HC Deb 07 March 1985 vol 74 cc1188-93 4.41 pm
The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on commercial surrogacy.

Over the last few months there has been increasing concern about the practice of surrogacy — that is, the practice whereby a woman agrees to become pregnant with the intention that the resulting child should be handed over to another couple. This concern has related in particular to the activities of agencies which operate to promote surrogacy arrangements on a commercial basis. We also now have the results of the consultation which we initiated on the Warnock report on "Human Fertilisation and Embryology". Although there was some difference of view about the general principle of surrogacy, there was almost total agreement on the unacceptability of surrogacy undertaken on a commercial basis.

When the Warnock report was debated in this House last November I said that the Government would consider urgently whether clarification of the law on surrogacy was necessary. This we have now done. It is quite clear that the question of surrogacy raises wide issues not just of general principle but also about, for example, the legal status of children and the involvement of professional people in facilitating surrogacy arrangements. We have concluded that it would be right to deal with these questions in the comprehensive legislation which is needed to deal with the whole range of issues raised by the Warnock report.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the existing position is unsatisfactory. The case of Baby Cotton demonstrated the difficulties which commercial surrogacy arrangements can cause and the widespread public concern about them. There are almost certainly other similar cases in prospect and there is an incentive for commercial agencies to increase their activities before any general legislation can be brought forward.

The Government believe that commercial surrogacy is in principle undesirable and the commercial agencies should be prevented from operating in this country. I shall therefore shortly be bringing forward a Bill to achieve that purpose. It will prohibit such agencies from recruiting women as surrogate mothers and from making surrogacy arrangements; and it will prohibit advertising of their services.

The objectives of the Bill will not be to resolve all the issues in the field of surrogacy. It will, however, give rapid effect to the widespread view that this is not an area where commercial agencies should operate and will avoid a possible increase in the number of surrogacy arrangements procured by them. I hope that the House will agree that action of this kind is justified and urgent.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

We welcome the Secretary of State's statement outlining his intention to introduce a Bill to deal with the profit-making element of surrogate parenthood. He is right to concentrate on a short Bill which deals with this aspect of a difficult and sensitive subject. It is unfortunate that one case involving large sums of money should have clouded a more thoughtful discussion of the complicated issues. I am glad that he left open the wider and more informed debate.

No one wants to see women exploited, and the genuine desires of infertile parents to have a child must be thought about carefully. When the time comes, will the Secretary of State make available to the House the results of the consultations that he has carried out following the publication of the Warnock report, because that will help the House to come to some conclusions?

I should have preferred that part of Warnock and the part dealing with research on embryos to form part of a wider package introduced comprehensively, but, having said that, I must say that we are strongly opposed to commercial agencies making money out of people's miseries and welcome the Secretary of State's statement that this aspect of the matter is to be covered.

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. I shall, of course, respond to her request and make the results of the consultations that followed the publication of Warnock available to the House. Perhaps I can consider the form in which they can be published and made known. Plainly, I wish to move quickly in an area where there is most anxiety. Warnock's unanimous recommendation was to ban commercial surrogacy agencies. That has been supported by virtually all the organisations which have commented on the Warnock report. That does not in any way invalidate the case for a more comprehensive Bill, but, equally, we should act quickly and certainly against this abuse.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed by his hon. Friends, who will be happy to facilitate the passage of the legislation that he will bring forward shortly? He will recall that the original case that drew public atention to the matter involved an American lady. Can he comment on the international dimensions of the problem? How extensive will the legislation that he is proposing be? To what extent has he been able to obtain co-operation from other countries — in particular, the United States — in dealing with this extremely distasteful matter?

Mr. Fowler

The Bill will essentially affect arrangements, agencies and advertising in this country. In bringing forward the proposals we have been very much influenced by the Baby Cotton case and some of the things that have taken place in the United States; for example, the case of a handicapped child who was born as a result of one of these arrangements and was then rejected by the commissioning parents. One does not want that type of thing to happen in this country.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Is the Secretary of State aware that he will find supporters in all parts of the House for his decision to bring in this Bill? Many of us also welcome his recognition that there are some aspects of Warnock which cannot wait for a comprehensive Bill, which may be some years away. Does he believe that a contract for a surrogate mother to hand over a baby at birth can be legally enforced? If it cannot, does he feel that that issue can await a second Bill?

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's general support for the intention to legislate. A contract is unenforceable, but I believe that it would be wise for the House to consider all those issues, including the legal status of the child, which is completely unsatisfactory at the moment. These issues will, I am afraid, have to be dealt with in general legislation. These are matters which are extremely complex, but none of them should invalidate the case for acting speedily where we can.

Mrs. Anna McCurley (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other members of the Cabinet who have pressed so strongly for the introduction of this legislation. Many millions of people and the ethical committees of the medical profession in this country will be satisfied with this as a first step towards more consideration of Warnock. Will he cast a sympathetic eye on those who are involved in a similar tangle to that of Baby Cotton's parents and issue guidelines to those who are responsible for the safe keeping of those children when they are born? There will inevitably be cases before the legislation takes place.

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for this measure. I pay tribute to her for all the work that she has done in this area, and I shall give thought to what she has said. Clearly, she recognises that the Bill is a first step. Equally, she is right in saying that there is nothing that we can do in the Bill that will affect children who are to be born in the next two or three months. However, I shall see whether there is anything further that I can usefully do in terms of guidance.

Mrs. Renée Short: (Wolverhampton, North-East)

As the right hon. Gentleman has explained, surrogacy is a means of helping infertile couples to have a child. We need to bear in mind the severe complications and difficulties that that situation can create. I think that the whole House welcomes the right hon. Gentleman's statement about removing the commercial aspects of surrogacy. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, however, that senior medical geneticists working on infertility and genetic diseases are concerned about the future of their work? Can he assure us that such work will be able to continue and will have his support?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Lady takes us into areas that are at the heart of the Government's consideration of the Warnock report. The private Member's Bill of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) is also involved. We are trying to act now in a specific and limited way. I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to wait for the more general legislation.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The right hon. Gentleman's statement will be welcomed in Northern Ireland. Can he confirm that the Bill will apply to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I confirm that the legislation will apply to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I should like to add to the warm welcome that this proposal has received from the House. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the encouraging things about the proposed Bill is that it will allay public fears over an especially intense area of the Warnock controversy, and that more reasoned discussion of other areas which demand such discussion may therefore become possible?

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that he is right.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

If a human act is intrinsically good or bad, how can the payment or non-payment for that act alter its essential nature?

On another plane, if all surrogacy — commercial or non-commercial— were to be made illegal, would we not avoid a great many legal and sociological problems?

Mr. Fowler

The option of acting on surrogacy in general is still open. I am sure that many hon. Members will have sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said, but I think he will agree that there is no consensus on the matter, as there is in the case of commercial surrogacy.

I am concerned to move quickly in an area of great concern, on which, as hon. Members' reactions this afternoon have suggested, there is general agreement. The aim is to prevent the present position from getting worse. I hope that, whatever aspirations hon. Members may have about the final form of the legislation, they will support this limited but valuable Bill.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not true that the surrogate service which the Secretary of State is illegalising will still be available to any British national who goes to the United States or to the EEC? Should not the Government introduce some disincentive to those who would wish to use that service? The right hon. Gentleman could ensure that there was no possibility of patriating children who were the product of a surrogate relationship.

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman takes us a long way from the intention of the Bill. For one thing, British law cannot apply in the United States, and there is no sense in thinking that it can.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I warmly welcome the Bill and the speed with which it is being introduced. My right hon. Friend has spoken of his intention eventually to introduce comprehensive legislation on the Warnock report. When is such legislation likely to appear before the House, and does my right hon. Friend feel in any way inhibited by the fact that the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill is now under consideration?

Mr. Fowler

I do not feel inhibited by that Bill, but clearly the House's decision on it will affect the final form of the legislation which the Government put before the House.

The Government intend to introduce a comprehensive Bill dealing with the wider issues considered by Warnock. I believe that that is what the House would wish us to do. I cannot at this stage give a commitment about timing, but the Government wish to introduce such a Bill as soon as they possibly can.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement about the abolition of the commercial market in surrogacy, but the question of the legal status of children born in surrogacy, and other major issues in the Warnock report, remain to be considered. I hope that the comprehensive Bill will appear sooner rather than later. Right hon. and hon. Members seem to assume that it will be years before we have a comprehensive Bill which legislates in detail. I would be very disappointed if we had to wait for years. We should act now, sensibly and comprehensively, but as a matter of urgency, on all the issues in the Warnock report.

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree that we should act sooner rather than later. The Government are acting with exceptional speed in this matter. We debated Warnock only last November and I now propose to introduce legislation on part of it, which seems to be generally welcome to both sides of the House. Consultation with all the interested parties has taken place. The Government cannot be accused of delay.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

May I join in the general welcome given to the statement and to the Bill when it appears? However, does my right hon. Friend agree that however much we may want to assuage the longing of childless couples for a child, the nation has been deeply affronted by the idea that this could be done by offering an embryo or a foetus, or the pregnancy services of a stranger, through a commercial agency for money? We are heartily glad to see that one of those practices is promptly to be banned. When can we expect legislation on the others?

Mr. Fowler

I have just answered my hon. Friend's final point. I entirely agree that is is unacceptable to sell children or to charge for pregnancy. The risk of exploitation is one of the reasons why the Government are acting with such speed.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

As there is no Scottish Office Minister on the Bench, can the Secretary of State assure us that his legislation will apply to Scotland, which has a different legal system?

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) referred to the difficulties of ensuring that people do not go to the United States for this service. Is there not a case for consulting Ministers in the EEC with a view to reaching an appropriate agreement?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, the Bill will apply to Scotland, I shall consider whether the hon. Gentleman's second point can be taken further.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's response, but I hope that he will resist the invitation from my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Ross) to include non-commercial surrogacy. There would be no general support for that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most effective way of stopping the operation of commercial surrogacy agencies is to ensure that the contracts are unenforceable, that no money can be required to be paid under such contracts, and that if money has been paid it is recoverable?

Mr. Fowler

I shall consider my hon. Friend's latter point. I have sympathy with his general argument, but a Bill which prevents commercial or fee-charging agencies from recruiting surrogate mothers and making surrogacy arrangements will have an impact on the problem which my hon. Friend and I want to tackle. I realise that the inclusion of non-commercial surrogacy would not be acceptable to all. It has deliberately not been included in the Bill, which depends on agreement on both sides of the House to achieve progress. We do not have much time in which to get the Bill through.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

My right hon. Friend has made it clear that the Bill will make commercial agencies illegal. Will it also be illegal for individuals to be surrogate mothers for gain? Would it be possible at the same time to make illegal the implantation of human embryos in animals?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend's latter question goes much wider than the Bill. The Bill will do three things —prevent commercial or fee-charging agencies from recruiting surrogate mothers, ban agencies and individuals from advertising, and create penalties for offences. It is a limited but valid measure.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread support for his categorical assertion that this is a first step? When does he hope the Bill will be on the statutue book? Can he assure us that the penalties laid down by the Bill will be sufficient to deter those who would traffic in human beings?

Mr. Fowler

I strongly hope so. I hope that I shall be able to introduce the Bill before Easter — in the next week or so. The message that people will take from this is that the Government are determined to act against such agencies. I think that that message will be understood.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

I should like to add my thanks and that of my constituents for what my right hon. Friend has done and his speedy reaction. He said that the Bill was a first step. As this is a holding operation, and in view of anxiety expressed in the House about experiments on embryos, will my right hon. Friend consider giving a fair wind to the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell)?

Mr. Fowler

There are various views on that. The Government are neutral. I am not a member of the Committee considering the right hon. Gentleman's Bill, but it seems that he is well able to look after himself and he appears to be making progress in Committee.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Although I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement, does he agree that it flows from several of the questions that have been asked today that many complex issues in the Warnock report are interrelated and that piecemeal legislation is undesirable? Does he have any plans for further interim legislation, or will the next step be a comprehensive Bill?

Mr. Fowler

The next stage must be comprehensive legislation. However, I do not regard this as piecemeal but as action against a well-defined evil. Most right hon. and hon. Members regard it as such. The Bill does not in any way invalidate the case for comprehensive legislation, and the Government will continue to prepare it.