GM Foods

Oral Answers to Questions — Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 23rd June 1999.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 1:47 pm, 23rd June 1999

When he next intends to meet the members of the biotechnology presentation group to discuss Government policy on genetically modified foods. [86779]

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

In line with the practice adopted by successive Administrations, it is not the normal practice of Government to reveal details of internal discussions, a principle that is reflected in the code of practice on access to Government information.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but does he not agree that the mere fact that the presentation group was established shows that the Government are more obsessed with media manipulation—to try to make their policies taste better—than with serving the public?

Will the Minister confirm that, on 21 May, when he made his statement to the House, he omitted to refer to a quite significant point in the report from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, who both said that they thought it essential that there should be health monitoring of all who are consuming GM foods? Why did he choose to make no reference to that in his statement of 21 May, and why was that statement by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser played down in the so-called fact sheet issued by the Cabinet Office?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

I do not agree with any of that, because it is all rubbish. The reality is that all Governments have brought together Ministers, advisers and civil servants, the better to present the reality and facts of their policy; and that will continue. As for playing down the report of the Government's chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, I published the report in full on the day that I made statement to the House, although I was not obliged to do so under the code.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I call Mr. Norman Baker. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] Order. This is perhaps another occasion on which a letter has simply been put on the board by a Department, but the Member himself has not been informed. Perhaps the Minister will follow through on that. I call Mr. Williams.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams Labour, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

When will the Government realise that the problems with GM foods are not simply a matter of presentation? The public have decided that there is no need for GM foods, and are taking their lead—in showing deep scepticism about such foods—far more from the Consumers Association and English Nature. When will the Government stop shooting the messenger and realise that they are themselves off message?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

I do not agree with any of that either. The Government have never believed that it was only a matter of presentation; we believed that it was also a matter of choice. That is why, unlike our predecessors, we decided to introduce labelling of all genetically modified foods, so that consumers could have a choice. As for being off message, the Government's position is absolutely clear: we want an open informed debate about the issues. However, as the Government's chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser concluded, no inherent danger is presented to the public from genetically modified food.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Policy Renewal, Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

It is a pleasure to be opposite the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and a pleasure that I hope to enjoy on several occasions in the future—HON. MEMBERS: "For years."] Not for years, no, I hasten to tell Labour Members.

The Minister will know that the biotechnology presentation group, in the minutes of its meeting of 10 May, took the view that it should revise the paper from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. Subsequently, on 21 May, the Minister made a statement to the House and published such a document. Is the document that the Minister published precisely the document that was originally submitted to Ministers?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his new and important role on the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that he will do well and I hope that he will enjoy it. As for the paper from the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, let me be candid with him and with the House. A draft paper was presented to Ministers. It was then revised by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser to include some recommendations. No changes were made to the paper at any time by Ministers.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Policy Renewal, Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. It is clear that the paper that was published was not the paper that was originally put to Ministers. Will he undertake to the House that he will publish, in addition to the paper that we saw on 21 May on the health implications of genetically modified foods, the paper as it was originally put to Ministers? Or does he have some reason for withholding that original advice as put by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

No, I will not publish it, because after discussion with Ministers, the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser decided to change the way in which the paper was presented, but none of their recommendations or conclusions changed the way in which the paper was presented. When it was presented, it included some recommendations from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.

No changes were made to the paper by Ministers at any time. I cannot say that any more clearly or candidly to the House and the hon. Gentleman. The chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser have both made it clear not only that Ministers did not seek to change the paper but that any such proposal would rightly have been resisted had it been made. It never was made.