Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

We are not ruling anything out. Earlier on in my rather robust response to the call for nationalisation, I was merely seeking to indicate that the Government

19 Nov 2007 : Column 702

did not think that we had reduced three options to only two: administration or nationalisation. There are three possible options, and it is important that we keep them as valid as we can in order to guarantee exactly the service to which the right reverend Prelate has referred.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, does the Minister accept from what is being said all around the House that his response to my noble friend’s suggestion fell well short of what was required in dealing with the seriousness of this situation?

I have two specific questions. First, is the Bank of England the senior secured creditor for all its lending to Northern Rock? Does any other lender’s security rank pari passu with any of the Bank’s lending?

Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to the briefing memorandum for Northern Rock, to which I referred in my speech last week on the Address. Does the Minister understand that there is a blatantly false market in Northern Rock—that every spiv and shark in the City and hedge funds that have been shorting it are dealing on the back of that memorandum, of which they have copies, while small shareholders are completely in the dark? Will the Government please ask the Stock Exchange to suspend the shares pending clarification of the company’s financial position?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on the latter point, we do not think the issues are as serious as that.

It is undoubtedly the case that damage has been done by these leaks, which we greatly regret. That is why I have been at pains today to stress that certain developments with regard to Northern Rock must be contained within a framework of considerable privacy because damage is done to those who are ill informed by those who have an inside track on such information. That is why we want a speedy solution. However, we also make it clear that there are limits on the amount of information that we are prepared to see in the public domain.

My answer to the first point is straightforward: the Bank of England is absolutely assured that all its loans to Northern Rock are adequately secured against its assets. It therefore expresses no anxiety about the investment it has made.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I share the concern of everyone for transparency, but while the Treasury is involved in detailed negotiations it would be foolish to press for details and I do not propose to do so. The Minister told us that the Treasury has to agree to any deal, but does he accept that the shareholders also have to agree? Can we take it that the Treasury would be willing to override the shareholders if it did not consider what they proposed to be in the public interest, as he has described it?

The Minister told us that Northern Rock’s good assets—including, I assume, my noble friend’s loan to the bank—are a long way above the level of loans at the moment. I would be glad if the Minister could confirm that again, because the other day my noble friend Lord McKenzie said he did not know what the bank was worth. I assume he did not know what the Chancellor or my noble friend were about to tell us.

19 Nov 2007 : Column 703

I have a final, simple question. When the money was loaned by the Bank of England, it was said that this was because the Bank considered itself to be the lender of last resort. Is that still the position? That will be of concern to many others.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend will recognise that the Bank intervened and made its contribution as lender of last resort in circumstances where it was quite clear that Northern Rock could not stay solvent by access to any other resources. The Bank of England stepped in on that basis. It is the most senior secured creditor for the vast portion of the loan that has been made. I was asked about that earlier, and I assure the House on that point.

On my noble friend’s more general point, the position with regard to Northern Rock is changing from day to day—he will recognise that developments have moved beyond even my noble friend’s brilliant summing up of the Queen’s Speech debate last week—but we are entirely secure about the loans that have been made to the bank and we are seeing the prosecution of the potential for bids. Whether they will materialise in a form that will prove viable is still to be established, but the shareholders’ interests are almost bound to be concomitant with what is acceptable to the Government because if there were any deal worse than what the Government would accept, the shareholders would scarcely be beneficiaries anyway.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, do the Government agree that if a purchase is dependent on the Government’s guarantee being continued in some form and on government financial support, the deal has a value only because of that and the taxpayer should receive some benefit from a successful rescue? I agree with the right reverend Prelate’s point that any rescue should involve maintaining the asset as a whole.

Lord Davies of Oldham: That is right, my Lords. That is why the Bank is charging a rate of interest that is a return to the taxpayer on assets that are greater than the loans and therefore secured. We fervently hope, as do the noble Lord, the right reverend Prelate and others of good will in the House, that we will be able to maintain the integrity of the bank.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, when there is so much talk of millions, billions or even trillions, it is difficult to remember how many zeros there are after the first digit. It would therefore be helpful to have the figures concerned expressed in terms of the position of the taxpayer. It has been said that support for Northern Rock amounts to something like £900 per taxpayer. Will the Minister say what the figure is in those simple terms? By precisely what authority have these loans been made? Where in the Government’s accounts will the figures eventually appear?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the loans have been made by the Bank of England on the basis of returns which it will in due course expect from the institution. I do not have a ready calculator to produce quite the figure that the noble Lord indicated, but we are talking about a substantial sum. Figures have been adduced to show that it is several times greater than

19 Nov 2007 : Column 704

the aid budget, and other comparators for the global sums involved exist. No one will gainsay the fact that very great sums of money are involved—that is why the issue is so serious for the whole community—but I do not think that the House would accept anything other than the obvious fact that the Government, the Bank of England, the FSA and others are wrestling night and day with the consequences of an extremely costly exercise for the taxpayer. I reassure the noble Lord that the Bank of England is entirely secure, and that what it has lent is secured against assets.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it fair to describe a mortgage book as “quality” when it includes 125 per cent mortgages and when property prices are probably likely to fall? Is it not true that many of the hedge funds to which noble Lords referred are losing money hand over feet, and that those involved have burnt their fingers by buying the shares?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is right that loans were taken out against insecurities—that is why the crisis occurred. That is a problem with the sub-prime market in the United States. Significant financial institutions in the United Kingdom are wrestling with those problems, but they are in a strong enough position to take them relatively in their stride, although at some considerable cost. Northern Rock had overstretched itself in those terms. However, I emphasise to my noble friend that when I say that Northern Rock has real assets, I mean that it has an extensive mortgage book of people who can pay and whose houses are more highly valued than the mortgages that are outstanding. As that book is so solid, the authorities are able to say that those assets are readily bankable against any loans which are made to the company. My noble friend is right that a percentage of Northern Rock’s assets fits into the “vulnerable” category—that is why it is in trouble. That does not alter the fact that Northern Rock was a building society with a long history. The bank built on that building society’s long history and, for a time, conducted itself thoroughly responsibly. It therefore has all the proceeds of those accumulated assets, while having the degree of vulnerability which has produced the present crisis.

Lord James of Blackheath: My Lords—

Lord Bach: My Lords, we must move back to the Second Reading.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

5.54 pm

Second Reading debate resumed.

The Archbishop of York: My Lords, I have said previously in your Lordships’ House that the severance of law from morality and religion has gone too far. Religion, morality and law were once intermingled, which helped to shape both the common law and the statutes of this land, and greatly influenced the way in which judges interpreted them. However, the law is

19 Nov 2007 : Column 705

now regarded purely as an instrument for regulating our personal affairs and as being completely severed from morality and religion. Provisions in the Bill demonstrate just how far the severance has gone and its unintended consequences.

The Government’s proposal to remove the need-for-a-father provision from Section 13 of the 1990 Act creates a false dichotomy at the heart of the Bill which places the welfare and needs of the child against their need for a father. Since when did they become competing requirements? Is it not self-evident that the welfare and needs of a child are enhanced and met when there is a father present, as against there being no father at all? Such a view is surely not controversial and would be shared by many who find themselves, through bereavement or relationship breakdown, as the single parents of children. However, there is all the difference in the world between children who find themselves in a single-parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in that situation by design. That is precisely what the Government propose in the Bill: the removal, by design, of the father of the child.

We know already that there are men who have been moved by legal circumstances to form Fathers 4 Justice. When one overlooks the movement’s pranks and purported attempts to kidnap Leo Blair, one discovers that its founder was forced into campaigning because he was denied access overnight to a child whom he dearly loved and whom he believed loved and needed him. It took a long time for access to be restored. We now have a Bill whereby the Government are set to remove, as a statement of public policy, the requirement for the need of a father. How much stronger then might the campaign of Fathers 4 Justice become?

There seems to be some confusion in the mind of the Government over the importance of fathers. First, in 2004, they made regulations to encourage parental responsibility and visibility by removing donor anonymity and allowing donor-conceived children to access the identity of donors involved in their conception. Secondly, they have rightly emphasised in their policies the need for male role models for social cohesion, to reduce underachievement, and to avoid increasing violent crime and gang culture. We are now faced with a Bill which seeks formally to remove in its entirety the need for the ultimate male role model, that of the father. Set out in paragraph 54 of the Government’s response to the Joint Committee’s report is a bizarre proposal to replace a child’s need for a father with a delegated system of substitutes, based on HFEA licence-holders’ assessment of whether prospective mothers know anyone who may be a good role model. Such is the value placed on a father by this legislation: it is reduced to a role where any substitute will do.

The Government posit their argument on the view of the Science and Technology Committee, expressed in its report of 2005, that the need for a father is “unjustifiably offensive”. To whom is it unjustifiably offensive? Is it unjustifiably offensive to the child who will be dependent upon the love and care of the father? Are the Government really saying that they are basing their response on whether the need for a father gives offence?

19 Nov 2007 : Column 706

The same report concluded that we cannot expect consensus on this issue because, on the one hand, we are a multi-faith society and, on the other, we are largely secular. The previous population census indicated that 85 per cent of the population described themselves as people of faith. However, statistics aside, it is far from clear to me that my brothers and sisters of faith, and indeed of no faith, feel less keenly than me about the importance of a father’s role in the life of a growing child. The Joint Committee called for an ethical framework to be established at the heart of this Bill so that decisions are based not on the potential offence rendered but on the highest ethical standards in conjunction with considerations of the welfare of the child. Such a framework is sadly missing. I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in calling for an ethics committee to be set up as a matter of urgency. What we have in the Bill, rather than those high ethical standards, is, on the contrary, a signal being sent that everyone has a right to a child and that this right overrules consideration of the child’s welfare. The rationale given in the White Paper for removing the need of a child for a father was so as to appear not to discriminate against same-sex couples or single mothers who wanted to have a child through IVF. The Government’s response is based not on the welfare of the child but on the desire of those who feel that they should have a child as of right, without the need of a father.

The right of a prospective parent to have a child by any means necessary must not triumph over the welfare of children brought into the world as a result of the treatment authorised under the current legislation. The Government are bowing to the argument that, if single people and gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt, the same permission must therefore be given if they wish to commission a child using IVF. That is a non-sequitur, because the situations are markedly different; in adoption, the hospitality of a home is being offered to already existing children who have had the misfortune, through circumstances or necessity, to lose or be removed from the constant love of their own parents. Bringing the care of an adoptive home to a needy child is a wholly different circumstance to deciding in advance to use IVF technology to bring into the world a child who will, by design, never have a father. If discrimination is indeed the issue here, surely the greater discrimination is in ensuring that a child will never have any chance of knowing its natural father—a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. While I have sympathy with the evidence given by the chair of the Infertility Network UK for those who feel that they are denied access to childbirth under these treatments through a lack of a father, if we are to be serious about the paramount place of child welfare in this Bill, that means such welfare taking precedence over the desires of those who want a child as of right. The child’s right not to be deliberately deprived of a father is greater than any right to commission a child by IVF.

As the Government have previously acknowledged,

The Government have often championed the slogan of “rights and responsibility” and the need to recognise the duty and responsibility that goes alongside any

19 Nov 2007 : Column 707

talk of rights. How does such talk fit with the proposals before us? What responsibility are we encouraging in the sperm or egg donor? While there is recognition of the need to treat embryos with due responsibility elsewhere in this legislation, do we absolve those who created the embryo of all responsibility for their child? There is an unhealthy theme of rampant indifference at the heart of this Bill, rooted in a consumerist mentality in which the science that allows something to happen is transformed into the right to have it. The “cogito ergo sum” of Descartes—“I think therefore I am”—becomes the consumerist mantra, “I shop therefore I am” or “Tesco ergo sum”. The competing individualist arias of “I, I, I” and “me, me, me” provide the mood music for an individualism that posits the right of a wannabe parent over the welfare of a child. This virus of individualistic consumerism which informs a rights-based mentality is alien to those of us who come from another place—Africa—where they say, “I am because we are: I belong therefore I am”.

The laws that are passed in this your Lordships’ House are more than mere regulation. The law is a statement of public policy. This is not about messages which are sent out about what is or is not acceptable in terms of family arrangements, but more fundamentally about the roles of parents, and in particular the need for a father where possible. In Clause 14 of this Bill, the Government run the risk of fundamentally altering the paramount importance of the welfare of the child, as set out in legislative terms almost 20 years ago in the Children Act 1989, and placing the interests of adults, in the form of prospective parents, above those of the child. Together with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Jenkin and Lord Hastings, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I urge the Government to drop Clause 14 of this Bill. The rest is very good but I do not think that this is. We shall not be content with this clause.

6.04 pm

Lord Winston: My Lords, I—

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, it is me to speak next according to the speakers list.

Lord Winston: My Lords, oh, I am sorry.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I declare an interest as the patron of a considerable number of neurological charities and as someone who is the life president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. I shall confine my remarks to new Section 4A in this Bill. However, I wholly agree that for anyone to try to introduce amendments to the Abortion Act would be a mistake, as they would inevitably cloud the important revisions of an extremely vital Bill.

My baptism of fire, when I first became a Member of your Lordships' House in 1989, was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, later to become an Act, which allowed experiments on the human embryo up to 14 days after fertilisation under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. That was something with which I wholly agreed because

19 Nov 2007 : Column 708

individuation of the human embryo did not, in my opinion, begin until the primitive streak appeared at 14 days. I spoke about my interest in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an X-linked recessive disease passed on by female carriers to their sons, and said that we would be likely in due course to be able to take an ovum from a carrier woman, to fertilise it in vitro, to allow it to develop into an embryo and to remove a single cell to determine whether the gene for muscular dystrophy was present—then, if it was, to allow the embryo to degenerate or, if it was not, to implant it, thus allowing these women to have normal, non-carrier daughters and non-dystrophic boys. In fact, that hope has now become a reality. This morning I chaired a meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine on muscular dystrophy research to learn that pre-implantation diagnosis of that dreadful disease has now become really feasible and is preventing the birth of children with the disease.

The Bill at that time—and the Act that followed—was designed to improve the treatment of infertility and to prevent the birth of children with serious genetic disease. It did not allow embryos to be used to generate cells for the treatment of human disease. At that time there were those who said that to discard embryos carrying abnormal genes was tantamount to killing a human being. However, I remind the House that in the course of normal human fertilisation some four or five ova are fertilised in the uterus and float free in the uterus before one implants in the wall to produce a foetus and subsequently a child. If two are implanted, that produces non-identical twins. All the rest of those fertilised ova are flushed down the toilet. So millions and millions of human embryos are lost every day in life.

The Government introduced regulations in 2001 to amend the Act to allow embryos and stem cells derived from them to be available for the treatment of human disease, legalising therapeutic but not reproductive cloning. Stem cells have a purely potential ability, meaning that they are produced from embryos which, for instance, become spare in the course of in vitro fertilisation programmes. As my noble friend Lord Alton said, adult stem cells have become increasingly important in research and so, too, have stem cells derived from the umbilical cord. Indeed, the Anthony Nolan Trust has, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, established a national cord blood bank so as to be able to collect specimens of umbilical cord blood for the creation of such stem cells. All such cells, if they are used for implantation to the tissue of another individual, are donor cells which produce an immunological response, which inevitably requires suppression of that immune response.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page