House of Lords
Monday, 19 November 2007.
The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
Death of a Member
My Lords, the basis for the statement is that the Government estimate that around 3.5 million jobs in the UK may be linked, directly and indirectly, to the export of goods and services to the European Union. Forty per cent of all EU financial services activity is in London; 50 per cent of all EU investment banking is in the United Kingdom; and 80 per cent of the burgeoning carbon market for the whole of Europe is based in London.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply but, as so often, the clear statement was that millions of jobs depend on our membership of the EU, meaning that those jobs would be lost if we left the EU, when of course the truth is that a great many jobs would be created. If the noble Lord disagrees with that, is he aware that over the past five years several private studies have all agreed that the annual cost of our EU membership is between 4 and 10 per cent—the Treasury has even suggested 28 per cent—of GDP? Those figures mean millions of lost jobs. Secondly, does he agree with the Treasury that we trade at a large and growing deficit with the EU, whose share of world trade will be in continuing decline for decades? That being so, why do the Government insist that we stay on this “Titanic”?
My Lords, because it is not the “Titanic” but a successful vessel, which, the House may notice, is carrying the United Kingdom to the most fully employed economy in the western world of recent years. If the noble Lord is to sustain his case, he will have to produce some figures showing where the jobs are meant to come from when Britain loses the signal advantage of being part of one of the world’s largest single markets, when clearly we are also in competition with other very big single markets—not least our main competitor, the United States of America. Therefore, the answer to the noble Lord is straightforward: as I have indicated, the figures mean that at least 3.5 million UK jobs are linked to trade and services to Europe, and those are jobs that we treasure.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is talking about coming out of Europe rather than staying in, but does my noble friend agree that we have not yet seen all the benefits of the single market—even in the past year, the services directive has come in—and that the European economy is becoming not only as successful as but, in many respects, more successful than that of the United States? Does my noble friend agree that, unless the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, wants to come out of the European economic area as a whole, what he is saying is certainly far from the truth?
My Lords, my noble friend should not be in any doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, wants to come out of the European Community as a whole—and at the soonest point that he can engineer—but of course he faces formidable opposition, not least from the whole Government. I emphasise that we think that when the services directive, which my noble friend mentioned, comes into full operation, and because of the very significant lead that London enjoys in that respect, we will benefit by several hundred thousand jobs in the services industry. That is one clear area in which we see real gains in the near future.
My Lords, whatever the exact number of jobs that might be linked to the EU, does the Minister agree that it is in the UK economy’s best interests for the EU economy to grow as quickly as possible? What steps are the Government taking to promote the Lisbon agenda?
My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that we are concerned to play a leading part in Europe, which is why we played such an important role in the European developments on carbon trading. He will also appreciate that of course we want to see growth in the European Community. The Community’s economy has been growing more slowly than the British economy, but so have the economies of many other countries.
My Lords, is it not true that the City of London is so advanced because it has more liberal exchange regulation than New York and is outside the European single currency? Therefore, those things are, if anything, totally opposed to the European Community—or, as we have to call it, the European Union.
My Lords, the noble Earl will see that he is adding his benefit to mine. I have identified the jobs that derive from our membership of the European Union and he has identified the enormous gains derived from the decision of the Chancellor in 1997 not to join the euro and to preserve our own currency.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the reason why we have such repetitive returning to the same question by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is that he clearly has an incapacity to understand complicated answers such as that given to him by my noble friend? As the demand in the Question is for the justification of the statement, I encourage my noble friend to say that the justification is that it is true. We could then hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, could understand that.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, but I do not think that he pays due regard, as I do, to the tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who obliges us from time to time to identify accurately the very real benefits of European Union membership.
My Lords, following the previous question, whether or not it is true that millions of jobs depend on our membership of the EU, it is true that our membership of the EU costs the UK a lot of money—the figure is likely to be over £7 billion a year by the time the latest rebate giveaway has worked its way through. If that supports the 3 million jobs that the Government sometimes cite in their propaganda, does the Minister think that £2,500 per job is good value for money for British taxpayers?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is talking about an employment position in this country under this Government that is very different from that under the previous Administration in the 1980s and 1990s. The great danger with a question as narrowly conceived as that is that she fails to understand the very great benefits that we derive from the European Community in other respects. I shall take the most obvious one, which I have already indicated: would Britain be able to play the leading role that it plays and would Europe be able to present so strong a position on the development of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is so crucial to the issue of climate change and on which this country is proud to have led?
My Lords, I agree with much of what my noble friend has said, but does he agree that these are difficult issues on which it is possible to hold different views and that debate in this House is not made more fruitful by impugning the intelligence of people with whom one disagrees?
Schools: Modern Languages
My Lords, the Government are pursuing the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, to improve the take-up of languages. We are introducing an entitlement to learn a modern language in primary school. We have trained more than 2,000 primary school language teachers. The new languages ladder attracted 160,000 entries in 2006-07 in 21 languages with further languages to be added. Next year we are publishing GCSE success rates school by school to encourage schools to promote take-up rates.
My Lords, I am sure that many of your Lordships acknowledge the real benefit of improved access to foreign language learning at primary level and moving across into secondary level. Does the Minister agree that that benefit at primary level sadly remains more than offset by the Government's mistaken decision to end obligatory language learning at secondary school and by the resultant sharp—and apparently continuing—decline in pupils taking a language at GCSE from 80 per cent seven years ago to a mere 50 per cent today? What further do the Government plan to do to reverse the serious decline with all its implications for British global business competitiveness?
My Lords, it is not the case that obligatory language learning does not apply in secondary school. It is very important that I correct that point of the noble Baroness’s.
The learning of languages remains compulsory in key stage 3; that is, ages 11 to 14. It is is optional at key stage 4—ages 14 to 16—where students may opt not to study a modern language. As the noble Baroness will know, we have given guidance to schools that we expect them to set targets of between 90 per cent and 50 per cent for children taking a language. Why did we make this an option? We did so for all the reasons set out in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, on this issue to ensure that there is a full range of choice for young people as they approach GCSE to take courses which best suit their aptitudes in terms of where they intend to go in employment and higher education routes beyond. I would like to see most students taking a language, but we recognise that it is right for this choice to be there. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, concluded in his report that the course we have taken, which is inviting schools to set these targets, was our preferred course because it,
“gives schools scope to develop learning programmes for each child that best fit him/her for life, and best motivates many more of our young people to stay in learning after the age of sixteen. This must be a major objective of education policy”.
Accepting that there are conflicting pressures here, we endorse the views of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing.
My Lords, 223 schools are given special funding in order to enhance and, indeed, specialise in modern languages. What measures are in place to assure us that the secondary schools concerned are fulfilling their mission by, first, increasing the take-up of modern languages; secondly, diversifying that take up; and, thirdly, encouraging their neighbouring schools to do likewise?
My Lords, the Minister tells us of the success that the Government are having in recruiting foreign language teachers for primary schools but, as we understand it, the problem is really that there is a dearth of foreign language teachers for secondary schools. What progress are the Government making in recruiting greater numbers of teachers?
My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend; that opportunity is there. That is part of the reason why we have developed the languages ladder, which allows achievement in languages to be recognised in forms other than the conventional GCSE and A-level.
My Lords, the decline in languages at A-level seems to have stabilised for the time being, but more teachers of languages will not be produced unless we can also reverse the decline in applications to university to read modern languages. What specific measures do the Government intend to take to help with that? Will they increase the golden hello payments to newly qualified modern language teachers from £2,500 to £5,000, in line with the payments for new maths and science teachers?
My Lords, the golden hello payments to which the noble Baroness referred put modern languages at an advantage compared with most subjects in the secondary curriculum. We do not intend to increase that payment at the moment. On students proceeding to university, as she said, take-up rates at A-level are the key determinant there and we are glad to see that the take-up rate of all languages at A-level increased this year.
My Lords, the Minister has rightly spoken of the Government's enthusiasm for teaching languages in primary school. There is of course no point in teaching languages in primary school unless the curriculum that the children have followed in primary school is very accurately dovetailed with what they will then learn in secondary school. Will the Minister explain to the House what arrangements are made for that dovetailing?
My Lords, part of the function of the languages colleges, which we heard about earlier, is to ensure that there is significant joint curriculum development between primary schools and secondary schools. As the noble Baroness rightly says, that joint curriculum development will ensure that the languages introduced into primary school provide a solid grounding for the courses being followed beyond the age of 11.
Armed Forces: Warships
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Captain John McDermid, who died last Wednesday while serving on operations in Afghanistan.
Turning to the Question, the requirement is not defined by numbers of surface vessels alone, but by the overall capability that they deliver. Against our present defence commitments, which are regularly reviewed, the Government judge that the size of the current surface fleet is broadly adequate.
My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the family and friends of Captain John McDermid.
The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, said last year, when he was still a simple sailor, that the Royal Navy was too small for its commitments. The noble Lord said that we need 30 destroyers and frigates; we have 25 today. With more maritime trouble spots opening up—most recently, the Arctic—are the Government content simply to hope that others will defend our maritime trade and security? As our fleet is one of the oldest among comparable nations, when will the Government start honouring the undertaking made by the noble Baroness’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, in the maritime industrial strategy for a steady flow of orders to assist the shipbuilding industry and restore confidence to those serving in the Royal Navy?
My Lords, as I said in my initial reply, we always keep all our requirements under review. I am sure that my noble friend Lord West would agree with that. We are satisfied that our orders and commitments are broadly adequate. We do not intend to have a situation where others have to defend us. We intend to make our contribution not only to defending this country but to meeting our international obligations.
My Lords, the Comprehensive Spending Review gave the Ministry of Defence a 1.5 per cent increase in spending in real terms. That is a challenging settlement because the technology costs that we face on many orders cause difficulties. We have to take all those things into account. As a new Minister, I have not looked in detail at every aspect of the budget, but I hope that we can make further progress in the planning round that is under way so that, as I said earlier, we can meet all our obligations.
My Lords, the noble Lord will know that we have made significant spending commitments for future carriers. They were announced earlier and progress is being made. We are also making progress on the Type 45 destroyers being built. Our commitment is clear. If the noble Lord wants further details, I shall of course be happy to provide them.
My Lords, I am afraid that that piece of paper has not crossed my desk yet, but I will find out. The noble Lord referred to an overall shortage of surface vessels. I would not wish to concede that point. It is true that we wish to keep that situation under review, but we do not accept that there is a basic shortage.
My Lords, the new joint venture for the aircraft carrier is well under way and discussions on the details are going on. Nothing is finalised about the French involvement, but it would have to be to the advantage of everyone to go down that path.
Regulatory Reform Orders: DBERR
My Lords, none. From 8 January 2007, regulatory reform orders were replaced by legislative reform orders as a result of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, which was debated at length in your Lordships’ House. BERR and its agencies are working on proposals for three legislative reform orders.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Can he confirm that consultation has taken place on only three legislative reform orders and that not a single one has emerged from that consultation process, despite the new procedure, which was designed to respond to the failings of this Government’s Regulatory Reform Act 2001, being in force for nearly a year? If that can be confirmed, why should anyone take seriously this Government’s claims to be deregulatory?
My Lords, there have been no more than three because, as I said, although the Act came into force in January 2007 the House of Commons Standing Orders for the Regulatory Reform Committee were not finalised until July. That was a shame. It was not possible for the Government to lay such orders before these were agreed. I know that the noble Lord will be happy to hear that not only are there the ones that have already been consulted on, but that many more are in the pipeline.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the substance of the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, goes to what the Government are doing to deal with the excessive regulation of industry and business? While I am sure that the Minister will not accept that the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill only touches the surface of these problems, does he accept that in practical terms it would be far better if the Government stopped gold-plating European directives and introduced sunset clauses on all regulations, thus bringing them to an end on a specified date unless their continuation was justified?
My Lords, I heard the noble Lord’s speech in our debate on this issue last Wednesday, and he will be delighted to know that impact assessments are made on every regulation that comes in. Apparently, it is one of the requirements that his party supports. On sunset clauses, I think that the Liberal Democrats should perhaps think again. The trouble with such clauses is that they remove certainty, and while business wants deregulation, what it wants more than practically anything else is certainty. If there is to be a sunset clause after two, three or four years, the regulations will not have the certainty they deserve.
My Lords, that is the most difficult question I have had for a long time because I never quite understand what the Liberal Democrats are suggesting on most things. On this, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, was just talking about regulatory reform.
My Lords, is not the Government’s work on better regulation being hampered by new directives from the European Union? The latest one I have seen is a soil condition directive. What on earth is that about? Are the Government going to oppose it?
My Lords, on EU regulation, in March this year we, together with the Danes and the Dutch, were very much in the forefront in getting the EU to agree a target to reduce EU administrative burdens by 25 per cent by 2012. We are also working to ensure that best practice is producing robust impact assessments for all European legislation.
My Lords, as I understand it, consultation takes place with the businesses involved, but of course civil servants from the Better Regulation Executive play an important part, too. The assessments involve a combination of people, and I do not think that assessments have previously been queried.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that since legislative reform orders were introduced, replacing regulatory reform orders, they have been used to scrap just 34 regulations, while in the same period more than 18,000 new regulations have been introduced? Now that regulatory reform is an express part of the name of the department to which the noble Lord belongs, can we expect some improvement in those figures?
My Lords, I can confirm part of what the noble Lord has said: there were 34 regulation orders under the 2001 Act. I cannot confirm the other part. Having been a very senior Minister in a previous Government, he will know that regulatory reform is not an easy issue. It certainly was not for his Government in the mid-1990s, and I notice one or two distinguished ex-Ministers nodding on the Benches opposite. Of course regulation is not bad per se; it provides market rules, allowing businesses to thrive, and provides essential rights and protections for employees and consumers. I am happy to accept, however, that there is a long way to go. We believe that bringing regulatory reform into the new department is a very good step.
My Lords, that is what I would like to achieve, as would Her Majesty’s Government. The report on regulators published last week by the Lords Select Committee, which was chaired by my noble friend Lord McIntosh, made precisely that point: regulators in that field should be there to help competition.
My Lords, it is our turn. Does the Minister agree with his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham, who has been a doughty campaigner against over-regulation by this and previous Governments, that Parliament is not doing an effective job in scrutinising European regulations and that we could do much better? What ideas can the Government put to us in Parliament about how we could be more effective in scrutinising the endless regulations from Brussels?
My Lords, with permission, we shall have a Statement on Northern Rock repeated later this afternoon by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham after the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. Given the Statement, we shall meet the target rising time of 10 o’clock provided that Back-Bench contributions are no more than 10 minutes.
Hybrid Instruments Committee
Procedure of the House Committee
Works of Art Committee
My Lords, I beg to move the four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Hybrid Instruments Committee
Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider hybrid instruments and that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members together with the Chairman of Committees be appointed to the committee:
L Campbell of Alloway
Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to advise the House on the resources required for Select Committee work and to allocate resources between Select Committees; to review the Select Committee work of the House; to consider requests for ad hoc committees and report to the House with recommendations; to ensure effective co-ordination between the two Houses; and to consider the availability of Members to serve on committees;
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members together with the Chairman of Committees be appointed to the committee:
B Ashton of Upholland (Lord President)
B McIntosh of Hudnall
B Perry of Southwark
B Thomas of Winchester
That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
That the committee have leave to report from time to time.
Procedure of the House Committee
Moved, That the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be appointed and that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members together with the Chairman of Committees be appointed to the committee:
B Anelay of St Johns
B Ashton of Upholland (Lord President)
L Harries of Pentregarth
B Hayman (Lord Speaker)
L Low of Dalston
B Shephard of Northwold
L Shutt of Greetland
L Williams of Elvel;
That the following Members be appointed as alternate members:
L Hunt of Wirral
L Palmer (alternate for the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers)
B Thomas of Winchester.
Works of Art Committee
Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to administer the House of Lords Works of Art Collection Fund; and to consider matters relating to works of art and the artistic heritage in the House of Lords, within financial limits approved by the House Committee;
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members be appointed to the committee:
V Falkland (Chairman)
L Harris of Peckham
B Hilton of Eggardon
B Massey of Darwen
Ly Saltoun of Abernethy
L Thomas of Swynnerton
That the committee have leave to report from time to time.—(The Chairman of Committees.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The United Kingdom is at the forefront of developments in human reproductive technology. This country has a proud record of pioneering new techniques for the alleviation of infertility and for exploring new avenues of scientific research. The final breakthrough in innovation now known universally by the letters “IVF” took place here. Key developments in new research techniques, such as the creation of Dolly the sheep, happened in British laboratories. These and other developments have brought hope to countless thousands of people who might otherwise have been unable to have children, and offer enormous potential for the future treatment of serious disease.
Alongside this enviable record of innovation stands an equally pioneering history of effective regulatory oversight. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was the first body of its kind in the world. The creation of the HFEA made for the first time an area of medical practice subject to the control of an independent regulator, replacing professional self-regulation. The UK and this Government implemented the first statutory ban on human reproductive cloning anywhere in the world. We also introduced legislation paving the way for scientists to reap the benefits of embryonic stem cell research. Specialist regulation of reproductive technologies, together with clear legal boundaries, has united scientific breakthroughs with public confidence in their development and use.
Among other things, this represents a considerable triumph for parliamentary debate. The existing law, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, was the product of consultation, a committee of inquiry, and then extensive scrutiny here and in another place. Many Members of your Lordships’ House have played, and continue to play, a direct role as legislators and experienced practitioners in the fields of philosophy, science and medicine. The Bill provides a further opportunity for that expertise to be brought to bear.
In 1990, Parliament set out the legal boundaries and parameters of a scheme of regulation. It was based on the principle of active monitoring of technologies that raised a range of profound social, legal and ethical questions. Finding answers to those questions arguably goes straight to the heart of our existence as individuals, families and society. Sincerely held views and opinions differ widely, and sometimes fundamentally, in this area. However, there was also in 1990 an evident desire for some principles and some defined limits. The 1990 Act represented a will to find common ground in a framework broadly acceptable to society.
In January 2004, the Government announced a review of the law. We recognised that the 1990 Act had worked well, but, like any cutting-edge legislation, needed to be reviewed from time to time. Our aim in undertaking the review was to ensure that the law remained effective and fit for purpose in the 21st century. In particular, we thought that a review was timely given the pace of scientific developments and public attitudes associated with them. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, remarked that,
“we were conscious of an increasing sense of urgency that controls should be introduced where none exist, and that the law should be brought up to date, so that society may be protected from its real and very proper fear of a rudderless voyage into unknown and threatening seas”.
That remark was written in 1985. Our sea charts have been partly filled in since then, but there are also new rocks and reefs. We are navigating strong currents of reproductive freedom and responsibility, patient safety, public accountability and professional autonomy, and questions of how best to safeguard the welfare of children.
The Department of Health undertook a public consultation in the summer of 2005, taking account of the extensive inquiry into reproductive technologies by the Science and Technology Committee in the other place. It produced more than 500 responses from a wide range of stakeholders, including from the medical profession, patients’ representatives, faith groups, scientists, academics and other members of the public. An independently produced summary of the responses was published in March 2006.
This was followed in December 2006 by the Government’s White Paper, setting out our legislative proposals to update the existing law and including the proposal to establish a single regulatory body for tissue and embryos. The resulting draft Bill, then entitled the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, was published for pre-legislative scrutiny in May this year. A Joint Committee of both Houses was appointed to scrutinise the Bill, and considered a wide range of evidence from stakeholders as part of its deliberations. Nine members of your Lordships’ House served on the committee, bringing to bear varied experience in law and ethics, research and regulation. The Joint Committee published its report and recommendations on 1 August.
The Government responded to the Joint Committee’s report on 8 October. We accepted the spirit of the report, and many of the recommendations. We recognised the strength of the committee’s reasoning in relation to replacement of the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority by RATE, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos. This proposal had originated in the Department of Health’s 2004 review of its arm’s-length bodies, which has, overall, been a successful programme, releasing savings for front-line care.
On balance, and in the light of the Joint Committee’s report, the Government decided to drop the proposal to establish RATE. A number of noble Lords drew attention to this matter during debate on the gracious Speech, and I am pleased to note that it has been warmly received. The Government will, however, be working with both the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority to ensure that regulation is streamlined. Separately from the Bill, we will be reviewing, together with the Treasury, the fees charged by the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority.
The Bill has benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, and clearly demonstrates the value of that process. Development of the Government’s proposals have also benefited from the reports of other parliamentary Select Committees published during the intervening years, including, for example, the 2002 report from your Lordships’ Committee on Stem Cell Research, produced under the chairmanship of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. The Bill is therefore the product of a considered and deliberative approach. It will update the regulation of assisted reproduction, ensuring that it is effective and reflective of modern society. The Bill is needed to ensure that legitimate medical and scientific uses of human reproductive technology can continue to flourish.
The Bill will help maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in ground-breaking research for the treatment of serious diseases, including through embryonic stem cell research. Its provisions are an overhaul of the existing law and will promote public confidence together with best regulatory practice. We have not, however, proposed to abandon the basic foundations on which the existing law is based. We have not tried to fix what is not broken, nor have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, we have kept to the fundamental underpinnings of the regulatory scheme based on the report of the committee of inquiry chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, on which the original legislation was based. Nevertheless, technology has moved on and so have attitudes. There are, for example, novel ways of creating embryos for research, a much increased capacity to screen embryos for serious genetic diseases, and at the same time legal recognition for different family forms. These developments demand a rigorous examination in Parliament of the regulatory framework, and a resetting of the controls and boundaries for the future.
The Bill was introduced on 8 November, a month after our response to the pre-legislative scrutiny report. It comprises 69 clauses and eight schedules, arranged in three parts. The first part consists of amendments to the 1990 Act, amending, for example, the definitions used. Part 2 consists of provisions relating to legal parenthood in certain circumstances, for future cases involving assisted reproduction. Part 3 contains miscellaneous and general provisions, including amendment of the Surrogacy Arrangements Act 1985. As well as the Explanatory Notes relating to the Bill, the department has also prepared an illustrative text of the 1990 Act, showing how it would look if the amendments proposed in the Bill were made. This text also incorporates changes to the 1990 Act made by various other instruments, including the regulations made earlier this year to implement the requirements of the European directive on tissues and cells.
The Bill’s main provisions will ensure that all human embryos outside the body, whatever the process used in their creation, are subject to regulation. The existing law refers to the process of fertilisation, which has cast doubt on whether embryos produced by more novel processes are within the regulator’s remit. It is important for the future of embryo research that there should be clarity about what is regulated, and moreover to ensure that human embryos cannot be created and used lightly.
The Bill will clarify the regulation of interspecies embryos for research. The original legislation was concerned almost entirely with human embryos. It banned the mixing of human and animal gametes, other than for the limited purposes of testing the fertility of human sperm. Beyond this, the 1990 Act does not mention embryos combining human and animal material.
Technology has moved on and promising avenues of research have expanded. For example, scientists now wish to use animal eggs in place of human eggs for the purpose of creating embryos for stem cell research, in part to overcome the shortage of human eggs available for research. The aims of such research would be, for example, to explore the potential for treatment of degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Again, it is essential that the law and regulations are clear about what falls within the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s remit. We are proposing that interspecies embryos can be created for research, subject to the HFEA’s decisions to license individual research projects as being necessary or desirable. These are exactly the same controls as apply for embryo research projects using human embryos, and subject to the same safeguards. The embryos cannot be kept beyond 14 days’ development, nor can they be placed in a woman or an animal.
Besides interspecies embryos, the Bill will also increase the scope of legitimate research activities, while retaining strong regulatory controls and oversight. The existing legislation is not, for example, as clear as it could be that basic research using embryos—the type of research that underpins more advanced applied research into serious diseases—is permitted. Similarly, the restrictions on the use of data collected by the HFEA are overly restrictive and make it difficult for the success of treatments to be followed up through good research. The Bill contains enabling powers to make access to those data easier, while allowing full attention to be given to proper confidentiality controls.
The Bill will impose a statutory ban on the sex selection of offspring for non-medical reasons. This will put on the face of the legislation something which is at present a matter of HFEA policy, giving Parliament the opportunity to fully debate the provisions. The Bill will also make explicit the basic parameters for screening and selecting embryos. Again, the intention is that this should be undertaken only on the grounds of avoiding serious disease, and the Bill preserves some flexibility for how that is to be determined. The current situation, which has been the subject of legal challenge, is not sufficiently clear, and again the opportunity is presented for Parliament to give a clear steer for the future.
The Bill includes clear recognition of same-sex couples as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos. This will mean, for example, that the woman who gives birth and her civil partner will both be recognised as the parents of a child conceived via assisted reproduction. At present, the partner would have to apply to adopt the child. Similarly, two men will be able to apply for a parental order to become parents of a child conceived through a surrogacy arrangement. At present, parental orders are open only to married couples. In considering these matters we must ensure that we do not overstress concerns and anxieties, or depart into the realms of science fiction. Similarly, we must be careful not to overhype promising areas for future exploration.
The Bill contains a number of secondary legislative powers, as well as areas of discretion for the regulator, that are intended to allow scope for flexibility where appropriate. This is to enable a rapid response to new developments as well as attention to detail in different cases. There is also in the Bill the capacity to recognise in practice when developments have become commonplace. We are, for example, imposing on the regulator an explicit duty to act always in accordance with the principles of better regulation. The Bill also provides for a more streamlined approach to administration by the regulator. For example, it removes the current requirement that the membership of HFEA licence committees must be limited only to members of the authority.
I must also briefly mention two things that the Bill does not do, and that the Government have no intention of doing. It does not—as has been claimed by some observers—deviate from the Government’s position that human reproductive cloning is illegal. The Bill’s provisions replace the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 by putting new controls directly into the 1990 Act. I am sure that we will have extensive discussions in Committee about precisely which activities are permitted in relation to eggs and embryos, but let me be quite clear from the outset that the Government’s policy remains not to allow reproductive cloning.
Another issue on which we have been quite clear from the inception of the review of the law on assisted reproduction is donor anonymity. Under the 1990 Act as originally passed, donors are anonymous. A change was made by regulations in 2004 so that where donors of gametes or embryos were registered from 1 April 2005, the donor-conceived person will have the right of access to information, including the name of the donor, from the age of 18. The Government have made clear that we have no intention of altering this position, arrived at as a matter of principle, and put successfully into practice. In fact, the Bill will enable greater access to information by donors and donor-conceived people, recognising the importance placed on genetic origins and relationships.
I look forward to an interesting debate on the extremely important issues raised by the Bill. Once more the eyes of the world are upon us. In this and subsequent stages of the Bill I believe that this House will provide, as it has in the past, the considered and expert scrutiny that is vital.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Darzi of Denham.)
My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. I am also patron of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and a member of a number of other Christian bodies.
I had the great honour of presenting to this House the 1990 Bill, which became the 1990 Act, and I retain a feeling of fatherhood towards it. I also had the honour of serving on the Select Committee of both Houses that scrutinised the draft Bill under the very distinguished chairmanship of Mr Philip Willis, an honourable Member of another place.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Darzi of Denham, for his clear exposition of the Bill and its principal features. At the outset I should say how pleased I am that the Government have decided to abandon the suggestion of amalgamating the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority with the Human Tissue Authority. I believe that to be a thoroughly wise decision and, as the noble Lord said, it is warmly supported by the Joint Committee.
It was said that the 1990 Act required fertilisation to be part of the definition of an embryo. I think that it is right to say that that was argued, but the court decided that the wording of the 1990 Act was sufficiently broad to capture an embryo however it was created.
I wish to deal with certain points in the time allotted to me as a Back-Bench speaker because, as the noble Lord indicated, many issues of great concern and importance are dealt with in the Bill. When an activity is to be licensed, it is necessary to define the activity in question. In the draft Bill, the Government expressed a desire to license the creation and use of interspecies hybrids. They did this in a list corresponding generally to paragraphs (a) to (d) of new Section 4A(5), which they propose to insert into the 1990 Act. However—this is crucial—they added what was described as a catch-all provision, which they modified in manuscript in a letter to the Select Committee. They were attempting an exhaustive definition of interspecies embryos.
Unfortunately, the scientific experts who came before the Select Committee found the catch-all provision to be incomprehensible. Because of that difficulty, the Select Committee hoped to afford the Government some help by suggesting lines that they could take. We therefore proposed a draft definition of interspecies embryos, which we recognised required work before being finalised. When the Government came to work on it, they dropped it altogether and replaced it with a power on the part of the Minister to make regulations. The difficulty with that is that if an activity is not restricted by the licensing conditions that are already in place, it will not be restricted at all. A ministerial regulation that comes thereafter will be rather late and rather retrospective, which is highly undesirable.
It would be much better to have a working definition of interspecies embryos as a whole—one that was not only a list of particular cases but a description of what is meant by the phrase in the Bill. We managed to do that in 1990 for embryos in a way that has lasted and I am sure that the present Government have at least as good resources and qualified Ministers to do that as we had. Ours has lasted for 17 years; I hope that theirs will last somewhat longer. The Minister is of course an expert in the science associated with medicine and surgery. I therefore look forward to hearing him explain in his response what he understands by the words “interspecies embryo”. I shall then be very happy to pick that up and table it as an amendment to the Bill when it reaches Committee.
Although this is Second Reading and I should not be getting too deeply into Committee points, I should point out that one sees the force of this in two provisions in the Bill. The first is in new Section 4A, which it is proposed should be added to the 1990 Act. It says:
“No person shall place in a woman … an embryo other than a human embryo”.
However, there is already a provision in Clause 3 that says:
“No person shall place in a woman … an embryo other than a permitted embryo”.
As I understand the definitions—I hope that I have understood them correctly—every permitted embryo is a human embryo, but every human embryo, since “human embryo” is not defined, is not a permitted embryo. Therefore these two provisions do not stand together. Some misunderstanding underlies them, and I suggest that reconsideration of the definition provisions would not be out of place.
The Select Committee also suggested that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority should be given the power to grant an exemption if a given application before it did not really include the need for embryonic consideration—or the consideration of the embryo—because the definitions are very wide. Just as a planning authority may find with regard to certain applications for planning permission, it may find that no permission is necessary. We suggested that. I think that the Government thought that we were trying to provide for the authority to exempt IVF treatment altogether. Certainly from my point of view—and I think that I represent the committee’s views—that was not the point at all. The evidence shows that this could catch basic science that does not involve consideration of matters particularly related to an embryo. We therefore thought that this was a good power and I have the impression that much of the respected scientific community thought the same.
I shall now pass, in the last two minutes available to me, from these rather technical matters to the point about removing from the 1990 Act the provision that required, in considering the welfare of a child in IVF treatment, consideration of the child’s need for a father. That provision in the 1990 Act was negotiated here in this House with considerable care and it was accepted unanimously here and I think also in the House of Commons. As I understand the process, male material is still necessary for the procreation of human life—I hope that I am right in that; I think that I am. If it is necessary, it seems extraordinarily undesirable, the very moment when the child comes into existence, to leave that out of account altogether.
The provision in the 1990 Act is a very general one and does not prescribe anything. It just says that the need for a father has to be kept in view. However, so urgent is the desire to change this that the Government want to miss out entirely that very innocuous provision. I did not understand why that was so during the previous Committee stage and I do not understand it now. From my point of view, it would be much better left in place. We should recognise that nature requires male material in a living human being as well as female. That should be recognised in considering the welfare of a human being about to be brought into the world regardless of whether that human being will ultimately have a father in any ordinary sense of the word, though a male who is within the framework of his society and friendship may well be the one who would be sufficient to satisfy the condition, as the evidence before us showed.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate. I suspect that none of us will be able to do justice to it on Second Reading but I should like to highlight a few issues on which I feel strongly and on which my party has a position.
Before I do so, however, I want to pay tribute to the work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and her committee which led up to the 1990 Act. Every time I pass the noble Baroness's office, which is next to mine in 2 Millbank, it reminds me what a privilege it is to be in this place rubbing shoulders with people such as Mary Warnock. The 1990 Act was a masterpiece of legislation and has made this country the envy of medical scientists all over the world. Our regulatory system and liberal approach to embryology research have put the UK in a lead position in this field.
However, advances in the field make it imperative for the 1990 Act to be reviewed. Here I also congratulate the researchers in the field in the UK on their restraint, especially, recently, the team lead by Professor Stephen Minger at King's College and the team at Newcastle led by Dr Lyle Armstrong. They both wish to use stem cells to grow cell lines in an attempt to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and spinal injury—very common conditions that will affect many noble Lords. They are waiting for the passage of this Bill and I commend them on their patience.
This research could transform the lives of huge numbers of people if successful. All of this research is so exciting. Reading up over the weekend on the latest discoveries on mitochondria—those little specks in the cytoplasm of human cells—I realised that we were very close to finding out how life emerged from the chemical soup that was on this planet millions of years ago. It is the biological equivalent of looking up at the night sky, as one does, and thinking about what lies beyond the Milky Way, and beyond that, and beyond that, until the mind boggles. This is on the same level and it is thrilling. The Government must also be congratulated on the wide consultation on the Bill and on the fine work of the committee that scrutinised the draft Bill. My noble friend Lady Neuberger was a member of that committee. I wish all legislation could be dealt with in this way in this House.
The main field under consideration in the Bill that interests me is the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos or cell lines—I wish we could call them cell lines, not embryos. It is done by using the nucleus of a human somatic cell and implanting it into an animal cell from which the nucleus has been removed, so using the energy from those magical bodies called mitochondria to do the work. Precious human eggs have been used for this. They have to be harvested from women's ovaries in an invasive and occasionally dangerous procedure, so using animal cells would be much better.
Other interspecies embryos, or cell lines, covered by the Bill are true hybrids. I have to commend to noble Lords the Enchanted Forest at Groombridge, to which I am dragged by my family every Halloween. There is a Zeedonk there, which is a hybrid of a donkey and a zebra. It is worth going just to see the expression on the animal’s face. He stands there looking as if he is thinking, “I feel a little silly”. He is worth seeing, and it is worth being reminded of what can happen with true hybrids. The Bill also considers chimera and human transgenic embryos.
I understand the horror that some people feel when talking about these things, bombarded as we are through our televisions and cinema screens with monsters of all shapes and sizes. Probably the most important provisions of the Bill, which cannot be emphasised enough, are that any embryo must not be kept or used after 14 days or when the primitive streak first appears, which is at around 14 days, and that no interspecies embryo—human embryo or interspecies embryo; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, made a very fine point—must be implanted in a woman's uterus. It must not happen.
That is one line of research, but there are others. At the weekend, Professor Wilmut, who created Dolly the sheep, was said to be working on turning somatic cells directly into stem cells. That is another very interesting line of research, but we need all avenues of research if we are going to conquer the diseases that persecute the human race. We must encourage, and we must regulate while we encourage.
The objectors will say human life is sacred, full stop. The difficulty is to define exactly what is human life. The sufferers of the diseases I mentioned are certainly human, and their lives could be transformed if this work is successful. Do we want to deny them that? What about all the eggs from my ovaries and the embryos of less than 14 days that I might have lost in the course of over 40 years of happy marriage? Was that human life? We get into very difficult areas when talking in these terms. People worry about the transmission of infection via mitochondria but, if that is a possibility, the only way we can develop ways to combat it is to allow the research to go ahead to find out what happens. What of rogue scientists acting outside the law and creating monsters? There have always been rogue scientists, which is why the law and regulations must be in place to ensure that they are caught and stopped. I shall not get carried away at this stage. Suffice it to say that my party supports this research, but we will have a free vote when the time comes.
I shall touch on other issues very briefly. Clause 14(2)(b) removes the reference in the 1990 Act to the child's need for a father. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that of course every child needs a biological father—thank goodness—but children can be brought up well without either parent in some circumstances. Two of my grandchildren have been brought up without a mother for the past three and a half years, but they have been surrounded by a loving family and a social network, the requirement for which is also mentioned in the 1990 Act and remains in the Bill. That network of support for any future child is more important than either parent; there must be a social network and an extended family. Our party has never discriminated against gay people, which is what this debate is really about, and we will therefore support the removal of those words. There will also be a prolonged debate on the child’s right to information about parentage and the effect that this may have on the availability of donors. I have a lot to say on that subject, but I will leave those arguments for the Committee stage.
I confess to sometimes feeling a little anxious about the treatment of infertility, having spent the past 10 years studying the effects on world resources, food supply and climate change of the population explosion all over the planet. At the same time, we are helping desperate, childless people to have babies. We must spend much more on making contraception available to those people who cannot stop having babies. That is not the last that I shall say on this subject.
Finally, we do not think it appropriate for us in this House to put forward amendments to the Abortion Act. That must be the prerogative of the House of Commons, Members of which are the elected representatives of the people of this country. However, if there are noble Lords here who are distressed at the number of abortions in this country—who is not?—I hope that they will support my party in our call for good statutory sex and relationship education in all of our schools and for a halt to the closure of family planning clinics nationwide, as the primary care trusts balance their books and use what they see as the easy option for cuts.
This is an exciting and fascinating Bill and there will be great debates. I look forward to the Committee stage, where I suspect that I will probably learn much more than I contribute.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for more than seven years.
I welcome the periodic review by Parliament of this area of the law. I note that in the Bill there is confirmation in every respect of decisions taken by the authority. All the scientific provisions in the Bill, which I regard as excellent, confirm decisions already taken by the authority. There is evident respect for the way in which the authority has approached its job and I hope that noble Lords are pleased that the HFEA is not to be amalgamated with another body.
It is where the Bill crosses over into the organisation of family life that I have more concerns. There is a risk in the unfolding of IVF and the consequent science that our humanity and the respective roles of men and women are ignored. It would be extraordinary if this House were to ignore the contribution made by half of the human race towards the upbringing of the next generation. It is important that this House should reaffirm the importance of parenting; both mothering and fathering.
There would be fewer concerns if the NHS provided more IVF and if such provision as there is were spread more evenly across the country. It is important to note that the public do not take IVF for granted. Treatment rolls on into new areas and blurs into research. I hope that the House will resist the siren voices that say that IVF has become commonplace and there is no need to regulate it. Clause 7 requires regulation to be proportionate. However, I should tell your Lordships that, speaking from experience, the pressure from politics and the media are such that, whenever a relatively small but unavoidable human error occurs—for example, a lost embryo—there is a hue and cry and a call for more regulation, and it would be wise to err on the side of safety. Furthermore, private doctors in this field are among the wealthiest clinicians in the country. It is of course in their interests to ensure that, by using many embryos, the woman becomes pregnant, but the costs of multiple births fall on the National Health Service. This is unfair and I look forward to the day when no more than one embryo at a time may be used.
In this field, the law is paramount but we should not forget the need for money—proper resources to enforce, to register and to fight cases—because all the time judicial review is being used to challenge interpretations, no matter how watertight the definitions may seem. Then of course there are ethics. The authority has indeed worked out ethical principles: autonomy, safety, welfare, respect for the embryo and the saving of life.
In the scientific field, the Bill confirms the wider use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. That is good. I hope that your Lordships will be pleased that the deliberate choice of an embryo that is, for example, likely to be deaf will be prevented by Clause 14. The Bill confirms saviour siblings, no selection of sex for social reasons, and extended purposes for research in embryology, first allowed in the 2001 regulations. That research, once legitimated, put the UK at the forefront of world stem cell research. Interspecies embryos will be legitimated and I think that that is right. The Bill reaffirms the importance of consent. There is to be no use of gametes taken from comatose or dead persons without their prior consent, as set out in paragraphs 5, 9 and 10 of Schedule 3. I also welcome the cooling-off period of one year when consent is withdrawn to avoid further sad cases such as that of Natallie Evans, which went to the European Court of Human Rights.
However, I feel that I should take issue with two clauses. Clause 14 would omit a child’s need for a father as a consideration in the assessment of welfare that has to be carried out by the doctor proposing to treat a woman. I hope that this new clause can be removed so that we revert to the law as it stands—the careful and sensitive compromise worked out in 1990, as described by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, which has held firm for all that period. The requirement is, after all, only to consider the need; it is not an absolute ban on treatment by any means, and it is well known that many single women and gay couples receive IVF treatment at clinics and have children. The argument for removing it is that it is now public policy to treat all families equally and to avoid any discrimination between persons on grounds of gender and sexual orientation and because there are inconsistencies and unknowns in the way that the provision is applied. There is no need for a father, it is said, especially given that there is provision in the current Bill for two women to be the legal parents of a child.
Does a child really not need a father? Clearly, the need for a mother remains unchallenged—it is implicit in the way that the law works. I think that a child needs a father. First, we are where we are. To remove the requirement that a child needs a father is to make a fresh statement to the effect that a child does not need a father. It sends a message to men, at a time when many of them feel undermined as providers and parents, contrary to government policy in this field. Government policy is that men should pay for their children after divorce and separation and that they should take responsibility. Divorce law judges hold that contact with a father after divorce is a good thing. Recently, the Government have sought to encourage single women to name the father of their babies on the birth certificates. We are told that children who find out that they are adopted or created by donor insemination need to know their fathers. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that every child has the right to know and to be cared for by both parents and of course anonymity has been removed from sperm donors, which must mean that they are important.
The current law does no more than require that a doctor checks whether there is a male in the social circle—for example, a grandfather—and causes parents to reflect on how to cope with the situation. Indeed the requirements have been much watered down by the HFEA code which has done its utmost to ensure that there is no discrimination without good reason. I would argue that the present law is not discriminatory. It applies to men and women: heterosexual couples, homosexual couples, married, cohabiting and others. Even if it were discriminatory, it is justified on the ground that the welfare of the child is paramount.
There is a wealth of research showing that children need fathers, not just a parent. Children need to see complementary roles, the relationship between the sexes, a microcosm of society as they grow up. There is also research showing that children born to lesbian parents do well, but it is limited research, mostly carried out by one researcher in this country and of necessity the children are very young. Some research shows that those children suffer from the inevitably confused and secretive family relationships that occur.
Recent reports have placed Britain at the bottom of the international league tables for the welfare of children and we know that boys without parents fail at school, that they turn to worse role models and that fathers play a great part in the upbringing of their children as well. A survey reported this morning shows that 77 per cent of the public would keep the law the way it is. After all, if a woman is pregnant and her husband dies during the pregnancy, do we not say that is a tragedy? Do we not allow her to claim damages? Many of the same arguments apply to naming two women on the birth certificate but time does not permit an exploration of that at the moment.
Finally, I put in a plea. It takes courage to stand up for what is right for children; women have won respect for their bodies and their roles in the past few years; but it is time to take care of and to support men in this enterprise as well.
My Lords, I have the very considerable privilege of being a member of the Joint Committee which met for a few weeks in the early summer of this year. I too want to put on record not only my appreciation of the chairmanship of Mr Phillip Willis but also the work of the Clerk to the committee. We were all working under great pressure and they were outstanding. To meet the deadlines we had to put to one side some of the ethical issues that underlie the Bill, although in the time available we were able to consider briefly just a few.
It is relatively easy to expose the ethical issues by asking a simple question: does the kind of scientific endeavour and therapeutic treatment which this Bill allows need regulation at all and why not let scientific and therapeutic market forces rip? As soon as one asks the question one begins to realise what some of the ethical issues are. Unregulated research and treatment could jeopardise our common understanding of what it means to be human; it could jeopardise our understanding of what we believe to be the meaning and purpose of human life; it could jeopardise our understanding of human relationships; and an unregulated free-for-all could and might lead to the unscrupulous treatment of the most vulnerable and could and might lead to some appalling abuses of power.
I outline again the four major philosophical ethical areas: first, the meaning of our humanity; secondly, the meaning and purpose of our lives; thirdly, the meaning, purpose and value of human relationships; and, fourthly, the right use of power. Those four ethical issues are accompanied by others—for example, because we have the ability to carry out research and treatment, how do we decide whether we should, and what criteria should we use to determine this? How are we to decide whether the kind of research and treatment outlined by the Bill is likely to harm or enhance individuals in society? And, conversely, what might be the effects on individuals in society if we fail to carry out the proposed research and treatment? In my view the moral questions inherent in the Bill tumble over each other in rapid succession.
I again remind noble Lords that our ability in the Joint Committee to tackle some of those questions was hampered by two things—first, as I have said, lack of time, and, secondly, having to spend time on whether the HFEA and the HTA should be coalesced into RATE. That proposal has wisely been abandoned, but the time the Joint Committee spent on that could have been spent on some of the ethical questions. In that committee some of us became aware of both the significance and the accuracy of what Sir Liam Donaldson described as the,
“deficit in medical ethics in this country”.
Some consider that medical ethics are somehow subservient to the science being undertaken. The then Minister said in her evidence to us:
“It is a mixture of science and ethics in these areas and part of getting the ethics right is taking public opinion with you in terms of support for the science”.
I do not share that utilitarian view of ethics.
Our lack of time as a committee also meant that we were unable to explore in as much depth as some of us would have liked not only the questions I have outlined, but the one that is key to this whole enterprise: what is the moral status of the human embryo? Does every embryo from the moment of fertilisation have a unique indelible moral status or does the moral status of the embryo change as the embryo develops? I recognise that the Warnock report—and many philosophers and theologians have before and since—debated this question, but ethically that question lies at the heart of this Bill, and, because of changes in science and technology and changes in public attitudes, it needs to be debated again.
I have read something about the science involved in human fertility research and treatment. I found much of that science breathtakingly interesting. I recognise that it is carried out in some instances with remarkable humility—it is very moving—but I am among those who believe that this Bill is of such fundamental importance that greater and further consideration of the ethical issues should and must be given.
I share the view of the Joint Committee that a joint bioethics committee of Parliament should be set up. If noble Lords want the details they should look at paragraph 295 on page 77 of the Joint Committee's report. I hope that that recommendation will be acted on as a matter of urgency. Such a committee should be appointed not to provide retrospective reflection on legislation but to provide a lot of prospective thinking.
We hear much—even today we have heard much—about impact assessments. What is the point of impact assessments if they do not include the ethical dimensions of the issues before us? Of course I recognise the beauty and humanity of much of the science, but it would be tragic if that beauty and humanity were to be damaged by any deficit in ethical thinking in this Parliament. It would be even more appalling if those who might be brought to birth as a result of the proposals outlined asked of us: “Why? Why were they in such a rush? Why didn’t they have the courage or the wisdom to give deep and long consideration to the morality of the proposals before rushing into law?”.
The Bill is not only about us in our generation. It is not only about our place in the world scientifically and technologically. It is also potentially about generations of people yet to come. It seems to me that we owe it to them to ensure that we give as much attention to the ethics as we do to the science and to the regulatory mechanisms. It is for their sake that we must get the ethics, and therefore the legislation, right.
My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising the basic moral issues that lie behind this important legislation. I rise, in this debate of experts, as a lay person who has none the less followed the issues closely for 20 years, to say that I very much welcome the Bill as the latest and most sensible step in a process that has been exemplary of good governance since the 1980s. After all, in an era when Parliament, the Executive and even independent regulators are often under fire for various inadequacies, it is good that we can be confident that in this very complex area of IVF and embryo research, we have been extraordinarily well guided and organised, both in policy and in practice.
As the Minister said in his introduction to the Bill, we are now a world leader in this field. Importantly, the strength of the relationship that has grown up between scientists, policymakers and regulators has meant that as technology has developed, the ethical debate has continued and the Government have not—as is so often the case—lagged behind advances in science or changes in public opinion, but have been able to keep pace with and reflect exciting new opportunities and differences in people's views.
That is obviously the purpose of the Bill. I must congratulate the Government, as other speakers have done, on the process of extensive consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny that has produced these very thoughtful proposals. Particular thanks are obviously due to those Members of your Lordships' House and Members of another place who took part in the Joint Scrutiny Committee on the draft Bill, most of whose substantive recommendations I agree with and, much more importantly, the Government have accepted. Noble Lords who were members of the scrutiny committee have spoken and will speak about the specific changes from the draft Bill that they welcome. I simply say that I am delighted to see the disappearance of RATE. It is my very strong view that the right architecture for providing a clear statutory framework based on the principles of devolved regulation is now the backbone of the Bill.
In the context of both clinical practice and research, I have always personally supported the flexibility of permissive legislation plus, needless to say, very firm regulatory boundaries, with the boundaries derived—here I perhaps part company with the right reverend Prelate—from the gradualist approach to the developing moral status of the embryo, which I was first convinced of by the report produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. I appreciate of course that others prefer a more explicit, absolutist approach, but I am happy to continue with the way in which we have satisfactorily reached the position that we have during the past 17 years. None the less, I would agree with the right reverend Prelate that the suggestion made by the scrutiny committee of the joint standing bioethics committee in Parliament has attractions, which I hope we can debate further at later stages of the Bill.
It is the pure research questions which will continue to throw up the most tricky problems for both those concerned with ethics and the regulators. We have all witnessed—we have heard examples today—an extraordinary acceleration of what can be done using IVF technology and the questions of what should be done follow equally quickly. I vividly remember visiting Monash University in Australia in the mid-1980s and being shown its pioneering work in embryo freezing. The images of human live tissue in vats with swirling dry ice arising from them have stayed with me since. At the time, it was obviously a controversial procedure, and at first seemed alarmingly futuristic and possibly dangerous.
However, clinical advantages of being able to use stored embryos in many social situations quickly became obvious. On the medical research side, the possibilities of using spare frozen embryos were already opening up. Today, freezing and storing are common practice. This Bill, in dealing with today’s realities, expands the definitions of so-called permitted embryos to include, as we have heard, interspecies embryos, which were unthought of at least by this lay person in the 1980s.
I was very appreciative of the strictures that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, addressed in his contribution about the definitions of those interspecies embryos and I hope that we will return to that at a later stage. I clearly understand that the very existence of interspecies embryos can create the sort of apprehensions that I felt when I first saw those steaming vats of frozen embryos two decades ago.
However, I believe that some of the same arguments about offering better solutions to the infertile, as well as significantly improving disease research, apply here at least as strongly to the new technologies as they did to some of the older ones. As I understand it, the most convincing argument for using specially created interspecies embryos is that there is a shortage of specially created human embryos donated for research. The research potential is simply too valuable to be limited in this way. After all, we have already seen early progress in understanding such complex conditions as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. I am particularly impressed by the valuable insights from pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. If assisted reproduction techniques can help to diminish the appalling burden of inherited genetic diseases, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Huntington’s Chorea, it will rightly seem a medical and social triumph. I am grateful to those members of the Medical Research Council and other scientists who have given me very detailed briefing on this, to which again I hope we will return in detail when we consider some of these possibilities.
It is interesting that the general public appear broadly—as we all know, this does not always happen in today’s world—to support the work of scientists and doctors in this field. Tolerance, presumably, is based on the appreciation of the practical help given by IVF to infertile couples and hope for a breakthrough in some of the familiar, intractable diseases. I suspect that public confidence is also based on the record of good governance in this field.
None the less, the scrutiny committee was right to look critically at the way in which evidence of public opinion is reported in such a complex area. It noted at paragraph 21 of its report that polling questions on complicated scientific issues can be oversimplified,
“if they require a ‘yes-no’, or ‘multiple choice’ answer”.
I was pleased that the committee also noted that those of us who served on the earlier committee on the assisted dying Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, had similar problems when trying to assess the weight of public opinion on relevant questions. It is a very important issue, particularly in sensitive policy areas where stakeholders and interest groups may be loudly vociferous and appear to be numerically strong but do not necessarily represent the broad democratic position. I agree with the scrutiny committee that the Government should take a more proactive approach in supporting public awareness and understanding of these issues, and look, too, closely at how public opinion is sampled and reported in this and other areas of bioethical interest.
On practical service provision, I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, in saying that I would like to see IVF provided by the National Health Service to many more people. It would mean not only an improvement in service equity, but it might also, as the noble Baroness suggested, lead to regulatory advantage. In the past and no doubt in the future, I understand that the activities to have caused the HFEA the greatest problems have usually been found at the margins of the commercial sector where services are offered to women who are desperate for any form of treatment. I have no doubt that as the technology develops, it will be here that the ethical horror stories, such as cloning and inappropriate implantation, will be found. The more that can be done by the NHS, the easier it will be to squeeze out dubious commercial practice and regulate more thoroughly.
The question of the role of fathers has already arisen this afternoon, and for myself I take an unusually agnostic position. I listened with great interest to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and I look forward to the speech of my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham, who I believe is to speak in the gap. She, too, was a member of the committee on this Bill.
In conclusion, the process which led to this Bill was rightly described by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth—who has also been closely involved in this field—in the Queen’s Speech debate as a “model of good practice”. The principles of permissive statute backed by tight regulation have brought us very successfully from the early days of IVF technology to today. Now I hope that those same principles can take us forward to the next stages, both in clinical practice and in scientific discovery. In my view, it would be a very great pity if this model of good practice was diverted or distorted by attempts to introduce other matters such as abortion into our consideration of the Bill. I was glad that it appeared that all Front Benches were agreed on this. I look forward to further discussion on these very complex issues, and to the Committee stage.
My Lords, the topicality of today’s debate was underlined in the headlines in the weekend newspapers, saying that the stem cell revolution has ended the need to use human embryos. I should like to turn back to that question in the substantive part of my remarks, but before doing so I should like also to touch briefly on one point just alluded to by the noble Baroness, that of the prospect that this Bill might be extended to include abortion provision, and to refer to the issue of the welfare of children.
Like the noble Baroness, I do not believe that it would be appropriate for this Bill, which gave no opportunity in committee to consider the abortion question, to extend the Abortion Act 1967. As the author of that Act, the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, said recently, 200,000 abortions a year are too many. We have laws that have allowed 7 million abortions in the past 40 years, some 600 every day, and thus 200,000 every year. We have laws that allow abortion up to and even during birth on the disabled. Many noble Lords will have seen a recent newspaper story from the south-west region of the country indicating that over a three-year period, some of the babies aborted with disabilities included those with cleft palate, club foot, hare-lip, webbed fingers and webbed feet. They numbered some 100.
These are contentious questions, but even more contentious is the proposal being put forward by Members of another place that this Bill should be used like a Trojan horse to introduce the abolition of the requirement for two doctors to certify an abortion and the extension of the Act to Northern Ireland. Attacks have also been made on the conscience clause, as well as reports that nurses and midwives are being required to carry out abortions. Without considering those issues in great depth and detail, rather as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans indicated to the House a few moments ago, it would be wholly inappropriate to be rushed pell-mell into them.
I think that all noble Lords had great confidence in the way that the Select Committee, chaired so ably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, looked at the equally contentious issue of assisted dying.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord may have misheard me. I was talking about the equally contentious issue of assisted dying in order to make the point that that Select Committee, which inevitably did not reach a conclusion, was nonetheless able to inform the debate by producing weighty documents based not entirely on taking soundings on public opinion, as the noble Baroness just said, but also on taking huge amounts of evidence. It thus informed the debate in your Lordships’ House, and I would argue that before we proceed to any changes in abortion law, the right way to proceed would be by the creation of a similar Select Committee so that we can look in detail at those contentious questions.
I turn next to the welfare of children. As my noble friend Lady Deech has said, there are serious concerns about the issue of “saviour siblings” and about the need for a father. The Bill extends the creation of saviour siblings to the treatment of serious disease rather than just life-threatening disease. To deliberately leave it open for children apparently to be created for the sole and explicit purpose of being available to provide any type of tissue at all for an existing sibling is appalling. This is truly dehumanising society, and is a serious development. I am currently awaiting an answer to the Parliamentary Question I tabled to the Minister on this subject, but will he say today where the Bill uses the words,
“umbilical cord blood stem cells, bone marrow or other tissue”,
what “other tissue” means? The phrase in the Bill does not seem to exclude anything specifically. I was deeply concerned to hear these words from Dr Simon Fishel, the managing director of the CARE Fertility Group, who is also an inspector, peer reviewer and external adviser to the HFEA:
“You might start looking at organs”.
Given that the chairman of the Joint Committee, Mr Phil Willis, bewilderingly suggested that autism was also a condition that a saviour sibling might in future be created for, Parliament surely deserves to know what the Government have in mind in extending the definitions from “life-threatening” to “serious”. Also, precisely what in the Bill itself would unequivocally ban the creation of a child to be a kidney donor, for instance? Instead of creating saviour siblings for umbilical cord, how much better it would be if we were routinely collecting umbilical cord and cord blood. Only four National Health Service facilities do this at present, while 98 per cent is routinely destroyed. That would save lives immediately.
I intend to ask your Lordships to amend the Bill in Committee to ensure that harvesting causes no harm to the donor. I would also like all references in the Bill that seek to create a legal fiction around parenthood to be deleted. As the Joint Committee rightly said, to deny to a child that he or she had a real biological father would be nothing short of the state colluding in a deception. An estimated 800,000 children in Britain already have no contact with their father. To deliberately add to that number is downright irresponsible. One of the deepest questions that we ask ourselves is, “Who am I?”. The right to lineage affects us all, and uncertainty over parentage can profoundly unsettle people. The popularity of television programmes such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” illustrates the natural desire to know one’s family history. The guidance of the Oracle of Delphi to the Lydian King Croesus was that to be happy, he must know himself. That is true for us too.
The Government’s decision to remove the reference to the “need for a father” from law and social policy is a huge error. Women should not be interrogated at IVF clinics about their sexual orientation or their marital status and many single women are loving and exceptionally good mothers, but the need for a father, and the right to know who he is, are the issues. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, in the debate last week on the Queen’s Speech, when he said,
“children are not accessories to adults’ preferences”.—[Official Report, 8/11/07; col. 157.]
Like my noble friend Lady Deech, I urge the Government to delete those references from the Bill.
I turn to the issue of embryology. I want to challenge the provisions in the Bill that will add to the 2 million human embryos that since 1990 have been destroyed or experimented upon. The new Bill goes even further, permitting the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos. Many of us have previously pointed to the futility and lack of progress of embryonic stem cell research, but the argument has now shifted to the new methods for producing stem cells with the same potential as embryonic stem cells. Those committed to human embryonic stem cells now have no excuse to work with—that is, to destroy—embryos for the purpose of deriving new or patient-matched pluripotent cell lines. Last Saturday Professor Ian Wilmut, who famously cloned Dolly the sheep, declared cloning work with human embryos needless. He said:
“The work which was described from Japan of using a technique to change cells from a patient directly into stem cells without making an embryo has got so much more potential”.
However, the justification given for this new Bill in the recent Queen’s Speech was that we have to,
“ensure that Britain remains at the forefront of medical research”.
It is clear from what Professor Wilmut said that interspecies cloning is not the way ahead.
As yet, no therapies anywhere in the world use embryonic stem cells. Strikingly, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology in 2005 stated:
“Meanwhile, forward steps continue to be made in the field of adult stem cell therapy”,
for which there are no moral hazards. It continued:
“One estimate is that there are currently over 80 therapies and around 300 clinical trials underway using such cells”.
When I divided the House on this issue in 2001, many of those who voted for embryonic cloning, and who will vote for animal-human hybrids, did so out of a genuine humanitarian desire to help those who suffer from disabling diseases. The state of stem cell research led them to believe that they had to choose between the ideal of helping to cure disease and the equally cherished belief of many that it is unconscionable to destroy nascent human lives in experimentation. Six years on from the hype of 2001, not only is it clear how the hopes of the desperate have often been cruelly and falsely raised, not least by the scandal of fraudulent cloning claims, but it is apparent that the supposed ethical dilemma may have been rendered redundant. In June 2007, three separate publications heralded the successful creation of embryonic-like cells from adult stem cells. This allows for the creation of a middle ground in the debate. Ethically uncontroversial stem cell techniques are where the future lies.
In the House of Lords debate in 2001, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the then 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.]
It is no longer necessary. I hope that, instead of ending the unnecessary destruction of human embryos and advocating the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos, we will agree to that simple test—let us call it the Hunt test—which I will seek to move as an amendment in Committee; that is, licences will not be granted unless applicants can prove that no alternative is available, and applicants should have to demonstrate that embryos from no other species could be used for the same purpose and that their proposals are well founded and based on prior work from other species. In these controversial areas of embryology, child welfare and abortion, the House should proceed with great care and be prepared, if significant improvements are not made, to reject this Bill outright at Third Reading.
My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, I was a member of the Joint Committee. I join him in saying that pre-legislative scrutiny of what is by any standards a complex and controversial Bill has proved its purpose.
Perhaps I may refer briefly to two matters that are not in the Bill. The first, the amalgamation of the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority into RATE, has already been referred to. From the very moment that the merger was announced, I thought that it was a rotten idea—I am on record as saying it. The idea survived for some three and a half years, but the Select Committee, and the evidence that it heard from almost every witness who referred to it, has put paid to it. I hope that the Minister will give a firm assurance that no attempt to resurrect RATE will be made. One reason for rejecting the proposal which certainly impressed me was that to treat human tissues and embryos as though they were equal entities, which the original title of the draft Bill and RATE would have provided for, would seem to devalue the importance of the embryo. Therefore, I am glad that that provision is not in the Bill.
However—this is the second matter to which I wish to refer—one of the consequences of that is that what the Select Committee recommended about amendments to the Human Tissues Act, I am now firmly advised cannot be done, because of the terms of the Long Title of the Bill. This is a very great pity.
We were told by some witnesses that the way in which the Human Tissue Act is drafted, with its reference to anything containing cells, means that, for instance, blood and human faeces and urine, even if taken from living people, are all subject to the legislation. In Scotland, they do not do that; they make it perfectly clear that the equivalent of the Human Tissue Act applies only to the products of post-mortems. There are some 200 million instances in England per annum because of the ridiculous definition that crept into that Act, compared with 140,000 post-mortems. We cannot deal with that in this Bill. I hope that the Minister can tell us when the Government will introduce legislation to put that right, as well as the other points that were drawn to our attention, principally by the Royal College of Pathologists. If noble Lords want the details, they are in paragraphs 106 and onward of the Joint Committee’s report.
On some of the issues that we are now being asked to consider, a third issue that is not in the Bill but has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is abortion law. I was astonished to find that we can expect—perhaps not in this House but certainly in the other place—amendments to the existing abortion legislation. The Select Committee simply had nothing whatever to do with that; it was not in the Bill and not part of our terms of reference. Why have we ruled out human tissue reform when we will have to discuss abortion reform at some stage? It is because the existing law on abortions, dealing with late abortions and the time limits, is to be found in the 1990 Act. Of course, because we are amending the 1990 Act, hey presto, we can discuss abortion. There is something wrong with our rules that make this distinction, but it is not for me to recommend what should be done to put it right. This Bill, with human tissues out and abortion in, seems a very strange way in which to proceed.
I turn to one matter that has been mentioned by a number of people and one other matter that has only been touched on. In the Joint Committee, we set out what I can only call the repeated tergiversations of government policy on human animal embryos. I refer to paragraphs 152 to 154 of the report. The Joint Committee unanimously described those tergiversations as “extremely unhelpful”—and I can only add to that. At the time when we began to consider the matter, the White Paper said one thing while ministerial letters said another.
Finally, we were left with the position that cytoplasmic hybrids, sometimes called cybrids—although I like the other expression used this afternoon—and true hybrids were different things. The committee could see no difference whatever, and we regarded the Government’s distinction as,
“misguided and resting on no sound point of principle”.
What do we find now? In the Bill, the Government have accepted that position. We have come full circle, and all those entities are now to be regarded as within the competence of the regulator and permitted subject only to regulation. The point has been made, but I emphasise again that the safeguards built in to that—the 14-day rule, no implantation and so on—stand and are statutory and provide the main barrier against abuse. This last change of view by the Government is welcome, but one has to say that it was a tortuous way in which to get there.
I recognise that there are strong views—we have heard some of them this afternoon—about joint human and animal embryo research. We heard about that at some length, as the right reverend Prelate will remember, at the evening forum, where we met representatives of a lot of the bodies that advised us and gave us their views on these issues and I am sure that I am not alone in having had a great deal of correspondence on the issue since then. Having said that, I am persuaded that the view put forward by the Minister this afternoon and by our scientific advisers—particularly the Medical Research Council, the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust—is correct: this work is necessary for the advancement of research. This is not only blue-sky research to try to unfold the mysteries of life, which was referred to this afternoon, but to provide ways of curing some of the most debilitating, damaging and unpleasant diseases from which the human race suffers. That therefore justifies such research, subject to proper ethical and regulatory control.
I have two minutes to deal with the other issue, and I want to talk about the children born of donor conception. We heard some interesting and moving evidence from some of those who fell into that description. There are a bewildering number of provisions in the Bill to deal with parenting and so forth. My concern is about the right of a donor-conceived person to know his or her genetic origins. Do they have a right to be told? Is there a duty on parents to tell? What should go on the birth certificate? One point that was made to us was that, if a person is conceived by donor conception and the birth certificate shows someone else as the father—perhaps the husband of the wife—is not the state conniving in a deception?
We examined these problems at some length—it is all in the report—but we said that we recognised that these are complex issues. We called on the Government to give urgent attention to addressing this and to come to a conclusion. The Government said in their response that they are reviewing the position. That is not enough. We know what that means in Whitehall-speak. We are entitled to ask the Government to come to conclusions on these issues in time to be able to table amendments to the Bill. I hope that the Government will be able to reply to that.
My Lords, I am conscious that the Bill has been given the most careful overview and pre-legislative scrutiny, and I begin by echoing the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, when she said that this Bill is a remarkable example of the attempt to involve the legislature in great detail in the drafting of a Bill. Although there are aspects of the Bill that I cannot pretend to like, it is a remarkable example of how the legislature should be brought in to the drafting and scrutiny of Bills to a much greater extent than is generally true. We all know that there is a great deal of ill-drafted and ill-thought-out legislation and this Bill is a remarkable counter-example of how to involve people in the deepest discussion on a matter of such complexity and importance.
I was not on the Joint Committee and I have been struck by the remarks of those who were who have obviously thought very deeply about this, so I shall restrict my remarks to four particular points, the first three of which I will end by asking a direct question of the Minister, because they directly affect the Government's intentions.
The first thing that I want to mention goes back to the debates that we had in this House in January 2001 at the initial stages of our discussion of embryo cell research, when two Members of this House—I believe that the other Member will speak about this as well—raised on more than one occasion the success of adult stem cell research and the indications that adult stem cells had two great advantages. They are pluripotential—as embryo cells can be—but, more importantly, they are proof against immune reaction, which is not the case with embryo cell therapy when used without very careful matching of the therapy to the patient. At that time the scientific community broadly took the view that embryo therapy was much more useful and significant and had much greater potential than adult stem cell therapy. Since then leaps and bounds have been made in the field of adult stem cell therapy, not least in the repairing of heart muscle, the possibility of transplantation of bone marrow—which is rather more long standing—and the discovery of the extreme usefulness of umbilical cord blood in repairing and helping with therapies that are, and have been shown to be, extremely successful.
One reason for the superior view taken of adult stem cell therapy was due to the strongly argued case in the scientific community—this was partly fired by the sometimes ignorant opposition in some circles towards embryo cell therapy—that it was the superior way to go. So the first question I ask the noble Lord is: have we now put behind us any bias between these two different kinds of research? Exactly what financial support has been given for adult stem therapy, and with what results, in the nine years since we discussed this matter?
One of the reasons I am so concerned about this is because at that time I raised the case of a researcher, Dr Abuljadayel, who was unable to get her work on adult stem cells printed in any major scientific publication in this country. That troubles me a great deal. As it turned out, she had a very important contribution to make. As I say, she could not get her work published in any major scientific journal and was able to do so only when her professor at Cambridge agreed to associate his recommendation with it. That troubles me and I would like an assurance from the Minister that we shall look with open and unbiased attitudes at the different therapies that can be useful. From those in this field whom I have spoken to my understanding is that so far embryonic cell research has not produced any remarkable therapeutic results although it has challenging possibilities in the research field. The Minister may be able to say a little more about that.
The second issue that I want to address is that of cloning, which has received the resilient response from the HFEA and others that it will be controlled by the unwillingness—that is quite proper—to transplant a cloned embryo into a living female surrogate, or woman capable of carrying that embryo to term. That is fine as far as it goes, but what bothers me is that in the emphasis that we place, and have placed, on the leading role of the United Kingdom in research, we have not so far mentioned that any attempt to try to ban the cloning of human beings by refusing to allow reproductive cloning takes no notice at all of the fact that we live not only in a global scientific community but one which is intensely competitive and driven to a great extent by profound commercial interests. That means quite simply that we need to hear—this is my second question to the Minister—exactly what position the United Kingdom Government take towards the United Nations’ attempt to get some form of global banning of reproductive cloning, because without that we all know perfectly well that rogue scientists will be perfectly happy to go round the back of their own national prohibitions in order to get the chance to carry out their research elsewhere. The reason is obviously that such research could be immensely valuable commercially. There will be people, driven either by egotism or by the desire to try to ensure that they can provide designer babies to those who have the ability to pay for them, who will be only too ready to put out their shingle and respond by providing the necessary technological knowledge. That is not science fiction. If you look at the way in which the disgraceful trade in organs has grown in our society in the past few years, you will see that what I am saying is not untrue. Ethical considerations may be overleaped by the personal hunger to deal with particular therapeutic and medical conditions. I understand that—we all do; we are all human beings—but it is an extremely dangerous road to go down. Will the Minister therefore say whether Her Majesty’s Government will support the United Nations in its effort to get some form of global ban? I recognise that this will be a long and hard struggle. In particular, will he say whether they share the view of Dr Zakri, who works for the United Nations University, that the crucial path to take is:
“A legally-binding global ban on work to create a human clone, coupled with freedom for nations to permit strictly controlled therapeutic research”?
This, in his view, has the greatest possibility of being accepted by the United Nations.
Thirdly, and briefly, I strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, had to say about retaining the original 1990 reference to the need of a child for a father. I recognise—I have some friends and relatives in this position—that a pair of men or women, or for that matter a woman on her own, can be marvellous parents. That is not my main concern at the moment. My main concern is that research shows conclusively in fields such as education and educational achievement that a child who has a male model as well as a female model is likely to do considerably better than one who does not have that male model, because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, so rightly said, our society is made up of men and women. They often have rather different approaches, even rather different language: women’s language is much more often associational, and men’s language is more often directly related to a particular issue.
Be that as it may, I refer in this context to the very interesting research done by Professor Carol Gilligan in the United States and her book In a Different Voice. She goes at length into the ways in which little girls and little boys develop. In no sense is one more able than the other. Simply, one is rather different from the other, and a child will benefit from understanding from its babyhood what a man and a woman constitute and how they should complement each other. I have a deeper purpose, however. I believe that one of the ways forward for the family—it is no good thinking that we can go back to a traditional family structure of a very old fashioned kind—is that men and women alike have to bear a much greater part of the responsibility for raising children, for looking after elderly relatives, and for caring for those members of their family who are needy in one way or another. Traditionally, that has fallen largely to women, but it will be less true in future. Unless we give men a full sense of what it is to be a father, a member of a family, and a proud and in many ways very rich potential, we will simply find ourselves with more and more dysfunctional families, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, rightly said, with boys who do not quite see what their place is in society and the family. I strongly recommend to this House that we think very carefully about taking a step that looks trivial but could be serious in changing the atmosphere and the attitude towards fatherhood.
Finally, on abortion, I strongly support the argument that we should consider not amending this Bill but rather sending it to a bioethics committee along the lines suggested by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, as there is certainly something objectionable about using abortion as a form of contraception, and the price that we all pay in human and social terms is very grave indeed.
My Lords, in view of the fact that the two opposition spokespeople are not here for the Statement, may I suggest that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, would like to make his contribution to the current debate before we move on to the Statement?
My Lords, I am delighted to take the opportunity to stand in for Northern Rock on this occasion and to provide, I hope, some useful insight in the light of the absence of the opposition spokesmen.
I am at the same time extremely delighted to see the Bill come to the House but also dismayed. I am delighted because, like all of us, I want to see effective, quality research that will alleviate the difficulties that many people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and many cancers. All of us wish to see effective research completed, conducted and foreseen for those who struggle, for there to be greater dignity in places of pain.
However, I am dismayed by the Bill because of a number of factors already referred to by the right reverend Prelate and because of some other matters which I will come to. One is the sense of rush, even super-urgency, about the legislation. I was deeply concerned to hear the right reverend Prelate who had taken part in the committee say that there had been a considerable lack of time to give proper scrutiny, even consideration, to ethical matters. He raised a number of points, he said, concerning the meaning of humanity, life, relationships and even power. I should like to add to that list a few other points which the Minister—and we as a House—might want to reflect on.
These points include the meaning of vulnerability and need in the cases of parents and of children from gestation onwards. What is common consent when it comes to partnering and support for children? What do we mean by a commitment to the undiminished support that we as a society say we wish to give for people who are weak, ill and suffering? Do we simply want to screen the problems out or to continue to support those who struggle with medical issues?
What about an intelligent approach to pro-life? I hate the fact that that term has been so closely associated only with those who are said to be anti-abortion. I cannot believe that any noble Lord is not pro-life. We are all pro-life because we all wish to see life supported, provided for, enhanced, enriched and bettered, whether by the resources of the state through medical services or the support of families. All of us must be by nature pro-life. I wish to recapture that phrase and not have it limited off only to those who are seen to be, as it were, anti-abortion. We also need, in ethical considerations, some clarity on when the period of gestation is effected. When is a child created and through which circumstances? All of those are ethical matters that the previous committee had not time to consider and that deserve consideration by this House and another place.
I think it also raises the question for all of us of whether, in the light of the absence of sufficient ethical consideration and of proper public understanding of these issues, the Bill is not simply jumping too far ahead for many of us. If one looks at the period separating the report of both Houses—published on 1 August, not only when both Houses had gone into recess but when, as many would see it, the silly season had begun—the government response, the Government’s publication of the legislation, and this debate today on Second Reading, one will see that it has been inordinately rushed.
I had the opportunity yesterday to discuss the issues raised by the Bill with some very good friends who are involved in charities working with seriously ill elderly people and who work also at the most senior levels of the National Health Service in the care of patients with cancer. I found among them—I am sure they will not mind my saying so—levels ignorance that even they felt embarrassed by, as did I. Given the seriousness of the issues raised, how could we believe that a Bill of this magnitude and significance, which does not have wide public understanding, should be rushed through this House or another place?
I hear many reacting by saying that detailed consideration has indeed been given, and I am sure that sure in many ways it has. However, I have read both the proposed legislation and the Explanatory Notes—which, although elegant and thoughtful, are in some ways very confusing. I shall refer simply to page 30 of the notes, on Clauses 36 and 37, which gives the definition of “fatherhood conditions”. If I read that definition to the House I am sure that bemused bewilderment would appear on the faces of many noble Lords. I urge noble Lords to read it. If those who are advising us cannot explain in plain English what the conditions of fatherhood mean, how can the public possibly understand the seriousness of this legislation? My first thought is to ask this House and the Minister not whether we should ditch the Bill but whether we should have a period to allow proper public understanding of the depth of these issues, the significance of the provisions that we are being asked to consider and whether we should take more cautious care. I agree that there should be a joint bioethics committee, but what a tragedy that it comes after the legislation has been developed, not in advance. Ethical considerations should be at the heart of how we think about all these vital life issues.
This week it is 16 years since the Government of this country ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is interesting that when that UN declaration was considered by the Government, discussed in public, signed and known about, it had a critical provision that the child has a right to know its parents and to be sustained by them. How does this legislation stack up with that commitment? The intention to remove the necessity in certain cases to name the father, in particular, is not consistent with other obligations.
In the light of that, I am drawn to the statement made in the Department of Health press release issued on 8 November. It is closely allied to what was said in the gracious Speech. It is that this legislation will place Britain at the forefront of scientific research. We would all welcome that, within limits. It also states that it would do that,
“in the light of developments in technology and society's attitudes”.
It is clear to me that society’s attitudes have moved towards a desperation, not just an understanding, for fathers to be consistently committed to the children whom they are responsible for creating in whatever form they are created. A recent survey indicated that 82 per cent of people think that children are adversely affected across between one and eight categories of well-being by the absence of a father and that 81 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24 and 80 per cent of women share that view. Society’s attitudes are increasingly in favour of acknowledging the power of fathers, of naming fathers and of fathers’ duties and responsibilities. If that is the case, some measures in the Bill seem to be inconsistent with society’s expectations and the changes that have taken place.
I asked about ethical thinking, the necessity for greater clarity on ethical questions, timing and whether we have not been too rushed on these matters, the necessity for redefinitions and an appreciation that pro-life is not anti anything but is in favour of all of us. I want to make one small point. It is not to raise the critical and complex issue of abortion—enough has been said about that—but in this House on 19 July I asked the Minister responsible at the time whether we should not give greater consideration to the importance of greater support for adoption in the light of the amendments to this legislation that also cover adoption law. At the time, I was given a dismissive, possibly even curt, response:
“We are talking about sexual health and reproduction; we should not look at unintended pregnancies as a source of babies for adoption”.—[Official Report, 19/7/07; col. 367.]
My point is very simple: given that the Bill will create new categories needing further requirements on adoption because of the way in which children may be brought to life, and given that there are amendments to adoption, is it not time that we are also very serious about talking up the options of positive adoption, not as a consequence of children brought into life that we must find some radical solution for but simply because it is another choice for another life already existing, a child who is already there for whom the state already pays? Therefore should it not be a more creative and positive approach to some of the options that should be provided?
My Lords, I beg leave to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor in another place this afternoon. The Statement is as follows:
“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement to update the House on the current position with regard to Northern Rock.
“The House will recall that last week I said during the Queen’s Speech debate that I would keep the House informed of developments. I also said that I expected to publish a statement of principles underpinning the Government’s approach to proposals received by Northern Rock with regard to its future. I published that statement this morning, prior to the markets opening, in the usual way. Copies are available in the Vote Office and the Library of the House.
“It is important to be clear about the respective responsibilities of the Northern Rock board and the Government. The board is legally responsible to its shareholders for the future of the company. However, the Government have a wider public interest in maintaining financial stability, which is why we agreed to “lender of last resort” support in September and subsequent lending by the Bank of England. The Government also have an interest in protecting the interest of the taxpayer. Because of this, the Government have, as a major creditor, a very direct interest in the future of Northern Rock. Therefore, the Government have to agree to any proposals for the future of Northern Rock.
“Before turning to our approach, let me first deal with the position with regard both to the guarantee arrangements to Northern Rock depositors provided by the Government, and to the loan facilities provided by the Bank of England to support Northern Rock and to maintain financial stability in general.
“First, we have made it clear that the guarantee arrangements already announced for depositors to safeguard their position will remain in place during the current instability in the financial markets. Those guarantee arrangements were absolutely necessary. They have not had any cost to the taxpayer because these deposits, covered by the guarantee arrangements, remain in the bank.
“As I have said before, savers are free to take their money out if that is what they want to do, but they have no need to do so. The guarantee arrangements ensure that savers’ deposits are safe. The guarantee will not be removed without proper notice being given to depositors.
“Looking ahead, I have made it clear that the Government will legislate for a new regime for protecting bank depositors. As the House knows, we have published a discussion paper on this legislation. I welcome the offer of cross-party support for it, but it is important that we get it right. There are many examples, both here and in other countries, where legislation has been rushed only to be regretted later.
“The current consultation finishes on 5 December. I will bring forward proposals in the new year when I have also had time to consider the outcome of the Treasury Select Committee’s work, as it has requested.
“The second element of support is the Bank of England loan facilities. It is important to remind ourselves why that support was put in place in the first place. Northern Rock got into difficulties because it was almost totally reliant on getting very substantial sums from the securitisation and money markets on a continuous basis to do its business. When that lending became ever more difficult, it had no option other than to go to the Bank of England. Because of the possible impact on the stability of the wider financial system, it was right that I authorised the Bank of England to intervene, and that, too, had cross-party support.
“While international financial markets have shown signs of improvement since the sharp credit squeeze in August and September, there clearly remains continued uncertainty in markets following the problems that arose in the American housing market in the summer. The rates at which banks are willing to lend to each other also remain high in all the major currencies. Therefore, it is vital that we do everything that we can to maintain stability internationally as well as here at home.
“As the House knows, we are taking steps at an international and domestic level to improve the regulatory regime and to provide greater transparency. That was the subject of the discussions of the G20 Finance Ministers that I attended in Cape Town over the weekend.
“The continuing support by the Bank of England has also given Northern Rock an opportunity to consider its strategic options. I am very clear that this is also the right thing to do, and indeed when I announced it to the House it enjoyed support from all parts of the House.
“I know that there has been interest in how much support the Bank of England is giving. The Bank publishes its balance sheet every week. However, in common with other central banks, it does not provide details of any operations, because it believes that doing so would undermine its ability to provide such support. I understand the frustrations this can sometimes cause. However, to provide what would, in effect, be a running commentary on any operations would likely have adverse effects that none of us would want.
“Having said that, I can tell the House that the Bank of England lending is secured against assets held by Northern Rock. These assets include high-quality mortgages with a significant protection margin built in and high-quality securities with the highest quality of credit rating. The Bank is the senior secured creditor. The FSA has said before, and continues to say, that Northern Rock’s main asset base—its mortgage book—is strong and sound.
“Like any lender on this scale, we have ensured that the Bank’s lending is subject to significant conditions and controls to ensure that our interests are protected. In return for this facility, Northern Rock has agreed a number of controls, including not declaring, making or paying any dividend without the prior written consent of the Bank of England and not making any substantial change to the nature of its business.
“I now turn to the next stage. It is in the interests of everyone that the situation with regard to Northern Rock is resolved as soon as possible. That is why Northern Rock asked for expressions of interest in purchasing the business. As the company has announced earlier today, as part of its review of its strategic options, it has received indicative expressions of interest covering a range of options for the business. It currently expects to receive further expressions of interest in the next few days.
“It is essential that public interest here is protected. That is why today I have published the principles that will underpin the Government’s approach when assessing proposals from Northern Rock regarding its future. As I said, the Government have to agree any such proposals.
“These principles make it clear that the Government have a clear duty to protect the public interest, and we will do that. However, I think the whole House, and particularly those honourable Members representing constituencies in the north-east, will want us to do everything we can within the constraints upon us to resolve a very difficult position for Northern Rock. So let me set out our approach.
“First, we will protect the interests of the taxpayer. Substantial sums have been lent and this money has to be repaid at an appropriate time and rate. The Government will consider proposals with a view to reaching the best outcome for the public purse. Secondly, we will protect depositors. It is essential to do everything we can both to safeguard their interest and to maintain the service provided to them. Thirdly, we will maintain wider financial stability.
“As I have made clear all along, the Government will now assess proposals from the company consistent with the approach I have set out here, and we remain closely engaged with the company as the best outcome for the future is assessed.
“As the company has acknowledged today, any proposals would have to be approved by the Government, and, importantly, any proposal can be vetoed by the Government. In that way, the Government can ensure that the public interest is safeguarded. As I told the House, any outcome must meet EU state aid rules.
“It would be quite wrong to dismiss any option now without proper consideration, as some suggest. I continue to believe it is right to use this time to explore the best outcome for the company and the public interest. I agreed to Bank of England support because I believed it was right to do so. I agreed to continuing support to allow Northern Rock the time it needs to consider its strategic options because it was right to do so. And I have today set out the approach the Government will take as they assess proposals from the company to ensure that we will only approve a solution that safeguards both the public interest and the specific interests of the taxpayer. That work is being done now and will be concluded as quickly as possible. I will, of course, continue to keep the House informed in the coming weeks. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. It is plain that the mess that is Northern Rock is the result of bungling of the very highest order. Northern Rock's board must certainly take the blame for a business model that did not withstand the liquidity squeeze. It is right and proper that several members—executive and non-executive—have now quit office. The problems faced by Northern Rock were magnified by the inadequacy of the tripartite arrangements which oversaw the government response to the situation. I remind the House that this resulted in the first run on a bank in the United Kingdom for 140 years and did considerable damage, not only to Northern Rock but to our financial services sector overall.
The tripartite arrangements were invented by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor and they failed their first big test. The Government still have not said anything about changes to the tripartite arrangements and I ask the Minister what the Government intend to do about them. I hope that they will not be needed again, but we cannot be sure about that. We need to be sure that they will work better next time.
The Governor of the Bank of England was very clear when he gave evidence to the Treasury Select Committee in another place that various legislative changes were needed. We know that there will be a depositor protection Bill some time this Session but there has been silence from the Government about the other legislative changes. When do the Government intend to address those issues? They seem at least as important as sorting out depositor protection, especially given the fact that the Government have already created the precedent of underwriting the whole of Northern Rock's liabilities.
The statement made by the Treasury this morning merely deepens the mire in which the Government find themselves. We knew that the Government had said that they would guarantee the liabilities of Northern Rock while the financial instability lasted, but we do not know how long it will last and today we are none the wiser. In what respect do the Government consider that financial instability continues? How will we know when the financial instability has come to an end? Will the Minister say whether the continuance of financial instability and hence the need to guarantee Northern Rock's liabilities is a specific or a systemic concept—that is, does it relate only to the instability of Northern Rock?
We already knew that Northern Rock has been increasingly drawing on the facility set up by the Bank of England, and we are led to believe that that was fully backed by assets. Today, the Government have declined to give full details but have said that the lending is secured against assets. How much security has been given? Are the advances 100 per cent covered by assets and is there a reasonable margin on top?
The Statement did not deal with the interest on the loans made to Northern Rock. This morning it was reported that some part of the interest was being rolled up in the form of a five-year subordinated debt. Is that true? Are all the interest payments from Northern Rock being made in cash and on time and, if not, what is happening to the balance? Are all the advances made to Northern Rock on the Bank of England's balance sheet or is some part perhaps related to rolled-up interest carried on the Treasury's own balance sheet and, if so, why?
Northern Rock's own statement this morning said that the value to shareholders of any of the strategic options, including the sale options, was “highly uncertain”. In City-speak that means that there may well be nothing at all left for shareholders. In the Government’s view, could all the losses go beyond the equity holders and, if so, who is next in line to bear any losses? Might it be necessary for the Bank or the Treasury to write off any sums advanced to Northern Rock, including any rolled-up interest?
The principles statement this morning set out the three objectives of the tripartite authorities in relation to Northern Rock. I understand the need to protect taxpayers—that is clear. I also understand the need to protect consumers, who have been protected extremely well thus far. Will the Minister explain the issues around financial stability, which is the tripartite authorities’ third objective?
When the Government stepped in to support Northern Rock through the Bank of England there were clear systemic concerns. Can the Minister explain in what sense Northern Rock continues to present systemic issues? Do the Government believe that there are, today, financial stability issues which go beyond Northern Rock? If so, what are they? Are any other institutions being supported in the same way as Northern Rock, which is what is implied by a continuation of financial stability issues?
Last week the documents inviting bids for Northern Rock escaped into the public domain. They contained some startling assumptions about the continuation of government money for the long term and about possible retrospective reductions in the rate of interest being charged. Finally, will the Minister give a positive assurance to the House that the Government have no intention to make taxpayers foot that kind of bill even if the EU state aid rules allow it?
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Like many other noble Lords, I am sure, I find it extremely disappointing. It says virtually nothing new, contains no specific proposals and fails completely to acknowledge the situation that Northern Rock finds itself in. At present, every taxpayer has about £900 invested in or at stake in Northern Rock, making a colossal £24 billion loan in total. That is a staggeringly large amount.
Following the expressions of interest made at the end of last week, does the Minister accept that it is clear that Northern Rock simply cannot be sold—as the Government would clearly like, and which in a sense is the ideal situation—as a going concern, lock, stock and barrel, at anything like the existing share price, and possibly at any significant positive share price at all? Is not the truth that Northern Rock is now worth virtually nothing and that there are only two realistic options going forward? The first is administration and the second is government control by temporary public ownership. Of the two, administration seems the less attractive. It would in effect close Northern Rock down. It might well end up with Northern Rock being split up, bringing significant costs to the north-east, which we would all like to avoid, and it would probably cost the Government millions if not billions. The administrators’ main concern of course would be the interests of the shareholders.
In our view public ownership would reflect the current reality. Northern Rock only survives at all today because of government support. Public ownership would avoid the conflicts of interest which currently exist in the management between the public’s interest and shareholders’ interest, and it would give time to stabilise the situation.
The Government accepted the principle of public ownership when that was the least bad option in the case of Railtrack. They should surely do the same in this case. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that when the Chancellor says in his Statement that he has ruled out no options, the options that still remain on the table include the option of public ownership. Secondly, will the Minister comment on the situation of Mr Applegarth and, in particular, whether he is, as reported, likely to leave with a £2 million pension pot and a generous pay-off, all underwritten by the taxpayer? Does he agree that most people would find such a payment, if it were made, to be repugnant? Can he make that view clear to the current chairman of Northern Rock?
Over the weekend, there have been a number of comments by hedge fund shareholders in Northern Rock demanding, in effect, that they get a high value for their shares. Can the Minister or the Chancellor explain to them the nature of markets: that if they invest in a concern that is growing rapidly, unsustainably and on an increasingly risky basis, they may come a cropper and that, if they do, they have no one but themselves to blame?
On the question of government support, the nature of government support and the nature of the asset against which that support rests, can the Minister confirm that, despite the statement made by the Prime Minister, not all the government support is against secured assets? In the Statement today, the Chancellor says that those assets include high-quality mortgages and high-quality securities, and repeats the fact that the FSA has said before and continues to say that Northern Rock’s main asset base—its mortgage book—is strong and sound. That may be, but can the Minister confirm that a significant proportion of its assets—probably in excess of £8 billion—is not secured on anything and that that is necessarily the case when Northern Rock has been giving and, until very recently continued to give, mortgages to a value of 127 per cent of the value of the property on the day on which the mortgage was given? That is at a time of falling house prices, so if it is £8 billion today, it will be £9 billion and more in the coming months. When the Government claim that they are lending against secured assets, that seems a somewhat misleading statement. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what the Prime Minister had in mind last week when he used that phrase.
To sum up, this is an extremely sorry saga. Some of the elements that led to it, as the noble Baroness said, such as the way in which the tripartite agreement was working in the summer, will need careful review. At the moment, we need decisive action—something which is completely lacking from today's Statement. In our view, only public ownership will protect the public and the taxpayer interest. Today's Statement totally fails to reflect the seriousness of the current situation.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords, who have each commented on the existing arrangements of the tripartite authorities. Of course we are learning lessons from Northern Rock and have indicated that improvements can be effected to those arrangements. Part of the difficulty lay in the degree of monitoring of the bank's activities. That indicates that there is a great deal more work to be done in times of trouble. Financial instability is a feature of the international markets at the moment and it is not going to go away tomorrow. We respect and take on board that point and are working towards improving our arrangements.
However, the main purpose of the Statement is to discuss where we are as a consequence of the failure of that bank. I emphasise to both noble Lords that we appreciate, because substantial sums of public money are involved, that the Government must take the keenest interest in developments. That is why we have a veto over the future arrangements and are to be consulted on the developments concerning the future of the bank. But I disavow the concept the noble Lord, Lord Newby, suggests, that there are only two options with regard to the bank. He has already reached the carefully judged and well evaluated position that no one can produce anything like a realistic bid with regard to this bank and that, therefore, any option coming forward in those terms is destined to fail. I do not know on what basis he reaches that position.
I can see the temporary Liberal attachment to nationalisation, but that does nothing about the bank’s debts and lack of security or the government money invested in it. It merely means that the Government would administer the bank, as opposed to the present position of exercising a veto over future arrangements, unless we are satisfied that the taxpayers’ and depositors’ interests are safeguarded. I do not accept that there are only two options. It ill behoves the Liberal party at this stage to pursue a strategy which seems to be to cry woe, when the purpose of government is to solve problems rather than merely indicate that—as far as the Liberal party is concerned—they are largely insoluble.
I reassure the noble Lord that the Government will do anything they can to reinforce public opinion, which has been well articulated, on anyone making gains from the horrendous position in which Northern Rock finds itself, so shareholders or chief executives who purport to move away from the situation with substantial gains will face the greatest public opprobrium. I assure the noble Lord that the Government share his distaste for any such development.
On a point made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, of course there is a substantial, strong asset base to this bank, which is why there is the possibility of a deal. Equally clearly, parts of the situation are fraught. The bank would not be in this situation if how far it was exposed, in terms of its commitment to lending it could not of course afford to contract, had not been identified, which is why the Government had to step in.
I want to confirm to the House that the Chancellor assured the other place that the loans made from the Bank of England were a very long way below the tangible and real assets of the bank, which is why we can guarantee that this money is secure. The Chancellor, in adumbrating his three principles today, emphasised that two of them related to the guarantees of the public interest for the taxpayer and the deposit holders.
Although there may have been leaks from certain documents with regard to bids, the noble Baroness will recognise that it is not possible for this exercise to be transacted in the full glare of publicity. The Chancellor is under a moral, political and proper public obligation to report to the other place when significant developments occur in this saga, which he did today in identifying the principles on which the Government will act. But it would be a strange world of significant finance if we trailed around the Bank of England’s lending book on this position and the loans that had been made in great detail; identified every nook and cranny of Northern Rock, the extent of its assets and where it was vulnerable; and then purported to be in a conceivable position where people could make intelligent public bids. There are bound to be certain operations related to the potential rescue of the bank which must be carried out with a decent degree of privacy. At the same time, any decisions reached will affect the public and the taxpayer, and the Chancellor has undertaken to report on all of them.
I want to emphasise again that this is a parlous situation. Hindsight is a wonderful concept and I repeat the comment of the Opposition that this is the first run on a bank for over a century. It is also a reflection of exceptional international financial conditions. After all, the Opposition will recognise that there are institutions in the United Kingdom with far greater resources than Northern Rock which have been obliged to make adjustments against the issue of international financial stability, and they are able to do so because of their robust health. But that does not alter the fact that losses have been sustained in some very significant financial organisations. Although Northern Rock is an important business, and important to a specific region—the employment issues that have arisen are particularly important—it was not the most significant financial institution in this country when it suffered through becoming involved in misplaced financial borrowing. Others are paying the price.
The important things for the Government were clear: we needed first to make sure that when we offered taxpayers’ support, it was adequately safeguarded and secured. Secondly, it was essential that we guaranteed that depositors’ funds were safe. That is our contribution to the much broader issue of maintaining financial stability—the Government certainly have a major obligation with regard to international financial stability—otherwise others might have followed a path not dissimilar to that of Northern Rock. That is why we acted as we did, and it is why this is a significant issue for the whole nation. It is also why the Chancellor has undertaken to report to the House on all the major developments. However, the House should recognise that in certain respects this is inevitably an interim Statement about issues yet to fulfil their development.
My Lords, I should declare an interest as someone who owes Northern Rock quite a lot of money in equity release. If Northern Rock owed me money, of course I would not stand up and speak in the House on this issue.
Does my noble friend accept that if the Treasury and the Bank of England had given evidence to the Select Committee on Regulators, which I had the honour to chair earlier this year and which reflected the events that have become public over the past few months, at the very least the questioning would have been a good deal sharper? I suggest also, with diffidence in the presence of some members of the Select Committee, that the report might have been a good deal sharper as well.
Will the Minister urge the Chancellor to be extremely careful not to rule out the options which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has put before the House today? Yes, of course there is a possibility that a fit deal can be achieved, and a fit deal is one which costs taxpayers nothing—nothing at all, including a penal rate of interest on the loans which are being made. However, the option of administration or the Railtrack option must not be dismissed at this stage. It must be the case that we have far greater calls on many billions of pounds of public money for our services and social policies than the protection of the shareholders of Northern Rock. Will he convey that message to the Chancellor?
My Lords, with regard to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I can assure my noble friend that I was not ruling out his two options. I was just seeking to demonstrate that I did not think that they were the only options on the table. That was the point I sought to stress. They are two possibilities, but I think that my noble friend will share with me the belief that there is also a third option.
My Lords, can the Minister help us to clear up the question of what exactly constitutes state aid in this case? The Treasury paper released today says that the facilities which were announced on 9 October amount to state aid and will need to be approved by the European Commission. Does that include the guarantee on depositors’ funds, and does that mean that the guarantee on those funds could be removed by the Commission and that we could have a second run on a bank in 165 years? Can the Minister also help me on a further point? He was very dismissive of what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, had to say about nationalisation—bringing Northern Rock into state ownership. Given that the Northern Rock bank is being provided with its liquidity by the state to the tune of £24 billion, and given that its depositors’ assets are being guaranteed by the state, have not the Government effectively nationalised it already? It is perfectly obvious that any shareholder value lies only in the extent to which the taxpayer is prepared to provide support and subsidy, so why should the taxpayer put up the money for someone else to make money at the taxpayer’s expense? I never thought I would hear myself say it, but surely nationalisation is the consequence of this Government’s incompetence.
My Lords, I never thought that I would stand at this Dispatch Box and hear calls for nationalisation from the noble Lord. Let me emphasise that what we are discussing are the issues immediately confronting Northern Rock and the solutions which we hope will secure its long-term future. The noble Lord will appreciate that if we took the view that nationalisation was necessary—he suggests that it has taken place already in a de facto way, although of course I dispute that—then we would need legislation, and obviously the timescale involved in any return to the private sector would be unduly prolonged, if it occurred at all. The noble Lord will recognise that at this point the Government have not taken that decision, and quite properly so. The other option is still alive and on the table, and that is the basis of the discussions which are going on and the bids which are to be submitted.
On the question of state aid, the noble Lord is well versed in matters European so he will recognise that one of the crucial issues which cuts in with regard to state aid from the European Community is the length of time over which support can be provided. There is a commitment up to February of next year, and the Government are working well within that parameter. Nevertheless, we will have to have regard to the fact that if aid were to become prolonged and persistent we would have to address the question of the European Community and discuss the issues further there.
My Lords, I speak as a citizen of Newcastle. Northern Rock is our bank and I am a saver with it. I am grateful for the continuing reassurance from the Minister that my savings—not that they amount to very much but such as they are—remain safe.
I have been struck by the way that the crisis at Northern Rock has been both perceived and reported by, first, the people of the north-east, and, secondly, the people in London-based institutions and media. There has been overwhelming public support for our bank from all the institutions in the north-east, but we perceive that there has been almost overwhelming negativity from London, blaming and scapegoating those on the board who have been responsible.
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that Northern Rock’s main asset is still strong and sound. People in the north-east know that. We are at one in wishing for the bank to be kept intact by its new owners, whoever they may be. That is not simply because 6,000 jobs are at stake in the region—although of course they are—and there are many more jobs indirectly at stake, all held in the future with Northern Rock.
There is also considerable pride in and support of the wonderful contributions that the bank, through its foundation, has made to life in the north-east. We would have been very much the poorer and the disadvantaged—
My Lords, I apologise to the House. Will one of the strategic options being seriously considered be for the Government to take the bank into public ownership, at least until the whole position is stabilised? Does the Minister think that keeping the bank intact in its entirety is a better option than disposing of it piecemeal?
My Lords, on the right reverend Prelate’s final point, that is exactly what the Government are striving for. We recognise the significance of the bank to international financial stability, and the British financial markets in particular, and the important role it plays in the UK economy, especially in the north-east. The right reverend Prelate is as well placed as anyone in this House to comment on that.
We are not ruling anything out. Earlier on in my rather robust response to the call for nationalisation, I was merely seeking to indicate that the Government did not think that we had reduced three options to only two: administration or nationalisation. There are three possible options, and it is important that we keep them as valid as we can in order to guarantee exactly the service to which the right reverend Prelate has referred.
My Lords, does the Minister accept from what is being said all around the House that his response to my noble friend’s suggestion fell well short of what was required in dealing with the seriousness of this situation?
I have two specific questions. First, is the Bank of England the senior secured creditor for all its lending to Northern Rock? Does any other lender’s security rank pari passu with any of the Bank’s lending?
Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to the briefing memorandum for Northern Rock, to which I referred in my speech last week on the Address. Does the Minister understand that there is a blatantly false market in Northern Rock—that every spiv and shark in the City and hedge funds that have been shorting it are dealing on the back of that memorandum, of which they have copies, while small shareholders are completely in the dark? Will the Government please ask the Stock Exchange to suspend the shares pending clarification of the company’s financial position?
My Lords, on the latter point, we do not think the issues are as serious as that.
It is undoubtedly the case that damage has been done by these leaks, which we greatly regret. That is why I have been at pains today to stress that certain developments with regard to Northern Rock must be contained within a framework of considerable privacy because damage is done to those who are ill informed by those who have an inside track on such information. That is why we want a speedy solution. However, we also make it clear that there are limits on the amount of information that we are prepared to see in the public domain.
My answer to the first point is straightforward: the Bank of England is absolutely assured that all its loans to Northern Rock are adequately secured against its assets. It therefore expresses no anxiety about the investment it has made.
My Lords, I share the concern of everyone for transparency, but while the Treasury is involved in detailed negotiations it would be foolish to press for details and I do not propose to do so. The Minister told us that the Treasury has to agree to any deal, but does he accept that the shareholders also have to agree? Can we take it that the Treasury would be willing to override the shareholders if it did not consider what they proposed to be in the public interest, as he has described it?
The Minister told us that Northern Rock’s good assets—including, I assume, my noble friend’s loan to the bank—are a long way above the level of loans at the moment. I would be glad if the Minister could confirm that again, because the other day my noble friend Lord McKenzie said he did not know what the bank was worth. I assume he did not know what the Chancellor or my noble friend were about to tell us.
I have a final, simple question. When the money was loaned by the Bank of England, it was said that this was because the Bank considered itself to be the lender of last resort. Is that still the position? That will be of concern to many others.
My Lords, my noble friend will recognise that the Bank intervened and made its contribution as lender of last resort in circumstances where it was quite clear that Northern Rock could not stay solvent by access to any other resources. The Bank of England stepped in on that basis. It is the most senior secured creditor for the vast portion of the loan that has been made. I was asked about that earlier, and I assure the House on that point.
On my noble friend’s more general point, the position with regard to Northern Rock is changing from day to day—he will recognise that developments have moved beyond even my noble friend’s brilliant summing up of the Queen’s Speech debate last week—but we are entirely secure about the loans that have been made to the bank and we are seeing the prosecution of the potential for bids. Whether they will materialise in a form that will prove viable is still to be established, but the shareholders’ interests are almost bound to be concomitant with what is acceptable to the Government because if there were any deal worse than what the Government would accept, the shareholders would scarcely be beneficiaries anyway.
My Lords, do the Government agree that if a purchase is dependent on the Government’s guarantee being continued in some form and on government financial support, the deal has a value only because of that and the taxpayer should receive some benefit from a successful rescue? I agree with the right reverend Prelate’s point that any rescue should involve maintaining the asset as a whole.
That is right, my Lords. That is why the Bank is charging a rate of interest that is a return to the taxpayer on assets that are greater than the loans and therefore secured. We fervently hope, as do the noble Lord, the right reverend Prelate and others of good will in the House, that we will be able to maintain the integrity of the bank.
My Lords, when there is so much talk of millions, billions or even trillions, it is difficult to remember how many zeros there are after the first digit. It would therefore be helpful to have the figures concerned expressed in terms of the position of the taxpayer. It has been said that support for Northern Rock amounts to something like £900 per taxpayer. Will the Minister say what the figure is in those simple terms? By precisely what authority have these loans been made? Where in the Government’s accounts will the figures eventually appear?
My Lords, the loans have been made by the Bank of England on the basis of returns which it will in due course expect from the institution. I do not have a ready calculator to produce quite the figure that the noble Lord indicated, but we are talking about a substantial sum. Figures have been adduced to show that it is several times greater than the aid budget, and other comparators for the global sums involved exist. No one will gainsay the fact that very great sums of money are involved—that is why the issue is so serious for the whole community—but I do not think that the House would accept anything other than the obvious fact that the Government, the Bank of England, the FSA and others are wrestling night and day with the consequences of an extremely costly exercise for the taxpayer. I reassure the noble Lord that the Bank of England is entirely secure, and that what it has lent is secured against assets.
My Lords, is it fair to describe a mortgage book as “quality” when it includes 125 per cent mortgages and when property prices are probably likely to fall? Is it not true that many of the hedge funds to which noble Lords referred are losing money hand over feet, and that those involved have burnt their fingers by buying the shares?
My Lords, my noble friend is right that loans were taken out against insecurities—that is why the crisis occurred. That is a problem with the sub-prime market in the United States. Significant financial institutions in the United Kingdom are wrestling with those problems, but they are in a strong enough position to take them relatively in their stride, although at some considerable cost. Northern Rock had overstretched itself in those terms. However, I emphasise to my noble friend that when I say that Northern Rock has real assets, I mean that it has an extensive mortgage book of people who can pay and whose houses are more highly valued than the mortgages that are outstanding. As that book is so solid, the authorities are able to say that those assets are readily bankable against any loans which are made to the company. My noble friend is right that a percentage of Northern Rock’s assets fits into the “vulnerable” category—that is why it is in trouble. That does not alter the fact that Northern Rock was a building society with a long history. The bank built on that building society’s long history and, for a time, conducted itself thoroughly responsibly. It therefore has all the proceeds of those accumulated assets, while having the degree of vulnerability which has produced the present crisis.
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]
Second Reading debate resumed.
My Lords, I have said previously in your Lordships’ House that the severance of law from morality and religion has gone too far. Religion, morality and law were once intermingled, which helped to shape both the common law and the statutes of this land, and greatly influenced the way in which judges interpreted them. However, the law is now regarded purely as an instrument for regulating our personal affairs and as being completely severed from morality and religion. Provisions in the Bill demonstrate just how far the severance has gone and its unintended consequences.
The Government’s proposal to remove the need-for-a-father provision from Section 13 of the 1990 Act creates a false dichotomy at the heart of the Bill which places the welfare and needs of the child against their need for a father. Since when did they become competing requirements? Is it not self-evident that the welfare and needs of a child are enhanced and met when there is a father present, as against there being no father at all? Such a view is surely not controversial and would be shared by many who find themselves, through bereavement or relationship breakdown, as the single parents of children. However, there is all the difference in the world between children who find themselves in a single-parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in that situation by design. That is precisely what the Government propose in the Bill: the removal, by design, of the father of the child.
We know already that there are men who have been moved by legal circumstances to form Fathers 4 Justice. When one overlooks the movement’s pranks and purported attempts to kidnap Leo Blair, one discovers that its founder was forced into campaigning because he was denied access overnight to a child whom he dearly loved and whom he believed loved and needed him. It took a long time for access to be restored. We now have a Bill whereby the Government are set to remove, as a statement of public policy, the requirement for the need of a father. How much stronger then might the campaign of Fathers 4 Justice become?
There seems to be some confusion in the mind of the Government over the importance of fathers. First, in 2004, they made regulations to encourage parental responsibility and visibility by removing donor anonymity and allowing donor-conceived children to access the identity of donors involved in their conception. Secondly, they have rightly emphasised in their policies the need for male role models for social cohesion, to reduce underachievement, and to avoid increasing violent crime and gang culture. We are now faced with a Bill which seeks formally to remove in its entirety the need for the ultimate male role model, that of the father. Set out in paragraph 54 of the Government’s response to the Joint Committee’s report is a bizarre proposal to replace a child’s need for a father with a delegated system of substitutes, based on HFEA licence-holders’ assessment of whether prospective mothers know anyone who may be a good role model. Such is the value placed on a father by this legislation: it is reduced to a role where any substitute will do.
The Government posit their argument on the view of the Science and Technology Committee, expressed in its report of 2005, that the need for a father is “unjustifiably offensive”. To whom is it unjustifiably offensive? Is it unjustifiably offensive to the child who will be dependent upon the love and care of the father? Are the Government really saying that they are basing their response on whether the need for a father gives offence?
The same report concluded that we cannot expect consensus on this issue because, on the one hand, we are a multi-faith society and, on the other, we are largely secular. The previous population census indicated that 85 per cent of the population described themselves as people of faith. However, statistics aside, it is far from clear to me that my brothers and sisters of faith, and indeed of no faith, feel less keenly than me about the importance of a father’s role in the life of a growing child. The Joint Committee called for an ethical framework to be established at the heart of this Bill so that decisions are based not on the potential offence rendered but on the highest ethical standards in conjunction with considerations of the welfare of the child. Such a framework is sadly missing. I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in calling for an ethics committee to be set up as a matter of urgency. What we have in the Bill, rather than those high ethical standards, is, on the contrary, a signal being sent that everyone has a right to a child and that this right overrules consideration of the child’s welfare. The rationale given in the White Paper for removing the need of a child for a father was so as to appear not to discriminate against same-sex couples or single mothers who wanted to have a child through IVF. The Government’s response is based not on the welfare of the child but on the desire of those who feel that they should have a child as of right, without the need of a father.
The right of a prospective parent to have a child by any means necessary must not triumph over the welfare of children brought into the world as a result of the treatment authorised under the current legislation. The Government are bowing to the argument that, if single people and gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt, the same permission must therefore be given if they wish to commission a child using IVF. That is a non-sequitur, because the situations are markedly different; in adoption, the hospitality of a home is being offered to already existing children who have had the misfortune, through circumstances or necessity, to lose or be removed from the constant love of their own parents. Bringing the care of an adoptive home to a needy child is a wholly different circumstance to deciding in advance to use IVF technology to bring into the world a child who will, by design, never have a father. If discrimination is indeed the issue here, surely the greater discrimination is in ensuring that a child will never have any chance of knowing its natural father—a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. While I have sympathy with the evidence given by the chair of the Infertility Network UK for those who feel that they are denied access to childbirth under these treatments through a lack of a father, if we are to be serious about the paramount place of child welfare in this Bill, that means such welfare taking precedence over the desires of those who want a child as of right. The child’s right not to be deliberately deprived of a father is greater than any right to commission a child by IVF.
As the Government have previously acknowledged,
“the welfare of children cannot always be adequately protected by concern for the interests of the adults involved”.
The Government have often championed the slogan of “rights and responsibility” and the need to recognise the duty and responsibility that goes alongside any talk of rights. How does such talk fit with the proposals before us? What responsibility are we encouraging in the sperm or egg donor? While there is recognition of the need to treat embryos with due responsibility elsewhere in this legislation, do we absolve those who created the embryo of all responsibility for their child? There is an unhealthy theme of rampant indifference at the heart of this Bill, rooted in a consumerist mentality in which the science that allows something to happen is transformed into the right to have it. The “cogito ergo sum” of Descartes—“I think therefore I am”—becomes the consumerist mantra, “I shop therefore I am” or “Tesco ergo sum”. The competing individualist arias of “I, I, I” and “me, me, me” provide the mood music for an individualism that posits the right of a wannabe parent over the welfare of a child. This virus of individualistic consumerism which informs a rights-based mentality is alien to those of us who come from another place—Africa—where they say, “I am because we are: I belong therefore I am”.
The laws that are passed in this your Lordships’ House are more than mere regulation. The law is a statement of public policy. This is not about messages which are sent out about what is or is not acceptable in terms of family arrangements, but more fundamentally about the roles of parents, and in particular the need for a father where possible. In Clause 14 of this Bill, the Government run the risk of fundamentally altering the paramount importance of the welfare of the child, as set out in legislative terms almost 20 years ago in the Children Act 1989, and placing the interests of adults, in the form of prospective parents, above those of the child. Together with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Jenkin and Lord Hastings, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I urge the Government to drop Clause 14 of this Bill. The rest is very good but I do not think that this is. We shall not be content with this clause.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the patron of a considerable number of neurological charities and as someone who is the life president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. I shall confine my remarks to new Section 4A in this Bill. However, I wholly agree that for anyone to try to introduce amendments to the Abortion Act would be a mistake, as they would inevitably cloud the important revisions of an extremely vital Bill.
My baptism of fire, when I first became a Member of your Lordships' House in 1989, was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, later to become an Act, which allowed experiments on the human embryo up to 14 days after fertilisation under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. That was something with which I wholly agreed because individuation of the human embryo did not, in my opinion, begin until the primitive streak appeared at 14 days. I spoke about my interest in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an X-linked recessive disease passed on by female carriers to their sons, and said that we would be likely in due course to be able to take an ovum from a carrier woman, to fertilise it in vitro, to allow it to develop into an embryo and to remove a single cell to determine whether the gene for muscular dystrophy was present—then, if it was, to allow the embryo to degenerate or, if it was not, to implant it, thus allowing these women to have normal, non-carrier daughters and non-dystrophic boys. In fact, that hope has now become a reality. This morning I chaired a meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine on muscular dystrophy research to learn that pre-implantation diagnosis of that dreadful disease has now become really feasible and is preventing the birth of children with the disease.
The Bill at that time—and the Act that followed—was designed to improve the treatment of infertility and to prevent the birth of children with serious genetic disease. It did not allow embryos to be used to generate cells for the treatment of human disease. At that time there were those who said that to discard embryos carrying abnormal genes was tantamount to killing a human being. However, I remind the House that in the course of normal human fertilisation some four or five ova are fertilised in the uterus and float free in the uterus before one implants in the wall to produce a foetus and subsequently a child. If two are implanted, that produces non-identical twins. All the rest of those fertilised ova are flushed down the toilet. So millions and millions of human embryos are lost every day in life.
The Government introduced regulations in 2001 to amend the Act to allow embryos and stem cells derived from them to be available for the treatment of human disease, legalising therapeutic but not reproductive cloning. Stem cells have a purely potential ability, meaning that they are produced from embryos which, for instance, become spare in the course of in vitro fertilisation programmes. As my noble friend Lord Alton said, adult stem cells have become increasingly important in research and so, too, have stem cells derived from the umbilical cord. Indeed, the Anthony Nolan Trust has, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, established a national cord blood bank so as to be able to collect specimens of umbilical cord blood for the creation of such stem cells. All such cells, if they are used for implantation to the tissue of another individual, are donor cells which produce an immunological response, which inevitably requires suppression of that immune response.
This new technique of cloning using the interspecies embryo does not need that to occur because the cell is taken from the skin, perhaps, of an individual suffering from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease or one of the other serious neurological disorders with which we are concerned. It could be implanted into a donor ovum from which the nucleus has been removed. However, as the noble Baroness said earlier today, it is not easy to obtain ova from even the most public-spirited of women. Now, if one can use animal cells to produce the type of capsule or framework in which the nucleus from that cell can be implanted, stem cells derived from that cell will be immunologically compatible with the host into whom the subsequent stem cells will be implanted. That overcomes the difficulties arising as a result of some use of other cells such as the adult stem cells to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred.
I must mention in passing the crucial importance of mitochondrial disease. Some 99.9 per cent of human DNA resides in the nucleus of the cell. About 0.1 per cent of DNA resides in the mitochondria, which are tiny structures in the cytoplasm of the cell outside the nucleus but within the cell membrane. These structures are concerned with energy production and metabolism within the cell. Fifty-four genes have been isolated within mitochondria and a large number of mitochondrial diseases have been described. I have seen these in the course of my professional career—diseases that cause epilepsy, paralysis, dementia and a whole variety of devastating conditions.
Since mitochondria exist only in the ovum and not in the sperm, mitochondrial diseases are inevitably transmitted by every affected woman to all her children. Now, it is becoming feasible to take an ovum from a woman carrying abnormal mitochondrial genes. One can take a donor ovum from which you have removed the nucleus and put the nucleus into that donor ovum, which has normal mitochondria in the cytoplasm, and then allow that to be fertilised by the partner’s sperm, thus allowing these women to have normal children. That is not yet feasible, but licences are already being awarded for the animal research and one of my former colleagues, Professor Doug Turnbull at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, is already doing that crucial animal research, just as others are doing work on the interspecies embryo in that particular centre.
I commend to you an article by Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics that was published in the Parliamentary Monitor in October. He said that creating these interspecies embryos as a,
“source of disease-specific stem cells has enormous significance … First, it is a leap toward self-transplantation … one day we may be able to take a skin cell from a patient with leukaemia, clone it, derive embryonic stem cells, produce blood stem cells, and transfer the blood cells back as a transplant after chemotherapy”.
They could also,
“be used to study any disease in a culture dish in a radically new way to create ‘cellular models of disease’. Cloning a single skin cell from a patient with a disease could be used to produce inexhaustible amounts of cells and tissue with that disease”,
which could be used not only for research but could help later in transplantation and the treatment of disease.
This is a crucial Bill. It carries enormous potential benefits for human health. This field of embryo research is one in which the United Kingdom leads the world. The Bill maintains and indeed greatly enhances that position. It is our duty to generations in the future to see this Bill enter into law.
My Lords, I first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, for being so rapidly out of the stocks. Secondly, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, a fellow of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and as someone who has held and still holds a licence to do stem cell work under British legislation and regulation.
My noble friend is introducing an extremely good Bill. It is a very courageous Bill in many ways. But it is wrong to suggest for a moment, as a number of noble Lords have done, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, who is not in his place, that this has been a rapid discussion. That is far from true. We have discussed this issue over many years, really since 1989. Indeed, I doubt whether there is a single scientific paradigm that has been more discussed in the general press, on television, radio and in the media. It is important to see that in context. The public has a pretty good idea about what is going on and in general it is fairly clear where people stand on most of these issues.
I have always had problems with regulation. I find it difficult to justify why a single medical practice should be singled out in this way for regulation. Although embryos become babies, we do not single out obstetric practice for regulation. We do not single out paediatric care for neonates, which raise much greater ethical problems than in vitro fertilisation in a practical way. We do not regulate intensive care, where people are dying in this kind of way. Therefore, for a regulatory authority to regulate clinical practice is questionable given that other aspects of infertility such as tubal surgery, the admission of drugs and other treatments that are routinely given are not subject in any way to this kind of regulation.
Having said that, I add that the same applies to research practice. What is the purpose of having research committees at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority if we, as researchers, must first apply to local and national ethics committees to get ethical approval for the work? Is it suggested that the Government’s own ethics committees are not adequate for the purpose? That does not seem right. Indeed, they have often been much more skilful in looking at these issues than the HFEA, which has sometimes arrived at conclusions that seem to many people to be somewhat odd. I accept, as a practitioner, that it is reasonable to have regulation, but I plead with the Government that, during the Committee stage of this Bill, we ensure that the regulation is done with a light touch. The real things that need to be regulated are not regulated, and I will come to that later.
We have heard a great deal from many speakers about how Britain leads the world in this research and how we lead in regulation. However, given that, it is surprising that so few countries have adopted our model in their regulatory framework. It is simply not true: they have not done so. Britain does not lead in this research any longer. It may have done originally, but at the moment, the United States, where there is a complete ban on embryo research involving human stem cells, publishes far more papers than we do—something like four or five times the number of papers in the highest impact journals.
Israel, a country with a population two-thirds the size of London, publishes more papers than we do. Scandinavia publishes an equal number—I mean Scandinavian countries individually not collectively—so do Belgium, Singapore and Australia. Indeed, science in this country is suffering in some ways because it has been very difficult to get through a prolonged and protracted regulatory framework, which I hope the Government will take note of during the course of the Bill.
The key things that affect patients are not being regulated and cannot be regulated. The first is the transfer of multiple embryos leading to multiple births, which affects small babies very adversely. A premature baby in an incubator costs the National Health Service a large sum of money and runs the risk of being seriously damaged—one in 23 twins is born dead and something like one in 13 is abnormal. Triplets carry a very high risk indeed.
One has to accept that if the regulation becomes too tight, fertility tourism results. People go to Russia, Spain and other Mediterranean countries where they can get this treatment cheaper, but they face greater risk when they come back and have their babies under the National Health Service.
There is also the exploitation of patients. This is burgeoning, largely because, as my noble friend Lady Jay said, we did not have in vitro fertilisation under the health service from the start. Had we done that, I doubt whether this regulation would have been necessary. As it is, grotesquely inflated prices are being charged in some clinics. We have heard about the child’s need for a father; how about the desperation of a father’s need for a child? In the Book of Genesis, Abraham asks:
“God, what will you give me seeing I go childless?”.
He uses a Hebrew word meaning abandoned, desolated, because he does not have a genetic son. There is a notion here that he has lost his immortality, and that is something that infertile patients feel. This desperation leads patients to try all sorts of treatments which are not justified. That is one of the problems with the current regulation. The West End of London, for example, abounds with treatments which have no scientific justification, no proven success rate and simply exploit the desperate desire of these people to have children. That seems to me a crucial problem.
The HFEA has failed very critically in another area. The failure to collect adequate data is a real problem. Frankly, the data that have been collected under regulation are almost entirely useless. We need much better follow-up data on children born by in vitro fertilisation. The problem of confidentiality with regard to the Bill is very worrying and we shall need to consider that in Committee. If you have very strict confidentiality, doing research follow-up on children becomes well nigh impossible, but it is very important. We now know that it is not just a simple question of genetics but of epigenetic effects on embryos. We now know that the condition of children in utero before birth affects their subsequent health when they are 50 or 60. For example, small-for-date babies are more likely to have heart disease, hypertension and osteoporosis and are more likely to die of stroke. The environments in which embryos are placed may have epigenetic effects which subsequently affect their health. It is critical that we are able to follow up these effects and do the research. If the confidentiality clauses are too rigid, that will be impossible.
This is a good Bill, but adjustments need to be made. I hope that we can ensure above all that the Government accept the need for much more research in this country. This country has a unique research base, but the Minister will be aware of something that has happened in my own department at Hammersmith hospital, of which he has been director. I retired from my clinical chair in the health service two and a half years ago. As the Minister knows, that chair, which is a research position, is still vacant because this field of medicine is not attracting good enough applicants for one of the best universities in the country—Imperial College.
My Lords, before I deal with a particular issue in the Bill I wish to make some general points. This is a Bill fraught with ethical, moral and religious concerns and leads one to believe, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York noted, that law is completely separate from morality and religion.
I listened with great interest to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who gave a brilliant analysis of the place of ethics in this Bill. We must get the ethics and other issues in the Bill in balance.
The Bill has raised concerns throughout the United Kingdom. My mailbag and Outlook box have never experienced such volume on a single Bill in my time in your Lordships’ House. A huge proportion of those who took the trouble to write to me, and to whom I have replied—other than those who communicated with me this morning—urged me to vote against the entire Bill at Second Reading. I am sure that many of your Lordships have received such letters. I have written back to them making the point that it is a convention of this House that a government Bill should be allowed normal progress through its whole parliamentary passage from First Reading to Third Reading. I said that I would neither encourage nor support a vote on Second Reading. I am firmly of the view that it is imperative that all the issues are scrutinised and debated with intellectual robustness, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the views of those who are deeply concerned.
We cannot, and must not, disregard the massive antipathy created by this Bill. I know that we are not democratically elected but the tenor of the letters and e-mails received indicates that the general public feel utterly ignored and helpless. How can they be heard? They believe that they are not listened to by this Government, who, if I may be so bold as to remind the opposite Bench, were elected by only 22 per cent of those eligible to vote.
I give notice that in the later stages of consideration of this Bill I shall pursue, tenaciously, the issues which I believe have the potential to unleash unforeseen consequences and to damage the values, standards and beliefs of this country. Having given that promise, or is it a warning, I will concentrate on only one issue in my contribution today; namely, animal/human hybrids. On 3 May 2007, I spoke on this issue. I said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 3/5/07; col. 1182.]
That, sadly, is still my view.
The Bill proposes, for research purposes, the creation of a number of interspecies combinations involving animal and human tissue, even including the creation of an embryo using either animal eggs fertilised by human sperm, or human eggs fertilised by animal sperm; that is to say, true animal/human hybridisation. As if that was not alarming enough for the majority of us, there is also built into the Bill a level of flexibility which would permit the extension of many of the quasi-prohibitive aspects of the Bill, without the need for full parliamentary approval. Is this not opening the door to creating legislation without true limits? It would permit the regulatory authority to make decisions in the light of future technological developments in this field rather that in reference to concise decisions of Parliament as expressed in law. This is not a scenario that should be supported, particularly in an area as sensitive and potentially dangerous as interspecies creations.
One of the many letters I received enclosed an article from the magazine America. The article is entitled “Stem Cell Research—Hype and Reality”. It is a most readable article for a non-scientist. It points out that,
“embryonic stem cells defy control. When injected into animals or cultivated in petri dishes, they frequently give rise to teratomas (tumours, in which all sorts of tissue—skin, hair, teeth—are mixed together). These cells are designed to grow in the embryo, regulated by complex signals. The very plasticity that fascinates scientists makes them genetically unstable, hypertrophic and tumour-prone. They are far too dangerous for clinical use at any foreseeable time”.
Those who have known me for years know that I also look at issues from a religious perspective. I will not disappoint them today. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is no longer in his place but he mentioned Genesis, from which I shall also quote. God created man in His own image and likeness, and, as is written in Genesis 1:28, He ordained that man should have,
“dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”.
There is a clear definition between the species, which is how it must remain.
What other country in the world is taking the step that the Bill promotes? It is imperative that such a momentous and serious action cannot be taken by the Secretary of State without the full involvement of Parliament. However, it is providential that just two days ago I awoke to the news that Professor Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described, has turned his back on therapeutic cloning and has decided not to pursue the licence to clone human embryos that he was awarded two years ago. He believes that a rival method pioneered in Japan has better potential for making human embryonic cells, which can be used to grow a patient’s own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments.
As I have said before in your Lordships’ House—the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, mentioned this—“the likelihood of success”—in the treatment of degenerative disease—
“is greater with the use of adult stem technology than … with embryo stem technology”.—[Official Report, 22/1/01; col. 96.]
Then, we voted for a prohibition on human reproductive cloning, and it is extremely worrying to see in the current Bill a statement that the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 ceases to have effect on the enactment of this new Bill. I know that the Minister stated in his opening speech that the Government have not changed their mind, but surely cloning animal and human tissue is but a step away. As the Bill gives such wide-ranging power and discretion to the Secretary of State, can we be confident that in the future, not necessarily under this Secretary of State, this step will not be taken? Let us not forget the recent Korean fraud.
Finally, I have four questions for the Minister. First, has the development of adult stem cell technology ceased in this country, and do the Government not know about the advances detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams? Secondly, as the increase in the range of therapeutic remedies using adult stem cell technology has not come to a halt, will the Government inform the House of the number and details of new therapeutic treatments since January 2001? Thirdly, what is the current situation worldwide of the research into and use of animal/human hybrids? Fourthly, are we world leaders in basic research, as seems to be the aim, and in an area in which no one else is engaged? I have a very healthy respect for science, scientists and scientific research, but are there no limits to which they will go? I suggest that playing God is one limit that should not be breached.
My Lords, I speak, having heard the erudite contributions from the House this afternoon, feeling very much a novice and lacking depth of information. I have carefully read the Bill and the findings of the Joint Committee and the Select Committee, and I have listened carefully to the Minister’s excellent introduction to the Bill this afternoon, but I still have concerns which I wish to express.
The findings of the Select Committee and the Joint Committee illustrate that there is not only dissension, including a minority report, but a lack of scientific backing to some of the statements and an absence of bioethical views, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans very clearly expounded this afternoon, on this extremely complex and important subject, which concerns human life. The Bill requires detailed scrutiny to ensure that these core issues, which affect human life, are given the widest consideration. The draft Bill published in May 2007 allowed a consultation period of only three and a half weeks. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, referred to the need for public consultation. I agree, because it seems that the public and patient groups have had very little opportunity to voice their views on a subject that has far-reaching consequences for society as a whole and touches the very roots of human dignity.
Many speakers have already mentioned the welfare of the child. UNICEF recently drew attention to the well-being of children, and stated that Britain’s position is very low compared with that of other developed nations. It is hard to see how the Bill can remedy this when, instead of proposing greater access for the child to the father in IVF treatment, Her Majesty’s Government show no proper regard for the child. How could a child ever be able to discover his or her genetic identity? Is it not the right of every human? This requires special scrutiny.
As I said, I in no way profess to be an expert in this subject, but I am concerned that this legislation might lead to a significant change in the Abortion Act. Although the Bill does not mention abortion, it replaces the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which changed the Abortion Act 1967. That could open up the Abortion Act to possible amendment. Here I declare an interest as a retired nurse and midwife. Abortion is always a contentious issue, with one lobby for further liberalisation of the law, including abortions on demand and abortions performed by nurses and midwives not solely medically but by surgical intervention. The other view is that it is time to review the Abortion Act because abortion rates in this country have rocketed to an all-time high of 200,000 a year—roughly 600 a day—which gives rise to the growing concern of the public and indeed of parliamentarians.
We live in an era of social change and medical and scientific advances in understanding the development of the unborn child. European statistics on social abortions show that we have the highest rate in Europe, where the average upper limit is 13 weeks. Ours is 24 weeks. We have greater knowledge of the medical and psychological effects of abortion on the woman and an ever increasing number of teenage pregnancies, many for the second time or more. Does this not point to the urgent need for an audit of the options presented to women going to an abortion clinic, such as whether they are ready for an abortion or will consider adoption, and whether they have had proper contraceptive advice? Surely there is an opportunity for a committee to consider the information if we move towards a review of abortion.
Nurses and midwives are regulated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council within the current legislation. Neither nurses nor midwives can carry out abortions; it is against the law. There is also the conscience clause, which allows the nurse or midwife not to take part in the process of abortion. Both nurses and midwives can progress through post-registration education and training programmes to become advanced practitioners, but there is currently no register for advanced practitioners and no formal mechanism for regulating their practice. The absence of regulation would put the public at risk. If the law changed to allow nurses or midwives to carry out abortions, this would pose a risk to the woman in these circumstances. In addition, the role of the midwife would present a conflict of interest in that the midwife is the professional with responsibility for the safe antenatal care of mother and baby, culminating in the safe delivery of a baby and a well mother, not for taking part in the abortion process.
As the Bill passes through its various stages in Parliament, there will be opportunity for noble Lords to scrutinise very thoroughly the wide range of changes that the Bill brings, and I look forward to participating in its passage.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a former member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and its two predecessor organisations, as a former member of the Medical Research Council, and as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners. As others have declared their religious interests, I declare my interest as a rabbi and the president of Liberal Judaism in the UK. As other noble Lords have also declared, I was a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses on the draft Bill, to which this is the substantive successor. The committee was wonderfully chaired, with considerable time given to discussion of the details, by my honourable friend in another place, Mr Phil Willis. We should all also pay tribute to the Clerks of the committee. They did a stunning job in rather difficult circumstances, because we met so frequently.
I also thank the Minister for the Government’s taking so seriously our comments in the light of the evidence we heard. I am particularly grateful to the Government for recognising that it is not in the best interests of better regulation, or of the kinds of debate on these complex issues which need to take place, to merge the two authorities, the HFEA and the HTA. I am particularly grateful that they took seriously the scientific evidence we heard on the use of interspecies embryos. I believe that the Government are on the way to getting this right, although the definitions—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, made clear and other noble Lords hinted at—can and should still be debated in considerable detail. I want to focus primarily on that issue.
Like other noble Lords, in the past 10 days or so I have been submerged beneath a huge pile of letters from many members of the public asking us not to legislate to allow hybrid embryos and, in some cases, comparing this scientific technique to Nazi Germany. As the child of a refugee from Nazi Germany and the relative of many others who perished, I find that comparison particularly odious. Be that as it may, I believe that it is right that we take this strongly expressed view very seriously even if it comes from an organised lobby, as the identical nature of the letters suggests that it does.
Some scientists would like to dismiss this opposition and are impatient with it. I would argue that that is a mistake. I think that we have to have this debate properly, as we did to some extent in one of the best debates that I have been part of in my three years in this House—that on stem cell research in May, to which the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred. We need to lay the issues on the table and, in the face of real concern “out there”, whether we like it or not, we need to be clear about what we think and why. Because of that concern, and unlike the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I believe that regulation is needed and I support it. I think that we are going along the right lines.
Let us try to take the concerns on board. First, there is clearly an irreconcilable difference between those who believe that ensoulment happens at the time of conception and those who believe in a more gradual acquisition of human status over the development of the foetus. Within the main religious traditions to be found in this country, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made clear, we range from one end of the spectrum which says that this tiny embryo, or pre-embryo as we used to call them—which no one suggests should be used for scientific research beyond 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak—is in fact a person, a human being in the making deserving of all the respect that we would give any human being, acknowledging the unique status of the human being, through all sorts of other permutations of views about the nature of the pre-embryo, embryo, foetus, newborn or premature baby and new baby. And you can arrive at the traditional Jewish view that does not really recognise the full human status even of the newborn, as evidenced by the fact that the newborn baby does not get a full funeral should it die within the first 30 days of life; it is not a person in the sense of, say, a one year-old. Suffice it to say that that particular bit of legislation could never have been framed by women, who would have felt the existence of the unborn child within them from the time of it “quickening”, kicking, pressing on the bladder, and whatever else unborn babies of six months' gestation or more do. But that was and remains to some extent the position within truly Orthodox Judaism.
Those two positions can never be brought closely together because they come from totally different standpoints. Whatever we do in this area is a compromise. The compromise to which we have come, rightly in my view, is to set an absolute limit of 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak, whichever is earlier, and to forbid implantation of cloned embryos—no reproductive cloning. And that seems about right.
The real concern that has emerged from this forest of trees under which we have all been sitting for the past few days is about interspecies embryos, the use of an animal egg and a human sperm to create interspecies embryos for research purposes only, entirely for the benefit of human beings. It is here that I have to say that I simply do not understand. I think that I would understand it if we were likely to see an army of half-sheep/half-men walking across Westminster Bridge. That would be horrifying, even if it were possible, and would indeed require enormous public debate; but no one is suggesting that. Indeed, what they are suggesting should make those concerned with the unique status of the human embryo feel rather reassured. It is to take an animal egg and, as it were, scrape out its middle—its yolk, for want of a better comparison—and to insert within it human sperm to grow on for a few days to use in order to create stem cell lines for use potentially in the treatment of terrible human diseases such as Parkinson's. Researchers are working on developing a way to replace with healthy cells the dopamine-producing nerve cells that have died in Parkinson’s disease.
Although we hear much about the use of cells from cord blood—I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we should collect cord blood as the norm—and although we hear a lot about adult stem cells, and indeed should look at the possibilities that adult cells give us, it does not mean that we do not have still to use these interspecies embryos where we can for research until new techniques are established that make that unnecessary. If we want to continue with research that is very promising, despite some of our correspondents throwing doubt on how valuable it is, we need to do it in this way for the alleviation of present human suffering. That is the point.
No one is suggesting implanting these eggs into any woman. No one wants to create hybrid creatures, half-man/half-cow. This technique of interspecies embryos is to be used to protect women from having their ovaries over-stimulated, of which there is a minor but not insignificant risk in fertility treatment, to get more eggs. The standard treatment now usually produces more eggs than are needed for fertility treatment per se, but the custom is to share eggs, which allows women with fewer financial resources to access treatment and leaves precious few human eggs for use in research. I wholly agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Jay, who have been pressing for making more in vitro fertilisation and fertility treatment available on the NHS. Part of the reason that the eggs are not available is that the treatment is not available on the NHS, so people are having to pay for it.
Those who dislike the use of human embryos for research purposes should be celebrating the fact that fewer eggs are available for such purposes. What is to be created between human sperm and an animal egg is in no sense a person. Surely it does not require that same concern about the uniqueness of the human being that a fully human embryo does. Indeed, it seems preferable, given the desire to respect the human embryo, to use such interspecies embryos for research. When we debated these issues last May, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, asked us to think differently about 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 used to think that they did?
The Christian Medical Fellowship has expressed its concern, arguing that such a technique blurs,
“the boundaries between humans and animals”,
“our human dignity. It would ‘offend’ the image of God, transgress the Biblical prohibition of mixing kinds, damage concepts of historicity and lineage and fundamentally alter the nature of humanity”.
I beg to differ. The use of such eggs for research and not for cloning in no way blurs the difference between animals and humans but merely provides material on which to conduct research; material which is not fully human and therefore, according to this line of argument, less deserving of respect. The biblical prohibition on mixing would indeed be transgressed by this, but that was designed—as those who read the Bible and biblical and rabbinic literature will know all too well—to prevent the ploughing of a field with an ox and an ass yoked together and to prevent the wearing of clothes made of two fabrics, such as wool and linen. The Hebrew term for that prohibition—following the noble Lord, Lord Winston—is called shatnes. I wonder if those who cite the biblical transgression of mixing wear a mixture of wool and silk or linen and wool; and if they do, whether that gives them cause for ethical alarm.
As for damaging the concepts of historicity and lineage, that is true only of any embryos that are to be placed within a woman and lead to live births. Such arguments are simply irrelevant when discussing research and would come to the fore only if we were ever to allow, as the noble Lord, Lord Walton, said, the creation of embryos with three lots of genetic material: the father's and the mother’s with the mitochondrial material scraped out because of severe mitochondrial disease.
I do not have to time to say any more but I would like to ask the Minister two questions. First, given the concern expressed around the House, will he support the idea of a parliamentary ethics committee that can debate these issues on an ongoing basis? Secondly, will he in some way respond to the challenge thrown out by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby? As we are the leaders in regulation and legislation in this area and this research, how can the UK press for more global guidelines and a global ban on the implantation of cloned human embryos in the future?
My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill. It is timely and necessary to update the 1990 Act. Like other noble Lords, I am especially pleased that the Government have decided to keep the HFEA—whose creation was the cornerstone of the 1990 Act—in being as a separate entity, thus preserving its continuity and its authority.
It is worth remembering—as many noble Lords have remembered—the history of the Bill, and the changes that have taken place since 1978 when the first IVF baby was born. I shall not bore your Lordships with the familiar details. However, it is worth remarking that when the committee of inquiry that I had the honour to chair was set up in 1982, we were concerned primarily with IVF and other remedies for infertility. It was in that context that the question of the moral status of the early embryo in the laboratory became the centre of moral controversy. Such an entity—a live human embryo outside the human body—was wholly new to the lay public, though not to the scientists who had been working for many years to make such an embryo possible. It was because of that novelty that regulation seemed necessary at that time and has continued to seem necessary to many people. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that it should not be heavy-handed but, as a result of the history of the legislation, we are in a position where regulation will continue. It is futile to suggest that we now go back and have no regulation, nor would I advocate that.
The centre of our report was the regulation of remedies for infertility, but we ventured to put in a single chapter listing the possible future uses of the new embryology in the wider context of genetic disease. In those days, we had no concept of stem cell research. In the more or less six years that passed between the publication of the report and the passage of what became the 1990 Act, the emphasis shifted considerably, and during the passage of the Bill in your Lordships’ House many of those who voted in favour of it did so on account of the wider applications of the benefits. Although they are perhaps more distant now than seemed probable then, they have so vastly increased that they constitute a positive moral imperative upon government to allow research to continue, to be properly funded and to be regulated with not too heavy a touch. The passionate commitment to the research shown by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, did a lot to change the minds of many Members of Parliament at that time.
It is often remarked that since 1990 there have been huge changes not only in knowledge and technology but in social and moral attitudes among people at large. The passage of the Human Rights Act may be taken as symbolic of those changes. There has certainly been a change in the readiness of society and government to countenance a variety of different forms of family, including same-sex partnerships. It seems consistent with such attitudes to remove from the Bill the requirement that, for assisted conception to be offered, account must be taken of the need of the child for a father. However, this is already highly controversial. It is a clause that is capable of being interpreted as discriminatory, and with that I have a certain, rather mild, sympathy. However, judging by the huge piles of correspondence that I, like other noble Lords, have received, it has been taken to be a statement that the old forms of family are no longer necessary and, particularly, that men have no use in the procreation of children. That does not seem the intention of the Government, but if that is how it is widely interpreted it ought to stay in the Bill, partly because it has always been a pretty ineffective bit of legislation. That and the reference to the welfare of the child seemed pretty wishy-washy in 1990 and still do now, and I doubt whether that consideration has ever caused a change in a decision on whether to offer in vitro fertilisation. On the committee, we used to spend many happy hours inventing cases where we would think it wrong to allow a couple who wanted IVF to have it—known child abusers or people who were more interested in their own careers for whom the child would be an accessory—so we put the stuff about the welfare of the child in the report. It has done no harm. I do not think the bit about the need for a father has done any harm either, but I very much doubt it has made any difference. Therefore, I would be quite happy to see it still there.
At the centre of the moral thinking behind the 1990 Act was a broad utilitarianism. Changes may have come about, and we may all be much more rights-oriented than we were before the passage of the then Human Rights Bill, but in that moral thinking there was very little consideration of human rights. It was much more a broad utilitarian consideration, and I must say a few words in favour of utilitarianism as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans spoke rather slightingly about it. As legislators, parliamentarians have to be utilitarian in the broadest possible sense. They have to consider the consequences of any legislation they propose and carry through and, in considering the consequences, they have to weigh up the harms that may be done to society as a whole against the benefits to society as a whole. It is a morality that gives thought to the common good in so far as it can be ascertained. That is an important principle. On the committee, we thought that utilitarianism in this broad sense was the philosophy that must lie behind any legislation—weighing up harms against benefits, which in the sphere of animal experimentation is rather misleadingly called cost-benefit analysis.
The fact that there was no emphasis on human rights—there is none in the Bill—is one reason why it would be so deplorable to confuse the issues before your Lordships’ House if an amendment concerned with abortion policy were tabled. Although it is true that the Abortion Act and the Bill are concerned, in different ways, with the status of the embryo, in the case of abortion the question of rights seems inevitably about to arise. Some of your Lordships will remember that in 1990 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded the House that we were in danger of losing the Bill altogether because of the amendment referring to abortion that was tabled at a very late stage.
At this stage, I must in justice call attention to the enormous part that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, played in getting the 1990 Bill through this House and on to the statute book. When I was in Cambridge teaching about this issue, all I used to do was read aloud the speech that he made from the Woolsack when he was putting the issues before the House in the clearest possible way. Ever since, I have had the greatest admiration for that bit of parliamentary procedure.
We must resist any attempt to foul the waters now with talking about the Abortion Act, even though we may passionately feel that it needs to be revised. We must, in fact, continue to do as we did in 1990, with our admirable philosophical practice of distinguishing things that differ.
My Lords, it has been a great privilege to have heard such a group of distinguished and expert speakers in the debate so far. I am particularly grateful, if a little humbled, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, whose words I listened to with rapt attention. I declare interests as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, as a past chairman of its ethics committee, a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a scientific adviser of the Association of Medical Research Charities.
If ever there were a listening Government then this is; at least as far as this Bill is concerned. It is a pleasure to see that they have taken on board the large majority of the recommendations of the Joint Committee, on which I have the privilege to sit for at least part of the time. There is much greater clarity and reason to the Bill, so that it is now much more fit for purpose. It strikes in general a good balance of protecting the safety and confidentiality of patients, including the children, and at the same time opening up the possibility of much valuable research which otherwise would not be possible. The increased flexibility that it envisages by allowing the Secretary of State to modify the regulations in light of new advances is, pace the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, extremely important. I am not going to expand on the positive steps taken in the Bill, but the proposal to keep separate the HFEA and the HTA is a great relief. Although I am disappointed, as is the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the Government do not wish to re-examine the Human Tissue Authority, I understand their reasons, and I hope that we will be able to return to it at some not-too-distant time. There are certainly some issues that need to be examined.
The inclusion in the Bill of greater clarity about the definition of what constitutes an embryo, a gamete and so on, about the regulations under which mitochondrial diseases, for example, might be researched, and under which hybrids and cybrids may be used for research are all major steps forward and are supported strongly not only by the scientific and medical community but by the patient groups that I have dealings with.
Having applauded the Government so loudly, it may seem niggardly to point out some aspects where we need to look again to see whether we have it quite right; nevertheless, I have to do so. Most of the problems that I want to focus on arise from the distinctions that are made between IVF and other forms of fertility treatment. I shall talk about the routine treatment of infertility by IVF, not the other possible uses of human embryos for research, the development of stem cells and so on. I am talking about infertility and the use of IVF. Patients who are infertile usually go through a range of treatments—drug treatments, occasionally surgery, often intrauterine sperm injections—and if they do not work they may go on to a trial of IVF. The point is that IVF is part of a continuum of a range of treatments and it is now well used and documented as a routine therapy in many places. And yet, it is treated quite differently from the other forms of therapy.
While some distinctions may be necessary, a number of gross anomalies arise. The first arises out of the need to take account of the interests of the child, which is very laudable in principle; but in practice a requirement is placed on the obstetrician to assess the suitability of potential parents for parenthood, which is difficult to fulfil. I go along very much with what the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said about the practical outcome of having that in the Bill. Leaving aside the practical difficulty of making such an assessment in advance, it is quite illogical to single out this form of fertility treatment from the other forms that I have mentioned. Indeed, it is almost bound to be the same patients who, having gone through a range of efforts to render them fertile, suddenly find themselves having to be formally assessed for their suitability for parenthood. What would happen if they were turned down at that last step, which is highly unlikely? If you go along that route, you might in logic need to assess every couple wanting to have a child. It does not seem that we have got this quite right.
There is the issue of data collection, which some noble Lords have mentioned, which is required by the HFEA. It does not, of course, collect data on other forms of fertility treatment, but it requires that not only all successful IVF treatments are reported to it but all unsuccessful cycles of treatment. All the units that practise IVF have to be licensed and collect their own data, but the HFEA collects them as well and then squirrels them away—that is the important point—so that this important body of information is unavailable to anyone. Even fully anonymised data held by the HFEA are inaccessible to legitimate researchers; what a waste. Data collected in the future, as I understand it and if I read the Bill correctly, may now be used for research under strict conditions, but what about the data that are already held over many years? These are rich sources of information, which could provide invaluable help for future patients. I hope that we might consider a mechanism that allows research access, such as through the Patient Information Advisory Group—PIAG—which has been so helpful for research in, for example, the cancer registry field, but which has been denied the HFEA field.
Finally, there is a discrepancy between the treatment of medical practitioners who are in breach of confidentiality in relation to patients’ infertility treatments. A doctor who misbehaves in this way in relation to any other form of infertility treatment is liable to be up before the GMC disciplinary committee and is likely to be struck off and prevented from practising again. You might think that is a pretty severe sentence. However, a doctor involved in a similar misdemeanour in relation to IVF is liable to criminal proceedings against him or her and a jail sentence or a fine, or both. That anomaly seems quite unjustified.
I can understand that the Government may find it necessary to draw a line between the various uses to which IVF technology can be put and other forms of fertility treatments, but it throws up some stark illogicalities. I hope that we might be able to sort some of them out. Perhaps we should be considering ways in which we can separate out straightforward, routine IVF from the other provisions in the Bill governing research applications, which are clearly more contentious. I look forward to debates at the later stages of the Bill when we might be able to return to some of those points.
My Lords, like many others, I believe that this is an extremely important Bill on a complex subject. I also believe that it is difficult for a non-scientist such as myself to appreciate all the ramifications. My basic premise, therefore, is that of course I support the need for effective, qualitative research to alleviate illness, disease and human suffering, but with the proviso that it should be appropriately regulated.
I have two particular reasons for taking part in today’s Second Reading debate. First, I was in the position of the Minister today in that it was my responsibility to pilot the 1990 Bill through your Lordships’ House as the then Health Minister. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, as the then Lord Chancellor, was of course the lead member of the team and he, with his usual wisdom and clarity, dealt with all the really tricky ethical issues. I was more fortunate than the Minister, who appears to be going it alone.
It has already been said that the 1990 Bill was an admirable example of how to produce legislation, from the Warnock report itself and the wide discussions that took place during its preparation, through to the wide consultation process that took place subsequent to the report and before the Bill was drafted. The process took a long time—I believe it was almost 10 years altogether—but that was right and proper. We cannot and should not rush debate and decision-making over issues affecting human existence. The fact that the Bill has survived for so long as the framework for regulation in this area is proof of the value of all that preparation and concern.
I, too, recognise from my postbag on the Bill that there are people who feel that we should not allow this type of research or treatment to take place at all, but of course that is absurd; we cannot turn back the clock. Science evolves and develops in many wonderful, life-enhancing ways, as we have heard, and these developments give some people great power for good. Our job as politicians is to ensure that guidelines, safeguards and the necessary transparency and accountability are built in so that those people are able to do good in that way. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity that the Bill gives us to review and revise the workings of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and to look again at definitions and developments in the light of all these changes.
My second reason for participating in the debate is to support those, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, who emphasised the importance of all the ethical considerations to which the Bill gives rise. In this respect, I add my voice to support the suggestion of setting up a Standing Committee on bioethics to look at issues such as these and to give them the time and consideration required to ensure that we produce the best possible regulation of the amazing scientific developments which continue to take place and about which we have heard from some of the experts speaking in the debate.
I turn to some of the specific issues that concern me. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and others, I intend to resist the part of Clause 14 that aims to remove the provisions of the 1990 Act relating to the need of a child for a father. We all agree that the welfare of the child must be paramount, and, in my book, that should mean him or her having a father and a mother. If the noble Baroness, with all her experience of the authority, feels that the existing provisions are adequate, then I share her views.
On stem cell therapy, if techniques and research have developed to enable adult stem cells to be used rather than creating embryos for the purpose, surely that must be the way forward.
I am doubtful about the proposals to allow for the commercialisation of surrogate motherhood on the condition that agencies run on a not-for-profit basis. It seems to me that if you allow surrogacy agencies to charge reasonable expenses and to advertise their services, that is leading in the direction of commercialisation. That will have to be watched very carefully.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, raised questions on the Government’s international approach. She referred to their failure to support the United Nations call to member states to,
“prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life”.
This was a non-binding, ethical declaration and the United Kingdom voted against it in 2005. Why? I add a further question: why have the Government not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine? Many of our partners in the Council of Europe have already done so.
Finally, this is an important and complex Bill. It raises many ethical issues and issues of conscience. I believe that it is therefore appropriate that there should be a free vote in Committee and at later stages. I am glad that my party and, as I understand it, the Liberal Democrats are following that course, and I hope that the Government will reconsider their position.
My Lords, I and many people outside your Lordships’ House are concerned about some aspects of the Bill. It warrants serious scrutiny, which I am confident your Lordships will provide. We are living in a very fast-moving scientific era.
The Bill seeks to revise the regulation of embryos and makes provision to ban the selection of embryos on the ground of sex. It does not, however, offer the same safeguards for disability. What logic is there in banning sex selection on the one hand when, on the other, disabled people could be terminated because they are not perfect?
Does the Bill open doors which may cause a morally dangerous strand to life? Mixing animal and human life is disturbing as it is so against nature. Both human and animal life should be respected.
I am one of your Lordships who feel that, where possible, there should be a mother and father in the life of a child. The importance of fathers has been well illustrated by some of the children who have recently lost their fathers in the tragedies of war. The Bill does not respect the importance of fathers. For some time, when people have become paralysed by breaking their backs or necks and they may not be able to father children in the future, it has been possible for sperm to be taken, stored and used at a later date with the agreement of both partners. I welcome that and it shows the importance of fathers.
Like my noble friends Lord Alton and Lady Emerton, I am concerned about the ever-increasing use of abortion. It is not only this Bill that would allow for selection against disability; the Abortion Act 1967 already selects who will be born and who will not. As someone who has sought to defend disability rights and promote disability awareness, I can think of no greater affront to equal opportunities for those who are disabled than the denial of the right to life itself. It is a source of great shame and reproach for us all that in this country we discriminate against disability, even before birth.
A paediatric plastic surgeon told me that he needed about 29 babies with hare lip defects each year to keep his hand in practice so that he was expert at his job. He is not getting them as he used to because so many are being aborted. When I related this to my secretary, who had been born with such a defect which had been corrected, she was horrified.
Perhaps noble Lords would argue that people with disabilities should not be brought into the world. What, then, of babies aborted as late as childbirth itself for rectifiable disabilities as minor as a cleft palate or a club foot? Your Lordships may remember the case of Joanna Jepson in 2003. She began a legal challenge after police refused to prosecute doctors who carried out a late abortion on a woman who did not want a baby with a cleft palate. Mrs Jepson herself had had corrective surgery on a congenital jaw defect, and she believed that a cleft palate was not a serious handicap. She sought to change a law which said that she should not be alive.
Modern medicine can alleviate these conditions with relative ease. In my view, aborting foetuses with these minor, curable disabilities contravenes the Abortion Act in its own terms. Section 1(1)d of the 1967 Act allows the termination of a pregnancy at any time if there is significant risk of the baby being born “seriously disabled”. Many of these conditions are not serious. The law is being abused, even in its own terms.
Equal value is something we must seek to defend and promote: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires as much. But the law as it currently stands imposes a perfection test on life. None of us is perfect; we all have our constraints and our strengths. The Government's own disability rights watchdog, the Disability Rights Commission, as it formerly was, is opposed to abortion on the grounds of disability. In 2001, the DRC stated that the section of the Abortion Act which permits abortion on the grounds of disability is,
“offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally”.
The commission continued:
“In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally”.
The Disability Rights Commission has an official policy opposing abortion on the grounds of disability which it regards as the worst form of discrimination against disabled people. They are completely supported by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation which, as the leading network of disabled groups, takes an absolute stand against abortion on the grounds of disability.
One of the most difficult things for people with disability to contend with is the attitude of the able bodied, who obviously think it is better to be dead than disabled. Disabled people should be accommodated, treated where possible, and, above all, valued. It is clear that the current law and the provisions contained within this Bill do not value disabled people. It instead allows them to be got rid of, in the case of the 1967 Act, right up until birth. This is why in Committee, I intend to move amendments at least to stop abortion taking place on the grounds of rectifiable disability in the hope of wider debate about the routine use of eugenics. I hope your Lordships will consider supporting this in respect of equal opportunities to life.
I read with interest in yesterday's Sunday Times that the man who created Dolly the sheep is abandoning cloning in favour of a new technique that produces stem cells without an embryo. Professor Wilmut at Edinburgh University will switch to a revolutionary and less controversial technique pioneered in Japan, in which cells have been developed from fragments of skin.
Also yesterday I was dismayed to hear a statement which said that the budget for animal health might have to be cut. I could hardly believe that this had even been thought of with the state of the drains at the animal health laboratories which deal with live viruses, with the need for development of animal vaccines and with the disasters connected with foot and mouth disease, blue tongue virus, avian flu, tuberculosis in cattle and badgers, dangerous E.coli, equine flu in Australia which might come here, BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, CJD or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the National Scrapie Plan and even the ever-increasing dangerous stings from bees and hornets. If the budget were cut at this of all times, it would be false economy in the long run, affect research and development and increase the risk of dangerous infections. The Bill before us has many different strands. We need a safe and acceptable society to live in where government departments work together for the good of mankind.
My Lords, I propose for the consideration of the House now and in Committee the creation of a national bioethics commission in this country. The great physicist Niels Bohr said that it was dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. He was right about his own scientific world. We are now at a stage where the speed of scientific advance is very fast indeed. It is outstripping the capacity of our people to understand what is happening. It thereby impairs our ability to set an ethical framework in which those advances should be made. That is not an acceptable state of affairs in a democracy. Science must speak and explain to us what it is doing and where it might go. We are entitled to what I would call scientific social responsibility. With it we, the people, can understand better, be more aware and therefore be able to participate in the democratic processes about life sciences which so fundamentally affect us.
Regulatory control is plainly necessary in this area, but it is not enough. Control may give people confidence, but an ethical framework will give them trust. We should seek to establish a combination of the two under the bioethical reforms. We need not only confidence and trust, but some basic understanding about probability—the “mights” of life as against the “woulds”, “wills” and “surelys”. Very few people ever think about probability when examining the world in which they live. It is very important in this context. Do they think about risk in this context? Hardly at all. They need educating. We need educating. Therefore, it is appropriate, is it not, to consider a national bioethics commission? While I agree with much of what my noble friend Lord Winston says, I simply do not agree that we already know what most people think about these issues. We, educated people, ask for evidence about the public’s feelings on things, but without any proper understanding and awareness, how can they give us evidence? We have a state in which one almost patronises them.
What of the commission? Its function was proposed over 25 years ago by Sir Ian Kennedy, certainly not on any religious basis, but entirely because of the ethical framework in which science was then moving. Such commissions exist in Australia, Denmark, Germany, France and other countries, and they work. The societies there benefit from those commissions. They do not determine or decide—they inform; they make one aware; one understands better and one plays one’s democratic part more productively.
How might that apply to some of the issues arising within this Bill and without it? Human reproductive cloning must remain illegal. It was made so by a three-line clause in 2001. The clause that replaces it runs to nearly 40 lines, depends on definitions and introduces a regulation power. I am sure that the Government want to maintain the prohibition, but we need clarity; this is too much detail for such a plain point. A commission would have clarified that as part of the general debate.
The Government thought one thing about interspecies cloned embryos and then another; the debate swung one way and then the other. A commission would have played its part in informing that debate instead of watching it, as we did, lurch from one view to another. What of the prospects of future embryonic testing? Humility before hubris in science is a wise approach. A professor at UCL said yesterday that there had been gross overselling about the prospects of genetic science—first, as to the range of cures, and, secondly, as to when they might occur. I suggest that we should apply rigour. Therefore, we induce into people’s thinking that certain types of research are necessary to solve these problems—rigour not promises.
Lastly, the Bill does not deal with adult stem cell research in any particular way. The Joint Committee thought that it was unnecessary for it to consider it. As far as I am aware, no public body in this country is analysing the balance of benefit and cost between embryonic stem cell research as figures under this Bill and adult stem cell research. Is that appropriate? All those things would have benefited from a commission. There are two riders. Sir Liam Donaldson spoke, as the right reverend Prelate told us, of the medical ethics deficit in his profession. That means—does it not?—that the deficit must be rectified from within medicine and from without. The Joint Committee thought that this Bill was lacking in the ethics underpinning it should have, as was found in the Warnock committee approach. It said that that lack of underpinning finds no proper substitute in public consultation on individual issues. Both those riders illustrate the need.
What is the present state of affairs? The HFEA is a regulator. The Human Genetics Commission gives advice which is directive; it is opinion advice, not simply informative advice. The food and agricultural committees in these areas do their best. None of them has a wide public role. My noble friend Lord Winston was relatively kind to the HFEA tonight. On past occasions he has been excoriating about what it has or has not done. The fact is that it now regulates a £500 million industry with a sub-committee on ethics. Is that really the right approach? I have spoken about the other committees; what about Nuffield and the private sector? It is not a public body and it is not independent in the sense of being accountable and transparent to the nation. It has the advantage of one cleric sitting on it—he is the only cleric on the HFEA; namely, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He was there apparently to fulfil the role of theology: the designation is, “(Church of England)”. That result means that we are left with the Government. They tell us in the report that the present system works fine. It tells us enough. “Us”? What about us—the people—not you? What about Parliament? A Joint Committee on ethical issues is necessary.
If we do not have such a body we are left with some government regulators with ethical committees, an unaccountable private body and the Government. In Great Britain in 2007—this new age of science—that is not enough.
What would this body therefore do? It would be set up by statute with a wide bioethics remit; it could function at reasonable cost; it would be independent; and it would be continuous. I know of no country where the participation of different views in any way detracts from the effectiveness of these commissions on the countries in which they operate. What are the benefits for us? It closes a democratic gap; it enables science to be responsive to it and thereby responsible to us; it benefits the Government; and it benefits Parliament because it compliments rather than subtracts.
The Joint Committee was reluctant to accept it. Using its phrase, I could detect “no sound point of principle” why it was reluctant, unless it thought that the recommendation was designed to avoid parliamentary decision making. Far from it; it is to add to it as the basic democratic requirement. When we talk about these things in a democracy, it is not just the letter of the law; it is a culture of democracy that involves us all.
My Lords, I wish to voice my concerns on matters arising from the Bill before us today. The current proposals threaten not only human dignity but the family. If the liberalising amendments on abortion are accepted, human life itself will also be threatened. I believe that the creation of animal/human embryos for research is not only unnecessary and undesirable but it is unethical and would undermine our human dignity and alter the very nature of humanity.
Further, this proposal totally disregards the biblical law on mixing species as laid down in Holy Scripture, and would be an offence to the Creator Himself who made man in His own image. These proposals would also unleash an untameable monster on an already morally diminished people, the end result of which is too fearsome to contemplate.
I was greatly heartened, like others who have spoken today in your Lordships’ House, by Professor Wilmut’s decision to abandon cloning because the Japanese Professor Yamanaka has found a way to create a patient’s own stem cells from fragments of skin, thus obviating the need for embryos. A warm welcome has been given to this discovery by Sir Martin Evans who sees this as a long-term solution and by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge who said that this is very likely to be the future. I believe Josephine Quintavalle’s remarks would apply to all right-thinking people. She commented:
“As a country we must follow the Wilmut lead and put behind us all meddling with human cloning and animal/human hybridisation”.
I trust your Lordships' House will take these words to heart today and reject the proposals in this iniquitous and immoral Bill—
[The Sitting was suspended from 7.36 to 8.30 pm.]