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10.1 am

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I, too, am glad that we have the opportunity to debate these issues ahead of the time when the House will be invited to vote on them. I am grateful to the Minister for confirming once again that when that time comes, there will be a free vote and that it will be for the House to decide whether it is appropriate to proceed on this matter by regulation.

The Minister said that she saw this debate as the beginning of a process, not the end. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) asked for an indication of the overall time scale of that process. I suspect that the Government may have had in mind a rather shorter time scale when they embarked on this process, and that they now realise that they have underestimated the strength of public opinion, which is being made known to me--and, I am sure, many other hon. Members--through our constituency postbags. The statement earlier this week by the Leader of the House that the time scale is likely to be longer rather than shorter perhaps reflects that fact.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend has raised an important point that has perhaps been hidden by the Government. I suspect that many people who want this measure to be voted through do not want that to happen until the public are aware of the issues that Parliament is discussing. Although people may have attended the Royal Society presentation and others that took place in the House, the general public do not know the extent and purpose of the extra research, and this debate will help to inform them. My hon. Friend is right in saying that having a little more time before the regulations are introduced will be important to people on both sides of the argument, and will help people who do not know what the argument is about.

Mr. Hammond: There are two sides and a middle to this debate. A large number of people who are listening carefully to the argument have not yet determined their view, and it is certainly in their interests that there be adequate opportunity for the issues to be aired and discussed before the House and the other place make a decision.

I am grateful to the Minister for attempting to set out the arguments on both sides of the debate, but she comes to the Dispatch Box with a clear position on behalf of the Government. They seek the House's approval for the regulations. As hon. Members have already said, this is not a party political issue. I come to the Dispatch Box aware

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that views on the Conservative Benches--and, indeed, across the House--are divided. There are those whose abhorrence of the exploitation of human embryos as a tool for other ends--abhorrence of the creation of life followed by its destruction--leaves them with a clear view against the procedure that the regulations would allow, without any need to analyse the detailed issues. I characterise that as the moral position against the proposal.

At the other extreme of the argument, there are those whose instinct is clearly to support--

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): If I heard the hon. Gentleman rightly, he seemed to imply that what is being proposed is immoral. I hope that he will reconsider what he has said. I think that there are huge moral and ethical reasons why this proposal should be supported.

Mr. Hammond: As the hon. Lady will hear, I shall now put the other point of view. I did not say that it was immoral. I said that many Members take a clear moral view on this issue, because their abhorrence of the creation and then the destruction of life as a tool to other ends leads them to the view that the proposal is immoral. Those people will have a clear view of where they stand in this debate without needing to analyse the arguments.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I want to give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to clarify his remarks. I recognise that those people hold that view on the basis of their moral principles, but that is a moral argument against the regulations. Many of us are morally committed to the principles behind the regulations. There are moral and ethical arguments on both sides.

Mr. Hammond: I accept that, and I hope that the tone of my remarks will show that I acknowledge that there are two sides to the debate. I was about to say that there are those whose instinct is to support the demand that science must not be impeded in its search to improve the human condition, and there are other people who are torn between the desire to treat the dreadful degenerative diseases that blight the lives of one in 10 of the population at some time during their lives, and their alarm at the apparent amorality of the exploitation of the human embryo. They may also be alarmed at the danger of embarking on a journey the destination of which is unclear to many of us at this point.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Let us try to lay this point to rest. I am sure my hon. Friend does not intend to imply that those who are against the proposals have a moral position, whereas those who are broadly in favour of them have an instinctive position, which is what he seems to be saying. Will he put it on the record that he accepts that the moral dimension to this issue can apply in either direction? People are capable of having a moral or ethical position in favour of minimising suffering, and that would lead them in the direction of supporting the proposals that the Minister has set out. Would my hon. Friend be content with that?

Mr. Hammond: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Members on both sides of the argument have genuinely deeply held positions, and some feel that there is a strong, moral imperative to relieve suffering whenever that is possible. I acknowledge the sincerity of those who hold positions on both sides.

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I anticipate that this non-party-political debate will show the House of Commons at its best. I look forward to hearing the arguments from both sides of the debate. It is not for me to set out a position from the Opposition Dispatch Box, but rather, perhaps, to present some of the counter-arguments to the points that the Minister has raised, which hon. Members may want to consider in determining their position.

The Minister rightly said that the basis of the issues before us lies in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. She outlined the provisions and powers of that Act. It is true that it already allows embryo research. As she explained, substantial numbers of embryos are created under the provisions of the Act and subsequently destroyed. It will strike some people as odd that under the terms of the current legislation it is possible to use human embryos to conduct research into contraception, but it is not possible to use them for research into degenerative diseases that undermine and impair the lives of many millions of people. I acknowledge the Minister's comment that anyone who supported the 1990 Act, and supports its operation today, must believe that the proposals are only a logical extension of that Act.

I also accept--I am happy to reiterate it--the potential value of benefits that may result from the changes in the proposed regulations.

Many hon. Members, however, will feel that the 1990 Act itself is flawed. As I, like the Minister, was not a Member of Parliament at the time of that debate, I am not qualified to comment--as some right. hon. and hon. Members may be able to do later--on the climate in which it was held or on the issues that were raised.

Nevertheless, I sense that much has changed in the climate of public opinion since 1990. I sense that public opinion has awakened to some of the potential dangers of the advances of science, and that public opinion has therefore moved. I also suspect that in 1990 the very word cloning was not well understood by the public, but was only a science-fiction concept. Recent developments and examples of cloning in action have given the general public a much greater interest in and awareness of the issue.

The BSE crisis--remote as that might seem--and the genetically modified crops debacle have all caused the public to re-evaluate the role of science in our society. I suggest that the age of deference to scientists is over. It will seem to many people that science has failed us in many spheres, and the fact that there is a lack of proper control over scientists is--with, as always, the great benefit of hindsight--obvious.

Undoubtedly, other hon. Members will tell the House what feedback they are receiving from their constituents, but my constituency correspondence, of which there has been a considerable quantity, has been 100 per cent. against the proposed changes. I have not had a single constituency letter supporting the changes.

Mr. Forth: I wondered how long it would take before the postbag made its appearance in the debate. In that context, can my hon. Friend make any judgment at all on how many of the letters that his constituents have sent him arose from a genuine individual interest in the matter, and how many may have been prompted by interest groups or even--who knows--by faith groups?

Mr. Hammond: I suspect that my right hon. Friend is right that some of those letters will have been prompted

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by interest groups, but I do not regard them as any less legitimate for that. What has surprised me is that the interest groups which clearly do exist on the other side of the argument, representing people suffering from the types of degenerative diseases that may be affected by the proposed regulations, seem not to have mobilised their members to write, at least to me--I cannot speak for other hon. Members.

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