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Lord Phillips of Ellesmere: My Lords, some of your Lordships will know that by training I am a scientist. Therefore it will come as no surprise that I propose to devote my maiden speech largely to the subject of science and how it affects or may affect the rural economy. I was trained as a physicist during the exigencies of war. That was so that I might go and service His Majesty's radar equipment. But I had the good fortune later to join the band of physicists who played a part in the development of molecular biology, a subject which has so much enlarged our understanding of how living creatures are organised and how they function in terms of the chemical substances, the molecules, from which they are composed.
Your Lordships may also have noticed from my choice of title that I owe some loyalty to Ellesmere, which is the small country town in Shropshire where I was born and grew up. My recollection of those days and my continuing connection with Ellesmere have made me deeply aware of the dramatic changes with which our rural and agricultural economies have had to cope over the past years. Some of those changes have
In case noble Lords may think that I paint too idyllic a picture of the good old days, I must also recall the natural shocks to which the farming community was subject; for example, the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease which ravaged our herds of cattle from time to time. One of the latest and most serious of those outbreaks originated in north-west Shropshire. I well remember the devastation that it caused. It is therefore a great satisfaction to me that, in my last days in Oxford as a working scientist, some of my colleagues, led by Dr. David Stuart, worked out in complete detail the three-dimensional structure of the foot and mouth disease virusthat is to say, the way in which the atoms are arranged in that substanceopening the door to new ways of devising remedies or combating the incidence of that disease.
I also remember that in my schooldays my alarm clock was the sound of milk lorries on their way from the local dairywe called it the milk factoryto collect the milk from surrounding farms, which was then pasteurised and sent on to London by rail tanker. At least in Ellesmere that is now all in the past. As your Lordships know, there are now restrictions on the production of milk. Furthermore, the collection of the milk that is produced in the Ellesmere area has been transferred elsewhere, partly, I understand, in response to the vagaries of European Community funding.
But the farming community is very adaptable. This is where my involvement in science comes in. For many years I have been concerned with watching over the activities of the research councils and in advising the Government on the resources that are needed and how they should be deployed. That experience brought me closely into contact with various Members of your Lordships' House: the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, during their distinguished terms as chairman of the Medical Research Council; and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne (whom I am glad to see in the Chamber and to whose speech I look forward) during his far-sighted period as chairman of the Agriculture and Food Research Council.
My period as chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, which noble Lords may remember was abolished at the end of last year, included many exciting developments in science and its application; but none more dramatic than the development of molecular biology and its application to medicine and to agriculture. Your Lordships will remember, for example, the sheep named Tracy which was bred to produce in her milk the important anti-haemophilia drug, Factor IX. Tracy is now the senior member of a small flock of sheep, whose members produce, among other things, alpha antitrypsin, which has great promise
At the same time there have been great advances in plant breeding and in plant biotechnology. The advances in conventional plant breeding that have greatly increased grain crops around the worldthe so-called "green revolution"will be well-known to your Lordships. What may be a little less familiar is the remarkably rapid progress that is being made in the use of plant biotechnology to introduce new properties in the crops we grow and, indeed, to develop new crops.
Those noble Lords who were fortunate enough to attend the meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee last Monday will have heard excellent accounts of those developments and their potential environmental hazards by Brian Heap, the director of the Babraham Research Institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and John Krebs, the director general of the Natural Environment Research Council. My brief summary draws heavily on what they had to say.
Those developments involve the introduction of new or foreign genes into existing plants to produce so-called "transgenic" plants. Those plants may have increased resistance to pests and to diseases of various kinds. Or they may produce new, high value products that could be previously produced only by complex chemical processes. For example, scientists in the United States recently produced a potato that is resistant to the Colorado beetle and developments are in progress, both here and in other countries, that will allow the production of biodegradable plastics in potatoes; of antibodies (normally thought of as an animal product) in potatoes; and of modified fatty acids in rape.
In the USA in 1992, for example, there were 161 permits for field trials on transgenic plants on some 700 sites as compared with only five in 1987. Clearly rapid progress is being made and I am happy to say that scientists in the UK are in the forefront of this branch of science. Your Lordships may therefore look forward in the future to looking out on crops producing antibiotics and other fine chemicals in a developing revolution that may again transform the agricultural industry and the rural economy.
But your Lordships will be aware that I am painting a glowing picture of the prospects. As with all scientific developments, there is also a potential downside. Many people are deeply concerned about our new-found ability to interfere with nature and there are undoubtedly hazards to be guarded against as well as affronts to sincerely held beliefs. Our research councilsthe Natural Environment Research Council, the BBSRC, the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Councilare actively concerned with those issues.
Your Lordships are well aware of the extent to which those developments are hedged about with regulations, both national and international. I shall not go into that any further except to say how widely appreciated was the report on this subject by the Select Committee on Science and Technology chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon. I am sure that your Lordships
That brings me finally to the vital question of public understanding of these developments. Happily we are now moving away from an unfortunate period in which scientists complained that, "If only the public understood what we are trying to do, opposition would vanish". Of course, public understanding of science is important, and I am sure we all hope that our education system will now settle down to providing the understanding of these and other matters that well-informed citizens need.
But scientists' understanding of the public is also important and it is a pleasure to note that increased efforts are being made on that front. Just a few weeks ago a consensus conference was held at the Science Museum, organised by John Durant, at which 16 lay people made an intensive effort to understand what is going on in plant biotechnology and produced recommendations on the measures that would allay their and other people's concerns. That meeting was financed and organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Councilthe successor body to the Agriculture and Food Research Counciland I am sure that we shall see increased efforts of that kind over coming years. Indeed, only this morning in Oxford, under the auspices of the Natural Environment Research Council, there was a public meeting to discuss the recent field trials of a virus engineered to combat the depredations of the cabbage-white butterfly caterpillar.
I am sure your Lordships will agree that these efforts are necessary and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the important part that your Lordships have played in promoting scientific research and its effective control and dissemination over the years. I hope that the House shares with me the hope that present advances will indeed greatly benefit our rural economy.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, it is an immense privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere, in his maiden speech and, on behalf of the House, to congratulate him on what was a most eloquent contribution. If any of us had fears that anyone who was an expert on molecular biology would be speaking of matters beyond our comprehension, we were quickly and almost literally brought down to earth. We were shown that this was a subject of profound importance and interest for anyone concerned with agriculture, with marine life and so much else besides.
Perhaps I may add that it is a particular privilege to follow the noble Lord because he was educated at University College, Cardiff, of whose successor institution I have the privilege of being president. We very much look forward to many more contributions from him in this House. Education may be taking place outside the House but it will certainly be taking place here as well. Many of us will emerge with a much greater knowledge of these affairs than we had before.
It seems to me that some of the initial criticisms that have been made of the proposed legislation are misdirected and unfair. Certainly, they have been overstated. However, I have to say that that is partly the Government's fault. If they had responded sooner to some of the advice given to them about sensitive issues, they might have been able to give more positive answers to legitimate questions than they provided initially. Furthermore, if one puts it about that the present chairman of the NRA is not to be considered as a prospective chairman of the new organisation because he has been too robust and independent and "has gone native on the environment", it is not surprising that environmental bodies gain the impression that the Government's intention is to create an organisation that is less robust and independent. It is also unfair to my noble friend Lord De Ramsey, whose appointment I warmly welcome. I am sure that he and his colleagues will do a first-rate job once the team has been strengthened, as I think it must be, with one or two people of the right experience of the water environment, and once it has got used to the peculiar way in which the Government sometimes conduct their business nowadays.
The Secretary of State is a friend and former colleague. I was saddened and puzzled that, until he telephoned me two hours before the announcement of my noble friend's appointment, the future of the NRA and its employees and its wealth of knowledge and experience appeared to be so low on his agenda that he had not met or spoken to me since he dined as my guest on 20th June. I might perhaps have been forgiven for having begun to reach the conclusion that the advice and expertise of the NRA board, its admirable staff and excellent advisory committees, for whom as chairman I speak, were not of much interest. Yet, when I met the Secretary of State earlier today he responded encouragingly and positively to the points that I put to him. He could not have been in a more helpful mood. He is to attend a meeting of the NRA board for the first time next February. I am afraid he will find that there are fences that need to be mended; and that, as a consequence of his handling of this immensely
The central point I make this afternoon is to suggest that when passing legislation of this kind we sometimes delude ourselves into imagining that what matters more than anything else is the Bill and the precise wording of its clauses. Of course, the Bill is important and it is foolish to argue that precision in drafting is not of some significance. But what people have to realise when organisations like the NRA or the proposed environment agency are set up is that there is a factor at least as important as the legislation itself. I refer to the role that is likely to be performed by the Government in implementing the Bill.
To begin with, the fact that one puts something into a Bill does not necessarily mean that it will be done. When the Government introduced the Water Act they indicated that the system of statutory water quality objectives and the methods that would be established to bring those into effect would be the keystones of the regulatory arrangements. More than five-and-a-half years later we have no statutory water quality objectives.
We live in a parliamentary democracy, and it is right and reasonable that responsibility for the way in which quangos operate and implement their powers should rest with Ministers who are answerable to Parliament. But that means that Ministers and their departments will have a huge influence on the ability of the agency to carry out its functions. To give an example, provision was made in the Water Act for appeals against revised discharge consent conditions to be made to the Secretary of State. Over the next few years, approaching 2,000 appeals were made against revised consent conditions proposed by the NRA. Not one of those was ever settled by the department, who finally completed the drafting and consultation on a set of rules which meant that the whole lot would be passed back to the NRA. One company, Yorkshire Water, appealed against almost all the tightened consent conditions.
I am sure that the department would argue, quite correctly, that the issues were important and complex and that there was a need to develop a clear and consistent policy. However, the fact that the process has taken so long and left individual disputes unresolved means that over quite a long period environmental protection has been less effective than it should have been.
In citing examples in this way, I am uncomfortably aware that I may be doing an injustice to those in the department who have had to grapple with some formidable problems. Mine may of course be a partial view. The last thing that I wish to do is to be unfair to conscientious civil servants. I seek to make the point that the new agency will be able to carry out its formidable responsibilities in an effective and timely way only if the appropriate divisions of the Department of the Environment are adequately staffed and deal promptly with the considerable number of policy decisions that will remain to be taken within government. Almost everything that the agency doesits regulatory arrangements, charging schemes,
I cannot help noting that, while time and again it says that the agency is to act on the advice or with the guidance of Ministers, there is not a single reference to the possibility that perhaps it is a good idea occasionally for Ministers to listen to the advice of the agency. It takes two to tango. If one has a department which cannot dance or insists on treading on the toes of the agency, one will have difficulties. In the coming months what Parliament will be doing is establishing a partnership, and everything that follows will depend on whether or not that partnership works. Parliament would do well if it spent as much time probing the intentions of government about their general approach to these issues as to the detailed examination of clauses. That is particularly important at a moment in history when one knows that deregulation is the flavour of the month. One senses that there are a good many in government, and indeed outside, who are quite anxious that the scope of the agency should be limited.
Much will depend on the approach of the board and employees of the agency itself. There is great potential in the fact that the agency will be in a position to publish a state of the environment report. I hope that the Bill will provide that it is a requirement that the agency should do so. That will represent a powerful weapon, as is the ability of the agencyindeed, I hope it will be the determination of the agencyto put all the facts, monitoring results and its concerns openly on the table. Make no mistake about it. The ability of the agency to perform will depend on its ability to move the Government to work with it effectively, not just by internal discussion but by the manner in which it presents its arguments out in the open. I do not believe that there is any other way that that can be done.
I say this because I have significant doubts about the present intentions and determination of the Government on some issues. At times they look rather like a relative of the push-me-pull-you. That is a little unfair to that lovely beast, who, you will remember, can look both ways and always be at least half awake. A short time ago under one Secretary of State the DoE sought to replace regulation with economic instruments. There are very powerful arguments for the use of economic instruments, at the very least as tools to reinforce command and control regulation. I believe that the Government made the mistake of seeking to put together a comprehensive system to replace regulation instead of more measured and moderate steps to supplement it. Having failed in the attempt, they now, regrettably, seem to have abandoned it altogether.
There are three issues which I think will attract particular attention when the Bill comes before the House. There is the crucial requirement that the agency should have a duty to produce an environmental report. There has been concern about the draft clauses on conservation. Discussions between the NRA's officials
The other matter that has stirred up controversy is the clause about cost benefits. I have no difficulty at all with the idea that the agency should be subject to a cost benefit requirement. What I do find difficulty with is the possibility that there may be no mechanism for actually dealing with that requirement. We need to have answers to some pretty important questions about whether the clause is going to be strictly applied to almost every single minor move made by the agency, or whether it is going to be broader brush than that. But, however broad the brush, the agency must have adequate access to information from third parties. It must have the means to arrive at broadly acceptable estimates of costs and benefits. If it fails to do so, it seems likely that its decisions and actions will be challenged, by appeal either to the Secretary of State or to the courts.
That takes me back to statutory quality objectives, because the arrangements so sensibly designed by the Government in 1989 would enable proposed improvements to be debated, cost estimates rigorously tested, and the public to be informed and consulted about options, costs and benefits. There may be other ways in which the environmental regulator can discover the costs of regulatory proposals before the regulations are put in place and can conduct a sensible dialogue with all those affected, but nobody has yet told me about them or explained what is wrong with the schemes we already have and which the Government have held in abeyance now for more than five and a half years. Fortunately, I think that the Government are beginning to get the message, and I sense that perhaps we shall see proposals quite soon that will take us forward.
Well, where do we go from here? The NRA in the last 18 months or so of its life will continue to be as independent, as robust, and as open as it has always been, and I believe that the new agency must follow that path as well. I am confident that any agency that wishes to be effective will reach the conclusion that this is the only sensible way forward. Therefore, to those who are worried about the future and doubt the intentions of the Government, I finish on an optimistic note. Though he sometimes makes it rather difficult for us to do so, I really do believe that the Secretary of State is genuinely concerned about the environment and wants a strong agency. Knowing the huge input to the new agency that will come from the NRA and its workforce, we do not need to be too anxious, because I am confident that the lessons that the NRA has learnt and put into practice will be absorbed by its successors and that even if
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