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The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the review of counterterrorism and security powers.
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the review of counterterrorism and security powers. As I have said to the House before, the first duty of Government is to protect the public-but that duty must never be used as a reason to ride roughshod over civil liberties. And that is what the last Government did on too many occasions. This Government are different. We have already introduced legislation to get rid of ID cards once and for all. We have already declared our intention to bring forward a freedom Bill later this year. Just last week, I announced interim restrictions on the use of stop and search powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Today, as promised in the coalition agreement, I am announcing an urgent review of counterterrorism and security powers. The review will consider six key powers. They are: control orders; Section 44 stop and search powers and the use of terrorism legislation in relation
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These are the most controversial and sensitive powers. In particular, the issue of pre-charge detention has been the subject of considerable debate in this House and tomorrow we will consider whether to renew the current detention limit for a further six months. This will provide us with sufficient time to look carefully at pre-charge detention in the review and to explore how we can reduce the period of detention below 28 days. The review will also help to inform what additional safeguards are needed in the proposed asset freezing Bill which the Treasury will introduce shortly.
The Government's work on the use of intercept as evidence in court and the modernisation of our interception capabilities will be done separately and will not form part of this review. The review will be conducted by the Home Office with the full involvement of the police, the security and intelligence agencies and other government departments including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I want the review to be conducted as openly and transparently as possible. I have asked Liberty to contribute to this review and it has said that it will be delighted to do so. I am keen to involve other civil liberty and community organisations. As with other reviews, I would urge anyone with an interest to submit their views to the Home Office.
To ensure independent oversight of the review, I have asked the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, now a Member of the other place, to make sure that the work is properly conducted, that all the relevant options have been considered and that the recommendations of the review are not only fair but seen to be fair. This role is distinct from the excellent work that is already being undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, in his statutory role as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. The proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile will be fully considered as part of the review and I know that he welcomes the additional independent perspective that Lord Macdonald will provide on these issues. Any legislative amendments as a result of that review will of course be subject to review by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.
I have ordered that the review should be completed as quickly as possible, because it is important that the police and the security and intelligence agencies are able to do their vital work with certainty and confidence. So I will report back to Parliament on the outcome of the review after the Summer Recess.
Before I finish, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. In correcting the mistakes of the previous Government, we are doing just that. We are not criticising or castigating members of the police or the security and intelligence services. They do their work with bravery, patriotism and a strong sense of duty-and I know the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to them.
The review will enable this Government to put right the failures of the last, and in so doing, restore the ancient civil liberties that should be synonymous with the name of our country. I commend this Statement to the House".
Lord Brett: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made by the Home Secretary in another place. It is worth recalling that the terrorist legislation passed in 2006 had all-party support, driven by the widest understanding that the only response to al-Qaeda, and to protect our people from a potential repeat of the horrors of the 7/7 tragedy, was to counter the threat and defeat it. The all-party support was buttressed by an endeavour on the part of the Government at the time to ensure the widest consensus and to consult extensively to that end.
Five years later, the threat has not diminished, as the Prime Minister reminded Parliament and the country in his Statement on 6 July. This leads to my first and most important question. Will the Minister confirm that this review is not being held to scale down the powers needed to address the severe security threat that we still face? To that end, will she give her latest estimate of the number of terror suspects engaged in complex plots? Will she say how many such plots have been disrupted since 7/7? Will she ensure that the same spirit and degree of consensus-seeking takes place in reviewing anti-terrorist legislation that characterised the approach to the 2006 terrorism legislation? Will the Government publish the terms of reference of the review, and if so, when? Also, will the review encompass the measures announced last week in respect of Section 44? All noble Lords will agree that the first duty of government is to protect the public. However, I am sure they will also agree that that must be balanced with the protection of civil liberties.
That leads me to a final question and a comment on what now seems to be a mantra in government: to blame everything, including the weather, on the previous Government. I think that there is a slightly partisan element in the penultimate paragraph of the Home Secretary's Statement. She lays great stress on the "mistakes of the last Government", while warmly commending members of the police, security and intelligence services on their "bravery, patriotism and a strong sense of duty". I strongly endorse that tribute, as will all noble Lords. However, I should like to ask a question which no one in government is better qualified to answer than the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones. Does she agree that much of the strengthening of anti-terrorism legislation was in direct response to the request of those same brave and patriotic police, security and intelligence services and their need for better weapons and resources to tackle those who would perpetuate another 7/7 or perhaps something worse? Alternatively, does she believe that it was thrust upon unwilling police, security and intelligence services? Accordingly, can she assure the House that the weapons and resources available will not be diminished as a result of the proposed review?
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I certainly join the noble Lord in his view that there is wide agreement in this House and between the aisles on the need for appropriate legislation to ensure our security. I do not think that anything divides us on that. He asked a number of fairly specific questions and I shall do my best to answer them. The first practical one was whether the review will be conducted in a way that does not lower our security. That is absolutely the case. With my title and obligations, it is one of my tasks to ensure that that does not happen.
I was asked when the terms of reference will be published. We are now conducting a certain amount of internal work which should certainly enable us to publish them in time for the start of the consultation. As we indicated, the timetable is fairly short, and we want the review to be carried out rapidly for two reasons. First, we believe that the changes can and should be made, and that they are not so complicated that a very long time is required for them; and, secondly, a degree of uncertainty in the legislation, particularly in relation to Section 44, needs to be clarified. Therefore, there are good reasons for not delaying the timetable that the Home Secretary has set out. As I said, we will publish the terms of reference and make sure that bodies with a strong interest are able to look at them and put forward their views. We will find some practical means, such as a website, to ensure that people are able to submit those views.
As I said, the review will cover the rather anomalous situation that has arisen in relation to Section 44 so that there is clarity for the police in going forward. I take the noble Lord's point that many of the measures put in place earlier were in direct response to the security situation that had arisen. It is fair to say that the Terrorism Act 2000, which in good part was based on previous Conservative Party legislation in relation to Northern Ireland and was built partly on the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, was indeed consensus legislation. Since then, I think that there have been divergences between us, and it is those that we want to try to correct.
There was quite a lot of controversy over the length of pre-charge detention. That, frankly, has not been stilled by the legislation that we now have in place and it is clearly one of the main reasons for wanting this review to take place now. In one or two other areas, it is not so much a question of what is on the statute book-although I think that clarity on the statute book is government's responsibility-as how it has been used. Therefore, if we have to alter legislation, we want to bring clarity to exactly what people are permitted to do. This is an example in the area, for instance, of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the powers of local authorities-the level of authority that they will need to obtain in order to be able to operate their rights under the Act, and indeed, as I say, to prevent abuse of Section 44.
So it is partly a question of how much we change the framework of the legislation, and part of it is to try to control and prevent further abuse. Also on control orders, the courts have shown that they are unhappy about the breadth of some of the legislation.
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Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I welcome every word of this important Statement, especially the appointment of my noble friend Lord Macdonald to oversee the review. Am I right that independent oversight by such a person is a novel idea for a Home Office review? Whether I am right or not, I welcome the idea most warmly.
Among the six matters which are to be reviewed we will each have our own pecking order. The most harmful in my view have been control orders, 28 days' detention without trial and Section 44, in that order.
Does the Minister recall the pledge given by the previous Government after an all-night sitting in March 2005 that they would bring back control orders for a comprehensive review within a year? I remind the noble Lord, Lord Brett, that although there was a degree of consensus in relation to the 2006 Act which he mentioned, there was certainly no consensus in relation to the 2005 Act. If there had been, there would have been no need for an all-night sitting.
Does the Minister share my relief that that pledge given back in 2005 is now being redeemed? Does she also recall another pledge that the whole mass of terrorist legislation which now disfigures our statute book would be consolidated? This is of course nothing like as urgent as the other matters which have been mentioned, but I hope the Minister can say that this idea has not been forgotten either.
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I do not know the answer to the question of whether this is a novel idea. I certainly think it is a very good one, and obviously the object of having the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, is to ensure, and also to be able to give assurance to the outside world, that the review has been thorough and looked at all the options, and that it has been impartial and provides the best balance between our security needs and our rights as citizens as we can provide.
I share the noble and learned Lord's relief that we are able now to redeem the pledge on the review of control orders. This has been overdue and that is why we regard it as an urgent thing to get on with.
On the question of consolidation of terrorism legislation, that is one of the things we would like to do. Noble Lords will be aware of the volume of urgent things that need to be on the statute book so I cannot promise that it is going to be an early piece of legislation. What is more, if we are going to do it we should do it thoroughly and well. In that area, haste will be the enemy of good work. I would rather produce a decent piece of legislation in due course than hurry at it. Finally, I hope that over time we are going to be able to reduce this panoply of emergency legislation. In a sense, it is no part of a democracy to have to continue with this sort of legislation for a moment longer than we need.
We still face a persistent and serious threat-and I failed to answer the noble Lord's question about terrorist plots. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for being unable to answer it today. I will be in a better position to do so next week when we debate the legislation on pre-charge detention. Indeed, I will be happy to do so then.
Lord Dear: My Lords, I echo the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. I agree with everything he said. I, too, welcome the review. I could speak at length about all six items enumerated in the Statement but perhaps I may pick up only one-item six, on the detention of terrorist subjects before charge. Will the Minister assure your Lordships' House that due weight will be given to the views and experience of the current DPP? I ask that question because when, like others, I was closely involved in the attempt to extend detention before charge from 28 days to 42 days, the then DPP and the two immediate successors said that they had not needed powers to go beyond 28 days. Notwithstanding the tremendously high standard of work carried out by the police and security services, it occurs to me that of all the bodies on this stage, the DPP is most particularly concerned with the adequacy of evidence and whether charges should be preferred.
Furthermore, the Minister commented on the use of intercept evidence, which will not form part of this review but will be looked at separately. Will she assure the House that that review will not be deflected? My views and those of other Members of the House have been outlined on a number of occasions, and a body of opinion says that it should be looked at as a matter of urgency and legislation changed to allow that form of evidence to be admitted.
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, on the noble Lord's first point, I can guarantee that we will be giving due weight to the views of the current DPP. I entirely agree with the centrality of those views. As I said, we will give weight to all views that are put to us.
As regards intercept evidence, I entirely take the point that it must not be left to moulder for ever. The Chilcot committee is still doing its work and we believe that it ought to be allowed to finish it. The noble Lord also knows that there are a number of issues that are not entirely straightforward. I am not in any way suggesting that we will not continue with this work, but it is because we do not believe that we can put it on a relatively fast track that we do not want to include it in this particular package. However, we will certainly be bringing forward our conclusions and, if necessary, further proposals.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, will the Minister develop a couple of points? The fourth of the six powers to be reviewed is that of extending the use of deportations with assurances. Is it envisaged that the use is to be extended to different categories of people in this country, or is the power to be extended to different countries? I have had experience of dealing with that in the past few years, and I know that
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My second point is one of clarification not about the role of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, but about his authority. Is this review to be a Home Office review under the name of the Home Secretary, or is it to be a review to which the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, will be giving his name? If it is the latter, can the Minister tell us what the position of the Home Office will be in regard to the costs of the review? The Statement clearly indicates that it is the first duty of government to protect the public, and we would all agree with that. Therefore, it must surely have first call on public finances. If the review comes up with suggestions which are a cost to the public purse, can the Minister assure us that it will be readily met by the Home Office?
Baroness Neville-Jones: On the noble Baroness's first point about extending deportation with assurances, how right she is: that is very difficult. Her point about our desire to deport and others' reluctance to receive is absolutely right. Extension should be understood primarily in the area of, nevertheless, trying to extend the policy to other countries. We have no present intention to extend the categories. In many respects, this is a highly practical and political problem; it is not, frankly, a legislative problem. We felt that, as this is a matter of such public concern, we need to try to make progress. The Foreign Office is actively engaged with Governments on the issue. I cannot promise how much we will have to report. I cannot say that I am confident that we will have made a great deal of early progress, but we take this issue seriously and we want to try to make it effective. It may require more action on a broader front to make the policy effective and, at the same time, consistent with our obligations.
On the noble Baroness's second point about the auspices of the review, this is a Home Office review. This review is not being let out to someone else. The reason for asking the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, to be involved is to provide assurance that a Home Office review of its own legislation has injected into it a degree of standing back and impartiality, to ask whether it makes sense and to help those who, after all, have drafted previous legislation themselves to stand back from what they have done previously. It is to open a window and let in a bit of fresh air-that is the spirit of it-and to create a certain amount of challenge in the system, such that we can be satisfied that when we come up with something, it passes various tests.
Baroness Manningham-Buller: I welcome the announcement of the review by the Minister. I suppose that I should declare an interest, in that I was head of the Security Service from 2002 to 2007, when much of this legislation went through. I also welcome her kind remarks about my former colleagues. However, I would like to correct the impression that all legislation was in response to requests by the security and intelligence services-or, indeed, by the police. That is completely untrue. There were certainly things that we sought and asked for but, as I have said in this House before, control orders, for example, were not one of them. The
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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I welcome the Statement very much. I think I heard the Minister say that the Home Office will be consulting on the terms of reference, not just once the terms of reference have been set. That would be very welcome, because so many of those who are concerned with these issues may want to have an input at that early stage. With regard to the terms of reference, I ask about item 4, which may remain the fourth of six or become the fourth of more items. The term is,
With regard to intercept as evidence, can the noble Baroness assure the House that the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, and those conducting the review will be able to talk to the team dealing with intercept as evidence, because even if it is not included in the review, there must be information that could usefully be shared?
Baroness Neville-Jones: I hope that I did not mislead the noble Baroness when I talked about the terms of reference. We will publish them, but we do not intend to consult on them per se. I hope also that I made it clear that we will have a very open consultation process that will include not only consulting in an organised way with various interested parties, but offering the opportunity through a website for a wider audience to offer its views. I hope that the terms of reference will not themselves be a constraint on the way in which the six topics are dealt with.
I will say one thing in defence of not consulting on the terms of reference. We want to move on this fairly fast, so there are limits, if I may say, to the number of stages to which we should apply the consultation process. I beg the indulgence of the House in suggesting that we should leave it as an extensive consultation process that will follow, having set the terms of reference.
On the question of the extension of deportation with assurances, I do not have a great deal to add to an earlier answer. We see being able to extend the process of DWA to other countries as useful and in the public interest. The reason is a practical one. We find that there is an increasing number of nationalities where the need to deport is actually an operational requirement. We want to put in place circumstances in which we can do that in a manner compatible with our obligations.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked about the relevance of intercept as evidence. She is quite right to say that various aspects are relevant to the subjects that we have under discussion, and those involved in the review will indeed have the necessary access.
Lord Judd: My Lords, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has done a great deal of work on this issue. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that its work will be taken into account in the review? Does she agree that terrorists operate when there is substantial alienation or, at least, ambivalence among people about how far they support the prevailing laws? In that context, is it not important for the review at least to take a look at how immigration, asylum and border controls are operated, to ensure that these are being done at all times in ways that win people's heart and minds rather than actually leading to alienation? Finally, on deportations with assurances, I support some of the anxieties that have been expressed and ask simply whether the review can look closely at how much credence in the long term can be based on assurances, particularly with countries in which the use of torture is systematic in their administration of so-called justice?
Baroness Neville-Jones: The noble Lord is right that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has done extraordinarily valuable work, and I give him an absolute assurance that it will be taken into account in this review. On the question of whether there is support in the country for this body of prevailing law, one reason we want to look at it is precisely because we know that there is indeed unease-but not, I think, unease which is particularly to be found in any single quarter; it is more general than that. Obviously there are related issues and the question in all such reviews is about where you stop. One area that we regard as related, but which we are going to take separately although in current time, is how we pursue one of the four strands of CONTEST, that of the Prevent strategy. Our aim is not to abolish it, but we hope to make it more effective or, if I may put it this way, a bit more fit for purpose because we regard it as a flanking policy which affects the acceptability of some of this legislation, particularly among ethnic and minority communities.
Finally, the noble Lord raised the issue of deportation with assurances. The Government know that this is a difficult area and that what is written on paper is not always necessarily the reality. We also know that if we do not attempt to start a dialogue with countries and get assurances about the conditions into which people are going to be sent back and that they will be safe, we reduce the possibility of introducing such a policy. We have to have the capability, over time, of removing from this country people who have been convicted of very serious offences, and it is into that category that these people fall. We want to pursue the policy, but we do so with our eyes wide open.
Nanotechnology is the study of the very small. It involves manipulating matter on the scale of atoms or molecules. If you are like me, you may find it difficult to get your mind around just how small "small" means. Let me give you an idea. It is sometimes claimed that medieval scholars such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas debated the question of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin or even the point of a needle. The authenticity of this claim is disputed, although in 1667 Richard Baxter, in his tract The Reasons of the Christian Religion, definitely refers to such a debate. If we move from angels to nanoparticles, how many could you fit on the head of a pin? The answer is 300 million nanoparticles, each 100 nanometres in diameter. Alternatively, your Order Paper is roughly 100,000 nanometres thick. A further day-to-day illustration to make the point for noble Lords present is that their beards will have grown by roughly 200 nanometres since I started speaking. That is not a personal statement but a general phenomenon.
The notion of manipulating materials at the nanoscale was first suggested in 1959 by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who noted that at this very small scale the conventional forces that we think of as influencing materials, such as gravity, would be replaced by other forces at the atomic level. As a result of this, and the very large surface area to volume ratio, the properties of materials may change dramatically at the nanoscale when compared with more conventional scales. For example, normal silver melts at a temperature of 960 degrees Celsius, but nanoscale silver particles can be melted with a hairdryer.
The phrase "nanotechnology" was first used in 1974 by the Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi, and nowadays the potential of nanomaterials and nanotechnologies is being explored in many areas, from electronics to materials and the self-assembly manufacturing processes. Nanotechnology has also become the stuff of science fiction. Some commentators have been influenced by Michael Crichton's book Prey, in which nanoparticles self-assembled into free-flying swarms that attacked human brains. Unfortunately, Mr Crichton got his science wrong. The forces of Brownian motion that act on nanoparticles would prevent them from assembling into co-ordinated swarms. The grey goo of certain parts of the popular press is a myth of science fiction.
Let me turn to the specifics of our inquiry. We chose to focus on just one area-the application of nanotechnologies in the food industry. In making that choice, we wished to restrict the range of our inquiry and we were also aware of previous, more general reports, notably an excellent Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report, published in 2004.
The use of nanotechnology in the food sector is projected by experts to be a growth area. One projection is that by 2012 the global market for nanotechnologies in the food industry will reach a figure of $5.8 billion. What are the current and potential applications of nanotechnology in food and food-related products? This may appear to be a simple question but, as noble Lords will hear in a moment, the answer is not that
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The second area is food packaging. We heard that nanotechnology can improve the barrier properties of food or drink packaging and therefore reduce waste by enabling food to be kept longer. To give one example, one of the major manufacturers of beer in the USA produces it in plastic bottles with a nanoclay layer to prevent the gas escaping and the beer going flat. There is also the potential for so-called intelligent packaging which will detect chemical changes in the food and enable the consumer to throw it away at the right moment rather than slavishly following best-before dates.
The third area of potential application is in the manufacturing process where we heard that nonotechnology can be used to develop anti-stick and anti-microbial surfaces to increase the efficiency of food manufacture. The fourth area of potential application is in agriculture, where we heard that nanoscaled pesticides or fertilisers may enable the farmer to use smaller doses and thereby reduce potential harm to the environment as well as save money.
That is all about potential but what about the current applications in the food we eat now? Here the story was more confused. On the one hand the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington has a database of 84 food-related products, including contact materials and supplements that are on the market world wide. On the other hand the Food and Drink Federation told us that there are no current or imminent products made in the UK and only two known uses on the market in the UK. Why this apparent discrepancy? In part, it might be to do with definitions. According to international standards, a particle becomes a nanoparticle if it has dimensions of 100 nanometres or less. If, for example, food contained particles of 120 nanometres, it would not be counted as food containing nanomaterials. But in food manufacturing it is highly likely that there will be a distribution of particle sizes, whatever the manufacturer intended, so a precise cut-off of 100 nanometres may be inappropriate. Whatever the current situation, there is clearly large-perhaps very large- future potential in this sector and several of our recommendations to government are related to capturing this potential here in the UK. We have a strong science base in the area of nanotechnologies, including in relation to food, and it is important to capture that science base in application rather than allow the knowledge to drift overseas for exploitation, as has so often happened in other areas in the past.
A key question at the heart of our report is whether the use of nanotechnologies in food poses potential risks to our health. Some witnesses argued that it might; others were more confident that there is no risk. Our conclusion from the evidence we heard is that, while there is no evidence of a clear and present danger from the use of nanotechnologies in food, there are important gaps in scientific knowledge that need to be filled in order for proper risk assessments to be undertaken. The whole point of using nanotechnologies in food is that they introduce novel properties into materials. Therefore, it is crucial to know how these novel properties affect the human body. While there is a considerable amount of research on the inhalation of nanoparticles and their implications for lung disease, there is far less work on the gut. In fact, we could identify only one research group in this country at the MRC Human Nutrition Research Unit in Cambridge that was active in this field.
We urge the relevant funders-for example, the Medical Research Council and the Food Standards Agency-to build more capacity in the toxicology of ingested nanoparticles as well as carrying out the relevant research to enable proper risk assessments to be undertaken. We recognise that research in this area, as well as regulation, is an international matter. Therefore, whatever research is undertaken in this country should be properly co-ordinated and integrated with research in other countries. But this recommendation of filling the knowledge gaps in relation to risk assessment is one that was made in 2004 in the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report and we were concerned that not enough had been done to take that forward.
In our consideration of potential risks from nanotechnologies in food, we distinguished between different kinds of nanomaterials. On the one hand, a distinction might be drawn between nanoparticles that occur naturally-I hope I will not alarm your Lordships by informing you that you have been eating nanoparticles all your lives, probably without knowing it-and artificially engineered nanoparticles. On the other hand, there is a distinction between nanoparticles that are rapidly degraded in the digestive tract, whether they are naturally occurring or engineered, and those that persist and therefore may be transported around the body, perhaps even crossing the blood/brain barrier and ending up in the brain. It is these persistent particles that could be more likely to pose a potential risk.
Does the current regulatory regime ensure that food containing nanoparticles is properly scrutinised for safety? The answer we drew from the evidence we took was: in principle yes; in practice not clear. The relevant legislation is European. The general principles of food law require food sold to consumers to be safe. More specific legislation applies safety standards to novel foods, food additives, food supplements, and food contact materials. So there might appear to be a plethora of adequate legislation to protect the consumer, but there is an ambiguity. Let me illustrate. If a food is reformulated to nanoscale certain ingredients-take an ice cream that contains the same kind of ingredients as before but with nanoscaled fat emulsion and therefore less fat-this may be deemed to be a novel food and therefore require prior approval under the novel food regulations. If not, its safety is guaranteed by general
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In the United States we heard from the Food and Drug Administration of its concept of GRAS-generally regarded as safe-which applies to all foods that have been around for a long time and not caused a problem. The question in US terms is whether a food that has been eaten before and is now nanoscaled to produce new properties should generally be regarded as safe or subject to scrutiny under the novel food regulations.
There are two difficulties with this arrangement. The first is a lack of clarity about when a novel nanoscaled food would be considered a novel food under the regulations, because it depends on definitions. The second difficulty, to which I have already alluded, arises under any food legislation, be it for general food, novel foods or the other legislation to which I have referred. It concerns whether the gaps in scientific knowledge would enable the appropriate regulator-at the European level, it is European Food Safety Authority-adequately to assess risks.
Our proposal, based on the evidence we heard, was that, for regulatory purposes, the definition of nanoparticles should focus not on size alone-after all, size is not everything-but also on functionality; that is, how the nanoscaled material interacts with the human body. The key question for risk assessment and therefore for regulation is whether nanoscaling a material changes its properties in such a way as to have a potentially toxic effect on the body. We urge the Government in our report to take forward this matter of definition in Europe.
Finally, I turn to communication and transparency. We were told, both here and in the United States, that the food industry is reluctant to put its head above the parapet on developments of nanotechnology in food. There is apparently a fear that it could be a replay for the food industry of the debacle of GM foods in the 1990s. Your Lordships will recall that the food industry was at that time caught off guard by a combined campaign of certain newspapers and pressure groups and was forced in a rapid volte-face to withdraw GM products from the market, even though there had been and has still never been any identifiable health risk from approved products.
However, our conclusion was that there are a number of strong arguments against the policy of silence. First, by keeping quiet about nanotechnologies, the food industry leaves a communication vacuum into which pressure groups and/or inaccurate media reporting will happily step. Secondly, in contrast to what was said about GM products in the 1990s, there are real potential consumer benefits to be had from nanotechnologies-I have alluded to them-in producing healthier food, reducing waste and perhaps improving quality and flavour. Hence a communication narrative can be positive about developments that may be in the pipeline. Thirdly, silence and secrecy are fuel for the conspiracy theorists. One can just imagine stories that
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When I met leaders of the food industry recently to discuss our report, they emphasised the importance of a trusted, neutral ring-master to help with public engagement. For their money, the appropriate body is the Food Standards Agency. I hope, returning to an earlier debate in this Chamber, that the Minister will take this opportunity to confirm that newspaper reports of the FSA's imminent demise are exaggerated. Public trust in food safety has been built by the Food Standards Agency. That would be put at risk if the agency were dismantled.
We did not see, however, an advantage in labelling foods that contain nanomaterials, as we could not see what consumers would do with such information when shopping in the supermarket. Instead, we recommended that the Food Standards Agency should keep a publicly available database of all nanofood products and food-related products.
I summarise my key points. Nanotechnology in food is forecast to be a growth industry. We recommend that the Government work to ensure that the UK is a major player in exploiting this opportunity. The Government should also work with the appropriate funders to ensure that gaps in knowledge for risk assessment are plugged. The Government should work with Brussels to improve the regulatory framework and definitions. There is a need for more openness and public debate, and the Government can play a role in this. While the previous Government accepted many of our 32 recommendations, we await a response from the present Government. I also note that with many of our recommendations, the previous Government, while accepting them in principle, did not actually say that they were going to act on them. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response later in the debate.
In closing, I should like to put on record my thanks to a number of people. It was a privilege to chair such an excellent Select Committee, the members of which were very hard-working, enthusiastic and thoughtful as well as being delightful to work with. Secondly, the secretariat of the science and technology sub-committee provided subtle steers and excellent guidance and produced a top-quality first draft, which made our task easier in the closing stages. Our specialist adviser, Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University Medical School, a major international authority on allergy, kept us on the scientific straight and narrow and provided lucid technical input at key moments. As part of our inquiry, we travelled to Washington DC, where the embassy officials arranged an excellent programme and our US hosts were patient and informative in helping us to understand the position in their country. I beg to move.
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. It is not easy to explain just how small a nanoparticle is, but I think he put that into perspective. I am enlightened to know that you can get 300 million nanoparticles on
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I see this report in a historical context. History, I suppose, is a rather rough description when this science, as noble Lords heard, is very recent, but in 2004, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, reminded us, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering produced a very helpful report that set out the ground rules for how this new technology might be underpinned by appropriate research. You cannot, after all, regulate a new industry unless you have adequate research and understanding of just what is happening. Later, there was the report from the Council for Science and Technology in 2007, and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 2008 reported on novel materials. All these reports have been very significant, and there is clearly much expectation in them of nanotechnologies. We dealt only with food, which is a relatively narrow area, but the 2004 report anticipated-correctly, as it turned out, because we are already seeing it-that nanomaterials in a wider context were likely to become commonplace, and recommended that research into health, safety and environmental impacts should keep pace with predicted developments. This research is so important, again as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, very helpfully pointed out, because, when you start using materials at this scale, they simply do not behave as you would normally expect them to. His example of melting silver with a hairdryer, as opposed to at 960 degrees Celsius normally, demonstrates that you are talking about something that is not as you would expect.
The other conclusion I came to after reading this report was that there is every reason to believe that nanotechnology, provided that health and safety issues can be addressed and quantified, will be put to some extremely helpful uses in the food industry. We are not yet there, but as we have heard already, if you can reduce salt and fats in foods, nanotechnology has obvious advantages. I recognise that ice cream with many times less fat is an extraordinarily marketable commodity; I would certainly be very interested in that. Better packaging and materials, increased shelf life, the reduced use of active ingredients and agrochemicals; it seems to me perfectly reasonable to anticipate these and many other applications.
The then Government did not adopt this recommendation. They continued to fund research into nanotechnologies through the established channels of grants through Research Councils UK and government departments, usually in response mode but with publicly funded nanotechnologies research co-ordinated through the
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It is disappointing to find that Defra sponsored a report last year that reviewed how many of these research objectives had been fulfilled by the Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group. The answer, particularly on the issue of human toxicology, is that a substantial amount of work remains to be done. The Defra review states that there have been,
"Research to establish a clear understanding of the adsorption of nanoparticles via the lung, skin and gut and their distribution in the body ... identifying potential target organs/tissues for toxicity assessment".
It is not as if we have not had warnings in the interim. In 2007 the Council for Science and Technology's report also drew attention to the Government's slow progress on health and safety research, and said that this was due to an overreliance by government on responsive mode funding rather than directed programmes by government departments to deliver the necessary research. That is logical, is it not? If you wait in responsive mode and there happen to be no research workers applying for research funding in this area, you will not get your gaps filled. You need a bit of direction occasionally. That simply has not happened, which is why there is concern.
I ask my noble friend the Minister not for more money-that would clearly be unreasonable-but simply for the considerable sums of money that are spent on nanotechnology research to be partially reallocated, even in small measure, so that the health and safety issues are adequately addressed. The amount of money that we are talking about is very small compared with the development of these new technologies.
In 2007-08 I chaired a working group of stakeholders charged with drafting a voluntary code on good practice for organisations involved in the supply chain for nanotechnologies. The group included research organisations such as the Royal Society through to retailers, trade unions, consumer groups, and of course companies interested in nanotechnologies. We produced a draft nano code that was accepted with a degree of enthusiasm by all the stakeholders. The repeated mantra in all this was "Transparency, accessibility and accountability"-you cannot repeat it too often. Never hide from the public any shortcomings in the scientific knowledge-there are always some. Never try to persuade
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It is disappointing to find that this fundamental lesson does not appear to have been adopted by the food industry, either here or in America. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about the food industry not putting its head above the parapet. Somebody has to put their head above the parapet. I understand why the food industry would like a ringmaster-someone to co-ordinate the dialogue-but it is absolutely essential that such a dialogue takes place. It is essential that all stakeholders participate. It would be fine if the Food Standards Agency could be the ringmaster, but my main plea is that this public dialogue should be engaged in quickly.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, I, too, was privileged to serve on the Sub-Committee on Nanotechnologies and Food. Not being a scientist, I found it challenging. Being chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, it was also fun. With the excellent support that we received both from the Clerks and our specialist adviser, Professor Stephen Holgate, I think that I ended up understanding a certain amount about nanotechnology. What I think I understand very clearly is why this is an important topic, and one where the new Government will have reason to take action on various fronts.
The debate takes place at a moment that may be either awkward or advantageous-I am not sure which-but it is at the very least unplanned. The Select Committee's report on nanotechnology and food addressed a world in which the Food Standards Agency was the UK's lead body with responsibility for food standards and safety. The Government's response to the Select Committee's report is the response of the previous Government, who showed considerable confidence in the Food Standards Agency, which they asked to co-ordinate that response.
It is far from clear that this confidence is shared by the coalition Government. Over recent days there have been numerous reports that the Government plan to abolish or dismember the Food Standards Agency. Headlines have ranged from the Mirror's rather trenchant:
Perhaps inevitably, some commentators have begun to wonder whether the Government are unsure which FSA they want to reform and which they want to abolish. We are tonight concerned only with the Food Standards Agency. The Government have indicated that they have not yet reached a decision on what might be done. The Minister confirmed that this afternoon
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The questions that are raised by the introduction of new technologies-in particular very novel technologies that are not well understood-into food processing link basic and applied scientific research, knowledge transfer, innovation in manufacturing, the fate of a very large part of the British economy and the daily consumption of food by each one of us. The human and economic consequences of getting matters wrong could be large, ranging from failure to adopt food technologies that may be useful for human health, to failure to co-ordinate work on the scientific basis of nanotechnologies, to failure to build on the achievements of UK scientists, to a considerable loss of competitive advantage by the UK food processing industry, not to mention the possibility of failure to adjust regulation to focus accurately on the risk assessment that will be needed.
I am no friend of excessive regulation, and like many who have run a small institution, I know its costs all too well. However, there are cases in which laissez-faire and market solutions will not work. Public health is a public good, often not achievable by the interplay of market forces and consumer choice alone. The long-running battle between the FSA and the food industry over labelling illustrates-if it illustrates nothing else-that there are those in the food industry who prefer to communicate, or at least pretend to communicate, in ways that demonstrably are not understood by many consumers and indeed may not be comprehensible to many consumers. Mere labelling will not be enough to secure public acceptance of food products containing nanoparticles, despite the fact that nanoparticles are found in many naturally occurring products, including traditional foods-and the sub-committee was told that ricotta cheese contains many of them. We need a more thoughtful approach.
I have mentioned some examples of matters that bear on success or failure in the use of nanotechnologies, in particular in the food industry, where, it seems to me, only Government and regulatory action can hope to be effective either in protecting consumers or in supporting the British food industry. First, there is the matter of securing agreement, including international agreement, on definitions. The noble Lord, Lords Krebs, has already mentioned this topic with his great expertise. There are those who seek to define nanoparticles simply in terms of their dimensions. Nanoparticles, they propose, should be defined as particles of which at least one dimension falls below an intrinsically
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Secondly, there is the matter of ensuring that communication by companies to consumers is adequate. There has been a great deal of emphasis on communication by labelling. But I think that we all know that communication is genuine only where it is actually understood by the relevant audiences-in this case consumers. Transparency by itself is never enough. It is not enough because the fact that information is made available does not ensure that it will be noted, understood or taken into account by relevant audiences. Excessive reliance on consumer choice-when that choice is supposedly informed only by incomprehensible data delivered in the smallest print, on colourful packaging designed to emphasise other, more glorious matters-is not genuine communication. Only government can ensure that food marketing achieves genuine rather than pretended communication with consumers.
There are a number of important audiences for genuine communication in this area. There is the matter of ensuring that communication between companies about research at a precompetitive stage supports, rather than suppresses, the understanding of important information. There is the matter of ensuring that communication by food companies with the wider public is adequate. Possibly the most worrying finding of the sub-committee, alluded to by both previous speakers, is that food companies appear to be secretive about the research that they are conducting. They do not, as far as we could discover, have in place modes of exchanging information on precompetitive matters, and they do not foster public engagement.
The sub-committee was well aware that this secrecy may reflect awareness of the problems created just over a decade ago by a non-UK company when it trumpeted the advantages of its products incorporating the then new technology of genetic modification into plant varieties without adequate communication with, and in particular without listening to, the public. We all know the disaster that resulted for UK and EU plant-breeding companies. We all know that we now live in a bubble in which we pretend that the foods we eat contain nothing that is genetically modified-except of course by traditional methods such as evolution and selective breeding of animals and plants-although non-EU countries have adopted many of the genetically modified crop varieties without harm and to their advantage. But the way to avert another disaster for another British industry is not to be economical with communication about research on products that incorporate engineered particles at the nano scale. What will government do to seek better communication
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Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I, too, served on the sub-committee, which was admirably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. His presentation of the sub-committee's work was equally admirable, comprehensive and clear, and there is no need for me to do more than emphasise the importance of a small number of our recommendations. At the outset, I should express my appreciation of the contribution made by our Clerk, Anthony Willott, and our advisers, Professor Stephen Holgate and Rachel Newton. We could not have begun to do the job without their wonderful support.
This is the second debate within a couple of weeks on a report of a Select Committee where the Government's response is that of the previous Government, not the coalition. I will press the points made by the noble Baroness who has just spoken about the need for the Minister, my noble friend who is to wind up this debate, to clarify by how far the present Government agree with their predecessors or indicate if there are significant differences.
I knew absolutely nothing about nanotechnologies until at a Royal Society soirée I visited a presentation on the subject by Cardiff University. When I introduced myself as the university's former president, I was given some basic tuition and a rather magnificent rule that I am now holding, which helped clarify for me the scale of nanospace. On the left, I see metres, stretching through millimetres, micrometres, nanometres to picometres. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, indicated, there is also the atom, and I could add DNA somewhere in what is described as nanospace. I was also shown a picture of a well known Roman goblet which changes colour-an effect apparently caused by natural particles of nano size. In that way, I learnt that nanoparticles may not be the creation of brilliant or, as is sometimes implied, mad scientists, but can be a natural phenomenon. Quite early on in the committee's study of the subject, we discovered that nanomaterials in food were not entirely a new event. Ricotta cheese has already been mentioned, as has the fact that chocolate and ice cream, as the result of the manufacturing process, usually contain nanomaterial.
However, scientists are now able to manipulate matter at the nano scale-a 1,000 millionth of a metre-so that it can exhibit new and unusual properties. This work may produce real benefits for consumers and manufacturers. We have heard some of them, such as better packaging, so food is fresher and lasts longer, and food with unaltered taste but lower fat, salt and sugar levels. Those are real possibilities. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, pointed out, there may be fertilisers that can be applied in smaller quantities-of real advantage to agriculture and the environment. The noble Lord explained that we decided to concentrate on food. Some of us were not entirely happy about this because health products, beauty products, sun creams and so on may all have similar consequences if
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Having accepted the potential benefits, I comment briefly on the possible risks and how we deal with them. We have heard that nanotechnologies may present new risks. They require risk assessment and regulation, and that is not an entirely straightforward process. Like many members of the committee, I was disturbed to hear of the limited amount of research looking at the toxicological impact of nanomaterials, particularly in the gut and, via the gut, into the bloodstream, nervous system and brain. Bluntly, we were not impressed by the evidence we received on the subject from the research councils. There are encouraging words in the previous Government's response to our recommendations 5 and 6. The research councils' sign-post notices have been issued, which apparently direct people in the right direction. A grant has been provided by NERC for work at the University of Birmingham. The research councils have carried out an independent evaluation of their nanoscience portfolio-I do not think it is a big portfolio so the evaluation cannot have taken them long. The Health Protection Agency has launched its National Nanotoxicology Research Centre at Chiltern and the Food Standards Agency has commissioned two projects. However, my understanding is that little additional research has been generated by these initiatives at this stage.
We need a clear statement from the Government about what is being done about proactive forms of funding for research and within the EU to ensure that member states effectively co-ordinate their research. My honourable friend David Willetts, giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee earlier this afternoon, said that in British universities and research institutions there were a large number of small nanoprojects without any effective assessment of whether they added anything to the totality of research. We do not want something like that also happening in the European context, where it may well be that other countries are undertaking serious and valuable work on the subject.
Mention of the EU takes me to our recommendations 17 and 18, which have not been referred to in the debate, on the REACH regulations covering chemicals. I served on an earlier Lords committee on the introduction of REACH. The Government's response recognises that some aspects of REACH were not designed with nanomaterials in mind. The committee was particularly concerned that the one-tonne threshold for considering the potential toxic effect of substances under the REACH regulations was not appropriate for nanomaterials. I do not get the impression that the necessary revisions are being pursued with adequate urgency. I welcome the fact that, alongside REACH registration, the previous Government announced that they intended to develop a scheme for the collection of information on both nanomaterials and products containing nanomaterials that are available in the UK. As this was described as a bottom-up approach, which I understand is exactly what the coalition Government favour in so many fields, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that that activity will be pursued by the new Government.
Finally, I say how strongly we felt-this has been said by other noble Lords-about the importance of the industry being open about what it is doing and positive in its communication with the public. The evidence that we received was depressing. Large firms that should have learnt lessons from the GM disaster, for a variety of reasons, seemed to be continuing down the route that led to the disaster. If they do not trust the public, the public will not trust them. The New Scientist, in May, contained a report that stated that a Unilever spokesperson,
My honourable friend David Willetts, the science Minister who gave evidence earlier today to the Science and Technology Committee, made an interesting observation in his recent speech delivered to the Royal Institution. He was not talking about nanotechnology but synthetic biology. He said:
"The UK Research Councils had the foresight to hold a public dialogue about ramifications of synthetic biology ahead of Craig Venter developing the first cell controlled by synthetic DNA. This dialogue showed that there is conditional public support for synthetic biology. There is great enthusiasm for the possibilities associated with this field, but also fears about controlling it and the potential for misuse".
Those words could be applied exactly to nanotechnology and the evidence we received from Which? confirmed it. My honourable friend went on to say that he was struck by a comment from a participant in the discussion on synthetic biology who said:
"Why do they want to do it? ... Is it because they will be the first person to do it? Is it because they just can't wait? What are they going to gain from it? ... The fact that you can take something that's natural and produce fuel, great-but what is the bad side of it? What else is it going to do?".
I would add that nanotechnology must not go the way of GM; it, too, must obtain public trust. I hope that that message will be listened to by those in industry in this country and indeed abroad. If nothing else is achieved by this report but they listen and become more open and transparent, then our work will certainly have been well worth while.
Lord Methuen: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for initiating this debate and for his excellent chairmanship of the sub-committee. I also thank our secretariat and special adviser for all they did to support us in producing the report.
It was a very interesting inquiry exploring a highly innovative area in which comparatively little research seems to have been carried out. There is a lot going on underground, one might say. We deliberately concentrated on the food industry, excluding areas such as cosmetics and skin protection products.
It was quite obvious that the commercial sensitivity of such research as is being carried out in this field by various firms in the food industry has stifled the exchange of data between the organisations involved. It is to be hoped that the Nanotechnology Knowledge
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As has been said by other noble Lords, the use of nanotechnology in the food and drink industry offers all sorts of exciting possibilities in improving diet, reducing the intake of salt, sugar and other things of that nature, combating obesity, and finding better and longer-term storage options for food due to improved and perhaps intelligent food contact materials and packaging.
The previous Government's response to our report was generally one of acceptance, and it is to be hoped that this new Administration will similarly accept our recommendations. I note that the Food Standards Agency has been reported as being disbanded but I hope that, as the earlier debate at Question Time indicated, that will not be so. If it is disbanded, I wonder what will happen to the excellent Food and Environment Research Agency near York that gave us so much useful information in its evidence.
One of the key problems in this field of nanotechnology is definition, as has been said by other speakers, and providing an adequate regulatory framework at both domestic and EU levels. The figure of 100 nanometres is often used but there is nothing magic about this number. The definition should be based on a combination of an order of magnitude of less than 1,000 nanometres and the reactivity of the material concerned. It was emphasised to us that the material may be "nano" in only one or more dimensions, depending on whether it is a film, a sheet-for example, food contact material-a particle or even a nanotube.
As I said earlier, the committee was particularly concerned about toxicity issues. I was pleased to note in the government response that both the EPSRC and the MRC are seeking research bids in this area and that the research councils have carried out an independent review of their nanoscience portfolio. One can only hope that the current funding cuts will not result in a diminution of the research effort that is required.
I am still concerned that not enough is known about the impact of nanoparticles in the gut, including the long-term consequences of their ingestion into the body, and on foetal growth. I am glad to see that the Health Protection Agency has launched a National Nanotoxicology Research Centre to undertake studies of what is absorbed through the gut. There needs to be co-ordination with EU initiatives across the whole breadth of this and the research council portfolio to ensure we do not duplicate work being carried out in other member states.
I am also concerned about the impacts on the human food chain due to the possible use of nanoparticles in agriculture, animal feedstuffs, and pesticides and herbicides. Obviously this is an area where Defra is probably more involved than the FSA.
One of the most important issues in front of the committee was the necessity of keeping the public aware of the advent of these developments in food production so as to avoid another publicity fiasco such as occurred with GM crops. There is at present a very low public perception and understanding of
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Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, we should give thanks to the Science and Technology Sub-Committee on Nanotechnologies and Food and to its excellent chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who was the most effective and communicative chairman of the Food Standards Agency in its founding. The committee clearly did a good job, as one can see from the previous Government's response. However, in their response, and that of the current Government, one does not hear many promises about resources. We shall look to hear about that from the Minister.
As other noble Lords have mentioned, the natural world is full of small particles essential for the physical state of the atmosphere, the oceans and the processes in the Earth. But as with smoke, asbestos and traffic, human activities also produce particles ranging down to the scale of molecules and the wavelength of light. As the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, it is the tiny gold particles in red glass that make it look red-the thesis of my grandfather, by the way.
These nanoparticles are constrained within engineering processes and are more or less under control, but of course they are less constrained as they move through the environment and living tissue. Noble Lords might like to know that probably the first parliamentary study of nanotechnology took place on Clapham Common in 1760, when Benjamin Franklin took a party of six parliamentarians to study how an extremely thin monomolecular layer of oil can damp water waves. This interest was for calming waves in His Majesty's dockyards at that time-everything was to do with His Majesty's dockyards-but this continues to be a problem, as we have been seeing more recently.
The potential of nanoparticles is very considerable, from electronics to catalysts and, perhaps most importantly for the whole world, the extraordinary possibility of their use at a molecular or nano level for water purification and desalination. There are some groups working on this in the UK at Aberdeen, and MIT is involved. This is potentially an enormous boon to the poorest communities in the world. Broadly speaking, clean water might come under the category of food-it probably does for these people.
The other important point is for agriculture. Again, as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, it is not just that we can use pesticides more efficiently-currently only 20 per cent get into the crop and 80 per cent go down the rivers-but this technology may be a big boon for agriculture.
However, the benefits of this technology have to be balanced with the health and environmental effects, both for the public and for workers. Some workers
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Public fears can easily be aroused, as we saw with GMOs and asbestos, but public attitudes are based on a delicate balance of perception of advantage and concern about risks. This balance can be influenced by public bodies and collaboration between the political world and scientists working together. Internationally, the UK has often been in the lead in these delicate areas of risk and advantage. The committee addressed all these issues and made sensible institutional and policy recommendations to deal with research, government regulations, industry and international co-operation. However, some of the recommendations have been made before, as we have seen in previous House of Lords reports on science-related issues.
The research on nanoscience and nanotechnology is done largely by industry, research councils, government departments and agencies-some of them using contractors or research institutes-and of course by the EU. This report, as we have seen previously, points to how research councils sponsor research but often, rightly, have limited capability and direction to respond to governmental, societal or industrial needs, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, emphasised. That is often not their central objective, which is generally fundamental and open science leading to publication.
In the 1990s, a larger proportion of the science budget was spent by government departments on projects that had direct relevance to policy, and this changed particularly under the emphasis of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. As I know from experience of working on GMO dispersion for a government department, the results were then published. If the government department sponsors work, that does not then lead to non-publication. Although government agencies make use of research councils' research and data, they cannot direct them, which is the point made in the committee's report and by other noble Lords.
Another aspect concerns toxicological research and the fact that it needs to be directed-that is at paragraph 4.58. Another advantage of directed and politically sensitive research being funded and directed by government departments is that the public communication and consultation could be done professionally and with political understanding, which is important in this area. The recommendations in the report for public bodies need to be supported, and a positive role is needed to overcome the concerns of scientists who are very cautious. I talked to nanotech scientists, funded by research councils, before the debate, and learnt that they are extremely sensitive about commenting publicly in any way about the applications of their work. So if scientists are to avoid being involved in debacles such as we have seen with GMO and Climategate, they need to find some form and methods of working with
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That brings me back to the point that if government departments needed funding or the capacity to do that kind of work, they could apply the openly published science for their own purposes. However, there is a difference in the approach of the United States. There, government agencies fund applications to turn the openly published science into useful products. Remarkably, they will look all around the world for their science, including papers by JCR Hunt. As I know from experience, a government department there will say, "Goodness me, this is an interesting paper. Let's fund somebody in America to set up a company and do something with it". That does not happen in the UK. It must therefore be remembered that 90 per cent of the research is done outside the UK. It is not the job of research councils to review the research being done around the world-that should surely be the job of technically able groups in the government departments. The UK Technology Strategy Board has the same aim of developing UK technology, but it requires quite a large financial hurdle, often too large for smaller companies to work.
Another crucial institutional aspect referred to in the report is the co-ordination with research in the European Union. It is strong where there is very strong research, and the EU is leading globally on regulations. Also, EU research is working towards commercial projects and setting up new European-wide standards. Our concern, as has been expressed today, is that even our civil servants and a recent European Commissioner on these Benches have commented privately that the UK does less well than others in taking a strategic view of that EU research and driving research in the direction of the UK's interests in technology. That is essential. As new European programmes have been established for FP8, it is important that we should take a more strategic view. Of course, the research councils could help there.
The other point made is that there is concern that the work being done by our research councils is not co-ordinated with research being done in other national research councils in the rest of Europe. I used to be a chairman of a committee in NERC under the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and I used to keep badgering colleagues in NERC to find out what was going on in exactly the same area in the other research councils. They did not know their names or their telephone numbers. A lot more can still be done in that respect. It is as if in the United States you had a research policy in California, in Arizona and in Illinois all doing different things and not co-ordinating. We must do better. The European Science Foundation has helped in that regard, but there is a long way to go and the committee has pointed that out.
We look forward to the Government's response. I particularly look forward to their response about public information. I note the comments made by other noble Lords about the fact that some major companies involved in the area are not particularly open. Without naming names, I spoke to the advertising agency for
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, this has been an extremely useful debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his fellow committee members on their excellent report.
Nanotechnology is a fascinating new field of science. However, it can also be difficult for the lay person-I include myself in that category-to grasp its implications, given its potentially wide range of applications and the difficulty of visualising what it is and how it works. That makes the committee's achievement all the more impressive. It has sifted through a great deal of written and oral evidence to produce a readable and extremely interesting report-one that, I understand, has already been widely cited as a source of authority.
I followed with great interest all the contributions made during the debate, and I will return to some of the specific points raised in a few moments. Nanotechnologies and nanomaterials are clearly important issues for the Government. As I hope noble Lords will understand, we are still in the process of formulating our detailed policies in this area. As the House may know, the previous Government published a UK nanotechnologies strategy this March. Current Ministers, including me, will carefully consider the degree to which we will continue with that strategy. The report of the Science and Technology Committee makes a number of sound and sensible recommendations. For the reasons that I have just given, it would be premature for me to give a formal response on behalf of the Government on all of them. However, the majority of the recommendations fall within the remit of the Food Standards Agency, whose advice remains unchanged. Indeed, work is already under way within the agency to implement relevant recommendations. I shall say more about that in a moment.
My noble friend Lord Selborne speculated about the glittering prizes that may be attained in the future from this technology. The Government keep an open mind about the likely benefits of the use of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in food. Proponents, as we have heard, point to a range of potential benefits such as improved packaging, better delivery of vitamins, lower-fat foods that have improved taste and texture, and reductions in food spoilage and food-borne disease. While all this sounds promising, the products themselves are very much at the research and development stage, and it remains to be seen how many will actually bear fruit commercially. However, many noble Lords have pointed out that what is clear, and what history tells us, is that unless consumers have full confidence in the safety of the end products, the benefits from innovation will be lost. This requires a combination of informed consumers and an appropriate, proportionate and fully transparent system of regulation.
The report addresses the need for better communication with the public about nanotechnologies in food. Members of the public rightly expect to have access to accurate and balanced information about issues that affect them and their families. This is particularly the case in relation to food, and the Food Standards Agency will work to ensure that information about nanotechnologies is made available in easily accessible ways.
The committee emphasised the importance of transparency. Of course the Government must play their part, but industry must also be open about the nanotechnology-enabled products that are being developed and used. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, was absolutely right to point out that we know from previous experience with genetically modified foods that innovation cannot be forced on an unwilling or sceptical public. It is therefore in everyone's interest to promote consumer confidence. This is particularly the case if, as some claim, nanotechnologies can help to tackle major challenges such as healthy eating and waste reduction.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked what the Government would do to ensure that the food industry is more transparent about its research on nanotechnologies, a question that was echoed by my noble friend Lord Selborne. The Food Standards Agency will work with industry and other stakeholders to ensure that as much information as possible is shared. That will be done, for example, by setting up a nanofoods stakeholder group and through a public list of products containing nanomaterials. Where I hesitate is over the committee's recommendation of a mandatory reporting system for food products that are under development. As I have indicated, the Government have not agreed their detailed strategy on nanotechnology in general, or on the fine detail of the committee's recommendations, but I could not but be struck by the arguments advanced by the Food Standards Agency in the previous Government's response to the report: namely, that mandatory reporting could be counterproductive as it could well have the effect of driving research out of the UK, making it even more difficult to keep abreast of developments. There could be other and less dirigiste ways of achieving the committee's aims in this area.
In answer to the direct question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, and my noble friend Lord Methuen, I can only repeat what I said earlier in the day about the Food Standards Agency. A robust regulatory function will continue to be delivered through the agency. The Government fully recognise the important role that the agency plays, but we are examining whether some-I emphasise the word "some"-of the functions of the FSA could more sensibly and cost-effectively sit elsewhere. But again, as I indicated earlier, no decisions about that have been taken.
There is a need to co-ordinate and collect information, and I can tell my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that the Food Standards Agency is in the process of setting up a nanofoods stakeholder group, as recommended by the Select Committee, and will consult this group before establishing a register of foods that are currently being manufactured with the use of nanotechnologies later this year.
Food products in the UK must meet the highest safety standards. As the committee concludes, different nanotechnologies raise different questions and so evaluation needs to be conducted on a case-by-case basis. For example, low fat mayonnaise made with a nanoemulsion of oil and water requires a different approach from insoluble nanoparticles of silver in a food supplement or embedded in food packaging.
The existing regulatory system for food ingredients provides a good level of control over new nanomaterials. The legislation will evolve, as it should, and I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that the committee's recommendations about clarifying the legal position of nanomaterials and drawing up appropriate definitions will be taken forward in the relevant fora in Brussels. The aim must be to provide clarity and safeguards against the introduction of new or altered food ingredients that have not undergone an independent safety assessment. This is important. In fact it has already happened in the area of food additives, and other revisions are under way in novel foods and food contact materials.
The noble Baroness, Lady O' Neill, urged the Government to ensure that regulation should be based on functionality and not only on size. The point is well made and the Government will take it fully into account in our discussions in Brussels. In fact, recent changes to legislation on food additives are not tied to a particular size threshold but to changes in properties due to any change in particle size.
The committee's report is one of several that highlight the gaps in our knowledge of nanomaterials. There is clearly a need to fill these gaps in order to assess and manage any potential risks effectively. We need to be able to ask the right questions and to draw the right conclusions from the data. The work that is currently under way, with funding from government departments and the research councils, will help to fill these gaps. In that context it is important to note that the various funding bodies do not operate in isolation but collaborate whenever possible. They also form part of a cross-government nanotechnologies research strategy group. This group has recently updated its list of research priorities, which will help to direct research funds in an effective way.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked specifically about the committee's concerns relating to the proposed definition of engineered nanomaterial in the amended novel foods regulation proposal. I have touched on this already but I should add that the proposal for an updated EU regulation on novel foods is still under discussion. If a definition is adopted, then the Food Standards Agency will work with the Commission and other member states in monitoring and updating the definition to take account of technical advances and to reflect any international developments.
On the issue of risk assessment, the European Food Safety Authority is producing a guidance document for risk assessment of nanomaterials which will provide practical recommendations on how to assess applications made by industry for the use of engineered nanomaterials.
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The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned that two products are known to be on the UK market. This was true in 2009 but I understand that one product became outlawed in January this year with changes to the law on food supplements.
My noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lord Selborne questioned whether the research councils were sufficiently proactive in tackling the knowledge gaps in relation to the safety of nanomaterials. The relevant research councils have all taken measures to stimulate research into the safety of nanomaterials. A number of projects have been funded in recent years and these efforts are being intensified. For example, a programme on environmental exposures and human health has been launched jointly by the MRC and the Natural Environment Research Council working with the Department for Health and Defra. The programme specifically highlights nano-scale materials as an area of interest. It will fund four to six strategic collaborative consortiums to a value of £8 million to £10 million. The research proposals are currently under review and it is anticipated that the grants will be awarded in August 2010.
My noble friend Lord Selborne emphasised the importance of better research co-ordination to address gaps in knowledge and, as I have indicated, the cross-government research group has recently updated its priorities for nanotechnology research. A list of priorities was published after the committee report in March 2010 and provides a new focus for publicly funded research to fill the gaps that we fully acknowledge.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell asked about progress on international collaboration of research. Government officials continue to work with the OECD programme on the safety of manufactured nanomaterials and I am informed that the underpinning research that has been commissioned with the help of the research councils is progressing well. At EU level the Technology Strategy Board is exploring further interactions with EU counterparts through involvement in a new research network focusing on the safe implementation of innovative nanotechnologies.
We have had a most valuable and constructive debate and I will take away the many points made. In conclusion, I emphasise the Government's commitment to fostering a responsible attitude towards innovation and in creating the space for new developments, such as nanotechnologies, while ensuring the right level of regulatory oversight. Many have spoken of the importance of transparency. There is much that the Government can do to help the UK to benefit from innovation but none of this will matter if the public are not properly informed or are suspicious of the motives of those who seek to market new and innovative products. That underlines the critical role of transparency if the benefits
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Lord Krebs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and other noble Lords who have taken part in this excellent debate. I do not propose to delay us for long but simply wish to note the positive response from the Minister, recognising that the coalition is still formulating its policy in certain areas. As it becomes clearer and the recommendations in our report are considered more extensively, I hope that I can remain in touch with the Minister and understand the full set of responses.
I note briefly a few points. I was very pleased to hear the Minister confirm a continuing role for the Food Standards Agency, that the regulatory issues that we addressed in Brussels are being taken forward, and that the activities of the research councils in commissioning research in this area seem to be moving ahead. The Minister also indicated the Government's recognition of the importance of communication and he mentioned that the food industry sees its work at a very early R&D stage. In our opinion in the sub-committee, that was precisely the stage at which communication should start. If we wait until products are about to come on to the shelves it is too late. We are pleased to hear that the dialogue is being initiated under the aegis of the Food Standards Agency.
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