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15. Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What plans he has to improve relations with Latvia. [69436]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Ms Joyce Quin): The United Kingdom enjoys excellent relations with Latvia. We plan to enhance our bilateral co-operation programmes, which are designed to help Latvia's preparations for membership of the European Union and to improve Latvia's defence capabilities.

Trade with Latvia is growing at a healthy rate. Latvia, together with Estonia and Lithuania, is included in the new trade and investment initiative "Opportunities in Central Europe", run by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office, which was launched by my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade on 9 February.

Mr. Flynn: Is it not a matter of congratulations and satisfaction for all those concerned that the rebirth of democracy in the three Baltic states has gone ahead so peacefully, despite the great potential for divisions between ethnic minorities both within those countries and outside their borders? When members of our sister Parliament, the Saeima, visit us next month, will it be possible to give the Latvians, and pass on to the Lithuanians, an assurance that the breach that has occurred in progress towards European unity--involving Estonia and Europe, the other Baltic states and the unfortunate difference in pace--may be put right by ensuring that the Baltic states proceed towards joining the European family of nations together? Estonia does not need to take the lead.

Ms Quin: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in seeking to build good relations between this Parliament and the Parliaments of the Baltic states.

With regard to European Union accession, we believe strongly that membership should be dealt with on its merits. Therefore, we support the approach that the Commission has taken. However, we are very pleased at the way in which the prospect of European Union membership has encouraged changes in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. That was witnessed in the favourable result achieved in the Latvian referendum on nationality issues, which we believe was a step forward in the treatment of minorities in that country.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given the recent spate of bombings in Latvia, what advice is the Foreign Office giving to visitors to that country?

Ms Quin: I am not aware that we have changed travel advice recently with regard to Latvia, but, if what I say is not correct, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

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Genetically Modified Food

3.30 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the safety of genetically modified food.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): The Government are fully committed to ensuring the safety of food. All genetically modified foods and food ingredients go through a process of very thorough scrutiny by a committee of experts, known as the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. The committee advises the Government and has a remit to examine all novel foods--genetically modified and otherwise. Such foods are also scrutinised by equivalent bodies in all other member states, to ensure that no food comes on to the market unless it is safe.

The committee, which was established in 1988, has members from universities and research institutes who are experts in their fields and are fully up to date with the latest scientific thinking. There are two lay members whose respective roles are to advise on ethical issues and the consumer aspect, and to see that the scientific experts pay attention to the concerns of the wider public. Since May 1997 the committee has been taking steps to become increasingly open, and now publishes all its agendas, minutes and a note of the outcome of each meeting.

The products that have been authorised--which was some time ago--have all been through that rigorous process.

We are also committed to the principle of consumer choice. The Government are determined that all foods containing GM material should be clearly labelled. We are now leading the way in Europe in this regard by also requiring the provision of information in catering establishments. We are taking steps to ensure that local authorities have all the necessary powers to enforce those requirements. In addition, we are pressing the European Commission to introduce proposals for the labelling of animal feeds as quickly as possible.

Choice also means having access to alternatives. That is why the Government have published a list of 59 companies from which food manufacturers can obtain non-GM soya. That list was published almost 12 months ago.

We believe that all that adds up to a system in which consumers can have confidence.

Much of the recent debate inside and outside the House has unhelpfully confused the two issues of food safety and protection of the environment. There have been many attempts to generalise from findings in laboratories at the experimental stages.

Genetic modification is a development that has huge potential to benefit society in various ways--not least the possibility that it might eventually prevent us from having to pour thousands of tonnes of chemicals on to our foods as we grow them. However, it is important that the end products be put on the market only after the most careful scrutiny of their effects on human health.

We believe that we have a robust and open system for ensuring that the consumer is fully protected, but that those who so wish can choose whether to purchase those

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products. Above all, it is the Government's first priority to ensure that the safety of consumers is fully protected, and that will remain the case.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, and only sorry that he is not supported in the Chamber by the Minister of Agriculture or by a single member of the Cabinet.

Does the Minister understand that public confidence in the safety of food that contains genetically modified ingredients is being damaged every day by the Government's mishandling of the issue? Is he aware that there are real anxieties about the environmental impact of commercial planting of genetically modified crops in a small country such as Britain, whose topography is so different from that of the United States?

Why will not the Government take the advice of English Nature--that the current research into the environmental effects of GM crops should be completed before approval is given for their commercial release? Does he accept that that will take at least three or four years?

Will the Minister explain why the Minister for the Environment, who is not present, told the Sunday Herald last weekend that no commercial planting would take place until next year, although the Minister told the House only two weeks ago that planting might start this year? Will the Minister announce today that there will be a three-year delay before herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops can be commercially planted?

Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing in response to health fears about the use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes? Does he understand that a Government who get their friends to suppress the publication of inconvenient research findings, who accept sponsorship from companies involved in promoting the commercial growth of genetically modified crops, and who refuse to publish the advice that they receive on this sensitive issue do not deserve the public's trust?

Why will not the Prime Minister tell us whether he is under pressure from President Clinton, who is known to be close to Monsanto on this subject? Do the Government realise that, although better labelling is an urgent and top priority--I welcome the Minister's reference to it--its value is inevitably limited because of the failure to segregate genetically modified from conventional crops?

Does the Minister understand that the Conservative party fully supports the current research programme into genetically modified crops, including the field-scale trials? We want that research programme to be completed. Does he share our view that the only way to restore public confidence in foods which may be safe and technology which may be beneficial is to recognise the environmental and the health worries, and ensure that future policy decisions are taken in a more open way by Ministers whose independence and integrity can be relied on?

Mr. Rooker: I shall do my best to answer the hon. Gentleman's points. He started by saying that there is a lack of public confidence in genetically modified food and then touched on environmental issues. I want to explain: the only foods on sale that are genetically modified are a tomato paste, which was approved in September 1994; soya beans, which were approved in February 1995;

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and maize, which was first approved in 1996--plus four further varieties, which were approved in January and February 1997.

All that information is not secret; it was known. I remind the House that every hon. Member recently received from me a brochure on the work of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, setting out the dates. Those foods went through that regulatory process. In my initial answer, I explained what we have done to toughen that process up: publishing the minutes and the agendas of that committee will let everyone know that it has decided not to approve a food. Decisions are no longer taken behind closed doors.

I also said that there had been a change of policy regarding labelling. The policy that we inherited was to oppose the labelling of these three foods. We were on our own in Brussels--the only country out of 15 members that was trying to negotiate not to label those foods. The policy was changed, then announced on 7 June 1997.

I agree that it took a while to reach agreement in Europe, but since September last year, it has been a legal requirement to have those foods labelled. I accept that we cannot enforce penalties because, at the moment, we do not have the appropriate British legislation, but we have spent three months consulting on that and an extra month consulting on the catering industry's involvement. That is not a European Union requirement, but we think that catering should be included.

With all that said, and given the fact that sources of non-GM foods are also available, I genuinely believe that the public should have confidence in the foods that are on sale--and that were allowed to be placed on sale by Ministers in the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman asked about matters that are outside the remit of the food regulatory system. However, I am happy to answer his questions. The regulatory system is split, and rightly so. It would be wrong if one Ministry were making all the decisions. Environmental research and field-scale trials must continue. At the moment, the trials are small, but larger trials will begin this year.

There is a self-imposed three-year moratorium on pesticide-resistant crops. I accept that the industry cannot get the products ready for two years anyway, but the moratorium is nevertheless in place. No commercially grown GM-crops will be planted this year. Planting was always intended to take place at the turn of the year or early next year because of the seasons. There are no approvals for those crops to be grown commercially, and we shall assess the position after we have the latest information on the current trials and on those that are to take place.

There is a moratorium on a free-for-all. There will be no free-for-all in the commercial planting of these crops. Farmers will not be allowed to have access to the seeds and to plant them field after field in farm after farm. They will suffer penalties if they break the rules. They will lose access to the technology, and there will be an independent audit of the crops and seeds when and if they come on the market.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the repression of research. I honestly do not know to which research he is referring. We have not repressed any research. No research findings have been repressed, and I challenge anyone to say what research has been repressed and how

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we have repressed it. Umpteen research experiments--probably dozens--are being carried out up and down the country in public and private sector institutions, some of which are sponsored by the Government and others by industry. The Government have not repressed any research results, and I challenge anyone to show otherwise.

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