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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Point of Order, Homelessness, Housing, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, Public Order Bill, UK Infrastructure Bank Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Childcare


Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07615, in the name of Màiri McAllan, on the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which is United Kingdom legislation.


The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

I have spoken about the UK Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill before in the chamber, and I am sure that I will do so again. As members will be aware, the bill proposes to remove plants and animals that are produced using modern biotechnologies and the food and feed that is derived from them from genetically modified organism regulations in England, if every feature of their genomes could have occurred naturally or could have been produced by traditional methods. However, we are not here to talk about the broader policy objectives of the bill; we are here to talk about a legislative consent memorandum that relates to its provisions that extend to Scotland. Although the bill’s substantive provisions do not purport to extend to Scotland, clause 42 does.

Clause 42 enables the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make

“supplementary, incidental or consequential provision in connection with any provision of or made under this Act. ”

That permits legislation, including devolved legislation, to be made or amended by the UK Government in areas that relate to so-called precision breeding—broadly, gene editing—techniques, and in related areas, including food, agriculture, animal welfare and more. Those are devolved policy areas.

As clause 42 permits the making of regulations that amend existing legislation in devolved areas, it is a provision that is within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. However, as the clause is drafted, there is no requirement for the Scottish ministers to consent to regulations being made by the secretary of state, nor for the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise them. We have, therefore, lodged this legislative consent memorandum on that basis.

Clause 42 presents an erosion of devolved competence, and the Scottish Government therefore recommends that the Parliament vote to withhold its consent to it. I discussed these matters with the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee this morning, when it invited me and my officials to give evidence on the matter. I thank the committee for publishing its report this afternoon and I note its conclusion that it agrees with the Scottish Government’s position not to recommend consent to the bill. I also note and share the committee’s stated disappointment that the UK legislation would give the secretary of state regulation-making powers without the oversight of the Scottish ministers.

I said at the beginning of my speech that this LCM and our consideration of it does not involve a question of whether the Scottish Parliament supports the policy purpose of the bill, nor, strictly, is it a question of the impacts of the bill and its interaction with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the pervasive attack on devolution that is represented by that act creates an extremely complex landscape, serves to erode policy divergence and fundamentally undermines devolution. The Scottish Government remains wholly opposed to that act which, of course, has been imposed against the stated will of this Parliament and contrary to the Sewel convention.

Of course, we have concerns about the interaction of the 2020 act with the bill, and how, together, they could see gene-edited products being sold in Scotland, unlabelled and unauthorised by the Scottish ministers and without consumers in Scotland having been properly informed or consulted on how they feel about that. However, crucial though those issues are, they are not part of today’s LCM. That is because an LCM considers the four corners of the bill and its effect and does not extend to the impact that other acts might have on them, however undemocratic that might be. Today, we are seeking to ensure that Scotland’s devolved competences are protected in relation to clause 42.

Before concluding, I want to highlight to members that we might have been in a different position with regard to today’s LCM if the UK Government had engaged with us on the drafting of the bill. My officials first received sight of the UK bill only late in the afternoon the day before it was presented to the UK Parliament. That was despite multiple requests to see the content, and I understand that it was around the same time that the details were shared with the media. It is regrettable that no discussions on the bill were held with us or via the common frameworks that are supposed to manage this divergence.

Since then, my officials and I have sought to engage with the UK Government on potential amendments to clause 42 that might, if accepted, mean that we were able to ask that consent be recommended. However, that was not forthcoming, and I am still awaiting a response to my letter to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister Mark Spencer, which I wrote on 8 November.

A decision to disregard the stated view of the Scottish Parliament would represent another example of the UK Government’s refusal to respect the devolution settlement. I, therefore, welcome the chamber’s consideration of the LCM on the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the legislative consent memorandum lodged by the Scottish Government on 12 December 2022; agrees not to give consent to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, and calls on the UK Government to amend the Bill to restrict the geographical application of clause 42, or to otherwise make it a requirement for it to seek the consent of the Scottish Ministers when making provision within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, in order to properly respect devolved responsibilities.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

This bill is about the UK Government taking a pragmatic approach to policy making that allows legislation to better keep up with the speed of scientific advancement, which a great deal of existing legislation fails to do. However, the Scottish Government’s motion is symptomatic of the Scottish Government’s continual desire to create difference between Scotland and the UK at any opportunity.

We have some sympathy with the desire to clarify the scope of clause 42, but the Scottish Government’s approach to addressing that, by introducing an unnecessary LCM, seems to be more about posturing than principle, and we cannot support the motion as it is drafted.

The very first line of the motion has the Scottish Government demanding that Parliament not support the bill. There is no way that we can get past that, because the bill is a decent one that supports research, much of which happens here in Scotland, and which will ensure that our food producers are not put on an uneven playing field when supplying their biggest market—the rest of the United Kingdom. Is the Scottish Government really suggesting that we throw Scottish food producers under the bus because it questions a clause?

The Scottish Government has stated that it would back off if the bill is amended as it progresses through the UK Parliament. That is the correct route to developing good legislation, rather than scouring every piece of draft legislation to see whether there is a way to create further discord and division.

That brings me to clause 42, which enables the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to make

“supplementary, incidental or consequential provision in connection with any provision of or made under this Act.”

Powers to make consequential provision are common to most bills. Scottish Government officials proposed amending the wording of clause 42 to require Scottish ministerial consent for any consequential amendments, which the Scottish Parliament would also be competent to make.

The UK Government’s position is that clause 42 does not trigger an LCM and that an amendment to clause 42 is neither desirable nor necessary. That is because the convention to seek an LCM applies only when legislation makes provision specifically for a devolved purpose, not when legislation deals with devolved matters that are only incidental to, or consequential on, provisions that are made in relation to a reserved matter. The term “reserved” includes matters that apply substantively to England only.

The UK Government’s view is that clause 42 does not trigger the LCM process nor engage the Sewel convention. Devolution guidance is clear: consent need only be obtained for legislative provision that is specifically for devolved purposes, but the bill is for England only. The UK Government has updated the delegated powers memorandum and explanatory notes for the bill to reassure the devolved Administrations and to illustrate the intended use of, and limits to, clause 42.

I cannot rule out the possibility that the Scottish Government’s approach has, in part, been driven by the Scottish National Party’s wider opposition to gene editing. Despite the urging of farmers and researchers alike, the Scottish Government remains firmly on the fence, insisting that it will wait to see what the European Union does, instead of delivering the guidance that the sector in Scotland has been calling for. Aside from the fact that that approach is likely to put Scotland’s farmers at a competitive disadvantage to those in the rest of the UK, which is by far our largest market for agricultural goods, it is almost certain to mean that our life sciences sector will miss out on the opportunity to be ahead of the pack in the growing field of gene editing.

The SNP will ignore an opportunity for Scotland to lead the world and to take advantage of new technologies, but it will not ignore any opportunity for a constitutional spat. Progress is being sacrificed on the altar of process.

Setting aside the somewhat more controversial question of genetically modified organisms, any halfway balanced assessment of gene editing, which does not involve the introduction of new genetic material, would show that its potential benefits for Scottish agriculture and for the wider planet are substantial. The potential to increase crop yields, enhance the nutritional qualities of food and reduce the use of agricultural chemicals should make gene editing an attractive prospect. All that comes before we consider the potential for gene editing to help us deal with climate change, both as a means of increasing the resilience of staple crops to climatic conditions and as a means of reducing CO2 production in farming.

Had the Scottish Government written the motion more pragmatically, to look specifically at questioning or modifying clause 42 of the bill, we might have been more likely to help the Government seek a resolution to the issue, but why would the Scottish Government work to develop the optimum legislation to protect Scotland’s food producers and life sciences when it can manufacture a full-blown constitutional storm in a teacup to further its own narrow agenda? As I have often said, the SNP is acting less and less like a Government and more and more like a radical protest group.


Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The minister is correct to say that the legislative consent memorandum asks us to consider only one discrete aspect of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill that is currently before the UK Parliament. As the minister said, clause 42 would provide the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the power to make

“supplementary, incidental or consequential provision in connection with any provision of or made under this Act”,

should it become law. That would mean that there would be no requirement for Scottish ministers to consent to secondary legislation relating to Scotland under that power, and it would mean that there is unlikely to be any opportunity for this Parliament to properly scrutinise regulations that are made under the power, even if the regulations are on devolved matters.

That is not acceptable. I agree that allowing UK ministers to legislate in devolved areas without the consent of this Parliament infringes on the powers of this Parliament; therefore, Labour supports the position that was taken unanimously by the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee this morning and which is taken in the Government motion, which proposes that the Parliament not consent to the bill.

We also support the call on the UK Government either to amend the bill to restrict geographical application of clause 42 or to make it a requirement that the UK Government seeks the consent of Scottish ministers when making any provision on devolved matters.

I also share the minister’s disappointment at the failure—once again—of the UK Government to properly consult the Scottish Government on the bill. That could have avoided the position in which we now find ourselves, through amendments to clause 42 of the bill.

We need a change of approach from the UK Government on such matters, and I am confident that we will get that change of approach when we get a change of UK Government—one that actually understands and supports devolution.

In the meantime, I know that my Labour colleagues in the UK Parliament are pursuing concerns from devolved Governments over the implications of the bill, including on the need for clear labelling.

It is not clear to me in what way the UK Government envisages using the power in clause 42, or even why it feels that it needs that power, but it is one that I do not believe it should have.

I understand that we are not here today to debate the policy aims of the bill that is before the UK Parliament or its interaction with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which means that the Scottish Government will not have the power to limit the sale in Scotland of precision-bred products from the rest of the UK.

However, I will repeat a point that I made during Stephen Kerr’s members’ business debate in November on gene-editing technology: we need to debate in this Parliament our approach to whether we decouple gene editing and genetic modification.

I appreciate that the Scottish Government’s position is to await the outcome of the European Commission’s review of future regulation of gene editing before deciding how to proceed, and I am conscious of the implications for trade if we do not continue to align with the European Union position. Equally, there are challenges over the fact that the position in England might soon not align with that in Scotland. However, it is difficult to argue the importance of the scrutiny role of this Parliament in relation to provisions in the UK bill that impinge on devolution if we are not debating, beyond a members’ business debate, our approach to gene editing in Scotland.

Labour is unashamedly pro-science and pro-innovation, so we do not shy away from exploring—

You would rather wait for Europe.

Colin Smyth

I do not know whether Mr Carson wants to make an intervention.

I ask members to please ensure that when another member is speaking, they give them the courtesy and respect of listening, Thank you.

Colin Smyth

I do not know whether Mr Carson is aware that Labour is supporting the bill in the UK Parliament, but we are proposing a number of sensible amendments, which I hope his colleagues there will support.

We do not shy away from exploring how we can find ways to maintain and improve the supply, security and safety of our food systems. We also believe in good regulation—that is the key to public safety and to public and investor confidence in any future changes.

We need to debate here in Scotland the opportunities, but also the risks, of gene editing. I hope that we have that debate sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Labour will support the Government’s motion.


Màiri McAllan

I thank members for their contributions. It is important that, as a Parliament, we take the time to consider such matters. Of course, we are not the only national Parliament across the UK that is grappling with the issues, with the Welsh Senedd recently having agreed to withhold consent. In its comments, the Senedd also criticised the delays in proceedings.

I understand that an LCM should normally be lodged with the Scottish Parliament two working weeks after the introduction of the bill in Westminster. However, as I explained in committee this morning, that delay, although regrettable, has been unavoidable in this case. As I said, the Scottish Government received sight of this complex bill the afternoon before it was introduced in the UK Parliament, despite our repeated requests for a preview.

Equally, the UK Government’s position remains that the bill does not require an LCM. Therefore, it took time for my officials to analyse the bill and to determine that it engages devolution guidance note 10. Furthermore, my officials spent time engaging with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the possibility of amending the bill to restrict the wording of clause 42 to reflect the devolution settlement and to seek a way forward.

Although DEFRA initially indicated its willingness to do that, when it was presented with proposals it informed us that no such amendment would be made. I regret the delay, which is why I am grateful for members’ attention to the issues today, and why I hope that they will agree to refuse consent.

Some members took the opportunity to mention policy content. I understand why they did that. Genetic modification is a complex and emotive issue and the speed with which the UK Government has sought to make changes has been alarming for many people. I said that the matters are for a discussion on another day; I will be glad to have that discussion.

I remind Brian Whittle that the LCM has been lodged in accordance with the Parliament’s standing orders, not in accordance with something that, as he would characterise it, the Scottish Government has created. It is always astonishing to hear members, in the Parliament to which the people of Scotland elected them to serve in, happily seeing its powers being utterly eroded.

I will be clear: our concerns—about the UK Government’s approach to genetic technology, to the bill and the issue generally; and about its haste to change regulations without regard for devolved competence or the impact on food supply chains and consumer choice—should never be mistaken for opposition to innovation and technology, particularly in our farming sector and in a climate emergency. Instead, I urge the UK Government to take a more considered approach, which involves engaging meaningfully across the UK, including—very importantly, from my perspective—with the public, as well as with our key international trading partners.

The views of stakeholders in Scotland—including the scientific community, industry interests and, crucially, consumers and the public as a whole—must be central to how regulations apply to new genetic technologies such as gene editing. So, too, must the integrity of the Scottish Parliament.