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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:50 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench 12:50 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel, my friend, for introducing this debate. It is an exercise in education and I am delighted to follow the previous two speakers, both of whom have stressed the importance of public understanding of the issues. I appreciated the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, who introduced that theme into the debate.

I shall speak from a particular perspective. I have the honour to be president of Alzheimer Scotland, which recently carried out a major survey of its members and staff about the issues that concern us today. They are not in the position of assuming that miracles will happen and that the problems of dementia can be solved quickly, but they see this as one avenue of research that could contribute to dealing with a significant human problem.

As a result of that survey, the organisation has formulated a clear policy in support of the development of stem cell research. It is clear in supporting the possibility of hybrids being developed. We need to ask ourselves: who are those people articulating that positive view? They do not assume that there will quickly be a solution to the problems, they are well aware that that is a long way down the road, but they are in the front line of caring for those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's. Significantly, there were 1,000 returns from members and staff who know at first hand the dark shadow of forms of dementia in people's homes among their nearest and dearest and their friends; they face that and move forward. They are people who give of their time and energy.

Of those 1,000, the vast majority—I would say 100 per cent, but well up in the 90s—are volunteers who provide help and support to those who care. Their viewpoint must be heard and taken into account. This is part of the ethical discussion; they are aware of huge suffering, although they are also aware of the lighter moments and even joys that come from their work—it is not totally dark. On the other hand, they face this issue and their voices should be heard. Of those who responded to the survey, 76 per cent felt that the use of human embryos in dementia research was acceptable; 83 per cent agreed with the use of embryos donated by couples having fertility treatment; and over 80 per cent agreed with the use of aborted foetuses that would otherwise be disposed of. These are significant figures.

The people who took part in the survey think about these issues very carefully, however. There was also support for the use of therapeutic cloning, but it was much less clear cut; 43 per cent agreed that it was acceptable, 34 per cent were against and 22 per cent responded "don't know". The "don't knows" are critical, which is why the points made by the previous two speakers on the importance of educating the public are fundamental.

That set of views comes from an organisation that deals with the issue of caring in the most direct way. That organisation, however, is aware not simply of the cost of caring in individual human and family terms, but of the costs to the economy. I recently took part in a conference in Newcastle on the issues of changes in demography and ageing, and this was identified as one of the major issues facing our civilisation. Rightly, we hear of other issues such as global warming and so on, but if you look at the demography of developing countries as well as that of developed countries, there are changes in the structure of our communities that will be dramatic. The costs are already significant. We have heard some of the figures: in Scotland, between 60,000 and 65,000 people suffer from one form of dementia or another. You can roughly multiply by 11 to obtain the UK figure. The costs in Scotland are already between £1.5 billion and £2 billion and it is estimated that they will double by 2031. Again, one can multiply by 11 to obtain the comparable UK figures. We have already heard that the average cost of caring for a person with dementia is more than £25,000 per annum. The cost of someone in supported accommodation is some £31,000 per annum. There is a growing number of such people, because of the demography of our country and the costs will rise dramatically.

I ask three things of the Government. First, there needs to be more education; that was eloquently put by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. Secondly, there should be adequate and sensible regulation. In the minds of many people, regulation quickly becomes over-regulation so a fundamental question is "What is the minimum regulation required?" "What new roles can we think up?". Thirdly, funds must be targeted. The Science and Technology Committee of this House issued a paper more than a year ago on science and ageing. It asked for strategies in the spending of research money to be followed and encouraged by government. I put it to the Minister that this is one of the areas where such a strategy is required. If we ask these questions properly, the pay-off will be significant to the economy and even more so to the individuals who face this problem daily.