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Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, in the light of the Minister's earlier comment about labouring-- I mean "labelling"; indeed, I am not sure whether "labouring" is a word much known on the Benches opposite at the moment--does the noble Baroness believe that it is realistic to require food processors and producers to segregate genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops? If so, what advice has the Government been given to make them believe that it is realistic to make such a requirement in relation to, for example, soya beans?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as I said earlier, food labelling is important so that people can be well aware of exactly what they are buying. As the noble Baroness pointed out, it is important that we recognise that large percentages of crops in America come from genetically modified seed. It is therefore difficult to ensure that something is completely free of genetically modified material. In those circumstances, we must ensure that the labelling reflects that position. During our presidency of the European Union we shall be looking at ways to improve European directives on the issue. Our proposals are likely to include a requirement for mandatory monitoring and labelling, and increased transparency, for consumers.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that those genetically modified products which are being imported at the moment are completely harmless?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, that is certainly the scientific advice on which the consents for importation were based.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, can the Minister give any indication of the experiences in America with genetically modified foods, since presumably they are consuming the very stuff that they send to us?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I have asked myself the same question and, as I understand it, there have

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been no adverse consequences to lead the Americans to retreat from the course they have taken in developing such products for growth and for use in food production. Indeed, some of the evidence from the experience in America fed into the decisions taken by the European Union on the issue.

"Marchioness" Sinking: Public Inquiry Proposal

2.50 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why there has not been an independent public inquiry into the "Marchioness"/"Bowbelle" disaster, contrary to the undertaking given by the Deputy Prime Minister in August 1991, when in opposition.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Baroness said on the previous Question that we were not labouring on this side of the House. We are reviewing the case for ordering a public inquiry into the disaster very carefully. Under the terms of the merchant shipping Acts we have to justify the case for a formal investigation on the grounds that there is new and important evidence which calls into question the conclusions of previous investigations. In addition we are considering the suggestion of the Marchioness Action Group that a wider public inquiry should be held to look at all aspects of the incident, including procedures at inquests and criminal prosecutions.

Lord Spens: My Lords, this is a bit of a nonsense, is it not? On the one hand, there is an unconditional, unequivocal undertaking and on the other hand a number of hurdles keep being put up in front of the Marchioness Action Group. Is the Minister aware that the latest request from the Department of Transport is that witnesses who have already given copious witness statements should come along and be interviewed personally by departmental officials? Is she aware that the witnesses are not prepared to do that because they are concerned about their jobs and what the officials will do to their witness statements? Can the Government provide an unequivocal response that they will hold an inquiry in accordance with their original undertaking?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I believe that those who look at the position carefully will recognise that it has changed considerably from 1991 when that particular statement was made. Since the undertaking several important developments have taken place. In December 1991 the Hayes Inquiry into river safety was commissioned. Its report was published in 1992. Twenty-two recommendations were made, all but one of which have been implemented. In 1994 the Court of Appeal ordered that inquests into the deaths of the victims should be remitted to a different coroner for a fresh decision. That happened. In April 1995 the jury returned its verdict of unlawful killing and further safety recommendations were made.

We are assessing very carefully the case for a public inquiry but it must be done on the basis of what we know now. It is important, given that fresh evidence

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must be shown, that witnesses come forward and give evidence that has not been considered previously. In trying to move the process forward we have agreed to meet the reasonable costs of the group's solicitors in helping to contact those witnesses and get statements. This is not a matter of unreasonable barriers being put up but of a proper assessment being made of whether a further investigation or inquiry would be in the public interest.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, in the aftermath of this tragic accident a number of suggestions were made that alcohol among the crew members was a contributory factor. Can my noble friend comment on why the regulations governing alcohol consumption among commercial vessel crews may be different from those governing air crews or road and rail drivers? Is there an argument for harmonisation across all modes of transport?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I said that 21 of the 22 Hayes recommendations had been acted upon. The 22nd recommendation related to alcohol abuse. That was also a matter to which the inquest jury referred. We intend to address the issue. There are already offences relating to drunkenness on the part of the master or member of the crew of a ship. Under existing by-laws to be drunk in charge of a ship or boat is an offence. PLA launch crews are equipped with breathalyser kits and are authorised to carry out breath tests under the current by-laws. However, the Government intend to issue a consultation document shortly on applying alcohol limits and post-accident testing to mariners.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that it is rather difficult for witnesses, who have already made substantial statements in places where they have been legally recorded and received, to be asked once again, many years after the event, to search their memories for an exact account of what happened, or what they think happened, on a particular day? I am not surprised that if that is to be done in a place without legal protection--the offices of a civil servant--certain witnesses may well feel some reluctance to do so, even if it can rationally be assumed that their evidence is better today than it was all those years ago. I believe that lawyers would have certain doubts about that. When does the Minister believe that her department will reach a conclusion on the matter?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, there is a difficulty here. Under the merchant shipping Acts we must be rigorous in our assessment of whether there are justifiable grounds for opening a formal investigation. To do that we must establish that new and important evidence has been submitted to justify the opening of a formal investigation and that there are still safety lessons to be learned and applied, or that there are grounds for suspecting that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. We shall put to the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents the evidence, when complete, for his advice as to whether it justifies reopening the MAIB's accident investigation. His recommendation will be considered

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by the Secretary of State before an announcement is made. I recognise what the noble Baroness says about the difficulties, but those difficulties are inherent in the length of time that this matter has taken. I believe that, to take forward the issue constructively and to make a proper assessment, witnesses should be encouraged to come forward and make their statements.

Beef on the Bone: Government Ban

2.56 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing I declare an interest as a partner in a farm with a minor involvement in beef production.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government why they consider that the public, having received a suitable health warning, can make their own decisions on the danger of smoking but, given an equivalent warning, cannot make their own decisions on the alleged dangers of eating beef on the bone.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount. He asks a very relevant question about that rather aggravating feature of modern life, which I believe can be called comparative risk assessment. It seems to dog decisions about everything--decisions about how to deal with freak weather, whether we take a forward position on the World Cup and about what we drink or eat.

On serious questions of public health, this Government and others before them have taken the view that where the consumption risks are well known, or where risky activity or a substance which is risky is obvious, individuals are able to choose whether to take that risk, for example whether or not to smoke. The link between nvCJD--a really terrible disease--and bone in beef is a new and potentially extremely dangerous threat. Consumers cannot tell whether a piece of meat may be infected and the infective agent is not destroyed either by being sterilised or in the cooking process. Less than one gram of infected meat may be a fatal risk if it is eaten. Taking account of the advice of the specialist advisory committee in this area, before Christmas the Chief Medical Officer took the view that this was an unacceptable risk beyond individual choice. The Government have accepted that advice and acted to protect public health.

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