Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): As the hon. Gentleman knows, Eurocord, the international organisation of cord blood banks, has challenged Biocyte's patent. Does that not highlight the fact that patents are being granted far too widely--the point made in the Select Committee report? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the proposals in the report were adopted, many of the concerns that he is raising could be addressed?

Mr. Taylor: I agree. I mentioned the report a moment ago for that reason. The Americans are patenting too much and too widely, but the European directive appears to be drawn equally widely in its potential application.

I shall not concentrate on those issues tonight, but I do not believe--as the Government argue--that patenting has no relation to the wider ethical, moral and environmental issues. There are real concerns about animal cruelty, the effect on biodiversity, the impact on farmers--particularly in developing countries--and our ability to control the after-effects of the technology. We are moving further into the commercial development and patenting sector than our ability to control the issues yet allows us. That is the imbalance about which I am concerned.

I suspect that the Minister will argue both that clear patenting laws are necessary to protect investment and innovation and that existing UK law already allows such protection. It is certainly true that some advances in biotechnology are already patentable. A body of case law

28 Jul 1997 : Column 122

regulations is already in place in national patent offices and the European patent office. The EPO is however an independent international organisation, granting European patents according to the European patent convention, which has been signed by European Union member states and several European states that are not in the EU.

There are provisions in the European patent convention that govern relations between national patent offices and the EPO in order to harmonise national and European laws while maintaining an important degree of subsidiarity. That system has been in place for more than 20 years, and during that time, case law has built up important nuances and precedents that I understand are not contained in the proposed directive. I wonder why it is felt that it is right to ignore that history and the slower evolution of matters rather than go for the big-bang approach of a single directive.

Moreover, in the past few weeks, the European Commission has announced the publication of its Green Paper on the creation of a Community patent. That paper should have preceded the proposed directive. It is a consultation document, open to public view and opinion, whereas, in contrast, the biotechnological patenting directive is a legislative document which will have direct effect on Community and national law. It seems that the cart is before the horse.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be helpful for the UK to make two specific submissions? First, perhaps there is a case for less rather than more patenting. Secondly, we ought to be exploring the notion of public goods. Where there has been a financial contribution to research schemes--direct or indirect--either by Governments, charities or voluntary participants, that should be translated into a public stakeholding in goods which cannot be patentable.

Mr. Taylor: I would certainly be interested to consider that, although I do not think that it would necessarily be simple. There are question marks over how far back the research goes for it to be considered that there had been public input. Nevertheless, the point is interesting. I shall turn later to how wide genetic patenting appears to go beyond anything in the past.

If the draft directive is adopted by the Commission, which institution does the Minister believe will have authorisation to grant patents--the EPO or the Commission? To which institution will national patent offices be finally responsible? Which institution will regulate and, in cases of contravention, prosecute?

It has been argued by some that the directive is necessary to clarify advances in genetic patenting. I fear that it is more likely to lead to confusion. There is confusion not only in the consequences of the directive but in its wording. The issue of human cloning, for example, has been left vague. It is true that the directive excludes


    "methods in which human embryos are used",

but technically an embryo is a fertilised cell--a stage bypassed when the now infamous Dolly the sheep was cloned. The language used and the scope for restrictions are therefore demonstrably flawed.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, just as it was said in the 1930s that

28 Jul 1997 : Column 123

where one begins by burning books one ends up by burning people, where one begins by experimenting and patenting parts of animals and plants one ends up by patenting parts of human bodies? Does he agree that the directive could have significant detrimental effects on animal welfare? Is he aware that the Minister sought to press Members of the European Parliament to widen the conditions under which animals could be patented beyond medical benefits to other benefits? Does he agree that it is better to go slow rather than fast in this area because significant matters are at issue? We need to be careful because once something is unleashed, it is difficult to recall it.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend makes some important points. I certainly have concerns about animal welfare implications in some areas. I do not have time to dwell on those points in detail. It is a huge area and the debate is short.

The processes for production of human beings other than by cloning are not mentioned explicitly. The draft directive excludes

That is unusual wording which leaves unanswered the question of the production of a human being with different genetic information with, for example, a slowed-down aging process.

The Roslin Institute, which cloned Dolly, has filed a patent application for the technique covering human cloning as well as the cloning of sheep. What is the Government's view on that application? To be fair to the Roslin Institute, it has claimed that that has been done to prevent others from producing a human clone with the technique. Nevertheless, the principle of patenting the technique raises some real concerns.

Biotechnology developments have outpaced our ability to oversee and regulate them. Genetically modified soya bean is in the food chain, and we have no ability to label or police it. Genetically modified organisms are entering the natural environment, from which they cannot be retrieved, and yet no one can be certain of the long-term effects. Plant and animal varieties are increasingly coming under the control of industrial conglomerates, as is scientific research.

The Minister's letter to British Members of the European Parliament argues that British industry would be hampered if the directive were not passed. However, European patents are valid only in European countries that are party to the European patent convention. Therefore, if a European company is not granted a European patent for a specific application, a US or Japanese firm will not be granted one either. If a European firm wishes to apply to the US patent office, it can do so. If a US patent is granted, the European firm is allowed exactly the same patent rights as a US or Japanese firm holding the same patent. I can, therefore, see no reason why the present patent-granting system should affect European industry's international or competitive position, or any reason to rush into taking decisions.

The key issue is whether genetic patents should be broader in scope than those in other fields and, crucially, whether someone who isolates and characterises natural

28 Jul 1997 : Column 124

material should be able to patent the material itself, rather than the method for doing so or the use to which it is put. The discoverer has not necessarily contributed anything to the material, merely identified and isolated it. If that principle had been applied to chemistry, the elements themselves would have been patented. Isolated elements are not inventions, although the technique used to remove the element may be inventive.

Patents should therefore only be granted on the inventive process developed to isolate the element or perhaps the use to which it is put. Otherwise, it would be possible for a biomedical company to control completely all future research and medical development that arose from the isolation of a specific gene. That would not foster research, but kill it. It would also make the possibility of genetic testing for disorders, such as heart disease or breast cancer, potentially prohibitively expensive--too expensive for our overstretched NHS. In those respects, the directive threatens the foundations of scientific research and medical action--the free access to material and the freedom to pursue promising lines of inquiry. That is my concern and the reason why I have brought the issue to the House.

10.32 pm

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): I thank the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for initiating this debate because it brings together important issues of scientific research, ethics and the implications for human beings and animals and the law. As the House knows, much of our law is based on property law and the amalgam of those issues is an important focus for debate. To some extent, the debate is helpfully premature. By that I mean that the debate has been sparked by the European Commission's proposal to harmonise patent law in Europe. That proposal will probably arrive before the House in some two to four years' time when, I hope, it will be fully debated under the affirmative resolution procedure.

The hon. Member is right to suggest that we get ahead of the debate. We debated the issue on 11 July at the instigation of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), although I was sad that more hon. Members were not present. However, at the current rate of one debate a week, the subject will get a fair hearing over the next four years, which is right and proper.

Biotechnology is a relatively recent area of science and it is already providing us with steroids to treat asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, improved forms of insulin for diabetes, vaccines for hepatitis B, monoclonal antibodies for the treatment of cancer and diagnostic test kits for use in blood and food hygiene testing. I do not want to suggest that all biotechnology is bad; in all fairness, I do not think that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell suggested that that it was either. Others spoke on the understanding that the debate concerns scientific research, ethics and law rather than suggested that the whole lot should be thrown out. That is much appreciated.

Biotechnology is already driving some of the helpful, useful medicines of the future and could be the key to well-being and quality of life. Its contribution to the future may be enormous. It will offer the possibility of improved diagnosis and treatment for a range of conditions--some of which are apparently incurable at present--and that must be welcome. It will provide benefits not only for

28 Jul 1997 : Column 125

animal health but for animal feed, seeds and plants and it will improve the ability of crops to withstand extremes of climate while reducing the need for reliance on pesticides and herbicides. That in itself must be good. It will enable crops to be grown in drought-hit parts of the world and contribute to tackling world poverty and obtaining international food security.

We as parliamentarians should see our job as this: to do our best, in the ambiguous world of science, to ensure that scientific developments are life enhancing and not dehumanising. It is in that context that anxieties about patenting, in particular, are important. I appreciate the anxieties that new technology can create--for instance, worries about genetically modified foods, the prospect of cloning and the application of technologies to the very substance of life itself. We need to ensure that regulations safeguarding human health and dignity, the environment and animal welfare play a key role in creating and maintaining public confidence. I entirely accept the need for us to ensure that regulation keeps pace with scientific developments, to the best of our abilities, and I welcome the fact that our debates are ahead of decisions that may be made four years hence.

Although the patent system is long established and although the concept of registered invention is broadly understood, the system remains incredibly complex legally. It is worth running over a few of the ground rules within which the current United Kingdom system operates.

Patents encourage research by providing an opportunity to cover costs, but the system does not insist that the research takes place; nor does it influence the subject or direction of research. That must be for those involved in developing the technology to decide. It would be wrong to influence such decisions or to try to second guess the actions arising from them by somehow tailoring rights to specific technical subjects or directions. Patent rights are without prejudice to all other bodies of law. That means that, although a patent holder has the legal right to prevent anyone else from using an invention, that right gives him no authorisation to use or exploit it himself. Such use is entirely governed by other regulations dealing with such matters as human health and dignity. That puts the issue into a clear public legal context.

Patents give rights holders a monopoly for use of their inventions, but that lasts for a limited period. Patentees can be obliged to license their rights if it can be shown that monopolies are blocking the exploitation of other patents. It is important to note that the free use of a patented invention for experimental purposes is also allowed. When the rights cease, the invention passes into the public domain for all to use. When patents drop out of the system, inventions become generically available for anyone to work on.

In return for that kind of protection, details of the invention must be published in enough detail for the technically competent to be able to use it. The scope of that protection must be clearly stated for all to see--and to challenge if they wish. I stress that because the hon. Gentleman mentioned a particular case--the Biocyte case--to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) also referred. That is

28 Jul 1997 : Column 126

a demonstration of the right to challenge. People should challenge, to find out what is the scope of the patenting cover and to try to compete with the original invention.

Next Section

IndexHome Page