Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Avebury: My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend about the consultations which on 12 May Mr Damian Green said had already started. Stakeholders, such as the Children's Society, do not seem to be aware of that. Is it the intention to complete the consultation in six weeks, as we have heard? Will that be in time for them to incorporate any necessary amendments to the

2 Jun 2010 : Column 254

Secretary of State's powers to look after these children under alternative arrangements in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act which will come before your Lordships?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I will look into that point. I cannot give the noble Lord a definitive answer. All I can say is that we intend to proceed with this really fast. This review will not take very long. I hope that that timescale can be met.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on her new post. I was delighted to hear her say how well the previous Government had done, which I never thought that I would hear. This shows the complexity of this entire subject. Having been beaten around the Floor of this House again and again by my friends, particularly those who were Liberal Democrats in the past, people are realising how extremely difficult it is. When I looked at this in the past, the difficulty was that one might apply sanctions and restrictions on people that were even worse than having people in detention for a short period. Will the Minister confirm that we will not do that in trying to ensure that we get these sometimes quite cute people who use children as a way of getting around our laws and that we will ensure that we do not put the children in a worse circumstance?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. The object of the exercise clearly is to alleviate the situation of children and not to make it worse. I take the point that he is making and we will look at it in our discussion of the arrangements with the stakeholders to whom we are talking.

Synthetic Biology


3.37 pm

Asked By Lord Haskel

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, the Government are confident that the majority of synthetic biology, including the recent work published in Science, is covered by existing regulations that govern work with genetically modified organisms in the UK. In the future, there is a possibility that some synthetic biology involving the creation of artificial cells could fall outside the scope of the current regulations. An amendment to the regulations is being considered to ensure that artificial cells will also be covered.

Lord Haskel: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. This is his first time at the Dispatch Box answering a Question and I wish him every success. Although the Minister's particular responsibility is welfare reform, his department deals with health and safety. As he is answering this Question, should we conclude that the Government think that synthetic

2 Jun 2010 : Column 255

biology is a risky and dangerous topic or does the Minister agree with me that there are a lot of possible benefits?

Lord Freud: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that slightly back-handed compliment. I confess that synthetic biology is not perhaps the central part of my expertise. However, I am pretty confident that the rules and regulations governing this area, which is very important for the future, are robustly under control.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, the achievement by Dr Craig Venter, who has synthesised a chromosome and inserted it into a cell that is subsequently capable of replication, is clearly an important scientific development. It is so important that the implications of this discovery for the future are very substantial. Bearing in mind the regulations already in existence-to which the Minister referred-would it not be wise even at this stage to invite the Medical Research Council, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences to comment on the implications of this discovery for human and animal biology?

Lord Freud: My Lords, a process will start in September to look at the regulatory controls around this area. During that period, there will be a full consultation leading to changes to the regulations in order to reinforce protections, particularly around artificial cells. If all goes to plan, these should be ready by next April.

Lord Patel: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is not an artificial cell in the true sense because a cytoplasm of the cell came from an organism itself? That aside, systematic biology offers great potential for developments of all kinds. First, what is at stake here is to make sure that this technology is not patented. If it is, it will give a monopoly to a lot of other systematic biology technologies. Secondly, President Obama has already set up a bioethics advisory committee to advise him on the implications of this research. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea to do this in our country? Thirdly, if noble Lords attend or take part in next week's debate on genomic medicine, they might learn even more.

Lord Freud: My Lords, I look forward to attending that debate. As the noble Lord has pointed out, the experiment by Professor Craig Venter consisted essentially of taking the DNA from one bacterium, mycoplasma mycoides, modifying it and then putting it inside another bacterium, mycoplasma capricolum. Technically, that is not the creation of an artificial cell, but that is prospectively the next invention that could come along. That is why we need to make sure that the regulations will cover it.

I can inform the noble Lord that Craig Venter's experiment is being patented, although observations in the scientific press indicate that that does not represent a risk of him subsequently seizing control of the whole of synthetic biology.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord on his visit to the Dispatch Box for the first time as a Minister. As a former parliamentary member of the Medical Research Council, whatever the technicalities here, can I encourage the Minister to

2 Jun 2010 : Column 256

think carefully about the proposal that the Government should consult distinguished medical, academic and, perhaps, spiritual people about the potential development of this technology at this stage rather than, as has been the case too often in the past, leaving such consultations until it is too late?

Lord Freud: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. This is an important development and the UK takes a leading role in the area. We have several research establishments right at the forefront of this development, but I would take back from him the question of whether we should look at this brave new world-if you like-earlier rather than later. At the moment these are very early days in the development of this science.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, in welcoming the Minister to his position, as I do, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, expressed some surprise that his area of responsibility was relevant. However, it may be of interest to note that the United States Congress responded immediately to this development and that it was the Energy and Commerce Committee which undertook the hearing because genome synthesis is likely to be helpful in the creation of new forms of biofuel energy. Given that, would the Minister find it helpful if your Lordships' House were to respond in the same way by bringing together not only medical and academic research, but also the ethical and scientific wisdom that is available in this House? Indeed, I wonder if one of the committees of the House would be prepared to undertake an investigation of the kind that has been referred to. Does he think, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that that would be a helpful intervention by this House?

Lord Freud: My Lords, formally, BIS is the relevant authority in terms of supporting this new industry, not the DWP, which is in control of the safety aspects. However, that is an interesting proposal and we shall think about it.

Commissioner for Standards

Motion to Approve

3.45 pm

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, as I announced in a Written Statement last Tuesday, a board which was convened to recommend a candidate for the post of Commissioner for Standards for the House of Lords selected Paul Kernaghan, a former Chief Constable of Hampshire. As noble Lords will recall, the creation of this post was agreed by the House on 30 November last year. I therefore beg to move that the House do appoint Mr Paul Kernaghan as Commissioner for Standards for the House of Lords.

Motion agreed.

2 Jun 2010 : Column 257

Deputy Chairmen of Committees

Administration and Works

House Committee


Privileges and Conduct

Membership Motions

3.46 pm

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Deputy Chairmen of Committees

Administration and Works

House Committee

2 Jun 2010 : Column 258


Privileges and Conduct

Motions agreed.

Gaza Flotilla


3.46 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat a Statement made in

2 Jun 2010 : Column 259

another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows.

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House on the events surrounding the interception of boats in the Free Gaza flotilla, the immediate action the Government have taken and our planned next steps.

In the early hours of 31 May the Israeli defence forces intercepted six of the eight boats sailing in the Free Gaza flotilla. The incident led to injury and death for a number of passengers, mainly on the vessel the "Mavi Marmara". We await details of all the casualties and fatalities but it is clear that many will be Turkish citizens. The Prime Minister and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to offer our condolences. The six intercepted vessels were brought to shore in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Two of the boats had been delayed by mechanical difficulties and remain at sea. We believe they are en route to Gaza.

I can inform the House that it appears that a total of 37 British nationals were involved in Sunday's events, including 11 dual nationals. We have so far received access to 28 of these individuals, one of whom was deported yesterday. We understand that four more British nationals agreed to be deported this morning and that the remaining British nationals are likely to be transferred to the airport soon. We have expressed our disappointment to the Israeli Government about the levels of preparedness on their part and the fact that we have not yet been given full information about British nationals detained and access to them. We are urgently pressing the Israelis to resolve the situation within hours.

There is real, understandable and justified anger at the events which have unfolded. The position of the Government is as follows. Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza. However we have made it clear in public and to the Israeli Government that we deeply deplore the loss of life and look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation. The UN Security Council and the European Union have rightly condemned the violence which resulted in the loss of these lives. We have demanded urgent information about and access to all UK nationals involved. Their welfare is our top priority at this time, along with support to their families, who are understandably very worried. We are seriously concerned about the seizure of British nationals in international waters and this aspect of the Israeli operation must form a key part of the investigation into events.

The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister, I have spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my honourable Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has been in close contact with the Israeli ambassador in London. The embassy in Tel Aviv has been in constant contact with the Israeli authorities. I am grateful to those honourable and right honourable Members who have already been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in relation to their constituents and their families and have provided information. We recognise the intense concern for those involved and the need to keep Members updated.

2 Jun 2010 : Column 260

Israel has told us that it wants to move as quickly as possible to deport those people from the flotilla currently held in Israel. If they agree, they will be deported very quickly. Those who remain unwilling to leave will be allowed to stay for 72 hours in detention, which is the time limit allowed for them to appeal against deportation. My understanding is that after that they will be deported. It is our understanding that the Israelis have also begun to transfer to Jordan detainees from countries that are not represented in Israel. We understand that those individuals who were allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding will have their cases examined in line with Israeli legal advice. We do not currently believe there are any British nationals in this last category, though I hope the House will appreciate that the situation is fluid.

Our partners in the international community are working, as are we, to facilitate the swift release of those detained. Turkey is sending six planes to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport to fly out its nationals. The Turkish authorities have indicated that detainees of other countries may join these flights. We are exploring whether this is feasible for British nationals.

The UK has played its full part in the European Union and United Nations in agreeing on the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into the events. Our goal is a process which ensures full accountability for the events that occurred and commands the confidence of the international community, including via international participation. Further discussions are taking place in other international fora, including at NATO and in the UN Human Rights Council. We will take the same principled stand across all our diplomatic efforts and stress to the Israeli Government the need for them to act with restraint and in line with their international obligations given that their actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

The events aboard the flotilla were very serious and have captured the world's attention. However, they should not be viewed in isolation. They arise from the unacceptable and unsustainable situation in Gaza, which is a cause of public concern here in the UK and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted. That view was confirmed in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860, which called for sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and which called on states to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation. That this has not happened is a tragedy. It is essential not only that there is unfettered access to meet the humanitarian needs of the Gazan people but also that the reconstruction of homes, livelihoods and trade be permitted to take place. The Palestinian economy, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, is an essential part of a viable Palestinian state that I hope will one day live alongside Israel in peace and security.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page