Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, can the Minister assure us that notice is being taken of the clear, scientifically-based evidence which is beginning to emerge from organisations such as English Nature of the environmental implications of genetically modified crops? I declare an interest in that I chair English Nature. Can the Minister further assure us that the very real, scientifically-based evidence of the impact of genetically modified crops on the wider environment will also be clearly explained to the public?

Lord Donoughue: Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance. We share those concerns. We welcome the advice we have received from English Nature and others. No genetically modified crops are currently under commercial development. Field trials are taking place and we shall assess what they tell us. We are certainly conscious of the environmental implications of these developments, and we wish to be reassured on that issue before full-scale commercial development is allowed to take place.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of the problems he faces do not stem from the wickedness of the newspapers and scare stories but from the memories which many of us have of assurances on Thalidomide? We had assurances on Thalidomide, and we now see people walking around with little hands sticking out of their shoulders. There was the rather patronising attitude towards my noble friend Lady Mar when she began to suggest that there were problems with the use of organophosphates, which were regarded as total nonsense; and we have seen the pictures of Mr. Gummer ramming hamburgers down his child's

25 Feb 1999 : Column 1237

throat--no doubt on expert advice--to demonstrate that no danger at all arose of the transfer of mad cow disease. Does the Minister believe that, while it is important that we get the truth one cannot take for granted, given the experience of many cases over a period of years, everyone will accept expert advice without question, rather like the noble Lord who has taken up the cause of battering Greenpeace?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, it is true that we operate against the historical background of all of the episodes which the noble Lord described. Above all, the BSE experience is one which understandably has led the public to be very suspicious of developments in these fields and to be reluctant to accept reassurances from industry that benefits commercially or from scientists. Well, I must assure the noble Lord that Ministers come to this job with that background. It is why in this House I have always listened carefully to the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Ministers have children too. We are aware of the dangers but we can proceed only on the basis of rational evidence. The noble Lord referred to the newspapers. They are exploiting those genuine fears and are scaremongering, which is unhelpful to all.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether there is yet a statutory obligation on those who are selling food in the marketplace to indicate that there are genetically modified ingredients in the food they are selling? If that is not the case, would it not be logical for the public to be offered a choice?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the position on information is that we pressed for and secured in the European Union the new regulation of last Autumn which makes compulsory the labelling of genetically modified foods on sale. That still requires backing by regulation, which we expect to be introduced quite soon, having carried out consultation. We are also looking to extend it to catering establishments, including schools and day-care premises.

Territorial Army: Disaster Relief

3.22 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will support an enhanced role for the Territorial Army in rapid relief response to natural and man-made disasters.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, our Armed Forces play an important part in disaster relief in support of the appropriate civil agencies. The Territorial Army makes a significant contribution to this. Natural and man-made disasters always require a very rapid response. Reservists have civilian jobs and may be less readily available at short notice than regular personnel. In the

25 Feb 1999 : Column 1238

first instance, therefore, we tend to deploy regulars to help with emergencies. Where we can make use of the TA, we certainly do so.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that positive and encouraging reply which I totally endorse. Is he aware of a recent report published by the Fontmell Group entitled Overseas Disaster Relief: Nobody's Baby, which is critical of the Government's perceived lack of commitment to disaster relief and is also concerned about lack of co-ordination on the ground, which has caused loss of life and a waste of resources? Will he therefore consider sympathetically one of the recommendations in that report that the Territorial Army reserve forces may be used more effectively by utilising their very real expertise, commitment and eagerness to support NGOs at critical stages of disaster response?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness. Yes, I am aware of the report. In fact, I have a copy on the Dispatch Box in front of me. The Government accept several of its suggestions but not all of them. We certainly agree that there is a need for the response to emergencies to be better co-ordinated. We are making a good deal of progress in that direction. It is fair to say that, with the setting up of DfID, we had some initial problems. We are getting those out of the way. Co-ordination between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and DfID is now extremely good. The report referred to the Government's commitment to these matters. I think the whole House would wish to be aware that, whenever we deploy the West Indies guard ship, the personnel have special training in disaster relief before they go out. They go out with special supplies on board and they have a Royal Fleet Auxiliary equipped with special supplies in case there are catastrophes in that part of the world. At the moment, HMS "Westminster" is on humanitarian patrol off Sierra Leone.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as a former director of Oxfam and a continuing member of the Oxfam Association. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to support for NGOs. Can the Government assure the House that, in taking forward this interesting idea, if it is to be taken forward, either with regulars or territorials, it is most important to do so in close consultation with those NGOs that have been bearing the brunt of the immediate front-line response to disasters of this kind; and, if I am allowed to say so, often doing it very well?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I would certainly endorse what my noble friend said about the role of NGOs and their invaluable contribution in these situations. Of course Her Majesty's Government would be happy to discuss these matters with them. But I do not want to raise any hopes that the Government are thinking of setting up a special disaster relief organisation within the Armed Forces with that exclusive responsibility.

25 Feb 1999 : Column 1239

There are all kinds of problems, as I am sure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord understand, that stand in the way of that suggestion.

Lord Renton: My Lords, bearing in mind that early last year the Government declared an intention to reduce the size of the Territorial Army but made it clear last night that they were not going to do so, can the noble Lord give your Lordships specific figures as to what the Government envisage will be the size of the Territorial Army in the few months ahead?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, it would be rather difficult for me to give the noble Lord precise figures for the few months ahead. We started off with a nominal strength of about 60,000, which was never met. If the noble Lord has studied the several debates we have had on the subject, he will recall that we based our study on operational requirements which gave a figure of 25,000 for the Territorial Army; and as a result of a series of ministerial decisions we increased that to the order of 41,000.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, before one considers an enhanced role for the Territorial Army, or for that matter for the Regular Army, it is necessary to review very carefully our training facilities within the United Kingdom. Does the noble Lord agree that those facilities are under pressure at the moment due to certain maldisposals of Army land? Will he take steps to ensure that the training facilities in this country as well as in Canada, because we are now going that far, are adequate to perform these duties?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to say that we train in Canada. In fact, various elements of Her Majesty's forces have for many years trained from time to time in areas far more remote from this country than Canada. I am not quite sure what the noble Lord is alluding to in respect of the disposal of Ministry of Defence land. If he would write to me about any case he has in mind, I should be happy to try to respond to him.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, would my noble friend agree with those NGOs which say that, repeatedly, what has been absent is a unit at the site of the emergency to co-ordinate the activities going on there, unless, they say, the French happen to be present? Does my noble friend agree that that could be achieved quite simply with a single battalion headquarters?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page