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20 May 2008 : Column 198

The Liberal Democrats have a party policy against unjustified discrimination, such as the inclusion of a provision in the Bill for the need for a father. I hope to show that the proposal is discriminatory and unjustified. This is a free vote issue for the Liberal Democrats as well, however. Everyone has a personal view on the matter, and I am sure that there will be many splits within parties. I am reminded that, when Woody Allen was asked for his personal view on lesbian parents, he said that he did not understand how children survived with even one mother, let alone two. Unusually, I think that he was wrong, because the evidence is clear that children in such families do very well. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) smiling at that.

I agree with the Minister that the removal of the need for a father provision from the Bill had nothing to do with attacking fathers or fatherhood, which is a ridiculous allegation, or with not wanting to tackle the problem of broken homes. I certainly recognise that problem and the consequences that it has for children, but the legislation is not about broken homes—in fact, it is about precisely the opposite. It is about a couple or an individual seeking to create a family and a home, and taking a serious decision to undergo treatment, which is not a decision to be undergone lightly. Many children are brought into the world in an unplanned moment, but the provision deals with people who are making a specific decision to create a family. It is astonishing that it should be seen as some kind of an attack on families.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) very effectively pointed out that the need for a father provision has not brought a single extra father into a family, or retained a man in a family— [ Interruption. ] I thought that my mentioning her might make her stay in the Chamber; obviously not. Perhaps she has another Division to attend.

I just do not understand why anyone believes that young men who act irresponsibly and abandon their partners and families are suddenly going to read the statute on IVF treatment—these men are usually fertile—and decide to mend their ways. I have to say that I cannot see that happening.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is not about bringing more fathers into families, but about state recognition of the importance of fatherhood within families? If this provision goes through unamended, we will send out the message that it does not matter whether there is a father, while at the same time Government policy says that it does.

Dr. Harris: I have always taken the view that statute should not be used simply to send out a message, as there are other ways of sending out messages. Politicians with skill—the hon. Gentleman is one of them—can find other ways.

5.45 pm

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green provided us with statistics about broken families. He then tried to argue—I think rightly—that he did not intend his amendment to affect lesbian families or those of solo parents. However, in an intervention on the
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hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) corrected that, stating that the amendment would affect not only lesbian families, but those of solo parents as well.

Geraldine Smith: The intention behind the amendment is to ensure that the welfare of the child, rather than the desires of adults, is paramount.

Dr. Harris: I will come on to the welfare of the child in a few moments, which is probably the easiest way to deal with the hon. Lady’s intervention.

We must remember the origin of the provision. In 1990, when this provision was put into the Bill, one of our Houses had voted by a majority of just one not to ban unmarried couples from accessing regulated IVF therapy. The sort of thinking going on at that time by some hon. Members here and, indeed, in the other place, was entirely different from that of today. It would be unthinkable for us to pass legislation to prevent unmarried couples from accessing IVF.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) should, I think, concede that his amendment has no advantages over that proposed by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, and it has many disadvantages. One disadvantage was pointed out in a penetrating intervention by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who argued that if the provision had any effect it would be a bad one, and that if it did not have an effect it would be pointless.

A doctor who would like to see male role models has been cited—this issue will crop up again in the debate on the next group of amendments. If medical opinion is to be cited, however, it is sensible to look at consensus medical opinion rather than picking out one particular doctor—I can pick out one doctor very easily, and that person might have two opinions. We should look at what the British Medical Association thinks. It represents doctors, so—as far as these things go—it is a relatively democratic policy-making body. Another body is the British Fertility Society, which represents all the doctors working in that area. It wants shot of the need for a father provision, because it would tempt doctors to discriminate, which they do not want to do. It thinks that such a provision would be anachronistic, and it would be appalled if the House allowed colleagues to discriminate.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The hon. Gentleman has said that those organisations want shot of the advisory provisions, but have not the Government stumbled into an even worse case, as their proposals now ask doctors to interpret in a way that they did not have to under the “father” provision? Now they have to interpret what the definition of supporting parenting really means for them.

Dr. Harris: Doctors will have to do that, which is why the HFEA produces a code of practice. It is easy to set out the code in a non-discriminatory, light-touch way. I believe that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green is sincere in proposing his amendment. I do not doubt the sincerity of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness either, but it struck me that there are political aspects behind the amendment. I do not think that his heart is really in the idea of a male role
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model or asking a gynaecologist, of all people, to decide who a male role model should be.

We need to recognise that there is a problem with any sort of test. Fertile individuals are not required to pass a parenting test by the state before becoming pregnant, so why should the infertile? Many people, including the BMA, would argue that even the Government’s wording goes too far in creating a hurdle for the infertile to cross, which the fertile do not have to. Many or almost all of the unsatisfactory families, if I may put it that way, come from the fertile part of the population, not from infertile people seeking infertility treatment.

Mr. Cash: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with interest. Can he explain why the part of the Bill entitled “Parenthood in cases involving assisted reproduction” contains an entire section on the meaning of “father” and on “fatherhood conditions”? Is he suggesting, as I suspect that the Minister is, that those words should be replaced by the words “supportive parenting”? That would not work, would it?

Dr. Harris: I am afraid that I do not follow the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I do not know which part of the Bill he is referring to. I therefore do not want to be drawn into a discussion, but hopefully the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to pursue the matter further.

There are really only two questions to be asked. The first is whether the discrimination—or the measure—is justified. The research is clear and is summarised by the British Medical Association, which says that there is no evidence that children do badly in families of that kind. According to the BMA,

The reference for that quotation is one of those cited by the Minister—I know that the same briefing has been sent to all Members. Murray and Golombok made the results of their research very clear. They also looked into the question of solo mothers, and recognised the difference between different types of mothers on their own. Widows are different from young women who have been abandoned by the fathers of their children and who are living in poverty. Solo parents are often well-resourced, given that they often have to obtain private treatment. They often have established careers, and do not have partners. They are entirely different from families of the kind that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has examined in great detail during his tours around the country.

Dr. Tony Wright: One thing troubles me. The hon. Gentleman has constantly referred to the question of treatment. The word “treatment” usually suggests the existence of an illness. What I am not clear about is whether the absence of a child constitutes an illness in the case of single-sex couples.

Dr. Harris: There is a philosophical discussion to be had about what is the nature of illness and of treatment. I see that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group of infertility, is present. I know that she has had long
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arguments with primary care trusts about whether they should provide such treatment. It is not easy to decide that matter now, but it should be noted that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which considers those issues and considers priorities relating to fertility and non-fertility, recognises that infertility is a condition that requires treatment. I think it reasonable to say that donor insemination for lesbian couples should be allowed, particularly because it is cheaper than in vitro fertilisation. In fact, I think that the situation would be legally questionable if it were not. I hope that I have addressed the hon. Gentleman’s point, even if I have not satisfied him.

I want briefly to deal with the evidence given to the Joint Committee by Professor Golombok. I have a huge amount of respect for the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), but I do not think that one of the many quotations that he read out was exactly the right quotation. In the evidence session of 27 June, Professor Golombok said

If a child has a father and that father goes, it is a different scenario from being brought up without a father in the direct household. I think Professor Golombok makes that clear, and the same applies to lesbian couples.

The second question concerns discrimination. I was surprised by what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said about the Human Rights Act, because I think that it showed a failure to understand what the Act is about. It does not just provide a remedy. It is not just about saying, “You will suffer. Okay, suffer, and then in a few years’ time when you have gone through the courts—if you have the resources and the wherewithal—you will have a remedy.” The Human Rights Act, which he prayed in aid, along with human rights law—it was unusual for him to do so, but he did so when it suited him—is about ensuring that there is a framework for legislation and the behaviour of the state that does not intrude into private matters in breach of individual liberties.

I should have thought that Conservative Members would recognise the importance of restraining the state and its unreasonable intervention in private matters. That is why Ted Webb was right to say that there was a legal obligation for the Government—I urged this on the Government—to ensure that their laws are as compliant as possible. In the absence of justification for intervention, the present law is simply not compliant.

Let me now give three examples of discrimination, because that has been requested.

Mr. Burrowes: Would the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about discrimination not be satisfied by clause 53, “Interpretation of references to father etc.”, which refers to the father and the woman who is the other parent? In cases in which a woman is

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or treatment is

references to the father of the child who has a parent

could also be read as a reference to the woman, who would be classified as the “other parent”. In terms of the legal definition, there would not be the discrimination that concerns the hon. Gentleman. That is the point that the Joint Committee made in its recommendations.

Dr. Harris: I believe that that is about birth certificates, and bringing provisions into line. The Minister has indicated that I am right, which is an achievement for me nowadays. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who chaired the Committee. He recognised the difficulty of teasing the issues apart.

Mr. Vaizey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I will give way once more.

Mr. Vaizey: I merely want to confirm that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) was referring to the definition section concerning birth certificates, legitimacy and nationality, which has nothing to do with parenthood.

Dr. Harris: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

I was going to give three brief examples relating to discrimination, but I shall now confine myself to two. In an e-mail, Natalie Gamble, a fertility lawyer dealing with discrimination cases, has stated:

That may or may not be the Birmingham case, but I can tell my hon. Friend the. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming)—although he is no longer present—that the “frequently asked question” that he read out applied to private funders. The NHS eligibility criterion was discriminatory, which it should not have been because that is unlawful.

Many clinics, including Bourn Hall—cited by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) as being in his constituency—used to refuse lesbian couples, until they realised that they need the money. However, they no longer need the money, as lesbian couples are forced to pay because they cannot obtain NHS treatment.

Another example from the same lawyer is an account by a client, whom I cannot name for obvious reasons but who says “He”—I think that refers to the clinician—

Those are just two examples, but they explain why the Equality and Human Rights Commission has issued this statement:

Even if they receive that treatment, they should receive it on the same basis as everyone else.

The quotation continues:

—Trevor Phillips is saying this—

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I am keen to finish my speech, because others wish to speak.

I have spoken to clinicians about what the Bill will mean, and I want to reinforce a point made by the Minister. Fortunately, the code of practice currently enables the need for a father provision to be dealt with in a relatively moderate way, but if we voted for a requirement for clinics to observe a need for a father provision, they would have to apply the test to every group of people in order not to discriminate. John Parsons at King’s College hospital has said that in eight years he and his colleagues have conducted 8,000 treatment cycles with 6,000 patients. Going through a detailed role model test with 6,000 patients would be a huge burden.

6 pm

I ask those Members who support either of the amendments in question why they want to introduce a measure that could be unfair, and at best would be ineffective and bureaucratic. That is not the right thing to do. The Committee should support the Bill as it stands.

Geraldine Smith: I shall try to be brief, as I know that many Members wish to speak.

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