HC Deb 14 February 1995 vol 254 cc906-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

10.39 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group and together with colleagues from both sides of the House, I raised during the debates on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 the need for the Secretary of State to ensure that the membership of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was both balanced and credible.

Some of those who supported me in expressing those views are here tonight. I thank them for their support at this late hour. I welcome in particular the hon. Members for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant).

I have sought the debate tonight because it is clear that those calls were not heeded, and that there are fundamental flaws in the structure, the membership, the partisanship and the funding of the authority. In recent months, it has displayed a breathtaking superficiality of understanding and paucity of logic in its work.

Our criticisms of the authority were set out in some detail in a document entitled "A Response from the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-life Group to the Report of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on Donated Ovarian Tissue in Embryology Research and Assisted Conception", copies of which have been widely circulated and have also been deposited in the Library.

That document followed the success of my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston in bringing forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in the last Session to prevent the use in infertility treatment of eggs scavenged from the ovaries of aborted baby girls.

The public rightly viewed such proposed practices with considerable repugnance and ethical outrage. The House and another place debated carefully the proposals of my hon. Friend and enacted them. Yet the then chairman of the HFEA, at a press conference to launch its own pronouncements on the matter, accused my hon. Friend of seeking to rush a clause into a piece of legislation where it clearly does not belong". I believe that such a suggestion is an affront to the House, and I hope that the Secretary of State will remind the new chairman of the HFEA that she derives her authority from Parliament and is answerable to it—not the other way around.

When the HFEA undertook what was immediately exposed as a charade of a consultation exercise on that matter and on the use of eggs from adult cadavers, it demonstrated not only its predisposition to allow such practices to go ahead, but a total lack of understanding of the moral views opposed to such techniques, which are held by the majority of people in this country and by the majority of hon. Members.

The report of the HFEA on the matters made it clear that it was merely the existence of an unfavourable "social attitude" that dissuaded it from approving such practices. That conclusion is reinforced by the authority's statement that it has "no objection in principle" to the use of eggs from cadavers, and that it "will reconsider" the licensing of such treatment at a later date.

The objections to the practice overlap to a large extent with the objections to using eggs from foetuses. The authority has no real objection "in principle" to either practice, and there is no reason to doubt that the authority's apparently less equivocal rejection of the use of foetal eggs is only as a result of the practice already having been made illegal. I hazard the assumption that the authority is biding its time only until public opinion can be massaged and swayed in favour of those repugnant practices.

The report of the HFEA demonstrates that the authority is fundamentally out of touch with the moral concerns of the people of this country, and that the dominant philosophy of those on the authority is that of the technocrat who sees scientific progress as the source of all human happiness, and is blind to any greater moral consideration. The authority was patronising in irs clear indication that moral objections cannot possibly constitute a genuine reason for not doing something, and that they are merely irrational superstitions which must be smiled at in the short term and defeated in the long term by extolling the benefits of technology.

As we said in our report, that such a body should have been put in charge of regulating reproductive technology is a manifest case of the fox acting as gamekeeper, and confirms the view, set out in the previous Session, in early-day motion 1244, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and myself, that the authority is in need of urgent reform and that its membership is not the 'broad cross section of society' claimed by the Secretary of State for Health; notes that not one of its 21 members believes in the protection of the human embryo from destructive experiments and that among the inspectors it has appointed are employees of hospitals with a direct financial interest in fertility treatments involving the abuse of the human embryo; and believes that last year's staff cost of £¼ million, operating payments of £½ million, and rules which require 50 per cent. of funding to come from licensing, build an intolerable system of financial inducements into the sales of licences, rather than a sound system of ethics. Even if we were to accept as inevitable the bias in the membership and the views of the authority, and the fundamental financial pressures to permit ever more abuse of the human embryo, we would have hoped that we could at least look to it to monitor effectively the health effects on children conceived through the techniques that it licenses.

When considering perinatal mortality, it has always been accepted that, for every baby who dies, others live on suffering from some abnormality. It is an alarming dereliction of its duties, therefore, that the HFEA has not initiated or encouraged any research revealing the rates of malformation or long-term medical problems of children conceived by in vitro fertilisation.

Figures in the authority's third annual report, in 1994, show a perinatal death rate of 25.8 per 1,000 babies born from the most popular IVF technique. Although the authority, somewhat glibly, says that that is due to the high rate of multiple pregnancies, even singleton IVF pregnancies end in a perinatal death rate of 15.6 per 1,000, which is more than double the overall perinatal death rate for England and Wales of just 7.6 deaths per 1,000. Furthermore, for as yet unexplained reasons, the latest perinatal death rate for IVF babies is admitted by the authority to show a marked increase on the 1991 figures.

In January last year, Dr. Valerie Beral, director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's epidemiology unit at Oxford, described as "crazy and irrational" the fact that no system of monitoring IVF children had been established in this country.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am sure that, like me, many hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the hon. Lady's initiative in bringing this subject to the House's attention. I agree with her that it is disgraceful that not a single member of the HFEA holds the sanctity of human life in any reverence: that helps us to understand the decisions that it has made.

Did the hon. Lady see the results of research carried out in France, published in last week's New Scientist? It was discovered that, after being frozen, mouse embryos were more likely to develop a disability of some kind. Is the hon. Lady aware that no work has been done on those matters in this country, and does she agree that both the HFEA and the Department should examine the issue with a view to introducing new protocols to prevent the freezing of embryos and consequent unnecessary disabilities?

Mrs. Winterton

The hon. Gentleman has made some valid points. More research is definitely needed, and the article in the New Scientist provides much food for thought.

Although the Minister cited in a recent parliamentary answer—on 14 December, to be found in column 685 of Hansard—the work of Dr. Beral, published in 1990, he had clearly not kept abreast of developments. If he had, he would have noted that Dr. Beral had told The Observer on 9 November 1994 that, in 1991, she had been compelled to abandon her work by those with a vested interest, who saw it as an unwarranted intrusion into their patients' privacy.

Although my hon. Friend sought to portray Dr. Beral as clearing IVF of posing dangers to children, she went on to say: We simply have no idea if IVF techniques pose a real danger to the subsequent health of the child. I am sure that the House will agree that IVF is now a major industry, generating extremely large fees for many doctors and scientists, and providing comfortable sinecures for members and staff of the HFEA.

As well as betraying the moral conscience of the nation, the authority 'has let down infertile couples, neglected the welfare of children conceived through IVF, exposed many living human beings at their earliest stages of development to use as human guinea pigs for research purposes and betrayed the trust that the House was persuaded—in many cases against its better judgment—to place in it.

There can be no tenable defence of the authority's structure, its membership, its partisanship or the superficiality of its understanding of ethical issues. In short, the time is long overdue for a root-and-branch review and reform of a discredited body that has been responsible for a series of grave errors of judgment and demonstrated a total lack of effectiveness.

10.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Tom Sackville)

Let me say something about the origins of the HFEA. As the House knows, the techniques that we are discussing were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s. Some form of regulation was clearly needed: apart from the views of those who disapprove of the techniques and wish that they did not exist, there is a general feeling that they could be abused and put to uses other than those on which the House finally decided.

Following the Warnock report, Parliament decided that an authority should be set up to ensure that the feelings expressed in the House were taken into account and the work that was done was carefully monitored. There were fears that it could result in cloning or the development of hybrids, and such activities were banned. One of the main provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was that embryos should not be allowed to exist beyond 14 days, and other time limits were placed on the work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has made much of the membership of the authority. She knows that Mrs. Ruth Deech, a distinguished professor of law, has recently been appointed as the chairman of the authority, succeeding Sir Colin Campbell, under whose excellent leadership the authority successfully negotiated its first four years of existence.

The chairman, deputy chairman and members are appointed by the Secretary of State for Health for a maximum term of three years. The authority has the benefit of a broad and balanced set of views.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Sackville

May I continue a little further?

The authority's members do not represent specific interests. They are appointed as individuals.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

I served on the Committee that formed the legislation on animal experiments. A similar body was set up at that time. The then Minister, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), gave an undertaking to the House that people who were sceptical about experiments on animals would be given a place on the licensing authority. Obviously, they would not, by any means, form the majority, but a voice could be expressed. Will my hon. Friend explain why the same facility should not have been afforded in relation to people who license experiments on the human embryo?

Mr. Sackville

The people who serve on the committee are all respected in their sector. They are reasonable and, as I said, they do not represent specific interests. They have been appointed because of their individual qualities and experience. I am satisfied that they are well qualified and able to examine and advise on these sensitive issues.

Candidates for membership, for example, are not asked about their religious beliefs. They are, however, expected to participate in all the functions of the authority. That includes visiting, inspecting and making decisions about licences for clinics that carry out fertility treatments and research. It is important, therefore, that, before appointing individuals, it is ascertained whether they have personal convictions that may make it difficult for them to participate in the full range of the authority's responsibilities.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the number of authority members who believe in the sanctity of human life? If he is not, does he think that he should be aware of that?

Mr. Sackville

I cannot give that information. All I can say is that those people are a very highly qualified group, and come from a wide range of sectors. I have met many of the members and attended meetings. I cannot agree with the rhetoric about sinecures and betrayed trust. Those people have done a good job in trying to regulate a sector that is fraught with difficulties and sensitivities. They have done that with great skill.

Mr. Alton

Did the Minister read the comment of Lady Warnock, who, when asked about the composition of her committee, which, after all, was the precursor of the HFEA, said that she had excluded one person from it when she found out that he was a Catholic? Does my hon. Friend think that that is a reason for disqualifying someone from membership of the committee?

Mr. Sackville

I am not aware of anyone having been excluded for such a reason. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about membership of the authority.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I understood what the Minister said, and appreciate his giving way on this point. People were asked their views on certain matters. Is that not a form of exclusion? Will he respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)? If some members are associated with hospitals that specialise in such treatments, could not a monetary advantage be involved?

Mr. Sackville

That is something that I should like to examine further, because any accusations of a conflict of interest must clearly be considered. As I said, members will be people who have done a good job in a very difficult field.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others mentioned abnormalities and the effect of freezing on embryos. The HFEA keeps such matters under review, and also keeps a register of all children born as a result of these techniques. It is my understanding that there has been no incidence of abnormality.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I have been very much involved in these matters for many years, and sat on the committee that set up the authority. No one is saying that the members of the authority are not well qualified; that is not the argument. When the authority was set up, we were assured that it would reflect a balance of views, and that some of its members would recognise the sanctity of human life as a genuine, moral reason for examining various practices. If it is possible to involve all shades of opinion when considering animal research, would it not be fair, moral and right to do the same when considering human beings?

Mr. Sackville

I understand what my hon. Friend says but we are talking about a group of people who have to regulate in a sphere where the underlying techniques may be entirely disapproved of by some people. However, Parliament has decided that such an authority should be set up to regulate these techniques. If Parliament wanted to ban them completely, it could have done so. It did not. It decided that these techniques should be legal under certain conditions and should be regulated in a certain way. That is what the authority was set up to do, and what I believe it does, with great skill and distinction.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.