HL Deb 21 November 2001 vol 628 cc1128-31

2.51 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to lay primary legislation before Parliament to prohibit human cloning. and, if so, when.

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

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health announced on Friday last our intention to introduce legislation this week 10 ban human reproductive cloning.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, does he recall the justification that he gave to the House on 22nd January last for the use of unamendable orders rather than primary legislation? On that occasion he said that no new fundamental issues arose and that the use of cell nuclear replacement was lawful.

In the light of those assurances and of the High Court ruling of last week, will he confirm that the Bill which is to be rushed through all its stages in your Lordships' House next week will not outlaw cell nuclear replacement? Will he say whether he is able to issue a compatibility statement under Articles 2 and 14 of the European convention in the light of that failure to deal with cell nuclear replacement? Will he also say how public confidence in our parliamentary processes will be enhanced when the public see a Bill that has been designed to prohibit the use of amendments. if that is at all possible, and when that Bill is to be rushed through all its stages in this House on one day next week and in another place on one day next week') Will that not further confuse public opinion on an issue which should command much graver interest and which should be dealt with in a much more sober and reflective manner?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, my Lords. I do not share the view of the noble Lord, although I recognise his deeply felt views on this question. I believe that, in the light of the judgment of last week, the Government had no option but to bring forward urgent legislation to outlaw human reproductive cloning. The noble Lord is right that that does not cover the question of therapeutic cloning. I believe that that issue is of a different order. We consider that it is right to aw a it the outcome of the appeal and the end of the legal process.

Of course, if at the end of that process therapeutic cloning were not to be regulated, we would seek to bring forward proposals to ensure that it was so regulated.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, will the Minister say why the Government have been so unresponsive to very widespread public concern on this matter, as reflected, for example, in today's editorial in the Daily Telegraph? Will he say why legislation of such momentous ethical and human significance has been rushed through and why statutory regulation that is deemed unamendable is about to be rushed through? Why is the Parliament of the United Kingdom not being given the same opportunity as the United States Congress to look at all the available relevant research and evidence before passing momentous legislation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness. The fact is that the regulations passed at the beginning of this year received a thorough airing in your Lordships' House as well as three full debates in the other place. In addition to that, as a result of the debate on those regulations in January, your Lordships agreed to the establishment of a Select Committee chaired by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. Surely it is right to await the outcome of that Select Committee's deliberations but, in the meantime, move as quickly as we can to outlaw human reproductive cloning, which I believe no Member of this House can possibly support.

Lord Patel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the potential benefits for future healthcare of research following therapeutic cloning are enormous? Does he also agree that in a well regulated environment, research of this nature can be controlled?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do agree. That is why we have supported developments in therapeutic cloning. I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that appropriate regulation exists. That is why we are appealing against the judgment delivered last week. As I said earlier in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, if, at the end of the day, the Government lose the case, when parliamentary time allows we shall seek to bring back to Parliament proposals for the regulation of therapeutic cloning.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, quite apart from the issue on which there is a difference of opinion, I agree with the noble Lord that we had a very full discussion earlier in the year. However, was it not somewhat careless of the Government to have drafted the regulations in such a way that they suddenly had to be amended in this manner?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the issue of whether the 1990 Act covered cell nuclear replacement was discussed fully in our debate on the regulations. We relied on the advice that we received from counsel and, of course, that has turned out not to be correct in terms of the judgment that we received last week. However, in his conclusions, the judge said that the argument put forward by the department was a powerful one, and we are appealing on that basis.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, in relation to the original Question tabled by my noble friend Lord Alton, does it not depend, as the late C.E.M. Joad used to say in the "Brains Trust", on what one means by the word "cloning"? I am sure that every Member of this House would abhor any mechanism by which it was possible to create identical human beings by reproductive cloning. I trust that the legislation which is coming forward will outlaw that particular process. At the same time, perhaps I may urge the Minister and all those involved to ensure that the whole issue of therapeutic cloning for the production of stem cells by nuclear transplantation is not outlawed by the legislation, pending the outcome of the appeal and the report of the Select Committee chaired by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords; I could not describe the position better. We shall of course have to await the outcome of the appeal and shall pay very careful attention to the report of your Lordships' Select Committee.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, we had a good and full debate on this matter in January. However, the Minister promised during that debate to bring forward legislation on human reproductive cloning in response to the recommendations of the Donaldson report. Is it not unfortunate that the Government did not use the opportunity to bring forward such legislation in June, and has that not laid them open to having to bring forward this emergency legislation now?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not agree. I believe that, in any event, there was a very good case for awaiting the outcome of the House's Select Committee on this matter. It was in the election manifesto of the Labour Party that we would bring forward legislation. We are doing so. However, the promises made in a manifesto last for the lifetime of a Parliament. At present there is very great demand on the legislative timetable.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that all the most significant breakthroughs in stem cell technology in recent months have resulted from work on adult and not embryonic cells? Is not the answer to the problem to restrict ourselves to the use of adult cells so as to avoid altogether this difficult ethical question?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not accept that. The noble Lord may be right in relation to the potential of adult stem cells. The Chief Medical Officer's expert working group acknowledges that. I refer the noble Lord to the comment made by the president of the Royal Society, Sir Robert May, in January of this year when he said: Parliament should not be mislead into believing that adult cells at present offer anything like the same prospects as embryonic stem cells for treating serious degenerative diseases". I also refer him to Professor Richard Hynes, president of the American Society for Cell Biology, who is carrying out research into adult stem cells. He said: We are dismayed that our research … is being used as a justification to hinder or prohibit research using embryonic stem cells". I believe that the broad body of scientific opinion would say that we should develop research in a number of ways and that the outcome of that is likely to be more successful.