Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


31 JANUARY 2007

  Q100  Chairman: What was your response to the Minister's immediate reaction to say these experiments should be banned?

  Angela McNab: We have to operate under the current law as it is and that is what we are doing exploring these issues.

  Ms Harrison: Perhaps I did not make myself very clear. We do intend, at our meeting on the 5 September, to make a policy decision following which the Licence Committee will consider these licence applications. Obviously I do not know what the scientists who you spoke to this morning have said, but certainly some scientists have gone on record as saying they do not have a problem about waiting until the end of the consultation period. Reasonable people would rather be working in an atmosphere of acceptability than one that is not acceptable.

  Chairman: We are all reasonable people.

  Q101  Graham Stringer: How would you assess the representations you get during the consultation period? How would you review it?

  Ms Harrison: Do you mean looking at the data?

  Q102  Graham Stringer: Yes.

  Ms Harrison: We are in the process of setting up the project to do the consultation. We expect it will take a number of forms. There will be some statistical data analysis and some qualitative work done as well. What we are going to use that for is to inform our policy; it is not a referendum.

  Q103  Graham Stringer: You are not going to weigh the evidence. If you get 2 million people objecting to it and 50 people in favour of it, you will analyse the arguments rather than the numbers.

  Ms Harrison: Absolutely.

  Q104  Graham Stringer: What do you expect to find out that is not known to you at the present time?

  Ms Harrison: The only consultation that has been done at all in this regard has been a very small element of the Government's consultation before producing the White Paper which was published in December. A very small element of that was a question about this particular area and most of it was about fertility, and so on. I think there were 500 or respondents. It was not a very wide-ranging consultation and it did not cover the area in which we are particularly interested. We want to unpick with the public what is the general view. The question that the person in the street might have is what do these scientists want to do and why do they want to do it. When those answers are out in the open then people will be in a position to see what are the benefits and potentials and what are their views. That is what we want to take account of.

  Q105  Graham Stringer: I am slightly confused in what you are saying. You work under a remit set down in the law. I think it is the concept of fairness, the views of different people, that I am getting confused by. If you are working under a particular remit to say this is lawful or unlawful, how can the opinions of the public be weighed in that assessment?

  Ms Harrison: The view taken is that if our decision is not based on the widest possible amount of information and evidence then we might be considered to have made a decision which is not a reasonable decision.

  Q106  Graham Stringer: There is a real distinction between evidence and argument based on that evidence and being fair to people.

  Ms Harrison: The decision is a fair decision if you have taken account of all possible issues around it, is it not?

  Q107  Graham Stringer: That is not quite what you were saying. Maybe that is a clarification. You were talking about finding out the views of people, what their opinions were, how they understood these issues, and then you were saying you had to be fair to everybody. That is very different from your definition of fair now, which seems to be coming to the correct conclusion within your legal remit. Which is it?

  Ms Harrison: The fairness issue is the fairness of the way we make our decision. It is being fair to the applicants.

  Q108  Graham Stringer: Just doing your job properly.

  Ms Harrison: Indeed. This is an area which is very new and very controversial and, therefore, we feel it is only fair to take a wider view.

  Q109  Graham Stringer: We are back to the same point. You were set up to deal with contestable, controversial issues. It is not about opinion but about the law and how you apply it on the objective facts that you have. You keep going back to public opinion. I do not understand how that fits in to the consultation. Is there any precedence in your 16 years of existence for this kind of consultation?

  Angela McNab: We have used public consultation in other policy formulation. We have a duty to both inform the public but also to take into consideration the wider views of the public. I am not suggesting that this is going to be a policy made by referenda or in any way determined in that path. It is absolutely right we would be subject to appropriate criticism if the Authority formulated policies about novel or new approaches without in any way wishing to hear the views of the public or even seeking to hear what those views might be and taking them into consideration. That would be an appropriate criticism of us. With sex selection, and indeed more recently with the issues of the PGD, we carried out a very similar far-reaching public consultation so we could both inform the public, because these are often difficult areas of science, and also to get a sense from the public as to their views about the acceptability of some of these issues. I think it is right and proper for good policy to take into account those public attitudes.

  Q110  Graham Stringer: Going back to a point you made previously about everybody being content and happy with this process, my understanding of the previous evidence that we had was the scientists were not happy about the process because it had stopped their line of research dead in its tracks. They did not say they were not happy but that was the implication of what they were saying. How much consideration have you given to that?

  Angela McNab: I can say that we spoke to the scientists who had submitted the applications and, whilst of course I am sure they would have preferred to be able to immediately proceed to a Licence Committee and a consideration of those applications, they nevertheless certainly expressed in those conversations they thought there were huge benefits to carrying out this consultation. They recognised this would be a relatively short delay and would give them an opportunity to both inform the public and to have those appropriate views we have outlined this morning taken into account. I did not sense there was a great unhappiness. Recognising they would rather something was considered now than in six months' time, generally there was not a great deal of unhappiness.

  Q111  Graham Stringer: Can I repeat the question the Chairman asked? You are not playing for time until Parliament legislates on this matter; you are definitely going to make a decision before Parliament considers it?

  Ms Harrison: Absolutely. We are going to make a decision based on the law as it stands at the moment.

  Q112  Dr Spink: Very specifically on the time, Professor Shaw, Professor Smith and Dr Armstrong told us this morning that timing is crucial. They said, to illustrate this point, if the USA had Federal funding for this, which is highly likely to happen very soon because of political changes in that country, they would overtake this country's competitive advantage and wipe that out within a couple of years, a blink of an eyelid in these terms. What do you say to that: timing is crucial?

  Professor Haites: I think they were perhaps saying some of that tongue in cheek as they are some of the best scientists in the world. It is not just how much money you have but how expert you are. Professor Smith is in a leading institute with Roger Pedersen and I believe will compete with the best. However, as with other scientific situations, it is very important that science is conducted in an open, fair, transparent and ethical manner. Those scientists will, as Angela McNab has said, wish to perform their science in that way.

  Dr Spink: Of course, and it is because we have an ethical and permissive regulatory framework in this country that we have this competitive advantage along with the stem cell bank. I think it is outrageous for you to suggest that they were speaking tongue in cheek.

  Chairman: It is contentious.

  Q113  Dr Spink: They are talking about MIT and Harvard and Connecticut and California. They have massive private research going on these areas. They were talking, not necessarily about people leaving this country but that possibility as well, certainly of much of the work being moved from this country unless the regime stays permissive. It is you that is stopping that.

  Professor Haites: I do not believe we are stopping it, I think we are enabling it. We are actually doing our best to ensure that, unlike other areas of research, we do this in an open and transparent manner so that our community goes along with our scientists in terms of their developments. I suspect there would need to be considerable debate in the United States before this type of research progressed.

  Dr Spink: I believe public opinion in the States is now 70% in favour.

  Q114  Dr Turner: If the public consultation is going to be at all meaningful, the public has to be accurately informed about what is the proposition put in front of them. Unlike the two examples you quoted before of sex selection and PGD, there is no question of implantation and of coming to term. The embryos will have a 14 day life and no longer. You were describing them as hybrids and the scientists in the field are very clear that they are not hybrids, because a hybrid has parts of more than one genome but it does not; it has one human genome. It is a human cell with a very small percentage of cytoplasm and mitochondria from another species. It is a totally different animal to a hybrid. If the HFEA cannot get its terminology right and get its information accurate, how is the public going to respond accurately let alone when Daily Mail journalists have got it.

  Professor Haites: I tried to begin by saying there was an enormous range of different types of cellular construct that could be considered as chimeras or hybrids and I tried to give examples. We are consulting partly with the scientists to look at this whole area, and I am sure, as you have done, we have looked at definitions used across scientific literature and across the world and found there is great variation there and a lot of detail that could be added in to describe a hybrid. I do not think the scientists or ourselves are at odds at all. It is terminology we are trying to get right. Up until now, in our consultations, we have not come down on a definition for an embryo or a definite definition for a hybrid or a chimera. That is part of the ongoing series of consultations around the White Paper, et cetera.

  Q115  Chris Mole: Are you happy with the use of the term cybrid?

  Ms Harrison: Can I add a little bit to that before I come to your question? We are working with the researchers in developing our consultation. The consultation is going to be a two-stage process. We were very clear we wanted to start off with the scientific part of it so we could be absolutely clear what we are talking about.

  Q116  Chairman: The researchers have said they have never been approached by you on that issue.

  Ms Harrison: That is not the case.[1]

  Chairman: We have just spoken to the two leading researchers in this area.

  Chris Mole: They say they are happy with the consistent use of the term cybrid, are you?

  Q117  Chairman: We are talking specifically about the point that Des Turner has put to you which is talking about development of a 14 day old being, or whatever, which will be destroyed at the end of that time and not implanted. I do not see why we have a huge problem over this.

  Ms Harrison: Over the definitions?

  Q118  Chairman: Yes.

  Ms Harrison: It is a question of actually having some real clarity about it which people can understand.

  Q119  Dr Turner: Where is the clarity coming from if you are calling it a hybrid when it is not?

  Angela McNab: There clearly is not a consensus on this within the scientists I have spoken to.

1   Note by the witness: On 11th January 2007, the day after the HFEA meeting, Ms Harrison spoke to Professor Minger and Ms McNab spoke to Dr Armstrong, about the decision to consult. Back

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