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22 Oct 2008 : Column 362

Mr. Barron: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Obviously, with the professional knowledge that he gained before he came to this place, he has a deep understanding of the scientific complexities and the need for these procedures.

The briefing from the scientific community continues:

I am quite prepared to support that collective voice of science and scientific researchers in this country and reject new clause 25 and amendment No. 50, and I would urge the House to do the same.

I move on briefly to amendment No. 47. Several hon. Members intervened on the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), who admitted in one of his early utterances that the science is complex. Indeed it is. He then went on at great length just to give us an example of how complex it is, and I am grateful that he did. If I may say so, we have here a conflict with what the scientific community think about the effect of amendment No. 47. I will wait to hear what the Minister says. The Government believe that the intended effect of the amendment is covered by clause 4 as it stands. I will not enter into a dispute about that with Ministers, although other hon. Members have been prepared to do so this afternoon.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): If, however, it turned out from the right hon. Gentleman’s own standpoint that the argument being advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) was correct, and that the Government’s protection in this case was not enough, would he be minded to support amendment No. 47?

Mr. Barron: When I first stood up, I said that I was minded not to support it, because of the scientific voice that expressed itself in the briefing that was sent to us and to other legislators from those four eminent areas of science. I was half hoping that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who has held high office in the House and must have taken many Bills through Parliament, would tell us whether, as a Minister, he ever accepted an amendment from anybody on the basis that the content of the amendment was in the Bill anyway, and it would just strengthen that message. I am not too sure about that.

Mr. Gummer indicated assent.

Mr. Barron: Well, he should tell me if he has.

Mr. Gummer: The question before us is such that I do believe that I would have accepted such an amendment on it, for this reason. If there is a sufficiency of concern about a matter as serious as this—which in my case has been increased by the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, who would not give an affirmative answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—then I would, as a Minister, wish to make it clear that the Government whom I represented were against the kind of cloning that we are talking about. Therefore I would of course have received and accepted such an amendment.

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Mr. Barron: I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman actually held any health portfolios, but that is a very brave thing for an ex-Minister to say from the Back Benches. I have never heard a Minister advocate that from the Treasury Bench in response to such a suggestion. I served on the Opposition Front Bench for many years, and did not get that type of acceptance for anything.

On that point, it is clear that the scientific community whose brief I quoted is happy with the situation. It is covered by regulation anyway.

On Second Reading—it seems such a long time ago—I said that the 1990 Act was not especially descriptive. There was no consensus outside or inside the House on many areas, so things were left out of that Act that people thought, rightly or wrongly, should have been in the legislation.

As I said on Second Reading, the 1990 Act has served this country and Parliament well, because it has allowed an open-minded approach and has supported the areas that have been difficult to debate on the Floor of the House. Support has been given by regulations and regulatory bodies such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I am confident in saying, both in the House and in my constituency, that we as legislators have a duty to bring about this way of improving medical science and research into such scientifically complex areas. However, we also have a duty to ensure that our regulations may cover any areas in which we are concerned that something could happen in the future so that if something does happen, regulations can take care of it.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I support amendment No. 41, to which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) ably spoke, and which is the only amendment in the group that deals with a most significant ethical issue. Proposed new section 3ZA(5) of the 1990 Act constitutes a significant drafting error. When the Minister responds to the debate, I will be grateful if she addresses that error, which could undermine the very principle that the Government have always insisted is fundamental to the Bill: strict and comprehensive regulation.

Subsections (2) to (4) of proposed new section 3ZA say that there can be no alteration of the nuclear and/or mitochondrial DNA of a permitted egg, sperm or embryo. They say that eggs must have been

and sperm

They say that an embryo may not have other cells added that are not the “embryo’s own cells”, and that an embryo must have been created by fertilisation. So far, so good; one would think that the provisions were pretty clearly written.

Proposed new section 3ZA(5), however, could overturn every one of those safeguards. It says that to

regulations could make provision for “permitted” eggs and embryos that had had alterations to their nuclear and/or mitochondrial DNA, and need not have been created by fertilisation. Permitted eggs might not need to have been obtained from ovaries, nor sperm from testes, and permitted eggs and embryos might be allowed
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to be created using material from two women, and to have other cells added to them that were not the embryo’s own cells.

This is not a narrow, technical drafting point. When one reads the two sets of provisions, an important hole opens up in the Bill. Proposed new section 3ZA(5) could, albeit in particular circumstances and subject to secondary legislation—I shall come to that in a moment—completely undermine every one of the stringent safeguards built into subsections (2) to (4) of the proposed new section, which are clear provisions that should reassure anyone reading the Bill.

This is important because clause 3(6) repeals the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001, which established the United Kingdom’s complete ban on human reproductive cloning. If there is one thing on which all hon. Members agree, it is that we want the ban on human reproductive cloning to continue.

If we provide for regulations that would allow any method of preventing

that is in proposed new section 3ZA(5), which I read out—we could create a loophole, through which a human reproductive cloning procedure could become permissible in law. Given how important this matter is, I am not sure whether that loophole should exist.

4.15 pm

The regulations, which would have the stated aim of avoiding the transmission of mitochondrial disease, could allow the nucleus of any cell from a “parent” with diseased mitochondria to be placed in a donated egg. The resulting child would be a clone. In one instant, the United Kingdom would move from having a clear ban on human reproductive cloning in primary legislation—we have had such a ban since 2001—to having the option to permit a form, albeit only a form, of reproductive cloning. And that would happen through secondary legislation. In other words, the Government would not have to come back to the House with primary legislation.

As I understand it—of course, when the Minister sums up, she can reassure me on this point—the clear ban on human reproductive cloning in the 2001 Act is being replaced by an ambiguous situation in which the Secretary of State has power to introduce a form of reproductive cloning by regulation if he or she so desires. Given that we have waited 20 years for the Bill, and that we will almost certainly have to wait another 20 for the next, that is a dangerous situation.

In their initial review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, the Government stated that they

In another place recently, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lord Darzi, restated the Government’s commitment to a ban on human reproductive cloning and claimed that the Bill

That was the claim, but clearly—without the 2001 Act, which was clear, and under proposed new section 3ZA(5)—regulations could allow any method of avoiding the
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transmission of mitochondrial disease, including a method that uses somatic cell nuclear transfer. That is what worries me, and some people outside the House.

The Government reassure the House that they have no intention of changing their view, and I accept that. I make this concession: I accept that at the moment, the Government have no intention of passing regulations in a form that would open up the loophole and allow the human reproductive cloning ban to be circumvented. However, it would be useful for the Minister to restate that. Section 3ZA(5) grants the same regulation-making power to future Secretaries of State. The Government simply cannot speak for future Secretaries of State; that is why we have primary legislation. If ever the Government want to change their policy in this area, we want them to come back to the House—to the elected representatives—and we want a chance to say, “No, we don’t want to leave this extraordinarily vital ethical issue in the hands of a future Secretary of State.”

Why is the Secretary of State so sure that secondary legislation initiated under proposed new section 3ZA(5) will close the loophole? Have the regulations been drafted already? Are the Government that far ahead of the game? I suspect not. Perhaps a copy of the regulations could be placed in the Library so that we could read it and have our fears put to rest. I suspect that no copy is available, and that it will not be placed in the Library. I suspect that we will pass the Bill without ever having had a chance to read the regulations. Far better to make sure that any alteration to the human reproductive cloning ban can be made only after the closest scrutiny by the public, and by parliamentarians acting on their behalf, in primary legislation.

If the Government are serious about maintaining the ban on human reproductive cloning, as they have repeatedly claimed—I accept that—why should they not support an amendment that enshrines that prohibition in their flagship primary legislation? That would at least be a signal that they could give the many of us who are worried about the Bill. They could make the situation absolutely clear in the Bill, as it was in the 2001 Act, and ensure that the ban could not possibly be tampered with by secondary legislation. Why can we not have that? Perhaps the Government will take this opportunity to state publicly why such an amendment would be detrimental to the spirit and intentions of the Bill. I do not think that it would be. Amendment No. 41 is not a wrecking amendment. It is completely in line with everything that the Government have said. I would have thought that the Minister could support everything that I have said so far.

If the amendment is not to be regarded as detrimental, surely the Government are prepared to commend it for identifying and rectifying a serious drafting error that threatens to make a mockery of their oft-repeated assurances that the foundational intention of the Bill is the creation of a rigorous regulatory regime encompassing all existent and hypothetical reproductive technologies. We all know that creating such a regime will be very difficult, but there is one issue on which both sides of the argument want absolute assurance from the Minister: there should be no loophole in the Bill through which some form of reproductive cloning could in future emerge. We are entitled to have that assurance from the Government because this ethical area is so vital.

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Amendment No. 41 removes only that which the Government have insisted repeatedly they do not want: a means of permitting a form of human cloning for reproduction. The amendment retains that which the clause is specifically intended to permit—mitochondrial donation techniques. Amendment No. 41 also rectifies a further blunder caused by the dangerously loose wording of proposed new section 3ZA(5), which I have read out to the House. In replying, the Minister may wish to explain this problem. By providing for regulations allowing any—I stress, any—method of preventing the transmission of a mitochondrial disease, 3ZA(5) also opens up the possibility of legally altering human nuclear DNA as a means of preventing future transmission of mitochondrial disease. That, of course, would be germ-line genetic engineering—that is, human genetic modification. People should be concerned about that.

Clearly, the only appropriate vehicle for dealing with an issue of such magnitude would be primary legislation; I hope that we can all agree on that. The idea that such a serious issue could be dealt with sufficiently by affirmative resolution is ridiculous. Even the Bill’s supporters have acknowledged that a significant problem exists because of the wording of proposed new section 3ZA(5), and that, in overturning the ban on mitochondrial DNA alteration, subject to regulations, the proposed new section—unintentionally, I accept—overturns a ban on nuclear DNA alteration. They say that the issue should be dealt with at a later stage. Here we are, at a later stage; in fact, it is the last stage. So far, however, the Government have refused to address the obvious discrepancies in the wording of the proposed new section. The House must rectify the Government’s failures by amending that glaring fault in the Bill; that is what amendment No. 41 would do.

I am going to finish my speech in a moment, but before I do I should apologise for having been somewhat technical. I have had to read out closely what is in the various clauses of the Bill. However, I want to end with my personal view, and why I feel passionately about this issue. At the heart of all the debates on the Bill and of the technical arguments about these amendments appears to lie a point of view that in this country we are treating human embryos as things. I believe that human embryos are emphatically not just blobs of cells; they have the entire genetic make-up of a human being. I believe not that they are potential human beings, but that they are human beings with potential. Of course, they are microscopic—a grain of sand—and that is perhaps why we can view them as a spare part. However, when I thought of them as a microscopic grain of sand, as it were—as something that was not in any way recognisably human—I was reminded of this passage from Dostoevsky, the greatest poet of human nature. In addressing the brothers Karamazov, the prior of the monastery says:

There is something very dangerous in what we will undoubtedly do today. We are making ourselves less than human, in a sense, by viewing one part of human creation as a thing, a spare part, which I believe is extraordinarily dangerous.

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Dr. Evan Harris: I was not going to speak in this debate, but the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and those of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) require a brief response.

First, we have amendment No. 49, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. It would add the words “via cytoplasm” to the provisions of clause 3, and it touches on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). The hon. Gentleman is correct: there is no longer an absolute ban in primary legislation on some of the things that the Government clearly intend to ban, because it requires the secondary legislation to be written, as I am sure that it would be, in such a way as to allow only those forms of treatment of mitochondrial disease that are caused by cytoplasmic factors, and only in such a way that there is no breach of the provisions and policies enunciated by the Government, namely that there will be no human reproductive cloning, or germ-line nuclear genetic amendment.

I have already said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Southport that it would be better for the primary legislation to state what it intends in purest terms. It is unfortunate that the Government have not found a way to do that. I believe that the Government said in Committee that they had tried to draft the legislation so that such practice would be restricted in such a way. I do not see why a phrase such as “via cytoplasm” or something similar would not be acceptable, at least to narrow the issue. I do not accept for a moment that the current wording opens the door to those things feared by my hon. Friend, but given the battle we have had to get to this stage, in which we have had to overcome people whipping up fear about what might happen—we have heard some rather dismal examples today—it would be better if the legislation were clear. It is unfortunate that it is not, and for that reason, I would support amendment No. 49.

The second issue relates to new clause 24, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport and others, which would ban the placing of human gametes into an animal. This was dealt with in Committee, thanks to my hon. Friend, and the Minister wrote a letter to him explaining why it is not considered necessary or appropriate to include such a provision. I agree with what the Minister said in that letter—I will not go into it because she may be planning to do that. In 1990, it was not considered necessary to include measures in legislation to ban the practice of inserting sperm into animals. That procedure is not part of science, and it is not appropriate for it to be dealt with in the Bill.

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