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Plant Varieties Bill

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1997

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Lords amendments considered.

Clause 6

Protected Variety

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 3, line 37, leave out from ("unless") to end of line 39 and insert

("subsection (4A) below applies.
(4A) This subsection applies if, before the product was made, any act mentioned in subsection (1) above was done as respects the harvested material from which the product was made and either—
  • (a) the act was done with the authority of the holder of the plant breeders' rights, or
  • (b) the holder of those rights had a reasonable opportunity to exercise them in relation to the doing of the act.")
  • 7.55 pm

    The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
    (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    Clause 6(4) provides for the breeder's right to extend to directly made products, in certain circumstances. Basically, if a plant breeder's right has been infringed in respect of harvested material from which the product is made, and he has not been able to act against that infringement, he should be able to act against the product.

    As originally drafted, clause 6(4) came into play only if the product was obtained from harvested material by committing an act requiring the breeder's authority—for example, selling, marketing and importing. It is, however, quite possible for a product to be made from harvested material to which the breeder's right extends, without committing any of the acts that require his authority. The amendment ensures that the breeder can act against infringement of his rights in these circumstances. It also brings the Bill into line with the UPOV convention and the Community regime.

    I shall not detain the House long on this or any other amendment, but I shall raise one or two issues of concern. I realise that the Minister has already participated in a full-length Standing Committee debate this morning and is to reply to the Adjournment debate later. He is clearly earning his salary today, so I do not want to test him more than necessary.

    I am puzzled by the need for the amendment. The Minister will recall that when we considered the Bill in the summer, in the Committee stage which was taken on the Floor of the House, I pressed him particularly on clause 6(1)(h)—the catch-all phrase, as I called it—which refers to
    "any other act prescribed for the purposes of this provision."

    The Minister said that that was necessary to ensure that everything else could be covered, and he gave one or two examples, yet when Lord Carter spoke to the amendment in the other place, he said:
    "It is, however, quite possible for a product to be made from harvested material to which the breeder's rights extend, without committing any of the acts in Clause 6(1)."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 1997; Vol. 582, c. 827.]
    That is what the Minister has just said, but if that is the case, I do not understand why there is the need for the catch-all paragraph (h).

    I have a further query about the use of material derived, to which the Minister referred. I am grateful to him for arranging for me to receive the notes on the amendments, but unusually, they threw up a question that is more puzzling than the amendment itself.

    I believe that I am entitled to quote from the notes. They refer to an example of a protected variety grown to produce oil, which is used in the manufacture of perfume, although I do not think that the ultimate use of the oil is relevant. It is implied that, effectively, the oil is the end product, and it is the oil to which the breeder's rights would apply. If I have understood that correctly, it casts a very different light on some aspects of the Bill.

    The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that plant breeders' rights are protected where the plants are used for some form of propagation—whether it be vegetative, for seed or whatever—but not where the plants are sown or planted for commercial exploitation. Yet, in this example, the notes imply that, if the breeder is not able to claim breeders' rights on the sowing of the seed—the reason is not explained—somehow he would have some claim against the oil. I am somewhat confused by that point, and I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the situation.

    8 pm

    I am not sure whether I can clarify those points now. If I cannot do so satisfactorily, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. Hon. Members will recall that the Committee stage took place on the Floor of the House in one day. Consequently, there was no Report stage and the other place has dealt with some issues. It has provided some clarification on parts of the Bill, which is implicit in other Lords amendments.

    As to the oil issue, I can do no more than refer to the notes on clauses. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to mention those notes, and I think that it is right and proper that Opposition Members should have the same information that I received about the effects of the proposed changes. I do not seek to put those notes on the record because that would take too long and they are not strictly relevant.

    The amendment comes into play only if Ministers decide to prescribe products. The oil is the end product, but only if Ministers decide that there are grounds for prescribing the oil. Even then, they can act against the oil only if they have not had the opportunity to act at an earlier stage against the propagation of the material or the harvested material. It is a fall-back position in some ways because the material progresses through different stages before it reaches the point where difficulties may arise. If I have not made the situation as clear as I might, I shall be happy to elucidate in writing to the hon. Gentleman.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Clause 8

    General Exceptions

    Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 4, line 38, leave out (", or other") and insert ("and")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    The 1991 UPOV convention, which we shall be able to ratify when the Bill is enacted, exempts acts done for private and non-commercial purposes from the breeders' rights. This ensures that amateur gardeners, for example, can continue to take cuttings of protected varieties for their own private use. The Bill as originally drafted referred to "private, or other non-commercial" use. That could be interpreted as permitting the multiplication of large quantities of protected varieties for public rather than private use provided that it is done for non-commercial purposes.

    That is not what the convention intended. Lords amendment No. 2 brings clause 8 into line with the convention, and the corresponding provision in the Community plant variety rights regime, by making it clear that an act must be both private and non-commercial in order to fall within the exemption.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Clause 9

    Farm Saved Seed

    Lords amendment: No. 3, in page 5, line 20, after ("date") insert ("after 30th June 2001")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    Farmers who have saved seed of a protected variety before the Bill comes into force may continue to do so without payment until such time as Ministers discontinue the "prior use" exemption by order.

    We have emphasised in the House and in the other place that we will not discontinue the prior use exemption until after 30 June 2001. The amendment writes that into the Bill. I was almost prepared to accept a manuscript amendment in Committee during the summer, but that is no longer necessary.

    The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I greatly welcome the agreement that he and his colleagues have reached on this subject. As he said, we discussed the matter in Committee. Notwithstanding the fact that yesterday the Home Secretary accepted a major amendment within minutes of proposing legislation on the European elections, I believe that this is the first amendment proposed by the Opposition in this Parliament to which the Government have acceded. I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the amendment—I hope that it is not the last time that that occurs.

    It is interesting to observe that the notes on the clause refer to the fact that on Second Reading in another place Lord Carter undertook to address our concerns. They do not mention the similar undertaking that the Minister gave me in Committee—I trust that that does not mean that he ignored that promise. I am grateful to him for agreeing to the amendment, which has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union and by the industry because it ensures that the exemption will continue at least until the date specified in the amendment, as agreed originally.

    The Minister may recall that I pressed him on Second Reading to amend the Bill, and he said that the matter would be attended to in another place. I was concerned that existing farm saved seed would not become liable to the requirement to pay equitable remuneration until at least July 2001. I also welcome the amendment and the Minister's support for it. The Minister may recall that I pressed him in verse on Second Reading. It might be fitting if I now

    • "Thank him for his graciousness
    • In truth I expected no less.
    • Here is the message his change will send:
    • He's an honourable farmers' friend."

    I am afraid that I cannot follow the verse of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), but I can confirm that the Liberal Democrats welcome the Government's acceptance of the amendment. We also welcome the fact that the date of 30 June 2001 will appear on the face of the Bill.

    The Minister will know that the Liberal Democrats are concerned about the balance in the Bill between the interests of plant breeders and of farmers. I shall return to that subject later, but this amendment is a move in the right direction.

    The Minister remarked generously on Second Reading that we must strike a balance in the Bill. While welcoming the amendment, I ask him to comment about the process of setting a date. There is a balance to be struck in relation to the holders of rights as well as those who are using farm saved seed. Perhaps the Minister might comment on the process and the date upon which he expects the exemption to be ended.

    No, I cannot expand on that point. However, it is the first time that I have been described as gracious and as the "farmers' friend". In order to avoid doubt in future, I put on record the fact that the Government will always be willing to consider sensible amendments from wherever they come. As I have said, I was prepared to accept a manuscript amendment over the summer, but it is better to accept the Lords amendment in this place.

    I am grateful for the response from both sides of the House—and particularly for the verse of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I hope that the spirit of consensus will continue throughout the rest of tonight's proceedings.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 5, line 39, at end insert—

    ("() Regulations under subsection (7) (a) above may include provision imposing obligations of confidence in relation to information supplied by virtue of the regulations.")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    Clause 9(7) enables Ministers to make regulations requiring plant breeders, seed processors and farmers to provide information to each other for the purposes of the farm saved seed provisions in the Bill. The amendment will enable Ministers to impose an obligation on the recipients of information to keep it confidential. If, for example, a farmer discloses that he has planted so many hectares of farm saved seed, the plant breeder receiving that information can be required to treat it as confidential. This is quite important. I ask the House to approve the Lords amendment.

    I cannot share the Minister's enthusiasm for the amendment, and I hope to explain why. He will be pleased to know that I do not intend to press for a Division.

    Any Government have to be very careful when seeking to restrict the amount of information that is in the public domain. We have seen from the Government—indeed from the Minister himself—a commitment to freedom of information. The Minister will remember that, when we discussed the Bill at lightning speed earlier this Session, I raised a number of matters relating to freedom of information. In response to a point that I made about freedom of information, the Minister said:
    "This Government plan to introduce a freedom of information Act: we are not in the business of denying access to information that is already available."—[Official Report, 24 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 739.]
    I suggest that the welcome statement from the Minister on that occasion is somewhat at variance with the Lords amendment. In itself, it is, perhaps, innocuous, but I wonder what damage would be done—perhaps the Minister will tell us—if the information relating to the examples that he gave earlier, about hectares, fields or whatever, were in the public domain. I do not believe that it would be particularly sensitive or cause great damage, but the Minister may take a different view.

    There is a history of secrecy in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which has not served the farmer or the consumer well in recent times. Dare I mention the dread three letters BSE—bovine spongiform encephalopathy? If the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had been far more open earlier on that matter, we would not have the crisis that so affects our beef farmers today.

    Equally, there are restrictions on pesticide information, and we are told that it is commercially sensitive—the same argument that we are given in relation to the amendment—yet that information is freely available in the United States. There is a tendency, which I detect in the amendment, for the Minister of Agriculture to keep information secret when it does not necessarily need to be. His Government are committed to freedom of information—I am sure that he is as well—but I ask him, through the Minister of State, to have a mind when introducing amendments that will restrict the amount of information available publicly.

    Nobody can argue successfully that, since May, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not been more open than in the past in publishing information; in the detail in which information is given in parliamentary answers; in publishing chemical surveillance reports; and in naming brands. Our record is there for everyone to see. That does not mean that every piece of private commercial information should be available to the public, which is the implication of what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

    The information to which the amendment refers is not available to my Department. I am in no position to publish information about what farmers have grown. That is commercial information. It is available to the farmer, the client or to whomever he or she may have rented the land. The Government do not hold that information, so we are not in a position to publish it. If we were it would be totally wrong. It is commercial. It is private, and to that extent it is privileged and would not be covered by any future freedom of information legislation.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Clause 10

    Exhaustion Of Rights

    Lords amendment: No. 5, in page 6, line 10, at end insert

    (", or
    (b) is derived from material which has been so sold or otherwise marketed.")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 6.

    The purpose of the amendments is to correct the drafting of clause 10. The breeder should be able to exercise rights only once in a cycle of propagation. If a farmer buys wheat seed to produce milling wheat, the breeder's right should be exhausted at the point of sale of the seed. The initial propagation to produce the commercial crop will be authorised in the sale, and the breeder has no rights over the subsequent crop of milling wheat. The breeder's right will not be exhausted, nor will he have authorised any propagation after the initial propagation.

    In other words, the breeder's right is not exhausted where there is further seed production. If, for example, certified first generation wheat seed is sold and used to produce certified second generation wheat, the breeder's right applies to the second generation seed. The amendments ensure that clause 10 accurately reflects that position, as it did not when the Bill was before the House.

    8.15 pm

    May I press the Minister on that point, because it seems that what he just said, which was close to what appears in the notes on clauses, appears to contradict the answer that he gave to me on Lords amendment No. 1? He just said that if a breeder sells seed to a farmer for the production of milling wheat, the breeder's right is exhausted at that point as long as it is used for the production of milling wheat. If the farmer reuses it to breed CI second generation seed, it is not exhausted, but the Minister made it clear, and I quote from the notes on clauses:

    "The breeder's right does not extend to the product of the seed, i.e. the milling wheat."

    However, a few moments ago, on Lords amendment No. 1, the Minister said that the right did extend. I cited the example of oil. He made it quite clear that the right did extend in extremis—I think that the phrase that he used was "a last resort"—to oil in that context. I apologise for pressing the Minister, but the debate has created the question whether the ultimate product carries that liability.

    I can only repeat—probably at a slower speed—the second paragraph that I just placed on the record. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is fairly complex, and in some ways esoteric, but it is very important to the breeders and farmers involved. These are draft corrections designed to clarify. The breeder's right will not be exhausted. Nor will he have authorised any propagation after the initial propagation. In other words, the breeder's right is not exhausted where there is further seed production. If, for example, certified first generation wheat is sold and used to produce certified second generation wheat, the breeder's right applies to the second generation seed, but not if it was to produce milling wheat.

    I understand exactly what the Minister has just said, but I am sure that if he reflects he will find that at odds with what he said earlier, because he said quite clearly that the right could apply in the earlier example of the issue of oil as a matter of last resort. That would imply that, in the case of milling wheat, if the breeder had not been able to get his rights before then, they would still lie on the milling wheat. I must press the Minister to be a little clearer about what appears to be a clear contradiction between the answers that he has given on these two amendments.

    I have obtained further clarification, for which I am extremely grateful. The point is that the breeder's right does not extend to the production of the seed, but if there has been illicit propagation—part of this is the policing process—and the breeder has not had the opportunity to exercise his rights, he may do so later, but only if illegal actions have taken place at earlier stages.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Lords amendment No. 6 agreed to.

    Clause 11


    Lords amendment:No. 7, in page 6, line 35, after ("period") insert

    (", not exceeding—
  • (a) in the case of paragraph (a), 35 years, and
  • (b) in the case of paragraph (b), 30 years,")
  • I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    The House will enjoy my first sentence about this amendment. The amendment addresses concerns about the unlimited powers of Ministers to extend the period of rights by restricting their powers to extend the rights for particular species or groups to five years in total. Effectively, that means that the rights for trees, vines and potatoes may be extended to a maximum of 35 years and the rights for other species or groups may be extended to 30 years in total. I hope that the House will agree with the amendment.

    I certainly agree with the amendment because it is not dissimilar to one that I moved on 24 June 1997, which appears in Hansard at column 735. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) was claiming that the first Conservative amendments of the new Parliament have been woven into legislation, I can perhaps claim something similar for a Liberal Democrat amendment.

    I am delighted by the efforts of the House of Lords and by the Minister's change of heart. When I first introduced an amendment to restrict the unlimited power of Ministers it was—I would say "rubbished" but that is probably unparliamentary, Mr. Deputy Speaker—comprehensively and strongly rejected by the Minister. He said:
    "I cannot accept the amendment because it would prevent periods of rights being altered by secondary legislation, which is currently possible under the 1964 Act."—[Official Report, 24 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 736.]
    I am delighted that he has found a way of accepting something similar and I am happy to support it.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    New Clause

    Lords amendment: No. 8, after clause 13, to insert the following new clause—Presumptions in proceedings relating to harvested material—

    ".—(1) This section applies to any proceedings for the infringement of plant breeders' rights as respects harvested material.

    (2) If, in any proceedings to which this section applies, the holder of the plant breeders' rights proves, in relation to any of the material to which the proceedings relate—

  • (a) that it has been the subject of an information notice given to the defendant by or on behalf of the holder, and
  • (b) that the defendant has not, within the prescribed time after the service of the notice, supplied the holder with the information about it requested in the notice,
  • then, as regards the material in relation to which the holder proves that to be the case, the presumptions mentioned in subsection (3) below shall apply, unless the contrary is proved or the defendant shows that he had a reasonable excuse for not supplying the information.

    (3) The presumptions are—

  • (a) that the material was obtained through unauthorised use of propagating material, and
  • (b) that the holder did not have a reasonable opportunity before the material was obtained to exercise his rights in relation to the unauthorised use of the propagating material.
  • 4) The reference in subsection (2) above to an information notice is to a notice which—

  • (a) is in the prescribed form,
  • (b) specifies the material to which it relates,
  • (c) contains, in relation to that material, a request for the supply of the prescribed, but no other, information, and
  • (d) contains such other particulars as may be prescribed.
  • (5) In this section, "prescribed" means prescribed by regulations made by the Ministers."

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 9 and 10.

    The House will forgive me if I take a little longer over these amendments. They are three new clauses and, taken together, they address the particular problems that breeders of vegetatively propagated ornamental plants face in enforcing their rights. I will put that into plain English in a moment.

    Ornamental plants are traded to the public through a wide range of retail outlets, including garden centres, supermarkets and by mail order. They are things that we and our constituents buy every week as gifts or to enhance our living rooms.

    Ornamental plants, by their very nature, are easy to multiply through, for example, taking cuttings or using modern tissue culture techniques. The products—rose bushes or pot plants—which have been produced legitimately and on which royalty has been paid, can easily be diverted from their proper end use and used for further propagation, without the breeder's authority, as they are traded through a chain to the final consumer.

    Illicit propagation, where no royalty is paid, enables less scrupulous traders—there are spivs in our society— to undercut legitimate traders who are operating correctly and fairly. It gives people an unfair advantage. It is similar to the reason why, in due course, we intend to introduce a national minimum wage.

    Plants that have been produced through illicit propagation are the same as those produced by authorised propagation—it is, after all, a condition of protection that plants reproduce true to type. Therefore, a plant breeder cannot identify infringing material simply by looking at the plants. He needs to know the source of the plants on sale. If the seller refuses to provide information on where he obtained the plants—those who knowingly trade in illicitly produced protected varieties will almost certainly refuse to do so—the breeder is left with a strong suspicion that his rights are being infringed, but nothing more.

    The new clauses provide for plant breeders to issue information notices, in a form prescribed by Ministers in regulations, to people trading in plants or directly made products of protected varieties. Where the trader refuses to provide the information requested within a period specified in the regulations, without reasonable excuse, the clauses require the courts to presume that the material or directly made products to which the notice relates were obtained in circumstances which infringed the breeder's right, unless the defendant can show otherwise. In effect, the burden of proof is reversed in those carefully defined circumstances—I emphasise that they are carefully defined circumstances.

    The information to be provided will not be onerous. It will basically be details of the supplier and the amount of material supplied by him. It is reasonable to suppose that anyone selling plants will know whom he bought them from and how many he bought.

    The breeder must treat the information obtained in a notice as confidential, except where he uses it to establish whether his rights have been infringed or in infringement proceedings. If the breeder breaches the obligation of confidentiality, the person who supplied the information will be able to bring an action for breach of a duty of confidentiality.

    I expect plant breeders to use those provisions in a proportionate and sensible way, in respect of transactions which are in the normal course of business. There should be no question of plant breeders laying siege to local church fetes and bring-and-buy sales, demanding information on the source of plants on the plant stall. I must also emphasise that the clauses do not permit plant breeders to serve notices on private individuals growing plants in their own gardens, for their own private and non-commercial purposes.

    The Minister is right to spend a little longer on these new clauses, because they are significant. I congratulate him on using, word for word, the same speech used by the noble Lord Carter when he moved the same new clauses in the House of Lords.

    Yes, indeed. Two Ministers speaking with the same voice. The Minister without Portfolio has obviously been into the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently.

    There is something serious about the amendments and that is the reversal of the presumption of innocence. As we all know, that is well enshrined in English law. A proposal to reverse that is a major step. It is not without precedent, but we must take it seriously and consider carefully whether it is necessary. I am persuaded that it probably is necessary, but there are issues of concern.

    The Minister and his noble Friend Lord Carter—I should say our noble Friend because he is an old friend of mine—referred, rightly, to charitable activities, car boot sales, church fetes and so on. He made it clear, as we would expect, that plant breeders should not be roaring round the countryside handing out information notices at every little place that sells plants.

    I have no doubt that the Minister's words were well intentioned and that he meant them, but there is nothing that he or I or any other hon. Member can do to stop that happening. I wonder whether he has given any thought to what measures could be taken or what advice or guidelines could be issued to try to prevent that happening. As he implicitly accepts, there would be a major problem for many valuable community activities if that were taking place.

    The second issue of concern is imported material. I am sure that the Minister is aware that considerable numbers of ornamental vegetation and plants are produced overseas and that there is a considerable amount of two-way trade between us and other countries, particularly the Netherlands. Somebody who has an information notice served on them could say that the parent material was imported. As the Minister said, because of type reproduction, it can be traced back to the breeder originally, but I wonder whether he can tell the House about the relevance of the international aspect of the trade. It is not clear from the new clauses how that would operate. I do not know whether a breeder would have the authority to seek information from growers abroad from whom it might be claimed that somebody purchased the plants being sold on. That is important, particularly because of the relevance of the Bill, as the Minister reminded us, to the UPOV convention. I hope that he will respond to the two important concerns that I have expressed.

    I have an interest in this subject, having previously worked as head of statistics at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, which dealt with many of the issues that we are discussing. The institute works mainly with agricultural varieties, but it has dealt with the propagation of chrysanthemums and associated plant varieties.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the new clauses. They were obviously needed, and he seems to have covered every aspect, including, I am pleased to say, exemption for the car boot sales and church fetes. We all appreciate that. Will my hon. Friend clarify the status of material that has been taken illegally, perhaps from a garden centre, a botanical garden or some other public place, and used as propagating material for private or public use? It would be helpful for people to know that, and to have it put on the record. I hope that I am not putting my hon. Friend in any difficulty. The problem may already be covered by the law.

    8.30 pm

    I shall not repeat at length the comments made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), but it is fair to say that the Liberal Democrats agree with the points that she made, and are concerned that a presumption is being built into the legislation that is against the farmer in an unusual way. Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems that the voice of plant breeders is heard more loudly than the voice of farmers. I would not say that they have been nobbled, but we are concerned about the balance between the two views. The National Farmers Union has written to most hon. Members who are interested in this matter to show its concern about the way in which the Bill has been loaded against farmers. How often are we presented with loaded presumptions, as we are in this legislation?

    I should also like to draw attention to the speech of Lord Carter, which the Minister quoted verbatim. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that he would expect plant breeders to use those provisions in a proportionate and sensible way, but there is no guarantee that they will be so used. We may expect and hope that a fox, let loose in a chicken coop, will behave sensibly, but there is no guarantee that it will. Hon. Members may forgive me if that is not an exact parallel.

    It is dangerous to introduce such open-ended legislation, which relies on people to behave reasonably when they could benefit from behaving unreasonably. We require answers from the Minister to the questions that have been asked on this subject.

    y other concern, which I also expressed when we debated amendment No. 4, relates to the restriction of information that is implicit in amendment No. 10. I acknowledge that the Minister and his colleagues have been more open. The door to freedom of information has been opened within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and within other Departments, but it has not been opened far enough, and the proof of the pudding will be in the White Paper to be published shortly. I do not want to be antagonistic, but I must say that the Minister's feel for freedom of information may not be the same as the feel within the Department that he inherited. Liberal Democrats are looking to him and his colleagues to ensure that the culture of freedom of information that he wants to achieve is not stymied by the traditions of his Department. It is easy to slip back into habits of secrecy, so I ask them to be on their guard for any such moves.

    The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) referred to the history of the Department. Civil servants are professional, dedicated people who serve this Government in the same professional, dedicated way in which they have served other Governments. They act on the instructions of Ministers, and it is the current Ministers who have decided to be open.[Interruption.]The hon. Gentleman must take the issue seriously, or we cannot have a proper debate. I ask him to judge us on our performance, and not on his prejudices or what the press cuttings say.

    In answer to the final question of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), I was tempted to say that the Theft Act 1968 would cover that aspect, but that is not the full answer. The status of material that is taken illegally is an important issue. If the plant is a protected variety, it is exempt if it is used for private propagation but, if it has been stolen, it will be covered by the Theft Act 1968. If it is used publicly for commercial propagation, the rights of the plant breeder can be exercised, notwithstanding the fact that the material has been stolen.

    The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that this measure was a reversal of the presumption of innocence, but I am not sure that it goes that far. This is a modest change. I must make it absolutely clear that information notices cannot be handed out for private and non-commercial acts. The notices do not reverse the burden of proof: there have to be court proceedings. The courts will have to deal with that matter, and the burden of proof in the courts will remain: that is not being changed.

    I have no doubt that, in due course, Ministers will address that issue when they agree the form to be prescribed in regulations. If there is any abuse of the notices and regulations, we shall alter them.

    On the international aspect, the Bill applies to the United Kingdom.

    It is not usual for hon. Members to make a second speech.

    I am sorry, I should have spoken with the leave of the House. I wanted to challenge the Minister on the amendments, and I should have intervened while he was speaking.

    Will the Minister think again about imports? He rightly said that the law applies only in the United Kingdom but, in the particular circumstances of ornamental plants and the international aspect to which I referred, there is a glaring loophole. Anyone who is served an information notice can simply claim that the original plant was imported.

    I shall look into the matter and, if there is a loophole, I shall see what action can be taken. Clearly, action cannot be taken under the Bill, but it may be taken under regulations.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Lords amendments Nos. 9 and 10 agreed to.

    Clause 45

    Regulations And Orders

    Lords amendment: No. 11, in page 18, line 9, at end insert—

    ("() Before making any regulations or order under this Act, the Ministers shall consult such organisations as appear to them to be representative of persons likely to be substantially affected by the regulations or order.")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    The amendment requires Ministers to consult organisations representing those likely to be substantially affected before making orders and regulations under the Bill. We are consulting day in and day out as a matter of routine, so we had no difficulty when we were asked to enshrine this requirement in the Bill in the other place.

    I welcome the fact that the Minister is prepared to accept that organisations should be consulted and that he is willing for that to be spelt out in the Bill. That is a welcome step.

    I draw attention to the fact that the amendment refers to the Plant Varieties Act 1997. That phrase was introduced in the House of Lords on 23 October this year. That is symptomatic of the fact that the Government have sought to push the Bill through at lightning speed from the moment that they took office in May, even to the extent that they assume in the amendment that it will be on the statute book before the end of the year.

    Does the hon. Gentleman agree that everyone involved in the industry has been asking for the Bill for many years? It may have been rather dilatory of the previous Government not to have introduced the Bill earlier.

    I welcome the commitment to consultation, which is the thrust of what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is saying. I shall return to my second point in a moment.

    The Opposition welcome the Government's decision to include a commitment to consultation in the Bill. I welcome the fact that the Government have pursued a line that is usually taken by the Opposition, whoever they may be. The Opposition often demand that a commitment to consultation should be written on to the face of the Bill. I am grateful to the Government for making that commitment.

    I am also grateful to the Minister. The Lords amendment is testimony to the open way in which he has handled the Bill throughout. I want to use this speech as a vehicle to thank him for the way in which he has handled the Bill. I regret that it was rushed through the House especially as, as the Minister knows, it was introduced about two days after the Opposition Front-Bench team took on its new responsibilities. We had a fast learning curve, although I realise that that is not unusual on either side of the House, as the Minister well knows. I also thank him for his courtesy in responding to our questions. He has looked for consultation, as is enshrined in the amendment.

    I look forward to the Minister's response on one or two of the issues I raised earlier. I thank him for everything he has done and I am happy to support the amendment.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Clause 48

    Consequential Amendments

    Lords amendment: No. 12, in page 18, line 28, at end insert—

    ("(2A) In Schedule 4 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, in the entry relating to the Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal, for the words after "Tribunal" there shall be substituted "(referred to in section 39 of the Plant Varieties Act 1997)".")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 13.

    These consequential amendments also refer to the Plant Varieties Act 1997. I shall continue to develop the point I made in my speech on Lords amendment No. 11. I want to express Liberal Democrat Members' regret that the Bill has been rushed through Parliament. I know that the Government and the official Opposition do not regard the Bill as controversial, but we do.

    I hope that hon. Members understand that the assumption built into the amendment that the Bill will be enacted by the end of the year shows that the Government were determined to railroad through the Bill. The matter was drawn to the Minister's attention on Second Reading not only by Liberal Democrat Members, but by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I suspect that the Minister does not welcome my contributions on the Bill.

    I remind the Minister that the Bill will enable up to five American biotechnology companies to control about 80 per cent. of the staples that we eat, within five years. The world market for genetically altered seeds will reach US $7 billion by 2005.

    I remind hon. Members of the words of Vandana Shiva in "Future of our Seeds". The author concludes:
    "Transnational companies will decide what is grown by farmers, what they use as inputs, and when they sell their produce, to whom and at what price."

    The Minister will say that the Bill is purely about patents. In a sense, he is right, but the implications go further. Rather than rubbishing what I have said, as I think that he may do, I hope that he accepts that the Bill has serious implications. The Government should think carefully about ensuring a fair balance between the interests of farmers and consumers and those of the biotechnology companies.

    8.45 pm

    There will never be a time when anyone can accuse me of not being full and frank with hon. Members. I spoke very briefly to the amendment. I raised the hon. Gentleman's point in a previous incarnation many years ago. I suspect that the Bill will be passed tonight to become the Plant Varieties Act 1997. He may be shocked to learn that, if Royal Assent takes place in 1998 for some reason, the House authorities will alter the relevant passages so that they refer to the Plant Varieties Act 1998.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Lords amendment No. 13 agreed to.

    Schedule 1

    The Plant Variety Rights Office

    Lords amendment: No. 14, in page 20, line 10, after ("may") insert

    ("with the consent of the Minister for the Civil Service")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    The Bill provides for the pay and allowances of staff of the Plant Variety Rights Office to be determined by Agriculture Ministers jointly—my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my hon. Friends in the territorial Departments. The amendment provides for the Act to be subject to the consent of the Minister with responsibility for the civil service, which is appropriate.

    As this is probably the last time I shall speak in the debate, I thank hon. Members for their courtesy and support over the summer. This is the first Bill that I have taken through the House, although not having had a Committee stage upstairs, I freely admit that I have not been truly blooded as a Minister.

    I sincerely thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Between the appointment of his new Front-Bench team in June and the debate on Lords amendments, there has been a change to the team, but not one that involves him. I am grateful for what he has said.

    Lords amendment agreed to [Special Entry].

    Schedule 4


    Lords amendment: No. 15, in page 26, column 3, leave out lines 33 to 40 and insert ("Part I")

    With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 16.

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 are purely technical, concerning repeals, which are listed as a necessary consequence of the passage of the Bill into an Act.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    Lords amendment No. 16 agreed to.

    Northern Ireland Grand Committee

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 116 (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (Sittings)),

    That, at the meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee on Thursday 11th December,—

    (1) the Committee shall consider the matter of public expenditure in Northern Ireland in 1998–99;

    (2) at the completion of those proceedings, a motion for the adjournment of the Committee may be made by a Minister of the Crown, pursuant to Standing Order No. 116(l)(/i).—[ Mr. Pope.]

    Question agreed to.