Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 3:00 pm, 30th October 2018

The hon. Member for Darlington has made some well-argued remarks, and I am confident that the Minister will be able to reassure her on a number of the points that she made. We are all on the same page.

I will briefly concentrate on one aspect. Who could argue with the four principles in amendment 75? My slight problem is that, having served on the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety for five years—and being partly to blame for much of this legislation, no doubt—the precautionary principle looks, on the face of it, like a good principle. In practice, sadly, it is often misused. My experience was that increasingly, it was being used as a fall-back to ban some activity or substance for which there was not any scientific evidence to justify a ban, or insufficient scientific evidence. For example, if I were to use the precautionary principle when I decide whether to cycle home on my bicycle tonight, I would almost certainly decide not to do so, because I could not prove beyond any reasonable doubt that I would not be knocked off or fall off, and end up in St Thomas’s hospital or worse. Sadly, that type of approach is used all too often.

I can give you an example from my time in the European Parliament, to do with the group of chemicals known as phthalates. They are used to soften PVC—the sort of plastic that is used in babies’ dummies, feeding bottle teats, and many medical devices. Phthalates are chemicals that have effects on human health; they are endocrine disrupters that affect how hormones in the body work. Some sought to ban the use of phthalates as a PVC softener in such products, but the problem was that the medical industry said, “If we cannot use those plastics, the devices that we will have to use will not be as good for operations”—those devices include complex catheters that are inserted during more complex operations. That was an area in which we needed to look at the risks and benefits in the round, rather than issuing a ban based on some risk that might have been unquantifiable, and certainly was not scientifically proven.

The most recent case that shows us why, when we move forward with our own legislation, we need something better than the precautionary principle—something that is much more scientifically based and that can, if necessary, be taken to judicial review and proved one way or another—is the prevention of the introduction of genetically modified crops across the European Union. Many farmers and enlightened environmentalists would have liked such crops to be introduced, to reduce our reliance on pesticides and fertilisers and to make food more nutritious and safer. That is how those crops are used around the world, but we cannot do so in the UK. The precautionary principle has been used to block such technologies, and that was a bad use of that principle.

Rather than accepting amendment 75, we need—now that we can, as we have heard, make our own legislation—something that does the same thing as the precautionary principle but in a more effective way, based on science and not, as is sadly often the case, on prejudice and misinformation.