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Clause 9

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1997

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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.