Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 13:08 GMT
Sainsbury denies conflict of interest
Tony Blair: "We should proceed with very great care"
Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has denied a conflict of interest between his business holdings in genetically-modified food and his position in the government.
But he denied a report in The Guardian which says he owns the company that controls the patent rights over a key gene used in the food modification process.
It is the same gene at the centre of a food scare following tests on rats that were fed GM potatoes. Lord Sainsbury said the virus is owned by Monsanto.
A government minister is due to make a statement to MPs on the safey of GM foods on Tuesday at 1530 GMT.
Lord Sainsbury, a member of the Cabinet biotechnology committee, said he has not taken part in any government decisions or discussions relating to GM foods.
On one occasion when the issue was discussed at the committee he left the meeting, he said.
He said that because he was likely to a retain a "beneficial interest" in Sainsbury's he stands aside from any decisions which have a specific effect on the company.
The patent was declared in the register of interests at the House of Lords before becoming a minister, Lord Sainsbury said.
He did not know whether he owns the patent any longer as an independent trustee has control of the shares in the trust.
Earlier, Mr Blair said: "Let me say two things. First of all with David Sainsbury, the hounding of him is unpleasant and wrong.
"Secondly, with GM food, this is a new science and a new technology so we should proceed with very great care and very great caution, and with a strongly regulatory process. That is precisely what we are doing."
Mr Blair - who on Monday revealed that he ate GM food - said it was right for the government to resist the media and the "hypocrisy and total opportunism" of the Conservative Party.
The prime minister said that "to rule out GM food altogether, to impose some ban would be extremely foolish".
'Outside his remit'
But the Conservatives say it is further embarrassment for the government and reinforces the reasons why they think he should go.
Tory leader William Hague said: "The basic truth of the matter is that he is too close to that industry to be objective about these matters and we need ministers who are objective."
Mr Hague told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the prime minister should not have put Lord Sainsbury in a position where a conflict of interest arose.
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