Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 22nd January 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative 4:05 pm, 22nd January 2001

My Lords, I have much pleasure in following the excellent and well argued case for the amendment put by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I declare an interest at the outset. I am a vice-president of the Alzheimer's Society but I speak today in a personal capacity and not as a representative of that body. We lost a son one month before his 15th birthday. He died from a relatively minor illness which was complicated by his diabetes. I am as anxious as anyone here to see progress made in relieving the symptoms of, and/or finding cures for, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and many others. However, in the interests of all who share those hopes it is essential that those who have the responsibility for making a decision to extend this area of science have the benefit of a report by a Select Committee.

The Minister said that the only hope for a cure was through medical research and science. That is true. But there is a great deal of scientific research being carried out, and much progress is being made. There are some recent exciting breakthroughs for those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. But all we ask today is that more thought is given to an extension into stem cell research.

The Minister went on to tell the House--with what authority I know not--that the science was clear. Having listened to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many experts over the past couple of weeks, I can only tell the Minister that the science is anything but clear.Although we are being invited by the Government to approve, without amendment, the draft regulations before the House today, the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Walton of Detchant, and the one which I shall not move, at least give the House the opportunity to consider an alternative way forward.

It is essential that the scientific, moral and ethical issues which arise from the proposals to allow cloning with the use of embryos should be considered more fully. The proposal that a Select Committee should consider the issues surrounding the extension of this science to include therapeutic cloning unites many people who hold different views about human cloning. There are those like the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who believe that the science should be allowed to advance and see many benefits in its application; others are genuinely open-minded about the proposals but are in a real dilemma and believe that it would be helpful to be informed before taking a decision. There are those who on moral and ethical grounds have grave reservations about what is proposed in the regulations but nevertheless would like to see the matter referred to a Select Committee. This degree of anxiety and the desire for greater debate and exploration of the issues should be addressed. Therefore, the case for setting up a Select Committee with an obligation to report to Parliament is overwhelming.

Why are the Government in such a hurry, and why is a matter of such importance not being dealt with through primary legislation? The Government promised that a Bill would be brought forward to prohibit human reproductive cloning, but there was no mention of it in the recent gracious Speech. In the lengthy briefing letter from the Minister which advocated--perhaps it went further than that--support for the regulations, he wrote:

"These regulations will not permit reproductive cloning. That is illegal. It will stay illegal".

If that is the case, what is the purpose of the proposed new Bill? Whatever the answer to my question, if there is to be a new Bill dealing with human cloning why could it not wait for the Select Committee report and the outcome of the judicial review and subsume, if appropriate, the regulations before us today? That way we should all be better informed about the issues and public confidence in the parliamentary process would be restored. There are so many questions to be addressed before Parliament should be asked to decide the matter. First, for example, there is a need to explore the balance of arguments between eminent scientists, some of whom believe that continued research using adult stem cells from both animals and humans should be pursued, and others, equally respected in the science field, who believe that the way forward is therapeutic cloning using human embryos. Secondly, there should be fuller consideration given to the limitations of such research. Thirdly, fuller consideration should be given to the moral and ethical dimensions of such a radical scientific advance.

There is much disquiet about the considerable financial and commercial interests of individuals and organisations in the passing of the regulations. Much of the mail that we have received recently is from people who have considerable vested interests. There is the vexed question of parliamentary process. To deal with all these issues in unamendable regulations is an affront to the democratic process.

The House of Lords has a distinguished record of Select Committee work on issues of major importance to the British people and, in the case of research on human embryos, to the whole of mankind. I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who invites the House to agree the order and then set up a Select Committee. That would be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. There would be no urgency or focus for the Select Committee once the science has been approved.

Moreover, from the intense lobbying that we have experienced from the Government pressing us all not to refer this matter to a Select Committee, I would have little confidence that the work of a Select Committee would be given any priority at all. Such is the pressure to approve the draft regulations that the Government would be anxious, if Parliament were to approve the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to appoint the committee members and to see its work completed without delay.

The Government argue that the 1990 Act pre-empted such a change and that, therefore, a mere statutory instrument, which cannot be amended, would suffice. I was present on the Front Bench in this House for the debate on the 1990 Act when changes were made to allow for research using human embryos in the context of fertility. But for the Minister to suggest that the issue of human cloning and the ethics surrounding cell nuclear replacement for the purposes of research and treatment was fully discussed is simply not true. We were assured by the then Secretary of State that the 1990 Act specifically excluded cloning. He declared that this, along with "other science fiction", would be outlawed.

On 17th December 1989 the then Lord Chancellor, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said:

"There are some activities which I am sure we would all find unacceptable. The Bill prohibits the creation of hybrids using human gametes, the cloning of embryos by nucleus substitution to produce genetically identical individuals and genetic engineering to change the structure of the embryos".

There is sufficient doubt about what was or was not understood by the 1990 Act and about the legal interpretation by the Government of what was agreed by the Act, that to await the outcome of both the judicial review and the work of the Select Committee makes common sense.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, even Professor Donaldson in his report stated that:

"The use of cell nucleus replacement to produce human embryos may be said to create a new form of early embryo which is genetically identical to the donor of the cell nucleus. This prospect goes further than that contemplated by either the Warnock Committee or Parliament when it debated these issues".

That is unequivocal: Professor Donaldson said that this "goes further".

There is widespread concern about the Government's handling of what is a fundamental proposal on an issue of immense importance. In addition to hearing from experts on both sides of this issue, we have been lobbied by Ministers and the Chief Medical Officer to support the regulations. Yet this is supposed to be a free vote. At this point I must put on the record that there was no such pressure put on Members of this House, even those of us on the Front Bench, by the then government when the 1990 Act was passed. It was truly a free vote. Not for the first time are the Government abusing the procedures of the House. At last members of the public are taking notice.

We are told that we should not take a different view from the other place. Yet the Government have made available very little time for this issue. We are faced with unamendable regulations which come into force next week, whereas primary legislation would have given us time for proper parliamentary scrutiny through both Houses. This is being done in great haste and the wrong parliamentary procedure has been chosen for it.

Good science must always be carried out within moral and ethnical boundaries and, as far as possible, it should be underpinned by public confidence. This is a task for the wise counsel of a Select Committee with the power to interrogate experts and to explore the relevant issues. We should defer consideration of this matter until Parliament has considered its report.

I take great pleasure in supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.