Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Civil Service

21. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): If he will make a statement on measures to improve occupational health in the civil service. [159450]

Mr. Alexander: The Cabinet Office works with Departments to promote a consistent approach to managing health in the civil service. It will continue to advise and monitor that area by collecting information on absence rates, facilitating the sharing of good practice and promoting the importance of occupational health in the workplace.

Mr. David: Have any comparisons been made of absenteeism due to sickness in the civil service compared with the private sector?

Mr. Alexander: Finding statistics to make direct comparisons between the public and private sectors is

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1376

difficult, but I understand that in some private sectors—such as manufacturing and production—sickness rates are similar to those experienced in the civil service.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Are there any specific measures to prevent memory loss among civil servants? If so, could they be extended to Ministers of the Crown?

Mr. Alexander: I am tempted to reply that I have forgotten whether such arrangements are in place. I am unaware of any specifics but if there are, I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.

22. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What initiatives are planned to assist people with disabilities to use their talents by seeking civil service careers. [159451]

Mr. Alexander: The Cabinet Office undertakes a range of activities to encourage people with disabilities to apply to the civil service and to increase the proportion of disabled people in the senior civil service. The summer placement scheme encourages people with disabilities to apply for the graduate fast-stream programme. The civil service also participates in Workstep—a Department for Work and Pensions initiative to help disabled people progress into mainstream employment where appropriate.

David Taylor: Even though the number of disabled persons entering the summer scheme might be relatively modest, that initiative will help to dispel discriminatory attitudes and practices in Departments, as well as giving graduates fast-stream access to more senior jobs. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it remains a central objective dramatically to increase the number of civil servants with disabilities in senior posts from the low level that this Government inherited in 1997? What progress has been made in the intervening seven years?

Mr. Alexander: We are determined to increase the number of disabled senior civil servants serving the country, but recognise that there is more work to be done. I particularly welcome the summer placement scheme, which ensures that the key fast-stream route into the senior civil service takes forward our work in relation to diversity.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Constituents of mine report that the problem is less one of getting into the civil service and more one of barriers to progress within it. Is there monitoring of grading and promotions, to ensure that there is no discrimination against disabled people seeking to advance their careers?

Mr. Alexander: Discrimination has no place in the civil service as a whole or the senior civil service. By definition, those entering senior posts have been promoted from the ranks of the civil service. I am keen to see continued and heightened progress in meeting the challenge of increasing the number of disabled people in the senior civil service in particular.

23. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What plans he has to open up civil service jobs to external applications. [159452]

Mr. Alexander: Within the framework laid down by the Civil Service Order in Council 1995 and the

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1377

recruitment code issued by the civil service commissioners, Departments and agencies have the authority to determine their own practices and procedures for the recruitment of staff to the home civil service—including whether to open posts up to external competition.

Julie Morgan: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if even more jobs were open to external advertisement, the civil service would be much more likely to reflect society and have a more diverse workforce?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The number of open competitions has increased and I am determined that—as the Prime Minister made clear in a recent speech—the service should be capable not just of offering expert policy advice but of assisting government in the delivery of policies.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration

24. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): What plans he has to bring forward proposals to reform the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. [159454]

Mr. Alexander: The Government's position remains as set out in their response to the report of the Public Administration Committee on ombudsman issues. We are working with the parliamentary ombudsman and others in the ombudsman community to promote joint working and to ensure that arrangements are fit for purpose. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's contribution to the work of that important Select Committee.

Brian White: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the best ways to improve the ombudsman service is to remove the Members of Parliaments filter? Can he give an indication of when that is likely to happen?

Mr. Alexander: That is one of the issues on which we are in discussion with the ombudsman at present. Under

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1378

present arrangements, MPs certainly play an important role in channelling complaints through the ombudsman, but I understand that there is a range of opinions throughout the House on this important matter. The discussions will continue.


25. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): If he will make a statement on the progress of e-government initiatives within the Department for Transport. [159455]

Mr. Alexander: The Cabinet Office is responsible for leading and supporting e-transformation in government. Within that, the office of the e-envoy is working to improve the delivery of public services and achieve long-term savings by joining up online Government services around the needs of customers. Progress on specific e-government initiatives at the Department for Transport is, however, a matter for Ministers in that Department. They will be able to confirm that specific initiatives are being developed in respect of transport.

Tom Brake : Can the Minister comment on whether he believes that the Department for Transport is making a success of the vehicle registration system, and whether the level of failures in that system is acceptable?

Mr. Alexander: I will, of course, be happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. As I understand it, full capability for the electronic first registration of all vehicles now exists, with a take-up of more than 75 per cent.

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1379

GM Policy

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government's approach to the technology of genetic modification, including its use in crops. The tool of GM has been used for at least 10 years across the world in the production of food and medicines, both human and animal.

In the UK, only a handful of foods have been approved for use—GM soya, tomato puree and some forms of maize. The first two were approved under the previous Administration and the maize in 1997–98. At present, no GM crop has all the approvals needed for commercial cultivation in the UK.

Decisions as to what can be consumed or grown in the EU as a whole have throughout been taken by member states collectively under a regime of safety testing, monitoring and control, which itself dates back 10 years. That legal framework has recently been substantially strengthened, and a much-strengthened regulatory regime came into effect in the UK last year. It is firmly based on the precautionary principle and applied on a strictly case-by-case basis. Every genetically modified organism for which authorisation is sought must receive a comprehensive prior assessment of any potential risk to human health or the environment.

In 1998 the Government decided to go further. We were advised by English Nature of its concern about the effect of current GM herbicide-resistant crops on biodiversity. It was agreed that farm-scale trials would be conducted to assess those risks. Those trials were largely completed and reported by the end of last year, and the results were referred to our independent advisory committee for its assessment.

In the meantime, another advisory committee had advised the Government to fund an independently run public debate or dialogue on GM issues. I accepted that advice and announced in May 2002 that the Government and the devolved Administrations would sponsor such a dialogue with three strands: the debate itself, a thorough review of the science, and an economic cost-and-benefit study by the Prime Minister's strategy unit.

The public dialogue reported general unease about GM crops and food, and little support for the early commercialisation of GM crops. People already engaged with the issues were generally much more hostile. Those not so engaged were more open-minded, anxious to know more, but still very cautious; and it was suggested that, as they learned more, their hostility deepened.

The cost-and-benefit study concluded that the currently available GM crops offer only some small and limited benefits to UK farmers, but that future developments in GM crops could potentially offer benefits of greater value and significance, even in the UK. The science review concluded that GM is not a single homogeneous technology and that applications should continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It reaffirmed that there were some gaps in scientific knowledge and, in particular, that it was important to

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1380

keep the regulatory system under review so that it kept pace with any new developments. It concluded, however, that there was no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops or products.

The review examined all the concerns generally raised. In particular, it reported no verifiable ill effects from extensive human and animal consumption of products from GM crops over seven years, and it concluded too that current GM crops were very unlikely either to invade the countryside or be toxic to wildlife. The most important environmental issue identified was the effect on farmland wildlife, which was the subject of our extensive trials—the largest carried out in the world.

Our independent advisers have now reported to us on these trials. On the basis of that advice, and having consulted the devolved Administrations, I have concluded that the UK should oppose the commercial cultivation of the relevant varieties of GM beet and oilseed rape anywhere in the EU using the management regime tested in the farm-scale evaluations. However, I have also concluded that we should agree in principle to the commercial cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant maize, but only subject to two further important conditions.

The first condition is that restrictions should be imposed on the existing EU marketing consent that expires in October 2006, so that it can only be grown and managed as in the trials, or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effects on the environment. The second condition, which responds to concerns that have been raised about the phasing out of atrazine in the EU, is that the consent holders should be required to carry out further scientific analysis to monitor changes in herbicide use on conventional maize, and also to submit new evidence if they seek to renew the existing EU marketing consent when it expires in 2006.

Before commercial cultivation of GM maize can proceed, separate approval will also be required under seeds legislation, and also under pesticides legislation for the associated herbicide use. Chardon LL will not be added to the UK national list of seeds until the necessary amendments to the EU marketing consent are in place. We also anticipate that co-existence measures will be in place before any GM crops are grown commercially. I do not in fact anticipate any commercial cultivation of GM maize before spring 2005, at the earliest.

The farm-scale evaluations also raised much more far-reaching questions about crop management and the environment. Incidentally, those questions reinforce the value of the case-by-case approach. The evaluations showed that there was no blanket difference between GM and non-GM crops. The trial crop with the "best" results for the environment was a conventional crop. The crop that was "worst" was also a conventional crop, yet we have nothing like the influence over the growing and management of conventional crops that we have over GM crops, even though the effects may be just as far-reaching. We are giving careful consideration to these issues.

I believe that the approach that I have outlined today is the right one. It is precautionary and evidence-based. In practice, it means licensing one application, which runs till October 2006 and is subject to two further conditions.

Apart from the scientific decisions that flow from the trials, there is the related issue of GM and non-GM crops being grown in the same area—so-called co-

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1381

existence. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission has recently produced advice on this issue.

I propose that, as the AEBC advises, farmers who wish to grow GM crops should be required to comply with a code of practice based on the EU's 0.9 per cent. labelling threshold, and that this code should have statutory backing.

There are particular concerns, of course, for organic farming, for which the Government have much increased funding, and to which we remain committed. The AEBC argued for a lower threshold for organic farming, but could not agree on a figure. We will explore further with stakeholders whether a lower threshold should be applied on a crop-by-crop basis.

I will also consult stakeholders on options for providing compensation to non-GM farmers who suffer financial loss through no fault of their own. However, I must make it clear that any such compensation scheme would need to be funded by the GM sector itself, rather than by Government or producers of non-GM crops. The Government will also provide guidance to farmers interested in establishing voluntary GM-free zones in their areas, consistent with EU legislation.

This is a difficult issue, bedevilled by confusion. There are many legitimate concerns—about gene stacking, cross-pollination and much else—but reports that combine comment on all these matters can be misleading. People worry that a GM crop could affect wild relatives and hence the gene pool. Maize—the crop that we are prepared to license—has no wild relatives in the UK. It is highly unlikely that any stray remaining plant or seed would survive a winter here and thus cause concern about a subsequent crop. Equally, very little organic maize is grown here, so many of the concerns usually raised do not apply. That reinforces the value of a case-by-case approach. Some GM crops are already used for animal feed, although they are not grown here. Several GM veterinary medicines are also in use and much vegetarian cheese is produced using a GM processing aid.

There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all the uses of GM. Safety, human health and the environment must remain at the heart of our regulatory regime, and rigorous and robust monitoring must be maintained. Equally, there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM. I know of no one who argues, for instance, that the GM tool alone can solve the problems of the developing world. However, it is less than honest to pretend, especially against a background of climate change, that GM does not have the potential to contribute to some solutions.

That, too, was part of the outcome of the public dialogue. I thank those who ran it and those who took part. From that process and many other attempts to assess public opinion, it is clear that most people believe that genetic modification should be approached with caution. They want strong regulation and monitoring; farmers want a framework of rules for the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops; and customers want a clear regime for traceability and labelling so that they can make their own choices. The rules that we now have and those that we shall put in place in the months ahead meet

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1382

the criteria as well as being soundly based on the scientific evidence, and I commend our approach to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page