Letter: Protests can put lid on Pandora's box

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your article on the release of genetically modified viruses in Oxfordshire ('Scorpion's venom fuels genetics dispute', 17 May) highlights the importance of good communication between regulators and the public. It must be stressed that a similar experiment took place last year, and advertisements were placed in local newspapers, without a strong adverse reaction from the local community.

What has caused anger this time is that having decided to lodge an objection to the experiment, local residents were not told that the proposals were to go through a simplified procedure that cuts down the amount of time spent on scrutiny. By the time the Department of the Environment sent background information on the release, and the objectors had canvassed expert views, the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment (which advises the Government on such proposals) had already given the experiment the go-ahead.

As a member of Acre, I find this entirely unsatisfactory. New procedures that are even simpler still, known as 'fast-track', will mean even further erosion of the time in which the public can comment on proposals. Unless handled very sensitively, these procedures could easily lead to reduction in public confidence in the regulatory system.

It must be made clear to people why the regulatory system is happy to handle some proposals more quickly than others, and exactly what is the scope for lodging objections. In particular, it should be made clear that, given sufficient new evidence, a consent for an experiment can be revoked at any time. Public representations and objections are never a waste of time.

Yours faithfully,

JULIE HILL

Director, The Green Alliance

London, WC2

17 May

The writer is a member of the Government's Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment.

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