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Ms Kelly: Surely that argument holds only for the cloning of cells. We are talking about the cloning of embryos. Unless my hon. Friend thinks that there is no distinction between a cell and an embryo, his position is untenable.
In experiments in the USA and Australia, very few cell lines have been used. In the United States, most of that research is done privately and does not have the regulation that we would support in this country. There are also problems in Australia. Initially, material would be taken from IVF embryos. However, it is estimated that between 1991 and 1999, 237,600 IVF embryos were not used. Therefore, many embryos are not being used, and we are taking a few surplus ones to carry out this work.
I have talked a little about adult cells, which it is often argued could be used. We do not know their capacity for multiplication or how to obtain them. There are very few of them and they are difficult to obtain. Furthermore, we do not know whether we can generate from the cells that we obtain enough cells for tissue repair. We know nothing about that. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) that much more research is needed and that it should be funded and allowed to proceed, but that does not contradict the investigation of embryos also.
It is often said that cord blood can be used from blood stem cells. It can be used in the treatment of leukaemia, but, to date, there is no evidence to show that cord blood stem cells can produce other tissue types. The same applies to placental tissue, as there is no evidence to suggest that its stem cells can be used to make different types of tissue, but I support the right to conduct experiments to find out whether that is possible.
I deal finally with the regulations, about which not much has been said. As I said, I am grateful to Professor Anne McLaren, who operates on the world stage and is an eminent supporter of stem cell research, for her contribution to my thoughts on embryology. She makes the point that any research project on human embryos that is submitted to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for a research licence must undergo both ethical and scientific review. Before granting a licence, the licence committee then has to judge whether the research is "necessary and desirable", as is required by the 1990 Act, and also whether the aims of the project can be achieved in any other way, such as through animal embryos.
If the research licence is granted, an annual progress report is required. The report will contain information on how many embryos were used, what they were used for and where they came from. Each embryo must be individually accounted for. The HFEA annual report includes a list of on-going research projects and information on who is conducting them, where they are occurring and the topic with which they deal. The HFEA reports to Parliament.
In the 10 years since 1990, no problems have arisen with research licences. No breaches of the 1990 Act have occurred and no scientists have conducted unlicensed research. Many people are suspicious of the arrogance of science and so on, but every centre is inspected annually, the research community is closely knit, there is strong
The European Community is advised by a European group on ethics, of which Professor McLaren is a member. The group is multidisciplinary; it comprises lawyers, ethicists, theologians, scientists, doctors and representatives from a dozen European Union member states. In its recent opinion on ethical aspects of human cell research and use, the group said that, for countries where human embryo research was allowed for the alleviation of infertility,
If we became part of a world movement to reject such views, we would knock backwards 100 years of research into medicine, care of patients and the ethos on which this country operates in the world arena.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): This is the first time that I have contributed to the complex debate on the issues before us. I do so rather hesitantly in the company of hon. Members who, whether from scientific and/or religious points of view, have a great deal more expertise in these matters than I have. Like many hon. Members, I have received many representations, across the whole spectrum of views. I hope that I have begun to develop an understanding of the scientific potential offered by the types of research in question and of the concerns that exercise many of my constituents and those of other hon. Members.
I share the slight feeling of undue haste that has already been expressed. I do not go quite as far as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who called for the introduction of primary legislation with a full Committee stage. However, I think that the four-day period that has been allowed to the House and the outside world for consideration of the guidelines is a little too quick and that it might have been more reasonable to roll over the matter until January. Much pressure for speed has been exerted, not least by patient groups which are keen for work to begin to fulfil some of the scientific potential, and also by the biotechnology industry, but I do not believe that a slightly longer period of reflection would have made too huge a difference.
People on both sides of the argument are approaching it from a humanitarian perspective. Some have concerns about the impact of diseases on members of their family and of society in general. Others are concerned about the wider impact of embryology on humanity and future generations. I suspect that the range of views among the Liberal Democrats matches the range of views in the country. Some of us--my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is foremost among them--are enthusiasts for the possibilities of the new technology. Other parliamentary colleagues are concerned that we are embarking on a slippery slope. Such hon. Members might be encouraged by opposition in the rest of Europe to the United Kingdom's proposals, although I noted with interest the point made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) about a possible change of perspective in France.
Dr. Harris: I reiterate to my hon. Friend that there is a wide range of opinion among those on the Liberal Democrat Benches. That variation is right and proper and makes a free vote important. One of the great things about the Liberal Democrats is that we can debate such issues in our democratic and open policy-making forums. At least the matters now before the House were the subject of debate at our 1999 Harrogate conference. We made it clear that we were opposed as a party to reproductive cloning, but that we would be prepared for stem cell research to proceed on the basis of a free vote.
Mr. Harvey: My hon. Friend is right, but I suspect that our party conference is of more significance to Liberal Democrat Members than to other hon. Members. The key point that he makes is that we have a free vote, in which each Liberal Democrat Member will exercise his or her own view.
We have heard some compelling arguments. Allowing experimentation has large potential benefits to society. For example, it could benefit people with serious diseases such as those listed by the Under-Secretary. Those diseases include Parkinson's disease, about which I have been lobbied by the Parkinson's Disease Society. Looking further into the future, the possibility of improving transplant technology with less likelihood of rejection seems another significant gain.
The alleviation of pain and suffering should weigh heavily on our decisions. All hon. Members will feel uncomfortable about allowing the use of embryos. However, there must be as great a justification for its use to treat serious diseases as for its use in infertility treatment, in respect of which a decision was made and resolved 10 years ago. The decision now before us does not seem a huge or profound step from what was agreed then.
Another significant argument is to suggest that using cloned cells means that we do not have to experiment on animals or use animal tissue and material. It might be possible to argue that the technique involves a benign use of embryos, which otherwise have no use or might be destroyed.
I was particularly struck by the Wellcome Trust report. It said that public opinion in respect of therapeutic cloning is largely supportive until people realise what is being proposed. Several concerns were expressed in the report, whose first finding was that many people did not fully understand the language used in the debate. The report continued:
The most common argument--the slippery slope argument--involves the idea that the technique will lead inextricably to ends that we may not currently intend. The Government have clearly stated many times that they will not permit the technique to lead to reproductive cloning--the Minister made that point strongly in her speech. If we are to allay fears outside the House, legislation is needed to make the situation more explicit.
I understand that the Government's view is that legislation will be dealt with as parliamentary time allows. However, there is something of a contradiction in their attitude--they want to push the regulations through with considerable haste, but they have not clarified when they might be able to close off the avenue that worries many people.
There are many unscrupulous individuals in this country and other parts of the world who would want to continue pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge. I entirely accept the point that reputable scientists would be fearful of doing anything that went beyond what was permitted, but there are disreputable scientists around the world who are only too keen to push the boundaries for their own profit. If public confidence is to maintained, we should err on the side of belts and braces, as it were.