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Mr. Prescott: I have already told the House that we have been giving more funds, but in the end it is about reorganising. Of course I will join the hon. Lady in thanking all the people who helped. They are the unsung heroes, and I hope that she makes the front page.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): The Deputy Prime Minister has had to make a statement because of exceptional weather circumstances. Does he recognise the anxiety of the people in Ryde in my constituency, who live in fear of flooding every time that there is moderate rainfall because they rely on pumps that are 30 years old for their land drainage? Will he ensure that, when we finally have an agreed scheme, that is funded? In the meantime, will he look sympathetically at the plight of people who cannot insure their homes, not because of exceptional weather circumstances but because of the failure of the public authorities to install a proper drainage scheme?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and it is one to which I referred. If one is constantly under threat, one cannot get insurance. Those are the people who face real difficulties in areas where flooding is likely. I imagine that the matter comes under the flood defence authority, or perhaps one of the drainage or water authorities. I will make inquiries and write to him.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): The Secretary of State knows that Selsey in my constituency has now been hit twice by tornadoes in three years, although yesterday's was much less severe than the very worrying tornado that did great damage three years ago. Given the huge amount of water that has fallen on the downs, Chichester will be vulnerable to flooding for the whole winter. My constituents were heartened by the remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last week in an Adjournment debate. He said that grant aid was ready and waiting to ensure that the scheme to alleviate the danger of sea flooding in Selsey and the Chichester flood relief scheme are not delayed.

Let me bring the Secretary of State back to building in the flood plain. I am not making a party political point and I hope that he will take it in a non-partisan way, but if huge numbers of extra houses are demanded in an area such as Chichester, where large areas are virtually off-limits for construction because they are areas of outstanding natural beauty--part may soon be a national

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park--much of the construction will have to be in places that are vulnerable to flooding. Therefore, when he looks at planning policy guidance 25, will he reconsider the level that he is demanding for the construction of new housing in my constituency?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman raised the matter in an Adjournment debate, which was answered by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. As I understand it, the funding is available, but it is a matter of getting the preferred option and agreement so that it is there. We will put on pressure to achieve that as quickly as possible and we will get a settlement. On Chichester and housing, I do not know the exact details. The hon. Gentleman knows that, in December, we will respond to the various controversies concerning the amount of housing to be available. I am not sure of the allocation for Chichester. In general--this is a sound point--we have made it clear that our housing requirements could be met with the same amount of land used by Serplan by imaginative planning and much higher density housing. I suspect that the housing density in Chichester is one of the lowest in the south-east.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Yesterday, homes in Ross-on-Wye in my constituency were flooded for the first time and, in the city of Hereford, the Belmont roundabout was again under water, causing a traffic gridlock at the junction of two trunk roads. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Environment Agency has applied to become the navigation authority for the River Wye and that the public inquiry into the matter closed in July 1997. The Government have not decided whether to accept the recommendations of the inquiry. Will he look into the matter, consult with his colleagues in the Welsh Office and the Welsh Assembly and ensure that that gridlock is soon past?

Mr. Prescott: I do not know the reason, but I will certainly look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether a navigation authority would have a direct effect in cases such as the flooding to which he referred, but I will look into the matter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the consequences of the floods--by no means the most serious, but not insignificant--is that many right hon. and hon. Members, certainly those with offices in No. 7 Millbank and possibly those in other buildings, received no delivery of mail yesterday and that it was a source of particular distress to me to be deprived of the concerns and opinions of my Buckingham constituents? Will the right hon. Gentleman at least undertake to talk to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to find out whether we can establish from the Post Office how much, if any, mail was damaged or destroyed?

Mr. Prescott: That is a matter for the House authorities. I have no doubt that, as the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter in this way, it will be brought up, although perhaps we are all glad that he was not able to get his mail out.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Minister aware that, in mid-Wales, where we regularly experience flooding, we have experimented with lowering the water

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level in one of the reservoirs and that has helped a little? Will he consider a similar experiment in other places that suffer heavy flooding? Will he also ensure that some of the £400 million comes to mid-Wales, where we regularly suffer a great deal because the water table is already saturated?

Mr. Prescott: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, that matter is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, where a statement is being made on it today. Nevertheless, he makes a central point and I shall take it into account.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): In my constituency, there are at least 12 flooding hot spots, which flood regularly when there is heavy rain. First, may I again draw the Deputy Prime Minister's attention to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett)? As the regulator has told Thames Water that, within its pricing formula, for the next two years, it can protect no houses from the threat of sewage flooding, the matter must be addressed. If the proposed water Bill is the right vehicle to do so, I hope that it can be used in that way.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman restore to the borough of Reigate and Banstead the money earmarked for flood defences that was removed from the standard spending assessment about 18 months ago?

Mr. Prescott: In these circumstances, it is possible for local authorities and people affected by flooding to take an interim determination. I am not sure how that works or whether it fits the present circumstances, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and try to spell the matter out.

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Stem Cell Research

4.33 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I beg to move,


I welcome the opportunity to bring before the House the recommendations of the Donaldson report on stem cell research. The report of the chief medical officer, published in August, made a series of careful recommendations that the Government have fully supported. It is to the Government's credit that they have stated their support for those proposals--some of which are contained in the Bill--despite media hype on the issue and despite some of the misinformation put out by some opponents of even carefully regulated progress on the matter.

Many hon. Members will have received letters opposing the Bill from their constituents; some--if not most--of those people were organised to lobby on the subject by so-called pro-life organisations, as is their legitimate right. However, I urge the House to remember that--on the other side of the argument--people feel equally strongly that ethical, scientific progress be allowed.

On such matters of conscience, people with similar political views can hold different opinions based on what each person feels to be right ethically and morally. In such circumstances, parliamentarians are generally allowed a free vote on the matter and it is non-party political.

Many of my constituents will feel very strongly in favour of extending the existing law on embryo research and others will feel very strongly against such a change and may wish to repeal the laws that already allow research to take place. In cases such as this, Members of Parliament will not be able to satisfy both sides, and they must come to a considered view. However, those constituents who take a different view to mine have a right to expect three things when I vote on such an issue of conscience: first, that I respect their viewpoint; secondly, that I give a straight answer; and, thirdly, that I have carefully thought about the issues.

I ask the House to support moves to allow stem cell research on early embryos and to support moves to reaffirm the existing prohibition on reproductive cloning where such embryos would otherwise be allowed to developed well beyond the legal 14-day limit. It is understood that the Government will introduce regulations to implement those recommendations. That will not be before time, because Parliament has not had the chance to consider this matter since the issue of so-called cloning hit the headlines more than three years ago, since when seven expert ethical and scientific bodies have called for those changes in the law. Today's short exchange is a long overdue start of public and parliamentary discussion of the proposals.

I wish to discuss the benefits of stem cell research. It is hoped that this research can find ways of allowing patients with cancer, organ failure, degenerative diseases--such as Parkinson's disease and arthritis--or spinal cord injury to have a so-called transplant of some of their own cells that have been reprogrammed to replace the missing, failing or cancerous cells. In that case, there is a real prospect of finding cures--without the problem of rejection or drug

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toxicity--for debilitating, painful and/or fatal diseases that affect hundreds of thousands of patients every year. Groups representing patients with those diseases, such as the Parkinson's Disease Society, leading medical authorities, such as the Royal Society, campaigning and research charities, led by the co-ordinating Association of Medical Research Charities, and major funding bodies, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, all support my view of the enormous value of the research.

There is confusion about the legal situation and I wish to clarify that. Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which was introduced by the previous Government, the use of the test-tube baby, or in vitro fertilisation, technique inevitably leads to the creation of more embryos than can be safely implanted back into the mother's womb. Under the Act, the spare embryos must be frozen for future use or be destroyed within 14 days. In the interval, the Act allows research to be carried for five--and only five--medical purposes: infertility, miscarriage, congenital disease, contraception and genetic abnormalities.

Three separate authorities, all of which have had both medical and theological input, have considered the question of whether stem cell research should be added to that limited list. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the chief medical officer's inquiry--the Donaldson report--have all come to the conclusion that there is no moral or ethical barrier to extending the list of purposes to cover stem cell research, but that the existing ban on reproductive cloning should continue. Leading ethical bodies, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the British Medical Association, have also considered the matter and agree.

Clearly, there is much mainstream support for an extension of the research purposes permitted and it is impossible to ignore that body of opinion. That may indeed by why the Government have supported the proposals and said that they plan to recommend this law change to Parliament.

However, there are several things that my Bill and the proposals are not about. They are not about undermining the special status accorded to the embryo. Embryos of up to 14 days are much smaller than the head of a pin and the 14-day cut-off is chosen because that is the earliest time at which the first beginnings of the structure--the primitive streak--that would eventually turn into the central nervous system can appear. Research on the cells involves microscopic techniques and there is no question of experimenting on anything that remotely resembles a foetus or of there being sentient life involved. The Donaldson report points out that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority must ensure that the research proposals are the only way to achieve progress on this matter.

Many people--although not I believe a majority--sincerely and consistently believe that life begins at conception and that the fertilised egg and early embryo have exactly the same rights to life and integrity as a viable foetus, baby or adult. That appears to be the view of some here, and I respect it. However, it is not a view that I share, and nor is it held by most religious and ethical authorities in this country.

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Some have argued that embryos should not be used as spare parts for surgery or treatment, but it is not the intention to use embryos as the source of cells to cure degenerative diseases, organ failure or cancer. If such research is successful, it will be possible to derive all the stem cells needed from the patient's own cells, without the need to use embryos. However, as the only source of appropriate stem cells at present is from early embryos, some limited research on embryonic tissue is essential if our medical researchers are to achieve an understanding of the conditions under which adult stem cells can be derived.

Even if it were desirable to use embryo-derived stem cells to cure disease, the very short supply of donated eggs or embryos would prevent that. Such a donation is a very significant step for a woman to take. Hon. Members can therefore be reassured on that point. It has been suggested that adult stem cells can already be used and that there is therefore no need to undertake research on embryonic stem cells. That is not the case according to the overwhelming majority of medical and scientific opinion that I have cited.

Adult stem cells hold real promise, but there are some significant limitations to what can be accomplished with them. However, if the research is successful, it is hoped that it will be possible to derive all the stem cells needed from a patient's own cells. Embryonic stem cell research would be a temporary step necessary to develop ways of using adult stem cells. Some have claimed that that would be a step on the road to reproductive cloning. On the contrary, I support the proposal that the existing ban on reproductive cloning should be reinforced with a new law against it, as recommended by Donaldson and supported by the Government.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, under which such matters are regulated in the United Kingdom, is widely recognised as the most comprehensive legislation in the world and as being effective at preventing abuses of the technology. Donaldson and the Government are right to follow the path of a further ban on reproductive cloning.

Some point out that the European Parliament has voted in favour of a ban on stem cell research. However, the European Union does not have precedence over the United Kingdom's laws on such scientific research. The EU motion opposes not only stem cell research but abortion, which has been legal in this country for 33 years, IVF techniques and our own 1990 Act. That Act provides among the strongest safeguards against illegality in such matters to be found anywhere in the world. The vote was narrowly won by a majority of seven, and expressed an opinion of politicians from the mainly Catholic countries of southern Europe. Almost all Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament voted against it.

The proposals in my Bill would not suddenly allow what is called therapeutic cloning. That is already legal under the 1990 Act. They would simply allow that technique to be extended to research into regenerative therapies. I believe that the Donaldson report is a serious one and that the Government are right to support it, and I commend the Bill to the House.


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