New Clause 5
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]
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Further general functions of Authority

‘In section 8(1) of the 1990 Act (general functions of the Authority) after paragraph (a) insert—

“(aa) give advice or make submissions to the Parliamentary Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee established under section (Parliamentary Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008,”.’.—[Dr. Iddon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Brian Iddon

Brian Iddon (Bolton South East, Labour)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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Jimmy Hood (Lanark and Hamilton East, Labour)

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Parliamentary Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee

‘(1) There shall be a Committee of Members of both Houses of Parliament, to be called the Parliamentary Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee, to consider human fertilisation, embryology and related ethical issues, and to make recommendations.

(2) The Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to report from time to time, and to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the Committee’s order of reference.

(3) The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee shall consist of fifteen members of the House of Lords nominated by the Lord Speaker and fifteen members of the House of Commons nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons, to be appointed on the passing of this Act to serve for the duration of the present Parliament and thereafter to be appointed at the commencement of each Parliament to service for the duration of that Parliament.

(4) Any causal vacancy occurring by the reason of the death, resignation, or incapacity of a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee shall be filled by the nomination of a member by the Lord Speaker or the Speaker of the House of Commons, as the case may be.

(5) The powers and duties of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee may be exercised and discharged by any twelve members thereof, and the Committee shall be entitled to sit and transact business whether Parliament be sitting or not, and notwithstanding a vacancy in the membership of the Committee.

(6) Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Committee may regulate its own procedure.’.

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Brian Iddon (Bolton South East, Labour)

I move the new clause in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for Norwich, North.

There was an expectancy in the other place that this House would give guidance on the proposal to create a national human bioethics committee. On Second Reading in this House there was, unfortunately, little or no discussion about that proposal. In her closing speech in the discussion, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon said:

“The Government have made clear their view that there is value in the consideration of bioethical issues in Parliament. We said as much in our response to the committee of both Houses that scrutinised the draft version of this Bill, which recommended the establishment of a parliamentary standing committee on bioethics.”

She went on:

“The Government see merit in a parliamentary standing committee on bioethics but do not see a national human bioethics commission as the way ahead.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 January 2008; Vol. 698, c. 500.]

Is it right that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—the HFEA—a quango, makes major ethical decisions, mainly without consulting the rest of us, and especially not Parliament? That is not to say that I am not grateful, however, for all the thought that the HFEA has given to bioethical issues in this policy area. Nevertheless, it has been difficult for it on occasions, and it has sometimes made the wrong decision, in my opinion, which it has occasionally reversed after further consideration and in the light of more evidence.

Personally, I would like to see a parliamentary bioethics committee established to consider all bioethical issues, relating to animals or humans. I have tabled these two amendments to sound out right hon. and hon. Members of this Committee today, and to seek the views of my right hon. Friend the Minister. The amendments have been framed in a narrower way than I would have preferred, so that they stand within the scope of the Bill.

The chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, told the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for this Bill:

“We have had, generally, in this country a deficit in medical ethics, both in the input into some of our decisions over the years, and also, in medical ethicists.”

On 28 January 2008, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, who chaired the Human Genetics Commission for eight years, said in the other place:

“I felt there was a discomfort in some of those issues being with the HFEA, which is seen by the public as a regulatory body. It is confusing to have the regulatory function and an advisory function on ethics combined".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 January 2008; Vol. 698, c. 490.]

I share her discomfort.

Alan Doran, acting chief executive of the HFEA, told a symposium at the BioCentre in November 2007:

“We do not claim to be a National Bioethics Committee. We are not a body whose primary function is to resolve ethical issues. I do not think the HFEA was set up as an ethics commission”.

Some opponents of the establishment of a national or parliamentary human bioethical committee have pointed out the existence of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which is financed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. However, it decides on the topics of debate, not Parliament.

A number of other organisations also cover bioethics, including the Genetic Interest Group, the British Medical Association, which publishes “Medical Ethics Today”, the General Medical Council’s standards and ethics committee; the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Academy of Medical Sciences. I should also mention the Scottish Council on Bioethics, to which reference has already been made today in this Committee. Again, these organisations do not dance to the tune of Parliament, but they are a valuable source of information.

With respect to research, we should not forget the important role that local medical ethics committees play. We could consider that there is a double lock on research of this kind, one local lock, and one national lock, namely, the HFEA. None of those bodies, however, is responsible for making the law, as we are.

Governments or Ministers have established national bioethics committees in a number of other countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, as well as Australia and the USA. However, we must be a little cautious when national committees are created in that way. I cite, for example, what has happened to the US committee. It has become very politicised, if one looks at its proceedings.

Indeed, in its 2005 report entitled “Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law”, the former House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended the formation of

“a single commission to develop policy issues relating to assisted reproduction, embryo research and human genetics”.

For right hon. and hon. Members who wish to establish a national human bioethics commission, I recommend that they read Baroness Warnock’s arguments against the proposal in the 2008 Whitsun edition of “Science in Parliament”, which has recently arrived on hon. Members’ desks, and in TheObserver of 13 January 2008. Referring to a parliamentary human bioethics committee, she said in The Observer that

“the overriding merit of establishing such a committee, rather than a new commission, is that it would be a recognised part of parliamentary procedure, often part of that procedure that leads to the passage of a law.”

In conclusion to her piece, Baroness Warnock said:

“I believe that setting up a new style of committee”—

she was referring to a national human bioethics commission—

“independent of Parliament would seem to make the role of Parliament less central, its responsibility and its authority less great. That would, in my view, be an actual weakening of the rule of law.”

I happen to agree with her views.

I am informed that setting up a parliamentary human bioethics committee, or a committee of the type mentioned in my amendments, is not a legislative issue. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that. However, setting up a national bioethics commission, I believe, would require an amendment to the Bill, but I am against such a proposal. Of course, ad hoc committees have been established in Parliament before to consider bioethical issues. Lord Walton of Detchant, for example, chaired a Select Committee on Medical Ethics from 1992 to 1993, which considered the law on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In conclusion, I believe that we should have a statutory, human bioethics committee to consider the difficult issues that we have looked at today and during the passage of the Bill through Parliament. I look forward to hearing the views of the Committee on the issue, including those of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

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Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)

I strongly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East. I served on the Select Committee to which he referred in the last Parliament. The inquiry into human reproductive technologies and the law visited both Sweden and Italy and met their national bioethics committees. In Italy I was quickly aware that the committee was not what it seemed—seemed to me, anyhow. I think that I recall, for example, that there was only one woman on the committee, which reflected the political reality of Italian democracy, but convinced me that it was not a satisfactory way of proceeding in this country. I also recall that when the Joint Committee scrutinised the Bill last summer and produced our report, the Government listened. The Government took us seriously. They gave the Bill a new title and binned a huge chunk of their proposals. That surely shows the virtue of such a Committee. I commend the Government for listening to Parliament.

Both Houses of Parliament are, de facto, the national bioethics committee of this country. We should be jealous of that. It would not be possible to create another body, independent of Parliament, that would have anything like the authority that we have, with the authority of democratically elected Members, representing  every constituency in the country, together with the authority of the men and women in another place, who have come there via a variety of routes, which may evolve in the future. However, we have a de facto national bioethics commission in Parliament itself. We now need to find how to establish a new Joint Committee, which would be a Standing Committee, like the Joint Committee on Human Rights or some such body, which would sit for the duration of a Parliament and would be made up of members nominated, as they are for existing Joint Committees, by the Leaders of both Houses.

At the other end of the spectrum, I endorse what the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said about local medical ethics committees. I do not think that members of the public generally realise that in every hospital or clinical research establishment there is a local ethics committee which considers all the factors as they are legislated for and played out in their local communities and establishments. They are extraordinarily influential bodies, and they are localised to a degree that makes them credible to our constituents at a local level.

That is the approach that we ought to take in future. We should not rely on the setting up of a joint Committee for the pre-legislative scrutiny of a particular bit of legislation; we should have a permanent Standing Committee of both Houses to deal with such bioethical issues, which will only get more complicated and arise more frequently. It will not be another 18 years before more legislation. Mark my words, Mr. Hood: we will be back within 10, maybe five years, because something else will have happened. Medical technology and science will have moved forward so fast that once again Parliament will have to catch up. The voice of Parliament should set the ethical and moral framework and the regulatory authority should decide on individual cases within it. That is the way we should be going, and that is why I strongly support the new clause.

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Ian Gibson (Norwich North, Labour)

I, too, support the new clause. I do not think that there will be any problem with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which has done lots of work that I shall explain in a minute. It is quite independent, is financed independently and does fine work.

In the Joint Committee, while we were discussing the Bill, high-octane meetings were held with people from the Lords and the Commons—everyone who had some ethical view about everything—and it was good to have the opportunity to talk about things. There was nothing more tendentious than the need for a father. That evoked some heavy stuff, and there was a lot of disagreement on both sides, but it was important to have that debate. We have never had such a debate properly in Select Committees and so on, because there just ain’t time. We need a place to discuss those issues.

I could say lots about bioethics. It is the fastest growing profession in the medical world at the moment. People are suddenly realising more and more that biology and the biological sciences are developing new technologies and ideas that will have to be considered in terms of society—not just this society but other societies, such as in the developing world and so on. I think that such a Committee would have a lot to say. Some of the things that it would look at include genetic screening and age discrimination. When do we start and stop breast screening? Do doctors behave differently depending on the age of  the patient in front of them? I think that I know, but I will not say it here. A lot of discrimination goes on. There are also ethical and legal issues involving human tissue that we have discussed here, such as animal-to-human transplants or xeno-transplantation—the odd bit of pig appears in people’s aortas during some treatments—mental disorders and so on.

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Jimmy Hood (Lanark and Hamilton East, Labour)

Order. As we are getting to the end of the Committee, I ask the hon. Gentleman to stay in order when addressing the Committee.

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Ian Gibson (Norwich North, Labour)

Then, of course, there are stem cells and so on, and pharmacogenetics—it is almost a continual process—and the DNA database. There has never been a more important arena. More and more information is being brought to our notice. We need a place where people can contemplate and think about those issues and build them into hard science and medicine. I am glad to support the idea of a joint bioethics Committee in this place.

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John Pugh (Shadow Minister, Treasury; Southport, Liberal Democrat)

I warmed to the proposal when it was mentioned on Second Reading, but since then, scepticism has grown on me. I accept that the remit should be wider than defined in the new clause and that the HFEA, the Nuffield Council or whoever do not actually do the jobs envisaged by those who tabled the new clause. Most ethical committees, as I understand them, are basically endowed with a set of principles that they apply with respect to a certain group of professionals. What I think that we are asking for, implicitly, is a bioethics commission, parliamentary or otherwise, to formulate a set of principles to take us out of the moral mire that we are in.

Generally, ethics is a tricky business. I have spent a lot of my life studying it from the philosophical point of view. There is no agreement about what it is or how ethical disputes should be resolved, even where consensus has arisen. For example, in the Warnock report, Baroness Warnock states clearly that she applied utilitarian principles to resolve the moral dilemmas. But if we are not utilitarians, we would simply not buy into that in the first place. There is nothing blindingly obvious with the moral consensus that we have at present, but there might be a pious hope that we can have a bioethics group and, through that, a consensus or solution from a group of moral experts who will just tell us what framework we need to work within.

The existence of moral experts has been a matter of debate since the time of Plato and it is still yet to be resolved.

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John Pugh (Shadow Minister, Treasury; Southport, Liberal Democrat)

No, he is not, nor is anyone who we can be assured knows what is good and what is right. A group of moral experts does not get Members of Parliament off any moral hoof of thinking ethically ourselves. If we think of the committee as a mechanism for reflecting ethical opinion, encouraging ethical debate or ensuring that decisions are made in an ethnically informed way as opposed to pragmatically—I take on board the comment made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North about scientists not being pure—we would have a modest committee that could do a useful job.

However, our difficulty, which no committee can resolve in connection with the legislation, is that we are not working within a clear, ethical framework. There is no clear ethical thread binding all the various moral decisions that are made in the context of the Bill. That is not only my view. I read the evidence presented to committees on draft legislation and the remarks of Professor Haldane and others, and that is exactly what they picked up. There is a series of ad hoc commissions and things that we believe are right on balance, and a series of case-by-case arguments, but if we went for the position that we wanted in respect of the Mental Health Bill and said, “Here is a piece of legislation but, before we get into the detail, let us put in the Bill the moral principles that will guide us”, and explained why we made various decisions in the clauses, we would be in serious difficulty. We would be incapable of taking such action, and many people who reported on the draft legislation said precisely that.

A bioethics committee that is prepared to fill a modest role might have a place in the mix. However, what we shall not achieve—and perhaps what hon. Members are hoping for—is a cast of modern Solomons. We might reach the position when people know why they are making such decisions, as a result of which ethical rationale would be laid out with greater clarity, but we would not achieve wholesale agreement on what is right unless—this is the fear of some people—we rig the committee in such a way that it would be guaranteed consensus.

In the past, many of the debates on ethnical committees have been about whether they are set up fairly or whether the balance is such that the democratic verdict goes in one direction rather than another. I do not know how that can be resolved. A great deal of hard work has to be done. On the assumption that we have something that adds grist to the mill—that adds something to the general picture and informs the decisions of Parliament—there would be nothing wrong with it, but it will not take us out of our current bind of making hard, moral decisions for all time on particular issues.

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Evan Harris (Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills; Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I declare an interest as a member of the British Medical Association medical ethics committee. The hon. Member for Salisbury mentioned local ethics committees. He is right; they are well developed in research ethics. I was a member of one of those committees for many years. They are moving on apace in respect of clinical ethics in hospitals.

I was on the same visit to Sweden and Italy to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and the system was not ideal. I support the thrust of the new clause, but I want to put it in the context of the Select Committee’s recommendation on human reproductive technologies and the law in 2005. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East read out a recommendation. We argued that the HFEA’s policy-making aspects and the Human Genetics Commission could be combined usefully in one commission that would advise a standing parliamentary committee.

The problem with the HFEA’s current policy-making role, as some people see it, is at least twofold. First, because primary and secondary legislation can cover only a certain number of things, the HFEA is called  upon currently and will be called upon under the Bill to develop policy in areas where there is not regulation and where it has discretion. The HFEA does its best to do that; I am not arguing that it has not done a good job, but because it does not have any of the “antis”, arguably there is not the same degree of debate in its policy-making committee, as opposed to its consultations, that we have here in Parliament.

The second problem is that, as a result of that lack of debate and the fact that the HFEA makes policy in sensitive areas, it is liable to be criticised by politicians. That is the nature of things; politicians criticise those whom we have set up and given the power to make decisions for us. Perhaps that is unfair, given that we have voted for a measure that gives the HFEA discretion to make policy. There was one occasion when the Science and Technology Committee criticised the HFEA for making a decision about pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The Committee was provoked into doing that partly by the combative performance of the former chair of the HFEA, now Baroness Deech, my constituent. She is a woman whom I greatly respect, but she was quite combative and there was a critical report, which I thought was unfair because the HFEA was only doing what it had been asked to do in the 1990 Act—to make policy.

To avoid that problem, one could have the best aspects of the HFEA’s policy-making function combined with the Human Genetics Commission. It is hard to see a distinction between those two, and indeed, the Human Genetics Commission provided evidence and a view on hybrid embryos during the HFEA’s consultation. The best elements of those could be combined into a committee or commission that gives advice—a Standing Committee of Parliament. Such a Committee would have the advantages of being in Parliament. It would also, because of the way in which such things work, be able to capture all the strands of opinion, so that those, for example, who were not supportive of embryo research would not be excluded from policy development, which the HFEA has to deal with.

For those reasons, the Science and Technology Committee of 2005 was right in its report to say that the policy-making functions could be taken away from the HFEA, which could then concentrate on regulation and inspection, but that that was worth doing only in the context of a parliamentary Standing Committee. For the reasons that have been given in the debate already, there are huge advantages in creating such a Committee.

What would be the powers of such a Committee? Another Select Committee making recommendations mainly to the Government, which the Government felt they had a mandate to accept or reject as they saw fit would not be ideal. That is why a model like the Joint Committee on Human Rights is a good one. In its reports, the Joint Committee on Human Rights does not simply make recommendations to Government and other organisations as other Select Committees do; it gives specific advice to Parliament on human rights issues. In that sense, it goes beyond the normal role of a Select Committee and both Houses can choose to accept or reject its advice.

The second merit of the Joint Committee on Human Rights is that it was set up by statute. I do not know what advice the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East received, but it may not be possible within the scope of the Bill to give a Committee statutory functions. The  Joint Committee on Human Rights does have statutory functions in respect of declarations of incompatibility by the European Court. The fact that it is statutory gives it authority; the fact that it is joint gives it authority, and the fact that it is a Standing Committee gives it authority, as well as the confidence and the staff to produce useful reports. We saw in the debates in this House yesterday and the day before that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has now gone further. Where a majority agree with a recommendation, members of the Committee are tabling amendments not in the name of the Committee but which reflect the recommendations of the Committee. The primary function of that Committee, other than its statutory one, is legislative scrutiny from a human rights perspective.

There are significant merits in the idea of a parliamentary ethics committee. It would enable Parliament to visit these issues on a more structured basis and far more regularly than we otherwise do. I do not share the confidence of the hon. Member for Salisbury that we will be back in five years with another Bill. I think that he is right that science will progress quickly in the next five years—perhaps even in the field of IV-derived gametes, but I will not open that up again. Science will move on, but I suspect that we will not be able to come back in the next five years, or even 10 years. However, a parliamentary Standing Committee with authority—even without statutory powers—would put pressure on the Government of the day to enable a free vote to take place, even if it had to make majority decisions. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport was right to say that there would never be unanimity, which would probably be unhealthy, on some of these fundamental issues. They are generally free vote issues so it is difficult for parties to seek a mandate at a general election and say, “This is what we are going to do”, because the matter would be subject to a free vote—rightly, in my opinion—which requires that the Government do something. It is quite difficult to do that, for reasons of the parliamentary timetable, the pressure of legislation and that such measures contain yuck factors, which Governments run a mile from. It is to the Minister’s credit that she has not run as fast as some Ministers might have, from taking on the issues. I am sure that she enjoyed the prospect of dealing with the Bill.

I do not think that we are in a moral mire. If we are, I think that we are climbing out of it with measures such as the new clause. There is a clear basis for establishing such a Standing Committee. Its remit should be wider than simply embryology. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North that it might have been difficult to raise the issue within the scope of the Bill if the Committee proposed in the amendment had not been restricted to embryology. If this is a probing amendment, I hope that the Minister is listening and will come back with a proposal that has the support of a number of Select Committees. I echo the view of the hon. Member for Salisbury that not only did the Joint Committee that considered the Bill do good work, as did the Science and Technology Committee on the hybrids issue, but that it was good that the Government listened and changed their position. They were not accused of a U-turn, but were applauded for listening—I repeat that. I pay tribute to all the members of the Joint Committee, especially the Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for his work.

Although I understand that the new clause is probing, I would like to associate myself strongly with the thinking behind it. I hope that we see something like the Committee that the hon. Gentleman proposes, to give Parliament the ability to debate emerging ethical issues transparently—so that the public can see us debating it—and with some effect .

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Mark Simmonds (Shadow Minister, Health; Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

I would also like to express my sympathy for the new clause, although I am not sure that its wording is correct because it might have some knock-on effects, which the Minister will probably come to. I would like to explain three or four reasons why I am sympathetic to the general thrust of what the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North are trying to do.

First, clearly, if this Bill is to last as long as the 1990 Act—18 years—it is going to have to be amended by a subsequent series of regulations, provision for which is scattered through the Bill. As we have discussed, many of the regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, but we all know in the House that it is very rare, despite consultation, for regulations to be altered significantly. A Committee such as that proposed could have a remit of examining the regulations that are subsequently used to amend the Bill. That might be a reason for the Government not to want such a Committee, but I think that that, among other functions, would be a good remit for the Committee.

The second reason for looking carefully at such a Committee is that it would provide a positive and necessary link, both for the scientific community and for those concerned about the ethical issues that surround such complex areas. There is not a permanent body related to Parliament that has that specific role at the moment.

The third issue, which other hon. Members have touched upon, is that there is understandable discomfort with the HFEA operating in a vacuum and deciding and making up its own policy—almost as scientific developments occur—because there is no other responsible body. Indeed, the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was absolutely right: there is not inevitably a balance on the HFEA to give the other side of the ethical dilemma of many of those scientific advances. That is another strong reason for looking at the concern closely.

The other issue, which was given as a defence as to why certain things are in the Bill, is that we are merely catching up with scientific advancements that the HFEA has already approved. That is primarily because no detailed discussion from an ethical position has taken place in Parliament since the passing of the 1990 Act, although obviously regulations have been discussed in Committee. That provides another very powerful reason for why the Committee should be set up.

Three or four difficult areas must be addressed with regard to the remit of the Committee. The first is the ethical balance of who will sit on it. I strongly believe that the Committee should be made up of parliamentarians. It should not be extended beyond that for the reasons set out clearly by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East. The size of the Committee must be carefully considered.

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Michael Penning (Shadow Minister, Health; Hemel Hempstead, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes the good point that the Committee should be made up of parliamentarians. However, with the greatest respect, it should not be made up of the usual suspects. Its members should not be those who have always sat on Committees considering such matters. It must reflect a broad view from within the House.

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Mark Simmonds (Shadow Minister, Health; Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. Having said that, there is a balance to strike. If such a Committee were set up, it would be important for people with expertise, knowledge and experience to be on it, as well as those who could bring fresh ideas and thoughts. I would a view a Committee of around 30 members, both from this House and the other place, as too large to co-ordinate in any sensible way.

We must also do some detailed thinking about the remit and standing of the Committee and its purpose and scope. What will it scrutinise, who will it advise, and on what basis? It is a very strong argument that if we want the Bill to survive for a long period, there must be a body based around Parliament that has democratic accountability and that provides ethical and scientific analysis as scientific advancement takes place.

My final point is that after the next general election, the Minister will have a lot more time on her hands. She might wish to participate significantly in such a Committee.

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Dawn Primarolo (Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health; Bristol South, Labour)

Well, at least the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that I have a safe seat.

A number of issues have been raised, some of which I agree with and some of which I do not. I will try and proceed through the points. We all echo the point made by the hon. Member for Salisbury and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North about the importance of Parliament deciding. We are elected to come to terms with, and decide on, inevitably very important issues on behalf of our constituents. The issues raised about matters of embryology, for instance—although that is not the only ethical issue—are matters that we as Members of Parliament must consider.

On a number of occasions during consideration of the Bill, through the review of the 1990 Act and during pre-legislative scrutiny, there has been a debate about whether we should have a wider bioethics commission, and whether that should be independent of Parliament or made up from representatives of both Houses. Clearly, as the Bill has proceeded, it has raised ethical, legal and social issues giving rise to a diverse range of views, some of which are very strongly held. How we in Parliament and those elsewhere respond to such issues goes to the heart of our existence as individuals and families in society. It is, quite rightly, the place of Parliament to consider this.

In moving the new clauses, I understand that my hon. Friends had to ensure that the provisions were in the scope of the Bill. I do not think that this matter should be limited only to the issues that have been raised during the proceedings of this Bill, and I understand that my hon. Friends have raised the issue to start a clear discussion in Parliament about whether there is support for such a proposition. I am of the view that the structure that we have set up with the HFEA, the way in which it regulates—it is not the only source of information and advice for us—and the way in which we have  proceeded with the Bill are correct. I absolutely do not accept that there is something wrong with the HFEA. It is, frankly, not very helpful to hear senior Members of Parliament talk about needing “antis” on the HFEA, because that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the authority.

The nature of the authority is that it advertises for candidates, and anyone—people of all faiths and cultures—can apply. However, potential members must be prepared to accept the fundamental principles behind the authority’s existence. That has served us well over a period of time, but of course, the arrangements are further reinforced by the fact that appointments are made by the Appointments Commission on behalf of the Secretary of State.

While we are debating an incredibly important issue, I hope that nobody outside our proceedings here will read what has been said today and draw from it that we do not have confidence in the process. I know that it is not my hon. Friends’ intention to suggest that we do not have confidence in the HFEA’s ability, as constructed by Parliament, to discharge its duties.

Of course, as the hon. Member for Salisbury pointed out—and I have always been of this view—parliamentary scrutiny has demonstrated very clearly that Parliament has the ability to discuss bioethical issues effectively, whether in Select Committees, during pre-legislative scrutiny or through consultation. The Science and Technology Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North produced a very extensive report in 2005.

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Ian Gibson (Norwich North, Labour)

I will have that constituency too—it happens to be a Liberal Democrat seat. Mine is Norwich, North.

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Jimmy Hood (Lanark and Hamilton East, Labour)

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, he should do so. If not, the Minister can carry on.

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Dawn Primarolo (Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health; Bristol South, Labour)

I apologise to my hon. Friend if I have had his constituency incorrectly recorded in Hansard.

A very good and extensive report was produced in 2005, which was the outcome of a year’s study of human reproductive technologies. It had considerable influence on the Department of Health’s subsequent public consultation. As has already been acknowledged, the Bill has changed considerably from its draft form.

The real point—my hon. Friends will correct me if I am wrong—is whether we need a wider bioethics Select Committee or Joint Committee of both Houses to consider not just issues that are pertinent to this legislation, but wider matters. Personally, I want parliamentarians to continue to do that, and I think that the Government would resist any idea of anything independent.

As my noble Friend Baroness Royall said in response to such a debate in the other place, we see merit in a Standing Committee of Parliament on bioethics. However, that is not something that it is appropriate to set out in primary legislation, and it is not a matter for this Bill—we certainly could not get the proposal in order, given the wider considerations. That is ultimately a matter for Parliament to consider, so let me gently suggest how a consensus may emerge.

The decision to set up a new Select Committee is one for the House—or both Houses, if it is decided that there should be a Joint Committee. Of course, the Government would consider any suggestion for a new Select Committee that had sufficient support from all parties. In addition to taking account of the views that have been clearly expressed during our deliberations in Committee, it might also be appropriate if views were sought from the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee about why and how this step could be taken forward. I am advised that this would be a matter for the House and that progress should be made through the usual channels.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East will not push the new clause to a Division, but as the Minister responsible for the Bill, I will ensure that I draw the comments of all members of the Committee on the wider issue to the attention of the appropriate authorities in the House. Such a Committee, perhaps a Joint Committee, could strengthen our understanding, and the way in which we discharge our roles as Members of Parliament, when we address these important social and ethical issues.

Photo of Brian Iddon

Brian Iddon (Bolton South East, Labour)

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments, which are very acceptable. The other place asked for guidance from this end of Parliament on the issue and it would have been remiss of us if we had not discussed it this afternoon. I think that some guidance has been given from this Committee to the other place and to Parliament in general. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we now need to lobby outside this Committee.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon referred to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. My idea was to have a parallel Committee with a similar membership. It has always amazed me that we discuss human rights in this place, but we do not, in parallel, discuss ethics, which are becoming much more important as Bills such as this pass through Parliament. It might well be that 30 is too many members for the Committee, but the figure of eight that was mentioned in the other place would be too small. Somewhere in between those two numbers would be acceptable, I am sure.

Obviously, the new clause is too narrow; it had to be drafted in such a way that it would remain within the scope of the Bill. My preference would be not only to have a broader Committee for human bioethics, but to introduce consideration of animal bioethics, because matters such as xenotransplantation cross both the human and animal spheres.

It has been good to have the debate and I thank my right hon. Friend again for her comments. I am sure that we have given some guidance to the other place as the Bill has proceeded, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered,

That certain written evidence already reported to the House be appended to the proceedings of the Committee.—[Dawn Primarolo.]

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill (except clauses 4, 11, 14 and 23, schedule 2, and any new clauses or new schedules relating to the termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners), as amended, to the House.

3:00 pm
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Dawn Primarolo (Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health; Bristol South, Labour)

Before we conclude our proceedings, I would like to make a few comments. I would like to thank you, Mr. Hood, and Mr. Gale for the excellent way in which you have helped us through the Committee proceedings. My thanks to the Clerks, who are ever vigilant and have done their best to ensure that we debate all the issues identified as necessary by the Committee. Thanks to the Hansard staff, to the police officers and to those to whom I am not normally supposed to refer: my officials. I thank them for all the hard work—over a long time now—that they put into producing an excellent Bill.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness for his measured, thoughtful and constructive approach, which I appreciated. We have been considering subjects that were difficult and challenging for me, as a Minister, but I know that that would be even harder in opposition without such detailed support. The issues that he raised helped our debate, as did those raised with considerable skill by his hon. Friends.

I also thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who turns out to have many skills—all excellent. He truly has followed and worked on the subject for a long time. He has considerable expertise. We are glad that he shared some of that expertise with us, but we might have been here longer had we heard it to its full extent. I thank him because I know that he follows the debate with great diligence and passion. His colleague, the hon. Member for Southport, has not always agreed with him. It was interesting to see one intervening on the other during speeches. They disagreed slightly, but they have been helpful to the Committee.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friends, who brought considerable knowledge, patience, advice and consideration to their support of me as the Minister on the Bill, even when they did not always agree with me. I am particularly referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, who is not able to be here this afternoon.

This has been an excellent Committee and I am grateful for our proceedings and everyone’s participation. I look forward to further debate on the Floor of the House.

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Mark Simmonds (Shadow Minister, Health; Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

I join the Minister in expressing my thanks to you, Mr. Hood, and to Mr. Gale for the excellent way in which you have chaired the Committee and for the advice and guidance that you have given as and when it has been appropriate. I also thank, in particular, the Clerks who have been involved in the Bill, who have provided support and advice to Opposition Members, who, as the Minister rightly pointed out, do not have the support of the expert civil servants that she clearly has.

I thank members of the Committee, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury, for South-West Devon, for Hemel Hempstead and for Rugby and Kenilworth, who have all participated in our proceedings. In their individual ways, their informed and measured contributions have been helpful and constructive in our debates.

I wish to say how much I have enjoyed the contributions from, and the interaction between, the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Southport. It is  always said that the Conservative party is a broad church, but we have seen today that the Liberal party is even broader. It would be helpful at some point to see whether the two hon. Gentlemen agree about anything. I also thank Labour members of the Committee, particularly the hon. Members for Norwich, North, for Bolton, South-East and for Brighton, Kemptown who, again in their individual ways, made significant contributions at different times in our proceedings.

Finally, I thank the Minister for, most of the time, her extremely calm and considered response to the debates. She has always been helpful, constructive and clear, and she responded with great clarity to the concerns that were expressed, the questions that were asked and the amendments that were tabled. Such issues are complex and challenging. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would acknowledge that neither she nor I are scientists and that trying to try to get to grips first with the science, and then overlaying the ethical issues, is extremely challenging for anyone who does not have a grounding in such areas. I wish to put on the record the fact that I thought that she did so with great aplomb. She has obviously put a tremendous amount of work into understanding the detail behind the Bill. While we might not agree on every political issue, I hope that the constructive way in which the questions have been put and the amendments have been explained have led to a constructive response from the Government, and that that will mean that the Bill, when enacted, will last just as long—if not longer—than the 1990 Act.

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Evan Harris (Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills; Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I take this opportunity to thank you, Mr. Hood, and your co-Chairman, Mr. Gale, for the way in which you chaired the Committee. I note that we have finished earlier than we had catered for, which is a testament to the fact that we have made excellent progress throughout. It is only fair that I first associate myself with the remarks of the Minister and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness in thanking all those who have been of great help to the Committee.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport on putting his views so well. We have been debating a free-vote issue, and clearly neither he nor I have the skill shown by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness as he represented all strands of the Conservative party. We decided to split the questions and ensure that we gained clarity from both sides on some fundamental ethical issues. On the one hand, I was delighted that my hon. Friend was to be a member of the Committee while, on the other hand, I was worried about it because he puts his views, which I sometimes do not share, so well.

I thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness for his kind words, as I thank the Minister for hers, although I wish to reject absolutely her scurrilous allegation that I have any skill as a draftsman—or that I claim such skill—or even that I have skill as a conciliator. I thank her for her approach in her more positive moments, which made being a member of the Committee as much of a pleasure as her less positive moments made it less so.

In concluding, I thank Becky Purvis from my office. She has had a heavy load to bear over the past few years on the issue. I welcome the contributions to the debate from other members of the Committee whose parliamentary career has been engaged in the study of some of the scientific issues involved. Although we have finished our proceedings well within time, I hope that that does not mean that we will not have enough time to debate on the Floor of the House issues that need to be decided on a free vote. We have had so few Divisions during our proceedings and finished so quickly because we know that other voices need to be heard on certain issues. I look forward to hearing them on Report.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill (except clauses 4, 11, 14 and 23, schedule 2, and any new clauses or new schedules relating to the termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners), as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at eight minutes past Three o’clock.