HL Deb 04 July 2001 vol 626 cc816-9

3.6 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to introduce legislation to outlaw human cloning.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, we recognise and share the concerns of many people about human reproductive cloning. However, that cannot be carried out in the UK. Any treatment using human embryos requires a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which has stated as a matter of policy that it would not issue such a licence. We have stated our clear intention to introduce primary legislation to put this ban on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, while I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, does he recall the assurances that he gave noble Lords in our debate on this subject on 22nd January? We should assuage the fears of many who believe that therapeutic cloning will inexorably pave the way for full reproductive human cloning. He said that the Government would introduce legislation and the implication was that that would be brought forward very quickly. The omission of such legislation from the gracious Speech caused disappointment to many people.

The Minister will doubtless have seen the speeches made by the Italian scientist, Severino Antinori, who, heartened by our decision in January, said that he intends to proceed with reproductive cloning. Has he seen the statements by the Royal Society and by Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep and who said that it would be dangerous and undesirable to go in that direction? Given that there is support from all parts of your Lordships' House and from another place for giving a statutory seal to the Minister's desired wish that there should not be reproductive cloning in this country, will he say when that legislation will be forthcoming?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Question. I do not accept the proposition that therapeutic cloning research in the UK would lead to reproductive cloning elsewhere. I accept that legislation is desired by many in your Lordships' House. In the debate earlier this year on the regulations I said that legislation would be brought before the House as soon as possible. I also referred to the normal pressures on the parliamentary timetable. This Parliament still has a little time to run and the comments of noble Lords on this matter will be carefully considered.

So far as Professor Antinori is concerned, I refer the noble Lord to the article in The Times today in which Professor Evers of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology criticised Professor Antinori as, a pain in the neck, because he can't even offer what he says he can".

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is essential to maintain public confidence in scientific research, not least in the life sciences? Does he further agree that that makes legislation to put this matter beyond all question a very important priority? Would he therefore make representations to his colleagues and point out that this matter is perhaps somewhat more important than some of the Bills that will be coming to us through the legislative pipeline?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I certainly accept the noble Baroness's proposition that we must do everything we can to ensure that the scientific community commands public confidence and respect. Events over the past few years have reinforced the need for that.

I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. I want to assure the House that the Government are committed to this legislation. Of course, I am not able to say when that will be brought forward because it is not my position to do so. But the urgency in terms of our debate last January is clearly understood. It is important for me to reiterate that reproductive cloning cannot take place in this country. The HFEA made it abundantly clear that it will never permit a licence for that to happen.

Baroness Young

My Lords, while we all accept the valuable work of the Committee on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, the fact is that there is a distinction between what that committee decides and legislation. Will the Minister accept that a great many of us are extremely concerned about this matter? As he will know better than I, the French Government condemned it, along with the Germans and the Americans. Therefore we are completely out of step with other countries in not legislating on this matter. It is a subject of great concern to an enormous number of people. It is not satisfactory just to say that the Government will consider it. I hope not only for an undertaking that the Minister will raise the matter with his own Secretary of State, but also that the Lord Privy Seal will give some undertaking to bring it before the Cabinet.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have already said that, as ever, the Government remain committed to introducing legislation. I certainly accept the proposition that it will add to public reassurance in this crucial matter. The record of the HFEA is such that we can have confidence that when it says that it will never permit such a thing to happen in this country, it will never so permit it.

The publication of the Chief Medical Officer's report and the passage of the regulations earlier in the year have caused considerable discussion in other countries. It is my understanding that some, including France and Canada, are now considering changes in their laws to permit embryo research to derived stem cells, mainly from using donated spare embryos.

Lord Winston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this country has the strongest and most effective legislation which controls all reproductive technology, including human cloning? Will he further confirm that every responsible scientific opinion in this country roundly condemns the practice of reproductive cloning?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is my understanding. The HFEA is a widely admired regulatory body throughout the world. It is worth recalling that in the past 10 years it received 130 applications for research licences, of which over 10 per cent have been rejected. It has a strict procedure for considering applications to ensure that they meet its requirements. We can therefore have confidence in that authority.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, will the Minister clarify what progress has been made in research on creating stem lines from adult and somatic cells rather than embryonic cells? Will he give an assurance that the Government are consulting faith communities about the moral criteria that should lie behind all these matters, including legislation and the establishment of international protocols to ban human cloning?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I welcome representations from the faith communities and the Government will be happy to enter into a dialogue with them. In relation to progress in regard to adult stem cells, I understand that advances have recently been reported in the isolation and culture of stem cells from adult tissues. I shall be happy to send further information to the right reverend Prelate and place copies of that information in the Library. However, as was debated by your Lordships some months ago, the issue is not about either embryo or adult stem cells. Essentially it is that both research potentialities will aid our knowledge and understanding. Indeed, the knowledge gained from research on embryonic stem cells may well provide the information that researchers need concerning the functioning of adult stem cells, which may then have therapeutic applications.

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