Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


31 JANUARY 2007

  Q80  Chairman: Why is there any doubt?

  Ms Harrison: There does seem to be a spectrum of opinion. As you know from the history of this, and I am new to the job as you know, the Horizon Scanning Group of the HFEA identified this as a possible issue some time ago. We have had our Scientific Group look at it and give their views and we have had our Legal and Ethical Committee look at it and give their views. In general the view is that it probably falls within our remit. Now is the point to go out and broaden that consultation just to check out exactly where you started from, the point of the broad spectrum of entities we might be talking about. We do have two specific licence applications in front of us but we want to have our policy to be able to cover possible future applications that may come to us. We want to have some broad guidelines. Our view is we will certainly feel it is important that such work should be regulatable, licensable and not go on in an unlicensed way. We need to be clear that is what the general view is.

  Q81  Chairman: I want to be clear. Certainly from the press notice which you issued following your last meeting, when you decided that you would go out to public consultation, the clear steer which HFEA are giving is that you believe this is within your remit?

  Ms Harrison: We think it is probably within our remit and we want to be sure. If we make a decision based on shaky ground, then we would be open to challenge and we would not want to do that.

  Q82  Chairman: Since 1990 you have been under shaky ground. That was the reason you were set up, to actually give that lead. That is why we have been so successful, because there has been a body which has been able to actually make a clear decision on licences. What we are seeing now is significantly different from what we were having in 1990. I put to you that under the 1990 Act the use of human embryos for research was permissible only where it was necessary—I think that was the definition—and it cannot be carried out using animal embryos. Should a similar restriction apply to the creation and use of these hybrid or cybrids, if we want to use that terminology, and, if so, is the use necessary because human embryos are in short supply? The argument that both Kings and Newcastle are making is we are not getting enough human eggs coming forward and unless we actually go down this line we are not going to be able to develop the techniques to enable us to go forward. This is about necessity, is it not?

  Angela McNab: I think there are two points but can I can go back, first of all, to the scope.

  Q83  Chairman: You will not forget this point.

  Angela McNab: No. Let me take the points in turn. The first point is in relation to do we believe this potentially falls within our remit. There was, from those scientists we consulted, a view that the entity or the embryo that would be produced would be likely to have the full human genome within it. However, there was not a consensus, from those experts we consulted, about the viability, whether or not it would be able potentially to implant and be viable. That is the second test in order for it to be within our scope. I am not a scientist so if there are further questions about the scientific view on that I will defer to my colleague.

  Q84  Chairman: They are not asking them to be implanted but grown in a dish for up to 14 days.

  Angela McNab: Indeed, but the test of whether this falls within our remit has to be whether or not it has the full human genome and whether or not it would be viable. The second part of that question was not clear from those scientists we consulted. It was for that reason that the legal advice we had was, in order to be certain that we got as much evidence as possible to base our policy on and to be sure we did have the responsibility for this area of research, we should explore that further with the scientific community. The second issue you raised was about necessity. Again, there have been mixed views about this expressed to us from the scientific sector. It is very important, in putting together a policy, we are seen to be acting in a fair-minded way. We have to now have an opportunity to explore those views in more detail and gather as much evidence as we can from the full scope of views on that matter.

  Q85  Chairman: Are you actually saying that every time there is going to be a difficult decision it is now going to go out to public consultation?

  Angela McNab: I am certainly not saying that. In fact, I think it is because this is such a novel area, such a large step, and because the issues are not black and white, that in this unusual circumstance we have taken the step of saying we will hold off from considering those applications. That is something extremely unusual for us to do. It is not just public consultation, although it is absolutely right and proper in putting together a policy that we take public views into account, but it is also, I must stress, an opportunity to hear the wider views of the scientific community. That is very important both in terms of the legal position but also in terms of the necessary question that you rightly raise.

  Q86  Adam Afriyie: Did HFEA make the decision to go out to public consultation and, if so, were there any discussions or pressure from Ministers to do so?

  Ms Harrison: No, it was our decision entirely. We made it at our last meeting on the 10 January.

  Q87  Adam Afriyie: Government Ministers were not involved.

  Ms Harrison: No.

  Q88  Adam Afriyie: There were no discussions or debate about it?

  Ms Harrison: We have a representative from the Department of Health who attends our meetings, quite rightly, and they were quite happy for us to go ahead with this consultation. To be quite honest, everybody thinks it is a good idea to gather as much information as possible from the wide spectrum of views. Going back to the public element of this, clearly, as Angela has said, the science is quite difficult to understand but in some ways it is actually quite easy. I was speaking earlier to a colleague about a little graphic that was in one of the newspapers not very long ago which made it very clear that what we were talking about in terms of hollowing out an egg, putting a stem cell in, exciting it and growing some cells that you can experiment on and then discard is really quite straight forward to understand. The public is a wide spectrum of people including those who suffer from horrible degenerative diseases for which there is no cure. One of the first things on my desk when I started my job on the 2 January was a letter from somebody who suffers from motor neurone disease. This is clearly an issue of huge public interest to a very wide range of people.

  Q89  Chairman: With respect, it was of huge public interest nine months ago when this issue first arose. You did not, at that time, say we must go out to public consultation.

  Ms Harrison: At that time we had not the research applications for licences and so we were not in any hurry, if you like, to make a policy.

  Q90  Chairman: With respect, you have not even examined those applications for licences.

  Ms Harrison: They have arrived so we know what they are.

  Q91  Chairman: You knew what they were nine months ago and nothing has changed significantly in that time. It was quite clear that both Kings and Newcastle were developing this line of research and would be coming to you with licences.

  Ms Harrison: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, our Ethics and Law Committee discussed the whole issue in May last year and the Scientific Group in April last year. The discussions and gathering of evidence has been going on for some time. It was only when it comes to the point where we have to make a decision that we then had the basis on which a decision had to be made.

  Angela McNab: I just wanted to add a little to that. You are absolutely right that nine months ago, or even before that, we started considering, as part of our horizon scanning, some of the issues that may well be coming to us. We did not receive applications, I can confirm, until November, much later in the year. It is also important to say that we ourselves did state before receiving the applications, way back when we were doing the early work on this, we thought this would be an issue best dealt with in Parliament. However, as you will be very well aware, we have a responsibility to respond and deal with applications that come to us, and so we must do that. It is important to say that ideally we would see this as best dealt with in Parliament.

  Q92  Dr Iddon: I do not see the point, with the greatest respect to the three of you, of having an horizon scanning organisation and then waiting for an application to come in before you do the consultation. Surely the idea of having an horizon scanning department is to start the consultations prior to the applications coming in so that you do not hold up vital research. The way you are operating now is the research is being held up.

  Angela McNab: If I could answer that because it is very much related to an operational issue. I agree with you that in an ideal world the horizon scanning would be showing you a variety of areas where, at some time in the future, one might expect that there possibly could be applications, and one would be developing a well formulated, well evidenced policy in advance of that happening. However, you will, I am sure, appreciate that our resources are limited and we have to make a judgment call about which of those horizon scanning issues we are going to be able to pursue, in terms of opening the full policy, and at what stage. We have to make those judgment calls. Sometimes we will not have something on our agenda or, in terms of well resourced, being able to do it. Then we find that, in fact, the science is advancing so quickly we realise that has come to the forefront and we are going to have to do something about it. As I say, we are in a difficult position. There is a review of the Act that is under way. I think we made our views clear about feeling this was an issue that would be best placed to be dealt with in Parliament, nevertheless the advance of the science, and the scientists wishing to proceed, obviously makes this an issue we have a responsibility to deal with now. Had we known that a year ago we would have made different decisions.

  Q93  Dr Turner: A lot of the time the scientific community would be of the view that the current legislation, the current framework of regulation, comfortably embraces the work proposed in both of these applications so that there is actually no need either for further change in the law or for public consultation on this issue and that it is, in fact, an issue which the HFEA is perfectly legally entitled to pass judgment on and to license. Can you please explain why you feel unable to license this?

  Ms Harrison: The discussion we have had about it within the Authority is really to do with being fair to everybody. Part of our legal advice was, in order to make a decision which fairly gave everybody the opportunity, both proponents and opponents of something which is after all extremely novel and where there has been quite a lot of misinformation, and so on, in the media. It was important to air those issues and give everyone the opportunity, in a fair and transparent way, to input into the evidence.

  Q94  Dr Turner: That is not a legal consideration. What were the legal considerations?

  Ms Harrison: There is a legal consideration about fairness.

  Q95  Chairman: Will you publish your legal opinion? Will you let this Committee have it?

  Ms Harrison: We have given you the gist and we have provided you with our draft minutes in which the legal views were discussed that we were given.

  Q96  Chairman: Why can we not have the legal opinion?

  Ms Harrison: As far as providing that opinion, I think legal privilege requires that we retain it ourselves. We may be the subject of legal proceedings at some point in the future so it is important that we keep that.

  Q97  Chairman: I thought you were having a public consultation but we cannot have the legal basis on which you have decided there is some question over whether you could grant these licences under the 1990 Act?

  Ms Harrison: We have tried to give you as much as we possibly can and tried to be as helpful to you as we can in this respect but our advice is we should retain the legal advice to ourselves.

  Angela McNab: I am sorry to say the lawyers have made their position clear about this. I hope what we have given you is a very good summary of the advice we have received. To go back to the previous question, the real issue for us is to ensure this does fall within our scope, and the viability issue is key. That is one of the key things we will be testing out in the consultation with scientists.

  Q98  Chairman: This perhaps is unfair, in which case say so. Are you conscious of the fact that procrastination may well set back Britain's scientific development in this area by a significant period of time?

  Angela McNab: I certainly would not want to see the Authority setting back scientific development because I think the progress of science in this area has been very much encouraged by good solid regulation and it is not our intention to hold things back. However, what we are talking about here is a need to be absolutely sure that we have been fair in considering the issues and we are legally absolutely certain we have the best evidence we can about the statutory responsibility for the organisation of the Authority. It is, after all, a few months. We have made an absolute commitment that we will get on with this and those applications will, therefore, be able to be considered before the end of this calendar year. In terms of holding back, I would hope very much it is a few months.

  Q99  Chairman: I am sorry, I cannot let you get away with that. I agree your consultation is only a few months and then some decision will be made in October, but you have said earlier, and the Chairman has emphasised this, you would like Parliament to actually make decisions in these areas.

  Angela McNab: Let me clarify that. I raised the point that ideally we did think, and continue to think, that would have been the best position but we have a very clear responsibility to act under the current law and once we have carried out this consultation we have made a commitment that we will consider this application. That is our responsibility and we will do it. That is the position we are placed within.

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