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House of Lords

Wednesday, 31st March 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Genetically Modified Food: UN Biosafety Protocol

Baroness Wilcox asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What view they advocated during the United Nations Biosafety Protocol negotiations in Colombia with regard to trade in genetically modified food.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the UK, as part of the European Union, wanted a protocol covering the transboundary movement of all living modified organisms that may have an adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking human health into account. The EU pressed for reference to the precautionary principle; advanced informed agreement procedures for LMOs intended for intentional introduction into the environment, including those for use as food, feed or for processing; and for documentation to specify that a shipment contains LMOs. We supported an enabling provision for international rules on liability and redress. We opposed provisions that would subordinate the protocol to other international agreements. The aim is a protocol securing environmental safety which will not hamper trade.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that clear Answer to my very simple Question. Perhaps it would be only fair if I could expand a little to explain the reasons for my Question. I am concerned because the talks on the biosafety protocol in Cartagena broke down. Does the Minister agree that that was a great disappointment because we had an opportunity there to introduce an international protocol to ensure that GM foods are segregated at the country of source? Does the Minister agree that this is a difficult and confusing area for consumers and that it would help if manufacturers labelled products to make clear their contents? Can the Minister tell me the Government's next move?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it was a fairly long Answer, and that was a fairly long supplementary question. The EU and the UK in particular were concerned that an agreement was not reached. The EU tried hard to reach an agreement, but it proved impossible to reconcile the views of the developing countries and of the Miami Group of producer countries. The aim was not so much to ensure segregation at source as to ensure that where such products cross boundaries it would be possible to provide sufficient information to enable importing countries to take their own decisions. That remains our

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aim. We believe that a large degree of consensus was reached. We shall return to the fray with our European partners.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, on a more local level, my local trading standards department in Worcestershire recently tested 24 samples of animal and human food for soya and maize GMs and about five of them contained genetically modified products. Is the Minister aware that it turned out that the manufacturers of three of the samples were not aware that the products that they had used had been genetically modified? Does not that indicate the urgent need for proper labelling at source so that manufacturers and consumers can know whether food has been genetically modified, and so that the manufacturers can tell the truth?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the United Kingdom is very much in favour of labelling to ensure that consumers know which foods are genetically modified. Only three forms of genetically modified food are available for human consumption in Europe. As the noble Countess indicates, the problem is that if such foods originate in the United States, genetically modified maize or soya may be mixed with non-genetically modified products and may not always be appropriately labelled. We want to improve labelling through both EU regulations and our own practice. However, the Question was about the protocol and whether countries have the ability, on the basis of reasonable information, to make decisions on whether or not to allow such imports. The protocol would not have covered labelling as such.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, can my noble friend summarise the line taken by the United States in those negotiations? Does there remain a risk that the United States will act unilaterally to enforce its will on countries which want to adopt proper safety precautions, including labelling?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the United States in this context was acting with other agricultural exporting countries--Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, what is known as the Miami Group. There was no agreement and therefore, until we reach agreement, there is the possibility that different groups involved in those negotiations will adopt different practices. However, that has no implication for EU or UK rules because those rules already make stringent requirements on the availability and the information required for the import of such products.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, is the Minister aware that all South American GM crops are grown from Monsanto and Du Pont seeds? Does the Minister therefore agree that Monsanto and Du Pont should be approached by the British Government to ensure that they do not penetrate the marketing areas of South America?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the British Government made it clear to all producers and potential producers that they will not be allowed commercially to develop

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crops or sell food without obeying the UK and EU regulations and that is the case for Monsanto and any other potential producer.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House whether the Government fear the short-term effects of genetically modified grain--as it now is--or whether they fear the long-term effects which we may see in the environment?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are no proven negative effects of GM food. Those foods that are allowable within the UK and Europe have been subject to rigorous food testing. The food dimension of those that have been allowed appear to be safe. Our concern is the question of whether genetically modified crops will affect other crops and biodiversity in general. That is why we insist, first, on small-scale trials and subsequently on controlled, farm-scale trials to assess the biodiversity effects. We will await the results of that before we take it further.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does it occur to the Government that in the regrettable circumstance that it is impossible to bring the banana dispute to a proper conclusion, it might be worth treating genetically modified imports in the same way as the United States is treating cashmere exports?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me in this House to escalate what is in danger of becoming a serious trade war. I hope that both on the banana front and on other WTO-related matters, agreement can be reached between the EU and the United States. I do not wish to inflame that situation.

Early Years Learning

2.44 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will ensure that the early years plans of all local authorities make provision to support and fund early years provision by the voluntary sector where such provision is already in existence and is of satisfactory quality.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Government have made it clear that the voluntary sector should be engaged in drawing up the early years development and childcare plans and should share in providing early education places. The Government announced a review to examine how pre-schools and playgroups can best contribute to the expansion of nursery education and childcare.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and also for the £500,000 which the Government made available on 17th March to pre-school groups. Does the noble Baroness agree that

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the problems of illiteracy and alienation in our schools will not be solved until we can be sure that most children coming into school at four or five years of age have the self-confidence and social skills to enjoy school and to succeed? Does she agree also that most children from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs are at present being provided for by local authorities in reception classes, many of which are big and none of which is controlled by the regulations in relation to staff/pupil ratios or as to the suitability of accommodation? How soon will the Government introduce regulations to ensure that all local authorities are subject to the same standards of staff/pupil ratios and accommodation as are presently--quite rightly--applied to pre-schools and nursery schools?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, says about a good start to schooling if we are to avoid problems later. There can be no question but that what happens to three, four and five year-olds can be a positive experience but it can also be less than a positive experience, which may have lasting effects. In relation to the specific questions relating to reception classes, the Government consider that the quality of learning opportunities, on the whole, is good. It is important that if young children are admitted early to reception classes, their specific needs are taken into account. So the Government are looking into issues of further support for teachers, including teaching assistants and nursery nurses. Many reception classes already have that kind of support. Moreover, the Government are also encouraging local authorities to make sure that there is deferred entry to reception classes for those parents who prefer their children to start later.

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