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Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. On that point, I think he misheard me. I do not regard the landscapes of AONBs and national parks as equivalent. I was asking that in law they should be clearly given equivalent protection, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, took up and agreed with. I believe that there should be equivalent protection in law, but I do not believe that in terms of scenic value or remoteness or population they are equivalent.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, I was about to turn to that point and say that I do not agree with that view. I believe that areas of outstanding natural beauty should have considerably looser protection than the national parks which are our prime scenic, cultural and environmental honey-pots. I do not agree that the AONBs should have equivalent powers of protection.

On that rather unhappy note, I think that I have said enough. I believe that is the first time for a long time that my noble friend, Lord Renton and I have disagreed. I simply question whether there is any great point in moving into Committee on this Bill. To have a general debate on AONBs is extremely useful, but to make amendments to a Bill which, clearly, will never get on to the statute book may be a waste of everybody's time.

11.42 a.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I congratulate my old, personal friend--not my political friend--the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, on introducing this Bill, even though I am a little puzzled by it. I wonder whether it is a Bill about how we should run AONBs in future or whether it is a Bill about the Sussex Downs. Perhaps it falls between the two.

The noble Lord has a particular interest in the South Downs. In so far as the Bill is about the South Downs, it is suitable that he should introduce it. His very title comes from the Downs. Most noble Lords who will speak today on the South Downs part of the Bill will

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probably know Rudyard Kipling's mnemonic about them. I do not believe that this is one of his best poems, although he was, in my view, a great poet. The poem states:

    "The Weald is good, the Downs are best-- I'll give you the run of 'em, East to West. Beachy Head and Winddoor Hill, They were once and they are still. Firle, Mount Caburn and Mount Harry Go back as far as sums'll carry". Then it lists the various Downs ending with the words:

    "And when you end on the Hampshire side-- Butser's old as Time and Tide. The Downs are sheep, the Weald is corn, You be glad you are Sussex born!" Noble Lords who are Sussex born may be glad of the fact, but I am afraid that it is no longer true that "the Downs are sheep" and "the Weald is corn".

I declare an interest in that I also am a vice-president of the Council for National Parks, along with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and other noble Lords who will speak in the debate. Two areas that it has been suggested may become, over a period of time, national parks, are the New Forest and the South Downs. I am the first to suggest that the New Forest is not suitable to become an orthodox national park. The historical and common land arrangements are too complex. However, I see no reason why the South Downs should not be a straightforward national park. I speak, not with the advice of or on behalf of the Council for National Parks, but merely as someone who has taken a great interest in them.

However, granted that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, decided to be more ambitious and to provide a framework for AONBs as a whole, I wish the Bill well, although I doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has suggested, that it will be allowed to live very long. I disagree with him about it going into Committee. In Committee I believe that we would be able to work out a large number of problems which need to be worked out, whatever happens in regard to future AONBS or future national parks. It would be time well spent, and rather more well spent than some time recently spent in your Lordship's House.

In the meantime, I agree with those who have said that we must try to improve the Bill. I am quite interested in the idea of the representation of owners on boards, as happens in the Broads. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, quoted my remarks about ownership of land. Let me make my position quite clear. The land belongs to God, and under God to the Queen. As it belongs to the Queen, it belongs to the community and I believe that individual ownership comes below that in the hierarchy. Owners are really stewards rather than owners.

I too query the power to acquire land compulsorily. I have not heard that being defended and I do not have the faintest idea why it is in the Bill. It does not seem to me to be necessary.

It is good that we are discussing the AONBs and the Sussex Downs as I am most fond of them. I hope that we shall go on to discuss the Bill in Committee, but in the meantime, I give the Bill a limited and slightly puzzled welcome.

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11.48 a.m.

Lord Kimball: My Lords, I must declare an interest. I live in a area of outstanding natural beauty and, like my noble friend Lord Jopling, in another place I represented a major part of one of the most successful areas of outstanding natural beauty in the country, the Lincolnshire wolds. In that area there is an efficient farming community, the excellent diversification of redundant farm buildings and the co-operation of all the Conservative controlled local authorities in the area.

Whatever concern we may express about the Bill, I am certain that we shall all want to pay a sincere tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for the work that he has done on the Sussex Downs. It is that excellent work that has made everybody want to proceed further. I suggest that when the noble Baroness winds up the debate she could lay to rest a lot of the concerns expressed today if she said that the necessary finance will be made available so that the current arrangement of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board can continue to be run as it has so successfully been run.

The difficulty with this Bill is that it extends what has been a success as a local measure to all areas of outstanding natural beauty and not just to the Sussex Downs. Some noble Lords may have had the opportunity to read the June edition of Field with its comment that the old threat of nationalisation of the ownership of land seems to have been replaced by,

    "a gradual move to actual nationalisation of the use of land". Forty-four per cent of all the land in England and Wales is now covered by one of the following: there are 40 AONBs; there are SSSIs; there are nitrate vulnerable zones; there are green belts, national parks and the land owned by the National Trust. And that is not all. There are some exciting new entrants coming into this field: special protection areas are just around the corner along with special areas of conservation.

And the awful thing is that countryside officers in various guises now outnumber farmers, farm workers and foresters. The offending officers do not understand the "living landscape approach" under which the English countryside has developed. I see that reflected in Clause 1 of the Bill in which it takes powers,

    "safeguarding such areas from intrusive development". What constitutes "intrusive"? It is a presumption against change and it does not serve the rural community. Diversification is the way that the countryside is going to develop and I believe that this Bill does not give sufficient consideration to the economic and social attributes that must function in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

We must get away from this chocolate box approach to the English landscape. People have to manage farms and forests. In that area, we have to have manufacturing and service industries. The diversification of activities is what keeps an area of outstanding natural beauty alive.

Many of us will want to table a large number of amendments to this Bill. It is important that, as it is a probing measure, my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry realises that we will want to discuss in depth a duty on the boards to foster economic and social

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welfare; representation on the boards for owners and land managers; and, as my noble friend Lord Jopling said, we will certainly press for the removal of the compulsory purchase powers. I do not know why they are in this Bill. They are quite unnecessary. We will also be expressing grave concern about this jurisdiction over adjacent areas.

I see a case for over 20 amendments to this Bill. I hope that in considering it my noble friend Lord Renton will realise that we need a great deal more time in the various stages. Perhaps with that warning, the newly fledged Countryside Commission may well want to pause and not encourage one of its most favourite children to rush forward for this well-meaning and unnecessary legislation. The sensible voluntary approach can still work, if only those who have to administer the system know that they cannot just rush to Westminster and legislate about things.


11.53 a.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Statement is as follows:

    "Biotechnology is an important and exciting area of scientific advance which offers enormous opportunities for improving our quality of life. In healthcare, biotechnology has already helped to develop better treatments for diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, heart disease and diabetes. It is also helping the environment through techniques such as bioremediation, which assisted the clean-up of beaches following the 'Sea Empress' oil spill in December 1996. In agriculture, genetic modification has the potential to produce food more efficiently, which is more nutritious, tastes better and uses fewer pesticides. This is just the start.

    "There are many real and exciting benefits and potential benefits. But this is new technology and the risks must be rigorously assessed. The Government recognise the considerable public concern about the safety of genetically modified food and crops. Our overriding duty is to protect the public and the environment. We must continue to ensure that the controls we have in place are sound and that they command public confidence.

    "That is why the Prime Minister established a new Cabinet Committee on biotechnology last autumn. It is why the first decision of the committee in December was to carry out a review of the regulatory framework to ensure it was rigorous, as transparent as possible and able to cope with so fast-moving a technology. We invited a wide range of interested bodies to give us their views, including the Select Committees of this House.

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    "It is also why we thought it essential to seek the views of the public through the public consultation on the biosciences. It is why we commissioned a report from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser on the public health implications of genetically modified food. All three reports are published today.

    "My colleagues, the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Food Safety, have also been in discussion with the industry over the past year to ensure that the cultivation of genetically modified crops in this country is effectively managed. We are today also endorsing guidelines for the cultivation of these crops.

    "The review has found that the existing system of careful, case-by-case assessment of new biotechnology products and processes is an essential component of our regulatory system. But there are persuasive arguments for strengthening the system by adding new strategic commissions to take a broader, long-term view of developments in the technology.

    "We will therefore set up two new advisory bodies: the Human Genetics Commission which will advise us on applications of biotechnology in healthcare and the impact of human genetics on our lives; and the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission which will cover the use of biotechnology in agriculture and its environmental effects. Working alongside the Food Standards Agency, which will soon take on responsibility for genetically modified foods, these new bodies will have wide-ranging remits, advising Ministers on likely future developments in the technology and addressing broader issues such as ethical considerations.

    "The members of the new commissions will be drawn from a broad range of interests: those with expertise of consumer issues and ethics, for example, will sit alongside scientists. The commissions will also consult widely with the public and stakeholders when carrying out their work.

    "One of the main findings of our consultation exercises was that the regulatory system should be made more transparent. We agree, and our report published today includes guidelines on transparency which all committees involved in biotechnology, including the new commissions, will be required to follow. We are confident that with these changes we will have a system for regulating biotechnology which is rigorous and open and which will safeguard the public interest.

    "In their report on genetically modified foods and public health the Chief Medical Officer (Professor Liam Donaldson) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (Sir Robert May) conclude:

    'Many of the issues raised by foods resulting from genetic modification are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means'.

They go on:

    'There is no current evidence to suggest that the genetically modified technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful'.

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They further report:

    'We are reassured by the precautionary nature and rigour of the current procedures used to assess the safety of individual genetically modified foods'.

    "They emphasise that there is a need to keep a close watch on developments and to continue to fund research to improve scientific understanding in this area. Both the Government and our advisory committees will continue to do this. They encourage us to take moves to improve the openness of the regulatory procedures to public scrutiny. This we are doing today.

    "They recommend that consideration should be given to the establishment of a national surveillance unit to monitor population health aspects of genetically modified and other types of novel foods. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes is already discussing how this might be done. The Ministerial committee will review progress on this in the autumn.

    "The Government have been working with environmentalists and the biotechnology industry to ensure that the first farm-scale plantings of genetically modified crops in Britain are carefully managed. That is why we have embarked on a programme of evaluations which are being rigorously undertaken to secure thorough and reliable evidence on whether or not they cause damage to the environment. Unrestricted commercial cultivation of any crop will not proceed until we are satisfied that it does not harm the environment.

    "Today, the industry group, SCIMAC (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), has published a package of measures which will ensure that proper care is taken when the crops are grown on the farm. We welcome this important step forward.

    "These are tough rules--and they are underpinned by legally binding contracts. There will be an independent system of enforcement and audit. Some have said we should have legislated in this area. This would inevitably have taken much longer than our voluntary approach.

    "However, we think these guidelines could well form the basis of future legislation--and we will be working with the industry and our European partners to take this forward.

    "The Science and Technology Select Committee said this week we need an informed public debate in this area. It condemned some media treatment of the subject. It called for more openness and transparency--for more information to be provided to the public which is accurate and objective. We agree. The measures we have announced today are intended to achieve this. But we need to establish the debate on a firm basis.

    "The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser firmly believe there is no current evidence to suggest that genetic modification technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful. The Science and Technology Committee came to the same view. The Royal Society this week convincingly dismissed the results of some recent

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    research on potatoes--and the misinterpretation of it--as wholly misleading. And there is no evidence to suggest that any GM foods on sale in this country are harmful.

    "The Government welcome open, rational, well-informed debate. That is the best way to safeguard the public interest. Regrettably, some political, media and other treatment of these issues has not served the public well.

    "Biotechnology undoubtedly has the potential to improve our quality of life in very many ways. It is government's responsibility to encourage this potential. But we will not do so at the risk to public health and the environment. This duty is at the heart of today's announcement."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

12.2 p.m.

Lord Luke: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. It is a pity that it has been made on a Friday as this matter is of very considerable interest for many Members of this House who could not be here today. Biotechnology and its application to human food has become an increasingly important concern to the public over the past six months. So we very much welcome the Statement and the various documents and reports that have been issued with it.

We shall judge the Statement by three criteria. Will the measures announced protect the British people against any possible threat to human health? Will they protect the British environment against any possible damage from genetically modified crops? Will they restore confidence in the integrity of the Government's approach to these matters and assure the general public that future decisions are taken openly, with health and the environment given priority at all times over considerations of commerce and politics?

Bearing in mind those criteria, does the Minister accept that there is a risk that certain genetically modified crops could upset or even destroy the balance of nature? Does the Minister recognise that there is now an overwhelming case for an absolute ban on all commercial planting of genetically modified crops until research into their impact has been completed?

It is of course very difficult to say how long such research will take because, if there is no impact discernible, at some stage a decision will have to be taken that there has been no impact and that therefore it is safe to proceed. Will the Minister say how likely it is that such a position will have been reached in under three years? How will the Government regulate the planting of trial crops in the future? How will it be possible to ensure that genetically modified pollen is not blown by the wind or spread by the bees all over the countryside to the detriment of organic and, indeed, non-organic farms? If such contamination does take place, will there be compensation for any farmer whose business may be compromised or, indeed, ruined?

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Does the Minister agree with his colleague, the environment Minister, who said yesterday that if evidence were available in Britain of threats to biodiversity, such as that posed in America by genetically modified maize to the Monarch butterfly, certain genetically modified crops might have to be banned outright?

Does the Minister recognise that in spite of today's reassurances, some consumers will undoubtedly want to avoid eating foods which have genetically modified components?

We shall study the accompanying documents and reports with great care and hope that they will help to restore public confidence. As the Statement says, biotechnology offers enormous opportunities for improving our quality of life. Those opportunities must not be thrown away, but at the same time absolute priority must be given to considerations of human health and the welfare of the environment. If the Government follow those criteria, they will of course be supported by these Benches.

12.6 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, we welcome this Statement. I do not object to the Statement being made on a Friday. The sooner that matters of this nature get into the public domain, the better. Only this week the Select Committee on Science and Technology said that an informed public debate in this area is vital. The media's treatment of the matter has aroused concern. That will abate only when the public has available properly researched reports. We cannot blame the public. A BMA report stated recently that the adverse effects of genetically modified organisms are likely to be irreversible and that as we cannot yet know whether there are any serious risks to the environment or human health, the precautionary principle should apply. The report went on to say that the antibiotic resistance that could be caused by GMOs is one of the major public health threats that we face in the 21st century.

The media do not help. It is reported that the Government's most senior scientist has contradicted the Prime Minister's policy with a call for a four-year ban on the commercial release of GMOs.

No one can dispute that we need scientific advances which will improve the quality of life but once in a while, we face adversity. Public opinion is often shaped by such events. That does not mean that we could not or should not look for advances in science which would bring lasting benefits to many of our people who look to scientists for solutions. It is for those reasons that we welcome also the additional safeguards that the Minister has announced today. We welcome the establishment of the human genetics commission which will help to promote an informed debate on the use of biotechnology in healthcare and the impact of human genetics on our lives.

We welcome too the establishment of an agricultural and environmental biotechnical commission which will help us to hold a rational debate on the use of biotechnology in agriculture and the environment. That is tied up with the Food Standards Authority and is certainly a way forward.

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We need a number of assurances. We want the two commissions and the Food Standards Authority to ensure that they not only address matters of concern but produce frequent reports with full scientific evidence on their areas of responsibility which the public can study.

On page eight the Statement talks about the unrestricted commercial cultivation of any crop not being permitted. Does that mean that non-commercial cultivation could continue? Should not restriction apply to all cultivation? We also want to see international agreement on the mandatory segregation of genetically modified crops. The Government need to be far more active on this issue. We want a Food Standards Agency with powers to regulate genetically modified products. All meetings of related advisory bodies should be open to the public.

European Union member states should have the right to opt out of the growing and importing of genetically modified crops without fear of retaliation. The big businesses behind genetically modified crops are American multinational companies, and any refusal of such produce could result in a bigger trade war than that over bananas.

We want clear labelling of all food produce that is genetically grown, and no commercially grown genetically modified crops should be permitted before 2003, when government funded research is due to end. Farm-scale trials of genetically modified crops must be completed before any commercial planting.

12.11 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to my Statement. I am also grateful for the acknowledgement given to biotechnology's huge potential to improve our quality of life, and for the endorsement of our approach, which is that, while we have a responsibility to encourage its potential, we shall not do so if there is a risk to public health or the environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, effectively posed the Government three tests. First, will the measures protect human health adequately? Secondly, will they protect the environment? And, thirdly, will these measures restore public confidence? I believe that the answer to each test is "yes". Measures are in place that involve a case-by-case consideration before food and novel food processes are used which will provide some adequate protection. In addition, we have introduced the two new commissions. We have also indicated the role that the Food Standards Agency will play. Case-by-case consideration will be given to environmental matters and, once more, the commissions will be involved in that.

In the measures taken today, we have sought to respond to public concerns. We believe that one of the most important aspects will prove to be the extent to which there is a transparent process through which the public can see that appropriate measures, which protect the environment and public health, are taken.

The Statement makes clear that the Government have been working with environmentalists and with the biotechnology industry to ensure that the first farm-scale

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plantings of genetically modified food crops in Britain are carefully managed. The report by the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer endorses the continuation of those trials. Unrestricted commercial cultivation of any crop will not proceed until we are satisfied that it does not harm the environment. I believe that that meets the concern raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, sought three assurances. First, he sought an assurance that the new commissions would be transparent in their proceedings. He asked that regular reports should be given on their activities. It is not appropriate for me to read the document in full, but the report published today entitled The Advisory and Regulatory Framework for Biotechnology sets out in paragraph 51 a series of steps that it is intended that both the commissions and the advisory committees will take in order to be more transparent. I believe that that meets the majority of concerns raised by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred to commercial cultivation, and I hope that I have met that point. He also wanted mandatory separation of genetically modified crops and organic or other crops. We have talked to the industry, and we are satisfied that the farm-scale trials have been conducted in accordance with good practice. I hope that I have dealt with all the concerns raised.

12.14 p.m.

Lord Reay: My Lords, I warmly welcome the Government's important announcement which in many respects endorses some of the most important conclusions of the report on genetic modification recently produced by the European Communities Select Committee, which was published earlier this year, and is due to be debated next week.

I particularly welcome the announcement about the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission which will have a broader remit and membership than any of the existing advisory committees. It was just such a committee for which the Royal Society called and for which we, in our report called, and I very much welcome it.

I also welcome the Government's firm stand in resisting calls for a blanket moratorium for a predetermined number of years on all growing of genetic modified crops. Permission to grow commercially should surely depend on the outcome of the current field trials. Those field trials should be allowed to take place, and it cannot be known in advance for how long they will need to continue.

I have some questions in relation to the new commissions. Is there any significance in the choice of the word "commission" rather than "committee"? What balance will the Government aim for between lay and scientific membership? To which Ministry will they report? Will it be to a Cabinet subcommittee? Will they be able to commission research?

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