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House of Lords

Monday, 22 June 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

2.37 pm

Stephen George, Lord Bishop of Wakefield, was introduced and took the oath, supported by the Bishop of Southwark and the Bishop of Norwich.

Stem Cell Research


2.42 pm

Asked By Lord Dubs

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, stem cell research is a strategic priority for UK public funding. Funding for all forms of stem cell research has doubled from about £30 million in 2005-06 to more than £60 million in 2007-08. Support comes from the research councils, regional development agencies, the Department of Health and devolved Administrations, and from investments to catalyse business innovation by the Technology Strategy Board. The Government also provide indirect support in the form of infrastructure costs and public engagement.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to stem cell research. Is my noble friend aware that last month some leading scientists in stem cell research dealing with multiple sclerosis met in London? They felt that Britain had made great progress but that we would lose the advantages we had gained if we did not allocate some of the stem cell research money to multiple sclerosis. Will my noble friend consider that as a possible way forward?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I was not aware of the meeting to which my noble friend alludes but I am grateful to him for raising it. Stem cell research has huge potential to address some of the most debilitating and awful conditions that face people. However, the science is challenging and decisions about the allocation of funding on stem cell research, like all forms of government scientific research funding, are made through the peer review process under the Haldane principle where Ministers do not interfere in judgments about which projects to support. However, we recognise that the leadership that the UK has achieved in stem cell research, in part through the excellent regulatory framework which this House has contributed to form, is one in which we need to continue to invest.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, given that we have now destroyed or experimented on more than 2 million human embryos and last year permitted the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos, is not this an opportunity for the House to reflect on the difference in achievements of adult stem cells compared with embryonic stem cells? Is it not the case that there are more than 80 treatments worldwide and 300 clinical trials using adult stem cells and yet this country collects less than 0.2 per cent of stem-cell rich blood cord compared with 20 per cent in Greece, 18 per cent in Spain and 12 per cent in Portugal? Is this not something that we should be putting our resources into?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is aware, we have debated at length the balance of research funding against the different areas of stem cell research. We believe that this is a fast-moving field of research whereby we have to maintain investment in all forms of stem cells—adult, embryonic, induced and pluripotent—and that that requires us to be open minded about the pace at which development can take place in them all. We have to recognise that the field of adult stem cell research has been in existence since the 1950s whereas embryonic research has been with us only since the 1990s. It is therefore too early to judge whether that field has a full potential to be realised. The noble Lord’s point about the collection of blood from human cords is a fair one, which I shall look into further.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the Minister referred to the significant lead that the UK had in stem cell research. How far does he think that that, and in particular the recruitment and retention of scientists, might be under threat as a result of the rather more liberal attitude taken by the Obama Government towards such research?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that the change in attitude in the United States towards stem cell research presents both a threat and an opportunity to the United Kingdom. Because of the approach that we have adopted, with a combination of investment in research, world-class science and the regulatory framework that our Parliament has provided, the United Kingdom leads the world in that area.

The fact that the United States has now recognised the full potential means that we have to continue to invest. We also need to explore collaborations with the United States; for example, to build on the existing memorandum of research understanding that we have with the state of California and develop that into collaborations with the whole of the United States. We are actively pursuing that.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I welcome what the noble Lord said about paying attention to the Haldane principle, which seems to me as true now as when it was first propounded. Notwithstanding that arm’s length relationship, can the noble Lord assure us that, when grants are given for stem cell research—or, indeed, for any other very high-technology research—every opportunity and encouragement are given to the researchers to talk broadly and publicly about their research so as to gain public support for what they do?

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Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that, alongside the other areas of strength that I have mentioned in this field, the very fact that we, in this country, are developing the ability to discuss the most challenging ethical issues that some branches of science raise for us gives us the confidence to be able to move forward with the appropriate legislation that maintains public confidence. Therefore, we are encouraging scientists to do that by reflecting on how scientific research is judged, through the new research excellence framework, taking into account their engagement in public debate for their science.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is less than helpful if not, indeed, cruel to raise false hopes in many desperately ill people? Does he further agree that the success of adult stem cell research, all evidence-based, would suggest a tipping of the balance of investment towards adult stem cell research?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point because we need to balance, on the one hand, the amazing potential of this science to transform lives—the tracheal replacement that we heard about recently was a good example—with, on the other, the fact that many areas of that research are 15 or more years away from being applied to the clinic. Therefore, these matters need to be kept in balance. It is the responsibility of the scientific community to avoid hype when talking about the potential of their science. We take that very seriously within Government.

As I have already mentioned, we see a balance of research funding at the moment that is approximately 50:50 between adult and embryonic research. The balance is a judgment for the scientific communities, not for Ministers. Through the peer-review process and the excellence of science, we have the structures to get that balance right.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am not quite clear from the Minister’s answers whether we will have more money from the Government, or whether the Government will have a hands-off attitude. Which is it to be?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the Government are absolutely clear that we need to maintain our investment in science. We have more than doubled the science budget and, within that, over the past few years we have seen our research budget allocated to stem cell research more than double. While investing in the underpinning components that maintain Britain’s excellence in science, it is not for Ministers to judge which science is backed. That is for the research community itself under the long established peer review process.

Transport: Road and Rail Accidents


2.51 pm

Asked By Lord Lee of Trafford

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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, incident management is an operational matter for the emergency services and transport authorities. Restoring transport services is important to everyone, but the priorities must be to preserve life and public safety, to deal sensitively with any fatalities, and to collect evidence. The Government do not issue operational guidance, but we encourage emergency services and transport authorities to work together on how to deal with accidents and minimise disruption.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box for the first time.

In an accident, no one objects to traffic being held up to rescue the injured. However, where there is a clear fatality—say a suicide on the railways, however tragic that may be in personal terms—should not the emphasis be on restarting traffic to enable those affected to continue their travel and their lives, as it were, rather than having a lengthy and laborious scene-of-crime investigation?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: Life is full of surprises, my Lords. I thank the noble Lord very much for his kind words.

I have great sympathy with the point that the noble Lord makes. The British Transport Police, which is primarily responsible for dealing with the sort of incident on the railway to which he refers, has a remarkably good record in getting lines open again. It has a target of 90 minutes; last year it exceeded that and achieved a reopening time of 76 minutes, and I am told that it hopes to do better again this year.

The police have to be absolutely certain that no crime has been committed before they can reopen the roads, and have to work with the other emergency services. It is important, particularly in the hours of darkness, that evidence is not lost because of a too hasty opening of the operation. If it is possible to improve co-ordination between the emergency services, we should look at that, and we can always do better.

Lord Rosser: My Lords, last year not a single passenger or workforce fatality was caused by a train accident, for the third time in the last four years. Can my noble friend—I, too, congratulate him on his well merited appointment—tell the House why, when deaths occur regularly on our roads, there appears to be no equivalent independent investigation to that which would follow a train accident death to see what lessons can be learnt and what remedial action can be taken to avoid a recurrence? Is it not in the interests of safety that we put an end to the culture that road deaths are somehow an inevitable aspect of that form of transport?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I have great sympathy with the point of view expressed by my noble friend. He is absolutely right: as a country, we accept all too unthinkingly the 3,000 deaths a year that occur on our roads, but when an incident occurs on our railway—it would obviously be a much higher profile incident—there is enormous media attention. The emphasis must be on reducing the number of road casualties and getting the country much less used to believing that it is acceptable to kill and injure the number of people who currently suffer from road accidents.

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Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, when it comes to a railway accident, there are at least four organisations involved—the local police, British Transport Police, the Health and Safety Executive, now part of the Office of Rail Regulation, and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—all of them looking for evidence? Does he not agree that there would be a lot of benefit in rationalising the roles of some of those organisations so that the work was done more quickly? Is he aware that there was a suspected fatality between Didcot and Reading recently, where a man was seen lying beside the track and trains were delayed for many hours? It turned out that the man was asleep and drunk and then just walked away.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I can correct my noble friend on the incident he refers to. It occurred on 20 May alongside the track at Pangbourne. A gentleman had, indeed, had too much drink at lunchtime and lay down to sleep alongside the line. The driver of a passing train thought that he had seen a body and quite rightly the line was closed and the police investigated. As the police arrived, he got up and staggered away. On that occasion, the line was reopened, not many hours later, as my noble friend said, but 45 minutes later. But I accept his point that there were 3,000 minutes of delay to other trains. The police acted expeditiously and it is important that we encourage them to do so in such cases. As far as co-ordination between the various bodies is concerned, it is important that the blue-light services, the county police and the other forces are brought in and work together in as co-operative a manner as possible.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, may I join in welcoming the Minister to the world of the Whips’ Offices? The Minister will be aware of the availability of laser surveying equipment for road traffic accidents. Is he convinced that the police have enough of it and what requirements do the Home Office and the Department for Transport impose on the police in this regard?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his welcome, and I hope there will be other occasions when we shall be exchanging ideas across the Dispatch Box. I have been extraordinarily well briefed for this Question, and I asked some further questions of the department over the weekend and again this morning. I have to confess, however, that the question that he has raised is not in the briefing, so I hope he will permit me on this occasion to write to him with the answer.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, it is quite often the case that the British Transport Police is not the first force to arrive on the site of a fatality. Can the noble Lord say why it is that the local police forces take so much longer than the British Transport Police to get the line working again and what is being done to make sure that the techniques they use are spread to local police forces?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a good point. The force which has the real expertise for dealing with the railway is the British Transport Police. The record that it has achieved over

22 Jun 2009 : Column 1346

recent years under Chief Constable Sir Ian Johnston, who is about to retire, has been remarkable. It is always preferable if it is able to get to an incident on the railway before the county police, but it has no priority and it is required to work together with the county force. Whether it is necessary for us to be talking to both organisations to see whether greater co-operation can be achieved is something I would like to go away and think about.

Parliament Act 1911


2.58 pm

Asked By Lord McNally

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, at present the Government have made no plans to celebrate the centenary.

Lord McNally: My Lords, may I first take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, will already have told her that it is the highest office that any reasonable politician can hope for. Did she notice yesterday the Pauline conversion announced in the Observer of Mr Jack Straw to a wholly elected Senate to replace this House, which brings him into line with the official policy of the Conservative Party, so eloquently expressed on these Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde? Does this not mean, given my party’s 100-year commitment to such reform, that we are very close to moving quickly after the next election to House of Lords reform and to celebrating the centenary by passing another parliamentary reform Act?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I very much look forward to visiting Lancashire. In relation to Lords reform, my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary said yesterday in a newspaper that we are committing to bringing forward draft legislation and trying to get it through before the next election, but, if that is not possible, to having it fully in place shortly before the next election. I am sure that that is what all parties will be working towards.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, if the Government reconsider their plans on whether to celebrate the passing of the Parliament Act, will they consider publicising one of its most important provisions; namely, that this House still holds an absolute veto on extending the life of a Parliament? Can the noble Baroness confirm that this Government have absolutely no intention of asking the House to extend this Parliament?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, tempting though that might be, I can confirm that the Government have no intention to do that.

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Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the noble Baroness recollect that the preamble to the 1911 Act says that,

Since it took Parliament some 80 years to overcome the first of those obstacles, albeit only in part, would it be right to look on the final solution as something that exists less on the plane of time than on that of eternity?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think that the Benches to my left are much better equipped to talk about eternity than I am. However, this Government should be congratulated on bringing forward the first very important stage of reform in 88 years.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, will my noble friend resist any temptation to Schadenfreude as she contemplates the fact that, barely more than 10 years after the Liberals forced through the Parliament Act 1911, they had become extinct as a party of government? Is not the lesson of the past 100 years that grand designs to impose constitutional reform usually prove to be the political graveyard of their proponents and that the Prime Minister is wise to insist that constitutional reform should be a bottom-up process, expressing—in due course—the considered wishes of the people?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I have no shivers down my spine because I am confident that, yes, we are engaged in a bottom-up process, but I am also confident that any legislation that the Government bring forward will build on the consensus that we already have across all three parties.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I have always believed that we would achieve a fully or mainly elected House by the centenary of the Parliament Act. The trouble in the past few years has been over the question: which Parliament Act, 1911 or 1949? Do the Government recognise, in response to the previous intervention, that nothing will happen if they insist on consensus before taking action?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is very important that we have come as far as we have on the basis of consensus. Of course, the best way is to move forward expanding on the consensus that we already have.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, would the noble Baroness be good enough to consider with great suspicion any suggestions on these matters made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally? Does she realise that, although she talks about consensus, there does not seem to be any? Instead, is not all the brouhaha going on at the other end of the Palace of Westminster a good cause to celebrate the existence of your Lordships’ House, with or without—preferably without—the 1911 Act?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I do indeed celebrate the existence of this House; I celebrate day by day the excellent work that we all do in this House. I wish that more people would take note of that excellent work, which is done on all Benches in this House.

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