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2.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): The Government strongly support and welcome the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) and I commend his clear and well-argued speech in favour of it.

The Bill would bring into effect some of the recommendations in the McLean review that the Government accepted last year. We set out then our intention to introduce legislation, but we have a tight parliamentary timetable this Session. That is why I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend has taken up the issue and introduced the Bill.

The Bill provides for the father's name to be entered on the child's birth certificate when his sperm or an embryo created with it is used after his death. These are not common circumstances; we should be thankful that they are not, for they are inevitably tragic and difficult for the few families concerned. For those few families, this is an extremely important issue about which they feel passionate. The obstacles placed in the way of getting legal recognition for the father of the children are unfair and insensitive.

To be faced with that insensitivity, as well as the frustration of what is in effect an outdated law, can only compound the distress that those families face at a time when they are trying to look forward and celebrate the new life of a child. That is why it is right to change the law. That is why the Bill is right and why we wish it a speedy passage through the House.

Ms Shipley: Is my hon. Friend aware that visiting the House today are two little boys to whom, as the law stands, we are legally saying, "You do not have a father"?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I pay tribute to her for her work on the issue and the representations that she has made on behalf of constituents who have been affected by the existing law. That is why it is right to make the Bill retrospective, and not simply so that it affects future families facing those circumstances.

The Bill applies where couples have decided to have children through IVF but when the man, sadly, has died before the treatment is completed; perhaps when he has stored sperm or where the embryos have been created but not yet implanted. Their intention to start a family is clear but, sadly, the man has died through illness or accident before the embryos can be implanted.

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In the circumstances, the widow faces a double loss; the loss of her partner and of the shared plans for their lives together and their future family. The law allows women in that situation to use the stored sperm or embryo to have a child, provided the father has consented to that. Despite having a child that they both wanted, he cannot be recorded as the child's father on the birth certificate. If the embryo had been implanted before his death, his name could have been on the birth certificate. If they had conceived the child in the normal way before he died, his name could go on the birth certificate. In the specific circumstances that I have described--and despite that man being intentionally the father of the child--he is not recognised on the birth certificate because, effectively, of the date on which he died.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I thought I heard the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) refer to whether the treatment had been carried out in the UK or not, or at a licensed facility or not. Does the Bill seek to make any distinction as to where the treatment may have been carried out? Are there circumstances in which that would invalidate the provisions of the Bill?

Yvette Cooper: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As I understand it, the Bill would apply to treatment in a UK licensed clinic only for those families who have used donor sperm, rather than the sperm of the father. If that is incorrect, I will happily write to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony Clarke: The reference to clinics in the UK would be of relevance only to the final category where, as my hon. Friend rightly said, donor sperm is used and the couple are not married. It is only in that last category that we sought, rightly, for treatment to be carried out in the UK.

Yvette Cooper: I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification.

We should be clear that the Bill will not allow the child succession or inheritance rights. The reason for that is that the child could be born many years after the father's death. If those rights were granted, it would be impossible to wind up the father's estate until all the sperm or embryos had been used or destroyed. Clearly, that is impractical.

The Government set out our intention to go further than the McLean report and the Bill does that. The problem with the recommendation in the McLean report is that it is not retrospective. It would have applied only to new families facing such difficult circumstances, not to those who have already experienced them and who are now bringing up children whose fathers have died.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South has described the case of Diane Blood. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) has raised in the House the case of her constituent, Marion Jordan, and has campaigned on the issue. The Government felt that it would be wrong not to extend provisions, under the Bill or in similar legislation, to include families who have already experienced so much and who have campaigned so hard for changes to be made. It is unusual to make laws retrospective in this way, and the Government have given

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the issue great consideration, but we think that it is the right thing to do in the circumstances. That is why the Government are supporting the Bill.

It is true that many of the measures made possible under the Bill will have a symbolic value, but it is an extremely important symbolic value, particularly to the families involved. I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to the mothers who have campaigned for this Bill for so long on behalf of their children.

Ms Shipley: The Bill is about more than the circumstances of one or two families who are affected. The law might be out of kilter with international conventions which we have signed. The UK might be in breach of United Nations conventions on human rights and on the rights of the child, so it is incumbent on the House to tighten up legislation on this important issue.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that concerns have been raised about the compatibility of the law in this area with European conventions. However, it is also simply the right thing to do to support the Bill, and that is why the Government are doing so. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the House. As it is in the interests of families and of children being brought up today, I hope that it receives cross-party support.

2.12 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It is obvious that the Bill deals with a difficult area, not least because it reflects all too well the extent to which it is incumbent on us to try to ensure that developments in the law keep pace, where appropriate, with developments in technology. It is entirely owing to the fact that medical technology has advanced as it has over the past few years that we are faced with this problem.

Fortunately for us, the Bill does not deal with the ethical and other considerations that surround the techniques involved. They are entirely separate. However, it is worth remembering that the techniques that allow the process to take place and so put people in this position are not without an ethical dimension.

I am not sure that I fully understand why this need be so, but great care is taken to distinguish between those who are married and those who are not. The modernisers among us--I am not one for this or, indeed, most other purposes--constantly try to establish that marriage is becoming less and less important and that partnerships and long-term relationships matter more and more. Intriguingly, in operating in a difficult and sensitive area, the Bill goes to extraordinary lengths to make such a distinction, which I find reassuring even though I am not entirely clear about the reason why. That is even more true of the distinction that apparently must be made about whether the treatment took place in UK-licensed premises. The question of whether there are any UK-licensed clinics outside the UK might be relevant.

Mr. Tony Clarke: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's interest, and the matters that he raises are important, but the Bill simply mirrors provisions in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. We are dealing with a minor issue: the right of children to have their deceased fathers recognised on their birth

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certificates, as fathers who are still living can be under the 1990 Act. I see the point of his technical questions, but does he accept that they are not relevant to the Bill?

Mr. Forth: I do not. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to be helpful, but we have already had this discussion once today, in the context of an earlier Bill. It is not good enough to say that because a provision already exists, and has existed for a long time, a similar measure can be nodded through, especially when we are operating in an environment of rapidly changing technology and circumstances. He suggests that because a provision has been in statute law since 1990, we need not pay close attention to it; the reason for the Bill, however, is the rapid march of technology. Are not those two facts slightly at odds?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his explanation, but I do not accept the basis on which he offered it. He seems to be saying, "Don't worry, folks. It's been around for a while, so it's almost certainly OK".

Surely the whole point of the opportunity that the Bill gives us to revise the law is that it allows us to consider whether any other matters need to be dealt with. That is verified by the lengths to which it goes in amending earlier legislation. The schedule, entitled "Consequential amendments", requires consideration to be given to the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1965 and the Adoption Act 1976, among others.

The issue may be relatively narrow, and the Bill's intent may, as the hon. Gentleman claimed, be simple. By the standard of many private Members' Bills, however, it is lengthy and detailed. That, and the fact that the schedule seeks to amend consequentially a number of other statutes, suggest that there are ramifications that we nod through at our peril.

I concede that in many cases of this kind the principle, or the specifics, that gave rise to the Bill concerned make it, in one sense, relatively uncontroversial; but the consequences may not be uncontroversial. This Bill has ethical and other dimensions that, in my view, require close consideration--not least the element of retrospection that is explicitly included.

We are talking about unusual circumstances, including the circumstances of those whose lives the Bill seeks to improve. Perhaps, in that context, the element of retrospection is inevitable and desirable, but I am always nervous when Bills contain a retrospective element. When I studied politics at university nearly 40 years ago, I was told that changes in the law should never be retrospective: that was the doctrine on which I was brought up. When I arrived in this place, as recently as 1983, that was still the prevailing philosophy in matters of legislation. I now find that--rather surreptitiously, if I may say so--more and more elements are being introduced into legislation in a way that I, for one, consider undesirable.

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