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First, such a commission would be appointed by the Secretary of State. Secondly, it would cover a wide range of relevant occupations—medical practitioners, research scientists, philosophers, ethicists and others who are concerned with science and the way in which science should be assisted and encouraged to be understood by a much wider public. Its functions would include monitoring scientific advances in bioethics, considering the ethical issues that arise and looking at the consequences of legislation passed by Parliament—I stress this—in the light of subsequent evidence.

We have as a House very much embraced the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny, to excellent effect. By and large, the legislation that comes before us that has been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny is markedly better composed than that which has not. I strongly suggest that we also badly need post-legislative scrutiny. Very often when we pass legislation we do not know subsequently whether it has been to useful effect. If I may say so, with only a very brief reversion to a different subject altogether, if the Home Office had learnt to scrutinise in a post-legislative way, we might all have been spared a very great deal of pain over recent years.

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My specific point on post-legislative scrutiny—we make almost no provision for it in the legislation that we pass—is relevant to the issue of scientific research. We have excellent debates. Over recent days, I have enjoyed what I can describe only as an incredibly intense tutorial in embryology and human fertilisation. I note that, very kindly, the Chief Whip is nodding to that. Those of us who are not scientists feel that we have gained an immense amount by sparing the time to be present during these debates.

The last time we discussed human embryology and fertilisation was in 2001 when the previous regulations were debated, and before that it was in 1990. That is three occasions for a major detailed debate over nearly 20 years. That is hardly adequate for the extraordinarily fast-moving scientific scene, when literally month by month one learns about discoveries, breakthroughs and new pieces of research, many of which raise the most intense ethical considerations. One of the arguments for a bioethics commission would be precisely to enable us to keep in touch with scientific advance, discuss it and look most closely at some of the ethical issues that necessarily flow from it.

In passing, I shall deal with one point made earlier. My noble friend Lady Barker referred—she could not have said anything more important—to the need to maintain public confidence in scientific research and in support for scientific research. I stress that because we are in a delicate situation in which public confidence could be lost quite rapidly. There are already considerable concerns. Anyone who reads the red-topped tabloids will know how extensive those concerns are and the extent to which scientific results are characterised in a way that is possibly partly intended to frighten people. Consequently, if there is no sense that Parliament and other bodies that represent the public are in close touch with what is going on, it will be relatively easy to lose that essential confidence. In this country we have not done so, so far. However, as we proceed with more and more unusual scientific discoveries and research, that danger grows, month by month.

We have to ask why there was such a chilly response in the House to the concept of a human bioethics commission. I shall deal, one by one but very quickly, with the objections that have been raised. I believe that they are based on a fundamental misconception of what is being proposed by my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and of the arguments for a human bioethics commission. The first objection—I have to be frank—is that it would be a way in which the scientific luddites would get into a position to stop essential scientific research. Understandably there is a great deal of concern about scientific luddites, by which I mean people who simply have an obscurantist and negative view of any scientific research.

I find it hard to recognise that concern, which is about those appointed to a bioethics commission, given that the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, was precisely that the appointments should be made by the Secretary of State. That is in line with bioethics commissions in many other countries. In Australia the appointments are made by a Minister; in Germany the appointments are made by the Chancellor, the head of the Government; and in other countries

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one can see a consistent pattern of appointments taking that form. It is simply beyond belief that the Secretary of State could appoint a whole lot of obscurantist—let me be blunt—nutcases to sit on a bioethics commission. He or she would have to answer for that and the House would make life very hard for him or her if a whole set of appointments was essentially driven by dogmatism and not by an attempt to represent genuinely held and indeed intellectually well argued opinions across the whole spectrum.

The second argument is that the characteristic of religious and, again, obscurantist societies is to suggest that there should be a human bioethics commission. This simply flows from an extraordinary lack of knowledge, to which I will come back in a moment or two. The third objection, with which I will also deal briefly, is that it adds yet another layer of delay, regulation and general bureaucratic obstacles to be presented to scientific researchers.

I have already pointed out on the first argument that, in almost every case of a human bioethics commission anywhere in the rest of Europe and other parts of the world, particularly North America, the appointments are made by a Minister or a yet more senior figure, the head of government. That objection therefore falls.

I read the second argument repeated in Hansard extraordinarily often in our earlier debate. Let us pause for a moment: which countries have human bioethics commissions? Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada and the United States. Of this group, a subsection is regarded as consisting of some of the most liberal societies in the world: the Scandinavians. All have a human bioethics commission, some with slightly different names, but all addressing ethical issues in medicine and human biology. All are deeply concerned with trying to educate their publics in what is meant by and involved in scientific research.

In addition to those countries, I may include every one of our co-members of the European Union—with the exception of the recent central European members of the European Commission that have only just got the idea and come on board—which attempt to conduct some form of educative approach to the general public. In the most remarkable case—surprisingly, you might think, the Republic of Ireland—the bioethics commission not only produces detailed reports on issues of public controversy but, uniquely among this whole group of countries, invites the public to comment before the report is approved by the Irish DÃ il. Every single public comment is taken into account, discussed, considered and replied to, subject to parliamentary debate on the issue. There is no more complete effort at involving and empowering the public in discussions on scientific research than in the Republic of Ireland. However, others, notably Germany and the Scandinavian countries, make huge efforts in mounting seminars, discussions and sometimes meetings around the country to discuss these issues. Incidentally, there is a far more complete effort at education of the public in some of these countries—although not all—than in our own country, where much of the discussion is basically still in relatively private circumstances.

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One country in this list where the discussion of human biological ethics has been politicised is of course the United States of America. The President dismissed the whole bioethics commission and replaced it with his own appointees, making a condition of that appointment that people had to be opposed to embryonic stem cell research. That was not what our debate suggested in this House, which was something very different: that human bioethics commissions belong to those simply trying to oppose scientific research.

In this country, we undoubtedly have some remarkable debate on bioethics. We know the distinguished record of the Nuffield Foundation and the body associated with the University of St Andrews which has engaged in detailed consideration of bioethics issues in Scotland. There are two great differences between these British bodies and the rest of Europe. First, they have no accountability whatever to Parliament and the public, whereas all the other countries have. Secondly, they are not publicly financed, as are the bioethics commissions in all those other countries. That is bound to raise some questions about whether there are interests to be considered, given the financial support that comes, in this country, entirely from the private sector. Does that matter? Yes, as it raises questions about how objective our consideration of bioethics issues is.

5.30 pm

I recently went to a seminar at the Nuffield Foundation and was extremely impressed by it. It was very good indeed. However, that is hardly the point. There should be a body that is accountable to Parliament and to the public in a formal sense, not least because, frankly, COMETT—the body that brings together all the European bioethics committees—is the one that decides whether, for example, the European Commission should propose that cloning be forbidden throughout Europe. That is an important part of strengthening the regulations and issues which we have been discussing in this House. We are no longer a country entirely on our own. Few things are internationally more mobile than work on reproductive and other bioethical issues—I can hardly think of any. The brilliant exposition of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has just been on the effects of the transportation of these ethical issues from one country to another, and the fact that laws are not generalised but specific. The one area in which they become generalised is the European Union, where we have no official standing.

Before coming to my conclusion, let me say that voices have been raised, perfectly properly, suggesting that we should have a parliamentary Select Committee on bioethics. That is fine by me—it is an excellent idea. In no way is there an exclusive alternative between a bioethics commission charged with responsibility to educate and involve the public in discussion of such issues, and a parliamentary Select Committee charged with responsibility to scrutinise and supervise in those long gaps—I repeat, three debates in 20 years on the issue—which now eventuate crucial scientific questions in an extraordinarily fast-moving scene. A parliamentary Select Committee would be good, but it does not offer an alternative.

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I have to say something that I believe is highly relevant to the discussion. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, in an article printed in the Observer two weeks ago argued that, above all, bioethics was a question which properly belonged to the responsibility of Parliament. I am not going to disagree with her about that. That is a perfectly fair point—except, one has to add, speaking as someone who spent nearly 20 years as a Member in the other place, that there are two kinds of vote in Parliament. One is a free vote, where people decide, on the basis of what they have heard and after discussion, what they think the proper judgment ought to be. The other kind is a whipped vote. We have been speaking today—quite properly and with huge respect—about the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the Chief Whip, who is just retiring. I can think of few people whom I would regard as a more outstanding example of a sympathetic, thoughtful and careful Chief Whip than him. I add that I am long enough in the tooth in government to know that there have to be whipped votes a good deal of the time in order to get the Government’s business through—that is the Whips’ job. However, in a democracy, that is only a sustainable argument if one recognises that there are some areas where people’s consciences are involved in such a way that they should not be compelled to vote against them.

I believe, and I will put it very strongly, that the right process was that which took place during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 1990—one of the best Bills passed through this House. On this occasion, as we all know perfectly well, the government side has been very strictly whipped. That does not make it immoral, but it means that the outcomes do not reflect the judgments of this set of individuals as being not under pressure to move one way rather than the other.

A Government also have a right to push for Bills that they believe in. The Government have a right to press for this country to be the leading place in which human biology is conducted. There are arguments for that. However, we are entitled to ask, sometimes, what those motives might be. The Government may well see a remarkable opportunity for the country, one that arises from the gridlock in the United States over the issue of embryonic stem cell therapies and research. That has driven many outstanding scientists to this country from the US, where, unquestionably, there was bigotry on this issue on a large scale, and it came from the very top.

It is also the case that being the leading country in the field of human biology carries a huge responsibility to stay within the bounds of what prevents, as described by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury when last in this House, turning human beings into instruments for the purpose of commercial outcomes. We must be frank—the commercial pressures in this field are immense and potentially going to grow month by month. There is so much at stake—so much money—in people, for example, being able to determine such things as the sex of their own child.

This is not a kind of dream which I am having. Many noble Lords will know that the built-in hereditary preference for boys over girls has produced a surplus

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of what is estimated to be over 30 million young males in China, as against the women that they might one day marry. The social consequences of that are absolutely terrifying. They are consequences of producing a warrior people—a warrior race, if you like. We have to think about the social consequences. That is the argument for a human bioethics commission.

I will not go on, except to say that this case has been very much understated. We have to ask ourselves why every other European democracy, from Scandinavia to Spain, has a human bioethics commission or an equivalent. Here we go again in the United Kingdom—we do not need these things; we know what to do without having to bother with a bioethics commission. Would that were so. I believe there is potential against what are fragile dikes at present. I will mention just three before I sit down.

The first is the fragile dike of the embryo’s destruction after 14 days—that is absolutely necessary and right, but anyone who lives in this world knows that it is relatively fragile. The second fragile dike is that of forbidding cloning. We badly need international legislation but have not got it. There is no United Nations ban on cloning, nor yet even an EU one. There is huge pressure from people under the illusion that nothing could be better for the world than that they be immortalised for the future. Lastly, and I have mentioned it already and will therefore be brief, there is the refusal to allow the selection of a child’s sex. That, too, is a very fragile dike. If we are to remain in a civilised world—one that fully accepts the huge benefits of science but recognises that there are limits to what people should do in using other people for certain purposes—then these dikes must hold. We need all the help we can get in doing that. I beg to move.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, as one expects, makes a very eloquent case, but I wish to raise one or two other points which lead, I am afraid, to a different conclusion. This House is endowed with a wide range of Peers who are extremely well informed on matters of ethics and bioethics, and our current debates are testament to that fact. However, it is clear that we do not have a monopoly on this type of information, and it is important that we, and the Government as a whole, have access to carefully considered evidence on bioethical matters derived from a wide variety of shades of opinion and expertise outside this House. The question then is how we can best gain that information and advice. We have the excellent Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which the noble Baroness mentioned. It produces authoritative and valuable reports that have important educational value for the public as well as for us. However, its reports are on very important topics it has chosen itself, and it is not clear that it would take very seriously any specific topics chosen for it by the Government.

On the other hand, noble Lords have access to the remarkably effective Select Committee system. We have had some extremely valuable reports—one or two of which I have had the privilege of being involved with—for example, on the Assisted Dying Bill, which was chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and on stem cells. In both cases, we took evidence from very large numbers of people

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who had knowledge, expertise or views, and from the public. We took it from a very wide area and anyone who wished to express views was heard. We visited centres in the UK and abroad and produced very impressive reports at the end of all that. I believe they were very helpful to noble Lords. It is because we have this effective and available mechanism that I cannot support the idea that we should have yet another body, admirable though it may seem in principle, that would duplicate what we already have. Therefore, I cannot support the amendment.

Lord Patten: My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, and I recognise the clarity with which he said that he does not feel that the scientific community has a monopoly of wisdom in this area and neither does any other section of the community, whether politicians or whoever. That is right. We certainly agree on that point although, having listened to the rest of his excellent speech, I suspect on nothing else. I have only three points to make, and I shall not elaborate on the points I made in Committee.

First, the House has the opportunity to be ahead of the curve in reflecting the views of the population outside this House and another place. Despite the turmoil of the past few months since August—worries about the economy since the sub-prime crisis and the problems and gyrations in the stock market—it is a reasonable generality to say that, in the past few years, much public concern and discourse has concentrated as much on cultural issues as on political issues, all the more so because a lot of the economic debate of the past half century seems to have been rather laid to rest with the coming together of both the main political parties on public expenditure and their economic plans. That is why we have seen that concentration of the general public on matters such as the environment, climatic change and the overarching issue of care for creation, whether that creation came about by chance, as some might suggest, or by divine intervention, as those on the Bishops’ Bench would suggest.

Right behind that is growing concern about the dignity of the human person, what happens as a result of manipulating humankind and how fast it is occurring, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out. That can be summed up in the tabloid shorthand of “cloning”. The general public are becoming ever more doubtful that the ethical issues surrounding these matters are any longer empty of meaning or that they should be left as the preserve of the specialist—the religious, the scientists or whoever else. I am firmly convinced, and much persuaded by the argument made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that the public need a source of trusted guidance on these issues that rises above the fray of debate. They need a place of resort to which they can refer and to which they can reply that is above the fray of full-on scientific advance at all costs or the satisfaction, for example, of adult needs and wants above all else. I do not think science has anything to be frightened of, and I am rather concerned that scientific opinion seems rather frightened of a national bioethics commission.

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5.45 pm

My second point is that we need a national human bioethics commission that has representatives of different points of view—the strongly scientific and the strongly concerned with human dignity. I metaphorically tear up the rest of my speech on that because the points have been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

Thirdly, such a commission would need to be chaired by a woman or a man who was known to be dispassionately above the fray of debate, neither passionately for nor against this, that or the other. He or she would need to be a figure of real substance, deserving of the greatest public respect—the sort of person who we might seek out to oversee, for example, a committee on standards in public life. He or she would need to be generally recognised as having an Olympian and dispassionate view and as being able to deal with the whole range of views, from members who believed in sex selection or full reproductive cloning to the upholders, as they saw it, of the dignity of life. I cannot see what the Government are frightened of in this, particularly not our formidable new Chief Whip, who I am sure is frightened of nothing at all. Why should she be afeared of a national bioethics commission for proper debate that rises above—for the fourth and last time—the fray of scientific or religious dispute?

I hope that she will not take it amiss if, like a little lord echo, I say again what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams: it is a tragedy that so much of the proceedings of the Bill and the characteristically excellent ebb and flow of debate has been marred by the application of a heavy, three-line Whip on what in this place and in another place has traditionally been a matter for individual, conscientious discussion.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I know that the noble Lord raised—

Lord Patten: My Lords, when I have explained the point that I was making, I shall give way with my usual alacrity. I think that it is a mistake that the Government have chosen to use the juggernaut of a three-line Whip on something that in all my time in another place and in this place has been a matter for individual, conscientious decision. I give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I hesitated to intervene earlier; I intervened when the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, made a somewhat similar point—I do not wish to misrepresent her in any sense—during a previous stage of the Bill. The noble Lord made the point that whipping was somehow inappropriate and improper and that the outcome would be different if the Bill had not had,

I shall make two points again, because we may be conducting a dialogue of the deaf.

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