HC Deb 17 December 1998 vol 322 cc644-5W
Mr. Hope

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on biotechnology and genetic modification, following the establishment of the ministerial group. [64629]

Dr. Jack Cunningham

The Government are initiating a thorough review of the framework for overseeing developments in biotechnology, focusing particularly on the range of committees that have been established to provide the Government with expert advice and to regulate in this area. The Government are already engaged in a public consultation on developments in the biosciences which is due to report in Spring 1999. The review of the framework for overseeing developments in biotechnology, to be carried out by officials, will take place on the same timescale.

The Government believe that the protection of human health must be the first priority in regulating biotechnology. The impact on the environment and on biodiversity must also be thoroughly assessed, and the ethical issues raised by biotechnology fully taken into account. At the same time, the Government believe that this technology has the potential to offer enormous opportunities for improving the competitiveness of the economy and the quality of life in terms of health, agriculture, food and environmental protection, and that regulation should facilitate technological development by not imposing unjustified burdens on the biotechnology industry.

The Government seek to have in place a system that provides sound advice and proportionate regulation and is at the same time as simple and transparent as possible; that has the flexibility to respond to the fast moving developments in the technology and to public concerns; and that commands the respect of users and the public.

The review will assess the current system in the light of these criteria. It will seek to address the following questions: what gaps exist in coverage of biotechnology by the existing committees and how might these be remedied? what overlaps exist and are they justified? If not, how might they be remedied? could the current system be structured in a more simple way? how could the system for providing advice to Government be made more transparent? are ethical and other wider issues addressed fully and properly within the current system? are stakeholders given the appropriate opportunities to make their views known? For example, would an environmental stakeholder forum be a valuable addition to the current framework? is the framework flexible enough to cope with the rapid development of this technology which is likely in the future? does the public have confidence in the system currently in place?

The views will be sought of the existing regulatory and advisory bodies themselves, and of outside bodies with an interest in this area. The Government would also welcome views from the public.

The Cabinet Office and the Office of Science and Technology will jointly co-ordinate the review. The Government will make an announcement on its outcome.