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22 Oct 2008 : Column 374

Mark Durkan: Is genetic modification clear?

Ms Keeble: I actually think that talking about GM in people is quite wicked, because it makes people think scientists are doing something that they are not doing. They are dealing with groups of cells at a very early stage. I have seen such groups of my own cells up on a screen, and I know that they will never come to anything and they are not at a stage where they are human—however much my hon. Friend might wish they were, they are not. What is important is that, with the right ethical principles, legal provisions and regulatory framework, it is possible for scientists to manage, experiment with and manipulate such cells within clear guidelines, so that they can improve the prospects for both the children who might be born through this process and the parents who will care for those children—there is very good provision on parenthood, which we probably will not have time to deal with—and also enhance the well-being of many people who suffer from appalling diseases. I completely support the Bill, and I do not agree with the amendments.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): May I say at the outset that I appreciate the contributions that have been made by the hon. Members for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and by my colleagues the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)? I wish to support their comments and indicate that DUP Members will support amendments Nos. 41, 47, 49, 50 and 73 and new clause 24.

I shall speak particularly to amendment No. 41. I ask the Government to see it as a positive contribution to the legislation, as are those suggested by the hon. Members whom I mentioned. They have sought to give the Government a basis on which they can tighten up some loopholes in the Bill. That is important, because if they are not tightened up, certain things will come back to haunt us.

The Government have stated that they do not wish to allow human reproductive cloning, do not want genetically modified babies to be brought to birth and certainly do not want part-animal, part-human hybrids to be born. There are differences among hon. Members about whether we should permit scientists to produce such embryos. For some of us, that is already a step too far. Once an embryo exists, the problem is what to do with it or what to allow others to do with it. There would be no danger of someone implanting a genetically modified embryo into a woman if they did not have the embryo in the first place. Do we want this technology? Perhaps that is an issue for another day. The point is that we should not ask about the disposal of something only after we have decided to make it. We should weigh that up before we go ahead and create it.

There are different views in the House and among the public at large about whether to allow the production of genetically modified, cloned and human admixed embryos. Nevertheless, I think that we all agree about implanting those embryos in a woman. The public is against that, and I believe that the House is too. Let me give credit where it is due: on admixed embryos the Bill is admirably clear, stating:

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That is simple and straightforward, with no qualifications, no licences and no exceptions. The law will not permit a human admixed embryo to be put into a woman in any circumstances. I hope that we can agree about that.

When it comes to cloned and genetically modified embryos, however, that admirable clarity is lacking. Instead there is an exception, which has created the loophole about which hon. Members have spoken. The Government should not be happy about that. Loopholes appear often enough after legislation has gone through the House, but it is hardly good practice to start with a loophole. Loopholes seldom get any smaller.

I am not one of those who suspect some dark conspiracy, and I do not believe that the Government are secretly planning to approve a project to bring a cloned or genetically modified child to birth. I do not believe that that is their intention, but the loophole exists because of the idea that some people have of a possible future fertility treatment for women with mitochondrial disease. The Government have allowed the loophole in response to that possibility. Amendment No. 41 would close it without precluding possible future approaches to mitochondrial disease. It would allow what the Government want to allow but close a dangerous loophole, and everyone in the House should be able to support it, even though it originated on the Back Benches rather than with the Government.

The amendment should not be controversial. It would cost the Government nothing and allow them to appear magnanimous. There is anxiety about some of the technology involved, and the greatest anxiety is about the idea that genetically modified, cloned or admixed embryos might be implanted and might develop into genetically modified, cloned or admixed children. The image that people have in their heads and that they find most abhorrent is of scientists producing GM babies, cloned adults or minotaurs.

5 pm

Ms Dari Taylor: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, Mr. Deputy Warden. Sorry—I meant Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): It sometimes feels like a prison.

Ms Taylor: It does; my right hon. Friend is quite right.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that over the past 20 years, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—the regulatory authority in question—has controlled this complex and often fast-moving scientific area, ensured public confidence and become the envy of the world? Is he seriously saying to the House that it is prepared to throw that reputation away?

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am one of those people who prefer not to have wardens, deputy wardens or authorities such as the one that she mentions to protect something that I consider very important, and which the law itself ought to protect. That is the point of the amendment; the situation should be clear in law. We should not allow this loophole to remain, and the House has an opportunity today to deal with it.

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If the Government wish to maintain public confidence, they should be clear about prohibiting those practices that the public most fear and which the Government have no intention of supporting. If they are not going to support them, let us make it clear in the law by closing this loophole to exclude such a practice.

Mark Durkan: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The suggestion has just been made that we should rely on the HFEA jealously regarding and protecting its reputation. However, today we as a House have to guard the reputation of Parliament by doing our job and setting down fit, proper and competent laws. No one has yet been able to refute the fact that the loophole that has been identified does exist. Perhaps what we are considering is, as some Members have told us, an imperfect and incomplete attempt to close that loophole; nevertheless, it is an attempt, and it is Parliament’s job to do that and to allow others to look after their reputations and jobs thereafter.

Mr. Donaldson: I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and he is absolutely correct: it is our job to ensure that the law is as watertight as possible on this issue, and we should not be relying on some authority to do that for us. It is the job of Parliament, so I encourage the House to support amendment No. 41.

Mr. Bone: It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), who makes a powerful point that I wish to reinforce in my short speech. It must be very frustrating for all the Members who want to speak to the next six groups of amendments that there is no time to discuss such important issues. That is the Government’s fault entirely, and they should be ashamed of themselves. They could have allowed the House to sit through the night, so that everyone could have expressed their point of view on such an important matter. The Government’s management of the House is quite appalling.

I want to support amendment No. 49, in the name of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), and amendment No. 41, in the name of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Both amendments are concerned with proposed new section 3ZA(5) to the 1990 Act and are similar to amendment No. 46, to which I was a co-signatory but which was not selected.

Today, the House is considering Government legislation that is going to repeal the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 and open a door for reproductive cloning to take place without the need for fresh primary legislation. Through subsections (2) to (4) of proposed new section 3ZA, the Government appear to place very tight restrictions on what type of embryos can be implanted in a woman. The problem arises, however, in proposed new section 3ZA(5)—a loophole that can overturn these restrictions. If the procedure in question is undertaken to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease, the provisions of proposed new sections 3ZA(2) to 3ZA(4) need not apply, and regulations could allow reproductive cloning and other types of designer babies.

In the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001, the Government outlined their position against the controversial technology. Reproductive cloning uses somatic cell nuclear transfer to create animals that are genetically identical.
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It involves the transfer of a nucleus from a donor adult cell to an egg that has had its nucleus removed. The egg is then treated with either chemicals or electric current, and if it begins to divide normally, it is transferred into the uterus of the surrogate mother, where it will develop. A classic example of that process is Dolly the sheep.

Under the proposed new legislation, that process could be allowed to create human clones. Regulations could allow a nucleus to be removed from an adult cell from a woman with mitochondrial disease and to be placed in a donor egg with healthy mitochondria, and from there a clone could be produced. In such a case, it would not have the healthy mitochondrial DNA from the second woman. That procedure, which would not involve fertilisation and would remove the need for a man, was suggested some time ago in a report in the British Medical Journal as a potential way to treat mitochondrial disease. Under the Bill, the protection previously provided against this procedure by the 2001 Act would no longer be in place, as that Act is abolished by clause 3(6) and schedule 8.

Although the Government have regularly stated that they do not intend to use the Bill to allow reproductive cloning, the repeal of the 2001 Act would pave the way for scientists to use reproductive cloning to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial disease. No matter what the Government intend, some scientists would, unfortunately, welcome legislation allowing reproductive cloning and would look to use it to allow them to experiment with human life further. That problem could be avoided simply by removing proposed new section 3ZA(5).

The second issue that I wish to address is designer babies, one type of which is the “multi-parent” baby. To prevent mitochondrial diseases caused by faulty mitochondria from being passed to offspring, attempts are being made to make what the press have termed three-parent babies. What happens is either that a donor egg with healthy mitochondria with its nucleus removed is used to house the healthy nucleus from the egg with faulty mitochondria and this reconstructed egg is then fertilised by sperm through IVF, or that fertilisation occurs first, and is followed by nuclear transfer into an embryo with healthy mitochondria that has had its nucleus removed.

Regulations under proposed new section 3ZA(5) could permit those embryos to be placed into the uterus and allowed to develop into a baby. That would be a three- parent baby, created using DNA from three people; it would involve DNA from the nucleus of one woman’s egg, the DNA from the mitochondria of the donor woman’s egg and nuclear DNA from the father’s sperm.

There is a third issue to address. As well as allowing three-parent babies and reproductive cloning, if the mitochondrial disease was caused by flaws in the nucleus, the loophole in proposed new section 3ZA(5) would also allow genetic engineering of nuclear DNA— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. Far too much conversation is going on, and it is becoming intrusive. I would ask the House to listen to the remaining speeches in the debate.

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Mr. Bone: The genetic engineering that I was discussing could happen by the insertion of healthy nuclear genes into a one-celled embryo, the modification of the embryo and the creation of healthy embryos. In other words, one would be selecting genes, inserting them into the nuclear DNA of an embryo and thereby designing the embryo that one requires. That would not only be creating a designer baby; it would create a strong precedent for other types of designer baby in future. All those three controversial procedures are banned under proposed new section 3ZA(2) to (4), but 3ZA(5) and clause 3(6) override those restrictions.

Baroness Royall has stated that

I do not doubt that, but the restriction should be included in primary legislation instead of relying on the word of the Government. The Department of Health itself accepts that the legislation contains a flaw that, in theory, makes it easier for the ban on reproductive cloning to be lifted.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on science, was reported by Timesonline on 14 June as saying:

I heartily agree with him, and he reinforced that point earlier in the debate. It would have been easy for the Government to have amended the Bill and made a commitment to ban reproductive cloning. If the Government really oppose reproductive cloning, why the loophole?

Mark Durkan: I support amendments Nos. 49 and 50, tabled by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), and Nos. 41 and 73, tabled by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). All the amendments in this group, including amendment No. 47, tabled by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), and new clause 24, propose adding some words to the Bill to try to ensure that the law is clear and to reduce loopholes. None of them does any injury to what the Government and the supporters of the Bill say that they want the Bill to do. The amendments would not remove any of the provisions in the Bill. Those of us who had other views on those provisions lost that debate earlier this year. The amendments would address issues that are of concern not only for those who have reservations about this Bill, but, we were told, for those who support it.

Lo and behold, the Government are resisting amendments that are simply trying to ensure that the legislation fulfils their intentions—or what they say are their intentions. I have listened to other hon. Members speak in support of the amendments. We have been told that what they said was rubbish, that none of it was ever going to happen and that the amendments are therefore not needed. However, I also heard the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon make the point that the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 was intended not to stop something that scientists intended to do, but to provide reassurance to the public. That is one role of legislation.

Even if hon. Members think that some of the concerns that the amendments are trying to address will not be realised, they must accept that those concerns are real.
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They have been real enough for the Government to try to assure people, here and in the other place, that they will not materialise. Why should not legislation protect against any such possibility in the interpretation of regulations, either on the part of those who produce the regulations or those working under them? It is our job as primary legislators to ensure that those matters that should be covered in primary legislation are covered.

Mr. Cash: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not misunderstand what I am about to say. He is right in what he is saying, but I am concerned that we will not reach the incredibly important amendments on licensing, consent and parenthood. It is not his fault, and I commend what he is saying, but I ask most earnestly that he allows us the chance to get on to those groups. We have been denied time by the Government, and there are winding-up speeches to come, so I ask him to be good enough to remember that those other matters should be at least voted on by the House.

5.15 pm

Mark Durkan: I fully respect what the hon. Gentleman has said. I shall not take long to deal with the amendments, as I shall not go through the detailed argument about the nature and reach of some of the loopholes. I am trying to deal with the arguments that have been made against the amendments, rather than getting into the substantive justification for them.

We are told that the Government want to ensure that there is not any reproductive cloning. In so far as clause 3 ensures that the new provisions will supersede the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001, is it wrong for the House to ensure that in superseding those provisions we ensure that there is no room for genetically modified children to be created? That is entirely reasonable. We are told that that is not the intention and that nobody wants to do it, so what is wrong with ensuring that such an action is clearly provided against in the Bill?

As for the various other amendments that have been tabled, we have been told that safeguards are already in place and that they are what is intended, and we have been absolutely reassured that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will pay full regard to and stand by certain standards. What is wrong with ensuring that those safeguards and standards are in the Bill as a way of reinforcing the confidence that we are asked to have in the HFEA?

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I hasten to say that I speak in a personal capacity and not on behalf of my party, which has a free vote on these issues.

I rise to give my support to amendment No. 41, which is the only amendment before us today that would clearly ban human reproductive cloning. I think the issue deserves the fullest consideration by the House, although time is limited.

Let me state the obvious: the Scots are not clones of the English. Someone who is free makes their own decisions, while someone who is a slave has decisions made for them. Someone who is free makes their own future, while someone who is a slave is given a future and a set of expectations. Children sometimes live in the shadow of their parents but they must move out of that shadow and become themselves. Each child and each
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generation is always new, a particular mix never seen before. A child is never made to a pre-set design—unless, of course, the child is a clone.

A clone lives always in the shadow of the original. A clone is always a copy of or a replacement for someone else. What kind of start in life is it to be defined by the expectations of others from the start and to be thought of as a copy from the start? Of course, a cloned child would not really be a copy, as they would have their own wishes and aspirations, but they would start off as a copy. To make a clone is to make a child to be a copy, a slave to our expectations, and a commodity. We know what they will be like. If a clone of Margaret Thatcher were made, we would know what to expect, as we have seen it before.

I am sure that hon. Members know that Scotland has no desire to be isolated from the rest of the world. The people of Scotland want to take their place with the rest of the world. So when the United Nations declares that

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