Clause 18 - Precision breeding register

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 5th July 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:45 pm, 5th July 2022

I beg to move amendment 17, in Clause 18, page 13, line 16, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

With this it will be convenient to consider clause stand part.

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

As I made clear on Second Reading, it is absolutely clear that consumers want information about what they are eating and where it has come from. Excellent research by the Food Standards Agency has found that most consumers think it is appropriate to regulate gene edited foods differently from genetically modified foods, but that they want transparent labelling, reassurance about the thoroughness of regulation and safety assessments, and consideration of animal welfare impacts. I suspect that we will talk more about that as we proceed with our consideration of the Bill. We have already discussed the animal welfare impacts, but clause 18 includes some important points on this front.

The clause will establish a publicly available register of precision bred organisms, which we welcome, and lays out the sort of information that the register might include, ranging from release notices to information provided by the welfare advisory body. However, the clause also states that the Secretary of State can disapply those requirements in the interests of commercial confidentiality, requiring only disclosure of the name of the notifier and a general description of the organism. Something tells me that quite of lot of applications will cite commercial confidentiality. Given the importance of transparent information to consumers, and the lack of any explicit labelling requirements in the Bill as it stands, the very least we need is a strong and publicly accessible register.

The importance of nutritional and allergen information was raised several times in our evidence sessions. Despite the Government giving a reassurance on nutritional labelling, these promises are not made in the Bill, so far as we can see, so the register is the only public source of information that is absolutely guaranteed within it. If a plant or animal has been gene edited so that its nutritional content differs from its natural content—we have talked repeatedly about tomatoes with high levels of vitamin D, for example—consumers might need to know about that. My constituent with a vitamin D allergy will need to know if she can no longer buy certain tomatoes. I pursued that with one or two witnesses in evidence, and we will come back to it.

Given that the register might be the only mechanism by which people can find that out, it is important that we consider more closely what it will contain and, in particular, how the commercial confidentiality provisions will work. If every application is subject to commercial confidentiality, the register really will not achieve the purpose that the Government have set out. However, as I tried to pursue with one or two witnesses, when we look at the impact assessment, we see that the purpose of the register is not so much to inform the public as to check whether more registrations are coming forward—in other words, to see whether the deregulatory intent behind the Bill has had an effect. We have not discussed that until now, but it seems rather different from what most of us understand the purpose of the register to be. There are issues with the register that we think will need to be revisited when it is introduced in secondary legislation. I suspect that the Minister will not agree and that the Committee will have to vote on this, but I will listen to her comments with interest.

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

I will not disappoint the hon. Gentleman, because I do not agree. The amendment is not needed, because in the context of clause 18 it would not be meaningful. This power does not warrant a change in policy, as all key substantive requirements in respect of the register are set out in the Bill, so it is appropriate for the regulations to be subject to the negative procedure.

However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find a little more light when I speak on clause stand part. In line with our commitment to transparency, clause 18 imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to maintain a new public register, which the hon. Gentleman welcomed in his comments. The register will include information on precision bred organisms that have been notified for release into the environment for research and development, as well as for marketing purposes. As we have discussed during the course of the day, those will have passed other frameworks in order to get to that point.

The register will contain information provided in notifications as well as further information, such as reports from the advisory committee and the welfare advisory body, enforcement notices and other information relating to precision bred organisms set out in this clause and prescribed in regulations. The register will provide transparency and assure the public that the Government have oversight of plants and animals developed using such techniques. The register will be kept electronically in a free and accessible form on gov.uk.

The hon. Gentleman made a specific point about food, which we have touched on—Professor May’s evidence was good. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the FSA has sent further information overnight. The product in the example that he gave would be subject to the FSA’s procedure before the it arrived on the market, so it could be labelled to outline the health benefits for 2.5 billion people across the globe, while alerting constituents such as his, who might wish to steer away from it. On the basis that we are offering transparency, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment, and I commend the clause to the Committee.

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

Once again, I hear the Minister’s point, and again, the additional information from the Food Standards Agency, which I suspect we will look at more closely as we proceed, is helpful. It occasionally feels as if I am in a very large room with the lights off, holding a very small torch, and every now and then, I turn it on and can gradually discern part of the structure emerging. I have a feeling that the Minister has had the lights on the whole time. That is the problem: we are beginning, bit by bit, to get a sense of how the measures might work, but if we are trying to persuade the wider world about how the system will work, it would be better to turn the lights on at the beginning.

I still think there is some difficulty. Yes, we welcome the register, but I notice that the Minister did not address commercial confidentiality. I appreciate that that is not simple, but there is a danger that the register ends up being very limited indeed, and that would be disappointing. I would much rather have the opportunity to look at the matter again later as the secondary legislation comes through, because it is too important to go through without further consideration. On that basis, I will divide the Committee on the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 10 Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill — Clause 18 - Precision breeding register

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.