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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:08 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Conservative 7:08 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, like many others, I believe that this is an extremely important Bill on a complex subject. I also believe that it is difficult for a non-scientist such as myself to appreciate all the ramifications. My basic premise, therefore, is that of course I support the need for effective, qualitative research to alleviate illness, disease and human suffering, but with the proviso that it should be appropriately regulated.

I have two particular reasons for taking part in today's Second Reading debate. First, I was in the position of the Minister today in that it was my responsibility to pilot the 1990 Bill through your Lordships' House as the then Health Minister. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, as the then Lord Chancellor, was of course the lead member of the team and he, with his usual wisdom and clarity, dealt with all the really tricky ethical issues. I was more fortunate than the Minister, who appears to be going it alone.

It has already been said that the 1990 Bill was an admirable example of how to produce legislation, from the Warnock report itself and the wide discussions that took place during its preparation, through to the wide consultation process that took place subsequent to the report and before the Bill was drafted. The process took a long time—I believe it was almost 10 years altogether—but that was right and proper. We cannot and should not rush debate and decision-making over issues affecting human existence. The fact that the Bill has survived for so long as the framework for regulation in this area is proof of the value of all that preparation and concern.

I, too, recognise from my postbag on the Bill that there are people who feel that we should not allow this type of research or treatment to take place at all, but of course that is absurd; we cannot turn back the clock. Science evolves and develops in many wonderful, life-enhancing ways, as we have heard, and these developments give some people great power for good. Our job as politicians is to ensure that guidelines, safeguards and the necessary transparency and accountability are built in so that those people are able to do good in that way. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity that the Bill gives us to review and revise the workings of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and to look again at definitions and developments in the light of all these changes.

My second reason for participating in the debate is to support those, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, who emphasised the importance of all the ethical considerations to which the Bill gives rise. In this respect, I add my voice to support the suggestion of setting up a Standing Committee on bioethics to look at issues such as these and to give them the time and consideration required to ensure that we produce the best possible regulation of the amazing scientific developments which continue to take place and about which we have heard from some of the experts speaking in the debate.

I turn to some of the specific issues that concern me. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and others, I intend to resist the part of Clause 14 that aims to remove the provisions of the 1990 Act relating to the need of a child for a father. We all agree that the welfare of the child must be paramount, and, in my book, that should mean him or her having a father and a mother. If the noble Baroness, with all her experience of the authority, feels that the existing provisions are adequate, then I share her views.

On stem cell therapy, if techniques and research have developed to enable adult stem cells to be used rather than creating embryos for the purpose, surely that must be the way forward.

I am doubtful about the proposals to allow for the commercialisation of surrogate motherhood on the condition that agencies run on a not-for-profit basis. It seems to me that if you allow surrogacy agencies to charge reasonable expenses and to advertise their services, that is leading in the direction of commercialisation. That will have to be watched very carefully.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, raised questions on the Government's international approach. She referred to their failure to support the United Nations call to member states to,

"prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life".

This was a non-binding, ethical declaration and the United Kingdom voted against it in 2005. Why? I add a further question: why have the Government not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine? Many of our partners in the Council of Europe have already done so.

Finally, this is an important and complex Bill. It raises many ethical issues and issues of conscience. I believe that it is therefore appropriate that there should be a free vote in Committee and at later stages. I am glad that my party and, as I understand it, the Liberal Democrats are following that course, and I hope that the Government will reconsider their position.