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1.43 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): In opposing the programme motion, I start by referring to the exceptional speech made in the other place by the Bishop of St. Albans. I do not know whether we describe bishops as right reverend prelates, as they do in the other place; if so, I adopt that practice. He spoke of the importance of the issue and said that on certain issues a human being instinctively feels a shudder of recognition. He talked about moments of great art inspiring shudders of recognition and said:

This is one of the great issues of our day and I am sure that the vast majority of the public and this House would agree with the bishop's views, as I do.

There was also concern in the other place that, however urgent the matter might be, Parliament was not being given adequate time to consider it properly and that, as a consequence, the resulting law might not be effective. The same is true of the time being allowed in this place.

A balance must always be struck between urgency and proper consideration, and between the Government's duty to act and the rights of Opposition parties—even when, as in this instance, the main Opposition simply believe that the Bill does not go far enough. A balance must also be struck between speed and effectiveness. All hon. Members will know of examples of when the House has legislated in haste and repented at leisure.

The concerns expressed in the other place were felt not only by those such as Lord Alton, whose view is that all cloning should be banned, but by those who support so-called therapeutic cloning. Baroness Walmsely said:

Michael Fabricant: I have been listening to my hon. Friend, and doing some calculations at the same time. Is he aware that, if the Second Reading debate lasts for 90 minutes, the Report stage for 15 minutes and Third Reading for 30 minutes, and if this debate lasts the full the three hours deemed appropriate by the Leader of the House, there will be only three and three quarter minutes in Committee to discuss each amendment selected by Mr. Speaker? Does my hon. Friend think that that is a reasonable amount of time?

Mr. Heald: As so often, my hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not merely a question of the amount of time devoted to each amendment. Parliamentary procedure is designed to allow proper reflection between the various stages of a Bill's progress through the House. We have First Reading, when we read the Bill. We have Second Reading, when the principles underlying the Bill are examined. We then have a period of reflection, during which we can decide what amendments are needed to

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cover the ambit of debate set out on Second Reading. Not every hon. Member gets a chance to take part in debate during the Committee stage, because of the arrangements involving Committees upstairs. A gap is therefore left after the Committee stage so that all hon. Members can study a Bill and decide how it should be amended on Report. Finally, we look at the whole thing again on Third Reading, and decide whether we like it. Without those gaps, people outside do not have the opportunity to contribute.

The eyes of the world are on us today. This is an international issue. It prompted the American Congress to approve on Monday a motion, with a majority of more than 100, that bans all forms of cloning. The European countries have covered the issue in the relevant convention.

This Parliament is the cradle of democracy. Hon. Members are admired across the world for the proper scrutiny that we give, or should give—

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Used to give.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position that the House used to give proposals proper scrutiny. It does us no credit to deny democracy in a process such as we are about to embark on today.

I accept that reproductive cloning should be banned, and that this is an urgent matter. I support the Bill, but one of the pieces of evidence presented to Congress on Monday was that more than 200 couples are interested in trying experiments of the sort covered by the Bill as a way to have a baby. Those people are prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to take part in such experiments. It is therefore urgent that the Bill should become law. I believe that it should take only days or a week to get it on to the statute book, but there is no excuse for doing so in one afternoon, as is proposed. It is crucial that we have gaps between the various stages.

Mr. Ian Taylor: We need time to debate this issue in the broader context of how we treat cell nuclear replacements and how we isolate the aspects of cell creation that we wish to ban—human reproduction. We do not want to make the mistake of the US Congress, which is to ban everything. In my judgment, it is humane to pursue therapeutic cloning through cell nuclear replacement.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend illustrates one of the most important points about measures such as this: there are very different, serious, deeply held views on the exact way forward. I hope that when the Lords Stem Cell Research Committee finishes its report on this issue we shall have an opportunity to look in detail at all the law in this area and at all the various complicated, difficult issues that arise. Even since January, when we debated therapeutic cloning, more evidence has emerged about what can be done with adult stem cells. Clearly, that should inform our debate and we should look at the issues. I hope that the Government will treat this as the emergency plugging of a loophole and that we shall return to the subject and have a proper debate in due course, if it does not prove possible to do so now.

Mr. Beith: If the Government succeed in pressing ahead today, they must return with a further legislative

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opportunity. Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his concept of urgency? It strains credulity to suggest that someone could arrive in this country, find a clinic prepared to lose its licence by co-operating, find participants and embark on this procedure in the few weeks that it would take us to consider this Bill properly. Does he agree that the Government are straining the concept of emergency beyond any reasonable limit by saying that we have to legislate in a period shorter than would be needed to give the Bill reasonable consideration?

Mr. Heald: I agree that a period of three and a half hours with no gaps between the stages is ludicrous. The Bill is tightly drawn and probably goes beyond what is sensible in tightening the cordon.

Lord Brennan, who supports the Bill and therapeutic cloning, wanted to raise some basic legal issues about definition and so on, but even narrow definitional issues proved beyond the draftsmanship of someone who has been Chairman of the Bar Council and is widely respected across both Houses.

There is an issue about whether the drafting of the Bill is helping democracy. I would strongly support a straightforward Bill and a relatively quick timetable, but it is a mistake to draw the Bill so tightly that we cannot even consider, for example, issues such as those raised in the other place by Lady Blatch and others. The timetable, too, is wrong.

That is sad, as there is no reason for us to be in this position. The Government knew of the legal doubts as long ago as last January. I cannot help thinking that they offered a Bill in their manifesto because they thought that it was necessary to ban this form of cloning in primary legislation. Otherwise, why have a Bill? As recently as the general election the Government were promising to introduce a Bill of this sort, but they did not. In January, 11 months ago, they were told that there was a legal risk. At the general election, just a few months ago, they admitted that there was a need to change the law. The Government took a risk. They hoped that the matter would not end up in court and that they would get away with it. Now, because of their mistake, democracy is being asked to pay the price in over-hasty legislation.

We oppose the motion because, first, it fails to recognise the importance of the issue; secondly, it fails to recognise the desire of many hon. Members to consider amendments to the Bill, not only in Committee but on Report; and, thirdly, it fails to recognise the advantages of allowing people outside this place, who have a legitimate interest in the issue, to lobby us and to help us to inform our debates.

It is right to legislate, but it is wrong to do so without proper scrutiny.

1.55 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I want to develop the point made by the hon. Member for North–East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald).

We must all face the fact that Parliament has a bad reputation for legislating in haste and repenting at leisure. In successive Governments, Home Office Ministers especially have bamboozled the House into thinking that speed is more important than security of outcome. Each time we are told that it is an emergency.

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We all remember the Dangerous Dogs Bill, which proved misdirected. We should also remember the dangerous yobs Bill, dealing with football hooligans, which similarly was found to be largely inoperable. In the past few weeks, we have been considering the dangerous terrorists Bill, and even the Minister must accept that both Houses share wide misgivings about the speed with which that ragbag is being pushed through.

It appears that we are now considering a dangerous professors Bill. The measure is undoubtedly media-driven, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) pointed out. There is no great public outcry for us to pass legislation this week. The pressure for emergency provisions comes entirely from the tabloid press. The House does itself and the country a disservice by allowing ourselves to be panicked into taking such measures.

We have four concerns about the Bill. The first is legal. As the Minister said, it was only on 15 November that Mr. Justice Crane gave his judgment in the High Court. She pointed out that an appeal is being mounted against only one aspect of that judgment and that we are dealing with a different aspect, but the interrelationship of those aspects involves complicated law. As she said, if the appeal to be lodged this afternoon is unsuccessful, she will be back here again; she will want more parliamentary time and no doubt we will be told that there is another emergency measure that must have all its stages rushed through in an afternoon.

That is the legal issue. We are already treading in dangerous territory—perhaps sub judice—because of the interrelationship of those aspects. The judge—for once—kept to the letter of the law. What a surprise. Good heavens, is not that what judges often do? Were the Government surprised that for once a judge actually read what had been passed in Parliament and decided that he should go by the letter of the law? What an amazing revelation. Were the Government not prepared for that? If they did not expect that, will they be prepared for the likely outcome of the appeal? Perhaps another judge will also say, "Good heavens, Parliament seems to have introduced some legislation, so I had better take notice of it."

In a few weeks, we shall have to come back to this issue and another Minister—or even the hon. Lady, if she has not been sacked in the meantime—will be saying, "Oh dear, oh dear, there is another emergency."

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