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Lord Carter: My Lords, the acreage of flax in the UK is 14,000 hectares. Almost all of that is in England. Only a small hectarage is grown in Scotland. However, it is correct that discussions with the various executives are taking place to ensure that there is a united UK approach in the negotiations, in which MAFF is the lead negotiator.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is it not a fact that, flax apart, the whole of the common agricultural policy is just a great big expensive racket, absorbing over 50 per cent of the European Union's finances and injuring to a large extent British farmers, many of whom are going out of business every day? Under those circumstances, would it not be preferable if the CAP were repatriated to the nation states of the EU, at least for so long as they remain nation states?
Lord Carter: My Lords, if my noble friend intends to leave flax out of a Question about flax, I believe that his question must be wide of the Question on the Order Paper. But, yes, there is room for improvement in the CAP.
Baroness Young: My Lords, if it is the case that there is a real use for flax in this country, will the Government turn their attention to St Helena, which is an overseas territory for which we in this country have responsibility? Will the Government see what can be done to help that population, which has suffered terribly from the general demise of the use of flax?
Baroness Byford: My Lords, following the Minister's responses to my noble friends Lord Renton and Lady Young, are we not in the ridiculous situation of paying subsidies to grow something which we do not want in this country because it can be grown elsewhere? I understand that the total worth of the subsidy that we pay is four or five times the amount paid in EU cereal subsidy. Is it not time that we got behind this issue and supported Franz Fischler in his proposals to cut the EU subsidies, which will then help countries like St Helena, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has just referred?
Lord Carter: My Lords, there is a demand for the flax that we grow as it is exported to Germany and is used in the car panels for the Mercedes and the Audi. The proposals as they stand would reduce the budgetary cost substantially but there is discrimination at the moment as between the long-fibre flax--the traditional textile flax--which the Commission is trying to support, and the short-fibre flax that we grow, which is put to a number of new and developing uses. Therefore, the whole object of the negotiation will be to reduce this discrimination while maintaining the savings on the budget.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, further to the noble Lord's answer to his noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon, does the Minister agree that, in the blissful eventuality that we were to repatriate our agricultural policy from Brussels, the Government just might be able to design something a little less idiotic and damaging to the environment, which costs the average family in this country £1,000 per annum in extra food costs and of which this flax regime is just one of dozens of crazy examples?
Lord Carter: Yes, my Lords, we all know that. We know that the CAP is in urgent need of overhaul. We have the Agenda 2000 proposals. If we did repatriate it, I am not sure what a number of noble Lords would do to ask Questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the research being carried out in the farm-scale evaluations is overseen by a steering committee of independent scientific experts. The steering group is made up of scientists drawn from English Nature, environmental NGOs, including the RSPB, and the universities. Its purpose is to ensure that the research, which is carried out by independent contractors, is of the highest scientific standards, independent of government, independent of the biotechnology industry and independent of the contractors. All results from the farm-scale evaluations will be made publicly available, including interim and progress reports--the first of which was published on 11th November. There will therefore be a public debate before any general cultivation of these crops is permitted.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very helpful Answer. Should there be an escape of genetically modified material, can he confirm the arrangements for compensating on a no-fault basis those neighbouring or nearby farms close to a test site? I know the Minister will understand that the Bill which passed through this House but was killed off so brutally in the other place would have ensured that that was the case and would also have ensured that the issue was debated in both Houses. I should be most grateful for the noble Lord's comments on that.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is probably not in order for me to comment on the procedures, or in this case the non-procedures, of another place. The noble Baroness's Bill received a full airing in your Lordships' House. I recall that I dealt with the Second Reading and my noble friend the Chief Whip dealt with the Committee stage. A number of interesting issues were raised, including the point to which the noble Baroness has referred. However, we felt that our regulatory system already provided for most of the points covered in the Bill. That would include, in the unlikely circumstances to which she referred, any provision for compensation. Although at the time I welcomed the noble Baroness's introduction of the Bill, I believe that our regime covers most of the points about which she was concerned.
Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, will the noble Lord take this opportunity to explain the Government's reasoning for allowing these tests to continue? Will he give an undertaking that when the Government ultimately come to make their decision they will do so
Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is precisely the Government's motive here. We have to recognise that there are widespread concerns about the development and commercialisation of these crops. Had we not agreed with the industry to undertake these trials, commercialisation could have taken place. We have, in effect, these three to four-year farm-scale trials. We had previously laboratory-scale trials but those do not test for biodiversity problems and possible effects on other crops. The farm-scale trials will test out all of those aspects. I can certainly assure my noble friend that when we come to full evaluation, with full scientific advice, we shall make that public. There will then be a public debate on the basis of facts.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, given that it has been established that bees can fly up to five miles in any direction, can the Minister say what, if any, developments there have been in the arrangements over the margin of cultivation between GM trials and organic crops?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the position in terms of separation remains as it was--the 200 metres separation. There is minimal prospect of any contamination of neighbouring crops. That has been accepted by most of the scientists in the area and follows existing standards. I appreciate that some organic farmers and their representatives remain concerned. We are still in contact and trying to negotiate the terms.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have taken the lead in the EU in biodiversity testing. Were a problem to arise on the biodiversity side, we would expect the EU institutions to take note of our results and alter their position.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people are puzzled that there should be such alacrity about the growing of GM crops, bearing in mind that there is a glut of food, certainly in the northern hemisphere, and that we are subsidising people not to grow crops? Rather than paying money to experiment with GM crops, would it not be preferable for the Government and indeed other organisations to spend their money on organic farming, which has proved its worth over many hundreds if not thousands of years?
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