Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)


31 JANUARY 2007

  Q120  Chairman: There was this morning when we spoke to the scientists.

  Angela McNab: I am very glad they had a consensus but certainly the expert group we consulted in our early work on this did not have a consensus about the stage at which the full human genome was present and, therefore, that would relate—and I am not a scientist—to the definition or the terminology that one used.

  Professor Haites: The full human genome is transferred in but the contents of the cell remain the protein, the mitochondria, et cetera, of whatever was in that egg when it was first created. We do not have enough evidence yet as to the exact time points at which the cellular contents become more humanised, nor do we have full evidence on how humanised it eventually becomes.

  Dr Spink: We need to do the research to find that out.

  Q121  Dr Turner: In any event, I am not sure how relevant that is to the question of the genetic material. There is no doubt it is 100% human genetic material.

  Professor Haites: We have had this discussion before. There are two points that both the Chair and the CEO have tried to point out: we do not have a full knowledge of the implantation potential, and we are going with the 1990 Act. We, like all of you in this room, wish to see science in the UK prospering and well supported by regulation. Were we to make a decision that was judicially reviewed to be contrary to the Act, and if that was not a well informed decision that we had made, we would be jeopardising research. As an unfortunate individual who had some involvement in the GM foods discussion, I am very concerned to make sure we have a full, fair, open debate to inform this research in the future.

  Q122  Dr Turner: The sort of definitional problem we are discussing right now is precisely the sort of thing which clouded the GM debate. The journalists got the wrong end of the stick and we had headlines about Frankenstein foods. You have to be very clear, and if the HFEA setting out the consultation is not clear the results are liable to get very muddied and could go down the same kind of unfortunate route as the GM debate. There is a very serious risk.

  Professor Haites: The reason we will consult with scientists initially in this consultation is to ensure that we are absolutely clear in our consultation.

  Q123  Dr Turner: You have not consulted with them yet.

  Professor Haites: We have had numerous discussions with them and with different ones. As you know, there is a wide range of scientists across the UK involved in this work. I personally certainly have not consulted with the three you saw today.

  Q124  Dr Turner: How much weight will media reaction and lay public reaction, not the scientific public community, weigh in your final decisions?

  Ms Harrison: We will take account of all the evidence we receive, as I said earlier. It is important to know what people think. Can I colour in that question about definitions again? I am a very simple non-scientific person. What I want to know is what do scientists want to do and why do they want to do it. In a way, what you call "it" does not matter; we can have our own definitions. It is what they want to do we need to understand and what would be the expected outcomes, and that, I think, is quite simple to understand.

  Q125  Chris Mole: Except surely if we are overlapping here. It seems to me part of your evidence, as suggested to us, you have the cases of the current applications, which has generated your consultation, which may usefully inform what the Government are doing with the White Paper heading towards legislation. The definitional problems are crucial, would you agree, to resolving the legislation that allows us not to return to this problem in the way that we are facing it at the moment?

  Ms Harrison: Certainly. One of the things in which we and the Select Committee were in agreement in the consultation prior to the White Paper—and I was looking at it before I came in and it is word for word the same thing—was we would like there to be clear definitions of hybrids and chimeras, and whatever else, and also we would like there to be clear rules about regulation in there. We stick by that and we do want that to be in the legislation. We have said we will share the results of our consultation and our evidence gathering with the department and hope that it informs the pre-legislative scrutiny stage.

  Q126  Chris Mole: Given that you believe there is a lack of clarity amongst the scientific community about the definitional language that should be used, does the HFEA have an opinion about terms such as cybrid and whether using those, and being clear about what you can and cannot do with those once you define what they are, is going to help the legislation being formed?

  Ms Harrison: At the moment there are Australian definitions and the Canadians have made definitions. There is something to work with certainly.

  Q127  Dr Harris: Could I say, for the record, that I met Ms Harrison and Angela McNab, before the Committee decided to do its inquiry, in early January and discussed this issue and indeed made representations to the HFEA meeting on behalf of a number of people keen on this science, again before the Committee decided to it do this inquiry. I feel sorry for Ms Harrison since she only just started in the post and it is a baptism of fire. I do recognise that. Do you advise the Government or does the Government advise you?

  Ms Harrison: We have a role in providing advice to the Minister; certainly it is one of our remits.

  Q128  Dr Harris: Does the Government advise you at all?

  Ms Harrison: We have links with the Department of Health and we have our regular meetings with them and discussions with them and so on, but advise us I am not sure that is the right way of putting it.

  Q129  Dr Harris: Parliament set you up to advise the Government, and indeed Parliament, therefore is it right that the Department of Health observers at your meetings express a view they are happy going down this consultation path. You reported that earlier. If they reported they were unhappy, would that have influenced your decision to have the consultation? If not, what is the relevance of asking if they were happy?

  Angela McNab: Routinely the Department of Health observe our meetings and they are obviously welcome to express their views when they hear us make decisions or decide upon a particular course of action. I have to say no; it would not have made a difference. If the Authority had considered the issue, they have clear advice. You have the draft minutes of that meeting and you can see from those minutes their advice was not sought nor were they asked to ratify or agree with the course of action the Authority wanted to go ahead with.

  Q130  Dr Harris: We are limited because we are told we cannot comment in the public session on these confidential draft minutes so I cannot respond to that. They are your minutes so you are entitled to cite them but I cannot challenge you because of the conditions you put on giving us this information. On this question of legal advice we covered earlier, you will be aware that legal privilege is a qualified privilege under the freedom of information and you have to balance those factors. One is, for example, furthering the understanding or participation in the public debate on issues of the day if disclosure would allow more informed debate of issues under consideration by the Government. I do not think you could have a stronger argument on that score for promoting accountability and transparency by public authorities to decisions taken by them and balanced against that is prejudice to legal proceedings which are neither pending nor even threatened at this point. Are you able to tell us, perhaps in a letter, because I believe that is what you are supposed to do when you cite qualified legal privilege, what it is that balances you towards this concern about legal proceedings rather than being able to help Parliament and Government debate an issue that you are wanting to see debated?

  Angela McNab: I am sure we can come back to you with that letter. It is worth acknowledging, as you see, we are between a rock and a hard place. We are very keen to give you a good summary of the legal advice we received, and I hope we have provided you with as much of that as we can in the draft minutes which you have, but equally we are subject to the legal advice we get from our own lawyers which says that at the moment this is subject to privilege and there are risks.

  Q131  Dr Harris: It would be useful if you could write to us and give us the legal advice which says you cannot give us your legal advice. If I were to ask what your current policy is at the moment with regard to this particular research regarding the nuclear transfer of human cells into enucleated animal ova, do you have a policy position?

  Ms Harrison: The position at the moment is we will be formulating our policy in September on the basis of the additional evidence we will have received. We did have, as I think we mentioned, two sessions: one of the Scientific Group and one of the Ethics and Law Committee. I think you have the appropriate extracts from the minutes in your written material there. You will see there have been recommendations from both of those groups which will inform our policy and we are at that stage at the moment.

  Q132  Dr Harris: It is not right to say you have an existing position as you go into the consultation. Are you neutral or do you have an existing position?

  Ms Harrison: We have the information that we have given so far through the Horizon Scanning, the Ethics and Law Committee and the Scientific Panel as a starting point.

  Q133  Dr Harris: Has the position you put to the Government's consultation been retracted?

  Ms Harrison: Do you mean the consultation on the White Paper?

  Q134  Dr Harris: You have expressed a view publicly in response to the Government's consultation, which is on the Government website, saying clearly that you support this.

  Ms Harrison: No, that stays the same. Our position is exactly the same as it was then.

  Q135  Dr Harris: You support this research and want to see it go ahead. The reference the Chairman was thinking of was the HFEA's agreement with the need to define. You agreed with us that we need to define those entities.

  Ms Harrison: Yes.

  Q136  Chairman: I understood you went further than that to actually saying you were supportive. You felt that these two pieces of research could go ahead under the 1990 Act but you wanted clarification and public support. That was the position I thought.

  Ms Harrison: That is right. We said in our response that the creation of human animal hybrids is permitted until the two cell stage under the current Act and we consider research within the constraints outlined by the Government should be permitted as long as it can be ensured that such entities will never be implanted, and 14 days, et cetera.

  Dr Harris: That position was not in your press statement. Your press statement after the meeting did not tell the public that your existing position, pending the outcome of the consultation, was, as you have just said, to support this research, not just thinking it is within your remit but actually supporting it?

  Chairman: We have made this absolutely clear. We have this on the record that you are supporting it.

  Q137  Dr Harris: My question is why did you not put that in your press statement?

  Ms Harrison: The press statement was about what had just happened in the Authority not about something historic. That might be an editor's note or for a journalist to look up but we were giving a statement on our Authority meeting.

  Q138  Dr Harris: In your press statement you said there is not clear agreement within the scientific community about the need for and/or benefits of this science. Which scientists have you got on record saying they do not think this research should be permitted to go ahead? The previous panel said they did not know of any.

  Professor Haites: I do not think I can give you any specifics on that at all. If you look broadly across the professional groups, including ethicists and philosophers, et cetera, that is where we will find a wider range of opinion about these issues.

  Q139  Dr Harris: I certainly agree with that. But Angela McNab repeated this on The World at One. She said it is clearly a highly controversial area of science and it is very clear there are differing views both within the scientific community as well as in the public at large. Therefore there must be some scientists, because we would like to talk to them, who think this research should not go ahead. Not who think it might not work but who think it could and should be banned.

  Angela McNab: Certainly I am aware that within the expert group and conversations we have had, there have been some views expressed that it may not be necessarily desirable to proceed with this type of research right now. I do not have the names with me and I am not entirely sure whether I should give you those names without consulting and letting those individuals know that I am passing them on if they have been part of a private group we have consulted with. May I come back to you on that point. I would very much like to do that.

  Dr Harris: If you could write to us. I have read the evidence and so far no scientists have given that view.

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