HL Deb 30 June 1994 vol 556 cc865-7

3.25 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

Who in law is responsible and therefore liable for damages if the genetically modified virus containing a scorpion gene escapes from the field at Wytham near Oxford into the general environment and affects organisms other than those intended.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, Part VI of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 provides the basis for legislation controlling the release of genetically modified organisms. If an organism were released in such a manner that a criminal offence was committed under the Act, the Secretary of State has powers to take reasonable steps towards remedying any harm caused, where possible, and to recover the cost incurred from the person convicted of the offence. Liability and damages would depend on the circumstances of any escape and the nature of the damage caused.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his most informative and rather complicated answer. Will he confirm that we are dealing with the release into a field of a virus, which is a native of California and tends to kill moth caterpillars, and that this virus has been genetically engineered in this country so as to make it more likely to kill the caterpillar of the cabbage looper, having been laced for good measure with a section of genetic material which produces scorpion venom when it is at home,? That being the case, if anything were to go wrong, would not it be a singularly conspicuous matter? If the Secretary of State has the power to recover the cost, what will he do with it when he has recovered it? Will he pay it out again to those who have suffered? If so, does that mean that it will come to rest with the taxpayer, or is there an alternative route in this era of private enterprise?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I cannot say precisely what the Secretary of State will do in particular circumstances because such circumstances have not yet arisen. We very much hope that they will not arise. Certainly, the noble Lord was right. This particular virus in the Oxford institute naturally infects caterpillars; but it has been modified with the scorpion toxin gene, which means that the target insect is killed faster and before it can damage crops. Similar GMOs have been released —I believe there have been approximately six in the past seven years. Every possible precaution has been taken on releases to the environment by the advisory committee, which in turn informs the Secretary of State.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend make sure that those who have released this scorpion gene into a field are aware of the decision in Rylands v. Fletcher, and their possible liability under that doctrine?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am sure that my noble and learned friend has a very good point. I shall make sure that it is carried out.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does an employer who disseminates this or any other substance over a field have a general obligation under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act to take all steps which are reasonably practicable to protect the health and safety of the public? Would such an employer be liable for proceedings if harm came to the public and it was found that he had not taken every step reasonably practicable to prevent that harm?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, every possible precaution is taken. Certainly the HSC is very much aware of these particular circumstances. It is bounden to take into very serious consideration any such possible harm should any particular release go wrong. As I said, every possible precaution has been taken that nothing should go wrong.

Lord Elton

My Lords, my noble friend and other contributors to the debate are talking of grave and dangerous effects. Can my noble friend tell those of his noble friends and others who are baffled by what was said what the real danger is, and whether it is cabbages or caterpillars or the whole of Oxford that we should now avoid?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, there is no specific danger in relation to this release because it was extremely carefully controlled. The press coverage on this matter over the past few weeks grossly over-exaggerated the situation. The real worry is that there are some rather rare butterflies several hundred yards from where the experiment is being carried out.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, raised an important point Are those responsible for releasing this and any other virus described by noble Lords aware of their responsibilities which may well be both criminal—as I understand it from the noble Lord's Answer—and also civil? Are they aware, and who are they?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, of course they are aware. All the 19 stations across the country are aware of the sensitivity of such releases, particularly this well-renowned institute in Oxfordshire. It is well aware of the precautions it must take and how it must deal with the Department of the Environment and the Secretary of State in order to obtain his agreement, through advice from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment for specific releases to take place.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that the criticism reported in the press, which has been extensive, came largely from what scientists call the "peers" of those who are doing the work? They are other experts in the field who reacted with extraordinary alarm despite the approval given by the committee called ACRE; and, indeed, it is an alarm I cannot remember seeing in any similar case.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, some experts contended that this release perhaps should not take place. But ACRE was consulted a second time and agreed that it was perfectly in order for the release to proceed.