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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Shadow Minister, Health 1:54 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, in listening to the successive contributions to this debate, I have come to the view that we have today witnessed the House of Lords at its very best. It is wholly characteristic of this House that it should have elicited from Peers on all sides that special combination of scientific expertise and balanced exposition that is so essential for a subject of this kind. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on tabling his Motion and on the quality of his opening speech, which set the scene most admirably for the speakers who have followed.

As we have heard, the subject of the noble Lord's Motion has a number of layers to it. In the first place, we need to understand the value of stem cell research in purely scientific terms; what claims are being made of it, and why it is considered important. We also need to understand what the barriers are to achieving from it what our researchers want to achieve. We also need to place stem cell research in its broader context: global competition; public opinion in this country; and the ethical considerations that bear upon it, not least the ethical questions posed by those forms of research that have yet to receive parliamentary approval. All those aspects have been richly dealt with by those who have spoken.

I mentioned public opinion, as have others. When, earlier this year, the HFEA declined to give a ruling one way or the other on the applications of two academic institutions to produce cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, it came in for a fair degree of criticism. For my part, I congratulate the HFEA on realising that this was not an issue that fitted into the normal run of decision-making. If there is one thing that we have learnt in this country over the past 20 years—and learnt the hard way—it is that wherever science has a tendency to gallop ahead at speed, there is always a serious risk of its leaving public opinion behind it. As and when that happens, the situation becomes dangerous, because it is no longer the scientists who are in the driving seat but the tabloid press. We have only to think of the debacles over irradiated food, GM foods and the MMR vaccine to realise how ill-founded beliefs among the public can endanger or indeed scupper worthwhile scientific advances.

Those who bemoan what they see as an over-regulated environment for reproductive and stem cell research in this country need to reflect on something that is very easy to take for granted: the fact that this country has a regulator that reaches its decisions independently of government but within a framework of rules set by Parliament, which gives the public confidence that clearly delineated ethical boundaries are not being crossed and that agreed principles are being adhered to. That may sound obvious, but it is exactly the point at which, in the eyes of many, progress in the United States has been severely hampered. In that country, opposition to stem cell research among certain segments of the public has led to hard-line opposition on the part of government, to the extent that, ironically, the entire field of research remains unregulated and hence lacking in practical boundaries—a fact that in turn foments opposition all the more. The result is that, despite all that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, stem cell research in the United States receives nothing like the financial support that it would otherwise do in that entrepreneurial country, and that some of the best brains in the field migrate to this side of the Atlantic to pursue their work.

In the United Kingdom, public opinion on stem cell research has been generally positive, largely because the scientific community has been successful in keeping control of the debate and explaining why such research is important and necessary. One difficulty ensuing from that is the tricky business of managing public expectations. Embryonic stem cell research is a long-term enterprise. No one should imagine that it is going to produce treatment or cures for anyone or anything inside a decade. Indeed the scaled-up results of such research may not be evident for a good deal longer than that. There will almost certainly be failure and disappointment along the way. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, sounded a warning about the risk of undue hype fuelling unrealistic expectations, and they are right. In the battle for public acceptance, hype is almost as dangerous as an information vacuum.

The HFEA was therefore right to defer a decision on cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, and a public consultation on the issue is now under way. We need theologians and philosophers to contribute to that. Once again, though, it is for the scientific community to make its case to the public. It needs to show convincingly that transferring human genetic material into an animal egg for research purposes can be fully justified by the scientific benefits that may ensue and is necessary to secure those benefits.

Many people instinctively recoil at the thought of mixing human and animal genetic material. Others believe sincerely that it is morally unacceptable. We cannot get away from that fact, nor should we seek to. Nor should we duck the concern expressed by, for example, the Scottish Council on Bioethics, that work of this nature carries with it the risk of disease transmission across the species barrier. During the course of this debate, we have heard the research case made very powerfully, and it was a case which convinced the Science and Technology Committee in another place to say that in its view the Government's current stance on the matter was prohibitive.

It is equally for those who object to such research to say precisely why they do so. The Select Committee did not find arguments centring on the notion of human dignity convincing, mainly because the notion of human dignity is simply too vague. Reverence for human life can co-exist in its fullest sense alongside scientific inquiry. Humanity as a whole is not self-evidently debased by a process that intermingles with human DNA tiny quantities of animal material at microscopic levels.

In any case, it is not always clear whether the opponents of such research object only to the mixing of human and animal genetic material or to embryonic stem cell research in general. If it is simply the former, we need to understand from them why the notion of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos is inherently more objectionable than other techniques, which are already legal, for inserting human chromosomes into animal embryos or implanting human neural cells into the brain of a mouse. As I read the White Paper, the creation of animal chimera embryos, which the Home Office may currently license, would be made illegal under the proposals. We have not heard an explanation of why that should be. I, for one, find that concerning.

Having said that the HFEA was sensible to defer a decision on hybrid embryos, it would be very unfortunate if the delay was unduly prolonged. I do not know what the outcome of the current consultation will be, but let us suppose that at the end of it the Government say that they are receptive in principle to legalising that process. If we are to await the arrival of primary legislation, the coming into force of that legislation 18 months or two years later, and then, perhaps, the laying of regulations under that legislation even later, we are looking at an interval of many months before effective and meaningful research of the kind proposed can proceed. Such delay would surely serve no one's interests. I hope that the Government will bear in mind the need for reasonable expedition.

I also hope that they will take on board some of the other concerns expressed in this debate. The absence of any official means to accredit facilities for generating and maintaining embryonic stem cell lines presents a serious situation. The Government must resolve it. They must examine the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about damaging delays in the ethical approval process. They need to reiterate their support for the recommendations of Sir John Pattison. They need to clarify what funding has been committed to basic stem cell research from public sources; and what their response is to the concern that there is a gap to be bridged if the UK-based programmes envisaged by Pattison are not to be short-changed.

Ministers also need to clarify to Parliament whether in the draft legislation that emerges from the White Paper, we will be dealing with government policy or a set of proposals to be presented to Parliament and determined on the basis of a free vote. I very much hope that, in line with the view of these Benches, they will follow precedent on issues of this nature and declare this to be free-vote territory. Indeed, I speak today on my own behalf, not that of my party. Above all, I hope that Ministers will bear constantly in mind the words of exhortation that we have heard repeated today from so many noble Lords for a sense of national effort and public commitment. I do not accuse the Government of being half-hearted on stem cell research, but if backing from the public is there, as I trust that it will be, the price that we would pay as a nation for any inaction or lack of urgency in this vital field would be lasting and heavy.