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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, having spent 12 years in the dungeon here—meaning a room in the basement where there is no window—can the Chairman of Committees assure me that everyone will have natural daylight and air in their rooms in the new development?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, when we eventually go to the sunlit uplands of 2015, when we occupy the whole island site, I am sure that everybody will have a palace.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, can the Chairman of Committees remind us when the Law Lords are due to leave and how their accommodation is to be reallocated?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is a very good question. As I understand it, the Law Lords will be leaving next year and that will free up some 26 rooms on the second floor.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does all this fresh accommodation mean that there will be somewhere for Ministers to have talks and meetings with Foreign Ministers? There is, in my experience, a tremendous shortage of such rooms now.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, there will be more meeting rooms. In the first phase for Millbank House, there will be, I think, five meeting rooms, which the House rather lacks at the moment. When we get towards the whole of the occupation of Millbank in 2015 we also need to review the accommodation in the palace itself, which should facilitate the type of meeting rooms to which the noble Baroness referred.

Universities: A-levels

2.59 pm

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, A-levels remain the best single indicator of success at undergraduate level and continue to be central to the admissions process. The recent report by the 1994 Group of universities shows widespread welcome for changes being made to A-levels to ensure that they provide the right level of stretch and challenge for those going on to higher education. The same report was also positive about the use that universities would make of the new diplomas in admissions.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind Answer. I hope that he will not think me discourteous if I say that he is being overoptimistic. Increasingly, large numbers of senior

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academics have questioned the value of A-levels, especially for the more demanding academic courses. Further, many schools are changing to alternatives to A-levels; that is, the international baccalaureate and the Pre-U course. Will the Minister reassure me that my anxieties are groundless?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, all I can do is quote from the report by the universities, to which I referred in my Answer. The report was by the 1994 Group of universities, which includes Exeter, Durham, Essex, Reading, Warwick and York. In a statement at the launch of the report, Professor Steve Smith, who is vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chairman of the 1994 Group, said:

We see no reason to believe that the universities lack confidence in the current system.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the immediate needs is for the QCA and the awarding bodies to review a number of the applied A-levels so that they provide relevant, challenging and motivating courses for young people?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced in October that, based on the advice of the expert advisory group that he appointed at that time, we would bring forward for consultation our 14-to-19 qualification strategy early this year, which will include consideration of applied A-levels within the overall A-level offer.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, while I welcome what the Minister said about stretch and challenge, may I ask him all the same whether he agrees that A-levels should never have been termed the “gold standard”? Is he aware that many, good sixth-form teachers have always considered that teaching to the A-level syllabus involves a dumbing-down of sixth-form education and that, for far too many young people, the struggle to obtain, let us say, a D and an E at A-level represents a travesty of what their education might have been?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, neither I nor the current Government started calling A-levels the “gold standard”. The issue here is whether universities have confidence in them. All the evidence that we have shows that they have confidence in the existing A-level and also welcome the changes that we are making, which include reducing the number of units in A-level from six to four, the introduction of the extended projects and a new A* grade to reward best performance. We are mindful of the need to continue improving the A-level, but do not see any lack of confidence in them on the part of universities.

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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, does the Minister accept that great confusion exists about the wide range of school-based qualifications? There is a danger of that getting worse when the new diplomas get under way. What are the Government doing to ensure that people understand the value of the new diplomas? Will they not consider a more integrated system that can easily be understood by students, universities and employers, and will avoid closing any doors too early on any young student?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the introduction of the diplomas will involve a rationalisation of a very large number of current qualifications. Part of the reason for bringing them in is to avoid the confusion, complexity and duplication which exist at present. The noble Baroness is right that young people need to be given the right advice in schools, which is why the role of careers and Connexions advisers is vital. However, as the diplomas are introduced—they are being introduced progressively for only a small number of students from September—we will ensure that advice on them is made available, too.

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, what discussions are going on within the universities about the possibility of introducing a requirement for a qualification in a foreign language, irrespective of the degree subject to be pursued? This might be an addition to the current offers, based on A-level achievement. Would the Minister welcome such an additional requirement?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the matriculation requirements for universities are, rightly, a matter for the universities themselves. They are not a matter for the Government.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I think everybody understands what A-levels are and the qualifications necessary to achieve them. Does the Minister agree that we want to make sure that the general public understand any new qualification that is brought forward? Public confidence is very necessary.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Baroness. That is precisely why, in respect of the new diploma—the substantial reform taking place in this area—the introduction is progressive and will take place over the next few years. It goes hand in hand with a big extension of careers advice and public information on the diplomas, as well as engagement with employers and the higher education world. It is vital that employers support these qualifications.

Lord Broers: My Lords, as the Minister knows, I have long been concerned that A-levels force students into far too narrow a path. It is clear that many noble Lords agree. The majority of students getting into our top universities to study science and engineering are essentially required to study only science and maths subjects if they are to be successful in their admission. They can clearly benefit from a much broader range

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of subjects. Will the Minister take on board what a lot of noble Lords have said today and introduce an alternative to A-levels, and be clear about the recommendations for those alternatives, so that students have a much wider choice of subjects?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the international baccalaureate is already available. This provides a more broadly based post-16 qualification, meeting the criteria that the noble Lord has set out. That is available at the moment in an increasing number of state schools and colleges, and within the private school sector. It is the Government’s policy that it should be available from at least one provider, be it a college or a school, in each local authority area. However, we do not believe that it is right to deprive young people of the ability to choose to study A-levels, as they can at the moment. As the noble Lord, with his immense experience of the university world, will be only too well aware, opinions in the maths and science community are by no means unanimous on this subject. There are many admissions tutors and teaching professors, including some in our top universities, who would not welcome any dilution of the concentration which sixth-form students are currently able to give to give to maths and science. That is part of the reason why there is at the moment no consensus about the move towards a more broadly based baccalaureate system post-16.


3.08 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, this afternoon we have the Third Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. For a Third Reading, we have quite a few amendments to consider. I hope that noble Lords will bear with me if I remind them of our rules on Third Reading. First, the Companion makes it clear that arguments fully deployed at earlier stages should not be repeated at length on Third Reading. Secondly, in January 2006 the Procedure Committee agreed that the practice of the House is normally to resolve major points of difference by the end of Report, and to use Third Reading to tidy up the Bill. Peers who have tabled amendments that are similar or identical to amendments debated in some detail at earlier stages will no doubt reflect on this guidance as we approach this afternoon’s debates.

I should also alert the House that there is a Statement today in the Commons entitled “Inquiry: HMP Woodhill”. With the leave of the House, it will be repeated by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath at a convenient time after 3.30 pm.

National Insurance Contributions Bill

3.09 pm

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

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Joint Committee on Human Rights

Intergovernmental Organisations Committee

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I beg to move the two Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Lord Bowness be appointed a member of the Select Committee in place of Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, resigned; and that Baroness Eccles of Moultonbe appointed a member of the Select Committee in place of Lord Bowness, resigned.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motions agreed to.

Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill [HL]

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

3.10 pm

Read a third time.

Clause 3 [Prohibitions in connection with embryos]:

Lord Walton of Detchant moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, within the past few weeks there has been a major development in the field of human neuromuscular disease in that the Medical Research Council has established a major research centre for the study of such diseases jointly between University College London and Newcastle University. An inaugural symposium was held last Friday at which I was privileged to be present and to hear an outstanding lecture by one of the world’s experts on mitochondrial disease, Professor Salvatore DiMauro from New York.

I am not going to be repetitive as I heard what the noble Baroness said about arguments previously set out at Second Reading and in Committee. Mitochondrial disorders are a cruel class of inherited disease that are life-threatening conditions and are coupled with great unpredictability about how future children will be affected. They can include blindness, fatal liver failure, stroke-like episodes, mental retardation with intractable epilepsy, profound muscular weakness, diabetes and deafness. There are 29 mitochondrial genes, but in them there are 200 mutations, all of them harmful, as Professor DiMauro said last week.

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The subject of this amendment is a process whereby it is theoretically possible to remove from a woman with the mitochondrial abnormalities in the cytoplasm of her ovum the nucleus containing 99.95 per cent of her DNA and transplant into a cell from which the nucleus has been removed a donor ovum with normal cytoplasm and normal mitochondria. Recently, Professor Douglass Turnbull from Newcastle University has taken matters further. Through a simple process of in vitro fertilisation an ovum from a woman with mitochondrial disease has been fertilised by her partner or husband’s sperm, and as soon as the first cell is formed it contains two pronuclei, one from the woman and one from the partner or husband containing 100 per cent of the partner’s DNA and 99.95 per cent of her DNA. That process has been successfully carried out under licence from the HFEA. The licence, however, does not allow that fertilised ovum to be transplanted into the uterus of the female from whom the original ovum was derived.

Professor Turnbull has completed excellent research in animals since he received a licence in 2005. The embryos created by this IVF technique have proved to be perfectly normal and viable. The purpose of this amendment, crucial to the future of huge numbers of individuals with this group of mitochondrial diseases, is not to require that the issue has to be further reconsidered by introducing regulations to be debated by both Houses of Parliament, but to enable the HFEA, after careful consideration of all the ethical and scientific consequences, to award a licence for treatment by the implantation of fertilised ova, with the consequence that the women in question will be able to have normal children with no risk of mitochondrial disease. I beg to move.

3.15 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the difficulty with this amendment is that it was introduced at Committee stage but was not reintroduced at Report stage. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, was right to remind us at the outset of proceedings this afternoon about the guidance of both the Procedure Committee report of 2006 and of the Companion to the Standing Orders. This issue ought to have been concluded at Report stage, rather than here at Third Reading. I have no doubt that there is a lot in what the noble Lord said. He is one of the great authorities on mitochondria. But there are differences between Members of your Lordships’ House over the way in which we should proceed—whether we should create embryonic stem cells to deal with this disease or whether we can use reprogrammed adult cells.

In many ways, this amendment is linked to the next one, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, which is about purposes of infertility. These two amendments could include the making of embryos with altered nuclear and mitochondrial DNA cells added to the embryo other than their own cells. An embryo would not need to be made by fertilisation. This amendment cannot be considered in isolation. It would be better considered when this Bill goes to another place and is considered in Committee there. It is best left to the proceedings that will ensue there rather than being resolved today.

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It was not considered in the scrutiny committee, it was not considered at Report stage in our proceedings and, as we do not have the chance to reflect properly on the implications of what my noble friend has said to the House today, it would be better resolved at a later stage of the Bill.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government have made clear on a number of occasions our recognition of the serious and debilitating medical problems that can result from mitochondrial diseases and our support for research into understanding and developing treatments for those diseases. The noble Lord, Lord Walton, may recall that the Government accepted the recommendation made in June 2000 by the Chief Medical Officer’s expert group on stem cell research that this type of research should be permitted subject to the controls of the 1990 Act and that we subsequently brought forward regulations to achieve that. The Government are aware that promising research is under way that could lead to the development of methods for avoiding serious mitochondrial diseases. We are grateful to the noble Lord for his update following Friday’s symposium. We took full account of this research in drawing up our proposals in the draft Bill and subsequently in the Bill presented to this House.

The Bill provides, in new Section 3ZA in Clause 3, a power to make regulations covering eggs or embryos that have had applied to them, in prescribed circumstances, a process designed to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease. There is always a powerful case to be made for anticipating future developments in the Bill so that no time is lost if research bears fruit quickly. However, in this case there are a number of reasons why the Government have opted to come back to Parliament with future regulations to be decided by affirmative resolution, and we believe that this remains the most appropriate route. I assure noble Lords that we keep developments closely under review, as does the HFEA with its horizon scanning panel.

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