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House of Lords

Wednesday, 14th January 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Lord Amwell--Took the Oath.

Aircraft Safety: Passageway Width

Lord Gainford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will implement the proposal made by the Civil Aviation Authority in 1989 that the gap width in aircraft bulkheads leading to floor level exits be increased from the present minimum of twenty inches to thirty inches minimum.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, following the accident at Manchester Airport in 1985, the Civil Aviation Authority commissioned a study into the effect of cabin configuration on aircraft evacuation. This study concluded, among other things, that the minimum width for passageways between floor to ceiling rigid structures, such as galleys, should be 30 inches.

The Joint Aviation Authorities developed proposals based on this study and published an advance notice of proposed amendment in October 1996, inviting comments on the economic impact of a proposal to increase the minimum bulkhead width to 30 inches. These comments are now being assessed and we expect a decision from the JAA later this year.

Lord Gainford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that most encouraging Answer. As regards the Written Question which the noble Baroness answered last year, which was reported in Hansard, about Article 36 of the Treaty of Rome and the necessity for safety in transport, should there be any difficulty following these recommendations is it not possible for the British aviation industry to act unilaterally to make British airliners the safest in the world, as I hope they always are?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as regards unilateral action, I understand the frustration experienced while the JAA has been making progress on this particular recommendation. However, the advantages of having European-wide standards are so great that it is important that we take this issue forward, if at all possible, at a European level. As I said in my original Answer, some progress is being made. The broader issue of aviation safety is one of the factors on which we hope to take action during the UK presidency. We hope to strengthen the structure at European level for dealing with safety issues.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, the Minister mentioned the European dimension. Is there

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anything that Ministers can do in the European Civil Aviation Conference--which, unlike the JAA, is a government-level conference--to promote the endeavours of the Civil Aviation Authority in the JAA? Some people regard this as very important.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, some issues are being dealt with in the approach that is being developed in adopting joint aviation requirements through the JAA process. The activities during the UK presidency to which I alluded include looking at the suggestion that the JAA should be replaced by a stronger treaty-based European aviation safety agency, which in due course would cover all aspects of aviation safety, including ATS and aerodromes. I hope that we can make some progress on that.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, first, can the Minister say what reaction, if any, there has been from the Federal Aviation Administration to this proposal? Obviously, with America at the forefront of civil aviation, it is very important that we should be aware of their views on this. Secondly, I was pleased to hear what the noble Baroness said about aviation safety. Can she confirm that, although aviation is very safe, it is far more dangerous than eating beef on the bone? Therefore, can we be assured that the Government have no plans to ban civil aviation?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I believe that there will be opportunities for pursuing that particular line of argument later in the day in your Lordships' House. As regards the FAA, the noble Lord is right to point out that aviation is not only a European but an international issue. The FAA of the United States has no current proposals to increase the width of its aircraft's passageways. However, the JAA will ask the FAA to consider the adoption of its proposals as part of the general harmonisation process on this issue.

Genetically Modified Crops

2.41 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to allow genetically modified crops to be grown in the United Kingdom.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, genetically modified crops are currently being grown on a small scale for experimental purposes and for seed production. They are controlled by a strict regulatory regime. They may only be planted with the explicit consent of the Secretary of State or if marketing approval has been granted by another member state in accordance with the European Community directive on releases of genetically modified organisms. Some genetically modified crops are currently undergoing official testing before they can be placed on the UK national list of seed varieties.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does she agree that,

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following recent bad experiences which consumers have had with such things as BSE, E-coli and salmonella, there is considerable doubt and confusion in the public mind as regards which modern foodstuffs are safe to consume? Does she further accept that multinational companies like Monsanto, which is demanding the right to produce commercially genetically modified crops, are adding to that confusion? Does the Minister also agree that no licences to grow genetically modified crops in the United Kingdom on a commercial scale should be granted until there has been a full, scientific and public inquiry into all possible aspects of this particular phenomenon?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is absolutely right that we take a very strict and considered regulatory approach to this issue. The regime in place ensures that that is done and that releases take place only if there has been very strict assessment of the scientific effects. There is some confusion in the minds of consumers, however, and obviously a great deal of anxiety, some of which will, I hope, be allayed by proposals about which your Lordships will hear later in the day. The use of foods from genetically modified crops is strictly controlled by the EU novel foods regulation which came into force last year. It specifies mandatory controls on the pre-market safety assessment of all novel foods and includes an examination of labelling requirements. I believe that better labelling and better transparency will both reassure and give more choice to consumers.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the cat has already been let out of the bag in that vast quantities of soya products are imported from the United States of America and we cannot prevent genetically modified materials being incorporated in such products?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right that applications for marketing of genetically modified soya and maize have been approved through the EU regulatory framework, the view of member states being that safety was not compromised. As the noble Earl is aware, the US is far in advance of the United Kingdom and Europe in this area. We recognise the concern, but the assessment was carried out on the grounds of safety. We are also looking at how monitoring and labelling can be improved in the future.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, am I correct in thinking that there is still no test which can prove whether or not a crop has been genetically modified?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am not sure that I am totally confident about giving a "yes" or a "no" answer to the noble Baroness. However, I know that before any genetically modified crop can be tested, developed, released or marketed in this country, it has

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to go through the approval process. I am sure that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I undertake to write to her on her direct and specific question.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is another side to this question? Does she agree that the genetic modification of crops may be extremely important to certain third-world countries where starvation is often rampant? Would it not be ill-advised to start placing restrictions upon such research until we are sure that the ill effects outweigh the advantages?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord points out--rightly, I believe--the basis on which the Government and Europe have taken the position they have. There has to be scrutiny on safety grounds and there has to be regulation. However, we must also recognise that there are potentially enormous benefits from the development of such technology, including effective pest control with a reduced use of insecticides, an improved crop yield and in terms of the production of pharmaceuticals and other products which may save lives. They could have applications in both the developing world and the developed world and it would be wrong to rule them out completely.

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