§ Order for Second Reading read4.35 pm
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The basic purpose of the Bill is to implement the 1991 revisions to the international convention for the protection of new varieties of plants, or the UPOV convention as it is commonly known—UPOV is a French acronym, which I shall not seek to translate for the House. At the same time, the Bill will align the standards of protection offered by United Kingdom national systems of plant breeders' rights with those already available under the parallel, but quite separate, European Community plant breeders' rights regime, which was established in September 1994. The UK will therefore be able to ratify the international convention.
Plant breeders' rights are a form of intellectual property—similar in many ways to patents—which enable plant breeders to obtain protection for their new varieties and an income, through royalties, from their commercial exploitation. A vibrant and successful plant breeding industry, committed to investment in developing new, improved varieties, is vital to the success of UK agriculture and of the nursery trade. A robust system of plant variety protection is essential to provide the necessary incentives to investment in plant breeding.
In many ways, I would describe the Bill as a one-nation Bill, where old Labour—[Laughter.] I shall say that again: this is a one-nation Bill, where old Tory meets new Labour.
§ Mr. Rooker
Yes, I did write this bit.
The Bill implements a 1991 international agreement of the previous Government. Consultation was conducted in November 1994 and a draft Bill was published in February this year. As 80 per cent. of the Bill re-enacts existing legislation, I do not propose to treat the House to a detailed speech on Second Reading as though this was a brand new subject, fresh to the House. I will, of course, touch on the main changes from existing legislation, because it is important to do so for proper scrutiny. Subject to the will of the House, we will take other stages today and I am willing to answer detailed questions about specific aspects in Committee, given that there are several amendments to be discussed.
Plant breeding is an international system which, for more than 30 years, has been underpinned at international level by the UPOV convention. The UK played a major role in the development of the first UPOV convention, which was signed in 1961, and was a founder member of the union established by the convention. The union remains the main international forum for discussion, 691 co-operation and agreement on plant variety protection; the UK played a leading role in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Has my hon. Friend any idea who will represent the United Kingdom in future?
§ Mr. Rooker
My hon. Friend is predictable. Earlier this morning, because the matter was not covered in the briefings, I asked my officials about the devolution aspects of the Bill. On the basis that the controller of plant variety rights represents the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food covers the budget.
To the best of my knowledge, and subject to discussion on other legislation, the controller will continue to represent the United Kingdom. This may or may not be a devolved matter, but it seems inconceivable that it would be in future. Basically, this is a United Kingdom issue. The United Kingdom is a member of UPOV and will continue to be. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because I had raised it in any event and we need clarity; needless to say, it will come in future legislation.
Technology has moved on since 1964 and it was the driving force behind the revisions in 1991. Israel, Denmark and the Netherlands have already ratified the 1991 revisions. When the Bill receives Royal Assent and once we have ratified the convention, we shall be the third member of the European Union to ratify it. It is worth taking a lead in Europe and setting an example. Against that background, it is essential to provide UK plant breeders with the additional protection of the 1991 convention, to provide a secure basis for future investment in breeding in this country.
It is highly desirable that we bring our national system of protection in line with that of the Community regime, which is already based on the 1991 convention. Plant breeders have a choice between national systems of protection and the Community system, which offers a right that is valid in all 15 member states. The Community regime is, however, more expensive than the national systems. A breeder who intends to commercialise his variety in one or two EU countries will find it more economic, therefore, to opt for national protection, provided the protection is as good as that offered by the Community regime. That is an important aspect of the Bill.
If the national regime is aligned with the Community regime, plant breeders will be able to obtain the same standards of protection more cheaply if they intend to confine commercialisation of a variety to the UK or perhaps to one or two other EU countries. However, it will also put an end to the confusion that can arise when two systems that are different, but have the same users—plant breeders, farmers and seed processors—operate side by side.
In broad terms, the main changes in the Bill compared to the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964 are, first, that the possibility of protection is extended to all genera and species; secondly, that the rules on prior exploitation in advance of an application for rights are relaxed to allow breeders, if they so wish and are prepared to take the risk, to test the market in the UK for their varieties before 692 seeking protection; thirdly, that a simplified system of provisional protection pending a grant of rights is introduced; and, fourthly, that the breeder's right is strengthened and extended in several areas.
We are also taking the opportunity to extend the period during which proceedings may be taken for contravention of seed regulations from six to 12 months in Great Britain. That mainly affects what I might call, in my language, the seed potato scams in Scotland. That provision is contained in clause 44.
When one compares the Bill to the 1964 Act, one finds that perhaps the most fundamental changes are in clause 6 and 7; I shall concentrate on those and on references to clause 9.
Clauses 6 and 7 set out the scope of plant breeders' rights. The basic right in the 1964 Act is the exclusive right to sell propagating material of a protected variety or produce propagating material for sale. The Bill changes the nature of the breeder's right from the right to do to the right to prevent others from doing certain things with propagating material of a protected variety. This brings plant breeders' rights closer to patent rights, but the change in itself is, and will be, thought to have little practical effect.
Clause 6 sets out the extent of the breeder's rights in a protected variety. The key change is the much wider scope of things that the breeder can prevent others from doing without his authority, including, for example, any production or reproduction of propagating material, conditioning—by which I mean preparing for planting—import, export and so on. Taken together, provisions in clause 6 give the breeder control of all the things necessary to exploit a variety. That includes the use of farm-saved seed, which I shall come to when I discuss clause 9.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Does it also include the breeder's right to constrain the use by others, in varieties that have already been developed, of genetic manipulation, and the apportionment of the rights in those cases? I raise that point now for later consideration.
§ Mr. Rooker
I do not want to repeat myself, but I guarantee that I shall refer to that later—if not on Second Reading, in Committee.
In normal circumstances, the breeder's right is exhausted once propagating material is disposed of with his consent to produce a commercial crop. For example, he cannot exercise control of wheat seed sold to produce a crop of milling wheat and used for that purpose. In other words, the breeder has no control of the production or use of consumption crops.
However, the ability of the breeder to take action against infringement of his rights has been strengthened by extending his rights to harvested material that has been obtained from the unauthorised use of propagating material, in circumstances where the breeder has not had a reasonable opportunity to exercise rights against the material before it is harvested.
The Bill includes an optional provision from the 1991 convention that allows Ministers to extend rights, by regulation, to specific products made directly from harvested material of particular types of varieties that have been obtained through unauthorised use of propagating and harvested material, where the breeder has not had a reasonable opportunity to exercise his rights at an earlier stage. That is a crucial part of the changes.
693 The extension of rights to enable the breeder to act against harvested material and, where provided for in regulations, directly made products, is known as the "cascade" principle. I emphasise that it does not give plant breeders a choice between acting against propagating or consumption material. The breeder must always act against infringement of his rights at the earliest possible stage. He must, therefore, act against unauthorised use of propagating material right up to the point of harvest, if he can reasonably do so. If he knows of an infringement of his rights before harvest of the infringing material, he must act at that point—he cannot decide to wait until after harvest and act against the consumption crop.
The most obvious instance where a breeder might not have the opportunity to exercise rights at an earlier stage is unauthorised use of propagating material outside the United Kingdom, in a country that does not offer protection to it, followed by the import of harvested material or, possibly, of a product made directly from the harvested material. An example would be the import of cut flowers that have been created from that earlier material. The breeder would have no opportunity to act because the flowers would be created outside the UK and the breeder would not know about it beforehand, but the import of the product of that seed is the point at which he can take action.
Clause 7 implements the extension of the breeder's right in a protected variety to encompass a second variety dependent on it, which is a new provision in the 1991 convention.
There are two types of dependency. The first, which is already recognised in the 1964 Act, occurs when a dependent variety can be obtained only as a result of repeated use of a protected variety. The most common example is that of hybrid varieties that can be obtained only by returning constantly to the parent line. In practical terms, that shift of emphasis is unlikely to have a substantial effect on the current use and production of hybrids, especially as parent lines and dependent hybrids are commonly "owned" by the same plant breeder.
The second type of dependency recognised in the Bill—essential derivation—represents a more fundamental change, introduced to address developments in plant breeding technology. Protected varieties may freely be used in plant breeding programmes. The free use of germplasm to develop new varieties is, and has always been, a fundamental principle of UPOV. However, where the resultant change is very small—typically, one characteristic—but sufficient to make the second variety distinct from the initial variety, and in all other respects the second variety expresses the same characteristics as the initial variety, it may be essentially derived from the initial variety. In other words, there is no cop-out. The plant breeder's rights are protected.
Clause 7 extends the umbrella of protection in the initial variety to cover the essentially derived variety. It is possible, with modern technology, for people to try to find ways around these protections; but tracing back to the original variety is also now possible. It is important to protect the intellectual rights of the breeder—hence this important part of the Bill.
The consequence of this change is that the breeder of the initial variety has the right to prevent anyone from doing any of the acts in clause 6 in respect of the 694 essentially derived variety—in other words, he can prevent its commercial exploitation. The essentially derived variety may or may not be protected in its own right. If it is protected by a different person from the one with the initial variety, then the authorisation of both is required to enable it to be exploited. If it is not protected, authorisation is required only from the holder of rights in the initial variety.
This enables the breeder of a protected variety to obtain a fair return on his investment. Such investments are made over many years and yield an uncertain return. In practical terms, those working on a breeding programme that may result in an essentially derived variety can be expected to reach agreement on its commercialisation with the owner of the initial variety—otherwise, there would be little point in their work. This is not a matter on which the Government should take a stand; it is a matter for commercial negotiation between the people concerned, and they have the right to insist on such negotiations.
The 1991 convention also allows contracting states to restrict the breeder's right in respect of farm-saved seed, subject to safeguarding the legitimate interests of the breeder. Income from royalties is essential to encourage investment in UK plant breeding. Use of farm-saved seed without payment of royalty denies breeders income from their investment and restricts their ability to invest further in development.
Although the Bill exempts the use of farm-saved seed of the main agricultural crops from the breeder's right, it nevertheless balances this with a requirement on farmers to make payment to breeders when seed is farm saved. For non-experts like me, that means farmers taking the seed from a crop, saving it, and replanting it. Personally, I had never heard of farm-saved seed until recently—but it is an important element here. Several million pounds of investment are at stake.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I can sympathise with my hon. Friend. None of us is an expert in this area—it would take a professor of plant breeding studies to master it.
The briefing notes to clause 9 state that the 1991 conventiondoes not allow contracting parties to restrict the breeder's right in respect of varieties whose production requires the repeated use of protected variety".I understand that there is some difficulty at law in defining the repeated use of protected variety. I do not expect the Minister to answer off the top of his head, but if he has access to legal advice, perhaps he can return to the subject later.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Does the hon. Gentleman know that some people believe strongly that the Bill should be amended to make clause 9(6) apply only to varieties produced since 1 January 1992? Has the Minister received any representations about that; and what does he propose to do about it?
§ Mr. Rooker
The answer is yes. I shall come to the point later on, and we can discuss it in greater detail in the clause stand part debate.
695 A similar provision permitting farmers to use farm-saved seed without the breeder's prior permission is in the Community regime, and UK plant breeders have been collecting payment for the use of farm-saved seed of Community-protected varieties since last autumn.
Farmers will therefore be able to farm saved seed of varieties of these species for use on their own holdings without the breeder's authority. Unless they come into one of the exempt categories, though, they will be required to pay the breeder equitable remuneration which is sensibly lower than the royalty charged on certified seed of the same variety in the same area. Those points are clarified further in the legislation.
It is for breeders and farmers to negotiate what to charge for the use of farm-saved seed, taking account of the requirement that the charge must be sensibly lower than the royalty on certified seed. The Bill gives guidance on what is meant by sensibly lower by reference to the Community regime. But it does not put any figure on it, and the Government do not intend to intervene in what we believe are essentially commercial matters between breeders and farmers.
The requirement to pay for the use of farm-saved seed will apply to varieties protected under the 1964 Act, as well as new varieties that come into protection after the Bill comes into force.
Some farmers are exempt from the requirement to pay. There is a permanent exemption for small farmers as defined in the Community regime; it is referred to in the arable areas payments scheme. Furthermore, farmers who have saved seed of a particular variety before the Act comes into force may also continue to do so, free of charge, until Ministers discontinue this prior-use exemption by order. A similar prior-use exemption is in the Community regime. This expires on 30 June 2001, though the Council regulation makes it clear that that date is subject to review in the light of a report that the Commission is required to make before then, and may be extended on a variety, group or species basis, depending on the findings in the report.
We intend to discontinue the prior-use exemption at the same time as the corresponding provision in the Community regime is discontinued. I assure the House that that will not be before 30 June 2001, which means that the majority of farmers who have saved seed of older UK-protected varieties before this Bill comes into force may continue to do so free of charge until 30 June 2001 at least.
I have been impressed over the past couple of weeks to read about the approach that the breeders, farmers and seed processors adopted to the farm-saved seed issue when it was first broached for Community-protected varieties. I also commend the former Government: the legislation was their draft Bill. For years we pushed for it, when in opposition. We all gladly embrace the idea of draft Bills—as far as humanly possible, legislation should be presented, following White and Green Papers, in draft form to those outside. The approach to the Bill has been constructive throughout.
Clause 10 makes it clear that the breeder's right is exhausted once propagating material is disposed of by him or with his authority.
The rest of the Bill relates to general issues: the maintenance and naming of varieties, offences, compulsory licences, appeals to the Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal, 696 the work of the controller, and so on. Details are set out in the schedules. The Bill is technically complex, and its importance is not to be measured by the number of its clauses—any more than the importance of some Community legislation can be gauged from its length. About 80 per cent. of the Bill's contents are simply existing legislation, re-enacted and simplified, and designed to meet the UK's obligations under international conventions. I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)
The Minister rightly said that he is the Bill's godfather; it was a foundling in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he arrived there. I do not know whether he discovered it with great enthusiasm, but it is an important addition to British legislation which aligns us with international law and we do not intend to oppose it.
I suppose that I should declare an interest as a keen vegetable gardener. Whether saving a few examples of broad bean seed from one year to the next constitutes a punishable or taxable offence, I am not clear.
I realise that this subject may not be wholly redolent of the romance and mystery that affect some parts of MAFF. Some of the Minister's sentences resembled the chunks of prose that are dropped on the desks of unsuspecting third formers at Ripon grammar school with the instruction, "Punctuate." The Secretary of State for Education and Employment will no doubt incorporate such chunks into the national curriculum to teach children to read and write in the future.
§ Mr. Curry
If the Minister simplified his speech, one can only imagine what it was like before. I shall not take him up on his admission, but this could be described as a hybrid Bill. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) might become too agitated in his seat if he feels that we are breaching constitutional practice as well.
§ Mr. Curry
We support the principles of the Bill, which implements in UK law the international agreement on plant breeders' intellectual property. I shall therefore limit my remarks to exploring a particular area. The Minister covered it to a degree and will no doubt complete his clarification in the course of today's proceedings. It concerns farm-saved seed. In March last year, the National Farmers Union reached agreement with plant breeders on payment and terms and conditions, the key element of which was that, where a variety was used before the agreement, farmers were free to continue using it without payment. Our main concern is that the Bill should respect the agreement and not impede it or cast doubt on it.
Why does clause 9 empower Ministers to change the agreement by order? Under European Union legislation, no changes were envisaged in the royalty system until 2001, by which time the Commission may have formed a view. The UK legislation makes no reference to that date, although just before the Minister sat down he said with some precision that he would not act to bring that 697 agreement to an end until at least 2001. He has therefore given us the assurance that we sought, although I am not clear why the phraseology appeared in the Bill. Perhaps a civil servant was looking for an emergency fire escape in the event of a conflagration.
§ Mr. Rooker
No date appears in the Bill so that the date can be extended, not shortened. That is why I said at least 2001.
§ Mr. Curry
I am grateful to the Minister for that important clarification, which will be generally welcomed.
The second issue relates to clause 6, which empowers Ministers to prescribe by regulation additional factors to be taken into account. Will the Minister outline what he envisages in that respect when we discuss those clauses? We have tabled amendments that are designed to encourage him to explore that matter.
We need clarification of clause 6(2). I am familiar with the legislative use of the concept of "reasonableness". Indeed, braver men have spent much time in Committee trying to define its meaning. It would be useful to have clarification of the Government's intention in that regard.
We support the Bill and I do not intend to blather when there is no need to do so. I accept that all Ministers have speeches like that to deliver from time to time and I look forward to the clarifications that we seek. We shall not divide the House on this matter.
§ 5.3 pm
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
May I place on record our slight concern that this important Bill is being rushed through, with all its stages being taken in one day? Our concern is shared by the National Farmers Union, which has made representations to me on that point. I know that the Government have a heavy legislative programme and want to get a lot done this Session, but the Bill should not be dealt with by a Committee of the House in one day. Neither is it as uncontroversial as the Minister implies. I accept that much of it re-enacts the 1964 Act, but things have moved on since then, with the advent of biotechnology. The Bill should reflect that change.
Perhaps when the new Government took office their civil servants whipped out this Bill saying, "Here is one that we prepared earlier," and assured Ministers that it was both uncontroversial and urgent. They probably said that it fulfilled our European obligations, would be no problem whatever, had been subject to consultation and needed an early slot in the parliamentary timetable. I understand that the Minister and his Department have been busy finding their feet. They have had to deal with the mess of BSE and proposals for the food standards agency, and have been busy with other matters, so I understand if the points that I shall make have not been considered by them.
I accept that, in many ways, the Bill is modest. Our concern does not necessarily lie with the Bill; the fact that it is the continuation of a process worries Liberal Democrats. I hope that Ministers will not feel obliged to defend every full stop and comma of the Bill but will be open to argument. I was pleased that the Minister responded to the point made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) a moment ago, as it was one which I intended to make.
698 The Bill has profound implications for the future of food production and the relationship between farmers and plant breeders. The Minister made much of the rights of breeders, but I heard little about the rights of farmers, which are of concern to Liberal Democrats. We have tabled a number of amendments following consultation with the National Farmers Union, the Soil Association, Greenpeace and others, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively. I hope that he might even be prepared to accept some of our amendments in a spirit of co-operation, or at least give an undertaking that the points that we raise today will be considered seriously once the Bill reaches the House of Lords.
As the Minister said, the Bill amends the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964 and incorporates points from the international convention for the protection of new varieties of plants—UPOV 1991. The House in entitled to ask the wider question, whether the convention is in the public interest and the interests of farmers and consumers, as well as the narrower question of how its articles will be applied in the Bill. We have concerns about both. On the wider issue, few matters are more basic to society than the provision of a ready supply of wholesome food. Poor food supplies led to the creation of the common agricultural policy, and we are willing to spend millions of pounds each year in our determination never to run short of food again.
There has been much talk in the House and elsewhere about the need for Britain to retain its sovereignty. I take the word sovereignty to mean our ability to determine our own destiny and to have in place arrangements that prevent our being beholden, against our wishes, to external powers in whatever form. None the less, we are now faced with the problem that, within 10 years, five American biotechnology companies may control some 80 per cent. of our staples. Monsanto, the American giant, has predicted that, within a decade, genetically modified crops will be the norm in 80 per cent. of temperate regions. I prefer to say modified to engineered because engineering is a precise art and that is not what those companies indulge in.
The change represents a massive transfer of power away from British farmers and consumers to unaccountable transnational companies. Monsanto, the chemical company, has been active in getting a big stake in the seed business. Its boss, Robert Shapiro, is quoted in The Economist of 26 April 1997 as saying that he wants Monsanto to be the main provider of "agricultural biotechnology". By August 1995, his company was the world leader—I do not use the term in a flattering way—in securing biotech plant patents. On one estimate, again quoted in The Economist of 26 April 1997, the world market for genetically altered seeds will reach $7 billion by 2005, compared with only $450 million in 1995. It is interesting to note that Monsanto's share price rose from $14 at the beginning of 1995 to $39 by April 1997.
The seed business is big business, particularly for chemical companies which are increasingly buying up seed companies. This year alone, Monsanto has bought three seed breeding and marketing companies for more than £1 billion, and Rhone-Poulenc has merged with Merck MSDA to become the world's largest poultry, genetics and animal health business.
699 The Bill acts in some ways as a catalyst and facilitator for transnational companies such as Monsanto to exert unprecedented control over our agriculture. I do not believe that hon. Members on either side of the House want that.
I refer hon. Members to an excellent publication called "Future of our seeds" by Vandana Shiva, which lists on page 4 the way in which seed companies and chemical companies have converged. It also lists on page 17 the top 14 owners of biotechnology plant patents: 12 out of 14 are American, with only ICI Zeneca from this country getting a look-in. Monsanto comes top with 18 separate patents, as of August 1995. The author concludes:Transnational companies will decide what is grown by farmers, what they use as inputs, and when they sell their produce, to whom and at what price.If that is even partly true, it should be a matter of concern to hon. Members. If they doubt the truth of that, let us ask why transnational companies are spending billions of pounds investing in seed companies and why the stock market is responding by increasing their share value dramatically.
One of the main reasons for such investment is to produce genetically modified seed that is tied into the use of pesticides, so that farmers are obliged to buy those companies' products. Some pesticide patents—I am thinking of Roundup—are due to end shortly. How convenient it is for those companies to be able to patent seeds that are dependent on those pesticides, and so to give them a new lease of life.
Apart from concern about the transfer of power to unaccountable transnational companies, there are grave concerns about the environmental consequences of the fast move towards genetically modified crops. I note that in the preamble to the Bill, on page v, under the heading "Environmental impact", the words "There is none" appear. Had I been sitting on a chair at the time, I would have fallen off when I read that. That statement is incredible.
The Bill will lead inevitably to the production by transnational companies of seed varieties that may superficially bring benefits, but which could produce substantial long-term environmental problems. A comparison with nuclear power comes to mind. That was going to be clean and too cheap to meter—the best thing since sliced bread. It has turned out to be expensive and a proven danger to people and the environment on the occasions when the roulette wheel stops in the wrong place. I believe that that is a fair comparison to make with genetically modified crops.
I shall try to give the House some feel for the environmental dangers. First, there is the creation of a permanent reliance on pesticides, which at present are optional. Early this week, I asked the Minister of State what plans he had to encourage organic farming, and I was given a positive response by the Government that they are committed to that sector, as I am sure they are. However, the Bill helps to pull the rug from underneath the sector, not only by building in a reliance on pesticides, but by raising doubts that any farmer in the future will be able to guarantee that his crops are organic, when there is the possibility of migration in the air of material from a genetically modified crop in a neighbouring field, which might latch on to a similar crop nearby.
Secondly, there is the prospect that a modified crop might become a devastating weed, either by invading the countryside or by hybridising with another species to form 700 such a weed. Many of the traits that crop geneticists seek to engineer into their crops may increase the likelihood that they will survive as weeds. One need only think of animal species that were introduced into our country and which have changed the balance of the countryside significantly, such as the rabbit, the grey squirrel and the mink. Do we want to take huge gambles with new and unpredictable crop varieties which, once released into the environment, cannot be recalled?
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the trebling of yields—for example, of cereal crops—since the last war is at least 50 per cent. the result of the work of breeders? Is that not worth the efforts that he is decrying and disparaging? It is in the farmers' interests, as well as the breeders'.
§ Mr. Boswell
Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), does the hon. Gentleman accept that stringent safeguards on the release of genetic material to the environment are already in place and that those are designed to meet—and in my view substantially do meet—exactly the fears that he has expressed? Material is not loosely let out into the environment without proper consideration of the possible dangers, including any long-run dangers from genetic escape.
§ Mr. Baker
I do not accept that. I remember being a researcher in this place when the Environmental Protection Act 1990 was produced, and I know how little coverage was given to clauses relating to genetically engineered material. I am also aware that there is controversy over imported maize and the inability to separate maize that is genetically engineered from that which is not. I am not happy with that, and I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point.
My third environmental concern is that there is a danger of increased pesticide residues in our food. Crops can be drenched with pesticides—perhaps they even need to be drenched with pesticides to grow under the genetically engineered arrangement. That increases the prospect of residues remaining on the finished product.
Fourthly, there is the danger of increased resistance in target insects on crops. At present, pesticides are applied in bursts, whereas an insect-killing gene in the plant will destroy susceptible insects daily. Constant exposure could lead insects to evolve resistance even more quickly than they already do.
Fifthly, there is the question of marker genes, which are attached to what might be called the genetic payload to be inserted to find out how quickly it has arrived at its destination. One popular type of marker, as the Minister will know, is the gene that makes plants resistant to antibiotics. Instead of waiting for the plants to grow, researchers can simply test them with the antibiotic. The direct concern is that genes conferring resistance to antibiotics might find their way into bacteria when the crops decay in the ground or in the stomach of animals. That must encourage a build-up in resistance to antibiotics, which is already a significant problem.
701 Sixthly, there is the possibility of unwanted reactions in health terms from eating genetically altered material. Already there has been the case of one type of soya bean that has had to be abandoned because the inclusion of a gene from the Brazil nut generated in some people the same allergic reaction as comes from eating Brazil nuts themselves.
There is the further objection that the private ownership of genetic material which is encouraged by the Bill is, in my view, ethically questionable. We are increasingly moving towards a patenting of life in all its forms, which I find profoundly worrying.
Such private ownership exacerbates the gap between the rich north and the poor south. We heard from the Prime Minister today and from the Secretary of State for International Development on a previous occasion that the Government are keen to close that gap. I believe them, but the Bill will not help. The resources are predominantly in the south, whereas the technology is in the north. The north therefore wants to claim the south's resources as common goods, but to charge the south for the modified result.
Biotechnology developments promote the move of genetic resources from goods that are freely available to all into goods that are privately owned. Some hon. Members may feel that the risks and objections that I have outlined are overstated, but if only one or two of them are justified, that merits concern. I have listed several objections. If only one or two are worth while, that is a matter of concern.
These concerns are held not only on the Liberal Democrat Benches. There has been much greater public debate about these matters in other European countries. Governments in Italy, Austria and Luxembourg have banned their farmers from growing genetically modified maize. The European Parliament recently demanded a halt to the sale of such maize throughout the European Union, pending further investigations into its safety. In April, 1 million Austrians signed a petition calling for a total ban on genetically altered foods.
Hon. Members will know that in Britain the NFU has expressed concerns about genetically altered crops in some respects and about key aspects of the Bill. The amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon emanate from the NFU and have Liberal Democrat support.
Particular concern has been expressed by the National Farmers Union for Scotland. Scottish farmers tend to grow older varieties of wheat, barley and potatoes as newer plant varieties often produce inferior crops under Scottish growing conditions. At present, farmers are exempt from payments on older plant varieties, but the Bill puts at risk the agreement reached on exempted varieties that were granted protection prior to 27 April 1991. Will the Minister address that specific point when he responds to the debate?
§ Mr. Dalyell
I represent a potato growing area in Scotland. Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House the problem to which he refers?
§ Mr. Baker
I refer the hon. Gentleman to a letter from the Scottish branch of the NFU, of which I am happy to 702 give him a copy. It points out that crop varieties currently available to Scottish farmers that pre-date 1991 do not incur any extra payments to plant breeders. However, the Bill may introduce retrospective charges.
English farmers are also unhappy with the Bill. I have received a letter from a Kent farmer, who states:The main proposal under this Bill is to enable the cartel of international seed producers to levy a sum on all farm saved seed. At a time when it is Government policy to promote free enterprise and let market forces prevail it is the exact opposite of this.The Minister may dispute that point, but that view is shared throughout the farming community.
§ Mr. Baker
I was not aware of that problem, but it is clearly an important point. However, the answer does not necessarily involve handing over power to transnational companies that will deal with the matter differently.
I sympathise with the points made by the farmer from Kent and I do not believe that the Bill is entirely good for farmers. We must strike a balance between the legitimate interests of seed producers and those of farmers and consumers. We are not trying to say that plant breeders have no rights and do not make an important contribution to agriculture—we recognise their valuable contribution—but we recognise that farmers and consumers have rights also. The regime presented in the Bill is based on the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964, which was enacted long before genetically modified organisms had been heard of and reduces further the freedom of farmers in law in respect of saved seed. That freedom has already been eroded by technological advances that make them more dependent on chemical giants than is healthy.
It seems to me that the plant breeders have got everything they want from the Bill. For example, why is the Minister willing in clause 4 to countenance transnationals' claiming ownership of plants that occur naturally? The Prime Minister was able to amend one clause IV, so perhaps the Minister could help on this occasion. The Minister has explained why the Bill goes beyond the requirements of EU regulations. Why does clause 11 give the Minister the power to extend the duration of plant breeders' rights beyond 30 years? These and other questions must be answered, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response when the amendments are debated.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have gathered that my colleagues and I have considerable reservations about the increasing powers of transnational companies and the detrimental effects that their acquisition of seed companies and their billions of pounds of investment in biotechnology may have on our farmers and consumers. We accept that EU regulation must be reflected in domestic legislation, but we remain very unhappy about where the legislation is leading. We do not believe that 703 sufficient weight has been given to the dangers and the downsides associated with the move towards genetically altered crops that the Bill effectively endorses.
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
I thought that it was Liberal Democrat policy to see European directives and regulations transferred directly into United Kingdom law.
§ Mr. Baker
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon drew attention to an attempt to go further than the European regulation, and the Minister has clarified that point. We accept that EU regulation must be reflected in domestic legislation, but that does not necessarily mean that we agree with every decision that comes out of Europe.
We are concerned about the Bill which, in its present form, is not in the interests of our farmers and consumers. It is important to draw the attention of the House to our impending concerns about biotechnology and the way in which it is developing. Those developments must be reflected sensibly in legislation, and Ministers must address those issues carefully. For those reasons, we shall oppose the Bill's Second Reading.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the legislation urgently. It is extremely important in terms of our international obligations. I see the former Minister of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) nodding, and I think that all hon. Members would agree that we owe it to other countries to act swiftly in ratifying agreements. Perhaps the Minister could explain to the House the great difficulties that we would have faced if the legislation had not been introduced before the summer recess.
The problem is that genes are no respecters of borders. When the European Union decided earlier this year to admit imports of American maize that had been genetically engineered for resistance to insects, the European consumer affairs commissioner, Emma Bonino, admitted concern that the decision had been taken "under conomic pressure". The silos of Antwerp and Lorient were already bursting with produce when Washington threatened a trade war.
The previous Government set up the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes—an independent body of experts chaired by Derek Burke, former chancellor of the university of East Anglia—to assess the safety of genetically modified foods. The ACNFP compares those foods with their conventional equivalents using analytical and toxicological tests. That procedure was endorsed by the World Health Organisation.
Processed products of the genetically modified maize, which is resistant to the European corn borer and tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate-ammonium, were tested in precisely that way. The ACNFP compared the modified maize with conventional maize and concluded that the products were toxicologically and nutritionally equivalent. The EU directive on novel foods and ingredients came into force in May this year. The regulation is designed to establish a Europe-wide system for approving any such foods before they reach the market. It covers foodstuffs that contain, or have been produced from, genetically 704 modified organisms. Their safety will be assessed using the ACNFP's established procedure. Under the regulation, foods that pass the safety test and go on sale will have to be clearly labelled.
As the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) said, Luxembourg and Austria have recently imposed their own bans on genetically modified maize. Some people with farming interests in Britain would like to do the same.
First, what is the Government's reaction to that proposal, given the pressure from America? Our trade relationship with the United States is very delicate and Governments are unwilling to override existing arrangements. However, it is a vital matter of principle and perhaps it is time to make an interim statement.
Secondly, we must ask whether we are rapidly losing the genetic diversity of our crops. That is a highly charged issue in a constituency such as Linlithgow where potatoes are the staple crop. It is even more important in East Lothian, which is famous for its seed potatoes.
There is the problem of whether we are leaving our crops too prone to pest and plague. The former Minister with responsibility for agriculture in Scotland, Lord Lindsay, thought that the position was perhaps misleading on the potato situation and blight—this is blight phytophthora infestans, which rots the crop. Agriculturalists accept that the genetic diversity of blight strains has increased with the appearance of the A2 strain of phytophthora infestans in Europe and north America, and that it is more aggressive in causing disease.
Greater freedom of trade and increased imports over the past 20 years have contributed to a significant increase in the number of blight strains, from one to about 15 in the United States. There have been alarming blight outbreaks in the US and Canada, but that alarm is partly a result of the new, aggressive strains producing blight disease where there was none before.
The situation was not helped by growers and agronomists lacking practical experience of controlling the disease over about the past 25 years. The north American authorities apparently did not give sufficiently high priority to breeding late-blight resistance into potato cultivars, and this has exposed commercial crop production to the disease. The strain P infestans US-8 has proved a major problem in parts of New England, but there is little evidence that it is more pathogenic than other strains.
Agriculture experts in Britain believe that the US-8 strain can be controlled by blight fungicides, provided that they are applied accurately and at the right time. There is no evidence that US-8 is resistant to the range of new fungicides now available.
Internationally, farmers have responded vigorously to the challenge posed by the new blight populations, and are investing effort and resources on a number of fronts. I am told that a number of international initiatives are being developed through the international programme for potato late-blight control in Mexico. The International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru, is co-ordinating a global initiative to combat the disease.
Central to a strategy for blight control is the need to increase the level of resistance in new varieties of potato that are now being developed. As I have said, I have moved on to my second question. I wish to know exactly what is being done to prevent a tragedy over the level of resistance, and when I talk of tragedy, I speak with considerable constituency feeling.
705 Tens of thousands of my constituents are the descendants of those who came from Ireland during the 1840s and 1850s as a result of potato blight. Bearing that in mind, the idea that blight could occur again is appalling. The Bill is supposedly non-political, and so may it be, but when one thinks of the political and demographic consequences of the potato blight in Ireland in the middle of the previous century, one shudders at the thought that it could ever happen again. That is precisely the issue that we are discussing.
I do not want to rabbit on for too long, but I have a third and final question. It concerns very much the same matter that was raised properly by the hon. Member for Lewes. The issue relates to Monsanto and genetically modified seeds.
When I receive a briefing, I believe in making it clear to the House from whom I have received it. A series of questions has been asked of me by Dr. Tom Craig from Hyde in Cheshire, who is most concerned about the news that 60,000 bags of oilseed containing the "wrong genes" had been let loose by Monsanto in Canada. Dr. Craig quotes the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch", which states that Monsanto, which is based in St. Louis—it is a chemical and biotechnology giant—last month announced that it had recalled "small quantities" of a genetically engineered canola seed containing an unapproved gene that had got into the product by mistake.
The briefing continues to explain that the recalled canola seed was "Roundup ready", meaning that it had been genetically engineered to withstand dousing with Monsanto's herbicide, glyphosate, which is marketed under the trade name Roundup.
The presence of the unapproved canola gene in a commercial product revealed at a minimum that Monsanto's quality assurance programmes failed in that instance and that the biotechnology regulatory system in Canada is ineffective. The regulatory system in the US is more lax than in Canada, but what is our regulatory system like? Are we better than the Canadians?
None of us can pretend to be anything like perfect and so we cannot ask for a perfect system, especially in this instance when we are talking about very difficult matters. However, my hon. Friend the Minister comes to the Chamber with a fresh mind, and I ask for an assurance that the extremely important and pressing issues that have been raised are being tackled.
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for letting me catch your eye and make my maiden speech. I understand that it is the tradition in a maiden speech to pay tribute to one's predecessor, to say a few a few words about the constituency, to make a brief reference to the subject of the debate and then to sit down quickly before taxing too much the indulgence of the House. That is exactly what I shall do. I do so most willingly in paying a tribute to my predecessor, Michael Jopling, now happily transferred—since last week—to another place as Lord Jopling.
Michael Jopling became the Member for what was then the constituency of Westmorland back in 1964. He carried on serving for the subsequent constituency of Westmorland 706 and Lonsdale, following boundary changes that were implemented in 1983. Michael is well known to the House and much liked by hon. Members. He is enormously admired in what was his constituency as a diligent, able and effective representative of his constituents' interests. He first became a Member at my age of 33. As he is now 66, right hon. and hon. Members will understand that he spent precisely half of his life to date representing people in Westmorland and Lonsdale, and did so extremely ably.
On the national scene, Michael Jopling was the Government Chief Whip during Lady Thatcher's first term in office between 1979 and 1983. He played a critical role then in holding together a fractious Conservative party and in contributing significantly to the success of what I believe was an extremely effective, important and revolutionary time in British politics.
Subsequently, Michael served as an effective and long-serving Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the 1980s. More recently, in the present decade, he played a role in the Jopling reforms, which I think have won widespread acceptance and, indeed, enthusiasm among right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, in that they introduced civilisation to the working hours of this place.
I think that the impish sense of humour and sense of style that is characteristic of Michael Jopling was summed up by an incident that occurred when he was Minister of Agriculture. He was due to arrive at a significant agriculture show—I believe that it was in the north of England—and, at the time when the Minister was due to appear, there appeared instead a large, leather-clad gentleman on a powerful motor cycle. That produced enormous consternation among the various officials, who instructed this gentleman to depart forthwith because a Cabinet Minister was due to arrive. At that, the gentleman on the motor cycle removed his crash helmet, said that he was the Minister of Agriculture, Michael Jopling, and would they please get out of his way.
To steal one of Michael's better lines, I tell the House of what he said following a crash, which I know many right hon. and hon. Members are aware that he suffered earlier in the year. Thankfully, he has wholly recovered from it. He said that he was grateful that his translation to another place had occurred after he had had his crash and not before. He explained that if he had been translated to another place before the crash, he would not have been sure that the hospital would have sufficient quantities of blue blood.
It is a truism in the House that every hon. Member, when making a maiden speech, claims that theirs is the most beautiful constituency in the country. I am unique in that a number of hon. Members have said to me, perhaps in the spirit of some enviousness, that they, too, believe that mine is the most beautiful constituency in the country. The Minister was there yesterday. I hope that he enjoyed his visit, and that he was not subject to the traditional lakeland rain greeting.
§ Mr. Collins
I am glad to hear it. However, given the damp atmosphere up there, the considerations about global warming to which the Prime Minister referred earlier do not always commend themselves to people in my constituency with the seriousness that they do to those elsewhere.
707 Westmorland and Lonsdale contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful countryside in the whole of the United Kingdom. It is geographically at the heart of the United Kingdom, as it falls north-south half way between John o'Groats and Land's End and east-west half way between the west coast of Northern Ireland and the east coast of England. It comprises beautiful lakes, such as Windermere and Coniston, and it includes glorious towns such as Grasmere, Ambleside and the lovely and splendid Kendal, where my home is. The Lonsdale part of the constituency comprises what historically was part of north Lancashire, the area around Cark and Cartmel and Grange-over-Sands, and stretches into the east to include areas of the Yorkshire dales around Sedbergh. Given that it includes parts of historic Lancashire and Yorkshire, hon. Members will understand that it is not clever for its Member of Parliament to express an opinion about the outcome of the Wars of the Roses, or to debate the relative merits of the test cricketers Michael Atherton and Geoff Boycott. I admire both of them, and am careful to admire both of them at all times.
Hon. Members will forgive me if I touch briefly on five matters that are of enormous importance to my constituency and constituents. The first is that Cumbria as a whole, and south Cumbria in particular, should remain part of the north-west for all regional government and regional development purposes. That is where our links are with regard to health, education, transport and other matters. I was delighted that, when the Deputy Prime Minister visited Windermere in my constituency, he said that there were no immediate plans to change the boundaries of regional government. I shall seek to hold him to that pledge.
Secondly, the Government announced a road review last week. The Cumbria-Barrow bypass is one of the projects that will be subject to an accelerated review. The High Newton widening of the A590 is of enormous significance to my constituents, not merely because of its economic importance to the whole of Cumbria, but on safety grounds. As Michael Jopling used to point out, Westmorland and Lonsdale is perhaps the only constituency where an enormously busy, dual carriageway A-road passes through a farmyard. That is quite dangerous and needs to be upgraded with some speed.
Thirdly, the vexed issue of a speed limit on Windermere is before the courts. I hope that a decision will be taken in accordance with the wishes of local people, and that it will not be taken by people sitting a long way away. I shall be writing to the Deputy Prime Minister on that matter.
Fourthly, it is important that tourism, which provides about a third of the employment in our area, should be promoted effectively and vigorously.
Fifthly and finally, it is important, as the Minister will know—I am sure that he discussed this yesterday—that small farms in general and hill farms in particular are looked after. When the Minister considers the review and reform of the common agricultural policy, he can expect strong representations from me on the importance of maintaining and expanding hill livestock compensatory allowances.
As for the Bill, I share the views that have been expressed by many right hon. and hon. Members, who have spoken about its importance and about the need for 708 the United Kingdom to proceed rapidly towards ratifying the international conventions to which we have subscribed.
I shall make two specific points that the Minister may have time to respond to later. Under paragraph (2) of schedule 1, Ministers are given a general power to give the controller virtually any remuneration or allowances that they deem fit. I do not expect the Minister to specify the precise salary that he intends to allocate to a specific civil servant, but could he give us the banding or the grade level at which the controller will be paid? Will there be any change as a result of the Bill to the way in which the controller is paid? Will there be any element of performance-related pay and, if so, how will performance be assessed?
From a cursory reading of clause 9(7), it seems that Ministers will be able to instruct farmers to hand over information to plant breeders at the will of plant breeders. Farmers are concerned about the existing burdens of bureaucracy that are placed on them, and I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us how those powers will be exercised with a view to minimising the additional burdens that farmers face. They are interested in growing things and making money for themselves and their country; they are not interested in filling in forms.
On my arrival in the House two things surprised me. First, I was greeted by a hard-working and popular member of the House of Commons staff with the words, "Good heavens, what are you doing here?" That was not perhaps the most auspicious of beginnings. It became even less auspicious when he went on to say, "Don't you realise that you should be at Church house, where the Prime Minister is about to address you?" I explained to him that some new Members of Parliament were on the Conservative Benches rather than the Labour Benches.
The second thing pleasantly surprised me. As some hon. Members will know, my first days here were overshadowed by the tragic and sudden death of my father in a freak accident. In that time of family sorrow, I was pleased to receive messages of condolence not only from Conservative Members but from a number of Labour Members, for which I am very grateful. In particular, I want to single out the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen), who sent me a kind personal message. I was also touched to receive a message from Mr. Alastair Campbell at 10 Downing street, a man with whom I have crossed swords before and will no doubt do so again. He was also kind enough to send me a message of condolence on the death of my father.
The lesson that I learnt in that time of personal sadness was that there will and should always be important partisan differences between the two parties, but none the less human emotion and common feeling on occasions transcend those differences. I shall certainly bear that in mind for the future, and I am very grateful for those kind messages.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). His maiden speech was amusing and informed. His constituency does not need to be described to those of us who have visited the area: it is the most delightful part of the country. He paid due tribute to his predecessor, now Lord Jopling, whose name is 709 particularly apposite to the debate, given that he was previously responsible for agriculture. His name is also relevant to the modernisation of our procedures that is currently being considered by a Select Committee. The hon. Gentleman's contribution was measured and astute, and I am sure that in future debates he will be listened to with interest and he will inform our deliberations.
I shall immediately leap to the Minister's defence. He is piloting the Bill through the House against the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and the comments about food safety made by my much more senior hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). In fairness to the Minister, he is not seeking to introduce a food safety measure. This is a measure to protect what is sometimes curiously described as intellectual property: the rights of breeders to a fair return on their research and development.
That said, although I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Lewes in complaining and worrying that the Bill is going through the House too speedily, I am puzzled about that speed. The history of this matter is that the public consultation was a letter to interested parties in February 1997. The publication of the Bill was taken over by the election campaign. We knew about the timetable last week, and I am told that there is no proper briefing about the Bill in the Library: there is only a letter by a researcher that refers to there having been no public response to the publication of the Bill, which is perhaps not surprising, given the history that I have just recounted. It is rather strange that we are speeding through the Bill so early in the Session and giving it such high priority. The 1991 international convention superseded the defence of breeders' rights to their royalties contained in the 1964 Act. The European Commission scheme is already up and running. British breeders feel obliged to register under that scheme, which causes them additional expense. I join others in cautioning against the speed with which we are proceeding to catch up.
My concern is about the royalties that will be received by breeders on farm-saved seeds that are currently free of royalties. As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, under the European Commission scheme, farm-saved seeds that were free of royalties before the scheme came into force will remain so until 30 June 2001 at the earliest. If I understood my hon. Friend the Minister correctly, he gave a similar assurance in respect of farm-saved seeds in Britain.
Therefore, what is the rush today? I dusted off my copy of the Labour party manifesto to see whether the Bill was one of our promised early measures. Alas, I found no mention of plant varieties among our promises on health, education, law and order, welfare to work or youth unemployment. In fact, the word plant does not appear, although there is an allusion to the work of Professor Plant on voting procedures at future elections. Nor does the word varieties appear, although the farce of the previous Conservative Government could be described as a variety act.
§ Mr. Boswell
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman remembers that our former colleague, Sir Julian Critchley, wrote a book called "The Palace of Varieties", which I commend to him.
§ Mr. Kidney
That is most helpful, although "The Palace of Varieties" does not appear in the Labour manifesto. Nor does the word royalties, although there is a promise that there will be no changes to the monarchy.
710 Clause 9 deals with farm-saved seed. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has clearly received the same communication as I have from the National Association of Agricultural Contractors, expressing concern about how the United Kingdom scheme will mirror the European Commission scheme. It states that under the European scheme, the negotiations that were concluded last year included the promise that varieties that were in use when the 1991 convention came into force and were free of royalties will remain so for ever, not just until 2001.
In his reply to the debate, will my hon. Friend say whether that is his understanding of the agreement and whether the United Kingdom scheme will contain the same arrangement? The national association referred to Riband and Hereward, which I understand are varieties of wheat.
The British Society of Plant Breeders want all farm-saved seeds to be subject to royalty, so there is a difference between the two organisations. The hon. Member for Lewes mentioned that the Minister must strike a balance between the interests of the breeders and those of the farmers. The stated intention is to bring the United Kingdom scheme into line with the European Commission scheme. If some of the older farm-saved seeds will be free of royalties for ever under the European scheme, will my hon. Friend the Minister give the assurance that the same will apply under the United Kingdom scheme?
The importance of the issue is demonstrated by the length of the compliance cost assessment which is available from the Library. Clearly, for breeders the issue is that they should not lose out on a fair return for their research and development work, and for farmers it is that their costs should not increase too greatly as a result of the Bill. The compliance cost assessment shows that farmers' costs will rise.
Will my hon. Friend confirm two points when he replies to the debate? Perhaps if I put them in a memorable way he will remember to deal with them, so I ask him this:
- When farm saved-seed is royalty bearing,
- When the deed is finally done,
- How then will older seeds be faring
- And will it be from July 2001?
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
It was a particular pleasure to hear the maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). I had the privilege to be a colleague of his for some years elsewhere and I know that it was the first of many significant and important contributions that he will make in the House and that many hon. Members look forward to hearing him in future.
As the Minister explained, the Bill enables the United Kingdom to implement the 1991 international convention for the protection of new varieties of plants. I believe that, for that reason, it will generally be regarded as a useful reform.
Within my constituency of South Cambridgeshire, I represent not only many excellent farmers, but Plant Breeding International at Trumpington. PBI in its current status was created in 1987 when Unilever acquired from 711 the Government the plant breeding and applied scientific resources of the Plant Breeding Institute and the National Seed Development Organisation.
It may be helpful to hon. Members to know that PBI is the leading plant breeding company in the United Kingdom. It is dominant in respect of winter wheat, bean and oat and winter and spring malting barley. It has a high share of potato seed in the United Kingdom and a significant presence in the breeding of new oilseed rape varieties.
A single successful plant variety can take between eight and 20 years to develop and involves the screening of millions of varieties. The success and economic significance of this activity can be illustrated by the development over recent decades of bread-making wheats. In the 1950s, the average white loaf in the United Kingdom contained only 20 per cent. home-grown grain. With Avalon in 1980, Mercia in 1986 and Hereward in 1991—which the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) mentioned—PBI continuously improved the yield, quality and agronomic characteristics of United Kingdom wheat varieties.
Today, in a year favourable climatically to cereal production, the United Kingdom white loaf is almost entirely home produced. That progress is not necessarily the result of genetic modification, but of the successful application of selective breeding.
That brings me to the points that were made by the hon. Member for Lewes. It seems to me that there are two problems with what he suggested. First, proving a negative and trying to demonstrate that there are no health or other hazards associated with genetically modified food will be a difficult process. Secondly, and more importantly in the context of today's debate, I do not share his view that the points that he raised are relevant to our consideration of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is not to determine whether genetically modified foods should be brought into use in Britain, but to make sure that when seeds and varieties are brought into use there is proper recompense to the holders of the rights and intellectual property vested in their development.
§ Mr. Baker
The point I wanted to make was that the Bill facilitates the work of plant breeders who want to develop genetically engineered crops and makes it more difficult for others to oppose them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that where there is doubt, the precautionary principle should apply and if we are not sure whether something is safe, we ought not to allow it?
§ Mr. Lansley
The precautionary principle has to be judged in the context of the balance of the evidence and the best scientific evidence available at the time. It seems to me that we should not remove or obstruct the proper return for the intellectual property vested in the development of seeds and varieties that are brought into use and tamper with the Bill in order to achieve some objective relating to genetically modified foods. Those issues are developing all the time and if they are to be tackled by legislation, they should be tackled separately instead of being used to obstruct an important and valuable Bill.
More than 200 staff are employed by the PBI on breeding research and analytical work, and 80 per cent. of its income stream derives from royalties. Therefore, it is 712 essential that we strive to give adequate protection to the intellectual property vested in the product of research and development. That is a general principle to which we should hold, but it should not be extended to allow excessive returns to the holder of rights through monopolistic exploitation. A balance must be struck. In the past, the balance was not right. The use of farm-saved seed without payment of a royalty for the rights of the original propagating material failed to give proper recompense to the owner of the rights, failed to provide the resources from which new development has to spring and gave a perverse incentive not to switch to improved varieties.
That the farm-saved seed should carry a lower royalty than certified seed is a necessary part of striking the balance. Another part of the balance must be a power for the controller of plant variety rights to issue a compulsory licence. I am aware that the National Farmers Union regards as ineffective the provisions derived from the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964 and carried into the Bill. The Bill essentially re-enacts those provisions with some clarification. The power proposed in the Bill seems to me to be sufficient for the purpose and, if the NFU were to take up specific issues with the controller, that might be the best way to demonstrate any mischief that can be remedied.
While the provisions on farm-saved seed are intended to be dealt with by order, it would have been clearer if the transition by autumn 2001 had been on the face of the Bill. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, will further reinforce the Government's intention that all protected varieties should be eligible for remuneration on farm-saved seed from autumn 2001. I listened carefully to the Minister's responses to earlier questions, and it is important that remuneration should not be provided before 30 June 2001. The holders of plant-breeding rights should also be aware that the decision will not be unduly prolonged beyond that point.
It has been raised with the Ministry separately that the provisions in clause 13 for remedies for infringement do not specify whether action can be taken when a farmer fails in his obligation to pay equitable remuneration on farm-saved seed. The holder will not be able to sue him for infringement of plant variety rights. The Bill could reflect the provisions in the European regulation, articles 17 and 18. I should be grateful if the Minister could say whether the present provision, in its reference to infringements of other proprietary rights, is sufficient for that purpose.
On the question of penalties, the Minister will be aware that, in some circumstances, the holders of seeds sell original seeds through local markets. Sometimes that happens inadvertently, but some offenders are persistent. The penalty for such infringement is £1,000, but representations have been made to me that the penalties could and should be higher. I should be grateful for the Minister's view on that point. Subject to those points, I welcome the Bill as a helpful step in providing a framework of proprietary rights to an industry that is increasingly important in ensuring that food production meets the economic, environmental and quality demands of the market place.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)
I am grateful for the opportunity to make the second maiden speech today. I was surprised that another hon. Member was 713 making a maiden speech on this subject, but I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) on his speech. I share with him the delight of representing an area of outstanding natural beauty, although I do not wish to debate the relative merits of our constituencies. South-east Cornwall, like the rest of Cornwall, and like Westmorland, is a beautiful area.
My constituency covers the part of Cornwall that is just over the border from England, marked by the River Tamar. It is a largely rural area, and this debate has great significance to the agricultural community. My constituency is mostly countryside and moorland, but it also has long stretches of coastline and river. The fishing community in Looe has been much exercised recently by the fisheries debate.
Like much of Cornwall, south-east Cornwall has suffered recently from the rundown of Her Majesty's dockyard in Devonport. The unemployment generated by the lack of employment opportunities in the dockyard has hit south-east Cornwall hard, and we have some of the highest unemployment rates and lowest wages in the country.
I have pleasure in paying tribute to my predecessor, Sir Robert Hicks, who was a Member much admired and respected on both sides of the House and in the constituency. He held the seat for some 27 years, with the exception of a six-month interregnum in 1974, when the seat was held by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). That six-month period is a record for brevity in representing the seat, and I firmly hope to leave that record intact. Sir Robert was a popular constituency Member, and I know that the House will join me in wishing him and Lady Hicks a long, happy and healthy retirement.
Plant diversification is extremely important to the future of south-east Cornwall and, indeed, the planet. New varieties are being encouraged in several ways—including through genetic manipulation, as we have heard—but we must not let the prime cultivars become extinct. The rush to produce new varieties could bring the extinction of many existing varieties that may be considered uneconomic.
I am delighted to remind the House of the recent award of nearly £40 million of millennium and lottery money for the creation of the Eden Botanical Institute, to be constructed near St. Blazey in my constituency. The institute will be the first major foundation to be based on the principles of the Rio convention, about which we have all learnt more recently.
The institute's living plant and seed collection will give pleasure to millions of visitors and will present to the public the central concerns of land use, including the stewardship of nature and the associated conservation of habitat and species. In short, it will ensure that variety is maintained and that sensible diversification is undertaken for the future. The institute will demonstrate the need to produce food economically, as valuable crops, to sustain the world's population, and will ensure that plant variety is an important factor.
That will not mean a diminution of plant varieties, or a concentration on varieties produced by genetically modified organisms. It will ensure that the old seeds and old plants will continue, because therein lies the possibility of future genetic material.
714 The institute will strive to bring together those who work for real conservation of both wild and primitive cultivars, and for economic crop production. An effective resolution of those often conflicting interests needs to be sought.
Plant variety and diversification will be at the heart of the scientific endeavour in the Eden institute. The institute is only just completing its planning stage, but I believe that, when it is finished, it will provide a considerable resource for conservation projects, not only nationally but internationally.
The institute offers not only this country but the world the opportunity to restore and maintain the old plants, rather than rushing to new varieties simply for economic purposes. In the years to come, we may well value its work. We may find, for example, that some of the new varieties now being produced, which will be given licences and which will be paid for by farmers, do not provide quite the value that we now believe they will.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate and to raise the exciting subject of the Eden institute. The institute will provide a welcome boost for the local economy and, we hope will be a major visitor attraction of great interest to everyone. Above all, it will make a contribution to conservation studies that will make it a national centre of excellence, vital for plant diversification and variety in the future.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who has just made his maiden speech and introduced his lovely constituency and its interesting developments. He also paid a gracious tribute to our old friend Sir Robert Hicks.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) for his elegant maiden speech, and especially for his warm praise of Michael Jopling, with whom I, too, had the privilege of working in the 1980s, when he was Minister of Agriculture. He is held in great affection in the House.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) to their new duties on the Opposition Front Bench. I also welcome the Minister of State, with whom we have already had exchanges in the House.
I make it clear at the outset that I have no problem with the Bill, and do not seek to detain the House. The debate is something of a valediction to matters agricultural for me, as I leave my Front-Bench responsibilities for that subject in order—to coin a phrase—to spend more time with the tax system.
I shall give the House three reasons for my taking part in the debate. First, I admit that, at the tender age of about 12, fired with enthusiasm by a lively father who was a farmer with a strong technical interest, and was prepared to take his son at an early age to the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and other such places, I developed the ambition to be a plant breeder—an ambition which I never succeeded in fulfilling.
My second reason for involving myself briefly in the debate is that, until a month or two ago, I had ministerial responsibility for its subject matter, and I should like to 715 pay tribute to the officials who worked for me, as they now do for the Minister. He is excellently served in that respect.
Thirdly, this is the appropriate moment to declare an interest. As is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, I am a farmer, so I have a personal interest in the debate. More to the point, I grow Riband, which the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) mentioned. Even more to the point, I save my own seed, as I always have an eye to economy. That interest has not yet been introduced, wide though the debate has ranged. I have the seed treated by the chairman of the negotiating committee of the National Association of Agricultural Contractors, my near neighbour and good friend, Tim Rogers, who looks after it for me.
I wish to record my appreciation of the wisdom of our predecessors, who in 1964—I make no party point—legislated for the first time to protect plant varieties. I remember that, at that time, there was concern that yields of cereals, in particular, had reached a plateau.
We had made advances after the war, as we moved from Squarehead's Master and the other old varieties. For one awful moment, I thought that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall intended to make the growing of Squarehead's Master or Little Joss compulsory. But he did not go quite that far.
We have now moved on to the Bersée and the Cappelle. Both are French, incidentally. None the less, in 1964 we had a British regime for the first time. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said, it takes time to build up a breeding programme, but, as a result of that regime, we intensified and diversified the nature of plant breeding—especially, but not exclusively, cereal breeding—in this country.
From that time on, we started a rapid expansion in the results of British agriculture and became one of the world leaders in plant breeding. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, roughly, we were adding about 2 per cent. annually to cereal yields. In due course, that caused trouble for the European common agricultural policy.
Leaving that aside, however, if one is using land, it must be right to use it effectively. There was a 2 per cent. annual increase in yield, about half of which was directly attributable to modern varieties. I argue that those varieties would not have become available without the royalty regime introduced in 1964.
The yield improvements continued—but there was also an important technical development, which leads me on to some of the other comments that I want to make. Superimposed on the yield improvements of the 1980s was an increasing emphasis, both by breeders and in the analysis of breeding by institutions such as the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, on resistance to disease and on balancing the mix of varieties and offerings, so that they were both safer to grow and more appropriate for the market.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was worried about genetically modified materials. It is almost 25 years since a particular variety, Rothwell Purdix, became the dominant United Kingdom wheat variety. It had single-gene resistance to yellow rust, and the whole variety was completely destroyed in one season.
This year, it happens that we have another yellow rust outbreak, and one or two of the major varieties now grown in this country, such as Brigadier, seem to be rather 716 susceptible. However, as a result of diversification of variety, plus chemical protection where appropriate, especially on the more susceptible varieties, the situation has been contained this year—in my judgment, at least.
All is by no means gloom and doom. British cereal breeding can hold its head up. It has diversified from simple pursuit of high yields to a much more varied and appropriate offering for modern conditions, and continues to improve under the present regime.
The Bill will reinforce that regime, bring it up to date and extend it. That is why I welcome it, and I should like to touch on three features that have been brought out in the debate, two of which arose initially from the speech by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker).
The first is internationalisation. I regard that as broadly a positive factor and, until today, I had thought that the Liberal Democrats tended to take the same view. The legislation is implementing an international as well as a European obligation, and I welcome that.
We certainly cannot run away from the rest of the world and its breeding programmes to conduct a private policy behind closed doors on these islands. We must be prepared to be internationalist—although, at the same time, under the regime that we have had since the 1960s, private and individual breeders still exist. There are small breeding companies as well as large ones in the British Society of Plant Breeders.
The second factor that concerns me and the hon. Member for Linlithgow—who is right to say that these matters should be debated—is the question of genetic manipulation. There are different kinds of genetic manipulation, according to whether one is importing genes from a completely different species or is simply bringing in a particular gene to help disease resistance from broadly within the same family of plants.
It is worth recording that if one is a plant breeder—as I hoped to be all those years ago—one is in effect manipulating genes to produce a particular result. There is no absolute conceptual difference between that and using modern techniques such as gene splicing. The important thing is that they should not give rise to concerns about the environment.
The hon. Member for Lewes did not pay sufficient heed to the existence of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—which is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment—as against the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which is the responsibility of MAFF. These matters are looked at carefully and, in my ministerial days, I discussed them not just with farmers and plant breeders, but with environmentalists.
We have a sensible regime, which will take the precautionary principle seriously and will make good use of it. We should not run away from the concept of genetic modification, although we must watch it. As we have heard, it does not adhere directly to the Bill as drafted.
§ Mr. Dalyell
During his time as a Minister, did the hon. Gentleman give any thought to recent American pressure in relation to maize and other items on the whole question of genetically modified organisms?
§ Mr. Boswell
I am slightly concerned about that. I personally felt that, in the interests of genetic 717 modification, that was not the best way to handle the maize issue, and the inability to secure traceability and labelling was an unfortunate negative. Eventually, I hope that that will be a lesson learned by the producers of this material, as well as those seeking to use it.
I was about to make the point that genetic manipulation, if used properly—for example, if it enhances disease resistance or enables less use of pesticides—can be positive for the environment. It is not a one-way street.
My third point concerns what I might term specialist and minority uses. I mentioned that I did not feel that the hon. Member for Lewes quite gave sufficient credence to the fact that people still use the materials, even as owner-breeders. I have a cousin—as I discovered rather surprisingly during a Select Committee visit to New Zealand some years ago—whose family developed the Braeburn apple. I am not sure whether that is a positive in British terms, although, as I am no longer a Minister, I can say that, in my opinion, it is a very good apple.
The apple was found growing in the drive of their farm in 1952. It was an indigenous apple and no one knew its breeding. But it was developed, selected and commercialised, and took 15 to 20 years to reach this country. I am glad it did, but whether it is regarded as a native or a developed cultivated plant is an interesting question.
In my experience, there was a steady drip of correspondence on minority varieties that were not on the European descriptive list. There was reasonable concern from amateur gardeners, who felt that they might be prevented from selling seed to their neighbours, but we had ways around this problem which were satisfactory.
I visited the Henry Doubleday research institute-like other hon. Members, I am interested in that side, as well as the purely industrial and commercial crops—which found a way of sending material out in plain envelopes and giving it away so that it was not commercialised. Perhaps unusually, we were in alliance with the French in trying to persuade the Commission into some kind of derogation, which would make things a little more legitimate. I should be grateful if the Minister could spare a moment on that matter during his winding-up speech.
I wish to refer to clause 9 and the question of farm-saved seed, a direct interest of myself and agriculture contractors. I accept that the Minister has given assurances in good faith, although he may wish to reflect on whether they are the right assurances, or whether they could have been included in the Bill. It is an important matter, which will not entirely go away. It is not just the existing varieties that are involved.
I have said that I grow Riband, but I could easily convert to Blaze or Consort, and I could possibly get another 1 or 2 per cent. uplift in yield, or better disease resistance. In making a decision, I shall have a mind to the commercial prospects of the two.
I hope that the Minister will remember that that is one aspect. Assurances have been given as part of a complex deal to produce a sensibly lower level, which I always interpret to mean a lower level and a sensible level. I am glad that the parties were able to negotiate that without ministerial interference, but it is a delicately poised settlement, and he has sought with good will not to disturb it.
718 The final point is the speed of the Bill. The Minister was right to say that the Bill was out in draft and had been thought about—I say this delicately—for a year or two before that. I am pleased that it is now going forward. Nevertheless, as he well knows, a Minister does not get up every morning and read his potential Bill in detail before shaving. He deals with it and is briefed on it when it gets to the white heat of a parliamentary debate. At that moment, Ministers—whether in this or any other Department—start seeing the snags, angles and concerns about it. The trade associations will also make their representations at that moment.
The Minister wants to get the Bill through today, and we will not seek in any way to inhibit that, but I hope that he will feel receptive to any comments made here and by the trade associations, because he and I wish to give the Bill a fair wind and to make sure that it works effectively to underpin what is already a British success story—the success of British plant breeders and our cereal-growing industry.
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
I should like to start by supporting the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that this is a British success story. The seed industry in this country is now worth between £350 million and £400 million per year, and one should not ignore the approximately £35 million of royalties from the activities that we are discussing. We are among the leading countries in plant breeding, although others, such as Holland, might claim greater status. For that reason, the Bill is a suitable and appropriate clarification of the position, and a clarification of the relationship between the farmer and the breeder.
It seemed to me that there were three misconceptions in the speech of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker). The first was his antipathy to the internationalism that is increasingly prevalent in this field. It is unavoidable—the nature of such developments are, almost by definition, international. The collaboration between breeders across the world is an inevitable consequence of improving technology and communications, and it will not go away.
As colleagues have pointed out, the British Society of Plant Breeders has about 45 members, including some independents—one of the top seven plant breeders is situated in my constituency. The picture is not one sided; there is diversity. The organisations represent the small breeders, the people who work in highly specialist fields and those who work with particular crop varieties and not merely the big companies to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The second error made by the hon. Member for Lewes was to confuse this Bill with that affecting genetically modified organism technology.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must address the Chair and not another hon. Member.
§ Mr. Hayes
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
While the Bill will have some impact in that respect, it is not principally a means by which we will affect the controls on such developments. The hon. Gentleman perhaps exaggerated the impact that these proposals will 719 have on GMO technology. Thirdly, he displayed a certain naivety about the relationship between the farmer and the breeder. Clearly, it is in farmers' best interests to have a positive and co-operative relationship with breeders. For the most part, it is not true to say that there is a conflict of interest between the farmer and the breeder.
On the margin, there may be some points of difference. The National Farmers Union will, of course, argue the farmers' case and I am an associate member of that union, so I certainly have no prejudice against farmers. However, the vast majority of farmers and growers will welcome the co-operation with breeders that the Bill embodies and will respect the fact that without plant breeders we would not have made the great advances in yield, quality and disease resistance that have been made in the past 40 years. In all those respects, farmers have clearly benefited substantially from the work of plant breeders. Most farmers would readily recognise that, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, who speaks with considerably more authority than I do, he being a practitioner.
I shall comment on three aspects of the Bill. First, the Minister's comment about the relationship between farmers and breeders and the comment that he was happy to leave matters of royalty on farm-saved seed to informal agreement are valid, but such an arrangement would need to be monitored carefully. Farmers are understandably concerned that unrestricted control of royalties would not be desirable. Future discussions between farmers and breeders need to be studied carefully. One would not want unrestricted control to pass into the hands of the breeders through the degree of informality that the Minister mentioned. Informality is fine, but it needs to be carefully monitored.
Secondly, I hope that the Minister will clarify the nature of the penalties for those who choose not to abide by the proposed legislation.
Thirdly, perhaps the Minister can clarify the interface between these proposals and the legislation affecting GMO technology, to which the hon. Member for Lewes referred. The Minister alluded to it, as did several hon. Members. I and other hon. Members would welcome such clarification, as would the hon. Member for Lewes, I imagine, judging by what he said.
On exclusion until 2001, much has been made of the fact that plant varieties have limited lives. That is certainly true of cereal crops, but it varies from one crop to another. For all sorts of commercial rather than technological reasons, potatoes have a much longer life cycle than many other crops. Many of the older varieties affected by control to 2001 will be played out beyond that date, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry said. One wonders—in the interests of farmers—whether the exclusion might continue in perpetuity. This is a personal view, but it is certainly one which has been expressed by a number of farmers and I do not think I am breaking any confidences when I say that the British Society of Plant Breeders would not be entirely unsympathetic to that view. The impact of such an extension of the exclusion would diminish over the years as the varieties became rarer. Many people would therefore welcome some extension beyond 2001.
With those minor caveats, suggestions and questions I welcome the Bill, as have other hon. Members, on the grounds that it clarifies and codifies the situation and 720 brings it up to date. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the legislation should be based on the premise that the relationship between farmers and breeders is usually, although not always, one of co-operation and not conflict. We need legislation that would underpin that co-operation for the benefit of both farmers and breeders, as well as of the wider community.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I must start my brief contribution by informing the House of my interests in this matter. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), I grow corn, albeit on a much smaller scale. I have just one field of corn on my property, but the fact remains that I grow it—this year, it is Riband—and, therefore, I have an interest to declare.
I am also privileged to represent the British Society of Plant Breeders, which has its headquarters in my constituency, a number of plant breeding companies—similar to those represented by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—and, of course, many farmers.
This debate has been marked out by the exceptional maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). As is traditional, he described his constituency in glowing terms and all of us who know it will accept them. At times when one listens to maiden speeches, it takes a little broad mindedness to accept the glowing terms ascribed to some areas, but that is certainly not true of his constituency. He also paid rightful tribute to our great friend Michael Jopling, who is now a colleague in the other place.
Coincidentally, I first met Michael Jopling in 1975, when he held the post that I now occupy—the No. 2 Opposition spokesman on agriculture. That was at the time of the then Labour Government's destruction of the farm tenancy system by the introduction of inherited tenancies, which led to the drying up of supply, as we believed that it would.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale on an exceptionally good and clear speech about his constituency and his views on this issue. I was particularly interested in his comments about the controller's salary. I noticed the look of consternation that passed down the row of officials as soon as civil servants' salaries were raised. That bodes well for my hon. Friend's future contributions in the House. I also share his recognition and experience of the way in which, despite our differences, the House can come together at times of individual trial and grief. I, too, lost my father a few months ago, and I entirely share my hon. Friend's feelings.
Most of the issues that have arisen are probably best dealt with in amendments, and I shall certainly press the Minister on them in Committee, so for now I want only to refer to one or two contributions. My hon. Friend—and neighbour—the Member for South Cambridgeshire represents part of the area that I formerly represented, including much of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, where so much work is done with plant varieties and purity testing and where the approved lists originate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry demonstrated, as one would expect from a former Minister responsible for such matters, his immense knowledge of the subject. I look forward to his 721 contributions in Committee. He reminded us of many of the old varieties and I cannot forbear reminiscing for a moment: years ago, I was a qualified crop inspector, inspecting thousands of acres of cereals and legumes, as standing crops, for varietal purity. Sadly, other things got in the way and my qualifications have long since lapsed, but I recall many enjoyable and not so enjoyable days traipsing through standing crops with my yardstick—it was a yardstick in those days—testing for purity.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who also has a huge constituency, expressed a view that I hold dear: that ultimately the interests of farmers and of plant breeders must be the same. They are interdependent, and that is why the Opposition welcome the Bill, which originated in our time in government. It represents the convention for the protection of new varieties of plants—the UPOV convention—and the European Union regulation and has had a long and sometimes painful birth. I am aware, from my constituency involvement, of how long it took for the discussions between farmers and breeders to come up with an agreement on farm-saved seed. They now recognise their interdependence.
We have some questions of detail, but not of principle, so we do not intend to oppose the Bill; if it is pressed to a Division, we shall support it.
§ Mr. Rooker
I shall reply to the debate succinctly, on the basis that questions of detail can be dealt with in Committee. I am grateful for the constructive way in which hon. Members have approached what is a complex and technical Bill. There is an enormous amount of knowledge around from outside interests, and perhaps that has helped us to have a balanced and supportive debate. It is also clear that some hon. Members have taken the trouble to read the compliance cost assessment and check what is in the Library; I am grateful for that, and for the back-up that has been available to me as a new Minister in preparing for the debate.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) asked various questions, many of which I hope that he will not feel obliged to repeat in Committee; nevertheless, I will do my best to give him detailed answers in Committee, rather than now. I want to disabuse him straight away of any impression that the Bill allows or provides for retrospective payments; it does not and there are no grounds for supposing that it does.
We have an enormously complex protective arrangement to ensure that the food that gets on the table in our homes is safe. I freely admit—I have said it both inside and outside the House since taking office—as someone who was not involved with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the past, that I was astonished to see the hundreds of people working in MAFF on food safety and regulation, in a detailed, supportive and professional way, whose work has been completely overshadowed by the few big crises that we all know about and need not go into now.
No new foods can be created in this country without being constantly checked and tested. No new products or ingredients are allowed into the country without checks and testing. Nothing should happen by accident, and if 722 accidents happen we have a procedure for dealing with them—and we even intend to tighten the procedures that we have inherited.
§ Mr. Rooker
We are introducing legislation to transfer the very people whom I have just described, plus others in the Department of Health, to allow them to work in a more concentrated fashion. They will be seen to be completely independent of the Government, so when problems arise it will not have to be a Minister who is the arbiter. If hon. Members are not interested in having a food standards agency, I shall be glad to debate it with them when we introduce the relevant Bill. We want to improve the regulatory system and boost consumer confidence.
The hon. Member for Lewes gave the impression that food ingredients and seeds are uncontrolled and appear on the plate in consumers' homes without any checks. That is simply not the case, as I shall make clear when we introduce the other legislation. I welcome his amendments, however, as we are proceeding not in a rush but at the convenience of the House.
The House will rule on whether we proceed to further stages. As is right with such a Bill, announced only last week, starred amendments have been selected. I freely admit that the Government originally contemplated introducing the Bill in the other place, but the timetable following the general election for the preparation of legislation was such that there was a convenient slot that we thought it right to take advantage of today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised many issues, some of which were well outside the scope of the Bill, but I understand why he raised them. He asked about the strength of our regulatory system. I told him that we have in place the necessary regulatory systems, through the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, to ensure that genetically modified plants are not released into the environment. As the hon. Member for Daventry rightly said, that is a matter for the Department of the Environment.
On food safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow recognised that no new foods could be made available to the public without clearance from the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. A few weeks ago, I sat in on a meeting of that Committee. I freely admit that I am an ordinary production engineer and the science is way over my head, but the committee is incredibly high powered, with people with doctorates, vice-chancellors and professors around the table. There are two non-scientific members, one of whom is specifically concerned with ethics; I believe that that is almost unique among the Government's advisory committees.
People are concerned about novel foods and processes. We did not invent the committee; its members were already in place when we came to office. It is not a secret science committee: it has a consumer input and an ethical input, and that is extremely important. We want to reinforces that contribution in other bodies involved with the Ministry.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Is there any disadvantage in having two committees running in parallel, one responsible to MAFF and the other to the Department of the Environment?
§ Mr. Rooker
I know of no difficulty, but there is clearly incredible cross-fertilisation between Whitehall Departments. Sometimes it is right that matters are dealt with by more than one Ministry so that a different set of minds is brought to them. The point will be raised in more detail later in the year, or certainly next year, when we produce a draft Bill on the food standards agency following the White Paper.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). I have no problem in saying that the Lake district is the most beautiful part of my country. I really enjoyed my ministerial away-day in his constituency yesterday. It was my second away-day out of London, both of which have been in the north of England. I was educated, informed and made extremely welcome by all the people whom I met in the environmentally sensitive farm that I visited, in the farm shops and while launching the booklet. I freely admitted that the farm shop innovation was not thought up by this Government but was something that we carried through happily from the previous Government. I pay tribute to the previous documents that MAFF has published on farm diversification.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made a remarkable maiden speech. He rightly reminded us of Michael Jopling, to whom hon. Members who were in the House before the general election are grateful. It took 34 months for us to debate the Jopling report after it was published. I always said that that was a disgrace. A questionnaire found that 85 to 90 per cent. of hon. Members agreed with all its recommendations and could not understand why we had had to wait for 34 months to civilise our arrangements. That involved not cutting but reorganising our hours. We pay tribute to Michael Jopling for that.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about the power of the controller and the assistant controller. I make no bones about it. I am not prepared—I do not think that any Minister would be—to discuss the individual salaries of professional, career civil servants. This is not a quango. They are career civil servants appointed by Ministers. One of their duties is dealing with plant varieties. I asked about the other duties that they perform this morning. They deal with plant variety rights, national listing—which was raised by many hon. Members but has nothing to do with the Bill—and seed certification. The plant variety office, in respect of all the factors that I mentioned, is operated by about three dozen people; the plant variety rights system costs about £1 million a year. All of that is recovered from the fees that plant breeders pay; there is no cost to the taxpayer. When officials represent Britain abroad, plant breeders do not pay; that is a taxpayer-funded job because it is a matter of public interest. He would not expect me to go beyond that.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about the powers of Ministers to instruct farmers to hand over information under clause 9. Farmers will have to give exactly the same information as they do under the EC system, including their name and address, the amount of seeds saved, the name and address of the processor and, if appropriate, when they previously saved seed of the 724 variety concerned. That is not onerous. Processors will have to give breeders the same information as they have given under the EC system, including name and address, the name and address of the person for whom they processed the farm-saved seed, and the amount and variety they processed. That is not onerous. If anyone can put a case that it is, I shall consider it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) asked about the speed of the Bill's passage. I hope that I have covered that point. I compliment him for taking the trouble to find out that notes on clauses were in the Vote Office and that the compliance cost assessment was in the Library. That is a very helpful document and the only one in which figures are given. I commend it to hon. Members. They may find it useful reading while we are having the Division that the Liberals may call.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) exemplified the knowledge of hon. Members who represent both breeders and farmers. It is helpful to have Members who represent both sides. They understand the balance that has been struck. They realise that breeders cannot operate without farmers and vice versa; they are interdependent.
The second maiden speech was that of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), to whom I pay tribute. I note his compliments to Robert Hicks. I was first elected in February 1974, and remember that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) was here during the interregnum in 1974 and then out of the House for all the years that Robert Hicks looked after the constituency so ably. Everyone will be grateful for his tribute to Robert Hicks. I wish his constituency well with the Eden institute. I hope that the lottery money for it does not take as long as that for some projects in my constituency. That is a constant problem for hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), a fellow midlands Member, supported the Bill. He was right to pay tribute, as do I, to the work of the officers, officials and scientists who put the Bill together over the years. If the issue had been different on 1 May he would probably have been standing at the Dispatch Box now. He understood the need for speed. We are not rushing against anyone's wishes. We will do our best.
I accept that a Bill that goes through all its stages in one day, if that is the wish of the House, deserves very detailed consideration in the other place. The Government will be more than susceptible to amendments tabled and comments made in the other place. If the other place amends the Bill, we should be happy to provide the necessary time, as would be our duty, to ensure that the House can properly debate the issue. I give that assurance. Given what I have said for about 20 years as a Back Bencher, I would do nothing else.
I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) for the Bill and for his comments on the speech of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), which I found helpful even though he had to do a 180 deg turn to the Chair to present them. He pointed out that co-operation of farmers and breeders is crucial. He asked about genetically modified organism technology. I cannot go into detail now, but there will be an opportunity to do so in Committee or on Third Reading. I will certainly give him an answer. Whenever we discuss such issues, hon. Members will raise GMO technology. I am as concerned as anyone: I am an 725 ordinary consumer. Where genetic modification is involved, there must be complete openness. Public confidence must be built, and that can come only from openness of information on labelling and on technology transfer and exchanges. It is vital that we do that. We do not want to put people off. GMO technology will happen anyway, so Britain cannot opt out. We and our farmers would suffer economically. Our technology and economic interests would suffer if we sought to opt out of technology.
The hon. Member for Daventry asked about smaller varieties. That is a question for the national list. Without going over the matter in greater detail, having had a quick opportunity to take advice, my views are generally those that he expressed in writing to people when he was a Minister. Clearly, we will press for changes in the Community. It would be churlish to quote him back his own letter, but I hope that he will be satisfied that that is the view that I am currently content to take. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 289, Noes 35.727
|Division No. 38]||[6.58 pm|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)||Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Clark, Paul (Gillingham)|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)|
|Anderson, Janet (Ros'dale)||Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)|
|Atkins, Ms Charlotte||Clelland, David|
|Austin, John||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Banks, Tony||Coaker, Vernon|
|Barnes, Harry||Cohen, Harry|
|Barron, Kevin||Collins, Tim|
|Battle, John||Connarty, Michael|
|Bayley, Hugh||Cook, Frank (Stockton N)|
|Begg, Miss Anne (Aberd'n S)||Cooper, Ms Yvette|
|Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)||Corbett, Robin|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Cousins, Jim|
|Benton, Joe||Cranston, Ross|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Crausby, David|
|Best, Harold||Cryer, John (Hornchurch)|
|Betts, Clive||Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)|
|Boswell, Tim||Dalyell, Tam|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)|
|Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)||Davidson, Ian|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)|
|Brown, Russell (Dumfries)||Day, Stephen|
|Browne, Desmond (Kilmarnock)||Dean, Ms Janet|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Denham, John|
|Burden, Richard||Dismore, Andrew|
|Burgon, Colin||Dobbin, Jim|
|Butler, Christine||Dobson, Rt Hon Frank|
|Byers, Stephen||Donohoe, Brian H|
|Caborn, Richard||Drew, David|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Edwards, Huw|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Efford, Clive|
|Caplin, Ivor||Ellman, Ms Louise|
|Casale, Roger||Ennis, Jeff|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Fitzpatrick, Jim|
|Chaytor, David||Fitzsimons, Ms Lorna|
|Clapham, Michael||Flint, Ms Caroline|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Flynn, Paul|
|Follett, Ms Barbara||Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)|
|Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)||Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)|
|Gapes, Mike||Lewis, Terry (Worsley)|
|Gardiner, Barry||Liddell, Mrs Helen|
|Garnier, Edward||Lock, David|
|George, Bruce (Walsall S)||Love, Andy|
|Gerrard, Neil||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Gibson, Dr Ian||McAllion, John|
|Gilroy, Mrs Linda||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Godman, Dr Norman A||McCabe, Stephen|
|Goggins, Paul||McCafferty, Ms Chris|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)|
|Gordon, Mrs Eileen||McDonagh, Ms Siobhain|
|Grant, Bernie||Macdonald, Calum|
|Griffiths, Ms Jane (Reading E)||McFall, John|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||McGuire, Mrs Anne|
|Grocott, Bruce||McIsaac, Ms Shona|
|Grogan, John||McKenna, Ms Rosemary|
|Gunnell, John||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Hain, Peter||Maclean, Rt Hon David|
|Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)||McNulty, Tony|
|Hall, Patrick (Bedford)||Mactaggart, Fiona|
|Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)||McWatter, Tony|
|Hanson, David||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Hayes, John||Marek, Dr John|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)|
|Healey, John||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Heppell, John||Marshall—Andrews, Robert|
|Hill, Keith||Martlew, Eric|
|Hinchliffe, David||Maxton, John|
|Hoey, Kate||Meale, Alan|
|Hood, Jimmy||Michael, Alun|
|Hoon, Geoffrey||Milburn, Alan|
|Hope, Philip||Miller, Andrew|
|Hopkins, Kelvin||Mitchell, Austin|
|Howells, Dr Kim||Moffatt, Laura|
|Hoyle, Lindsay||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford & Urmston)||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)|
|Humble, Mrs Joan||Morley, Elliot|
|Hurst, Alan||Mudie, George|
|Hutton, John||Mullin, Chris|
|Iddon, Brian||Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd)||Naysmith, Dr Doug|
|Jackson, Mrs Helen (Hillsborough)||Norris, Dan|
|Jamieson, David||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Jenkins, Brian (Tamworth)||O'Hara, Edward|
|Johnson, Alan (Hull W)||Organ, Mrs Diana|
|Johnson, Ms Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)||Paice, James|
|Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Pickles, Eric|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Pike, Peter L|
|Jones, Ms Fiona (Newark)||Plaskitt, James|
|Jones, Helen (Warrington N)||Pond, Chris|
|Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)||Pope, Greg|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)||Powell, Sir Raymond|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Jowell, Ms Tessa||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Keeble, Ms Sally||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Keen, Alan (Feltham)||Prosser, Gwyn|
|Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford)||Purchase, Ken|
|Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Khabra, Piara S||Quinn, Lawrie|
|Kidney, David||Rapson, Syd|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)|
|King, Miss Oona (Bethnal Green)||Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)|
|Kumar, Dr Ashok|
|Ladyman, Dr Stephen||Rooker, Jeff|
|Lansley, Andrew||Rooney, Terry|
|Laxton, Bob||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Leslie, Christopher||Roy, Frank|
|Levitt, Tom||Ruane, Chris|
|Ruddock, Ms Joan||Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)|
|Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)||Taylor, David (NW Leics)|
|Ryan, Ms Joan||Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)|
|Salter, Martin||Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)|
|Savidge, Malcolm||Tipping, Paddy|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Touhig, Don|
|Sheerman, Barry||Truswell, Paul|
|Shipley, Ms Debra||Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)|
|Singh, Marsha||Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)|
|Skinner, Dennis||Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)|
|Smith, Ms Angela (Basildon)||Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)||Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Snape, Peter||Watts, David|
|Soley, Clive||White, Brian|
|Southworth, Ms Helen||Whittingdale, John|
|Spellar, John||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Spelman, Mrs Caroline||Wilkinson, John|
|Squire, Ms Rachel||Williams, Dr Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Starkey, Dr Phyllis|
|Stevenson, George||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Stewart, David (Inverness E)||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Stewart, Ian (Eccles)||Wise, Audrey|
|Stinchcombe, Paul||Wood, Mike|
|Stoate, Dr Howard||Woolas, Phil|
|Stott, Roger||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Streeter, Gary||Wright, Tony (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Stringer, Graham||Wyatt, Derek|
|Stuart, Mrs Gisela (Edgbaston)|
|Sutcliffe, Gerry||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Mr. Jim Dowd and|
|Mr. Graham Allen.|
|Baker, Norman||(Ross Skye& Inverness W)|
|Ballard, Mrs Jackie||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Livsey, Richard|
|Brand, Dr Peter||Maclennan, Robert|
|Breed, Colin||Moore, Michael|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Oaten, Mark|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Opik, Lembit|
|Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)||Rendel, David|
|Cotter, Brian||Russell, Bob (Colchester)|
|Fearn, Ronnie||Sanders, Adrian|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)|
|George, Andrew (St Ives)||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Hancock, Mike||Taylor, Matthew (Truro & St Austell)|
|Harris, Dr Evan||Wallace, James|
|Harvey, Nick||Webb, Steven|
|Heath, David (Somerton)||Willis, Phil|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Keetch, Paul||Mr. Paul Tyler and|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)||Mr. Andrew Stunell.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills),
That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Betts.]
§ Question agreed to.
§ Bill immediately considered in Committee.
§ [MR. MICHAEL J. MARTIN in the Chair]
§ The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
I have a statement to make. On the list of manuscript amendments some hon. Members may have in their hands, the amendments are 728 numbered 1 to 4. On the Chairman of Ways and Means' provisional selection of amendments, the manuscript amendments are listed as amendments Nos. 9 to 12. The Chair will ensure that hon. Members will know which amendment is before the Committee when each debate starts.
§ Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.