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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21st July 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Lord Lea of Crondall

David Edward Lea, Esquire, OBE, having been created Baron Lea of Crondall, of Crondall in the County of Hampshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord McCarthy and the Lord Murray of Epping Forest.

Lord Elder

Thomas Murray Elder, Esquire, having been created Baron Elder, of Kirkcaldy in Fife, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Haskel and the Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Glyphosate Residues in Food

2.47 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When and upon what basis the decision was made to increase the maximum residue level of glyphosate in food by 200 times; whether the increase also applies to glufosinate ammonium; and whether it is their practice to advise food manufacturers and retailers when such changes are made.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, currently there are 152 statutory maximum residue levels (MRLs) for glyphosate in various foods. Only the one for soya has increased.

This decision was taken by the European Union following a full risk assessment which indicated that residues at the new level do not represent an unacceptable risk to consumers. The new MRL of 20 mg/kg was implemented into United Kingdom legislation on 30th April 1997 following, I am advised, the usual consultation arrangements at that time. The MRL does not apply to glufosinate ammonium.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that full reply. Is he aware of Italian work which shows that glyphosate is genotoxic and that it has particular affinity for liver and kidneys? In view of the fact that soya is widely used in our foods, and that we have a problem with genetically modified soya in that it cannot easily be separated from soya that has not been genetically modified, should we not express particular caution with this product? Is the noble Lord also aware that it seems to be the commercial, as

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opposed to the technical, formulation which is causing the problems? Further to Written Questions that I have asked about other products, is it not very important that we know what the so-called inert ingredients and surfactants are in these products?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I bow to the noble Countess's greater knowledge of this subject. I must confess that as of 24 hours ago my knowledge was not very profound.

This matter was subject to a full scientific scrutiny before the approvals were given in Europe and brought into legislation by the previous administration. The increase in the level is considered to be well within safety levels; indeed, it could be increased a further ten times without risk. If the noble Countess is concerned about any further technical aspects, I shall certainly write to her.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister say why it was fixed previously at such a low level? Surely there was some negligence there.

Lord Donoughue: No, my Lords. The previous level--which I think was 0.01--was effectively a zero level. It operated before the matter had been considered and when it was not a practical question. It then became an issue of trade. The low level prevented the import of soya treated in this way from, say, the United States. When that issue was raised, the level was increased by 200 to make it a more relevant level. The previous level was effectively a zero level.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, can the noble Lord identify the name of the committee at the European level; whether it was a regulatory, advisory or management committee; and the name of the person who represented the United Kingdom on that committee? Can he say whether the results of the committee's deliberations were, in addition to the Government, made available to Parliament as a whole?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I cannot reveal the name because the matter was conducted under the previous administration and all such information is kept secret. The matter was scrutinised by the appropriate and relevant European committee, which has approved already some 11,000 maximum residual levels and continues to do so. Again, if there is anything of relevance in what my noble friend has asked, I will write to him.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, is the Minister aware that cattle across the country are fed high volumes of soya? Does that have any effect on humans? Has any work been carried out to check the levels taken in by cattle and whether that in any way can be passed on to humans?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I do not know about work into cattle feed. Currently soya is being monitored by the relevant working party on residual levels in

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pesticides. Three kinds of soya are being investigated this year. I am not aware that animal feed is being investigated.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, before we leave the Question, can the Minister tell me what is glyphosate?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I sympathise with my noble friend. I asked the same question at 10.15 this morning. Glyphosate is a total weedkiller which is used by a number of companies. In this case it is marketed by one particular company. It also acts as a desiccating agent. It is a total weedkiller and therefore is of relevance to the issue of genetically modified crops issues in that seeds which are resistant to it are being developed.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, my understanding is that the level was raised because of the introduction of GM crops and the fact that such crops are able to be sprayed at a later stage rather than at seed stage. Can the Minister comment on that and on the question of the noble Countess about the implications for human health?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I do not agree. The increased level was not introduced for genetically modified foods but for non-genetically modified soya. It was introduced at a later stage for genetically modified food. As I said, that happened under the previous administration.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, are the Government's advisers in agreement with the advisers to the Commission on this specific issue?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, yes. As far as I understand it, our advisers are in agreement with them.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, was the Minister informed in his briefing that glyphosate is one of the most common causes of complaint to the UK Health and Safety Executive's pesticide incidents appraisal panel? In those circumstances, is not it a matter of great concern, in respect of soya or any other product, that the levels of glyphosate--or Roundup, I think was the word the Minister was trying to use earlier--should be correct. It is manufactured by Monsanto; that is the company with which we are concerned. Should not the Government reappraise whether the level is correct?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the Government are concerned about any threats to health and safety; that is why the working party is looking at this issue. It is Roundup; I did not wish to give a plug to the company marketing that tradename. We are looking at that aspect in relation to soya. The advisory committee is concerned with safety in relation to glyphosate and other organophosphates. This is an OP, and that is why we are reviewing the whole issue.

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Digital Broadcasting Licences: Religious Bodies

2.56 p.m.

Viscount Brentford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to permit religious bodies to hold digital broadcasting licences.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Broadcasting Act 1990, as amended by the Broadcasting Act 1996, disqualifies groups whose objectives are wholly or mainly of a religious nature from holding a terrestrial digital radio multiplex licence or a programme service licence. The Government have received legal advice to the effect that the UK's policy on national radio licensing represents a legitimate aim for the purposes of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the Broadcasting Acts pursue those aims in a fully defensible way. We have no immediate plans to introduce new government broadcasting legislation, but then would be the time to review matters of broadcasting policy.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that disappointing but also somewhat encouraging reply. I should declare an interest as chairman of the trustees who own Premier Christian Radio, which broadcasts throughout the Greater London area. Does the noble Lord appreciate that all such bodies are effectively being barred from applying for the new licences currently being advertised in an industry that is growing at an unprecedented rate? Are the Government prepared to allow time in the next Session for a Private Member's Bill to correct this anomaly and to permit religious organisations to hold terrestrial digital radio licences?

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