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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Given the abject failure today of Treasury Ministers to give direct answers to questions on the Government's policy on scrapping the pound and joining the euro, will the Leader of the House find Government time both for a statement from the Chancellor on the Government's official policy, and a statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on what the policy really is? If neither of them is available, perhaps the Minister with responsibility for Europe, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), could come forward and say what the policy is. In so doing, perhaps he could explain his strange comment--in a letter to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)--that, "We know who you Euro-sceptics are, and we are coming to get you in your constituencies." That was from a Labour Minister to a Labour Member.

Mrs. Beckett: I am advised that that is not what the letter said. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I fear that I cannot find time for yet more statements to remind the House that the Government's policy on the euro remains what it was when it was announced by the Chancellor and that it has not changed.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I deplore the statement on the timetable motions. I was here at 10 o'clock last night, when the debate was arbitrarily cut off by the Government Whip moving the Adjournment. Instead of going for timetable motions, will the Leader of the House consider suspending the 10 o'clock rule so that we can use the hours after 10 o'clock to hold the Executive to account, because that is what the taxpayer sends us here to do?

Mrs. Beckett: Yes, taxpayers send Members here to make good and sensible use of their time and to scrutinise legislation properly. We are not sent us here to waste the time of the House and taxpayers' money.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Last week, I spoke to a business man from Preston who employs almost 500 people. He said that the weakness of the euro makes it difficult for him to compete with all the cheaper imports coming in. In the light of the Prime Minister's statement yesterday that there are three positions on the euro--his position, that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and that of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the single currency so that we can at least clarify which one of those three speaks for Her Majesty's Government?

Mrs. Beckett: I notice that it has finally dawned on the Conservatives that if they keep talking about a strong pound, they might be acknowledging that there is a strong economy, so they have started talking about a weak euro instead. I am sure that even the hon. Gentleman must have spotted that the Prime Minister said yesterday that the three positions on the euro were the Conservative position, the Liberal Democrat position and the Government's position, which has not changed.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to the pertinent inquiries from my right hon. and hon. Friends and the Chancellor's failure this morning to defend or disown the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, may we have an urgent full-day debate on the Government's policy on the euro? Would that not show that bogus economic tests, contradictory ministerial statements, perplexing front organisations, misleading Government advertising and diversionary attacks on alleged xenophobes are all part of the concealment technique designed to hide the Government's bid to hand over the running of the British economy to the European Central bank, which we do not elect, cannot remove and would find it illegal to seek to persuade of the British point of view?

Mrs. Beckett: I am afraid that I cannot find time for a debate that we have already had so often in the House. I remind the hon. Gentleman that any decision on the issue would be made by the British people, not by the Government.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) rose--

Madam Speaker: I did not see the hon. Lady in the Chamber during the statement. Was she in to hear the Leader of the House's statement?

Mrs. Fyfe: No, I am sorry, but I was unable to be in earlier.

Madam Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that we have a long-standing convention that it is a courtesy to the Minister concerned to hear the statement before asking questions about it. I am sure that she will forgive me for not calling her on this occasion.

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18 May 2000 : Column 473

GMOs (Conventional Crops)

1.17 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, Madam Speaker, further to the written answer given yesterday by the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), I should like to make a statement.

I stress at the outset that no threat to public health or the environment has occurred.

The Government were advised on 17 April by Advanta Seeds UK that some of its supplies of conventional rapeseed, sold and sown in 1999 and 2000 in several European Union member states, possibly including the UK, contained a small proportion--about 1 per cent.--of genetically modified rapeseed. At that time the full facts were not known. We immediately sought to establish the details and to check the status of the particular genetic modification involved.

It appears that a non-GM seed crop being produced in Canada in 1998 had come into contact with a GM crop being commercially produced in the area, resulting in a small amount of GM seed in the conventional seed. The company has advised us that production of seed in 1999 was unaffected. In the UK, about 9,000 hectares were sown with affected stocks last year and about 4,700 hectares were sown this spring.

The genetic modification involved--known as RT73--is one that had previously been approved in the UK under our strict regulatory regime for food use and field trials in 1995 and 1997.

The genetic modification in question had previously been examined by the UK's expert committees--the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment in respect of environmental safety and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes in respect of food safety. Both had cleared it.

We believe that there is no threat to the environment because the GM variety is sterile. It is difficult to see how it could cross-pollinate with other plants. It should be remembered also that oil produced from the crop is indistinguishable from conventional rape oil; no modified DNA will be present. ACRE and the Food Standards Agency have looked at this specific incident and concluded that there is no risk.

It remains the Government's policy that commercial planting of GM crops will not be permitted in the UK until the results of the farm-scale evaluation have been considered. These trials still have two years to run. I regret these developments, but I repeat that there has been no threat to health or the environment. We moved quickly to establish the facts and officials have been in continuous contact with the company.

These events have made it clear that there are gaps in the arrangements relating to seed purity at international level. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State accordingly announced yesterday that we would press for concerted international action to seek new legal standards for seed purity, so that, in particular, the standards take into account the presence of GM material in conventional seed stocks.

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Further, My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has been setting up a system for spot-checking of seed imports for GM material. That system will be in place from 1 June. Work with the industry on a code of practice about production and sowing of conventional seed, including separation distances, and monitoring of GM content continues.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I welcome the Minister's assurances about human health and the environment, now that we know that 13,000 hectares of GM-affected oilseed rape have been commercially planted in Britain in the last two years. Nevertheless, I regret that the Minister did not come to Parliament yesterday to make the statement, instead of sneaking out some of the information by way of a written answer.

People will wonder why it has taken the Labour Government a whole month to publish information given to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on 17 April. Did the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food receive any warning about this before 17 April? Does the Minister recognise that, in the month since 17 April, more of the GM-affected seed may have been planted by farmers who had been storing it?

I welcome the steps that the Minister announced to deal with the grave anxieties about seed purity. These are especially urgent, since the presence of GM-affected crops in Britain came to light only as a result of tests carried out in Germany. What action will the Government now take to monitor the environmental impact of the GM-affected crops being grown commercially? Does the Minister agree that all these crops should now be subject to the same procedures and controls as the current field-scale crop trials? Does he realise that any failure to do that will intensify public pressure for the destruction of those crops?

Will the Minister confirm that the affected seed came from Canada, where cross-contamination of seeds occurred over distances of more than 800 m? Does he agree that this means that distances in Britain by which GM crops are separated from conventional and organic crops must be increased immediately? Will he explain the difference between his unequivocal statement just now that the GM variety is sterile with the Advanta statement yesterday that only "a high proportion" is sterile?

What steps will the Government take to ensure that innocent farmers whose crops may now be worth less because they can no longer be certified as GM-free are properly compensated? Does not the Government's handling, yet again, of the continuing sorry saga of GM crop issues typify Labour's culture of confusion, complacency and cover-up?

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