House of Lords
Monday 12 December 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.
Introduction: Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill
Peter Gerard Hendy, CBE, having been created Baron Hendy of Richmond Hill, of Imber in the County of Wiltshire, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Hendy, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Peach
Sir Stuart William Peach, KBE, having been created Baron Peach, of Grantham in the County of Lincolnshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord McDonald of Salford, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Death of a Former Member: Lord Young of Graffham
My Lords, I regret to inform the House of the death of Lord Young of Graffham on 9 December. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to his family and friends.
Football: Abuse and Violence
To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with football authorities about abuse and violence directed against referees and other match day officials.
My Lords, His Majesty’s Government are clear that all forms of antisocial behaviour, abuse and assault against match officials, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable. The Government regularly discuss the measures being taken by the football authorities to stamp out this behaviour and will continue to press for action against the small minority of people who act in this way.
There are a large number of 14 to 17 year-old children—boys and girls—who are referees. The Football Association tells me that it is 35% of registered referees. Despite their age, these children receive abuse from parents and coaches—from adults. In some cases, when that happens they have to go, without support, into a decentralised system run by the FA and face the person who has abused them. Does the Minister agree that the FA needs a centralised system and that the first principle for these children should be safeguarding, not the football systems that currently prevail?
The noble Lord raises an important issue. One of the great powers of sport is that it brings people of all ages and all backgrounds together. Of course, we want everybody who takes part to have a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. That is a matter for the football authorities, but I will be very happy to undertake to make sure that officials at my department are speaking to them about this issue.
My Lords, will the Government give us some idea of their opinion of the professional conduct in football whereby people sit around and shout at a referee who has given a decision they do not like? Will the Government encourage the FA to make sure that dissent is punishable by a card or a sending off? If you do this, you can rest assured that professional managers will not want to end games with seven or eight players.
We believe that change needs to come from the top and participants in the professional game have the opportunity to be positive role models for people taking part at every level. That is a central message in the FA’s new “Enough is Enough” campaign. Underlining this, last month the FA challenged a decision by the independent regulatory commission only to fine the manager of Liverpool FC following his sending off by the referee for shouting in the face of a linesman. The FA won its appeal and Mr Klopp served a one-game touchline ban.
My Lords, I declare a double interest after that answer, as both a member of the Football Regulatory Authority and a supporter of Liverpool Football Club. As my noble friend has said, all forms of abuse are unacceptable. The FA is doing important work in this area, including safeguarding. There are going to be increased sanctions, more education for both players and supporters and, at grass-roots level, the introduction of the sin-bin—which may be an idea that my noble friend the Chief Whip will take up at some point. Does my noble friend welcome these developments and the increased focus to make sure that every match official is protected from abuse within and outside the stadium, so that we can all make the beautiful game even more beautiful?
I congratulate my noble friend on his appointment and commend the work undertaken by the Football Association. I have mentioned its “Enough is Enough” campaign, which is taking action against anybody whose behaviour is unacceptable. The FA can also ban anybody who is abusive or violent towards match officials, and stricter sanctions have been introduced this season which will see longer bans put in place and mandatory education courses before anyone found guilty can return to football.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that even in the most important football games, referees sometimes make inexplicable decisions—a whole series of them—which have a very adverse impact on the result? In the light of that, will he commend the attitude of the England manager, Gareth Southgate, and the England players, who displayed admirable sportsmanship in the most difficult of circumstances?
I will not speculate on any recent examples of the behaviour the noble Lord mentions, but I most certainly do congratulate the whole England football team for their conduct throughout the World Cup. They have made people, not just in England, very proud of their behaviour and people have enjoyed their very creditable performance.
My Lords, unfortunately I have personal experience of being assaulted on a football pitch as a young referee. I do not recall making any bad decisions, by the way. In all seriousness, the Minister said that this was a small minority of cases; I only wish that that were true. I am the president of a very large kids’ football team, involving some 400 children, and we have to make sure that parents—both mums and dads—who are looking after kids of only five, six or seven years of age, are not shouting abuse at referees or even running on to the pitch. Is it not possible for the county FAs to give very clear directions that, if anything like this happens, the parents should be banned from watching their games and teams for at least a full season?
It is indeed for the FA to make sure that good behaviour is promulgated throughout the football pyramid. Where behaviour is criminal, such as assault, incidents should be reported to the police and appropriate action taken. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service have a range of legislation they can use to address serious incidents of other sorts. However, it is up to everybody in leadership positions in football to ensure that good behaviour is promoted at every level.
My Lords, is this not yet another example of domestic football not being managed properly? When do the Government intend to introduce a regulator to start to deal with some of these problems?
These issues were looked at as part of the fan-led review conducted my honourable friend Tracey Crouch, and it was clear that the Government need to take action. Leaving certain things to the sector has not worked for decades, and fans have been let down by certain owners not acting responsibly. We will be setting out our plans to reform club football governance in the White Paper that is coming soon.
My Lords, I understand that body cameras worn by referees are being trialled by some leagues in adult grass-roots fixtures. It sounds like a sensible initiative. Can the Minister update us on it?
Technology is indeed helping in football, as it is in many sports. That is a matter for the football authorities, but I will certainly reinforce the noble Lord’s point.
Would my noble friend like to take this opportunity to congratulate the England team on a 26-run victory over Pakistan, in circumstances where everyone respected the umpire and the way in which the cricket was played there?
I most certainly would. My noble friend makes an important point about good behaviour, which we see across a number of sporting forms.
My Lords, those who officiate at football matches, at every level, have a thankless task in making real-time decisions in the blink of an eye, mostly without the assistance of VAR. They undoubtedly deserve our respect and admiration for their commitment to fair play. What consideration has been given to using the forthcoming Online Safety Bill to tackle threats to match officials that are made on social media?
We have already had discussions in connection with the Online Safety Bill to make sure we tackle the completely unacceptable form of abuse we see against football players and others in leading positions in sport, following their performances. The Bill is designed to ensure that everybody has a safe and enjoyable experience online, and I look forward to debating it with noble Lords when it reaches your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend acknowledges, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the enormous amount of time that young people spend playing and enjoying football. Does he not think that we ought to be speaking out more about some of the influencers from senior clubs and the language that appears to be permitted in our football grounds?
Yes—verbal abuse and some of the chants that we hear need to be addressed. The FA’s “Enough is Enough” campaign is, as I say, making it clear that anybody who undertakes unacceptable behaviour will have action taken against them.
My Lords, I qualified as a football referee at Dartmouth in 1966, and I gave up after a few years because I was conscious of making wrong decisions. Within the service environment there was not this threatening behaviour, but there is no doubt that, when one has made certain decisions—and the referees do work very hard—such threats are really damaging and dangerous. Something has to be done to stop this happening.
My Lords, 1966 was clearly a very good year for football in this country. The noble Lord makes an important point: there are fantastic role models in the Navy and across the Armed Forces, who demonstrate very high-quality behaviour. That is what we want to see at football matches, so that everybody can enjoy the game.
Domestic Abuse Victims: Housing Benefit
To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that housing benefit for domestic abuse victims living in exempt accommodation is only paid to providers that have recognised expertise and who meet the standards in Part 4 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.
The Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill would introduce national standards for all supported housing, including domestic abuse safe accommodation, as well as locally led licensing schemes. This new system will drive out unscrupulous and poor providers who are exploiting vulnerable people. We will work with supported housing providers, including specialist providers of safe accommodation for those fleeing domestic abuse, using already defined standards for all of those in safe accommodation. The detail of the licensing regime will be developed through consultation and in regulations.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. In a report in October, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee said that the exempt accommodation is a “complete mess”. Given this, I think the Minister needs to inform the House of situations where some women who are abuse survivors have had to run away, for the second time, from the housing that they were allocated, because the safe accommodation was as threatening and violent as the home they had just left, and sometimes even return to the violent home. It is therefore important that there is some timescale on this, because it is clearly an urgent matter.
The noble Baroness is correct: we cannot accept this. I am not sure that they flee from allocated housing; often, it is from rogue landlords. We are dealing with that in a number of ways, including through the supported housing improvement programme and the measures in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Those measures license those houses within local authority control, which are the ones that are normally allocated. Through this and the supported housing Bill, the Government are sending out a clear message to rogue landlords in the sector that we will not tolerate that poor-quality support and the exploitation of very vulnerable people.
My Lords, there is exploitation. We see terrible conditions in our housing sector, such as mould on walls and damp. These women are fleeing domestic violence, often with young children. What will the exact timescale be to ensure that we do not see these kinds of cases, which we see flashing past our screens almost every evening?
My noble friend is bringing up two issues. First, on mould and damp, the Secretary of State has made it very clear to social housing providers that this is not acceptable and he is keeping a very close eye on what they are doing and the outcomes of that. Secondly, regarding very vulnerable people, I urge anybody who needs help and support to go to their local authority. What worries me is that they are looking online for housing, and that is where they are being very badly exploited.
My Lords, following the Minister’s response about urging women who are suffering domestic abuse to go their local authorities, perhaps it would help if she looked at last September’s report from the Public Interest Law Centre, which outlined eight ways in which local authorities are not providing the support that they should under the legislation. For example, they are making offers of unsuitable temporary or long-term accommodation, and survivors are being refused support until a threat of legal action is made. Has the Minister seen that report? If not, will she do so and refer it to her department so that they can make some changes in the legislation?
I have not seen that report, but I will certainly look at it. Under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, local authorities must commission enough of the right support to meet the needs of all of those victims and their children, and they must monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of that provision. Therefore, if they are not doing that, I will certainly take that back to the department and we will look into it further.
My Lords, when freezing the housing allowance yet again, did the Government assess the impact on domestic abuse survivors and their children trying to establish themselves in independent accommodation?
Yes, the noble Baroness is right that that was a difficult decision in the economic climate as it is, but, as I have said in this Chamber before, we had to make a very balanced decision on rent and social housing rents because of the effect on the provider as well as on the resident.
My Lords, in addressing this very important Question, I think we should also consider the experience of migrant survivors who may have insecure status or no recourse to public funds or may be frightened of repercussions for contacting the police. Will the Minister outline what progress the Government have made in the light of the DAC’s recommendation to develop a long-term funding solution that ensures that a clear universal pathway to support is available to domestic abuse survivors regardless of migration status and whether they will be reporting on the results of the pilot project to support migrant survivors?
I do not know when the report is coming through, but these are the vulnerable people I was talking about earlier. They may have English as a second language, and they may be concerned about anybody in authority so they may be frightened to go to the right area, which is the local authority. I ask that anybody who has any contact with these people asks them to do that. At the same time, once the Bill comes through, providers will have to be licensed and they should not be licensed if they are not fit to offer this accommodation.
Will my noble friend give an undertaking to the House, bearing in mind the stress that local authority budgets are under, that this funding will be ring-fenced for domestic abuse victims?
It will be ring-fenced and local authorities are well provided with money for this issue. There are also 26 pilots across the country that are getting £20 million. They are in the areas that are most affected by these rogue landlords. They will have money to spend to increase the learning of what they can do and to support them in getting rid of these landlords in their areas.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of the victims of domestic abuse are also victims of forced marriage? Many of them are very young, and some of them are under 18. Will she make sure that they are helped in a way that is appropriate for very young girls?
Of course I understand that, and I will certainly take that back and make sure we are looking at that particular group of young women.
Does the Minister accept that this needs to be seen in the context of a chronic shortage of truly affordable homes and that there has been a very considerable increase in the number of unscrupulous agencies exploiting gaps in the regulatory regime in order to claim higher benefit levels, effectively, without providing even the most minimal support? Can she confirm that the Government are aware of the extent of this problem now and where the problem arises and that the review that she has indicated has been undertaken will make sure that those unscrupulous agencies will be stopped completely?
Yes, the Government are aware and, yes, we always need more social housing. There are more and more pressures on social housing. The Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill, which had its Second Reading in the other place on 18 November, is being supported by the Government. It should, through licensing and regulation, stop these rogue landlords for the future.
To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the delivery of ordered Ajax vehicles.
My Lords, the recent user-validation trials to assess the effectiveness of the modifications proposed by General Dynamics to address the noise and vibration concerns over Ajax are complete, so the department can now safely move to the next stage of testing: reliability growth trials. These are designed to test both the reliability of the vehicle and its installed systems to ensure a final-build standard that meets the department’s demanding standards for this new platform.
I thank the Minister for making a phenomenal effort to be here to answer the Question. Notwithstanding her Answer, 589 Ajax vehicles were supposed to be delivered in 2017, at a total cost of £5.5 billion. Only 26 have been delivered so far and none is operational, at a cost of £3.5 billion and counting. Potentially 300 military personnel have been harmed by excessive noise and vibration. Can the Minister tell the House when all these vehicles will be delivered to the front line and at what cost? Do the Government still have full confidence in the programme or are they examining alternatives?
I thank the noble Lord for his kind comments; I felt as though I was in perpetual transit until I walked through the front door of this building.
This has been a rocky road, as I have acknowledged before. To be honest, I think that where we have got to now represents a seismic leap forward; that is, the successful conclusion of user-validation trials. This is an important vehicle. As the noble Lord is aware, it will be transformative for our British Army. It will offer technological advancement—something that Challenger 2 and Warrior do not currently possess. The noble Lord is quite correct: we were very concerned about the health and safety issues that were arising, hence the pause in the trials and the instruction to the MoD director of health and safety, Mr David King, to carry out a review. I can confirm that we have implemented now a number of the recommendations that Mr King made. We are very clear that, while this is an important addition and an important vehicle for the Army, we will not accept anything that is not fit for purpose. We remain in close contact with General Dynamics and I think we can now see a way forward.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve. There is no doubt that it has been a rocky road, and perhaps we should expect that, if we are to maintain a sovereign land industrial capability. But who is to blame? The answer is successive Governments. We have allowed our land industrial base to atrophy. Moving forward, will we learn that lesson? Can my noble friend perhaps say a few words on that? In the same way that we have maintained a maritime industrial base with a continuity of skills, continuing to build ships, will we now learn that lesson in the land domain? How will the recently published Land Industrial Strategy ensure that we do?
My noble friend makes an important point. I am not going to stand here with a finger pointing blame at individual Governments. There has been a collective, cumulative process, as my noble friend describes. As far as the Army is concerned, I hope that the Land Industrial Strategy—which we published in May this year and which sets out the intent, ways of working and actions by which the Army, wider Ministry of Defence and industry will collaborate to maximise the value from investment in Army modernisation and transformation—will ensure that the Army is equipped for the future and receives the capabilities that it requires in a way that drives opportunity for UK industry and the economy but also benefits the Army.
My Lords, a lessons-learned study was announced in May this year on what went wrong with the Ajax project. Can the Minister tell us what progress is being made with that study, when it is likely to be finished and whether it will be published in full or, at least, mostly in part? Can she also tell us whether the Procurement Bill, currently finishing its passage through this House, contains clauses that make it substantially less likely that another problem like this would arise?
I think the noble Lord refers to the King report—the report from the director of health and safety in the MoD. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, we have implemented a number of these recommendations. In particular, we have stood up the noise and vibration working groups; that is an important development. Future trials of armoured vehicles will have real-time measurement of noise and vibration; that is very important. A dedicated cell has been established to support safety-risk governors for senior responsible owners with complex projects. They carry a huge responsibility and they need that support. On the wider issue mentioned, the Procurement Bill addresses particular issues of procurement but, at the end of the day, how procurement is done effectively in monitoring governance assessment is very much a matter of good regime within the MoD. We now have in place practices, procedures and processes to try to ensure that we are approaching these complex contracts in the best way that we can.
My Lords, could the Minister say more about the damage to and loss of hearing mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and what steps are being taken to ameliorate that or recompense those who have suffered?
When the problem emerged during trials, immediate action was taken: support was given, medical help was provided and monitoring continues. I do not have up-to-date information, but I will make inquiries and write to the noble and gallant Lord about that. Recently, it was made clear during the user-validation trials that no one was to feel under obligation to continue if they had concerns about health and safety, and they were free to speak up. As far as I am aware, the trials were able to proceed without interruption.
My Lords, the sunk-cost fallacy is a powerful distorter of human behaviour in institutions as well as among individuals. When we look back at, say, the procurement history of the Eurofighter, we see that there was never a moment when it would not have been better to cancel it, every time it came up for review. Now, with Ajax, we are looking at a vehicle that is too heavy, that cannot fire while moving, and that, as we have heard, impacts on human health because of the motion and the noise. Will my noble friend the Minister look at tweaking procurement so that we can stop throwing good money after bad—perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, suggests, in the coming legislation?
As I indicated, Ajax is a very important development. It is a highly protected and versatile platform. It is able to move, fight, command and be repaired anywhere on the battlefield. It is future-proofed, with an advanced sensor suite and open digital technology to face evolving threats. That is taking us into a technological age for the Army that we do not currently have with any of our equipment. That is why we are very keen to procure this vehicle. But as I said earlier, we will not take anything that is not fit for purpose.
My Lords, the Ajax programme, no matter how much one dresses it up, has been a complete and utter disaster. It has been a real shambles. But my question relates to future procurement. With the Ukrainians, we have seen technology—AI and such things—very rapidly changing how they fight. For example, the time to bring in counterbattery fire has been brought down by about 90%. Are we taking notice of these issues and working out new methods of procurement? We have to change things so rapidly because of the way modern warfare is changing.
I very often find cause to disagree with the noble Lord, but, on this occasion, I accept his proposition that the conflict in Ukraine has informed us. It is the most recent example of global conflict that we have encountered in modern times, and it has been extremely educational and informative for the MoD. As to how that reaches out into procurement, it has highlighted where issues can arise in relation to procurement, particularly at short notice and in securing procurement at pace, and we are learning these lessons. But, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, a lot of how we procure has to do with a civilised and intelligent relationship between the MoD and industry. I am pleased to say we have that, and we have had a great deal of co-operation from industry.
My Lords, I welcome what the noble Baroness has said about procurement—and of course the Procurement Bill now goes to the other place for consideration there in January—but will we learn significant lessons from what has happened with Ajax? Does she recall that, in June of this year, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons said:
“The Department has once again made fundamental mistakes in its planning and management of a major equipment programme.”
The chair of the committee, Meg Hillier, went on to say that this has been deeply flawed from the start. Will the Minister at least undertake, as we proceed, to give the House updates on the progress of Ajax so that we know when it will be put into use and whether the safety issues that my noble and gallant friend raised earlier have been overcome?
I am pretty sure that, in the other place and here, the Government’s feet will be held to the fire. We expect Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box and explain what the progress is and where we are in the process. In relation to procurement as a whole, there have been some very good examples of procurement. The MoD has made big changes on the back of NAO reports, many of which were critical, but we absolutely accepted some of the recommendations. We have made major changes: for example, we have implemented steps to more accurately estimate project costs, including improving risk forecasts through the use of reference-class forecasts, risk-costing pilots and the analysis of systematic strategical operational problems. We have also made reforms to how we deal with the senior responsible owner, so that there is much more continuity in the contracts. A lot of big changes have happened. I point to two recent procurements, the Type 31 and the Poseidon aircraft, as very good examples of really successful, positive procurement.
Children’s Private Information: Data Protection Law
To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the reprimand issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office to the Department for Education on 6 November for breaching data protection law regarding children’s private information.
On behalf of my noble friend Lady Chapman, and with her permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.
My Lords, the department takes the security of the data that it holds extremely seriously. At the time of the breach, it was already working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office. The department has made significant, positive progress in improving its processes. The ICO has recommended in the reprimand notice that the department continue with its current improvement plans, and we will publish an update in early 2023.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, notwithstanding—for noble Lords who are not aware—that the Information Commissioner’s Office formally reprimanded the DfE for prolonged misuse of the data of 28 million students over a 16-month period. The department breached GDPR by allowing online gambling companies to use pupil information to build their age verification systems. The reprimand concluded that the processes put in place by the DfE were woeful. Can the Minister confirm how this happened, how the Government will prevent such a shocking breach happening again and whether they will apologise to the 28 million students affected?
I absolutely understand why the noble Baroness probes hard on this Question. The Government have made significant changes to their learner registration system, and those were noted by the Information Commissioner’s Office in its letter to the department in November this year. We previously did not have a centralised data protection function in the department. We were in the process of setting it up when we discovered this breach, and it is now in place.
My Lords, is the Minister fully aware of the damaging effect of data protection law on universities? It has been used, rightly or wrongly, to prevent universities getting in touch with students’ parents when they are in distress; it has been used to prevent the full publication of degree results, which opens the door to fraud. Does she agree that it is time to review the Data Protection Act and its damaging effect in those circumstances?
The noble Baroness will be aware that the Government have brought forward the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which was introduced in the Commons in July this year. We are committed to making sure that our data protection systems are fit for purpose, including in relation to the issues raised by the noble Baroness.
My Lords, the next scandal brewing is the use of facial recognition technology in schools and the department’s lack of a grip on this issue. Despite repeated requests from the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner to have legal oversight of the ethical use of that technology in schools, the Government have refused to agree. Why is this loophole still there, and when will it be closed?
The noble Lord raises an important point. The safety of our children is of course fundamental and the department’s role in protecting them is vital. If I may, I will write to the noble Lord on the details of his question.
My Lords, the organisation Defend Digital Me sets out that the DfE extended the possible distribution of identifying pupil-level extracts from the national pupil database when Michael Gove was Secretary of State. This was done
“to maximise the value of this rich dataset”.
On reflection, does the Minister believe that that was a mistake?
I do not believe that it was a mistake. If we look at any sector or industry, we see that the most successful use data intelligently, proportionately and safely. That is what the department intends to do.
My Lords, how much information is the Home Office allowed to get from the DfE for immigration enforcement purposes?
I apologise; I am afraid that I will have to write to the noble Earl with the detail on that.
My Lords, in her response to my noble friend, the Minister did not answer the key question. She told us the criteria that the department used for its use of data, but this was clearly the use of data to make money. Is that appropriate for a government department in respect of records that relate to children?
To be absolutely clear and for the avoidance of doubt, the department was not making money out of this. It was a previously legitimate user of the department’s data which changed its business model and breached its contract with the department to sell the data.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should be grateful that the department is now taking this matter seriously? I urge her to make sure that this is dealt with as speedily as possible; I know that she would like that to happen as well.
My noble friend is right. I would stress that, unsurprisingly and rightly, the department took this breach extremely seriously. It was proactive in raising it with the Information Commissioner’s Office and has a very active programme of work but, in relation to the recommendations from the Information Commissioner, the vast majority of them are completed and the rest are on track.
For the record, the Minister has just said from the Dispatch Box that the problem arose because the company changed to a different business model. Is it not correct that the Information Commissioner’s Office pointed out that the reason this happened was not that the change took place but that the department had no oversight of third-party use of that database?
I am not sure that the Dispatch Box is the ideal place to go through the line-by-line analysis. The noble Lord is right that the way that the department’s contracts were set up at the time did not give the same recourse if the terms and conditions of a contract were breached by a third party. That has now been changed.
My Lords, I find this whole saga staggering. It should give serious pause for thought to anyone who does not think that data protection and personal privacy matter. When the Minister replies in writing to the noble Lord’s earlier question about facial recognition technology, will she include in that response, and perhaps place a copy in the Library, an answer as to whether CCTV cameras on school premises are provided by Hikvision or any other Chinese companies?
I would be delighted to add that information.
My Lords, again according to the organisation Defend Digital Me, the ICO found that the DfE’s policy on records was
“designed to find a legal gateway to ‘fit’ the application”.
If the Minister recognises that, can she say that it simply will never happen again?
I tried to be clear that the department has made very significant changes in its approach to data protection and privacy in relation to our internal systems and processes, to our communication with data subjects about their privacy, and to the culture of the department and the training and support that we put in place for colleagues.
Are the people who oversee this new model the same as those who oversaw the previous one? Where is the accountability in the system? What happened to those people, who should have known better and should not have let this happen?
My understanding is that we relied on an existing advisory service at the time of the data breach and that those functions have now been brought in house. We have a dedicated data protection officer, who sets policy for the whole department.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness expand on this third-party provider who changed their business model? How many contracts does that third party have with government in respect of other aspects of data?
My understanding is that that third-party provider is no longer trading.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that a senior official on the board of the department, at Permanent Secretary or director-general level, was responsible for what happened? What action was therefore taken?
I have tried to explain to your Lordships that we did not have a centralised data protection function at the time of this breach. As a result, different teams had different policies across the department. That is no longer the case.
Iran: Execution of Protesters
Private Notice Question
To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that the Iranian regime is carrying out executions against anti-government protestors.
My Lords, I am sure that the House shares the outrage expressed by the Foreign Secretary on Thursday at the Iranian regime’s execution of protesters. Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard are tragic victims of a legal system in which disproportionate sentences and forced confessions are rife. The UK is working with international partners to hold Iran to account, including by sanctioning 10 judges and prison officials last week. Iran must be in no doubt that the world is watching. It cannot continue to unleash violence against its own people to stifle voices of dissent.
I thank the Minister for that Answer, but two brave 23 year-old Iranians, standing up for democracy and women’s rights, have been brutally murdered on jumped-up charges by those in power in Iran. As the head of a Norwegian human rights watch body said, if these executions are not met with serious consequences for the Iranian Government, we will face mass executions of protesters. What extra serious consequences will the Government inflict on the Iranian regime?
I acknowledge, as I am sure we all do in different ways, the breathtaking courage of protesters in Iran, particularly the women, whose every act of defiance comes with the risk of extreme persecution and even death. It is really something to behold.
The UK of course condemns Iranian government activities, not least the executions that we are discussing now. Across international fora, we are calling Iran out at every opportunity and amplifying the voice of those protesters. We have condemned the regime’s crackdown on protesters alongside G7 partners and at the UN Human Rights Council, General Assembly and Security Council. We are working alongside the US and partners to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and, on a bilateral level, we continue to challenge Iran’s reprehensible actions at every opportunity, including summoning Iran’s representative in the UK to the Foreign Office on numerous occasions.
On Friday 9 December, just a few days ago, the UK announced sanctions on 10 officials connected to Iran’s judicial and prison systems, including judges linked to the revolutionary court, which sentenced those two people to death. On 14 November, we announced sanctions on 24 leading political and security officials involved in the current crackdown on protesters. In October, we sanctioned the morality police in its entirety, as well as its leader and five other officials responsible for human rights violations. We take Iran’s reprehensible actions very seriously indeed.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary’s positive and forward-looking speech this morning, but there was no mention of Iran at all. As my noble friend said, Iran is a serious danger. I will make two points. First, the Minister mentioned the commission on women’s rights. I understand that there is a vote on Wednesday at the UN. Can he assure me that we will vote the right way? Secondly, while he gave a long list of what we have done, surely it is now time for us to proscribe the IRGC. It has to be done.
My noble friend makes an important and powerful point. It is not for me to discuss the proscription of individual cases. My colleagues in the Foreign Office will have heard what he had to say, which echoes what many others in this place have said on various occasions. In relation to the vote coming up in the next few days, I assure him that we will be voting the right way.
My Lords, although these executions are an outrage, they are not the only judicial outrage perpetrated by the Government of Iran. Will His Majesty’s Government pursue the injustice of extending the sentence of the longest-serving prisoners of conscience in the world—Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, two women of the Baha’i faith, aged 60 and 69—for nothing other than professing their religion?
My Lords, the Iranian regime has a long, dark record of persecution—not just of religious minorities but of the LGBT community and, as has already been discussed, anyone who stands up to the regime in any way. The atrocities which the noble Baroness has just referenced are par for the course for a regime which is beyond the pale in its actions towards anyone not part of the mainstream establishment within Iran.
My Lords, the Minister has emphasised that he is working with international partners on this issue. What conversations have been had with Pakistan and Armenia, both countries that voted at the UN Human Rights Council against establishing an independent investigation into these human rights violations? Have there been any conversations in the light of the large amounts of ODA of which these countries are in receipt, thanks to the British taxpayer?
My Lords, I assume that these discussions are happening, but I do not know as I am not party to them. I will convey the noble Baroness’s question to the Minister responsible, who is not able to be here today to answer this Question.
My Lords, the barbarity of these public executions is obviously also intended to intimidate the population of Iran. I share the Minister’s admiration of the women and particularly the young women there. Further to the immediate question about Resolution S-35/L.1 to establish an independent international fact-finding mission, I also noted that Qatar and the UAE abstained. What discussions have His Majesty’s Government had with our allies in the Gulf about their considerably mixed messages of support for pro-democracy groups, especially concerning women and children? What practical support will the Government provide to the independent international fact-finding mission for it to have any teeth whatever?
My Lords, discussions with representatives from Qatar, the UAE and others are regular and ongoing. As I said in answer to the previous question, these are not discussions that I have been having, so I cannot provide an authoritative answer. I will include a response to the noble Lord’s question in my follow-up to the previous one.
My Lords, the news of the executions in Iran is deeply concerning and heart-breaking. I declare an interest as someone who originally comes from Iran and still has friends and loved ones there. There are likely to be many more executions still to come, with a dozen death sentences already issued. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what support the Government are providing to Iranians in the UK who are seeking to ensure the safety of loved ones in Iran.
As noble Lords will know, it is not always the case that those who have been arrested and held by the Iranian regime contact the UK Government and request support, either directly or through their family. Where that support is requested, however, the UK Government do everything they possibly can to exert pressure and facilitate the speedy resolution of whatever the case is. I cannot go into individual cases; there are one or two that I have personally been involved in, and I can tell you that dealing with the Iranian regime is incredibly difficult at every step of the way, as the right reverend Prelate will know.
My Lords, was it not absurd that Iran was put on the UN women’s commission in the first place, given its long record? Surely the problem is that the Iranian regime believes that it is in an existential fight for survival and therefore we—certainly on our own—have no influence. In addition to the efforts that the Government have set out thus far, what are we doing to isolate Iran? Where, if any, are the pressure points which might influence the regime?
The UK maintains a wide range of sanctions designed to constrain Iran’s destabilising activity within the wider region. We work in the multilateral fora to—as the noble Lord suggested—encourage the world as much as possible to speak with one voice in condemnation of Iran, with some success but not entirely. In November, we supported a successful Human Rights Council resolution establishing a mechanism to investigate the regime’s actions, and we will work with partners to ensure that it delivers for the Iranian people. In relation to the first point that the noble Lord made, the truth is that there remains a place in the international community for a responsible Iran: one that respects the rights and freedoms of its people. Across international fora and working closely with our partners, we will continue to expose the regime’s appalling human rights violations, pursue accountability and amplify the voices of the Iranian people.
My Lords, is it not very significant that members of the Ayatollah’s own family have denounced these barbaric practices? Should we not give real publicity to what has been said about him by them?
My noble friend makes an important point. In the sewer that is Twitter, the one shining light is its ability to transmit and convey images of the really staggering bravery on the part of these protesters. Without social media, it is very hard to see how the world would be as awake to what is happening in Iran as it is. Whenever I find myself feeling gloomy about the filth on that social media site, I remind myself that it does have an incredible role to play. These protests are a pivotal moment for Iran. The Iranian people have made it clear that they will no longer tolerate violence and oppression. The UK stands with ordinary Iranians who are bravely risking their lives to demand a better future. This is an authentic grass-roots call for change; the regime has to stop threatening the lives of ordinary people in Iran and elsewhere, including the UK.
My Lords, first, on Friday, did the Foreign Secretary raise with the Iranian chargé d’affaires the question of threats to UK nationals and people working in the free press in this country? I asked the Minister about that last week. Secondly, what does the Minister think of the Foreign Secretary’s speech today, in which he said that it is not about
“dictating or telling others what they should do: we want to balance a mutually beneficial relationship”?
Is this not sending mixed messages? Is it putting things like trade above human rights?
Absolutely not. The UK’s position on Iran has been rock solid for a very considerable time, and there is no question of the UK in any way softening its approach to the behaviour of the Iranian regime. The issue of Iran’s extranational activities, particularly in relation to British nationals in the UK, was of course raised. I discovered today that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has been sanctioned; I am not sure there is any country that has not sanctioned him. I have to say, first, that this is a tribute to his own relentless campaigning on human rights issues in Iran and elsewhere, and, secondly, that I suspect the rest of the House, like him, will treat such a move with the contempt it deserves.
My Lords, the present revolution, or resistance, in Iran results from the cruel treatment of its brave women. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, led by a woman, has put forward a 10-point plan for democracy, which includes the absence of any sort of religious rule—a secular democracy—freedom of belief for all, and equal rights for women. Does the Minister agree that this is the right direction of travel for Iran?
Absolutely. In Iran, the law already provides some protection—for example, the Jewish community has protection within the constitution. However, in reality it is meaningless. If you are a member of the Jewish community in Iran, you will at the very least keep your head firmly down. The protection provided in law is not provided in practice, but of course that plan is the direction of travel that we want. For decades, the morality police have used the threat of detention and violence to control what Iranian women wear and how they behave in public. As the Iranian people have made clear, that institution is also intolerable. As noble Lords know, there were suggestions that the morality police will be disbanded, and we must hope that this is the case.
My Lords, in response to my noble friend Lord Scriven’s question, the Minister gave a list of very welcome actions taken by the Government, but these executions are happening right now. They have taken place over the past few days and are continuing, and some of them are of children. Can the Minister say what extra actions are going to be taken or are being taken in light of these continuing atrocities?
My Lords, there are a whole range of activities and actions that the UK can take bilaterally—which I have already mentioned—in relation to sanctions and trying to squeeze those responsible at the highest levels within the regime as much as possible, as well as multilateral activity of the sort that I mentioned earlier. There are Iranian protesters who look to the UK for safe passage, and that is something we provide, but the system can no doubt be improved in any number of ways. We take a measured approach to engaging with both Iranian civil society and the diaspora here in the UK. We are clear that, ultimately, choosing Iran’s Government is a matter for the Iranian people, but we will do everything we can to ensure that the Iranian people’s voices are heard.
Special Public Bill Committee (Electronic Trade Documents Bill)
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Lords be appointed to the Special Public Bill Committee on the Electronic Trade Documents Bill [HL]:
Thomas of Cwmgiedd, L. (Chair), Bassam of Brighton, L., Clement-Jones, L., Davies of Brixton, L., Harlech, L., Holmes of Richmond, L., Lansley, L., Lindsay, E., Parkinson of Whitley Bay, L.
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; and
That the evidence taken by the Committee be published, if the Committee so wishes.
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.
Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2022
Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2022
Police and Crime Commissioner Elections and Welsh Forms (Amendment) Order 2022
Motions to Approve
That the draft Orders and Regulations laid before the House on 1, 3 and 14 November be approved. Considered in Grand Committee on 5 December.
Animals and Animal Health, Feed and Food, Plants and Plant Health (Amendment) Regulations 2022
Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment and Legislative Functions) Regulations 2022
Agricultural Holdings (Fee) Regulations 2022
Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (Exemptions) (Fees) Regulations 2022
Motions to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 18 and 20 October be approved.
Relevant documents: 18th Report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 18th Report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the second and fourth instruments). Considered in Grand Committee on 5 and 6 December.
Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 8th Report from the Constitution Committee and 19th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Precision bred organism
My Lords, I should advise the Committee that, if the following amendment is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments 2 to 9 by reason of pre-emption.
1: Clause 1, page 1, leave lines 4 to 6 and insert—
“(1) In this Act “directed bred organism” means a directed bred plant or a directed bred animal.(2) For the purposes of this Act an organism is “directed bred” if—”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is to probe the appropriateness of the term “precision bred”.
My Lords, when this Bill was considered by the various powers that be in the House, including the Constitution Committee and the committee on the Bill itself, there was widespread concern from everybody who looked at it. They clearly saw that it was imprecise, not entirely intelligible and of a particular, difficult and complex scientific nature; I agree with that.
One of the problems I have in speaking to my amendments is that, to some extent, they must be probing, because my real problem is that the scope of this Bill is seen as one of the release of organisms into the environment. However, inevitably, the science behind that is of an essential aspect. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, is answering for the Government, because I felt that his response to me at Second Reading was very helpful; it would have been good to discuss some aspects of this Bill, which we may still have time to do before Report.
To start, one of the really big issues, which I dealt with to some extent in my Second Reading speech, is the nature of precision breeding. As I explained, there is no such thing as precision in biology. Biology is not like physics, and it is certainly not like chemistry. It is a constant response to the environment in a way that does not apply to the other aspects of science. One of the issues here concerns the definitions that we are dealing with in this Bill and, to some extent, in my various amendments—forgive me for my very poor sight but I need to read the numbers; I cannot see otherwise—including Amendments 10, 11, 13 and 14.
One of my problems—it is a problem that many scientists have—is the nature of what is seen as gene editing and a genetically modified organism. There are many different ways of modifying an organism, be it animal or plant. I mentioned in my Second Reading speech that the first time this was done was by the injection of DNA into the egg by Jon Gordon. As we know, that resulted in many mutations and abnormalities in the animals, which were quite horrific to see; to some extent, that is one of the reasons for one of the later amendments that I have tabled for discussion. Moreover, with all the other methods that have been used since—whether it is gene insertion using electro-poration or gene insertion via various other methods, such as using viral vectors and other vectors to carry the DNA into the nucleus—you get very big disruption of the genome.
It is perhaps not fully recognised that gene editing is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, kindly suggested, like taking a large paragraph of text and just replacing it with three or four different letters to make a new word. In fact, it is calculated that there are some 6.4 billion letters in the human genome—it is vast—and what is extraordinary is that the mutation of one single letter in that genome can result in a horrific disease.
The commonest genetic mutation affecting humans is probably cystic fibrosis, which until recently was a deadly disease. All you need to get cystic fibrosis is a deletion of three base pairs in the delta F508 part of the protein. That leads to a mutation that results in children being very severely handicapped, sometimes not growing or not able to digest their food and, in particular, having serious problems with their lungs. Consequently, not many of these children have a full life; they certainly do not have a full length of life and are often severely handicapped—even today, with modern so-called precision medicine trying to affect the genes, which is not nearly as successful as we would like.
That is just three base pairs out of those billions, and it is a good example of a very common genetic mutation that affects perhaps one in 20 of the British population. That means a one in 400 chance of a child’s father and mother both having it, in a family who would not suspect that they had that genetic disorder. Most genetic disorders are not anything like that common; some of them are extremely rare. None the less, they generally cause pretty devastating disease.
I am not suggesting for a moment that this necessarily applies directly to the Bill, but it is a very good model for trying to understand that, even with CRISPR-Cas9, for example, which is probably the main technology we are currently using for this kind of genetic modification, the so-called genetic editing is not exactly free of the chance of causing mutations. It is much less likely—for example, with Cas9 in plants, which is widely used, it undoubtedly causes mutations occasionally in the plant, and sometimes we do not know what the results of this mutation may be. Most of them will be completely harmless but some of them may change the way a gene affects, often quite severely, and its expression. By the word “expression”, we mean how a gene works. For example, a gene which expresses growth means that the organism will grow, and so on.
With regard to animals, we know that different species are very different in how they respond to even minor changes in their genes. Although CRISPR-Cas9 does not actually introduce DNA into the cells, it facilitates the introduction of DNA through the process of changing the RNA. That is the difference, but it is not entirely free of mutations. Mutations can occur occasionally at the point where the DNA is cut—that is, with a double-stranded cut in the DNA—or it can occur remotely across the vast genome that animals and plants have. They can be anywhere. Most of the time, that disruption will not necessarily be in a coding protein, but that does not mean to say that it will be free of any effect on the organism.
That is one of the serious issues that we did not really get to in our Second Reading discussion, and nor was it properly discussed in the House of Commons. I read the Hansard report of the debate, and it was quite deficient in many ways; it was not a very good debate in terms of the science.
The fundamental problem is the uncertainty that you may cause genetic modification—genetic mutation—that is unwanted and unreliable, and is not uncommon in plants with Cas9, which is part of the CRISPR process, in most cases. There are other ways of doing this: there is a process called TALENs and there is a process using nucleases, but we do not need to go into the detailed science. They all present problems in different ways of getting the DNA into a cell.
Of course, one of the issues when we say “into a cell” is that we are talking about an animal at the beginning of its life. It is affecting not just the somatic cells—in the skin, brain, fat and muscles—but the germ cells. That means that any mistakes produced are heritable, and can be in completely unpredictable ways. This is one of the reasons for some of my later amendments, because heritability is clearly important as you want, first of all, to breed plants and animals that are free of risk. That is a fundamental difficulty in our discussion.
The evidence that CRISPR does not cause mutations is simply not clear. Often, the only way we can decide whether the genome remains “normal” is, in fact, by doing extensive research on the genome of that particular creature.
One of the other issues is that the Bill offers massive opportunity for better science. If we looked in greater detail at the way we manipulate plants and animals and funded it better, we would arrive at some useful conclusions that might help us with the genetics of a range of things, including medicine, gene therapy and all sorts of problems that affect the animal and plant kingdom. One of my concerns about the Bill is that we are simply releasing organisms but not studying them in detail before we do so or recording that. This subject will come up in later discussions on the Bill.
One of the issues dealt with in my amendments is the terminology, some of which is very strange. For example, in Amendment 13 I have suggested removing the word “stable”, because an organism’s genome being stable can mean various things. Does it produce progeny, or does stability mean that the genes function in a constant way, generally expressing the requirement you need? One of the problems we have with all genetic alterations is that, when you change the position of a gene in the genome or how it is printed, there is a risk that you may change expression. That is one of the reasons why multiple copies are sometimes included, an issue which is also addressed in the Bill. Sometimes, that will extend the gene’s effect—for example, increasing growth or, in some cases, decreasing it. That is one of the issues addressed in Amendment 13.
In Amendment 14 I have suggested removing the word “no” from Clause 1(5). This is partly to tease the Minister: I am changing just two letters, but arguing that that completely changes the whole paragraph in a way that does not make it at all accessible.
My real criticism, which we have discussed and which I do not want to go on about at great length at this stage—there are many amendments on the Order Paper—is the lack of clarity on some of the issues. I do not think people understand what is being done, and they need to.
One of the biggest deficiencies that I hope the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, will take on board—it is not an amendment at this stage, by any means—is that we are not trying to get the public with us. Over 30 years ago, we saw a catastrophe for this kind of science. It affected so much science, which was brought into disrepute by the sudden release of genetically modified organisms, as people felt they would be dangerous to their health. Indeed, they might well be, and Members will be talking about these issues later on in the Bill. That resulted in a complete negation of GMOs, which were given a bad name. Of course, we are still producing GMOs, in effect, but in a slightly more precise, although not completely precise, way. The risks are still there, and we need to consider them.
Finally, the problem with propagation is that once you propagate organisms, you end up with all sorts of effects on the environment that you really do not expect. That will obviously come up later, and it is one of the concerns addressed in the amendments I have put down today. I beg to move.
My Lords, I draw to the attention of the Committee that in the amendment we are about to discuss, the Marshalled List says,
“leave lines 4 to 6”.
I believe it should say “leave out” and that is what I propose. If I am wrong, I hope somebody will shout.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and, indeed, our very acute Committee chair. I will speak to my Amendments 11 and 86 in this group. It is a great pleasure to follow the House’s acknowledged expert, who set out very clearly the major problems with this Bill and, indirectly, made the arguments for the two amendments I am presenting here. It is perhaps worth starting with my Amendment 86, which amends the Short Title of the Bill, leaving out “Precision Breeding” and inserting “Genome Editing”. I am very happy to debate whether that should be “gene editing” or whatever, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Winston, clearly set out the reasons why we should not be debating a Bill called “Precision Breeding”. As he said, there is no such thing as precision in biology.
There are many areas of science in which “precision” is appropriate and extremely useful. We think about elements of physics and mechanical engineering, say, and talk about going down to millimetres, micrometres, nanometres. We can look at how those might change when the temperature changes, for example. All of those things will be eminently, entirely predictable. That is true of physical properties, but it is not true of biological properties, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, clearly set out.
I covered this issue extensively at Second Reading, so I am not going to go into it at great length, but essentially, precision breeding is an advertising slogan; it is not a legal description. I do not believe that an advertising slogan should have a place in the title of a Bill. Interestingly, when it was put to me that I should seek to amend the Short Title, a technical expert said to me, “You will never get that through the Clerks”. In fact, it went through without a murmur. I think there is a real awareness that this Bill is not properly titled.
On a point of information, the noble Baroness was a great deal luckier with the Clerks than I was, as I tried the same tactic and was told quite firmly that I could not do that.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I do not know how that happened, but I think I might take that as a seconding of my Amendment 86. Noble Lords might say that it is only the title and it does not matter, but it is how people will identify the Bill.
I am going to refer a number of times to a Defra press release, dated 29 September 2021, which, all the way through, refers to “gene editing”. That is what it is telling people the Bill is about, drawing a very clear distinction, as it sees it, between gene editing and genetically modified organisms, an issue I will return to shortly. That is the case for amending the Short Title of the Bill. What we are talking about is not precision; it is not marked by exactness, and there are real problems if the Bill is not named clearly.
I come to something that is arguably very significant and considerably more impactful in the nature of the Bill. This is my Amendment 11, which would exclude the use of exogenous genetic material in the creation of, or remaining in, so-called precision-bred organisms. Here I need to venture into the depths of this a little, I am afraid; I apologise to the Committee for that. If we look at many of the definitions that describe gene editing, we see that they say this is simply removing genes from an organism or adding genes from a different variety of the same organism.
That is different from genetically modified organisms. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, suggested that, 30 years ago, when GMOs were being debated, they got an undeserved bad name. But look at some of the things that have been done with GMOs: for example, a salmon that combines the genes from three different types of fish and grows unnaturally fast, reaching adult size twice as fast as its wild relative, to be released into the environment with obvious and potentially massive impacts; or, perhaps even more indefensible, the transgenic zebrafish, bred with genes from jellyfish or coral, which give them a glowing effect under certain light conditions. These genetically engineered animals were popular in aquariums and have now escaped into the natural environment, with effects we have yet to understand.
We are being reassured that gene editing is not like that; that it is a different kind of thing. Certainly, that is what the Defra press release of 29 September, which I referred to earlier, said in the name of George Eustice, the Minister:
“Gene editing is different from genetic modification, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species”.
That is what the public is being told by the department.
We are going to hear in this debate a great deal about CRISPR, and I shall say this only once: CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. This is the hallmark of a bacterial defence system which forms the basis of genome editing technology. It was first discovered in archaea, a branch of the tree of life that was itself discovered only in 1977—we are talking about very recent science here. The clue is in the description. This is using the bacterial system. The key element of gene editing is the insertion of genetic material from bacteria. That material may or may not be fully removed at some point in the organism’s development, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, set out very clearly, once we put something in, we do not necessarily understand what impact there might be in the current generation, or potentially in future generations.
I am going to borrow and excellent phrase from the joint Soil Association, Friends of the Earth and GM Freeze briefing on the Bill: it says that the genome is
“more like an ecosystem than a codebook.”
Personally, I tend to say that DNA is not a machine blueprint, because that is the metaphor—the idea of animals as machines—that dates back to the philosopher René Descartes, who has a lot to answer for and still dominates far too much of our discussion. We do not have the understanding of how biology and biological systems work. We think about them as machines and they are absolutely, definitively not.
This matters because mixing species, which is what we are doing here with gene editing, is not something that generally happens in nature. Certainly, there is horizontal gene transfer—which is of great concern in the area of antimicrobial resistance, an issue that I do a great deal of work on—but that is a far more limited occurrence and occurs mostly within kingdoms of living things rather than across different kingdoms of living things, which is what we are doing here. My Amendment 11, saying that we cannot introduce genetic material from other species, is doing only what the Government, in their own information about the Bill, say they want to do. That is why I believe we should have Amendment 11.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for raising the question of exogenous DNA, which I mentioned at Second Reading, as did she. I am sorry to say that, on this occasion, I disagree with the noble Baroness. I think her amendment goes too far, since, as she explained so clearly, the current techniques of gene editing require the use of exogenous DNA not only for the CRISPR-Cas9 construct but for the insertion mechanism—for instance, Agrobacterium—and for the antibiotic resistance filter used to check that the changes one intended to achieve have been achieved. Furthermore, at the end of the gene-editing process, there could be tiny fragments of this exogenous DNA left in the gene-edited organism. As I mentioned at Second Reading, although there are new techniques being developed that will obviate the need for gene editing with exogenous DNA, they are not yet ready for mainstream use. Hence, in my view, Amendment 11, if accepted, would in effect kill off gene editing for the near future.
Should we be worried about exogenous DNA? The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, clearly thinks we should. The Bill deals with the issue of exogenous DNA by stating in Clause 1(6) that any remaining exogenous DNA must not code for a protein if the precision-bred organism is to be considered as having been produced by a process equivalent to traditional breeding. Does that provide us with sufficient reassurance?
I am most grateful to Professor Wendy Harwood and her colleagues at the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, for their further advice. My initial thought in considering this problem was that the wording in the Bill could be tightened to say in Clause 1(6) that the exogenous DNA, if there is any left, should have no effect on the phenotype of the precision-bred organism; in other words, no effect on the appearance or biological properties of the edited organism. This would be a more stringent criterion than that requiring that the fragment of DNA could not code for a protein.
As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, so clearly explained to us in his excellent introduction, the principal way in which DNA is expressed in the phenotype is by genes coding for proteins that are the building blocks of life. However, there are also other ways in which nucleic acids can affect the phenotype; I am sorry if this is a bit technical. One example is RNA interference, a molecular process in which short strands of RNA can act to silence a gene. There are other examples of gene regulation by RNA strands that are not transcribed to produce a protein.
There are mechanisms not covered by Clause 1(6) by which exogenous DNA could affect the functioning of the precision-bred or gene-edited organism. Does this justify a change in the wording of the Bill? The view from the John Innes Centre is that it is unlikely that non-coding DNA could exert a phenotypic effect, although this is both theoretically and practically possible. It argues that these possibilities should be tested for in any gene-editing strategy before a product is developed. If this is the case, it would not be necessary to require it by regulation. Furthermore, the scientists at the John Innes Centre argue that the requirement of “no phenotypic effect” might lead to the conclusion that there has to be exhaustive testing for this in an unspecified range of environmental conditions.
I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there is an argument for ensuring that any remaining exogenous DNA has no discernible effect on the phenotype of the precision-bred organism. That would be a more stringent criterion than Clause 1(6). On the other hand, one does not want disproportionate regulation that stifles innovation.
I do not expect the Minister to answer on the technical issues right now but could he—if not right now, before Report—put down in writing an explanation of why making the requirement in Clause 1(6) that any exogenous DNA should have no phenotypic effect would be disproportionate and, if it is disproportionate, whether other steps could be taken to manage the risk of non-coding effects on the phenotype of gene-edited organisms?
My Lords, I rise more to inquire than to support particular amendments. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for tabling his amendments. I imagine that they are probing amendments, and that is the spirit in which I wish to address them. I declare that I am an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association, and I am grateful to it for the briefing that it has given today.
The first question I put to the Minister for my better understanding is what the difference is between cloning an animal and gene-editing an animal or animal product. I did not follow it that closely, but I was very proud that my alma mater, Edinburgh University, was the first university in the world, I understand, to clone an animal—Dolly the sheep. However, it was not entirely successful as I understand she had a very short life. Obviously, one has to ask whether the reason for her curtailed life was that she had been cloned and not produced in a normal way.
The BVA brief that I have received today states:
“Prioritisation of animal health and welfare is essential, as is the use of adequate product labelling to enable transparency and consumer choice”—
I know we will come to those amendments in a different group. In particular, the BVA states, and I support this:
“Breeding and genetic modification must be used in an ethically responsible way to improve animal health and welfare, increase efficiency, and support sustainable agriculture.”
It goes on:
“The Bill is misleading and proposing deregulation based on the incorrect premise that ‘traditional breeding’ results in characteristics which can be assumed ‘safe’, and therefore gene-edited organisms which produce the same outcome are also ‘safe’. This ignores the potential for mutations.”
The Bill has “precision breeding” in its title, but this group of amendments goes to the fact that it can never be precise, because we can never be sure of the consequences, so perhaps it should be called the “imprecise breeding” Bill.
The reason that I am tempted to support a number of amendments in this group, particularly Amendment, 1 is the very fact that it states that,
“‘directed bred organism’” means a directed bred plant or a directed bred animal.”
It is important to understand in what way that plant or animal has been directed and that there is scope for an imprecise outcome, an unexpected outcome. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for whom I am full of awe and praise, with his widespread knowledge and, even more, his experience, said, we could be creating something of which we cannot control the outcome. I am not saying that I stand in the way of that, but I would like better to understand what it is.
There was a news story last night about a little girl whose cancer had not been cured until they came up with a gene-editing formula. They edited genes and implanted them in her, and it looks as though she may now have a cure. However, we are at the very early stage of these procedures, as I understand it, and I believe that there is some sympathy still for the view that the European Union took, which is widely criticised in this House and the other place. Probably the reason that the European Union and its institutions overreacted was the widespread fear among consumers. I think that fear is still there. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has tabled a number of amendments which we will deal with in another group and with which I have a degree of sympathy. As I said at Second Reading, if this procedure, this form of breeding is so good, why can we not be told about it on labelling? Why should consumers have the barrier of having to go to a register? With those few remarks, I support the thinking behind some of the amendments in this group.
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for not being present at Second Reading. I had a hospital appointment and, having waited some time for it, did not want to postpone it for what could have been another three months. I did, however, watch the debate on Parliament TV and will make a short contribution.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, made a very valuable and knowledgeable contribution in seeking clarification on the definitions within the Bill. It is important that we all understand completely what the Government mean by the various terms and what the outcomes will be, especially if there are likely to be unintended consequences. It is the role of this Chamber to ensure that there are no unintended consequences or mutations in the future, and that the quality of life for any animal so produced needs to be good. That was not the case with Dolly the sheep. It is important that the phrases used in the Bill are easily understood by those who will affected by its implementation. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, the results of previous debates on GMOs received a bad press, which did the science no favours at all.
In Amendment 86, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also seeks clarification. She wishes the Title of the Bill to be changed so that the somewhat anodyne phrase “Precision Breeding” would be replaced by “Genome Editing”. I have sympathy with this proposed alteration, as I believe that phrase is more accurate and more likely to be easily understood by the public than “Precision Breeding”. The Bill is, after all, intended to modify and edit the genome of plants in a shorter timeframe than would normally happen. Being married to an aeronautical engineer, for me, and possibly others, a phrase such as “precision engineering” conjures up an entirely different picture than the thrust and purpose that the Bill has. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this short group of amendments, which sets the tone for the rest of our debate today.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Winston for introducing these amendments. This group explores why “genome editing” has been changed to “Precision Breeding” in the Title of the Bill and throughout it, when, as my noble friend pointed out, it has no scientific meaning. As he said, there is no such thing as precision in biology. He clearly, and in some detail, expressed his concerns about the implications of the Bill. As he also said, as yet there has been no detailed debate during the Bill’s passage around the science. I am sure that we will have that debate in your Lordships’ House, as there are some very eminent people here who know far more about the science than I could ever hope to learn.
My noble friend’s amendments quite rightly probe the Government’s thinking around the terminology. Importantly, he raised the fact that what we need as an outcome of the Bill is the breeding of plants and animals that are free of risk. Again, he talked about the implications of hereditary traits and the fact that the Bill’s focus is on releasing organisms. We need to think much more about how that is happening, and what the implications are as we put the Bill through into becoming an Act.
We know that in the Bill and during the debates—
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I want to make the point that when we talk about “free of risk”, we have to get things in perspective. In so-called conventional breeding, the parent seeds or germline are often irradiated to create a large number of random mutations and then a new cross-bred strain is produced. That often involves shuffling maybe 20% or 30% of the genome and is not regulated at all. When we say “risk free”, we know that conventional breeding is not risk free. The Braeburn apple was introduced 30 or 40 years ago as a new variety—a hybrid of two earlier varieties—without any testing, and that could have had detrimental consequences for human health or the environment. Nothing is risk free, so let us get risk in proportion.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for his very important point. We need to think about where we want to go with this and how we want those regulations to come in as we go through the Bill. I am sure that we will be having some very interesting debates on that as we move forward. Clearly, the whole purpose of the Bill is about deregulating the law on gene editing so that we can actually move forward beyond the traditional breeding processes.
The purpose of this group is to look at the definitions as to how we move forward; what we mean by that; and whether the Bill has the right definitions in it. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, talked about unintended outcomes, for example. The interesting thing for me is whether “precision breeding” is the right terminology. Why have the Government picked that terminology? That is something that a lot of noble Lords raised on Second Reading, and again now.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, also talked about the EU. One of the things that I have noted is that the EU has quite a different term. I am not aware that the European Union is using the term “precision breeding”, but it is looking at “new genetic techniques”. How does what we are doing in this regulation fit in with what the European Union is doing? We will be talking about trade later on but, clearly, it is going to be very important that it all fits together and works together in the long term. It is going to be very interesting to look at how we develop as we go on.
A lot of the definitions are quite vague as well. It would be helpful if the Minister could, perhaps, explain some of the definitions in Clause 1. For example, in Clause 1(1), the actual definition of “precision bred organism” is very, very broad. Is it deliberately broad? Is it trying to capture something in particular? My noble friend Lord Winston talked about traditional processes and natural transformation, as well as referring to “stable”. Understanding what these actually mean and their implications for the Bill going forward are important.
Amendment 86, from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, again refers to the title, coming back to what we have just been talking about. She also has Amendment 11 on exogenous genetic materials. There has been some work done by Defra to shed some light on this. The consultation, for example, that was carried out last year, states that
“this proposal does not apply to organisms which introduce genetic material from other species.”
However, that distinction, as we have heard, is not in the Bill. Does it need to be in the Bill?
It is not stated anywhere that precision breeding technologies are technologies that edit a single organism. I refer to Clause 1(7), which refers to
“somatic hybridisation or cell fusion of plant cells of organisms which are capable of exchanging genetic material”.
What does that mean? Does that open the door to transgenic exchange, for example? Some of it is quite weak on definitions, and some of the definitions could be stretched to include pretty much anything—so I do think that some kind of clarification would be very helpful.
The chief scientific adviser to Defra, Professor Henderson, giving evidence to the Commons Select Committee, said that the Bill was designed not to allow exogenous material. He also said, however, that this was something of a grey area. Particularly in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said—and he has a far greater understanding of this than I do—it is very important to get clarification on this area before we move further on into the detail of the debate.
My Lords, I am very grateful for this interesting debate on this first section. I will start with, I hope, a note of humility: I understand that I am in the presence of people who have proved, in the introductions by the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Krebs, and others, that I sit at the foothills of knowledge compared with them. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, quoted Descartes—I think he said, “All I know is that I know nothing”. I hope I know a bit more than that, although my learning curve has been very steep. I am grateful to officials at Defra and others who have helped me through this process.
I am aware that the term “precision breeding” has been controversial in some quarters, although well received in others. I thank noble Lords for this opportunity to explain why we have adopted it. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, suggested “directed bred” as an alternative term to “precision bred”, whereas, on this point, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, suggested “genome editing” to replace “precision breeding”. Concerns have been raised about using the term “precision bred” to describe these organisms, because they can result in off-target changes to the organism’s DNA. Although off-target changes can occur using precision breeding technologies, the advice we have received from our Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—ACRE—in relation to precision-bred plants is that off-target changes are significantly rarer than those produced during the course of conventional methods of plant breeding. This is also the view of the European Food Safety Authority, which advises the EU Commission.
On animals, ACRE concluded in its advice published in September last year that there is good evidence to suggest that the use of techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 in animals does not result in a greater number of off-target changes than the background rate for natural mutations—the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to this. Indeed, many recent gene-editing studies on animals have reported no incidences of off-target changes when using CRISPR-Cas9. Therefore, although off-target changes may occur using these technologies, the scientific advice is that they are more precise than traditional breeding, both in terms of making targeted changes to the DNA of a plant or animal and in terms of the number of off-target changes they cause.
In her amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, used the term “genome editing” instead of “precision breeding”. The class of plants and animals we intend the term to cover will include some gene-edited organisms. However, it will not cover all gene-edited organisms; it will not include plants and animals that contain genetic features produced by modern biotechnology that could not have occurred naturally or by traditional processes. For example, plants or animals developed using gene-editing techniques to contain engineered gene drives would not be included in this new class of organism; they will still be regulated as GMOs. In addition, there are techniques of modern biotechnology other than gene editing that could produce plants and animals in this new class—for example, cisgenesis. It is important to note that the EU is also considering cisgenic, as well as gene-edited, plants in its plans for regulatory reform.
We considered using the term “gene edited” in the Bill but, for the reasons I have explained, we concluded that this would be more misleading and confusing. The purpose of the Bill is to more closely align the regulation of this class of animals and plants with those produced by traditional breeding, recognising that the genetic changes they contain will have arisen in a more targeted and precise manner.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, makes a very good point about the very important need to engage the public more on this case. The Government have tried very hard to do this, and the Food Standards Agency and wider organisations are doing some very good work. There is a big social science job to do to get the message out about what we are talking about—and, perhaps as importantly, what we are not—and the wider benefits, which we will come to in this and other clauses, about how we can improve the life of us here on this planet, protect animal health and make us more resistant to such factors as climate change. These are factors that we need to hold in our minds as we rightly debate this important Bill, line by line.
Amendment 10 would, in effect, remove the requirement that every feature of an organism’s genome must have been capable of resulting from traditional processes or natural transformation in order for the organism to qualify as precision bred. I understand that the noble Lord’s intention in tabling this amendment was to explore the meanings of the concepts of “traditional processes” and “natural transformation” that are used in this Bill. I hope to address his concerns around the terminology that we have used in this Bill and why it is appropriate. I will begin by defining what we mean by “traditional processes” and “natural transformation”.
For the purposes of this Bill, traditional processes refer to a number of methods listed in Clause 1(7). The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, also referred to these. They are well known conventional breeding methods, some of which have been utilised for over 10,000 years, and therefore have a long history of safe use. The methods outlined in Clause 1(7) were not chosen to represent an exhaustive list of traditional breeding processes. Instead, they were chosen because they represent the full range of genetic changes known to occur naturally between sexually compatible plants and animals.
Scientific advice is that genetic changes that could have been achieved through traditional processes, as outlined, do not pose a greater risk as a result of being introduced by modern biotechnology. This is why we have included
“could have resulted from traditional processes”
as a criterion for obtaining “precision bred” status.
“Natural transformation” refers to the process by which DNA from a sexually incompatible organism may be inserted into an organism. In plants and animals, this is almost always the result of infection with a bacterium or virus. Often, the fragments of genetic material left behind after infection no longer serve a purpose or function. The material is non-functional and does not affect the physical characteristics, also referred to as the phenotype, of the plant or animal.
The effect of Clause 1(2)(c)(ii) and Clause 1(6) taken together is to ensure that, for the purposes of this Bill, DNA from a sexually incompatible species which is similar to that which occurs through natural transformation is allowed in a precision-bred organism. This is so long as it does not affect the physical characteristics of the precision-bred organism. This is supported by scientific advice that genetic features produced through modern biotechnology but which could have arisen in nature do not pose a risk as a result of the method of production.
DNA from a sexually incompatible species is critical in the intermediate stages of development of many precision-bred plants and animals. They enable the subsequent precise genetic changes to be made to these organisms. For example, CRISPR-Cas9 often involves insertion of the Cas9 editing machinery to enable the intended precise genetic edits. The Cas9 gene would need to be removed for the resulting plant or animal to be classed as precision bred. Clause 1(6) comes into play where, in some cases, small non-functional fragments of DNA from the Cas9 gene may be left behind. This would be allowed, provided the genetic changes created could have been introduced through natural transformation.
Taken together, the terms “traditional processes” and “natural transformation” ensure that precision-bred organisms are able to contain, in principle, changes that could develop in nature. It is this characteristic that makes precision-bred organisms and GMOs fundamentally different, and we believe that regulating them as such is a proportionate response to the growing body of scientific evidence supporting the safe use of precision-bred organisms.
The probing Amendment 13 would remove the definition of “stable” in relation to genetic features introduced using modern biotechnology. This Bill stipulates criteria that a plant or animal must adhere to in order to be considered precision-bred. As noble Lords will no doubt know from previous debates, these criteria are that they must have a genetic feature made using modern biotechnology, that every feature of the organism’s genome could have arisen naturally or through traditional processes and that any feature made using modern biotechnology must be stable.
There are several reasons why we have stipulated a stable genetic change and subsequently defined what this means. Concerns have been raised that the use of genetic technology would inherently destabilise the genome at the site of the genetic change. While scientific evidence and advice generally does not bear out this assertion, the inclusion of a clause stipulating that the genetic change must be stable and a definition of what this means provides reassurance that such effects will not be tolerated. It also provides additional clarity to users on what kinds of genetic changes are acceptable in a precision-bred organism.
In direct answer to the probing amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, stable genetic features are set out in the subsection that this amendment would remove; the genetic feature that is being introduced must be capable of remaining in the genome over the course of multiple generations, whether by sexual or asexual reproduction. This is not to say that the genetic feature itself must be immune to further mutations in the course of further traditional breeding, which would be impossible both to achieve and to enforce.
Put another way, the genetic feature being introduced must not be done so as to be deliberately or unintentionally transient. As the noble Lord knows, there are a number of ways this could occur, including through looping out any inserted DNA. I hope that this clears up any confusion in this regard.
I note the noble Lord’s intent with Amendment 14. I am happy to go into detail, or to talk to and reassure the noble Lord prior to Report, because I think we can agree on this.
On my noble friend’s point about cloning—a number of noble Lords mentioned Dolly the sheep—it needs saying here and now that cloning is not within the terms of the Bill. It is a different activity altogether, which is outside the remit of this legislation.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for her Amendment 11, which as proposed would exclude any plant or animal from the definition of a precision-bred organism if the insertion of exogenous genetic material was used during any step of its development, whether or not that exogenous genetic material is subsequently removed.
It is important that we regulate based on the best available scientific advice. The advice is clear: if an organism contains genetic changes that could have occurred naturally or by traditional breeding methods, it does not present a greater risk than its traditionally bred counterparts, irrespective of the techniques used to develop it.
It follows that regulations should be based on the nature of the genetic changes present in organisms intended to be released or marketed, rather than on the techniques used to develop them. While exogenous DNA might have been used in the process of developing the precision-bred plant or animal, functional fragments of this DNA must have been removed before the organism can be classed as precision bred.
As I have explained, the use of exogenous DNA represents important intermediate stages in the development of precision-bred plants and animals. It is true that some non-functional fragments of exogenous DNA may be left behind in the production of a precision-bred plant or animal. However, this is similar to the genetic changes that can occur naturally and be introduced through a process called natural transformation.
Subsections (2)(c)(ii) and (6) in Clause 1 allow a precision-bred organism to contain exogenous DNA, so long as this DNA is similar to that which could have resulted from natural transformation and is non-functional. The intention is that this would allow exogenous DNA to be present in a precision-bred organism only if it would not affect the organism’s physical characteristics.
Examples of natural transformation include the natural presence of fragments of exogenous DNA in the genome of most cultivated sweet potatoes, which have been eaten for decades without any adverse effects on human, environmental or animal health. Therefore, many plants and animals under development would not be capable of being classed as precision bred if this amendment stood.
Innovation through technology such as precision breeding can help to create new markets, support sustainable economies and help British business to compete globally. If we were to accept this amendment, countries elsewhere in the world with proportionate regulations would be able to benefit from the huge potential of this technology as it develops, whereas we would remain impeded by our current legislation.
I hope that my words have provided some reassurance for noble Lords and that they will not press their amendments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised the issue of international compatibility of terminology. I am sure the Minister is aware that the International Organization for Standardization, more commonly known as ISO—and many noble Lords are familiar with ISO numbers applied to all sorts of technical and practical procedures—earlier this year produced a genome-editing vocabulary. It provides a list of internationally agreed terms that will
“improve confidence in and clarity of scientific communication, data reporting and data interpretation in the genome editing field.”
There is no mention of precision breeding in that internationally agreed ISO dictionary of terminology. Picking up the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman: would it not be better if we used internationally acknowledged terminology?
The amount of time we spent in the department working with real experts in this field to get the terminology right means that I hope we can persuade other countries to adopt our definitions. I know that I am not going to find total agreement on this legislation with the noble Baroness, but I can try. As I explained at some length—and I apologise to noble Lords, but I think this is a really important part of this Bill—we have arrived at this definition in a coherent way. Of course, we are constantly looking at how other countries are doing this. We do not want to be left behind, but we want to keep this safe; we want to see what is happening in the EU, but we want to make sure we are giving our scientists and our businesses the right guidelines around which to develop a really exciting new area of technology.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his consideration of what I think are difficult areas in this Bill, which I think remain—we have not solved the problem yet. One of the things I really loathe in Committee is people who move an amendment then take a very long time making a long speech, which bores everybody because they have already heard it, but I feel I have to address a few points specifically. I will not do it again later in this Bill. I think I have views on every single amendment, but I will be careful not to mention them.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, mentioned Dolly the sheep. I think Dolly the sheep is a particularly interesting issue, because one thing which will not have escaped your Lordships’ attention is that Dolly the sheep had exactly the same DNA as wherever else she was cloned. Yet animals with the same DNA do not always express the same genes. For example, identical twins in humans are often quite different in many subtle ways, including their fingertips, brain functions, thought processes and so on.
We have to accept that there are many characteristics which are not necessarily demanded, essentially, by the DNA itself but by other things as well. In particular, one of the things we have not yet discussed is the problem of epigenetics; it does come into the Bill. We know that genes can express in different ways under different environmental conditions. That expression can be altered from the very beginning of conception—that is what we are talking about here—which could be, for example, in vitro fertilisation. Of course, that is mentioned in the Bill.
One of the concerns I have about IVF, having been involved with it since its very beginning, is that we still have no long-term follow up on what it means in terms of epigenetics—that is, how genes will express in the future. There are many examples where the progeny of a species—for example, a mouse—may show complete changes with regard to obesity, for instance, due to an insult four generations earlier. One has to accept that these changes occur very early; the mothers are fed with fats at the very earliest stages of pregnancy, and four generations later, we see a sex-determined link with obesity in the progeny. These sorts of issues are not teased out here.
Clearly, a great deal of doubt is encompassed in the Bill and in the science of it. As the noble Lord rightly said, we must all have a degree of humility in trying to work out what is best. He and I, and I think most people in this Chamber, would agree that we are mostly concerned about one thing: the environment. We are concerned about climate change and how we might adversely affect our environment. As we will come to later with the release of organisms, one thing that is very clear is that sometimes in the past—with natural causes—organisms have been released into the environment. We can think of the hornet in Britain, the Bufo toad in Australia, or the fungus which causes elm disease in England. Those things have all been produced by simply being involved in our environment, with colossal difficulties. Of course, we do not ultimately know whether this is a problem with modified organisms.
There is one thing which is not discussed here but which we need to consider. What we have forgotten, partly, is evolution. We are trying to evolve a species in one step, and that is a difficulty. If you take the human species, since Homo sapiens was first in east Africa 100,000 years ago, there have probably been about 5,000 families of humans—that is all. We have not evolved very much; the human brain remains very much the same. It takes a very long time for it to change even small amounts. What we are doing here is expecting rapid change for the benefit of ourselves and, we hope, of the planet too, but the problem is that we are dealing with an environment that is constantly balanced and balancing. We are at risk of damaging that balance with so many things that we do, and I regret to say that this is one of the reasons we have to be very careful when we come at the end of the discussion to the problem of balance and, therefore, how we release these organisms into the environment and control that. That is why the Bill is so important.
Without any further ado—I have already spoken for too long—I simply ask permission to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 4, after “plant” insert “, where that plant’s purpose relates to agriculture,”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is designed to probe how widely the Government expects gene editing technologies to be applied to plants, and whether the absence of any limitations may lead to unforeseen consequences for wild plants.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 2 and speak to Amendment 31 in my name. At the outset, I declare an interest through my involvement in Rothamsted agricultural institute, as in the register.
This group follows on quite neatly from our earlier debate, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Winston and others for setting out some of the risks inherent in this technology. It is the balance of those risks that we are struggling with as we go through the Bill, because, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, nothing is risk free. We can all see the potential advantages of this technology, but we have to get the balance right.
Amendment 2 is a probing amendment which tests out whether the Government intend gene-editing techniques in plants to be used more widely than simply for agricultural purposes. For example, is it also envisaged that this could be used for ornamental horticulture—to speed up the shapes or the colours of flowers? Is this desirable? Is it really what we want the technology to be available for? Would that wider use of the technology make more work for the regulators? I am sure that it would. As the demand for authorisation soared, would we have the capacity to manage it properly? Do we really want the regulators to be bogged down in authorising the new shade of a rose? This is simply one example. Noble Lords could think of many others which would go beyond the very specific application of the technology to agricultural purposes.
This amendment challenges how far we want this technology to be applied. Of course we understand the pressure to deliver for improved food and farming. Do we really want to go beyond the sectors which are absolutely necessary? In earlier debates, the Minister talked about taking progress step by step. Is this an area in which we want to proceed? How far beyond agriculture are the Government envisaging that this technology will be applied?
Amendment 31 addresses the potential of the wider environmental impact of individual precision-based interventions. Our amendment would require the advisory committee to report and to make a particular assessment of the organisms’ wider impact on agriculture. This is because of the potential disruption to the ecosystems which we now know underpin good farming practice. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Winston. In his last contribution, he gave some examples of where this technology could go wrong and have an adverse impact on agriculture not envisaged at the time the organisms were released. For example, a crop variant could be created which would be resistant to certain pests. That would be an advantage, but it could have an adverse impact on other insect life which had previously been contributing to the biodiversity of the soil life. Pests which had previously been attracted to certain species of plants might no longer be attracted to them. They could be deflected on to other plants which had not previously been damaged by these pests. This could cause an adverse chain reaction within agriculture.
The amendment also raises the potential for a crossover between plants and animals, so that the technology affecting plants could also have an effect on animal life. New variations in animal feed may strengthen an animal’s resistance to infection, but its altered manure could also alter the balance of insect and microorganisms in the soil. All these technologies are interrelated. Each cannot be taken as a precise, individual intervention. It matters, because we know that the restoration of our biodiversity is so important. It also matters, particularly in farming, because of the scale to which the technology could be quickly applied and where the danger of unforeseen consequences could cause widespread detriment.
This once again highlights the failings in the regulatory system set out in the Bill. There does not seem to be a mechanism for the advisory committee and the welfare advisory committee to collaborate in looking at the wider impacts of these changes. This is why I have argued from the start that we need a more robust regulator—such as that proposed by the genetic technology committee—who could take a holistic view of the wider impact of these changes. We will come to this later.
I agree with the points made earlier by my noble friend Lord Winston when he said that, regrettably, the Bill is about releasing genes but not about studying them first. I challenge where this studying would take place. In the meantime, we know that regenerative farming practices will lie at the heart of a successful food and farming policy for the future. These amendments would ensure that precision-bred organisms were placed firmly in this wider context if the advisory committee were given this wider role. I hope that noble Lords and the Minister will see the sense in these proposals. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch; I thank her for introducing both this amendment and the other one in this group so eloquently. Amendment 31 makes a modest and perfectly reasonable request. As I said at Second Reading and intend to go on in boring detail about, precision breeding has the potential to be an important tool in the toolbox for creating a doubly green revolution, producing more food with less impact on the environment. If we accept that proposition, we should be in favour of taking into account the wider effects of gene editing.
I do not need to repeat what the noble Baroness said so clearly, but we know without doubt that many of the changes in agriculture that arose during the green revolution were bad for their environments. Loss of habitats, overextraction of water, water and air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of soil health, loss of biodiversity—those are just a few of the adverse effects of the agricultural revolution that we have enjoyed over the past 60 years or so. Amendment 31 makes the modest request that the advisory committee should take into account these kinds of effects so that, when we create precision-bred organisms, we do not inadvertently make things worse for the environment rather than better. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I support Amendment 31. First, for the purposes of this Committee, I declare my interests: I am still involved in a family farming enterprise, growing crops and rearing livestock; I chair the board of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology; and I am the president of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers.
Amendment 31 is similar to the two amendments that I put down in a later group on animal welfare, stressing the importance of following new strains of wheat, grass and maize—in my case, cows, pigs, sheep and dogs—down through many generations on to the farm, even into the home. As has already been said, the point is that we need to watch for the good effects, hopefully, but we must also look out for the possible unintended consequences that might arise. To be honest, I would hope that this already happens because, obviously, unintended consequences were even more likely to happen in the past under the random mutations of traditional breeding; if not, such measures should certainly be introduced now. It would be good to be reassured of that by the Minister.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, gave a very good introduction to these two amendments. Several of the speakers at Second Reading referred to the benefits of gene editing to enable crops to be hardier with regard to resisting drought and flood and the ability to repel insects. It is obvious to all that climate change is having a dramatic effect on crops; in many cases, it is devastating. Unlike the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Krebs, my technical knowledge on gene editing is woefully inadequate. However, I will do my best.
Not only in England but in other countries as well, farmers are finding their crops destroyed by the forces of nature, which they are powerless to combat. In many cases, this has led to a shortage of crops to feed indigenous populations, resulting in food loss and, in some instances, the starvation of large numbers of populations. Attempting to ensure that crops are more resilient is important. However, at the same time, it is essential that the natural cycle of our wild plants is protected. Both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act focused on the loss of biodiversity in our natural habitats in fields and hedgerows. The environmental land management schemes are intended to help biodiversity recover so that natural species of plants, birds and small animals recover to a sustainable level. However, if the gene editing of crops and plants affects ecosystems to such an extent that it alters their natural cycle, this will undoubtedly have an effect on wild flowers, which in turn will affect birds and small mammals.
This comes down to the precautionary principle and ensuring that action taken as a result of this Bill is closely monitored and does more good than harm. When moving forward with technology, which although tested is likely to move more quickly than traditional methods in the past, the prevention principle should also form a part of the equation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke eloquently at Second Reading of the last time gene editing was debated and how the debate got bogged down to such an extent that it had to be abandoned. It is not our intention on these Benches to see this happen a second time. It is time to move on, but we are looking for safeguards for the future. Without the necessary safeguards, unintended consequences could be hard to reverse. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made very powerful points in their arguments, with which I agree. I hope the Minister will be able to give the reassurances which are sought around the workings of the advisory committee.
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for not speaking at the Second Reading of this Bill; I was not on the team at that point.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch for tabling the two amendments in this group, which we understand to be probing amendments. As my noble friend said about Amendment 2, she is challenging how far technology is applied. Do we want to go beyond certain sectors? How far beyond agriculture do we want to go? Amendment 31 is about the wider environmental concerns and reporting on the potential disruption to the farming ecosystem, which could have adverse effects on other plants.
As several speakers noted at Second Reading, the use of gene-editing technologies in plants is far less contentious than in animals. There is not only a much larger body of evidence from research institutions, following years of trials, but that evidence points to the risks being substantially lower. However, even if the risks are lower and potentially easier to mitigate, we must remain mindful of them. Regardless of whether these technologies are used for plant or animal life, we are dealing with processes that accelerate natural events and which may have—we have already heard this phrase—unintended consequences. Indeed, I have heard that phrase in your Lordships’ House over and again during the process of many Bills this Session. It seems to point to an uneasiness with what is being proposed and a lack of thinking things through during the process of legislation.
One imagines that the bulk of releases and marketing authorisations under this legislation will relate to agricultural products. If we can produce certain crops in a more efficient manner, or make them less susceptible to increasingly frequent extreme weather events, that could be a good thing. But we must remember that agricultural crops live alongside wild plants—grasses, wildflowers, trees and hedgerows—all of which have their own important roles in the natural world and in the careful and precious ecosystem. These amendments allow us to consider how new gene-edited varieties of crops will live alongside and interact with other types of plant life
It may be that there is a place for these technologies beyond agriculture, such as making certain tree species less susceptible to disease. I remember well, as leader of Newport City Council, when we had to deal with the significant problem of ash dieback. Large areas of ash trees were felled, with a significant impact on local wooded areas. We had a policy of planting two trees for every tree cut down on land we were responsible for, so felled ash trees were replaced with other suitable trees. If technology could help prevent such drastic measures, that can only be a positive thing.
Regardless of the precise applications of the technologies, it is not clear that the Bill as drafted takes full account of the potential consequences of new plant varieties once they are released. The Government’s environmental land management schemes and other initiatives are trying to halt the steady decline in our biodiversity which has been caused in part by the loss of meadows and hedges and the habitats they sustain. These efforts are hugely important, and there is a role for gene-edited plant varieties as we seek to achieve that goal. However, concerns have been raised by experts in this Committee that seemingly minor changes to agricultural, forestry and other land management practices arising from the use of new plant varieties could inadvertently have significant impacts on soil quality and wildlife in the medium to long term. These amendments provide the Government with an opportunity to address these concerns and outline how they will ensure that this new regime fits into efforts to protect and enhance our natural environment. I urge the adoption of them by the Government.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for reminding me that I have not referred noble Lords to my entry in the register or stated that I have farming interests. I thank her for being on the board of Rothamsted, one of the great institutions of this country. Many of the scientists there have been enormously helpful to us in the development of this legislation, and I am grateful to them for that.
I thank the noble Baroness for Amendment 2. The focus of our discussion has been on crop plants, but there is potential for precision breeding to be used in the breeding of other plant species, such as in forestry and ornamentals. I entirely agree with that. There would have to be a market for them, and I do not think they would be a priority for plant breeders in ornamentals, but there are huge possibilities for this in areas such as forestry.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who I welcome to her post in the team, mentioned ash dieback. She is entirely right that it is a scourge on our environment and anything that can help to protect our forestry, ecosystems and woodland environments is important, which is why there may be a future for precision breeding in some of these areas.
Precision breeding could be particularly beneficial to speed up the breeding process in species that take a long time to mature—for example, to introduce disease resistance and drought tolerance traits in trees. This could have benefits for the forestry sector and for trees that are particularly susceptible to disease. As such, the definition of plants in the Bill is necessarily broad to allow for precision breeding and for the benefits to be realised in a range of species.
Our scientific advisory committee, ACRE, advised that precision-bred plants pose no greater risk to the environment than traditionally bred counterparts. It also advised that crosses between precision-bred crop plants and any sexually compatible wild relatives are extremely unlikely to result in weedier wild populations. Precision-bred plants are unlikely to be more invasive or persistent in non-agricultural settings compared to traditionally bred equivalents. This is because precision breeding relies on the creation of the same type of genetic variation as is selected for in traditional breeding.
The Bill introduces two notification systems. They require developers to provide information about precision-bred plants before they are released into the environment. Our intention is that this information would be published on a public register before the plants are released. I assure the noble Baroness that this will be closely monitored by the Government and, we anticipate, by stakeholders.
This Government have a strong commitment to protect and improve the environment, and we are clear that environmental protections are not being reduced in this Bill. Existing regulations such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 will continued to apply to protect the environment from the introduction of non-native and invasive species.
I hope that reassures the noble Baroness that precision-bred plants pose no greater risk to the environment than traditionally bred plants, and that the Bill provides for proportionate systems to monitor developments in how these technologies are applied. I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, raised some interesting points. If he will forgive me, I will keep my powder dry until we get to the group beginning with Amendment 19, later in today’s proceedings, because that is where I can best address his concerns.
I turn to Amendment 31, which probes how the use of a precision-bred organism may impact on agricultural processes and systems. As I have previously outlined, we see precision breeding as an essential part of our toolkit to improve our food system. We are already seeing promising research in which precision breeding could positively impact agricultural processes, such as by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilisers and reducing water use.
In countries such as Argentina, where the use of precision breeding has already been regulated in a more proportionate and cost-effective manner, there has been an increase in the variety of beneficial traits being researched. We hope to see a similar outcome in England. This would enable our farming system to benefit from new varieties and breeds that have improved climate and disease resilience and pest tolerance, among other things. We do not expect one trait, product or company to dominate the market and shape agricultural processes in England.
Existing regulations related to plant variety registration, seed certification and seed marketing already deliver an assurance of quality and stability for most agricultural crops. For some agricultural crops, this also includes additional testing for value for cultivation or use. If such crops were to be developed by precision breeding, they would also fall under these regulations.
Precision breeding has the potential to bring positive impacts for farmers and the environment, and we want to encourage that. To encourage this innovation and investment, we need to create a more proportionate and science-based regulatory regime. That is what we are trying to achieve in the Bill. I hope that provides the reassurance that noble Lords require.
Does the Minister see this extending to non-food crops?
As I said, I can see this finding a use in forestry and in some ornamental crops. I think the early work will be done in areas that I outlined, including drought resistance and reducing the requirement for input such as fertilisers and sprays, but we want to include the ornamental sector in time. There are 30 million gardeners in this country, and we want to unlock their potential to be part of a great green revolution, but I do not think that that will be the priority here. The priority will be food.
Then why not restrict the Bill to agriculture and horticulture? There are, of course, mechanical engineering reasons for wanting some plants or indeed animals for non-food purposes.
With respect, I would not want to do that. In the same way that we are insisting that these measures can be achieved over a longer period of time through traditional plant-breeding techniques, if they are safe, it can be applied for food crops and in protection of our trees and woodlands, and it may have applications in other areas which will help our economy, particularly our green economy. I would not want to restrict it from those sectors.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I accept, as several noble Lords have said, that there is a role for gene-editing techniques in breeding disease-resistant trees. My noble friend Lady Wilcox gave the good example of ash dieback and we can think of other examples of such applications.
The Minister seems to be going gung-ho for all markets, if I could put it like that. I caution against that. As I said earlier, we need to do this step by step. We all understand the pressure to feed the nation more productively, but I am not sure that it is a priority to go beyond that to things that are more decorative, for example, even if there is a market at this time. I would have liked the Government to have had a more balanced view to this, but I will study what the Minister said more carefully in Hansard.
Moving on to Amendment 31, I do not think the Minister actually answered the fundamental question, which is whether the advisory committee will be asked to look at the wider implications for agriculture of these particular techniques. Will it be looking purely at whether the individual genome is safe or at how it might impact on the wider landscape, if it is planted in the wider landscape? All we were asking is whether the advisory committee will be given that role. The noble Lord mentioned other pieces of legislation, but we should not have to rely on them to make sure that the environment is protected. It would be nice to see that written into the Bill.
I will just answer that precise point. That is very much what ACRE does. It would not just be restricted to looking at a narrow area of science but the wider implications of the release into the environment and any impacts that that could have.
I am grateful to the noble Lord and therefore wish to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out “or a precision bred animal”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment removes animals from the scope of the Bill.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 3, I shall also speak to the rather daunting-looking number of amendments in this group. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred in the first group to debate on the Bill in the other place being deficient. It is interesting that, last week, the Institute for Government released a study stressing how much better and stronger scrutiny of Bills needs to be in the other place. The debate we are about to have will perhaps set an example of what the other place could and should have been doing with the Bill, before it came to us.
We already introduced this in the last group with Amendment 2 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, but here we are looking broadly at the wide range of ways in which this Bill might be applied to different groups of plants and animals—or not, as the case may be.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, in responding to the Minister’s comments on the earlier group, said that it appeared that the Government were
“going gung-ho for all markets”.
That is a fair summary of what we are presented with on this issue, which is interesting, because the debates and the presentations we have heard from Defra have all been talking about food, farming, food security and dealing with the climate emergency. In those Defra press releases, we do not see discussions of prettier roses or more colourful plant foliage, yet it appears that that is being proposed. The detail of this Bill, except for in talking about marketing of food and feed, does not really talk about food and farming at all. We will come later to a group focusing on the question of inserting a clause about public good, which is one way that the actual claimed benefits of the Bill could be inserted, at least indirectly.
The single beneficiary of the Bill is—sometimes this sneaks out—the biotech industry. It is written to support the Government’s industrial innovation ambitions, not to support food, farming or the food security of our population. This is among the many faults that were picked up by the Regulatory Policy Committee; the Bill fails to understand where what it is proposing intersects with farming, food production, food businesses and consumer interests. These concerns are also echoed, in somewhat less clear language, by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Constitution Committee.
It needs to be said at some point—and this is probably the point to do it—that we have a great plant breeding sector in the UK and the majority of its work is not focused on genetic engineering as it is a relatively small, specialist area. An interesting example is Wakelyns agroforestry, which is doing pioneering and innovative work on developing races of wheat and other grains. Diversity is built within the race of a crop, such that you keep using those seeds again and again with variety built in. That is an agro-ecological approach to farming that, as the Government will sometimes acknowledge, is what we actually need.
Despite the number of amendments in this group, they form a clear set of choices that are laid out before your Lordships’ House. I begin with Amendment 3, in my name, which would exclude animals from the provisions of the Bill and simply restrict it to plants and—I am going to assume—fungi. In the interests of not getting too diverted at this point, I am not going to revive a detailed debate I had at great length during the passage of the Agriculture Act, but fungi are not plants. This is something that perhaps the department might like to look at before we get to Report, or I might feel unable to avoid writing in something that would make the Bill scientifically accurate. There is also a great deal of discussion now about producing food in vats, which brings up the issue of bacteria and protists. This suggests that the Bill might not be as future-proofed as the Government like to claim.
My Amendment 3 would exclude animals and restrict the Bill to plants and possibly fungi. I shall begin with a briefing from 13 animal protection organisations, including the RSPCA, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, the Humane League, Animal Aid, Animal Defenders International and OneKind. They say that the Bill, by including animals, is
“a backwards step for animal welfare … increasing the risk that animals will be regarded as ‘things’ that can be modified for human convenience. This is contrary to the recognition of animals as sentient beings in the new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.”
That is a kind of philosophical approach, although it is interesting that in the earlier group, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, raised similar concerns from the briefing from the British Veterinary Association, which I have not seen.
To move away from the moral arguments, I think that we need to look at the practical ones, which, again, were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, in the last group. The Nuffield Council 2016 ethical review of genome editing pointed out that if we change the genome of an animal to reduce the likelihood of it being infected with one disease, we may then think that we are able to crowd the animals much closer together in much worse conditions. But, of course, that is opening the way both for bad treatment of animals and to other diseases. We only need to look at what has happened with avian flu, which is very clearly before us at the moment. It is believed to have started in intensive agriculture, has now spread into our wild populations and continues to decimate our heavily crowded, factory farmed poultry.
One of the other claims about animals, which we hear in the Government’s press releases et cetera, is that we will get higher levels of productivity from them, but it is worth looking at what higher levels of productivity have already done—there are so many accounts of this. Broiler chickens grow so quickly that their legs cannot bear them, and their hearts simply give out, not being big enough to support their flesh. Hens have been bred to lay over 300 eggs a year, which means that they draw on their own bone calcium to produce the eggshells. To produce milk for her calf, a cow would normally produce 1,000 litres of milk in 10 months’ lactation, but dairy cows are now bred—this is through conventional breeding—to produce 10 times as much as would be natural. Unsurprisingly, that contributes to issues such as lameness, mastitis and reproductive disorders. We have done all those things with conventional breeding. Is applying to animals techniques that will increase their productivity really the direction in which we should be heading? I posit that it is clearly not, and many of the expert commentators have drawn attention to that.
We will come back to this, but, in their briefing, the 13 leading animal charities point out that the Bill’s protections for animal welfare are too weak and are very broadly drawn, and it is unclear how they would operate in practice. I make no secret of the fact that my starting position is that I am utterly not in favour of the Bill, but I put it to those who wish to promote it and see it go through, addressing the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that the public reaction to the Bill would be far more favourable if it covered only plants.
I will offer an alternative option and pick up some points from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Amendment 7, which I put down as an alternative option, says that it would be only plants or animals relating to agriculture. On what the Government are talking about, I point out that the George Eustice press release that I referred to earlier said that
“we can breed crops that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment, helping farmers and reducing impacts on the environment.”
That relates to agriculture, not those terribly decorative roses or that lovely foliage for hedges. The Defra chief scientific adviser, quoted in the same press release, said that the purpose of the Bill is “to build better crops”. That is how all this is being sold.
I neglected to thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for supporting my Amendment 3. I also offer copious thanks to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bakewell, who put down a huge number of amendments, from Amendment 15 onwards, consequential on my Amendment 3. They deal with the Bill in a level of detail that I simply did not have the capacity to manage, and I sincerely thank the noble Baronesses for that.
I will note the other alternative options. Amendment 4, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Hayman, would say only “farmed” animals, as would Amendment 6 in a slightly different form. The very important Amendment 5, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, would explicitly exclude companion animals. I was talking about what we have done to productive animals such as dairy cows. Given what traditional breeding has done to some breeds of dog, for example, and the kind of life that it has given them, I have very little doubt that the British public would think that the gene editing of companion animals should be absolutely excluded from the Bill.
My Lords, I apologise for my late arrival. I set off from Scotland very early this morning, but, as noble Lords might imagine, flights have been heavily disrupted. I would be grateful to contribute, if that is allowed.
I thank the Minister for his reassurance about gene drive and that that will still be subject to GMO regulations—this was a concern that I and others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, had at Second Reading.
I turn to this group. I very much welcome the inclusion of animals in the Bill. This is a valuable adoption of modern technology. It can be a game-changer in the way we control and prevent diseases in animals, and will have positive welfare and environmental benefits. In this debate, we really need to weigh up the benefit-cost ratio. There are certainly lots of downsides to conventional breeding, which we have used without demur for many years.
Regarding environmental benefits and controlling disease, we know that, if you can control enteric worms in ruminants—for example, sheep—with drugs, you can decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 10% per unit of productivity. There is every reason to believe that we are going to be able to achieve that and more, without the use of drugs, by targeted genetic selection in breeding.
We know that, in the control of diseases, while vaccines are a wonderful invention, there are still many important infections that we do not have effective vaccines for. Avian flu is a very good recent example. Of course, we use genetic manipulation all the time in developing the vaccines that we then inject into people and animals.
Drugs have their inherent problems. Although they have been a fantastic advantage for us—particularly antibiotics, to prevent animals and people dying of infections that we could not control before the 1940s and 1950s—they have downsides as well. In many cases, we have drug resistance. Release into the environment has environmental consequences, as with other chemicals—parasiticides, for example. Environmental pollution of the aqueous environment is currently a matter of considerable concern.
These genetic technologies obviate those downsides of our current technologies. We have known for many years that susceptibility to disease is determined by a number of factors but that genetics is a major factor. However, we have failed to make substantial use of that knowledge, because it is too slow by conventional breeding and too difficult to determine and achieve the results we seek. I emphasise the point made earlier by my noble friend Lord Krebs: natural or traditional breeding involves huge uncertainty, so one’s intended consequences may be extremely difficult to achieve. Conversely, unintended genomic consequences can and do occur, as my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington mentioned.
We discussed the wording in the Title of this Bill—“precision”. We can all agree that the techniques that we are discussing are certainly more precise than traditional breeding, in which we have no control whatever over the multiple mutations that occur when we hybridise animals. I therefore strongly support the inclusion of animals in the Bill, but I share a lot of the concerns about animal welfare and health. It is important for public confidence, as well as for the future monitoring of animal health and welfare consequences, that we monitor for adverse events post the achievement of the breeding of such animals, as we do for new drug introductions. That will be discussed later.
Finally, I will address the welfare issues which have been eloquently articulated. I do not want to repeat what I said on Second Reading, but we have laws governing the welfare of farmed animals. If we think there are problems now—as a number of people clearly do—the solution is to properly apply and enforce the laws we have. We do not need to invent new welfare laws because of a particular technique or technology that is coming along. Welfare laws, I would maintain, are already there; but if we feel they are insufficient, we should strengthen them, and that should apply to conventional and natural breeding as well as any modern technology.
In conclusion, I support the inclusion of animals, and I note the timetable would delay the introduction until a number of the safeguards in the Bill have been addressed for animals.
Would the noble Lord be kind enough to answer one question? Does he not consider the possibility that the genetic modification of a herd of animals might make them more likely to be predisposed to a particular disease or infection that we did not expect?
With respect, I say that that could be screened out in the development process. There may be indications, were such a risk likely from genetic linkages and so on, and that could be looked for by whole genome sequencing in the screening process and then perhaps by in vivo challenge experiments. But it could occur in natural breeding processes, too.
The noble Lord referred to the possibility of using gene editing to tackle enteric worms. Would he acknowledge that there is some very successful work being done on using diet—particularly tree crops and more varied pastural swards—to tackle worms? That is a far more agroecological approach that is working very effectively and has lots of other environmental benefits as well.
I acknowledge that work has been done on that, but it is not in widespread commercial use.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 3, and I support the consequential amendments. The Government’s relatively late decision to add animals into the scope of the legislation has made what would have been a more routine Bill into something we believe is far more contentious. As many of us said on Second Reading, this has been compounded by the lack of detail as to how the regulations will work.
The Government have themselves admitted that the understanding of the impact of these new provisions is not fully developed. In fact, I believe the chief scientific adviser gave evidence in the Commons that it would take at least a couple of years to enact the animal-related clauses. So there is no urgency in adding them to the Bill at this time, and it seems that the only reason this is being done is because Defra is not sure when it will next get a legislative slot. That does not seem a very good basis for making legislation, particularly when we have so little information with which to make a judgment. For example, the factors that the welfare advisory board will consider have yet to be spelled out. We do not even know who will be tasked with making those decisions. We will return to these arguments when we consider other amendments about the composition and terms of reference of the regulators.
On Second Reading, several noble Lords sought to highlight the potential benefits of gene editing for animal welfare, and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, has done that again. No doubt there could be benefits—for example, in breeding out male chicks or tackling pig respiratory disease. But for every advantage there is a counterargument for the disadvantages. We have heard some of them from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. It could be used to enable more intensive livestock breeding or to create fashionable designer dogs with health defects.
The fact is that scientists have not always used their breeding skills to altruistic effect. Hence, as we have heard, we now have chickens whose breast meat is so heavy that they are unable to stand, and farm animals bred for fast growth and high yields at the expense of their welfare. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has also raised concerns about animals being created to live packed together in more crowded spaces—another point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. So it is not surprising that the major animal welfare charities are sounding the alarm.
So far, the debate around gene editing has concentrated on crops and seeds, and it has received cautious public support. But the introduction of animals raises much deeper ethical and moral challenges, which have not been explored in the public sphere. We are therefore in real danger of a backlash when this element of the Bill becomes more public.
The British public deserve to have a proper, thoughtful debate about how we want to coexist with farmed and domestic animals and the extent to which we should manipulate their breeding for our own ends. So I believe that these clauses inserting animals into the Bill are premature. We are being asked to take too much on trust at a time when the Government’s own thinking is not clear, and we all know the limitations of the secondary legislation system and the inability of Parliament to make real change at that stage. It is not good enough to expect us to pass this authority back to the Secretary of State when we know so little within the Bill at this time. This is why I believe we need to pause these clauses until Parliament can have a full debate on the fundamental issues at stake. I therefore support Amendment 3.
My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Trees in welcoming the inclusion of animals in this Bill, but I have added my name to Amendment 6, which would restrict the animals in question in the first instance to those involved in agriculture. My main reason for proceeding cautiously relates to the point just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, of public acceptance. There is a risk that, if the net is cast too wide with the inclusion of animals, there could be a backlash, which would undermine the whole endeavour.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has said, Amendment 5, which excludes companion animals, is a helpful start. I agree with her that many people would be horrified at the thought that we might breed dogs with further flattened noses through gene editing and that they would suffer the consequences of that.
One can also ask: would the public be happy to see gene-edited wild animals? We discussed that in relation to plants a few minutes ago. One could conjure up examples where the answer might be yes. For instance, if we could gene-edit herring gulls to stop them stealing ice creams and chips at the seaside, that might perhaps be a popular move; but I suspect that, on the whole, people would not be happy to see our native animals gene edited outside the context of agriculture. As it is most likely that the early applications of gene editing in animals will be for agriculture, why not acknowledge this, start here and progress step-wise to widen the range of animals at a later stage if that is deemed advantageous?
The advantage of Amendment 6 over Amendment 8, which refers to farmed animals, is that Amendment 6 would allow for the gene editing of, for instance, a pest or parasite of an agricultural species while Amendment 8 would not. I defer to the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his expertise on this, but it may in some circumstances be easier to reduce the burden of disease on farm animals by altering the genome of the disease-causing organism rather than the genome of the farmed animal itself.
So, while I am in favour of including animals in the Bill, I think there is a case for proceeding cautiously and, in the first instance, restricting that to agricultural contexts.
My Lords, Amendment 9 is in my name. I will be very brief about that, but I agree that we should be extremely cautious generally about animals at this stage. There is a lot of concern. From the example of dealing with pigs in a genome environment, I know that they are very different from some of the other mammals that we have been experimenting with. We may come to that issue later on when it comes to licensing.
With regard to Amendment 9, there is a strong case as well for limiting this to farm animals, if we go ahead at all—and if we do I would like to see equines excluded, for pretty obvious reasons. Some time ago, when I was working with an anaesthetist who was looking at equine metabolism, it was amazing how suspiciously the horse-breeding industry looked at our work—so much so that we could not share our data on their metabolism. It was very clear that we would have great difficulty with the restrictions that are proposed on that industry.
With regard to the great apes, it would be wrong to consider them in the same way as other mammals. It seems to me that these sapient creatures are so close to humans that they ought not to be included in the Bill. There are restrictions, of course, on the use of rhesus monkeys in research. I have worked with rhesus monkeys, not in Britain but in the United States. As a research worker, I always found that extremely distressing because I saw their response to even just a visit from us, when they knew we were going to do something which they thought would be unpleasant. I feel strongly that there has to be a very strong case for modifying sapient creatures, perhaps even to make them less sapient—so I propose Amendment 9 on that basis.
My Lords, I realise that these are mostly probing amendments and, as ever, we await the Minister’s remarks with bated breath. But I cannot let the proposal to exclude all animals pass without comment because, like my noble friend Lord Trees, I believe that if we were to exclude all animals from the Bill, it would be an opportunity wasted to enable us to remove a lot of suffering on their behalf. My noble friend and I both mentioned the disease PRRS in pigs at Second Reading. It is a devastating disease for any herd, outdoors or indoors, organic or whatever. As a farmer, you just have to cull drastically to eliminate as much suffering as possible, and killing your herd is not a very pleasant thing to have to do. Breeding resistance to the disease is therefore a much more humane approach.
One of the great positives of the Bill is that if you alter the genes of one animal, say, to make them resistant to a particular disease, and succeed in making this a hereditary and stable characteristic—not always a given—you can get huge benefits for animals and even humans, because you will be taking more antibiotics out of our environment. Breeding resistance into future generations is so much more sensible than the ongoing use of antibiotics, medicines and even vaccines as a way to help animals live pain-free and disease-free lives.
The key to making the Bill work fairly and humanely for animals is to ensure that we continue to have the strictest monitoring and regulation every step of the way: in the laboratory and on the farm, and for plants and particularly with animals. We will obviously come to the tightening of some of these regulations later in our deliberations.
On the companion animal debate, I fear I disagree with my noble friend Lord Krebs, who I very rarely disagree with. I realise that they seem to present a slightly more unregulated environment than that of farm animals; people keeping pets are not subject to the strict regulations that exist on our farms—regulations that are, in theory, enforced by a variety of inspectors, not least those who come from the supermarkets, on which the farmers depend for their livelihoods. However, we are not debating how the pets are being kept: it is the ability of breeders to get the relevant licence and approval from the Home Office, and now from the welfare advisory body. If we had some form of guarantee that the welfare advisory body will have a remit—nay, a duty—to investigate in the home and on the farm the future quality of life of any relevant animal and its progeny, along the lines of my later amendments, I do not see it as necessary to exclude companion animals in total from this Bill.
My Lords, at the risk of appearing to be part of a Cross-Bench cabal, I would like to support the comments of my colleagues on the Cross Benches and include animals in the Bill.
This is a very minor point, but I would like to respond to the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on productivity. This is not, in my view, about ever-increasing yields of crops, the growth of animals, the yields of dairy cows or the growth of chickens, but about improving what is real productivity, which is reducing the cost per unit of production, and improving the welfare and well-being of the animals by reducing their susceptibility to disease. It is the cost of producing the unit of production that is the true measurement of productivity, not ever-increasing yields. I believe that to be able to use these techniques to do that will be of huge benefit to both the animals themselves and to those who farm them.
My Lords, from these Benches we have heard the arguments made by those who argue for the exclusion of all animals with great sympathy. We think that both noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, made good points. Their arguments around the concerns that the public have are extremely well made. I merely add one other reason why their case is strong, which has not been referred to, which is the evidence that was produced from ACRE, which the Minister referred to. What he did not make clear in his remarks was that ACRE said that in terms of unintended consequences, and DNA being retained in organisms used through this process, the likelihood of that happening is far higher with animals than it is with plants. That is another strong argument for a slower approach to proceeding with gene editing. I do not think anybody is saying that gene editing does not have any benefits, but we should be taking that slower approach, both because of how the public have shown their concern over animals and because of the advice from ACRE that that argument has merit.
I understand where the Government are coming from and therefore I have proposed four amendments in this group that would limit gene editing to just farmed animals. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, may have concerns over the wording I chose. My wording was chosen merely because that was the defined use in a previous piece of legislation, so we would not have to argue about what the term meant. I think it is useful in Committee to be probing the Government on excluding farmed animals for a number of reasons. First, as a number of colleagues have said, when we look at other particular areas, such as companion animals, it is not just the welfare treatment of companion animals, it is the actual characteristics that are being bred. Let us think about cropped ears or short muzzles for dogs. Those are not the sorts of things the public would like to see this legislation being used to introduce.
Equally, in the area that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned, there is the potential for an enormous number of unintended consequences if this technique is used for wild animals, not only for the animals themselves but for the biodiversity and ecosystems around them. There is a real worry at this stage, which causes me to feel that, if animals are to be included, it would be sensible to restrict editing to farmed animals. There are two other reasons why I think it is important. The first is that it is all the public have been asked about. The Minister talked about how the FSA and the department have been consulting the public; they have consulted with the public only on farm animals, not on the use of animals more broadly. The public have had no say in that at all, so I do not think it is right or proper that we should proceed with a piece of legislation with such huge implications for animals, given public concern that could threaten the capacity of this technology, which does have benefits, to be accepted by the public. They have had no say on companion animals or wild animals. Yes, they have had some say on farmed animals, but not more broadly. That is one concern I have.
My second concern is one that I raised at Second Reading, when I asked the Minister who else in the industry, in the scientific community, in the academic community and in the veterinary community had asked for anything other than farmed animals. The response was, no one. This is about the Government, in their terms, future proofing the legislation, but I do not believe it is appropriate to go beyond what people have been asked about, be it the public, the academics, the veterinarians, the scientists, business organisations, Rothamsted or anyone. No one has been making a case for anything beyond farmed animals, so I ask the Minister to address that in his summing up. On these Benches, we would prefer animals to be excluded in their entirety and to proceed more slowly. But, if that is not the case, we think there is an extremely strong case at the moment to limit it to farm animals. We are looking for a rather better response from the Minister than he gave at Second Reading as to why he thinks it is appropriate that anything beyond farmed animals should be included in this legislation.
My Lords, I have a number of amendments in this group, but many of them are consequential, so I will not go through them one by one. I have also added my name to Amendment 3, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and I have supported other amendments in this group, such as the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. The reason for this is that, whether we agree that animals should be included or not, there is a wider debate as to when they should be included, how quickly they should be included, and whether all animals should be included or just some. That is why I put down a lot of amendments in this group. It is an area on which we really need to have proper debate and consideration, because it fundamentally changes much of what the Bill is trying to achieve if you have not just animals but all animals within the Bill, and without any timescales as to when these are going to be included.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to the amendment from my noble friend Lord Winston, because this is slightly different from any other discussion that we have had. It states that the legislation should not apply to equines or rhesus monkeys, for example. He also stressed that he was very cautious about including animals right at the start of the Bill. We will be very interested in the Minister’s response to my noble friend, because it is a different area that he has raised.
I mentioned at Second Reading that I was concerned about the introduction of animals and how they have been included in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, raised an important point as to what was discussed with the public in the earlier stages that led up to the legislation in front of us. All the secondary legislation that preceded the Bill was really about plants, not animals; likewise, much of the Government’s language and discussion focused on plants, not animals. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, the consultation that was held by Defra referenced animals, but they did not seem to be the main focus of attention. Moreover, references to animals focused completely on farm animals. Many stakeholder groups were not expecting the Government to include animals in the Bill, which is partly why many are quite taken aback and have raised concerns.
If you look at the Bill, you will also see evidence of the lack of concrete provisions around timeframes: many of them are vague and noncommittal. Much of the preparation that we believe is necessary for a regulatory framework for animals has not yet been properly carried out. In many aspects, the Bill is a framework Bill, with little detail on actual intentions or provisions on its face. It also delegates a broad set of sweeping powers to Ministers, not only to bring in an awful lot of secondary legislation but to amend primary legislation with a Henry VIII clause, which I am sure that, at some point, we will get on to debate.
No one disputes that it would be a wonderful thing to be able to tackle avian flu or PRRS. Of course, if we can find a solution to these kinds of diseases, it would be hugely beneficial—not just in a financial sense, with much of the Bill focused on marketing, but also in terms of welfare.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, talked about the fact that he strongly supports animals in the Bill. I believe that that is because he is looking at the welfare aspects of this. However, I am concerned that he may be a little gung-ho about how quickly we need to move forward on this. I agree with him that we need to strengthen animal welfare laws. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, talked about the importance of breeding to remove disease and produce resistance to disease. I completely understand those arguments, but I am concerned that we may be moving too quickly without the regulatory framework that needs to be in place and without the considerations that we need to have around the inclusion of animals.
The other thing I want to draw the Committee’s attention to is the fact that the European Union timetable also indicates plants, not animals. Have the Government considered the implications of the EU moving ahead just with plants at this stage if we have animals as well? A large number of animal welfare organisations have expressed concerns; I ought to declare my interest as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which is one of the groups that has said it is concerned about this Bill.
The RSPCA, which has already been mentioned, produced a particularly good briefing as to what these concerns are. Its thoughts are that, ideally, the Bill should not cover any animals but, if it does, it should be limited to farm animals only. We have heard a lot of arguments today as to why that should be. It also mentions, as one would expect the RSPCA to do, the impact of conventional breeding, particularly on dogs; a number of noble Lords have talked about that. It also says that gene editing in wild animals is done with the express purpose of altering ecosystems, with potentially unpredictable impacts, and that this should always be controlled by the GMO regulations; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that particular comment by the RSPCA. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, also expressed concerns about wild animals.
As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned, the other issue is that we need to take the public with us. If we are not careful about how we legislate around the animal aspect, we will lose them. It is terribly important that we are very careful about how we bring in and implement any animal aspects of this Bill, if at all. The Nuffield Council also raised concerns about bringing animal welfare in, stating:
“The welfare of animals is not a characteristic, like growth rate or milk yield, but a consequence of the interaction of biological and environmental factors.”
That is a really important thing to take home with us as we look at how we can move the Bill forward. It also said:
“There is a risk that the focus placed on individual traits in the Bill could distract from this broader consideration of welfare.”
It is terribly important that that concern is built into the Bill.
In our debate on a later group, we will debate the welfare advisory body in the Bill; now is not the time to do so but the question of whether that group is adequate will be a really important part of the Bill, particularly in terms of whether we should amend it to support that concern. Compassion in World Farming also raised concerns about this issue; I will not go into the detail as we discussed this at Second Reading.
I am slightly concerned that it has been suggested that ethical concerns should not be part of the broader debate. I would say that, where animal welfare is concerned, they should be. We must not forget those ethical concerns either.
I mentioned Professor Henderson, the chief scientific adviser at Defra, earlier. I am going to mention him again, because I thought his evidence was particularly interesting in the Commons Committee debate. He said:
“The passage of this Bill has pointed to those problems in animal welfare and made them clearer, and made it necessary to deal with them quite explicitly before we can enact legislation about precision breeding for animals.”
He also said that the process of considering the evidence on animal welfare
“will have to take place before secondary legislation can be enacted. The process for that is laid out in the Bill, and the timescale will be”—
as referenced by my noble friend Lady Jones—
“something like two to three years where scientific input will feed in.”—[Official Report, Commons, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill Committee, 28/6/22; col. 18.]
Where in the Bill is that set out, so that we have that guarantee of two to three years? Neither the process nor the timescales are laid out in the Bill. If we need more time to get the provisions right, why are we not focusing on doing that rather than asking noble Lords, essentially, to allow them to pass and then ask all these questions and put in this detail afterwards? That, to me, is not good legislation. These are big decisions we are making.
Unless we can exclude animals now or restrict their inclusion, I am concerned that Defra and the Government will be moving forward with legislation before carrying out a very large piece of work that they clearly and self-evidently need to do, as they have admitted themselves. We need to have all of this laid out on the face of the Bill, not just wait for proposals to come forward in secondary legislation at a much later date.
The Minister has talked about the need to future-proof. I absolutely understand that, but we need to have those timescales—those restrictions, if you like—about when things can happen laid out clearly in the Bill. We will come to group 5 on implementation shortly, and I am sure we can look at this further then. There will also be more debate around animal welfare in group 8. However, I am concerned that we are moving forward without the information and the right regulation in place at this stage.
My Lords, when I was in another place, there was a free vote on the smoking ban. I remember a panicked Back-Bencher coming towards the Lobbies and saying that he did not know how to vote, because he hated smoking but loved freedom—what was he to do? Someone just said to him, “That way for freedom from smoke; that way for freedom to smoke.” I mention that because it shows that you can look down two ends of a telescope and come at this from two directions. I entirely understand that people who want to oppose the Bill in its entirety will find hooks on which to hang that belief, and that others who see merit in this will try to see a path down which to go.
I will try to address the points raised. First, for clarity, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that fungi are out of the scope of the Bill. I am sure she will be pleased to hear that. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that animals were not a late inclusion into the Bill. There was a consultation in March 2021 which included animals, and a response to that was published in September 2021, so I do not think the idea that this was a late entry into the Bill stacks up.
I am grateful for the opportunity to further build on the Government’s position on why we think it is vital that animals remain part of the Bill. There are many potential benefits of enabling precision breeding in animals, including, as we have heard, to improve the health, welfare and resilience of animals. We have a real opportunity to harness the great research that is already taking place in the UK. Noble Lords highlighted some of this great potential during Second Reading, but to reiterate, our leading scientists are already using precision breeding to develop resistance to a range of diseases that impact animals across the country.
We have already mentioned at Second Reading research focused on resistance to bird flu in chickens, resistance to sea lice in farmed salmon and resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Trees—
I have been looking very carefully at the literature on gene editing for this debate, to remind myself. Although the Minister praises British research—of course we like to promote British research and British universities, being at one myself—I have to say that what I see is that the papers describing the risks of gene editing in detail largely come from other countries, including Asia and America. I do not think we can ignore the fact that there is a wide body of opinion that recognises that this is still a relatively dodgy technique, particularly so in animals, and therefore we need to go carefully before we start to implement it as a sort of service that we might be able to sell.
I am grateful to the noble Lord and will cover that point in a moment.
I was making a point about PRRS, but there are also developments abroad in producing cattle that are more heat tolerant and resistant to climate change. As was pointed out at Second Reading, there is potential to reduce methane emissions from cattle, which is vital for more sustainable agricultural systems.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trees, that there are many examples that demonstrate the potential to bring significant health and welfare benefits to our animal populations and economic benefits to our farming industries. That is why we are looking at this down one end of the telescope. I hope I can persuade noble Lords that this a way that offers great potential, particularly in the area of animal welfare.
It is vital that we create an enabling regulatory environment to translate this research into practical, tangible benefits. This is a key objective of the Bill, and removing animals from the Bill would hinder us from realising any benefits of these technologies for animals. Ensuring that these technologies are used responsibly and enhance animal health and welfare is vital; I think we are all agreed on that. That is why we intend to take a stepwise approach in implementing the Bill, with regulatory changes to the regime for plants first, followed by that for animals. We want to make sure that the framework for animal welfare set out in the Bill is effective, and we will not bring the measures on precision breeding into effect for animals until this system is in place.
It is important we get this right, and that is why we have commissioned Scotland’s Rural College to carry out research to help us develop the application process for animal marketing authorisations. This will focus on the welfare assessment that notifiers will have to carry out to support their welfare declaration. This research will help us determine an appropriate welfare assessment for precision-bred animals and identify the evidence and information that must be submitted to the welfare advisory body along with the notifier’s welfare declaration. The research will involve experts from the Animal Welfare Committee and a wide range of organisations with expertise in animal welfare, genetics and industry practice.
As the noble Lord, Lord Trees has noted, the Bill introduces additional animal welfare standards, over and above existing animal welfare legislation. We are clear that these additional safeguards will complement our existing animal welfare regulatory framework for protecting animals. This includes the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. A suite of legislation exists. I absolutely refute the points that have been rightly raised that this can be seen as a fast passage towards higher density occupation of buildings because birds are somehow resistant to diseases caused by tight accommodation. There is already legislation that controls the densities and other animal welfare provisions. The idea that this is somehow going to allow producers to get round existing legislation is not the case, and there are additional animal welfare safeguards within the legislation.
If we want to drive investment in new research and realise the potential benefits for animals, we need to include them in the Bill. By doing so, we are providing a clear signal that the UK is the best place to conduct research and bring products to market.
I move now to the topic of limiting the scope of the Bill to certain animals. As we have already discussed, we know that there are benefits from enabling precision breeding. This technology has the potential to improve the health and welfare of animals. This applies to a range of animal species. I hope that the points I am coming to now will address the points made in the amendments and the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and others.
The definition of animals in this Bill is broad so that the legislation remains durable for future years and to encourage beneficial research and innovation. Much of current research is on animals used in food production. We want to ensure that the potential benefits, such as improved welfare, can be realised across different species in a responsible way as research advances. This includes species that are kept only in this country as companion animals. Independent scientific advice that precision-bred organisms pose no greater risk than traditionally bred organisms applies to farm and companion animals.
To quote one example, hip dysplasia in certain breeds of dog is a devastating condition; it causes a lot of misery for the dog and its owners, and results in the dog’s early death. I do not say that there is some quick and easy path to resolving this, but there is a lot of research going on to traditionally breed out that condition. I want to see this sort of work speeded up. It seems right to include the ability to tackle these sorts of conditions in companion animals in this legislation, with adequate safeguards.
It is important to note that this is just the beginning. We intend to take a step-by-step approach with animals. We will not bring the measures set out in this Bill into effect in relation to any animal until the system to safeguard animal welfare is fully developed and operational. This system is intended to ensure that, before a vertebrate animal or its qualifying progeny can be marketed, their health and welfare will not be adversely affected by any trait that results from precision breeding. As I said, we have started by commissioning Scotland’s Rural College to conduct research that will help develop this application process.
I acknowledge the amendments tabled by noble Lords in relation to the range of animals covered in the Bill. The suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, to pursue and build up the step-by-step approach is the right way forward. I hope that noble Lords will be reassured to know that the Bill, as currently drafted, already allows us to take this step-by-step approach through commencement regulations; for instance, by commencing the relevant provisions of the Bill in relation to some animal species before dealing with others. I hope this offers some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I hope that the points I have made will enable noble Lords to not press their amendments.
On companion animals, I can understand that this is a difficult and quite controversial issue. There is an irony and a paradox—for example, around short-nosed dogs; the so-called brachycephalic breeds—and we can look at it with either a glass half full or a glass half empty approach. The irony is that, through natural, traditional breeding, we have bred animals that are deformed. Brachycephalic breeds have a markedly reduced life expectancy than breeds with long noses. They have not only problems with obstructive airway disease but delivery by Caesarean section is much more frequent, and they have ocular and skinfold problems. Genetic manipulation and editing could help reverse these trends much more quickly than might happen through traditional breeding. We need to be open minded about the potential for good, as well as the potential for less good outturns.
I totally agree with the noble Lord: there are opportunities here. With the balanced approach that we have taken and the step-by-step approach with which we will implement the legislation, I hope that we can quickly get to the place that the noble Lord described, where we start to reverse some of the terrible things that we have seen in traditional breeding processes. I hope that the Bill can be seen as paving the way for higher standards in animal welfare for all kinds of animals.
I am about to sit down, but I can see various noble Lords poised to step in and I am very happy to take more points.
I thank the Minister. He has talked about a step-by-step approach a few times. Why can that not be put in the Bill, so that we are secure that things will not be able to happen until we are ready for them?
All I can do is assure noble Lords that nothing will happen before we are in the right position to do it. That is why we have commissioned the work with Scotland’s Rural College, and we are working with important stakeholders such as veterinary colleges and others to make sure that we get this right.
The priority will be to try to do this for farmed animals first, and we want to make sure that we are operating a step-by-step approach. If we put it in the Bill, it may be too prescriptive, because we are in a fast-moving area of science, and it may constrain the ability of the scientific community to progress this if we do it in the wrong way. We want to give as much freedom as possible, and that is why we are adopting this process.
I hope the Minister will forgive me—I have been a complete pest to him this afternoon and will probably continue to be one—but it is nothing to do with the scientific community. That community can take as long as it wants to get the right answers; it is the marketing of these animals that concerns us. We have no problem with the science, providing it is done humanely, and we recognise that that is the Government’s intention because we already have very good legislation to do that, but we have to accept that the science is still uncertain. That is why we are concerned that we might make mistakes.
That is precisely why we want to have the proper regulatory framework in place, and that requires consultation. We also have a flowchart, available on the Bill webpage, that sets out very clearly the process for applying for an animal marketing authorisation. I will not delay noble Lords by going through each of the six steps in the process, but it is very extensive and exhaustive and clearly sets out how we propose to do this.
It gives the kind of reassurance that a lot of noble Lords talked about regarding the public’s acceptance. To address that point, it is a matter of how you put the question: if you do so in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Trees, just did, mentioning the benefits of the legislation, I think a huge majority of people will support it. If you ask it in a different way, you will get a different answer—that was the problem 25 to 30 years ago.
The noble Lord is right, of course: the scientific community will move at the pace that the money allows it to, and the market will create demand for the research. But we want to make sure that we have a good, proper regulatory process that reassures the public and is clear to developers of these products, so that they can see how they will be required to sit within that sort of framework.
I thank the Minister for his answer and thank everyone who contributed to what has been a very rich, full and very informed debate. I am going to deal first with the structural questions just raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
We again have this problem that we have to wait for the regulations and trust the Government. I appreciate that the Minister was doing his best to persuade us, and I felt that he really wanted the opportunity to have a PowerPoint presentation here to show us a slide of his flowchart. But this is all about taking it on trust. Almost certainly, in the timeframe the Minister referred to, we are talking of not the same Government implementing this—I am not casting any aspersions on who the next Government might be—and the noble Lord not being in a position to guarantee what will happen in the future. We are left with this uncertainty and it not being clear. We know that tomorrow will test your Lordships’ House on just how much it is prepared to stand up against regulations. We shall see what happens then.
The Minister responded to me on the standards of what I call factory farming. He said that there is already legislation on this, but I say that that legislation is grossly inadequate and that we have huge disease problems because of that. Tightening up animal welfare regulations and regulations for housing animals in this country would greatly reduce the need to deal with problems of disease.
It is interesting that the Minister also said, perhaps a couple of times, that including animals is about making the UK the best place to conduct research. I come back to the point I made on an earlier group about whether this Bill is for animal welfare, food security for farmers, or for our biotechnology industry. It appears that we are hearing that it is for the biotechnology industry.
I am not going to run through all the contributions, because the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Hayman, have already provided us with a good summary, but I will draw together the responses from the Minister and a number of others, including the noble Lords, Lord Trees and Lord Cameron of Dillington. There have been suggestions about tackling disease, but we are talking about ecological niches here. Let us say you produce pigs that are entirely resistant to a particular disease; you are producing resistance to one species or one threat. You are very unlikely to produce widespread resistance, so you are opening up an ecological niche for another disease to come in, if you keep animals in conditions that allow that to happen.
We can take a practical example from what is happening in human society at this moment. Over many centuries, human societies have had conditions that have allowed the spread of a wide range of respiratory diseases.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Does she not agree with me that we have been somewhat dismissive in this debate of the use of vaccines? Surely one of the ways to look at this with more intensity, and perhaps more money, is to look at more vaccines not just for human health but for animal health. At the moment, the research there is nothing like as much as it is for humans.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention and agree, although we know that animals kept in good conditions of husbandry are much less susceptible to disease. My first approach is to keep animals in conditions where they are not susceptible to disease, and then you do not need to go to the expense and effort of developing vaccines or using antibiotics, which have the issues with resistance that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron.
I was talking about respiratory viruses. Our population is threatened now by not just Covid-19 but a number of other coronaviruses that have long been causing respiratory diseases in humans. We are threatened by rhinoviruses and by flus, all because of conditions that make us prone to respiratory illnesses spreading. Tackling just one of those, as we have done with the Covid-19 vaccine that the noble Lord just referred to, with great effect, does not mean that we will stop all those other forms of respiratory illness.
That has covered the main points. I want to come back to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, which raises some interesting points on great apes. I would extend this to all simians or monkeys. I ask your Lordships’ House to consider whether we actually want to be gene editing great apes or monkeys.
The point about equines is also very interesting when we think about horseracing and the enormous amount of money and the possibly shady characters involved in it. Whether we really want to see gene-editing in racehorses leads us into the companion animals question. It is a real area of concern. On that, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to brachycephalic breeds that are identified as a problem area. If the breed societies were to say that they were going to create really rigid rules and change their definition of what those breeds are supposed to look like, that would be another way, a kind of husbandry way, of tackling the issue.
I will of course withdraw the amendment at this stage, but before I do that, I want to ask the Minister a question. Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, does he think we should leave open the possibility of gene-editing great apes?
I do not think that any conversation I have had has considered what our priorities would be. Our priorities would be to look at farmed animals and possibly the benefits for companion animals. We are not a range state when it comes to those sorts of animals, and I cannot see that being a priority.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but I note that the Bill allows that to happen. There is nothing in it to say that it would not. I have no doubt that this is an issue that we will return to on Report, probably at some length, with a number of choices before us. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Amendments 4 to 11 not moved.
12: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(2A) For the purposes of subsection (2)(c) an organism’s genome could not have resulted from traditional processes or natural transformation if that organism is, or the processes used to create it are, subject to patent protection.” Member's explanatory statement
This is a probing amendment examining how, where a genetic technology breeding process for any living organism has been granted a patent under international or national law, it can be the result of a traditional process or a natural transformation since novelty is required for granting such a patent.
My Lords, I apologise that I seem to be dominating; I am sure we will get away from this. Amendment 12 appears in my name. In some ways we are returning to some of the issues that we were discussing in the first group about the definition of “traditional” or “natural”. If a genetic technology breeding process has been granted a patent under international or national law, novelty is a condition of acquiring a patent. Therefore, how can it be traditional or natural? I freely confess to your Lordships’ House that I am not an expert on intellectual property, and Amendment 74 in this group in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others deals with how this interacts with intellectual property law and the issues that were raised by your Lordships’ House’s oversight committees which the Government have insufficiently considered. I am going to leave that entirely to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because intellectual property is definitely not my area.
However, I think it is worth exploring how something can be both traditional or natural and patented, whether we are using that as the process to create an organism or the organism itself. It is worth thinking about how the words “traditional” and “natural” are used. The idea is that something traditional or natural has been tried or tested for generations. It is associated in the public mind with safety. We know that food, feed and seed labelled as “traditional” or “natural” draw a higher level of consumer trust, so these words are important in their own terms and in terms of the technical understanding.
It is worth going back to CRISPR-Cas9 technology and noting that the four pioneers in this area were once collaborators and colleagues but are now involved in a bitter patent dispute over who has the right to the core technology. They are said to have collectively paid €16 million in legal fees to prove that their technology is novel, invented and industrial, which seems to mean that it cannot also be traditional and natural. I note that one of those inventors, Jennifer Doudna, signed a deal with Dupont in 2015 to serve gene-edited maize to the American consumer. So, if something is indeed novel, uniform and anthropogenic, surely a proper risk assessment is essential and should be an absolute requirement before such processes or products are authorised or given access to the English market. This relates to some issues we will discuss later, on labelling: surely consumers and farmers have a right to know whether their purchases are novel, untested, artificial, synthetic or human-made, as the existence of a patent says they must be.
The amendment seeks to bring coherence to the Bill. It does not primarily deal with issues of patents as such, but it shows how patents and the claims of the Bill simply do not fit together. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 74 in this group. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for crediting me with knowledge of international law on IP, but in fact I am not very well informed on that. I will raise some questions that were put to me by the Royal Society, which suggested an amendment of this nature. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and my noble friend Lord Patel for putting their names to the amendment. My noble friend Lord Patel sends his apologies; he is stranded in Scotland, as are many other noble Lords, I suspect.
My amendment merely asks the Government to review and publish guidance on the implications of the Bill for the law of intellectual property. This is important because all those involved in the development and marketing of precision-bred organisms need to know where they stand. Are these organisms to be treated, from the point of view of IP, like transgenic organisms or like conventionally bred organisms? GMOs currently enjoy greater intellectual property protection than new plant and animal varieties produced using other breeding technologies, which is justified in part by the greater expense of securing regulatory approval for the cultivation of varieties carrying GM traits.
But intellectual property protections significantly reduce the accessibility of the benefits of genetic technologies, and they also contribute to public concerns about the commercial use of technologies. As we heard at Second Reading, the fact that Monsanto and other companies had patent rights for GMOs and had inserted terminator genes into the plants was a major objection to transgenic crops 20-odd years ago.
If genome-edited products are not treated as GMOs, they should enjoy no greater intellectual property protection than the products of traditional breeding technologies, such as plant breeders’ rights—the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also made this point. Members of the plant breeding industry need to be able to breed from each other’s varieties, and it would not be in the public interest if the adoption of genome editing for crop improvement were to compromise the ability of plant breeders to make crosses with each other’s varieties.
Plant breeders may argue that they should benefit from patent protection in the same way as for GMOs in order to recover their costs, including the royalties to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred on the CRISPR technology. However, I suggest that the public interest overrides this argument. Therefore, I very much hope that the Minister will confirm that, since precision-bred organisms are defined in the Bill as equivalent to organisms that could have been produced by conventional breeding, they will not enjoy greater IP protection than conventional varieties. Surely this is the logical conclusion.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, have spoken eloquently to this small group of amendments. The technical aspects of the Bill are complex and he has already mentioned the matter raised by the Royal Society. If a new seed variety is developed using GMOs, as he said, it has greater intellectual property rights than one that is developed using other breeding technologies. If some genome-edited products are not treated as GMOs, they should enjoy no greater intellectual property protection than the products of traditional breeding technologies, such as plant breeders’ rights.
The whole issue of novel foods is affected by the Bill and these amendments. The Royal Society believes that those in the plant breeding industry need to be able to breed from each other’s varieties, and it would not be in the public interest if the adoption of genome editing for crop improvement were to compromise the ability of plant breeders to make crosses with each other’s varieties. I am really sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is not here because I feel he would be interested in this section. The ownership of intellectual property needs to be addressed before the Bill moves forward to Report. I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and I look forward to the response of the Minister.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling Amendment 12, and to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for tabling Amendment 74, which my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock was pleased to sign. Issues around intellectual property were not explored in any detail in another place; nor did the topic feature heavily in the Hansard report of Second Reading. Some may argue that such matters are pushing the scope of this legislation, but we believe it is vital that all interested parties understand the regimes that will apply once the Bill is passed and enacted.
For a product to make it to market, it will have been subject to research, testing, scaling up and the release and marketing processes laid out in the Bill. This will involve significant costs for those who develop the technologies and associated products. We understand that they will want to protect that work and the underlying financial investments to the best of their abilities. On the other hand, for this process to be successful, we need to see fair prices for the farmers who will utilise these technologies or the new plant and animal varieties that arise from them. At present, it is not clear what IP regimes will apply. We can make assumptions, but there is no certainty. As a result, we do not know how many players will bring these new products to market, nor how many farmers will be able to afford them. Amendment 74 offers a way forward, requiring the Secretary of State to publish guidance on these matters prior to bringing the bulk of the Bill’s provisions into force.
These matters are incredibly complex and perhaps not best dealt with through additions to the final version of the Bill. However, this is Committee, and we hope that the Minister will be able to provide an indication that this work is not only in progress, but that appropriate guidance will be in place at the earliest opportunity.
I thank noble Lords for their amendments regarding intellectual property laws. I will first take the probing amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, which would prevent an organism from qualifying for precision-bred status if it was subject to a patent, either on the product itself or on the process used to produce it. This provides an opportunity for us to explore how a precision-bred organism can be patentable, and what it means for such an organism to be capable of having
“resulted from traditional processes or natural transformation”.
As I am sure she is aware from previous debates in Committee, it is the final genetic composition of an organism that we are considering when assessing whether a plant or animal meets the criteria for being “precision bred” as set out in the Bill. This is in line with the scientific advice we have received: that it is the final genetic and phenotypic characteristics of an organism that are important and not the technology or process used to produce it.
This approach differs fundamentally from the current principles used to determine whether patents are available for plants and animals whose DNA has been altered using modern biotechnology. Unlike the definition employed in the Bill to determine whether an organism is precision-bred—which, as I have said, focuses on the end result—patent principles focus on the technology or processes used to produce these plants and animals.
The definition of a “precision bred organism” should continue to be based on scientific evidence and advice. In continuation of this logic, it would be disproportionate and unscientific to prevent a qualifying precision-bred organism from having precision-bred status on the basis of the granting or not of a patent. To prevent precision-bred organisms from obtaining patent protections would go against the core principles on which the Bill is based: that regulation should be proportionate, robust and driven by the evidence.
An invention must meet a number of legal requirements if a patent is to be granted. The granting of a patent is determined not only by the nature of the invention but by other legal requirements, including whether the invention is new or non-obvious. This is not the same as asking whether an invention that did not exist previously could, in principle, have been produced through a different method. As such, the presence or absence of patent protection cannot be used to determine if a particular DNA sequence could have resulted from traditional processes or natural transformation.
Patents represent an important mechanism for innovators to gain return on their investments. As a result, preventing organisms from being classed as “precision bred” if those organisms or the processes used to create them are subject to patent protection, would likely deter uptake of the technologies that the Bill wishes to facilitate. Ultimately, the UK would lose the significant benefits that implementation of the Bill could bring.
Amendment 74 would require the Defra Secretary of State to review and publish guidance on the implications of the genetic technology Bill for intellectual property law. As I am sure that noble Lords are aware, in the UK the Intellectual Property Office is responsible for patents. I assure noble Lords that we have worked closely with the Intellectual Property Office in this area. UK patent law does not specifically exclude patents from being granted on precision-bred plants and animals. Indeed, a patent may be granted if all the requirements for a particular invention are met—novelty, utility, and non-obviousness.
The Bill does not make any changes to laws associated with obtaining a patent; nor does it alter the process by which an applicant would apply for patent protections. Breeders wishing to patent their precision-bred plant or animal should therefore undertake this process in the same manner as for all other inventions and under the guidance of the Intellectual Property Office.
Most interest in this area has revolved around the use of patents that protect precision-bred organisms. However, it is important to note that other protections for intellectual property are available. For example, a plant breeder may want to obtain protection using plant variety rights. In animals, breeders generally gain protections through contracts with buyers, which stipulate terms to ensure their trait of value is protected. Engagements with industry stakeholders have highlighted that fair access and value gains for farmers must balance with restrictions on the use of protected material in order to enable a return on investment. In plant breeding, licensing platforms which facilitate access to patented material have been borne out of the need to create this equilibrium. We envisage that a similar situation would arise should breeders decide to protect their precision-bred organisms. Ultimately, patent law strikes a balance between incentivising innovation and allowing access for farmers and breeders, precisely the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, was making.