by virtue of amendment No. 253, which we have yet to consider, will be relevant to consideration of the matters in question.

In practice, that committee will be the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the composition and terms of reference of which we announced last April. There are others concerned with genetically modified organisms, such as the Genetically Modified Organisms Release Advisory Committee but they are not directly concerned with environmental safety, so their advice would not be relevant to the matters to which the part VI register relates.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked about the patenting of animals. I confirm that colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry are negotiating on an EC directive covering precisely that issue, which I hope reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Morley

Does not the Minister agree that in terms of the specialised subject of release, there would be a purpose to seeking the advice of the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

No. A matter concerning environmental safety will fall to be considered by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.

The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe spoke also to amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 250, which would require details of revocations and variations of consents, and so on, to be included in the register. Again, I assure him that that is unnecessary. Lords amendment No. 250, subsection (1) requires the register to include particulars of, or relating to, a number of notices—including, in paragraph (d), applications for consents. It is clear that revocations and variations of such consents are included, and that effect is given to amendment (b) by the existing subsection (1).

Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 251 would modify the Secretary of State's ability to exclude information from the register, on the ground that its exclusion might result in damage to the environment. All member states of the Community agree in principle that there must be such a provision, and a similar measure exists in the directive on access to information on the environment adopted in June. I assure the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe that the ability to exclude information is a reserve power that will be used only with the greatest discretion.

The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe suggested that experiments and tests might be sabotaged if it were known that releases were taking place in a certain way, at a particular location. I can give an example to illustrate his point. The release of a genetically modified plant might be allowed only under specified conditions that might include—I cite a particular instance from the continent—the requirement that the plants are covered with bags to prevent dissemination of the seeds and their uncontrolled dispersal into the environment. Were the plot to be sabotaged, dispersal could occur, thereby damaging the environment, which would be the exact opposite of the intention of the conditions under which the experiment was allowed to proceed.

In such cases, disclosure of too much information could lead indirectly to environmental damage. On those grounds, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, on reflection, choose not to press the amendment.

Mr. Morley

I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances, but I must press him on the role of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. While it could be argued that its terms of reference cover releases of genetic material into the environment, the Genetically Modified Organisms Release Advisory Committee is meant to consider the environmental consequences of escape from containment of genetically modified material. Is not there a case for the ACGM giving advice on containment experimentations, which ought to be recorded for public scrutiny?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

If such a matter for concern came before the Genetically Modified Organisms Release Advisory Committee, it would properly refer it to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. In those circumstances, the matter would be discussed, and advice issued. Therefore, I insist that the wording that amendment (a) seeks to introduce is unnecessary. The committee we are to establish will be adequate for the task, in that it will consider all matters relating to environmental safety.

Mr. Morley

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the Lords amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to. [Some with Special Entry.]

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