NS Interview - Elliot Morley

The new environment minister may prove more independent and idealistic than Tony Blair had hoped. El

Elliot Morley is not a household name, which is a problem for more than just him. The new environment minister has taken over from one of the few champions of the green cause in the Labour government. Michael Meacher was sacked for taking on Tony Blair once too often, especially over genetically modified foods.

"I'm not without my own environmental credentials," Morley says. "I've worked with Michael for many years. In fact, he told me that if he were to leave the department he hoped I would be his successor."

A burly, grey-haired man approaching 51, Morley is past the age where it is possible to be genetically modified into perfect new Labour stock. He is pleased to be where he is and knows he almost certainly won't make it to the top table. Morley is not short of experience, at least on the agricultural side of the department. He is a passionate ornithologist and conservationist. He has been dealing with rural issues since entering parliament in 1987, first on select committees, then as opposition spokesman, and since 1997 as a junior minister in what is now Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Lobby groups say his record in international negotiations on animal welfare, and the greener parts of his brief, has been strong.

Meacher, 63, was the longest-serving member of the Labour front bench, having been a minister or shadow minister for 27 of the past 29 years. He was kept in his environment job because the Prime Minister and his people saw him as a useful foil to those who attacked the government on environmental issues. Sometimes, his outspokenness was helpful to Blair. Much of the time it was not. Then Meacher was unceremoniously dumped in this month's ministerial reshuffle: Blair must have concluded that the government can sell its policies on GM and other green issues without him.

So how amenable will the new man be? One head of a green organisation describes him as a "slightly more house-trained version of Meacher". "Our views are very similar," Morley admits. On GM as well? "Yes," he replies without hesitation. He declines invitations to criticise his predecessor or to distance himself from the broad arguments that Meacher put in a series of interviews after he left the government, denouncing the Prime Minister's unbridled enthusiasm for the biotech industry.

Morley says the government should adopt a "cautious and critical" approach to the various tests and reports that are being conducted on GM foods. "Michael is right to flag up the whole issue of the potential effects of some of the unknowns." He insists, contrary to Meacher's assertions, that no decision has been taken on granting any of several GM licences under review. The government, he suggests, is "genuinely open-minded". He adds: "I believe in the precautionary principle. I see no reason to rush into GM approvals. If there are any doubts, then we must extend the tests. I am adamant that we must not have any blanket approval process."

The next few months will be critical to GM policy. A public consultation period, revolving around six public forums across the country, will end on 18 July. A steering group will report to ministers by the end of September. Around the same time, the findings of farm-scale field trials into the environmental effects will be published. Before that, a government advisory group will give recommendations about how conventional and GM crops might be grown side by side, how wide the "buffer zone" must be to separate them. The process is challenged by the anti-GM lobby, which sees it as skewed towards a positive outcome. Joining the swelling ranks of malcontent former ministers, Meacher will become a figurehead of the anti-GM movement.

The debate so far has been characterised by passion, lack of information, spin and secrecy. Morley says the debate has and will continue to suffer because of what he calls a "very anti-democratic climate", in which ministers are penalised in the press for trying to float difficult subjects in public. He has not just the GM issues in mind, but refers also to Peter Hain's troubles over tax, and Iraq.

Tony Blair's problem is that - as with the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction - he is now operating in an environment in which whatever he says is treble-checked for veracity. Morley's own problem is that what he says will similarly be checked for clout.

Does he really have what it takes to challenge Downing Street? When Environment was in John Prescott's super-ministry, it had institutional muscle - or was supposed to. Defra is hardly a source of power in Whitehall. In any case, it is not speaking with one voice. The policy until now has been to defer decisions, to make clear there is no policy. However, it is well known in the department that Margaret Beckett, the boss and its spokeswoman in cabinet, is as strong an advocate of GM as Blair.

The Prime Minister has made no secret of his support for the industry. To him, it is integral to championing large British companies, promoting science and "modernisation". The same applies for energy corporations and arms manufacturers. He dismisses critics as being prepared to sacrifice national economic interest to their own Luddite concerns. He would have approved GM licences in the UK several years ago had it not been for a consumer backlash. Even if some or all of the licences are now granted, albeit with clear labelling, the supermarkets are warning that they would not be prepared to challenge the prevailing mood.

This month in the Commons, Blair appeared to be preparing the ground for approval. He told MPs he was "worried by voices here and in the rest of Europe" that did not give "proper consideration" to the potential benefits of GM technology. And yet those who have spoken recently to the Prime Minister about the subject say he may be "less gung-ho" than before, especially as the issue threatens to turn into another battle between the US and "old Europe". He is worried about the consequences of the Americans taking the EU to the World Trade Organisation over its moratorium on new GM products.

Urged on by US biotech corporations, President George Bush is emphasising his sudden concern over global poverty. "Acting on unfounded, unscientific fears, many European governments have blocked the import of all new biotech crops," Bush said. "Because of these artificial obstacles, many African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut out of important European markets.

"For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology. We should encourage the spread of safe, effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger."

Morley is clear that the public must be brought along in the GM debate. He would have "no problem" if more tests were ordered and licensing decisions were deferred. He insists, however, that on the basis of the reports he has seen, he doesn't "believe any of the current GM crops pose health risks". So where does the burden of proof lie? On this, he goes further than the current line: "It is for the biotech industries to make the case. The onus lies with them to prove that their products are safe."

A verdict on Morley's clout will have to wait until the big GM decisions are taken. But on a variety of issues, he is certainly talking the talk. I ask him, GM aside, what his main goals are. He talks about doing more to put sustainability at the heart of policy. "Some departments have embraced this principle better than others." He accepts that to achieve more requires a tougher approach than the government has so far been prepared to take. The Treasury, he says, has been particularly resistant to green levies. "We need a shift in people's thinking. You do get the usual suspects accusing us of nanny-statism. We're sensitive to that. But there are sound arguments and we can win those arguments."

He acknowledges that cost, especially short-term cost, is usually the barrier, but says the government "has not been bold enough". It should, he says, increase its targets for brownfield sites for new housebuilding. It should put more pressure on developers, local authorities and planners to incorporate green infrastructure - from recycling, through rail and bus schemes to cycle paths. "The cost of retro-building is huge. If we do it now, we save in the long run."

The same goes for transport - since 2001 a policy area that has been taken away again from Environment's remit. Morley praises Ken Livingstone for introducing the congestion charge for London and says this should spawn other environmental and traffic-controlling measures such as road tolls, across the country.

He believes there is little that can be done with fuel pricing while the cost of petrol in neighbouring countries is so low. And the government has not yet got the balance right between individual freedom and the environmental effects of excessive cheap travel. The car, he points out, "has been a liberating influence on working-class people", giving them greater employment mobility and recreational possibilities. The same goes for air travel, from the package holidays of the 1970s to the budget airlines of today. "They are a democratising force. But there is a price to be paid for that."

Whether it is the fault of government, the media or others, the British mindset has not yet been sufficiently changed to put green concerns at the heart of decision-making, says Morley. The hysteria of the fuel protests in September 2000 could, he warns, be triggered again. "We have not yet made the environmental case."

Perhaps he really will be only slightly more house-trained than his predecessor.