WESTMINSTER'S plan to remove the right to object to genetically modified (GM) food has been rejected by Ross Finnie, the Scottish parliament's environment and rural development minister, putting him on a collision course with the Blair government.
A leaked government memo revealed by the Sunday Herald last week proposed a change in the rules to prevent objections to GM seeds being grown in Britain. This 'will be criticised because it will seem that we are trying to silence GM objections,' the memo said.
But in an interview with the Sunday Herald, Finnie has denounced any attempt to abolish the democratic right to challenge government decisions. 'It's not a proposition I would countenance,' he declared.
'I am quite clear in my mind. I did see the report and the clear inference was that there would be no right of objection. That is not a proposition I would go along with. There has to be a right of objection.'
The leak had been a source of 'huge embarrassment' for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London, Finnie disclosed.
It also prompted protests to the leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, from a Labour MP, Alan Simpson, as well as a parliamentary motion backed by MPs from all the main parties.
Yet on Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave GM technology, which has provoked fierce opposition in Scotland, his enthusiastic backing. There was a small band of anti-GM protesters, he said, 'who genuinely want to stifle informed debate.'
Finnie's statement has been welcomed by environmental groups. 'There is enormous frustration that there has been no real opportunity to debate the potential risk and benefits of these crops and that we are being driven by the commercial imperatives of industry, supported, it seems, by the Prime Minister himself,' said Kevin Dunion, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
Concern remains, however, that the specific plan to exclude GM safety from the grounds for objecting to new seeds may still go ahead. Although Finnie insisted the public must have a right to object, he conceded that 'there were issues as to how you arrive at those decisions'.
And the minister was determinedly unapologetic for his pro-GM stance, which has provoked a political furore. He has no worries about GM food, he told the Sunday Herald, and he was prepared to stake his honour as a minister on his backing for the GM crop trials.