Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]

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Mark Simmonds: I would also like to express my sympathy for the new clause, although I am not sure that its wording is correct because it might have some knock-on effects, which the Minister will probably come to. I would like to explain three or four reasons why I am sympathetic to the general thrust of what the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North are trying to do.
First, clearly, if this Bill is to last as long as the 1990 Act—18 years—it is going to have to be amended by a subsequent series of regulations, provision for which is scattered through the Bill. As we have discussed, many of the regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, but we all know in the House that it is very rare, despite consultation, for regulations to be altered significantly. A Committee such as that proposed could have a remit of examining the regulations that are subsequently used to amend the Bill. That might be a reason for the Government not to want such a Committee, but I think that that, among other functions, would be a good remit for the Committee.
The second reason for looking carefully at such a Committee is that it would provide a positive and necessary link, both for the scientific community and for those concerned about the ethical issues that surround such complex areas. There is not a permanent body related to Parliament that has that specific role at the moment.
The third issue, which other hon. Members have touched upon, is that there is understandable discomfort with the HFEA operating in a vacuum and deciding and making up its own policy—almost as scientific developments occur—because there is no other responsible body. Indeed, the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was absolutely right: there is not inevitably a balance on the HFEA to give the other side of the ethical dilemma of many of those scientific advances. That is another strong reason for looking at the concern closely.
The other issue, which was given as a defence as to why certain things are in the Bill, is that we are merely catching up with scientific advancements that the HFEA has already approved. That is primarily because no detailed discussion from an ethical position has taken place in Parliament since the passing of the 1990 Act, although obviously regulations have been discussed in Committee. That provides another very powerful reason for why the Committee should be set up.
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Three or four difficult areas must be addressed with regard to the remit of the Committee. The first is the ethical balance of who will sit on it. I strongly believe that the Committee should be made up of parliamentarians. It should not be extended beyond that for the reasons set out clearly by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East. The size of the Committee must be carefully considered.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): My hon. Friend makes the good point that the Committee should be made up of parliamentarians. However, with the greatest respect, it should not be made up of the usual suspects. Its members should not be those who have always sat on Committees considering such matters. It must reflect a broad view from within the House.
Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. Having said that, there is a balance to strike. If such a Committee were set up, it would be important for people with expertise, knowledge and experience to be on it, as well as those who could bring fresh ideas and thoughts. I would a view a Committee of around 30 members, both from this House and the other place, as too large to co-ordinate in any sensible way.
We must also do some detailed thinking about the remit and standing of the Committee and its purpose and scope. What will it scrutinise, who will it advise, and on what basis? It is a very strong argument that if we want the Bill to survive for a long period, there must be a body based around Parliament that has democratic accountability and that provides ethical and scientific analysis as scientific advancement takes place.
My final point is that after the next general election, the Minister will have a lot more time on her hands. She might wish to participate significantly in such a Committee.
Dawn Primarolo: Well, at least the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that I have a safe seat.
A number of issues have been raised, some of which I agree with and some of which I do not. I will try and proceed through the points. We all echo the point made by the hon. Member for Salisbury and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North about the importance of Parliament deciding. We are elected to come to terms with, and decide on, inevitably very important issues on behalf of our constituents. The issues raised about matters of embryology, for instance—although that is not the only ethical issue—are matters that we as Members of Parliament must consider.
On a number of occasions during consideration of the Bill, through the review of the 1990 Act and during pre-legislative scrutiny, there has been a debate about whether we should have a wider bioethics commission, and whether that should be independent of Parliament or made up from representatives of both Houses. Clearly, as the Bill has proceeded, it has raised ethical, legal and social issues giving rise to a diverse range of views, some of which are very strongly held. How we in Parliament and those elsewhere respond to such issues goes to the heart of our existence as individuals and families in society. It is, quite rightly, the place of Parliament to consider this.
In moving the new clauses, I understand that my hon. Friends had to ensure that the provisions were in the scope of the Bill. I do not think that this matter should be limited only to the issues that have been raised during the proceedings of this Bill, and I understand that my hon. Friends have raised the issue to start a clear discussion in Parliament about whether there is support for such a proposition. I am of the view that the structure that we have set up with the HFEA, the way in which it regulates—it is not the only source of information and advice for us—and the way in which we have proceeded with the Bill are correct. I absolutely do not accept that there is something wrong with the HFEA. It is, frankly, not very helpful to hear senior Members of Parliament talk about needing “antis” on the HFEA, because that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the authority.
The nature of the authority is that it advertises for candidates, and anyone—people of all faiths and cultures—can apply. However, potential members must be prepared to accept the fundamental principles behind the authority’s existence. That has served us well over a period of time, but of course, the arrangements are further reinforced by the fact that appointments are made by the Appointments Commission on behalf of the Secretary of State.
While we are debating an incredibly important issue, I hope that nobody outside our proceedings here will read what has been said today and draw from it that we do not have confidence in the process. I know that it is not my hon. Friends’ intention to suggest that we do not have confidence in the HFEA’s ability, as constructed by Parliament, to discharge its duties.
Of course, as the hon. Member for Salisbury pointed out—and I have always been of this view—parliamentary scrutiny has demonstrated very clearly that Parliament has the ability to discuss bioethical issues effectively, whether in Select Committees, during pre-legislative scrutiny or through consultation. The Science and Technology Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North produced a very extensive report in 2005.
Dr. Gibson: I will have that constituency too—it happens to be a Liberal Democrat seat. Mine is Norwich, North.
The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, he should do so. If not, the Minister can carry on.
Dawn Primarolo: I apologise to my hon. Friend if I have had his constituency incorrectly recorded in Hansard.
A very good and extensive report was produced in 2005, which was the outcome of a year’s study of human reproductive technologies. It had considerable influence on the Department of Health’s subsequent public consultation. As has already been acknowledged, the Bill has changed considerably from its draft form.
The real point—my hon. Friends will correct me if I am wrong—is whether we need a wider bioethics Select Committee or Joint Committee of both Houses to consider not just issues that are pertinent to this legislation, but wider matters. Personally, I want parliamentarians to continue to do that, and I think that the Government would resist any idea of anything independent.
As my noble Friend Baroness Royall said in response to such a debate in the other place, we see merit in a Standing Committee of Parliament on bioethics. However, that is not something that it is appropriate to set out in primary legislation, and it is not a matter for this Bill—we certainly could not get the proposal in order, given the wider considerations. That is ultimately a matter for Parliament to consider, so let me gently suggest how a consensus may emerge.
The decision to set up a new Select Committee is one for the House—or both Houses, if it is decided that there should be a Joint Committee. Of course, the Government would consider any suggestion for a new Select Committee that had sufficient support from all parties. In addition to taking account of the views that have been clearly expressed during our deliberations in Committee, it might also be appropriate if views were sought from the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee about why and how this step could be taken forward. I am advised that this would be a matter for the House and that progress should be made through the usual channels.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East will not push the new clause to a Division, but as the Minister responsible for the Bill, I will ensure that I draw the comments of all members of the Committee on the wider issue to the attention of the appropriate authorities in the House. Such a Committee, perhaps a Joint Committee, could strengthen our understanding, and the way in which we discharge our roles as Members of Parliament, when we address these important social and ethical issues.
Dr. Iddon: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments, which are very acceptable. The other place asked for guidance from this end of Parliament on the issue and it would have been remiss of us if we had not discussed it this afternoon. I think that some guidance has been given from this Committee to the other place and to Parliament in general. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we now need to lobby outside this Committee.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon referred to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. My idea was to have a parallel Committee with a similar membership. It has always amazed me that we discuss human rights in this place, but we do not, in parallel, discuss ethics, which are becoming much more important as Bills such as this pass through Parliament. It might well be that 30 is too many members for the Committee, but the figure of eight that was mentioned in the other place would be too small. Somewhere in between those two numbers would be acceptable, I am sure.
Obviously, the new clause is too narrow; it had to be drafted in such a way that it would remain within the scope of the Bill. My preference would be not only to have a broader Committee for human bioethics, but to introduce consideration of animal bioethics, because matters such as xenotransplantation cross both the human and animal spheres.
It has been good to have the debate and I thank my right hon. Friend again for her comments. I am sure that we have given some guidance to the other place as the Bill has proceeded, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
That certain written evidence already reported to the House be appended to the proceedings of the Committee.—[Dawn Primarolo.]
Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill (except clauses 4, 11, 14 and 23, schedule 2, and any new clauses or new schedules relating to the termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners), as amended, to the House.
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Dawn Primarolo: Before we conclude our proceedings, I would like to make a few comments. I would like to thank you, Mr. Hood, and Mr. Gale for the excellent way in which you have helped us through the Committee proceedings. My thanks to the Clerks, who are ever vigilant and have done their best to ensure that we debate all the issues identified as necessary by the Committee. Thanks to the Hansard staff, to the police officers and to those to whom I am not normally supposed to refer: my officials. I thank them for all the hard work—over a long time now—that they put into producing an excellent Bill.
I would like to thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness for his measured, thoughtful and constructive approach, which I appreciated. We have been considering subjects that were difficult and challenging for me, as a Minister, but I know that that would be even harder in opposition without such detailed support. The issues that he raised helped our debate, as did those raised with considerable skill by his hon. Friends.
I also thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who turns out to have many skills—all excellent. He truly has followed and worked on the subject for a long time. He has considerable expertise. We are glad that he shared some of that expertise with us, but we might have been here longer had we heard it to its full extent. I thank him because I know that he follows the debate with great diligence and passion. His colleague, the hon. Member for Southport, has not always agreed with him. It was interesting to see one intervening on the other during speeches. They disagreed slightly, but they have been helpful to the Committee.
Finally, I thank my hon. Friends, who brought considerable knowledge, patience, advice and consideration to their support of me as the Minister on the Bill, even when they did not always agree with me. I am particularly referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, who is not able to be here this afternoon.
This has been an excellent Committee and I am grateful for our proceedings and everyone’s participation. I look forward to further debate on the Floor of the House.
Mark Simmonds: I join the Minister in expressing my thanks to you, Mr. Hood, and to Mr. Gale for the excellent way in which you have chaired the Committee and for the advice and guidance that you have given as and when it has been appropriate. I also thank, in particular, the Clerks who have been involved in the Bill, who have provided support and advice to Opposition Members, who, as the Minister rightly pointed out, do not have the support of the expert civil servants that she clearly has.
I thank members of the Committee, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury, for South-West Devon, for Hemel Hempstead and for Rugby and Kenilworth, who have all participated in our proceedings. In their individual ways, their informed and measured contributions have been helpful and constructive in our debates.
Finally, I thank the Minister for, most of the time, her extremely calm and considered response to the debates. She has always been helpful, constructive and clear, and she responded with great clarity to the concerns that were expressed, the questions that were asked and the amendments that were tabled. Such issues are complex and challenging. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would acknowledge that neither she nor I are scientists and that trying to try to get to grips first with the science, and then overlaying the ethical issues, is extremely challenging for anyone who does not have a grounding in such areas. I wish to put on the record the fact that I thought that she did so with great aplomb. She has obviously put a tremendous amount of work into understanding the detail behind the Bill. While we might not agree on every political issue, I hope that the constructive way in which the questions have been put and the amendments have been explained have led to a constructive response from the Government, and that that will mean that the Bill, when enacted, will last just as long—if not longer—than the 1990 Act.
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