Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Insurance Premium Tax

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.



28 Jul 1997 : Column 118



    That Mr. James Cran, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. Hilton Dawson, Mr. Fabian Hamilton, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, Jane Kennedy, Mrs. Marion Roe and Mr. William Ross be members of the Administration Committee.--[Mr. George Mudie, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]



    That Mrs. Jackie Ballard, Mr. Stephen Day, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. Thomas Graham, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Helen Jones, Mr. Patrick McLoughlin, Dr. John Marek and Mr. Dennis Turner be members of the Catering Committee.--[Mr. George Mudie, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]



    That Mr. Richard Allan, Mr. Ian Bruce, Mr. Michael Connarty, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Mr. Jon Owen Jones, Mr. Andrew Miller, Mrs. Sandra Osborne, Mr. Phil Sawford and Mr. John Whittingdale be members of the Information Committee.--[Mr. George Mudie, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]



    That Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. Peter Brooke, Mr. Desmond Browne, Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson, Mr. John Grogan, Mr. Andrew Hunter, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Eddie McGrady, Mr. Tony McWalter, Ms Margaret Moran, Mr. Peter Robinson and Mr. Martin Salter be members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.--[Mr. George Mudie, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Transport and Works

Question agreed to.



28 Jul 1997 : Column 119

Genetic Patenting

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

10.13 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): On 15 July, the European Parliament discussed and approved the proposed EC directive for the legal protection of biotechnological inventions or gene patenting. That decision reversed the position of the European Parliament in 1995 and the Labour party's position at the time. It is likely to have far-reaching and uncertain consequences. For that reason, I am immensely grateful that the House has afforded me the opportunity to air the concerns of a great many people.

Since it was announced that I had been successful in the ballot for the debate, I have been contacted by many organisations and individuals, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), who hope to make some brief comments tonight. I know that we are not alone in our concerns. The Government's view on the issue appears to be confused. I welcome the Minister's presence tonight and I hope that he can clarify where the Government stand and how they will respond to the debate that is now emerging.

I have been told that several organisations, including the Women's Environmental Network and the Gaia Foundation wrote to the Minister in advance of the European Parliament vote requesting the Government's views. At least one--the Women's Environmental Network--was told that the British Government were awaiting the final text from the European Commission. As the Government's position was not made clear, it assumed that a position had not been taken in advance of seeing the final text of the directive.

Meanwhile, the Minister informed a scientific political adviser at Greenpeace that the Government intended to hold a public meeting for all interest groups once the text of the Commission's amended draft was known. Again, it appeared that the Labour Government were prepared to listen and consult before taking a final position.

I would like to congratulate the Minister on that approach, which I believe to be correct, but I cannot do so because, on the same day that that letter was written, another letter was winging its way across Europe to United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament. That letter, also from the Minister, was also about the forthcoming vote, but its message was rather different. It explained how important the new Government considered the directive to be for the future of the United Kingdom and European biotechnology industry and urged all Members of the European Parliament to vote for the directive.

I do not intend to be over critical as I wish to raise some important issues, but it is important that the Minister explains how those conflicting statements came to be made. More importantly, as I want to look forward rather than back, will the Minister outline the Government's current position on what is still an emerging discussion that has not reached its final conclusions? Is he for or against a fuller debate and if he is in favour should it not be before rather than after urging support for the directive in Europe?

28 Jul 1997 : Column 120

Liberal Democrats are not opposed to new and appropriate technology. I have listened to the arguments of those in favour of the directive who have been as vocal as those who are against it. However, a recognition of the potential that genetic engineering offers must not lead us to set aside consideration of the possible pitfalls. Above all, we should not encourage faster development here--as the directive will do in practice--in order simply to protect the United Kingdom's competitive position at the cost of long-term risks.

The draft directive would allow human body parts, including DNA, genes and cells, to be patentable outside the human body even though they have an identical structure to their natural counterparts. The directive would also cover cloned animals and genetically engineered food.

Industry says that it needs the directive. It argues that every year the pharmaceutical industry produces new, innovative products that relieve suffering, create employment and reward investors who fund research. For that potential to be realised, those who invest in long-term, high-risk biotechnology research need to know that the possible fruits of their investment will be protected from copyists. Hence, the industry argued the need for patent protection for inventions involving molecules such as proteins, DNA, enzymes and antibodies, which are needed for the treatment and diagnosis of diseases. Without patents, it says, there will be little innovation and no cures.

According to the Minister, however, the draft directive does not render anything patentable that is not patentable under current UK law. If current laws are not adequate, why does the Minister support a new law that does nothing different? I fear that, on the contrary, the European directive will make a difference beyond simply European integration of the rules. That is why commercial concerns are eager to see it in place.

In contrast, organisations that are against such genetic patenting include the Clinical Genetic Society and the Human Genome Organisation--the international body that co-ordinates research into the sequences of the human genome. Opposition also comes from the Royal Society, which has said:

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on human genetics concluded in its third report that

    "there manifestly is no consensus on a Directive to harmonise patent law and we consider that the imposition of a Directive could be more harmful than the differences in the criteria for patentability in different countries under the current system."

The Select Committee did not oppose any form of patenting. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) spoke to me earlier about the important concerns that the Committee raised about patenting material that is identified without any change, as distinct from the techniques used or the specific use to which it is to be put. If such patenting happens, I fear that there will be a constriction on the research available. That is the background to the concerns that have been raised.

Some patient groups are opposed to genetic patenting--though others are in favour of it--in spite of apparently being the clearest potential beneficiaries. The American

28 Jul 1997 : Column 121

patient umbrella group NORD--the National Organisation for Rare Disorders--has spoken out against patenting of genes, arguing that it will have a negative effect on research. Incidentally, that organisation supports the orphan drug law, which offers tax incentives, among other benefits, to companies involved in research and development. We are not talking about opposition to the principle of the uses to which such research can be put, but a real concern about further research or useful medical use being restricted because of the costs.

The European Union has already produced a draft proposal for a European Parliament and Council regulation on orphan medical products, which is due for discussion. However, the patent draft directive is being discussed without co-ordination.

Other reasons for the concerns of such disparate bodies are clear. Perhaps the most important is that there are many who believe that the directive will threaten future scientific and medical research. In the United States, where such patents already exist, the concerns that I have expressed have become a reality. The United States company, Biocyte, has a sweeping patent on the use of all human blood cells from the umbilical cord of a new-born. That is being disputed by US and European medical groups, because it threatens the free use of such cells for transplant and research.

The Minister should also bear in mind the experience of the Manchester Regional Genetics Centre, which received an unexpected bill from a Toronto-based company demanding a $5,000 licence fee, plus a royalty of $4 per test for every time the centre used a cystic fibrosis gene screening test on which the company had previously filed a patent application. The centre cannot afford that, and I fear that many others in the national health service will not be able to.

Next Section

IndexHome Page