My Lords, we plan to publish a draft Bill to update the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act during the current Session. Drafting is under way and we will publish as soon as possible. We have made clear that we intend to present the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.
My Lords, do the Government still intend to go ahead with the misguided proposal to merge the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority into a single regulator? Do Ministers not recognise that these two arm’s-length bodies have entirely different purposes, that they are concerned with entirely different issues of public policy, that they address entirely different client groups and that they are concerned with entirely different branches of science? What possible advantage will the Government gain by shoving these two bodies into a single body as a regulator?
My Lords, to respond to that very briefly, we think it is possible to take the best of what has been done by both the current regulatory bodies—and I pay tribute to their work—and pull them together, while at the same time delivering a more cost-effective approach to regulation.
My Lords, there are times when it almost appears as if the Government are obsessed by the production of new acronyms—this new body will be called RATE. Does the Minister agree that, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, this new merged authority can function only if it establishes within itself two committees, one concerned with human fertilisation, embryo research, stem cell research and the rest, formerly the province of the HFEA, and the other concerned with the removal and storage of human tissue and organs and with transplantation? If two such committees have to be established, what is the point of the merger?
My Lords, primary legislation will be required, and we will bring it forward in due course. It is quite clear that we will have some interesting debates when it comes to your Lordships’ House. We believe that there are real advantages in bringing together the work of these organisations. They will clearly need expert advice. The machinery under which that expert advice is to be given will need to be considered as part of our current deliberations. However, I do not think it follows that two separate committees will be needed or that we ought not to be doing what we are proposing to do.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a holder of a stem cell licence, granted by the HFEA. Does the Minister not agree that, whatever body finally regulates this important area of clinical medicine and research, it is really important that there is better public engagement? One of the concerns, which I am sure my noble friend shares, is the ludicrous failure to explain the chimeric embryo. As my noble friend will know, there is no possibility whatever that such an embryo could form a viable organism. It seems to many people that the HFEA has completely failed to provide the information that Parliament requires under the 1990 Act. Can we do something about better public engagement in the future?
My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says. Overall, I pay tribute to the HFEA for the work that it has done. There is no question that the legislation that we have and the work of the regulators have been very much a part of building confidence in this whole area and the reputation of the UK. It is very important that there should be public engagement. I am sure that we will want the new authority to focus very strongly on that. The whole purpose of pre-legislative scrutiny is to enable parliamentarians to take a very full look at the proposals that the Government will be bringing forward.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a former member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. In this legislation, it appears that the Government are going to propose that Parliament should define some limits or criteria to apply to the testing of embryos for medical purposes. Can the Minister tell us whether that is likely to remain the case, given that the Government appear to have given way on the human-animal embryo research? If it is, how does the Minister explain that, given the enormous amount of healthcare regulation that we rightly have in this country through professional bodies such as NICE, the royal colleges, and clinical and ethics committees?
My Lords, I do not understand “have given way”. We have made it absolutely clear that we will be making proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny that we hope will be ready in May. It is now much better to let the path that we have set out take its course, and to allow for there to be full and proper public debate. That will lead to legislation being brought before Parliament as soon as possible. That really is the best way to test out the propositions that the noble Baroness has put forward this morning.
My Lords, the free vote question will have to be decided by the appropriate channels in due course, although I do of course understand that many of the issues involved in such legislation are matters of ethics and personal conscience. Your Lordships’ House has taken part in some really quite excellent debates in this area in the past. On the timetable, as I said, we aim to publish a Bill in May for pre-legislative scrutiny for the 2006-07 Session. As ever, I cannot say when we will then expect to bring forward legislation, but we clearly want to do that as soon as is practical. We are also committed to the new authority, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred, coming into being in the 2008-09 financial year.
My Lords, could the Minister be a little more forthcoming and convincing in his statement of the actual advantages that will result from dismantling these two organisations and replacing them with another? Incidentally, when it comes to deciding whether to whip certain legislation, surely the Minister in charge of that legislation is very much a part of the usual channels.
My Lords, that is right. All I said was that these matters fall to be considered when the time comes. I am sorry that I was not convincing. Let me have another go at it. We think that the establishment of this new authority provides an opportunity for the creation of a single regulatory body responsible for the regulation and inspection of all functions relating to the whole range of human tissues, blood, organs, tissues, cells, gametes and embryos. By doing that, we are pulling together the very best expertise that is currently available in the two organisations, to which I pay tribute. It will also deliver a more cost-effective system of regulation. I would have thought that that is a pretty convincing argument.