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House of Lords

Monday, 6 December 2004.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

BMA Report: Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Chief Medical Adviser, Sir Liam Donaldson, will respond on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to the British Medical Association's report, Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II. Officials from the BMA and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will meet in the new year to discuss some of the ideas and recommendations contained in the report.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that promising response and readily recognise the work of the Government to establish an international regime. Is it proposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the biological weapons convention coming into force? Can we not use that opportunity, together with our European partners and respected organisations like the BMA and the Red Cross, to try to persuade the American Government that peaceful nations have nothing to lose and everything to gain from an effective regime?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I would very much like to celebrate in the way that my noble and learned friend Lord Archer suggests. Of course we must not lose sight of the fact that the Americans are signatories to the convention. They are not signatories to the protocols as to verification. As my noble and learned friend is well aware, that has been at the heart of the problem. The BMA report provides some admirable highlights about potential dangers from the advancement of science and technology increasing the likelihood of the development of bio weapons. We want to talk to the BMA further about that.

We also look forward to taking further forward the very constructive role we have played when we chair the meeting in December next year on this important issue.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, the meetings to which the noble Baroness refers as being held in the new year are very welcome. Would it not be important to try
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to involve the United States in meetings of a similar nature, even perhaps in the form of a conference, since although it has signed up to the convention, it is apparently not willing at the moment to sign up to many of the important issues which have been highlighted in the BMA report?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, although the United States has found difficulty with the protocol, it has made it clear that it has a commitment to the convention and to strengthening it through the current inter-sessional progress. I am sure that your Lordships will recall that when we discussed the matter about a year ago I said that a number of conversations about how the protocol and the convention could be taken forward were in progress. That remains the case. The United States is not disengaged from this process; it perhaps is not as supportive of the protocol as we would wish it to be.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that some of the technology which is being used to create new vaccines and find cures for Alzheimer's could also be used for malign purposes. Are the Government considering ensuring that some of that research does not take place? When the Chief Medical Officer responds to the BMA's report, will the Minister and the Government look at whether there can be domestic legislation to criminalise bio weapons research?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I have said, we shall be discussing the matter further with the BMA at a meeting scheduled for the new year. However, in 2005 when we take over the chairmanship of the grouping, we wish to discuss the content, the promulgation, the adoption and the enforcement of codes of conduct for scientists in this important area. The noble Baroness will know that this matter has been discussed. It is a particular element that we, the British Government, wish to focus upon when we take over the chairmanship.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the question of the noble Baroness raises an interesting set of issues about the responsibility placed upon research scientists to guard against dangerous applications of their work. Do the Government believe that this is an important issue? If so, will they take this to the BMA as one of the topics for discussion to ensure that the risks to which I have referred are managed and policed properly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I agree very strongly with the noble Earl. That is why in preparation for the meetings of the states' parties in 2005, to which I have already referred, the United Kingdom has held a series of seminars. They have been designed to promote discussions between industry, the NGOs and academia on the codes of conduct that I mentioned to the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger.
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They will be the subject of international discussion next year. The BMA has been well represented at these seminars and its views and ideas have greatly helped to shape our approach to our chairmanship next year. So this is an inclusive process. The BMA is very much a participant in that process.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government will give their full support to the recommendation of the Secretary-General's panel, which is that the issue of verification should be taken up again and moved forward?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have wanted the issue of verification to be taken up for some time. I have directly raised it with my own interlocutors in the United States Government in the years since the United States originally decided that it was not prepared to sign up to the protocol. The whole question is how this is done. That is why we have promoted the discussions in a more informal way between the meetings of the high-level representatives. We shall continue to do what we can to ensure that there is a verification process. I think that in other contexts we all recognise the importance of such verification processes.

Mobile Phone Masts

Baroness Hanham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is for Her Majesty's Government to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health. The planning policies for telecommunications developments are based on the advice received from the Stewart group. However, the science has not allayed public concern, so it is considered important that local communities are engaged in the planning process for such developments. The Minister for Housing and Planning, Mr Keith Hill, will be making a Statement about that later this week, which we will also repeat in the Hansard of your Lordships' House.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, are the Government aware of the great concern felt by parents about the siting of mobile phone masts at or adjacent to schools? Although I hear what the Minister says about the Statement, what action will the Government take to enable planning authorities to take account of health concerns, which they are not allowed to do at present as a result of the Stewart
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report? Will they be commissioning any further research to see whether the masts have any electromagnetic effects on the population?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course the Government are aware of public concern about health matters. We all take those issues very seriously indeed. I do not want to pre-empt Mr Hill's Statement this afternoon. Obviously, like any parent, I am concerned about the siting of masts. That is why there are clear guidelines and provisions in the planning process, so that local planning authorities can take careful account of locally expressed views.

The noble Baroness asked about further studies. As I said, the Government accept that there is concern about health matters in relation to mobile phone technology. For that reason, we have established the mobile telephone health research programme, costing about £7.36 million annually, which is jointly funded by government and industry. We are keeping the whole question of mobile phone technology under careful review and will continue to keep the public informed of any new research findings.

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