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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, what the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, calls "the good old days" were the good old days of home income plans which,

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in the absence of adequate financial regulation brought in by his government, caused great scandals. If the noble Lord had listened to Angela Browning in the House of Commons today in an Adjournment debate on the subject, he would know how strongly she and other Conservative MPs feel about how badly the matter was resolved when his party was in power. As to changes of names, he should recognise that there is a difference between increasing an existing mortgage and some of the equity plans which apply whether or not there is a mortgage.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, does the Minister accept that in principle there is no difference between home reversion plans—where, as he said, the Government are looking at options for creating a level playing field—and equity release and annuity schemes, which will definitely be regulated by the FSA from 2004? Given that under home reversion plans old people sell their homes outright, can we be assured that they will be treated in exactly the same way? Do the Government accept that, given the problems that pension funds now have, many old people will have to rely on their home for income in old age? Do the Government further accept that if that is not properly regulated, we risk another major mis-selling crisis, possibly on the scale of the pension mis-selling crisis of a few years ago?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I thought I had made it clear in my original Answer that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. It is an historical fact that because home reversion plans are sale and purchase arrangements rather than financial services, they are not included in the scope of the Financial Services and Markets Act, but that does not mean that there should be any less protection for people who opt for home reversion plans. That is why I made it clear that we are looking at options to create a level playing field. We have to look at whether there is consumer detriment and at what should be the appropriate level of regulation. I am not saying that it will be exactly the same as for home equity plans, but the principle behind what the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, said is entirely true.

Genetically Modified Organisms

3 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What arrangements they have put in place to involve the public in their proposed public debate on genetically modified organisms; and how they propose to evaluate the public's opinion at the conclusion of the debate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the public debate on GM issues is being managed by an independent steering board, which is drawing up proposals on the best way

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to involve the public. It has begun with a series of discussion workshops to identify the questions and concerns that the public have on GM. The steering board will submit a final report on the debate to the Government by the end of June. The Government will then consider the report very carefully.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, will he accept that it is far from satisfactory that we are half way through the timetable proposed by Mrs Beckett for public debate and the public have not been involved at all? Will the Minister re-consider his phrase "independent steering board"—when the group includes the head of communications at DEFRA, who is in my view far from independent? Lastly, given that this matter is of intense importance to public health and to the environment in Britain, do not the public have the right to a far greater input than is currently planned by the Government?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the steering board has already set up a number of public workshops, and more are to be set up in the coming two or three months. There will, therefore, be a substantial opportunity for members of the public and organisations interested in this subject to give their views. As to the independence of the board, the chair was designated and was asked to run matters by the Government, but he had complete independence in terms of choosing the other members of the board. The communications director is there in order to ensure adequate communications. That does not indicate that the board is a government-controlled body.

As to additional activity, the Government are currently considering requests for additional resources. I think that we shall look favourably on that, but we have yet to make a final decision as to whether this exercise needs more resources. What the board already has in the pipeline is adequate public consultation.

Lord Carter: My Lords, when the Government come to consider this subject, will they take account of the experience in America? Is my noble friend aware that a substantial proportion of food crops in America are genetically modified—a high proportion of the soya bean crop, for example, which is used in food? Is there any record of ill effects on human health, or have any agronomic or environmental problems arisen in America from the use of GM crops over a number of years?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, public consultation is only part of the exercise in which the Government are engaged. We are examining the whole range of GM matters, not simply crops. Scientific and economic assessments are taking place. In that context, we shall look at the experience in other countries. The experience in the United States is that a high proportion of both soya and maize is genetically modified. GM proposals that have been licensed in the United States have clearly passed safety tests; there is,

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therefore, no safety implication. On the issue of environmental damage, the jury is to some extent still out. That is the area being addressed by the current farm-scale trials in the UK, rather than the issue of human health. It is not yet clear what the balance will be in terms of the environmental impact.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the scale of the English countryside is so small, and its biodiversity is so great, that it requires far greater care than is needed, say, in the American prairies?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, clearly, agricultural methods, topography and size of operation are different. The same considerations are necessary in relation to public health and environmental damage. There are two issues: first, whether there is direct environmental damage; and, secondly, how far—if in general the European public want to have a choice between GM and non-GM—the growth of GM crops within Europe might contaminate non-GM crops. That is one of the issues that we are addressing.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that bodies with different points of view on GM organisms are properly funded, so that their views can be put forward? Or do the Government intend to fund only their own point of view?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government are funding the operation of the steering board to allow every point of view to come into play. We are funding neither pro-GM nor anti-GM groups, commercial or voluntary; we are allowing the debate to take place.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, following the point made by my noble friend Lord Carter, will the Minister confirm that in regard to GMOs not only have there been no reports of adverse health implications, but there is considerable evidence of the beneficial effect of GMOs in the production of medicines, and in particular of vaccines?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords. In the medical field there have been substantial developments which depend on GM technology, some of which have been put to use.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, perhaps I may return to the spirit of my noble friend's Question, which relates to public engagement. Is it not necessary for the Government to be a great deal more imaginative and to attempt to draw into this debate a much wider slice of the public? It is no good confining the debate to those who are already in the know. Surely we need to spend some money on producing the kind of materials that will reach out to a much greater part of the population if we are not to run into the usual argument that Parliament carries on its affairs over the heads of the public.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is exactly what this exercise is designed to do. We have produced materials

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to present the arguments and the facts in an understandable and attractive way. The workshops and the various proposals for further activities proposed by the steering board are not based on the parti pris companies and lobby groups on either side of the argument; they are based on a more random selection of members of the public.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, just what is a public workshop? How many are there, or will there be, in this context; and how often will they meet?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are currently nine public workshops and the steering board is about to begin a full roll-out of the programme. Roughly speaking, there might be 100 people at each workshop. But there are other activities besides the workshops and it is open to any individual or organisation to submit their views to the steering board and have them reflected in this process.


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