Clause 17 - Restrictions on importation and acquisition of precision bred organisms in England

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 5th July 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:30 pm, 5th July 2022

I beg to move amendment 19, in clause 17, page 11, line 34, leave out “may” and insert “must”.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 16, in clause 17, page 12, line 22, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

This part of the Bill deals with risk assessments and the restriction of importation and acquisition of precision bred organisms in England. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. Given our debate on the very concept of the category and the fact that there are other, similar categories, some interesting questions are raised about who will determine it and how it will work with the other categories established in other jurisdictions. In itself, that is an interesting question.

For the purpose of the amendments, we note that the clause states that regulations “may” make provision to require a person to carry out environmental risk assessments. This is for veterans of the Environment Bill discussions, who will know that we had many “may” or “must” amendments, and long discussion as to whether that was reasonable. The clause, quite reasonably, gives the Government discretion on whether regulations happen at all, sooner or later. I understand why Government might want that discretion, but it poses the question why the provision is here and, if it is important, why it is not being implemented quickly. I will seek the Minister’s guidance on thinking behind it.

We can see why that matters, so one of our amendments is to turn “may” into “must”, and the other—guess what—is on the issue of the negative or the affirmative procedure. We think that is important too. It raises all the questions of what we think is reasonable for people here to do and for people elsewhere to do, and the relationship between them, while not putting our own people at a disadvantage. It is familiar ground in some ways for the wider arguments. We want to see it settled more precisely in the Bill and to have the opportunity to consider it again when the Government feel the time is right to bring a provision forward. I will listen closely to the Minister’s observations.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I seek clarification from the Minister on a point arising from the clause. It is about whether the passing of the Bill will open the UK to gene edited organisms from other countries that have adopted such practices to a greater extent than has been the case up to now or, indeed, to the extent that there has been a case up to now. I am interested to hear the Minister.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge for introducing amendment 19, although he will not be surprised to hear that I do not think it is necessary. The clause contains the power to maintain the current risk assessment requirements that apply in relation to precision bred plants and animals that are imported or acquired for use in contained-use conditions, such as laboratories, glasshouses and animal-rearing facilities. The amendment is not needed because we want to maintain the proportionate science-based approach to the regulation that has enabled the UK’s research community to carry out world-class science under contained-use conditions, such as in laboratories.

The Government have been clear that we do not intend to make changes to the existing substantive policy position in relation to the contained-use regime, because it is agreed to be fine. The power in the clause allows the existing position to be maintained. The Secretary of State intends to make use of the power for this purpose; there is no need to require him to do so. Risk assessments are essential, and we want to make sure that we cover all the bases and maintain the status quo, rather than introduce a new arrangement.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith asked about imports. If our regulatory environment is more proportionate, I expect that to encourage other scientists to base their research here and work with our scientists. The clause is about maintaining the status quo and not making changes to the policy on the contained-use regime.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is the Minister saying that the clause relates only to organisms produced through scientific research, not to commercial production?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Through scientific research.

In amendment 16, the hon. Member for Cambridge proposes to provide for further parliamentary scrutiny of the provisions on environmental risk assessments that may be required before importing a precision bred organisation into England, or acquiring a precision bred organism that is in England. The amendment is not needed because, in the case of clause 17, the affirmative procedure would not be meaningful. I want to reassure all hon. Members that this power does not signal a change in policy, but we think it appropriate to set out the relevant obligations in regulations. The corresponding provision in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 allows for the details of risk assessment to be set out in regulations, together with the exemption provisions. The regulations will be concerned primarily with the details of the nature of the risk assessment to be carried out, which makes them appropriate to be subject to the negative procedure. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendments.

On whether clause 17 should stand part of the Bill, I remind the Committee of the evidence we heard last week that precision bred plants and animals do not present a greater risk to human health or the environment than their conventional counterparts. As such, the Government do not intend to introduce additional risk assessment requirements for organisms of this type that are imported or acquired when they are released into the environment. Our approach is to maintain the proportionate science-based approach to regulation that has enable the UK’s research community to carry out world-leading science under contained-use conditions, such as in laboratories. I think we all agree that we are exceptionally lucky to have such individuals across the UK. The powers in the clause will enable the Government to make regulations to maintain the risk assessment requirements that currently apply to precision bred organisms imported or acquired for contained use under the genetically modified organism legislation, from which they will be removed.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

How interesting. Once again, it seems to me that the Minister’s explanation says a lot more than is in the Bill. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith raised a good point. As I read the clause, it does not seem to me to say what the Minister has just explained.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Having looked at the clause again, I am struggling to see where it specifies that it applies only to the importation of organisms that will be used in scientific research, or are the products of scientific research, and purely that and not for commercial use.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely. I suspect that the answer will probably come later in secondary legislation, which will clarify the matter. That is the ongoing problem that we have, because it is very hard to discern the answers from the Bill. There seems to be a logical problem in saying that the current situation will continue when we are introducing the notion of a precision bred organism. We can hardly be carrying forward the current framework when we are introducing something new. I understand the intention, as explained by the Minister, but it seems a long way from how the Bill is drafted. I still think that creates a logical problem in terms of who defines a precision bred organism from another jurisdiction, given that those other jurisdictions do not recognise the term and use a different one.

A whole series of problems are wrapped up in the Bill, which I suppose the Government can solve simply by not enacting them. I suppose that that is the force of the “may”, rather than “must”. I struggle a little with this when we have such limited information to go on. We have a sense that the issue is quite important given that we are bound by an international treaty—I can hardly finish the sentence without making the obvious point—that we signed, the Cartagena protocol. There will be issues of interpretation about the protocol when we issue a new category. If we are trying to work out how that will apply to goods as well as to the more limited category to which the Minister referred, we will need a lot more detail to ensure that any of it will work. On that basis, I suspect that we will vote on the amendment, although I will switch the amendments round. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 19 and I will press amendment 16.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed:16, in Clause 17, page 12, line 22, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”—(Daniel Zeichner.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 9 Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill — Clause 17 - Restrictions on importation and acquisition of precision bred organisms in England

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.