Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 14.
My Lords, there was a discrepancy in the Division on Amendment No. 108A. The number voting not-content was 164, not 165 as announced.
111: Clause 14, page 9, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (5) after the words “as a result of treatment” insert the words “including, in the case of a woman proposed to be treated with donated gametes or embryos, the need for that child to be told about his or her origins”.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that this will be rather less controversial than the last amendment we considered about the need for a father, or the alternative words. We are addressing here the question of donor-conceived people.
There is widespread agreement—it was apparent in the Select Committee and in Committee in this House—that it is highly desirable that a donor-conceived person be told of his or her biological origins at the earliest stage at which they can be expected to understand the situation. We spelled this out in the Joint Committee. I will not waste the time of the House by reading out the words because the report says just that. I was gratified that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, made the same point on the third day of the Committee.
In Committee, we canvassed the number of problems facing donor-conceived children, of which without any doubt the most serious is when they discover, perhaps at a late age, that their social father is not their biological father. We had some poignant evidence in Committee from people who had found themselves in that position. I should add that this amendment is not concerned with the question of putting information on birth certificates. I have tabled another amendment, Amendment No. 146—I am not sure we shall reach it today, so we will deal with that later.
Amendment No. 111 seeks to include in Section 13(5) of the 1990 Act, among the conditions of licences for treatment, the words,
“including, in the case of a woman proposed to be treated with donated gametes or embryos, the need for that child to be told about his or her origins”.
My aim is to put this in the Bill. It is regarded by all the witnesses we saw in the Joint Committee and by many people who took part in the earlier stages of the Bill as being so important that it has to be drawn to the attention of prospective parents who are considering having treatment with donated gametes. I entirely accept the importance of counselling—and there are other amendments in this group about counselling—but it cannot be anywhere more important than in the field of a putative donor conception. The amendment would ensure that this was written into the terms of the licence and it would therefore be bound to be at the forefront of the authority’s and clinicians’ minds.
Also in this group is Amendment No. 130, which provides what I might call an additional safeguard by requiring that the guidance is in the code of practice maintained by the authority under Section 25 of the 1990 Act. Therefore, I am looking at taking a two-pronged approach to this matter: first, that the guidance should be in the Bill and, secondly, that it should be in the code.
I shall certainly want to listen to the arguments on the other amendments in this group and at the end perhaps I shall be able to draw a conclusion as to whether I really need to press Amendment No. 111. However, that it is important I have absolutely no doubt at all, and I hope that the whole House will agree with that. The question is: how do we deal with it? Do we write it into the Bill or put it into the code or, as I should like, both? I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly agree with the amendment but I am not absolutely convinced that the wording needs to go into the Bill. However, it seems to me that it must go into the code because, if we are serious about the welfare or the good of the child being the most important consideration in offering treatment to women or couples who want it, we must try to ensure that children are not brought up under a misconception about their genetic parenthood. That is one of the most obvious cases of immoral treatment of a child, and it can be embarked on only by parents who are thinking more of themselves than of the good of the child.
Nearly all people who adopt children nowadays tell their children at a very early stage that they are adopted. I think that we should take on that model for the treatment of children born by donation and not concentrate on confidentiality or the wishes of the parents. In this case, it is very important to assert as strongly as possible that the child’s interests come first. There is no doubt whatever about the damage that can be done to children either if they accidentally find out that their social father is not their biological father or if circumstances arise where they have to be told. They may take it very hard, whereas they can—with difficulty, I agree, because it is a difficult subject to explain to a child—be brought up in the knowledge that their biological father is not their social father. Therefore, I strongly support the amendment, even if in the end the advice appears not in the Bill but only in the code, although I should prefer to have both.
My Lords, perhaps I may comment on what the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, has just said regarding whether something should be in the Bill or in the guidance. I suppose I am influenced by the fact that I am a lawyer and therefore my primary source of authority is the enactment of Parliament. For me, it would be very important to include these words in the Bill so that everyone could walk into a public library, ask to see the Act and see it stated as a very clear principle. It depends how one regards it but I see it as a highly important principle. I should not be at all against repeating it in the guidance, but it should be in the Bill.
My Lords, I warmly support the noble Lord. If I am able to be here at the next round of this Report stage, I shall also support him and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on the question of birth certificates.
I particularly want to speak at this point because I have been very moved by some material that I, and perhaps other noble Lords, have received. It is the kind of material that the noble Lord spoke about as having seen in the committee. A young man wrote to me asking whether I wanted him to send me a paper of his, and I said, “If you would like to do so, please do”. I received four or five very striking pages from somebody who is part of an organisation called the International Donor Offspring Alliance. He is a postgraduate student in Cambridge. The story he tells is of being brought up by what he calls his “raising parents”, for whom he is full of respect. But now in his mid-20s, he feels that he has been dogged by his ignorance of his father. He has tried website after website, but has not succeeded in finding him, and has ended up exhibiting himself, as it were, on a website in case his father sees his picture and recognises himself in him. He describes growing up not knowing whether he is like his father, and not knowing his real grandparents, nor they him.
There are lots of such stories. I shall not go on, but they underline the great importance of the noble Lord’s amendment, and the importance of clarity on the birth certificate so that someone is not only told about his real parentage but has every possibility of finding them rather than the arrangements that exist at present. I hope that we can support the noble Lord’s amendment.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment No. 129, which is in this group. All the amendments have the fundamental principle behind them of being open and honest with the child. There is nothing more devastating for children than to discover that their parents have lied to them. The difficulty is that parents do not know how to begin the conversation. In a well meaning way, they think that if they put it off until the child is more mature and can cope, somehow that will be better, but the converse is true. There is good evidence that if you start communicating with children before they develop speech and language, and they know either that they are adopted or that there is something in their background—donor conceived, or whatever, or that there is some family secret—they grow up with it. It is normal to them; it is internalised and they are okay. When they are brought up believing that the world consists of one construct and then somebody says that they have something to tell them, all of those foundations of their lives are taken away.
It is that principle behind the amendment, which stands in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, myself, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. It is essential to reinforce the principle of honesty in all that we do, particularly when medical technology is used to intervene in what could be called processes of nature. I am worried that if we do not have something on the face of the Bill, it could slip in priority in clinical services, which are somewhat hard-pressed. There is merit in having a requirement in the Bill that people need to know how to give information. The government amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Darzi of Denham, does that. I realise that it has been drafted in that way. I hope, therefore, that the guidance that goes with the amendment will really stress the need for parents to be given the skills, tools and guidance so that they can update how to give information as the child grows up. It should not be one-off information at the time they attend the clinic, but they should be able to access age-specific and age-relevant information, which will match the child’s development, so that some of the traumas of which we have heard can be avoided in future.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. It is a thoughtful and constructive attempt to resolve an issue, which many of us have grappled with, in Committee and outside it, with the Minister. My noble friend Lady Warnock put it well—she did so in Committee as well—when she said that we should never try to conceal from someone the truth of their identity. Indeed, it is a less loving thing to conceal identity. If eventually, through DNA testing or in other ways, someone discovers that they have been lied to, that stores many more problems further up the track.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, quite rightly raised the danger of issues such as consanguinity and incest. I shared with the House the true story of twins who were separated and adopted at birth, only to meet later in life and marry. This took place some years ago, and I know that some dismissed it as a one-in-a-million coincidence, unlikely ever to be repeated. There may be truth in that, but it would be a mistake not to look at some of the issues that a case of that kind raises. The noble Lord knows, because I have shared some of the correspondence with him, that, inevitably, others have written to tell me of other cases as well.
Alastair Bissett-Johnson, Emeritus Professor of Law at Dundee University, has given me permission to use his name and has had 43 years of teaching family law. He told me how a young person came into local authority care, with parental rights being vested in the local authority. One such parental right was that of consent to the marriage of a person in their care between 16 and 18 years of age. The social worker involved saw that one of the young people was adopted, noticed a striking similarity and discovered that the proposed spouse had also been adopted. Further investigation revealed that they were siblings. No consent to the marriage took place and the couple were informed of the circumstances. How much better it would have been if all concerned had known of their biological relationship from the outset.
I have also received several heart-breaking letters from people who were denied knowledge of their antecedents with shocking consequences for their health. One lady who is being treated for ovarian cancer and who knows nothing of her genetic history told me that she feels it scandalous that she has no family medical records. She pleads for the medical records of biological parents to be kept on a central database. Someone else wrote to say:
“Approximately five years ago, I was diagnosed with ADPKD—autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease. This disease is genetically inherited. By having knowledge of my family history and perhaps interacting with my relatives, we may be able to help each other out and increase our lifespans. Additionally, this information may help my children and future generations”.
I have also received a letter about a case from a Member of another place, Mr John Hemming MP. He says:
“I am fearful that in this individual case, and many others besides, proper medical treatment is not possible, and preventative care is being overlooked”.
Clearly, this leaves many children at significant risk.
With many children now conceived by in vitro fertilisation, those issues have been magnified. Every child, whether born naturally or by IVF, should have a true record of their identity. One only needs to look at websites such as the donor sibling registry to see why this matters. That database enables parents to make contact with the anonymous donors who supplied half of the genes of their offspring. Children can search for their unknown genetic parents, and families can make contact with genetic half-siblings with a donor in common. Thousands of people have registered on that site looking for sperm donors, parents and for the children they helped to conceive. That is done by batch numbers, and the site states that the largest match so far has been between 26 half-siblings to a single donor, who is also listed.
One man, a Californian artist, identified by batch 401, is father to 25 babies by 18 different women. In the United States, one donor, who had been providing sperm for over 15 years, estimated that he could have fathered 432 children.
My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s support, yet the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, told us in Committee that the rule of the HFEA is that no man shall ever be allowed to be a donor for more than 10 children.
My Lords, I was just coming to that point. I am grateful to the noble Lord because it is relevant. I am glad that we do not permit so many babies to be born, as happens in the United States. Yet the noble Lord will see from the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Times that a young woman has become the record surrogate, having herself had eight babies under the procedure. The noble Lord is right that the HFEA says that a maximum of 10 may be permitted in Britain, but that is a significant number of siblings, half-siblings and cousins. When the Minister comes to reply, perhaps he can tell us whether the number 10 refers to successful treatment cycles or to children. Given that the HFEA states that one in four IVF births is multiple, that is highly germane.
Since sperm donations would probably be at the same IVF clinic, or at least in the same city, and possibly all within a year or so—for example, in the case of a student at a university—there may well be a good chance that children born from those donations will grow up in the same city at around the same time, some of them possibly going to the same school or even being in the same year group. Without absolute knowledge of your genetic profile, the possibility of unwitting consanguineous or incestuous relationships is obvious.
Three years ago, I pressed the Government to give children the right to know the identity of their biological parents. The donor anonymity that previously existed was lifted. I was grateful to the Government for that but, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said in Committee, that tells only half the story. We gave the right to inquire, but created no duty to tell. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child puts it well, stating that we must ensure that every child can preserve his or her identity.
Let me conclude by citing one other person, who wrote to me to say:
“There is more to identity too. A sense of identity is of crucial importance to a balanced wellbeing. I know, since I’ve only gained one in my 39th year, and it’s changed my life profoundly. There was a sudden and profound seismic shift in my psyche. I became ‘connected’. To spend your life not knowing who your mother and father were is a torture only those that have experienced it can fully understand”.
The amendment does not go as far as I—and others—would have liked to have gone. There was a thoughtful amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we considered in Committee about in some way marking birth certificates. There have been amendments from the noble Earl, Lord Howe. At this stage in this discussion, I think that the amendment and the way charted forward by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, is right, and I hope that the Government will give it a fair wind.
My Lords, I should like to say just three sentences in support of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. If you are an adoptive parent and are being assessed, part of your assessment will involve how you will tell the child about its background. It seems extraordinary to me that we do not have exactly the same process for this group of children. We are saying that those children do not matter. In the Every Child Matters agenda, I hope that the Government will ensure that that group of children matter just as much as all the other groups. They are now the only group left out from having the right to the knowledge of their genetic inheritance.
I am grateful that children will now have the right to know their parental identity. They also need to know their genetic identity.
My Lords, I support the amendment and, looking at the time, will make two short points. First, not only should the child be told, the child should be told as soon as possible. That is crucial. It is therefore very important, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, that there should be good counselling and good information given to parents of children in that situation as to how to tell the child. On the second point, I very respectfully agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, said: it should be written into the Bill, so that people will know openly. They will not necessarily see the code, but they will see the Bill.
My Lords, I entirely follow the lead of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his support for the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. He is on to a very important point, which concerns basic human rights and takes us back to the point made about human rights in an earlier debate in your Lordships’ House by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York. Denying children the right to know their natural father is wrong, if I can use such a fierce word. The absence of knowledge of the natural origins of a person's life can have profound consequences on an individual's emotional, social and spiritual development—here I use “spiritual” in its broadest sense, not just religious.
The denial of any knowledge of a person's origin can have potentially devastating consequences for that individual, as some of your Lordships have pointed out in this short debate. Knowing one’s own genealogy is a human right, and a very important one. Most people recognise that what we think of as a sense of place is very comforting. It is where they identify with. A sense of who you are and where you come from is very much more than just comforting; it is essential.
I say to the Minister that it is totally wrong for the state to connive in a falsehood—and I know he does not wish to do so. Birth certificates must record the birth as far as it is possible. They must never encourage a deliberate falsehood by making provision for the registration of parents in a way not clear to their children. Birth certificates have the sole function of genetic history, not of saying who is carrying out the “parenting function”, if that is what it might be called.
Surely the Government cannot wish their own newly established body, the Statistics Board, which takes up its role on 1 April under the immensely distinguished chairmanship of Sir Michael Scholar—it is already in operation according to Parliamentary Answers—to connive in any falsehood. We are told by the Prime Minister that the new Statistics Board is there, quite rightly, to ensure the purity and high quality of our statistics. I am sure that there is not scintilla of difference among anyone in this House: we want high-quality statistics. The board cannot begin its new role in April by being asked to connive in something which is, on the face of it, a falsehood if full details are not recorded in birth certificates. Has the new Statistics Board been consulted, or will it be consulted on that critically important issue—a genealogical, historical and medical issue—for those whose records it is considering? I hope that the Minister will tell us, in answer to this debate, that it is not being asked to connive in a deliberate falsehood.
I think knowing who you are is as important as knowing where you are and where you come from. It is a basic human right to know who you are—to know what your identity is—and it is an affront to a child, as many noble Lords have said, to deny that. It is abhorrent for the state, in its might, to conspire against children in their inherent weakness. That is an extremely important point. It is a matter of ensuring that the truth is told and freedom is protected in a way that only totalitarians—which I know this Government are not—would wish to deny.
We heard a little earlier about the importance of daughters from the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who is not currently in his place. I took a reality check with my own dear daughter, Mary-Claire, who is up at Cambridge reading theology, and explained the issues in front of the House tonight. She said, “Surely, Daddy, the most important thing is not the wishes of adults, but the human rights of the children”. I thought your Lordships would be grateful to have her advice.
My Lords, I must profess to a good deal of uneasiness about these amendments, and I am not pretending that I can offer a solution, but I hope that your Lordships’ House will bear in mind some of the practical consequences of what we are talking about.
As a practitioner running, at the time, a busy fertility clinic in Hammersmith, I think we invested in counselling more heavily than any other unit in the United Kingdom. Since then, one of our senior counsellors has been an adviser to the HFEA and is now a member of that authority. Therefore, our credentials for counselling are pretty impeccable. Certainly, as director, I took it very seriously and made certain that we invested in the salaries to ensure that every patient coming through for in vitro fertilisation could have extensive counselling if required, in particular when donor gametes were to be offered to a patient, something that we were very conscious about.
Everyone has said tonight that it is important to be open with children, to be as honest as we can about their origins and explain to them as early as possible that they come from a donor parent of one or the other sort. The question here is how many parents decide to keep this matter a secret. My impression from following up on patients in the clinic—I admit that this is anecdotal and that I do not know of any solid research—is that, rather than seeing a decrease in the number of people who keep quiet, we have seen an increase in the number of men and women who want to keep the origin of their children secret. That cannot in any way be enforced in the clinic; it would be impossible.
The consequence is that children may find out at the wrong time. I have seen that in several children, including one young man I am particularly concerned about, who is now a student at university. The children find out at the time of their parents’ break-up, usually when they are young teenagers. That is probably the most damaging time. In the case of the young man—it has happened with other children as well—the father has said, “You’re not my responsibility, and I am not your father anyway”. That had a devastating effect on the young man, but I have seen the same in girls as well. That is a problem with sperm donation.
Another problem that we have not considered is, I think, even more serious: egg donation. I do not know if there is an easy answer. As has been explained ad nauseam, when women run out of eggs, one of the most successful treatments in infertility practice today is that of offering donor eggs. In fact, donor eggs given to an early menopausal woman in her late 30s or early 40s carry an almost 50 per cent chance of resulting in a pregnancy. But what happens in reality, particularly in the private sector, is that, because it is difficult to get hold of donor eggs, women who are not wealthy and are perhaps somewhat dispossessed and have to pay for their in vitro fertilisation treatment opt to donate some eggs from the clutch of eggs taken during an in vitro fertilisation cycle, in return for which they get free treatment. The recipient of those eggs remains anonymous. There is no way back because the eggs have to be exposed immediately. As a consequence, some women end up donating eggs, their own in vitro fertilisation cycle fails, and the woman they have given their genetic material to has an embryo implanted and has a baby.
Rightly or wrongly—I have views about it that are not relevant here—the HFEA has consistently sanctioned egg sharing of that sort. I am not sure that it is a wise decision, but that is what happens. However, the position is now made even more poignant with the loss of anonymity. Many women go through in vitro fertilisation treatment as poor patients. I have seen this, and indeed I wrote to a former Minister of health—not one of the current Front-Benchers in either House—to explain that I had just met a women who had had five treatments as a donor. The statistical probability was that she had at least two or three children of whom she was not aware. Imagine the problems for that woman, who was left infertile and has remained so, when 18 years later she is visited by a child of whom she had no knowledge. It is a very serious issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was interesting about consanguinity and the risks of sperm donation. If it is bad technology, let us abandon it. However, this legislation increases the risk in some ways because the fact is that fewer men will be prepared to provide donor sperm because of the possible consequences of being traced later on. There is then a greater risk of consanguinity because there will be fewer sperm donors in the United Kingdom. A number of issues need to be teased out as we consider the legislation. I do not know the answers, but they have to be borne in mind during the passage of these amendments.
My Lords, at this late hour I simply wish to make a few important points, not least in order to restore some balance to the debate. I start, as I have in all my contributions on the Bill, by highlighting again the need for us to rely on solid evidence. Over the past few months, I have been concerned when individual cases have been cited, some in the press, which your Lordships have no way of verifying independently, emotive though those cases may be. It behoves your Lordships’ House to look not only at the evidence base but at current practice before we legislate.
I had not intended to talk about birth certificates—the issue is not before us in the amendments, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, will take us into further discussions about birth certificates next week—but, as the person who raised the matter of birth certificates in Committee, I, too, have received a great deal of communication about them. There is an equally emotive case to be made on behalf of people who do not wish there ever to be any mark on any birth certificate that identifies a person as being donor-conceived. We will have a fuller debate in time, but noble Lords should be aware of that.
I wish to flag up two matters, one of which is the work of the Donor Conception Network. I have been involved in it, I have seen some of its work, and I invite noble Lords to take the easy action of clicking on to its website. There they will find not only guidance to prospective parents but guidance from existing donor fathers, donor mothers and same-sex couples about the importance of telling children at an early stage about their status and about all other aspects of the experience that they are likely to have and the things that they should consider as parents. So, even without the legislation, much work is already being done.
Many of the debates so far on this matter have been based on some very old data. I looked at data from a research study that was published last year. Prospective parents, who had been approached via infertility counsellors in licensed clinics, were specifically asked whether, in view of the changes in the rules on anonymity, they would be more or less likely to tell children at an early stage and what were the issues around that. Two-thirds of the prospective parents said that they were more likely to tell children of their donor-conceived status. Interestingly, though, a tenth said that they would be less likely. That flags up the fact that, whatever law we may pass, in practice this is an extremely difficult matter on which to legislate. Why? Because families are different, their circumstances are different, and human nature varies.
We should do two things: we should encourage the Government to continue to support all voluntary efforts such as the talking and telling courses that are being implemented by the Donor Conception Network for parents; and we should be mindful that counselling is a resource, and it costs. I can think of many examples across the whole spectrum of social policy where one would like counselling to be available. I urge one note of caution: people who have made the conscious decision to go to a licensed clinic for this treatment may not be the people most in need of counselling; they may be well aware of what they are letting themselves in for and what the issues are for any future children. So be aware that adding a cost to a treatment may well put off some people who, in all other respects, would be extremely good parents of whom we would otherwise approve.
My Lords, it will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that, with regard to the issue of principle that we are discussing—namely, the need to be open with the donor-conceived child—there is unanimity around the Chamber. I should like very briefly to add to the weight of that opinion. I begin by saying how very much I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Jenkin. As he and others have said, a number of us initially thought that it might be possible to devise a way of satisfying the child’s right to know by ensuring that the child’s birth certificate made clear in some way the fact of his birth status. It became apparent from the Government’s response and from private discussions that however it is dressed up, this is not an idea that Ministers are willing to accept, mainly on human rights grounds. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister exactly why that is; there are a lot of people out there who are unclear and unsure about the precise arguments. I understand, of course, that a couple who have become parents through receipt of donor sperm believe strongly that they have a right to privacy and that it is no part of the state’s function to interfere in their family life. However, it is at least highly questionable whether the rights of parents on that matter are of a comparable magnitude to those of donor-conceived children. I would maintain that they are not, which is why many of us have been trying so hard to find a way through the problem.
In Committee I also argued that whenever a woman requests IVF treatment involving donor sperm or ova, she should receive mandatory counselling. At present the Bill merely specifies that the woman and her partner should be given an opportunity to receive such counselling. Disappointingly, that idea was kicked into touch by the Minister. It is, however, very welcome to see the government amendment to Clause 23, which appears to go part of the way at least towards that objective. I hope that I understand the amendment correctly and that it is the Government’s intention to make it mandatory for anyone seeking treatment at a clinic to receive certain relevant information as part of the process of giving their informed consent. In other words, the woman and her partner would not only have to read and digest the information; they would need to assimilate and accept it. If that is right, it would certainly be a step forward. I thank the Minister for listening to the concerns I expressed in our earlier debate on the subject.
However, I am going to sound a little like Oliver Twist because I do not think the amendment goes quite far enough, which is why I have tabled Amendment No. 129 as an amendment to it. This amendment specifies that included in the information received by people who request IVF treatment by donor, there needs to be a section making clear the critical importance of being open with the child about the circumstances of his conception and another section pointing the couple towards sources of advice designed to make it easier for them to approach the very sensitive process of actually breaking the news to the child. We have heard powerful contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, on that point. The key elements here are the absolute necessity of explaining why it matters so desperately to a donor-conceived child to be told the truth, what happens to the child if he is not told the truth but discovers it for himself by accident, and what is at stake in terms of the trust placed in the parents by the child—trust that will vanish for ever if the child finds out that he has been deceived. The parents have to be taken through all of this—that is the point. While I have to recognise the reality that counselling will not be made compulsory, I hope that the process of obtaining informed consent will encourage couples to ask for counselling. Parents need to understand that bringing up a donor-conceived child carries with it some particularly onerous responsibilities that should not be ducked. I hope the Minister will consider my amendment in a positive way.
My Lords, I will address both the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and government Amendment No. 128.
Much of the discussion we have had about the Bill has been about the importance of donor-conceived people being made aware of that fact. Several reasons have been discussed today, a critical one being to avoid the distress caused when a donor-conceived person finds out in an uncontrolled way at a later stage in life that the person they thought was their biological father is not. We want to avoid situations such as the one cited by the right reverend Prelate.
The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that prospective parents understand how important it is that a child is told that they were donor-conceived. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, honesty is fundamental, and a child who is told at an early age will grow up with that knowledge and will be better informed, and there will be better family relationships. That is done by the parents telling them in the most effective and least distressing way. It is the Government’s view that that is best achieved by education rather than enforcement.
To that end, the Department of Health is working closely with the Donor Conception Network to support projects to encourage telling. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I certainly recommend that your Lordships have a look at its website, which is rather good. We are funding the Telling and Talking project, which supports parents who have already told children about their donor conception. We are also funding a second project that will be working with prospective parents hoping to conceive using donor gametes. These projects, involving discussions and workshops, will be piloted and evaluated to assess the best way of communicating with parents and prospective parents and to give them the opportunity to feed back information. The preparation project will talk to parents about the process of donor conception, its implications and its particular responsibilities.
The 1990 Act requires counselling to be available and relevant information, as is proper, to be provided by all licensed treatment clinics. It is a condition of all licences that a woman shall not be provided with treatment unless she and any person who is to be treated together with her have been given suitable opportunity to receive proper counselling and relevant information. Following discussions in Committee we have tabled Amendment No. 128, which strengthens provision in the Bill in respect of counselling and information, in addition to requiring that all patients be given the offer of counselling and provided with information. It also requires quite specifically that the HFEA produces in its code of practice guidance for the clinics about doing so. The noble Earl is quite right in his reading of our amendment. For example, where the treatment involves donated gametes, the code could specify that information relating to the importance of discussing this issue with the child from an early age was provided to prospective parents. In addition, we would also expect the guidance in the code of practice to relate to who provides the counselling and how it is offered.
Amendment No. 129, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, takes that further. It adds to the government amendment by specifying that the information provided should make clear the importance of disclosing to any child born from treatment services the circumstances of their conception and to provide guidance designed to assist a person in making such a disclosure.
Amendments Nos. 111 and 130, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, would try to ensure that people born as a result of donor conception were informed by amending the licence conditions that apply to clinics about the welfare of the child. Those amendments also seek to ensure that there is guidance on informing a child in the HFEA code of practice. We wholeheartedly agree that the code of practice should address this area, and it was with that in mind that the government amendment was tabled. The purpose of our amendment is to ensure that the HFEA can specify what information should be provided to patients.
Let me answer a couple of questions that have been put during this short debate. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, asked if the Statistics Board had been consulted on birth certificates. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 ensures that donors are not regarded as the legal parents of children born as a result of assisted conception treatment. It provides that donors are not regarded as parents for any purpose and therefore would not be regarded as such for statistical purposes.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked for clarification on whether we meant 10 cycles or 10 children using donor sperm. The HFEA guidance states that donor sperm cannot be used by more than 10 families. A donor may state a lower number if he so wishes.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about birth certificates and compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. Any proposal to amend birth certificates in the way suggested would have to be considered on the individual facts. However, broadly speaking, the Government’s view is that the human rights of donor-conceived children and their parents are likely to be engaged. Therefore, any interference by the state into this private realm would have to be proportionate and fully justified. It is our view that the interests of donor-conceived children in finding out about their genetic origins are best protected by a programme of information and education to support their parents in discussing this information with them.
We accept in principle the intention of the amendments in this group. Indeed, we accept far more than that, and I would like to take away the three opposition amendments in the group. I can give noble Lords an assurance that I will come back on Third Reading with an amendment that takes into consideration the spirit of those three amendments. With that, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, before I withdraw the amendment, I should like to say how grateful I am for the widespread support that my amendments have attracted from all sides of the House. I think that we are all broadly agreed in principle. On the question of certificates—a number of Members raised this, including my noble friend on the Front Bench—I have tabled an amendment which provides what I hope will be an acceptable procedure whereby the HFEA will be able to maintain a continuing review of certificates. Like my noble friend, I accept that the Government are not going to provide for compulsory notification on birth certificates. That is quite right in my view. One of the organisations involved—the Donor Conception Network—is opposed to that at the present time. I do not want to anticipate the arguments on my later amendment, because it is even more complicated than the ones discussed in this short debate. This amendment is not about that.
I am greatly encouraged by what the Minister said about the intention behind the Government’s amendment. I am grateful for her assurances that she will consider, between now and Third Reading, whether some specific mention of donor conception should go into the code. Although many of us, such as the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and others, would like to see it in the Bill, if it is in the code and is sufficiently specific, one can feel that one has made a good deal of progress. With those words, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
House adjourned at 10.19 pm