HC Deb 17 November 2000 vol 356 cc1175-230 9.33 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper)

I am pleased to open today's debate on stem cell research and the human fertilisation and embryology regulations. These are important issues, and the debate will be extremely interesting.

The Government announced last August that they intended to introduce regulations to extend the purposes for which human embryos may be used in research in response to the report by the chief medical officer—the Donaldson report—entitled "Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility". I shall say more about that report later.

The regulations will be placed before both Houses and decided on a free vote. Although the timing of the regulations has yet to be decided by business managers, the Government felt that it was important for these complex and emotive issues to be fully aired in Parliament before any votes took place. That is why I am pleased that the House has a chance to debate the matter today. We regard this as the beginning, not the end, of the debate.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Given the emotive nature of the issue and the prejudices that many people rightly hold, would it not have been better to have avoided the use of regulations, which are unamendable, and to have introduced primary legislation, which is amendable?

Yvette Cooper

The issues were fully aired in the House during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which provides for such regulations to be made. The possibility of allowing regulations to be made was fully debated at that time, so making regulations is in keeping with the conclusions that were reached in 1990.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I was a Member of the House at that time, but I cannot recall a debate on cloning. Will the Under-Secretary refer me to that provision in the Act and confirm that the vote will be taken on the Floor of the House, not in a Delegated Legislation Committee upstairs?

Yvette Cooper

I can confirm that there will be a debate on the Floor of the House and a free vote—the matter will not be decided in Committee. I shall later discuss cloning, therapeutic cloning and stem cell research.

Mrs. Winterton

I asked the hon. Lady a straight question. In her opening remarks, she asserted that the 1990 Act provided for cloning—the misuse of the word "therapeutic" is neither here nor there—and the letter circulated by the Department of Health also says that that was so. Where is that provision in the Act?

Yvette Cooper

No, I did not say that at all. I said that provision was made in the 1990 Act for regulations to be extended in such a way. The regulations do not make therapeutic cloning legal or illegal; nor do they refer to therapeutic cloning or the technique known as cell nuclear replacement. They do not differentiate between cell nuclear replacement and embryos created through in vitro fertilisation. I will cover those complex issues later. However, the 1990 Act clearly allowed for the regulations to go ahead in their current form.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

It is perfectly clear that if recommendation 1 of the Donaldson report were brought before the House through the regulations, and if the regulations were not within the 1990 Act, progress could not be made on that basis.

I strongly support the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), which was granted by the Under-Secretary, for a debate on the Floor of the House, not tucked away in a Committee. Will the Under-Secretary also confirm that Acts of Parliament would be required to implement many other recommendations in the report? I suspect that she will confirm that the real reason for using regulations is that the proposals would probably pass through the House more easily than if implementing recommendation I involved an Act of Parliament. That would involve a re-run of many of the issues that were properly discussed in the House during the passage of the 1990 Act.

Yvette Cooper

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. We are using regulations because the 1990 Act gives us the power to do that. He rightly said that other issues raised in the Donaldson report could not be implemented through regulations. The principles behind those issues have never been discussed by the House and it would be right to do so in a debate involving primary legislation. However, that does not affect our decision to use regulations in this context. Clearly, a free vote in the House is necessary. If the House and the other place reject the proposal, the regulations will not be made. All hon. Members will have the chance, in today's debate and in that which will precede the vote on the regulations, to consider the issues and to decide the right thing to do. If Members do not want to proceed through regulations, they can vote to that effect.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Will the Minister give way?

Yvette Cooper

I give way for the last time on the process issues because I want to get on to the substance of the debate.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The Minister will be aware that this matter was discussed recently in the European Parliament, when many contrary statements were made about the state of law in the various member nations of the European Union. Will she take time to comment on that debate and the state of law within Europe?

Yvette Cooper

It is true that the matter has been aired in discussions throughout Europe and that different member states have different positions on all the issues. Many other member states are going through discussions around the issues, too. If the hon. Gentleman allows me, I will cover that matter in my closing speech. I have more information to give to the House, but I would like to make some progress on the nature of the regulations that will be before the House.

Like the 1990 Act, which the regulations will amend, the issue will be decided on a free vote. It is not a party political issue. There are Members from all parties with strong views on both sides of the issue. I hope that Members will have the chance to consider the complex questions before deciding how to vote.

Difficult scientific and moral questions are at stake. Some Members will be opposed to the regulations as a matter of strongly held principle. Those who oppose the 1990 Act will doubtless oppose the regulations, too. Those who oppose any form of research with embryos will oppose the regulations. Those who oppose the creation and, inevitably, the destruction of embryos through IVF treatment will also oppose the regulations.

I have considerable respect for those views and I shall listen with attention as they are raised and aired in debates in the House. However, I disagree with them. I recognise and respect the fact that many Members will feel, as a matter of conscience, that they need to vote against the regulations, but the moral arguments cut both ways and there are strong ethical arguments in favour of the regulations, given their potential to relieve the suffering of many thousands of families. Many hon. Members like me feel that, as a matter of conscience, we need to vote in favour of the regulations. For those who support the 1990 Act and IVF treatment, there is a strong case for supporting the regulations, too.

Before I return to the arguments surrounding the regulations, let me set out the current law and the changes that the regulations would introduce. Under the 1990 Act, the use of human embryos in research is permitted, but only under certain strict conditions. Embryos may be used in research for only one of five clear purposes: advances in the treatment of infertility; increasing knowledge about the causes of congenital diseases; increasing knowledge about the causes of miscarriage; developing more effective contraception techniques; or developing methods for detecting the presence of gene or chromosome abnormalities in embryos before implantation. The research is permitted only up to 14 days, or before the beginning of the first sign of neural development, and if the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is satisfied that the use of embryos is necessary for the purposes of the research; otherwise, the HFEA will not grant a licence for the research project.

In most cases, the alternative to research would be to let the embryos perish. Thousands of embryos created for IVF each year are not used in treatment. Perhaps they are not the right standard for treatment; perhaps they are surplus to the needs of the couple concerned. Ultimately, many of those embryos will need to be destroyed. Between 1991 and 1998, 763,000 embryos were created for IVF. A total of 48,000 were used in research and 237,600 were destroyed. The remainder were used in IVF treatment or stored for future use.

The proposed changes to the 1990 Act form the Government's response to the Donaldson report. The expert group that drew up the report was set up last year, following a report from the HFEA and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, to examine the scientific, health and ethical issues surrounding stem cell research. The regulations that the Government will lay before the House will be to implement the report's main recommendations. The regulations will introduce a sixth category to the currently permitted purposes of embryo research—increasing understanding about human disease and disorders and their treatment.

It is important to be clear that the strict constraints of the 1990 Act will remain. The HFEA must still license every research proposal and it will remain illegal to use embryos in research after 14 days. The HFEA will also have to ensure that the use of embryos is necessary for the research and, therefore, that the research cannot be carried out in any other way.

The Donaldson report says that we have no reason to believe that that will lead to a large increase in the number of embryos used for research. A separate application must be made to the HFEA for each individual research project, but the aim is to produce stable collections of embryonic stem cells that can be used as a replaceable resource without having to use, or to create, embryos for each study. The Donaldson report set out a series of reasons as to why it believed that that was so valuable and such an important thing to do.

The new category of research would allow research into embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are early cells that have not yet differentiated into any particular sort of tissue. They have huge potential because, if scientists can understand how they work, it may be possible to re-programme adult cells, providing the potential to develop treatments and cures for all sorts of degenerative diseases.

The chief medical officer's report listed a range of new therapeutic possibilities for the repair of diseased and damaged tissue to which stem cell research could give rise. They include: replacing lost heart muscle cells; replacing bone cells lost through osteoporosis; replacing liver cells lost in cases of hepatitis; repairing nerve cells lost through Parkinson's disease and stroke; replacing insulin-producing cells lost through diabetes; and changing the outcome of spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis.

It is important to recognise how many people's lives could be transformed by such a breakthrough. A total of 50,000 people in this country suffer spinal cord injuries. Most, when those injuries occur, are aged between 15 and 35. If the spinal cord that the bones protect is damaged, paralysis is likely. There is as yet no cure. A total of 120,000 people suffer from Parkinson's disease and could potentially be spared the debilitating and distressing effects of the disease, and the impact on 1 million family members and carers. A total of 1.4 million people with insulin-dependent diabetes could be spared the regular routine of injections and all the complications of that illness. The prospect of an early death from childhood onset diabetes could be ended. Should the stem cell research lead ultimately to treatment for Alzheimer's, nursing homes throughout the country could be emptied.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Can the hon. Lady say whether patients who have either Parkinson's or Alzheimer's—to give two examples—and their relatives, have been consulted about the Government's proposals? It is my understanding that the societies have not consulted their members.

Yvette Cooper

We have received correspondence from many people throughout the country, including those suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and from different societies involved. As the issues have been debated over the past few years by the HFEA when it produced its report and by the expert group that produced the Donaldson report, it has been open for all organisations to come forward with recommendations and proposals. The hon. Lady should put her questions to the Parkinson's Disease Society and to the Alzheimer's Disease Society. The question for the House is whether, recognising the impact on those who are suffering from those diseases, accepting the proposal is the right thing to do.

Many people who recognise the huge benefits that stem cell research could bring ask whether it could be done in another way, avoiding the use of embryonic stem cells. They argue that, surely, research on embryos should be avoided if the same research could be done on adult cells. I agree that the research should be done in other ways, where possible. In fact, that is enshrined in law under the 1990 Act. The HFEA needs to assess every research proposal presented to it before licensing it to ensure that the use of embryos is essential to the research.

We asked the Donaldson committee to examine that issue in considerable detail. It did so and concluded that, yes, stem cells can be obtained from a number of sources, but none of them have the potential of embryonic stem cells.

Stem cells are available from a number of sources, including umbilical cord blood, some foetal tissue, and some adult tissue. Stem cells from bone marrow, brain, skin and blood have been used in treatment for many years—for example, for leukaemia. The view of the chief medical officer's expert group was that the long-term promise of stem cells from adult tissue could equal or surpass that of embryonic stem cells. However, to understand how adult stem cells work and to reach the point where new treatments may be possible, many scientists believe that research into embryonic stem cells is vital.

Embryonic stem cells appear to have the potential to develop into a far wider range of tissues than adult-derived stem cells. That makes them far more valuable in research and in developing understanding about cellular development. So there is far greater potential to lead to breakthroughs in a far wider range of diseases, and those breakthroughs could be achieved much more quickly.

Mr. Swayne

The hon. Lady began that argument with the assumption—she stated it clearly—that if the research could be done in any other way, it should be. Does not that very assumption imply an acceptance that there is something unsavoury or unnatural about such research?

Yvette Cooper

The 1990 Act endorsed the principle in the Warnock report that a measure of respect should be accorded to embryos and that research involving embryos should be subject to particular moral constraints and regulation. That is absolutely right. However, it did not state that any form of research using embryos was therefore wrong and immoral in principle. That was the conclusion in the 1990 Act, and it is the position that I take today.

The 1990 Act embodies the principle that, in every research proposal involving embryos, their use must be necessary to carry out the research, otherwise the HFEA will not grant a licence. That principle is embodied in the current legislation, but the Donaldson committee concluded that much of that extremely valuable research would not be possible without using embryonic stem cells. That is the crux of the matter, which hon. Members need to consider before deciding how to vote.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is the hon. Lady saying that, had such research been possible, it would probably have been included in the limited number of uses made legal under the 1990 Act? Is she is saying that, once the research has been done, therapeutic treatments are likely to use not embryonic cells but those from adults?

Yvette Cooper

Clearly, not having been a Member in 1990, it is hard for me to comment on what the House might have thought then. However, the fact that, under the 1990 Act, the regulations could be extended to cover new, developing research shows that the House anticipated the possibility of new forms of research, for which there might be a strong case for extending the purposes of research. Had such research been available then, the House would certainly have considered it.

The hon. Gentleman's second question involves two elements. It would not be legal to use embryonic stem cells in treatment. The regulations purely allow the possibility of research using embryonic stem cells. Treatment is a separate matter that the House would need to consider separately. Many scientists and researchers believe that the purpose of carrying out embryonic stem cell research is to discover techniques and treatments that could be applied using adult stem cells, and that could be the holy grail that could allow huge breakthroughs in the treatment of degenerative diseases.

Many people have raised the extremely important issue of whether the regulations would give the go-ahead to cloning. It is absolutely untrue that the regulations would give the go-ahead to reproductive cloning. I want to make it clear that reproductive cloning is illegal. It will stay illegal. The HFEA will not license the implantation of a cloned embryo. We also believe, and have stated in the Donaldson report, that we want to embed the ban on reproductive cloning in primary legislation as well, because people across the country clearly find it unacceptable that we should contemplate reproductive cloning.

The creation of embryos by cell nuclear replacement—so-called therapeutic cloning—is a separate issue. The 1990 Act already allows research using embryos created by cell nuclear replacement, but only under the regulation of the HFEA. The cells must be used for research and not implantation. The research can be carried out only up to 14 days and must be for one of the same five purposes, such as infertility or contraception. The HFEA must be satisfied that such replacement is necessary to the research.

The 1990 Act does not distinguish between embryos created through cell nuclear replacement and those created through IVF—the same regulations and constraints apply to both. Likewise, no such distinction is drawn in the regulations. They therefore do not make therapeutic cloning legal, because—strictly speaking—it is already legal, but only under the strict conditions of the 1990 Act. The regulations would simply change the purposes of research for which cell nuclear replacement could be used.

The regulations covering the use of embryos in research in this country—whether through IVF or cell nuclear replacement—are extremely clear and strict, and rightly so. Many people are understandably concerned that science should not simply march on unfettered by ethical debate. I agree with that and believe very strongly that such advances in research should be permitted only within a very clear and enforceable ethical framework. It is right, too, that Parliament pauses to reflect deeply on the changes we are proposing. There should be moral reflection as well as scientific argument. There should also be proper regulation in such a sensitive sphere.

I want to make it clear that the 1990 Act and the regulations will keep in place exactly that kind of moral restraint and regulatory framework. The existing controls operated by the HFEA will apply. In addition, in the case of cell nuclear replacement, the HFEA would need to take particular steps to satisfy itself that there are no other means of meeting the objectives of a research proposal. Couples donating embryos would need to give specific consent to their embryos being used for stem cell research, not just general consent to their use in research.

Mr. Bottomley

Can the hon. Lady tell us when the regulations will be laid before the House? Is that likely to happen during this Parliament or this calendar year?

Yvette Cooper

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact answer on the timing of the regulations, as that is still to be discussed by business managers, but the intention is certainly to do so during the current Parliament. The House will be given that information as soon as possible.

Finally, I ask the House not to regard this issue as an argument between ethics and science, because it is not. The ethical arguments cut both ways. On one hand, some argue that it is always wrong to carry out research with embryos because it involves human life. I respect those views. On the other, there are ethical arguments about the potential to end the suffering of people who are already alive by the use of embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. There are ethical arguments in both directions. We should consider for a moment the very real suffering that it could be in our power to end by carrying out possible ground-breaking research.

Among the many letters that we have received on this subject is one from a woman with young children who is suffering from Parkinson's disease. She writes that those considering their votes on this issue ought to have a word with my little girl and ask her about the value of life. All she wants is that I am freed from this awful disease so that she has a mother able to care for her throughout her young life, rather than one who is increasingly disabled by a disease for which there may be a cure if this research is allowed to proceed.

None of us knows exactly what discoveries stem cell research could lead us to—scientists do not know, ethicists do not know, and parliamentarians do not know—but potentially revolutionary treatments lie within our grasp if this House and the other place give these regulations the go-ahead. All hon. Members must weigh up the complex arguments for themselves, but we must be aware of the power that we could be holding in our hands as we consider these issues.

10.1 am

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I, too, am glad that we have the opportunity to debate these issues ahead of the time when the House will be invited to vote on them. I am grateful to the Minister for confirming once again that when that time comes, there will be a free vote and that it will be for the House to decide whether it is appropriate to proceed on this matter by regulation.

The Minister said that she saw this debate as the beginning of a process, not the end. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) asked for an indication of the overall time scale of that process. I suspect that the Government may have had in mind a rather shorter time scale when they embarked on this process, and that they now realise that they have underestimated the strength of public opinion, which is being made known to me—and, I am sure, many other hon. Members—through our constituency postbags. The statement earlier this week by the Leader of the House that the time scale is likely to be longer rather than shorter perhaps reflects that fact.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

My hon. Friend has raised an important point that has perhaps been hidden by the Government. I suspect that many people who want this measure to be voted through do not want that to happen until the public are aware of the issues that Parliament is discussing. Although people may have attended the Royal Society presentation and others that took place in the House, the general public do not know the extent and purpose of the extra research, and this debate will help to inform them. My hon. Friend is right in saying that having a little more time before the regulations are introduced will be important to people on both sides of the argument, and will help people who do not know what the argument is about.

Mr. Hammond

There are two sides and a middle to this debate. A large number of people who are listening carefully to the argument have not yet determined their view, and it is certainly in their interests that there be adequate opportunity for the issues to be aired and discussed before the House and the other place make a decision.

I am grateful to the Minister for attempting to set out the arguments on both sides of the debate, but she comes to the Dispatch Box with a clear position on behalf of the Government. They seek the House's approval for the regulations. As hon. Members have already said, this is not a party political issue. I come to the Dispatch Box aware that views on the Conservative Benches—and, indeed, across the House—are divided. There are those whose abhorrence of the exploitation of human embryos as a tool for other ends—abhorrence of the creation of life followed by its destruction—leaves them with a clear view against the procedure that the regulations would allow, without any need to analyse the detailed issues. I characterise that as the moral position against the proposal.

At the other extreme of the argument, there are those whose instinct is clearly to support—

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

If I heard the hon. Gentleman rightly, he seemed to imply that what is being proposed is immoral. I hope that he will reconsider what he has said. I think that there are huge moral and ethical reasons why this proposal should be supported.

Mr. Hammond

As the hon. Lady will hear, I shall now put the other point of view. I did not say that it was immoral. I said that many Members take a clear moral view on this issue, because their abhorrence of the creation and then the destruction of life as a tool to other ends leads them to the view that the proposal is immoral. Those people will have a clear view of where they stand in this debate without needing to analyse the arguments.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I want to give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to clarify his remarks. I recognise that those people hold that view on the basis of their moral principles, but that is a moral argument against the regulations. Many of us are morally committed to the principles behind the regulations. There are moral and ethical arguments on both sides.

Mr. Hammond

I accept that, and I hope that the tone of my remarks will show that I acknowledge that there are two sides to the debate. I was about to say that there are those whose instinct is to support the demand that science must not be impeded in its search to improve the human condition, and there are other people who are torn between the desire to treat the dreadful degenerative diseases that blight the lives of one in 10 of the population at some time during their lives, and their alarm at the apparent amorality of the exploitation of the human embryo. They may also be alarmed at the danger of embarking on a journey the destination of which is unclear to many of us at this point.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Let us try to lay this point to rest. I am sure my hon. Friend does not intend to imply that those who are against the proposals have a moral position, whereas those who are broadly in favour of them have an instinctive position, which is what he seems to be saying. Will he put it on the record that he accepts that the moral dimension to this issue can apply in either direction? People are capable of having a moral or ethical position in favour of minimising suffering, and that would lead them in the direction of supporting the proposals that the Minister has set out. Would my hon. Friend be content with that?

Mr. Hammond

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Members on both sides of the argument have genuinely deeply held positions, and some feel that there is a strong, moral imperative to relieve suffering whenever that is possible. I acknowledge the sincerity of those who hold positions on both sides.

I anticipate that this non-party-political debate will show the House of Commons at its best. I look forward to hearing the arguments from both sides of the debate. It is not for me to set out a position from the Opposition Dispatch Box, but rather, perhaps, to present some of the counter-arguments to the points that the Minister has raised, which hon. Members may want to consider in determining their position.

The Minister rightly said that the basis of the issues before us lies in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. She outlined the provisions and powers of that Act. It is true that it already allows embryo research. As she explained, substantial numbers of embryos are created under the provisions of the Act and subsequently destroyed. It will strike some people as odd that under the terms of the current legislation it is possible to use human embryos to conduct research into contraception, but it is not possible to use them for research into degenerative diseases that undermine and impair the lives of many millions of people. I acknowledge the Minister's comment that anyone who supported the 1990 Act, and supports its operation today, must believe that the proposals are only a logical extension of that Act.

I also accept—I am happy to reiterate it—the potential value of benefits that may result from the changes in the proposed regulations.

Many hon. Members, however, will feel that the 1990 Act itself is flawed. As I, like the Minister, was not a Member of Parliament at the time of that debate, I am not qualified to comment—as some right. hon. and hon. Members may be able to do later—on the climate in which it was held or on the issues that were raised.

Nevertheless, I sense that much has changed in the climate of public opinion since 1990. I sense that public opinion has awakened to some of the potential dangers of the advances of science, and that public opinion has therefore moved. I also suspect that in 1990 the very word cloning was not well understood by the public, but was only a science-fiction concept. Recent developments and examples of cloning in action have given the general public a much greater interest in and awareness of the issue.

The BSE crisis—remote as that might seem—and the genetically modified crops debacle have all caused the public to re-evaluate the role of science in our society. I suggest that the age of deference to scientists is over. It will seem to many people that science has failed us in many spheres, and the fact that there is a lack of proper control over scientists is—with, as always, the great benefit of hindsight—obvious.

Undoubtedly, other hon. Members will tell the House what feedback they are receiving from their constituents, but my constituency correspondence, of which there has been a considerable quantity, has been 100 per cent. against the proposed changes. I have not had a single constituency letter supporting the changes.

Mr. Forth

I wondered how long it would take before the postbag made its appearance in the debate. In that context, can my hon. Friend make any judgment at all on how many of the letters that his constituents have sent him arose from a genuine individual interest in the matter, and how many may have been prompted by interest groups or even—who knows—by faith groups?

Mr. Hammond

I suspect that my right hon. Friend is right that some of those letters will have been prompted by interest groups, but I do not regard them as any less legitimate for that. What has surprised me is that the interest groups which clearly do exist on the other side of the argument, representing people suffering from the types of degenerative diseases that may be affected by the proposed regulations, seem not to have mobilised their members to write, at least to me—I cannot speak for other hon. Members.

Several hon. Members


Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman care to say how his constituents' letters influenced him in voting on the Stem Cell Research Bill or in the hunting debate?

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that I voted against both proposals, which I am not sure have anything to do with the issue that we are debating now. I am trying to outline some of the arguments that hon. Members who are not committed on the issue—many will already be committed one way or the other—may wish to consider. Later, with the indulgence of the House, I shall express my personal view. What I seek to do now is to set out some of the issues as I see them.

Dr. Harris

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that merely considering the letters on either side of the argument is rather perverse, especially when one considers the situation of people with degenerative disease? I do not think that I have ever had a letter, typed or otherwise, from someone suffering from Alzheimer's disease. People with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease have organisations to speak for them. The hon. Gentleman might mention whether any of those organisations have taken time to see him as representatives of vulnerable people who are often not able to lobby their Members of Parliament.

Mr. Hammond

I accept that point, and I am not suggesting that any hon. Member should or would vote simply on the basis of counting items in his postbag. However, I should also hope that we all regard our constituents' views as an important factor in addressing such issues.

One of the important issues in this debate is the wider relationship between science and society. I think that it would be very dangerous, and very dangerous for scientists, if science were constantly pushing ahead of where the body of society is comfortable and happy to be. It is incumbent on those who seek to make such changes to carry public opinion with them.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight—which is a wonderful thing—it must seem entirely obvious to the layperson that it is unnatural to adopt, for example, cannibalistic feeding practices in agriculture. The very thought, now that we are all focused on it, seems abhorrent, but that was not apparent at the time. At the time, public opinion was not focused on the issue. However, I think that we are entitled to ask ourselves whether scientists should have focused on the issue before they did.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great interest. Clearly, however, cannibalism in animals was a matter not of science but of a lack of regulation, and of regulations not being informed by science. That example does not support his own argument.

Mr. Hammond

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He may consider the issue from a scientific point of view, but I suspect that until relatively recently, the majority of people in our society have assumed that scientists were focusing on those issues, were attending to the public's best interests, and were able and prepared to protect them.

It must now be obvious that field-scale trials of GM crops are an irreversible action. Such developments may be good or bad. My point is that science has been moving ahead of the political and moral consensus. I rather feel that today's debate is about that issue. My fear is that, unlike some hon. Members, we mere mortals whose science careers never progressed beyond the third-form chemistry lab are being asked to sanction action on the basis that it might be justified by outcomes, whereas history teaches us that actual outcomes may be very different from those that were envisaged.

We are being asked to build on current legislation about which many of us have deep reservations and to move rapidly into uncharted waters. We do not know quite how rapidly we are being asked to move, but, as the Minister said that she expected the matter to be voted on within the lifetime of this Parliament, it may be in the next few months. We are being asked to decide before many of us feel sufficiently secure about the far-reaching potential consequences.

There are two reasons for scepticism about the proposed regulations. I shall call them the upstream and the downstream concerns. The upstream concern is about the use of embryos or embryonic tissue—the creation and then the destruction of life for other purposes. That is a legitimate and deeply held concern. The downstream concern is about potential abuse of cell nuclear replacement technology—cloning. That is the "genie out of the bottle" argument—the recognition that, while any scientific advance may bring benefits, it may also bring disbenefits that are impossible to control. For example, nuclear fission delivers apparently cheap forms of energy but has disadvantages of which we are all aware.

The 1990 Act already permits the creation of embryos through in vitro fertilisation and through cell nuclear replacement, but only for specific limited purposes that may seem slightly bizarre—I have already alluded to research into contraception. The Government are now proposing a significant extension of the powers under that Act. Why? We are told that substantial benefits could flow from stem cell research. I have already confessed to my very limited scientific capabilities, but as I understand it, the objective is to carry out a limited amount of research on embryonic material so as to gain the ability to regress adult cells to their non-specific form, allowing therapies to be developed using the patient's own cells.

Other avenues are open to achieve those objectives. There are other sources of stem cells from non-embryonic tissue. The Minister gave the example of blood cells from the umbilical cord, and some adult tissue can be used. Researchers in Canada and Italy have turned neural stem cells from an adult mouse into new blood cells. If the technique could be applied to humans, it would be a major step forward. Apart from anything else, the use of a patient's own stem cells would greatly reduce the likelihood of rejection.

An Italian group has reported that nerve stem cells from an adult proved more flexible than they were believed to be, and could give rise to skeletal muscle. The British Medical Journal reported in January last year that the use of embryonic stem cells may soon be eclipsed by the more readily available and less controversial adult stem cells.

I recognise that there are scientific problems, but they are not insurmountable. The Donaldson report recognises that recent research appears to contradict conventional wisdom on the restricted potential of stem cells derived from adult tissue to differentiate. It says: It may well be that the long term promise of stem cells derived from adult tissue will equal or even surpass that of embryonic stem cells.

I must acknowledge that it also says that reaching that stage may require knowledge that we do not yet possess. Perhaps research going on elsewhere will deliver that knowledge.

We are not debating whether embryonic stem cell research should happen. It is a long while since the writ of this Parliament ran that wide. Whether we like it or not, the research is already happening in the United States, and the legal system and regulations there will permit it to continue. The pharmaceutical industry is probably one of the world's most international industries. The question is not about whether to continue down this route in the fight against degenerative disease, but whether we want to take the moral and ethical decisions that will foster that research here in the United Kingdom.

Clearly, there are moral arguments on both sides. Some feel that it is imperative that we do not sanction the taking of human life through the use of embryos to further research, while others feel that there is a moral imperative to carry out that research in order to try to relieve human suffering.

Those are difficult arguments to weigh up, but it seems to me that we are talking not about balancing the moral argument for research against the moral hazard of exploiting embryos, but about balancing the moral hazard of exploiting embryos, within the remit of this Parliament, against the risks to our biotechnology and pharmaceutical research industry of not proceeding. I find it hard to see that as a moral dilemma, although I accept that a Government who have responsibility for that industry can legitimately be concerned about it.

The issue is not for or against stem cell research. Rejecting embryonic research, which is already under way in the United States, does not close the door to these scientific developments, although it could possibly slow down the process. The research will continue, whatever we decide.

Dr. Brand

If, for the good moral reasons that the hon. Gentleman has been elucidating, we ban such research here, should not we logically also ban the results of that research to people living in this country?

Mr. Hammond

No, I do not think that that is logical at all. The logical next step would be to ban the use of any therapeutic material derived directly from embryonic stem cells, but my understanding is that there is a research step that could perhaps be done more expeditiously using embryonic cells, which will lead to our being able to use therapies derived purely from adult stem cells, which do not present any of the upstream moral questions that I have outlined.

The question is not whether the research will be done but whether it will be done in the United Kingdom: whether we, within the limited scope of our jurisdiction, wish to sanction such activity in order to promote our pharmaceutical and biotechnological research base.

For those with an a priori position against the use of embryos or embryonic tissue, and for those who believe that we have already gone too far down the path of interference with nature and natural processes, the answer will be clear; and we must respect their positions.

The question—the difficult question—is for those whose minds are still somewhat open. For them, when we vote, the question will be "What proof do we require to justify embarking on this potentially dangerous path?" The issue for them will be whether a strong enough case has been made to overcome what is perhaps a natural resistance to the idea of harvesting and then using embryos. They will wonder about the destination of the route on which we would embark in adopting the regulations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

My hon. Friend may be right, but let me put a point to him. Recommendation 2 of the Donaldson report says that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the body that would have to license the research, would have to consider whether there were other means of achieving its objectives. It is not just a case of the House deciding, when the regulations come into force, to add one more category of permitted research; it will be up to the HFEA, if recommendation 2 is adopted in the regulations, to decide whether there is a practical alternative for the purposes to which the research is to be put.

I do not expect my hon. Friend to go into this today unless he wants to, but I should like to know the House's attitude to recommendation 3, which concerns informed consent. The Minister may want to tell us—but perhaps not during this debate—what is the Government's developing view.

To many of us, the most important question is whether the public understand what we are proposing. If I thought that they did, I would find it far easier to support the regulations. Until now, I have not thought so, and I expressed that view at the time of the ten-minute Bill. I thought that the public did not have a clue about what was being considered—that only the experts knew. The experts may not necessarily be right, but what they have to say should be known by the public before we cast our votes.

Mr. Hammond

I suspect that other Members will have something to say about informed consent. It will, of course, involve issues of concern. My understanding is that it is proposed that all the embryonic material that we are discussing should come from the so-called surplus embryos created during the in vitro fertilisation process. That process has financial implications: many people have to pay. The issue of informed consent would clearly become mixed up with the question of availability of IVF for people who were willing to give their consent to making available their surplus embryos.

My hon. Friend seems to be saying that, in approving the recommendations, the House would abdicate its responsibility for deciding whether embryonic stem cell research is necessary, and would delegate that power to the HFEA. I am not confident that we would want to rely on an agency to make the decision. The evidence I have seen suggests that it can be argued that alternative methods of proceeding already exist. No doubt such arguments will be aired this morning, but I think that the House should decide for itself on the basis of the available evidence.

Dr. Harris

In deciding whether there is a reasonable alternative ready to be used now that does not require the use of embryonic stem cells as an intermediate research step, is the hon. Gentleman swayed to any extent by the view of the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Medical Research Council and the British Medical Association? All those scientific bodies think it important to allow the research to continue, albeit perhaps as an intermediate step, if the benefits of adult stem cell therapy are to be reaped.

Mr. Hammond

I am aware of the views of all those bodies, and have considered carefully what they have to say. Recommendation 2, however, states that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority should satisfy itself that there are no other means of meeting the objectives of the research. That strikes me as an absolute test.

The question in the mind of the uncommitted Member will be whether there really is no other way—whether the benefit to be derived is great enough, certain enough, and clearly unachievable by other means. We must be certain, because there is no turning back.

I have sought to set out some of the issues as I see them. At a personal level, I would like to place on the record the fact that I approached the debate with an open mind, and with no predisposition to believe that the issue should be determined one way or the other. I have considered carefully the arguments on both sides, and I do not believe that a case has been made with a standard of proof that is adequate to overcome my real moral concerns and fears about where this road will lead us. My current intention is to vote against the regulations, on the basis of the evidence and arguments available to me.

10.36 am
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

I think we are having a good debate this morning, and may continue to do so for the rest of the current Parliament.

I welcome the fact that new research and potential technologies are subject to debate here, and open to scrutiny, before being put to use. I think that the debate will precipitate a wide-ranging discussion to which the public will contribute vehemently, understanding the issues before forming a view one way or the other. Scientific and medical groups are agonising over these questions, and—as was suggested by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond)—deciding how best to engage the public in such detailed and technological debates. I assure the hon. Gentleman that people are trying very hard to find out how members of the public can form opinions, discussing the possibility of consensus conferences and even focus groups. There is a great deal of activity going on, and no one has a brilliant solution, but the problem of getting the issues across to the public is clearly recognised.

The public are not duped by technological language or, indeed, arrogance from politicians—as well as scientists and others—who purport to say what is best for them. They are quite up to understanding that.

It is essential that issues such as stem cell research and its potential development are judged on the basis of straightforward information, and not coloured by scare stories involving human cloning and the creation of Hitlers, David Beckhams and so on—stories that we often see in the popular press. Incidentally, I do not know that David Beckham is worth cloning after this week—or any Scottish footballer.

Mr. Swayne

Are not cases brought to our attention ad terroram, in order to persuade us that terrible consequences will follow unless we act, and that people will continue to be afflicted by terrible diseases? What we need is a clear estimate of the real probabilities of cures being achieved through the adoption of new research, as against the probabilities of their being achieved in other ways.

Dr. Gibson

I do not think that any scientist or medical expert would be arrogant enough to say that the issues are ever black and white. I do not think they operate in an environment in which it is possible to say that. What they can say is that there is a consensus that one thing is happening and another is not. We would not be able to turn the lights on if scientists had not discovered electrons and so forth and predicted that we might be able to illuminate our lives. One can never be sure, and the final decisions should be made not just by scientists and medically trained people, but by the public, politicians and others. Such consensual debate is the only way we can make progress during this century.

The language in this debate bothers me somewhat, as we hear references to such things as neo-cannibalism and the trivialisation of life, which do not help the debate. Such views have not been enjoined today but are discussed in newspapers and so on, and do not assist with the rational and reasonable debate which, I believe my hon. Friend the Minister agrees, we need to have.

Since May 1997, the Government have approached scientific and medical advances with careful analysis through inquiries, consensus reports, public opinion surveys and so on, and have adopted the precautionary principles in relation to, for example, mobile phones, as a mechanism for deciding to ban something or allowing it to operate under certain restrictions. In the past three years, the Government have specifically addressed the issue of trying to get a basis for making decisions. There has been a sea change in our analysis of and approach to science, whether that involves genetically modified food, telecommunication masts or other matters. We have been honest in saying what we know, what we do not know and what we need to find out. Science and medicine operate in that spirit at the moment. We need a cold interpretation of the data so that we can move forward.

On the issue of stem cell research, I make a plea to all the groups who influence our debate from outside. Will they please get their act together and give us one document, as we do not want 50 documents all saying the same thing? There have been more diagrams of nuclear transplants into cytoplasm in the past week than nuclear transplants done in scientific labs in the past five years. I am fed up with seeing that diagram and want those groups to get their act together. I am sure that goes for those on the other side of the debate as well. It would be helpful for Members of Parliament to have one document instead of 100. We could take a leaf from the book of Congressmen and Senators who are lobbied not by pairs of people, but by groups of 300. It helps to focus their minds when everyone is joined together. That is a plea to the lobbyists who, no doubt, are listening to our debate.

The terminology in this field is dire. As soon as one mentions therapeutic cloning, a series of David Beckhams, Hitlers and so on comes to mind. Cloning is a difficult term to define. One can clone cells, organisms, organs and so on, and it is important to know what we are defining when we discuss this issue. There is also confusion about the terms "embryo" and "egg", which are often used interchangeably although, scientifically, they are different. The literature that we get does not help us to understand that difference. If we are confused, the public will find it difficult to understand the difference.

Human cloning, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, is illegal and will remain so. There will be no more David Beckhams or Hitlers, even if such cloning was ever possible. The environment has a strong effect on the expression of genes. Genes are not everything, as one is brought up in an environment that helps to develop one's brain, organs and so on, and physical training also has an effect. It is therefore difficult to say that the same genes make different people the same type of person, and we should put that idea to bed immediately.

As has often been said and, I am sure, will be said again, stem cells can be developed into specialised cells that make up organs and tissues such as kidneys, skin, liver and brain. We have a lot to learn in that field, as there is much that we do not understand about growth factors and how we can use them interchangeably to stimulate cells to move in a certain direction. There is much to be done in relation to both adult and embryonic cells. There is not an either/or situation, as there is serious research into adult cells and embryonic cells, which will move us towards the ends that Members on both sides of the House are trying to meet. I shall explain later why I think that, at this stage, the embryonic cell usage argument is much more productive and more likely to lead to an understanding which, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, will we hope in turn lead to the holy grail of using someone's own adult cells to replace his or her defunct tissue.

Research at the Johns Hopkins university in Baltimore, Maryland has produced interesting results with immature stem cells that were injected into the spinal fluid of rats and mice that were unable to walk because of neuro-cell degeneration. In humans, that condition is called spinal muscular atrophy. Fifty per cent. of the mice and rats recovered the ability to walk. Research into Parkinson's disease and so on has dealt with locating specific cells in a brain or organ that one wants to repair but, in this case, the whole spinal cord showed effects that operated in a normal manner, so there was a spread-out effect. We do not understand that mechanism but clearly it is an exciting development.

Anita McCaulay, the executive director of the Jennifer Trust for Spinal Muscular Atrophy, said of the research: This is exciting news and will be well received by families of people with the condition. One in 40 individuals carries the gene for this condition in this country. Anita McCaulay continues: it could make the day when SMA is a thing of the past that much closer. In my opinion, Anita McCaulay is right.

Why not use adult stem cells? That argument keeps coming up. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to obtain them, as there are not as many in the human body as other cells, it is difficult to show good results with them. I have never seen any explanation for that in the literature, but shall put one forward. When a stem cell develops into an adult organism it is affected by ageing, which many hon. Members will recognise in their own bodies. Stem cells age, and part of that ageing process will be mutations and chromosomal changes. If one tries to use an adult stem cell, one is running up against nature, as changes have taken place in it. That probably explains why such cells do not work as well as fresh, young, embryonic cells. Work is going on in that field which I have discussed with eminent scientists. Indeed, they are looking at the changes that occur in adult cells, as that will contribute to understanding how the holy grail of using them will come about. We are a long way from doing that and, at this stage, the most exciting results will certainly come from embryonic cells.

Finally, I shall say a few words about the IVF eggs used to obtain the immature stem cells before the 14-day cut-off point, which will still remain. It is rarely pointed out that we are not talking about the small ball of cells growing in a uterus, for example, which are subject to hormonal influences and so on. People often think that a ball of cells growing in vitro in a petri dish or a test tube is the same as one growing in the uterus. I know that the ball of cells growing in the uterus has a potential to develop into a human being, but I also know that the uterus is a hostile environment and that many of the egg cells do not survive the vicissitudes of the uterus and all the biochemical events that go on there. That process is not often recognised, but it is a natural process that has been talked about for some years.

We are discussing IVF involving ex-utero cells in culture in test tubes which will be obtained by IVF technology and used with the donor's permission in experiments. Scientists will need a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to produce and carry out research on those embryos and cells. That will not be given for trivial research as firm regulation is in place, which will still operate in this process.

From past experience and arguments in this field, I know that some people think that that in vitro ball of cells has the potential for life like the cells in utero. I respect that point of view, but I cannot convince those who hold it that the word "potential" means just that, as they equate it with human life, humanity and so on. I think that potential means potential, and many problems can arise before that ball of cells develops into a natural human being, as many biological hurdles have to be jumped.

On one side of the argument, potential is associated with life and humanity. I cannot agree with people who believe that, as I think that potential means just that and there is no guarantee that there will be a human being. There has to be a cut-off point and, in previous Parliaments and the country at large, the 14-day limit was argued for as the point at which one could make such a decision.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the cells to which he referred are human?

Dr. Gibson

Yes. Animal cells from mice and rats have been used, but the experiment has been done in all sorts of organisms.

Mrs. Winterton

Even in the case of humans?

Dr. Gibson


The opposition thinks that the potential for life is equated with life itself. However, could those who think in that way stand before patients and tell them that they were unable to provide research or technology that would improve their lives? Could they also stand before patients and say that they are going to be denied a certain drug? If patients are denied cancer drugs, there will certainly be a hoo-hah, just as there was recently over some of the decisions of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The Government's plans to extend the Act and to make sure that the regulations are operable so that we can continue with the development of knowledge and the pursuit of human happiness are what we and the country should be discussing today.

10.50 am
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I very much welcome the opportunity afforded by today's debate—

Mr. Peter Bottomley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand).

Yesterday, the Leader of the House announced a debate on a motion on the Immigration and Appeals (Family Visitor) (No. 2) Regulations 2000. The measure has been prayed against by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), some Liberal Democrat Members and myself. My hon. Friend and I appear among the top six names. If the Government propose that the prayer against the regulations is only in the name of the Liberal Democrat Members, could I ask that by Monday someone could look into whether it is proper and appropriate to exclude concerned Back Benchers from the Order Paper? It is not an issue on which I expect an immediate answer, but I expect it to be considered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving me notice that he might raise that point of order. Unfortunately, it was insufficient notice for me to give him a considered answer at this moment, but I shall ensure that an answer is provided by Monday.

Dr. Brand

Obviously that pressing business was more important than the debate.

I congratulate the chief medical officer on his report, and the Minister and her colleague in another place on a clear and succinct resumé.

No matter where one stands on the subject, it is quite clear that there are moral and ethical arguments on both sides of the debate. It is also clear that the scientific arguments are all on one side, which is to extend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. I hope that when we have a substantive debate and the opportunity to vote on these matters, hon. Members will not try to rerun the 1990 Act, the Abortion Act 1967 or the Medical Treatment (Prevention of Euthanasia) Bill that was promoted by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who is not in her place at the moment, but will stick to the extension of the 1990 Act by regulation to make sure that opportunities in scientific research are not only available but, more important, controlled.

I cannot accept the argument of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that we in the United Kingdom can sit back and duck out of our moral responsibility in these matters, let the dirty work, as he might see it, be done by others and then reap the benefits on behalf of the people whom I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see helped—those with Parkinson's disease and other degenerative problems.

Mr. Hammond

Would the hon. Gentleman extend that and suggest that any country that did not have a pharmaceutical research base should be denied the treatments that derive from such research work?

Dr. Brand

If a country decided on moral grounds that it would not have a pharmaceutical research base because it did not believe in the product of the pharmaceutical industry, one would expect it to do just that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that sections of our population are totally against intervention by modern medicine of any sort and are prepared to follow their beliefs to such an extent that they deny even their families and their children medical treatment. The argument that we can afford to stand back really does not wash. I do not think we can accept it.

Mr. Hammond

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he accept that the key issue at stake in the Government's introduction of these regulations is the defence of the United Kingdom's pharmaceutical and biotechnological research base?

Dr. Brand

I am now totally confused. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was working from a high moral position, which clearly I respect, but he now appears to be arguing that the most important part of the debate and the need for the extension through regulation is to support some economic factor for the country in respect of employment. The hon. Gentleman is pointing at the Minister. I am quite sure that all countries which have the capacity to develop this technology are having debates just like this one, or have had them in the past. It is no accident that the European Parliament considered the matter. Unfortunately, however, there was the usual north-south divide on largely religious grounds on some of the approaches that were being taken.

It is not good enough to say that we will let other people do it, or to say that because our biotechnology industry needs to be supported we should allow it to do shady things. We should make a decision on principle, and I am suggesting that that principle should be that we accept the 1990 Act.

I really find it very difficult when hon. Members' personal, deeply felt opinions—which I respect—form the framework for denying other people opportunities. I know that it is right that in all we do in our personal lives we should be guided by our beliefs, but I have some difficulty when those beliefs are imposed on others.

I do not believe that foetal cells have the same status as a unique human being. If we are going to be theological about it, I do not think that the divine soul enters when an egg is fertilised. The process, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), is so wasteful. Some 20 per cent. of implanted fertilised eggs are wasted. Does that mean that 20 per cent. of souls are suddenly lost? Probably 40 to 50 per cent. of fertilised eggs are wasted and lost before implantation. If we look at the process of embryology before the fertilised egg develops to the blastocyst stage—there is some very helpful revision material available in Professor Donaldson's report—we see that it goes through a morello stage where at some time it is capable of becoming four individuals but is then reabsorbed. What happens to the four unique souls who then have to merge into one?

Mrs. Ann Winterton

I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's theory about unique souls. I do not think that anyone else has mentioned them and I rather suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that people have souls anyway, so I suggest, with respect, that he might get back to the main thrust of his argument.

Dr. Brand

I would be very sad if I did not believe that I had a soul, and I would be fairly hypocritical being here for prayers. My point is that there is a great difference between foetal material before 14 days—or indeed, a foetus up to 22 weeks—and a born child. One has to accept that because it is accepted in law. I know that some right hon. and hon. Members do not, and I respect their views. However, they use every opportunity to impose those views on processes that are essential if we are to make scientific progress.

I enjoyed the anti-science rant—no, it was really very reasoned—from the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. Of course knowledge is a dangerous thing. Eve had much to be blamed for when she made Adam eat the apple of knowledge.

Mrs. Winterton

Oh, so it is all our fault, is it?

Dr. Brand

Well, I am only going by the available sources that inform us on these matters, and if they are sexist, there is not much that I can do. Even Galileo has been pardoned by the Catholic Church.

I understand the concept of Frankenstein and the fear of cloning. I am not so fearful that Beckham will be cloned as much as Dolly the sheep—much more aggressive than Beckham, I think, and possibly more effective on the football field. The other concept of immortal cell lines rings out as if scientists will take over the world. I believe that these regulations are about the control and management of science. We are talking about development, not an immediate application.

It is right to have a vision or a goal. Columbus had a vision; he failed absolutely miserably—he found no gold at all—but he had a vision of finding El Dorado and he increased knowledge. It would be very Luddite of the House of Commons to deny opportunities, provided that they work within a framework. To suggest that recommendation 2 hands too much power to the HFEA, should there be an extension, is nonsense. Even as a well-informed House of Commons, we could not possibly be informed well enough to deal with all the questions that arise.

I am not going to speak on the science of embryology—I am a clinician, not a scientist. I leave that sort of thing to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is far cleverer than me and who made a very valid contribution in a somewhat ill-timed ten-minute Bill debate. I hope that after this opportunity to air the issue on a wider basis, a subsequent vote will reflect people's intellectual assessment of the problem rather than their gut instincts.

Mr. Hammond

Could the hon. Gentleman help me in respect of recommendation 2? Does he understand the requirement to be that there is absolutely no alternative to the use of embryonic material or merely that it would be efficacious for researchers to use such material? That is the kind of distinction that I would have concerns about leaving in the hands of an agency.

Dr. Brand

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I was slightly worried about recommendation 2, which could be used by those who argue that all the answers lie in adult stem cell research or alternative stem cell research coming up with the solutions. That is possible, but it seems silly to deny one the opportunity to get at an answer from a different direction, or much more quickly, if one can use foetal cells that are less differentiated and thus have much more potential to teach us what processes might work best in the more differentiated cells. [Interruption.] It is not convenience, as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says from a sedentary position, but a way of furthering knowledge.

I am not a pure scientist; I think that humankind should be as informed as possible, which will, I hope, allow us to lead our lives and create our societies in a better way. However, as a clinician, I am concerned with the ultimate goal. We have had enormous breakthroughs in communicable diseases and sanitation and our next challenge—keeping people fitter, if not necessarily alive, longer, and providing them with a better quality of life—is to tackle some of these very nasty degenerative diseases. This sort of fundamental research is the only help that I can see. If foetal stem cell research helps us reach that goal five or 10 years earlier, it would be irresponsible, amoral and unethical, as well as unscientific, not to take those opportunities.

This issue will, of course, be a matter for a personal vote for members of my party. I know that some will not accept all the arguments, but I shall certainly recommend that they look at them very closely. I have no doubt that to benefit the greatest number and to take life forward, one should take every opportunity. Rather than destroy spare foetal material, which is what we are talking about, we should use it for the benefit of mankind.

11.6 am

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. However, I give notice that if the debate lasts until the usual time, I will have to leave slightly early to get back in time for surgery in my constituency, for which I apologise to the House.

I welcome the Donaldson report and the Government's intention to extend the currently permitted grounds for embryonic research to include the treatment for a wider range of human diseases. I share the concerns alluded to by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the potential for the deliberate creation of genetically identical individuals—reproductive cloning. It is frankly abhorrent. The idea that society or scientists in particular should be able to determine the features and characteristics of individuals prior to their birth strikes at the very heart of respect for human dignity and diversity. It is an idea whose potential might appeal to the far right or the racial supremacists; it goes against the very notion of equality among human beings.

I welcome the view expressed in the chief medical officer's report that the ban on reproductive cloning should be reinforced. That helps to close the door even more tightly on those who might find reproductive cloning an attractive scenario.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that there is undoubtedly concern among the public at large about cloning in general. I think that there is a fundamental difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Although there is a similarity between the two in terms of the medical techniques used, therapeutic cloning is entirely different in purpose, impact and motivation. It could, as others have said, generate the tissue for bone marrow for leukaemia sufferers, the muscle tissue for repairing a damaged heart or the neural tissue for treating degenerative diseases.

If reproductive cloning is about creating a particular type of human being, therapeutic cloning has the completely different objective of improving the quality of life of those suffering now or who will suffer in the future from a range of serious medical conditions. Although I recognise that there are strongly held opinions, I do not believe that there is any great new ethical issue here. The issue before us is not whether we should conduct research on embryos. As the Minister said, that issue was debated at length during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That legislation already allows research on embryos for certain medical conditions such as congenital disease or genetic abnormality.

At the time of the 1990 Act, no one envisaged the possibility of solutions through therapeutic cloning for, say, Parkinson's—certainly a disease, and certainly abnormal. If research on embryos is acceptable for promoting knowledge about the causes of congenital disease or advances in the treatment of infertility, why should we not widen the rules to include promotion of advances in the understanding of other human diseases and disorders and to allow the possibility of research to develop new cell-based treatments.

I do not believe that the Donaldson recommendations will undermine the sanctity of life, although I recognise that that view is not universally held. The proposals do not alter the special status of the embryo. Embryos of up to 14 days, the current cut-off point for research, are much smaller than the head of a pin, and the 14-day point is crucial, because that is the earliest point at which the first parts of what will become the central nervous system can appear.

We must recognise the importance and value of the embryo. The rules governing research on the human embryo must be tightly drawn, as, thanks to the 1990 Act, they already are. Given the huge potential benefit to health that stem cell research could bring, the value that we attach to the embryo should not prevent carefully regulated and controlled research, but may improve the quality of life of some of our constituents. If we close off opportunities for that research, are we not implying that we do not value existing life highly enough? Existence in itself is surely not enough. If the quality of life of some of our constituents could be massively improved by stem cell research, do we not have a moral obligation not to walk by on the other side—if I may use a Christian analogy—but to ensure that the research is carried out?

Another argument, made today by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, is that research on adult stem cells probably renders embryonic stem cell research unnecessary. Research on adult stem cells appears to offer exciting possibilities, as suggested in last January's British Medical Journal report. I hope that the potential is fulfilled, and that there will one day be no need for embryonic stem cell research. For now, however, it is far from clear that adult stems cells offer opportunities and possibilities for new treatments equal to those of embryonic stem cells.

Mr. Hammond

Has the hon. Gentleman just said, in effect, that we do not know whether embryonic stem cell research is necessary, but that if we wait and see, we may find that it is not?

Mr. Thomas

Information currently available does not satisfactorily explain what the possibilities are for adult stem cell or embryonic stem cell research. My point is that we should not close off an avenue of research into embryonic stem cell research just because adult stem cell research might be less controversial to the hon. Gentleman and others.

Mr. Hammond

I am sorry to press the hon. Gentleman, but we are not talking about closing anything off. The Government propose to open something up. Unless the hon. Gentleman can deliver an argument that stands up to scrutiny to show that that is absolutely required, what justification is there for suggesting that we open up a new possibility?

Mr. Thomas

The justification for opening up the possibility of embryonic stem cell research is that it, more quickly that adult stem cell research, may provide a solution to diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. To delay taking a decision on that would seem to me to be wrong. Given the expertise available to the chief medical officer and the conclusion drawn by his expert group that embryonic stem cells appear to have the potential to develop into a far greater range of tissues than adult-derived stem cells, we do not have the luxury of not allowing embryonic stem cell research.

The most recent medical study of the potential of adult stem cells by the Milan Institute for Stem Cell Research suggested that they were far more flexible than we had thought and could give rise to skeletal muscle. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge alluded to that report in his speech. The director of the institute, Dr. Vescovi, thought that the findings were exciting, but added that at this stage his research was far from showing that adult stem cells had growth potential and plasticity equal to that of embryonic stem cells. He said: Common sense dictates that it is not possible to decide which approach is more promising until both have been explored.

My interest in this issue arose not from a scientific background, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), or from the variety of interests of those on both Front Benches. Mine is a much more reluctant interest, which has arisen from my having had to get to grips with the consequences of Parkinson's disease over the past 12 years. Both Cardinal Winning, in The Daily Telegraph, and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), when he opposed a ten-minute Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), quoted C. S. Lewis, who bears repeating. Lewis wrote: The softest route to hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without signposts. That is a very apt description of the experience of Parkinson's. Hell in that case is an end to normal life as we know it. It means the end of an ability to work for someone who cannot rely on his or her body to carry out the most basic of functions—standing up straight and still, without jerking, or articulating thoughts clearly to those he or she manages. Forced medical retirement comes next, and a gradual restriction of the social circle. Next is a declining ability to participate in conversations. There is a slow drop in the number of times the person can leave the house. There is an ever-increasing reliance and dependence on others—help with food, with getting into or out of bed, with going to the toilet, with going on holiday and for simply spreading one's wings.

Hell means not knowing from one visit to the next what state the Parkinson's sufferer whom one knows will be in. Will he or she be on, or off? Will he or she be likely to switch on shortly? Will he have the confidence to go out to the rugby match that you know he has always enjoyed? Has he fallen over today? Is he sleeping properly? How is his mood? Hell, too, is worrying about those who care for the Parkinson's sufferer. Are they sleeping? How much are their lives being affected? What is the impact on their finances and morale?

Drug treatments have had some success in alleviating symptoms among some Parkinson's patients and in reducing disability. They can reduce the slope of decline. The most effective drug, levodopa, tends to lose efficacy after between four and seven years, and the decline sets in once again as patients deteriorate and experience unpredictable fluctuations in mobility. Another drug, selegiline, may delay the need for levodopa. Some think that it slows the progression of the disease, but it does not stop it; it just changes the rate of decline.

For those for whom the drugs do not work, or for those for whom the drugs have lost their bite, surgical interventions can make the decline more gradual. Pallidotomy means drilling into someone's brain to use an electrode to destroy the cells that reacted adversely to medication. However, that does not end decline; it just helps to manage it. Deep-brain stimulation involves electrodes implanted in the brain, which the patient can switch on or off as symptoms require.

None of the drug treatments and none of the surgical interventions currently available to us can end the misery for the Parkinson's sufferer. Some 120,000 people in the United Kingdom have Parkinson's. As the Minister said, up to 1 million family members and friends of those people live with Parkinson's too. An estimated 10,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year. Even the most encouraging analysis of stem cell research suggests that we are at least 10 years from practical application. As a non-scientist, I cannot know whether even that analysis is right. I do not know whether stem cell research—adult or embryonic—will ever deliver a solution to Parkinson's. However, we should allow those who have identified potential in that route the chance to realise the ambition of a solution to the disease.

11.20 am
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I too apologise to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I have to travel to Cheshire, and travel arrangements are extremely difficult at present, so if I am not able to remain in the Chamber until the end of the debate, I hope that you, the Minister for Public Health and other hon. Members will understand the reason and forgive me.

There cannot have been one Back Bencher who did not applaud our former Speaker, the right hon. Betty Boothroyd, when she reminded us in her resignation speech that the function of Parliament is to hold the Executive to account. Ministers, she said, should never overlook the primacy of Parliament.

I mention that because of the cynical manner in which the Executive have treated both Houses in their attempt to legalise what they choose to call therapeutic cloning. Far from taking the words of our former Speaker to heart, they deliberately introduced the Donaldson report to the public at a press conference on 16 August—about three weeks after Parliament had risen for the summer recess, thus denying Members of Parliament the opportunity to carry out their duty by questioning a Minister on a statement on the report in the House of Commons. The Government's subsequent actions were even worse. They chose the same occasion to publish their response.

The reason why soon became obvious, even to the most naive observer: publication of the Donaldson report and the Government response was followed by a carefully co-ordinated propaganda campaign, with one group after another—the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the British Medical Association, the BioIndustry Association and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics—announcing their support for human cloning. The Minister and Professor Donaldson constantly remind the press and the public that all those fine-sounding bodies support the chief medical officer's expert group on human cloning—a word that they always avoid, although that is what they demand; instead, they refer constantly to "nuclear cell replacement".

I draw the attention of the House to the threat made this week by the bio-tech industries—as reported in The Times on 15 November—that because of hostility to genetic engineering and other constraints on research, companies will move to countries such as Brazil and China. If the industry cannot persuade people by seductive promises—and it has made many—it will try to coerce them through threats to employment and investment.

It is well known that the public is very much opposed to human cloning; that fact explains much of the reasoning behind the publicity campaign. Every public opinion survey has shown that opposition, to the point that a pro-cloning article in The Independent on 20 August—that newspaper could hardly be described as being pro-life—referred to the public being "vehemently opposed" to cloning.

Joan Ruddock

Does the hon. Lady agree that when the public think about human cloning, their perception is that it will produce a baby or a human being by some method that would give the common genetic complement to that new human being? I do not think that they perceive that we are talking about a small collection of cells that might be produced in a period as short as 14 days.

Mrs. Winterton

I do not agree with the hon. Lady. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) made the valid point that members of the public should be made aware of precisely what is at stake.

That point is echoed in a report issued by the Wellcome Trust, which highlighted the fact that public opinion on so-called therapeutic cloning is generally supportive until people realise what is involved. The report stated that many people did not understand the terminology used by doctors and scientists. It noted that the language chosen when describing scientific research has a major impact on participants' responses to the ideas…(but as their) awareness increased, so did their concern and apprehension. It was unclear whether many participants realised that an embryo created for research would be a genetic extension of a living individual. However, for those who did grasp this fact their concerns were further heightened…it was felt that there could be the potential to mislead participants, it being accepted that several aspects of the scientific research would not in fact be "therapeutic".

It is thus not surprising that obscure language should be used in the report of the chief medical officer's expert advisory group on therapeutic cloning. For example, throughout the report, cloning is referred to as "cell nuclear replacement"—a morally neutral term. As part of the spin, the report also tells us—almost with a fanfare of trumpets—that the Government will introduce specific legislation to ban reproductive cloning, even though it is already illegal, so putting that forward as an assertion gives the impression that the present Administration are tabling legislation to protect respect for human life.

Members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, have sent scores of letters to voters, declaring that the Government will introduce legislation to reinforce our laws against reproductive cloning. As there has been no suggestion that reproductive cloning would be introduced, that claim is obviously a defence tactic—a smokescreen designed to obscure Government policy that supports the manufacture of clones for the production of cells and for other purposes.

Dr. Brand

I am sure that the hon. Lady does not want to mislead the public—or, indeed, Members of the House—but she has mentioned human cloning several times. Will she give us her definition of human cloning? I should like to know how different it is from my perception of that term.

Mrs. Winterton

The hon. Gentleman has picked on a most important point. If he will be patient, I shall deal with it later.

Before discussing the ethics of cloning, I shall refer to the manner in which today's debate was organised. As a result of the debate on the ten-minute Bill presented by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), on 2 November, the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), called for a fuller debate on stem cell cloning. In view of subsequent events, some of us feel that the reply given to my hon. Friend was not as informative as might have been expected. The Leader of the House said that the Government would bear it in mind and perhaps discuss it through the usual channels.—[Official Report, 2 November 2000; Vol. 355, c. 855.]

I do not regard the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon as "the usual channels". Moreover, I am confident that many Labour Back Benchers, and many Liberal Democrat Members, will agree. Yet on 7 November, only three parliamentary days after the Leader of the House made that reply, the hon. Gentleman addressed a meeting on cloning, organised by the all-party science and technology group, and announced that the Government were arranging a debate on cloning on 17 November. It was not until 9 November, however, that the House was informed that the debate would be held today.

The hon. Gentleman also declared that a statutory instrument would be tabled within three weeks and there would be a vote on the subject before the end of the year—a statement he confirmed on Tuesday, when he spoke to a journalist from The Tablet. It will be interesting to find out whether the hon. Gentleman's second assertion is correct—that he does indeed have inside knowledge, despite the Minister's comments at the beginning of her speech. It will be interesting to hear whether—perhaps in the light of the contributions to this debate—the Government come to the conclusion that they should not push this measure through the House with undue haste. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West made a valid point when he said that the public should be made aware of and understand the issues being decided on their behalf in this House.

Dr. Harris

I can reassure the hon. Lady that although I have tried to get information from the Minister's office, it has been like trying to get blood from a stone. At no point has the Minister's office confirmed to me any of the dates. At the meeting to which she referred, a rumour about a debate this Friday was provided by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) whose connections with Government thinking are, understandably, more in tune than mine. Finally, I do not remember speaking to anyone from The Tablet, although I indicated that I would be happy to do so. But I have no authority, except to report the rumours that I have heard—perhaps the hon. Lady has heard them, too—about when the Government will make the regulations.

Mrs. Winterton

The hon. Gentleman's comments are interesting and the House will take note of them. Perhaps many will feel a little sceptical, as I do, about what he had to say.

Many Members of all parties would have taken the trouble to attend today's debate but, due to the lack of notice, found it impossible to cancel constituency and other engagements. With further modernisation, and the parliamentary week being made ever shorter, this problem will grow worse in the future, as constituency engagements will become more important and the affairs of this House perhaps less important. On the other hand, it is obvious that with greater advance notice, members of the all-party science and technology group have been able to muster their supporters. I believe that the Government must have been aware of this.

Given the size of the defeat of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, it is important to pause, reflect and consider these matters more thoroughly. A vote before Christmas would be precipitate and would not reflect the Leader of the House's statement to the House that these matters should be thoroughly aired.

I shall refer briefly to the techniques of cloning. Perhaps that will answer the question posed earlier by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand). A human clone—which we all know has not yet been achieved—would be an exact genetic copy of another human being; likewise, a clone of any animal species would be an exact genetic copy, and can be produced by two techniques.

The nucleus from an oocyte—an unfertilised female egg—is removed and replaced by the nucleus of a cell taken from a donor animal, which, in fact, will be the genetic twin of the new clone. This was the technique used to produce Dolly the sheep. It is, however, extremely hazardous, and out of more than 400 trials—some of which produced malformed sheep—only one, Dolly, succeeded. In the event, Dolly was found by chromosomal analysis to be six years old at birth, the age of the donor sheep.

Cloning can also be achieved by splitting an embryo's cells at a very early stage of development, thus creating one or a number of clones. There is no difference between the techniques for reproductive cloning and so-called therapeutic cloning. The difference lies solely in the purpose for which the clone is created—whether it is to implant into a woman, so that the embryo can develop in the normal way as a baby, or if it is intended to use the clone in the production of stem cells or biochemical products.

In both cases, the clone would be genetically completely human. Even the Warnock committee stressed that the embryo of the human species ought to have special status. Cloning—the manufacture of a human embryo for the sole purpose of bit-part treatment and other destructive experiments—completely denies this.

It is important to repeat that stem cells can be obtained from adult tissue, the umbilical cord of a new-born baby and from embryos. There are no ethical problems in using adult stem cells or those from the umbilical cord. Unlike ordinary cells, stem cells have the capacity constantly to renew themselves and to form or to differentiate into the different cell types needed by the body. That is why stem cells may be used to replace tissue in cases of severe burns or in cases where the tissue has been destroyed by cancer or through diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

A human embryo has been described as a stem cell par excellence. It is a most wonderful being, which has the capacity to initiate, sustain, control and direct its own development. Its cells will provide each and every different kind of cell and tissue which make up the human body—skin, nerve, muscle, bone and other organs.

As a mother and a grandmother, I must confess that I become quite emotional when I think of the beginning of life for children; each on the first day after conception no bigger than a full stop, yet miraculously sustaining, controlling and directing their own development in the production of every different type of cell and tissue to bring them to what they are today. The fact that we have scientists who think of these, who are definitely human, simply as a source to be exploited in obtaining cells and tissue, I find frightening.

Dr. Brand

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Winterton

I think that I have given way enough, and I would like to make progress.

The chief medical officer's advisory group described stem cells as unspecialised cells which have not yet differentiated into any specific type of cell and tissue. This is surely somewhat short of the mark. Stem cells are pluripotent; they can proliferate with almost unlimited potential, maintaining a pool of growing and dividing cells, with the added ability that some of the daughter cells can differentiate into specific cell types. That quote comes from David A. Prentice, professor of medical and molecule genetics at Indiana state university, in his testimony to the American Congress in February this year.

It must be pointed out that the pathway of differentiation from stem cell to a specific cell type varies according to the cell type required. Without a clear understanding of such differentiation pathways, it would be extremely dangerous to implant undifferentiated stem cells into an adult human. In comparison, however, evidence now suggests that adult stem cells are easier to manage, and if transplanted into their normal environment—for example, brain cells into brain tissue—they will produce only the cell types necessary for the tissue. This information comes from an article by Vogel printed in Science in February.

One of the most serious criticisms of the Donaldson report is that it was already outdated when it was published. For example, it claimed that stem cells derived from early embryos have the greatest potential to develop into most types of tissue…stem cells can be extracted from some adult tissues but their potential to develop into other kinds of tissue is also likely to be limited. Yet by the time the report was presented to members of the Government—and subsequently to the public—a number of papers showing this to be incorrect had already been published.

Why at the press conference to launch the report on 16 August did the Department of Health spokesman—and Professor Donaldson in particular—not admit that advances had been made in the use of adult stem cells? In any event, research is now continually emerging from Scandinavia, Britain, America and elsewhere on the uses of adult stem cells, showing the Donaldson report to have been completely eclipsed.

Why did the Department of Health have to wait until this week, when they organised two emergency briefing sessions for Members—for which we were given totally inadequate notice—before it admitted that the long-term promise of stem cells from adult tissue could equal or surpass that of embryonic stem cells? None the less, it still justifies its demands with a number of claims, including the assertion that many scientists believe that to understand how adult stem cells work and to reach the point where new treatments are possible, embryonic research into stem cells is vital. On what research do those scientists base their belief? Can the House be given the annotated work on which they base their claims?

There are many other points that I would like to pick up in the latest documents that we were sent by the Department of Health this week, but there are many aspects of the work that I must cover. However, I will refer to the fact that its latest document appears to accept, contrary to original assertions, that a majority of research scientists now consider adult stem cells to be "pluripotent"—that is, of almost unlimited potential.

For at least a year, adult stem cells have been used either exclusively or in combination with other treatments to achieve significant health care benefits for sufferers of the following conditions: brain tumours, ovarian cancer, solid tumours, multiple myeloma, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple sclerosis, systematic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, anaemia, stroke, blindness and immuno-deficiency. A number of papers demonstrating the therapeutic use of stem cells had already been published well before the Donaldson report was presented to the public.

In comparison, the only material published so far on the use of embryonic stem cells has been in the form of promises—the promises of salvation in the future. They have been made by the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the British Medical Association, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—in fact, uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

The House will forgive me if I appear sceptical about the current efforts. I was a Member in 1990 when we were subjected to an almost identical campaign, which was exploited by many newspapers. The present campaign is little different. For example, despite the evidence regarding adult stem cells, The Times of 8 November this year reported that the Royal Society had produced a report on therapeutic cloning that suggested that there is no scientific justification for the rejection— of the Donaldson report— and that to do so would send an ominous message about the future of research in Britain.

Not surprisingly, Germany has the strictest regulations regarding human vivisection, including embryo research and cloning, of any country in Europe. Yet, its biotechnological industry has outstripped the industry in the United Kingdom.

I hope that Members will learn from the 1990 experience. Fellows of the Royal Society, spokesmen for the Medical Research Council and other bodies seduced parliamentarians with their promises of cures for genetic diseases, degenerative conditions and other tragedies if experimentation on human embryos were made legal. Ten years later, we are still awaiting the realisation of those promises, whereas therapeutic advances have been, and are being made, by the application of ethical methods of research. Yet the empty words of the experts have resulted in the destruction of countless human embryos.

In 1990, at meetings in both Houses, fellows of the Royal Society and others told Members of Parliament that a conceptus was not a human life until the 14th day after fertilisation. Before then, it was only a pre-embryo. That propaganda ploy was used persistently in some newspapers and convinced many parliamentarians. However, once the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 became law, no more was heard of a pre-embryo. The term was dropped completely and many of today's Members of Parliament will be totally unaware of its usage.

As Members, we have to be more realistic in our assessment of scientists and doctors. We have to recognise that they are not above commercial considerations. We also have to recognise that the potential rewards in biotechnology are overwhelming. As already stated, the human embryo initiates, sustains, controls and directs its own developments by virtue of its ability to synthesise a whole range of biochemical products that could be used in other aspects of biotechnology. These can be extracted, refined, purified and sold to the highest bidder in the worldwide biotechnology industry. Such products could be used in many sectors of basic biological research and in the pharmaceutical industry. The Wellcome report, to which I referred earlier, accepted that several aspects of the scientific research would not, in fact, be "therapeutic".

The commercial pressures to give the go-ahead despite ethical concerns are clear. On 10 November this year, The Times reported that ReNeuron, a recently formed company whose shares had just begun trading, had raised £18 million and were likely to raise a further £3 million by an over-allotment option. It is planning to be the first to begin trials using cloned human stem cells derived from aborted foetuses. This is a case of commercial scientists seeking by force majeure to ensure parliamentary and public approval.

Moreover, although the Government assert that they are completely opposed to reproductive cloning—I imagine that everyone in the House must take that view—Lord Winston, among other fertility experts, has affirmed that therapeutic cloning will lead to reproductive cloning within twenty years. His words should be heeded.

In 1990, several hon. Members suspected that possible commercial interests might dominate some sections of the medical and scientific community. As a result, we tabled a series of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 so that research on human embryos would be confined to the development of cures and treatments for genetic diseases and other problems for which scientists claimed that embryo research was vital. I know that many Members will not be surprised to learn that every amendment was bitterly opposed by the scientific community and failed to reach the statute book. We have no doubt that the same tactics would be used today if the House had the opportunity—which it does not—to table such amendments.

It is important to ask why Donaldson did not refer to the possible commercial stakes in cloning. They are well documented—and it was United States commercial scientists who first established a technique to keep embryo stem cells alive in a culture. To what extent was the motive for their work dominated by commercial considerations? Nobody seems to have posed the question, but the reply must be obvious to one and all.

When it is claimed by the Donaldson committee and others that our scientists will lose out if we do not give the go-ahead, we need to ask: if their sole interest is therapeutic, to whom will we lose out? As things stands, Britain is totally out of step with the rest of Europe in the matter of cloning. Cloning is completely outlawed in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland and Slovakia. In the last three years—between March 1997 and 7 September 2000—the European Parliament has voted for a ban on human cloning, and it was not just a north-south divide; Germany is the greatest opponent in Europe of cloning. The latest resolution called on the United Kingdom Government to review their position on human embryo cloning, and called on Members of Parliament to exercise their votes of conscience to reject the proposal to permit research using human embryos.

In addition, the United Kingdom will not benefit from research moneys provided by the European Union. That is our own money being recycled, so we will lose out even though the decision was made by the Council of Ministers and agreed by the Prime Minister. As many hon. Members will know, the Council of Europe has also condemned human cloning.

The Donaldson committee was preceded by a joint working party of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetic Advisory Commission. Its four members had all expressed pro-cloning views before joining the committee, and two had pecuniary interests connected with the pharmaceutical industry. The 14 members of the Donaldson committee also appear to be totally biased in favour of cloning, and their constant reference to the expertise of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the strict controls that it maintains is quite ludicrous.

The history of that organisation—or quango—demonstrates utter incompetence. Five years after the Act came into operation, the authority was forced to admit that it had lost all track of thousands of parents of frozen embryos. Since then, there have been many reports of inefficiency and neglect. Only last weekend, The Sunday Times carried a story that At least 100 women have been mistakenly implanted with another couple's embryos because of incompetence by infertility clinics. Rather than express concern, The Sunday Times reported: The HFEA denied that there were widespread problems in infertility clinics and said any errors were a tiny fraction of the total number of IVF treatments. It would be a major disaster for all those couples who had been implanted with another couple's embryos to learn what had happened, and the attitude of the authority is to be deplored.

A number of members of the authority are also involved in the IVF industry, and for many years parliamentarians have complained of the fact that the poacher is playing gamekeeper. The history of the authority shows it to be incapable of policing cloning, which could have sinister connotations. Yet in its naivety, the Donaldson expert group promises us the "same stringent controls" on cloning as the authority has exercised over IVF and embryo research.

Finally, it is important to question the way in which legislation and changes to regulations are presented to Parliament. The change in regulations under the Act to allow human cloning for so-called therapeutic purposes will be presented as an affirmative instrument. In principle, both Houses of Parliament will be able to debate the issue, but with a straight yes or no vote. There will be no opportunity to amend the details.

It is outrageous that such an instrument should be used to make a major change to the Act on a matter that was not fully debated during the Bill's passage through Parliament in 1990. Surely that is an abuse of Parliament. I took part in the debates, and no one seriously considered the possibility of cloning. The Government, however, claim that the Act makes it legal to carry out cell nuclear replacement, one of the techniques of cloning. If the Minister cannot say today what section permits that, perhaps she will write to me.

In contrast to the manner in which so-called therapeutic cloning is being introduced through the back door, the Government's handling of reproductive cloning is altogether different. The move to strengthen our laws against that, as the Government claim to be doing, will be presented to Parliament as specific legislation. That will be fully debated and voted on, with Members given the opportunity to table amendments.

The whole exercise is futile, because reproductive cloning is already illegal—but that approach gives a positive spin to the Government's activities. It is obviously intended to make it appear as if they are taking action to strengthen respect for human life. Happily, many Members of all parties have become alert to that. I suspect that that is why this week we were offered two Department of Health briefing sessions, with only 24 hours' notice, which was probably a sign of panic. The Government have become concerned about the overwhelming defeat—by more than two votes to one—of the Stem Cell Research Bill in the name of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, and are aware that many Members are seriously worried about cloning.

Hon. Members recognise—just as the Wellcome report tells us that members of the public do—that a clone is a genetic extension of a living individual, and that aspects of the scientific research would not be therapeutic. Like their constituents, hon. Members are becoming increasingly concerned. I hope that they will stand firm and join us in opposing the Government's plan to thrust human cloning on the nation by means of an affirmative resolution. I urge hon. Members not to give way on this vital issue.

11.56 am
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

It is in the nature of Friday Adjournment debates that there is a wide-ranging discussion and an opportunity to explore fundamental questions in greater depth. Today has been no exception, and I am pleased to take part in such a considered debate.

It is important to be clear about the central proposition that will come before the House for a decision. That proposition will be simple. It will be limited in its scope and, I believe, easily understood. It does not require an understanding of the finer points of embryology or, indeed, stem cell research. However, I recommend the parliamentary Office of Science and Technology's note of June this year on that subject.

The reason for the debate is that we anticipate new regulations, the effect of which will be to extend the purposes for which human embryos may be used in research. The exacting framework and rules of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will, as the Minister clearly stated, remain in place. There will have to be conditions of consent and there will only be a permission for usage up to 14 days, and only when no alternative effective method of research is available.

The change proposed by the Donaldson report is not fundamental, but, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) illustrated, it means revisiting some of the most fundamental arguments of the original debates, which culminated in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Like the hon. Lady, I was also in the House during the passage of the Bill, but of course I voted for it and have a settled view. I am satisfied that it has provided a proper framework to govern the everyday work of people who seek to assist childless couples.

The authority has carried out its duties in an exemplary way, given that it is working at the forefront of science and in difficult circumstances. It has faced up to the tough challenges of Diane Blood and, more recently, the Scottish couple who wanted to determine the sex of their embryo. We cannot underestimate the ethical dimensions of the work and the concern of the general public. I certainly do not.

In the context of genetically modified crops and foods, the Government tell us that their decisions will be based on sound science, and it is reasonable for us to ask what is sound science. If it were simply to be objective, accurate and peer reviewed, it would not necessarily be ethical. The public understand that. We must bring human judgment to bear on scientific decisions.

We have rights as individuals and as a society to insist on moral frameworks within which science is carried out in our name. I am a strong opponent of the way in which GM foods and crops have been introduced into the food chain and our environment. I do not believe that science should be allowed to go unfettered. In my youth, I was an experimental scientist in genetics for a few years. I know that there are cavalier scientists. I also understand the enormous excitement of working at the forefront of science, and I know that scientists often become so focused on their work that they exclude all other influences. We are therefore right to be cautious.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) mentioned BSE. Of course, the tragedy of BSE has been a disaster for scientists and has done much damage to their reputations. However, I suggest that it was more the fault of politicians and administrators than of scientists. I also know that, but for the extraordinary achievements of our scientists, engineers and technologists, human beings in this country and throughout the developed world would still be living nasty, brutish and short lives.

As legislators, we have a duty to grasp the developments and progress of science, and to ensure that our legislation, in setting appropriate frameworks, keeps pace with them. As human beings, we want better health for ourselves and our loved ones. We want our pain alleviated and, as we move inevitably to our deaths, we hope to avoid the most disabling conditions and the dependency that they bring. We constantly will our medical services to provide ever more effective care and cures. As a society, we cannot hold those attitudes and aspirations without facing the responsibilities of making decisions about the fundamental research that makes future cures possible.

The issue of experimentation using stem cells arises because of the huge advances in understanding degenerative diseases. No one proposes that embryos be donated for unspecified research purposes. As the Minister confirmed today, the Donaldson report has made a limited proposal for the use of donated embryos, which would otherwise be destroyed, in the service of the living. I believe that that is an ethical purpose.

Furthermore, we must keep at the forefront of our minds the reasons why embryonic cells are available. It is not the reason that is suggested in one of the letters that has been circulated to us from a woman called Pauline Egan. She says: Can you not see how we are condoning the manufacture of an underclass of human lives to serve us? We are creating a 21st Century style slave trade. Surely it is time to ask, "Why are embryos stockpiled"… She goes on to say: If we accept it…then we send a clear message to future generations—that it is acceptable to destroy vulnerable human life as a means to an end. That is an extraordinarily emotive and exaggerated view of the proposed research.

We are not considering human beings in the sense that most people perceive them—as foetuses, babies, children and adults. We are talking about a relatively small mass of cells. Yes, they are human cells, and special consideration and respect should be shown them, but in no way can the sentiments of the letter that I cited be applied to the proposals that the House will consider. If those sentiments were true, I would certainly oppose the sort of cloning that that letter suggests.

There is no suggestion that women should be asked to donate eggs for scientific research. The eggs and embryos that are the subject of the debate arise in the laboratories of doctors who attempt to assist those who are infertile. We should remember that assisted conception is the motivation for the production of embryos, and all those involved have to give their express consent. I think that the majority of people in society believe that people have the right, within the safeguards of the 1990 Act, to create those embryos. In the current state of science and practice, the number of embryos created exceeds those used in the treatment.

As someone who has experienced the pain of childlessness, I believe that I can understand the feelings of those who seek IVF treatment. More than most, they have an acute sense of what life is. They also have lengthy and close contact with medical science and an appreciation of the efforts of those who work in the service of human health and well-being. Those are the people who would be asked to donate eggs and embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. My guess is that many of them will feel that, for up to 14 days, their human cells can be used for alternative and ethical purposes that would advance the common good. As the Minister explained, that common good is research into degenerative diseases.

The hon. Member for Congleton spoke of adult stem cells as the alternative. She misunderstands science if she believes that a spate of papers, which suggest that adult stem cells can be used to produce cells for different sorts of tissue, means that there is no need for other fundamental research. A sound body of opinion in the scientific community believes, for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) outlined, that it is not an alternative but an addition. At the moment, some fundamental research can be done most effectively by using embryonic stem cells.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Does the hon. Lady believe that research should be conducted on primates, which are nearest to human beings, before embryonic research is undertaken? Does she agree that that is the right way forward? It has been the traditional way forward, and can provide extremely helpful data and information before the move on to embryonic research.

Joan Ruddock

As the hon. Lady knows, I do not work in that field. We would have to ask for the judgment of scientists who do. I rely on their judgment, and they believe that some fundamental research can best be done using embryonic stem cells. I stress that that has arisen only because of the progress in understanding human degenerative diseases. There cannot always be application across species to advance that science. It is for the House to decide whether such research should be added to existing legislation. There will be a free vote, but my opinion is that the House should take a positive decision. We have a duty to society and to the sufferers of degenerative diseases.

I conclude by quoting from a letter that I received from Maureen McHugh, a 44-year-old woman with a boy of six and a girl of eight. She is in her fifth year of Parkinson's disease and writes: I am a Soil Scientist by profession, but now…I am unable to work. She says that Parkinson's disease is a cruel and complex degenerative neurological condition that devastates lives. Drugs allow us to function after a fashion, but provide symptomatic relief only, while the side effects which can be crippling, invariably increase in severity over time. People endure untold miseries and the outlook for younger sufferers in particular is intolerably bleak. Embryo stem cell research offers one of our best hopes for real treatment and I believe that it is vital that this work is allowed to proceed. I agree with Maureen McHugh, and feel a great sense of duty to all those who suffer from such conditions. I take seriously the views of the Donaldson committee and others who suggest that we should in due course extend, in the proposed very limited and specific way, the purposes for which research is permitted on embryos.

12.10 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Only two of the Members present took part in the debates during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) in the Chamber. It is noteworthy that she and I took opposing views then, and we shall do so again today. It is important for the House to have some continuity in its arguments.

One argument that always worries me on such occasions is the postbag argument. My postbag has not bulged with letters on this subject: I have received only 34 from my 100,000 constituents although, of course, I pay extremely careful attention to their views. We need to be rather careful in this context—perhaps we should also refer to the e-mail postbag and to confrontations and discussions in the street. If we are talking numbers, it is important to recognise that, at the height of the debate, 17 out of 659 hon. Members were present in the Chamber, and not one represented a Scottish or Welsh constituency. Should we take that as a guide to the strength of the House's opinion on the matter? It is also significant that precisely nine hon. Members are present at the moment, including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The various issues that we have discussed include the rather interesting assertion that science should not press ahead of the body politic. Well, Aristotle would have had something to say about that, as would Galileo—the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) pointed that out—and Darwin. I was a member of the Medical Research Council in 1990 and during the gestation of the 1990 Act I recall discussing with the most distinguished scientists in the land the impact on public opinion of the legislation, which the Conservative Government knew was necessary. The argument was about how much should be included in the legislation, how far it should go and whether the country was ready for cloning.

It is nonsense to argue that cloning was never considered during the passage of the 1990 Act—of course it was. I recall a distinguished scientist saying that it would take 20 years before we started talking about therapeutic cloning. He was wrong—it took 10. The Government of the day made the informed judgment that it was not appropriate at that stage to go quite as far as we are now being asked to go because scientists were years ahead of the body politic and of public opinion—they always have been and always will be.

As a veteran of that debate, I recall that I said that the scientists would return to Parliament. Scientists are, largely, very responsible people. They know that they have to operate within the law and that laws quickly become outdated. They must come clean and say, "That provision simply does not apply any more. We have gone further and discovered more." That is why they are back today.

The debate 10 years ago was full and fierce in Parliament and outside, and it has continued over the years. Questions about embryology in various guises were, at least in my constituency, general election issues. They were minority issues, but they were important to the people who raised them in 1992 and 1997, so I cannot accept the argument that the nation is only just waking up to them and that we need much more time to consider them. We have been discussing them for a decade. Anyone who is remotely interested in the subject, whether from a moral, religious, ethical or scientific point of view, has had ample opportunity to argue for that.

Last summer, the debate started again, in the context of the Donaldson report. I did not mind that it was published in the middle of August. It gave us a nice long period to read the darn thing, to think about it and to discuss it while the House was not sitting, rather than having the five-minute wonder of an instant statement, 30 to 40 minutes of questions to the Minister and then saying that Parliament had done its job. I do not doubt that it was convenient for the media manipulators in the Government, too, but I do not read into that a conspiracy theory.

Given that we will have at least six months before we are asked to come to a decision following the publication of the Donaldson report, it is extraordinary that anyone should accuse the Government of rushing Parliament into the discussion or debate. I have read carefully, for example, the background paper dated 16 August. That seems pretty close to the publication of the Donaldson report. By 16 August, the Church of Scotland had reached its moral and ethical conclusions, which it circulated. I am grateful to it. It has done much good work, but I was surprised that its background paper should say: We welcome the Government's decision to put these questions to a free vote, but the autumn is too soon. It is clear from surveys and experience that few of the general public or MPs at present understand these complex issues. It will therefore need a far wider public discussion before Parliament should put it to the vote. A recent House of Lords report highlighted the need, in these post-GM days, of a close public involvement over biotechnology decisions. These issues are too large and too far reaching to be scrambled through by a rushed parliamentary procedure. Where have the Churches been for 10 years? I notice that so few Members are here today. It is a pity.

Those who are ill and in pain cannot wait. We should not be dilatory, but what causes concern to our constituents? I have had 34 letters—28 against and six for—on extending cloning to therapeutic cloning. I shall list some of the arguments as to why I should not support the proposal. People felt that human cloning was degrading. They said that we should use adult cells. Someone said that there was no basis in science for denying full protection to the foetus. There was the slippery-slope argument. I was told that we should not allow "farmed for organ tissue". I was told that it was abortion. I was told that there are other ways of dealing with the problem. Someone said, "This will legalise cloning." That person was 10 years out of date. Others said that it was "cannibalisation". Someone said that it was abhorrent to God's law and human morals.

Then there are those in favour. A lot of constituents with particular diseases are in favour. We have all received passionate letters from individual constituents. We all have many constituents with such degenerative diseases—there are thousands in each of our constituencies. Some of the letters that I have had opposing the proposal are somewhat lacking in compassion for their friends and neighbours, whom we all know.

The medical charities cannot all be wrong. There are about 100 of them; they are members of the Association of Medical Research Charities. They include the Alzheimer's Disease Society, the Arthritis Research Campaign, the Breast Cancer Campaign, the British Heart Foundation, the Cancer Research Campaign, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Inspire—of which I am a patron, and which is located at the Duke of Cornwall spinal treatment centre in Salisbury—the Marie Curie Research Institute, the Migraine Trust, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Parkinson's Disease Society, the Psoriasis Association and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Those are all everyday charities. They cannot all be wrong in believing that the proposal is the right way to go.

I felt that it was not appropriate for the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) to introduce a subject of this gravity as a ten-minute rule Bill. I attended the debate throughout and listened to both sides. I did not vote and I was not alone; less than a quarter of Members voted on that day.

Inevitably, constituents have offered me conflicting advice. Some have written from specific moral or religious standpoints, while others have shared their personal experience. That places on me and on each of us a heavy responsibility to come to an informed judgment.

I have listened to many people. I have listened to pressure groups, to charities, to different Christian views and to moral philosophers. I have my own religious, moral and practical views, based on my active membership of the Church of England and on the challenges faced by my wife and me on the birth of our first child, who died of a rare genetic disorder after only a few days with us. I thank God that we went on to have three strapping children as a result of the genetic counselling that we were given at the time and of the advances that were no doubt made.

Thus our advisers are many, but hon. Members can reach only one view and we can each cast only one vote when the time comes. The practical benefits of supporting the Government's recommendations are easy to follow. As I have said, our constituencies include thousands of people, whom we know personally, who could benefit—and, if they could not, someone younger could. The Minister and others have put the medical arguments very clearly, and I shall not repeat them.

Whatever the science involved, the love that makes a child is miraculous and awe-inspiring, but when does a life begin? I take the traditional Christian view that human life is a continuum, and it does not start at the moment of conception. Apart from being the logical scientific and evolutionary view, that is also the philosophical tradition of Christians. Aristotle believed that an intellectual soul could exist only when a recognisable human form had grown at 40 days, at least, for a male, and I regret to say that he believed that it was 90 days for a female. St. Gregory and St. Augustine preached that view, as did the Celtic Church, and it was entrenched in canon law in the Catholic west and in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1869, Pope Pious IX published a papal bull, which remains the basis of Roman Catholic teaching today, asserting that human life, body and soul, starts at the moment of conception. As a Protestant, I find it strange to point out that the Catholics are the revisionists in this matter, but that is the fact.

Of course, it is only in the past 50 years or so that we have known enough to make judgments based on scientific fact. I am completely convinced that not everything that can be done by science should be done by science. That is where Parliament becomes involved, representing the conflicting views of our people and adjudicating on how far science should go. The moral arguments for and against permitting research using human embryos turn on the status accorded to the pre-14-day embryo.

As Baroness Warnock has said, Is the fact that, under certain circumstances, they may develop into human beings sufficient to make us regard them now, at the stage they are at, as full human beings—in which case of course they should be protected from exploitation and certainly from being used as research material, just as other human beings, including children, should—or is the fact that they have no human attributes, and if left in the laboratory, no chance of acquiring such attributes, enough to allow us to treat them more as human tissue than as human persons? There is no doubt that they are human, but are they human tissue or human persons?

I share the view of the former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, who has argued that the value that we attach to the lives of human beings—a value that is the root of all morality—increases as human life develops, and that we are therefore entitled, morally, to hold the life of a recently fertilised egg as less to be protected than that of a foetus at a later stage or a baby when it is born. The Archbishop argued that not only is that morally acceptable, but that it is in fact what we do.

Nature is profligate. We do not mourn for wasted sperm and eggs, alive though they are; nor for the three quarters of fertilised eggs that are lost before implant, half of which are genetically impaired. As the Bishop of Oxford has said, If every fertilised egg was indeed a soul, that is, an immortal spiritual reality created independently of the biological process, 'then, according to these figures, three quarters of heaven would be populated by souls that lived for less than a week. This does not seem congruous with what we know of a God who has chosen to create persons through a process of development.

What of the slippery slope argument? It depends whether the slope goes up or down. I share the view that the slope for science is mostly uphill—two steps forward, one step back. Even if one believes that the slope is downhill, if the first step is taken, is it inevitable that the next step should follow? Is it morally right to prohibit the first step? There is no logical necessity that demands that the second or third steps should follow the first. That is Parliament's job, and it has generally done the job well. Moral philosophers such as Baroness Warnock recognise that. She has written: We are not nothing but our genes. We must recognise that we are conscious beings able to form our own purposes, with powers both to understand and to control the laws of biology, as well as of physics. It may be our moral duty to scrutinise, criticise and regulate the projects of biological scientists in the light of our concept of a common good. It cannot be our moral duty to repress and prohibit altogether the exercise of their inventive and creative genius.

I agree with the Bishop of Oxford, who said: It is good that we can interact with nature, as God's co-workers, in bringing about the health which he wills for humanity and those healthy children that he desires. Theologically, I believe that the human intellectual abilities that allow us to understand and manipulate our world are God-given powers. To scientific knowledge and the powers it confers we must add wisdom to accept the good and refuse the bad. I believe that the benefits that may be achieved in healing the sick in this case outweigh the down side of using cells that may have the potential for a full human life. If the Government ask Parliament to decide on a free vote, I will have the moral confidence to exercise my judgment in favour of extending research on embryos to include therapeutic as well as reproductive purposes.

I should like to explore the concept of scientists playing God. In the Reith lecture broadcast earlier this year, Prince Charles spoke for many when he rebuked biological revolutionaries for drawing us into areas that belonged to God and God alone. The argument ran that God created natural laws and the proper boundaries between species, so it is necessarily immoral, even sacrilege, to try to change the genome of any species. He urged scientists to be humble in the face of nature, and to discover, if they like, how nature works, but not to change it. We human beings should know our place. We are part of the natural world, and to understand and conserve it is a moral duty—we should not arrogantly try to dominate it.

To me, such strictures are not wholly sufficient, because part of what it is to be human is that, unlike other animals, we can change the way things are, and we have always done so. We have tamed nature to a great extent for our own needs, just as we have tamed and domesticated other animals so that we can milk them, eat them, clothe ourselves in their skin or wool, ride them, drive them and race them for our pleasure and profit. For the sake of all those purposes, we have over time genetically modified the plants and animals that we have used by selective breeding. If we left nature alone, we would be not even savages, but back with our ancestors the apes. We are necessarily separated from nature. If that were not so, we would have no moral law, no aspirations and no interest in the common good.

To argue that something is morally wrong because it is unnatural has always been common enough—we need think only of the designation of homosexuality as an "unnatural vice." The 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, said that it is really no argument at all, for the word "natural" is fatally ambiguous, being opposed sometimes to the miraculous, sometimes to the unusual, and sometimes to the artificial. The concept of nature, especially since the late 18th century in the days of Rousseau and the beginning of the Romantic movement, exercises a curious fascination for us all. We have discovered in nature our deepest longings and our highest aspirations. I recognise that, for many, nature has come to stand in for God, providing them with a foundation for a secular religion.

We are uneasily aware that our lives have moved far away from the primitive, and even from the relative simplicities of a pre-industrial world. Now, in a largely secular world, the boundaries that gave meaning to life even into the 19th century seem to be breaking down. The breach of those boundaries induces what I can only describe as panic, which makes us cling to props and planks, and to apparent certainties by which we hope to save ourselves. If we are not careful, we become fundamentalists hanging on to a few dogmas that we do not intend to examine and which we will not give up. Those who demand that we should do only what is natural are fundamentalists. Hence, the constant attacks on biological scientists for playing God.

If we are to prevent ourselves from being swept along on this emotional tide, I believe that, rather as the British philosopher Bishop Butler told us in the 18th century, we should sit down "in a cool hour" and consider our human nature, our human capacities, how we aim both to control our own lives and to ameliorate the lives of others, and how, being human, we are able to form aspirations and imperatives of our own.

If we can hold out hope for some alleviation of the miseries of diseases such as Alzheimer's, then, being human, we have a duty to do so. If that involves cell transplant or genetic manipulation, let us pursue such goals. Let us recognise that, in changing some genes in some human beings, we are not changing human nature.

12.30 am
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

We have had a fascinating debate, although the number of hon. Members has not been many and is certainly depleted now. It is particularly disappointing, if not distressing, to see that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has left the Chamber. She had much to say about the views of others, and I had hoped to challenge her to justify some of her own views.

We have heard discussion of both the scientific and the moral—the so-called moral and ethical—dimensions of the issue, and I think we are better for that. I think it has now been generally agreed that there are moral arguments on both sides of the issue. Even the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) was driven to accept that point, after he had initially suggested that the arguments against the proposals were based on morality, whereas those in favour were based on science. That is certainly not the case.

I am driven to my view on the issue not by the science, although that is an important factor, but by the ethical duty I believe we as representatives have to do what is right. After careful examination, I have judged that, although it will entail the curtailment of the rights of some early embryos, allowing research into life-saving therapies is the right thing to do. The issue is one of balancing rights. I think that if the balance of good and of rights weighs in favour of the proposals, we are ethically obliged to vote accordingly.

Those who are against the proposals have argued forcefully that embryos, like adults and live babies, have the right not to have damage done to them. Although those who are on my side of the debate might disagree with that argument, we respect it. I believe, however, that those of us who take the view that the proposals are ethically right should be speaking very loudly about the needs of people with fatal diseases and disabling conditions, and asserting their right to have their interests considered.

In that light, the speeches particularly of the hon. Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) were very welcome. They passionately made the case, which should be made passionately, that patients and their carers have the right to have their interests considered. They also made the point that we should first consider the scientific facts, and then, from our own moral perspectives, weigh the rights of people with the diseases and conditions that I mentioned against the rights of early embryos.

It has been said that the theological arguments on the issue have been made only by those who are against the proposals. That is not true. I am not a theologian, or anything like one, and I shall not attempt to comment directly on theology, but I should like to quote from a text that was sent to me by the author, Professor Reverend Robin Gill, who is a leading Church of England theologian. He said: I believe that we should give a cautious but genuine welcome to the prospect of stem cell research for therapeutic purposes and to the Donaldson Report. Although most of my twenty minutes will be spent looking at ethical problems, it is important to emphasise that there is the prospect of real good for very vulnerable people emerging from this research. Sometimes genetic scientists are pictured in demonic terms and their work is decried as being deeply destructive of the natural order. I do not share this position at all and am convinced that the aims of the stem cell research envisaged in the Donaldson Report are fundamentally beneficent. Anyone who has pastoral or personal contact with those suffering from, say, Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease will surely wish to find a cure and will welcome scientists who are attempting to do this. Where people differ is not usually about the ends of research but about the means. Some will be convinced that, since the early stages of stem cell research involve the creation and subsequent destruction of embryos, then this research is intrinsically wrong whatever therapeutic benefits it promises. I respect this position—it is after all held by many deeply religious people—but I do not hold it myself. Others will argue on a purely utilitarian basis that the therapeutic advantages of stem cell research simply override any scruples about human embryos or fears about human reproductive cloning. Again this is not my position. What I will argue more cautiously is that our duties towards the sick and vulnerable (which I take to be at the heart of Jewish and Christian ethics) should finally be given priority over our duties to those embryos that should never be implanted.

Mr. Swayne

The learned theologian prefaced his remarks, however, by saying that, in his estimate, there was a real probability of advances being made. I assume that the hon. Gentleman was quoting the professor because of his expertise in ethics, but what qualifications does he have to enable him to make an estimate of the probability of real good coming out of the scientific research?

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman raised that point earlier, and I will deal with it because it is an important matter. To weigh the benefits, one must be reasonably certain that the research is not a complete dead end. That is a legitimate point, but I think that it can be dealt with.

It is necessary to recognise that Church bodies are not only on one side of the argument. Briefings from the Church of England, which supports generally the provisions of the 1990 Act, are clear about the benefits. There is no automatic—Anglican, at least—theological objection to the proposals. My local bishop, the Bishop of Oxford—a near namesake, Richard Harries—has clearly said to me, and is willing for me to report, that he supports the proposals, although he recognises the ethical concerns. I suspect we will find that, although the Church of England's board of social responsibility represents different views, the Church is generally supportive both of careful regulation and of progress being allowed when there are no new ethical issues.

The hon. Member for Congleton—who, I regret, is no longer here to participate in this debate—suspects some conspiracy. She feels that it is somehow wrong for the Medical Research Council, which is entitled to its view, to hold meetings, issue briefing papers and, indeed, send those papers to Members of Parliament. She believes that it is wrong that, around the same time, the Association of Medical Research Charities, which enjoys the huge participation of many of our constituents and is funded by their generosity, should set out its view. She thinks that the British Medical Association, the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, which are fully engaged, should not be allowed to communicate their view to Members of Parliament without its being seen as a conspiracy.

It is the right of those bodies to advise us and inform our debate, just as it is the right of the Scottish cardinal and the Archbishop of Birmingham, both of whom have written to me, to make their views known. I have had messages from Right to Life, from Life and from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and I have read them carefully. I see no deleterious conspiracy arising from that. The hon. Lady should not see conspiracy in people putting their views when the time comes to debate these matters. I find it hard to understand it when she says that she does not accept any assurances given by scientists about the future, except for one view—which she probably misquotes—of one scientist, Lord Winston, whom she reports as saying that, 20 years down the line, we will have reproductive cloning. She cannot have it both ways. She must either take the advice of the majority of scientists, or say that she will reach her own view.

The hon. Lady made some comments about the extent of my knowledge of the Government's timetable. She said that I had given an interview to a journalist from The Tablet. Since she made the allegation, I have searched in my diary in the hope of finding even someone who might have masqueraded as such, but I can find no reference to any such interview. I repeat that at no time have I said that I know the Government's intentions; indeed, I have perhaps been as frustrated as the hon. Lady by the difficulties created by Government business managers, such as the short notice that was given of today's debate. The hon. Lady really ought to stick to issues about which she is certain. If she does not, she risks passing on the misinformation that she has been given to the House.

The hon. Member for Salisbury has already dealt with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that science must wait for public opinion. He cited the difficulties that that would have created for Galileo and Darwin. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that the cannibalistic feeding of animals to other animals was abhorrent, and that it should have been foreseen that it was wrong. I do not think we can say that the eating of animals by other animals, even members of the same species, is abhorrent or unnatural—as we see on television, it happens in the animal world. Animals eat animals, even those in their own families. What has become obvious is that the idea of feeding animals to their own species in the context of farming was not sensible. I do not want to go into the details, but those who have examined the matter suggest that it was politicians who were unwise not to heed that.

It is important to look at the history of this measure. In December 1998, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Government's appointed authority—the House's appointed authority—produced a report jointly with the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, the Government' s advisory body. The report concluded that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 should indeed be amended to allow two more purposes of research.

I think that the Government should have started a parliamentary debate at that time, or at least indicated their willingness to present regulations and engage in debate on them. We now have the report of the Donaldson committee that the Government set up. I urged the Government, as did Members in every part of both Houses, to publish it in July, while Parliament was still sitting. If they had done so, we could have had the debates that we are having now at the time of publication, when press coverage was informed and balanced and there was a certain amount of discussion in the media. Parliamentarians, however, were not present to hear a statement from a Minister. On 16 August, many parliamentarians were out of the country, and no Minister was found to speak on the subject. For that reason, Parliament fell behind in the debate, and we are now having to catch up.

It is because there was no sign of the report's publication in July that I applied for the opportunity to present a ten-minute Bill. In retrospect, I agree with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) that the time was not convenient, but until Back Benchers are given more power to decide the timing of private Members' Bills, it is a little unjust to suggest that that was an avoidable factor.

Having said that, and having reflected on the matter, I am not at all embarrassed about the ten-minute Bill. It provoked a debate in Parliament and in public, and it made constituents on both sides of the argument understand that the issue would soon be before the House. I am willing to apologise to those who felt rushed into having to decide how to vote on the principle—that was not my intention when I tabled the Bill—but if my action pushed organisations supporting the measure into telling MPs that they supported it and why, and if it prompted patients' organisations and patients able to make representations to do the same, it will have done some good. Indeed, if we have to lose one vote but win the next, I am pleased that my own measure was defeated on a low turnout and hope that the Government measure will be passed. That exercise was therefore useful.

I shall deal with an important argument against the proposals which involves adult stem cells. I accept that some people have fundamental objections to embryo research, and I do not think that I will change their minds, those of my constituents who have written to me on the matter or, indeed, those of people in my constituency who have gathered signatures for petitions. I respect their views, but I have a fundamentally different view about the rights of an early embryo. Early embryos have some rights, but they are not the same as those of babies or adult human beings, about which we have heard. People with different views about those rights make a consistent case but when they start to subvert science to support their side of the argument, we are entitled to say that they are on shaky ground.

There is not an either/or choice between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, as research into both kinds of cells is taking place. The proposals do not suggest that research into adult stem cells should be stopped. Indeed, I believe that that research should be pursued with great vigour. However, we cannot stop research in one area in the hope that another area may yield results. It would not be reasonable, for example, for us to stop live organ donation, such as kidney donation—often from relatives of the recipient, but not always—just because we think that adult stem cell research may produce tissue replacement therapy. There are problems with live organ donation, which is not straightforward and would not be desirable if it was not necessary. However, we should not stop research into making it easier and more acceptable simply because we hope that tissue replacement may be forthcoming from stem cell research.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman has talked about the use of embryonic cells in research. Would he seek to rule out the use of embryonic cells in routine treatment? Recommendation 8 of the Donaldson report states: The need for legislation to permit the use of embryo-derived cells in treatments developed from this new research should be kept under review. That clearly holds open the possibility that the use of embryonic material in treatments will be sanctioned in future.

Dr. Harris

Use of embryo-derived cells as treatments may well be given the go-ahead in future, and we shall debate that then. However, the hon. Gentleman may have to deal with a more difficult question. If adult stem cells were not available for use in therapy for fatal illnesses but cells derived in cell lines from early embryos were available for therapy—although that is unlikely to be on a large scale because of the shortage of embryos and eggs—would he argue that, in the hope that something else might come along, we should not treat sick people with available treatments? The hon. Gentleman would have a difficult decision to make.

We must be clear. Scientists working in this field believe that adult stem cells may well be the way forward for therapies. However, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and those who argue that we must not go down that path because adult stem cell research has made great progress and answers are just round the corner must accept that there have been 20 years of research on embryonic stem cells in animal models, but only about two years of research on adult stem cells, which has involved difficulties.

I may be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question by quoting from the Royal Society's statement in November 2000. That is hardly out of date. The Royal Society asks: Do the recent advances in research on stem cells obtained from sources other than embryos, such as adult tissue, mean that eventually it will be possible to use these cells for all the purposes that have been contemplated for human embryonic stem cells? It continues by way of an answer: Stem cells are found in some adult tissues, and these may be used as sources for specific types of specialised cells. But there are many doubts about whether adult stem cells will prove to be as versatile as embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to give rise to all cell types of the adult body. Eventually it may be possible to re-programme cells to reverse their specialisation so that they revert to being stem cells, or to force specialised cells to replicate themselves. However, much further research on stem cells and cloning technology would be needed to decide whether these are realistic possibilities. It asks the following reasonable question: Could cells from non-embryonic sources ever render research on human embryonic stem cells unnecessary for the development of cell-based therapies? It gives the answer: At some point, research on embryonic stem cells might no longer offer any advantages over work with stem cells from sources such as adult tissue. But much more basic research is required to find out how stem cells from non-embryonic sources can be extracted, kept alive in the laboratory, multiplied for extended periods of time, and directed to form specific types of specialised cells. The progress of this research would be facilitated by the study of embryonic stem cells. So people who do not support the measure, but advocate adult stem cell research, must recognise that the scientific opinion is that that research will be helped by research on embryonic stem cells. It is not a question of one or the other.

The Royal Society report mentions other problems with adult stem cells. It states: Adult stem cells are typically present only in small numbers and replicate at relatively low rates because they are self-programmed to maintain the function of fully-developed organs and tissues. Embryonic and fetal stem cells are much more prolific and versatile and are therefore much more likely to generate sufficient tissue to replace severely damaged parts of the body. Moreover, scientists already have knowledge and experience of growing such stem cells in the laboratory. That is the important scientific fact and the view of scientists.

The Royal Society report asks: Could research on human embryonic stem cells provide us with effective therapies more quickly? If so, how much quicker? It gives the following answer: Again, it is difficult to make predictions. Our understanding of embryonic stem cells is more advanced than it is for most types of adult stem cells. A great deal of research has been carried out on embryonic stem cells from mice, and these results may allow work on human stem cells to progress comparatively rapidly. Therefore, initial therapeutic applications are likely to be based on transplants of embryonic and fetal stem cells that are not genetically matched to the patient and must be accompanied by the use of drugs that suppress the response of the body's immune system to the foreign tissue. I hope that that answers the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. It is important to place it on record that researchers on adult stem cells support the use of embryonic stem cells in research as it provides some important insights.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asked how likely it is that the research will produce therapeutic benefits, as on that basis it is hard to judge the balance. I am sure that he will get an answer to that. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will be asking whether the use of embryonic stem cells is necessary or whether any other cells or systems, including those from animals, can be used for that specific research project.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of market forces. He should be aware that scientific research does not operate in a vacuum free from questions of funding, particularly when it is privately funded. Much research is funded from private sources and that funding will not become available unless it is clear that the research is likely to produce therapeutic and—as no doubt the hon. Gentleman would applaud—commercial benefits. Indeed, even in the public sector it is extremely hard to get funding for research projects that do not seem likely to produce benefits. So the hon. Gentleman can take solace in the marketplace.

Mr. Swayne

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but there is a leap of faith involved in that we are being asked to delegate those decisions, albeit to a market or to the commissioners who decide whether the research should go ahead. Rather, I was looking for some indication at the outset that would prompt me to be willing to delegate that authority.

Dr. Harris

I shall send the hon. Gentleman the views of the Royal Society and others who say that, in principle, 20 years' work on embryonic stem cells from animal models suggest that it is a highly productive source of research and that research on adult stem cells, which, perversely, is advocated by opponents of the measure, will be aided by that work. The HFEA will look at each application on its merits, bearing in mind whether it is likely to be fruitful research. The hon. Gentleman can, even outside the marketplace that he so loves, have that reassurance if he is prepared to read it.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that the benefits against which the concerns have to be weighed extended only to the protection of the pharmaceutical and bioscience research industry. I think that he has misunderstood. If one believes that there are likely to be therapeutic benefits—as science believes, almost unanimously—one has to accept that that factor must be weighed in our discussions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) that it would be a dodgy ethical position to ban such research in this country and then accept therapies derived from research that took place overseas. It is perfectly legitimate for the hon. Gentleman and for the hon. Member for Congleton—whom I am delighted to welcome back to her place—not to want any therapies for them or their young children that are derived from these sources. However, this is a matter of what we want to be available for other people.

Mr. Hammond

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that my point was that, whatever we decide, this research will proceed elsewhere in the world? Nothing that we do or say will stop that, and nothing that we do or say will change the outcome.

Dr. Harris

I agree with that. We have to decide whether we think that this research is ethical. We have extremely effective regulation through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, introduced by the previous Government, of whom the hon. Member for Salisbury was a well-informed and active member, and if we decide that such research is ethical, we should allow scientists to go ahead with it in this country. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will otherwise be faced with the difficulty of deciding whether, for him or his constituents, he can support therapies for diabetes and Parkinson's disease that have been derived from work on early embryos which he has decided should not be allowed to take place in this country. That would be an unethical position. The hon. Gentleman must understand that if he does not like the idea of the research, he is saying that he does not want to benefit from the research, should it be successful.

The strong regulation in this country should make us more willing to set a lead by producing legislation on this matter. The 1990 Act is seen by many as a leading model of regulation, and I hope that other countries will follow our lead in ensuring that such techniques, which are allowed in the private sector with no regulation in the United States, should be properly controlled.

The Donaldson report is quite clear about consent, as is the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. A woman who donates an egg or an embryo for research should be given—and, with the Government's acceptance of the Donaldson recommendations, will be given—the ability to give informed consent on what happens to that embryo and that egg, and what research should be allowed on them. There will be no suggestion of a woman's eggs or a couple's embryos being allowed to be used for research that they do not support.

It is important to clear up the matter of consent. In a case decided yesterday, a woman who was having IVF treatment under the control of the 1990 Act was successfully able to sue because her consent for the implantation of only two embryos had been breached, it appears, by the clinic. I say to everyone involved in this work, and to doctors generally, that consent must be informed and must be recorded. The Government have a working party considering issues of consent. Some statutory basis may need to be given to those conclusions to avoid litigation like this and a repeat of the concerns and unhappiness that have arisen because of the retention and storage of organs without, it would appear, clear and informed consent. So consent runs right through this debate; it is a further protection for the people involved.

To the hon. Member for Congleton, I must say that the fact that we are having this debate, and that the outcome of the vote remains in the balance, suggests that the 1990 Act did not create a slippery slope towards all sorts of events that did not require parliamentary scrutiny. The fact that the law requires amendment to allow progress on this matter directly rebuts the view that careful legislation results in a slippery slope towards areas where we do not wish to go.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Would it not be better to have primary legislation before the House, as the Government propose for moves on reproductive cloning, which is already illegal? We could then have a proper debate and Members would be able to table reasoned amendments and new clauses. Would not that be a better way to proceed than by affirmative resolution?

Dr. Harris

When primary legislation is published on reinforcement of the ban on reproductive cloning, the hon. Lady may find that she has an opportunity to discuss the issues. The 1990 Act, however, which was introduced on a free vote by the Conservative Government whom she supported, set out in a schedule, amendable by secondary legislation, a list of purposes for which embryos could be used. Indeed, that Act foresaw the use of cell nuclear replacement—the hon. Lady would rather say "cloning techniques"—to create embryos, where some eggs are available, which is not the case in many circumstances. As long as we have a good debate in Parliament, I think it is reasonable to bring these matters forward in secondary legislation.

I have tried to prompt a debate on the matter, and the short debate on my ten-minute Bill attracted many more Members than are here today, even if not many relative to the full membership of the House. I regret that we cannot have this kind of debate in prime time.

Mr. Forth

It is prime time.

Dr. Harris

It is always prime time when the right hon. Gentleman is around.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, I want to make it clear that the Liberal Democrats have a free vote on this matter. It is worth pointing out that our party debated the matter in public at our party conference in September 1999. Ours was the first party to consider cloning and to produce a policy that was clearly against reproductive cloning. Indeed, we called for it to be outlawed. At the same time, however, we envisaged situations in which therapeutic cloning might be of use. Again on a free vote, we recognised the benefits that that may have for patients. Our policy is generally in favour of that.

If those who oppose that policy take the view that a fertilised embryo has the full rights of a baby or an adult human being, there is no way I can see eye to eye with them. I respect their view, as does the Minister, but those people should not subvert scientific opinion. Opinion on what can be achieved with adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells falls clearly on the side of allowing embryonic stem cell research as a short or medium-term method of getting adult stem cells.

To those constituents who have, rightly, written to me on the matter, I have to say that I am morally unable to agree with their views. Those of us who sit in Parliament have a duty to respect their views; to examine, as I have done, the issues before reaching a decision; and to be clear and frank about where we stand. I look forward to measures being produced and to opportunities for the provision of therapy for the sometimes voiceless people who suffer serious diseases for which there is no immediate hope of cure.

1.4 pm

Yvette Cooper

As this is the first occasion on which I have stood before you at the Dispatch Box since you took on your new role, Madam Deputy Speaker, I welcome you to the Chair.

The debate has been extremely interesting, thoughtful and measured, and has covered some complicated issues. I welcome those discussions. Contributions from both sides of the House make it clear that this is not a party political issue; strong views are held in all parties. I am glad that the debate is being conducted with that very much in mind.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) set out the arguments on both sides, and expressed his personal concern at the pace of scientific change. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) pointed out that firm regulation will continue under the measures. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) described the value of scientific progress in this sphere. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) described, with some passion, the pain and suffering of people afflicted by Parkinson's disease, and talked of the hope inspired by the possibility of the treatment and cure that the regulations might facilitate.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) expressed her concerns about cloning and about the value of adult stem cell research. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) pointed out the value of giving couples the right to donate their embryos, under proper safeguards, to research that they believe will be worth while.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) pointed out that science moves fast; laws become out of date and need updating. Parliament must take the responsibility of deciding where on the slope—be it upward or downward—we should take our position. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) set out the case for embryonic stem cell research as opposed to research into other matters.

I should have made it clear earlier that the regulations would implement recommendations 1 and 4 of the Donaldson report, concerning research to increase understanding of human disease and treatment, and research into treatment for mitochondrial disease—we have not discussed that in detail today and I shall not do so now. The report's other recommendations are either already covered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 or by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, or involve matters not for legislation, or matters that could be dealt with only through primary legislation.

The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned the timing of the publicising of the report and the debate about these issues. I am sorry that she chooses to see conspiracy everywhere. I strongly disagree with her analysis. The Donaldson report was published in August and received much media attention—rightly so. It was also right that there was a proper focus on the recommendations of that expert committee, in order to begin the debate. It would have been wrong for us to hold that report and delay it until the recall of Parliament in the autumn; we wanted the debate to begin and to be promoted not only in the House but throughout the country.

If the Government were able to co-ordinate the views of the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and—especially—the BMA, it would certainly make the lives of those in the Department of Health easier, but I can assure the House that that idea is far from the truth.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

The hon. Lady may care to reflect on the fact that the Department of Health received the Donaldson report some considerable time before it was published. Will she contrast that with the fact that although the previous Conservative Government published the Warnock report at the end of a parliamentary Session, they gave Members of Parliament the opportunity to question the Government about it?

Yvette Cooper

We took the decision that we wanted to publish the Government's response to the Donaldson report at the same time as we published the report. We are giving the House plenty of opportunities to debate the issues; that is absolutely right.

Mrs. Winterton

Six months later.

Yvette Cooper

Yes, we are debating the matter almost six months after the publication of the report, but that is good, because it has given hon. Members—

Dr. Harris

It is three months later.

Yvette Cooper

Indeed; it is several months since publication of the report. The matter has thus been discussed in the media, and Members have had the chance to discuss it and to receive letters from constituents before we initiated the parliamentary debate.

It is important to make sure that we have a proper parliamentary discussion before the vote takes place. That is why we have held today's debate, and why we will need to hold a further debate on the Floor of the House of Commons before the vote takes place. We have held briefings this week—open to Members and peers—with the chief medical officer on the content of the Donaldson report. We will be holding future briefings with the chief medical officer so Members can have the opportunity to ask questions and inform themselves about the detail. It is important that we have a proper public debate, and it is unfortunate that what the hon. Member for Congleton refers to as propaganda are in fact simply the legitimate views of those who disagree with her.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge went through the arguments on both sides of the debate in detail, and set up a tension between science and ethics. I would strongly disagree; there are ethical arguments on both sides, as has been clearly argued throughout the debate. This is not about science on the one hand and ethics on the other. There are separate scientific arguments that we need to address about how research can take place, and whether it should use embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells. That is the first question, and it is a scientific question on which we rightly take the advice of experts.

There is a second set of questions, concerning the ethical arguments about whether this is the right thing to do. Whatever science says is possible, is it the right thing to do? Is it right to use embryos in research? Is it right to destroy embryos if they are not used in IVF? Is it right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford said, to give couples the chance to donate their embryos for research if they believe it to be the right thing to do? Is it right to turn down the prospect of a cure for Parkinson's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases? These are ethical questions which rightly must be considered by the House.

Mr. Swayne

I am glad that the Minister has recognised that this is primarily an ethical argument on both sides, rather than a scientific argument. Does she agree that there is no difference in principle or in practice between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning, apart from the use to which one subsequently puts the procedure?

Yvette Cooper

There is a huge difference between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. A particular cell nuclear replacement technique to create an embryo that is used only for 14 days is one issue. Whether or not to implant that embryo and allow the creation of a cloned human being is a completely separate issue. On the second issue, the morals and ethics are completely different. However, the science is also different, as we go through a separate process of implantation. I agree that the cloning of human beings to create new human beings is morally wrong and unacceptable, not just to this House but to the majority of the public in this country.

Mr. Swayne

I understand that point, and I agree with the Minister to a large extent. However, I was trying to get to the bottom of the actual techniques used in cloning, whatever purpose the result may be used for subsequently. Are the techniques the same or different?

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a technique called cell nuclear replacement which has been used in experimentation on animals to try to produce cloned animals. But there is a moral and scientific difference between the use of cell nuclear replacement for therapeutic cloning for the purposes of research up to 14 days, and the prospect of any kind of reproductive cloning, which, as many Members have made clear today, is illegal. It must remain illegal; it is not acceptable to the people of this country.

There are two separate arguments before us—the scientific and ethical arguments about stem cell research, and the prospect of regulations. The key scientific arguments have been raised several times in the debate. Is it possible to do the type of stem cell research that most people agree has huge potential to treat Parkinson's disease and other degenerative disorders, without carrying out embryonic research? Is the Donaldson report, as the hon. Member for Congleton suggested, already out of date? We have asked the Donaldson expert group to keep an eye on all the changing research, and it agrees that adult stem cells have huge potential; its report made that point clear. However, it also strongly supported the idea that much of the research will be possible only through the use of embryonic stem cells.

The key questions are how we understand the use of adult stem cells, and how we make the breakthrough not only in the narrow areas in which such cells have proved that advances are possible, but for a wide range of diseases and disorders where embryonic stem cells are thought to have the potential to make a huge difference. It is thought that they will increase the speed at which we obtain knowledge, increase the range of diseases that we can treat and trigger the first breakthrough that is required.

Hon. Members have asked about the probability of the research providing benefits. On that point, we have to accept the advice of the scientists, who argue that the research already undertaken in other areas suggests that stem cell research shows great promise. However, if we knew the answer to the questions, there would be no purpose to the research. We would not need to conduct it if we already knew what it would be able to deliver. That is why major scientific bodies, including most recently the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, have endorsed the considerable benefits that embryonic stem cell research could bring. They have accepted the idea that we should go for embryonic, not just adult, stem cell research.

The other major issue is the ethical one. I urge hon. Members to use their consciences to reflect on what is the right thing to do. People will take different views, but I believe that science for good and not evil means science that takes place in an ethical and legal framework. That is what the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 provides. It was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, debated thoroughly and accepted on a free vote. We need a clear regulatory framework for such research, and that is why I support the 14-day limit, and regulation by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge asked whether science was out of step with society, and whether science has run beyond the ethical debates that we can have. I understand people's anxieties about the pace of scientific change, BSE and genetically modified foods. However, I strongly urge Members not to vote against the regulations simply to make a statement expressing their anxiety about the BSE inquiry or GM foods. This is a different issue. I agree that we must have moral and ethical restraints on science, but Members should not vote against regulations that could bring huge benefits just to make a symbolic statement about the importance of such restraint. That is exactly what the 1990 Act provides, and the regulations will do so as well.

It would be a dreadful tragedy if the BSE crisis—which has led to enough dreadful tragedies as it is—affected Members' judgment of the regulations. They have nothing to do with BSE or the problems that led to the BSE inquiry, so Members should not make their decision about the regulations on the basis of other issues.

The public's views are important, and we must ensure that the issue is sufficiently debated. I hope that today's debate will lead to further debate in the public and the media. Many newspapers have already considered the issue, particularly over the past six months. It is true that the public are strongly opposed to reproductive cloning. There is no question about that. I am strongly opposed to it myself, as, I believe, are most hon. Members—but the regulations will not introduce reproductive cloning.

Mr. Hammond

The Minister has twice referred to her assumption that there is strong public objection to reproductive cloning, and said that that would be decisive in determining her view. If it turns out that there is strong public objection to therapeutic cloning, will she take a similar line and withdraw from her current position?

Yvette Cooper

All hon. Members need to be cognisant of the public's views and take into account the representations and discussions that they have with constituents when they make decisions. It is also right that constituents elect us to represent them in Parliament and to hold debates about important issues. However, we should not only reflect their views, but reflect on those views, and on the debates in the House.

We often talk with pride about the importance of the House in discussing matters of huge import to people throughout the country. We do not hold a referendum on every issue as it arises, because we understand the value of Parliament in debating important issues. Parliament can play an even more important role when there is a free vote, by airing the issues as they arise. We need to promote public debate but we also need to take responsibility for what we think is the right thing to do, so that we make the right final decision when we vote.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) asked about Europe. He is no longer in his place, but he apologised to me for having to leave and said that he would look for the reply in Hansard. The European Parliament discussed the issue and passed a resolution—by a narrow majority, I believe—against research using embryos created by cell nuclear replacement. However, the European Commission has confirmed that there is no European Union competence in this matter.

Some member states have no legislation on this issue. Research is carried out in Belgium and the Netherlands, but there is no legislation to regulate it. Portugal also has no legislation, but research is not carried out there. Other member states, such as Austria and Germany, prohibit embryo research. The United States is an interesting case. It is not possible to carry out stem cell embryo research using federal funds, but it is possible in the private sector, where there is no such regulation. That raises an interesting issue.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that the research would go ahead, and that the only question was where it would take place. If it did not go ahead here, it would take place somewhere else, and he suggested that that was an industrial issue, because it concerns the United Kingdom biotech industry. I disagree, although I accept that there are important questions about where and how the research takes place. It is true that if the regulations are not introduced, the research is likely to continue in other countries where there may be no regulatory framework to govern either the way in which licences are applied for and research takes place, or the purposes of the research.

Research will go ahead in other countries, predominantly in the private sector, without the prospect of publicly funded research. That would deny the possibility of United Kingdom expertise and brilliance in the subject being involved in potentially huge breakthroughs in, for example, Parkinson's disease. Hon. Members have also expressed anxiety about biotech research and the exploitation of human tissue being carried out entirely in the private sector, in the context of the human genome project.

I believe strongly that it is important to have a publicly funded research role, and that there is a strong case for public-private partnerships to ensure that the right sort of ethical framework is in place for the application as well as the initiation of research.

I conclude by reminding the House that stem cell research could lead to immense human health benefits. It could save lives and dramatically improve people's quality of life. Although adult stem cells have potential, scientists believe that embryonic stem cells hold the greatest promise. The regulations that provide for no research beyond 14 days and the HFEA controls will remain. In most cases, we are talking about creating, through IVF, embryos that would otherwise be destroyed.

Cell nuclear replacement techniques will not lead to human reproductive cloning, because that is illegal and will remain so. We have the opportunity to extend our clear regulatory framework so that research is possible, not simply into contraception but into Parkinson's disease. We have the potential to open the door to huge benefits for those who are suffering.

The alternative is to reject the opportunity. Many hon. Members will take a strong ethical position. It is right that they should do so, but I warn the House of the consequences. Research that takes place outside a proper regulatory framework denies us the opportunity to take part in providing huge benefits for the future.

Considerable responsibility lies on the shoulders of Members of both Houses. I look forward to the debate that we shall hold before hon. Members make their final decision on the matter through a free vote.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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