Amendment 17

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 25 January 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour 6:00, 25 January 2023

My Lords, I should first declare an interest through my involvement at Rothamsted, as in the register. I have tabled Amendments 19, 20 and 21 in this group. They all focus on the welfare advisory body in protecting animal welfare. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for their support.

Amendments 19 and 20 would require the welfare advisory body to look beyond the information provided by applicants to ensure that they have a consistent record of meeting animal welfare standards, as set out in previous legislation. Amendment 21 would require the welfare advisory body or the Secretary of State to consider wider health and welfare issues before granting a marketing authorisation. These factors, set out in the new clause, include the direct and indirect effects on the health of the animal or its offspring, whether there might be pain or suffering arising from increased yields or faster growth, and whether the precision-bred traits may result in the animal being kept in worse conditions. These amendments reflect the widespread concern raised in Committee about the consequences for animal welfare of extending precision-breeding techniques from plants to animals, and they also express the concerns of many animal welfare organisations, including the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, as well as the report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

As we discussed before, British farming and traditional breeding techniques have not always had a great record on considering animal welfare. Without going back over all the arguments raised in Committee, I will say that there remains a fundamental concern that the genetic editing of animals will be used for the wrong purpose. Once we understand that there could be benefits from improved disease resistance in animals, we need better guarantees that this will not result in animals being kept in more crowded, stressful conditions, which in turn could result in the spread of new and emerging pathogens. Similarly, we need better guarantees that precision-breeding techniques will not be used to speed up selective breeding for fast growth, high yields and large litters, when they have historically caused a great deal of suffering to farm animals, despite the animal welfare legislation already in place.

All these concerns are raised against the backdrop that so much of the detail in this Bill is left to secondary legislation, so we do not know how its provisions will work in practice. I hope the Minister will understand why we are trying to spell out in more detail the specific animal welfare protections in this Bill. I shall make a further point: this is specifically about animal welfare. It is not a criticism of the whole Bill. It is about the specifics and our widespread concern about wanting to get animal welfare protections right.

In his response in Committee, the Minister talked about getting the right balance of information between the welfare advisory body and the notifier requesting the marketing authorisation, but we do not believe that what is set out in the Bill is the right balance. It does not allow the welfare advisory body to make the wider checks on the past record of the notifier that our amendment would allow, and the Minister had just said that he does not think that it is the role of the welfare advisory body to do that vetting. We argue very much that it is its role.

The Minister also argued that it is important to balance innovation with animal welfare. He argued this in Committee. He said that setting out parameters in more detail in the Bill could limit the implementation of more detailed measures that will follow—but this is precisely our concern. Moving from genetic plants to genetic animals is a huge ethical and environmental step, and it is right that the protections are spelled out in the Bill, where Parliament can have some control.

In Committee, the Minister referred to Clause 11, which requires applicants to make a declaration that they do not expect the health or welfare of an animal to be adversely affected. Well, in the words of a well- known quote, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” The Minister also referred to Clause 14, which provides for further information to be required on animal health and welfare, but the clause states only that regulations may be made. There is no guarantee that they will be produced or what the additional information will be. The Minister also said that the Bill is intended to work alongside existing animal welfare legislation, but as it stands it does not empower the welfare advisory committee to cross-reference the notifier’s compliance with those regulations. In fact, the whole emphasis of Clause 12 is for the welfare advisory committee simply to scrutinise the information provided by the notifier rather than make any wider checks.

The Minister also sought to reassure us that the Government have an ambitious reform agenda for animal welfare, but I remind him that we are still awaiting legislation on many of the reforms promised in the manifesto.

So we believe that these amendments are proportionate and necessary. As the Bill stands, there is too much left to chance. There is nothing to ensure that the welfare advisory committee will be proactive and inquiring. In fact, the Minister, in his call for balance, does not want it to be too proactive in case it holds things up. There is far too much left to future regulation that may or may not happen. All these amendments do is ensure that the welfare advisory committee looks at the background of applicants to check that they are complying with existing animal welfare legislation and give the committee greater powers to investigate the impact of precision-bred techniques on the consequent pain, suffering and lasting harm to animals and the conditions in which they are kept.

We believe these additional protections will have broad public support, as well as being in the interests of the animals involved. We welcome the fact that the Minister has set up this external body to give further advice. That does not go against the amendments that we have tabled. It may be that there are further regulations that need to come after this Bill goes through. That is fine, but it does not militate against our amendments at this time. I therefore give notice that, depending on the Minister’s response, I may be minded to test the opinion of the House.