§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pope.]9.33 am
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I feel as if I have hit the jackpot because there are so many hon. Members here on a Wednesday morning. I welcome their attendance, which supports the call made in business questions last Thursday for a debate on genetically modified food. I am delighted to have an opportunity to discuss the issue.
Food is of fundamental importance to us all. It is obvious that public concern about food standards is extremely high. As well as opinion survey evidence, we can see for ourselves that our local supermarkets are stocking more organic produce—food produced by farmers working without chemicals. The organic food market's annual growth rate is estimated to be about 40 per cent. That growth is happening despite the premium that customers must pay to eat those foods, and demonstrates people's desire to eat healthy, nutritious food.
That concern is entirely understandable. Fifty years ago, many people grew food themselves on allotments or in gardens, and I have to declare an interest in that my family has an allotment. Farms at that time seemed more understandable and less mechanised. Many people worked casually in fruit and vegetable picking. Only the other week, when we had a debate about school terms, we were reminded of how the school terms were organised around the need for people to go and pick fruit and vegetables. We seemed closer to our food then and felt that we understood where it came from. Now, food production seems much more distant.
More than ever, we rely on big business to provide our food. It travels great distances, comes from huge mechanised farms and is sold by huge supermarkets, so people do not know exactly what has gone into it. Antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals are all used in growing food. People's uncertainty about how our food is grown and produced is driving the growth in the market for organic produce. I strongly believe that the Government have a role in making sure that all the necessary safeguards are in place.
Now, with technology moving on, the building blocks of food itself are being altered through genetic engineering of crops. People are concerned about that. A MORI opinion poll taken last June found that 61 per cent. do not want to eat genetically modified food. They want healthy food, produced in an environmentally 844 sensible and sensitive manner. It is those concerns that I am so grateful to have an opportunity to raise today. I owe it to my constituents to do so.
I bring to the attention of the House a letter that I received the week before last from a constituent from Middleport. She writes:I just want to say that we as a family do not want genetically altered food, and I don't know many who do. Perhaps you could pass this message on".My message to my constituent is that I am passing on her words to Parliament. I do not apologise for doing so because this is the one place where GM food needs to be discussed.
I want the Government to respond to the concerns of my constituents and those who participated in one of the first citizens' jury panels organised by Dr. Tom Wakeford. I am pleased to see here my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who last week chaired a meeting of the parliamentary environment group on the subject.
The time is right for this debate. The report of the inquiry of the House of Lords European Communities Committee into EC regulation of genetic modification has just been published and awaits the Government's response. The Cabinet enforcer has just announced the joint review of the framework for overseeing developments in biotechnology. There is still time for late submissions to the public consultation. We are also in the throes of setting up a Food Standards Agency. As a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, I am delighted that the Government are making that move and I want this debate to take place in good time for it.
The reform of the common agricultural policy is likely to be agreed in mid-March, setting the future direction of EU agriculture. In February, Environment Ministers from 170 countries will meet in Colombia to sign the biosafety protocol. In researching and raising this issue, however, I have the sense that time is running out and that this is an 11th-hour attempt. I also have a sense of deja vu because I tabled an early-day motion in January 1997—two years ago—which set out my concerns.
Since then, much has happened that is regrettable and makes informed public debate much more difficult. For example, since GM soya beans were mixed with non-GM soya beans in America—Monsanto has persisted in its view that segregation is impractical—it has become impossible for consumers of many processed foods to know whether those foods contain GM soya. Some 60 per cent. of processed foods use soya. The vast majority of us have, therefore, already been exposed to those beans, whether we like it or not.
Many share my concerns. Sainsburys, for example, in evidence to the House of Lords, made a point of saying that it had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Monsanto and the American Soya Bean Association of the need to segregate genetically modified soya from the standard crop for reasons of consumer choice. This is a timely debate. Things can be done, but there needs to be an urgency about them.
§ Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)
The issue of segregation is very important. I know that farmers in my constituency feel increasingly obliged to ensure traceability, which imposes considerable additional cost 845 on them. They accept, however, that that is necessary for consumer confidence. Should not traceability apply particularly to genetically modified organisms?
§ Ms Walley
I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman has exposed the myth that genetically modified food is somehow in all our interests because it is cheaper.
My first request of the Government is for the Minister to give careful consideration to announcing a moratorium on the planting of GM crops. That has been requested by a wide range of groups, from the Government's official advisers on wildlife, to the wholefood trade, environmental groups, consumer groups and organic farmers. The reasons for such a request are numerous.
Despite reassurances that the products are rigorously tested and safe, unexpected incidents of illness have, apparently, been caused by such products. In the worst case, I understand that a United States epidemic of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome—EMS—affected about 5,000 people. An estimated 37 died and 1,500 were left permanently disabled with sickness.
I understand that the outbreak was traced to a batch of food supplements produced by genetically engineered bacteria. Dr. Michael Antoniou, senior lecturer and head of a research group at one of London's leading research hospitals, pointed out that that illustrates the difficulty that,Even in simple cases such as bacteria, where genetic modification can be carried out with some precision, unpredictable disturbances in bio-chemical functioning with disastrous outcomes can occur.He comments that it isnot surprising … that unexpected toxins and ill effects have been documented in more complex genetically modified organisms such as plants.There are questions, too, about the testing of GM products. I have been sent a series of letters on the testing of GM soya, which raises concerns. In one, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials confirmed that animal feeding studies were carried out when testing the safety of GM soya beans. In a subsequent letter, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes confirmed that the feeding testswere considered in the context of the evaluation and safety of human food use of the soya. They were indeed relevant".However, in the final letter, the Minister, who I am pleased is present, told us thatthe information from feeding studies is … not considered … to be of much value to novel food assessments.If information from such tests is really of little value, it is surely a matter of concern that it was a relevant part of the testing procedure. I hope that the Minister can expand on that point in his reply.
As well as the safety issue, we must consider the environmental impact of the products. I am delighted to bring to the House's attention the fact that the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I sit—I am pleased to see other members of it present—has decided to inquire into and report on the issue.
Farms cannot be isolated; cross-pollination inevitably occurs. I attended a meeting only last week at which fear was expressed to me, especially on behalf of beekeepers, 846 who are concerned about cross-pollination. It could result in weeds inheriting resistance to weedkiller, raising the spectre of so-called superweeds. Other effects, such as plants generating their own insecticide, could lead to insects developing immunity to the toxins.
The impact of GMOs on wildlife is of great concern to organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, whose views I value. Along with other organisations, it suggested that the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment—ACRE—does not have a broad enough membership. ACRE' s chairman, Professor John Beringer, suggested in oral evidence to the Lords inquiry that there are holes in the regulatory system, whereby no Government advisory committee is currently looking into the impact of agricultural practice on wildlife population. All such issues deserve the House's urgent scrutiny.
Furthermore, there are fears that the introduction of plants that are resistant to specific weedkillers will lead to farmers using more such weedkillers on their fields. Given that the Government's wildlife adviser, English Nature, is linking the major decline in farm wildlife with intensive farming, that cannot be a sensible way to go. Indeed, English Nature is so concerned that it has issued a statement declaring its support for a moratorium on the commercial releases of GM crops. Its GM adviser, Dr. Brian Johnson, said:There is plenty of evidence that our farmland wildlife has suffered a major decline in recent years. The environmentally untested introduction of GMOs could be the final blow for such species as the skylark, corn bunting and the linnet, as the seeds and insects on which they feed disappear.I very much welcome the work that the Government, especially the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, have done on indicators. We could be undermining all that brilliant work.
§ Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the birds that she has delimited have declined in numbers anyway due to pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals in the environment? Indeed, the DETR takes account of the number of skylarks and other such factors in setting parameters for the assessment of the assuaging of the environment.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Will my hon. Friend clarify whether she is calling for a moratorium on the planting of all genetically modified crops, or just one on the commercial planting of GM crops? There is a difference.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
However well intentioned the Government are, there is great frustration 847 at the fact that a steamroller, which seems to be centred in American business, through the World Trade Organisation, is stopping us as a nation, and even through the European Union, withstanding genetically modified crops or growth hormones in beef, for example. Such things are being forced on us, and there seems to be little that we can do about it.
§ Ms Walley
My hon. Friend has put his finger on the exact pressure point. The great steamroller of the World Trade Organisation is telling us, and the European Union that, in the interests of world trade, we cannot develop policies based on the precautionary approach that I would want. There is a fundamental issue about whether democratic Governments such as ours can determine the way forward on food production, or whether we must follow multinational companies. Huge issues are at stake. I am pleased to bring to the House's attention the recent work of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is about to be published, in respect of multinational agreements on investment. I note with great interest recent calls by Sir Crispin Tickell for an environmental body that equals in strength the World Trade Organisation.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
I agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said. In view of the problem, would not it be a good idea for every food item on the shelf to carry a warning in a big black box, just like on a cigarette packet, "This food contains genetically modified organisms"?
§ Ms Walley
I shall come to the issue of labelling later, but that is one proposal which could be considered.
I want to pre-empt a point that the Minister may raise. In October 1998, it was announced that a moratorium of sorts had been agreed, in that noinsect resistant crops will be introduced into the UK for the next three years.That announcement was made before the Lords Select Committee by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and led to headlines proclaiming, "Genetic crops banned".
As the Minister must surely be aware, no such crops would have been introduced during those three years anyway. Making such an announcement is like promising that the sun will not rise in the middle of the night. The only insect-resistant crop that might be ready for planting in that time scale is a maize made resistant to the European corn borer—and that would not be grown in Britain anyway. The Government should not try to confuse the issue with false proclamations of action. The issue is serious, and should not be obscured by "spin" in such statements.
As questions remain unanswered about the safety of GM crops in terms of their effect on human health, the testing regime that they are subjected to, their effects on wildlife and the wider environment, and the wider effects of the changes in agricultural practices that the use of GM crops will inevitably lead to, I am persuaded of the case for a moratorium; I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is, too.
§ Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)
I fully support and welcome the moratorium. There is also a call at present—especially in the Council of Europe, where three 848 Committees are considering the issue—for a five-year freeze on genetically manufactured food and all its implications. That call is being made with reference to some 41 countries, which want further research on the subject. Would it not be wise, because of the wide implications of this technology, to support the moratorium with, technically, a five-year freeze? My hon. Friend knows that such a campaign will be launched; will she support such a policy?
§ Ms Walley
I certainly would. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue on behalf of the Council of Europe, because there has been concern in Europe generally about the decision by countries such as Austria and Luxembourg to take action against genetically modified crops, despite the fact that such action is illegal in the eyes of the European Commission. I believe that we should accept that the precautionary principle is central to everything that we do in this area. We now need to find ways of moving on. I hope that the Council of Europe will be an important partner in that debate, which involves the European Commission.
I want to impress on the Government the crucial importance of labelling and segregation schemes, which allow consumers to choose whether they eat genetically modified foods. However much people may differ on the rights or wrongs, or the risks and benefits of GM food, there is no question in my mind but that people should be entitled to choose for themselves. Surely we all have a right not to eat GM food.
I believe that support is solid throughout Europe. A Euro Barometer poll, carried out by DG XII last year, found that 82 per cent. of respondents in the United Kingdom wanted labelling. In other countries, it was the same story. In Denmark, the equivalent figure was 85 per cent.; in Germany, 72 per cent.; in Sweden, 81 per cent.; in France, 78 per cent. In case anyone thinks that I am picking the high numbers, the lowest score—for Ireland—was a 61 per cent. majority in favour of labelling.
Even Monsanto, manufacturer of many of these products and the firm that recently spent £1 million trying to convince the British public about them, headed one advertisement:Food labelling. It has Monsanto's full backing".The advertisement continued:We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
Does the hon. Lady agree that labelling, although terribly important, will be useless unless we can guarantee diversity of supply, and guarantee suppliers of food that their purchases are not genetically modified?
§ Ms Walley
I am grateful for that intervention; I shall come to that subject shortly. That point was made in a presentation that I attended 10 days ago. Producers that are now sourcing non-GM maize and soya from Brazil are in a real dilemma, because we are a very short planting season away from the time when those non-GMO supplies in Brazil will become GM supplies. There is a real feeling of urgency about that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that labelling must be backed up by GM-free sources, as well as traceability and proper monitoring of that at all times.
849 I return to the subject of Monsanto, about which I sound a word of warning. Despite the fact that Monsanto has issued statements such as the one from which I quoted—with which I wholeheartedly agree—it was that company, I understand, which brought a court case in Vermont, USA to prevent the passing of a state law requiring the labelling of products made using one of its genetically modified products, recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is used on milk-producing cows. Monsanto invoked the US constitution to argue that it did not need to disclose that information, and won. So much for believing people that should be made aware of all the facts before making a purchase! To my mind, this country's freedom of information Bill cannot come soon enough.
The moral is clear: we cannot rely on Monsanto to take these decisions for us. It must be for the Government to ensure that foods made using genetically modified ingredients are labelled as such. The Government must ensure that there is a truly free market in which consumers can choose between GM and non-GM food.
Labelling regulation must be well designed, too. Current EC labelling regulations apply to just two genetically modified foods—maize and soya. Even with those two foods, the requirement is thatgenetically engineered protein or DNAis detectable. That definition excludes products containing oils, lecithin and other additives made from GM crops, as the DNA is not detectable in those products after the original foodstuffs have been processed. Products made with GM tomatoes, rennet or growth hormones also need not be labelled. That cannot be right. Foods in whose development GMOs have played any part—as a major or minor ingredient—must be labelled as such. So-called "identity preservation" schemes must be used to guarantee that GM-free foods are really GM-free. That is only fair to consumers who, as Monsanto says, should be aware of all the facts before they buy.
The rules must also be policed. Even the current limited and inadequate rules are not being upheld. Last week, trading standards officers in Worcestershire found that five of 24 samples contained GM soya or maize, despite the fact that only one item was labelled as such. That is unacceptable. The current laws must be enforced. In addition, we must consider the fact that the new EC directive does not apply retrospectively, and does not apply to food sources that were on the market before it was introduced.
I congratulate Bob and Carol Stevens, public analysts in Worcestershire, on the work that they have done to develop a technique for detecting genetically modified foods. Worcestershire's report is also to be congratulated. It exposes so well the fact that, although we have strict labelling laws, when it comes to GM food, we do not have truthful—I emphasise that word—labelling of foods. Consumers should be told. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will take on board the recommendations of the director of environmental services in Worcester that he implements the provision of EU Regulation 1139/98 as soon as possible.
The Government must remember their duty to our wholefood industry, too. The Department of Trade and Industry should consider how it might protect that 850 industry when it faces the threat of its GM-free sources all but drying up, as more countries fail to segregate their GM and GM-free products, especially soya. I know that other countries' policies are matters for them, but I want at least to hear that the Government are actively involved in diplomacy and pressure abroad to protect supplies for an important sector of British industry. That is crucial.
Through highly resourceful sourcing work, the wholefood industry has so far managed to switch its source of soya from the United States, which stopped segregating, to Brazil. That guaranteed a steady supply for the industry's products and enabled it to continue to provide the GM-free produce that its customers wanted. However, Monsanto has opened a major plant in Brazil, and GM soya will shortly be planted by Brazilian farmers. There are fears in the wholefood industry that those crops will not be segregated.
If that happens, sourcing non-GM soya could become extremely difficult. The industry would be in a difficult situation, faced with customers who want GM-free products, but no ready source from which to obtain them. We could be as close as one crop-planting season away from such a changeover. I hope that the Department of Trade and Industry will take the matter seriously and work to protect our wholefood industry.
What pressure can be brought to bear to dissuade Brazil from going down that route? Having read a report, apparently by Stan Greenburg, on the significance attached by Monsanto to persuading the political elites in the United Kingdom to accept GM food, and having read a similar assessment entitled "The Grim German Mood: Biotechnology and Monsanto", I wonder what weight the new German Government will give to the issue when they take over the European Union presidency.
One political elite that seems to have swallowed Monsanto's propaganda is the House of Lords Select Committee, which published a report two weeks ago on GM regulations in Europe. Much was made of its endorsement of the technology, but I urge the Government to tread carefully, as the report contains some alarming discrepancies. I am not saying that the report was not carefully prepared, but we must examine its recommendations cautiously.
The most glaring concern is that the Lords consider that genetic modification "offers great potential benefits", although they accept that the risks are difficult to estimate. That begs the question of how the Lords weighed up the risks and benefits, while admitting that they cannot quantify one half of that equation. I am still to be convinced about who will really benefit from GM food.
Their lordships' approach to the precautionary principle is deeply worrying. They appear to explain that important principle in paragraph 41 of the report, discuss it a little further in paragraph 42 and do away with it entirely by paragraph 43, arguing for a step-by-step approach. I am conscious of our obligations under the Rio convention, and I want us to adopt the precautionary approach.
On segregation and labelling too, the report is confused. It states thatthe use of GM products … is an ethical issue",but goes on to support a system of labelling that would deny consumers the chance to make that ethical decision, by keeping them in the dark about whether foods contain GM produce.
851 The Lords have been ridiculed for claiming that genetically modified organisms have much to offer organic farming, yet it has been pointed out that organic farming does not allow any genetic modification at all. English Nature, the Government's official wildlife adviser, released a blistering attack on the report's failure to recognise the effect of GM crops on the UK's wildlife. In a new release, English Nature states that the Lordsfailed to understand the implications for farmland wildlife of growing genetically modified crops … they say that these crops may benefit wildlife but there is no scientific evidence … to back this up.English Nature went on to say thatthe Committee has completely failed to grasp the point that applying broad spectrum herbicides to herbicide tolerant cropswill putyet more pressure on our wildlife.Those are all important complaints. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that there are serious flaws in the Committee report. It fails to alleviate any of the concerns that I have raised and leads me back to my starting point—a call for a moratorium on GM crops in this country, and effective segregation and labelling of all GM foods.
I thank the Minister for listening to my concerns. There is little doubt that he and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, the DETR Minister most concerned with the impact of GMOs on the countryside, could well be the two Ministers who decide whether there is to be a large-scale release of GMOs into the British countryside—a release that we could never call back.
Why risk that nightmare approach? Why risk too much for a technology as yet unproven? It seems that companies such as Monsanto have to take risks on acquisitions of companies that are currently making low profits, but which have high share prices because of the potential in genetic engineering. If it is true that Monsanto is paying $2.3 billion for 60 per cent. of DeKalb Genetics, even though the company made only $29 million profit in 1997 and $28 million in the first nine months of 1998, perhaps it is more vulnerable than its image in the UK might suggest.
I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends at MAFF, the DETR and the DTI to balance all the interests—the interests of companies such as Iceland, which has kept faith by offering consumers real choice and whose technical director is at present advising consumer groups in Australia; ethical independent wholesalers that genuinely offer quality labelling to strict vegetarian or Soil Association labelling standards; the Restaurateurs Association, which is concerned about the practical implications of labelling GMOs in restaurants, and about the verification of the accuracy of wholesalers' food labelling.
I hope that the debate today will strike a chord with people who care about these matters. The genie is not out of the bottle yet; we just about have time. I urge my hon. Friend, through the Green Ministers group and the Ministerial Committee on the Environment, to work with his colleagues at the DETR, the DTI and the Department of Health, and to work in Europe and at the World Trade Organisation to develop policies that will implement the precautionary principle to guarantee food safety, food quality and environmental sustainability. I hope to report back to my constituent in Middleport that I have passed on her message.
§ 10.7 am
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
We have heard a moving and powerful address from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). I pay tribute to her for her good fortune in catching the Speaker's eye and initiating the debate. Because she has been so thorough, she has taken more time than she might have wished. Many Conservative Members support her general approach.
I have a particular interest in the matter. The hon. Lady may remember that I had the good fortune last July to have the last Adjournment debate before the summer recess. That debate was on the same subject. I pay tribute to the Minister for being in his place then and now to deal with such a complex subject.
My constituency includes the test areas where there was a tremendous fracas last year, when protesters, wrongly, tore up the crop and criminal prosecutions resulted. That shows the strength of feeling among many hundreds, if not thousands, of my constituents in the Dartington-Totnes area about those experiments.
There is no doubt that the United Kingdom leads the world in genetic engineering. Provided that such research is carried out carefully, we have nothing to fear. The trouble is that GM crop experiments seem to have gone ahead with enormous pace. The speed of developments, rather than the technology itself, worries the public.
Through GM crops we could create foods with a delayed spoilage time. We could, for example, grow corn in the Sahara and feed millions more people. There is an altruistic vision, not only dangers, associated with GM crops. Although there are understandable fears about the consequences if the technology develops too fast, it could be tremendously important for food production throughout the world and for feeding the hungry.
I agree with the hon. Lady that certain conclusions reached by the Lords Select Committee were incorrect, but I do not believe that they were the result of the Committee being over-lobbied by Monsanto. The Lords Committee believes that the benefits of GM crops outweigh the risks. That might be true in developing countries where harsh terrain makes it difficult to grow crops. However, in Europe, we already produce far more food than we can eat. Mountains of food paid for by the taxpayer are destroyed. It makes no sense to create more food, for which the taxpayer will pay more, that will subsequently be disposed of. I cannot see the logic of creating more food in Europe when we cannot eat what we produce already.
The Lords Committee said that a product need not be labelled if it contained below an established threshold of GM material. That is an invitation for manufacturers to buck the system. Those consumers who wish to eat non-genetically modified food will find themselves consuming products that contain traces of genetically modified material. What about the build-up of such material in the body over time if unlabelled genetically modified foods are eaten regularly? For that reason, I suggest that genetically modified food products should carry a warning similar to that found on cigarette cartons, advising the public that that food item contains genetically modified material.
Last week, I saw a sign displayed prominently in Sainsburys in Victoria street—I hope that I did not misread it—stating that the salmon on sale had been fed 853 with genetically modified material. It was interesting to note that the product appeared hardly touched. I believe that the marketplace will respond to such warnings.
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
Did my hon. Friend observe that the House of Lords Committee examined the question whether intact transgenes could be absorbed by human DNA through food and reached the conclusion that those fears were unfounded? Therefore, does my hon. Friend accept that it is more important to look at the characteristics of the product and the impact that they might have on human health rather than concentrating on the technological process by which a food is developed?
§ Mr. Steen
As always, my hon. Friend raises a very challenging and interesting point. He might recollect that, for nearly a decade, successive Governments suggested that there was no danger associated with organic phosphorus sheep dip. It was believed that it could not possibly affect human beings. However, they have now discovered evidence to the contrary. At present, there is a scare involving Scottish salmon, which it is feared have a blood disease. It is believed that there is no chance of passing the disease to human beings, but how do we know what the effects will be in 10 or 15 years?
§ Mr. Steen
I will not give way again—not because I do not want to, but because it is unfair to other hon. Members. Furthermore, I probably cannot answer my hon. Friend's question.
The House is concerned about the drip, drip, drip effect of genetically modified crops creeping into the food chain without people being aware of it, without proper warnings and without the correct tests. We want the Minister to confirm today that the public of this country will not be forced, without their knowledge, to eat genetically modified food. We must not find that, in 20 or 25 years, there is a new disease that could have been prevented and that the Government must answer any cases of negligence that arise. Future generations must not be at risk, mentally or physically. We do not know the answers to many questions, but we should not move forward on the basis of company profits that could affect the health of the nation. We do not know what effects genetically modified crops might have, so we must be cautious rather than sorry.
§ Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
This is my first contribution to a debate on genetically modified food, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on providing that opportunity. I have a long-standing interest in such matters: I studied plant pathology at Imperial college and did postgraduate research into genetics. I understand scientists' excitement about new discoveries and I support continued scientific endeavour. There is absolutely no doubt that the pursuit of science has made an enormous contribution to human life.
Every major scientific development—from the steam engine to the heart transplant—has involved both risks and benefits. Theoretically, genetic engineering is no 854 different: there are bound to be risks, but surely there must also be benefits. When the benefit is to human health, most people are prepared to take substantial risks. However, as my hon. Friend said, when it comes to genetically modified foods, public attitudes are hostile, with more than 70 per cent. of people opposed to the idea.
It is easy to assume that, perhaps, that opposition is caused by ignorance. The companies that promote such foods argue that if people understood the issues better, they would happily accept them. Perhaps the hostility comes from recent—although, for most of us, not direct—experience. We all know about listeria, salmonella and bovine spongiform encephalopathy. However, I believe that public concern arises from an innate sense that food is not just another commodity; it is the very sustenance of life. That is neither an ignorant nor a primitive belief—indeed, I believe that it is entirely rational.
Why, when the organic food market is growing more quickly than telecommunications or computer science, should we be forced to consume genetically modified foods? Are they good for us? The manufacturers' proudest boast is that there is no intrinsic difference; that we cannot tell the difference between GM and other foods. Therefore, I suggest that there is no intrinsic nutritional value in such food. Are genetically modified foods bad for us? Frankly, we do not have a clue. What is the justification for producing such food? We have heard some mention this morning, by way of intervention, of the likely benefits. They include higher crop yields, greater resistance to disease and the potential for good in the developing world.
I shall refer to the last point. Who, in this rich and well-fed country, would seek to deny better food supplies to those in the developing world? However, I do not believe for a minute that people in Africa are starving because of a lack of genetically modified foods. People in Africa are starving because of civil wars, all kinds of social and economic disruption and because of the failure of food distribution mechanisms. Those are the causes of starvation in Africa, not novel foods or the lack of them.
There are many things that we can do. Over the years, through cross-breeding and known and proven scientific techniques, we have developed better potential crops and better seed supplies. We can continue to do a whole host of things to assist the developing world. Achievements in terms of better yields and other developments can be attained by combining age-old cross-breeding techniques—which man and nature have used throughout the centuries—with sensible applications of agrochemicals in certain circumstances. But if big business argues that we need to develop genetically modified crops commercially for the sake of competitiveness and if the consumers want a mass market of cheap food, does it really matter? I believe that it does, because if genetically modified crops are grown commercially it will be impossible to isolate them from the wider, surrounding environment. It matters fundamentally, because there is no equivalence between genetically engineered crops and those that have been cross-bred by man and nature over the centuries.
The process of transferring genes from one species to another does not occur in nature, which is why genetic engineering is unpredictable, uncontrollable and, in my view, totally unnecessary. As Greenpeace has argued, no one knows what the long-term effects of eating genetically engineered food—day after day, year after 855 year—will be. Genes that have never been part of the human diet are in GM crops and foods, including genes from viruses and bacteria from those organisms. They may prove to be a severe risk to human health. Furthermore, they can, and probably would, change our environment irreversibly.
Genetically engineered organisms and plants are living things, so they can multiply and breed in the natural environment. They will go on breeding for generations to come. Herbicide-resistant genes that are transferred into crops, and which seem to be positive and advantageous, could also produce superweeds or superbugs if they spread.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones
A moment ago, my hon. Friend said that there was no evidence that genes transferred from one species to another. Now she says that there is a danger that genetically modified DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid—could be transferred from one species to the other. There appears to be some inconsistency there.
§ Joan Ruddock
Not at all. If genetic engineering occurs, the crop or the plant has a new genome and the potential for that crop or plant to cross-breed with another plant is present. The genetic engineering would have introduced the different DNA from the different species. Then there could be interbreeding between the same species.
§ Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is considerable evidence about such transfers? Yesterday I read about research done in Denmark on transfers of herbicide resistance in oil seed rape into adjacent fields, of both crops and weeds. The fact that that is already happening strengthens her cautionary argument considerably.
§ Joan Ruddock
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very significant point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North warned of the alarming discrepancies in the House of Lords report. I add two more references to those cited by my hon. Friend. Most frightening is the assumption that safety can be established. Although I agree that labelling is absolutely vital, I cannot accept paragraph 187 on page 49 of the report, which says:Once the regulatory process has ensured safety, the success or failure of the technology must be left to consumer choice".There is no way of ensuring safety. It is utterly impossible.
We should label foods—as genetically modified or not genetically modified—but that does not, and cannot, mean that there is precise safety in taking genetically modified food off the shelf and eating it.
§ Dr. Gibson
Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot be 100 per cent. safe with anything? The words that are used are "negligible risk". When the chief medical officer gave evidence to the BSE inquiry, he used the word "negligible", not the words "extreme non-risk".
§ Joan Ruddock
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, but the report uses the words "has ensured safety". The Committee is talking not about "negligible risk", but about "safety".
856 In paragraph 186, the Committee says:Genetic modification does not concern a single product or variety but will soon affect the whole spectrum of agriculture".That is the truth about what will happen if we have genetically modified foods commercially grown in this country. That is why we cannot proceed on a case-by-case basis. We cannot ensure safety. The only certainty of commercial production of genetically modified foods is the uncontrollable and unpredictable release of artificially constructed gene pools into the wider environment. What does that say about our attitude to sustainable agriculture, to food safety and to public health?
The consequence of such a direction for our agricultural policy would be denial of choice to the consumer. That direction flies in the face of rational science and the clearly expressed views of the people of this country.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
I am sorry that the debate will run out of time for some hon. Members and I hope that the House will have a chance to return to the subject in due course.
I agree very much with one of the points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley): the whole development in this area is taking place without democratic support or involvement. It is being driven not by consumers, by Members of Parliament or by farmers, but by a small number of multinational companies. They will have profound effects on the food that we eat, the environment in which we live and the way that we farm our land. To me, that is a democratic deficit and I hope that the Government will address it, so far as they can.
I made that very point to the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the Select Committee on Environmental Audit in July last year. He said, "We are not in the driving seat." That was an honest admission, and it was absolutely accurate, but I want to know today how he will try to get the Government into the driving seat.
I have far more faith in the Minister, and in the Minister for the Environment, than I have in the good folk from Monsanto, Zeneca and other such companies. I want the Minister, not people in America who belong to multinational companies, to take decisions on our behalf—please get in the driving seat. The Government have been well-meaning on this issue, but were slow off the mark in May 1997. I hope that they will take action to remedy that.
I believe in the precautionary principle. We must be careful to ensure that we do not do anything that cannot be undone. On that basis, it is up to those who wish to change our food and our environment to show that that is safe, or as safe as can be. It is not up to other people—me, pressure groups or any hon. Member—to show that something is unsafe. The onus is on those people to show that what they want to do is safe, but they are not doing that. Instead, they are cynically pushing through genetically modified food—and pushing GM technology on to this country, Europe and the world—without giving anybody the chance to object. They are doing that through deliberately avoiding segregation of supplies, and by trying to influence those who are opinion formers in society, while paying less attention to public opinion. That was shown by the Monsanto internal evidence. Indeed, Monsanto is so popular that, after it conducted its massive 857 publicity campaign, its own opinion poll showed that it was more unpopular than it was before that particular process took place.
§ Mr. Baker
I had better not. The hon. Gentleman has intervened twice and I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak. I am sorry; I should have liked to allow him to intervene.
People have significant worries. One is the effect on biodiversity, which is a real worry, not a lunatic concern of fringe groups. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and English Nature—the Government's own advisers—are saying that there is a real problem. The Government have to take that matter seriously.
The Government appear to have concerns. The Independent on Sunday revealed the risks of genetic foods and tells us that, allegedly, a Government report, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regionsconcludes that there are insufficient safeguards to stop the creation of hybrid multi-resistant plants.It lists a series of 'gaps' in the UK's regulatory framework, leaving Britain's wildlife at serious risk of damage from genetically modified plants and other intensive farming methods.Where is that report, and when is it being published? There should not be commercial planting of GM crops until those issues have been dealt with satisfactorily.
The Government should commit themselves to a five-year moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops. That is my party's position, and I am happy to be hosting a meeting in the House shortly about such a five-year freeze, which will involve hon. Members from all parties. The Government must also commit themselves to securing diversity of supply to ensure that people who want GM food can buy it with confidence. They must also ensure proper labelling. It is not sufficient for labelling to show GM material detectible after the processing stage: it must refer to inputs into food. At the moment, 90 per cent. of GM material in food processing does not require labelling, and is only picked up afterwards. That is wrong and misleading for the consumer, and must be dealt with by European Union laws.
When the biosafety protocol is discussed in a few weeks in Colombia, the Government must deal with three issues. First, on the issue of liability, who will take the blame and who will have to pay compensation if something goes wrong? Will it be the farmer—I am sure the farmer does not want that—the Government, the World Trade Organisation or the companies that are pushing GM food on us? Let us have a clear answer to that. My view is that the companies should be liable, and I hope that the Government will confirm that.
Secondly, will agricultural commodities, such as maize and soya, be included in the protocol? They are at present, and the Government should confirm that that will continue to be the case. Thirdly, it would be helpful if the Minister of State would tell us which Ministers will represent us in Colombia. Will he confirm that the precautionary principle will apply to the discussions in Colombia and to the Government's position?
858 In a parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) on 21 January, the Minister for the Environment listed the research being carried out by the Government. I congratulate them on initiating that research, but it involves fundamental matters such as the environmental impact of GM crops, safety of plant viral inserts, investigation of feral oil seed rape populations, a review of GM bioinsecticides and a review of parasitic nematodes for biological control of invertebrates. The list goes on. That research is continuing, so we do not know what the outcome will be. How can we have commercial planting of such crops and release matter into the environment when we do not know the results of the research? That is bad science.
Those who argue that GM crops are wonderful and safe, and that we should go ahead with them, should wait. What is the hurry? Let us wait until we are sure. It is irresponsible rashly to go ahead before information on the test results has been published.
My message to the Government is that they are moving in the right direction, and I have confidence that they are trying to approach this problem sensibly and seriously, but they must get a hold on the debate. The Minister must ensure that he is in the driving seat. The Government should be prepared to take on the World Trade Organisation. The WTO must not be allowed to argue that trade is everything, because there are environmental and animal welfare considerations.
The Minister referred to the rules of the WTO, but they have not been challenged. Will he undertake to challenge WTO rules to ensure that we have freedom of choice, and to protect the environment and animal welfare? That is what the House and people in the country at large want.
§ Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)
I shall be extremely brief, to allow someone else to speak. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on her suggestion of a short-term moratorium on the planting of commercially grown GM crops. That would be welcomed by all sides, including Monsanto and Dupont. I have spoken to those companies, because it is important that Members of Parliament engage with the companies that propose these changes.
I was honoured to be chosen to lead an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the Food and Agriculture Organisation last December on the outcome of the world food summit. It is important to recognise the opinions of many countries in the group of 77. I back the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). The almost unanimous view of the summit was that food security had remarkably improved worldwide in the past 30 years. Country after country from the developing world said that they had made major moves forward and were looking for food security—except those countries where there is civil war and other problems apart from those associated with growing crops.
It is important to knock on the head the idea that rapid change to GM crops is needed to feed the world. It is not. We must recognise the major changes in cross-breeding and the progress made in the work to find more orthodox solutions. There could be a big improvement in food distribution. Up to 80 per cent. of a crop may be lost between the farm gate and the consumer, so work could be done in that area.
859 I discussed the way forward with the FAO, which drew my attention to the codex alimentarius that it has undertaken jointly with the World Health Organisation in the past 30 to 40 years to establish a national register and examining board for all foods throughout the world, which is accepted as such. If we are to have a world standard, I strongly urge the Minister not to try to achieve that within the World Trade Organisation, but to work with the WHO and the FAO, which can ensure that all voices in the debate are heard, not just the biggest trading nations of the world.
§ Dr. Gibson
Does my hon. Friend agree that nothing will stop Uncle Sam in the drive to produce the foods America wants and to export them across the world? That is the problem. Whatever superstar status and agreements are reached, Uncle Sam will still push those products on to the market. There is no opposition to genetically modified crops or foods in the United States. Would my hon. Friend like to tell us why?
§ Mr. Colman
It is because the US Government have authorised these products. That was made clear in my discussions with Monsanto and Dupont, which almost felt hurt that we, on this side of the Atlantic, object to these foods. They believe that the argument was won 20 or 30 years ago. I suggest that this matter should be dealt with by the FAO and the WHO, because they have the appropriate mechanism. It is extremely important that the WTO is not involved, because the American Government have greater clout in that organisation than they do in the more egalitarian organisations, such as the FAO and the WHO.
§ Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) for presenting her case in a persuasive and well-rehearsed manner. I am sorry that, owing to the pressure of time, I must proceed directly to my conclusions.
I warn the hon. Lady that she will not get much change out of the Minister, although we know that his heart is in the right place. He will have to read out a speech written for him by officials. As we know, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is primarily concerned not to defend the interests of the consumer, but to look after vested interests within its purlieu of responsibility. The hon. Lady spoke for the consumer. It is most important for the House of Commons to be vigilant and to defend the interests of the consumer, whether they be financial, economic or, as in this case, health.
The consumer is under threat from a double squeeze: the multinationals and their domestic equivalent, the superstores that sell food. There is an unholy combination between those two forces to cajole, intimidate or, by financial inducement, persuade consumers that they are perfectly safe, and if they quietly swell the profits of these two bodies they will be all right. Large investment has been put into that objective.
I shall address myself to the Minister, because I suspect that he privately sympathises with my view. The common agricultural policy should be wound up and the money saved should be devoted to getting organic farming properly and sensibly funded. It is obvious that labeling 860 must be introduced by legislation. It is hypocritical to say that the consumer must decide. How can the consumer decide if he does not know what he is consuming? The question of tariffs must be reconsidered. If organic, cleaner, better, more expensive and healthier food is to be undermined by cheap imports, some method has to be devised by the Government to level the playing field between what is possibly poisonous and what is clean.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on introducing a timely debate. Both the subject and the thrust of her remarks have struck a chord on both sides of the House. I hope that we shall return to the subject soon, because many hon. Members wished to contribute at greater length than was possible and, indeed, I shall be able to touch on only one or two aspects of this important issue.
The Opposition recognise that genetically modified crops may have potential benefits, including the capacity to increase productivity in food growing and, possibly, to alleviate some of the environmental damage caused by intensive agriculture. However, more important and more urgent for the public than the potential future benefits are the clear and immediate dangers. Unfortunately, the Government's present policy ignores the actual environmental damage that the over-hasty adoption of the technology of genetic modification will cause. That policy appears to involve considering the health risks from genetically modified crops secretively and it fails to address the need to build up the public's confidence in what they are eating.
I shall deal first with the environmental anxieties. The United Kingdom differs markedly from the United States of America, where the farming areas and the wildlife areas tend to be separated. Here, in a smaller and more crowded country, farming practices have an immediate and substantial impact on wildlife. That alone makes a more cautious approach to the commercial release of GM crops essential. The evidence of English Nature to the House of Lords Select Committee sets out clearly the threat that GMOs pose to biodiversity and the genetic integrity of native species. If English Nature is to be overruled, the House is entitled to know on what grounds Ministers think they know better.
Does the Minister agree that the changes in crop management and farming practices that GM crops involve will have a substantial impact on wildlife? Should not the regulatory system examine the cumulative environmental impact of genetically modified crops and not just their effect on an individual basis? Should not the remit of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment be widened to take fuller account of the effect of genetically modified organisms on biodiversity? Does the Minister accept that inserting genes into native species carries especially high risks and that very careful monitoring is needed of what happens after such organisms are released? Many other questions arise on this issue.
The Opposition fully support English Nature's call for a moratorium on the commercial release of genetically modified crops in Britain until the results of the current research on the environmental consequences are available. We believe that the European Union approval system for GMOs should be no less demanding than that for 861 pesticides. That would mean that even if a GMO was approved in one European Union country, it would still need specific approval from the British authorities before being released here, so that the circumstances particular to this country could be taken into account. I endorse wholeheartedly the concerns expressed on both sides of the House in this debate about the issues of segregation and labelling.
The health risks may be a little less clear, although for some members of the public they are of the most direct concern. In the past year, the Government have banned people from eating beef on the bone, even though the risk of dying from eating it is now estimated to be less than one in 1 billion. We must assume, therefore, that the Government are confident that the health risks of eating food with genetically modified ingredients are even lower. After all, in the case of beef on the bone, the customer is at least aware when he or she is running the risk. Because of the bewildering refusal of Monsanto and others to separate GM soya from the standard crop, customers do not necessarily know when they are eating food with genetically modified ingredients.
If the Government are so sure that GM ingredients carry no health risk, why are they covertly using the supermarkets to collect data on customers who buy GM products? Is it so that the Government can examine whether, for example, those customers subsequently contract cancer or give birth to malformed children? Those are only two of the sets of data whose collection was discussed by an official committee a few weeks ago. Are there, in the minds of the Government or their advisers, some risks to human health after all? Are the public now being used by the Government as unknowing guinea pigs in a vast but secret human experiment?
§ Mr. Yeo
I am sorry, but I do not have time to do so.
The Government's approach is no way to build up public confidence; it is the reverse. Rushing ahead with the commercial release of GM crops while so many doubts remain unresolved will not advance the cause of GM technology. One of the mysteries is the Government's real aim. It clearly is not the protection of the environment, because they will not listen to the warning of their own statutory adviser on that subject. Their aim clearly is not the protection of human health, because they are trying to keep their fears secret. Perhaps the Government's aim is the service of those foreign-owned corporate giants whose commercial interests seem to depend so heavily on getting GM crops imposed around the world in the shortest possible time before too many awkward questions about the consequences of that imposition have been asked. We know that one such company, Novartis, was one of the 38 largest Labour party sponsors in 1997. It has been suggested that President Clinton personally lobbied the Prime Minister on behalf of another, Monsanto, although my parliamentary question on the subject remains mysteriously unanswered.
What is all the rush about? Here is an issue crying out for leadership and principles, not spin doctors and soundbites. But who do we find chairing the relevant 862 ministerial committee? None other than the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Not surprisingly, the mood of confusion among consumers is now changing rapidly to one of anxiety.
I invite the Minister to recognise that winning public acceptance for GM crops will require more openness from the Government and more clarity about their aims. I invite him to accept that little would be lost and much might be gained by slowing down the process through which he and his ministerial colleagues are taking Britain into hitherto unknown realms. Those realms may one day bring great benefits, but they are best entered after ensuring that the risks involved have been fully understood by everyone who is exposed to them and reduced to an absolute minimum.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing this important debate, which is long overdue and welcome. It is the first proper debate on this subject in the past couple of years, notwithstanding the long debate on the last day before the summer recess when only three or four Members were present. That was more on constituency matters and related to seeds and trials.
The previous speech, which I assume was made with the full authority of the shadow Cabinet, makes it necessary for me to respond to the allegations of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). He said that there were clear and immediate dangers, but there is no evidence of that. He said that the process by which the Government consider biotechnology is secret. Since we came to power, we have appointed non-scientific lay advisers to every advisory committee that serves the Government in that respect. It has usually been two people, and they are all encouraged to network with each other and are not used as tokens. The minutes and agendas of those meetings are made public.
The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, the key scientific committee on this issue, was set up in 1988 and has an ethics adviser. Last year, after discussions with me, it held two open meetings—last February and in December—with outsiders such as Greenpeace and the Consumers Association to discuss the issue. Observers and non-members were allowed to speak, and did not only sit mute. The minutes were published, but the hon. Member for South Suffolk says that it is a secret process.
We have published a list of 59—at the latest count—suppliers of non-GM soya and maize for food producers to contact in America, Canada and Holland. That is an initiative of this Government. A new Cabinet Sub-Committee is examining the whole issue of biotechnology across Government so that decisions are not made jigsaw fashion but from the big picture. There has been no coercion of supermarkets. No attempt has been made, by this Government or any of our officials, to get individual details of customers' food buying. That was never intended or discussed at the individual level.
I thought that it would be useful to remind myself about labelling, but I did not realise how useful. It is nearly two years since the general election. I well remember the 863 decisions that Ministers take that lead to changes. It was probably late May 1997—the press release was on 7 June—when we changed labelling policy. When we came into office, we examined policy areas. We discovered that our officials in Brussels were under instructions from their political masters in the previous Government not to agree to the labelling of GM ingredients in foods. In practice, that would have meant that none of the foods currently on sale would have been covered by the labelling policy that that lot promoted when they were in government. We were again in a 14:1 minority.
Following discussions, this Government immediately changed the instructions to the British negotiators not only to get in line but to get in the lead on the issue. We put consumer interests first and foremost. No one can deny that, because the labelling regulations that have come through now are totally different from what has operated in the United States of America. The previous Government's labelling policy was, in practice, exactly the same as that which operated in the United States: not to label ingredients separately. That policy has been reversed. There are defects, which have often been raised in House. There are some loopholes to be closed. Additives and flavourings will have to be labelled, which the European Union is addressing. That must be dealt with. I am still in some difficulty on the process of manufacture. Labelling ingredients is one thing, but labelling for manufacturing processes is different because it transcends foods and goes into other products. It is a different regime.
We have just issued our consultation document on labelling for the catering sector so that it will be covered. I invited some catering sector bigwigs to ask them whether they really wanted GenetiX Snowball queueing up outside their restaurants telling customers that if they eat in them, they will not be told whether ingredients are genetically modified. The answer was, of course, no. We have consulted once already, and we have been consulting briefly over the past four weeks to get agreement before introducing regulations.
The House of Lords report was mentioned by everyone who spoke. I cannot respond on that. I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) gave evidence to it in October. In the normal course of events, the Government will respond within two months.
There is no commercial growing of GM crops in this country, and none is planned. When it happens, its introduction will be controlled, not a free-for-all. Farmers, manufacturers and seed merchants will not be allowed to plant acre after acre willy-nilly without controls. It is not possible and it will not happen.
This Government have doubled aid for organic conversion. From April, there will be new subsidies to persuade people to convert. We have doubled the money 864 for organic research. We will not waste that public money by allowing contamination from the uncontrolled introduction of GM crops.
§ Mr. Alan Simpson
I congratulate the Minister on toughening labelling regulations. In his current consultations, is he pointing out to the biotech industry and food retailers that under the Single European Act and the Food Safety Act 1990, the responsibilities of due diligence and product liability mean that they had better have full and unlimited public liability insurance against the class actions that will follow from BSE, and, almost certainly, on other matters?
§ Mr. Rooker
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has a question on this at tomorrow's Question Time. Civil liability for damage caused by genetically modified organisms is governed by common law developed in the courts. On the basis of common law principles, the firm holding the marketing consent for the GMO crop can be held liable in law for any damages arising from ill effects attributed to that crop. As I made clear in a scrutiny Committee upstairs, the Government support the proposal in the European Commission Green Paper on food law to extend product liability to primary agricultural producers. There could not be a clearer warning to companies that if they have any doubts, they should not apply.
We are being rigorous with our regulation to the extent that if we and our advisory committees do not agree that a product should be approved, we will say that it has not had approval. Unlike, for instance, the Veterinary Products Committee, we are not constrained by the Medicines Acts in saying which products have not been approved. People hear only about the products that have gone through the system and assume that everything gets approved. That is not true. We will publish the minutes. There is no commercial confidentiality on this. If someone does not get through the system, we will name the company and the product so that people understand that we are not rubber stamping every application willy-nilly. It does not work like that.
I regret that I have no more time to answer the many positive points made by hon. Members. I hope that I have at least partly answered the disgraceful, outrageous speech made on behalf of the shadow Cabinet.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm whether you have had a request from the Prime Minister to explain to the House his role in hounding someone out of his job because of his political or religious beliefs?
Mr. Deputy Speaker
That is not a point of order for the Chair. No such request has been received and the Prime Minister is due to answer questions this afternoon, when there may be an opportunity for hon. Members to ask whatsoever they may choose.