HL Deb 04 June 2003 vol 648 cc1324-7

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What evidence the public will have so that they may form an opinion as to the environmental impact of genetically modified crops and what account the Government will take of that opinion when deciding whether to authorise commercial growing of those crops.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, in relation to the public debate on GM, the information packs and the "GM Nation" website contain information on the environmental impact, and the public's views will feed into the report being prepared by the independent steering board. More specifically, each application for commercial cultivation of a GM crop must include an environmental risk assessment and all applications are subject to public scrutiny through two periods of public consultation. The application and public comments are considered by all EU member states and a collective decision taken.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, does he not think it ridiculous that the Government are expecting the public to form an opinion just before publication in July of field trial results which may have some scientific value? Would it not have been better to publish the field trial results and then to ask the public for their opinion? Is he not also very disappointed that the next round of public involvement—the launch of the public debate—will be a closed session, access to which can be gained only by invitation and ticket, I believe? So even if genuine members of the public were interested, they would be unable to attend those events. Will he consider a debate in your Lordships' House to discuss the conduct of this public debate?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that final point is not a matter for me. On the public debate, most of the sessions would be ticket based but would be available by application so anyone can be party to the debate. We anticipate a widespread debate. That is in the hands of an independent steering board, not those of the Government; that is contrary to some comments in the media. As to timing, the noble Baroness misunderstands the situation. The public debate will cover all aspects of GM and the future use of GM technology in a number of applications and a number of ways, whereas the decision on the cultivation of field crops is a particular decision that depends on the outcome of those trials. One is not dependent on the other.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister explain how Ministers in another place have assisted in the process of achieving an objective opinion on GM crops when they have just appointed two new members to the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. which is the Government's strategic adviser on those matters? They are Dr David Buckeridge of Advanta Seeds and Dr Paul Rylott, the UK head of bioscience for Bayer CropScience. Both are strong lobbyists in favour of GM crops. How will he ensure objectivity in this debate with that happening?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, appointments to that committee, as with other committees, cover a wide range of' interests. It would clearly be absurd if such committees excluded people with industrial and scientific experience in the area under examination. If the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, examines the full list of members, he will see that many have opinions that differ from those two views. That is the nature of the debate—there is a wide range of views on this debate, which is precisely why the Government want the public to engage more widely on all aspects of the issue.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that scientists wear many hats? They can be independent and objective. The suggestion that they are influenced by other considerations is rather demeaning towards our scientists.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is certainly the case that many of our best scientists have at various points in their career been dependent, in terms of employment, research and so on, on the private sector. That does not in any way disqualify their objective scientific judgment.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, when the Government decide whether to authorise the commercial growing of such crops, will they have to consult the European Union in Brussels? If so, what would be the influence of the European Union's decision?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in terms of new cultivations of crops or new products, there was a European-wide system of application. Some of that has been delayed as a result of the de facto moratorium on giving new approvals. New proposals must be dealt with through a European system on which every member state must take a view, after which there is a collective decision. Applications for new crops or new imports go through a European process.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the Minister must be aware of the criticism in the media about the first public consultation exercise that took place yesterday. He said that that was organised by an independent organisation. In view of that criticism and the failure of the people organising it to be absolutely clear about the venue, time and date of the consultation exercise, would he kindly convey to the people organising it the intense dissatisfaction of many people who are concerned about GMOs on one side or the other—it is not just the antis who are complaining—about the failure of this exercise to be a proper consultation exercise rather than a cosmetic exercise?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the noble Countess herself said, this was the first occasion—the beginning of the public debate. There will be a number of such events. It is in the nature of such events that those with strong views on the issue wish to put their view on the record at an early stage. That certainly happened yesterday. However, I do not believe that that in any way undermines the credibility of the exercise as a whole. It is very important that the Government maintain an arm's length relationship with those who are organising the debate in order to make it absolutely clear that this is not a debate that the Government are attempting to steer. It would therefore not be incumbent on me to pass on such comments to the steering committee.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords—

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can we be sure that when—

Noble Lords

This side!

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister assure the House about the independence of the consultation? I was reassured to learn that Professor Malcolm Grant, a hugely reputable academic, was leading it. I hope that the House will permit me to say to the noble Countess that one can find out about the dates on the website if one wants; they are very accessible. Could we be reassured about the independence of the consultation process and when will it report to the Secretary of State?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The independence of the consultation process is clear. Professor Grant is a person of the highest integrity and I am confident that he will be able to conduct the exercise in a way that draws a meaningful conclusion by the September date, when we expect his report to the Secretary of State.

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