House of Lords
Thursday, 3 May 2007.
The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
My Lords, since April 2005, the National Clinical Assessment Service has collected figures on the total number of doctors and dentists suspended from duty. There were 31 consultant exclusions in England at 31 March 2007. In 2003 the National Audit Office report The Management of Suspensions of Clinical Staff established that the average cost of excluding a doctor was £188,000 per year.
My Lords, the figures were produced by the National Audit Office in 2003, so they go back a long way. No work has been done since then. My understanding is that the figures were based on an average 47-week suspension for doctors and that the average cost of excluding a doctor was £188,000; for other clinical staff, the figure was £21,400. I assume that this was a comprehensive costing but I am happy to provide the noble Baroness with further details.
My Lords, years ago I asked a Question on this because of a consultant doctor who had gardening leave for some 13 years, and I believe that there were some instances of leave being even longer. I was told that this process would definitely not continue. What is the longest period of suspension of any of the people presently receiving pay at full rate?
My Lords, I am sure that the gardens turned out very well at the end of 13 years. Overall, there has been a huge improvement in the position of suspended doctors. The BMA used to produce figures which suggested that at any one time 500 hospital doctors were suspended, but the current figures show a huge reduction.
I do not have information on the longest suspension; indeed, in some cases, it could be regarded as confidential. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that the work of the National Clinical Assessment Service has ensured that except for a limited number of cases where the problems have proved intractable, the evidence is that it can get involved and deal with the problems much more quickly. More generally, I have asked the National Clinical Assessment Service to produce statistics that would show the length of suspensions in a way that is acceptable and gets over some of the confidentiality issues. It has not yet done that work but I will of course place the information in the Library when it is established.
My Lords, does my noble friend remember the dreadful headlines in the 1990s about consultants playing golf, costing the health service a large amount of money and not being used effectively? I remember them. The health service was virtually on its knees then. Now, we need to recognise that there are problems—
My Lords, there are problems, but we now have consultants working much harder and more effectively. Will my noble friend confirm that the effectiveness and amount of work done by consultants is infinitely better than it was in the 1990s, and will he keep making the improvements that we are seeing at the moment?
My Lords, I thought that my noble friend put that question very well indeed. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, because she has raised this matter over many years. However, the establishment of the National Clinical Assessment Service has ensured that if a doctor is suspended for any length of time it must come to the attention of the NCAS, which gives very good advice to local employers. The record shows that that is working very well. It is why the number of suspended doctors has fallen so dramatically.
My Lords, with reference to the Minister’s earlier answer regarding the National Clinical Assessment Service, new rules were introduced in June 2005 to reduce targets on suspension rates and require resolution within 13 weeks, 19 weeks less than the previous 32-week target. It is nearly two years since that was put in place. Is it working?
My Lords, my understanding is that progress is being made but there is still some way to go before the NCAS reaches that target. However, I pay tribute to the work of the NCAS. It has been outstanding. This major problem, identified for so many years, has now largely been dealt with.
My Lords, have the Government considered the impact on costs for doctors following the proposals for remediation and rehabilitation as set out in the White Paper Trust, Assurance and Safety, which in 2003 estimated costs of £7.3 million a year? Has that figure been revised?
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, following our announcement a few weeks ago work is being undertaken to prepare the ground to introduce those measures, and looking at the cost will be a part of that additional work. The revalidation and relicensing process, and the new approach of the General Medical Council incorporated in it, is designed for early intervention and to deal with these problems before there has to be a question of suspension or direct referral to the GMC. I very much hope that these measures will be cost effective.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who is the chair of the National Patient Safety Agency, in which the NCAS is now placed. My understanding is that, when the NCAS considers that it is safe and appropriate for a doctor to return to work, 70 per cent of those are able to do so. That is comparative to the best rates in the world including those in Canada and the west coast of the United States, which are regarded as best practice countries. Not only is the process being speeded up and the number of doctors suspended coming down but many more of them are getting back into work, which is excellent news.
International Law: Journalists
My Lords, the Government are strongly committed to ensuring that journalists are afforded the necessary protection under domestic and international law. Under relevant existing provisions of the Rome statute and the additional protocol 1 to the Geneva conventions, journalists are regarded as civilians. To direct intentionally an attack against civilians not taking direct part in hostilities is currently a war crime. Therefore, it is our view that no amendment to international law is necessary in this respect.
My Lords, my noble friend will know that it is now more than four years since ITN’s Terry Lloyd, Fred Nerac and Hussein Osman were killed in Iraq. Terry Lloyd was shot by a US marine while in the back of an ambulance moving away from the battle zone. Despite a verdict of unlawful killing by the Oxfordshire coroner, there has still been no indication that the United States is prepared to make the person responsible available to stand trial.
Does my noble friend agree that journalists in war zones perform a very special role on behalf of all of us and that that should be recognised in the way that my Question and the campaign by ITN proposes? Surely they are our eyes and ears and to regard them just as civilians does not take into account the public interest that they serve.
My Lords, those three journalists and many others have played an heroic role reporting in most dangerous circumstances. I think that everybody will pay them full tribute. By specifically highlighting journalists as being different, there is a risk, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has drawn to the attention of all of us, of marginalising the role of others. Humanitarian and NGO workers do desperately vital work in war zones. There is no reason why they should not be afforded the full protection of international law as well. Happily, international law is capable of doing that. I want to see all of them treated properly and with full respect to international law.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the changing nature of conflict—we no longer have war between states but usually conflict between terrorist groups and resurgencies of one sort or another—makes the role of a journalist, who operates to some extent autonomously from the formal military forces of western countries, much more difficult and in many ways ambiguous? Is he confident that the instructions to the British, American and other militaries take this unavoidable ambiguity and necessary autonomy into account?
My Lords, I do not think that our forces, those of the United States or others should be in any doubt or sense any ambiguity. UN Security Council Resolution 1738 specifically calls on all forces of all countries involved in any kind of conflict to stop deliberate attacks on journalists and to meet their obligations in international law to protect them and other citizens, including those I mentioned who do humanitarian work in the middle of these asymmetric—or however one wants to describe them—conflicts,.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that we should be concerned today, on World Press Freedom Day, and every day, with the need not merely to protect the freedom of journalists to report—I say “freedom” as opposed to the abuse of that freedom by the press which, alas, is very widespread—but to condemn those who kill them in war zones, sometimes accidentally and sometimes through deliberately targeting them, which is particularly vicious? I refer also to journalists who are murdered by certain regimes and others in the course of their work, of which there have been in the past few months some particularly unfortunate examples in Russia and elsewhere. In reinforcing what he has already said, will the Minister remember that we should be particularly concerned about journalists and their families who are deliberately murdered for holding and promoting views on press freedom?
My Lords, I greatly welcome what the noble Lord said. To have a good civil society you must have a free press and people must be able to do the job that is involved in having a free press. For those reasons I welcome the campaigns around the world by journalists’ organisations, their unions and International PEN. We should always support them most solidly.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists. Given the immense peril in which Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent in Gaza, is currently placed—our prayers are that he is still alive—can the Minister tell the House what further pressure we are putting on the Palestinian authorities to try to secure his release?
My Lords, we are in constant contact with the Palestinian authorities. We try to co-ordinate this with the BBC and its director-general, Mark Thompson. We desire to get Alan Johnston’s secure release. A few days ago, I said in the House—I hope that the House will bear with me—that if I were to go into further detail I would probably assist those holding him rather than him.
My Lords, has the Minister noted that at an inquest in Australia it was found that certain journalists were cold-bloodedly murdered by the Indonesian invading troops in East Timor in 1975? Notwithstanding the fact that this occurred many years before the coming into force of the Rome statute, does the Minister consider it profoundly unsatisfactory that the relatives of the victims, who included British citizens, have no remedy for the loss of their loved ones?
My Lords, of course I do. The idea that people have no remedy or cannot achieve—forgive the rather clichéd word—“closure”, as it is described in those cases, is bound to be very unsatisfactory. I also feel that about, for example, the nearest and dearest relatives of the aid workers being murdered in Darfur. Those people are all doing heroic jobs, and I want all of them to be covered by the same international standards of law. If we can stand behind that, we are standing behind a good value.
UN: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
My Lords, I am pleased to say that the UK was among the first 82 signatories to the convention when it opened for signature on 30 March 2007. That is the highest number of signatories in the history of a UN convention on its opening day. Since then, a further three states have signed, making a total of 85 signatories.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend and her ministerial colleague Anne McGuire, who has worked with such distinction to put Britain at the forefront of the drive for a UN convention.
Having signed the convention, will the Government now also be signing the Optional Protocol to allow the appropriate UN body to speed up its full implementation where disabled people can show their rights are being violated?
How many member states have now signed the protocol? And would it not seem inconsistent if, having already signed a similar protocol relating to the rights of women, we do not sign this one as well?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks and for his question. The House may be interested to know that not only have we paid tribute in this House to my noble friend’s pioneering role championing the rights of disabled people but, at the ceremony to mark the opening for signature of the convention, Prince Ra’ad Bin Zeid, in the name of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, also paid tribute to his pioneering role.
Some 48 UN member states have signed the Optional Protocol. It is not the custom of the Government to sign optional protocols, because we believe that at present there is not necessarily enough value in signing a protocol for UK citizens because the petitioners petition a monitoring committee that is not a court of law and therefore cannot offer compensation or necessarily even legal interpretation. However, almost as an experiment, we have signed the convention on women’s rights, and we are reviewing that situation, so it is not necessarily the case that we will not sign optional protocols in the future. It is under consideration.
My Lords, it is early days. We have only just signed the convention, and we are going through the process that we need to go through thoroughly to work our way towards ratification. It is the first time that the EU has signed a convention in this way, and our ratification process needs to be taken in tandem with the EU. It is an extremely important step forward. We believe that it will have an important impact on the rights of the 650 million disabled people throughout the world. We are committed to taking it forward, and I feel very optimistic about the contribution that this Government can make.
My Lords, from these Benches we greatly welcome the Government’s lead with regard to this important convention. We welcome the fact that it recognises that the 800 million people with disabilities experience serious human rights violations and we welcome the Government’s announcement that they will enable enhanced treaty scrutiny in this case, by referring the convention to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister about one or two points. First, why is the Department for Work and Pensions handling this issue rather than the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has a broad remit? That is odd. Secondly, what is the timescale for the process of considering the changes that need to be made to British law to give effect to the convention? Finally—
Finally, my Lords, returning to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, why is the United Kingdom out of step with, for example, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in not accepting the Optional Protocol?
My Lords, for some time the Department for Work and Pensions has been the lead department on disabilities, but it is fair to say that my honourable friend Anne McGuire MP has worked widely across government in preparation for signing the convention. With her expertise and the strong relationships that she has built up with the stakeholders—with organisations representing disabled people and disabled people themselves—it is right that she and her office should take forward this work. I do not believe that the United Kingdom is out of step. We have been at the forefront of taking forward this initiative and we are very much prepared to look at how the process of working with the EU should develop. We are always prepared to make the most of the opportunity that this convention offers.
My Lords, the Minister will know—indeed, she almost said—that it is one thing to sign a convention or a treaty; it is quite another to ratify it. Given that more than 20 countries are in the EU, all of which have signed the convention, and given that only 20 states need to ratify the convention for it to come into force, what pressure are the Government putting on fellow EU countries to do just that?
My Lords, my honourable friend Anne McGuire is meeting EU Ministers. We are working closely with them to identify the key issues around shared competency. It is the first time that the EU has signed a convention, so we are in new territory. The absolute timetable for ratification is beyond our control, but I must stress that we would not have signed the convention if we were not absolutely committed to ratifying it and to making the most of the opportunities, not just within the UK, but internationally, to put disabled people’s rights on the agenda.
My Lords, I am very pleased that already our embassies around the world have started to promote the convention. The Foreign Office and DfID are working closely with DWP to make sure that we are all working in the right direction. We will lobby Governments and we will fund projects leading to long-term changes, promoting best practice and changes in behaviour wherever possible. We are committed to making the convention a really positive and progressive move forward.
NHS: Doctors’ Training
My Lords, we are working to ensure that no doctors will fail to obtain a training post because of problems with the MTAS. As has always been the case, some doctors will be unsuccessful in obtaining a post because of the intense competition.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his short reply. I should make it clear that I am not trying to lay all the blame for this disaster at the feet of the Government, because it is unclear to me who was responsible. However, this has happened when we can ill afford to lose such a large cohort of doctors, and the BMA suggests that the numbers may be rather higher than each year’s output from UK medical schools. What can be done to support and encourage these doctors to continue in medicine? Many of them have young families to support, but they suddenly find that no training posts are available and their careers are blighted. What can be done to ensure that we keep them in the NHS and do not waste this powerful resource?
My Lords, as I said in the Answer, there has always been competition for specialty training posts, as there ought to be; these are the consultants and GPs of the future. Clearly, we want to ensure that the process is back on track and that the interview process is as rigorous as possible. Most of the doctors who are applying for the specialty training places already work in the NHS. We very much hope that those who are unsuccessful will be able to continue working in the NHS and we will establish ways of helping them to do so.
My Lords, no one should be sitting in limbo. As I have already said, most of those doctors are either currently in training posts or working in the National Health Service. My understanding is that approximately 40,000 interviews were due to have taken place in round 1A, which should have been completed, and around 17,000 interviews may take place in round 1B. As the outcome of that process, training posts will be offered. Following that, further training posts will be available for unsuccessful applicants, and that will take place according to the timetable laid down by the review body that we have established to help us in this area.
My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 2004 the vacancy rate for consultant psychiatry posts was double the average of all other consultant posts at 9.6 per cent compared with 4.3 per cent? Is he taking any special measures to ensure that the specialisms in psychiatry are not impeded by the current problems?
My Lords, there is no reason why they should be. Part of the work being done with doctors who apply for training for specialty posts involves showing them the ratio of applicants to places, and, in specialties where there is a shortage, that may be a way of encouraging more people to apply. Overall, the three-month vacancy rate for 2006 was down to 1.9 per cent for consultants, which is lower than it has been for some considerable time.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the appalling security breach revealed by Channel 4 the other day. In her Statement on Tuesday in another place, the Secretary of State said that confidential information about junior doctors stored on the MTAS website was accessed by,
“21 different internet addresses, mostly belonging to postgraduate deaneries”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/5/07; col. 1367.]
Can the Minister confirm whether any of those internet addresses were not from postgraduate deaneries? If not, who else accessed the confidential details held on the MTAS website?
My Lords, the noble Earl will know that we are deeply concerned about the breach and, indeed, about the nature of the information that was made available. Two things have happened. First, an inquiry is still taking place. We hope to get the result of it very shortly—over the next few days—and we will then be able to give as many details as possible about what happened. Secondly, an independent company was brought in last weekend to carry out a review of the current security procedures. It made a number of recommendations, which are being acted on, and a further audit of the security system is taking place. The system has not gone live and will not do so until we are satisfied that it is as secure as possible.
My Lords, first, most of the key decisions around this new system have been made in collaboration with the Government and various medical organisations. Secondly, two reviews are taking place. One is the Douglas review, which is looking at immediate issues, and which has been extremely helpful in advising the Government on how to deal with the current problems. A second review will be chaired by Sir John Tooke. Of course, he is a wholly independent person, and we shall listen carefully to the advice that he offers.
Business of the House: Debates Today
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Patel set down for today shall be limited to three hours and the debate on the two Motions in the name of Lord Broers to two hours.—(Baroness Amos.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Stem Cell Research
rose to call attention to the potential benefits of stem cell research and related issues; and to move for Papers
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted that so many distinguished noble Lords will take part in this debate, and I look forward to listening to all the speeches. I am particularly pleased that my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, who chaired the Stem Cell Select Committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Winston, an eminent stem cell scientist, will be taking part.
Stem cell research is undoubtedly the most exciting area of biomedical research. What makes it so exciting? Stem cell science has the potential to deliver cures for diseases that were hitherto untreatable, by harvesting the growth of cells and tissues in the laboratory and using them to replace diseased tissues with healthy cells.
Regrettably, there has been much premature hype, occasional misinformation and a lack of dialogue between those with opposing views in certain areas of stem cell research. The hope—not hype—is that stem cell research will, in combination with technologies such as tissue engineering, contribute to the field of regenerative medicine and help to develop therapies for diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart failure, spinal cord injuries, and potentially Alzheimer’s.
There are several types of stem cells with varying capacities to give rise to other cell types. The embryonic stem cells, first identified by Sir Martin Evans in 1981, derived from early-phase embryo are the most versatile. Therefore, these cells are often referred to as pluripotent cells. Research on the basic biology of these cells—what regulates them, what programmes their differentiation, what is their behaviour in disease, including cancers, cell death, and so on—will be crucial if we are to find therapies for diseases.
Apart from these embryonic stem cells, there are several types of adult stem cells, which are multipotent and able to give rise to limited numbers of cell types. Such cells are found in bone marrow, blood, cord blood and other sites. Some—for example, bone marrow on rare occasions—have been found to demonstrate pluripotent capabilities. It is true that all the currently available stem cell therapies are based on adult stem cells. Bone marrow transplant started in the early 1970s. Today thousands of such treatments are carried out every year
There are other preliminary but none the less exciting developments showing early clinical success, such as eye stem cells for corneal damage, periodontal stem cells for gum damage, bone marrow mesenchymal cells for heart failure, using autologous—the patient's own—stem cells or donor cells from cord blood or bone marrow. Just last week I heard some preliminary successful clinical applications of using autologous stem cells to treat age-related macular degeneration, which affects some 3 million people over the age of 60 in the United Kingdom alone.
All adult stem cell therapies are patient-specific. Patient-specific treatment is expensive. Scaling up has challenges, both biological and technical. Because embryonic stem cells are easy to culture and keep in a stable undifferentiated form—and therefore potentially capable of mass production, using robotics to do so—they offer potential benefits in treatment on a large scale. Adult stem cells are currently harder to isolate, keep in culture and produce in large quantities. Studies of embryonic stem cells from different species will, in due course, provide better understanding of the factors that control differentiation and proliferation of stem cells, research that will make the wider use of adult stem cells possible.
What we already know makes me feel confident that, before too long, the way we treat some diseases today will have changed, using more cell therapy and tissue engineering. It is most important to realise that we need to pursue research on all types of stem cells, and see it as complementary rather than a competing alternative. Adult stem cell research has been going on for decades. Embryonic stem cell research has only been going for the last four years, and even then with a limited number of stem cell lines. None the less, studies on both animal and human stem cells have demonstrated some remarkable advances: stem cells restoring neuronal damage, developing kidneys, developing new neurons and generating pancreatic beta cells that could produce insulin, and reversing Parkinson’s disease damage. In addition, stem cell research has the potential to contribute to drug development, toxicology and immunology—studies with implications for animal and human testing of drugs and transplantation.
I shall say a little about the UK’s position in stem cell research and regulation. Before I do so, I declare my interests. I currently chair the Stem Cell Oversight Committee and the Stem Cell Bank committee, the UK National Stem Cell Network and the yet-to-be-funded steering group of the Stem Cell Immunology Programme. I am chancellor of the University of Dundee and vice-president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, responsible for the section on life sciences.
Currently in stem cell research, the United Kingdom is undoubtedly the global leader. What we have put in place is the envy of much of the world, because of strong parliamentary and government support, measured but clearly defined legislation, an appropriate regulatory framework, funding from research councils being matched by charities and, above all, wide public support. In the last MORI poll, 70 per cent of the public supported all forms of stem cell research. The result has been that the UK has the world's first and largest stem cell bank, housing ethically sourced, quality controlled, fully characterised stem cell lines. The bank currently holds 40 such lines, and more are in the process of being considered. All will be available for research. We also now have several centres of excellence in stem cell research, far more than any other country in the world, including the United States. We have successfully recruited top stem cell scientists from across the world, including the USA. The United Kingdom punches well above its weight in scientific publications in key journals.
Recognising the importance of stem cell science to the economy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, commissioned a report from Sir John Pattison, UK Stem Cell Initiative, to set out a 10-year vision on stem cell research to consolidate the UK’s current position and become a global leader in stem cell therapy and technology. The Government accepted the report in full, including all the recommendations, even those related to finance; the Chancellor said so in his Budget speech.
So far, it all sounds fantastic. Over the last year, however, we have begun to see evidence of a failure of commitment and mixed messages, particularly on funding for research and regulation from the Government. I will pick up on two key areas of recommendations in the Pattison report, related to funding and timely and judicious regulation. The report includes a chart of the cost of implementing the recommendations over a 10-year period in incremental stages. The total cost over that period is in the region of £630 million. Adding up the funding from both the charities and councils so far amounts to about £40 million up to last year. However, there is already evidence that year-on-year commitment to funding is not being maintained. We are probably already £30 million short of the recommended projection. It is important to note that this is at a time when other countries are scaling up their funding enormously, especially China and the United States of America, where the climate for stem cell research is changing. California alone will spend $300 million per year for 10 years from public funding and possibly $200 million per year from private funding. Other countries scaling up funding are Singapore, India, Australia, Sweden and South Korea. China is likely to outstrip even the USA in research and in facilities related to stem cells. It has state-of-the-art facilities and is recruiting scientists. Biomedical research is seen as a future economic driver.
It is important to realise that if we do not keep pace, we will lose momentum and our lead position. We will fail to recruit because all these countries are also trying to recruit. We will fail to develop further capacity. We will fail to train future generations of stem cell scientists. We will fail to translate science into therapy. Worse, we may lose our leaders in stem cell science and the technologies that we have developed. So I hope the Government will commit themselves at least to keeping up funding at the level recommended in the Pattison report and accepted by the Chancellor last year.
Let me now turn to regulation in relation to stem cell research. Two areas of regulation need fairly urgent attention. The first relates to the accreditation of good manufacturing practice—GMP—facilities for developing stem cell lines for research and therapy. Just now, there is confusion as to who is responsible for the accreditation of such facilities and the end result is that no regulatory authority is prepared to take it on. We need an authority with statutory responsibility to accredit such facilities. I have yet to be convinced that the new amalgamated HFEA and tissues authority—RATE—will be up to such tasks, but I have no doubt other noble Lords will refer to that. Regulations related to recognising, accrediting and, if required, monitoring GMP facilities for stem cell work are urgently needed.
Let me now turn to regulation related to embryo research. There is much debate and some concern about whether in vitro stem cell research should be allowed on hybrid and chimera embryos. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, having taken evidence, recommended that such research should be allowed. On the other hand, in the White Paper reviewing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, the Government proposed that the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos in vitro should not be allowed. The HFEA is engaged in a public consultation; I hope it will be a properly informed consultation. The evidence given by research councils and charities to the Science and Technology Committee supported the need for such research. The Academy of Medical Sciences—in which I declare an interest as a fellow—will report and provide evidence to HFEA consultation.
It is important to understand what is proposed and why in terms of science. I fully accept that the public must finally decide whether such research should be allowed, not the scientists, so public consultation is absolutely important. What is proposed is using animal ova from cows or rabbits to carry out cell nuclear transfer, in which the nucleus from an ovum will be removed and a human somatic cell nucleus inserted. The resulting embryo in vitro will have 99.9 per cent human DNA and 0.1 per cent cytoplasmic—non-nuclear—animal DNA, hence the term cybrids. An embryonic stem cell will be obtained at the five- to six-day stage to develop stem cell lines. The use of animal ova would not be necessary if there was a plentiful supply of human ova, particularly fresh human ova, which there is not.
Why do scientists feel that they need this particular aspect of stem cell research? If we are to understand the behaviour and the biology of stem cell lines and develop therapies, it is necessary to develop stem cell lines that carry diseased genes, such as stem cell lines with genetic markers of motor neurone disease, diabetes, cancers and so on. This can best be achieved by using cells from affected individuals and by cell nuclear transfer techniques obtaining embryonic stem cell lines that carry the marker gene, which is a procedure allowed by the HFEA under licence in accordance with current legislation. But to do this in humans has proved difficult—scientists do not understand why—while cloning of embryos has worked in animals.
Research on cybrids will allow scientists to learn how to produce disease-based stem cell lines using embryonic stem cells efficiently, or even adult stem cells in the future. Scientists need only a few such stem cell lines. They will also be important because they will carry disease markers for future drug development. The submission of the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust to the House of Commons is detailed and well worth reading.
The key elements for the future success of the UK in stem cell research are: strengthening centres of excellence to enhance interdisciplinary and translational research; supporting high-quality clinical studies, which in the near term are likely to be of autologous stem cells, and the stimulation of endogenous stem cells; support for key infrastructure; the integration of biomedical advances with engineering—delivery systems, cell matrices and cell production; the involvement of bioindustry to accelerate therapeutic development; capacity building, including the encouragement of young researchers in related areas of UK strength, such as cancers and developmental biology; a permissive but strictly controlled regulatory structure that both encourages research in this area and reassures the public over ethical and safety issues; and continued international leadership.
Therefore, will the Minister emphatically reassure the House that the Government, first, will fulfil the commitment on funding as recommended in the Pattison report; and secondly, in revising the legislation related to embryo research, will look at the scientific evidence and the wider public opinion and do not intend to bring, even in the interim phase, legislation that damages the current positive environment for stem cell research? I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I shall concentrate entirely on human embryonic stem cell research. At some stage in the debate it will be said by some Members of the House that science is moving too quickly. Perhaps I may point out that embryonic stem cells were first grown satisfactorily in 1966. They were recognised to be able to invade tissues by Richard Gardner in Oxford in 1968. That is 40 years ago. It was Thomson who first grew human embryonic stem cells some 10 years ago. During that time scientists well understood the power and potential of stem cells. The fact is that we did not proceed with this area of science because we recognised that there was a question of its acceptability to the public. Scientists have been extremely cautious and entirely responsible throughout in the way they have conducted this research. There was one major case of fraud in Korea, but, that aside, there has never been a suggestion of lack of probity by anyone conducting this research in university centres.
It is interesting to look at the publications regarding human embryonic stem cell research. We frequently boast in Britain that we lead the field and that we provide the ideal liberal environment for this research to be carried out. This week I trawled through 2,600 papers on the PubMed index which cite human embryonic stem cells. Of these some 530 report individual research of a novel nature.
Despite the presidential ban on embryonic stem cells, which has existed since 2001 in the United States, the United States leads by far with this research; indeed, consistently year on year it has published one-third more papers than all the other countries put together. Currently, some 208 publications are from the United States. Israel comes next—a country with half the population of London—with 55 publications. These publications are generally in higher impact journals than the publications from the United Kingdom, which comes third with 50 publications. Thereafter, there are a total of seven other countries which lead in this research, all of them smaller than the UK, some of them tiny by comparison, including Singapore, Sweden, Korea—which is a larger country with a bigger base—China, which has been mentioned, and Australia.
It is also interesting to look at funding in those countries; I have some figures on that. My noble colleague Lord Patel has already pointed out that Proposition 71 in California resulted in the promise of $3 billion in that state alone, which has roughly the population of the United Kingdom. In Wisconsin, $750 million has been promised and in New Jersey, $270 million. By 2005, Korea had promised $27 million, Singapore $600 million, and there is substantial funding in Canada and Israel. In China, perhaps the poorest country, although it is starting to gear up more rapidly, $132 million has been committed to such research. In Australia, just one centre in Melbourne received almost 100 million Australian dollars in 2003, I think, to set up the stem cell research centre headed by Alan Trounson. The following question has already been asked but I need to reiterate it. Will my noble friend the Minister kindly tell the House exactly how much money has been promised by the UK Government for stem cell research and how much has already been allocated and spent?
Despite what is widely thought, at least 33 countries worldwide have relatively permissive legislation along the lines of that in the United Kingdom. It is not clear how effective the regulations for that research in Britain are. Undoubtedly, the current system under the HFEA results in extremely long delays to research licences being granted. A researcher must first apply to his local ethics committee. On average, in a research area in Britain, that takes six months because of the overload on those committees. If there is anything wrong with the wording of the application, one can expect a further delay as it is rewritten and resubmitted. Thereafter, and only thereafter, can the application go to the HFEA. It is usual for there to be a delay of three months before it sees it. Again, if there is a need to correct the informed consent form, for example, that must go back to the local research ethics committee and the whole procedure starts again.
Thereafter, it is sent out for peer review. My impression from my experience is that the peer review process is deeply flawed. For one application that I made, one peer reviewer did not even bother to reply to the HFEA’s correspondence. The HFEA never explained why not to my research group. After that—let us say that at least a year has elapsed, and that is an underestimate—one can apply for funding for research. Let us consider a PhD student. It is unthinkable that the backbone of British science, the PhD student, will wait for a year or year and a half for ethical and funding approval of a project. In effect, that means that we are losing young scientists in that area. So even though it seems that we are progressing that science well, in fact it is severely inhibited and there is a serious need to re-evaluate the legislation, not because the legislation is wrong, but because the way in which it is implemented is deeply flawed. That is just one example.
In the long term, we live in a complex world and I am not convinced that regulation is ideal. Germany, which bans such research, can import cells from the UK; Italians buy eggs from Oregon; Australians do their work in Singapore; the Chinese have a different view of embryos from that in almost any other country. We need a change in attitude to how we control the work that is going on, with a better understanding of the responsibility of scientists.
My Lords, in the 17 years between the isolation of embryo cells in mice and humans, there was a realisation about the enormous potential that stem cell technology offered in the treatment of some of the most devastating and distressing diseases of man, which are sadly on the increase as the age of our population increases. Stem cell technology, the regulatory framework for its use, and the ethical issues that surround it are complex and bewildering, and we should be grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, has initiated this debate, to which some very knowledgeable noble Lords who participate will bring their knowledge and wisdom to bear on the various issues which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, laid out in his opening remarks.
In the period between the isolation of ES cells from mice and humans, much work has been done to isolate those cells from other species such as rats, hamsters, cows, sheep and pigs. The ES cells of the rat, the mouse and the hamster have been used to generate transgenic animals, which serve as models for human disease and the creation of chimeras—embryos containing a mixture of cells from distinct cell lines—has proved to be an incredibly useful approach in biochemical and biomedical research to understanding the effects of specific mutations and their role in human disease. An important outcome has been the production of much more specific targets for pharmaceutical research and the reduction in the number of animals required for such work, along with the concepts of refinement and replacement—the three Rs of experimental animal use.
In the time available, however, I shall concentrate on two points. The first is the use of hybrid and chimera embryos, which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, mentioned, in motor neurone disease studies. The ultimate goal of stem cell research is, of course, to provide genetically matched tissue to the recipient, thereby avoiding rejection and the need to administer anti-rejection drugs. This is done by placing the nucleus from a normal body cell into an unfertilised egg, where it behaves as if it were in an embryo. Stem cells exactly matching the donor of the nucleus can then be cultured into specific cell types needed to repair the damage in the patient.
The success rate of this procedure in animals is low; it has not yet been achieved in humans, at least in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, human eggs are in poor supply. An alternative approach is to use animal eggs as a recipient for human nuclei, from which human ES cells can be harvested. The animal eggs—cow eggs or rabbit eggs are often used—serve as nurse cells, and the procedure is governed by the regulations on harvesting ES cells. However, as has been mentioned, the Government have published a White Paper, in which it is proposed that the creation of hybrid or chimera embryos should not be allowed on ethical grounds. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee reviewed this and concluded that the Government’s proposals are too prohibitive, would stifle research on transgenic disease models, and would have a negative impact on medical research. Some 200 medical charities have petitioned the Prime Minister, no less, to allow such hybrid embryos to be developed. I sincerely hope that they are successful.
I wish to give an example of the use of ES cells in situations other than the human patient—in this case, the horse. In 2007, ES cells have been isolated from horse blastocysts—the early fertilised cell—at the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket, in which I should declare an interest as chairman of its ethics committee. Such ES cells have the potential for therapeutic uses in racing and high-performance horses that suffer from sprained tendons, which, as anyone who deals with horses will know, are extraordinarily difficult to treat; treatment may extend over several months and often the horse breaks down again with a sprained tendon. Hitherto, treatment has been conservative, but recent work at the Royal Veterinary College has shown that, when injected into the damaged tendons, cells from the bone marrow—not stem cells—give temporary relief in the healing process. But the availability of ES cells from the Newmarket work will probably mean that those cells that are not rejected by the horse on an immunological basis can be used, stored and characterised, which will lead to a much more rapid and effective cure of sprained tendons.
Finally, mention has been made of the funding of research. I will not repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, but I believe that we are living in an unsound paradise if we think that we are ahead in all research and funding; we are not. I hope that the Minister will take note of the absolute importance of funding.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, not only for introducing this debate but for his distinguished contribution to this area of research.
Stem cell research is one of the most exciting, exacting, complicated and, for some people, anxiety-inducing areas of research today. Living as I do in the city of Newcastle, I cannot but be aware both of the possibilities that stem cell research seems to promise and of the ethical questions that it raises. The scientists at the Newcastle Centre for Life were the first group in this country to make a human embryo through cell nuclear replacement. Last summer, academic scientists and industrialists gathered in our city to look at the technology required to enable stem cell products to be made on a marketable scale. More recently, the North East England Stem Cell Institute has been set up through collaboration between the universities of Newcastle and Durham, the Centre for Life and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Noteworthy to me is that this new institute has received significant funding from the regional development agency. The development of stem cell research is rapid, and considerable expertise has already been gained and established in the north-east.
The potential that this research offers in treating serious diseases and injuries is great. It is hardly surprising that interest groups and charities representing those diseases that may be cured through advances in stem cell research want to press on and to promote the research as far and as widely as they can. One of the key questions is simply whether the ends, laudable as they are, justify the means. Should there be any limits and, if so, where should the boundaries be drawn? Does the potential of the knowledge, the techniques and the cell lines developed through research on embryonic stem cells justify the generation, manipulation and destruction of human embryos? Is it appropriate to make human embryos purely for research purposes, never having any intention of implanting them in the womb?
Those are the kinds of issues that we continue to face, and more have been raised in the responses to the White Paper, not least to the proposal that the creation of hybrid embryos in vitro should not be allowed. Scientists argue strongly that hybrid embryos made through cell nuclear replacement have great potential in the development of human cell lines. As we have heard, one of the current difficulties is that human eggs available for research are in short supply. Most come from women undergoing IVF treatment. I am told that some researchers are having to wait three months for eggs before they can begin their work. Even then, the eggs released for research purposes will be those that are not regarded as suitable for fertilisation.
It is for those reasons that scientists in Newcastle have asked permission to make hybrids using adult cells and enucleated eggs from animals. The argument is that the resulting embryo—or “cybrid”, as it is called—will be 99 per cent human and could be a valuable source of stem cell lines. There would never be any intention to implant such embryos, and they would be destroyed after 14 days. Such cell lines, it is argued, will be invaluable in testing drug treatments and in understanding the way diseases develop to help those suffering from a variety of genetically related diseases.
Not surprisingly, the White Paper proposal to ban hybrid embryos has raised considerable disquiet, not only from scientists but from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and of course from patients’ groups. That is why the HFEA public consultation has been launched, and why all the implications raised by human-animal cybrids, not just the possible medical and scientific advances, need to be given careful consideration.
To my mind there are a number of key questions that need to be addressed. What course of action will be the most honouring to the dignity of human life? Will it be the prevention of human suffering by the curing or treating of disease, or will it be in recognising that human embryonic material must be treated with the utmost care, reverence and respect? In any case, are those two options to be regarded as mutually exclusive? I, for one, do not believe so.
Is it appropriate or indeed accurate to consider these hybrids as embryos, or is an adult cell that has had its genetic differentiation somehow rewound no different from the human tissue from which it was extracted, as long as it is never implanted? That is the implication, as far as I can see, of the use of the term “cybrid” rather than “embryo”, and if that is the case, does it matter that the genetic rewinding was facilitated by an animal cell? Again, is it possible to define living cells and organisms simply in terms of their genetic make-up? Is it appropriate to call a cybrid 99.9 per cent human simply because that is the proportion of human DNA that it contains?
If it should be concluded that it is not right to make hybrids of human cells and enucleated animal eggs, what implications will that have for situations where animals are already being raised with small quantities of human DNA in their genetic material? I am aware, for example, of sheep that secrete human protein in their milk and of a mouse that is a model for Huntingdon’s disease, both the result of human genes being incorporated into their genetic material. Are these hybrids acceptable? If they are, what is the proportion of human DNA in an animal that would constitute either an appropriate or an inappropriate hybrid?
These are complicated matters in terms of both the scientific method and the ethical issues raised. That is why the HFEA consultation must include not only scientists, medical practitioners and patients’ groups but also ethicists and theologians. It is vital that future stem cell research in the UK, which will continue to pioneer new techniques if allowed, must do so within the clearly drawn boundaries and controls of a robust regulatory framework.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on bringing forward this timely and wide-ranging debate. I shall focus on just one aspect: the potential application of stem cell therapy in my own particular area of research, which is neurodegeneration. While other conditions such as heart disease and cancer are devastating, we all fear in particular the disorders that destroy the brain. They target the ability to stand up, to smile, to converse, to relate to others and to cherish memories of those relationships; indeed, to enjoy the full experience of being a unique individual. Yet the big problem is that we do not yet know why certain key brain cells embark on the pernicious cycle of self-destruction that we call neurodegeneration. The best we can do is combat the symptoms.
Current strategies consist of using drugs to replace the dwindling levels of the chemical messengers that result from the dwindling numbers of brain cells. But there are problems. First, inevitably, drugs will permeate into areas of the brain or body where they are not needed, and these cause side effects. In Parkinson’s disease, for example, treatment with a drug that will promote the chemical messenger in the area that is degenerating will also increase erstwhile normal levels of that same chemical elsewhere in the brain, so that the now excessive amounts risk psychotic side effects, such as hallucinations. Even where such treatment offers a temporary alleviation in the patient’s basic condition or a slowing down of the deterioration, it is hard to convince organisations such as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that the costs are worth while.
The situation is made even worse when we consider how many more of us will need such treatment in the future. At the moment, 700,000 people in the UK are suffering from Alzheimer’s and 120,000 from Parkinson’s, at a cost of £25,000 per year per patient. A study commissioned by the Motor Neurone Disease Association, to be completed by the summer of 2007, puts the cost of caring for someone with motor neurone disease in their final year of life at around £170,000. With around 1,600 people dying of MND each year, the total cost to the NHS and the social services is estimated to be more than £270 million a year.
More insidious than the economics is the human cost. For every one person suffering from degenerative disorders, let us say that there are 10 who care about that individual. Hence, by the middle of this century, as the numbers in the UK climb to around 2 million, we could be looking at 20 million lives that are completely devastated. So there is a huge and growing need—a need that is unmet by current treatments.
Stem cell therapy offers an exciting and realistic alternative. Stem cells can also offer a very valuable tool to gain a better understanding of the diseases themselves. The rationale is completely different from conventional treatments. The idea is not to treat the symptoms but to harness regenerative biological mechanisms, so that new cells are produced and ailing cells are supported by the natural chemicals they produce. This would amount to a true cure. It would not merely replace the chemicals that are lost as a result of cell death but actually replace the cells themselves, from the microscopic ball of some 200 that make up the early stage embryo.
Embryonic stem cells are extraordinary as they have the capacity to produce every single type of cell in the body. Many of the chemical and micro-environmental signals that determine their fate are now known. Thus we are able to make the type of cells that degenerate in Parkinson’s disease, and the different type of cells that are lost, in a different part of the brain, in Alzheimer’s. By introducing such cells into the appropriate environment within the brain, they will become those lost neurons.
What are the potential arguments against this approach? I shall restrict my comments to the often overlooked technical aspects. On the potential for immune rejection, this hazard can be overcome, as is being researched in Oxford, by immunotolarising patients or by immunosuppression. Such therapies have side effects but the risk-benefit ratio compared with that seen with conventional drugs is greatly shifted in favour of the therapeutic benefit.
A further potential problem is that stem cells in an uncontrolled state will proliferate and thereby constitute a tumour. To date, there is no clinical evidence that this has occurred with stem cell therapy and, in any event, strategies to overcome this problem are well advanced. For example, you can manipulate stem cells so that they only divide at a few degrees hotter than would normally be the case in the living brain. Another way would be to initiate cellular suicide genes if the implant attempts division.
Another issue is that the chemical messenger produced by the implanted stem cells may be excessive or not appropriate compared with the normal levels that will be produced. Again, this anxiety could be offset by considering the likelihood that brain cells, once they are in place, will behave like their naturally occurring predecessors and release chemicals at normal levels, as and when they are stimulated and interacting in their normal micro-environment. In any event, the excessive amounts of chemical messenger released as a result of drugs will be far more likely to go beyond the normal range seen with stem cells, and be far more widespread.
Finally, some might say that the method of delivery could be problematic, involving major brain surgery. In fact, this is not the case: with so-called stereotaxic neurosurgery, the procedure can be performed under local anaesthetic. Only a small hole is made in the skull and a fine needle is introduced, using precise three-dimensional co-ordinates—it is a little like drilling for oil. The diseased area can then be specifically targeted and the injection of cells kept as strictly localised as required.
In summary, we have reason to be confident that, although not without risks and downsides, stem cell therapy could be not just a treatment of choice but a chance to turn the clock back to a situation where we are harnessing the nervous system’s natural mechanisms. For an ever-growing number of individuals condemned to a severely compromised lifestyle and an even bleaker future, there is, for the first time—and not just for those suffering from neurodegeneration but for everyone who cares about them—the very real prospect of hope.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on securing this debate, although having listened to him and subsequent speakers I am beginning to feel slightly redundant. I will press on.
My position both as a clinical scientist and as a physician on the value of research using embryonic stem cells is clearly in favour: as a physician because when I practised medicine I was faced every day with patients desperate for cures for diseases for which I could only hope to palliate; and as a scientist because I see research as the only way in which it will be possible to answer patients’ needs in the future.
As we have heard, research on stem cells shows promise for many patients. Clearly, they will not be the answer to all our ills, but they have the potential to help patients with some pretty nasty diseases. But today I want to concentrate my remarks on the views of the Association of Medical Research Charities of which I have had the pleasure of being the scientific advisor for some years.
Well over 100 charities belong to the AMRC, all of which fund medical research. Some are very large, such as Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Arthritis Research Campaign, some are medium sized, such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Parkinson's Disease Society, Alzheimer's Disease Society and Diabetes UK and some are quite small, but vital for the patients whom they are concerned about, such as the Motor Neurone Disease Society, Epilepsy Research Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
They all have in common the need to support research into the causes and treatments of diseases for which they raise money, largely from the public. Collectively, they fund more than £700 million per annum—which is larger than the Medical Research Council’s contribution. If you add up all the diseases that they cover—cancer, stroke, heart attacks, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and so forth—you cover a very large proportion of the population either as sufferers or carers. Scarcely a family is not affected by one or more of those diseases.
All these charities are desperate to support good research. They do not all fund research into stem cells, although a considerable proportion does. They all believe that research using embryonic stem cells is sufficiently promising for them to be very concerned if that research was to be prevented.
These charities have their fingers very much on the pulse of public opinion. Most rely on public support to fund them and have lay trustees, and many have active public and patient involvement programmes. They know how much those who experience the reality of suffering disease support research of this type, which is inevitably going to be at the edge of existing knowledge. Of course, they want research on stem cells to be well regulated, ethical and carefully planned, so that results can be relied on. Transparent regulation of a high standard—of which I hope the HFEA will be capable—is vital, but it will be important not to fetter the HFEA on the basis of misunderstandings of the science.
One example is the use of eggs derived from animals. These are the eggs from which the nucleus containing all the genes which make an animal an animal has been removed, leaving an empty cell to act as a nest which can provide the protective and supportive environment into which a human cell nucleus can be placed. No mixing of the relevant human and animal genes is involved. A human cell line is developed from these cells which can be used for research into the causes and treatments of serious diseases. The cells are not allowed in any case to develop into embryos beyond the 14-day stage. The sole reason for using empty animal cells is, as has been described, because of the great paucity of human eggs for research. The animal egg cell is an attractive and, to my mind, entirely ethical alternative.
A number of applications are currently before the HFEA for research using stem cells in this way. They are from Newcastle, King's College and Edinburgh for research into diseases such as motor neurone disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s disease. I hope— and, much more importantly, the patients hope—that this research will be encouraged rather than discouraged.
My Lords, I shall say a brief word about human embryonic cell research. Undoubtedly, stem cell research is near the top of the list of the world’s most hopeful enterprises. We in the UK are at the forefront of that endeavour, so my heart sank when last weekend at a party I met a young Roman Catholic priest and I mentioned this debate. “Tell them,” he said, “there are plenty of ways of doing that without killing babies”.
I might almost have agreed with that young man when in 1990 I became involved in this House in the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. That process and the visits, meetings and Committee reports that went with it, changed my mind. The big decision that had to be made then was whether to allow the minute cluster of cells that form the very beginning of the human embryo to be used during the first few days of its existence for research. As someone with a deeply Christian perception of life and a bit of a layman’s interest in theology, I gradually came to the conclusion that it was right to allow that research but only for 14 days, only for medical research and under strict licence. Yes, the embryo had the potential to become a person, but at 14 days it was still a tiny cell cluster the size of a grain of sand and as yet without even the earliest development of what would become the spinal cord and nervous system. Importantly, because it would be an embryo surplus to a couple’s in vitro fertilisation need, it was in any case destined to be thrown away. The potential benefits of research as seen at that time, weighed against those facts, convinced me and the majority in Parliament—and so the Bill became law.
The current anxiety about embryonic stem cell research, which is mainly about the use of human embryos, is the same anxiety as that in 1990. It is, indeed, the same as the anxiety that existed 40 years ago when the noble Lord, Lord Steel, put the Abortion Act on the statute book. That anxiety is linked to people’s understanding of what it is to be human and how and when that understanding grows in response to the revelations of science. It grows at different speeds in different parts of the community.
For us in this country, the seminal legal decision was made in 1990, and it still stands. Embryonic stem cells currently show by far the greatest promise and they can be used for research up to 14 days. The question today is a lesser one by far—whether the type of that research should be extended, how more embryos can become available and how regulation needs improving to enable the extension. Given the facts and with the assurance of careful regulation and the involvement of local ethics committees, which is very important, I believe that the majority of the public are ready for these new developments.
Four years ago, 70 per cent of our population showed support for the use of human embryos. Since then, the media have been full of the possibilities of embryonic stem cells. They have been discussing the unsuccessful attempt by President Bush to slow up research in the United States and progress all over the world.
On the whole, public reaction seems strongly positive on condition that proper regulation exists. After all, most people have family or friends whose medical problems might be alleviated and GPs, who are closest to the public, support progress. We simply must not dally. The Government should think very hard about increasing funding. We should legislate carefully to extend embryonic stem cell research now with matching supervision and licensing. At the moment the United Kingdom is in the vanguard; let us stay there.
My Lords, the scientific community, all those with degenerative diseases and those concerned about the ethics of different aspects of research should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for instigating this important debate.
“Stem cells” is an umbrella term, often used far too broadly, inappropriately and with little understanding. Fantasy has fuelled scaremongering and the finger has been pointed inappropriately at researchers carrying out high-quality research. Meanwhile, vulnerable patients in desperate situations travel abroad for expensive treatments, where they are effectively robbed in undergoing non-evidence-based interventions, some of which may be harmful. That is a desperate situation for those patients and demonstrates the lack of understanding in the public domain about stem cells.
The science is developing and has huge potential, particularly to halt the progression of slowly degenerative diseases. Haematology pioneered this with haemopoetic stem cell research, which has now been translated into routine bone marrow transplants. Using cord stem cells has resulted in more than 2,500 patients receiving bone marrow transplants and doing well as a result. All that gets little publicity now. Cardiology, too, has started to enter the realm of stem cell research. Such research is in its early days. An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine summed it up very well. It states:
“Recent randomized studies of cell therapy for heart disease represent a milestone in this rapidly developing field while serving as a cogent reminder that many important clinical and fundamental questions have yet to be addressed. We should guard against both premature declaration of victory and premature abandonment of a promising therapeutic strategy. The ultimate success … is likely to depend on continued and effective coordination of rigorous basic and clinical investigations”.
Stem cells, sometimes called progenitor cells, are pluripotent. Immaturity gives the ability to differentiate into different cell lines; hence the appeal of embryonic cells, but the ethical dilemmas abound. I shall confine my remarks to cord blood stem cells and even adult stem cells as they have also been shown to be able to differentiate into tissues such as cartilage, bone, adipose tissue and muscle. Normal adult tissue seems to have a few stem cells present which are responsible for ongoing tissue repair and protection from injury. Many of these are present in normal bone marrow and can be harvested for transplantation. Some are present in the liver and can regenerate, but a few also appear to be present in other tissues as well such as cardiac muscle. These nursemaid cells have an important role and warrant research as well.
It is difficult to know just what we are dealing with when people talk about stem cell research in scientific papers. The immature cell has poorly developed surface markers making it difficult to identify accurately. The only way really to know that a cell is pluripotent is to culture it on different media and see it differentiate. The lack of cell surface markers makes comparison of one research project with another difficult at present. CD34 cells are haemopoetic stem cells that are now relatively easily identified using cytofluorometric analysis, which basically gives the cell a coloured marker. Then you can extract the cell and know what you are dealing with. Those are the ones used in bone marrow transplant.
Intra-coronary and intra-muscular injection of stem cells is promising in cardiology but it is interesting to note that the benefits are marginal and short-lived because these cells die off quite quickly. An important development in the UK is the establishment of cord blood donation through the National Blood Service Banking Centre. Cord blood contains relatively immature cells that would otherwise be discarded. Interestingly, Virgin has entered this area with combined private/public banking whereby 20 per cent of the sample is cryopreserved for that family and 80 per cent donated for public use. It costs the parents about £1,500 but this does not cover the cost of collection in the delivery suite. The National Blood Service’s three collection centres in Barnet, Northwick Park and Luton and Dunstable now have a 40 per cent ethnic minority mix of these cells for transplant. These are also very important cells for research.
These are expensive developments. They are within the framework of the NHS and deserve to be supported. They will cost—it will be many years before we get financial return—but we have an important start here in the UK. Even US Republican senators are seeing the value of such research. If research is encouraged, high-quality groups will develop. If not, poorly conducted research using non-vigorous methods will continue. It will only discredit this important area and result in patients continuing to seek quack cures abroad being robbed under false claims. We must support research. We must streamline the regulation of it. We must make sure that the monitoring is done by an expert central body of people who really understand the science, not people who are unduly cautious. That is the only way high-quality research will continue for the benefit of our country.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, is one of the great men of medicine and I thank him for initiating this very timely debate.
I am the chair of the Human Genetics Commission, the Government’s advisory body on developments in human genetics and their implications for healthcare, ethics, law and society. We see ourselves as a model for how public bodies should operate because all the commission’s work is held in public. Our minutes are on our website and our agenda is there, too. We travel the country to have our meetings; we do not just have them in London. We hold evidence-gathering sessions. We have public information fora and we make sure that the public can be present when we hold our meetings. We have a consultative panel of more than 100 people, all of whom have, for whatever reason, an interest in this area of genetic developments, usually because they have a genetic trait within their own family.
While the Human Genetics Commission does not advise government on stem cell research specifically, many of its stakeholders, including members of the consultative panel I mentioned, have a very strong interest in genetic disease and, therefore, in the therapeutic possibilities offered by stem cell research. Recently, the commission discussed the specific issue of the creation of human/animal hybrid embryos. One of the strongest arguments for this research is that it would provide a much needed material resource for projects of stem cell research. One of the strongest reasons for carrying out this research is that it promises to provide therapeutic benefits for people suffering serious and life-limiting diseases. The case which those involved in the research make is strong, both intellectually and morally.
However, work that the Human Genetics Commission has carried out has revealed that there is a wide range of views about the ethics and prospects of stem cell research. For example, our consultative panel of people personally affected by genetic diseases says that research to find treatments for genetic conditions is important to them—they want this research to take place—but that there should be balance and realism to avoid giving false hope.
Our stakeholders, who are in regular contact with us and attend our open meetings and public information-gathering sessions, and the people who respond to our consultations give a mixture of very nuanced views. I emphasise that word “nuance”, because it is very often missing from press reports on stem cell research, which describe it either as monstrous or miraculous, but seldom as anything in between.
Some of our stakeholders are concerned about what the enthusiasm for possible cures means for those living with such diseases and our attitudes towards them. Understandably, they feel that the single-minded pursuit of treatments actively devalues those affected by genetic disease and encourages others to treat them as a problem, and sometimes diverts valuable resources from care for those facing such diseases towards possible cures. They would like to see a better balance in how resources are used. Some hold that the eradication of genetic disease amounts to the eradication of a distinct and important genetic group and that it means a form of modern eugenics, but I want to avoid that kind of hyperbole. What is really an issue of concern is that we could be creating a climate whereby the pursuit of perfection is paramount. That coarsens our values, and it dehumanises those who are less than perfect, which means most of us.
In my position as chair of the commission, I have always strongly advocated having such discussions in public so that scientists have to make their case in the public realm, explaining that the work that they do will not involve the devaluing of humanity or risk the creation of alarming new forms of life. It means that we should have those debates even if it means revisiting familiar moral arguments. I urge on this House today the importance of public debate and engagement of the public in science policy development. Good policy and progress in science are made in a context of public acceptance, and that public acceptance allows the establishment of good and successful regulatory regimes. Public engagement is essential to achieving that acceptance. From experience, what we have seen is that where science outpaces public acceptance, for example with genetically modified foods, it can lead to the inhibition of research and of the benefits of that research.
We remember the good side, on the other hand, of assisted reproduction, where early public engagement on the part of the scientific community and efforts to communicate the benefits in terms that could be grasped on a human scale led to widespread public acceptance and greater confidence for the future. Scientific discovery and biomedical innovation are necessarily the area of specialists, but we have to have good public debate. Our work has revealed that the public—non-specialists—are perfectly capable of understanding complex scientific and moral problems if they are dealt with properly. They have an appetite to engage with those issues, but we need to have transparency and clarity in our communications. The public is suspicious of science that is carried out behind closed doors.
I urge the Government to put more money into the work that the Human Genetics Commission does on public engagement. Public confidence is hard won and very easily squandered. To maintain it, it is important that the benefits of stem cell research are communicated honestly and without hyperbole. That is what I urge on the Government today.
My Lords, we must all be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for initiating this debate on such an important area of research. The debate has been utterly fascinating and so informative; it has certainly increased my knowledge base. The absolute imperative that there should be much greater public understanding of stem cell research has just been so wonderfully explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. I had a 10-page speech ready, and I could tear it up and just say, “Amen to that”. However, I have a couple of points to make, but I will stay within six minutes.
As a non-scientist, I have approached this subject from the point of view of caring for humanity, which is probably not unaffected by the fact that all the members of my immediate family, who are now dead and died far too young, would almost certainly have benefited from this type of research had it occurred 10 or 20 years earlier. There is a tremor in my voice even as I think about it. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness when she asked whether we are in pursuit of perfection. Is it not better to have much happier, better lives, accepting all the flaws and frailties that we have, and try to make the best for all humanity, not just for those who will benefit from this research?
I could not agree more with the point about public opinion. When I heard the noble Lord, Lord Patel, say that 70 per cent of the general public supported stem cell research, I thought to myself, “70 per cent? Do they really understand it? Am I a complete moron? I am a non-scientist, but I do not really understand it”. It was only the opportunity to speak in this debate that made me pore over so much of the information. I am convinced that 70 per cent of the public have not done that. I suspect it is like all things scientific; lay people feel that they have to cringe in a corner because scientists have so much more information and such bigger brains, and we probably feel inadequate and just agree with them. That is a serious issue. I have spoken to many non-scientific members of the public about this, and they think that embryonic cell research is a bridge too far. There have been undoubted successes with adult stem cell research. According to my research, something like 72 conditions have been helped by adult stem cell research. The other types of research deal with the sanctity of human life, which I know does not come high on everyone’s agenda, but it does so for quite a lot of people.
I would guess that the public feel that adult stem cell research is fine, particularly bearing in mind that 72 conditions can be treated with it. People ask about embryonic research, but as far as I can see no treatments have come from embryonic stem cell research. There has been the huge scare story that has already been referred to today of the Korean experiment. People feel that this is an area of potential abuse, and that feeling will grow unless there is a greater understanding of the basic science. The possibility of human-animal hybrids, or chimera embryos, seems to really scare people. It smacks too much of eugenics and of what we are led to believe happened in the 1940s in central Europe. In any case, if such entities were permitted, it would raise huge questions over what is classed as human and what is classed as animal. Some scientists may think that it is an irrelevant question for the purposes of research, but it causes a problem and it raises profound questions about the nature of man and what it means to be human. It also raises significant legal questions. What legislation would cover any formed embryo; legislation affecting animals, or legislation affecting humans? That really concerns me. Maybe I am not aware of enough of the science to be able to make a judgment. We all know that the difference between an animal and a human in genetic terms is very small indeed, and it is not far-fetched to imagine a situation where a court could rule that an embryonic entity is actually an animal and allow it to develop past the 14 day cut-off period for human embryos.
I am almost at the end of my time. I have difficulties understanding much of the hype that surrounds embryo research and, given its lack of success to date and the availability of ethical alternatives that are proving successful, I share concerns about the proposals to amend the law and the possible development of animal-human hybrid embryos, as set out in the recent White Paper. If we insist on pursuing that route, I hope that we will have at least an assurance that there will be fantastic regulation, and monitoring of that regulation, to eliminate the potential for abuse. I am genuinely anxious and concerned. I do not want to knock the science; I am in awe of the science, but many other lay people like me feel exactly the same.
I shall end on this note: until the scientists communicate in the manner of the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Winston, and bearing in mind everything said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws, I will remain concerned.
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.
My Lords, my thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for introducing this debate, which is in large part about principles—whether existing medical and research techniques should conform to current ethical and moral norms in our society, or whether society should recognise the advances in medical science that are made every day and develop new standards to accommodate those advances. There is, as lawyers point out, a fundamental rule in international law, especially that which governs human rights: customary law obliges states to adhere to standards that have been developed throughout the world—for example certain human rights abuses are subject to customary law and can never in any circumstances be condoned. Stem cell research in one of its aspects at least falls into this category of a widely accepted or customary practice. As we have heard, the UK is a global leader in stem cell research and there are centres throughout the world. Nowhere is this research better regulated than in this country, it would appear. The HFE Act 1990 is clear about what is allowed and what is not, and how research should be monitored.
The point here is that stem cell research is an ongoing and major programme in the UK with many successes. Ethical and moral concerns will not cause it suddenly to cease but can guide its procedures as inevitably scientific progress comes up with new techniques to address human suffering. Where should the line be drawn? To assert categorically that it is impermissible to destroy embryos and/or to use animal cells to further this research is to ignore the long path, dating from the early 1970s when the first bone marrow transplant took place, of careful and diligent scientific inquiry and public debate that has accompanied each stage. Earlier legislation has allowed us to reach this stage, where radical techniques are now possible. The regulatory safeguards have been amended accordingly.
Given that in vitro fertilisation has become almost standard practice, it has to be acknowledged that there will always be excess embryos which will be destroyed whether or not they are objects of research. I understand that, in the normal course of events, up to 30 per cent of fertilised embryos are lost before implantation by women who may not even be aware that they have conceived. It is neither logical nor necessarily ethical to be concerned with preserving excess embryos, especially if there is a strict time limit on their use.
I ask your Lordships to consider whether it is moral to deny people access to medical techniques that already exist under stringent conditions. Would we be happy to do so if those we most loved faced degenerative conditions such as motor neurone disease, diabetes and/or dementia? Do we want to ignore the animal rights constituency and continue indefinitely with animal models when cellular ones may become more easily available?
My final point concerns the use of embryos as well as of hybrids and chimeras in order to find alternative sources of cells. Much research is going on in these areas and a Stem Cell Bank with international links has already been set up, but needs far more investment to become a genuine alternative resource for medical science. For example, the challenges of safe, long-term storage, if met, could obviate the need for the future collection of embryonic stem cells. In the US, it is claimed that a case of sickle cell anaemia has been cured with transplanted cells harvested from umbilical cords. As I understand it, there is interest in amniotic fluid cells and autologous stem cells, which occur naturally in the body. The reprogramming of adult stem cells from brain, eyes, muscles and bone marrow is a fruitful area of research. All these procedures are waiting in the wings but need far more investment and far more research using embryonic and animal cells to become standard practice.
The history of medical research is replete with accompanying ethical concerns—rightly so. However, these concerns have to be resolved through public debate, public engagement, transparency, regulation and monitoring, and this process is now taking place. The principle that I adhere to is the harvesting with humanity of stem cells, whatever their origin, thereby continuing what scientists are already doing in the interests of public good and an end to some kinds of human suffering.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on initiating this debate and on attracting an eminent group of speakers, such that I arise with great diffidence to make a few comments based on my background of having been involved in health service management for 20 years and in policy-making as a civil servant for the past nine of those. I had better declare the interestsof having been chief executive of the NHS and Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health. I think that those perspectives will allow me to make three points: one about services, one about research and one about public trust.
There has already been a great deal of talk about the potential benefits of stem cell research to individuals, patients and all of us—perhaps to whole services—and there has been some discussion about the cost to health services. As a health service manager, I want to hear more about how the development of stem cell research will make far more generic products available to a wide group of patients than is the case now. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, said clearly at the beginning that early research on adult stem cells has been very patient-specific and that the great goal in embryo research—I am looking at my notes to check that I have the science roughly right—is the ability to produce more generic products, which may then have an effect on a much wider group of patients. That must be the goal for which those of us who have been involved in managing health services will be looking from this research.
However, the issue goes slightly wider than that. This is part of a much broader and longer-term trend in health services. To put it very simply, it is about the importance of early intervention. Health costs are growing rapidly in every country, whether they are developing or developed countries, and, before we reach the sort of situation in America in which perhaps 20 per cent of costs go on healthcare, we need to reorient health services much more towards early intervention; the slogan needs to concentrate far more on early health than on late disease. This research has the potential to contribute greatly to that sort of development and to reduce costs both in health services and in the wider community, as the noble Lord said.
My second point, which goes hand in hand with the first, is the importance of research going hand in hand with clinical application. Having run a teaching hospital, I know how crucial it is that our services are constantly informed by the latest knowledge and that our knowledge is constantly informed by service reality. There needs to be as rapid a transition as possible from the laboratory to the bedside and learning from the bedside to the laboratory.
However, the issue here—a point raised by my noble friend Lady Greenfield—is that we are talking about a substantial change in the way that medicine is conceived and therefore the way in which services will be delivered in the future. Therefore, alongside the science go important areas of research, which are about service delivery, sociology and economics. It is not enough for stem cell research to be purely at the scientific level. Science alone will not have the impact on services that we need; it needs to be accompanied by a wider range of research.
Those first two points are variations on the theme of why stem cell research is important, and they come from the perspective of the manager or the person involved in healthcare delivery. But all that is valueless if stem cell research is unethical, immoral or, for that matter, hugely opposed by the public.
That leads me to the issue of public trust, on which I want to make two short points. One is that, as a former policy-maker, I saw things very much from the decision-maker’s point of view. It is interesting that individuals may find it very easy to make a decision on this issue, as is the case with many other things that face people in government. They may, for a priori reasons, either see very clearly that it is inappropriate to do anything with human embryos, or equally see that, as a way of helping people who are crying out for help, it would be unethical not to do so. Many individuals will make those decisions easily but, for policy-makers, the issue is finely balanced. I urge the Government to be very clear about the messages that they give out in their forthcoming legislation, documentation and policy. The Government have been good in setting the right environment for stem cell research but it is important that a clear lead is given here. The Government must show that they have listened, understood and decided, and that they have a clear position on the ethical issues and on what will be allowed. They must not sit on the fence on this matter and give misleading signals to researchers or funders in this country.
My final point on public trust has already been made much better by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and others. On most topics, I am not convinced by surveys that show that 70 per cent of people have answered a question in a particular way. There is a deep need here for appropriate members of the public to be involved in the decision-making process. Prior to this debate, I carried out a short straw poll of people whom I know to find out what they knew about stem cell research. I was happy to learn that they knew even less than I do. I, too, have gone through a process of learning over the past few days. We cannot hope to get people up to the level where they can debate this issue in the way that many people in this Chamber can; nevertheless, having what I think the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, called the nuanced involvement of the public in this debate is absolutely essential.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for initiating this debate on a very important topic. Much of the debate so far has concentrated on the question of using animal ova to reprogramme human cell nuclei for research purposes. I make no apologies for returning to that subject. It is a very difficult topic for us to think about, because the revolutionary discoveries in biology over the past 50 years which underlie the possibility of stem cell therapies constitute some of the rare occasions when scientific advance must lead us to being more cautious about some traditional ethical arguments.
The particular argument that I have in mind advances the claim that the unique moral status of the human embryo, from the earliest stage of its development as a fertilised ovum, derives from its unique potential—if many things occur in the right order—to become, in turn, an implanted embryo, a foetus, an infant and a person. However, once we appreciate the reality that cell nuclei can be reprogrammed—that is, that they can become less specialised and then be specialised in different directions—we can no longer be sure that this wide-open potential for developing into cells of all types will uniquely be found in the fertilised human ovum. So we have to rethink the traditional view that located the unique moral status of the human being in a view about a unique biological route to human life.
The dignity and moral standing of the human foetus and the human being cannot be read back or grounded in a claim that certain cell types—the fertilised ovum—have that status already and others do not, for we find that many cells have that potential if things happen in the right order. The skin cells that I would destroy by scratching the skin on my hand could have been reprogrammed by insertion of a nucleus into a human egg, which would have created cells with the potential for a full range of development into different cell types, yielding, in effect, human embryonic stem cells. We would risk absurdity if we tied human dignity to a story about a unique route of development.
We now also know that the nucleus of a cell from one species can sometimes be reprogrammed so that it loses its specialised characteristics by placing it in the egg cell of another species, and may in turn yield human embryonic stem cells by that route, although we know that there are still many scientific questions to be answered because of the presence of mitochondrial DNA from the other species when that route is used.
Why should we sanction the exploration of this potential? Why should we sanction research of this type? We should do so because we still need fundamental research on cell reprogramming—on the dedifferentiation and redifferentiation of cells, which will be the basis of any stem cell therapies. That should not depend on the use either of human embryonic stem cells derived from donated human embryos, or on the regular use of human ova—human eggs—donated by generous women.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 —I am all too aware that I am standing next to my former teacher and noble friend Lady Warnock, whose report led to that legislation—has an interesting default structure, which is retained in the 2001 regulations. The Act and the regulations permit the licensing of research that uses human embryos only for limited and specific serious purposes, and then only if there is no other way in which that research can be done. It is the double default structure.
If it were reliably possible to derive human stem cell lines by reprogramming cell nuclei using donated human eggs, that would be a reason for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to give licences for research using human eggs, rather than human embryos. However, human eggs are not readily available. Egg donation is a non-trivial procedure for the women who generously do it. Some, of course, do it as ancillary to their own fertility treatment, but that too is generous.
This gives us strong reason not merely to permit but to require the use of animal egg cells for fundamental research on the potentiality of reprogramming human cells. Such cell constructs are being variously spoken of as hybrid embryos and cybrid embryos. The terminology is unsettled and unsettling, as is invariably the case in a period of fundamental revision of understanding. “Hybrid embryo” is particularly unfortunate, as it falsely suggests an intention to allow a hybrid being to develop, which our current legislation rightly forbids. However the terminology settles down, we should encourage the scientific investigation of ways in which stem cell lines with therapeutic potential can be developed without either unnecessary research using human embryos or unnecessary research using human eggs.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate, which is extremely timely. I speak essentially as a lay contributor because, although I agree that there are moral considerations to take into account in finding the right framework of law within which stem cell research may go ahead, moral judgments cannot be properly made without a grasp of what is scientifically involved. Speaking for myself, I would not like to have to take an examination on the science that is involved.
Speaking as a lay member of society, I confess to a sense of urgency in the matter of settling how stem cell research and the implementation of the results of this research can best be carried forward. I do not detect much of that urgency in the Government’s White Paper. As a society we have been slower than might have been hoped in putting the theory of stem cell research into anything like useful practice, or even potentially useful practice. There are two reasons to regret this—indeed, to urge that we as a society should advance as rapidly as possible to the next stage, which means advancing the fundamental research that is necessary.
The first reason, roughly speaking, is that competition is strong and likely to get stronger. On economic grounds, therefore, it is important that we should not hang around. I want to be assured that funding is not lacking for the next crucial stage in moving towards the clinical outcomes that we all hope for, and which, I believe, lie ahead. I doubt, for example, whether a new president, when America gets one, will be so dogmatically hostile to stem cell research as President Bush has been; so competition from the USA may be even greater than it is now, and it is already, as we have heard, extremely strong. It is essential that the Government should be wholeheartedly—and show themselves to be so—behind the next stages of the work. It is all very well to pride ourselves, as we often do, that our regulation on all kinds of scientific research is better than in any other country, but I need to be reassured that such regulation is efficiently and speedily applied, and that there are not unnecessary and often absurd delays in issuing licences and carrying out the resolution that the Government may say that they have that the research should go ahead. I hear numerous stories of endless delays and illformed judgments by ethics committees, and so on, which hold things up. I want these reassurances, partly on economic grounds. We must not allow our wonderful research capabilities to go to waste.
I very much hope for these reasons, among others, that the Minister will promise to think again about paragraph 2.85 of the White Paper, where the proposition is made that the general use of hybrid embryos should be prohibited. I hope that the Minister has taken very good account of my noble friend’s speech, which preceded mine, on the need to rethink the status of the human embryo and to take into account the possibilities of the use of hybrid embryos.
My second reason for feeling a sense of urgency is even stronger. We have a moral duty to press ahead with providing the cures that we hear of for hitherto incurable conditions. When I say that “we” have a moral duty, I mean society. I take very much to heart the speech of my noble friend, Lord Crisp, who well understands the difference between private and public morality and between policy decisions and personal moral decisions. That is an extremely important point that the Government must be well aware of.
Nevertheless, we as a society have that moral duty. We cannot be content just to know that in future we may be able to restore damaged cells, but we need to decide to act on that knowledge now. I feel a certain despair at the length of time that it will take to carry out the consultations, as the now somewhat lame-duck HFEA and the Government propose to do. No good can come of consulting the public without first educating it—an important point which has been made again and again—but educating the public takes time. Without a better understanding no private or public moral judgments can be made. But there is no time to lose.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for initiating this debate on a subject of such scientific interest and importance. My entrée into the subject came as a result of having the privilege of chairing your Lordships’ Select Committee on the subject for the 2001 regulations.
One key issue in the debates in the House at that time, and still an issue for a number of your Lordships, is whether the research could not be done just as well using adult stem cells rather than embryonic cells. Adult stem cells obviously do not involve either the manipulation or destruction of the early embryo and therefore do not pose the same ethical problems as embryonic stem cells. Our committee discovered then that, from a scientific point of view—and this is still the case—research on both adult and embryonic stem cells is necessary. We simply do not know which route is going to be most beneficial for future therapies, and at this stage there is some essential research that can only be carried out on embryonic stem cells. There is, for example, still a great deal to find out about the process of differentiation and dedifferentiation, whereby the pluripotent cells which we obtain from embryos become one of the 200 or so specialist cells in the human body, or about how that process is reversed, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, has just so strongly stressed.
I respect the position of those who argue for work on adult stem cells, and research in this area must be fully supported. Leaving aside ethical considerations for a moment, however, there is no doubt that, from a scientific point of view, work on embryonic stem cells is essential both for basic research and because it holds out great promise for at least some future therapies. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said right at the beginning, the two forms of research on adult stem cells and embryonic cells are complementary, not rivals.
All research on early embryos must be done under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority; I declare an interest as a member of it and chair of its ethics and law committee. I stress two points. First, on the careful procedures that must be followed for any research licence to be granted, we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, of his own unfortunate experience with the HFEA. It may be that that was some time ago. I will certainly write to the noble Lord, giving him an accurate and up-to-date picture of the amount of time a research licence application takes at the HFEA. I shall also write to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. I am obviously not in a position to know how long it might take to go through local ethics committees, but I do not believe that the time spent with the HFEA is undue delay. It clearly needs to be as speedy as possible.
The research licence committee must obviously consider whether the research can be permitted under the 1990 Act as modified by the 2001 regulations. In particular, it has to decide whether the research is both necessary and desirable. In short, if the research could be done in some way other than by using early embryos, then a licence cannot be granted. The procedure is a careful and testing one, although, as I say, I do not believe that it takes an undue length of time.
The fact that we have this firm regulatory framework, respected the world over, has enabled public confidence in this research to be kept and valuable research to go ahead. Researchers know that there is a clear and firm but permissive framework within which to operate so that they know where they are, which is not always the case in some other countries. Parliament will shortly be revisiting the 1990 Act, which I welcome. It is remarkable, however, how robust that Act has been. Despite major scientific advances not envisaged in 1990, it has enabled research to proceed in an orderly, controlled way. It is essential that, if and when the new regulatory body—RATE—comes into being, with its much wider remit including human tissue and blood as well as embryos, public confidence is still retained. The Royal Society has recently raised important questions about whether the expertise built up in the HFEA in such an ethically sensitive area over the years will be able to be focused and utilised in such a necessarily specialist way in a body with such a wide remit as is proposed for RATE.
Finally, from a religious perspective, the whole scientific endeavour should been seen not as a rival to religion but as a way of exploring the wonder and miracle of nature. Walt Whitman began a poem with the words:
“WHY! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles”.
Many scientists, including atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins, feel that sense of wonder. For those of us with religious beliefs, this is exploring the wonder of the divine source of the wisdom in all that.
Good research takes time. As a non-scientist, I am full of admiration for the painstaking, detailed and meticulous work which scientists do in their laboratories over many years, research which sometimes does not produce any very worthwhile results. This huge field is obviously very promising and a real gift. I think that we in this House would all wish researchers in the field well, because it will undoubtedly produce results which will ultimately enhance human health and well-being.
My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for introducing this important and timely debate. As he emphasised, stem cells are crucial to understanding how living things develop. They offer immense long-term medical promise, but pose issues of special sensitivity in which the entire public have legitimate concerns.
I am a scientist but, unlike other noble Lords speaking in the debate, a lay man in respect of these technicalities. The Royal Society, of which I have the honour to be president, is actively engaged with the world's leading researchers in stem cells. Many of them are among our fellows. We have strong engagement with the policy and ethical issues and in advising on research priorities and protocols.
The regulatory framework in the UK, stemming from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, is widely admired internationally. It evolved from a broad consensus, brought about by effective dialogue and engagement between scientists, parliamentarians, ethicists and the wider public, led by some distinguished Members of this House. It was a model for how to regulate any research field involving safety and ethical concerns, but the science has moved on. There are consequently ever more ambiguities on how the existing guidelines should be applied.
The challenge to the regulators was exemplified by the HFEA’s stalling response on the issue of cybrid embryos earlier this year. We must cope with the idea that the everyday concept of species is blurred and unhelpful at the level of a gene, even of a single cell. It is not obvious what embryos should be classed as human and what should not, nor what groups of cells should be classed as embryos. In clarifying such conundrums, we will benefit from the kind of public engagement that has served so well in forging the present framework. I endorse everything that was said so eloquently about public consultation by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. As a contribution to this end, the Royal Society has just produced a short document, in simple Q&A format, which should help the media and general public to understand the issues underlying cybrid research.
The cybrid issue exemplifies how the demands made on the HFEA are becoming ever more arduous as the science advances. In that context, we in the Royal Society have anxieties about some aspects of the Government’s White Paper. In particular, we are uneasy about the proposal to set up a single Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, with the acronym RATE, combining the role of the HFEA with that of the Human Tissue Authority. This new authority would regulate human reproductive technologies, including the use of human gametes and embryos for treatment and research, but it would also deal with the HTA’s current agenda—human bodies, body parts and tissues—and oversee transplantation and blood transfusion issues. The Royal Society’s concerns are shared by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust. We feel that a single body, as envisaged in the White Paper, cannot feasibly cover its huge remit without either diluting its expertise or delegating most key judgments to an infrastructure of expert panels.
However, I would like to end on an upbeat note. When the history of science is written, stem cells will surely rank as a highlight. This decade’s discoveries are just the beginning. It is a research field where the UK has pioneering achievements and retains world standing. We have escaped the strident politicisation and polarisation that bedevils the field in the US, and we have avoided the down sides—inadequate regulation or dubious ethical standards—that may taint research in some other parts of the world. We should sustain our research groups so that they remain a magnet for mobile talent in the face of growing international competition for that talent. To do so is surely good for UK science. More than that, it would be good for a field that, sensitively handled, promises great hope for human welfare. For all those reasons, we should welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for obtaining it.
My Lords, although I disagree with my noble friend Lord Patel about the use of human embryos for these research purposes, I congratulate him on initiating today’s debate and on the way in which he introduced it.
Two seminars recently held in the Moses Room explored stem cell policy, the policy that led to our refusal to sign the 1997 European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine and aligned us in the General Assembly of the United Nations with countries such as China and Korea. In our overenthusiastic desire to become a sort of biotech El Dorado, we have become far too unquestioning about the ethical implications of what we have permitted. In other jurisdictions, such as Canada, France or Germany, scientists face prison sentences of up to seven years for what we have made legal. We cannot reduce these issues to opinion polls. Since the 1990 Act, with little regard for the special status of the human embryo, more than 1 million human embryos have been routinely manufactured, frozen, destroyed or experimented upon with only 4 per cent seeing the light of day.
Only last week, in a leader on 26 April, the Times reminded us that:
“Unfashionable as it may be to say so, destroying an embryo extinguishes the possibility of a life”.
That should surely be unconscionable when alternatives are available. It is probable that we all have experience in our families of degenerative diseases and want to see medical advances. But, as Thomas Okarma, the CEO of Geron, has revealingly admitted, embryonic stem cells have value for the biotech industry for research, not for cures.
During this debate, mention has been made of the lucrative research grants. According to a Written Answer that the Minister gave me on Monday, they amount to about £100 million from the Government between now and 2008. Those grants and the money involved often skew judgments and, through conflict of interest, can compromise debate. The Minister needs to tell us clearly the division of the £100 million between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Why have they not been treated in the even-handed way that we were told that they would be during our debates in 2002? In his Written Answer on Monday, the Minister admitted that no statistics are kept centrally on the allocation of private funds. Why? What assessment has been made of the analysis in Forbes investments journal which says that only “dumb public money” is going into embryonic stem cells? By contrast, I hope that the Minister will list some of the more than 1,200 trials and 70 diseases and conditions that have been successfully treated with adult stem cells, and tell us what therapies exist using embryonic stem cells.
At the Moses Room seminar, Dr Peter Hollands, a leading scientist involved in cord blood stem cell research, pointed to the Cinderella status of and lack of funding for treatments using adult stem cells. Cord blood is used to treat leukaemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anaemia, thalassaemia and immune system disorders. He said that it is scandalous that 98 to 99 per cent of all UK cord blood is currently incinerated or discarded and less than 1 per cent goes into the NHS public bank at Edgware. The mother of Eva Winston Hart, a seriously ill three year-old suffering from leukaemia, was at the seminar. She said that, after months of uncertainty, she has found a suitable donor in the US and is taking Eva there for treatment. Why can she not be treated here? Why are there only four NHS hospitals in the whole of the UK that are collecting cord blood, and what we are doing to create public cord banks?
Dr Carlos Lima told the same seminar how his team in Portugal has used olfactory cells taken from the nose to repair spinal damage. We saw clips of people who had previously been unable to move learning to walk again. They included British patients who had to travel to Portugal because the same treatments are not available here. Dr Lima succinctly reminded us that, “Embryonic stem cells were made to proliferate and adult stem cells were made to repair. We shouldn’t use one to do the job of the other”.
Professor Neil Scolding, Burden Professor and director of the Institute of Clinical Neurosciences at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, specialises in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. He contrasted adult stem cells with embryonic stem cells and quoted the Lancet, which said that it is “ethically unacceptable” to create human embryos with no purpose other than to use them for stem cells. He said, “We know adult bone marrow stem cells are safe, it’s not a guess”.
Throughout our debates, advocates of using embryonic stem cells have constantly cited pluripotency as those cells’ greatest asset, but what use is it if a cell is dazzlingly pluripotent if it is going to be rejected by a patient’s body or, worse, if its very pluripotency creates stem cell-derived tumours? Dr Lima said that he believed that the UK had entered a blind alley, become obsessed with embryonic stem cells and had been diverted away from the much greater untapped potential of adult stem cells, which could deliver so much more for patients and which carry no moral hazards.
As we now consider whether to create cloned animal-human embryos and animal hybrids, we are entitled to have an intelligent debate in which views contrary to those driving the research are properly heard. I would like to register the strongest possible opposition to the proposals to create cloned animal-human embryos and animal hybrids, and to the hotchpotch of other proposals—to remove reference to fathers, new arrangements for surrogacy, to make human embryos available for training purposes, and to alter the genetic structure of embryos. When he comes to reply, I hope that the Minister will specifically tell us whether these new animal-human entities are to be treated as embryos under the 1990 Act, as animals under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 or as something in between. Will they have no moral status or special moral status? Is a so-called cytoplasmic hybrid human or not, or does he agree with the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, who in February told the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology that,
“no sane person could give a yes/no answer”?
In the debate in your Lordships House’ in 2001, the Minister said that,
“the 1990 Act already provides the answer to the question of what happens if and when research into adult cells overtakes research using embryos: embryonic research would have to stop because the use of embryos would no longer be necessary for that research”.—[Official Report, 22/1/01; col. 120.]
Many people would argue that that time has now come.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Patel for introducing this topical and controversial debate. Unlike my noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool, I am a great supporter of stem cell research, but I do not claim to be an expert and it is awesome to be speaking in such a long line of distinguished experts on this subject. For me, the key point in the wording of the Motion we are debating is,
“the potential benefits of stem cell research”,
which relate to their regenerative ability to treat future generations. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lady Finlay of Llandaff, who said that fantasy has fuelled scaremongering about stem cell research. Having said that, I entirely agree with the reasonable call of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that there should be greater public understanding of stem cell research.
My interest stems from seeing my 91 year-old mother suffer from a degenerative and degrading disease, and my desire that similar patients should have the chance through stem cell therapy to have a better quality of life. I have neither desire nor intention to debate the moral and controversial issues of embryonic stem cell research. My noble friend Lord Patel in his outstanding introduction mentioned that clear distinctions need to be made between different types of stem cells. I am interested in adult stem cell research and umbilical cord stem cells, which have been extensively researched around the world for several decades with no apparent ethical issues regarding obtaining them.
It is well known that the United Kingdom has permissive rules for embryonic stem cell research, but it is less clear about the policy on adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells, which are closer to application in patients. Given the extensive data on these cells, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s policy for doctors using this technology in the UK? I gather that we are a few years away from definitive stem cell therapy using adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells. As we all know, many patients are now in desperate need with dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease, among many other ailments. My noble friends Lady Greenfield and Lord Sutherland spoke of the enormous costs of caring for these patients, and the enormous pain that not just their families but their carers go through. I commend the work of the AMRC, which supports the campaign about the need for and the potential therapeutic benefits of stem cell research.
There are already extensive clinical trials with a variety of stem cells, most notably in heart repair, including phase 1 FDA safety tests from the Johns Hopkins University in the United States in 2003, as well as similar trials in Germany, which show a clear clinical benefit for heart regeneration. As these tests have been successfully completed, why do we need to repeat them with neurological patients? While I agree that it is important to regulate therapy, are we not protecting these patients to death? They have a parlous quality of life with limited treatments available. Should we not now be exploring first-generation stem cell therapy, perhaps on a named patient basis?
If time permitted I would have liked to explore the potential benefits of stem cell research and therapy to the underdeveloped world, particularly in Africa, where my passion lies. I have no doubt that we shall have more opportunities to debate this topical subject.
Clearly stem cell research is moving in the right direction. However, we need to support and streamline research. Research needs to be promoted and not restricted. I share the views of my noble friend Lady Warnock, who urges that we should move to the next stage of clinical outcomes.
Finally, in the words of my noble friend Lord Crisp, I hope that the Government will not sit on the fence.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for securing this important and timely debate. We have heard from considerable experts in the field—scientific, medical, legal and ethical. I am a little nervous at winding up at this stage. We have heard the experts speak with great authority. I want to add only a few points to what has been said. I need to declare a couple of interests. I am a former member of the Medical Research Council, the General Medical Council and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and its predecessor organisations.
First, I want to emphasise the extraordinary hope that stem cell work in its variety of settings offers to people with all sorts of deeply distressing conditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, made that point very strongly, as have other noble Lords. We have heard from the scientists, the doctors and the ethicists, and from the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, about the medical charities and how they have put on pressure to increase funding for this kind of research.
I want to speak from a pastoral point of view. I used to be a pastoral rabbi; these days I only do a little of that. I come from a tradition which is extremely life-affirming and where we believe that we should do everything possible to preserve life. I also come from a tradition which does not accord to the human embryo quite the status that Christian traditions have; and I think it is important to say that. However, like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, I believe that these scientific questions are also basically religious questions, giving us cause to wonder about it all.
Nobody suggests that we should prolong life unnecessarily, but these new advances give people huge hope that we will be able to stop the degenerative disorders and cause an end to some of these deeply distressing conditions for those who suffer from them and their families. Let me give a couple of examples: Duchenne muscular dystrophy—I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester for pointing this out to me—is a distressing, disabling and ultimately life-shortening illness. Stem cell research is well under way to look at ways to prevent muscle loss after the mechanism of the stem cells has stopped working, and to see whether there is a way to repair and replace the damaged muscle cells. That research is trying to prevent the muscle loss or to replace lost fibres and to understand the biology of the satellite cells and their potential to repair and replace muscle cells.
Thus far the researchers have shown that some satellite cells are capable of making large amounts of regenerative fibres. Not all satellite cells can do that, so they need to understand which can and which cannot. That might lead to satellite cell transplantation which could treat the various dystrophies; but there is a long way to go yet. There are no instant successes or cures here. There is no hype. We have been rightly warned by several noble Lords that sometimes some of this is overhyped. There is no false hope given here, and it is right that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, reminded us that false hope should not be given. But work is taking place and it is giving people real hope, if not in the very short term. Researchers are working on developing a way to replace the dopamine-producing nerve cells that have died in Parkinson’s disease with healthy cells and on transplantation of healthy heart muscle cells for people with chronic heart disease—something that is immensely prevalent in my family from a relatively early age; so I shall be very grateful if they get on with that. They are working on slowing down the progression of type 1 diabetes by transplanting islets of Langerhans, which are the cells that specialise in the synthesis of pancreatic insulin. And so on. Previous speakers have cited examples: the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, on motor neurone disease; the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on heart disease; and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, on degenerative neurological disease.
For many people these techniques, which are in their very early stages of development, give hope to the individuals and their families. Many people are strongly opposed to this research, mostly for religious reasons, and we have heard from some of them today. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, raised many of the questions that disturb many people. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made his opposition very clear to many of these advances. They believe it is wrong to use human embryos, even at the earlier stage for any purpose.
I think that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, is right to ask us to think differently and to say that these scientific advances should make us reconsider what it means to have these clusters of cells, what is truly human and what is in fact animal. Do those terms still apply as we thought they did? However, many of us probably would agree with the BMA’s position that,
“if a similar level of success could be achieved using stem cells derived from adults, the use of adult rather than embryonic stem cells would be preferable because of the special status of human embryos”.
But, it continues,
“at this stage it is not evident that this will ever be the case”.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, made the case clearly that we need to continue work on both adult and embryonic stem cells. But if it is right that we do not think at the moment that adult stem cells will take us to where we want and need to be to give hope to so many people, if we do not allow the use of embryonic stem cells, particularly those that go to waste, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, we would not only hamper scientific and medical research but destroy hope for many people.
It is very hard to justify a position that would destroy hope for hundreds of thousands of people. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, who spoke earlier, I do not believe that using human embryos sensitively and with careful regulation means that we are destroying human life. One can have scientific advance and respect for human embryos at the same time. We have a strict and careful regulatory system in this country, and other noble Lords have made it clear how very much that is respected around the world. This is what leads me to make my second point. Government have flagged up their intention in their review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to ban the creation of hybrid and chimeric embryos.
We all know of the panic surrounding the publication of the story of two groups of scientists applying to the HFEA for licences to conduct research involving the transfer of human genetic material into animal eggs from which the nucleus had been removed. “Monsters”, said the headlines; “Chimera”, said the commentators. Yet this is desired only because human eggs from IVF patients are in short supply. Nor should we desire to so over-stimulate women’s ovaries that they produce masses more eggs, because it is dangerous for them. It is unclear why the Government are taking this view, particularly with 200 or more charities making great representation to the Prime Minister on this issue. It would be very good to hear from the Minister the exact reason for their view, particularly given the reassurance received thus far that there could be regulations later to allow such research using animal/human embryos in specific circumstances. Is it really necessary to have such a ban in the Bill?
There is general agreement around the world that the HFEA has done an excellent job analysing complex ethical and scientific issues, and it has developed a trusted and moderate approach to its regulatory functions. It is to be hoped that its proposed successor will be able to do the same, although its remit, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, has said, and other noble Lords have agreed, seems to be extraordinarily wide. There is some doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said in his introductory speech, that it will be given sufficient resources, both in funds and expertise, to do the job. Given our success in regulating and the approach that this country has taken since the very beginning of in vitro fertilisation, with its voluntary licensing authority, which eventually became the HFEA, should we not think differently about a total ban and instead allow the regulators to regulate? The HFEA has rightly launched a public consultation, and it will be very good to hear what it comes up with.
Stem cell research is already signalling that it will bring great benefits, and we are indeed among the world’s leaders in that area. In congratulating once again the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on securing the debate, I ask the Minister to reflect on whether it is really necessary to curtail scientific advance by imposing an outright ban on animal/human embryos. I also ask him what the Government will do to encourage this research, not only in terms of funding but by creating a climate of acceptance of scientific advance, even where some members of our society have real and understandable ethical concerns. Like the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, I believe that we need to think differently about how we will use all these technologies in our service design. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, I believe that most of the public are ready for all this, but I think that we need to check. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, I believe that this debate needs to be held in public, and that we need to create a climate of scientific education, scientific literacy, and an acceptance that scientific advance brings great benefits. I very much hope that the Minister can tell the House what the Government will do to ensure that this research is conducted in a climate of public debate, public education and scientific literacy.
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.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for raising this important matter today. I pay tribute to him as chair of the UK Stem Cell Bank Oversight Committee and of the newly launched UK National Stem Cell Network. In his excellent opening speech, he referred both to achievements and to some of his concerns about the direction of the approach to stem cell research. I will of course respond to him as well as I can.
I start by saying that I very much agree with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about the outstanding quality of this debate in your Lordships' House. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle explored some of the ethical considerations, I, and many noble Lords, I am sure, recalled the extraordinary seven-hour debate that we had in 2001 on the regulations. I pay tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his subsequent work on the Select Committee established as a result of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, to those regulations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, took us back further than that to the original Act and to the outstanding work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. She modestly described herself as a lay person today, but it was surely her clear understanding nearly two decades ago of the wide-ranging ramifications of potential advances in science which paved the way for legislation that anticipated some future developments and has stood this country in such good stead. I echo the remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about the robustness of that legislation.
Although I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I have always respected his views. As ever, he made a powerful contribution to our debate.
Like the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Soulsby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, I am convinced that stem cell research offers us an unrivalled prospect for the treatment of a whole host of illnesses, such as degenerative diseases that have been mentioned today—Parkinson’s, certain forms of diabetes and strokes. Looking at the debates that we have had on health issues during the past few months, whether about funding, research or specialty nursing, it is remarkable that so much of that debate has focused on the degenerative diseases on which we are so keen to enhance our knowledge, the devastating consequences of which are lived and experienced by so many people in our country today. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, eloquently described the potential of the research on stem cells. I was struck by her reasonable confidence, as she described it, and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who outlined some of the potential extensions of research to, for instance, heart disease.
The noble Lord, Lord, Crisp, emphasised the importance of the impact of the research on services and, more particularly, on the National Health Service. That is an important consideration not only for the services to be provided but for the architecture of services which need to be planned and developed over the next 10 to 20 years; indeed, there could be an enormous impact on workforce considerations. In visioning out where healthcare needs to be over the next 20 years, we need to take into account this and other kinds of research. In the past, we have not been able to do that as effectively as we might have. We must also ensure that the intelligence that we can get from the pharmaceutical industry is made available to the NHS as quickly as possible. It is important that we see how the current pipeline, which I am glad to report looks encouraging in an enormous number of areas, might impact on the way in which we run services in the future.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I am proud of our achievements in this country, for which quite a few noble Lords who have spoken today can take a great deal of credit. I say to my noble friend Lord Winston that I am not at all complacent. I take note of what he has to say about our research effort and the efforts of other countries to invest properly in research. The Government are not at all complacent about where we stand. I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady O’Cathain, and with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that we wish to support all types of stem cell activity and research. I have not moved one jot from the position that I expressed in 2001. We see these approaches as being complementary, and it is important that we say that again and again. If research in adult stem cells shows promise, I rejoice as much as the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, that we have to get the balance right with regulation. We have heard criticisms today of the way in which the regulator performs its functions but, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said so well, the principles underpinning the UK legislation have stood us in good stead; indeed, they have been replicated in one form or another by many other countries. We are, of course, proposing to overhaul the legislation on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I will come back to that in a minute, but I should first respond to my noble friend Lord Winston on the performance of the HFEA.
The target performance indicator for dealing with research licence applications is three months, excluding the time taken for peer review of applications. I understand that the HFEA hits the target rate for 75 per cent of applications and is seeking to improve that performance further. I will come on to deal with the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, but my hope is that the arrangements that we will introduce to create that body may enable decisions to be arrived at more quickly, albeit as rigorously as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that I understand the tensions that sometimes arise with local research ethics committees. However, they have expertise in dealing with wider research ethical issues and I believe that many of them have raised their game considerably in the past few years. I accept the challenge of the need to streamline the process so as to remove or reduce any duplication between the HFEA and the local committees. I understand that discussions are under way between my department, the HFEA and the Central Office for Research Ethics Committees to see how we can do that. My department is also planning to consult on the future role of LRECs generally.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, as a member of the HFEA, made a reassuring point on this. I echo what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said about ensuring that the regulatory framework provides reassurance to the public. The regulatory framework and the way in which the HFEA conducted its role were highly important in persuading noble Lords in 2001 to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which allowed the regulation to go through but also established a Select Committee further to advise the House; those factors were a telling point in those debates.
I know that there are concerns about the nature of the proposals in the new human tissue and embryo Bill that we will bring before Parliament. First, let me deal with the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos. I say to those noble Lords who have expressed concerns that we want the best of the HTA and the HFEA to be brought together in the new regulatory body. That will provide a more cost-effective system of regulation. It will ensure that common principles and standards can be applied wherever appropriate. It will also ensure that the risk of overlap between sectors is minimised and that there is continuity at the interface between related areas, such as embryo research and cell therapies.
I fully take into account the issues that have been raised today about the importance of regulation, which we will ensure are carefully considered. We will publish a draft Bill, which will allow pre-legislative scrutiny. That will surely enable a lot of these issues to be teased out in a reasonable time further to inform the Government in bringing forward the Bill. I understand what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said. In fact, he said two things. He said that we should be cautious, as we should, and that the science should not march way ahead of public opinion, but he also worried about delays and blight in relation to legislation. He expresses the dilemma in getting the balance right. I cannot give him a legislative timetable, but I assure him that, as far as my department is concerned, we want to get on with this and we understand the need for certainty and stability. Equally, the pre-legislative scrutiny will be enormously important in helping us to understand so many of the issues that have been explored today and to find the best way forward.
Your Lordships always rightly enjoy the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. She made some profound remarks about the status of human cells. She suggested reasons why such research should be sanctioned and spoke of the ethics around egg donation. I know that a number of noble Lords agree with what she said.
That brings us to the question of public engagement. My noble friend Lady Kennedy, as chair of the Human Genetics Commission, made a telling point about the need to engage the public. She was right to say that the public have differing views; it is important that they are able to express those views, and that they are taken into account. They should not just be dismissed as oppositionist. We have to take those views into account and give them the respect they deserve.
That is why I noted with interest the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, about public opinion and confidence. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, who reported on the Alzheimer’s Scotland survey that put forward such a positive view of the impact of research. He made the point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, that in order for the public to have trust, it is vital that we engage with them and that they fully understand the issue, and I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said that the Royal Society has produced a document to help them do so.
In echoing the remarks about the need for public engagement, we have to have sympathy for the way the HFEA handled the two applications that noble Lords have mentioned. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, importantly congratulated the HFEA on the judgment it exercised. It would be all too easy simply to dismiss the authority as putting off a decision, but it has had to exercise a very difficult judgment. Even if we disagree with it, it would be right to acknowledge the difficult role the HFEA has to play, and I hope the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will take that back to the board, alongside what I am sure are legitimate criticisms of some aspects of its performance.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, questioned whether the Government and the bodies responsible for allocating research were being unfair to adult stem cell researchers. He is right—we do not list the different types of stem cell research. My understanding is that the research councils do not do that; they base their funding on the quality of science. I assure the noble Lord that that is right; whenever I have had debates here and noble Lords have argued for funding in a particular area, I have gone back to those funding organisations and suggested that they jolly well ought to fund that area, and that is the response I have always received. I understand the issues the noble Lord raises, and I will pursue with the funding bodies the question of whether there is some more knowledge about this that I can send to him and other noble Lords. I say again that I do not see these various avenues of research as being in conflict. Surely they are complementary; surely we all, unless one is ethically opposed to embryonic stem cell research, wish to see the best possible research that can have the most positive impact on patients in dealing with these appalling degenerative diseases.
The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, made an interesting point, asking where adult stem cell research has gone and what the delays are in translating that research into treatment. It would be fair to say that stem cells have in effect been used in bone marrow treatments and skin grafts for many years, but perhaps we are only now understanding which stem cells in these sources are important. I understand his frustration about the number of trials and the time it takes for trials to take place, but they are necessary to give us a better understanding of what is happening inside the patient’s body, the best way to treat and, of course, the safety and efficacy issues.
I ought to come to funding before my time is up. I understand the issues noble Lords have raised about resources. The Pattison report was very important here. It costed the total amount required over a 10-year period. My understanding is that the projected investment this year is around £45 million, which takes total funding since 2003 to approximately £109 million. Noble Lords have asked me to go on and state what the Government will do in the future, but they know I cannot do that; it depends on the CSR. I fully understand that noble Lords want to make sure that we invest as much as possible in this area, but it has to be seen in the context of overall funding. Recalling the past six or eight health debates in your Lordships’ House in which I have taken part, I remind noble Lords that if I were to total up the amount of money that noble Lords collectively wish to spend, it would be a huge figure indeed—and I would add our debates on the Mental Health Bill to the total bill. This is not easy. We understand the priority and the need. The Government have produced a lot of additional resources, but there are other issues that require investment.
I pay enormous tribute to the charities under the umbrella of the Association of Medical Research Charities, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Turnberg. The work they have done has been very important in maintaining and encouraging public confidence in this kind of research. I hope the intention is that we work strongly together with those organisations to ensure that collectively the research amount is as high as possible.
On funding, I must remind noble Lords that the Chancellor, in his Budget, reinforced his commitment to science by announcing an annual average rate of 2.5 per cent in real terms over the CSR period. I would also say that, on a visit to the US to encourage more investment by its pharmaceutical industry in this country, I found that the quality of our science base is strongly recognised, and we need to do everything we can to enhance that in the future.
This has been a remarkable debate that has been extremely helpful to the Government in making the important decisions that must be made on the way forward. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his initiative and for the fine quality of his opening speech.
My Lords, on behalf of us all I thank the Minister for his reply. It was not too convincing in all aspects, but we will have other opportunities to come back to this. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken. The debate has been good; it has been of the highest quality and informative.
I take note of the need for public engagement. I know not of a single scientist working in stem cell science in the United Kingdom who would not agree with that statement. The scientists wish to be involved in this public dialogue and to make it clear to the public in the simplest possible terms why they want to pursue certain kinds of science.
The holy grail for all stem cell scientists, if I might use that term, would be one day to be able to take a somatic cell from a patient suffering a disease, to deregulate it and be able to differentiate it again to behave like a pluripotent stem cell and differentiate it to the cell type required, and then to be able to treat that patient with healthy cells and replace the diseased cells. They are not wedded to embryonic stem cell research; it is the promise of that research to be able one day to use that technique of mass production of stem cells, using adult stem cells. I believe that cord blood stem cells will be the next advance before the embryonic stem cells, as some of the adult stem cells are today. That is the utopian dream, that is what the stem cell scientists want to work towards, and that is why we need to back them. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Schools: Science Teaching
rose to call attention to science teaching; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I would like to say how grateful I am that such a distinguished group of noble Lords, who are so knowledgeable about science teaching, are taking part in this debate.
There can be little that is more important to our nation’s economy and to its intellectual standing than the teaching of science. Everyone should have a basic understanding of science—to ensure scientific literacy in society as a whole and because our industrial and financial competitiveness depends on the creation and application of new science and technology. Everyone should possess this understanding, not just those who are going on to be scientists and engineers. It is equally important that our scientists and engineers possess a grounding in the arts, humanities and languages. At present, our education system encourages students not to do this but to specialise at the age of 16, which I regard as far too young. I will return to this issue later.
Joined to this debate is the debate on the report of the Science and Technology Committee—which I chaired—called Science Teaching in Schools, published last November. I take this opportunity to recognise the very valuable contribution that all the members of the committee made to the report. It focused on schools, of course, but this debate is broader in scope. So while I take our report as my starting point, I shall then range more widely and consider the state of science teaching in higher education.
The report observes that the number of young people opting for science subjects at the age of 16, especially the physical sciences, has remained more or less flat or has declined over the past decade. There have been modest increases in some subjects, such as biology, and worrying falls in others, particularly physics. But all these figures have to be seen against the backdrop of rising A-level take-up. Linked to this relative decline were difficulties in recruiting and retaining adequately trained science teachers and the quality of school science laboratories was poor. Since 2001, the Government have displayed impressive determination in attempting to reverse the decline in student numbers and to improve the supply of talented science teachers. Ambitious goals have been set, but the difficulties persist and more needs to be done.
With respect to the practical teaching of science, the Government have fallen short. They failed to deliver the £200 million promised for school science laboratories before the 2005 election, despite the fact that the lack of motivating practical science has been a key factor in the loss of interest by students, and they failed to take adequate advice in the design of practical laboratories. The difficulties in delivering exciting and interesting practical classes were made worse by the lack of adequate career opportunities for laboratory technicians. We need to ensure the future of practical science in schools and overcome the reluctance of teachers to make practical science exciting and relevant.
The committee called for a central website on practical science to help address health and safety fears, and urged the Government to improve their unsatisfactory exemplar designs for science laboratories by consulting more widely with experts in the field. The low quality of so many new and refurbished science laboratories is both regrettable and avoidable. We were mystified that the Government, in developing exemplar designs as part of the school labs of the future programme, failed to consult acknowledged authorities such as the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services—CLEAPSS—and the Association for Science Education which have first-hand experience in school laboratory design. We recommended that the Government rectify this omission.
We also criticised the Government’s obsession with testing. Current tests focus on too narrow a range of skills and stop teachers using their own creativity to inspire students to study science. The preoccupation with testing at all school ages takes much of the fun out of studying science for many children and destroys teachers’ morale. It is difficult to take pleasure in one’s actions and achievement with the heavy hand of government for ever interfering in everything one does.
On the critical issue of attracting and retaining talented science teachers, the committee recommended that schools should be encouraged to offer higher salaries to science and mathematics teachers. Schools already have some flexibility with regard to pay, as the Government’s response points out, but these powers need to be made more explicit, and the Government should encourage schools to use them more widely.
The Government have accepted that the current situation is unsatisfactory. They have asked the School Teachers’ Review Body to advise on ways to improve the use of these powers. But this is an urgent problem, and rapid and effective action is needed. We also called for a better paid and faster route for those people with substantial expertise in science and mathematics in industry to allow them to gain qualified teacher status. Many scientists and engineers are attracted to teaching later in their career, and they should be encouraged to do so, rather than hindered by bureaucratic hurdles.
Science and engineering are highly dynamic subjects. Every day there are advances and changes, and those who teach modern science and technology need continually to keep up with these advances. The Government have attempted to link continuing professional development—CPD—to career progression, but the committee remains unconvinced that teachers will take advantage of the opportunities available. Indeed, they may be discouraged from doing so because of the cost of providing replacement teaching while they are studying. We therefore recommended that teachers, whatever their subject, be required to undertake a certain number of hours of subject-specific CPD each year. We further recommended that the Government provide schools with ring-fenced funding to cover the cost of the CPD and any replacement teaching. It is encouraging that the Wellcome Trust is in discussion with Government and industry to provide long-term support for CPD.
Let me return to the narrowness of our secondary education system. The committee felt that this was one of the factors leading to the decline in the number of students opting for science subjects. In many cases, students are being advised that to gain entry to science and engineering courses they should study only science and mathematics in their A-levels. In other words, they are being forced to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives at the age of about 16, which, as I have said is far too young. I do not know of any other country that does this.
The problem is compounded by the fact that science subjects are perceived to be more difficult, which in turn may jeopardise pupils' ability to obtain the high grades necessary to gain entry to the university of their choice. It is also not in the interest of the schools to encourage students to take science subjects, because it puts at risk their ranking. We recommended that the Government should replace A-levels over the long term with a broader-based syllabus such as the International Baccalaureate. We have noted that they are giving some support to the IB. We are not alone in recommending this type of change. The Tomlinson report reached similar conclusions, but no general proposals have come forward.
In their response to the report, the Government claimed that all A-levels were of equal difficulty, but data produced by the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at Durham University and reproduced in our report, suggested that this was not true.
The Durham University data showed that there were differences in difficulty that could lead to a two grade difference in predicted A-level results. Admittedly, the methodology used is not universally accepted, but no one seems to have proposed an alternative, so the Durham data remain the best available. In the absence of supporting evidence, the Government's constant refrain that all A-levels are equally difficult carries little weight.
AS-levels have also been introduced in an attempt to broaden the subject base, but in many cases, students just take more science and mathematics subjects not, for example, English and a foreign language, which would seem to be essential ingredients of a balanced school curriculum.
The fall-off in the proportion of students opting for careers based on the physical sciences and engineering is alarming and a matter of serious concern to industry and business. If we look beyond secondary to higher education, the difficulties of narrowness persist, leading to the need to rethink the way students choose their careers and the way in which we structure our university courses. Too many university courses are narrow and inward looking and constrained by faculty boundaries that have changed little since the middle of the last century. For example, an engineer today needs knowledge of a range of subjects many of which had little prominence 50 years ago. Examples are molecular biology, computer science and nanoscience.
As an example of what others have done, first-year engineers at MIT are required to study biology. This increase in breadth inevitably means that some depth will have to be sacrificed in the traditional core of the syllabus, and it is unreasonable to expect students to arrive at university as well prepared in the core subjects as they were in the past. It is better that they come with a broader knowledge base, although in delivering that, the fundamentals of science and mathematics should be maintained in school curricula.
To accomplish breadth and at the same time bring students to an adequate level at graduation, it will probably be necessary to lengthen the courses for those who intend to become professional engineers and scientists, but this greater length is not needed by those studying science and engineering as a general education. For them, a broader base would prepare them better for what in future are likely to be far more diverse careers with periodical retraining and realignment during the working lifetime.
Both needs would be satisfied if we adopted a three-year plus two-year structure, where a relatively broad three-year undergraduate degree was followed by a two-year master’s degree. Those seeking a general education would leave university after three years or go on to broaden their horizons by studying non-science subjects such as law, economics or management, while the professional scientists and engineers would go on to take a two-year master’s degree. The latter would also better prepare them for a PhD. At present, an increasing number of students studying for a PhD have to spend their first year reading to bring themselves up to the level at which they can commence their research. Hence, science and engineering PhDs end up taking four or more years.
I am concentrating here on the physical and biological sciences, engineering and mathematics. Arts, humanities and social science subjects provide different postgraduate challenges and, in particular, one-year master’s courses have proven especially successful in these subjects and should continue. However, our four-year science and engineering master's courses, in part justified because of a perceived slippage in our school education standards, themselves fall between two stools. They are longer than is necessary for those who are not going to be specialists and too short for those who are. The three plus two format, which was more widespread in the middle of the 20th century in the UK, and which has now emerged in the Bologna agreement, is better suited to future needs.
No matter what the format, it is important to avoid asking young people to decide what they want to do before they have the knowledge, intelligently, to do so. For example, it is not necessary to ask students to commit to the majority of professional careers until the second or third year of university, and it is certainly wrong to try to persuade them to commit to given professions while they are still at school.
Good science teaching both in schools and in universities is of extraordinary importance and must continually be adjusted to take account of the ever-increasing reservoir of human knowledge. We are not seeking some ideal system that will last us for decades. We need to adjust our syllabuses and the way in which we teach them every few years and it is not clear that we have been doing that. Change is overdue.
In concluding, I would like once again to draw attention to the recommendations in the Select Committee's report Science Teaching in Schools and compliment our Clerks, Christopher Johnson and Tom Wilson, on the outstanding way in which they co-ordinated our inquiry and drafted the report. The recommendations, if implemented, would significantly improve the present standard of our science teaching in schools and I encourage the Minister to look once again at those recommendations that the Government have chosen not to pursue. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, this is a slightly curious situation when we have two debates in one. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on his outstanding contribution in chairing the recent inquiry, but also an introducing this debate, which is of immense importance. There is an echo in this debate of the one that we just had on stem cell research and it is interesting how much they are linked. One that came up during that debate was that of public engagement and the notion of public responsibility that scientists have. There is a real need now to consider how important that is, particularly in teaching in universities and, to a large extent, in schools, which is essentially where we change the fundamental culture of our society.
There is a huge job to be done if science is to remain both wanted and respectable, and something that is seen as promoting and improving the quality of life for individuals in this country, overseas and for the protection of the planet. The first thing that we need to be thinking about in terms of public engagement, is how we try to do better at university level. It is interesting that recently HEFCE introduced its Beacons for Public Engagement initiative. There are a number of issues about how that initiative was introduced—in my view, rather too hurriedly with not enough thought. It is also true that it might have been better focused in some ways on the real issue that we are facing this afternoon—science. But it is good that that initiative has happened and perhaps, over the next few years, we may see it develop.
One of the things that concerns me as a scientist in a university is the poverty of ability of so many young scientists to communicate their science to other people, both in written material when they write reports when they are eventually published, but also in how they communicate their science outside. That should be an essential part of the university course. We should also recognise the relevance of science to society and face the fact that we as scientists do not own the science that we do. It is a public matter and something about which we need to listen to the public and understand.
It is also surprising that, as far as I know, no university in the United Kingdom teaches ethics as a matter of routine to its science undergraduates. We do so in medical schools in that part of university, but not in general to the rest of our undergraduates. That is something that we should address now and think about more carefully.
The nature of science is something that we too often neglect. We think of science in terms of certainty rather than uncertainty. Seeing that he has been mentioned already once this morning, the sad thing about the title of the book The God Delusion is that it implies a kind of certainty about the universe that a good scientist should not entirely share. In an important echo of the previous debate, we need to understand the nature of commercial activity. To hark back to that debate, if we allow too much private funding on stem cell research, that may be the worst solution in terms of how we exercise control over what is done in the public's name in universities.
With regard to teaching in schools, it seems to me that the report has made some really valuable recommendations, and I hope that the Government take them seriously. I shall address just two aspects—the issue of continuing professional development for teachers and the issue of practical science. There needs to be recognition that continuing professional experience must be audited, properly monitored and rewarded. There needs to be dedicated time out for teachers to do this in a constructive fashion and it needs to be specified with validated teaching materials.
What turned me on to science at the age of 13 was a boring chemistry lesson—my first such lesson ever—when a master at St Paul’s stood in front of the class for 10 minutes, with his hands behind his back, describing some abstruse piece of chemistry while we all went to sleep. He was an exceptionally boring man—but suddenly behind him there was a flash of light, a huge bang, and the entire room was filled with smoke. Mr Langham, the teacher in question—and I see the noble Lord, Lord Baker, smiling at the memory of this man—caused such a commotion in the form that we were completely glued to chemistry ever afterwards. Sadly, the Health and Safety Executive would now have something to say about that, but we are too timid in that regard. In my own laboratory at Hammersmith we cannot even put posters up showing the work that we have just published because the Health and Safety Executive says that it would be a fire hazard. How ridiculous.
Practical work is something that we need to concentrate on much more. It is quite shocking; I go to about 20 schools a year, some of them primary schools but most of them secondary schools, to give various informal tutorials. It is shocking how many poor laboratories I have visited that are in disrepair right across the sector in secondary schools. That is a matter of public shame.
There are many other aspects to this subject, but I conclude with a recent example in New Zealand. I was incredibly impressed at a recent visit two weeks ago, at the Liggins Institute which is run by a fellow of the Royal Society, Peter Gluckman. The institute has employed a science teacher inside the research institute who brings in pupils from schools throughout Auckland, and about one-third of the pupils doing science in Auckland have visited already and have been absolutely turned on. It is extraordinary the response that those children have. There should be a better connection in all sorts of ways between school teachers, children at schools and the universities.
My Lords, there can be no doubt of the importance of today’s subject if Britain is to retain its economic success in today’s competitive world. There are few areas of industry and commerce in which a sound and innovative knowledge of science, technology and maths is not essential. That means attracting young people into careers in those fields who have a good understanding of those subjects enabling them to keep up with worldwide progress and pursue new ideas themselves with success. That is now not happening enough, as is clearly shown in the tables in chapter 2 of our report. It is vitally urgent and needs action.
There are several reasons for this decline: a shortage of inspiring teachers, although there are many good ones, and careers advisers; and the view that scientific subjects are difficult, which leads to easier choices of A-level and degree subjects by young people and their schools. Maths, physics and chemistry do demand bright answers and our report shows clearly that they are difficult subjects. Therefore, the Government need to do all that they can to recruit inspiring teachers and careers advisers into these subjects. Science commands good salaries elsewhere, so good science teachers need good salaries if they are to be attracted into schools—and golden hellos are a good idea. People who have worked in industry and decide to change careers need positive action, too, and I am glad that their numbers are increasing. Their working experience could do much to make the subjects more interesting for young people and persuade them to make scientific career choices.
I have declared my interest as an engineer and as patron of the WISE campaign—Women into Science, Engineering and Construction. Marie-Noelle Barton, the director, gave valuable advice as a witness. Females form 52 per cent of the population at schools and as adults. Therefore, we need to do far more to attract them into these fields—otherwise they can be regarded as male subjects, which they are not. WISE and the Women’s Engineering Society have provided a database for the ambassador scheme so that successful young women can come into schools and describe in an exciting way the rewarding nature of their careers. All the problems in need of solution, as I shall describe, make girls less likely than boys to choose scientific and engineering careers, so urgency must be added to the solution if we are to make them attractive and see an improvement in these fields. I implore the Government—action, not just words.
Often careers advisers, who are mostly humanities based, can put young people off scientific careers. Their lack of knowledge and experience leads to their regarding work in these fields as boring. Anyone who has worked as a scientist or engineer knows that that is not true. Problems in pharmacy, aviation, the health service—or the production of mobile phones—are interesting to solve and give those involved exciting possibilities of success in their working teams. Connexions needs to encourage the least able, but not enough is being done in the careers service to attract technicians, chartered scientists and engineers to choose further and higher education leading to rewarding scientific careers. Again, urgent action is needed.
The schools are over-dominated by targets. They have recently been described as results factories. Dr Pike of the Royal Society of Chemistry said, “Scrap targets”, which I have a feeling might be a good idea. League tables can lead to young people being actively discouraged from these subjects. Science teachers need to be freer to teach their subjects in their own way. They also need to be able to take up continuing professional development in the knowledge that the money is available for CPD, if necessary ring-fenced, and to recruit supply teachers so that their classes are not neglected when they take their courses and they keep up to date. Those scientific supply teachers may later become full-time, which would be good news.
We were worried about the opportunity for practical work, which young people enjoy. It is absolutely necessary that better labs should be available. Their design and improvement must be carried out with the advice of the experts in local authorities, the Association for Science Education and the scientific institutions, which will need capital investment as soon as possible. That is an urgent matter, too, as some labs are very unsatisfactory indeed. Those labs need well-trained technicians to support science teachers if they are to teach practical work in an interesting way. Experiments need to be well prepared and the ASE’s proposed career structure for technicians with good salary scales will make that an attractive career option.
There are encouraging things in the Government’s response: the ambassador scheme, student associates, the international baccalaureate expansion, science regional centres and Project Faraday—but none of this will come cheap.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for introducing this important debate. I am a former science teacher. I taught general science in a comprehensive school—a boys’ school—and biology up to A-level. That was a long time ago, but I think that I can assure the noble Lord that, at least at that time, I was rather creative. Indeed, I can honestly say that many of my boys will never forget some of my demonstrations.
We have two clear tasks when teaching science: to provide a rigorous foundation for the young professional scientists of tomorrow and to produce scientifically literate young citizens. In relation to the first group, there are so many opportunities available to bright young people, and we need to attract the brightest of them into science rather than other often better-paid jobs. Science subjects are perceived as difficult with the result that they are avoided by many. Therefore, we need to make the subject interesting and relevant. Coincidentally, these are exactly the same criteria needed to attract the second group—the scientifically literate citizen. How do we do that? It boils down to motivation, which comes from three things—teaching, resources and curriculum. First, we need enthusiastic, confident teachers trained in their subject, who undergo regular CPD. That is why I support the committee’s Recommendation 6.19 that all teachers be required to take regular subject-specific CPD, with the appropriate support for the school to enable them to do so.
This ongoing training is particularly important when it comes to practical work both inside and outside the school. Many of your Lordships will have received the briefing from the Field Studies Council, which gave the horrifying statistics that less than 5 per cent of GCSE students will have the opportunity for residential science fieldwork while even at A-level nearly half of biology students will do no fieldwork at all, or have only half a day’s experience. One has to ask oneself why this is. The Field Studies Council has 17 field studies centres and there are others, but there are clearly nowhere near enough. If schools demanded them, I am sure that the market would provide them, but schools are not demanding them because the national examination system does not require, or cannot assess, field studies skills. But they are crucial to any serious science course and are very motivating to young people.
To study biology without going into the field is like trying to study music without ever going to a concert: it is impossible. It is clear that the decline in field work has been partly responsible for the decline in the number of students choosing to study science. The committee rightly points out that good quality fieldwork helps to improve educational standards and student motivation. That is my personal experience. It also develops a wider range of skills and qualities than are normally assessed in the national tests. Therefore, I join the committee in calling on the Government to review the place of practical science within the national tests and to look at how a broader range of skills can be assessed.
Of course, most practical work is in-school and here we come to another problem—resources. Many school labs are too small for the groups working in them and that is downright dangerous. The Government have failed to deliver the £200 million promised for school laboratories. Whether this is due to the failure of the Building Schools for the Future programme I do not know, but I do know that a good, spacious, well-equipped laboratory block enhances a student’s experience and keeps him safe. I therefore welcome Project Faraday, which will provide model laboratory designs and demonstration buildings. How are the Government monitoring how the Building Schools for the Future money is being spent on science laboratories? How are they collecting data on the quality of provision and the impact it is having?
Children with disabilities and other special needs often require a learning assistant or qualified classroom assistant to help them and to keep them and their classmates safe in the laboratory. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that every school that wishes should be able to recruit at least one science specialist higher-level teaching assistant by next year. How are these people being trained? However, I am concerned that this should not be at the expense of a school having an adequate number of trained laboratory technicians. Teachers rely on technicians. Without them no science department can function properly. They are vital members of the team. Yet, until recently, there has been no proper career structure or training programme. Like the committee, I applaud the Association for Science Education’s recent career structure and training proposals and its findings on the almost universally low pay. When I was teaching I had two wonderful technicians without whom I could not have functioned. Their successors should be treated better than they were.
It is vital that the new GCSE curriculum is exciting and relevant; otherwise students will not achieve, nor choose to pursue, their science education to the next level. It must include real hands-on practical work, not just watching teacher demonstrations and videos. Internet searches and films may add to the interest and value of the science curriculum but they should never be regarded as a substitute for carrying out, evaluating and accurately reporting the results of experiments. There is real concern among teachers and others that too little time has been allowed for schools, awarding bodies and authors of textbooks to check the scientific accuracy and safety requirements of practical activities to be used for teaching and assessing the new GCSE science curriculum. They believe that the same issues may well arise with the new A-levels and the revised key stage 3 science.
This morning I visited Haggerston School in Hackney where the new 21st century science GCSE is being taught. I thank the girls, head, teachers and the school secretary for making me so welcome. I saw classes taking the applied science programme and the additional science. Both classes were engaged and interested. It was clear that they did plenty of practical work, mainly inside the laboratory. Both courses are very discursive so I worry a little about students for whom English is not their mother tongue. However, the teaching vehicles were varied and interesting and I had no qualms about the scientific rigour of both courses.
Those of us who learnt science the old way need to remember that today’s schools are teaching science to all children, many of whom would never have learnt it in the old days, because today’s young citizen is even more affected by science than we were. Maggie Kalnins, the head of the school I visited this morning, made a very interesting comment. She said, “I think this new curriculum will bring a wider range of types of people into science”. I hope that it does.
My Lords, I am very grateful to have the opportunity provided by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, to debate this matter. I immediately echo what he said at the end of his speech, which was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, on the importance of breadth—for scientists, who absolutely need to be able to communicate these days, whether they are going on to be pure scientists or, most particularly, if they are going on to do other things in life; and for those who are not centrally scientists who need to understand what science is about because it is such a large part of society today. That would help us to be less plagued by the panics and misunderstandings which populate our newspapers. In both those areas universities have a great role to play, although I very much hope that it will be done by encouraging some universities to go down what might be called the American route of providing much broader degrees, or at least broadening out what they offer at the moment rather than compulsion or moving from one pattern to another. I think that students, by and large, can choose. If Oxbridge wants to remain in the 15th century, it is entitled to do so, as it has done for instance in German, which is why those who really want to study that language go somewhere else.
I want to use my time today to draw out the case that the report makes for the reform of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The QCA is centralised, controlling and stultifying. Everything goes through it. It is supposed to be the source of all innovation; all change has to be approved by it and all processes are minutely detailed by it. As a result, things happen immensely slowly, but when they do happen they happen in a sudden, unresearched, unthought-out rush. As we are seeing in the new science GCSE—although I approve of it in many ways—it is not happening in a scientific way. These things ought to be tried out properly, they ought to be evaluated and they ought to spread gradually. Changes ought to be taken up by schools as schools are ready to take them up, as would happen in a more organic environment.
Because the thing is so centralised, we are finding particular unitary views taking hold. The consultation on the new key stage 3 curriculum, for instance, only mentions “knowledge” twice, and then in very subsidiary contexts. We have moved from a curriculum that is entirely fact-based to one that is going to be entirely fact-free. That degree of prescription is entirely inappropriate. The QCA—I have it in writing—seems to believe that it is sole arbiter of these things and that politicians, in particular, should keep out.
The report details several problems that this has created for science teaching. There is the divorce of vocational and practical education from the academic mainstream. Science is being drained of practical content. There has been a failure to produce any form of vocational science education other than the elephantine diplomas, which are doomed to failure. What reputable institution is going to put a bright kid into something that takes up six GCSEs and deprives them of all the other opportunities that they might have at that stage? That is focusing a child not just at age 16 or at university, but at age 14. There is the lack of responsiveness of the QCA to what is happening elsewhere, and the narrowness of the testing regime, which is mentioned in this report. There is the dog in the manger attitude to IGCSE, which is extraordinary. The QCA awards points for cake decorating at GCSE, but it will not acknowledge the IGCSE, which is used by some of the best schools; except of course that it has had to use IGCSE maths in compiling the level 2 maths totals that have crept into the performance tables this year. So it is there and it is not there, and it is not there entirely because of the amour propre of the QCA. It did not invent it, and it does not control it, and therefore it should not be allowed to count.
We have a sick, bloated agency and we need to do something to reform it. We need a QCA for quality control and for providing information to the rest of us, including teachers, about what qualifications are about, which the QCA does not do at the moment, because they are all its own qualifications so it is not a source of independent information on what is available. We need it for facilitating innovation, which ought to flow from schools. It does in a small way flow from independent schools; Bedales has its own independent GCSEs, which are accepted by universities. There is a capability to innovate at that level. LEAs can innovate too. There is a great project, which is now half way through, in West Dunbartonshire on literacy, which is entirely focused, invented and supported at the LEA level. There is a great focus there. Being beyond the reach of the QCA, it is able to do it, and we should import that into England.
Exam boards can innovate too. The Cambridge board is bringing forward the alternative A-level; the Cambridge Pre-U. That is happening for academic kids, but what about the kids who want a vocational education? Absolutely nothing. There is no variety there and there is nothing on offer. We ought to have a scientifically based system where innovation occurs everywhere, so that there is a great bubbling up of ideas that are then evolved and tested locally, and if well proved they can be more widely accepted. That would present us with a range of ideas about how to engage children, particularly in science, and how to bring them forward into the love of learning and love of science that we all hope to see. Unless we free up the QCA, we are going to be stuck where we were, because change will be immensely slow, and when it comes it will not work.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Broers and his committee for their timely and perceptive report. I declare an interest as a former chairman of SETNET, which supports the teaching of science and mathematics by partnering with schools and employers to show young people that these subjects can be both interesting in themselves and lead to interesting jobs.
I suspect that most of us here share the concerns about the declining interest in physical science and mathematics at school that was highlighted by the committee’s report. However, we must recognise that we are not the only country that is experiencing those trends. They are seen in the United States, Japan and many other developed countries. That tells us that, although our solutions are necessarily local, our understanding of the problem can be helped by looking abroad. Those trends are less evident in India, China and other rapidly developing countries, where science and technology are seen as a rung on the ladder to national and personal economic success.
In my view, two languages form the bedrock of our school education—English and mathematics. They are fundamental because they open the door to so much else; both are essential for science and engineering, but I suspect that in the UK, at least, it is fear of one of those—maths—that deters many people at an early age from both maths and the sciences. We will not reverse the decline in science unless we crack the problem of school mathematics.
In 2004, Professor Adrian Smith submitted his report on the teaching of mathematics after the age of 14, Making Mathematics Count, to the Secretary of State for Education. The report summarised the role of mathematics in modern society, saying that,
“it has been widely recognised that mathematics occupies a rather special position. It is a major intellectual discipline in its own right, as well as providing the underpinning language for the rest of science and engineering and, increasingly, for other disciplines in the social and medical sciences. It underpins major sectors of modern business and industry, in particular, financial services and ICT. It also provides the individual citizen with empowering skills for the conduct of private and social life and with key skills required at virtually all levels of employment”.
If we do not ensure that everyone who goes through our education system achieves a reasonable level of numeracy we shall make problems of social exclusion even worse.
The report offers a detailed and constructive analysis of the problems of mathematics teaching in England today: a chronic shortage of qualified teachers, curriculum and assessment arrangements that are not fit for purpose, and a lack of an effective support structure for mathematics teaching. I know that the Minister has taken a close personal interest in the report and he and his department are to be commended for the progress that has been made in acting on the recommendations.
However, I have two concerns. First, some of the recommendations have costs attached to them. It is essential that these proposals be adequately funded, and not just in the short term. This will be a long haul and will require consistent policies for at least a decade if we are to make a step change in the mathematical literacy of the nation. Secondly, not only must there be sufficient funding, but it must be ring-fenced. There is an understandable resistance to ring-fencing. But we have to recognise that sometimes day-to-day pressures at a local level may simply not pull in the same direction as national priorities. It is unrealistic to expect that there will be a consistent long-term focused programme unless its funding is protected.
Turning to science more generally, unless we remedy the long-term decline in A-level numbers for physics, chemistry and mathematics—the prerequisite subjects for university engineering courses—we shall pay dearly. The world is now facing two major climate change challenges: adapting our infrastructure to deal with a more uncertain and extreme climate, and developing technology to satisfy our future energy needs without damaging the environment. Meeting those challenges will depend heavily on science and engineering. The message that must go out to our young people is: “If you want to save the planet, work at your mathematics, science and engineering”.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the committee’s hard-hitting and cogent report. The Government’s advertising campaign some years ago, “Thank a Teacher”, resonated with many of us who went into science, because we were lucky with our teachers. It is worrying that now, when opportunities should be much greater, there may be fewer good science teachers than there were in the 1960s. The committee made many timely recommendations, but it was right to prioritise the need for teachers.
Last year’s UCAS figures showed a rise in applications for university courses in physics, chemistry and maths. They were green shoots that, perhaps, signalled that the educational initiatives of recent years were starting to pay off; but overall enrolments are still too low. A downward spiral in these core subjects would bode ill for the goal of achieving a high-value-added economy. Indeed, we might end up being outclassed by nations such as India and Korea in frontier technology and importing our teachers from those countries. That would be a humiliating comedown, as well as an economic calamity.
To meet the Government’s Next Steps target of increasing the percentage of secondary science teachers who are qualified to teach physics, other measures are needed. Biology teachers can be given extra expertise in physics; mature professionals—engineers or scientists—can move into teaching; and more can be done to encourage scientists based in universities to spend time in schools as well.
Young children are easy to enthuse about science—dinosaurs and space travel are perennially fascinating—but this enthusiasm is not sustained. Under our present system, those who are turned off science and drop it at age 16 thereby foreclose their option of pursuing science at university. That is one reason, but only one of many, why it is regrettable that the Government did not support the broadening of the 16 to 19 curriculum proposed by Tomlinson.
During their school careers, young people tend particularly to lose interest in chemistry and physics, as my noble friend Lord Oxburgh reminded us. This is not a uniquely British trend; it is the same in Japan, the US and western Europe. There are many reasons for it but one, I think, is that the immense sophistication of the technology that pervades young people’s lives is actually a barrier. Inquisitive children in the mid-20th century could take apart a clock, a radio set or a motorbike, figure out how it worked and even put it together again. That is not so with the marvellous artefacts that pervade their lives today—mobile phones, iPods and the rest. It is hard to take them to bits. If you do, you will find few clues to their arcane mechanisms. They are “black boxes”—pure magic to most people.
Young people need hands-on reality, as well as virtual reality. They need laboratory work, field trips and the like. The Royal Society welcomes the curricular reforms for key stage 3, although it would, for several reasons, prefer them to be piloted locally before rolling them out nationwide.
The Minister may sometimes feel that the input from the scientific community is sub-optimum and not as helpful as it might be because it is rather discordant. I think he has grounds for feeling that on occasions. The Government have been confronted by a bewildering variety of advice on the science curriculum, which is not always concordant, and it comes from literally hundreds of professional bodies and learned societies.
However, key players in the science education communities have recently come together in a new partnership, with the acronym SCORE, under Sir Alan Wilson’s chairmanship. This consortium should help to generate a consensus and ensure a more effective interface between the ministry and the scientists.
But, even if supremely excellent education is in place, scientific careers will not continue to attract talent unless young people have a positive perception of science as a profession. Today’s scientists have an unduly low profile. Most people can at least recall the names of great scientists of the past; they can name dead engineers, too, from Brunel to Barnes Wallace. But those still living deserve wider acclaim. There seems no reason why our top scientists and engineers should not at least have the profile of our leading architects and be seen as exemplars for the young.
The young are not immune to financial incentives, but they are idealistic too. As my noble friend Lord Oxburgh said, supplying the entire world with clean, low-carbon energy is an immense long-term challenge. Earth’s optimum stewardship and a proper sharing of the benefits of science between all nations are goals to inspire the young, and they are goals where, in our own interest, the UK should seize the chance to play a pivotal role.
Science education is vital for tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, but it is important for everyone. All today’s young people will live in a world empowered by ever more elaborate technology, but they will also be more vulnerable to its failures and misuse. There will be ever more political and ethical choices with scientific dimensions. For informed public debate, everyone needs a feel for science. That is why the Royal Society supports the new range of GCSEs.
Finally, science is part of our culture. The vision of nature offered by Darwin and modern cosmology is inspiring—the chain of complexity leading from some genesis event to stars, planets, biospheres and human brains. Those who cannot marvel at that are culturally deprived. In summary, science education is vital to everyone, but it must continue to attract a good share of the talented young. The system—be it academia, public service or private industry—must offer challenging opportunities. For all those reasons, the debate is timely and we should welcome the committee’s report.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broers, both on an excellent and timely report and on bringing forward the debate. There are four points on which I want to comment.
The first relates to student choices. To accommodate the challenges of the 21st century advances, we might even look beyond the baccalaureate-style teaching syllabus commended in the report to applying the traditional sciences to the new technologies. For example, information technology could be taught as an extension of physics; biotechnology as an extension of biology; and nanotechnology as an extension of chemistry.
A combined university course covering in equal measure all three technologies would have several advantages. It would cater for the new demand for convergent science mandated by the advances, for example, of biomedical applications and nanotechnology, in interfacing brain and body with the external world. Furthermore, a multidisciplinary degree could well inspire novel ideas and concepts, normally precluded by the inherited dogma of single disciplines. Then again, such a topical and varied course might prove appealing to a generation of school-leavers not normally attracted to highly specialised science.
My second point concerns the outreach activities by universities to science teaching in schools. The new beacons for public engagement are to be encouraged. But in many university departments, activities outside the normal teaching and research purlieu of the university are sometimes actively discouraged or, in any event, regarded as lower status compared with the white heat of research. However, such interaction between school and university science is vital: it excites and encourages the next generation of potential scientists. It enables the university scientists to see the wood for the trees, as they share their passion with a more general audience, which in turn helps them with their research and enables them to question the basic assumptions that perhaps have constrained the novelty of their own projects. Thirdly, and most importantly, it increases the school activity with re-enfranchising the science school teacher to be part of the scientific community.
There are already some excellent outreach schemes. For example, we have already heard of the science ambassador scheme, which aims for working scientists to visit schools, and another, which arose when I was a thinker in residence in South Australia. We pioneered a twinning scheme, whereby scientists had a one-on-one pairing with science school teachers. While being fiscally relatively modest to set up, the impact has proved wide ranging.
Already working wonderfully is the exemplar Step-Up project funded by the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council. Step-Up is a unique and innovative interventionist programme, which provides new learning opportunities in science for talented young people who live in areas of social and economic disadvantage. It involves an intense two-year programme of work, and has been operating successfully in Northern Ireland for about seven years. It actively involves the university, schools, local industry, local hospitals and government agencies. To date almost 500 students have participated in the programme. Universities UK has described Step-Up as follows:
“An outstanding example of best practice in the provision of educational opportunities for students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Surely such a scheme could and should be implemented throughout the UK. In any event, it would surely be to everyone’s benefit and much more effective if all these diverse schemes could be co-ordinated.
The third area of the report on which I want to comment is the demise of the practical aspect of teaching science. The most basic aspect of science is the excitement of discovering something for yourself by experiment. Yet this is often neglected in the panic to meet imposed targets. Related here is the subject matter itself. I was deterred from science as a schoolgirl because no one told me what distilled water was or why its production was relevant or interesting. Compared with history or literature, it seemed an extraordinarily dull activity with little opportunity for initiative, creativity or my own ideas. The difficulty with many subjects in the science curriculum is that they exceed the time and space scale relating to our normal lives. Things happen either very quickly or very slowly, over galaxies or at microscopic resolutions not seen with the naked eye. The challenge when teaching is therefore to bring home the impact of such events and relate them to everyday life.
Then there is the problem of resources and time. Making mistakes takes time. Going down intellectual cul-de-sacs takes time. Laying on state-of-the-art experiments with back-up technical expertise takes time. Being mindful of the health and safety implications and having appropriate rather than knee-jerk and panicky risk assessment takes time and specialist knowledge. I welcome the introduction of the science centres mentioned in the report but would also like to flag that we at the Royal Institution—where I have the honour to be director—are hoping to pioneer a young scientists’ centre, where under-privileged schools especially will be able to enjoy state-of-the-art lab resources free of charge, and our staff can develop exciting and interesting questions in collaboration with teachers that may well be outside of, and complementary to, the syllabus. They will none the less excite the child to ask questions and, above all, perform their own experiments. Even one day can change your life and set in train an excitement that motivates you to stick with the most detailed of box-ticking courses.
Fourthly, on teacher training and retention, we now hear much of personalised training, meta-cognition and brain-based research. Essentially, the idea is that if we are to keep pace with current technologies, we must educate people to learn rather than just to acquire a set number of facts which they then sell back to society for the next 40 years. Knowledge of the latest advances in neuroscience is therefore invaluable. Again in Australia, I was delighted that we were able to pioneer a course for all teachers—primary and secondary, arts and sciences—to keep abreast of the latest developments in the pedagogic applications of neuroscience, and to start using them in experimental projects in the classroom. To this end, we have started the All-Party Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education—the next meeting is on 15 May. Our remit is to explore how teachers, scientists, government and other relevant organisations can collectively ensure that classroom practice is informed by the best evidence from the brain sciences.
In conclusion, I support this timely report. There is no simple quick-fix solution to the diverse issues of science teaching. It is a multi-dimensional problem, and a multi-layered issue for a society growing up in the 21st century, but one that is among the most critical to shaping that society.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for securing the debate. Asking a science teacher for the biggest problem facing teaching science in schools, I got the reply “You just can’t get the staff”. There are no physicists and chemists out there clamouring for jobs to teach in schools, particularly not in our more deprived areas. Until we reverse the trend within society of undervaluing science, we will not tackle the core problems. However, there are, here and now, some solutions on the horizon. The new GCSE curriculum should help things. I will speak briefly about the Welsh baccalaureate which nobody has mentioned and which raises hope. There is also a need to save and value science in our society.
In their response to the report from the Science and Technology Select Committee, the Government said that science is not more difficult. I refute that, and so would the teachers I have spoken to. I am puzzled as to how a GNVQ in dance can be equivalent to four GCSEs, a double science, history and French. I am sorry, but I am lost on that. At Cardiff University, we found that when we take in as students children with these equivalents, they really struggle. They do not have the grounding or intellectual preparation to cope with the more difficult courses.
Why is learning science more difficult? You need a different set of skills. You must learn facts; as well as being able to interpret them, you must know what you are interpreting. Children are not brought up with scientific language. It is not ubiquitous, unlike the language of sports, fashion and so on. There is even discussion of social sciences in current affairs, but those wonderful TV programmes of my youth, such as “Tomorrow’s World”, are no more. They excited scientific discovery and inquiry.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I rejoiced when things went wrong. I would spend a whole term waiting for something to go wrong. My interest in physics and chemistry was stimulated by working out how to make it go wrong; that was much more fun than when it went right. I suppose that is why I enjoy pathology now because that is when things have gone wrong too.
The trouble is that the drop-off in science is mirrored by a fall in the uptake of languages. I wonder whether that is also part of our inability to accept that it is sometimes necessary to learn. My mother brought me up saying, “You learn by sitting on your bottom learning”. To a large extent, she was right.
Scientists in our society are generally poorly paid. The message that children get is that it is not an exciting area to go into. We have seen university science departments, particularly chemistry, closing down, which is cutting off our supply for the future. The RAE does not value teaching and does not value outreach teaching in the same way. I wonder whether a government target should require a minimum amount of engagement outside the university with schools in order to qualify at a minimum level.
It is interesting that with the new GCSEs, some schools are finding that results from one board are surprisingly high, and it will be interesting to see whether that persists when the additional science level comes through. However, schools in deprived areas may suffer a converse effect because their children are not brought up with the language of inquiry and debate. They may find that they can do better on the traditional curriculum and that they struggle with the new slightly more literacy-based curriculum. I know that some schools have chosen a more traditional curriculum because they feel that their children will do better. Targets can have unintended consequences.
In Wales, the Welsh baccalaureate has been introduced. After GCSEs, it aims to stretch and challenge youngsters at school. There are six key skills. Students must do communication skills, information technology, application of number, working with others, problem solving and a modern language. They do a work placement and they produce an extended essay. They also do two other subjects to A-level, which will give them three A-levels in total. The uptake to date has been slow and has been greater in South Wales than in North Wales. However, it is a brave and imaginative experiment by the Assembly to try to improve the breadth of knowledge of children when they leave school.
What about mathematics, which were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Oxburgh? At Cardiff University, we have sadly had to introduce remedial teaching in mathematics for students in many schools because they do not have data-handling skills. These are students from England as well as Wales, so it is not a reflection on education in Wales. It is just a reality that they do not have the maths skills. I was lucky. I was educated at a girls’ school, and all the evidence is that girls do better at such schools because they are somehow not inhibited in their formative early teenage years.
We have to light the fire in the imagination. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said, the future lies with science. If we do not understand atmospheric pollution, we will not deal with climate change or understand the health issues that face this nation. The two are integrally linked around science and mathematics.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for introducing this debate. It so happens that, in 1995, the then Government appointed me to carry out a review of qualifications for 16 to 19 year-olds. It quickly became apparent that there was a crisis in science and mathematics. I appointed an expert committee to look into what had been happening and why. That research showed that there was a rapid build up in the number of students taking A-level science and mathematics between 1974 and 1984—I believe that it continued to the late 1980s—but, by 1994, it had fallen like a stone. The fall has continued, except in biology, at a much lower rate since. The number of students taking chemistry in 2005 was one-third less than the number in 1984. In mathematics, the number had fallen by half. In physics, the fall was even worse, and the number was only 43 per cent of the 1984 figure. Biology has held its own. Those are absolute numbers, despite the increasing number of pupils staying on at school until the age of 18 or 19. I can think of no other area of learning where there has been such a serious fall that matters so much to our future. It bothers me that we have not successfully addressed this problem which was clearly identified 10 years ago. There is concern but we do not yet have the product.
I welcome the Government’s targets, but, based on experience, we need clear, firm policies to realise them. At the top of my list is investment in teachers and what goes on in the classroom; what is taught, how it is taught and the kids. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, told a story. I will bring it up to date. I was told the other day that in a survey pupils were asked which subjects in the curriculum were the most difficult. The answer was: maths, science and languages. They were asked: what would you do to improve things in sciences? The answer was: less listening, less copying notes and more big bangs. That is a true story. They wanted to do research in the laboratory.
There was a television programme the other night about some kids from state school going to a private school. What were the differences between the two types of school? The private school had smaller classes, and, whereas in the state school the teacher did the research work, in the private school there was enough money for everybody to do it. Therefore, I say invest the money there and, as has been suggested, ring fence it.
I took part in a study on language teaching. We proposed an expenditure of more than £50 million to rescue languages. The money is largely going into teaching, particularly for existing teachers. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that on the curriculum the QCA were very responsive and anticipated all I had to say about the need for new thinking on it.
I move to an issue that has not really been developed: the influence of the league tables and the differences in the standards that appear to be required in the different subjects. My expert group in 1996 identified big differences in the levels of challenge at A-levels between the different subjects. The House’s own committee has carried out a similar study 10 years on. The results were not exactly the same in detail but very much the same. First, the pupils and the teachers perceive that some subjects are much tougher. The statistical analysis has been the same for 10 years. We must face that. Indeed, 50 years ago when I was doing these subjects at school, I remember that the most difficult were physics, mathematics and chemistry.
The committee says that A-levels are fundamentally flawed. We must address that issue; we cannot walk away from it. Further, I suspect that too many subjects are being taken as A-levels rather than as, what we would have called in the old days, GNVQs. We must tackle that hard subject.
I turn to the performance tables. Head teachers are running very competitive businesses. It matters to them what their results are in the performance tables. If some subjects are more difficult than others, they do not discourage pupils who have the same perception and want to walk away from them; they may be rather relieved. Performance tables, like other incentives to perform and to inform, have unintended consequential effects. One side effect is to damage the very subjects which are the most challenging and which we need more pupils to take.
Since I may say no more, I just say that if there is one recommendation that I urge the Government to accept it is that on investment in teachers’ continuing professional development.
My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend for introducing the debate and particularly for a chance to discuss the Science and Technology Committee’s report. I think that everybody agrees that investment in teachers is the most important thing. The second most important thing is the need for really good teachers in science and mathematics, which nobody, except somebody with an axe to grind, could deny are the most difficult subjects and the most difficult to make people enthusiastic about.
As was noted, in years seven, eight and nine in schools, long before GCSEs are imminent, young children are enthusiastic about science, the universe and finding out how things work, but to a large extent they lose that enthusiasm when they move to secondary school, an extremely difficult transition in any case. One criticism that I have of many schools is that they do not monitor pupils carefully at the transition stage, so many lose their fire, creativity and interest without the school noticing. That general improvement ought to be made, whatever subject we are discussing.
In the case of the sciences, that lack of enthusiasm or beginning of an aversion is even more marked. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, that it is far worse for girls, because they very quickly pick up the idea that science is not for them. They are made to feel foolish and get called nerds, geeks and so on, and they really do not want to be like that. So at that transition stage teachers ought to be particularly careful.
There is a difficulty in how to teach at that stage. The report recommended considerable flexibility during the first years of secondary school. Flexibility is crucial if people are to be allowed to maintain the enthusiasm that they have at primary school. There are two elements. One has already been touched on: the importance of practical work in the laboratory and fieldwork. People enjoy that because it is different from the rest of their school life. It is very important that money should be spent on good laboratories, and teachers must be able to take risks if they can, without constantly looking over their shoulder because of possible litigation under health and safety rules.
The other requirement, in my view, is that science should be treated as a historical subject. The history of science is one enormously important way to teach children to regard science not as learning simple facts but as finding out about inventions. If I may mention such a lowly book in this House, when I first read Bill Bryson’s eye-opening and horizon-widening book A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was especially struck by his observation that when he was a child he was interested not so much in what is known as in how it came to be known—how did people ever find it out?
If science is taught as a series of facts rather than a series of discoveries, it will be boring and misleading, because it will give the impression that science has, as it were, come to an end. I want science in those key years to be thought of as, rather, the history of science. In those first crucial years at secondary school, the sciences can be shown to be linked together. Physics, chemistry and biology and sciences other than the basic school three can be considered; for example, geology, palaeontology, oceanography and astronomy. All those subjects should be introduced, because they will stretch children’s imagination and make them understand that science is the greatest exercise of the human imagination there has ever been. It is that loss, as much as the difficulty of the subject in later years, which makes people begin to turn against it.
Most children in schools will never become scientists or even be interested in science; they will certainly be defeated by its difficulty, which is not merely a perception, and by the mathematical background needed. Many will find it much too difficult and too much like hard work, but if, in the three years at the start of secondary school, they have had a feeling for what science actually is, what it does, what it discovers and how mysterious it is, rather than how factual it is, they will begin to treat scientists in society, even if they are not scientists themselves, as people who exercise their imaginations, probably on our behalf but possibly not. It might be the beginning of people learning to trust and admire scientists rather than suspecting them, fearing them and regarding them, as people often do now, as wholly untrustworthy. That revolution must come about somehow or another.
My Lords, we have heard many good points. I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Broers for this debate. The topic could not be more important. Curiously, although I have never been a working scientist, or even a non-working scientist, I have an interest to declare in that I chair the Nuffield Foundation, which has had a long interest in science education and is responsible for the 21st-century science GCSE, in collaboration with the Salters’ Institute and the Wellcome Trust. Indeed, QCA set the current goalposts but did not develop the curriculum, pilot it or ensure that teachers were engaged. The foundation also has a long interest in questions of assessment, and particularly in the enormous amount of evidence that what counts for children is formative assessment, by which they learn to understand something about how they are doing, rather than summative assessment, which may give the right sort of information for a target-obsessed approach to education. Finally, we are concerned most of all with young people’s engagement in science, particularly by placing young people in sixth forms in laboratories for summer work experience with bursaries.
Under each of its headings, the debate has shown us much. Under the heading “curriculum”, the most remarkable thing is the degree of agreement among colleagues with long experience of science and science education that we now need a broad education throughout the school years. The time was when those of us in the humanities or social sciences would groan a little because so many scientists seemed to think that A-levels were an educational gold standard, although of course they required even the brightest to narrow their focus to three or four subjects, which, for physical scientists, were sometimes all too closely related. Now we know that scientists need languages as well as English. We also know all too bitterly that social scientists and many in the humanities need mathematics. Indeed, we have real difficulties of capacity and quality of capacity in those areas in this country.
If we reflect on these issues we return to the point stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. Once again, he made a passionate speech, and I believe that he was right in every respect. Tomlinson has disappeared. That may be a pity, but it has happened. That was a way of thinking about how we might broaden the curriculum for the older age group at school. However, the issues of curricula structure have not gone away with Tomlinson. We still need to think about what we are doing that is leading us straight into recurrent problems. In particular, we incentivise schools and pupils by stressing the number of passes or, as it is quaintly put, the number of good passes at GCSE, where good means A to C grades. That approach would make sense if we knew that a pass was a unit of account, so that four passes was more than three passes and so on. But as has been said repeatedly, nobody thinks that. We know that this is not a question of a proper unit of account, yet we incentivise schools, pupils and their parents to maximise the number of passes or, very often, the number of As.
The cost is immense. Our examination system does not provide good evidence for employers or universities, which are highly competitive in their recruitment, of what pupils can actually do or of the level of achievement of one pupil compared to another. It is not a fit-for-purpose educational system. We need to go broad; we need to be more ambitious about content.
Finally, we need to think much more deeply about engagement and enrichment for people who are still at school. We heard many comments about the way in which science can be made boring or can be made exciting. That is true for virtually every subject, of course; there are legions of ways of making them boring, exciting though they are. One of the ways in which we could make science more exciting is to think much more deeply about formative assessment and about putting summative assessment back in its place. Sometimes we need to rank people, but often we do not. Where we do not need to, we should not. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point when he replies.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on two scores: first, for introducing this timely debate; and, secondly—I speak as a member of the Science and Technology Committee—for being an excellent committee chair and for taking us through this extremely important topic and helping us to produce a very good report.
The importance of the number of graduates in science and technology has been emphasised throughout the debate. It is worth bringing to the attention of the House the CBI’s comment. It reckons that, over the next decade, the number of science, engineering and technology graduates needs to more than double, from 45,000 to 95,000. The key question that we have been looking at today is why this is not happening. Why is it that, over the past decade, when there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of A-level entries as a whole, we have seen a fall in the number of entries in chemistry of 6 per cent, in physics of a massive 34 per cent and in maths and further maths of 13 per cent?
I should like to pick up the whole point about mathematics. Most of the statistics—this is true of our report, too—date back only to the mid-1990s, but, in the 1980s, we had many more A-level students in science and mathematics. In 1989, 64,000 students took A-level maths at age 17; by 1997, the figure had fallen to 56,000; by 2002, it had fallen to 44,000. Although it has risen slightly, to 50,000, there is still a crisis in mathematics. Like the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, I will quote from Adrian Smith’s report on mathematics. In his introductory letter to the Minister, he says:
“Mathematics is of central importance to modern society. It provides the language and analytical tools underpinning much of our scientific and industrial research and development”.
There is a crisis in mathematics. Perhaps we have turned the corner—let us hope that we have—but it is vital that we remember that.
Another key issue in our report was to point out the vicious circle. If we do not have enough graduates, we do not have enough people going into teaching. The fewer graduate specialists who go into teaching, the more students are taught by non-specialists. We know from all the survey evidence that, the more students there are who are taught by non-specialists, the more students there are who drop out of those subjects—they do not take them at GCSE or through to A-level. The fewer A-level students we have, the fewer university entrants we have, and the few university entrants we have, the fewer graduates we have. It is a vicious circle.
The committee looked at how we break that circle. We have given various answers, which have been touched on around the House today. First, there is the question of making science more interesting and enthusing young people. We have talked about the new GCSE syllabus in 21st-century science. Yes, good, but we still have to see whether it really provides a good grounding from which to take A-level. We know that the jump between taking dual sciences and A-level was extremely difficult, and questions are now being raised about the alignment of key stage 3 with 21st-century science and the new A-level syllabus that is being proposed and perhaps pushed much too fast. There are real questions here, and we need to look at this issue.
The question of enthusing people about practical science is a big issue. Careers are another. Here I pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that it is all very well having websites and careers teachers—10 per cent of our careers advisers are science specialists—but the students we need to get to are those who are aged 11, 12 and 13. That is when we can enthuse them and when we need to grab them, just as in the 1960s they were grabbed by the Sputniks, which led to a tremendous burgeoning of interest in science.
Then there is the question of widening A-levels. We on these Benches echo the thoughts of the noble Lords, Lord Broers and Lord Dearing, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill: we should look at a much broader syllabus for 16, 17 and 18 year-olds in our schools. We are unique in the world in specialising narrowly in three subjects. The Government have answered the pleas from the committee by saying, “Well, we’ve got AS-level”, but we all know that AS has not worked to broaden the curriculum. It is used as a sifting mechanism for taking A-levels.
We regret enormously that the Government did not rise to the challenge of Tomlinson. Instead what we have are these hybrid diplomas. They may work out well; I hope they do. But the committee has received a very pessimistic letter from the Royal Academy of Engineering, saying that it has put so much into making these new diplomas viable and feasible, yet it is quite clear in the minds of many of those setting the syllabuses for A-levels and so forth that the bright students will not touch diplomas, and therefore the binary divide will be written big within them.
It is important that we look again at this subject. Seventy subjects can be studied at A-level. Do we not have too many A-levels? There is a very real problem of non-comparability. All right, it is a hoary subject, and the Minister does not accept that there is discrepancy in grades. However, the evidence we had from the University of Durham was compelling. The Government need to look at this.
A move to much broader-based sixth-form studies would, to some extent, solve the problem in itself. Just as the old Higher School Certificate required a range of subjects, so the IB requires that the student carries on with science, maths and languages to age 18. That inevitably narrows down the fields of study. The other side of the coin is that, if we are introducing all these new diplomas, perhaps they ought to cover some of the more practical A-level subjects.
I do not want to spend any time on buildings; they have been touched on. There are three questions for the Minister to answer, however. First, what happened to the £200 million we were promised in 2005? There is no answer to that in the report. Secondly, why is it that with the Building Schools for the Future programme we are still not getting laboratories that are fit for purpose? That is appalling and needs to be explained.
Thirdly, do the Government recognise that it is all very well saying that every school will have about £100,000 to spend on capital works at its own discretion, but how can you persuade heads to spend money on science labs when you have falling numbers taking A-level science? That has been a very real problem.
Many noble Lords have said that the key issue is the teachers, and there is no doubt that that is the case. Some 25 per cent of schools have no specialist physics teachers; only 70 per cent of maths teachers are maths specialists. Very large numbers are being taught maths and science by non-specialist teachers. The Government’s answer is targets for the recruitment of teachers, but you have to be careful about the figures used. In November, the Prime Minister answered a question about this in the other place, boasting that 7,500 new science teachers had been hired in 2005, 70 per cent more than in 1999-2000. But that figure was for trainee recruits to the science, engineering, mathematics and technology group, which includes business studies, textiles and graphics. The numbers recruited to physics, chemistry and biology were in fact 977, 568 and 383—about 2,000 recruits to science. There were also about 3,000 recruits to mathematics. Moreover, only 75 per cent of recruits end up in the classroom—25 per cent fall out in the process. Shockingly, two out of every five new teachers in the state sector drop out in the first five years.
Recruitment and retention are crucial. What are the issues that would help? The Government have rejected all notions of special pay rates for those teaching subjects in which there is a shortage. They should look to the flexibility that exists; heads should be encouraged to use maximum flexibility. The Government dismissed golden hellos and writing off student debt much too summarily. There is clear evidence, as 76 out of 226 students followed up in the evaluation said that paying off their top-up fees had made a difference.
I must finish, as I was supposed to take only eight minutes, and I have taken 11. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, again, and repeat that this subject is vital.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on securing this very significant debate. It is invaluable to discuss the wider impacts that the teaching of science in our classrooms has on the UK economy as a whole. There are huge difficulties facing teaching institutions and improvements are long overdue. We must look beyond wish lists and see what the levels of investment directed into education have, and can be seen to have, reached and achieved.
Science is a universal subject; it should not be seen only as a collection of facts thrown at students in a manner that will disengage them from the classroom. My noble friend Lord Lucas graphically described the importance of innovation in ways vocational and academic subjects should be developed and taught.
Science has the power, when taught by skilled and enthusiastic teaching staff, to be exciting and provide powerful tools that can encourage young people in the education system with the knowledge required to perform effectively in an ever-more demanding knowledge and technology-led world. My noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle highlighted how essential good science teaching is for us to compete successfully in a fast-changing economy.
Serious questions need to be addressed by the Government on why science lessons in large numbers of secondary schools in England are being cancelled. As has been said by other noble Lords, we have to take the numbers into account; the numbers of those taking maths, physics and chemistry have fallen and are hugely worrying for the future of the UK economy. In a survey carried out by Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, students between the ages of 13 and 16 thought that science was boring, confusing or difficult. You were regarded as uncool and nerdy. For science to appear exciting and cool, students must see careers in science as exciting and with financial benefit.
What assurance can the Minister give the House that current shortages in properly qualified teachers in physics, chemistry and maths will be addressed with urgency? I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it is not acceptable that two thirds of those teaching 15 to 16 year-olds in those subjects do not themselves have a degree in those particular topics. One third of them do not even have an A-level. The knock-on effect of that is that decreasing numbers of students are applying for separate science degrees in universities. That, as we are witnessing, is having a devastating effect on our ability to remain world leaders in innovation and technology.
The proposed changes to A-levels in 2008 will mean, once again, massive changes for teaching staff to incorporate in a very short timeframe. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government are putting into place proper training and support so that teaching staff are not faced with increasing pressures to meet government targets for league tables at the cost of the student? The current Government’s obsession with testing and targets has discouraged teachers from being more adventurous and passionate about how their subjects are taught. It is so important for teachers to have time and training to inspire students to study in particular subjects perceived as difficult. The constant pressure on students of failure or poor performance must be removed. As the Science and Technology Committee suggests, the focus must be placed on the involvement and participation of students and staff and not on the narrow frame of testing and results. It is therefore crucial that the new GCSEs are considered very seriously. They should stimulate not deter students from science courses at university.
My noble friend Lady Buscombe voiced her concerns about the new science GCSEs during proceedings on the Further Education and Training Bill last year. Those concerns remain. The Royal Academy of Engineering believes that university links with schools reflected in submissions to the research assessment exercise are excellent. Are the Government showing support for those measures?
We have heard countless announcements over the past few years about the investment that the Government are making in science. But it is not unusual for students to be taking non-mathematical subjects with chemistry and biology, which has put great pressure on universities to provide remedial classes in maths for students. Does the Minister agree that that is a costly exercise, uses up valuable time and needs to be addressed with urgency?
There is a strong belief that the new A-levels in 2008 and the review of education for 14 to 19 year-olds promised in 2005 should challenge the idea that they are currently failing the demands made by the UK economy. The Government need to respond with urgency to questions already asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. They are: what mechanisms are in place for collecting data on how much schools funding is being spent on science laboratories and on the quality of work undertaken in these laboratories? Is an improved career structure in place for science technicians? What plans are there to guarantee that there is in place adequate provision of qualified technicians and that they will not be used as classroom assistants when shortages in classrooms assistants arise?
Does the Minister agree with his colleague Bill Rammell, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, that science, technology, engineering and maths are of higher value, that they are more difficult subjects crucial to this country’s future competitiveness, and that, therefore, greater incentives are required for those opting for those subjects? Does the Minister believe that there is justification in criticisms that the new qualifications are too easy, fail to address the underlying principles and basics of the study of science and are unchallenging and uninspiring to both teachers and students?
The Conservative Party believes strongly that all students should be entitled to study biology, chemistry and physics as three separate subjects, as well as being offered the combined science GCSE. We also believe that they are worth more to school leavers going to university. Can the Minister assure the House that continuing professional development remains an essential part of the package for science teachers, as recommended by the committee, and that data should be available on the retention of teachers in those subjects? That is very much an area that needs to be supported, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, so ably highlighted.
How much of the committee’s recommendations will the Government look to seriously? If we are to be leaders in scientific fields and remain leaders, we must understand the urgency in improving the image of science and its appeal to young people. When they have the tools and resources to be equipped with the knowledge, that will ensure that Britain’s scientific future is secured.
My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for opening this excellent debate on science teaching in schools and for the thorough report of the Science and Technology Committee, which he chairs. I thank also his committee colleagues, several of whom spoke in the debate, for their work on the report. I was glad to appear before the committee and am glad to respond today.
As a non-scientist, I was absolutely delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, mentioned Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was by far the most instructive book in this area that I have read myself in the past two years, although like the noble Baroness I was almost too embarrassed to mention it. The Royal Society of Chemistry, with our strong support, has sent a copy to almost every school in the country, and it has been very warmly welcomed, including by those who go on to study science themselves, so it clearly has something to say to the professional as well as the lay person.
Our starting point is precisely the same as that of the Science and Technology Committee: that science is vital for our national success, and so too is mathematics, on which so much science is based—as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, highlighted. Every year now, according to a recent Economist article, 1.2 million engineers and scientists are graduating from universities in China and India. That is as many as in the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. It is good to note that the UK remains ahead of the pack, compared to China, India and the USA, in the proportion of its young people who graduate in science subjects. Our universities are also in excellent shape and take their responsibilities in respect of schools—a theme raised repeatedly in the debate—increasingly seriously, as our debate a fortnight ago on higher education demonstrated. We are pioneers in notable fields of research, including bioscience, and we are still the world’s largest exporter of pharmaceuticals. However, all those strong plus points are no grounds for complacency. As global competition intensifies, we cannot afford to relinquish this position of relative strength, and we must do much better.
Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Broers, so rightly said, science education is not just about producing scientists, any more than teaching knowledge of the past is about producing historians. A scientifically literate society means a society of people better qualified to make sensible choices about their health, to reflect upon the benefits and potential perils of technological advances, to appreciate the environmental challenges ahead and, as my noble friend Lord Winston emphasised, to appreciate the ethical dimension to all that they seek to do.
To take on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, we have respected and very much alive figures, such as my noble friend Lord Winston and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, to thank for the generally positive tenor of public debate on science at present, but schools are, of course, the sine qua non for ensuring a good supply of scientists and engineers, and citizens educated properly in science who do not go on to careers in scientific disciplines.
The Government set out their objectives for schools in the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14, reinforced in last year’s Next Steps document. Our goals include increasing the recruitment, retraining and retention of specialist physics, chemistry and mathematics teachers; improving the number of pupils achieving at least level 6 in the key stage 3 science tests at age 14 and good grades in at least two science GCSEs; and encouraging more students to take physics, chemistry and mathematics at A-level. To support this, we have embarked upon a substantial programme of teacher recruitment and training; an updating of the science curriculum; investment in high-quality laboratories, ICT and other science teaching facilities in schools; and improved careers advice to encourage greater take-up of science beyond the age of 16, leading to science-based careers.
First, I shall address teacher recruitment and retention, which is a central part of our strategy for all the reasons set out so compellingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. Last year, we recruited 3,390 trainees to science teaching—that is, science teaching narrowly defined—against 2,590 in 2000-01, an increase of more than 30 per cent. The number of secondary science teacher vacancies in maintained schools stood at 210 in January this year, which is half the peak figure of 400 in 2001. This is partly thanks to recruitment and incentive improvements across the whole teaching profession, which have led to a very substantial increase in numbers coming forward for primary and secondary teacher training. These improvements include the payment of training bursaries for PGCE students and the development of the graduate teacher programme, which allows large numbers of mature entrants to the profession to train in schools with a salary. A range of science-specific programmes have also helped, including “golden hellos” or, as my noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin famously described them in a recent debate, golden haloes, which rightly merits their place in society.
I was pleased that the Select Committee endorsed the new pre-initial teacher training enhancement courses to improve physics, chemistry and mathematics skills for candidates lacking a recent degree in those subjects. Following the committee's recommendation for loans to help would-be teachers, we have increased the bursary for pre-ITT enhancement courses to £225 a week for 2007, up from £150 last year. Recruitment to these courses has surged by 80 per cent in the same period, and feedback from participants indicates that the higher bursary levels are meeting their financial needs.
The Training and Development Agency for Schools is also reviewing the whole issue of financial support in post-graduate training. In the mean time, the TDA offers a £1,000 premium to providers who recruit science graduates into teaching via employment-based routes, including the graduate teacher programme. I should also mention the TDA’s support for the successful student associate scheme, which, by the end of this academic year, will have placed 30,000 science and mathematics under-graduates into schools, encouraging the students to consider a teaching career and the pupils they work with to go on to higher education.
On retention incentives, the Government are not inclined to write off some of the student debt of new science teachers, not because there may not be some benefit to doing that—the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, made that clear—but because we believe, on the basis of the research that we have done, that the incentive effect of up-front cash in the form of the golden hellos gives a greater recruitment benefit. Therefore, we intend to invest further in the golden hello and in bursary schemes, with a significant funding differential in favour of mathematics and science trainees. In these shortage subjects, the bursary has now been increased to £9,000 a year while the golden hello for new science teachers is double that of other priority subjects.
The graduate teacher programme meets at least some of the committee’s concern to improve the number of good mature entrants to the profession and to see them promoted quickly. It has expanded from around 30 participants only six years ago to 500 people training to be science teachers in 2005-06 and has been a significant contributory factor to the fact that for the first time the average age of new entrants into teaching has risen above 30. Taking up another point raised by the committee, I should stress that qualified teacher status is rapidly achievable for experienced candidates who proceed through the GTP.
The excellent new Teach First scheme puts first-class science and mathematics graduates straight into challenging schools in London and, from this year, in Manchester too and will be expanding to other cities. In 2006-07, there were 30 entrants for mathematics and 60 for science. A significant proportion of participants subsequently decide that a teaching career is for them. Teach First will be expanding considerably over the next few years and we envisage that the number of entrants for maths and science—these are highly talented and ambitious graduates—will increase accordingly.
On the wider issue of pay, flexibility and discretion are already available to school heads and governing bodies seeking well-qualified candidates in shortage subjects, and some schools employ them to great effect. That said, we recognise the points made in the debate and we have asked the School Teachers’ Review Body to advise on improving the use of existing flexibilities; we are currently discussing its conclusions. One aspect of the consultation involves publicising the full range of pay options at school managers’ disposal, including rewards for advanced skill teachers and those in leadership roles.
Another key recruitment issue is the supply of physics and chemistry graduates. We need far more physicists and chemists in our classrooms, and we need them to be offering the kind of stimulating, exciting and perhaps less dangerous tuition than that mentioned by my noble friend Lord Winston. Our target is that, by 2014, 25 per cent of secondary science teachers will have a physics specialism and 31 per cent will have a chemistry specialism. As it stands, only 19 per cent are physicists and 25 per cent are chemists. Taking up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, from October a new accredited course begins for those teachers without a physics and chemistry specialism to gain the subject knowledge and pedagogy that they need to teach those subjects effectively. We are working through our current spending review settlement to determine whether participants at Brighton, Keele and Edge Hill universities will receive, in line with the STRB’s recommendation, a financial incentive to complete their courses in these areas.
Let me take up the theme mentioned in the debate of the contribution of school technicians to high-quality science provision. The Select Committee welcomed the TDA’s work with the Association for Science Education to devise flexible training and career pathways for technicians. We will be considering further the position of all support staff, including technicians, in the light of issues highlighted by the Select Committee and the report of the joint union-employer working group on fair pay and rewards. For both teachers and technicians, continuing professional development is, as the committee recognised, an increasingly important aspect of career progression and is essential to raising standards in schools. In a pathbreaking partnership with the Wellcome Trust worth £51 million, we have created a national network of 10 science learning centres to provide CPD that generates both innovative classroom practice and much deeper and updated subject knowledge. In 2005-06, the science learning centres delivered more than 11,000 training days, and we are absolutely committed to their further advance.
Regarding the committee’s recommendation that teachers be required to undertake a certain amount of subject-specific CPD each year, the STRB will be considering new statements of teachers’ professional roles and responsibilities, including a duty and an entitlement to engage in effective CPD throughout their careers. Following consultation, the STRB will report and propose next steps in March 2008, and the Government will take that very seriously.
In the mean time, the training of higher level teaching assistants, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt of Writtle, will help to provide the cover for teachers away on training. From August, we will train a further 2,000 science or mathematics higher level teaching assistants, so that every school can recruit at least one of those higher level teaching assistants by the end of 2007-08. The Training and Development Agency for Schools has already planned a publicity campaign to raise awareness of HLTAs, and we will continue to work with the TDA and with subject associations to raise the quality and profile of CPD across the board.
I was also very glad to hear the noble Baronesses, Lady Platt and Lady Greenfield, speak so positively about the science and engineering ambassador scheme, not least its work in encouraging girls to pursue the full range of science disciplines right through to A-level and into degrees. The Government are expanding the science and engineering ambassador scheme, bringing the total number of ambassadors to 18,000 by the end of 2007-08; while a pilot programme is set to open after-school and engineering clubs for 11 to 14 year-olds nationwide.
In addition, we are in discussion with the Wellcome Trust about the structure of the science learning centre network to encourage much greater take-up. Our discussions include the future of bursaries and ways in which to overcome financial barriers preventing teachers attending courses at the centre. All of that is being considered as part of the spending review, and I am working closely with my noble friend Lord Sainsbury on his review for the Treasury on the best ways to recruit and retain science teachers, as well as raising the level of professionalism among them. I was very interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, said about the young scientist centre, which I took her to say was being developed in conjunction with the Royal Institution. I would be glad to learn more about that proposed centre, and the Government may perhaps be in a position to support its work.
Let me turn now to curriculum and testing. Some 107,000 more 11 year-olds achieved level 4 or better last year in the key stage 2 science tests, compared to 1997. At key stage 3, the numbers achieving higher grades are improving, as are the numbers achieving grade C or above in science GCSE.
Well-constructed tests represent one part, but I stress only one part, of a strategy for driving standards higher. They offer clear measures of progress for every child. There is no evidence that good test results can be obtained only at the expense of the broader curriculum and engaging teaching. On the contrary, Ofsted has reported that the best schools achieve good test results in the context of a rich curriculum conveyed through excellent teaching.
Moving forward, we will continue to slim down the secondary curriculum to make it more manageable and to give more focus to the key conceptual underpinnings and relevance of science. We will continue to give strong support to the 21st century science syllabus referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—I am afraid that I am now over time—and we will continue to invest in science labs as part of the wider Building Schools for the Future programme. I should stress that the commitment to investing in science laboratories has been incorporated into the wider investment in school buildings programme, which now stands at £6.4 billion a year—10 times greater than in 1996-97 and there is independent evaluation of how that investment proceeds.
Schools: Science Teaching (S&T Report)
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science Teaching in Schools (10th Report, Session 2005-06, HL Paper 257)—(Lord Broers).
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Gambling Act 2005 (Exclusion of Children from Track Areas) Order 2007
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 February be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to the mandatory and default conditions order. These two important statutory instruments are the first among a number of statutory instruments that the Government are publishing in preparation for implementation of the Gambling Act 2005 on 1 September this year.
The Act heralds a new relationship between society and the gambling industry. The legislation is based on three key principles, which are: first, to prevent gambling from becoming a source of crime and disorder; secondly, to ensure that gambling is conducted in a fair and open way; and, thirdly, to protect children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.
The Act places the protection of children and the problem of gambling at the heart of the system of regulation for the very first time. The industry will enjoy certain freedoms, but that is balanced by new responsibilities to safeguard customers, which will be backed by the force of the law with the severest penalties.
For the first time, we have put in place a single regulator for the whole of the gambling industry. The Gambling Commission is open for business and is taking applications for operating licences. The role of the Gambling Commission is to regulate the industry and to provide a centre of knowledge and advice.
Local people will be more involved in the decisions relating to the licensing of gambling premises within their communities and these statutory instruments deal with two aspects of premises licensing administered by licensing authorities: the mandatory and default conditions that will be attached to premises licences and an exemption to allow children and young people into the areas where betting facilities are provided on tracks and sporting venues on days when a sporting event is taking place.
The exclusion of children from tracks order extends an exemption that is already in place for horse racetracks and dog racetracks. The exemption will be extended to all other sporting venues, which means that children and young people will be allowed into areas where betting facilities are provided on a day when a sporting event is taking place.
This is a practical measure, which reflects the fact that gambling facilities are now widely available at sporting tracks and events. It would be very difficult, and, in the Government’s view, unnecessary, for the track and venue operators to ensure that children and young people did not enter the area where betting was taking place. Indeed, it would not be fair to expect sporting venues to do that when horse racetracks and dog racing tracks are not obliged to do so. Young people go to these venues to watch the sport, not to gamble. We are also satisfied that sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent children and young people placing bets while they are at tracks and sporting venues.
The mandatory and default conditions allow three kinds of conditions to be attached to a gambling premises licence. These are mandatory, default and individual conditions. The mandatory conditions are imposed by the Secretary of State in these regulations. Some apply to all types of gambling premises, such as the requirement to display in a prominent place on the premises the summary of the terms and conditions of the licence; others are specific to a particular type of premises, such as the requirement for casinos not to offer more than 40 separate player positions at automated gaming tables. These conditions are compulsory and the licensing authority cannot change them.
Default conditions are also imposed by the Secretary of State in these regulations, but licensing authorities may adjust them to reflect local circumstances if they consider it necessary. The only default conditions that we have included at this stage relate to the hours during which the premises are licensed for the provision of gambling. We have tried to standardise these hours as far as possible. Operators might choose not to open for the whole time; equally, they may apply to the licensing authority for longer hours. Licensing authorities can adjust the hours down, as well as up, if they deem it appropriate.
The regulations do not deal with individual conditions, as these are imposed by the licensing authority to reflect local circumstances.
It may appear at first sight that we are introducing a lot of conditions, but we consider these to be the absolute minimum standards consistent with the licensing objectives of the Gambling Act. Many of them simply replicate requirements that are already in place under existing legislation; for example, the need to separate out and properly supervise any over-18 areas which contain category C machines in bingo halls and family entertainment centres and on tracks. Other requirements specify that there must be non-gaming areas in casinos, and supervision of over-18 areas must be ensured.
All the conditions were the subject of extensive informal and formal consultation with the gambling industry, licensing authorities and community groups. They are designed to ensure that the three licensing objectives, which I enumerated at the beginning of this short presentation, are properly reflected in the way that each type of gambling premises is managed.
Licensing authorities will be responsible for ensuring that gambling operators comply with these premises licence conditions. They will do this by checking the plan of the premises which is submitted with the licence application and by visits to the premises.
This is a balanced and effective package of conditions, which we believe will ensure that the licensing objectives are met. The conditions will be straightforward for licensing authorities to monitor and will not place an unreasonable burden on the industry, while achieving the three principles behind the Gambling Act 2005. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 February be approved. 10th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
My Lords, we on these Benches are happy to give broad support to the two orders. The order dealing with the exclusion of children from track areas is a common-sense measure, reflecting the reality of children attending track events, while not engaging in gambling activities from which they remain, rightly, prohibited. We fully support it.
The order dealing with mandatory and default conditions covers a much broader canvas, parts of which are specialist and technical in nature. It refers to the original proposal to create a new generation of casinos—one regional, eight large and eight small. The order setting out the specific geographical locations was rejected by your Lordships’ House on 28 March. Had the Government not been so obstinate and produced separate orders, there is little doubt that the large and the small package would have been approved. There is now considerable uncertainty about the Government’s intentions. Could the Minister indicate whether and when any new orders are likely? Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that we are debating this order today without knowing whether there will be any new casinos at all.
In addition, since the order was debated in another place on 26 March, the British Casino Association has obtained the High Court’s permission for a judicial review on the possible competitive disadvantages to existing casinos, as compared with the new generation of casinos, which the Government intended. Am I correct in assuming that the Government now have to await the outcome of the judicial review before proceeding? Additionally, as we understand it, there are nine ongoing consultations on many elements of the Gambling Act 2005. Does that mean that we will be asked to scrutinise many more orders prior to the Act coming into force on 1 September 2007? Is there an up-to-date implementation plan that could be placed in the Library? The existing one on the DCMS website appears somewhat out of date.
Having said all that, and having raised certain points, we confirm our broad support for the order, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, we on these Benches also broadly support the orders. On the matter of the tracks and allowing children, will the Minister tell the House the sort of tracks where he envisages gambling taking place, which are not horse or dog-racing tracks? It is probably my ignorance, but I cannot think of a large number of those.
As has been said, it is interesting that the Secretary of State is going ahead with these regulations when the order establishing the very casinos that this order purports to regulate has been annulled by this House.
There is an anomaly on which I should be grateful for the Minister’s views that has already been commented on by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. Under the 1968 Act, casinos are allowed only 20 gaming machines and no sports betting, but the casinos under the 2005 Act will be allowed to have 80 to 150 gaming machines and will be allowed to take sports bets. As the noble Lord commented, this is a basis for a challenge to the Government under judicial review.
In another place on 9 November 2004, the Minister, when discussing different types of casino, said:
“I do not believe that that judgment is in conflict with competition law and I am advised that it is not”—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee B, 9/11/04; col. 41.]
Will the Minister explain why a judicial review is due to start on 17 May disputing the different treatment in the 1968 and 2005 Acts? The 2005 Act specifies that casinos must have a recreational area. Will the Minister clarify whether playing non-casino games, such as bridge, backgammon, and so on, where there is no house involvement, will be permitted in the recreational area of a casino? If it is not permitted on the grounds that the game might be played for money, how does the noble Lord envisage casinos knowing that gambling is taking place, and will he say how it could be controlled?
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken and asked questions. I am not quite so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord James, because I cannot answer all his questions, although I raised the question of point-to-point racing myself. I had not got around to duck racing. I shall seek confirmation before I give the noble Lord a categorical reply.
I am obviously grateful that noble Lords welcome the orders, because they give effect to the Gambling Act. As the noble Lord, Lord Lee, was kind enough to indicate, and I emphasise, we might have other orders before us. I fear, both for the noble Lord’s sake and my own, that that is so and that we have further work to do before the Act is fully operative. I assure him that we now have an updated version of the implementation plan in the Library.
The judicial review does not hold up our progress. We are confident of our case and expect to win, but recognise that British casinos have the right to make this application. We will respond to it in due course, confident that the judgment will be in favour of our position. It does not currently inhibit work on the Act as such. The element of inhibition in this process is obvious enough: a vote of this House, not the other place. This House will now know, which it did not when it expressed its opinion on that fateful day, the judgment of the elected House, which became known later.
Of course the Government regret the loss of that vote; it occasioned a great deal of disappointment. That is at least paralleled, if not exceeded, by that of those local authorities that sought the new casinos as a significant aid to regeneration, with thousands of new jobs in deprived communities. That is why we are concerned to reach a judgment on the next step, in complex and difficult circumstances. The House will recognise that we are bound by the 2005 Act. If the House is eager that the Government reach a judgment soon, I say that if it were easy to make, it would already have been formed. There are many issues to consider, but we are all too well aware of our obligation, particularly to the local authorities that made the applications, to reach a judgment as rapidly as we can on how to proceed.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard, raised a question which also perplexed me. The word “tracks” throws us all. “Tracks” is a generic term for sporting venues, and we are extending to sporting venues that which already obtains for horse and dog-racing tracks. The noble Lord also interested me when he said that he could not think what these venues might be. I go to football matches, and I have never seen a betting stall or booth, but they exist in many grounds. Perhaps I go to the wrong grounds, or perhaps I am congenitally blind to those facilities, but they are there. It will be recognised that, because of concern about the relationship between gambling and individual cricket events—individual scores by batsmen or prowess by bowlers can be bet upon—the cricket authorities have been concerned that there should be proper regulation. That is proof that betting goes on at cricket grounds.
The noble Lord, Lord James, mentioned a whole swathe of other events. Separate provisions will apply to point-to-point racing. Temporary use notices will be applied to it because, interestingly, its venues do not have the same permanence as formal racecourses.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard, was kind enough to warn me that he might ask his other question. It had not crossed my mind that the parliamentary bridge club might relocate its activities to the local casino, but I agree that people might go to the recreational areas of a casino and engage in communal pursuits in which there might be some wagering. The regulations draw a very clear, sharp and impermeable line between the areas where gambling takes place and the recreational areas because the recreational areas can offer access to children. It is a rigid division therefore the parliamentary bridge club, or any other group, can go and play bridge in those recreational areas but will not be allowed to wager. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, asked how that will be prevented. The parliamentary bridge society is the most law-abiding body that I can think of, so the issue would not arise, but in the case of any other group that sought to play cards and gamble, the point is that licences are offered to premises on the basis that there is adequate supervision of a very important dividing line. I assure the noble Lord that any attempt in those areas to engage in games which involve monetary rewards is forbidden. We would expect those areas to be monitored by the people operating the premises. If they did not do so, their licence would be in jeopardy.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Gambling Act 2005 (Mandatory and Default Conditions) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007
I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26 February be approved. 11th report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Integration Loans for Refugees and Others Regulations 2007
rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21 February be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, these regulations will introduce a system of integration loans for those recognised as refugees or those given humanitarian protection and their dependants. For ease of reference I shall discuss the benefits to the potential recipients as refugees. By that I mean not only refugees but those with humanitarian protection and their dependants.
Section 13 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 enables the Government to set out in regulations a loan scheme aimed at helping refugees integrate into United Kingdom society. Section 13 was subsequently amended by Section 45 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 to extend eligibility for the scheme to be made to other categories of migrants, as prescribed.
When a refugee is first granted status, he or she will normally enter a critical period of transition during which they may need to find accommodation, to train or re-qualify, and, critically, seek employment. As part of the integration process, an interest-free loan will, we believe, make a considerable impact on their ability to become established in the United Kingdom. It is intended that the loan should be spent on things such as deposits for accommodation, the purchase of tools of a trade or some vocational training.
These regulations establish who is eligible to apply for an integration loan and the criteria against which applications for a loan will be considered. The opportunity to apply for an integration loan will be made available to any person aged 18 and over and granted refugee status after the date on which the scheme is introduced. Applicants will be eligible to receive only one loan. Loans, if made, may be subject to conditions. The regulations set out the type of conditions which may be applied. They also make provision for borrowers to enter into a loan agreement which details the conditions on which it is made, the repayment terms, and how terms may be amended if there is a change in the borrower’s circumstances.
The introduction of a system of integration loans is much fairer and more cost-effective than the arrangements currently in operation. At present, the legislation provides for those who are recorded as refugees—and I refer to refugees only—to claim a back payment of the income-related benefits he or she would have received, calculated from the day on which he or she first claimed asylum. Deductions are made from that sum, equal to the value of any asylum support received in the mean time. No provision is made for those with other subsidiary status or dependants.
Back payments are, in our view, inherently unfair. The amount of money due to a refugee in backdated benefit is based solely on the time spent awaiting a decision and bears no relation to the needs of the individual. We believe that the integration loan scheme will ensure better value for money by targeting resources to those refugees most in need and for specific purposes that will help their integration. The payment of a loan is not automatic and the applicants must say what use they intend to make of it.
It is intended that the loan scheme will be funded by the savings made from the abolition of back payments. The maximum loan payable will be capped at £1,000, while the minimum available will be £100. Loan repayments will be recycled to ensure a continued fund for future refugees. The scheme will be closely monitored to assess its take-up rate and cost-effectiveness.
The loans scheme will be jointly administrated by the Home Office Border and Immigration Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions. This partnership will ensure that the administration of the scheme is as cost-effective as possible. The Home Office is committed to the successful integration of refugees and recognises the potential vulnerability of this client group, many of whom may have little or no experience of a culture of formal borrowing and repayment. Loans will be interest-free, with gentle repayment rates based on pre-existing arrangements that operate in the Department for Work and Pensions.
The current expertise and safeguards built into the DWP processes and legislation should deliver the policy intention to ensure that the repayment terms of the integration loan are tailored to the individual recipient’s circumstances. In particular, it is planned to recover the loans for those on income-related benefits by way of an amendment to the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987 and their equivalent in Northern Ireland. The amount to be deducted from those on benefit will be consistent with deductions already in operation within the current framework—presently £3 per week.
The regulations have already been considered and approved by the other place. If and when they are approved by this House, amendments to the relevant DWP regulations will be laid.
For borrowers in employment or not claiming any income-related benefits, rates of repayment will be set in accordance with established guidelines used by the DWP for other debts and overpayments. Provision is made in the regulations for repayment terms to be revised if a borrower’s circumstances change.
Section 12 of the 2004 Act repeals the various pieces of primary and secondary legislation that enable the payment of backdated income-related benefits. That section will be commenced once the regulations have been approved. That is in line with the commitments made during the passage of the 2004 Act that back payments would not be abolished until a loan scheme was introduced.
The introduction of integration loans will be an important step in helping refugees to find their feet in society and to start contributing to our economy as soon as possible. I commend the regulations to the House.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21 February be approved. 10th report from the Statutory Instruments Committee and 12th report from the Merits Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
My Lords, this development has caused great anxiety since it was first considered by the Merits Committee, and causes me to hear the jangling of alarm bells as an example of very good intentions from the Government that may lead to unforeseen consequences involving serious distress to the intended beneficiaries. The Minister has given us an accurate understanding of the intention of the measure, but he has not touched on certain aspects of it which cause grave concern. First, what will happen in the event of a default on the repayment arrangements? Secondly, to what extent may there be prioritisation on the expectation of recovery compared to other debts incurred by the immigrant?
I shall deal first with the repayment arrangements in the event of default. The Merits Committee asked for an explanation of the position of the DWP. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the answer was that as long as new benefits are still being paid to the recipient of the loan, the responsibility for collecting the loan will remain in the control of the department. That is fair enough, because it is clearly making continued payments—so, as he said, it could reschedule the loan or make offsets against the continued benefits it is paying. That is logical.
The chilling part comes when we heard in another part of the answer that we received in the Merits Committee that the intention was that the DWP would cease to have responsibility for collecting the loan if it was no longer making benefit payments to the individual. What would happen then? Does the department intend to bring in a professional debt collector? The initial answer was no, it would not, but when we pressed the question a little further, we reached the answer that it might sell the loans. Who is it going to sell them to? Debt collectors.
We are talking about migrant people dealing in a loan culture with which, as the Minister said, they are unfamiliar. I wonder whether their knowledge of the English language will be up to understanding the famous words, “I am your friendly neighbourhood debt collector and I am going to break a couple of your fingers to make sure that you remember to pay next month”. That is the nasty world that we are talking about here. It is quite wrong that there should be any latitude for the DWP to let control of those loans go to potentially very alien influences, who may be the last sort of influence that we want when trying to integrate new migrants into our community.
I suggest that the Government rethink the provision urgently with a view to ensuring that the DWP will never let control of those loans go out of its hands and will see them through to completion, even if that means that it introduces the continuity of further benefit payments to help the rescheduling process. After all, that is all that a bank does: it lends more money to help someone pay it back until it can reschedule for recovery of the full debt. Why cannot the DWP do the same thing? That is a very unsatisfactory part of the arrangement.
Secondly, there is an unsatisfactory feature in what appears to be an attempt to introduce the recovery of the loan in priority over the loan clubs and credit societies, which also come into the equation, which could in turn lead to the loans forcing a default in some other form of loan if priority is given to those payments. I am concerned that if people who receive those loans are frightened by the circumstances of what the Minister called the culture of debt, they will resort to a life of petty crime to get the money to pay the next instalment. We will be making petty criminals where we are trying to make good citizens. This is a seriously ill thought-out move, which the Government should rethink. The obvious and easy answer is to put the matter wholly and permanently in the hands of the DWP from start to finish.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, has raised some very important and interesting matters. I must admit that I had not thought about the recovery of the loans, and I share his very great concern about this. I was quite disturbed to read the regulations, which at best smack of extraordinary heavy-handedness. At worst, they appear miserly and deeply offensive to people who look to us for safety and some measure of security. We are talking about refugees—people who have had to flee their own countries and whose refugee status we have agreed—not about illegal or failed immigrants. The refugees will have little knowledge of our banking systems, our form-filling requirements, and probably our money. Yet we are offering paltry sums of £100 to £1,000 as a loan, which they will be expected to repay once they are settled. It is almost insulting, to us and to them. Nor am I confident that either the Home Office or the Department for Work and Pensions will deal with either the refugees or their loans efficiently or sensitively; given past experiences, they are highly unlikely to do so.
Is the Minister saying that these loans can be applied for on top of any benefit payments the refugees may be receiving, or is it an either/or option? Can we be told how much is being spent on back payments and, allied with that, the estimated cost of administering this new scheme? The regulations lack detail, and I would have preferred to see much more detail before giving them unequivocal support from these Benches.
My Lords, I welcome the intentions behind the regulations, in particular the implementation of Section 45 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, which, as the Minister has said, extend these provisions to humanitarian cases in addition to refugee cases. We on these Benches are also pleased to note that the current scheme should be self-funding, although the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has asked about the cost of this scheme. I take on board her objections to the ill thought-out nature of this scheme, which is slightly condescending and of no real value. I also thank my noble friend Lord James for the very real concerns that he has voiced about what one might colloquially call the loan sharks industry and the vulnerability of this class of immigrant, to which both my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, have drawn attention. I look forward to receiving the Minister’s replies on these matters.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for her questions and concerns, which I fully appreciate. They were fair points to make. However, I take issue with the suggestion that this is an ill thought-out scheme. We have given it very careful consideration, and we said that we would not introduce it until we were in a position to do so. These loans are considerable, not miserly. They will help with housing by enabling deposits to be paid for rented accommodation and will help initially with rent payments, if that is what is wanted, or with essential items or moving expenses. They could be used to meet travelling expenses, clothing and footwear for a new job. They could assist those who are here as refugees and who have been offered humanitarian support to find an education or training programme that will enable them to retrain and qualify for a new job. It is for those very positive reasons that we set up this loan fund so that we can assist in an important area of integration.
The noble Baroness asked how much we were paying out in back payments. I do not have those figures. I know that the question has been asked before, but we cannot be precise about it. Based on the number of individuals granted refugee status and humanitarian protection in previous years, we expect that there will be in the region of 5,000 beneficiaries annually. Of course, each loan application will have to be considered on its merits, but we think that the scheme will make a valuable contribution to assisting those who have a quite proper right, because of their immigration and asylum status, to be here.
We think that it is fairer to provide a level playing field in support than to provide support by way of individuals applying for money that they would otherwise have received as benefits, as that money would have been determined entirely by the length of time that the person had awaited an outcome or decision; it would bear no relation to their current circumstances and it would not necessarily assist them with integrating into the world of work, the housing system and the world of education. For those positive reasons, we are happy to bring this scheme forward.
The noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, asked how the scheme will operate and talked about the potential for abuse if there are questions over repayment. I do not think that there will be problems here, because the Department for Work and Pensions is, if it is anything, extremely experienced in dealing with benefits and in collecting overpayments and so on. The loans will be recovered using the existing mechanisms through which the DWP acts to recover overpayments and debts owed to utility companies, for example. I do not think that this should be a problem.
The administration costs for the scheme have been estimated as being in the region of £300,000 in the first year. We calculate the average administrative cost of a loan payment scheme and recovery as being approximately £40, based on the assumption that some 4,000 loan applications will be processed.
I was asked what will happen if there is a problem with default. If the individual is in receipt of income-related benefit, to which they will be entitled, deductions will be made from those benefits. That will be at a fairly low level—in the region of £3 per week—so a gentle repayment programme is in place. If an individual fails to repay the loan, we will enforce repayment. The usual DWP civil enforcement rules will apply where we are satisfied that there is no compelling reason why loan repayments cannot be made. Normally, civil action is taken only where a customer avoids repayment, not in cases where they are unable to pay. I do not think that the spectre of loan sharks will stalk this system, which should operate fairly. We have put in place a robust payment and recovery programme and we are satisfied that it should work well. Obviously, we will continue to review the scheme as it rolls out. As I have said, I think that this scheme is fairer than the current one.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, asked whether loans can be applied for on top of existing benefit payments. The answer is yes. The scheme is designed to ensure that there is adequate financial support for those who have been granted humanitarian status here as a refugee and to whom we owe a duty to assist with integration. I think the scheme will work well; we are confident of that. Although there has been some criticism of its modest nature, those who receive our country’s generosity, consideration and support through this scheme will find it extremely helpful in the future.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, if I understand my noble friend Lord James correctly, his objection was not to the scheme itself but to the unnecessary complication and loss of control through two departments being involved. Why cannot the whole of the control of this scheme, both the making of the loan and the recovery of the debt, be handled by the Department for Work and Pensions?
The answer to that is simple. The Department for Work and Pensions will have the primary responsibility for payment and collection through the usual processes of claim and assessment. The department responsible for making decisions about asylum status and the humanitarian position of those who have made such applications has to be the Home Office. We would not want that responsibility to migrate to the DWP; that would be quite wrong. One department deals with decisions about the status of the individual, while the other, quite properly because of its experience, will deal with matters relating to applications to the loan scheme.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Amendment of Section 76(3)) Order 2007
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8 March be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order was approved by the other place last week. Organised crime is big business. It causes untold damage on our streets and harm to our communities, and profits those responsible to the tune of billions of pounds each year. It must continue to be confronted, and it is the Government’s aim to make the United Kingdom a hostile environment for organised crime where it is difficult for these criminals to operate.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency is part of that attack. It came into operation last year with the remit to enhance the intelligence picture, attack criminal assets and pursue key criminals and groups. Beyond SOCA, the wider enforcement community has been provided with new tools to fight organised crime, and those are being expanded in the current Serious Crime Bill. SOCA also has the new function of the management of organised crime offenders. To support that, financial reporting orders were introduced in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. They allow law enforcement agencies to monitor the financial affairs of those criminals convicted of a listed qualifying offence.
At present, qualifying offences are certain ones under the Fraud Act 2006 and what are known as “lifestyle offences”, which are listed in Schedule 2 to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Lifestyle offences are covered by 10 different headings and include offences in respect of prostitution and child sex, arms trafficking and people trafficking. The draft order before the House adds to that list of offences.
The mechanics of obtaining a financial reporting order are that the court can make such an order when it is sentencing or otherwise dealing with the offender. In making the order, the court will specify the duration of the order and the frequency with which reports are to be made; what financial details and supporting documents should be in or accompany each report; and who the reports should be made to and the deadline for providing them. The order can require those sentenced to life imprisonment to report for a maximum period of 20 years. Reports are made to law enforcement, mostly SOCA, and usually consist of details of income, assets and outgoings. Required supporting evidence can include bank statements, credit card statements and other documentation showing income and outgoings. Failure to comply with the financial reporting order or providing false or misleading information in a report is an offence.
Financial reporting orders will be obtained in cases of criminals convicted of a qualifying offence who law enforcement believes pose a long-term threat. The court has a discretion whether to issue an order, and has to be satisfied that the risk of the person committing another qualifying offence is sufficiently high to justify the making of the order.
The order forces offenders to declare their financial affairs. It is intended to act as a deterrent to going back to crime. If offenders do return to crime, the reports and documents supplied in response to a financial reporting order would provide important information, leads and evidence for law enforcement.
Law enforcement agencies have found the orders invaluable. Thirteen have been made since they were introduced last April, 11 in connection with SOCA cases and two in connection with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs cases. It is still early days, with all but one of the recipients of orders still in prison, but it is plain that the ability to monitor financial affairs is an important additional tool in the newly promoted concept of the lifetime management of serious criminals.
In the past year, SOCA and HMRC have identified other serious offences they investigate which are not currently qualifying offences for financial reporting orders. They have made representations to the Home Office that these are serious crimes, where there is a high risk of reoffending, therefore falling squarely into the type of offences for which financial reporting orders were intended. The offences are set out in the draft order and cover money laundering, revenue offences and bribery and corruption. I commend the order to the House.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8 March be approved. 12th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
My Lords, monitoring the finances of convicted criminals is something with which we wholeheartedly agree. Making them report on all their bank accounts, credit cards and other monetary transactions is clearly having a salutary effect on their criminal behaviour. We know that a number of financial reporting orders have been made involving the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The new orders build on those in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. It is important to add bribery and corruption, money laundering and revenue offences to the list of qualifying offences in the Act.
However, it would have been helpful to have had a little more information about how the introduction of the Act has disrupted these criminal lifestyles. For instance, what has been the rate of reoffending by any recipients of the order? Why are we still waiting for the commencement of Section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which will raise the present level of offence for failing to comply with a financial reporting order from six months to 51 weeks? At least that will be better than the six months maximum at present, which seems light enough. Can the Minister tell us how much money has been recovered from convicted criminals who are the recipients of these orders? Is there an understanding of how effective these additions to the financial reporting orders will be?
Finally, I remember commenting on the work of SOCA during the proceedings on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill and asking what we could expect from the agency. I ask again: when will we get a report from the Serious Organised Crime Agency so that we may judge for ourselves the effectiveness of the powers that it has been granted? Then we will be able to judge whether any new orders adding to their powers are appropriate.
My Lords, I am very happy to support the order, but I would greatly appreciate it if the Minister could look at the possible improvement of the arrangements which apply where there is a civil victim of a criminal action and some prospect of financial recovery to ease the speed and efficiency with which a Mareva injunction can be obtained so that it can be applied before the assets are removed from jurisdiction?
My Lords, on the last point, it is extremely important that we get hold of the assets as quickly as possible. The noble Lord will be aware of action that the Government are taking in the form of the Serious Crime Bill before your Lordships’ House which is in part aimed at making it much easier for law enforcement agencies to act early so that any criminal activities can be nipped in the bud.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, asked some very good questions, only some of which I have answers to. I apologise for that. It is not that it was impossible to anticipate them but the information does not yet properly exist in the form requested by the noble Baroness. She is helpfully indicating that I can write to her, and I was about to make that offer. I am sure that I will.
Twelve of the 13 recipients of financial reporting orders are still in prison, so it is hard to judge how effective the orders have been. The recipients are a captive audience at present, but time will tell in terms of compliance rates. They are beginning to have some effect. There are further offences for failure to comply with an order when those to whom the orders are subject do not respond, fail to submit information or supply false information. The offence is punishable by a term of imprisonment of six months. That is pending the commencement of Section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to which the noble Baroness referred. Thus far, non-compliance has resulted in defendants complying or being summoned to court, but nobody has yet been fined or imprisoned within the terms of the legislation.
These measures are not draconian. As noble Lords have said during the course of their brief comments, they are right, they should assist us and they further strengthen this regime. That is exactly why we have put them in place. For those reasons, I have pleasure in commending them to your Lordships’ House this afternoon.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at 5.27 pm.