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Minister's call-in powers extended

Minister's call-in powers extended

The government is proposing to add cultural, spiritual or ethical effects to the list of grounds under which the Minister for the Environment could step in to decide on an application for the introduction of a new hazardous substance or new organism that had been made to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA).

The proposed change is part of a series of amendments the government is proposing to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996 in the latest step in its implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

Under the ministerial call-in provisions of the Act, the minister can already step in in cases where there could be significant economic, environmental, international, and health effects as well as in cases where it is judged that ERMA lacks sufficient knowledge or experience to decide the case.

The proposal is to add significant cultural, spiritual and ethical effects to that list.

"This is a measure that the government takes extremely seriously," the Environment Minister Marian Hobbs said. "Exercising Ministerial Call-in would be a decision taken at the highest level and with considerable thought and care.

"Ministerial Call-in allows the minister to appoint people with relevant knowledge or experience to sit with ERMA to consider the particular application. The Authority conducts a public inquiry before reporting its recommendations to the minister. The minister then has 20 days to make a decision."

The government has already set up a special body, Toi te Taiao: The Bioethics Council, to advise it on the significant cultural, spiritual and ethical issues as they arise in the area of biotechnology (including genetic modification) and to promote public debate on these. The council will not advise on specific projects, but will concentrate more broadly on the issues in current and future biotechnology research and development as they arise and their advice will be informed by public debate at a national level.

"The government is aware that many people who made submissions during the public consultation on these changes wanted much more emphasis put on cultural, spiritual and ethical impacts of the new biologically-based technologies," Marian Hobbs said. "This amendment and the work of the Bioethics Council in anticipating where these issues will arise are designed to do just that.

"The council was never set up to decide applications on a case-by-case basis. It would be an impossible and confusing situation if more than one body were to become involved with individual applications to develop or release new organisms. The ERMA already has the legal power to consider cultural issues in deciding on applications."

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