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House of Commons

Friday 15 December 2000

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Point of Order

9.33 am

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that the Toyota plant is just down the road from my constituency, on the A38. You will also know that considerable concern has been expressed about the future of Ford. Has the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry contacted you today to make a statement on the recent talks between Jac Nasser of Ford and the Toyota chairman, Hiroshi Okuda, regarding a possible merger between the two companies and the job losses that might arise?

Mr. Speaker: The Secretary of State has not been in contact with me.

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9.34 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): This is the second debate on embryology in recent weeks. The first, on 17 November, was good, measured and thoughtful. The subjects were not easy to discuss and are morally, medically and scientifically complex. It was an example of the House at its best and I hope that today's debate will be held in the same spirit. It was also a cross-party debate. We do not consider embryology to be a party political issue. There will be a free vote for the Labour party and, we hope, for other parties.

I remind the House that the regulations will implement two of the recommendations of the Donaldson report, which was published in the summer. The purpose of the regulations is to promote stem cell research, which has immense potential to relieve the suffering of many people in this country. It is for that reason, and because of the impact that the research could have on hundreds of thousands of people, that the Government support the regulations.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Can the Minister tell the House at the outset why the Government withdrew their draft regulations and produced new draft regulations this week, and why the House will be given only four working days between their publication and the need to enact them on Tuesday?

Yvette Cooper: The regulations were revised in response to comments and representations that were made to us about their content. We want to ensure that they most effectively represent the purpose of the Donaldson report and, in particular, focus on the need to ensure that the research is on serious disease. The regulations were laid in time for today's five hours of debate and for the debate next week. Relatively few wording changes have been made to the previous draft, which has been laid before the House for some time.

I recognise that some people cite strong moral reasons for opposing the regulations and that some oppose all embryo research and the current law. I respect those views, but I disagree with them. There are also strong moral reasons to support the regulations. I want to make it clear at the outset that the regulations do not license human reproductive cloning: that is illegal; it will stay illegal, and I will say more about it later.

I do not want to take up time by repeating much of what I said on 17 November, but I shall briefly remind the House of the current law and the changes that the regulations will make before I deal with some of the common misconceptions and address some of the central arguments that have been advanced against them over the past few weeks.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 permits research using embryos for just five purposes, including infertility, contraception and congenital disease, and it does so under very strict constraints. Research can take place only on embryos up to 14 days old, and only if it can be done in no other way. It is always strictly regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister says that the research can take place only if it can be done in

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that way and no other. Will she clarify a matter that is causing controversy in the House and the country? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would agree that we should encourage anything that could alleviate pain, suffering and death, and that we have a marvellous opportunity for research into degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and, indeed, cancers. However, will she confirm that research on adult stem cells is no substitute for research on embryonic stem cells?

Yvette Cooper: I can confirm that that is the strong view of members of the Donaldson committee, who considered the subject in great detail, and of many people involved in research on embryonic stem cells and on adult stem cells. I shall cover that in detail later.

In practice, under current law, embryos that are used in research are created through in vitro fertilisation. Between 1991 and 1998, more than 750,000 embryos were created through IVF. Some 48,000 were donated for use in research and 237,000 were destroyed. The rest were either used in treatment or held for future use.

The regulations will extend the purposes for which embryos can be used in research. The 1990 Act clearly set out the power to extend those purposes, but within the same strict constraints: the embryos can be used only up to 14 days and only under licence from the HFEA. The explanatory memorandum to the regulations says that they

That includes basic research and research to help us to understand diseases and develop treatments for them.

In response to the concerns raised, we have revised the regulations to ensure that the research relates to serious disease. Ultimately, it will be for the HFEA or the courts to interpret the term "serious disease". There can be no question but that it includes spinal injury, Parkinson's disease and cancer, the treatment of which could benefit from the research. We are not talking about a cure for the common cold.

Dr. Fox: Is the Minister seriously telling us that the Government believe that these matters, which should be decided in the House, are best left to the courts, which will interpret what the Government mean? Is not it incumbent on the Government to define what they mean in their legislation?

Yvette Cooper: Clearly, the House will have its own view of what "serious disease" means. There is no misunderstanding about the fact that Parkinson's disease, cancer and stroke--conditions whose treatment could benefit from stem cell research--are serious diseases. There is no problem with that. It is not something that the HFEA and ultimately the courts, if necessary, will have a serious problem in determining.

Dr. Fox: If the courts will not have difficulty in defining "serious disease", presumably because it is an easy definition to make, and given that what Ministers say in the House can now be interpreted in the courts, will the Minister tell us what is the Government's definition, because that lies behind the changes that they made to the draft regulations this week?

Yvette Cooper: I have made it clear that the Government believe that spinal cord injury, heart disease,

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muscular dystrophy and osteoporosis are serious diseases that cause immense pain, paralysis and very often death. It is clear to the House and people throughout the country that those are regarded as serious diseases. I have no problem with that.

There is a good reason for introducing the regulations. Stem cells hold huge potential. They are cells at an early stage of development that can differentiate into many different kinds of cell or tissue. Embryonic stem cells in particular are regarded as pluripotent. They have the potential to become many different kinds of tissue, including brain tissue, heart tissue, muscle, nervous tissue and skin tissue, and therein lies their power.

Although there have been amazing medical advances over the past 100 years, the past 10 years and even the past three years, some diseases and injuries have proved far more difficult to treat; in particular, disease, disorder or injury that destroys essential tissue that will not repair itself or that does not regenerate effectively. Examples include the brain tissue damaged by stroke that cannot repair itself; the heart muscle destroyed by heart attack that will not recover; the pancreatic tissue damaged in diabetes that will not heal; and the severed spinal cord that will never regenerate.

If a child falls off her bike and fractures her spinal cord, that is it--doctors can do nothing to repair the paralysis that will result from such injury. Even for tissues that can repair themselves, but where the healing is haphazard or incomplete, stem cell research might have the power to make a massive difference. The potential of stem cells is that they might help scientists to unlock the secret of repairing and regenerating cells and tissue and of preventing the degeneration, pain, paralysis and death caused by disease. The Donaldson report suggested that stem cells could hold the key to breakthroughs in treating stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, heart attack, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancers, leukaemia and muscular dystrophy.

Let us consider the human implications of such research. It is about helping the young father confined by multiple sclerosis to a wheelchair who cannot play football with his son. It is about helping the schoolboy with a broken neck following a rugby injury who will never walk again. It is about helping the 1,500 children and adults with Friedrich's ataxia who cannot speak properly or co-ordinate their arms and legs. It is about helping the thousands of people paralysed by stroke each year, or the patients who die waiting for liver or heart transplants that never materialise. It is about helping the elderly woman who is losing her independence because of the pain and disability of osteoporosis. It is about helping the lawyer with Parkinson's disease who can no longer feed himself because his hands shake so much. We have it in our power to authorise the research that could trigger life-saving and life-transforming treatments and cures in such cases.

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