(P.13) An interview with John Prescott and Professor Whitelegg

Radio 4 "Today" programme 7.20 am Monday 7th June 1999
[Ed. NOTE: the comments on TRAFFIC below - increase of 30%, 37% or a reduction???]

Sue MacGregor: Well that destruction of Britain's first farm-sized trial of GM crops by the farmer who planted it will no doubt be music to the ears of the Green Movement - they're putting up a new challenge to the government's environmental record tonight in a debate between the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, and also Professor John Whitelegg who is an experienced green campaigner. He is on the line now from Blackburn and the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is in the radio car and I'll be talking to Mr Prescott in a moment. But first of all, Professor Whitelegg, what's your reaction to this destruction by Captain Barker of his own crop because of pressures?

Prof.Whitelegg: I think it's entirely in line with the general rejection of GM foods, GM crops and the whole approach to forcing this technology and this kind of approach to health and nutrition on the population at large when the vast majority of organisations and individuals don't want it. So it's unsurprising and I think we'll see more of it in the future.

SM: Now you're going to accuse the government tonight of not sticking to its own environmental agenda. What precisely do you mean by that?

Prof. W: I think what we've seen in the last two years is a dramatic failure on the part of government to deliver on its own promises, on its own commitment, pre-election and post-election to improve the environmental record of government generally and I think GM foods illustrate this very well. The government's increasingly isolated, the evidence on the effects of human health and on environment for example on the Monarch butterfly indicate that there's a big problem here. In some ways, more worryingly, because of John Prescott's commitment to traffic reduction, what we've seen is a complete U turn on traffic where government promised a reduction, an absolute reduction in traffic and are now promising us an increase in traffic. And I think the planning system has also failed us dramatically.

SM: I think it's a bit steep to accuse the government of promising an increase in traffic. Are you referring to what Glenda Jackson's predictions for London was?

Prof. W: Glenda's statement in the House of Commons in January this year when she said that the government policy is currently in place mean that traffic would grow by 37% on a time scale that she described in detail. John Prescott promised us a traffic reduction - first of all the slowing down in the rate of growth of traffic, then an absolute reduction and then Glenda Jackson more realistically has said that the policies this government have in place won't deliver that and we must expect a 37% increase. So government policy now accepts that we'll have an increase in traffic.

SM: And just before I move to Mr Prescott who will no doubt defend his corner vigorously - green belt land? Do you feel they've not come up trumps on that?

Prof. W: That also, I think, is another example of the collective failure of government. Government talks about joined up thinking and integration and such words, but that's all it boils down to is words. The planning system has failed dramatically in terms of sprawl in the countryside, edge of city, edge of town developments. And John Prescott himself has given permission to a major development in for example Gatwick Airport - an aviation theme park - and that's one of many examples where that will lead to a huge increase in traffic..

SM: Prof. Whitelegg thanks very much indeed. Well as I said John Prescott is on the line. Mr Prescott - a dramatic failure to deliver on environmental policies. That's the accusation.

Prescott: Well, if he's a Professor, I hope he's more accurate in his information to his students than he is . Let me just deal with some of the traffic predictions. Glenda gave us, what those predictions have been given by us and the previous government and our whole policy is designed to switch now from the cars to use public transport much more. And that's what we're doing now and the priority of the investment in the railways, increase in the buses, changing our fiscal framework to achieve that, more people are now travelling on rail and buses and we want an awful lot more. We want people getting out of their cars.

SM: What Prof. Whitelegg was pointing out was an apparent contradiction in what the government is predicting because Glenda Jackson was predicting a 37% growth and you've been saying there's going to be a reduction in traffic.

Prescott: Sue you're not listening are you?

SM: I've listened exactly to what …

Prescott: Try again, try again. The 30% prediction has been given by all governments about the prediction of traffic in the next 20 years. We fought the election on that and said that we must change that so we must encourage people to use more public transport and that's primarily what our Transport White Paper's about. You know, the first one in about 20 years. We're making major changes in our fiscal framework to encourage people to do this. Some signs already coming on the bus and the rail system and you know we've got 5 years to make these changes. They are fundamental changes so we're beginning to see some of the signs of that success. But the environment's not only about transport, we've had major improvements in water quality, in the pollution, in the protecting wildlife and I think ..and of Kyoto agreement which we've talked about on your programme on climate change - we're leading the world in actually making those changes so it's got a very good record.

SM: Well, he was talking, Prof. Whitelegg, also about GM foods as you heard and he pointed out that in this view the Prime Minister is too lax on GM foods and he said that you know it's OK, let's see what the trials are going to show us, whereas Michael Meacher, the Minister, has said that there are very great uncertainties about the new technology. Who's right?

Prescott: We're both saying the same thing. We're aware of the actual concern of the electorate, naturally we are, and indeed in those circumstances where we made it clear we need to have trials to find out what the environmental consequences are of these crops. English Nature has asked for it - those trials are underway and unfortunately this crop has now been destroyed which was one of the kind of experiments we're conducting to find out about the effects on the butterfly that Professor Whitelegg's been talking about. You have to have objective information , scientific information and that's what these trials are about. No difference between Michael or the Prime Minister on these matter. We just need the scientific data.

SM: So no question of a moratorium?

Prescott: What we are doing is conducting the experiments that are necessary to find out what the effects are on bio-diversity. Isn't that what we're supposed to do. It's what the electorate expect of us. That's what English Nature were calling for and that's precisely what we're doing. Any government with any concern for these matters wants to work on proper scientific objective information.

SM: John Prescott thank you.

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