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Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Beforeany more Opposition Front Benchers slip away in embarrassment, may I urge the Minister not to take any moral lectures from an Opposition party that, when in government, placed the dogma of deregulation before the duty to public health? I thank him for publishing the list of non-GM crops, which he and I have been talking about since he came to office, but will he address some of the concerns that scientists have recently been trying to flag up?

The first concern is that current benchmarks for the conduct of good scientific research are simply inadequate to deal with the wider issues, which are beginning to be raised by hon. Members on both sides the House. Will my hon. Friend consider strengthening the scientific criteria against which laboratory-based research is conducted, and examine the relevant new issues about when wider releases become an unacceptable risk? However, before doing that, will he ensure that the public are able to exercise more widely their right to decide when it is safe to consume products? Currently, with the best will in the world, we do not have adequate answers to those questions on safety.

Mr. Rooker: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. First, however, as I should have said when initially answering the private notice question, I apologise for the absence today of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture--who is in Brussels for important bilateral meetings with representatives of other member states, in preparation for probably the most important Agriculture Council in recent years, to be held next week, on reform of the common agricultural policy.

Scientists will always have queries on benchmarks, as science is always moving and will never stay still. GM products are assessed using the method of substantial equivalence. We adhere to that method, which has not only been approved by the World Health Organisation but is used across the European Union.

The Government are served by more than one advisory committee--one of which is the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. However, to ensure that we have the right regulatory process, at the very first meeting of the new Cabinet Committee on Biotechnology in December, we agreed to a Whitehall review of the strengths and weaknesses of the current regulatory process, to determine whether any of the relevant committees should be merged or abolished, or whether a new regulatory system should be imposed. On 17 December 1998, we published the press release announcing the review.

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The Government are therefore not simply accepting received policy but are moving on a number of fronts to strengthen policy, in the interests of consumers and of Britain's science base.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the Minister accept that it does not really matter whether those decisions were taken in the 1980s or 1990s, and that the point--whether we are dealing with BSE, human genetic engineering or GM foods--is that consumers will best be served only if we do not leave such matters exclusively, as has increasingly happened, to scientists rather than to politicians and others who have a right, on behalf of their electorate, to participate in the exercise?

Does the Minister not think, therefore, that the suggestion that I made before the previous general election--that there should be an ad hoc Select Committee to examine these issues--remains valid; that it was disgraceful that the Select Committee on Science and Technology sat on that occasion for only one day; that there should now be encouragement for the Select Committee to draw together the various issues--over which there is much confusion, both political and scientific--so that we can get to the bottom of the matter; and that the House, on behalf of consumers and the electorate, should play its part and not simply pass the buck to the scientists?

Mr. Rooker: I can honestly say that I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has just uttered. I do not think that these matters should be left exclusively to scientists--which is why, since 1997, lay people have been appointed to sit on every single scientific committee, of which there are about seven or eight, dealing with foods.

Furthermore, lay people are not on the committees to serve as tokens. We encourage them--and the ethicists on committees--to network with each other. The other day, we counted up the numbers, and there were no fewer than 12 ethics specialists serving on the biotechnology committees serving the Government. A non-scientist lay person has been appointed to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and is not there as a token, either. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and realise that the Select Committee on Science and Technology will conduct an inquiry--of which I wholly approve, and in which the Government will fully co-operate.

Audrey Wise (Preston): It was good to hear my hon. Friend expose the hypocrisy of Opposition Members. However, will he also accept that there are genuine fears about this type of technology? May I remind him that all the changes in agriculture over the past 20, 30 or more years have been made in the name of progress--all to feed the hungry; all for progress--but have left behind deserts and polluted land and water?

I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment to openness. I urge him to preserve a healthy scepticism. In some cases, by the time that we discover that something is harmful it is too late and we cannot undo the damage.

Mr. Rooker: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She has identified one reason why there will be no free-for-all on commercial growing. We have to get

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the agreement of the industry. We do not yet have final approval. The industry's guidelines will stand much better if they have the Government's support. We shall not give our support until we are satisfied. My noble Friend Lord Donoughue and I have sent the guidelines back to the industry four times in the past 12 months because we want them toughened. We are not yet satisfied. We understand that the final version will meet our demands.

My hon. Friend talks about changing agricultural practices. We shall do everything that we can to preserve diversity in agricultural practices. In the next financial year, we shall double the aid available for farmers to convert to organic production. We desperately need more home-produced organic food.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The press has told us this week that there is a possibility of an outbreak of lung cancer as a result of medication delivered before 1961. Is it not important to be careful about going ahead with certain things without verification? Will the gagging order that we understand has been placed on a certain scientist be lifted so that others can weigh up the issues? We must learn from our mistakes and remember that if a Minister giving his children a hamburger failed to assuage the public's fears in the past, the Prime Minister advocating genetically modified food now will not necessarily assuage current fears.

Mr. Rooker: I have heard about the gagging order only in the press. It is not a gagging order from the Government--indeed, I do not know whether it is a gagging order at all. As I have already said, as I rose to speak today the Rowett research institute was publishing an audit of the work together with comments on the audit, and asking the Royal Society in London and Edinburgh to conduct a review and inquiry.

The research in question has not been published. The Government are not stopping publication. We want the research to be published because we can be confident about the results only if the experiments are repeated by other scientists, as is the norm. No one will be more pleased than me when that happens.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I assure my hon. Friend that I shall happily eat any genetically modified food that gets through the tough UK regulatory system. Does he agree that it is important to increase public

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confidence, in view of the hysteria in the press over the past few weeks? Is not the best way to do that to insist on rigorous labelling of foods? Does he find it extraordinary, as I do, that the Conservatives opposed the labelling of food when they were in government, yet they are now responsible for whipping up hysteria?

Mr. Rooker: I have spoken about the history of the issue. When we came to office, this country was following the American policy on GM crops, products and foods. We changed that.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): The Minister generously said that he had no problem with the issue being debated on the Floor of the House. He may remember that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) initiated a debate on it on Wednesday of the week before last. Presumably she has been sent out of the Chamber for being off-message. When he was answering that debate only two weeks ago, why did he not make the forthright statement that he made this afternoon, particularly the assurances about labelling? Is it not because my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) focused attention on the issue when he questioned the Prime Minister, who clearly knew nothing about it?

Has the Minister seen the Minister for the Cabinet Office giving assurances on television that no member of the Government has any financial interest in this process whatever? Would he think it prudent to advise him not to give such assurances on the Floor of the Chamber, in view of the various family trusts and blind trusts from which Lord Sainsbury benefits and which are closely connected to the supply of genetic food to supermarkets?


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