Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, as I am sure that the noble Lord knows, Professor David Feldman will give legal advice to the committee. He is the former Dean of Law at Birmingham University and joined the staff last September as an Officer of both Houses. Any specialist advisers appointed under this power would be additional to Professor Feldman. It will be for the committee to decide, but I am sure that those in the House this afternoon will have heard the noble Lord's point loud and clear.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [H.L.]

3.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Lord Bach): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 13

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Bach.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Extent of duty to fund advice and assistance]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 1, leave out lines 5 to 7 and insert--

("(1) Subsection (1) of section 13 of the Access to Justice Act 1999 (duty of Legal Services Commission to fund advice and assistance as part of Criminal Defence Service) shall be treated as having been enacted with the substitution of the following for paragraph (b) and the words after it--").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No.1 and shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 3. Taken together, the amendments would allow the Bill, on enactment, to have retrospective effect. Amendment No. 1 provides that the Access to Justice Act will be read as if it had always been amended by the Bill. Amendment No. 2 provides that secondary legislation made under the powers in Section 13(1) of the Access to Justice Act may also have retrospective effect. Amendment No. 3 changes the commencement date of the Bill. There is no longer any need for the Bill to commence on 2nd April. It will come into force on the day that it receives Royal Assent.

I am conscious that all sides of the House believed that there were unlikely to be amendments to this Bill. Although every effort was made at the end of last week to inform interested noble Lords of those amendments, it is right to say that little time has been allowed for reflection. Following any debate today, it is my intention to seek the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendments and to bring them back before the House on Report next Monday. I hope that the Committee will feel that the Government are behaving responsibly and correctly in doing just that.

I shall explain why the Bill now needs to have retrospective effect.

Lord Kingsland: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In view of the fact that he will re-table the amendments on Report, I believe that it is much better to discuss and debate them then and to leave the matter as it stands today. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will agree with the suggestion that I have made to the Minister.

Lord Bach: I am most grateful to the noble Lord. If the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, whose views on these matters the Committee and the House always take seriously, agrees, I shall be more than happy to withdraw Amendment No. 1 and not move the other amendments today. I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied with that.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. It seems to me that that is the right course and that any debate on this matter should take place on Report.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 14

Lord Bach: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Short title and commencement]:

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

House resumed:Bill reported without amendment.


3.13 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, as there are three amendments on the Order Paper, it may be for the convenience of the House if I explain the procedure which we shall follow with regard to this afternoon's stem cell regulations. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will open the debate and move the Motion to approve the regulations. The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, will speak next and move his amendment. The whole debate will then take place on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, as that will be the Question before the House.

At the end of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will wind up and, if he wishes to press his amendment, a vote will then take place. If the noble Lord wins, the other two amendments will fall and there will be no further Divisions. The original Motion will be agreed to as amended.

If the noble Lord, Lord Alton, does not win, the House will proceed to consider the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. At that moment, it will be open to her to move the amendment or not move it, as she wishes. If it is moved, we shall move immediately without debate to another vote. If the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, wins, there will no further votes.

However, if she loses, we shall then proceed to the third amendment. Again, it is open to the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, to decide whether or not to move his amendment. If he moves it, there will be a third and final vote. I hope that that helps to make matters clear.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House and it may even be helpful to the noble Lord the Chief Whip to know that I shall not move my amendment today.

Lord Carter: My Lords, that is extremely helpful. When we reach that point in the debate, the amendment will be called and the noble Baroness will state that she will not move it. On the assumption that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, loses his amendment, we shall then move to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord the Chief Whip for having explained the procedure for this afternoon. However, does he agree

22 Jan 2001 : Column 15

that that demonstrates that secondary legislation is no substitute for primary legislation? Does he agree that this matter should have been brought forward by the Government, having been given proper consideration, before being presented to both Houses rather than obliging this House to deal with this secondary legislation?

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will explain exactly why the House is following this procedure and why this subject has been in the public domain for, I believe, three years.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000

3.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999-2000].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad of the opportunity which allows us to debate today an issue of considerable importance. It is of importance to hundreds of thousands of people in this country who suffer from distressing and long-term illnesses, to those whose diseases and conditions often deny them a basic quality of life, and to those whose only hope for a cure lies in medical research and science.

However, our debate this afternoon goes further. Inevitably, it will touch on matters which go to the very core of our individual beliefs, principles and values. We shall hear from noble Lords who believe that research on embryos should not take place under any circumstances; from those who believe that research on embryos is ethically justified in the fight against serious diseases; from noble Lords who worry about the end point of so many scientific advances; and from those who rejoice at the opportunities which new medical discoveries bring to humankind.

I believe that it is to our country's credit that over the years we have been able to strike a balance between those different viewpoints and arrive at sensible conclusions. In respect of that sensible balance, I inform the House at the beginning of our debate that it is the Government's intention to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, which proposes that the order be approved with government support for the appointment of a Select Committee and for the Government to review the regulations following the report of that Select Committee.

I spoke about a sensible balance. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 and the forerunner to that Act--the committee of inquiry set up under the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, to consider and make recommendations on recent and potential developments in science and medicine in relation to human fertilisation and embryology.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 16

The noble Baroness's committee reviewed those areas comprehensively. That was followed by the enactment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The 1990 Act was and is a model in its regulation of certain infertility treatments and embryo research. It reflected the need to provide a strict framework within which regulation could be conducted and to take account of the advances in medicine anticipated both by the Warnock committee and Parliament in 1990. It is surely a tribute to the noble Baroness and her committee, to the 1990 Parliament and to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the HFEA, which conducts its work in such an effective way, that the Act continues to provide such a framework.

In 1990 Parliament debated at length whether to allow embryo research and, should it be permitted, what safeguards would be required. Parliament agreed then that embryos may be used in this way and also agreed the strict safeguards that are now found in the Act. Those include that research on embryos may be conducted only until the first signs of neural development--that is, at the very latest after 14 days. The penalty for using an embryo after that time is severe: the 1990 Act makes it an offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years, or an unlimited fine or both.

The 1990 Act provides other safeguards. Most importantly--this is crucial to our later debate--the authority must be satisfied that the use of embryos is necessary for research and that research can be conducted only for specific purposes.

The authority takes its role seriously. Over the past 10 years, it received 130 applications to conduct research, and it rejected 17 of those--more than 10 per cent. The authority is not a rubber stamp. We should be proud of its work in putting into effect Parliament's intention to safeguard the use of embryos and in protecting the interests of patients.

Those safeguards in the 1990 Act mean that the regulations would not allow embryos to develop into foetuses from which organs may be harvested, and they do not allow reproductive cloning. I must emphasise that to the House. We are emphatically against those developments and will ensure that they continue to be banned in the UK. At the moment, reproductive cloning is banned because the authority said that it will not licence such research or treatment. Anyone who undertook that work without a licence would commit an offence under the Act and would be liable to imprisonment or a fine, or both.

Your Lordships will be aware that in their response to the Donaldson report, the Government gave a commitment to bring in, when the parliamentary timetable allows, a Bill explicitly to ban reproductive cloning. I am happy to repeat that commitment today. We will not permit reproductive cloning to take place in the UK, and a Bill will be introduced to that effect as soon as possible to put the matter absolutely beyond doubt.

The principles and law that were established in the 1990 Act are clear. Embryo research may be allowed now, but only for conditions such as infertility,

22 Jan 2001 : Column 17

contraception and congenital disease, including cystic fibrosis and haemophilia. The question before the House today is whether those purposes should be extended to include serious diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and diabetes--a provision anticipated and included as a regulating-making power in the 1990 Act.

That question arises because the late 1990s saw developments in cell nuclear replacement technology in animals and because of the announcement in the US of the extraction of stem cells from a human embryo. That was of huge potential. It suggested that it might be possible to apply the understanding gained from embryonic stem cell research to patients' own cells, so that they could be made to generate new cells and tissues. The embryonic stem cell, uniquely, has the potential to develop into almost any tissue in the body. The majority of the research work is likely to centre on the extraction of stem cells from embryos created from eggs and sperm, using spare embryos that are no longer required for infertility treatment. Such research will help techniques for extracting stem cells from embryos, growing them on in the laboratory, and learning how to make them differentiate into various types of tissue. That offers the potential to understand the way in which to treat a whole range of degenerative diseases, strokes, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, and so on.

Although much attention has focused on cell nuclear replacement, that will not necessarily be the main focus of the initial research effort. That, of course, is what research is about: to try to find out what is the best way forward, and which techniques show the greatest promise. Cell nuclear replacement is essentially the technique in which an adult cell nucleus is injected into an unfertilised egg that has had its nucleus removed. That induces the adult nucleus to act as if it had just been created, following the fertilisation of an egg. The adult nucleus retains the potential to go back to its original undifferentiated state, and the act of transferring it into the egg switches that back on.

The main aim of cell nuclear replacement research is to study the chemical process that controls that mechanism, and to learn how to turn the clock with regard to adult tissue cells. If we succeed in doing that, and learn how to make adult cells revert to the undifferentiated state, we could grow them into new forms of tissue to repair damaged organs, and so on, without having to use cell nuclear replacement. The tissue would not be rejected and would have the advantage of not involving the use of embryos at all.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recognised in 1997 what it called the "profound implications" of the research conducted at the Roslin Institute into cell nuclear replacement. Those issues were taken up early in 1998 by a joint committee comprising the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which conducted a public consultation on them. In their response to that joint committee's report, the Government announced in June 1999 that they were setting up an expert advisory

22 Jan 2001 : Column 18

group under the chairmanship of the Chief Medical Officer to consider the potential benefits for human health of such research.

The expert group included representatives from a range of interests, including ethicists, scientists, doctors and geneticists. They sought evidence both nationally and internationally on all of those matters.

So, the regulations that we are debating today are the result of a considerable amount of work, which was conducted for more than a year by the Chief Medical Officer's expert group. The group concluded by recommending that a further purpose should be added to the five currently allowed by the 1990 Act. That would allow research into serious disease and disorders and their cell-based treatments, but under the same strict conditions and time limits that I have already mentioned, and which apply to all embryo research under the 1990 Act.

After very careful deliberation, the group concluded that research on stem cells provides the possibility of exciting prospects for future therapies for a range of debilitating diseases. However, the group recognised that a great deal of research will be needed to realise such potential and that the answers are not going to be provided quickly. That point underlines the importance of our not delaying a decision today.

The regulations put into effect the recommendations in Professor Donaldson's report. What the regulations do not do is permit human embryos to be used in the treatment of such diseases; they do not permit the use of embryos to create stem cells to be used in treatment; and they do not permit human reproductive cloning.

I emphasise again that the regulations will not, and cannot, permit human reproductive cloning. We are talking in this context only about the basic research that is needed to find out how cells are involved in the disease and injury processes and their potential for use in treatment.

The regulations are divided into three parts, the first of which is to increase knowledge about the development of embryos. That is of critical importance. That research will tell us how embryos develop normally, and why they frequently do not. It will also tell us how stem cells may be developed and extracted, and whether embryos developed through the process of cell nuclear replacement will be able to produce viable stem cells.

The second part of the regulations provides for research to increase knowledge about serious disease. It will, of course, be a matter of judgment for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to decide what is meant by a "serious disease" when any particular application is made for a research licence under the new provisions. It is certainly likely to include as "serious" conditions such as juvenile and type-2 diabetes, paralysis from spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. There are many others--the list is clearly not exclusive.

The third part of the regulations would allow the research that has been conducted under the previous two headings to be used in research to develop

22 Jan 2001 : Column 19

treatments for disease. It is, once again, important to note that that provision will not allow embryos to be used in treatments; it will only allow the research to take place.

Given the stringent controls in the 1990 Act and the overwhelming potential for life-saving and life-changing treatments for people who suffer from chronic diseases, there is a strong ethical case for supporting the recommendations in the Donaldson report. The law as it stands permits research on embryos, subject to the safeguards in the 1990 Act. I have already mentioned some of the purposes for which embryos may be used in research. The principles underpinning the use of embryos in research, on which the 1990 Act is based, are that the embryo of human species has a special status, but not the same status as a living child or adult; that the human embryo is entitled to a measure of respect beyond that accorded to an embryo of other species; and that such respect is not absolute and may be weighed against the benefits arising from proposed research.

It is a matter of the balance that I talked about at the beginning of my speech. The question is whether the benefits to be gained by the research might outweigh the objections to using embryos in that way.

The Donaldson committee took the view that the reason which led in 1990 to embryos being permitted to be used in research, subject to strict conditions and only for particular purposes, must apply equally to research for the potential treatment of serious diseases being proposed now. The expert group concluded that the embryos should be recognised as having a special status as a potential human being but that it may be justified to use early embryos for serious research purposes which may benefit others.

The ethical issues raised by creating embryos by cell nuclear replacement was also considered. Again the group considered that that research is justified in the light of the likely transitional nature of the research, the considerable potential benefits it could bring and the range of safeguards in the 1990 Act. That, of course, is very much a matter of judgment for each and every Member of your Lordships' House.

An issue which has been touched upon in debates on this matter over the past few years is the view that we do not need to use stem cells derived from embryos at all because it is said that the same research can take place by using adult stem cells. I cannot emphasise enough that all the evidence points to that being an unsubstantiated claim. That is the continuing view of members of the Donaldson expert group who considered those matters very carefully; it is also the view of the overwhelming majority of members of the research community.

The Donaldson report recognised that other sources of stem cells were important to research. Those included some adult tissues, some fetal tissue and umbilical cord blood. It discussed that at length and concluded that embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into a greater range of tissues than adult-derived stem cells.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 20

As I mentioned, the Donaldson committee has continued to monitor the evidence about that. Its conclusion is firmly that while research involving adult-derived stem cells shows much potential, research involving embryo-derived stem cells remains by far the most promising if significant advances and greater benefits are to be made. That view is supported by the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society, following a comprehensive review of the papers and by many researchers and scientists around the world.

Part of the problem of using adult-derived stem cells is that they are few in number and hard to find. We are not even sure whether there are specific stem cells for every type of cell in the body. The main difference is that embryonic stem cells are able to renew themselves and form many different cell types whereas the potential of adult stem cells is uncertain with research suggesting that they may be much more limited in the ability to form other cell types.

Those issues underline the importance of taking forward work on both embryo-derived and adult stem cells in order to provide the maximum benefit of this research. Without that knowledge, we are unlikely ever to be able to learn how to reprogramme our own cells, with the potential for treatments with compatible tissue for a wide range of diseases and injuries.

I turn to the process by which these regulations have reached this House. I shall pick up some of the issues implicit in the three amendments tabled on the Order Paper. There can be no question that the matters before us have not had extensive debate in the public domain. The House of Commons Select Committee examined cloning in 1997. It considered that discussions of the science today have been overly concerned with potential risks and have not considered properly the potential benefits. It recognised the potential uses of cell nuclear replacement in research into human diseases.

The Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority undertook extensive public consultation before reporting in December 1998 on cloning issues in reproduction, science and medicine. They concluded that the safeguards in relation to human productive cloning in the UK were wholly adequate. The report also drew specific attention to the potential beneficial therapeutic consequences from research using cell nuclear replacement. Indeed, they recommended the regulations with purposes we are currently debating.

The Donaldson expert committee discussed those issues, as I said, extensively over a year and sought views from experts worldwide. That report--it is on its recommendations that these regulations are based--is well-focused and authoritative.

The Royal Society, in its submission to Donaldson in February 2000, stressed the wide range of diseases and injuries which may be treatable through stem cell therapies. It stressed that research on human embryonic stem cells will be required because other cell types, such as adult stem cells, may not have the same breadth of application.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 21

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics spent months weighing the ethical implications. It concluded, as did Donaldson, that this research raised no new fundamental ethical issues.

As well as those reports, the Wellcome Trust, the British Heart Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Parkinson's Disease Society have all stressed the potential of that research. Certainly, the other place was impressed by that and on a free vote, by a very large majority, agreed to the regulations.

This, then, has not been a rushed process. It has been a long and thorough process. It is difficult to see on what basis it may be felt that there is insufficient evidence for your Lordships to make a judgment today on the regulations. It is certainly difficult to see a justification for rejecting the regulations and delaying a decision for many months while a Select Committee sits to consider the matter, thereby delaying for many months any possibility that applications to start research programmes in relation to serious diseases could be put forward.

Of course, Select Committees of the House undertake immensely valuable work and are listened to very carefully by the Government. It is in that regard that I suggest that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, provides us with an appropriate way forward. It allows for the regulations to be passed this evening but it also establishes a Select Committee. I assure the House that the Government will listen to the Select Committee's views and review the regulations in the light of its report.

In any case, any research proposal put to the authority would take some months to complete the process--perhaps nine months. But by agreeing the regulations today, your Lordships can ensure that the process of making research applications is not delayed.

The longer-term aim of the proposed research is to be able to apply the understanding gained to patients' own cells so that they can be made to generate new cells and tissues. It is hoped that we shall learn how adult cells may be reprogrammed. That is the really exciting potential of that research. If, by using embryos, we can learn how cells develop and work, we can look forward to a time when embryos are not needed at all for that research. We shall learn how to manipulate the cells from our own bodies to produce the tissues that we need, whether for our heart should we develop heart failure, or brain tissue for Parkinson's, or nervous tissue for our spines should we become paralysed in an accident. That is the ultimate aim for which the proposed embryo research is one temporary step along the journey.

I hope that your Lordships will agree with the report that the proposed extension to the current five purposes for which embryos may be used in research is justified, given the potential benefits in terms of alleviating and curing serious illnesses in so many people.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 22

I doubt that there is a single person or family who has not been touched at some time by the distress that some of those diseases bring. It is said that more than half of the world's diseases have no effective treatment and that we are unable to develop drugs or other treatments to cure or alleviate many of those conditions. In any case, drugs are not always the answer, and never will be. In these cases, the only treatment that is likely to offer chance of a real cure is one based on the person's own body, a treatment which is cell-based and individual.

In reaching conclusions on the Donaldson report, we must consider the importance to those people who shoulder the burden of these terrible diseases, their families and friends as well as the wider community. In addition to research into effective contraception and in addition to research into congenital diseases, your Lordships are asked to agree that embryos may be used in order to find treatments for serious and debilitating illnesses that affect literally millions of people.

We must decide on such a balance. It is clear that this research has the potential to provide the answers to these diseases. The human embryo has a special status and we owe a measure of respect to the embryo. We also owe a measure of respect to the millions of people living with such devastating illnesses and the millions who have yet to show signs of them. This matter is not taken lightly but such research provides the one real hope for those who wait on our decision today. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999-2000].--(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)

3.41 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion to approve the draft regulations, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to approve the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December until a Select Committee of the House of Lords has reported on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the fact that more than 40 Members of your Lordships' House have sought to speak in today's debate underlines, as the Minister has said, the momentous and awesome nature of the decisions that we are invited to address. My principal concerns fall into four areas: constitutional, legal, scientific, and ethical.

Before turning to those concerns I want to speak about the amendment that is before the House. Over the weekend it has been suggested that it may not be legitimate to bring forward such an amendment, but the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said in a debate on subordinate legislation that the House,

    "has an unfettered right to vote on any subordinate legislation submitted for its consideration".--[Official Report, 20/10/94; col. 364]

22 Jan 2001 : Column 23

The amendments before us--in favour of a Select Committee report before we reach a decision on this matter or a retrospective Select Committee report--show that we have made some progress over the past seven days in our thinking on this important issue. At least there is now an acceptance that there should be a Select Committee to consider these matters. I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said to the House today.

Before Christmas, when I tabled my amendment suggesting that such a Select Committee should meet, I discussed the matter with my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant--I always enjoy a conversation with him--who said that there is no need for a Select Committee and that we should agree with them forthwith. So I regard the fact that the Minister has said that the Government will accept the principle of a Select Committee as progress.

The next matter to decide is whether there should be a retrospective Select Committee. Imagine a court of law where the judge gave out the verdict and sentence before hearing the defence, the prosecution and the witnesses. Such a process would be held up to ridicule. I believe that if a Select Committee were to meet after we have agreed to these regulations, we should be in danger of dealing with such a momentous issue in quite the wrong way.

Another point on the amendments is that when the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, looked at the future of this House and its deliberations, he reported on the issue of statutory instruments. He envisaged the possibility of disagreement between this place and another place. In Chapter 7 of his report, on page 77, he said that where such a disagreement occurs, there should be a three-month period for reflection.

A Select Committee of your Lordships' House could be required to report within a three-month period. It could place its proposals before the House after which it would be perfectly possible for the Government to relay their regulations, possibly amended, to another place. All that would then be required would be a one-and-a-half-hour debate in a committee and not even on the Floor of the House. That is the point on the amendments before us today: whether to have a Select Committee now or after we have taken a decision on the regulations.

I turn to the common ground before I speak on the four areas that I have mentioned. It is worth stating that every noble Lord wants to see progress made in combating the degenerative diseases to which the Minister has referred. No one here is in favour of unnecessary pain or unnecessary suffering. Overwhelmingly, your Lordships will deplore anything that smacks of eugenics or of germ-line gene therapy. All noble Lords will want to see good science and good ethics marching hand in hand.

Observers of this House should note that this debate is being held with reference to our best traditions, with respect being shown for each other's deeply held beliefs and differences.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 24

I have said that the arguments for prudence and caution fall into four categories: constitutional, legal, scientific and ethical. I shall speak to those subjects in turn. Over the life of this Parliament many of us have questioned the way in which the Government have dealt with legislation. This is another such instance. It is wholly inappropriate to use unamendable regulations to deal with an issue of this importance. The Government have indicated to us today, as they did in another place, that ultimately they will introduce a Bill to outlaw reproductive cloning. I welcome that. But why not wait to deal with therapeutic cloning at the same time in a Bill that will be open to amendments?

Under Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government are required to produce a compatibility statement on the face of a Bill stating that there is no conflict with European law. If we were debating a Bill rather than regulations the Government simply would not be able to do that--certainly not if they are serious about our intentions to sign the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which under Article 18.2 prohibits therapeutic cloning outright. Hence we have regulations rather than primary legislation.

In parenthesis, I add that this is a curiously convoluted world in which we can find parliamentary time for a Bill that protects foxes but we cannot find time for a Bill that will lead to the manufacture and elimination of countless human embryos.

Regulations of this kind also dispense with the dreary business of detailed scrutiny, transparency and proper parliamentary opposition. In another place Members were at least given the opportunity for two preliminary debates of five hours each before a vote was taken. Even that poor substitute for Committee and Report stages has not taken place in this House.

The danger of dispensing with due process is that democracy will be brought into disrepute and that public cynicism about our institutions will simply be deepened. That is why, along with noble Lords with whom I differ on the status of the human embryo, such as my noble friend Lady Warnock and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, we have offered an alternative today that will allow for sober reflection and for proper debate, being agreed that this issue should not be dealt with in this manner. Indeed, in a recent interview, my noble friend said that such matters should not be shovelled through Parliament. I agree with her.

In a landmark report to your Lordships' House, the Science and Technology Committee stated that post-BSE and after the saga of genetic crops, science is facing an emerging crisis of confidence in Britain. The committee said:

    "many are deeply uneasy about the huge opportunities presented by areas of science including biotechnology and information technology, which seem to be advancing far ahead of their awareness and assent. In turn, public unease, mistrust and outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists themselves ... Science's relationship with United Kingdom society is under strain".

22 Jan 2001 : Column 25

It is hard to see how the use of unamendable regulations will lessen that strain or combat the hostility and mistrust identified by the Science and Technology Committee.

I have one other observation about the constitutional process. In this country there is a fine and honourable tradition of holding free votes on issues of conscience. Outsiders have an expectation that this House will examine issues in a less partisan and more reflective manner. During my 18 years in another place--many noble Lords have longer first-hand experience--I cannot recall such active involvement by a government department in lobbying on one side of the argument. For instance, when the Department of Health was asked to allow Professor Neil Scolding, Burden Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, to speak at the meeting which the department organised in your Lordships' House, it declined to let him put the case against the use of embryonic stem cells or to accept any other opposing speaker. That does nothing for intelligent or tolerant debate and does nothing for free speech or for the handling of these conscience issues.

I would therefore put in a plea that beyond today's debate and the reasonable right of a Minister to come to your Lordships' House and address us in a forthright and lucid manner, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has properly done today, departments should behave with impeccable neutrality in "free vote" matters.

So much for the constitutional issues at stake. As I said, there are legal issues, too, and the regulations raise important questions of law. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, former Attorney-General, and the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, will address those matters in more detail. Suffice it to say, the High Court will receive an application for judicial review on Friday next seeking to test the Government's response to the Donaldson report. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has drawn attention to that in the amendment which she has tabled and she has kindly said that she will support my amendment tonight.

One of the issues addressed by that case is the potential for these regulations to pave the way for reproductive cloning, even if that may happen inadvertently. The Government say that they are opposed to that development and today the Minister said--I agree with him--that we should all feel a sense of repugnance about such a proposal. If that case is upheld, this debate is being considered on an entirely false premise.

In a parliamentary reply on 8th January, the Minister stated that on 13th December last the European Parliament voted to set up a temporary committee on human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine. The European Parliament, together with the Council of Europe, has already voted in favour of a total ban on all forms of therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Pushing through these regulations will make it far more difficult to enforce internationally accepted norms--

22 Jan 2001 : Column 26

and we are all agreed that if others decide to break the law elsewhere these issues fall outside the remit of any individual parliament.

Noble Lords will have seen the impressive letter, signed by European parliamentarians drawn from all political traditions, urging us not to pass a precipitate and premature measure. Given the opposition from President Clinton's bioethics committee and President Bush's stated opposition, we are left extraordinarily isolated. Surely we would not want to become a safe haven for unscrupulous practice.

Throughout the world, civilised countries have banned techniques which allow germ-line gene therapy; that is, the manipulation of future generations. Inadvertently, these regulations may further isolate us from world opinion and practice. In the treatment of rare mitochondrial diseases, where disease originates from the cytoplasm of egg cells rather than from the nucleus, as mentioned in the Donaldson report, it is proposed that a mother's nucleus may be substituted before fertilisation and implantation into a donor's egg. That has been characterised as the two mother/one father treatment. At paragraph 23, the Donaldson report states:

    "Given the genetic makeup of any child born as a result of this technique, it would not constitute reproductive cloning. The resulting child would not be genetically identical to anyone else. Nonetheless, concerns have been expressed that oocyte nucleus transfer represents a modification to the human genome"--

it represents a modification to the human genome--

    "which can be passed to the next generation".

If regulations are made under the Act to permit research into possible treatments into disease, and that research successfully develops treatments for mitochondrial diseases, such treatments could be licensed by the HFEA and so a pregnancy could be created. If germ-line therapies are not to be permitted, how can we countenance such research? What is the point in initiating basic research if the process is not permitted? Are we truly confident that such awesome and momentous implications have been adequately ventilated?

Professor Donaldson, in his report, also stated:

    "The use of CNR to produce human embryos may be said to create a new form of early embryo which is genetically identical to the donor of the cell nucleus. This prospect goes further than that contemplated by either the Warnock committee or Parliament when it debated these issues".

It is clearly wrong, then, as Ministers have done in another place, to state that,

    "the regulations do not raise any new moral issues beyond those that have already been debated and discussed in passing the current law".--[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/00; col. 213.]

As the Minister told us, in addition to permitting new practices, these regulations also place a legal obligation on the HFEA to police the new arrangements and to establish that no other alternatives exist.

In another place, the Minister said that the HFEA,

    "must satisfy itself that there is no other way of doing the research, avoiding embryo use".--[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/00; col. 214.]

22 Jan 2001 : Column 27

I welcome that, but paragraph 3(2) of Schedule 2 to the Act goes further than the Minister indicated to the House today. It states that the HFEA must satisfy itself that research is necessary or desirable. That is a much less stringent requirement than we are being told.

In any case, how in law is such a Solomon's judgment to be arrived at? How will the law work? Will the HFEA hear evidence? Will any dissenting voices be appointed to the authority to put an alternative point of view? What right of appeal will exist?

The HFEA is already overstretched and unable to undertake its duties effectively. Many of your Lordships will have seen a report in the Sunday Times of 7th January that up to 500 human embryos will be destroyed at a clinic in Hampshire because administrators,

    "have admitted that they may be unable to return any of them to the right parents".

The solicitor representing the distressed women involved said that the HFEA had,

    "inspected the clinic just before all this came to light. There is concern that the rules allow for a situation like this to develop".

What business have we in imposing further onerous duties on a body which is clearly unable effectively to discharge its current duties and responsibilities?

If the constitutional issues and the law should cause us to pause, so should the scientific questions. None of us in this House is anti-science but nor should we be blinded or silenced by it. Last week at various briefing meetings, I heard eminent scientists state that the use of human embryos is wholly unnecessary in achieving cures for terrible degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Professor Neil Scolding, a specialist in multiple sclerosis, stated that,

    "it is simply not accurate to say that embryonic stem cells have an immediate therapy potential. It is a significant exaggeration of the true position".

He points to new developments over the past six months, since Professor Donaldson and the Royal Society looked at these issues, stating that,

    "evidence shows that there is an alternative".

He says that there are two fallacies: one is that cures from embryonic stem cells are imminent; and the other is that adult stem cells are unlikely to be as effective.

It is cruelly misleading to pretend that cures are around the corner or that embryonic stem cells offer the best hope of a breakthrough. Dr Philip Jones, a scientist working at Oxford University, spoke at a meeting in your Lordships' House on Monday last. He has researched stem cells for the past decade. He told us that adult stem cells offered far greater potential for cures than embryonic stem cells. He added,

    "Because these cells come from the patient's own body there would be no problem with immune rejection".

President Clinton's bioethics committee reached the same conclusion, stating that adult stem cells hold none of the moral problems associated with embryonic stem cells.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 28

Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the nuclear biology group at Guy's Hospital, said that,

    "adult stem cells have as much if not more therapeutic potential than those derived from embryos".

It is often said that in some therapies only embryonic cells may be used. Dr Antoniou said that nothing had been achieved to date with embryonic stem cells that had not also been achieved with adult stem cells, and that,

    "adult bone marrow derived cells can contribute to all neural cell types in animal model studies".

I draw your Lordships' attention to a letter which appeared this morning signed by 49 young medics at the University of Cambridge in which they say that both their training as medical students and current research indicate that adult stem cells have as much therapeutic potential as embryonic stem cells.

Some noble Lords will also have seen the report in The Times last week that in this country Dr Ilham Abuljadayel had claimed to have devised a process which created endless supplies of stem cells from adult stem cells simply by using a donor's blood. Clearly, that was not a matter which the Donaldson committee was able to consider before the regulations were formulated. If scientific opinion is so divided and is moving at such speed, should we with confidence proceed without properly scrutinising these claims and calling the scientists to whom I have referred before a committee of your Lordships' House so that they can give proper evidence?

I turn finally to the ethical issues. Your Lordships will have received a letter from 11 of our religious leaders, headed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. They include the Chief Rabbi, the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow, the President of the Muslim College, the Director of the Sikh Network and other leaders of the Christian denominations. They have been joined by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in appealing to your Lordships to consider further both the scientific and the ethical questions posed by the use of embryonic stem cells before these regulations are passed. I believe that such a joint letter is without precedent. Are all of these appeals to reflect and deliberate further simply to be swept aside?

One does not have to believe in the sanctity of human life, or that life begins at fertilisation, to be concerned about the general commodification of life. Every generation is tempted by the seductive and tantalising prospect of universal happiness as a trump over all other values and principles, but human dignity must always be defended against the abuse of scientific techniques. It will not be lost on your Lordships that it was the Deputy Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Reichstag, Hubert Hueppe, who said last month that it was cannibalistic to,

    "breed a human being, only to kill it, disembowel it and impregnate something with it".

22 Jan 2001 : Column 29

The language may be more strident than we are used to but the ethical issues that it raises cannot be lightly dismissed. Indeed, the Donaldson committee clearly stated:

    "Although these embryos differ in the method of their creation, they are undoubtedly human embryonic life, which, given the right conditions, could develop into a human being".

The commodified view, which treats the human embryo as just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed, is not one that commends itself to me or many outside this House. When the Minister tells the House of Commons that a pre-14-day-old embryo has the "power" to facilitate cures to mankind's misery, to me it simply underlines that, even at this early stage of development, we are not dealing with something that is inconsequential. There is nothing therapeutic in this procedure for the new human embryo: once it has been used, it will be destroyed. There is no question here of donor rights or consent. Since 1990, when miracle cures were promised for 4,000 inherited diseases, between 300,000 and half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. There have been no cures, but our willingness to walk this road has paved the way for more and more demands.

Dr John Wyatt, professor of neonatal paediatrics at the Royal Free, expresses the dilemma well:

    "I and many of my fellow health professionals have a profound disquiet about the introduction of therapeutic cloning. Many of us are actively involved in research to find novel therapies for life threatening, disabling conditions. However, the creation and manipulation of living human embryos for the sole purpose of generating therapeutic tissue seems incompatible with respect for vulnerable human life. The redefinition of human embryos as mere biological material, as 'totipotent stem cells' in order to allay public concerns, smacks of semantic trickery rather than responsible debate".

The pressure to speak in today's debate underlines that these are not trivial questions which preoccupy a few moral theologians; they are at the heart of our humanity. What is clear is that we are inadequately prepared to vote on these regulations today, that the ethical and political process which we are using to decide these issues is inappropriate and inadequate, and that in agreeing to the amendment which I have laid before your Lordships' House we shall allow the exercise of prudence and caution. I am grateful to noble Lords for hearing me out. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to approve the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December until a Select Committee of the House of Lords has reported on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research".--(Lord Alton of Liverpool.)

4.5 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have much pleasure in following the excellent and well argued case for the amendment put by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I declare an interest at the outset. I am a vice-president of the Alzheimer's Society but I speak today in a personal capacity and not as a representative of that body. We lost a son one month before his

22 Jan 2001 : Column 30

15th birthday. He died from a relatively minor illness which was complicated by his diabetes. I am as anxious as anyone here to see progress made in relieving the symptoms of, and/or finding cures for, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and many others. However, in the interests of all who share those hopes it is essential that those who have the responsibility for making a decision to extend this area of science have the benefit of a report by a Select Committee.

The Minister said that the only hope for a cure was through medical research and science. That is true. But there is a great deal of scientific research being carried out, and much progress is being made. There are some recent exciting breakthroughs for those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. But all we ask today is that more thought is given to an extension into stem cell research.

The Minister went on to tell the House--with what authority I know not--that the science was clear. Having listened to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many experts over the past couple of weeks, I can only tell the Minister that the science is anything but clear.Although we are being invited by the Government to approve, without amendment, the draft regulations before the House today, the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Walton of Detchant, and the one which I shall not move, at least give the House the opportunity to consider an alternative way forward.

It is essential that the scientific, moral and ethical issues which arise from the proposals to allow cloning with the use of embryos should be considered more fully. The proposal that a Select Committee should consider the issues surrounding the extension of this science to include therapeutic cloning unites many people who hold different views about human cloning. There are those like the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who believe that the science should be allowed to advance and see many benefits in its application; others are genuinely open-minded about the proposals but are in a real dilemma and believe that it would be helpful to be informed before taking a decision. There are those who on moral and ethical grounds have grave reservations about what is proposed in the regulations but nevertheless would like to see the matter referred to a Select Committee. This degree of anxiety and the desire for greater debate and exploration of the issues should be addressed. Therefore, the case for setting up a Select Committee with an obligation to report to Parliament is overwhelming.

Why are the Government in such a hurry, and why is a matter of such importance not being dealt with through primary legislation? The Government promised that a Bill would be brought forward to prohibit human reproductive cloning, but there was no mention of it in the recent gracious Speech. In the lengthy briefing letter from the Minister which advocated--perhaps it went further than that--support for the regulations, he wrote:

    "These regulations will not permit reproductive cloning. That is illegal. It will stay illegal".

22 Jan 2001 : Column 31

If that is the case, what is the purpose of the proposed new Bill? Whatever the answer to my question, if there is to be a new Bill dealing with human cloning why could it not wait for the Select Committee report and the outcome of the judicial review and subsume, if appropriate, the regulations before us today? That way we should all be better informed about the issues and public confidence in the parliamentary process would be restored. There are so many questions to be addressed before Parliament should be asked to decide the matter. First, for example, there is a need to explore the balance of arguments between eminent scientists, some of whom believe that continued research using adult stem cells from both animals and humans should be pursued, and others, equally respected in the science field, who believe that the way forward is therapeutic cloning using human embryos. Secondly, there should be fuller consideration given to the limitations of such research. Thirdly, fuller consideration should be given to the moral and ethical dimensions of such a radical scientific advance.

There is much disquiet about the considerable financial and commercial interests of individuals and organisations in the passing of the regulations. Much of the mail that we have received recently is from people who have considerable vested interests. There is the vexed question of parliamentary process. To deal with all these issues in unamendable regulations is an affront to the democratic process.

The House of Lords has a distinguished record of Select Committee work on issues of major importance to the British people and, in the case of research on human embryos, to the whole of mankind. I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who invites the House to agree the order and then set up a Select Committee. That would be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. There would be no urgency or focus for the Select Committee once the science has been approved.

Moreover, from the intense lobbying that we have experienced from the Government pressing us all not to refer this matter to a Select Committee, I would have little confidence that the work of a Select Committee would be given any priority at all. Such is the pressure to approve the draft regulations that the Government would be anxious, if Parliament were to approve the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to appoint the committee members and to see its work completed without delay.

The Government argue that the 1990 Act pre-empted such a change and that, therefore, a mere statutory instrument, which cannot be amended, would suffice. I was present on the Front Bench in this House for the debate on the 1990 Act when changes were made to allow for research using human embryos in the context of fertility. But for the Minister to suggest that the issue of human cloning and the ethics surrounding cell nuclear replacement for the purposes of research and treatment was fully discussed is simply not true. We were assured by the then Secretary of

22 Jan 2001 : Column 32

State that the 1990 Act specifically excluded cloning. He declared that this, along with "other science fiction", would be outlawed.

On 17th December 1989 the then Lord Chancellor, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said:

    "There are some activities which I am sure we would all find unacceptable. The Bill prohibits the creation of hybrids using human gametes, the cloning of embryos by nucleus substitution to produce genetically identical individuals and genetic engineering to change the structure of the embryos".

There is sufficient doubt about what was or was not understood by the 1990 Act and about the legal interpretation by the Government of what was agreed by the Act, that to await the outcome of both the judicial review and the work of the Select Committee makes common sense.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, even Professor Donaldson in his report stated that:

    "The use of cell nucleus replacement to produce human embryos may be said to create a new form of early embryo which is genetically identical to the donor of the cell nucleus. This prospect goes further than that contemplated by either the Warnock Committee or Parliament when it debated these issues".

That is unequivocal: Professor Donaldson said that this "goes further".

There is widespread concern about the Government's handling of what is a fundamental proposal on an issue of immense importance. In addition to hearing from experts on both sides of this issue, we have been lobbied by Ministers and the Chief Medical Officer to support the regulations. Yet this is supposed to be a free vote. At this point I must put on the record that there was no such pressure put on Members of this House, even those of us on the Front Bench, by the then government when the 1990 Act was passed. It was truly a free vote. Not for the first time are the Government abusing the procedures of the House. At last members of the public are taking notice.

We are told that we should not take a different view from the other place. Yet the Government have made available very little time for this issue. We are faced with unamendable regulations which come into force next week, whereas primary legislation would have given us time for proper parliamentary scrutiny through both Houses. This is being done in great haste and the wrong parliamentary procedure has been chosen for it.

Good science must always be carried out within moral and ethnical boundaries and, as far as possible, it should be underpinned by public confidence. This is a task for the wise counsel of a Select Committee with the power to interrogate experts and to explore the relevant issues. We should defer consideration of this matter until Parliament has considered its report.

I take great pleasure in supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

4.17 p.m.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, this is not a party political issue and I welcome the fact that we have a free vote on the matter. Nevertheless, in supporting the

22 Jan 2001 : Column 33

regulations and the amendment which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, I understand that I am in the majority on these Benches.

There are those in our party, as across the House, for whom no experimentation on embryonic cells is acceptable. Thus, they would not approve of the current legislation, nor of adding a further area of research under it. I understand and respect their position although I do not share it. There are others among us who, although they support the 1990 Act, nevertheless feel uneasy at the proposed new areas of research. Therefore, I welcome the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.

A Select Committee reporting on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research and undertaking a review of the regulations in the light of that report will enable us to look further at the issues that cause disquiet.

Decisions in the Lords are always important, but today this is unusually so. Quite simply, the future of stem cell research and its therapeutic potential is in our hands. As The Times in its leader today puts it, our decision is,

    "literally, a matter of life and death".

And The Times leader-writer has no doubt that we should vote for immediate change,

    "so that lives can be saved and the scourge of disease lightened".

So what are the issues that we are debating today; and what questions stand out? The issues are threefold--scientific, ethical and supervisory. I turn first to the scientific issues. Does the science show potential? Is this research worth pursuing? Can it be done in some other way? Is it fundamentally new and different or is it essentially the same as that covered in the 1990 Act? Full investigation of this has already been made by the Donaldson report, the Royal Society, the British Medical Association and many others. They conclude that the potential is indeed there and that the benefits could be massive for all kinds of disorders. Few scientists doubt--and the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust all concur--that embryonic stem cells have far greater potential at the moment than do adult stem cells for helping to understand how tissues develop. As Sir Robert May, President of the Royal Society, put it in a letter to The Times today, Members of the House of Lords,

    "should not be misled into believing that adult cells at present offer anything like the same prospects as embryonic stem cells for treating serious degenerative diseases".

The potential application of stem cell research is quite extraordinary, and, if that potential is realised, would represent a seismic shift such as was the case with the development of antisepsis or antibiotics. I have spent enough years as a historian of medicine to doubt many medical scientific claims and to know that research does not always proceed in the expected direction, but I am sufficiently convinced by the research that has already been done that this is an avenue with immense possibilities. It ranks with anything that has been developed in the lifetime of the NHS. But in terms of the research itself, it is not

22 Jan 2001 : Column 34

different from that already allowed under the 1990 Act. The point is that this type of research could be given wider application.

Then there are the ethical issues. Does this research open up new areas which we should consider? As we have heard, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 allows for the use, under licence and after case-by-case approval, of embryonic cells up to 14 days old, before the cells have differentiated into particular tissue types. These can be used for research into five areas relating to reproduction and congenital disorders. The proposal here is that the same type of research should be permitted for the investigation of the treatment of disease more generally. Stem cell research and cell nuclear transfer are allowed under the 1990 Act, within a strictly regulated framework. This proposal is in keeping with the current Act, that research on embryos should be permitted before cell differentiation--that is, up to 14 days. Implantation of such embryos remains a criminal offence.

Wide consideration has been given to whether the expected increase in the use of cell nuclear transfer makes this a step change from the provisions of the 1990 Act. Particular investigation of this, has, for example, been made by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which concluded that there are,

    "no grounds for making a moral distinction between research into diagnostic methods or reproduction"--

that is, that allowed by the 1990 Act--

    "and research into potential therapies".

So is the key question the enforcement of the regulations? Is it a matter of policing? Yet our regulatory authority is widely admired. The HFEA held fast to the letter of the law in the Diane Blood case, in which she was refused permission, in the most desperate of circumstances, for IVF treatment, because her husband had been unable to give permission for his sperm to be used. The HFEA itself asked that consideration should be given to the application of existing research techniques beyond reproductive technologies to disease in general. That was followed by the thorough investigation by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, and his expert committee, which included ethicists. Its recommendation and its re-emphasis on the regulatory framework under which additional research might be permitted were very clear.

We certainly do not want a two-tier system, as they have in the United States. It is all very well the US Government refusing to fund any research on embryonic cell clusters while turning a blind eye to research funded privately which can go much further than is the case in Britain. Surely it is far better for all research, as in Britain, to come under the umbrella of a tightly regulated system.

So if the science, ethics and supervision remain as they were, and this is a logical continuum of the provisions of the 1990 Act, and that Act commands wide public support, what issues remain? I would suggest here that it is not those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who would not, presumably, be a supporter of the 1990 Act, but those of public

22 Jan 2001 : Column 35

awareness, trust and information. That is where the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, is to be welcomed. If it would help the public debate to have the issues that have already been thoroughly explored gone over once again, perhaps in a more public forum, then here is the opportunity for that. But it can be done without delaying vital research and casting back into gloom those many patients who suffer from degenerative disorders.

For my part, these new regulations are in keeping with the HFE Act. In fact not only are they a logical extension of it; they offer far wider promise to many more people than did the original five areas of research. If it was ethically and morally acceptable to pass the 1990 Act, then to see that research potentially benefit a wider section of society is surely to be welcomed. We have well-developed mechanisms for scientific scrutiny, ethical review and supervision and a very recent and comprehensive expert report on this from Professor Donaldson. Delaying the decision as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and others is a layer of review too far. I for one shall vote to pass the regulations, and to promote public debate, I shall also support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.

4.27 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I wish to consider two issues before us today: first, the moral status of the pre-implantation embryo; and, secondly, the question as to whether research on stem cells derived from the pre-implantation embryo is the only way of understanding the process of cell development or whether it would be possible to carry out that research on adult cells.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception and that, from the first moment of existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person. I deeply respect that position and it is one which is certainly held by a number of your Lordships. However, I should like to suggest that it was only in the 19th century that that position became firmed up. Earlier Christian thought on this subject indicates an awareness of a developing reality, with developing rights as we would put it. According to Aristotle, or at least the view attributed to him, there is first a vegetable soul, then an animal soul and finally an intellectual soul, and it is only at the last point that there is, properly speaking, a human being. In the Aristotelian view, this animation, from the Latin word anima, meaning soul, occurs--some noble Lords will be sorry to hear this--40 days after conception in the case of a male and up to 90 days after conception for a female.

Taking up this approach, the Church's tradition acknowledged a similar process. Abortion, for example, was always regarded as gravely sinful. But there was a distinction in the gravity of the offence depending on whether it occurred before or after the

22 Jan 2001 : Column 36

foetus was "formed". The distinction arose on the basis of the Septuagint translation of Exodus 21:22. That refers to a fight between two men, as a result of which a pregnant woman loses her child. If the child is in the early stages of embryonic development, then the penalty is a financial one. If it is in the later stages of pregnancy, then the penalty is death. The Greek word there literally means "not yet so formed as to be a copy or portrayal of the human form". The Septuagint version was most commonly used by the early fathers as well as by the New Testament writers, and this translation was followed in the old Latin versions.

A similar awareness of a developing reality, with different rights according to whether it is in the early or later stages of development, is maintained through the Christian tradition. St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, followed this distinction, maintaining about the unformed embryo that,

    "so long as it is in this unformed state it is something other than a human being".

Similarly, St Augustine wrote:

    "If what is brought forth is unformed but at this stage some sort of living, shapeless thing, then the law of homicide would not apply, for it could not be said that there was a living soul in that body, for it lacks all sense, if it be such as is not yet formed and therefore not yet endowed with its senses".

The Celtic penitential suggested extremely severe penalties for abortion, but once again it makes a distinction between,

    "the liquid matter of the infant matter in the womb"--

the usual term then for the forming embryo--and,

    "if the soul has entered it".

A similar distinction remained entrenched in canon law and the moral discipline of the Catholic west. It is also there in St Thomas Aquinas, who follows Aristotle closely, as well as the distinction in the Septuagint version of Exodus 21:22.

All this began to change in the 19th century when advances in medicine made abortion more possible and safer for women. As a result, the incidence of abortion rose, which was seen as a moral threat calling for dramatic and drastic remedies. Pius IX, therefore, in his Bull of 1869, declared excommunicate all who procured abortion, without any distinction as to whether the foetus was formed, animate or inanimate.

I suggest that there is an alternative western tradition. But this does not mean to say that the pre-implantation embryo has no moral status. On the contrary, it has a moral status. It has a special status, even if it is not an absolute one. This was the view put forward by the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, in 1984, and it was enshrined in law in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That Act states, as we know, that research may only be undertaken--and, at the moment, research only for issues connected with reproduction and fertility--if there is no other way of achieving what is required. The HFEA will license research only on this basis.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 37

Although the early embryo does not have an absolute status according to this understanding of the western tradition, it has nevertheless a special status. Research on it to produce stem cells could be justified morally only if this was the only way of obtaining the desired knowledge and if the knowledge was of such benefit that it outweighed that special status. I think all noble Lords agree on the importance of research on stem cells generally. That has been made quite clear today. The question is whether it is really necessary to do it on cells derived from embryos or whether the same results could not be achieved by work on adult cells.

The evidence so far presented--the research that has been printed and the weight of scientific evidence--suggests that research on stem cells derived from embryos is essential. Certainly, this was the answer that Professor Donaldson gave at the helpful briefing last week. Nevertheless, as we have heard today, there is a contrary argument. There is the work of Dr Ilham Abuljadayel, who claims to have created stem cells from adult cells in what she calls a process of retrodifferentiation. There were articles in Scientist at the end of last year which apparently point to the same possibility, and we have heard further evidence from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, today.

It was for this reason that I was willing to sign with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a letter supporting the setting up of a Select Committee. Select Committees have a good reputation. They provide a context in which these complex scientific arguments, put forward on both sides by expert witnesses, can be dispassionately assessed. It is very good that we have these two amendments before us today.

As to the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, I should like to know the meaning of,

    "undertake to review the regulations".

If a Select Committee came to the conclusion, contrary to the present weight of scientific evidence, that research on adult cells was as good as, if not better than, research on stem cells derived from embryos, would the Government refuse to authorise the latter?

I know that the HFEA, which would be charged with licensing research on embryos, is to do so only if it is shown that it is necessary. But it is under a great deal of pressure from research establishments and clear guidance from the Government would be necessary.

If we take a developmental view of the human person, as I believe the western tradition did until the 19th century, the early embryo has a special, though not an absolute, status. That special status needs to be protected by law. This means that research should be done on it if it only is truly necessary and that research cannot be done any other way. That is why I shall certainly be supporting one of the two amendments now before us. Which one will depend on the kind of assurances the Government may give about the strength of their resolve to reconsider that regulation if a Select Committee concluded that research on stem cells derived from embryos is not strictly necessary for the desired processes to be better understood.

22 Jan 2001 : Column 38

4.37 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, every half-century or so there are major medical breakthroughs--blood transfusion, antibiotics, anaesthesia--and those breakthroughs have made an enormous difference to the lives and well-being of thousands, if not millions, of people. I believe that the potential benefit of stem cell research is at least on a par with the benefits that have developed through the other medical breakthroughs I have mentioned.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked why the Government are in such a hurry. On Thursday evening, in a meeting room in this House, I put that question to someone suffering from Parkinson's. Her answer was: "Because we have not got time to wait. Every day matters to us". For that reason she said, "Please, for Heaven's sake, pass these regulations when you debate them on Monday".

I would ask this question: if we do not pass these regulations today--if we delay them as suggested in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton--how do we say to sufferers of Parkinson's, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, severe burns, Alzheimer's, MS and so on, "No. We did not have enough information. Despite the many reports and investigations that have taken place, we did not want to make a decision because we wanted more information"?

The search for more information can be either a genuine attempt to deal with sincerely held doubts or it can be an excuse to delay action. I fear that some of the voices that say, "Let us not do anything before the appointment of a Select Committee" are looking for an excuse to delay the decision.

Perhaps I may turn now to the question of a Select Committee. The House of Commons has had three debates; we have had the 1990 Act; we have had several significant reports, culminating in the one of the Donaldson committee. I find it hard to believe that a Select Committee established by this House would come to a different conclusion from that of Donaldson. Surely the witnesses will be the same. I do not believe that somehow the judgment of the Donaldson committee was flawed to the extent that a Select Committee of ours would come to a different conclusion. Yes, there is a need for assurances; yes, it is right and proper to keep this controversial process under review. That is why I am supportive of the amendment to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Walton. But I do not believe that there is a case for saying that we should do nothing until we have more information.

I understand that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will take nine to 12 months before it is able to approve the first research from the date when the regulations are approved by Parliament--which I hope will be today so that the first research can be approved on 1st January next year. That period would surely give the Select Committee that would be set up under the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, a chance to consider the matter and to report. If its report suggests modification of the Government's approach, I am sure

22 Jan 2001 : Column 39

that the Government will follow the committee's advice. After today's debate, I am sure that they could not do otherwise. But surely, given how long it will take for the HFEA to get this process under way, there is no argument for saying that we should take no action at all until we have had another Select Committee report. With an election coming, that could take quite a long time.

I respect Select Committees; I have served on many of them. I have never seen them as the holy writ that some speakers in this debate have described them to be. But I do not believe that a committee could properly work so quickly. If it rushed the matter, it would be accused of not having done a good job. My argument is that the time-scale of the HFEA is sufficient to encompass the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and still provide the assurances that we need.

There is an obvious conflict between biology and theology. It has been mentioned by every speaker. I understand the views of Members of this House who are opposed to in vitro fertilisation. But Parliament has approved in vitro fertilisation with many safeguards. I totally respect the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Alton; however, I ask him this. Were a Select Committee to endorse the Donaldson report, would he then vote for the regulations?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page