Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On today's Order Paper there are 29 questions to the Secretary of State for Wales, including five which refer to discussions that he may have had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales and two which refer to someone called the First Minister. Section 53(1) of the Government of Wales Act 1998 states:

Section 53(2) states:

The Act's only reference to Ministers is to Ministers of the Crown, and section 43 states that when those powers are devolved, they are devolved to the Assembly, not to individual office holders. There is a clear distinction between the powers and definitions in the Scotland Act 1998 and those in the Government of Wales Act.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on the correct way in which the First Secretary and the Assembly Secretaries should be referred to in the House. Should we use the titles in the legislation passed by the House, or can we call the First Secretary and Assembly Secretaries whatever we like?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. Normally, the Table Office would have corrected the notices to use the First Secretary's correct title. I hope that the proper designation will appear on the Order Paper in future. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In order that a confusing precedent is not set, may I ask you to advise the House under which Standing Orders a Member may be evicted from the House, even if he has not said anything on the record of the House in violation of its procedures or Standing Orders?

Mr. Speaker: I really do not know the incident to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. However, if he is referring to a previous incident of mine, I have discussed that with the hon. Gentleman concerned and we have come to an understanding. I will ensure that there is good order in the House: that is the important thing. There will be occasions when, perhaps, I request that an hon. Member leave the Chamber even though he or she may not have broken any rules. However, for the sake of order, I will ask that hon. Member to leave. There again, that is a request, and it is up to the hon. Gentleman or hon. Lady to accept it. I hope that that helps.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you perhaps invite the Prime Minister to ensure that the record is corrected, and that his reference to half a million new people claiming the minimum guarantee is altered to the 24-plus thousand who, in fact, have got it, according to a House of Commons answer.

Mr. Speaker: These are matters of argument. However, I suspect that the hon. Lady has managed to put something on the record.

15 Nov 2000 : Column 940

Genetically Modified Food and Producer Liability (No. 2)

3.34 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I beg to move,

Let me turn the clock back a moment. It was late in the afternoon of Friday 31 March that Mr. Petersen reserved a telephone call from the German authorities notifying him that genetic contamination had been found in the oilseed rape seeds supplied by his company, Advanta UK. The House will recall that, in the furious debates of the following two months, the Government decided that the crop planted in the United Kingdom should be destroyed. In the UK alone, more than 5,000 hectares of oilseed rape had to be ploughed in, along with the entirety of that season's plantings in Germany, France and Sweden.

The question that remained was who was liable for the damage and loss caused in that exercise. When Advanta came to give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, it said that it had supplied what it thought to be non-genetically modified seeds. The crop had been cultivated on land never used for GM crop growing, and with separation distances 20 times that required in the United Kingdom. In turn, farmers had grown in good faith crops that they believed to be non-GM. They were as shocked as anyone else to discover that their crops were contaminated by the Aventis herbicide-tolerant gene.

I hope that the House will excuse the pun when I say that the crunch in deciding what to do about the issue came when the oilseed crushing industry announced that it was refusing to buy any of that season's contaminated crop. That was great news for consumers, but pretty frightening news for the farmers who faced financial disaster.

To its credit, Advanta told the Select Committee that it had stepped in and picked up many of the bills relating to those losses. However, it was adamant that in doing so it accepted no legal liability for the damage or loss. That is the contradictory position that we are currently in and which my Bill seeks to address. The biotechnology industry has spent millions of pounds trying to convince society that its products are safe, yet, when asked whether they accept producer liability for the products, the answer is absolutely no.

When we turn to UK law to find out who is liable, the answer is unclear. The issue threatens to become one of the big whodunnits of our time and, sadly, our position as a Parliament appears to be that we neither know nor care what is the answer to that question.

I have recently taken part in the Chardon LL hearings elsewhere in London. They are destined, I fear, to descend rapidly into farce. On the day on which I gave evidence, MAFF issued a press release pointing out that it was unable to identify not the fields in which the crop trials had taken place but the countries. This situation risks making a mockery of the issues of scrutiny and liability that are central to how we view the introduction of GM crops into the food chain and the arable and animal system.

15 Nov 2000 : Column 941

My Bill would fill the loopholes in our legislative framework, and it would do so in five ways. It would place a duty on Government to apply the precautionary principle to which we signed up as a country in the biosafety protocol negotiated in Montreal this year. It would require the Government to introduce a new scrutiny regime that was at least equal to the paradigm shift into which biotechnology and genetic manipulation have taken us. It has to be the case that, when faced with a technology that can cross all the frontiers that nature has set for us, we introduce a scrutiny system to test the technology at least as rigorously as we would test a new drug, rather than looking at the technology as a novel form of cake decoration.

For industry, three critical changes would have to be made vis-a-vis its relationship with consumers and farmers. The Bill would require companies to accept that they were corporately liable for the harm or damage that resulted from the release of GM organisms that they had produced or marketed. We would make it a condition of any marketing consent or licences that the companies be in possession of full public liability insurance in respect of any damage that followed.

Finally, we would require the companies to work with the Government in the creation of a compensation fund to ensure that, at least where damage from genetic contamination could be identified, even though its specific source was unclear, the farmer and the consumer would not be left to pick up the bill.

Why is the Bill needed? The current arrangements leave farmers hanging out to dry. NFU Mutual, the largest insurance company for the farming community, has already stated that it will not insure against genetic contamination or damage. Supermarkets have turned their back on purchasing genetically contaminated seed supplies or crops. Recently, Iceland went even further: it will no longer honour contracts to purchase non-GM cattle food if it turns out to be contaminated.

To add insult to farmers' financial injury, a legal opinion supplied to Friends of the Earth states that the idea of farmers seeking financial remedy or redress through civil action in the courts is pretty much a non-starter. Those farmers who were not bankrupt at the start of the process certainly would be long before they were even close to the possibility of obtaining redress.

That is why the Government must take a lead. We must place producer liability in the lap of the biotechnology industry rather than with the farmer or the community. We must do that now because the issue will not go away. The danger is that if we do not address the problem, it will move alternately between tragedy and farce.

Two weeks ago, Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer, came to the UK to deliver a message to the Prime Minister, warning of the inherent danger that the UK could end up in the same position as the United States. That farmer has never planted, grown or tried to market GM crops, but he found that some of Monsanto's GM seeds were growing on his land. He was even more astonished when Monsanto decided to sue him for that. The company wants to levy fines on farmers of up to $30,000 for the adventitious arrival of GM crops on their land, even though the farmers do not know that the crops are growing there.

If we are to avoid being caught up in such farcical situations, the Government must give a lead. In the social climate set by the Phillips report after the crisis and

15 Nov 2000 : Column 942

tragedy of BSE and CJD, the public expect a lead from the Government on the definition and appraisal of risk, and on scrutiny, responsibility and liability. We must do that by taking the path of legislation, not that of litigation. I hope that the Government will hear and respond to this message, and that the House will endorse it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page