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Social Exclusion Unit

3. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): If he will list the main priorities of the social exclusion unit for the current year. [68645]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): The unit will continue to lead the co-ordination of policy development across Whitehall on neighbourhood renewal. It will produce two new reports to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on teenage parents and on 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training.

Mr. Corbett: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I welcome and encourage the work that the unit is doing on truancy and school exclusion, and now with teenage parents. The efforts of thousands of my constituents to rebuild their lives, homes and community through the Castle Vale housing action trust are being harmed by the activities of a handful of eight to 14-year-old youngsters who feel socially excluded. Will my right hon. Friend endorse the efforts of the trust, Castle Vale school, the police and community groups to work together to offer those young people better hope for their lives, in a great city where they are lucky to live?

Dr. Cunningham: Yes, I will endorse that work. My hon. Friend's comments about the work of the social exclusion unit will be widely welcomed by the people who work for it. It is worth pointing out to the House that, as a result of their work, the Government have provided an extra £1.8 billion so far, targeted at schemes that featured in the unit's report, including those such as sure start, which is aimed at helping children who face the very risks that my hon. Friend has just described.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that Home Start is one of the most effective and sensitive of the voluntary organisations which are helping to tackle social exclusion? Will he ask the social exclusion unit expressly to examine the difficulties in Farncombe, in Godalming? Is it his Government's view that disadvantage, isolation and deprivation do not occur in relatively prosperous counties? Such is the effect of the spending decisions on Surrey's health and social services that it is inconceivable that money will be found to start any new projects; indeed, the small amount of joint finance funding already available will have to be withdrawn. Will the right hon. Gentleman expressly ask the social exclusion unit to study what is happening in the home counties and the suffering experienced there?

Dr. Cunningham: First, I pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Lady has always done in the voluntary sector through her long and effective association with voluntary work. I cannot comment on the organisation that she mentioned, but I am sure that it is, as she says, worthy of support. As for the social exclusion unit considering specific difficulties rather than general issues, that is not really within its remit, but I undertake to look carefully at what the right hon. Lady has said and to see how I can draw that to the attention of my appropriate right hon. Friends.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key role for the social

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exclusion unit must be to continue to develop policies across government that support social entrepreneurs, the people who provide the drive behind credit unions, community businesses and other forms of social enterprise? Will my right hon. Friend further encourage the social exclusion unit to promote more partnerships between mainstream banks and social enterprises to bring the hard-headed financial skills of the private sector to our work on neighbourhood renewal?

Dr. Cunningham: Although my hon. Friend makes an important point, it is not currently within the work programme of the social exclusion unit. However, he is right to draw attention to the important work of credit unions and co-operative organisations. Again, I shall draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has responsibility for such matters.

Annual Government Report

4. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Who will be responsible for the preparation of this year's annual Government report. [68646]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): Civil servants.

Mr. Hughes: That is the answer that I expected.

Given that Alastair Campbell and his colleagues in the Downing street communications unit are classed as civil servants, does not the Minister accept that if the Government's annual report--a concept that is welcome--is to have any objective credibility, it should be compiled by the National Audit Office or an independent statistical office, and not by Government spin doctors?

Mr. Kilfoyle: According to the hon. Gentleman's own words, civil servants wrote last year's annual report. Civil servants will continue to write the annual report, which is a first. It is the first time that a Government have set out what they have done, why they have done it and what they intend to do. Incidentally, it is the first time that a Government have pointed out where they have made mistakes. We have informed people at all levels and we shall continue to do so. I very much look forward to the next publication in July.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): When Liberal Democrat Members are trotting up Whitehall and going through the big gates into Downing street more often than any of us Labour Back Benchers, will my hon. Friend explain why is it that those ragtag and bobtails cannot get the information while they are stuck in there, instead of wasting the time of the House?

Mr. Kilfoyle: As my hon. Friend knows, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is one of those at odds with the approach that his leader has taken. Perhaps they are not speaking to each other on these matters.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): If we are to have another annual report produced at taxpayers'

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expense, may we have an assurance that, unlike last year's report, the Government will not airbrush out of it any reference to any inconvenient events? May we have an assurance that in next year's annual report there will be references to the recession in manufacturing, to the decline in agricultural incomes, to the raid on pension funds, to council tax increases four times the rate of inflation and, of course, to the Sierra Leone fiasco?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I hate to say so, but the right hon. Gentleman is factually incorrect. For example, last year's annual report referred to the mistake that was made on lone-parent benefits--the Government were big enough and brave enough to own up to it. The next annual report will record the Government's many successes, including the 169 Labour party manifesto commitments, which have, to date, been implemented in part or in whole.

Biotechnology and Genetic Modification Ministerial Group

5. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If he will make a statement on the membership, work and progress of the ministerial group on biotechnology and genetic modification. [68647]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): The ministerial group oversees all aspects of biotechnology policy. It is made up of Ministers from all Departments with an interest in biotechnology. One of its first decisions was to begin an examination of the United Kingdom framework for overseeing the technology.

Mr. Dalyell: As a well-qualified chemist, and in my right hon. Friend's official capacity, can he do anything to dispel the ignorant hysteria that often surrounds genetic modification?

Dr. Cunningham: The UK is a world leader in biotechnology, which has huge potential to benefit society by delivering improvements to health, agriculture, food production and to the environment. However, it must do so in ways that gain public trust and confidence. The Government's primary duty is to protect people and the environment. As my hon. Friend rightly says, while it is right for the media and others to probe and challenge and to examine what is happening, they should take care not to alarm or mislead people unnecessarily. It is important that we make clear to everyone that the decisions that we take are based on the best available medical, scientific and industrial advice. I would be the last to complain about criticism from the media, but it is important that we do not undermine public confidence in the potential of biotechnology to bring huge benefits to humankind.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): In accord with the Minister's comments, I acknowledge that the ministerial group has a considerable work load because of the huge backlog left as a result of the previous Government's inadequate attention to those important issues, despite the efforts of Liberal Democrat Members. May I ask particularly that the ministerial group should examine carefully the work of the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen, which has reviewed the results of the research undertaken last year into the impact of

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genetically modified food on the immune systems of rats and by definition, therefore, on humans? That research is obviously extremely important and is funded by the Government.

Dr. Cunningham: I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government understand and act on genuine concerns expressed by the public and by hon. Members. I assure him also that we examine all the available scientific evidence. For those reasons, the Government have taken action on food labelling, for example. We shall shortly publish decisions following consultation with the catering industry. We have taken action to set up an advisory committee on animal feedstuffs. We have set up a Cabinet Committee, as I said, to examine all those matters. We are pressing in Europe for better control in all those areas. None of that was done by the Conservatives when they were in government.

As we have been speaking about misleading and irresponsible statements, may I say that nothing was more misleading or irresponsible than the Leader of the Opposition saying last week in the House that English Nature had called for a moratorium on these matters? It certainly has not done so. English Nature recognises that it is important to carry out the experimental trials on genetically modified crops, so that we can make a proper scientific assessment of their impact on the environment.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): In its further deliberations on biotechnology and genetic engineering, will my right hon. Friend invite the ministerial group to consider the difference between the application to medical science, where the patient who is carrying the risk hopes to be the beneficiary, and the application to crop production, where the risks are carried by the environment and the public, and those who hope to reap all the benefits are the producers?

Dr. Cunningham: I can tell my hon. Friend that we already do so. For that among other reasons, I made it clear to the House today that we not only listen to but act on the advice of organisations such as English Nature and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. We study their recommendations carefully. I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that both those organisations believe that it is right and safe for controlled trials of genetically modified crops to take place, precisely so that we can evaluate their impact on the environment before commercial exploitation would be allowed.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): All interested observers agree with the Minister; the last thing that we want is public concern on such matters. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last week called for a moratorium, on good advice from English Nature in its written evidence to the House of Lords Committee that is looking into those matters. We simply do not know what effect genetically modified foods will have on human health. Therefore all we want is a three-year moratorium on their commercial use, so that we can find out what the scientific evidence is.

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Dr. Cunningham: The hon. Gentleman repeats the error of interpretation of English Nature's position. I have a letter from English Nature, which states:

The Opposition may be calling for that, irresponsibly, and damaging Britain's prospects, but they are totally misleading in saying that English Nature supports that call.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): A great deal of the public debate about the risks of GM foods and crops is made more difficult by the complexity of the scientific research which underpins it. An example would be the research at the Rowett research institute, which does not pertain to the risks of GM foods in general but of particular lectins included in GM foods. What is the ministerial group doing to enable the public better to understand the complexity of the science which underpins biotechnology, so that the public debate generates rather more light and considerably less heat? Will my right hon. Friend make that information available to the Leader of the Opposition, who clearly needs a scientific education?

Dr. Cunningham: If the Leader of the Opposition continues to take advice from the Opposition spokesman on agriculture, it is no wonder that he is in a mess, as he is on many other things.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The ministerial group has been considering exactly the kind of strategy that she says we should, so that we can put the facts dispassionately before the British people. In addition, my noble Friend the Minister for Science is carrying out a public consultation on public attitudes to and understanding of bioscience, so that we know exactly people's fears and concerns and are better informed about how to deal with them.

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