HC Deb 25 May 2000 vol 350 cc1099-101
6. Mr. Clappison

What recent representations he has received about the use of subsidies for arable farming. [122405]

Mr. Brown

A number of representations have been received about the position of arable farmers in the United Kingdom. Arable farmers receive more than £1 billion in direct aid payments each year. The arable market continues to be supported by intervention and export refunds. In addition, arable farmers have just received £170 million in agrimonetary aid and will receive a further £57 million in the autumn.

Mr. Clappison

Has the Minister seen the letter in The Times today from a farmer who sowed a crop of rape seed that, unbeknown to him at the time, was GM-contaminated? When he sowed that crop, the Government had already known for several weeks that there was GM-contaminated seed, but it was several more weeks before that was eventually made public. He has now destroyed the crop and resown, but obviously at additional cost to himself and with a lower yield. In view of that farmer's experience and, no doubt, that of other farmers at sowing time, was the Minister for the Cabinet Office right to say that the Government probably made a mistake in delaying that announcement for so long?

Mr. Brown

When the company discovered what had happened, it was its responsibility to be candid with its suppliers and customers, so the responsibility is on it. Important issues of civil law are involved, which the Government are considering carefully. There are other issues that relate to the Government's legal responsibilities, which I also have under active consideration, along with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. It would be unwise to say more now, but as soon as I can tell the House about the legal issues involved, I will.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Will my right hon. Friend agree to consider the possibility of extending the subsidy system to include farmer cover, were we to go down the path that the Swedish Government announced yesterday? They instructed all their farmers to plough up their fields of contaminated oilseed rape by 7 July. Will he also extend that examination to the implications that that may have for GM-contaminated maize? The subsidy system that I hope he will consider ought not to preclude the primary responsibility, under the "polluter pays" principle, of returning to the seed suppliers and ensuring that they are not able to corrupt the food system where they have not been able to persuade consumers, farmers or retailers that that is the wisest course of action.

Mr. Brown

Knowingly to corrupt seed products is of course an offence in this country, as is knowingly releasing them into the environment. That remains the case. I intend to raise the issues about oilseed rape to which my hon. Friend refers with Commissioner Fischler when I meet him on Monday. It is an informal ministerial meeting so we shall have a chance to discuss those issues as Ministers with the Commission. My hon. Friend mentions maize. The Government have had no indication that any conventional maize seeds imported to the United Kingdom contain modified varieties.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister accept that, irrespective of whether one generally supports GM technology or is hostile to it, there appears to be an incoherence in the British Government's response to the issue not merely because it is divided between two Departments but because the Cabinet Office has a role as well? The producers of rape seed, negotiators in the Commission and overseas companies need to know which door to knock on, and where the buck stops and where it starts—preferably in the same place. Will the Minister review with his colleagues whether there is not a strong case for a much clearer system of governance of the issue so that people know where they stand and where to go in case of problems?

Mr. Brown

It is not the process that is at fault. The issues are these: is there any danger to the public, or is there a risk to their health? The Government found the answer to that early on—it is clearly no, and no-one has alleged anything different. Is there any danger to the environment from what has happened—an accident which should not have happened—with oilseed rape? The answer to that question is also no. Does the matter raise wider questions about seed purity? Yes, it does. As we have said in our answer, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in her written answer, and as I amplified in my statement to the House last week, on a range of fronts the Government are taking those issues forward as a matter of urgency.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way forward now on seed purity is for him to work with his European colleagues to establish a proper protocol whereby these matters may be determined? Will he also accept that while our farm-scale trials are under way a 1 per cent. contamination of conventional crops with genetically modified crops is absolutely unacceptable? Frankly, Advanta must have known that when it was willing to sell suspect seed in Europe.

Mr. Brown

I cannot comment on the last matter. We have not agreed contamination levels for the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend is right to say that European Union Ministers should discuss these matters and, if we can, agree a common approach. Certainly, I am willing to play my part and I discussed the matter with my colleague Jean Glavany, the French Minister, on the telephone yesterday. His view is similar to mine.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

The Minister believes that contaminated oilseed rape crops are so environmentally safe that he did not think it necessary even to consult English Nature—and the issue is not even on the published agenda for today's meeting of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. Why did he take a whole month to warn farmers and consumers that these crops are now being grown extensively in Britain? Will not farmers whose crops have been damaged, communities whose environments are threatened and consumers whose ability to choose a GM-free product have been jeopardised all rightly blame the Minister for keeping that information secret for a whole month and failing to take any action?

Mr. Brown

I am not keeping any information secret. I have gone out of my way to be candid with the House. I put the technical note in the Library and I have now also put the advice from ACRE and from the Food Standards Agency there, so that hon. Members may see it for themselves. They will find that it confirms what I have told the House. I notice that the hon. Gentleman is concentrating on the process, which is, of course, because he has nothing to say on the substance.

Mr. Yeo

Is the Minister saying that today's reports that large areas of GM-contaminated maize are growing in Britain are not true? Has his Department not received any warning that they may be true? Should not farmers who may have unwittingly planted a GM-maize crop at least be contacted about the possibility? Does he agree with the Environment Minister that the 1 per cent. threshold for GM contamination of seeds proposed by the European Seeds Association is totally unacceptable to consumers and potentially dangerous to the environment?

Mr. Brown

I have already answered the question of whether I agree with the Environment Minister; yes, I do. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suffering from what I can only describe as Liberal Democrat disease, because I also answered his main question. However, for the avoidance of doubt, let me repeat the answer word for word. We—meaning the British Government—have no indication that any conventional maize seeds imported into the United Kingdom contain modified varieties. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we had any warning. I think that he is referring to a letter circulated by the seed industry—he can correct me if I am wrong—dated 22 May to agriculture departments and other public representatives throughout the European Union. If he is referring to that, it is a letter that all hon. Members should be entitled to read and on which they should be able to make up their own minds, so I am placing a copy in the Library. The letter does not bear the interpretation that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

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