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Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make this statement and also for giving me advance sight of it.

The statement itself is not a surprise. Indeed, it confirms the decision made nearly a month ago in the Cabinet sub-committee, the minutes of which were then leaked. At that time, it was reported that the Government would announce their decision the following week. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the reason why the decision was not announced was that, in the words of the Cabinet sub-committee minutes, the Government have been trying to

Will the Secretary of State accept that one group of key MPs are the members of the Environmental Audit Committee? Will she explain why the Cabinet approved the growing of GMHT forage maize 24 hours before the Committee unanimously recommended that it should not do so? Is it not extraordinary to dismiss a Select Committee's recommendations before even having had a chance to read them?

Will the Secretary of State accept that the Environmental Audit Committee has raised some serious concerns about the validity of the farm-scale evaluations? In particular, does she agree that the findings of the GMHT forage maize trials were based on a wholly invalid comparison? Will she accept that, in the words of English Nature, atrazine turns a maize field into a wildlife desert? That is why atrazine is to be phased out and why it is not that surprising that any herbicide regime that does not use atrazine is likely to be preferable. The Government should conduct new trials to compare the effect of GMHT forage maize with its non-GM equivalent grown without the use of atrazine. The few trials that did take place were on too small a scale to produce conclusive results.

The Secretary of State knows that results have been published for only three of the four crops trialled. Can she say when the Government intend to publish the results for the winter-sown oilseed rape trials? Can she also say what work is being done to examine the cultivation of GM crops in north America? Will she accept that the experience there has been that, over time, the use of herbicides on GM crops has had to increase as herbicide-resistant weeds have developed? Does that not suggest that the trials in this country should have been longer, and can she explain why that evidence appears to have been ignored by the Government in reaching their decision?

We welcome the Government's recognition that there needs to be a clear framework governing separation distances and liability before plantings take place. In considering those issues, will she also take account of the north American experience, which has seen up to two thirds of all seeds contaminated by GM genes?

It has been suggested that legislation may well be needed to establish the rules. The private Member's Bill, the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contamination

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and Liability) Bill, being introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) aims to do precisely that. Will the Government, therefore, take advantage of the Bill, which provides an opportunity to debate the necessary safeguards against contamination that we all want to see?

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, despite the Government's decision, more than 40 regions in Britain—including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and the Lake district—have indicated their wish to declare themselves GM-free? Will the Government provide advice to these authorities on the establishment of voluntary GM-free zones?

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that both the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have decided that no GM maize planting should take place for the foreseeable future, and say how she intends to obtain their agreement to the inclusion of GM maize on the national list?

Finally, the Cabinet sub-committee apparently noted that

Is that not a masterly understatement? The Government's own national GM debate showed that 90 per cent. of the public opposed the commercial cultivation of GM crops. What was the point of having that debate if the Government now ignore the opinions of the overwhelming majority? Does the right hon. Lady accept that until that changes it makes little difference whether the Government give the go-ahead, since people will simply refuse to buy meat from animals fed with GM produce?

Has the Secretary of State seen the letter to the Prime Minister from organisations representing 8 million members, including the National Trust and the National Federation of Women's Institutes, calling for the postponement of the introduction of GM crops? The concerns raised by the Select Committee and by all those organisations are not scaremongering; they raise real questions about the dangers to the environment that may result from GM crop cultivation. Yet the Secretary of State has chosen to ignore all of them and to press ahead. Many people will want to know why, when by her own admission the economic benefits are small and limited. Until those questions have been satisfactorily answered, no approvals for commercial plantings should be given.

Margaret Beckett: Let me begin where the hon. Gentleman ended and remind him of what I said in my statement, and of what we have said repeatedly about the strategy in the report, which is that it is clear that there are few advantages to the UK of crops that are currently available. However, it is also clear that this technology has the potential to produce much greater advantage. That is why the Government have taken a case-by-case approach.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues, and he would not be very happy with me if I attempted to answer all of them. Let me pick out one or two.

The hon. Gentleman asked what was the point of having the public dialogue to which I referred. I remind him of what the AEBC itself said when it recommended that the Government have such a dialogue. It said in terms that the intention was not to conduct some kind

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of referendum on the crop trials or on the decisions that flowed from them, but that it thought that there would be merit in exploring the range and spectrum of public concerns, what questions the public had and the potential range of answers.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the recent letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I say this with some caution, because I have read the letter: I think that there is a degree of confusion. That is a problem when people draw their conclusions from material that has been leaked rather than from knowledge of what has actually happened.

The reference seems to have been to a discussion about future uses of biotechnology. That is not, of course, just genetic modification. It is a considerable range of scientific endeavour and potential scientific advantage to this country for the future. I very much doubt whether the organisations that signed that letter would wish to say, "Let us abandon all biotechnology." What should we do with all the 1 million people who are dependent on GM insulin, for example? What should we do about the poor vegetarians, who want cheese that does not have to be made with material that comes from animals? There is, as ever, scope for misunderstanding here, and it is important that we try to avoid misunderstanding.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the devolved Administrations. I cannot remember his exact phraseology, but what he said is not correct. The devolved Administrations have not made the decision that he suggests, and we are, as ever, trying to work closely with them.

The hon. Gentleman asked when we expected the results on winter-sown crops in tones that implied that he thought that the Government were suppressing them in some way. We shall publish those results when we receive them from the scientists in question, after they have been peer-reviewed. We have no control whatever over the timing of that, any more than we had over the timing of the first trial publication, but we anticipate that the results are likely to be available towards the end of this year.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the discussions and consultations held by the Environmental Audit Committee. We take seriously what the Committee says, and have looked with care at its observations. However, those observations drew on known material and the Committee could not draw on the further assessment, published in Nature—as it happens, on the morning of the publication of the EAC's report—which addressed some of the concerns that the Committee had raised. Having heard the Chairman of the Committee dismiss the article in Nature in all of 1½ seconds flat, I feel confident that the article will be disputed in its assessment of those concerns. However, in our judgment, and that of the scientists who carried out the assessment—independent scientists, not the same lot—it is not invalidated.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned English Nature. As I said in my statement, it was of course English Nature that first asked the Government to carry out further trials, as we did. However, he may not have observed that Dr. Johnson of English Nature said that he thought that the results of the trials were valid and showed that growing that particular crop would be

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better for the environment. Dr. Johnson also made the point that electricity can kill people but we do not call for it to be banned.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for providing an advance copy of her statement. I welcome the fact that it was billed as a Government statement on GM policy and not dismissed as a minor issue on one aspect of a consent licence, because this is a watershed decision.

Some people will want to characterise the debate as being held between cavalier scientists in the pay of multinational biotech companies versus green Luddites, which could mean that we lose sight of the serious questions that need to be asked. However, the Secretary of State has partly answered some of those questions. Decisions should be based on sound science, not on hasty or make-do science. The decisions made now are probably irreversible.

A number of questions arise from the statement. The Secretary of State announced two conditions on the growing of fodder maize. The first was that it be grown and managed "as in the trials, or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effects on the environment". But who will make that decision? How will an assessment be made before the crop is grown?

Secondly, the Secretary of State appears to be saying that consent holders need to present new evidence if they want to renew a consent after October 2006, but they do not need to present it beforehand. In that case, why issue consents before 2006? I agree with the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) that the decision should be put off until at least that date.

The AEBC says that lower threshold figures for organics should be given, but, with regard to GM contamination on organic farms, when will those decisions be made? Will it be before the first planting, which is likely to take place next year?

I welcome the Secretary of State's comments on compensation payments, but when will they be in place? If DEFRA's arrangements for the fallen stock collection scheme are anything to go by, it will be a very long time indeed before any compensation arrangements are made.

The Secretary of State did not answer the question about Government support for areas that want to establish GM-free zones. It is important that she send a message today to demonstrate that the Government are prepared to go to Europe for some tightening of regulations to support regions such as Cornwall, which want to set up a GM-free zone to obtain market advantage.

The right hon. Lady also failed to answer the question—properly put—about the Government's assessment of Dr. Benbrook's research in north America into the greater use of pesticides over time. We need further independent research.

As this is a watershed decision, the Secretary of State should have consulted Parliament rather than coming here with a statement after the decision had been made. I complained about that when she made a statement

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about single farm payments a few weeks ago, yet she has done the same thing today. She was unhappy about my comment that some people thought she was treating Parliament with breathtaking disdain, yet I have to point out that, although I raised the issue with Leader of the House and was promised a debate in Government time, as well as a vote on the issue, the decision has been made, so we can debate the matter only after the event. That is not good enough. A cross-party motion has been tabled in today's Order Paper calling for such a debate and, in future, the Secretary of State must consult Parliament and allow us to hold a proper debate, with a vote, on such substantive issues.

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