Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]

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Dawn Primarolo: The clause provides for regulations to ensure that membership of the appeals committee is made up wholly or partly of persons who are members of the authority. Regulations relating to the appeals process will be forthcoming to deal with consideration under the affirmative procedure, and they will come into force at the time of the commencement of the relevant provisions in the Bill. In conjunction with the HFEA, we are considering the details of those regulations, which will be the subject of public consultation prior to consideration by both Houses. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises with regard to appeals committees, who sits on those committees, and their connection or otherwise to the original decision, will be addressed at that point. I therefore hope he does not feel the need to press the amendment to a vote.
Mark Simmonds: I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that the matter will be addressed in regulations. It is clearly a very important part of the appeal process, and there has to be confidence that this is a fair process among those applying for licences or appealing against the revocation or variation of licences, which is not driven by themselves. Regarding future consultation, the Government had an enormous amount of time to consult before the Bill was introduced in Parliament, and in many cases they did so extremely thoroughly, and with extreme diligence. Why has consultation about this particular part of the Bill not taken place?
Dawn Primarolo: To remind the hon. Gentleman, the 1990 Act prevents anyone who took part in proceedings resulting in the appeal from taking part in the appeal. That is already the case. By ensuring that the appeal is heard by different people, it reduces the potential bias and makes certain that the process is impartial. Under the 1990 Act, members of the appeals committee would not have heard the initial proceedings, although they would all be members of the authority. The new power will enable the committee to be comprised, wholly or partially, of non-authority members, thus allowing for further improvements in the impartiality of the appeals committee. For those reasons, and because of the difficulty of getting the balance that we need, careful consideration is required. With respect, if we were presumptuous and consulted on draft regulations, even though the House had not agreed we had the power to do that before the Bill received Royal Assent, that could cause confusion and difficulty. It is partly about process, but also about the difficult and complex issues that we need to take in a steady fashion.
Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for that clarification and explanation, and I understand the Minister’s points about consulting on draft regulations before the Bill has completed its passage through Parliament, but she will also be aware of the concerns expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and me that draft regulations are rarely amended in that sense when they come before Parliament. However, I accept that they will have to be debated under the affirmative procedure.
Dawn Primarolo: I assure the hon. Gentleman that they will be thoroughly consulted on in draft form. It is such an important issue that I would hope that we would reach consensus before Parliament has its final approach under the affirmative procedure in both Houses.
Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for that intervention. Of course, we all hope that consensus can be reached on such important issues, but the Minister will certainly be aware from the passage of the Bill that consensus on such complex issues is sometimes difficult to achieve. None the less, I listened to what she said. I am pleased that the matter will be clarified in future regulations and will undergo detailed consultation. I hope that when the regulations come before Parliament under the affirmative procedure, the issues will be addressed specifically. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mark Simmonds: I beg to move amendment No. 149, in clause 21, page 17, line 32, at end insert
‘within 28 days of the appeals committee meeting.’.
Again, the issue is the time scale. It concerns the appeals committee and the appeals procedure. Any case that reaches the appeals committee is likely to be lengthy and indeed costly, so it is right that the appeals committee should give its judgment as swiftly as possible to resolve the case either way, prevent undue delay and produce clarity. I do not stipulate that 28 days is the correct figure—it may well be longer than that—but I want to put on record the concern that the appeals procedure could take too long. Will the Minister inform the Committee how long appeals committees take from start to finish? What gap exists between the time when it is clear that somebody wants to appeal and the time when the process starts in detail?
Will the Minister also confirm whether the regulations could be changed so that during the appeals committee, the appellant and the HFEA can give both oral and written evidence, and that that evidence can be made public so that people can see exactly what the process is in a transparent and effective way? Why will written and oral evidence be given and made public only at the initial licensing committee stage and not at the appeals stage?
Dawn Primarolo: On the question of time limits, the limit of 28 days, from the meeting and the point of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, is a reasonable period, to be perfectly honest, within which an appellant should be informed of a decision. However, we understand that in practice, it is likely to occur much sooner than that. Of the two recent appeals, one took seven days and one took 18 days.
Although I appreciate that the amendment would guarantee that the decision was communicated within a specific time frame, given that practice is already better than that, it is not an issue that needs to be put into primary legislation. In the two cases concerned, when a decision was reached, I am informed that the appellant was informed within 18 days. In the appeals process, the whole decision is considered, and the decision is challengeable. That means that the appeals committee would have to be provided with the same information, and it is on that basis that it needs to look at the information in a particular form. If the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with that answer—
May I finish my sentence? I am certainly prepared to go back and clarify with the HFEA the point that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness is making.
Dr. Harris: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but it is difficult to catch her attention, and I wanted her to finish her remarks. Are the regulations under this section, and proposed new sections 20A and B, under the affirmative or negative procedure? I did not think that they were listed under the affirmative list on page 34 of the Bill, or relevant page of the Act as it will be amended, although I may have missed something, and I apologise if I have done so.
Mark Simmonds: Again, I thank the Minister for her response. I had been led to believe that they were affirmative resolutions.
Dr. Harris: I missed a little bit of the debate in which the timing was discussed, but neither page 34 of the Bill, nor the Act as it will be amended, includes the new section. Although I do not doubt the Minister’s intention—it is right that the affirmative procedure should be used—perhaps I have not quite understood where affirmative regulations are listed.
Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for that intervention, but when the hon. Gentleman momentarily left the Committee Room, the Minister confirmed that the regulations would be introduced on an affirmative basis, as she has just done again in response to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I am prepared to take the Minister’s word for it.
Dawn Primarolo: Let me put it this way: if there was any doubt that they were not affirmative, they are affirmative now, because I said so.
Mark Simmonds: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, and for the reassurance that she will seek further clarity from the HFEA. I would be interested in the response that she receives. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24

Register of Information
Mark Simmonds: I beg to move amendment No. 6, in clause 24, page 20, line 10, at end insert—
‘(5) A relevant individual can also be an individual who has reached the age of 18 whose genetic parent was a relevant individual under subsection (4) but did not themselves consult the register and is themselves deceased.’.
There are many circumstances in which a child of a donor-conceived person would like to know their genetic background, and it is now widely accepted that knowing that background is beneficial. A person’s sense of identity is tied up with where they came from, and an increasing number of diseases and illnesses are found to have some basis in our genes, so knowing one’s genetic background is beneficial.
Some people choose not to consult the register, and we should all respect their decision. We would not allow anyone to consult the register if a living donor-conceived person has themselves chosen not to. However, in a specific case where a donor-conceived person has died, their children might like to know their genetic background. The amendment would allow for that person to consult the register only in the case where the donor-conceived person has died.
3.45 pm
In the other place, the matter was discussed extensively and the Minister in the other place promised to consider that particular issue further. That is why I tabled the amendment—to try to understand where the Government have got to in their thought process with regard to that point. I accept that it is a complex issue, and indeed I see why the Government, after due consideration of the reading of the Bill in the other place, have decided not to make an appropriate amendment in this area.
Dr. Harris: I want to raise questions about some of the assertions made in respect of this matter. While I do not oppose the provision of information to people who are interested where that information is held, and it is quite clear in advance that the donor understands that information might be made available, one has to consider the privacy of parents and individuals who do not want their children—that relates to the point raised by the amendment—or people more generally to know that they were donor-conceived.
It is important to identify the key points. My understanding is that it is clearly of benefit to know whether there is a genetic issue in terms of health, that the Bill already provides for that, and that we are talking in these provisions about identifying information generally speaking. The amendment at least is about getting more information and identifying information. Obviously, it is important that people understand that they are not seeking to marry or enter a sexual relationship with someone who is related to them.
One has to be careful, however, before one asserts for sure that there is significant benefit from knowing one’s genetic background, because there may a disbenefit from discovering a family secret: for example, that there was infertility and donor insemination, that that had been kept secret from the person concerned, or that there may have been infidelity involved. It is not clear to me from looking at what little evidence there is in this area that it has been established that someone will always benefit from being able to know their genetic identity and to establish their genetic background; or, for that matter, that people have an absolute right, or even a very strong arguable right, to have that information.
Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman is right to make those points, and that is why it is important that the amendment can apply only to those whose parent is deceased. I think that that makes a significant difference, certainly with some of the “family secrets” that the hon. Gentleman seems to be mentioning. I think that they start to dissipate once the person involved has died.
I am a great believer in people who are having fertility treatment telling their children, at an appropriate age, that they were conceived through donor insemination, but it is not my view that they must do that and it is clearly not the Government’s view, because the Government are not forcing them to do so or automatically releasing information.
I think that the Government are absolutely right, because family dynamics are complex and it is not right for the state to wade in in that way. While the amendment is relatively modest in that respect, here and in other debates I urge consideration for the privacy and memory of the parents and patients. If they have not told someone, the fact of it being found out means that they have, essentially, concealed it. That has implications for all sorts of things, including people being written in and out of wills regardless of their legal entitlement to inherit. A can of worms exists here, and I think that that is why we must have caution in all these areas.
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Prepared 6 June 2008