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Genetically Modified Crops

7. Jim Knight (South Dorset): What actions her Department has taken to ensure an even geographical distribution of trial sites for genetically modified crops. [46515]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We have appointed an independent scientific steering committee to oversee the farm-scale evaluation programme of GM trials. It is content that the overall distribution of trial sites is in line with the aims of the research. It has confirmed that the distribution should reflect the geographic range over which the particular crop is grown in order, specifically, to represent the range of different management regimes that are used for the crop in the UK.

Jim Knight: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I apologise for not being here for the beginning of questions, Mr. Speaker.

I understand why the Government have negotiated these trials with the industry, and I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has talked about the need for improved consultation on the trials, which will be ending shortly anyway. A farmer on the edge of my constituency is particularly keen to help the Government with these trials, but the results of the consultation that we have had locally suggest that my constituents do not want them in their backyard. Why do we consistently seem to have these trials in Dorset despite my right hon. Friend's commitment to their even geographic distribution?

Mr. Meacher: I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and I know that a number of sites in the parish of Bincombe in his constituency are involved in the current spring sowing round. I repeat that the spread of research sites aims to represent the range of management practice that is applied to crops within its geographic distribution. It is perfectly true that there is a cluster of several sites in Dorset, but that does not preclude the general principle. I must make the point, which I think my hon. Friend understands, that the sites are not chosen by the Government. The industry body SCIMAC—the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops—identifies the pool of candidate farms. The research bodies then select those that are most appropriate, in accordance with criteria set down by the independent scientific steering committee. That is the basis on which the selection has been made, but I take note of my hon. Friend's concerns, and they will certainly be taken into account in future.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Minister was careful in that reply to his hon. Friend, because he knows that this is an issue of great public concern. I acknowledge his statement that a scientific body is examining the matter, but the Government must, nevertheless, have a view on it. Will the Minister tell us why the separation distances between trial sites for GM crops are smaller in the UK than in other European countries? How can GM and non-GM crops co-exist while maintaining consumer

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and farmer choice? Given the public concern over GM crops, does he believe that there will be a substantial market for them? That is a key issue for us all.

Mr. Meacher: Separation distances were determined in negotiation with the industry to ensure that in every case, wherever possible, the amount of cross- contamination is below the 1 per cent. threshold. That threshold is reflected in the marketing arrangements that have been agreed in the European Union, and the separation distances have been fixed to reflect that. I am not aware of any differences between us and the EU. The main plant in the farm-scale evaluation trials is oilseed rape and, for ordinary, non-hybrid oilseed rape, the EU still proposes the 200 m separation distance that we use in the UK.

We are examining the issue of co-existence. We have not had the results of the farm-scale evaluation trials, which we will not get until the summer of next year. We are considering contingency plans, whatever the results may be. That examination is in its early stages, so I cannot answer the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raised, which is a fair one, but the issue is certainly on our agenda.

Whether there will be a long-term market is a matter for consumers, not for the Government. The Government are neither for nor against GM crops. It is for consumers to decide whether they want to eat GM food.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the basis of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission's report "Crops on Trial", the Government will not be able to rely on the results of the test trials to make a decision on commercialisation? Can he guarantee that there will be a proper public debate at the end of those trials, which will include the right to say no to the commercialisation of GM crops in this country?

Mr. Meacher: Our policy is as scientifically based as it can be. We believe in sound science and its application. We need to listen to our scientific bodies, such as the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the Advisory Committee on Animal Feeding Stuffs and others, but we realise that it is important to take account of public opinion. We have asked the AEBC to advise us on how we can ensure that there is a wider public debate on this issue as the farm-scale evaluations come to an end. I only wish that it had been possible to have such a debate at a much earlier stage. There are such deeply polarised positions on this issue that it is difficult to conduct a genuine debate. We need such a debate, and the Government want to have one. We shall do our best to ensure that it is proper, balanced and fair.

Refrigerator Recycling

8. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What steps her Department is taking to assist local authorities with the recycling of refrigerators. [46517]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We have announced a payment of £6 million to local authorities to cover their costs from January 2002 to March 2002. An

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announcement will be made very shortly regarding funding to cover local authority costs in the current financial year.

Mr. Rendel: Is the Secretary of State aware that on 31 January the Minister for the Environment answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), in which he said that since late 1999 his Department had made frequent requests to the European Commission for formal clarification that insulating foam was covered by the regulation. He said:

In the light of the comments that he made on Monday to the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in which he apparently more or less retracted that statement, will the right hon. Lady ask him to apologise for his earlier answer not only to the House, but to my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, to the European Commissioner and to all the local authorities who are now left with a bill of up to £40 million—not just £6 million—as a result of the mistakes made by her Department?

Margaret Beckett: Absolute rubbish. I advise the hon. Gentleman to read the memorandum that my right hon. Friend and our officials prepared for the Select Committee. If he does so, he will find that all his questions are fully answered. My right hon. Friend tempered the high-flown language that he had used, but it is perfectly clear, as the memorandum to the Select Committee made plain, that there is a great deal of continual dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Commission and others, and that, not least at the request of the business community and local authorities, clarification continues to be sought. I do not believe for a second that my right hon. Friend owes anyone an apology. He and the Department have been most assiduous in trying to get the right result.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the Secretary of State familiar with the European WEEE directive—the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive? As amended, it will extend its provisions to cover not just fridges but microwave ovens, stereo equipment, hoovers and all domestic white consumer goods. Is the right hon. Lady aware that that is causing great concern in the farming community? Many such items are dumped on farmland, and local authorities then charge the farmers for their removal. What does the Department propose to do about this?

Margaret Beckett: We are looking closely at the directive's implications, how it can be handled, and how its purpose can be fulfilled in the United Kingdom. But I remind the hon. Lady—who, as a former Member of the European Parliament, will appreciate the distinction—that it is a directive, and that that provides some flexibility in regard to its implementation. The measure relating to fridges is a regulation, which gives no discretion: those are rules, which must be rigidly applied.

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We are studying the new directive to see how we can best deal with people's concerns. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising a further important point.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I was surprised by the Secretary of State's answer to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). I have read the evidence that the Minister for the Environment gave to the Select Committee, and it is clear that until this week the Minister blamed the European Commission for the fridge fiasco. In evidence that he gave three days ago, he effectively retracted that accusation, instead blaming everyone but himself. I understand, however, that the industry and officials from more than one Department warned him of the consequences of signing the directive, and that he chose to ignore them.

My question is this: is that true? If it is not true, who is to blame? Does the Secretary of State accept ministerial responsibility for a monumental Government blunder that was not just predictable but predicted?

Margaret Beckett: I am not aware of the slightest shred of evidence for what the hon. Gentleman has said. To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was advised not to agree to the directive on those grounds; nor is there any evidence for anything else that the hon. Gentleman has said.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had read my right hon. Friend's evidence, but it is clear to me that he has not understood it.

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