Genetically Modified Organisms

Question Time — Scottish executive – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 1st June 2000.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:30 pm, 1st June 2000

To ask the Scottish Executive when it was first informed that seed contaminated with GM seed had been sold to Scottish farmers. (S1O-1823)

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food informed the Scottish Executive in a letter dated 15 May that seed contaminated with GM seed had been sown throughout the UK. The sequence of events from the Scottish Executive's perspective was that on 5 May an official in my department was made aware, in the margins of a meeting in London, of an unspecific contamination case. Our further inquiries about the precise nature of the problem elicited the letter of 15 May.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

That answer makes the position worse than we thought rather than better. Does the minister know how many acres in Scotland were planted with those seeds after MAFF knew about the matter on 17 April? What is the sense of individual farmers' being asked to sue a multinational such as Advanta? Is it not incumbent on the Administration to compensate farmers for their losses after 17 April, when MAFF knew? Should MAFF not foot that bill, and then seek to recover the costs from Advanta?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I regret that I still do not have the full details of the number of acres that were sown with contaminated crop. Through work within our department, through co-operation with the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and following a meeting with Advanta in London this morning at which the Scottish Executive was represented by a senior official, I am pleased to say that we are now getting co-operation in going through the network of distributors to establish which farms are affected and, in particular, which ones have been distributed contaminated seed as opposed to the ones that have simply purchased it.

There are two issues in relation to compensation. I hope that Alasdair Morgan will accept that even although other parties might interfere in a fault, in law that fault still rests with the principal and in this case the principal is, without doubt, Advanta. I met with the National Farmers Union of Scotland on Monday. It made it very clear that it is not prepared to hang about on this but it is nevertheless happy for us to ensure that the responsibility that Advanta has is made very clear to Advanta.

At the meeting this morning with Advanta that I mentioned we made it very clear that it should recognises the damage it is doing to its reputation and that it should take action. I hope that we will have a few days in which to press that claim before looking at the wider picture.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

What was Advanta's response? Did it acknowledge its responsibility and will it pay compensation to the farmers who should be ploughing the crops up?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I do not wish not to respond to that question. I hope all members will realise that I say very sincerely that the purpose of our attending that meeting was to make Advanta absolutely aware of its responsibility and the need for an early settlement. I do not wish to go beyond that, except to say that the official present at the meeting, with whom I spoke just before entering this chamber, regarded the meeting as constructive. It is important to conduct such a very important discussion for Scottish farmers, at least for the next few days, in some degree of—

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

In view of the fact that the French and Swedish Governments have already asked their farmers to plough such crops in, will the Executive guarantee interim compensation, to allow farmers immediately to plough up the GM-contaminated crops without fear of financial loss, before they flower and further pollute the countryside? Will it make such financial assistance and guidance available in advance of the imminent flowering of the GM-contaminated, spring-sown oil-seed rape plants, and will such guidance advise farmers how to prevent the spread of contamination from wind-blown GM pollen and subsequently from fresh GM seed drop? What representations will it make to ensure that the compensation claims raised with Advanta are processed soon?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

If Mr Harper had been listening to my answer to Mr Morgan, he would have known that I was pressing Advanta to settle quickly.

On the danger of the crops currently growing, Mr Harper is right: we have a very short window of opportunity. About 15 June is the date we have to meet, given the seed-sowing pattern.

On interim compensation, I can only emphasise that we have an agreement with the NFUS that we establish absolutely that Advanta is primarily responsible. I will not make any statement that gives any impression to Advanta that I am about to step into its shoes. That is not sensible in terms of achieving an answer to the final part of Mr Harper's question, ensuring that Advanta should settle quickly. If I were to think I would step into Advanta's shoes, that would be a recipe for prolonging the process unnecessarily and against farmers' interests.

On guidance and advice, that was the substance of the meeting that was held with the NFUS on Monday: that we establish the farmers' rights under the arable payments scheme, which we are pursuing diligently with the European Commission, and that we must understand and explain what we are doing and particularly what happens if some crops germinate.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

In the light of the obvious breakdown in communications between MAFF and the Scottish Executive, what measures are being put in place to ensure that a similar debacle does not happen again?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I am pleased to say that I have received a full personal apology from Mr Nicholas Brown, the minister in charge. We both recognise that this matter goes quite deep in terms of the organisations that were first handling it. We have agreed to have an early meeting, with our officials, to explore carefully exactly how this matter was mishandled and how there came to be such a gap. We are both quite clear at our own levels that this simply cannot happen again. Those are the reasonable steps that I can take at this time.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Might it be helpful if the National Farmers Union took a test case to determine liability in this matter?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

What I was attempting to do in the discussions that we held with Advanta today, and in the discussions that I would want to prosecute with Advanta, is to persuade Advanta that it ought to settle without anyone having recourse to go to court. I cannot speculate that it would necessarily do that, but that persuasion is my preferred position, rather than getting into protracted litigation, which could take a very long time and which would involve such questions of test cases. I am reluctant to go much further. We have had an opening with Advanta. We intend to prosecute that with all the vigour we have.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Can the minister give any more information about the on-going discussions at the European level? Can he tell us what the prevailing advice to farmers is about replanting on land that would involve digging up the contaminated seeds?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

On the first point, in relation to the European Union, following discussions with the National Farmers Union of Scotland, during which the clear practical problems about re-sowing in the Scottish growing season and about the type of land that is being used for the crop in question, were mentioned, the options open to Scottish farmers are not great. I think that it was technically possible for them to have sown turnip rape, but there are even problems with that. If any other stray pieces were to emerge from the existing crop, they might end up with a fresh crop with the same contamination problem as before.

The NFUS is withholding advice at the moment, and, in particular, is waiting to see whether we can secure a further derogation from Europe to allow farmers to dig up the crop—which would be my preferred position—but not in any way to suffer any loss of arable area payment compensation. Direct conversations between the Scottish Executive and Europe were held yesterday. We have had a very favourable response.

Following my discussion with Nick Brown this morning, we are making a formal application this afternoon to Franz Fischler to try to secure a separate text, which will avoid any doubt that farmers would be able to plough the crop in and still receive arable area payment compensation. I have not seen that text. I hope that we will get it some time next week. We will be having a meeting with the NFUS tomorrow to explain the progress being made, which could greatly assist farmers in Scotland.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Members will recognise that I have allowed this question to run on a long time because of its importance, but we must now try to speed up.