HC Deb 21 May 1999 vol 331 cc1371-84
Mr. John Suffern11 (Bournemouth, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not an abuse of the House that the Government bring forward such an important statement on a Friday, when very few Members are here? Is it not even more of an abuse that the Government have consistently done that on five Fridays when there is legislation that they wish to filibuster—notably the Referendums Bill today?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Madam Speaker has no discretion over the making of Government statements at customary times. The Standing Order relating to Friday sittings makes specific provision for statements to be made at 11 o'clock. That is not a matter in which the Chair can intervene. As far as the Chair is concerned, Friday is a proper working day.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course we accept what you have said, but perhaps you and Madam Speaker and others could look to see whether it is a coincidence that, over the past few months, when the Government have wished for whatever reason to prolong business, a statement has appeared, while on other days, when that has not been their wish, there has been no statement. Is it beyond possibility or probability that something else might lie behind that coincidence? Perhaps there is a case for looking again at our Standing Orders to see whether such an abuse is avoidable.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If it is not convenient to Members, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman takes the matter up through the usual channels or proposes that it be looked at by the Procedure Committee.

11.1 am

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham)

Biotechnology is an important and exciting area of scientific advance that offers enormous opportunities for improving our quality of life. In health care, biotechnology has already helped to develop better treatments for diseases, including multiple sclerosis, heart disease and diabetes. It is also helping the environment through techniques such as bioremediation, which assisted the clean-up of beaches following the Sea Empress oil spill in 1996. In agriculture, genetic modification has the potential to ensure the more efficient production of food that is more nutritious, tastes better and requires fewer pesticides. That is just the start.

There are many real and exciting benefits and potential benefits, but the technology is new and the risks must be rigorously assessed. The Government recognise the considerable public concern about the safety of genetically modified food and crops. Our overriding duty is to protect the public and the environment. We must continue to ensure that the controls that we have in place are sound and command public confidence.

That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established a new Cabinet committee on biotechnology last autumn. It is why the first decision of the Committee in December was to carry out a review of the regulatory framework to ensure that it was rigorous, as transparent as possible and able to cope with so fast-moving a technology. We invited a wide range of interested bodies to give us their views, including the Select Committees of this House. It is also why we thought it essential to seek the views of the public through the consultation on the biosciences. It is why we commissioned a report from the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser on the public health implications of genetically modified food. All three reports are published today.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is responsible for food safety, have also been in discussion with the industry over the past year to ensure the effective management of the cultivation of genetically modified crops in this country. Today, we are endorsing guidelines for the cultivation of those crops.

The review has found that the existing system of careful case-by-case assessment of new biotechnology products and processes is an essential component of our regulatory system. However, there are persuasive arguments for strengthening the system by adding new strategic commissions to take a broader long-term view of developments in the technology.

We shall set up two new advisory bodies. The Human Genetics Commission will advise us on applications of biotechnology in health care and the impact of human genetics on our lives. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission will cover the use of biotechnology in agriculture and its environmental effects. Working alongside the Food Standards Agency, which will soon take on responsibility for genetically modified foods, the new bodies will have wide-ranging remits, advising Ministers on likely future developments in the technology and addressing broader issues, such as ethical considerations.

The members of the new commissions will be drawn from a broad range of interests. Those with expertise of consumer issues and ethics, for example, will sit alongside scientists. The commissions will also consult widely with the public and stakeholders when carrying out their work.

One of the main findings of our consultation exercises was that the regulatory system should be made more transparent. We agree, and our report published today includes guidelines on transparency that all committees involved in biotechnology, including the new commissions, will be required to follow. We are confident that, with those changes, we will have a rigorous and open system for regulating biotechnology that will safeguard the public interest.

In their report on genetically modified foods and public health, the chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Robert May, conclude: Many of the issues raised by foods resulting from genetic modification are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means. They go on: There is no current evidence to suggest that the genetically modified technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful. They further report: We are reassured by the precautionary nature and rigour of the current procedures used to assess the safety of individual genetically modified foods. They emphasise the need to keep a close watch on developments and to continue to fund research to improve scientific understanding in this area. The Government and our advisory committees will continue to do that.

Their report encourages us to improve the openness of the regulatory procedures to public scrutiny. We are doing that today. The report also recommends that consideration should be given to the establishment of a national surveillance unit to monitor population health aspects of genetically modified and other types of novel foods. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes is already discussing how that might be done. The ministerial Committee will review progress in the autumn.

The Government have been working with environmentalists and the biotechnology industry to ensure that the first farm-scale plantings of genetically modified crops in Britain are carefully managed. That is why we have embarked on a programme of evaluations, which are being rigorously undertaken to secure thorough and reliable evidence on whether they cause damage to the environment. Unrestricted commercial cultivation of any crop will not proceed until we are satisfied that it does not harm the environment.

Today, the industry group SCIMAC—the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops—has published a package of measures that will ensure that proper care is taken when the crops are grown on farms. We welcome that important step forward. The tough rules are underpinned by legally binding contracts. There will be an independent system of enforcement and audit. Some have said that we should have legislated on the issue. That would inevitably have taken much longer than our voluntary approach. However, we think that the guidelines could well form the basis of future legislation. We shall work with the industry and our European partners to take that forward.

The Science and Technology Committee said this week that we need an informed public debate in this area. It condemned some media treatment of the subject and called for more openness and transparency, and for more information to be provided to the public which is accurate and objective.

We agree. The measures that we have announced today are intended to achieve that, but we need to establish the debate on a firm base. The chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser firmly believe that there is no current evidence to suggest that genetic modification technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful. The Committee came to the same view. The Royal Society this week convincingly dismissed as wholly misleading the results of some recent research into potatoes, and the misinterpretation of it. There is no evidence to suggest that any GM foods on sale in this country are harmful.

The Government welcome open, rational and well-informed debate. That is the best way to safeguard the public interest. We regret that some political, some media and other treatment of the issues has not served the public well.

Biotechnology undoubtedly has the potential to improve our quality of life in many ways. It is the Government's responsibility to encourage this potential, but we will not do so at the risk to public health and the environment. This duty is at the heart of today's announcement.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

We warmly welcome the statement, and I am grateful to the Minister for making it available to me in good time—about three quarters of an hour ago. However, I fully endorse the points of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the disadvantage of interrupting a debate on an important private Member's Bill by, yet again, having a statement on an issue of prime concern to the whole country on a day when the House is inevitably almost empty. I welcome also the reports published with the statement, which we will want to study carefully.

What the Minister has said today will be judged by three criteria. Will it protect the British environment against possible damage from GM crops? Will it protect the British people against the possible risks to human health? Will it restore confidence in the integrity of the Government and guarantee that future decisions are taken more openly, with the environmental and health considerations put before political and commercial considerations?

Does the Minister realise that the last five months of evasions, distortions and muddle have destroyed public confidence in the safety of GM crops and food with GM ingredients? Does he agree that the Government's confusion has dealt a near-fatal blow to the prospects in Britain of a potentially beneficial and important technology? Does he recognise that the Government's failure to distinguish sufficiently clearly between the environmental and health risks has needlessly increased public anxiety?

Does the Minister realise that the Prime Minister himself made the matter worse when he said last February that he thought that it was important to proceed on the basis of sound science only to be contradicted within hours by the statutory adviser to the Government, English Nature, which said: We cannot assure the public that decisions are being made on the basis of good environmental science."? Those of us, such as the Conservative party, who want the benefits of biotechnology available to Britain can only deplore the Government's handling of the issue so far.

Does the Minister accept that there is a risk that certain genetically modified crops could upset or even destroy the balance of nature? Does he realise that there is now an overwhelming case for an absolute ban on all commercial planting of herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant GM crops until research into their environmental impact has been completed?

Does the Minister recognise that completing this research will take at least three years—and possibly longer, depending on the results of trials now under way? Does he realise that the need for this approach is supported by English Nature, the chief scientific adviser, the Science and Technology Committee, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and many other non-governmental organisations?

Does today's statement mean that some commercial planting of GM crops, as opposed to planting for research purposes, will now take place with Government approval? Will the Minister explain how such planting is to be regulated? Are adequate resources available to monitor it, in light of the rapid increase in the scale of planting expected over the next year?

Does the Minister agree that, as breaches of trial conditions have led already to convictions in court of a leading company, self-regulation by the industry is not acceptable? The Government must take responsibility for regulation. What protection is proposed for organic farmers from the risk of contamination from GM crops? What protection is available for conventional farmers? Will there be compensation for any farmer whose business is compromised?

Is the Minister satisfied that the SCIMAC guidelines take account of the latest evidence about the greater distance over which pollination can occur? Does he agree with the Minister for the Environment, who is sitting beside him—who said yesterday that, if evidence were available in Britain of threats to biodiversity, such as that posed by BT maize to the monarch butterfly in America, certain GM crops might have to be banned outright?

On health issues, I warmly welcome the publication of the report from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. I stress that the Opposition accept that the food on sale in Britain today containing GM ingredients passed all the tests thought necessary at the time that it was approved.

Will the Minister confirm that, last year, the Government were sufficiently worried about the long-term health consequences of food with genetically modified ingredients to approve a scheme to collect data from supermarkets about patterns of consumption and monitor them against health trends? Now that the scheme has been dropped, what alternative scheme is being prepared to obtain such data if it is thought necessary?

Does the Minister recognise that, even after today's assurances, some consumers will want to avoid eating food with GM ingredients? Will he therefore introduce simple, clear and accurate labelling requirements? What plans do the Government have to improve the labelling of animal feedstuffs which may contain GM ingredients? Does the Minister accept that, for the purpose of approving novel foods in future, the concept of substantial equivalence is seriously flawed? Will the Minister explain what steps the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser will take to watch future developments?

On the integrity of Government decision making, does the Minister realise that the publication yesterday of a letter giving details of discussions of the so-called biotechnology presentation group has raised serious questions about the Government's approach? Will he now publish the minutes of all the meetings of the group? Does he realise that people now suspect that the Government are more concerned with manipulating the media and public opinion than with protecting the environment and the health of the British people? Does he consider it a proper use of civil servants' time to try to control which scientists are interviewed on "Today"?

Will the Minister state whether any changes were made by the group to the draft report submitted by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser before its publication today? If so, what were they and why were they made? Since the same letter states that Departments were working to line up third parties to author articles in the media before the announcement does he consider, in light of the newspapers of the past two days, that it has been successful in that aim?

How will the proposed "central co-ordinated rebuttals strategy" work? What is its aim? Is it to prevent alternative views to those of the Government from being expressed? Will the Minister confirm that, in future, all advice from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser will be published without having to be cleared by the biotechnology presentation group"? Does he agree that the very idea of subjecting advice that is supposed to be delivered by objective and expert independent advisers to a group of politicians whose aim is to massage public opinion is utterly disgraceful?

Will the Minister consider making the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser more directly accountable to Parliament, perhaps through the relevant Select Committees, so that the integrity of their advice can be guaranteed in future?

The Opposition welcome the publication of today's reports as one step towards rebuilding public confidence, but the Minister must understand that the Government will be judged on whether the measures really place the protection of the British environment and the health of the British people higher up the Government's agenda than hitherto.

Dr. Cunningham

Let me take the hon. Gentleman's last point head on. From the outset, following the election of the new Labour Government in May 1997, we put the health and well-being of people and the environment at the top of our agenda; unlike the Conservative Government, we made it our overriding priority and it has remained so ever since. [Interruption.].

I am bound to say, if the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) will shut up for a moment, that the long list of questions that the Opposition spokesman put to me today could well have been put to the previous Government, but not one of them was. At the very time when the Opposition spokesman was himself a Minister in the Department of the Environment, none of those questions was asked. No, that is wrong: one question was asked, about animal feedstuffs. The Lamming committee advised that the Conservative Government should take action, but Ministers ignored the recommendation and did nothing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned labelling. [Interruption.] When we came to office in May 1997, Government officials in Brussels had instructions from the Conservative Administration to oppose proposals for labelling food—to oppose consumer choice on genetically modified food—so I suspect that he may regret having asked that question. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There are too many interruptions from a sedentary position. The Minister must be allowed to respond.

Dr. Cunningham

As well as lacking ideas and policies, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Conservative Front Benchers lack courtesy and manners.

The hon. Gentleman began by welcoming the reports. I accept that they contain a large amount of information that he and his colleagues will need time to consider. At least they welcome them in principle, which is helpful. He set out three criteria. Will the proposals more effectively safeguard the environment? Yes, they will. Will they more effectively safeguard the health of the people of this country? Yes, they will. Will they begin to restore public confidence in the safeguards and processes? Yes, they will.

The thorough and wide-ranging consultations that we have undertaken have produced very positive responses in respect of the main parts of the regulatory and advisory system that we inherited from the Conservative Administration. The Science and Technology Committee was robust in its support of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes.

We also got a strong message from the consultations that there should be more openness, transparency and public involvement, to improve public understanding of how the system works in the public interest. We have accepted that criticism and we are putting in place measures to improve matters. We have also accepted that there should be new super advisory commissions, to engage the wider interests of stakeholders—people with legitimate interests—and the public, so people can not only see but be involved in the process that is there to safeguard the public interest.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the integrity of the Government decision-making process. The process is such that we see no evidence at all to support his repeated call for a blanket moratorium on the growing of genetically modified crops. That call is almost devoid of support except from the well-known environmentalist groups.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

English Nature.

Dr. Cunningham

English Nature has never called for a blanket moratorium on the growing of genetically modified crops, so the right hon. Gentleman would be better advised to shut up and give up his sedentary interventions, because they are all mistaken, wrong and ill-informed, as is all too easy to illustrate.

The integrity of the Government decision-making process is strengthened by the measures announced today. As for the hon. Gentleman's playful teasing about the way in which the system works, we are criticised by him and by other hon. Members for not co-ordinating the Government's response, and when Ministers get together to do just that, he criticises that, too. He cannot have it both ways. I greatly applaud the excellent work being done by my ministerial colleagues in the inter-ministerial committee. We shall certainly continue to co-ordinate the Government's response effectively, exactly as the public would expect.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I look forward, as must others, to reading in detail the reports to which he has referred. He mentioned guidelines for the cultivation of crops. Is he aware of the concern of the Soil Association and of our organic farmers about the difficulty that they think that they face in preventing contamination of their crops and protecting the integrity of organic food, which we know the public are keen to buy, if the buffer zones are not extended? Is there new provision in the guidelines for extending the zones? If not, will my right hon. Friend make it possible to extend them in future, if contamination occurs from the farm test sites?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the statement. As a member of the Soil Association, I am very much aware of its views. Yes, the guidelines for cultivation will cover matters such as crop separation. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment are in consultation with the association about those issues. One of the arguments in favour of the field and farm-scale trials is exactly to allow us rigorously to assess the implications for the environment and then make whatever decisions are necessary in the light of the evidence that accrues.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the fact that we have had a statement, but I am also concerned about its being on a Friday. There was no statement yesterday, although one could have been made at 12.30 pm. I suggest that the Government took that decision because the statement is largely content-free.

We welcome the overarching bodies proposed in the statement, and especially the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, and we support the idea of a national surveillance unit. Will those with pecuniary interests in the biotechnology industry be eligible for places on those bodies?

This is a GM dog that does not bark. There is a whole range of questions that the statement does not address in any way. Once again, the Government are running behind the GM juggernaut and are not in the driving seat. I want to ask some of those questions. I can do no better than to ask the questions that the Government themselves have asked.

I refer to a leaked Cabinet paper—not the one that we saw yesterday, but another leaked Cabinet Office document dating from 19 February, entitled "GM Foods—Policy and Presentational Issues". As the Government have had the questions in it before them for three months, presumably the Minister will be able to answer them.

These are the Government's own questions: In respect of the voluntary deal with the industry, how can we be sure that the deal will not unravel? What can we do if it begins to do so? Do we have any statutory power to impose in-use conditions? Are we 100 per cent. sure that the voluntary deal will allow us to capture all the necessary data to come to a sensible evaluation? What about long-term monitoring? Even after five years, the real environmental effects may not be known. Will we have the means to identify longer-term effects? In terms of labelling, the Government ask: is our labelling line on soya oil tenable? The questions continue: If people have ethical objections to GM processing, should they not have a real choice informed through labelling? As for the impact of GMOs on health, the Government asked themselves: Why don't we require a pharmaceutical-type analysis of the safety of these foods with proper trials? What if it"— that is, the study— says that there is evidence of long-term effects? This will look like we are not sure about their safety—we do not monitor consumption of other foods. In respect of animal feeds, the Government ask how can we be sure of the safety of products derived from animals which eat GM animal feeds? Those are just some of the questions in the Cabinet Office paper that demonstrate that the Government have the questions but no answers. Rather than bringing us a vacuous statement about an overarching body—although I welcome that—which does not answer any of the questions—[Horn. MEMBERS: "You just said you welcomed it."] 1 welcome one part of it, but there is a lot missing.

I ask the Minister to be rather less gung-ho about genetic modification and rather more assiduous in answering the questions he himself asked on 19 February.

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman is, as so often, confused. He is referring not to a Cabinet Paper but to a paper for the working meeting of interdepartmental officials. He is wrong to present that to the House as a Cabinet paper. His lukewarm welcome of my announcement is typical of the hon. Gentleman, whose sole parroted cry is either to call for a blanket moratorium on the growing of GM crops, which would mean that we would get no evidence to answer his questions—

Mr. Baker

indicated dissent.

Dr. Cunningham

That shows the stupidity of his position. His other tactic, which fortunately he has not repeated in the Chamber, although he used it on the radio this morning, is deliberately to misrepresent the views of the Government chief scientific adviser. He is wholly wrong in that regard, too.

Of course, nobody can ever guarantee that a deal will never unravel, especially now when the biosciences are moving so rapidly. However, there are strong provisions in the agreement. There are obligations that have to be met, to which the companies involved have agreed. All our evidence is that the companies want an agreement that will work in practice.

The hon. Gentleman read out a question about the availability of data. I repeat that we can get data on environmental impact only if we have field and farm-scale trials. Perhaps he will go away and reflect on whether he still supports a moratorium on those, at the same time as asking for data to evaluate. That is a contradictory position.

Of course, as the Minister for the Environment and my other colleagues and I have made clear many times, we shall go on examining the trials for as long as is necessary to satisfy ourselves that there are no serious harmful effects on biodiversity. If we find harmful effects of the kind reported by Cornell university in Nature this week, albeit from a laboratory experiment, not from field trials, we shall take action similar to that which the European Union has already taken in respect of that evidence from Cornell, and stop licensing processes until we are satisfied that the situation is fully understood.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I appreciate that this is an important subject, and the Minister made an important statement that invites longer questions, but I remind hon. Members that this is a private Members' day, so perhaps we can now have shorter questions and answers.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's sensible proposals for reforming the advisory system to produce a more holistic way of considering the effects of biotechnology. Will he confirm that the deliberations of the advisory bodies will be based on rigorous scientific research validated by peer review? Does he agree that that will be doubly necessary after the unfortunate public confusion caused by the bypassing of the peer review system by the media release of Dr. Pusztai's now discredited experiments—the accounts of which have been enthusiastically taken up and repeated by some rather credulous Opposition Members?

Dr. Cunningham

I agree with my hon. Friend. All the decisions that we make have been, and will continue to be, taken on the basis of the best and most rigorous scientific evidence available. As my hon. Friend says, that evidence will always be subject to proper peer group review. It is absurd to imagine that the Government, like Opposition Members, including some Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople and those from the Liberal Democrats, could take decisions on the basis of the hysteria surrounding what we now see as the fatally flawed and misrepresented science in the research of Dr. Pusztai. It reflects no credit on Opposition Members that they and their spokespeople participated in the media hysteria, because it damaged the public interest.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I welcome the Minister's assurances from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser that the GM foods currently on the market are safe. That is reassuring. Genetic modification is of importance, because it brings great benefit to the countryside and helps British agriculture to compete in the global market. The hysterical campaign that has been launched against it is in danger of damaging an important British industry.

I believe that the Minister announced two or three—I could not work out how many—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mr. Atkinson

Quangos, if my right hon. Friend will have it so.

Will the Minister tell me whether those bodies will be set up quickly? Will they be able to delay the current field and farm trials? Today's announcement will, of course, cause some uncertainty for the companies currently involved in the experiments.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's measured response, and his rational conduct of his involvement with such important matters. As he said, there is a great danger that we could seriously damage important United Kingdom industrial and commercial interests. We are one of the world leaders in the biosciences, and it would be a terrible error to allow that to be damaged or undermined in any way.

As for the two new commissions that I announced today—the Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, they will not have any impact on the plans for the farm and field-scale trials. As I said, responsibility for the safety of genetically modified food will eventually pass to the Food Standards Agency. We hope that both the new commissions will be up and active by the end of the year.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I, too, welcome the setting up of the new biotechnology

commission, although I had understood that we already had a Human Genetics Advisory Commission. The commitment to transparency is important. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the commission and the relevant committees sit in public, and have sufficient resources to carry out their work effectively?

Professor Beringer, the outgoing chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, told the Science and Technology Committee that his committee had been seriously under-resourced. That problem should be addressed, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will give a commitment that it will.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our experience shows that, when there is the slightest suspicion on the part of the public that health and environmental considerations, and their right to choice in the food that they eat, are not given overriding priority, above commercial considerations, potentially beneficial technology has no chance of getting off the ground? Is it not in the interests of the commercial companies involved to recognise that fact and to support—indeed, to press for—proper national and international regulation and the segregation of crops so that genuine choice can be provided?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the announcements that I have made today. The difference between the commissions that I have announced today and existing committees is that the former will be overarching bodies with a wide remit to consider all aspects of the fast-moving developments in the sciences and technology. My hon. Friend mentioned resources for ACRE, and Professor Beringer. I take the opportunity to place on record our appreciation of the work that Professor Beringer and his colleagues have done, and of the work that all the other scientists and members of the other advisory committees do in the public interest for the Government. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has taken up the point raised by Professor Beringer and increased, within the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, resource support for the work of ACRE.

The Government have made their position on labelling clear. We believe that consumers should have a clear choice—in contradistinction to the attitude of the previous Conservative Government—and we shall work with the industry and our European partners to improve regulatory control wherever we think necessary.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

This is a matter that gravely concerns constituents of every Member of the House. Can the right hon. Gentleman, with his customary courtesy, reassure my constituents and others who are very worried by the reports of butterflies and bees whose immune systems have been destroyed? If that is happening, it must be stopped, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge. He is a scientist, but my constituents and I do not have his scientific knowledge.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about an open and well-informed debate. Can he categorically reassure the House that the desire to prevent discussion of the Referendums Bill and the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill—over which the Minister responsible for animal welfare has been shedding crocodile tears—has not been a factor in the making of the announcement today?

Dr. Cunningham

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might consider what he has said and do something himself to reassure his constituents, instead of taking an alarmist attitude and undermining possibly already fragile public confidence. I repeat that we shall take notice of any scientific and environmental development as the policies are implemented. If it is necessary to take further action, we will. I emphasise again that our overriding priority is the health and well-being of people and the environment.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Will he confirm, first, that the preservation of indigenous species of plants and birds will be a fundamental consideration—including species in those countries that might receive exported GM crops; secondly, that the interests of consumers will be paramount and that, if a product contains GM ingredients on the inside we will start to label GM on the outside; and thirdly, that, while considering the prospective benefits of third-world development, we will also consider the prospective power relationship between multinational countries and third-world development, in the interests of future trade profitability of third-world countries?

Dr. Cunningham

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. We shall do whatever is necessary to protect biodiversity in this country. We want to have farm and field-scale trials so that we can assess the impact on biodiversity. The labelling issue is a question for the biosafety protocol. As for development in third-world countries and in fragile environments, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will shortly publish a paper on those issues.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am sure that the Minister will be aware that some of the leading biotechnology companies in this country are based in my constituency. What further work is he publishing today to follow up the White Paper on competitiveness in the knowledge-based industries that was published last year? Many biotechnology companies wish to know what will be done on that issue and the Minister made no specific mention of it in his statement.

The Minister mentioned a Human Genetics Commission. How will the work of that commission relate to, and be co-ordinated with, the work of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority? Will the commission take on the work of the xenotransplantation interim regulatory authority and give it the regulatory teeth that it demands if successful progress is to be made with the technology, including by a company in my constituency?

Will the Minister confirm that, even though a precautionary attitude will be taken to the planting of GM crops that will lead to a delay in any commercial planting in this country, if another European Union member state were to license the commercial planting of GM crops, there would be no legal bar to a company proceeding with commercial planting in other member states, including here? What have the Government done about that?

Dr. Cunningham

It was not my purpose to deal with the competitiveness White Paper today, but the development of biotechnology is important for the competitiveness of our industries. That is why the Government have been concerned to try to ensure that we regulate the developments properly and, at the same time, provide a climate in which those important industries can flourish and prosper in the British economy. The hon. Gentleman is right: the way that the system works is that a proposer can seek approvals in any member state and obtain a crop licence, but each member state has to give consent. We inherited that system from the previous Conservative Administration.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

May I follow the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) when she referred to the existing Human Genetics Advisory Commission? Will my right hon. Friend publish soon the details of the bodies that will be incorporated in the new commission? Have the Government considered the evidence collected by the Select Committee on Science and Technology on whether the Human Genetics Advisory Commission should have some statutory powers given to it?

Dr. Cunningham

All the information that my hon. Friend requires is published in the documents that we are making available today. I should have responded on the same point to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). The Human Genetics Commission, which I have announced today, will advise us on the applications of biotechnology in health care and the impact of human genetics on our lives. It will not be a regulatory body.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Minister must be aware that, although many people are worried about the direct effects on people and their diet, they are even more worried about the possible collateral effects of the field trials and the way in which the processes used in the experimentation could spread out of control by being transmitted by insects, in the air, through the soil or in the water. Can the Minister give us an absolute assurance that every step will be taken to ensure that, during those crucial and—I accept—necessary experimental stages, there will be no accidental collateral effects that we might all soon live to regret bitterly?

Dr. Cunningham


Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he recognises that—given that we have seen so much bad and selective science and muddling of the issues—the Government will have to address the knowledge of the public about the issues? The public are now very confused about the health implications of the foods that have been licensed, which seem to be muddled up with the environmental problems that we yet face. At times, there is deliberate confusion between trials and commercial plantings. The language and the selective reporting in some of the media—for example, the term "Frankenstein food"—have been deliberately used to misinform the public, who are not scientifically well educated. The Government must deal with the issue.

Dr. Cunningham

It is exactly because we understand public concerns, and because in some cases there have been deliberate attempts to mislead, unsettle and scare the public that we have done all that work over the past five months and are announcing our decisions today. Of course there has been some bad science. Happily, that has been thoroughly exposed for what it was. There has been deliberate muddling of the issues. On more than one occasion, we have heard people on radio and television, including the interviewers themselves sometimes, claiming that genetically modified crops "were being let rip". Nothing could be further from the truth.

My hon. Friend referred to commercial planting. There is no unlimited commercial planting taking place in this country—none at all. Controlled planting is taking place, under rigorous supervision, and it will go on in that way until we are satisfied that it is safe for any single plant or product to go on to the next stage.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

May I put the record straight? No Liberal Democrat has called for a total ban on growing any genetically modified food—[Horn. MEMBERS: "You have.] No, no; we have welcomed trials so that we can get the science right. We are asking for a ban on commercial production involving GM food.

Will the new commissions, which sound as though they will be extremely useful bodies, bring together representatives of the industry, academics and representatives of other regulatory bodies? If the commissions are to have members from the industries involved, is it not vital that the regulatory body, the Food Standards Agency, should be made up entirely of people without commercial or financial interest in the industry?

Dr. Cunningham

As ever, the Liberal Democrats seem to want to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, depending on the audience that they are addressing. Many of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends have deliberately given the impression that they wanted a total stop to all the work on GM foods. It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to come into the Chamber this morning and pretend that that has not been the case.

As for people from industry serving on Government advisory bodies, there is no bar to anyone from any walk of life serving voluntarily on Government bodies. We want Government advisory and regulatory bodies made up of the best membership that we can achieve. That always has been the case, and it remains so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must now return to the Bill.

Mr. Robathan

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on behalf of the many people outside the House who are concerned about the constitutional issues regarding fair rules for referendums, and the prohibition of fur farming. How can we explain to them that the Government are determined that the Referendums Bill nor the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill will reach the statute book, and are deliberately getting craven toadies on their Back Bench to talk the measures out?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows full well how the House works. That is not a matter for the Chair. We must return to the Bill before the House.