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House of Lords

Tuesday, 6th July 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

University Research: Project Decisions

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is a proper function of a university to carry out research which involves recruiting and paying 600 homosexual males to have anal intercourse.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, universities have procedures involving ethics committees which take decisions on whether experiments, investigations or procedures using human or animal subjects are appropriate.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, does the Minister agree it is odd that a university with no medical research department should have embarked upon this project? Will the Minister agree that many students are impecunious and that some may view this as an easy way to earn £40? Does the Minister realise that the students are aware of the project and that their parents are extremely worried? Can she tell the House what insurance or compensation is available to young men who contract Aids through such a scheme?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I can give the noble Baroness some reassurance about the project. No students at City University or elsewhere are involved in the project. The participants are recruited through gay organisations. I do not believe that this raises an insurance issue, as the project involves clinical trials which will concern protecting the health of homosexual men.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, why does the noble Baroness not condemn this as a perfectly appalling practice? Why does she not say that it is not the proper function of a university to carry out research of this nature?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, as a Member of this House for many years, the noble Earl ought to know that Ministers have no powers to intervene in such matters. Under Section 68 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, universities are independent, autonomous institutions, responsible for determining their own educational and research priorities. The House has always held that matter dear. I believe that it is something that the Government and others should respect.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, will the Minister agree that in upholding the right to free academic inquiry, vice-chancellors are vulnerable to public opinion and to public criticism if the project simultaneously involves

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personal risk--in this case such things as rectal injury--and can also be represented as little more than commercially sponsored testing of a commercial product?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, this is a clinical trial. Frequently, universities undertake contract research that involves clinical trials. Of course, vice-chancellors have a difficult role to play, particularly if it is put about that the research is in some way dubious. All the evidence I have before me suggests that this is properly conducted research, which has been carefully considered by the ethics committee of the university concerned. I believe that we should respect the view taken by that committee.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Baroness in her private capacity may or may not have strong feelings on this subject. Will she confirm that not everything on which we have strong feelings is a matter on which a Minister is accountable to the House?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that comment. He has hit the nail on the head. This matter should be left to the discretion of universities. I have every confidence that all the necessary care was taken before this particularly sensitive piece of research was undertaken. I repeat that we should respect the decision that was made.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, will the Minister agree that we would be treading a rocky path if it were suggested that the Minister should take powers to intervene in the research decisions of British universities?

Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords, I strongly agree with my noble friend. Were that to happen, we would be treading an extremely dangerous road where political views of all kinds--and personal views--would start to affect the independence of our universities to undertake properly conducted, thoughtful research.

Baroness Young: My Lords, can the Minister tell us what the cost of such research is to the taxpayer?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I can confirm that the project is contract research, paid for entirely by the private sector organisation sponsoring it.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are many who would courageously say that such research is not simply quite wrong, but unethical from a Christian standpoint? It is surprising that there are homosexual men prepared to do such a peculiar thing.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, of course, I respect the views of the noble Lord. I suspect that there are 300 personal views in the House. However, I do not believe that our personal views are pertinent to the issue.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, perhaps I may suggest that the Minister was correct, in her first answer, to point out that this piece of research had been before a research ethics committee. Is the whole trial to take place within the area of one university, and therefore within the

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area of one ethics committee, or is it to take place across the country? The numbers involved suggest it may involve other centres. If that is so, does the Minister know of the decisions of the ethics committees in the other areas? A serious issue is raised if an ethics committee has found one way in one place and another way elsewhere, as sometimes happens.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I accept entirely what the noble Baroness says; that is, that where research is carried out by several universities, particularly sensitive research of this kind, it is important that the ethics committees of those universities work closely together and reach a common decision. I can confirm that in this case the research was undertaken by a single university. It is not a large piece of research since only 300 gay couples are involved. It is not a piece of research involving thousands of people.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, is it purely incidental that no student from this university is involved in the research, or is there a ruling that they should not be?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I can confirm that before the research was undertaken the decision was taken that no student at the university should be involved. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, talked of payments. Each participant receives £20--a small sum of money--at the end of the research for answering 10 long questionnaires. It is standard practice in clinical trials of this sort to pay a small sum to compensate people for giving up substantial amounts of time.

Turkey: Human Rights

2.45 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What conclusions they draw from the 130 cases brought against Turkey to the European Commission and Court of Human Rights, and in particular those of Mentes v. Turkey, Akdivar v. Turkey and Selcuk and Asker v. Turkey, concerning the destruction and depopulation of villages.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have repeatedly made clear their condemnation of so-called "village clearances". We welcome the fact that such forced evacuations have virtually ceased since 1996.

On the basis of those cases where the European Court of Human Rights has already ruled against Turkey, Her Majesty's Government conclude that the instances of forced evacuations of villages were at odds with Turkey's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. We have repeatedly urged the Turkish Government to comply fully with rulings of the ECHR.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and particularly for her condemnation of what has

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taken place. However, does she fully appreciate the scale on which these activities took place? Is it not the case that 3,000 villages were completely cleared, displacing approximately 3 million people? That is slightly more than the total population of Kosovo.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware that over 3,000 villages and hamlets were forcibly evacuated in the course of the conflicts between the Turkish security forces and the PKK. We condemned the brutal and counter-productive policy behind those evacuations. But criticism alone will not bring about the improvements that we want to see in Turkey's performance over human rights. That is why we continue to encourage the Turks to implement a package of measures which is aimed at improving their record on human rights. For example, we have been giving them help in training lawyers and police and raising their standards to international levels.

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