HC Deb 26 March 2004 vol 419 cc1193-8

Order for Second Reading read.

12 noon

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

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

The subject of genetically modified crops is a subject that can fill an MP with trepidation, and it is clear that it has so filled the Government deputy Chief Whip. [Interruption.] Indeed, I can see consternation on the faces of Government Front Benchers. Usually, it is the complicated science and the entrenched views held by those on both sides of the argument that put people off this subject. However, GM crops have potentially irrevocable consequences that could affect us all. Although I am only an arts graduate, when my name came up in respect of promoting a private Member's Bill, I was determined to tackle this subject, and I am jolly glad I did.

In the run-up to today's debate, I have been extremely gratified to learn of the support for my stand, not least from my own Rother district council, but also from the many letters and cards I have received from various other parts of the country. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) has drawn to my attention the strongly worded resolution of Devon county council.

I am pleased to say that the Bill is sponsored by several members of the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I, too, am a member. I am delighted to say that our report, "GM foods—Evaluating the Farm Scale Trials", has been extremely well received by the public at large. I am sorry that the Government have not taken more trouble to take on board the Committee's views. I am also glad to say that one of the Bill's sponsors is my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)—he, too, is a member of the Committee—who is in his place. Furthermore, the Chairman of the Committee wrote to the Minister yesterday in support of the principles of my Bill. I am pleased to say that several members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee are also sponsors. Any mistakes in the Bill are mine, but their support—and that of other sponsors on both sides of the House—adds a great deal of weight to the fundamental principles that I will argue for today.

Without wishing to get bogged down in the complexities of GM crops, I should point out that, whenever any new technology or product is introduced, it has risks as well as benefits. As a point of principle, we must preserve consumer choice and allow people to choose whether they wish to use or consume a product. We must also ensure that, if the technology could have adverse impacts on our health, wealth or precious environment, those who introduce it and benefit from it must be properly held responsible, and if necessary required to pay damages, or to put right whatever harm is done.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gregory Barker

Not at the moment; I want to make some progress, if I may. One does not need to be a scientist to understand that freedom of choice and producer responsibility underpin my approach. It does not matter whether one is in favour of or against the commercialisation of GM crops: those are the basic rules, and we should all subscribe to them. That is what my Bill seeks to achieve for GM crops.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My understanding is that this is a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Bill that would normally be answered by a DEFRA Minister. Do you know whether the Government will be providing a Minister at least to hear the arguments, if not to give DEFRA's opinion on the matter?

It was definitely the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who made the GM statement to the House. It is rather odd, therefore, that there is no DEFRA Minister present to hear the arguments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are represented on the Front Bench, and the Chair cannot intervene beyond that. It needs to be well observed that events on Fridays sometimes do not follow an entirely normal course, which may explain the current absence of a DEFRA Minister.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), is it not at the very least a discourtesy, if not sheer indifference, to the House that the Government have not seen fit to provide a full team of Ministers to cover the full set of Bills before the House today? Surely the Government cannot make casual assumption that Bills will take this or that course. It must be right for the Government to supply proper Ministers to deal with Bills in the order in which they appear.

Mr. Miller


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Let me try to deal with the matter. There is no genuine problem of order. The Government are represented on the Front Bench, as I said. Whether or not the absence of a DEFRA Minister is intentional is entirely another matter. Circumstances are such that no DEFRA Minister is in his place at the present time, but that is not a point of order for the Chair because the Government are represented on the Front Bench.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

I entirely accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Government are represented on the Front Bench. We all realise that, but as I understand it, the Minister present is from the Department of Trade and Industry. Have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or any other officials in the Speaker's Office, been given any information this morning of a Government reshuffle, which would explain the change of responsibilities?

Mr. Miller


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Let me tempt Mr. Sutcliffe to contribute.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I am pleased, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you protected my status as a proper Minister. I am a Minister based in the Department of Trade and Industry, which other parties are trying to do away with. The DTI is very interested in all aspects of the business of the House and will pass on to the appropriate Ministers anything that is raised in the debate.

Mr. Miller

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not more appropriate—you, Sir, may wish to discuss the matter with the Speaker—when there is a change of business on a Friday brought about by the mechanism of Bills being withdrawn, that prior notice be given of that change? That is important, because it affects the workings of Front-Bench and Back-Bench Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair cannot control every event occurring in the House. Members sometimes take initiatives, involving motions to sit in private and so forth, which can completely alter the order and time taken on particular items of business. No one knows before the start of business whether a Bill will be dealt with in 10 minutes or five hours. In the best of all ordered worlds, both the Government and Opposition Benches should be manned for the appropriate legislation. The Chair expects that to happen, but nothing out of order has taken place and I believe that we should now move on.

Gregory Barker

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think I can shed a little further light on the matter. I received a letter from the Minister for the Environment at 6.30 yesterday evening, in which he said: I will of course listen carefully to what you have to say in support of your Bill on Friday and judge it accordingly. What could possibly have happened to that Minister from 6.30 last night, when he said he would be in his place listening to the debate on my Bill? Perhaps it is a cause for concern or a cause of consternation for the Government Whips. Perhaps it explains why the Government deputy Chief Whip has scuttled off.

I want to press on, in the hope that at some point the DEFRA Ministers will turn up. 1 return to the issue of freedom of choice.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gregory Barker

No, not on this point. We have done it to death.

All crop seeds have the potential to mix with other varieties, and GM crops are no different. They can be mixed by cross-pollination, when the pollen of one crop is blown or carried by insects from one plant to another. They can be mixed when birds or animals eat or otherwise transport seed to other fields. They can be mixed if a field is planted with a GM crop one year and a non-GM crop the next. Some of the seed will inevitably remain in the ground and grow later than intended, mixing with the following non-GM crop. Such plants are known as volunteers. Humans, too, can mix the seed, in farm machinery or silos that are not completely emptied of one batch of seed or crop before another is added or when seed is spilled in transportation. Seed can be mixed by accident at the grain merchant.

The point is that if GM crops are allowed to mix with non-GM crops, it will not be possible for a consumer who does not wish to eat GM food to be able to buy GM-free products. It is clear that many people want to continue to buy GM-free products.

Lembit öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Welsh Assembly has had much debate about this issue, and it shares his concern that unless we do something about it now, our choice will be removed by default?

Gregory Barker

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well.

Mr. Watson

The hon. Gentleman has outlined the principles behind the Bill and some of the challenges that GM food poses for retailers. Has he managed to inform Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth about his Bill? What are their views on his Bill?

Gregory Barker

If the hon. Gentleman occasionally read the newspapers, he would know that Friends of the Earth has been extremely helpful in the drafting of the Bill. All the environmental groups have taken an interest, although they do not all entirely agree with what I am doing.

Mr. Miller

I am concerned not with the principle of what the hon. Gentleman seeks to do, but with the methodology. The Bill would regulate in a very prescriptive manner, but does that not go against the basic tenets of his party?

Gregory Barker

I do not intend to respond to time-wasting interventions. If the hon. Gentleman had read the Bill carefully instead of having just been passed it by the Whips, he would find that what he alleges is not the case.

The Government's "GM Nation?" debate found that 86 per cent. of respondents did not want to eat GM food, something that our retailers—even the large supermarkets—have long recognised. Indeed, none of the major supermarkets goes out of its way to stock GM food. To preserve the choice that our constituents clearly wish to continue to exercise, we have to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops with GM traits. GM crops must be required to be planted according to rules that govern separation distances and planting intervals, as well as according to farm hygiene rules that prevent equipment from being used for GM and non-GM crops simultaneously. I hope that so far I have followed a logical path. I know from meetings with the Minister, who is unfortunately not in his place, that the Government agree with me that we need a co-existence and liability regime—

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I beg to move, That the House do now sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 ( Motions to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 23.

Division No. 111] [12:13 pm
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Barry Gardiner and
Rob Marris
Barker, Gregory Keetch, Paul
Brazier, Julian Lansley, Andrew
Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushclilf) McLoughlin, Patrick
Cormack, Sir Patrick öpik, Lembit
Davidson, Ian Paterson, Owen
Drown, Ms Julia Redwood, rh John
Flook, Adrian Robtain, Andrew
Forth, rh Eric Skinner, Dennis
Francois, Mark Teather, John
Gale, Roger (N Thanet) Wilkinson, John
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Tellers for the Noes:
Kaufman, rh Gerald Mr. Andrew Miller and
Mr. Andrew Dismore

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Gregory Barker

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Through the most shameless and despicable use of House procedures, the Government have deliberately killed off my Bill and the debate on it before I had got even halfway through my speech. Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment wrote to me saying that he would be here to hear my Bill and to judge it accordingly. How can anyone ever trust not only this Labour Government but DEFRA, when a Minister deliberately tells untruths in a letter and refuses to come to the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going much too far in his remarks. It is certainly not a point of order for the Chair. The procedures of the House have been observed correctly and the Chair has no control over the actions that are taken provided that they are in order. What has happened has happened.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The issue of genetically modified organisms is a matter of enormous national controversy and the House is as divided as the general public. It is simply unacceptable that a Bill of this nature that asks Parliament to decide the nature of regulation should be closed down and that a Minister should not come to the House. Is it possible for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make representations to the Minister that he should come in future to debates that concern his Department?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The importance of a particular matter cannot be decided by the Chair. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that any particular matter that hon. Members wish to have debated on the Floor of the House should be taken up with the usual channels.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the case that it is, indeed, the role of Parliament to determine that? If the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) had secured the support of even 40 of his colleagues, he could have continued with his peroration and his Bill might have been able to proceed, but as he did not have the support of his own side, it fell.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

These points of order are turning into a debate. They are not for the Chair—[Interruption.] Well, we will try one more.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In more measured tones, will you accept that on reading Hansard on Monday, people will find that 23 people voted in the No Lobby? It was not 23 Tories because, as a matter of fact, there were six or seven Labour Members. It was a cross-party Division. Let the facts speak for themselves—they only got about 16.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sure that the record will show that. No hon. Member who is experienced in Friday sittings will be surprised by what happened, but what has happened has happened. It is in order and we should proceed with the other measures on the Order Paper.