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19 May 2008 : Column 45

On the question of Dolly the sheep and the developments in that field, I went through the Medical Research Council accounts some years ago and I think I am right to say that the Roslin institute, which is headed up by the MRC, sold the patents for Dolly the sheep to a commercial enterprise for £1. I found that pretty astonishing, and it causes me to worry about the commercial aspects of the operation and the research. We need to be conscious that there is a vast amount of commercial investment in this field, and research is not done exclusively for altruistic purposes, although that may play a part in the process. That needs to be put on the record.

Finally, I have already made a point about the Nuremberg principles. It seems quite clear that we ought to have a provision in the Bill, one way or another, that excludes embryonic cell research when adult stem-cell research has been proved viable. If adult stem-cell research becomes viable, it should then be the only kind of research available. It is ultimately about the dignity of man. This is not exclusively a question of religious belief. People with many different religious convictions hold the same views as I do, as do other hon. Members who have signed the amendments.

The figure of 14 days seems to me to be somewhat arbitrary—why not 12, or 16?

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Oh, please!

Mr. Cash: My hon. Friend says, “Oh, please!” as though he thinks that what I am suggesting is completely absurd. Would he be kind enough to intervene if he wishes to do so?

Robert Key: Yes indeed; I am delighted to do so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose argument I find very interesting.

The point about 14 days is a scientific fact; it is the appearance of the primitive streak—the point at which brain cells start to differentiate. Before that there is a completely different scientific situation. That is why the period of 14 days is significant and quite different from 13 or 15 days.

Mr. Cash: My hon. Friend appears quite certain of that. Fourteen days is the figure that is always given, but I have heard from other sources that it could be 12 or 16 days in certain instances. As with so many things, there are variations despite the fact that an arbitrary figure appears to have been chosen. We have a difference of opinion about that.

Earlier today, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) was in debate on the “Today” programme with the chairman of the Medical Research Council. The chairman was being pressed; what it boiled down to was that he accepted that there were two possible ways of dealing with the research, but instead of answering the question why one should be chosen rather than the other he simply said that it was important to pursue both and that we should not be constrained as to which we decided to use.

That is the argument to which the MRC is committed, but some of us on the Conservative Benches profoundly disagree. We believe that adult stem-cell research is a viable alternative, although no doubt more work will be needed to pursue that research. However, the same
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point applies to embryonic stem cell research. It seems to me that until the matter has been resolved there should be a provision in the Bill to ban embryonic research, to guarantee that we do not end up making the wrong choice.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I rise with some trepidation, given the arguments we have heard from eminent scientists and ethicists. I shall speak narrowly to my amendments Nos. 44 and 43, which are designed to probe the Government, although I shall consider the right thing to do if we do not receive clarification.

The issue is simple. Are we to allow human genetic modification or are we looking for other forms of scientific evolution? I feel strongly about the subject of genetic modification, as many people realise. I have not spent the past 11 years in this place opposing genetic modification, in terms of both crop evolution and, more particularly, the evolution of animal species, only to allow human genetic modification to slip in through the back door.

I want the Government to make it clear where they stand and firmly to restore the view we expressed in the 1990 legislation when we said that we were against the genetic modification of human beings. I see no reason for changing that stance. However, every time I read the relevant parts of the public consultation on the Bill—paragraphs 5.33 to 5.38—I am even more confused about the Government’s stance. On the one hand, they say:

I take “enhancement” to be what I would describe as true genetic modification. On the other hand, the conclusion of the public consultation states:

However, the Government also seem rather open-minded about the view of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which basically said that there should not be an absolute prohibition—“absolute” is the key word—on the genetic modification of embryos in research. It also said that Parliament, through regulations, should be able to relax the existing prohibition on genetic modification as regards embryos and treatment in tightly controlled circumstances, if and when the technology is further advanced.

When the Chairman of Ways and Means was in the Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred to hitting the ball all over the place. To use another cricketing metaphor, it seems that we want to hit the ball every which way, but we are not sure which strokes we are playing, and whether we can be caught out if we play the wrong stroke. I want the Government to be absolutely clear that they are against the genetic modification of human beings. That might be the direction in which research is taking us, but whatever one’s views on other aspects of the research,
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and whether or not one is in favour of hybrids and the scientific measures that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), the Conservative Front Bencher, explained excellently, I want to know whether the Government will rail at the idea of human genetic modification being made possible at this stage.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): One of the main cures that being developed is gene replacement therapy, which is particularly relevant for people with single gene defects. It involves the defective gene being replaced with one that is not defective. Does my hon. Friend think that science should not go down that route? If so, what is the difference between that technique being used once a child is born, and it being used before a child is born?

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and it is to do with the point about repair as against enhancement. If the Government clarified where they were drawing the line, perhaps I would feel much more confident that I was doing the right thing when I went through the Lobby tonight. As we all know, tonight’s vote is a conscience vote. I do not have any expertise on the subject, but I feel a great deal of nervousness when I am given to understand that we are considering modifying human beings, whether at a preliminary stage, as my hon. Friend says, or subsequently. The Government should be very clear about the issue, and should set out in primary legislation what is entailed, and what they feel should be allowed. I should prefer that to what I suspect is happening in the Bill; I suspect that it would ensure that, as science evolves, we may be able to catch up with that evolution through secondary legislation.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): But say that 7 per cent. of people who develop motor neurone disease have a genetic predisposition to it; does my friend believe that it would be right to screen out the genes that mean that someone will develop that crippling disease later in life?

Mr. Drew: If we had the means to do so, the answer is of course, but I am asking how that is done. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), because I share many of his misgivings. Hon. Members might agree on the outcomes, but there are serious dilemmas about the means by which we achieve those outcomes. One such issue that I feel strongly about is how we define, and in my case how we oppose, human genetic manipulation or modification.

5.15 pm

Lembit Öpik: Motor neurone disease is an interesting example, because a proportion of people who develop the disease have familial genealogy, but a further proportion of people do not have a genetic history of the disease in their families. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the people who are researching that point are not the people about whom he is concerned, because they act with the greatest responsibility and want to find medical answers? On that basis, if such research were regulated
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properly, does he agree that it would be limited to medical solutions for existing human beings? If we limit such research through proper regulation, there will be no problem with the fly-by-night opportunists whom the hon. Gentleman has described.

Mr. Drew: I agree, but, as the hon. Gentleman has said, how can one know that such research will be limited to genuine purposes? I do not want to raise eugenics or the modification of babies, because that would involve extreme language, which would not help the debate.

As has been said, we are going it alone in this country. Many countries have chosen clearly to outlaw human genetic modification in legislation; perhaps their scientists did not have the same head start as scientists in this country, so the issue does not pose such a challenge for them. Nevertheless, I want my right hon. Friend the Minister to make it clear what the Government are allowing. To answer the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), the Government should say what is illegal and what will remain illegal for the foreseeable future. Until science teaches us otherwise, no scientist should be prepared to contemplate such research.

I do not want to speak at greater length, because my amendments are precise. Sadly, the issue has rarely come up in the wider ethical debate, which is why I make no apology for tabling my amendments. We should debate the point, even if it is considered to be marginal, and we must face up to it when we vote later. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can assuage my fears. At the moment, I am genuinely confused about where the Government are drawing the line, and whether they will contemplate human genetic modification or whether they are prepared to make it clear how they will rule it out.

Dr. Evan Harris: This excellent debate shows the benefit of a free vote on all Benches. There is certainly a free vote among Liberal Democrat Members, who hold diverse views, which will no doubt come to light as the debate continues. Our policy states that we support the use of cloned embryonic stem cells for research and therapeutic purposes, but this is a free vote, and I clearly do not speak for the whole of my party today. I also welcome the provision of sufficient time to debate the issue.

As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, this is an issue of conscience, but that does not mean that it is a case of science versus ethics. As I stressed on Second Reading, both sides have an ethical viewpoint. We must respect the fact that many people find it impossible to support any of the legislation for moral reasons, while many of us feel duty-bound to support the legislation for moral reasons. My conscience tells me to vote for the measures in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is the only hon. Member to discuss the specific issues raised by clause 4. My understanding is that the Government are in favour of allowing admixed embryos, which include animal genes in an otherwise human embryo, just as at the moment human genes can be inserted into animal embryos—for example, to produce mouse models, which hugely improve scientists’ ability to study human
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disease. Indeed, whole human chromosomes exist in the Down’s mouse, which is a model of Down’s syndrome in the rodent.

It is also clear that the Government recognise that it would be wrong if an embryo due to be destroyed after 14 days could not be genetically modified if that was the best way in which the embryo could contribute to medical research. However, the Government and the Bill make it clear that there could be no nuclear genetic modification of any gamete or of a permitted embryo that would be implanted. The only potential, theoretical exception to that is mitochondrial transplantation, which involves changing the mitochondrial DNA to avoid the devastating inheritable consequences of mitochondrial disease. I am sure that that issue will be debated in the Public Bill Committee; it is, however, entirely different from germline genetic modification in respect of nuclear DNA.

Mr. Drew rose—

Dr. Harris: I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Stroud, and I hope that the Minister will seek to reassure him.

Mr. Drew: Part of my confusion is that even at this late stage the Government have chosen to table a further amendment to clause 4. Perhaps that will help my understanding, but it shows that the legislation is, in a sense, a moveable feast. I hear what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) says, but this is primary legislation and it is essential that we get it right. If things are still moving around at this time, that will not be helpful.

Dr. Harris: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have been watching the Government like a hawk on these measures. Their amendment is relatively innocuous; they have accepted finally a point made at length and effectively by Lord Mackay in the House of Lords.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) claimed that the Bill was somehow a radical departure, or at least a departure, from the ethical principles underlying the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, particularly in regard to clause 4. I do not think that it represents such a departure. The hon. Gentleman correctly said that the 1990 Act encapsulated the Warnock committee’s view that:

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were moving away from that, as they were seeking simply to ensure that Britain remained at the forefront of medical research. However, I do not think that that is right; the principles of the 1990 Act apply in this Bill. Embryo research will still be heavily regulated in at least five ways: no embryo research could be carried out without a licence—that would be a criminal offence, so the Bill is certainly no walkover in that respect; no embryo could be kept beyond 14 days; no research embryo could be implanted; researchers would
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have to show that it was necessary or desirable for medical research purposes to do the embryo research; and, finally and crucially, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), researchers would have to demonstrate that it was necessary to use embryos and that the same research could not be obtained by techniques that did not use embryos. It is critical to recognise that.

The Bill is not at all a radical departure from the principles of the 1990 Bill. That legislation was very good and the Government of the time should be congratulated, as they were on Second Reading. In the 1990 Act, we see that the hamster test made provision that true hybrid entities should be created, albeit only up to the two-cell stage. No one, however, can argue that there is a huge ethical distinction between the two-cell, eight-cell and 16-cell stages. I am going to explore whether ethical distinctions can be made between different types of admixed embryos, but surely one cannot argue that it is okay for a two-cell entity to be created, but it is not okay for a four-cell entity to be created if the other requirements are met—that it is necessary or desirable for medical research and there is no other way of doing it.

Sarah Teather: My hon. Friend says that none of the research will be possible without a licence, but he will also be aware that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has turned down only one application for a licence, and that decision was overruled on appeal. It is difficult to say that the process is tightly regulated.

Dr. Harris: I do not think that that is right, and I wanted to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) in an intervention. The way in which science works is that before someone gets to the HFEA stage, they have to get funding. They must get ethical approval and have a research proposal. That is a huge job. People’s jobs depend on being able to get permission, and scientists apply to the HFEA only at an extremely late stage. It would be a scandal if they had public or charity funding and subsequently failed to get that permission. In many cases, there is an iterative process between the authority and scientists, and they do not get approval until the end of a long process. That is what Lord Winston and others, including those at Newcastle, complain about at length. They complain that the process is too burdensome; other hon. Members are now complaining that it is not burdensome enough. If no one is happy, that suggests that the authority has it about right. A walkover it is not.

Mr. Burrowes: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that when considering keeping all avenues open, there was a proper framework in the 1990 Act that had respect for the human embryo? It did not legalise full hybrids, but via the hamster test it legalised the testing of human sperm. There is a distinction there, under a framework, that is based on some ethical principles.

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