Westminster and Holyrood split over gene editing policy

The political battle over changes to the regulatory process surrounding the development of crops produced through new precision breeding techniques such as gene editing moved up a gear this week.

With the UK Government’s Bill aimed at relaxing the regulatory burden surrounding the use of such technologies set to receive its second reading in Westminster this week, the Scottish Government has made it plain that it has no current intentions to follow suit.

And in a formal reply to Westminster’s invitation to adopt a joint approach to the development of such technologies, the Scottish administration has outlined its objections to Westminster’s approach claiming the move represents a threat to powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

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Two weeks ago, on the eve of the Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill getting its first reading at Westminster, Defra Secretary George Eustice and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack wrote to first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Mairi Gougon, Scotland’s rural affairs secretary, outlining the benefits of adopting technologies such as gene editing – and proposed that a joint approach should be taken on moving the issue forward.

Mairi McAllan MSPMairi McAllan MSP
Mairi McAllan MSP

At the weekend, Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Land Reform, Mairi McAllan, wrote to the ministers giving her official reply to the proposal.

Pointing out that both the proposals and the draft bill had only been provided on the afternoon before it was set to be launched in Westminster, McAllan said that such short notice was “unacceptable” – as was the prior release of the letter to the press.

Stating that although her officials continued to scrutinise the details of the legislation, and while the intended scope of the Bill might be for England only, she said the Bill documentation itself made it clear that the proposed new legislation would have significant impacts on areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

And she also deemed as unacceptable the fact that under the United Kingdom Internal Market (UKIM) Act products entering the market in England would also be marketable in both Scotland and Wales.

“The Scottish Government remains wholly opposed to the imposition of the Internal Market Act, and will not accept any constraint on the exercise of its devolved powers to set standards within devolved policy areas,” warned McAllan.

And she pointed out that no consideration had been given of the break the new bill would create in the existing common approach to the issue, carried over from membership of the EU, until after the bill was lodged.

“Any discussions of this nature should have taken place prior to the introduction of the Bill to enable consideration of potential policy divergence. The fact that they have not is deeply regrettable – and, again, unacceptable,” wrote McAllan.

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But while many scientists report that gene editing is used to simply speed up results which could be achieved by normal breeding techniques, the Scottish Government, which wants to remain aligned with EU regulation, is determined to make no move until the Europe’s own review of the regulations is completed, claiming that to go it alone could create substantial problems for trade with the EU.

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