§ [Relevant documents: the Third Report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 1994–95 on Human Genetics: the Science and its Consequences (House of Commons Paper No. 41) and the Government Reply thereto (Cm 3061), the First Report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 1995–96 on Technology Foresight (House of Commons Paper No. 49) and the Government Response thereto (Cm 3224), the Second Report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 1995–96 on The Government Plans for the 'Forward Look' (House of Commons Paper No. 303), the Third Report of Session 1995–96 on Human Genetics: The Government's Response (House of Commons Paper No. 231) and the Government Reply thereto (Cm 3306), the Fourth Report of Session 1995–96 on the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (House of Commons Paper No. 249), and the Fifth Report of Session 1995–96 on the Prior Options Reviews of Public Sector Research Establishments (House of Commons Paper No. 643) and the Forward Look of Government-Funded Science, Engineering and Technology Statistics 1996 (Cm 3257–11).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knapman.]9.34 am
§ The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)
I certainly welcome this opportunity to have a calm and constructive debate about science policy.
About a year ago, I took over the science portfolio, to add to the technology portfolio that I had been looking after for a year. The past year has been one of the most exciting, in which many things have happened. The coming together of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Science and Technology, which raised a few eyebrows at the time, has proved an unmitigated success. It is quite extraordinary how the vitalities of the two Departments have come together to deliver a series of constructive programmes that touch the entire spectrum of basic science, applied and industrial research and development and technology transfer.
As evidence of that, I would cite big programmes such as the continuing work on the space policy document, the launch of the crusade for biotechnology, the launch of the information society initiative, the further development of the technology foresight programme, to which I shall return, and the higher profile that is being given to EQUAL, the extend quality life initiative, which I announced in the first statement that I made a year ago. The considerable progress has been reinforced not least 1406 by the outcome of the OST's science budget which, in a context of restraint on Government expenditure, was positive and successful.
I have been heartened by the enormous enthusiasm in the many universities that I have visited around the country. Companies at the forefront of research and development have also shown me how much progress they are making. If I have one worry, it is that the bulk of British industry has not realised the challenge that it faces to increase research and development as it moves into the next century. I do not mind so much if it concentrates on development and leaves research to universities. That would be a start. Ultimately, however, given the rate of change in society, industry has to look further ahead.
I draw the House's attention to how science has focused quite strongly on the way in which the competitiveness agenda in this country has been developed. Science is top of our list of priorities and featured strongly in the competitiveness White Papers. That is crucial, because it reinforces what I said earlier about industry needing to engage in research and development.
In a series of lectures, I have attempted to show why the City and industry should take a greater interest in the excellence of our science base, which is widely understood outside this country. It is slightly galling that inward investors to whom I talk often say that one of the reasons why they have come to this country is the excellence—indeed, the accessibility—of our science base. Siemens has commented on the strength of the five universities in the north-east and Pirelli about its work with Southampton. In both cases, continental companies from fellow EU countries have come to the United Kingdom because our research base is so strong and accessible, and not as inflexible as it is increasingly suggested that it is in Germany. Those are strong points.
All that helps the wider society, too. Recently the LG project in south Wales was announced, representing the largest single inward investment, at £1.7 billion. The success of the negotiations was crucially tied in with the academic base. Imperial college was closely involved in the discussions about how to deliver the training programmes that will be so necessary, and the central laboratories of the research council were also involved. Professor Ron Lawes, who heads the central microstructures facility at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, has acted with the Welsh Development Agency on the issues at stake.
I pay tribute to that involvement, which may have been overlooked in all the excitement about inward investment opportunities and employment in south Wales. The relationship between the science base and inward investment is strong. I could have mentioned many other cases in which inward investors have given great impetus to R and D in this country—such as IBM's substantial Hursley software laboratory just outside Winchester, and Hewlett Packard's substantial telecommunications research laboratories at Stoke Gifford, near Bristol, both of which I have visited. There is also Hitachi's Cambridge laboratory, which is undertaking world-class research on single electron memories, and AT and T's considerable automated teller machine investments in Dundee and Dunfermline, in Scotland.
1407 When I speak of Scotland, I look across to the Opposition Benches and see two scions of Scottish Labour society—and indeed Scotland has done well as a result of Conservative Government—
§ Mr. Taylor
I confess that I must be a little short-sighted this morning; there are several scions present. It shows what is going on in Scotland today, when many Scottish Labour Members are here to discuss this subject—although on the present turnout, we might conclude that there was very little going on. Nevertheless, as a result of Conservative Government policies, to which I know Opposition Members are looking forward to paying tribute, Scotland has done extremely well out of the revolution that has occurred in high technology and science.
I have mentioned the worrying trends in industry, and I do not in any way resile from what I said. We must give a warning to British industry that the rate of change is incredible. Siemens, for example, has revealed the enormous rapidity with which it expects its products to have to change over the next few years. It is simply not possible for companies to expect to stay in business unless their overall target for innovation is clearly thought through and applied.
The overall impact of research and development on the economy has been reinforced by a Science Policy Research Unit study carried out for the Treasury, which I can announce is being published today. That study shows the importance of publicly funded basic science, and examines the contribution of basic science to the economy. I have had copies placed in the Library. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) will be able to hear a succinct summary of the report now. Persuading the Treasury to publish documents is quite an achievement, and I am sure that he will give me the credit for that.
The report acknowledges the difficulty of assessing the relationship, but concludes that publicly funded basic science seems to have had a substantial impact on national productivity, and that that is likely to continue.
Some of the report's key conclusions are as follows. First, it is difficult to estimate with any certainty the rate of return from R and D, but nearly all attempts have come up with positive values, in most cases comparatively high—between 20 and 50 per cent. The second conclusion is that the importance of skilled people as a product of the science base is often underestimated. I am happy to draw attention to that factor.
Thirdly, historically, most companies have carried out research in their home countries, but now, as I have illustrated already with some examples, there is an increasing trend to locate research in areas rich in scientific skills. The United Kingdom is seen to provide such skills, so we are getting the inward investment. I am pleased that the paper has been published, because it makes an important contribution to the debate.
There are one or two slightly wayward academics who do not believe that there is a role for Government in basic science. I happen not to share their views. In my judgment, industry should do more at the applied, 1408 close-to-market end, and should take a greater interest in what is going on in basic research. Wherever possible, we are trying to integrate that approach, such as through the ROPAs—the "Realising our Potential" awards.
However, the Government have an overwhelming interest in ensuring that blue-skies research is conducted at the highest possible level of excellence, and I am delighted that we have been able to maintain that pressure during the year that I have been the Minister responsible.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
The publication of the report sounds like good news. But can the Minister tell me whether it is considered that basic research done in the research council institutes and the public sector research establishments is considered to be as valuable as that done in universities and other academic institutes?
§ Mr. Taylor
Excellent research that is done anywhere is of great value. I might have added to my list the industrial research laboratories. The vice-chancellor designate of Cambridge—the hon. Lady's home town—has said that some of the greatest ideas come out of industrial research laboratories.
I am talking about excellence in research. As for Government responsibility, I need to ensure that it is clear what the research laboratories' missions are. Although there has been much talk of mission drift in those establishments, an equal danger is mission stagnation. The prior options reviews that we are conducting there are designed to ensure that we get continued excellence in research from those organisations. We have already debated the matter in the House.
As the subject has been raised, I note at this point the Select Committee's report, which was issued yesterday. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) made some trenchant contributions to the exchange of letters that was published yesterday, but, as I said in a debate not long ago, I remain of the view that if research is to be excellent, it can be equally excellent whether it takes place in the private or the public sector.
There is no point in trying to freeze the relationship or the mission statements in any way, because we need constantly to react to changing circumstances and to the market as a whole. I spend one fifth of our money through the research establishments and I have to ensure that that money is wisely spent.
§ Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)
The Minister described the letters of his hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), which were published yesterday, as "trenchant". Would it not be more accurate if he recorded the fact that the conclusion of the report that he has mentioned says:We consider that the Department's policy on this matter is far from satisfactory"?That is more than trenchant; it is condemnatory of the Government's whole approach to the public sector research establishments, which are an important ingredient of our research base.
§ Mr. Taylor
I do not deny that those establishments are an important base. Indeed, I have already said that they were. I am saying that they can be an important research base with the new freedoms provided by a period 1409 in the private sector—although we are not predisposed to ensure that every institute is in that sector. My words need to be listened to precisely.
As for the Select Committee's comments, now that they have been published, I can study them, and I shall respond in due course. None the less, my views are on the record, and they are clear. I believe that my objective and that of the Select Committee is the same—to improve the quality of research in this country. Where we differ is perhaps in the belief that the delivery mechanisms need to be assessed, to establish whether they are delivering proper science.
§ Mr. Ingram
I appreciate that we must make progress in the debate, and that the Government will respond to what has been said about the public sector research establishments in due course. But it is even more important that we should have another debate on the subject. The previous debate took place on an Opposition motion, and it would be much more appropriate to consider the report that was published yesterday in the same way as we intend to consider the report on human genetics. Can the Minister give me an assurance about that? The Government have a thin legislative programme, and there will be plenty of time to debate such matters.
§ Mr. Taylor
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman realises that we have plenty of time—right through until next May; there is no difficulty about that. I am glad that there is agreement across the Floor of the House about the likely date of the election. No doubt we shall return to such matters, because they are so important, but I shall not pre-empt the usual channels as to the appropriate forum.
We are all aware that the first tranche has already been announced, with further reviews of some elements, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made some announcements yesterday. We expect to receive the second tranche report imminently, and further reports will be made later in the year. The process is on-going, and I am sure that the debate will move ahead in the same fashion.
The questions that I hear most often in universities relate to infrastructure, and I am aware of the animated debate on the state of universities—not least equipment. I have attempted to address that matter, and hon. Members will appreciate the work of research councils which, with the higher education funding councils, have taken the initiative in tackling the immediate problems caused by the reduction in the equipment budget.
The joint equipment initiative has been a great success. We have put aside £18 million for allocation, and I am pleased to announce that that has been heavily oversubscribed. Some 250 applications have been received for some £40 million, and that has been matched by funds from industry and other external sponsors. That tells us a variety of things, and we shall now analyse the situation and use technology foresight to make judgments.
I agree that one cannot carry out good research without good equipment, and the question is how we provide that equipment. Opposition Members will not immediately fall into the trap of saying that we should spend more money, because the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), has said that that is not an option. Therefore, we must look together for ways in which we can find money for equipment more effectively.
1410 There is too little discussion among universities of their equipment needs, too little understanding of whether equipment can be shared or phased and too little discussion about centres of excellence. Even the recent policy research in engineering, science and technology report had some worrying signs, and some of the figures were contradictory. For example, although many departments were worried about equipment, the survey showed that more than half believed their equipment to be on a par or better than the international average, while 80 per cent. of existing equipment was judged adequate or better. The report received responses from 91 universities, but I do not regard those 91 as research universities, so it is inevitable that the figures will be skewed.
The debate is about excellence, and we shall return to it as the Dearing committee continues its inquiries. There is no point in attempting to pretend that every university needs to reach a level of excellence in research. In my judgment, some universities' concepts of research excellence are up to international standards. Some universities will be more geared to development, and there are others that need to concentrate most on scholastic excellence.
In the circumstances, we can perhaps avoid spreading too thinly the amount of money that we have for research, but I do not want to stray into the territory of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I am speaking merely as the Science Minister, and I am concerned about excellence in research projects.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)
Is my hon. Friend aware of a letter from the chairman of the Engineering Professors Council, Professor John Spence—from my own university, Strathclyde—which states:It is true that in most universities 'the scientific equipment … budget has often been eroded by more and more of it being used for furnishings/minor works, rather than equipment"'?Do we not also have to take into account the results of a turf fight between those who want more chairs and those who want engineering equipment?
§ Mr. Taylor
I am not surprised by that, as I have heard many apocryphal stories on similar lines. The point that my hon. Friend helps to underline is that, while there is a need for research equipment, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that the only way in which we can tackle that need is by increased funding. I want to look closely at ways of making sure that money is going to the right departments. If money is supposed to be going to grade 5 departments—the top rank in research assessment—I hope that it goes to them and not elsewhere.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that a university spends the available money in the right way? Does he further agree that discussions about the lack of funding for research equipment are made less impressive when they are conducted with the vice-chancellor, having visited his private bathroom with gold taps?
§ Mr. Taylor
There are a range of possibilities for expenditure on equipment, although I cannot comment on that individual example. Although most universities are dedicated to ensuring that their researchers get the 1411 equipment that they need, I have found that little logic is involved. Too much equipment that is not on display and is locked away in a cupboard could be better used in other universities. I am also looking at how we can use the secondary market in equipment.
There is much to cover in the debate, but I want colleagues to know that I am aware of their concerns. I want a much deeper understanding of where we are going and how we should look at universities, as we now have such a large number of them. We should examine their missions and see how we can get the best from the research budgets.
During the past year, I have been keen to bring forward and develop the debate on technology foresight. The foresight programme has achieved a great deal since it began two years ago, and we have no intention of letting it lose momentum. The 15 foresight panel reports have been bestsellers, and more than 10,000 people have been involved in consultation and networking. We have taken the concept into industries such as finance, retailing and leisure.
Over 300 foresight events have been held in the past 12 months, leading to widespread dissemination of the findings. The foresight findings have already led to important new initiatives from the public sector. I have already mentioned the research equipment initiative, and there are new link programmes worth £110 million that are being carried out jointly with industry. The Department for Education and Employment has a skills and training initiative, and the Royal Academy of Engineering has foresight awards. The information society initiative and the crusade for biotechnology, which I mentioned, also play a part in the developing foresight campaign.
We successfully launched a foresight challenge competition, which engaged business in collaborative research and development well beyond original expectations. There are now 24 projects worth £92 million, two thirds of which has come from the private sector—a remarkable success story. Many of the collaborative projects have been between companies that have not previously engaged in the foresight programme.
Altogether, some £1 billion from the public and private sectors is now directed at foresight priority areas—£300 million in new initiatives since the reports were published and £700 million within existing research council programmes. Awareness of foresight in industry is growing. A Confederation of British Industry survey showed that 48 per cent. of respondents from manufacturing firms were aware of or were involved in the programme.
We must build on that, because we need a culture change. Companies must engage in foresight out of self-interest, and use it to boost their competitiveness. The success of the early stages leaves no doubt that foresight must continue for years to come. Therefore, I have asked my officials at the Office of Science and Technology and the panels to do another survey of trends and opportunities in 1999—five years after the first baseline—to engage businesses in their area, to continue to identify markets and science, engineering and technology priorities and to promote partnerships between business, Government and the science base to take those priorities forward. We must 1412 also look at how we manage initiatives within the DTI to achieve common purposes. Link, the training company scheme, postgraduate training partnerships, the Faraday centre concept in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council network for the exploitation of science and technology all have a part to play in the foresight programme. In all those areas, we have the foundation to develop foresight into the next millennium and I am delighted that so many people have taken part.
§ Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
I apologise to my hon. Friend for making a further intervention. We are all of the view that the foresight initiative is one of the most important that has been taken since the OST was established. However, I would express some anxiety about the extent to which one can presume that significant industrial management and directorates can make themselves available for the scale of activities that my hon. Friend envisages. I hope that he will be careful about that.
§ Mr. Taylor
I appreciate that. I mentioned the increasing focus in the Department of Trade and Industry on the delivery mechanisms of the foresight programme and on concepts that may well deliver those objectives in some way, because I recognise that foresight has been a success and we must find ways to take it forward effectively and properly.
I am also happy to be able to announce that the Office of Science and Technology is continuing the industry-academe collaboration prizes that were awarded last year. A total of £100,000 in prizes will be awarded. I was impressed with the way in which those collaborations developed, and it looks as if that competition will continue that success.
Biotechnology is one of the most exciting and promising new areas, as the foresight programme has underlined. Biotechnology offers great potential for health care, food, agriculture and environmental management, among many other applications. We have done much to stimulate it since the crusade was announced. A "SPUR plus" grant has been awarded to Proteus Molecular Design Ltd. The £406,000 grant is to research new class gene-targeted DNA-binding drugs with potential for the treatment of cancer, viral infections and other diseases.
A small but important part is played by the United Kingdom's microbial culture collections. Those are a high-quality resource and a vital national asset. They represent specialist living and preserved collections of bacteria, yeasts, fungi, algae and animal and plant cells. The organisms that they maintain act as references for scientists and are a significant repository of biodiversity, in the same way as botanic gardens.
The collections provide the academic community with the basis for important medical and scientific research, and support UK competitiveness through their potential for exploitation using modern biotechnology. I am convinced that that new strategy represents an exciting opportunity to create new partnerships between Government, industry and academia. Details of the strategy will be placed today in the Libraries of both Houses and will be published simultaneously on the Internet.
1413 The strategy for those collections, whereby the OST will provide £1.34 million over three years to help co-ordinate the activities of collections and encourage the use of modern molecular technologies, will be welcomed in the House.
Time is moving on and I know that human genetics is one of the subjects for debate. That is one of the most challenging and exciting areas of the debate. The Select Committee on Science and Technology is to be greatly complimented on all that it has done. It has drawn attention to some exciting areas. If we continue to make the sort of progress that we appear to be making in genetic sequencing, we could well be up with the timetable set for the human genome project. The benefits to mankind will be extraordinary, as we learn not only about individual genes but about the interaction between them and we get to know more about complex diseases that require us to understand how genes interact.
All that is going on apace and a lot of it is happening in the United Kingdom. There are wider implications, however, which we need to consider. In its first report, the Select Committee put pressure on the insurance industry to produce at least a framework that would give more confidence as to how it would react to some of the ethical questions about genetic testing and insurance. I was pleased that the Association of British Insurers announced on Wednesday that it would be appointing a genetics adviser and aims to draw up a code of conduct on handling genetic information.
I had hoped that the industry would also produce slightly more detail. It claims that several things have impeded its progress and has said how determined it is to make progress. My judgment is that progress must be made swiftly. I am in no way assuming that the industry is attempting to gain unfair advantage and I am not imputing bad intentions, but it is in the insurance industry's interests to reassure the public before the public start to worry about these matters.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
I strongly agree with the Minister, and underline his argument about the need to go further than the announcement earlier this week about the appointment of an adviser. The industry was asked to produce voluntary regulation and has failed to do so. Can he assure the House that if it continues to fail, he and his Department will produce proposals to ensure proper mandatory regulation by the House?
§ Mr. Taylor
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I am reluctant to go down that track. The Government would be the worst type of regulator in such a hugely complicated market. There are principles that need to be talked through. I gave evidence to the Select Committee, and I am not going back on anything that I said then—I do not have the time to go over it again. Insurance companies need to know what the person they are insuring needs to know. A balance of judgment is involved, and because genetics is a comparatively new area, we need to be very careful.
That is why, with a great deal of co-operation and inspired agreement as a result of further deliberations, the Government and the Select Committee are of one mind and have set up the new Human Genetics Advisory Commission, which will be considering such matters. 1414 If the commission expressed concerns to the Government, we would take them seriously, but I am not prepared to commit myself this morning.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the commission can consider that subject, but surely the Government's reluctance to hold that threat of ultimate statutory intervention over the insurance companies has led to them dragging their feet. They have had 12 months since the Select Committee suggested that they should generate a code of practice. I do not think that it is a coincidence that the industry made the announcement on Wednesday. It was deliberate, because it knew that there would be a spotlight on the insurance industry today. Are we satisfied that the industry has made the progress that it should have made during the 12 months since the Select Committee's report?
§ Mr. Taylor
I am not satisfied that the industry is making progress, but that is different from saying that Government legislation would assist in what is an extremely complicated market. Ultimately, the Government do not want to take over insurance risk, so they rely on insurance companies to assess that risk. The questions at stake are not legislative but ethical, and ethical matters need to be discussed.
In agreement with the Select Committee, we have set up the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, under the chairmanship of Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne. It will consider a range of issues. We also agreed to set up the Human Genetics Advisory Commission. I am putting pressure on the insurance industry. It is not a complete coincidence that it received a letter from me just before it made the announcement.
The issue is extremely complicated, so we shall have to discuss it further. I do not think that it would be wise for colleagues to assume that the legislative process would assist. The same problems need to be considered in terms of employment. We need further discussions on employment. Clearly, if people are applying for a job in such circumstances, there are ethical concerns.
I mentioned the importance of the initiative to extend quality life. That is one of the more exciting projects, because it pulls together so many diverse scientific matters. I was pleased to hear the remarks made by George Poste of SmithKline Beecham, not only welcoming the crusade for biotechnology as an important Government initiative, but on the importance of EQUAL, which pulls together so many diverse sectors.
The recent foresight challenge awards included projects totalling nearly £27 million, addressing health and life sciences issues. We need to take those further, throughout government and all academic sectors. I am delighted that my remarks a year ago have received such a general welcome and have been enthusiastically received in many of the research councils.
Many colleagues want to participate in the debate and I am only too keen that they should. Before I conclude, however, I must point out that Opposition Members are likely to say that a little more money would solve all the problems. I should like to know where that little bit more money might come from. I hope that we do not get into a debate across the Floor about something as simple as money. Money makes the world go round, as they say, but there is no doubt that we must be much more effective 1415 in the way in which we spend the money that we have, and look for new ways of ensuring the competitiveness and the more effective exploitation of the science base.
I hope that the hon. Member for East Kilbride does not give us wizard ideas that we are already working on. In a recent article, he said that Labour had deliberated for the past 17 years about the science base and had decided to introduce some pilot Faraday programmes. Actually, Faraday centres have been under review and are being tested by the Government. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is developing them and I have mentioned NERC's NEST programme, so give credit where credit is due. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say that he has been much influenced by our work.
I hope also that the hon. Gentleman will not talk about regional centres of excellence. Look at what is happening, for example, at the university of Leeds, with a fascinating arrangement of virtual science parks, and at how the material science unit at Sheffield Hallam university is working extremely well with regional interests. We are making progress in each of those sectors.
Hon. Members share the view that research and development is an important part of the national economy. I have mentioned the report that the Treasury is issuing, by the way, at 10.30 this morning. The House has had a foretaste—a foresight—of it. [Interruption.] We got in first. I have mentioned many other sectors where the Government are doing an extremely good job.
In the past 10 years, the science base has increased in real terms by 10 per cent. and the science budget by more than 21 per cent., after correcting for dual support transfer. Those are excellent figures. Science is safe in the Government's hands. There is no question but that we have given it the priority that it deserves. I looking forward to listening to Labour Members' speeches. I hope that they give due tribute to the excellence of the work that has resulted from the Conservative Government's policies.
§ Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)
I share the Minister's general views in welcoming the debate, but it is worth pointing out that this is the first Government-sponsored debate on science policy issues since October last year. The landscape that the Minister covered is impossible to deal with in one debate. He mentioned a range of issues that would be worthy of special debates in the House. It is impossible to do justice to such a wide range of issues.
It is also worth noting that the debate's subject is science policy and human genetics. The Minister hardly mentioned the latter in his speech, other than in passing. He made great play of other issues, which I do not intend to deal with today. I hope that we can have a proper debate. If the Government wish to debate science policy across the issues, let them give us the time and those issues will be debated in full.
The Minister mentioned the Science Policy Research Unit report commissioned by the Treasury on related matters. In the end, he had to be advised that the report had not yet been placed in the Library of the House, so it is difficult for me even to begin to comment on it. I understand that the embargo has now been lifted and 1416 the report may be winging its way there at the moment, but I do not intend to try to absorb its information and respond to it. Again, however, we may have a debate on the report, although it is to be noted that the Treasury, not the Office of Science and Technology, commissioned it. Questions may be asked about that once we read the report's contents and remit.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
I apologise to the House for being somewhat previous with my announcement, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the embargo has been lifted. It is amazing what influence we Department of Trade and Industry Ministers can have when we try, but I urge him to realise the significance of the fact that the report was commissioned by the Treasury. I have a transdepartmental interest. He would be wrong to think that I am not pleased that the Treasury has done this work.
§ Mr. Ingram
I will wait to read the full contents of the report and its remit. It depends who has the responsibility for delivering any messages that arise from it. If it is to be driven by the Treasury, I am sure that many people in the science infrastructure will be somewhat concerned, but let us leave that for a later date.
I mentioned that this is the first Government-sponsored debate on science policy issues since October last year. It is questionable whether we would be having this debate if it had not been for the work of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on human genetics. I also suspect that, if the Government had not supported in broad principle the report's main recommendations, albeit after they had reconsidered the issue, this debate would not be taking place, but I do not want to appear to be too churlish as we now have a debate, and I know that Select Committee members and other hon. Members wish to comment, I suspect, specifically on the report and on wider science policy issues.
There is growing awareness of the increasing relevance of science and technology to our everyday lives. More and more, scientific issues are being discussed and reported in the national press and on television and radio. That is to be welcomed. All hon. Members would agree that not all the coverage is of high quality, but the standard seems to be improving in response to the public demand for more and better information.
The reason for that is simple. The media have picked up on the fact that we are living in a time of new and exciting scientific advance. We are on the threshold of a new scientific era. Let me give just three examples of where that is relevant. First, the capacity, application and potential of information technology is now plain for all to see. Advances in that sector have grown at an exponential rate, so fast in fact that even Bill Gates of Microsoft got it wrong. In 1981 he said:640K ought to be enough for anybodyand he was not talking about Members' pay or his own executive pay. Even the random access memory of today's home computers is around 20 times or more what Bill Gates thought was ample in 1981.
I spent 10 years as a computer programmer and systems analyst. In the decade before 1981, I was working on 32K mainframe machines that would have filled half the Chamber. To work on a 64K machine was like winning the national lottery every week. The luxury of doubling the capacity was difficult to comprehend.
1417 Space science is the second sector of significant advance that is exciting the public and media interest. We have the capacity to understand at the deepest level the way in which the universe is created. That capacity—to begin to comprehend the beginning of time—is difficult to absorb fully, even for some of the space scientists working in the sector, but there can be no doubt that the pictures sent back by space probes such as Hubble and Galileo have generated much interest, especially among young people, and have contributed to greater interest in science generally.
Of course, the third sector of advance is the science of genetics and biotechnology. In many ways, the impact of genetic research and the role of DNA has captured the public's imagination like no other branch of science, as well as creating many worries and raising a range of moral and ethical questions with which, as a society, we must grapple and find answers to.
It is therefore an exciting time in science. Human knowledge is again at the point of lift-off, reaching new levels of understanding and application, with profound implications for all of us. It is no exaggeration to say that no one, anywhere in the world, will be unaffected by the process of change that we face. It brings to mind the words of William Wordsworth, who nearly two centuries ago, commenting on another era of revolutionary change, said:Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,But to he young was very heaven!When we consider the scientific horizons ahead of us, how appropriate those words are to the present day.
The debate is timely and it is right that the House should discuss the wide range of issues identified by the science and study of human genetics. I remind the House that that is the main subject of today's debate. I echo the Minister's comments in congratulating Select Committee members on their report. It was undoubtedly a mammoth task which they undertook. All of us should be indebted to them, to those who gave evidence to the Committee and to those who had the difficult task of servicing the Committee. The Committee has produced a detailed report to which I am sure people will return time and again when the subject of human genetics is discussed in the House and further afield.
The report is a first-class resourced document. It examines in a tightly argued way a range of complex matters associated with the science of human genetics. However, it is more than that. It has provided a framework for action to be taken now and in the future by the Government to allow the science to develop and to protect society's interest in the implications of the science.
It would be wrong not to note that it is fully one year since the Committee presented its report to Parliament for consideration. As a result of the Government's initial unwillingness to accept the main recommendation of the report, the Committee was forced to take the unusual step of reopening its examination of the subject. This further examination and the pressure from outwith the House forced a reluctant Government to change their mind. On that count, too, the Committee is to be congratulated on bringing about such a substantial U-turn by the Government.
We are now one year on from the publication of the report and more than a year and a half on from when the Committee commenced its task. Some progress has been 1418 made, but many questions remain about whether the Government are serious in their approach to applying the full conclusions of the report and providing a strong and vibrant scientific environment in Britain to allow the potential of genetic science to flourish for the benefit of all.
I wish to touch on some of the issues raised by the report and to place the opportunities afforded by genetic science within the context of the Government's policy on the nation's science and research base. The Committee correctly identified the need for a powerful independent commission to advise the Government and Parliament on the dimensions and implications of the science of human genetics. It strongly argued, again rightly, that one of the prime objectives of such a commission would be to foster public confidence and understanding of the science not only in its medical context but in the equally important non-medical context.
The Committee recognised the need to ensure that genetic science should be allowed to develop only within a proper regulatory and legal framework which would ensure the responsible exploitation of the science. We recognise that the Committee wanted a more powerful regulatory mechanism than that which the Government have agreed to establish. My instincts and preference would have been more in line with that recommended by the Committee, but I recognise that the Government have moved considerably towards the underlying principle of what the Committee sought to establish, and we must welcome that shift. It is a significant move in the right direction and it has been widely seen as such outside the House.
The important aspect of the need for such a commission is the recognition that the pace of developments in genetic science is faster than the machinery of government, so it is vital that we have a respected body such as the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, even with its restricted advisory role, which has the capacity to deal swiftly with the rapid pace of development in the science and advise Parliament where necessary on the need for and the possible shape of legislation.
The remit of the commission must, of course, be wider than that. I support the broad terms of reference which the Minister set out in his response to the Committee's report. They provide a coherent framework within which the members of the commission can act for the public good. However, while the terms of reference may be agreed, it is equally important that we explore and discuss the modus operandi. Therefore, before I move on to deal with other aspects of the Select Committee's report, I should like to ask the Minister a few questions on the function of the advisory commission that he intends to set up.
I shall deal first with a point raised with me by the Genetics Interest Group in a letter dated 16 July. As hon. Members and the Minister will be aware, the Genetic Interest Group is a widely respected body in the world of genetics. In its letter, it complimented the Government on setting up the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, but it pointed out:Government has detailed two principal reasons for establishing the Advisory Commission: to maintain public confidence; and to provide a cross-departmental overview of implications of scientific advance in the field. We note that the Commission lacks a statutory basis. In other words, there is no specific legislation for it to enforce. It is to be hoped, however, that its views will carry sufficient weight to influence decision-making in the field … In general, public confidence will be enhanced if the Commission makes clear that it will take action and recommend legislation where it feels this to be appropriate, and Government responds with a commitment to enact legislation promptly.1419 I should welcome the Minister's response on that point.
The terms of reference of the commission include a requirement to report to Ministers periodically and to publish those reports. Will the Minister confirm that the reports will be published at the same time as they are submitted to Ministers and that the reports will be widely available and easily accessible and will not simply be placed in the Library of the House?
§ Mr. Alton
I am following with interest what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I strongly welcome his remarks. Does he agree that the independence of the new commission will be predicated on its membership and that, whether he or the present Minister appoints the members in due course, there will need to be a balance that recognises that there is a lay opinion to be put, and that philosophical opinion should be balanced between consequentialists and non-consequentialists?
§ Mr. Ingram
I agree fundamentally with that point. I was coming to the way in which the commission was to be formed. The Minister did not tell us much about that. In fact, he told us nothing about it. We need to ensure that lay opinion, which has a contribution to make in the examination of moral and ethical questions in genetics, is properly represented on the commission. I am sure that that will assist in the deliberations of the commission.
§ Sir Giles Shaw
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Select Committee urgently recommended that the majority of the persons who formed the commission should be lay persons.
§ Mr. Ingram
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for reminding me of that fact. I am sure that that point will be made by him, if not by others, during the debate.
We need a clear timetable for establishment of the commission. It is not sufficient for the Government to say that they accept the recommendations of a Select Committee report and then give no idea how they intend to go about implementing the main elements of it. Enough time has passed already. As I said, it is a year since the Committee commenced its investigation. Unnecessary delay would be unacceptable.
It is worth bearing it in mind that it took well over a year for the Government to set up the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing.
§ Dr. Reid
As someone who is struggling for the fourth time through "A Brief History of Time", I hesitate to intervene in such a specialist debate. The thing that strikes me, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, is that the capacity of science to change at a geometric rate of progress is running way beyond moral and ethical considerations. If it takes a year for the Government to respond to a Committee of the House, does my hon. Friend have any faith that the Government are in a position or willing to respond sufficiently quickly to the ideas that he is putting forward to catch up with some of the moral and ethical consequences of the changes that are taking place in science?
§ Mr. Ingram
My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. I agree with those sentiments. If it is his fourth 1420 attempt to understand Stephen Hawking's book, I suggest that he gives up and tries the shortened version to see whether he can begin to understand that. I have read the book once, but I would not say that I begin to understand many of the deep philosophical points raised within it. I do not know whether it is worthy of debate in the House. I will not ask the Minister to provide time for such a debate because we all—certainly I—would be struggling. My hon. Friend is right about the unnecessary delay and the pace of change. We cannot wait for the commission to be set up. It needs to be set up as early as possible.
I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the reporting role of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission. That is a vital matter. As we know, the commission will have a joint secretariat provided by the Office of Science and Technology and the Department of Health. It will be required to report formally to the relevant Ministers in the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry. It would be helpful if the Minister would tell the House which Department will be the lead Department in responding to the reports produced by the commission. We do not want internal departmental squabbles, which occurred in the consideration of the Select Committee's report. We cannot afford such squabbles when we are dealing with such sensitive and important issues. I appreciate that the Minister has to obtain the leave of the House if he wants to wind up, but assuming that that is granted, I hope that he will deal with those points.
I have dealt at some length with the setting up and functioning of the new advisory commission as I believe that it is important. The advisory commission undoubtedly has a vital role in creating the right climate for one of the most important sectors in medical science which is a key element in the UK economy. It will not face an easy task because it will have to deal with many complex issues. It will obviously be assisted in its role by the work of its sister committees, including the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing. However, deciding what advice that it should give on the non-medical use of genetics, primarily in the insurance and employment sectors, will not be straightforward.
Some of the same problems will prevail in the resolution of the many ethical and moral questions that will be created by the science. The advice will prove essential to parliamentarians and law makers when creating the right level of public understanding of the issues involved. That public understanding involves both the general public and the media, which have a capacity to undermine and demoralise those who work in genetic research, whose main aim is to pass on the benefits of their work for the greater public good.
One such example is provided in the briefing issued for today's debate by the Alzheimer's Disease Society. It states:It has been known for some time that a small number of younger people with Alzheimer's disease inherit a rare form of the disease. However, in 1993 US scientists discovered a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease in older people. It is therefore likely that tests for diagnosis and risk prediction will develop in the future.Alzheimer's disease must therefore be included in the current debate about who should be offered such tests, how the results should be interpreted and who should have access to the information obtained.1421 The briefing continues:While welcoming the Government's decision to implement the Science and Technology Select Committee's recommendation for a Human Genetics Commission the Society is concerned that, notwithstanding this development, current Government proposals on long-term care insurance do not safeguard against the possibility that people with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's disease could he discriminated against by insurers either by charging higher premiums or by excluding them from taking out policies.If the Government is to encourage self-provision for long-term care costs it must at the same time protect consumers through more robust regulation of the long-term care insurance market including measures to prevent the misuse of genetic information by insurers.That is a definitive position for the society to adopt, and I do not necessarily expect the Minister to respond today to the society's demands. But he and the Government must take on board the fears contained in that expression of opinion.
The same view is expressed by the Genetics Interest Group, which states:The Genetics Interest Group is concerned that the trend towards shifting responsibility from the state to the individual has set policy already in a number of areas. As a result, people with a genetic condition or a predisposition to a condition face disadvantage. Recent proposals in relation to the funding of care in old age exemplify our concern: the assumption is that people with a higher risk will be expected to pay higher premiums. Given that the same people face higher premiums for other forms of insurance, the danger of cumulative disadvantage is a real one.The Genetics Interest Group believes it to be inequitable that some people face disadvantage as a result of something over which they have no control. A solution to this problem will need to involve Government as well as the industry—since changes in welfare policy play their role in constituting the problem for certain groups of people.The fact that the Government have only this week signalled that they are looking seriously at a move to a more extensive private insurance-based welfare policy and away from the current national insurance-based approach, can only serve to exacerbate the fears expressed by the Alzheimer's Disease Society, the Genetics Interest Group and others who have commented on the subject who represent people with a genetic condition or a predisposition to a condition.
Those issues were raised when the Select Committee reported a year ago. The Government's response was that they would encourage the insurance industry and geneticists to develop an industry-wide code of practice to regulate such concerns. But as we have already heard from the Minister—I am sure that we shall return to the subject later in the debate—the insurance industry has not yet come up with a code of conduct. But, as the Minister said, on Wednesday the industry issued a letter through the Association of British Insurers, which stated:Insurance companies do not require anyone to take a genetic test as a condition of their application for insurance and it is intended that this will not change in the foreseeable future.Clearly, that must be welcomed so far as it goes, but that assurance has to be set against the ABI's previously declared position, when it stated:What is key for the insurer is that it has the same information as the person seeking insurance—it has to be able to cope with adverse selection.We must place the insurance company's position in the context of those two responses.
I fully accept that it is a difficult problem for the industry to resolve, but we are being told that the industry is in a bit of a bind about how to approach the subject. We cannot let 1422 it dictate the rate of progress: we must find ways of exerting sufficient pressure on it that it comes up with a code of conduct. That is why the early establishment of the commission is important. The commission can help everyone—from those at risk because of a genetic condition, or a predisposition to a condition, to the industries involved, Government and Parliament.
§ Mr. Alton
I strongly welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said to the House. Before he leaves the subject of insurance, will he undertake to stress to the industry that if it does not introduce the voluntary regulations that the Select Committee seeks, he and a Labour Government will—if they are in a position to do so in future—introduce statutory regulations to require the industry to do what it has so far lamentably failed to do?
§ Mr. Ingram
I do not think that we need statutory regulations. The industry, like everyone else involved in the subject, is struggling to find answers. I am not necessarily criticising the Minister, but if criticism is due, I hope that he takes it on board. I do not believe that the Government have been forceful or strong enough with the industry in their attempts to bring it to the table.
The industry is still debating the issue; it has had a long time to consider it—it is not a new matter. While there are difficulties associated with the subject, the industry should be in a position to come to a conclusion at an early date. I understand that it was its intention to publish something more substantial in advance of today's debate, but that has not happened. However, that intention tells me that the industry is at the point of coming up with a code of conduct. We shall have to judge how effective that code of conduct will be in practice. I am concerned that the industry should not await the setting up of a commission and its deliberations before advancing its own proposals. We need clear guidance from the industry on the subject.
As I am sure the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) recognises, the commission will deal with some of the issues. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of the way in which the commission will report to Parliament. It may be in a position to recommend statutory frameworks that we in Parliament would have to consider. It is a complex subject and I would not want to give a simplistic response. More progress needs to be made—so far, insufficient progress has been made.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones
I take my hon. Friend's point. But does he not agree that ultimately, if necessary, it would be relatively simple—and one hopes non-contentious—to introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination in insurance claims on the ground of an individual's genetic make-up?
§ Mr. Ingram
I take my hon. Friend's point on board—I think that it contains a bit of pre-judgment. I would welcome that debate taking place within the commission; Parliament could then consider it in greater detail. We must be careful. I appreciate that my hon. Friend thought that the commission, which we are setting up to advise Parliament, should have more wide-ranging powers, but that is not the case and we must proceed with what we have. We should wait and see how the issues are debated, then let Parliament make a calm decision. We should not rule that option out, but nor should we consider it the only, or preferred, course of action. I recognise the strength of opinion that prevails.
1423 I must make progress, but it was worth debating that issue, which I believed was the prime purpose of this morning's debate. I have a feeling that the Minister did not want to discuss the report in detail so he skimmed over it, but he will need to return to it repeatedly, as I am sure that other hon. Members will make relevant contributions.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
I would not want it to be left on the record that we were uninterested, which was the allegation. We are profoundly interested. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has had time to read the considerable evidence that I gave in oral session to the Committee. I have emphasised that I stand by that evidence, so I have been able to mention other matters of great interest to science as a whole.
§ Mr. Ingram
I suspect that we are drifting into the wrong type of debate.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that he made his responses through oral submission to the Committee, but our purpose today is to get this debate out into the wider reaches of the community. People do not have easy access to these reports and probably do not find it easy to work their way through the morass of Select Committee reports. The purpose of today's debate is to air those issues. People working in genetics, insurance, pharmaceuticals, other parts of industry and the research base have said that they want today's debate to draw attention to some of those issues.
What we are discussing in the insurance context also applies in the context of employment. If they were asked, "Should employers ever need to know anything about the genetic make-up of an employee?" most people would probably answer no, as it would obviously interfere with a person's civil liberties. There are circumstances, however, in which a person's genetic structure—for instance, in relation to disease susceptibility—may put other people's lives at risk or affect their work activities.
That is no easy matter to resolve. Other European nations have legislated in part on the use of genetic information in relation to insurance and employment, but I understand that the legislation has not been tested in the courts. Obviously, the commission will have to consider those issues soon, and it will ultimately fall on the House to consider whether to proceed with legislation.
Another area identified by the Committee requires some examination in the debate—the patenting of application of the results of genetic research. The Minister did not mention it. I appreciate that he has commented about it and recorded his written response, but we need detailed examination.
The commission must consider that area fully, but we are faced with a much more immediate demand on the issue of patenting of gene research, because the European Parliament is considering a draft directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions. It is essential to provide a clear framework in which industry can operate at a European level in an increasingly competitive global market. I am surprised that the Minister did not want to mention that today if he is concerned about how industry should operate in that area.
1424 I place on record the fact that the Labour party supports the underlying principles and objectives of the directive. The directive's overriding aim is to harmonise national laws on the patenting of inventions with a biological component, with a view to achieving uniform national practices and national case law, to remove the current uncertainty that acts as a deterrent to investment and the proper functioning of the internal market. The directive does not reduce the patent protection currently available or render patentable anything that is currently unpatentable.
Companies will continue to attempt to patent biotechnological inventions in Europe regardless of whether the directive is agreed. Already, more than 200 patent applications have been published worldwide concerning inventions derived from human tissue where the criteria for patentability have been met. Adoption of the directive will, however, lay down ground rules as to what can and cannot be patented, to prevent uncertainty and distortion in the European sector of a global market.
The directive should not be regarded as a vehicle for discussing all the ethical issues relating to biotechnology. It explicitly recognises that it is not the correct forum for ethical discussions and provides for the interpretation of unpatentability on ethical grounds to continue to be determined nationally.
The directive instead fills a gap in the regulations of the European intellectual property system that has arisen as a result of recent advances in biotechnology. The awarding of a patent under the directive does not grant rights to ownership of biological material, nor does it necessarily grant rights for the patent-holder to exploit the invention without restriction. It simply grants the right to prohibit unauthorised use of a biotechnological invention for a specified period by third parties. It creates a legal relationship between different individuals or organisations working in similar areas. It does not create a legal relationship between people and genetic objects.
The directive states that the human body and its elements in their natural state shall not be considered a patentable invention, and takes the existing definition of an "invention" in European patent law and applies it to items with a biological component. Hence, only items that meet the standard conditions governing patentability—novelty, involvement of an inventive step, and potential for industrial application—can be deemed patentable. The notes to the draft directive make it clear that patentability applies only to something that is artificial in the sense that it is a technical solution to a technical problem and has been invented by man.
The directive will not allow an object or process consisting of biological material to be patented, even if it exists outside its natural state, unless industrial application of the object or process is clearly described in the patent application in a way that would enable a skilled engineer to exploit it. Hence genetic information, even if isolated in its natural state, can in effect be patented only if susceptible to international application. If a new use for a certain patented gene sequence is discovered, the directive does not prevent a new organisation from exploiting it.
On those grounds, the Labour party supports the draft directive. We do so with the express aim of creating a positive, supportive climate at European level for UK companies involved in genetic research. The Minister 1425 made no mention of that this morning, yet it is one of the critical issues confronting UK companies involved in that area of growth potential.
In this country we have some of the world's best genetic scientists and some of the best genetic research. We have the potential to remain at the forefront of leading edge research and development in biotechnology and related disciplines. However, that can be achieved only through a strong, well-supported science base.
Tragically, there are too many examples of that science and research base being eroded and undermined as a direct result of Government policy. When the Government are faced with headlines such as those that appeared following the publication of the UK R and D scoreboard, sayingUK falls behind in R & D spending league",who do they blame? They blame industry. They accept no blame themselves. They always have someone else to blame. The Minister did it again this morning. He did it in DTI questions earlier in the week. "Industry is to blame; we are not at fault because we have all these crusades and all these challenges, which industry is not taking up."
The Government's underlying strategy is to withdraw from the funding of near-market research and development, on the assumption that industry will fill the gap. That has not happened, but it has not deterred the Government from their headlong rush away from civil R and D investment.
The real extent of that retreat is alarming. The Government now spend£31 million a week less, in 1994 prices, on science and technology than was spent by the Thatcher Government in 1985. The UK is the only major country that reduced the proportion of gross domestic product that it invested in R and D in the period 1981 to 1993.
As the group Save British Science recently pointed out, Britain is the only major country where Government funding of civil R and D has fallen substantially in real terms. As a proportion of GDP, it has dropped from more than 0.7 per cent. in 1981 to 0.43 per cent. in 1994. That is now about half the figure for Germany and France and lower than that for Japan.
Using 1995–96 as a base and comparing with constant real terms funding, the Government's figures show a reduction of£1 billion in Government support for R and D for the three years to April 1999. The DTI's budget for R and D is set to fall to only £83 million by 1999.
What has happened to Government civil R and D spend is mirrored even more alarmingly in relation to the important sector of academic research facilities. Every major company that I have visited, and every leading university vice-chancellor to whom I have spoken, tells me that our university research base is in crisis due to underfunding and Government cuts. As I tour industry and speak to the university sector, I receive a different message from the one that Conservative Members send. The message that we had this morning that everything is rosy and that the vice-chancellor has gold taps in his bathroom diminishes this debate substantially. I shall be interested to hear what the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) will say if he enters the debate. Professors and researchers in our major university laboratories speak of a miserable collapse of morale throughout the sector. 1426 It is not all doom and gloom; there are areas of success. But one must listen to the overriding message that comes across.
The reason is not hard to find. Government statistics show that Higher Education Funding Council expenditure is on a steep downward curve. Next year, expenditure on capital investment in universities will be cut by £107 million—a decrease of 31 per cent. In 1998–99, it is proposed to cut it by a further 20 per cent. That amounts to a 50 per cent. cut in two years.
As the publication, "Research Fortnight", recently reported,The Wellcome Trust continues to refuse to fund new buildings for British academics as a direct result of the government's cut in capital funding for universities.The Trust's governors have enforced the moratorium because they are adamant that the Trust's funding will not he used to replace government funds.The stand could be a costly one for British universities: over the last three years the Trust spent £120 million on capital funding".To anyone who cares about our university research base, that is a dismal message. It comes on top of the recent report by the PREST unit of Manchester university, which, based on an historical analysis, shows that the UK continues to decline in terms of adequacy of university equipment compared with our international competitors. No matter how the Minister seeks to distort those figures, be selective or downplay the issue by saying that only 91 university research centres were looked at, the facts are stark. Four out of five of the partners cannot perform critical experiments because of lack of funding of equipment. Even the leading research universities stated that more than 20 per cent. of equipment was over 15 years old, and 60 per cent. of stock had a useful life of less than five years. Nearly half the departments considered their equipment below average in international comparisons, with only 18 per cent. above average.
The Government's strategy as a way round that problem is through the private finance initiative. Not only do the universities find that response lamentable, but so does industry. Despite the fact that the Minister says that £18 million has brought in a further £40 million, industry has told the Minister and me that it is not its function to finance normal generic academic infrastructures. That message was given to me this week by SmithKline Beecham, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. It does not believe, nor do many of the companies that depend on research facilities, that their function is to fill the infrastructure gap to make up Government cuts.
The universities have been deserted by the Government. The Wellcome Trust has placed a moratorium on them and now industry tells them to forget about the PFI because it simply will not work. We may still have excellence, but there is real fear for tomorrow. We face a difficult problem unless there is a change of direction.
This debate comes at a critical time, but it should be the beginning of a series of debates on the detail of Government policy. We stand at the threshold of a new technological and scientific era but are looking into the abyss of rapid research decline because of the Government's destructive policies towards this country's science and research base. No one in the science 1427 community or industry expects the Government to be perfect and able to do everything. In the words of the distinguished British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane:To create angels would be difficult since we have the genes neither for wings nor for moral excellence.But if we want genetic science to take off and soar to the heights, along with other areas where we are at the leading edge of research, we require a Government who are committed to science and are prepared to work in genuine partnership with industry and academia, not a Government who blame them.
The Government have failed that test because they do not work in partnership with industry and academia. It is time for them to make way and let new Labour create a new life for Britain.
§ Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
I am sure that the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) would not expect me to follow him precisely.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for East Kilbride but, unfortunately, owing to commitments in my constituency, I may be unable to stay for the wind-up to the debate.
Hon. Members are aware that this is the first time that we have had an opportunity to debate the Select Committee's report on human genetics. It does not surprise me that that has formed a major part of the speech of the hon. Member for East Kilbride and, in large measure, I welcome what he had to say.
The scientific excitement of genetic research and its implications for human health were beginning to attract attention when we set out on this research a considerable time ago. But the implications of the science go far wider than health care. They can touch virtually every part of our everyday life. Until recently, genetics was thought of as a fairly rare science dealing with fairly rare diseases, but today medical science has brought commonplace diseases within the remit of genetic identification. Hon. Members have already referred to Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.
When the Committee began its inquiry, we were under the conviction that this was a major international scientific exercise that brought together the talents of many researchers all over the world into mapping the human genome. But it rapidly became clear to the Committee that the mapping process accelerated by computerisation and intensive effort was becoming an achievement that would take not the decades originally expected but only a few more years to accomplish. I pay tribute to the scientists and technicians who worked all over the world and were able to accelerate the project beyond its founders' wildest expectations. It was an amazing scientific achievement for which we must all be extremely grateful.
Nevertheless, with the speed of the development and the extent of public interest in it came the question: how fast can therapeutic development carry out what the scientists had provided in genetics? The Committee became involved with international competition between major drug companies, with questions of patenting and what should be deemed appropriate to offer protection to developers of therapies.
1428 I remind the hon. Member for East Kilbride that the Committee arrived at a definition for patenting and published it in its report. It says that—only a combination of a gene and a known utility which is novel and not obvious should be patentable in the context of that utility; and—a combination of the same gene and a further novel utility should also be patentable.If the European directive allows that process as defined to continue, I am sure that the Committee will accept that. The hon. Member for East Kilbride was right to say that we need an international framework to enable that process of patenting to continue.
We also became involved in the question of insurance and the consequences of using those therapies and diagnostics. It would not be too dramatic to say that most of mankind in the major western countries, and many beyond in due course, will become exposed to the impact of human genetics and a range of consequences, some of which are beneficial while others are less so.
Within that range of consequences are the ethical issues. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is extremely exercised on that matter. The ability to identify a gene linked with a particular disease may come years before treatments for that disease are improved, and many questions are then raised. What use can or should be made of genetic information in those circumstances? Should family members who might also be at risk be told? Should insurers have a right to the information? Should it be protected by privacy legislation to ensure that it does not lead to newspaper stories shrieking, "Popular hero has gay gene"? How can the public be educated to deal with genetic information which may not be "good" or "bad" and which is likely to be expressed in terms of probability rather than certainty? Is it legitimate to collect information on genetic differences between different groups?
The Committee had something to say about and to learn from all those questions. Indeed, that matrix persuaded the Committee that there could be no sensible public policy on that area of genetic science and its development unless it was comprehensive. This was not just a matter of the science of genetics, nor just a matter of the provision of medical therapy—it was a matter of public education and awareness, and a sensitive application of genetic testing with the proper counselling that would enable both the receiver of the data and his or her family, if appropriate, to be made fully aware of the consequences of the test and the limits of the test before it was carried out. Genetic knowledge can raise false hopes and unfounded fears, and patients need a fair assessment of their individual situation.
§ Mr. Alton
The hon. Gentleman is providing the House with an intelligent list of the dilemmas that we shall face as a society if genetic testing proceeds. Will he confirm that, so far, gene therapy has led to no cures and that a person faced with the information that he has just described inevitably has only the so-called choice of allowing a developing child to proceed with its life or to destroy that life?
§ Sir Giles Shaw
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's views on the matter and I understand his question. I do not think that I am well enough equipped to answer his 1429 question in the stark terms that he put it. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those genes can produce significant distortion, illness and death. Within the balance of those two opposites, a way has to be found—it cannot be ignored. This is the big issue of the debate.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones
Although gene therapy is in its early stages of development, I should like to correct the impression that may have been given by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) that there has been no progress in gene therapy. For example, there is evidence that gene therapy can have beneficial effects for cystic fibrosis. The point of the debate this morning is to discuss the tremendously exciting prospects that are in this science for curing illnesses and for improving the health and well-being of humankind.
§ Sir Giles Shaw
The hon. Lady is quite right on these matters, and I am glad to have had her correction on this issue.
The Committee's report pays full attention to the issues of patenting and the law and, to some extent, to the issues of insurance and employment. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for reminding us that the insurance industry has taken its first hesitant step to address the Committee's rubric on this matter, but there is no doubt that it will have to move considerably further before it provides the framework within which these issues can be properly handled.
The main theme of the Committee's report was that it is essential to provide a source of advice to the Government that is comprehensive in its scope. Therefore, it was intended for the Government to be better advised in health and in those aspects affecting employment, industry, patent law, insurance, and the sensitive monitoring and assessment of genetic testing. The Committee recommended the establishment of a Human Genetics Advisory Commission, which should seek to assure or to reassure the public that the wider social implications of this developing field of therapy are not being overlooked. Obviously, the Committee and I welcome the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, the membership of which the Government have recently announced. I would also welcome the Government's announcement of the membership of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission—that decision must not be delayed.
Genetic science has to be developed and used in a way that will carry public confidence. To some extent, we were influenced by the way in which the Government had handled the development of in vitro fertilisation. This stemmed from a thorough inquiry and resulted in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which was set up by statute to oversee the application of these particular therapies in a way that has commanded widespread public confidence. We believed that this problem was urgent because tales of square tomatoes and genetically induced monsters began to plague the public press.
§ Mrs. Lait
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the development of the advisory committee on embryology. It was preceded by a committee chaired by Lady Mary Donaldson, which she set up on a voluntary basis. The committee created the framework for the 1430 statutory body that followed. Does my hon. Friend envisage a similar process emerging in the area of human genetics?
§ Sir Giles Shaw
I hope that in due course the Government will find this so useful and essential that they will make it a statutory arm of government, as happened in relation to the embryology authority. We urge that as the ultimate correct solution.
When the Government responded to the Committee's initial report, they rejected the idea of an overarching commission, but they agreed that there should be a genetic testing advisory committee, to which I have already referred. Until the advisory committee was established, there was nothing to prevent anyone from offering genetic tests to the public—without counselling, without consideration of whether the test was desirable and without any associated scrutiny of laboratory standards.
One company had already begun to offer postal tests for cystic fibrosis to determine whether a person had carrier status. We know nothing against the company, but it is arguable that genetic tests by post are undesirable, since counselling standards are likely to be low. We do not know whether it is profitable, but less scrupulous operators might be tempted to follow that practice. We hope that the advisory committee will look at these issues straight away and rationalise this matter.
Useful as the advisory committee is, it does not have the breadth of responsibility necessary to ensure the intelligent and responsible application of genetic science, or to reassure the public that genetics will not make monsters. Somewhat unusually, the Committee refused to accept this as the last word on the matter and it began a short inquiry to try to persuade the Department of Health and the Office of Science and Technology to reopen the issue of a broad-based commission.
I believe that it is to the immense credit of my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health that, after a further round of probing from the Committee, of evidence taking and of persuasive effort, they changed their minds on this fundamental point. I say to the hon. Member for East Kilbride that I do not regard that as a U-turn; I regard it as a persuasion of a Committee dedicated to achieve a certain purpose—it was well organised, well led, and well supported, and it achieved what it set out to do. I congratulate both Ministers on their courage and on the confidence that they showed in the arguments that were put forward. The debate allows me to pay tribute to the Ministers and also to the Committee, which recorded this achievement, aided by a quite outstanding service from its Clerks and assistants.
We look forward to the establishment of the commission, and I am confident that a statutory solution will ultimately be found. In arguing for a commission, one inevitably lists the abuses that it will guard against. These abuses could happen, but the potential benefits of genetic science are huge and should be welcomed by all hon. Members without reserve. The greatest danger to the use of genetic knowledge is public fear, and that is best allayed by the knowledge that potential abuses are likely to be identified and, therefore, more likely to be prevented. The advisory commission could and, in our view, should play a key role in ensuring that we can use to the full the immense potential for good that this scientific knowledge offers.
1431 I refer to the second research report that has come before the House and that is relevant to the debate. I refer to our inquiry into the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. This year, the Committee decided to undertake the first of its inquiries into the activities of research councils. We had at the back of our mind the duty to follow the progress of the Office of Science and Technology and its policies through all its major expenditures in public science.
We chose the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council for our first inquiry. The council has the responsibility for managing the United Kingdom's commitment to a great international collaborative research effort—namely, the development of the large hadron collider at the European Centre for Nuclear Research, or CERN. CERN comprises representatives of the 18 European Governments that pledged their financial resources to this particular endeavour, which is to explore the fundamental particles from which all matter is made. That attracts some popular interest, although it clearly has less application in the immediate future than the mapping of the human genome. It is far and away the biggest single scientific project that any of our research councils are required to manage. Owing to the international treaty under which it operates and the fluctuations in the currency—Swiss francs—in which subscriptions must be paid, it has a huge impact upon the financing of the research council's budget and creates a major distortion in the fields of astronomy and space science for which the council is equally responsible.
Although the PPARC will certainly have the money to pay its share of the building costs for the large hadron collider according to current projections, it will not have the money to fund the experiments that will run on the machine when it is completed. One member of the council told us that it was like becoming a member of an expensive health club only to find that one could not afford to rent a court to play squash or even to buy a drink at the bar. Therefore, our report concentrates on how that distortion can be reduced.
Over the past three years, Science Ministers have been concerned about the question of what resources should be allocated to that large experiment. However, the Committee believes that they must now make a decision. The large hadron collider has been agreed, and development work had already begun when we visited CERN. The Committee applauds the concept of international collaboration on major scientific research and co-operation on research projects such as this. However, it does not seem reasonable that the Government's science budget, in part or in whole, should bear the considerable costs caused by fluctuations in international subscriptions that have nothing to do with the scale of the scientific programme involved.
Accordingly, we recommend in our report that the Treasury should bear the costs of any fluctuations in subscriptions caused by movement in the exchange rate or those fluctuations arising from the improvements that follow the United Kingdom's welcome increase in relative prosperity. We generously recommend also that any notional gains made from such fluctuations should be returned to the Treasury.
1432 That will not solve all the PPARC's financial problems, but we believe that it should receive funding adequate to exploit the large hadron collider. We believe that there is a case for awarding the funding outright. We must take long-term decisions now about the active period of experimentation that the project at CERN will involve although we will not know the results of those experiments for several decades. We think it is right, both scientifically and in terms of expenditure, that the artificial factors that have such a huge impact on costs should be removed from the equation and that the PPARC should not be prevented from developing other scientific experiments purely because of the overheads attributed to CERN.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
As my hon. Friend will not be present to hear my winding-up speech, I assure him now—I did not go into detail in my earlier speech—that I shall look closely at the interesting report that he has tabled. Particle physics is an extremely important area of science, and big science is difficult because of budgetary considerations. We shall endeavour to respond to the report as soon as reasonably possible and I welcome the work that has gone into it.
§ Sir Giles Shaw
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. The Committee noted that he has been particularly strong in his dealings and negotiations with CERN and we trust that he will be equally firm in 1997 when the issues come up for review.
As to science policy issues, the Committee has not undertaken a recent inquiry into the entirety of that field. However, I suspect that Committee members agree collectively that science policy in the United Kingdom deserves a greater slice of national expenditure—as the hon. Member for East Kilbride argued cogently—than is at present devoted to it. We would say that.
In our relatively short life and that of the OST, there has been rapid development of new structures within which scientific research is pursued. The research councils have been reorganised since 1992 and placed on a new management structure under the director general of the research councils rather than the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. A new range of chairmen has been appointed and a new series of mission statements and major initiatives, such as technology foresight, forward look and many others, have been launched.
That has meant a sea change in the structure within which publicly funded scientific research must operate. The leadership of the director general of the research councils, the role of the OST as a department for science and technology, the injection of people from industry, and a greater thrust towards co-operation between science and technological development have provided a new and welcome impetus. However, I believe—as other members of the Committee believe—that such rapid change should be followed by a period of constructive and quieter progress, uninterrupted by shifts in policy. It does not seem sensible to start reviewing scientific institutes and organisations for reasons that do not seem wholly related to scientific endeavour. In my view, change for its own sake has no place in the firm establishment of basic scientific effort.
The United Kingdom has long held a jealously coveted place at the top of the world league of scientific resources. While all establishments—the scientific establishment is 1433 no exception—would prefer no change for as long as possible, I believe that they are rightly fearful about the changes brought about by the prior options review. The Committee had questioned the Government about those issues in correspondence, and at its meeting this week it decided that it would conduct an inquiry into some of those issues when Parliament returns in the autumn. I hope that the Government will be as amenable to reason on that issue as they have been in relation to genetics.
Finally, I emphasise the importance of science to our national welfare. The United Kingdom produces more graduate scientists and engineers than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country, yet we seem to value science and engineering less. The House will recall that our second report traced the development of science into competitive technology in order to improve our economic competitiveness. The Committee's travels in the United States, Europe and Japan have convinced us that there is a gap in that area that is disadvantageous to the United Kingdom. Our good ideas are distressingly likely to end up as someone else's products.
Science is presented either as glamorous but remote from everyday life, or as a potential threat. We must learn to recognise science as part of our daily life—essential to the development or improvement of almost all things that we take for granted. We must recognise that learning, discovering and developing things is both intellectually exciting and essential for a successful future.
The Government are addressing those big issues. I am sufficiently persuaded that the native talent and probably the will is there, but we require a huge effort in order to generate the excitement and the endeavour that will again draw people to British science as the only real progenitor of British technological expertise. It is the essential driving force behind producing a competitive international economy.
§ Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)
The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) gave a good presentation of the Science and Technology Committee's report on human genetics, which makes the task much easier for hon. Members who follow him in the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) on his admirable first speech in a full science policy debate. He demonstrated powerfully the weakness of the Government's science policy, while addressing some practical issues raised in the human genetics report. He demonstrated a firm, practical grasp of the realities that he would face in government rather more briskly than the Minister did.
I shall refer mainly to human genetics, but I shall comment also on the Select Committee's recent report on the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the prior options review. I shall refer also to the inquiry that the Committee announced recently into the Natural Environment Research Council. As to human genetics, my personal starting point must be the amazement that I continue to feel, as one trained and experienced in other areas of science, at the astonishing world that molecular genetics has discovered in every cell of our bodies. I constantly ask other scientists—young and old, from microelectronic engineers to cosmologists—whether they have looked at a basic undergraduate textbook on the 1434 molecular biology of the cell and asked themselves whether they have anything comparable in their fields, either in the ingenuity and complexity of the systems they discover or in the power of relatively simple experimental techniques, that has been developed with so little abstruse theory. I am too often disappointed by the ignorance of other scientists about molecular biology. They have not read the basic texts. Molecular biology owes much to physics and chemistry, but it has carried us into a new world and towards a new understanding of ourselves, which we have yet to fathom.
Research in genetics is a huge, rapidly moving, complex field of research and, even more than in other areas of research, the nature, timing and results are unpredictable. There is, as the hon. Member for Pudsey said, a wide range of potential applications in medicine and a growing number of actual applications. But it is important not to exaggerate what has been achieved or the pace of future developments. That is why I am glad that our diligent specialist advisers were able to compile the table of disorders on page 34 of our report, with a note of their incidence, symptoms, and the state of play in the development of diagnoses and therapies. I commend that table to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). The complex predictors with five, 10 or more susceptibility genes are not yet with us, yet already—as well as benefits in the prediction, prevention and treatment of disorders and diseases—some ethical, social and economic problems are apparent.
We are in for a long period with immature fields in which susceptibility genes will be identified, with significant, but low, predictive values, and no therapies, ranging up to mature fields in which full and effective therapies are available. For a long time, we shall know about susceptibilities, but will be unable to do anything about them. The ethical and social dilemmas are obvious, not just for Government policy but for personal relations in the family.
Before the Select Committee reported, ad hoc advisers, committees and procedures were called for and set up as new fields and types of service were opened up and developed. More general problems were left to be tackled until they got worse, and that put a premium on sensationalising issues and inviting overreactions, disappointments and frustrations. I was afraid that human genetics might go the way of nuclear power—greeted first with enthusiasm and then rejected with as ill-informed prejudice. In human genetics, the stakes are much higher.
So I am glad that the Select Committee recommended, and the Government accepted, the setting up of an overarching Human Genetics Advisory Commission that will be able to examine and advise on—and, if thought necessary in a later Parliament, to regulate—issues across the board, supported by existing and new specialist committees and advisers. It is reasonable for the commission to start on an advisory basis and to be given regulatory powers when and if it needs them. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride said, the Medicines Commission and its Committee on Safety of Medicines and other matters is a good analogy.
It will be useful for the commission to set patenting issues against a wider background, despite the wish of the pharmaceutical industry to keep the commission away from that subject. I would not anticipate that the commission would ever have or need regulatory powers on patents. However, the consequence of the Patent Office 1435 and patent law ignoring wider opinion and failing to educate the public will be that ill-informed reaction will overwhelm sensible suggestions, as nearly happened to the first draft of the European directive.
When the Science and Technology Committee reported in 1995, the consideration of a European directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions was in disarray. The Select Committee considered that the imposition of a directive could be more harmful than the differences between countries. Since then, however, the draft directive has been revised.
On the crucial question of patenting genes, the present draft directive says in article 3, paragraphs 1 and 2:The human body and its elements in their natural state shall not be considered patentable inventions. Notwithstanding paragraph 1, the subject of an invention capable of industrial application which relates to an element isolated from the human body or otherwise produced by means of a technical process shall be patentable, even if the structure of that element is identical to that of a natural element.As the hon. Member for Pudsey pointed out, however, the Select Committee concluded:only a combination of a gene and a known utility which is novel and not obvious should be patentable in the context of that utility; and a combination of the same gene and a further novel utility should also be patentable.The Select Committee was not drafting a statute, and to get round French law, the European directive had to resort to the distinction between unpatentable, naturally occurring, DNA and the patentable man-made cDNA derived from it, a distinction that the Select Committee found unconvincing and unnecessary. Given the differences in purpose and background of the Select Committee's recommendations and the European directive, the effects of the two proposals seem to be essentially the same. In the interests of harmonisation, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride that the new European directive, as it will work in the overall context of patent law, should be supported.
I hope that the meeting arranged by the Royal Society and the Institute of Actuaries on 25 September will advance the position on the use of genetic information in insurance. The intention of the Association of British Insurers to appoint a genetic adviser to keep insurance companies informed is welcome, but we need a William Beveridge or a Richard Doll, with good knowledge of the insurance industry, to devise an appropriate framework in which insurance can continue to play a useful role. I do not believe that. the House has yet fully understood that point, because a difficult task of systems design remains to be done and I see no sign of it coming from the insurance industry.
In some areas, it will be increasingly difficult for private insurance to cope as human genetics advances. Most important will be the growing areas of health insurance in which genetic information has an important role to play in tracing susceptibility. The universal insurance given by the national health service, when compared with the dilemmas faced in America caused by the impact of genetics on health insurance, shows that the national health service is a far more effective and efficient way to deliver health care in the days of genetic medicine yet to come.
The Select Committee was told that the domestic particle physics programme, costing £20 million a year, had been cut to level at which United Kingdom physicists 1436 could not gain the benefit of the £60 million subscription to CERN, even to the extent that the travel costs of graduate students to Geneva could be met only for occasional visits. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council—PPARC—had asked for another £65.5 million spread over the next eight years for particle physics. That would enable the PPARC to finance UK participation in the detectors or experiments on the large hadron collider and to enjoy the benefits of CERN membership.
The Science and Technology Committee owes a duty to the particle physics community to give a clear political judgment, as experienced parliamentarians, that there is no chance that any Government will make available an additional £65.5 million for particle physics, either from the domestic programme; from astronomy; from the rest of the science budget; as an addition to the science budget; or from any combination of those. The physicists have to realise that if that extra money is what they need to gain the benefit of CERN membership, the United Kingdom will have to withdrew from CERN, just as the US cancelled the super-conducting super collider. There are similar difficulties between domestic and international programmes in other member countries of CERN, and CERN could collapse. The PPARC suggested that it could follow the period in which it was receiving the extra £65.5 million with a period when, effectively, it repaid the amount by accepting a 20 per cent. reduction in its programme. However, it has no assets, capital, earnings stream or entitlement to income from which it could repay the £65.5 million advance as it suggests. Fortunately, it was possible to point to an alternative in the Select Committee's report. At the last minute, the Minister for Science and Technology sent the Committee a copy of a letter that he had sent to the chairman of the PPARC as recently as 4 July, in which he said:One important lesson to be learnt from the negotiations over the LHC is how much can be achieved by working with other states. The UK would never have achieved what it did without working so closely with our German colleagues. We will only achieve our objectives in 1997"—on LHC funding—through this partnership. Of course we should also try to build support from other member states, but the new voting arrangements"—on the CERN councilmean that the budget can be blocked by the UK and Germany voting together.Germany is facing budgetary constraints on its total public expenditure and its specific science budgets that are at least as severe as those faced in the UK. The ability of the UK and Germany alone to block the CERN budget had not been made clear to the Committee before it received the Minister's letter—at least, I was certainly not aware of it.
Against that background, it would be a reasonable objective for the UK to try to shift the balance of funding from £60 million a year in CERN's subscription and the £20 million domestic programme to £50 million for CERN and £30 million for domestic—a shift of £10 million, which is of the magnitude that the PPARC had asked for in additional funding, to enable it to take part in the LHC experiments. That would allow the UK to participate in the exploitation of the LHC and its detectors within the present overall science budget funding of particle physics.
1437 That would be achievable if the United States and Japan participated as members—not visiting scientists—of a reconstructed CERN and a funding formula that immediately brought in —60 million a year from each of them. That would allow not only the completion of the present proposed LHC science programme within current total national particle physics budgets, but additions to the science programme.
CERN seems slightly embarrassed by proposing two general purpose detectors on the LHC and not one, justifying them as insurance and by the stimulus of competition. In addition, CERN has plans for two somewhat smaller special-purpose detectors. As an incentive to join CERN, the US and Japan could each be invited to construct one of the four LHC detectors. The nature and timing of the detectors could be considered, but it would be reasonable to think that participation in all detectors would be wider if those constructing some were able to learn from the use of others in a phased programme. The facilities would be greater value for money than the US, Japan or indeed CERN could achieve on their own.
While that may make good scientific and economic sense, the politics and negotiability have to be considered. UK particle physicists would of course rather get the extra money that they are asking for and carry on with present plans—we all would. They think that they have the powerful argument that, without additional support, UK scientists will not benefit from the CERN subscription after the large electron positron collider. To get the particle physicists to put the considerable effort needed into devising, considering and negotiating alternatives, they have to realise that additional funding for particle physicists will not be available.
There is an honourable parliamentary role in the advocacy of lost causes, and the Select Committee has chosen that role for particle physics. I want to save particle physics. If it is to be saved, there has to be reappraisal and redeployment of international efforts in research in particle physics. That has to be initiated now by G7 Science Ministers and completed before the 1997 meeting on the funding of the LHC.
After receiving the Minister's letter to the PPARC at the last minute, I redrafted the report's conclusions and moved them, as recorded in the archaic practice of Select Committee reports, on page lxiii, at the very back and in a quite undiscoverable form. I commend to particle physicists who want to know the facts of life—the reality, not the politics of lost causes—to read my redraft. I voted against the report, and I hope that in his winding-up speech the Minister will say that he will seriously consider my amendments as well as the report's final version. He has a much more practical course ahead of him if he pays serious attention to those suggestions.
All that needs to be said on prior options is that the Committee found the Department of Trade and Industry's policy far from satisfactory, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride said. The root of the problem is that the Deputy Prime Minister's residual influence in the Department simply does not understand that the customer-contractor relationship does not work in research. We have been learning that over and over again since Rothschild, and it is sad that so much time and energy should have been dissipated on such a damaging exercise.
1438 As we are reminded daily, and since the practical and political possibilities have dramatically changed over the past few days with US support for mandatory greenhouse gas targets, global climate change is perhaps the most important part of the Natural Environment Research Council's research programme. The work is inescapably international; indeed global.
The draft document, "The Climate Agenda: a Proposal for an Integrating Framework" from the international agencies concerned—the World Meteorological Organisation, the UN Environmental Programme, UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Council of Scientific Unions, which brings together the national academies of science of all industrial countries—says that the research needed could be carried out within existing structures if, and presumably only if, international organisations strengthened programmes, measured output against performance standards, and established an inter-agency co-ordination mechanism. Governments would have to increase support for national activities in international programmes, strengthen or establish national climate programmes, build scientific capacity in developing countries, fund international co-ordination programmes and endorse the overall programme.
There is no doubt much going on, but it sounds as if there is now at last a possibility of pulling it together. I trust that we shall find that the Government are encouraging and enabling the NERC and the UK to play their part. In one important respect, they are doing so, in that the chairman of the research committee of the intergovernmental conference on climate change is Sir John Houghton, the former director general of the British Meteorological Office, and the present director general, Professor Julian Hunt, is the technical adviser to the body that produced the key report on the climate agenda.
As this may be the last science debate in this Parliament, I should like to say that I hope that the Select Committee has shown, perhaps with one or two lapses, that there should be a Science and Technology Committee in the next Parliament. As this will be the last science debate in which I shall take part, I should like to say how much I have enjoyed working on the interface between science and politics and appreciated the interest of scientists and of parliamentary colleagues.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)
I am pleased to follow two such learned contributions on human genetics and CERN. I apologise for the fact that I shall not follow the previous speakers down those paths in detail, because I was planning to contribute principally on science policy.
However, I shall comment briefly on one or two points concerning human genetics that have been raised. First, I support the establishment of a body to oversee genetic research. I share what seems to be the view of everyone in the Chamber, that such an ethical body should be established. I was glad to hear the Minister say that he wanted lay people to be represented, but I know how difficult it is to establish a balance of representation within the lay community.
Secondly, several hon. Members raised the subject of insurance, as a real problem. Most of us would agree that within the United Kingdom, the national health service is the prime form of insurance for people who suffer from genetic diseases.
1439 An area in which I claim some small knowledge is long-term care. The Government, rightly—I thoroughly support them—suggest that people should provide more insurance-based policies for their long-term care. One of the strengths of the insurance industry is that over the years it has developed policies to cover almost any situation at a reasonable cost to people who need to purchase those policies.
I accept that as we become more sophisticated medically, there are extra costs associated with Alzheimer's disease and other such diseases of old age. But I suspect that the strength of the insurance industry, and its ability to adjust to those costs, means that in the long run people who suffer from genetic diseases associated with age will not necessarily find that their insurance policies are out of line with other people's. That is because as we get older and frailer, and as medical knowledge about how to care for people in old age increases, in essence the costs will almost balance out, and the insurance industry will be able to provide for them.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell
One of the main advantages of the insurance industry is that it enables us to spread the risks, and therefore to spread the cost of the diseases that the hon. Lady is talking about. She mentioned Alzheimer's disease specifically, and I am sure that she will agree that the situation will change dramatically if a predisposition to that disease can be identified at an early stage in an individual's existence. How does she feel that private insurance would be able to cope with such a situation?
§ Mrs. Lait
—medical research on treatment is already going on, which will of course be able to help. Furthermore, as we get older and frailer, the cost of long-term care for everyone remains much the same. The same number of staff is needed to look after somebody with Alzheimer's disease as for somebody who is incontinent. The long-term care community is used to dealing with those costs, and the insurance industry is equally able to cope with them.
§ Mrs. Campbell
I think that the hon. Lady has misunderstood my point. I was talking about people with a predisposition to Alzheimer's disease, which may even be identifiable at birth. That is now feasible. How does she feel that the private insurance industry would be able to cope if asked to insure such a person for long-term care?
§ Mrs. Lait
The insurance industry will not be insuring people because of Alzheimer's; it will be insuring people for the cost of their care. My point is that the cost of care 1440 for somebody who is frail is roughly the same, whether that person suffers from Alzheimer's or frailty in old age. That is where the strength of the insurance industry lies—not in specifying the costs of a disease but, as the hon. Lady said, in spreading the risks across the whole community. We are talking about how much it costs to care for somebody, and that means everyone, not necessarily only people with Alzheimer's.
Now I shall move on to the broader issue of science policy. I welcome the opportunity for the debate, as other hon. Members have done. One of the factors affecting the development of our science policy has been the need for change over the years. In any sector, that is difficult for the people who are involved to cope with. They have got used to the way in which things have always been done, but as our society becomes more used to change and innovation, anybody who works in any sector needs to get used to that process.
As the speed of innovation increases, I am afraid that even scientists are affected by the need to come to terms with speedy change. That applies to basic research as much as to near-market research. It is interesting to look round at the various universities that do so much of our basic research and see how they have come to terms with the different demands made of them.
If I may, I shall cite my own university, as I often do. Strathclyde has done extremely well in developing its basic research. It competes with the top 10 universities in America, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in terms of the royalties that it collects from its research, and has long connections with industry in relation to developing that research.
Strathclyde has also become infinitely more effective at fund raising. One of its most recent achievements was to raise money to put into one building—the health sciences building on the campus—a variety of different disciplines that in the past had been completely separate. Academics had been developing similar lines of research without realising that within the campus similar strengths were developing, and there was a potential for duplication.
That is where the importance of the Government's policy lies—not in looking at one university alone, but in looking across the whole of the science research industry to see where there is overlap, and in trying to ensure that there is networking to produce the most effective research outcomes.
Of course, universities are now complaining about their funding, for all sorts of reasons. Most of them welcome the Dearing review, as I do myself. So often, however, we are left with the fact that universities are still resistant to the opportunities open to them to investigate how they could fund their research in different ways.
It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) is so dismissive of the private finance initiative. The PFI provides opportunities for academics to raise money, and not necessarily from the industries with which they are linked. They can look in other directions to raise money that will help them buy the equipment and run the programmes that they are so keen to have.
For instance, one simple instance comes to my mind. I have already read out the letter from Professor John Spence referring to furnishings and minor works. In many businesses, furnishings and minor works are provided on a lease basis. The PFI could allow universities to continue 1441 their furnishing and minor works programmes on a lease basis, and could allow the equipment budget to be expanded, also by leasing. It is unfortunate that the Opposition dismiss those ideas out of hand.
§ Mr. Ingram
Can the hon. Lady give one example where the PH has worked in replacing the shortfall in Government expenditure?
§ Mrs. Lait
It is evident—not only from the hon. Gentleman's comments, but from the information that one receives—that academics have not yet grasped the opportunities offered by the PFI. The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) gave the impression that he was trying to encourage scientists involved in particle physics to look at funding in a different way. That applies throughout universities in all disciplines.
§ Mr. Lynne Jones
Does the hon. Lady realise that she is advocating the replacement of Government grants with a mechanism that would require universities to meet the continuous revenue costs of that mechanism out of revenue budgets that are declining year on year as a result of the Government's policies? Does she not appreciate that there comes a point at which it is impossible to get a quart into a pint pot?
§ Mrs. Lait
The hon. Lady is ignoring the fact that the Government set up the Dearing committee to look at the long-term funding of universities, and she has also missed my point. My university—and I accept that all universities are not as clever as Strathclyde—has raised enonnous amounts through fund-raising techniques and developing royalties from business to help finance research. That is a good example of how universities must respond to changing circumstances in the same way as business must respond.
I wish to move on to the more practical side of science policy. My constituency has very little in terms of the fundamental research base. I have one lovely company called Computing Devices in the defence industry, which has many people sitting in dark rooms, looking at computers and doing basic defence research. The bulk of the industry in my constituency is much more practical, and it is important to encourage those businesses to spend more on research and development. I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Members that British business needs to spend much more on research and development. I sometimes have my suspicions that many companies include in their research and development budgets quality control laboratories and other such facilities that I would not necessarily class as "research and development".
1442 Before I came to the House, I worked for the Chemical Industries Association. Although I am not in any way a scientist, I have as a result of my good Scottish education a science higher, and I like to think that I understand the basic elements of science. One of the problems that business has is the inability to explain to the wider population the scientific processes involved in the goods being produced. In my constituency, I have a company called CMR, which recycles used solvents, and it has done some good ground-breaking research in producing feedstocks for cement kilns. That has become a controversial area, particularly with the great debate on dioxins. The managing director of the company is one of the most articulate and practical scientists I have ever met. When I used to work for the Chemical Industries Association, one of the biggest problems was finding people who were enthusiastic about their companies and their business, and who were able to articulate that to the wider public. When the wider public are concerned about science that they do not understand, it is of immense value to find someone who can explain scientific processes simply to many people.
It is a shame that, so often, science has been misused and misquoted to stir up public fears and tenors. Dioxins is one such issue, and many of us are still scarred by the Brent Spar case. I hold very little brief for Shell's handling of that issue, but the science involved was mis-stated by those who had an interest in ensuring that the matter was blown up out of all proportion.
One of the issues relating to biotechnology that the Chemical Industries Association has pointed out to me, as well as the patenting and copyrighting issue—although that is of concern to it, and we must still resolve the question of how long a copyright should be, given the length of testing required—is an element of the common agricultural policy that means that sugars and starch, the basic feedstocks of the biotechnology industry, are not sold to the industries that can develop them at a basic market price. Although I hardly think that that matter is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister, I hope that he will communicate to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the need to ensure that the biotechnology industry has access to its basic feedstocks at market prices.
We must not ignore the fact that science is becoming more responsive to public pressure. I had an interesting meeting with Southern Water, which has a large waste water treatment infrastructure project in my constituency, part of which will be a waste treatment plant itself. There is a debate about whether there is a need for a secondary treatment plant on land, or whether that plant could be created in an environmentally friendly way by using the swift waters of the channel. That has become a debate about the value of the cost of the project versus the end result.
One of the areas that we as a nation are not well appraised of is risk assessment. The reaction to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis was exacerbated because it was clear that many people were not aware that the practical risk of their catching BSE was one in 5 million, while the chance of being killed while crossing a road is one in the hundreds. When people can appreciate the real risk that they are facing, they will adopt a sensible and rational response. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will collaborate with the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that children are 1443 taught risk assessment, so that there will be a rational debate about the introduction of new technologies and a positive and realistic response when faced with a science-based crisis.
Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that he is involved in the developments within the European Community that affect our science base? So many of the issues are complicated and are often the responsibility of other Departments. Unless there is a rational scientific input into the decisions, we tend to find that businesses can be badly affected and, in some cases, can become unprofitable.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) said that it was unsatisfactory for us to link all these complex scientific questions with genetics in one debate and that it would have been better to have a series of debates. I entirely agree. In some ways, the disjointed manner in which we have moved from one question to another illustrates that.
The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) made some interesting points about the funding of science and I would love to be able to spend the rest of my time talking about that. Both the universities in Liverpool have projects that link well with the private sector and on which the two sectors work in partnership. I would not want to be over-reliant on that as a source of funding, however. That is a danger and we must not see that source as a substitute for public funding of science, as I think the hon. Lady would agree.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) did the House a great service, in his usual way, by linking scientific and ethical questions. I had the pleasure of working with him during his chairmanship of the all-party mental health group and I know of the diligence that he has always shown in all matters that he has attended to in the House. He has been one of the foremost spokesmen on scientific questions and we would all do well to listen to what he has to say on such matters. In particular, I admire the fact that rather than fearing science he reminds us that it can make great advances, but that we must always view it in the ethical context. He has pointed us in that direction and he is right to have done so.
The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who has had to leave the Chamber, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South and other members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology have done those of us who are not members a great service in producing the report. It is a shame that it has taken so long for us to have this debate, but we are having it today and Parliament is at its best when it considers intelligently and in some depth these complex moral and ethical questions.
I disagreed with the hon. Member for Pudsey when he was talking about testing and mentioned the possibility of an organisation based on the model of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—I think that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye also mentioned it. That would not be the route down which I would want to go, for reasons that I will make clear, and I do not suppose that many hon. Members will be too surprised by that.
The hon. Member for Pudsey also said that we must be concerned with abuses. It is not just the abuses, but the assumption on which the genetics debate is proceeding 1444 that we must turn to today. The Minister said that the questions are not legislative but ethical. To some extent that is true, but an umbilical cord links legislative and ethical questions. Legislation cannot be value-free or ethically neutral. A dirigiste or disinterested approach—marketplace genetics—simply would not do. We have to view the genetics debate in the context of where society is today and of whether just because something is scientifically possible that makes it desirable or right.
When a society loses respect for life and the components that are at life's fountainhead, it loses everything. Public concern about civic dissolution, the lack of good stewardship of the environment, and about food production and animal welfare offer the ideal opportunity to reopen the bioethical debate and examine the implications of genetic manipulation. As a nation, we have a proper concern for animal welfare. I cannot help wondering whether, perhaps one day when some transgenic pigs or foxes march to Westminster holding placards saying, "Save the human race" or "Save the unborn child", we will realise some of the illogicality of the positions that we are taking. Through that opening, we can touch a public nerve, rather than through some of the positions taken by America's so-called moral majority. I find some of those positions odious.
Public concern about what we are doing to other species and our farming methods will radically alter the terms of the debates that we have been having on such questions in this country. In Britain, pigs weighing 55 stones—350 kg—have already been bred. Yes, they are certainly fatter, but they are arthritic and impotent. Commercially they have more value, but is that desirable? Human genes have been mixed with animal genes, producing more than 80,000 animals last year. Consumers have no idea what they are buying when they go to supermarkets. Chickens can be made to grow to their full size in 37 days, rather than 84. Cows that can yield 2,200 gallons of milk or 10,000 litres a year have been bred and can even produce human breast milk. Geeps, which are a combination of a goat and a sheep, have been bred. Brute force, mutilation and ruminants turned into carnivores: is it any wonder that the BSE crisis is upon us?
§ Mr. Alton
Would the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that from the earliest times there have been injunctions on the mixing of species for good practical reasons? Although comparisons can certainly be made between genes of different stocks, we should weigh up the implications before we talk about the wholesale mixing of species. Existing agriculture and plant stocks are being eliminated as horticulture is displaced by genetically engineered plants. Ancient resistances and variations, which protected species, are being wiped out. New diseases and cancers in animals and people will escape this genie's bottle. All this in the name of money and an insatiable desire to dabble in the grotesque.
Those of us who do not understand the minute intricacies of genetics are regarded as unable to understand the implications. On the basis of what we have already done, why should I have confidence in those who claim to understand? Scientists are supremely ignorant 1445 about where the DNA highway will terminate. We are expected to trust them in their ignorance. I do not and the British public should not trust them either. The calamity besetting British agriculture should act as a timely warning of the dangers that we face in giving carte blanche to geneticists.
Therapeutically, gene therapy is going nowhere, despite the debate today. It is like all the claims that have been made about embryology over the years. Where have all the destructive experiments on human embryos led? 'To no scientific advances. I question the assumptions on which we accelerate a. process that will lead only to an increase in the number of abortions. If no therapy is available, people will be led into the so-called area of choice—a word that is frequently used in the Select Committee report considering the issue, but which has already led to about 40 million abortions in the world in the past 12 months and is frequently seen as a solution to the problems that genetic testing will in due course highlight and which have been highlighted by other tests in the past.
When Pandora opened her famous box, the one thing left inside was hope. There has not been one single case of a cure. There have been hopes of cures. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) intervened to point out the possibilities with cystic fibrosis. There is no hon. Member of the House who would not want progress in the cure of disability. I taught children with special needs before I came to the House and the last child I taught died four weeks after I arrived here. He was a little boy with cystic fibrosis and the pain and suffering that he lived with during the last two years of his life will remain with me always. But it is not our right and it is not even desirable to destroy the handicapped person. Yes, we should try to eliminate the handicap or disability, but if all that the testing leads to is a so-called choice of eradicating the disabled person, it takes us ethically nowhere. It will be a world of perfection tests and quality controls—a world in which we use testing as the first part of a search and destroy mission.
The English writer Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that in modern western society it had taken only 30 years for a crime against humanity to become an act of medical compassion. He was referring to the great shift that has taken place in our society whereby euthanasia and other forms of medical killing have come to be widely and vigorously championed. Beneath the distinctive issues of bioethics and genetics lie the deepest matters of our humanity.
§ Dr. Bray
All members of the Select Committee well understand the importance of the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman is raising. That is why we recommended that there should be a majority of lay people on the genetics commission. I certainly hope that they include people with views of the nature of the hon. Member's. The Committee decided that it could not tackle these issues and that we would work within the framework of the law. Paragraph 88 of the report says:If a test shows evidence of a genetic disorder and the parents decide on abortion, that is allowed under the present law and the decision should be respected. However, if parents decline the test, or decide to carry affected children to term, they should also be supported in their decision. Considerations of the costs a handicapped child may impose on the state should never be presented or taken into consideration when counselling is given and decisions are made.
§ Mr. Alton
I assumed that it was the hon. Gentleman's hand because it tried to reach the best possible position in the circumstances. I strongly welcome what it says about not taking into account the costs of someone being a handicapped person in deciding whether he should be allowed to live, but the hon. Gentleman will know that, in paragraph 90, the Committee says:providing a pre-natal screening test for a genetic defect, in the absence of any treatment for that defect, gives a signal that many people, at least, may consider the condition so serious it justifies termination of a pregnancy. If that is not the case, offering pre-natal screening is a waste of resources.That is the point to which I am addressing my remarks.
Although political correctness and the ethically neutral language of "choice" still dominate political debate, they are being increasingly discredited. Public opinion has gently been turning, increasingly uneasy with the relativism that has created a culture of death. Freedom for the pike is increasingly seen as death to the minnow and it is increasingly recognised as a false freedom.
Western liberal society, with its emphasis on individualism and choice, has created a consumerist and materialist culture that insists that, "If it is right for me, it is right per se." It is summed up in the slogan, "My right to choose", all murderously loaded words. Rights must always carry duties, responsibilities and obligations. The origin of the word "choice" comes from the same Greek derivative as the word "heresy". It is a modern heresy to suggest that we can reduce every ethical and scientific question, especially crucial issues such as human genetics, to matters of individual choice.
G. K. Chesterton knew better when he wrote:To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.The choices are increasingly less about left and right than about right and wrong. As we survey the wreckage of our human ecology and widespread civic dissolution, more and more people question the assumptions on which we are proceeding.
Choices must be measured against consequences. Individual freedoms and rights without duties should be measured against responsibilities and civic duties. The flaccid language of rights and choice must be challenged at its heart. In the west of Ireland, where my mother comes from, people have a saying that, "It is in the shelter of each other's lives that the people live." The rampant progress towards individualism that has disfigured this nation in the past 20 years is the antithesis of that. The language of choice, which after all was the language of Thatcherism and marketplace economics, is the very thing that I am challenging.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones
May I mention my experience? When I was pregnant with my last baby, I was quite old for a woman having a baby and I had a chorionic villus sampling test. I knew when I had it that, if the foetus was shown to have some defect, I might face the decision of whether to terminate the pregnancy. That followed my experience of having had a miscarriage and losing a 1447 pregnancy. It would have been right for me to have had that information and to take that decision. I know that the hon. Gentleman disagrees, but the majority of people in this country do not agree with him. He talks about public opinion. People should have the right to that information, but the Select Committee report says that people, when they undertake the tests, should be counselled as to the likely consequences, should make their own decision about the matter and should not feel forced by any view that society may take.
§ Mr. Alton
I agree with the hon. Lady about the need for impartial counselling. The problem with counselling is that it is done by people who run the very clinics where terminations occur, so they have a direct, vested interest in offering that procedure. One doctor, speaking to a Committee that met in the House last year, said that he had undertaken 100,000 terminations in the past 25 years, which had generated for him and his clinic some £30 million, so serious money is involved. That is why counselling should be separated from terminations and should be impartial.
It is worth pointing out that CVS has been withdrawn in some countries because the test was shown to lead, in some cases, to disabilities. Three per cent. of amniocentesis tests lead to spontaneous abortions. The tests therefore have consequences. Ultimately, the only choice that is offered to people who have the tests is either to proceed to allow the baby to be born or to take its life. It does not offer therapy. That is the point that I wanted to underline.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell
Genetic counselling is done by people who are not involved in terminations and the hon. Gentleman's remarks may have been a little misleading.
§ Mr. Alton
I accept that point.
May I turn to the language that we have been using of individualism, of contemporary nihilism and disintegrated consumerism? A culture of life and an intrinsic respect for life would be the antidote to the fevers of our age. The twin pillars of Britain's older order were piety and pragmatic common sense. Everything had a place and value. Now everything has a price and nothing has a value.
It is not without significance that last month the National Consumer Council warned about the colossal price that ordinary people will pay if genetics continue to develop unchecked. The old economic clash of capitalism and collectivism will look increasingly sterile. Economic literacy is an obsession with politicians, but we must urgently become genetically literate—we would all, I think, agree about that. It will become central to the relationships between power and people in the 21st century. Arguments about abortion, for instance, will be given a new perspective, as we have just heard. The contexts in which we grapple with the problems will change as the implications of molecular genetics become more and more apparent.
Since James Watson and Francis Crick unearthed the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, scientific possibilities have come to overshadow our future patterns of reproduction. Watson described his breakthrough as 1448 "anti-religious". Frightening in their enormity, unthinkable in their depravity, the violations of the relationship between the creator and created could dispatch humanity into the obscurity of the dinosaurs.
Nowadays too many scientists argue that if something is scientifically possible, it becomes right. That approach has no foundation in true science or philosophy. It concocts a theory that would have monkeys and apes sitting at computers and PCs and it leads to racial theories, eugenics, episodes of genocide and corrupt medical ethics. The promise of "beautiful people" and the power that the new genetics will offer politicians is frightening in its enormity.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
This is heavy-going stuff. When I was at Cold Spring Harbor laboratory only two months ago with James Watson, I found him to be an extremely caring and sensitive person. Many of the things that have been done there and in the other laboratories with which he has been associated, have provided not only scientific excellence, but immense benefit to the world.
§ Mr. Alton
My whole point is that, even if someone's impulses and motives in the first place may be good, they can lead to an abyss that we have not properly thought through. In this case, as I have said, Watson said what his impulses were in developing his ideas. I commend to the Minister an article that appeared, surprisingly, in The Independent yesterday morning. I say "surprisingly" because normally it would not even allow such an article to be published. It was written by Brian Appleyard, a distinguished commentator, and it examined carefully where the genetics debate is taking us. He said that, inevitably and inexorably, it would lead to more and more destruction of life. Already, 600 abortions are carried out every working day. We have destructive experiments on human embryos for the reasons that the Minister has just advanced: they will lead to great progress, to this happening and to that happening. Every day, unborn babies, human embryos, are experimented on in this country, with the full force of British law. Euthanasia is permitted by judicial decision, which feeble legislators leave uncontested.
The language of the production line is now freely applied to human reproduction. Total quality management and disposability are the buzzwords of modern repro-tech. The sheer scale of the disposal of early human life was graphically revealed in answer to questions that I tabled earlier this year. Almost half a million human beings have been manufactured in IVF clinics in the three years from 1991 to 1994, but only 7,000 resulted in live births. That is a death rate or rate of attrition of more than 98 per cent. Of the 491,482 not accounted for, 27,000 were used in destructive research and almost 70,000 remained frozen.
The 1990 legislation requires that human embryos be kept frozen for no longer than five years, which means that on 1 August thousands will be destroyed without parental consent because their parents are no longer in contact with clinics. We should act urgently to ban further freezing and to ensure that orphan embryos are adopted or given a respectful burial.
I welcome the European Union's bioethics convention, to which the Select Committee report referred, and which, if implemented by the EU, will require the repeal of those parts of our domestic legislation which are wildly out of 1449 step with what happens elsewhere. For example, in France and Germany destructive experiments on human embryos are banned. I hope that the convention will become a European directive and that the Government will implement it.
§ Mr. Ingram
I did not mean to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in his statistical analysis, but I got the impression that he sought to imply that geneticists were involved in creating conditions in which to destroy life. Every geneticist to whom I have spoken is working to improve life and create a more fulfilling life for our fellow citizens. Geneticists who work in the agricultural sector are working to find ways to feed more people because many people are dying of starvation throughout the world. Genetics is about enhancing, not destroying and undermining life. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that and is not seen to attack geneticists, who are trying to help all of us.
§ Mr. Alton
The hon. Gentleman will recall that at the outset of my remarks I said that I was not frightened of science, but that it must be informed by a proper debate and ethical base.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which governs the very things that I have just described, is offered to the House as a model for the way in which we should deal with genetics. That authority, established by legislation passed by the House, comprises not one member who takes a dissenting view. Indeed, I heard Baroness Warnock, interviewed by Melanie Phillips on the "Analysis" programme, say that she deliberately excluded from her precursor committee anyone who took a religious view which was likely to be out of accord with the views of those on the committee. That is no way to proceed, yet it is the way in which the HFEA has proceeded.
Who finances the HFEA? Rather like the counselling to which I referred earlier, it is financed by the clinics. Instead of being an independent watchdog, the authority is financed by these people. Given what we have heard today about the way in which private money should be used to pay for science, I am sure that any new body which is established to oversee genetics will ask the industry and those involved in genetic advances to contribute towards the financing of that body. In that case, the policeman or watchdog will be far too closely identified with the burglar.
§ Mr. Ingram
We are going down the wrong route, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that all moral authority does not reside with those who are religious? People who are non-religious have just as high moral standards and can comment on ethical questions.
§ Mr. Alton
Of course they do. I would disentangle words such as 'moral" and "ethical". We need people who have a keen ethical sense. That includes people who have religious views as well as those who do not. The point that I am making is that the assumptions have been reversed. No one has been placed on the authority who has a dissenting view. That was justified on the basis that such people had maverick, quirky and idiosyncratic "religious" views. The whole of our science and medical practice was based for hundreds of years on Judaeo-Christian values. There is nothing wrong with that and people who have such values ought to be included in a pluralist society as much as anyone else.
§ Mr. Alton
I must make progress. I have given way many times and the House will wish me to proceed so that others might participate.
I refer the hon. Member for East Kilbride to two cases in Scotland which demonstrate why we should rein in those who sometimes get carried away with their own enthusiasms. In Edinburgh two years ago a scientist wanted permission to abort little girls so that fie could use their eggs in fertility treatments. The mother of any resulting child would then be an aborted foetus. Its grandmother and doctor would be its mother's killers.
The scientist applied to the British Medical Association's ethics committee to proceed and the discredited HFEA went out to public consultation—as if there was anything to consult about. Parliament properly intervened and amended the criminal justice legislation to outlaw such practices. Another Edinburgh scientist recently cloned two sheep. In the self-congratulatory scientific review, he failed to reveal that all but one of the five sheep were at least 20 per cent. bigger than they should have been, that three died soon after birth with malformed organs and that one lamb grew to twice the normal size and had to be born by Caesarian section. Suppression of the full story—the truth—does not serve science; it serves tyranny.
One day, tissue engineering and genetic science will work hand in hand. By growing limbs and rearing whole bodies in artificial wombs, done by men such as our Edinburgh scientists, the automatons of science fiction will become the human slaves of tyrannical regimes unless a stop is put to it now. Dramatic reductions in male fertility—probably yet another side effect of oestrogen from the contraceptive pill—will inevitably hasten the process of scientific and political involvement in reproduction.
The state planners will have undreamt of and unparalleled power. They will dress it up to look like power for a parent or patient, but we know what will happen when genetic tests reveal instability, illness, homosexuality or low IQ. The nightmare kingdom will be governed by quality controls and perfection tests and the 21st century will see the emergence of a genetic underclass of uninsurable, unbreedable, unwanted and unmanned people. In this caste system, suitors, partners and predators of each person will eye his genes with either envy or contempt. Prisoners of heredity and slaves of a manipulated reproductive system, our British birthright will be replaced by the right birth.
Eugenics leads to the suppression of variation and difference. From laws which create a genetic database for the whole population, it is only a small step to laws requiring the data to be lodged with the state and on to compulsion and elimination of undesirables. Domestic eugenics will naturally be packaged with all the decorum that public relations specialists can muster and will lead to the routine screening of every pregnancy, raising ethical and therefore political questions every bit as complex as the bioethical and scientific ones.
Let me briefly make some suggestions. First, we should challenge the argument that genetic testing opens up phenomenal medical opportunities. The medical benefits of some genetic tests are far from clear cut, but the dangers are already apparent in the United States, where 1451 tests for breast cancer are being marketed direct to members of the public, with adverse consequences for health insurance cover.
The British health system and social care, which have traditionally been provided on a collective basis, have been systematically eroded. In future, fuelled by the west's declining populations and their reduced contribution to collective forms of care, more and more people will rely on private individual insurance cover. If genetic testing becomes routine, many people will find themselves excluded from the ranks of the insurable or asked to pay prohibitively high premiums for conditions that they cannot prevent and may not develop.
We must also urgently provide for greater confidentiality. The law does not make it clear who should and who should not have access to genetic information. General practitioners, the family and insurance companies may all claim rights of access, but who is to decide, and how? A privacy law is required.
I welcome the Government's response, albeit belated, to the Select Committee's recommendation that a human genetics commission should be established, but it will need teeth. It is not good enough for it to be merely advisory; regulation needs to be transparent. Too much of the debate has already taken place in the seclusion of rooms that close their doors to public participation. I have already said that the HFEA would not be a good model on which to build.
One of the first candidates for a going over should be the Association of British Insurers. It was asked to produce voluntary regulations and it has failed to do so. It will not be enough to rely on self-regulation—there is too much vested interest and too much money involved for that. People with inherited diseases, and their descendants, will be denied life insurance, health insurance and even, in the long term, mortgages, if we do not stop genetic tests being made available to insurers, employers, banks and building societies. That is why legislation will be required.
I shall conclude where I began, on the subject of animals. Last year I tabled a motion in the House asking for food products that have been genetically produced to be labelled. Consumers have a right to know that their bacon has been reared from an animal that has been commercially exploited and genetically engineered, with human genes inserted into its make-up. As far as I am aware, the Government are doing nothing to monitor the long-term effects on people who are unknowingly eating unmarked products on a daily basis. There should be an outright ban on the genetic manipulation of food. Millions of people are revolted by the obscenities of modern farming methods. The agricultural workhouses, sheds and factories are a disgrace and should be closed.
People also need to be alerted to the dangers of xenotransplants—animal to human transplants—which are now technically possible and likely to begin soon. The Government need to tell us when their technical report into those issues will be published. They need to address public alarm at the fact that, for example, pig pathogens will be transmitted to humans, which has horrendous implications. Following the Nuffield council's decision to approve such practices in principle, politicians need to raise serious questions about the possibility that 1452 cross-species transplants might lead to the introduction of dangerous new diseases into the human population. Possible infectious agents include viruses, bacteria, fungi and prion proteins—the agent thought to be responsible for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
There are alternatives to xenotransplantation. Only 18 per cent. of the population carry organ donor cards, but another 54 per cent. say that they would. As National Transplant Week approaches, would not that system be a better and more cost-effective approach? It would avoid all the dangers of under-researched and ethically dubious approaches. The Nuffield council states thatspecies boundaries, in any case, are not inviolable.I wonder how many hon. Members, or their constituents, would have agreed with that statement had anybody bothered to ask them.
Cross-species manipulation also has serious implications for biodiversity—the range of genetically different animals and plants available. Genetic engineering could lead to a decline in biodiversity, with unpredictable consequences through the unbalancing of ecosystems. As those effects are so difficult to predict, it is vital to have internationally agreed and enforceable rules for research protocols and field trials, especially in developing countries where there is often an absence of regulation. In 1992, the United Nations convention on biological diversity agreed that there should be a biosafety protocol—but, like so many much-needed international initiatives, it has simply never materialised.
Parliament must act decisively and urgently if we are properly to protect our sources of food and the welfare of both other species and our own. We must resist the hideous new world in which a pregnant woman who is genetically screened is pressurised into aborting a baby with a genetic disorder. We must protect those who could become a genetic underclass. Through proper regulation, we must provide confidentiality and privacy, prevent the misuse of treatments and insist on the highest levels of ethics and integrity.
Parliament does not have a good track record on respecting and protecting human life—170,000 babies annually disembodied through abortion bear testimony to that. So, too, do the 120,000 laboratory deaths of human embryos. We have trivialised human nature and denied natural law. Failure to check the geneticists, as we have failed to check the eugenicists, will, I fear, lead to the abolition of man.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), not just because I agree with almost everything that he has said, but because in saying it he punctures the smug conspiracy of those who believe that people who hold the views that he and I do should not be allowed to express them. We are told that what we say is weird. We are told, "Good grief—you want to bring religion or morals into these things?"
Geneticists may be wonderful men, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) said, and doubtless they do terrific work. [Interruption.] I have met some of the people concerned and of course they do marvellous work, but once information is available and techniques have been pioneered, not only those men and women will do 1453 that work. I wish to identify myself with what the hon. Member for Mossley Hill said. He is saying, not that the work is wrong, but that we must consider other aspects. I enormously welcome his brave, honest speech.
The round-up of the science position given by my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology justifies the fact that the Office of Science and Technology is now home where it should be, in the Department of Trade and Industry. It was a good move; my hon. Friend and his officials have made a great success of it and it is unlikely to be reversed by a Government of any colour because there is now a coherence that may have been lacking in the different places where the science department has been.
Until now, the hon. Member for East Kilbride has—at least so far as I have been able to read—avoided the Dutch auction that characterises most political debate, especially as we approach the general election, but I am afraid that he fell off that high wire today. He engaged in a Dutch auction—without figures, of course, but suggesting that the election of a Labour Government would usher in more money for the science community. It is not a very good idea to do that.
§ Mr. Hughes
You did not mention figures, but anyone listening to what you said would come away with the conclusion that that was what you meant, and if that was not what you meant—
§ Mr. Hughes
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Anyone would believe that that was what the hon. Gentleman meant. It is not a good idea to make such a suggestion, because no one in the science community believes a word of it. No one believes that a Labour Government would do that, and people would worry about whether Labour would run the Department as efficiently and whether as much money would come out as does currently.
I want to talk about the willingness of companies to invest in science research and development. Before doing so, I apologise to the House for the fact that, on completing my speech, I must leave to go to my constituency. One of the pleasures of having a constituency so close to London is that one can take part in Friday debates and be in the constituency for a substantial part of the day. The irritation is that one must leave debates as quickly as possible to keep appointments.
I want to talk about the willingness of companies to invest in science research and development. A 1980 study of 16 major American oil and chemical companies showed, not surprisingly, that the more they invested in pure science, the higher their productivity grew. In 1986, a study of 911 large United States technology companies showed that the companies that performed pure science outperformed in their figures those that had neglected it. That will surprise no one.
British industry should learn that lesson. It cannot rely on the Government. Of course there will be a spat between both sides as to what is invested and how much money can be spent on science, but if companies want to 1454 succeed in not only British but global markets, they must invest in pure science research and development; it is in their interests to do so. I hope that that view will be expressed widely in the debate and elsewhere.
§ Mr. Ingram
If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is quoting from an article by Dr. Terence Kealey. Does he accept Dr. Kealey's conclusion that the Government should not invest at all in basic research but should just let industry get on with it?
§ Mr. Hughes
No, I found the conclusions at the end of the article muddled, but thought that the quotations from the studies were interesting, so I lifted them out of the article. That is a usual thing to do for speeches. A balance can be struck between what Governments can and cannot do. What they cannot but may be tempted to do is to try to rig the taxation system to encourage that. It has been tried before, but it has never worked and it has always been misused. Against a background of neutral taxation, companies have to make those decisions for the right reasons for themselves.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the research that has been done in the United States on the efficacy of tax credits to encourage research and development there? If so, does he think that that research is wrong?
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Lady and I have debated that matter in the House before. As I said at the debate last October or the previous October, that research is inconclusive.
I wish to discuss the opportunities and dangers of identifying human genes. The opportunities include curing and perhaps eradicating painful and debilitating diseases. The dangers include the point at which genetic screening becomes a guarantee of perfection, with designer babies and giving powers to the state, individuals or doctors that they should not have, as the hon. Member for Mossley Hill described.
The liberal view is that the state should control this entire matter. An article in The Sunday Telegraph dated April 1996 said that liberalsbelieve in handing all decisions about things like genetic testing to the state, which was the institution that sterilised and murdered millions in the 1920s and 1930s in the name of eugenics. Conservatives"—with a small "c"—believe in leaving such matters to the individual.That is a much better way to go, for reasons that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill put much more succinctly than I could. The basic ethics of genetic engineering are, to say the least, suspect. Judaeo-Christian morality is based on the dignity, character and individuality of each human being, all of which are diminished if we arrogate the power of creation.
I agree with what the hon. Member for East Kilbride said about insurance companies. I do not quarrel with the fact that people may want genetic information for their own use, but it is essentially private information. The record of insurance companies on self-regulation and restraint—and, moreover, on keeping to what they say they will do in relation to Government wishes—is not good, so I am not sure that self-regulation is the way we should go.
1455 I agree with the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics, which called for the insurance industry not to pry into the results of people's genetic tests. Last September, the Association of British Insurers told the Select Committee that it wanted to see all the results. One can see why: it wants to use them to avoid risk. I take the simple view that neither insurance companies nor employers have a right to what I regard as private information. It belongs to the individuals to which it refers.
At a conference on biodiversity, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales criticised the "confidence bordering on arrogance" of the developers of genetically engineered plants and animals and said that he was "profoundly apprehensive" about their products' possible effects. People are entitled to choose what they eat and to know what has been done to it. Parliament is entitled to ask what is being done and who is checking on what is being done. What is the safety in the long term? There have been too many scares and too many revelations of practices which, with the benefit of hindsight, would not have been countenanced had we known what the effects would be—BSE, salmonella in eggs and all sorts of other things. We cannot just walk blindly into allowing genetically altered food to be consumed by people without knowing what the effects will be.
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams
Should we not be addressing the question of whether we need the technology of genetically engineered food? We have been producing large surpluses of a variety of foods for decades under the common agricultural policy. Before we allow this technology to become widespread, should we not ask whether we need it in the first place?
§ Mr. Hughes
That is a different question because it relates to economics; it is not a question for this debate because it does not alter the ethics, morality or practicality of what I am talking about.
There is another side to this: in some parts of the world, the technology may produce answers to the problems of starvation. By eradicating some of the diseases that regularly wipe out crops in Africa and in other parts of the world, we may be able to produce real answers to the problems of starvation. It is a huge moral dilemma, but it has to be tackled—and tackled carefully.
I conclude by referring to big science. Big science eats up big money and it has uncertain practicality. However, there are important applications and they are, as the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said, projects that simply could not be funded by anyone other than a collection of Governments. The Ministers involved deserve credit for keeping us in these projects, which is not easy in view of the amount of money that they eat up. Loosely argued and rather generously funded schemes are not only bad economics; they can be bad science as well.
In relation to CERN and the hadron collider, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South has done a huge service to the science community and to the House. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is in agreement with my hon. Friend the Minister. I have read the letter from my hon. Friend to Peter Williams, the chairman of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. I hope that the hon. Member for East Kilbride will be able to join in the consensus between the parties.
1456 The whole of the science community should get a copy of Hansard and read what the hon. Member for Motherwell, South said, because he summed up what should be written on its walls. If those people think that anyone is going to deviate from that and come up with the money for what I regard as fanciful schemes, they are profoundly mistaken. The money for this is limited and CERN has to understand that it has to bring in Japan and the United States, that it has to widen the scope of what it is doing, that it has to look afresh, if necessary, at the time scale of what it is doing, or the project will end up being cancelled. The words of the hon. Member for Motherwell, South are wise and pay tribute to the huge experience that he has brought to bear on science matters in the House.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones
I hope that members of the public will read the Hansard report of the debate today, including the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray). However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also commend to members of the public the report of the Select Committee on this matter, which the majority of its members were fully behind. The report shows that the process on which my hon. Friend suggests that we embark has already taken place. That is apparent from the letter from the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which is printed in the report. The Committee report was agreed on the same day as the House voted to increase the salaries of Members of Parliament and Ministers at a cost of about £6 million. That is a far greater liability for the taxpayer than our report's proposals regarding the PPARC.
§ Mr. Hughes
I voted the same way as most of the shadow Cabinet. That point is rather fanciful when one considers the financing of CERN. Whether the Select Committee is right or wrong, having played some part in negotiating the basis and funding of the large hadron collider, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South talks enormous common sense. Whatever the Select Committee may think, and despite the evidence that it received, I believe that the project will be in danger of collapse if the PPARC does not follow the hon. Gentleman's line. Most Governments who have made major contributions to the project would follow the same reasoning. That is an important point. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Motherwell, South is only now entering the Chamber, after I have praised him to the skies. He will be missed in future debates.
This morning's important debate has proved that, despite the cynicism of the press—I do not think that journalists like to work on Fridays—Friday debates on important science issues can work well.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I begin by declaring my registered interest as a non-executive director of the Welding institute, which is a technology transfer organisation.
1457 Today I shall concentrate mainly on the subject of human genetics. Other hon. Members have touched upon many of the issues that I intended to raise, but there is no doubt that genetics is a big subject and that advances in that field will affect all our lives.
We shall be able to identify not only genes carrying diseases to which we have a predisposition, such as Huntingdon's disease, sickle cell anaemia or cystic fibrosis, but diseases to which we are susceptible. We shall be able to make better-informed choices about our life styles, knowing whether we are likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer or arthritis in later life. As we know our genetic make-up and that of our partners, we shall be able to assess the risks for our children.
The debate has illustrated the fact that the identification of genes and the knowledge of what they do sometimes present hard, new moral choices. I strongly believe that a woman who is carrying a child with a known genetic abnormality should be able to have the foetus aborted if she wishes. However, it is also very important that a newly pregnant woman who is offered a test realises at the outset that, if the test is positive, she will have to make an often uncomfortable decision about whether to opt for an abortion.
I know that many women who are offered amniocentesis tests are not told beforehand that, if they are found to be carrying a Down's syndrome child or a baby with another known abnormality, the only treatment that modern medicine can provide at present is an abortion. I am arguing for a woman's right to choose, but I believe that that choice should be as informed as possible. That is not a cheap option, because it means that anyone who is offered a test must also be given counselling. As more genes are identified with specific diseases, more tests will become available and counselling and advice will become more important.
The requirement must also apply to the commercial sector. It has already been mentioned that a company called University Diagnostics is offering genetic tests through the post to identify carriers of the cystic fibrosis gene. I believe that that company is reputable and it offers counselling and to send the results to the family doctor, but the law should be strengthened in that area and no company should be able to offer such a test without mandatory counselling, not only after the test but before.
The advice that is given must be impartial. I know that when the Select Committee considered the issue, great concern was expressed that hard-pressed NHS managers, trying to balance a budget, might be tempted to persuade women carrying children with disabling diseases such as cystic fibrosis to have their babies aborted. The temptation would exist because disabilities are expensive and the symptoms are not only distressing for the child and its parents, but time-consuming and difficult to alleviate. The manager of a health authority that had no such patients might find his or her budget stretching more easily. It is essential that women are able to make informed choices without pressures of any kind and I hope that the new Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, ably led by Professor Polkinghorne—who is, incidentally, one of my constituents—will examine that issue at an early stage.
The new genetics will not only tell us what diseases we shall get, but those that we would do well to avoid. When we can identify individuals who are susceptible to heart disease or cancer, they can be given much better medical 1458 advice about their life styles. Diet, exercise and avoidance of stress are more important to some individuals than to others. It is desirable that, once the tests become available, people should be persuaded to have them done, but if the information gained is used to discriminate against them at any stage, people might be unwilling to undergo the tests. The Government have introduced new insurance schemes, and the recent leaked letter from the kids in the Treasury suggests that that might be one of the ways in which they will try to reduce expenditure on the welfare state.
The new emphasis on private insurance to replace the welfare state poses many threats to susceptible individuals. At present, there is a consensus among insurers in the UK not to ask individuals to take genetic tests, and that has been confirmed by the most recent letter from the Association of British Insurers. However, they also demand that if an individual has had such a test, they are told the results. That demand has certain consequences. For example, if I had to disclose to an insurance company that I carried the breast cancer gene—I hope I do not, but I might—that would mean that any premiums for life insurance or mortgage insurance would be heavily weighted against me. That would make it much less likely that I would want to take the test, but my doctor would prefer to know and would want me to know that I was susceptible so that I could take preventive action.
The insurance companies' policy is against the population's interest as a whole. I can understand the reason behind the policy—the companies justify their behaviour through what they call adverse selection. They argue that if people know that they have a high risk of succumbing to a disease, they are more likely to insure themselves against such a calamity. The insurance companies say that they want to know everything that we know, which sounds reasonable, but is not conducive to sensible behaviour by the population at large. The Select Committee felt that that was an urgent problem, and our report suggests that the insurance companies should be given a year to solve the problem with consumer interest groups, such as the excellent Genetics Interest Group, which has been mentioned already today. We presented a possible solution and drew attention to the threat that a solution might be imposed if the groups did not manage to reach agreement.
I understand that talks were taking place and good progress was being made until the Government published their first response to our report, which said in paragraph 101:The Government does not agree with the Committee that the deadline should be imposed on the insurance industry for the development of an acceptable solution on the use of genetic information for insurance purposes.It all seems to have gone very quiet since then, with the exception of the letter that was most recently published, which told us nothing new at all. It contained precisely what the insurance companies said when they gave evidence to the Committee well over a year ago.
In the Government's response to our second report, they said that contact with the Association of British Insurers had been maintained and that it was understood that an announcement could be expected shortly. I know that the Minister is trying to maintain pressure on the ABI, but far greater pressure may have to be exerted. Too many people who are already disadvantaged because of their genetic predisposition are suffering discrimination, and it will rapidly worsen as more scientific discoveries are made.
1459 Not only insurance companies are discriminatory. Employers are guilty on occasions. If an employer discovers that one of his or her employees is suffering from a predisposition to a disease that may involve long periods off work, we must ask what the employee's rights are. I certainly find it alarming that another person, possibly my employer, could find out about my genetic make-up just by taking a hair off my shoulder and testing it for various genetic diseases. I find it even more alarming that someone might act on that information against my interest.
The Genetics Interest Group has pointed out that the combination of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the lack of regulation of the non-medical uses of genetic information might encourage discrimination. Under the terms of the Act, employers are under an obligation to make allowance for the special needs of disabled employees, which we all support. However, given that that is so, an unscrupulous employer might try to ensure that such obligations did not fall on him by refusing employment to presymptomatic individuals—those who will or might develop a genetic condition.
It is a pity, therefore, that the Government seem determined to refuse to extend protection to presymptomatic individuals in the same way that protection has been extended to people with disabilities. The Genetics Interest Group has expressed its disappointment at the Government's lack of action on that set of issues. During the passage of the Disability Discrimination Bill, the Government said that the concerns would be addressed by their response to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry. They have blatantly failed to do that. In fact, their response to the Committee's suggestions on employment was totally inadequate. They suggested that employers might be encouraged to draw up a code of conduct. In other words, employers could do whatever they liked.
It is surely of fundamental importance that genetic information should belong only to individuals and their families. It should be a criminal offence to use genetic information without an individual's consent. Employers should not be allowed to demand that employees consent to a genetic test as a condition of employment, with, of course, certain exclusions that we all understand, where it is important for the health and safety of employees or customers of the company.
It has already been mentioned that we could create a society in which people are disadvantaged by their genes. Unless we take steps now and put proper protection in place, we could finish up with a genetic underclass. That underclass will be unable to take out life, health or mortgage insurance, which probably means that its members will not be able to buy a house. They may be unable to find employment, and may even be considered too expensive for a doctor to take on as a patient, so they may be denied medical help, too. Surely, instead of discriminating against people in that way, we should celebrate human diversity and do everything that we can to bring about social cohesion by including people in the general run of life.
1460 I am glad that the Government have had second thoughts about the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, as there are many serious issues to consider that cannot be adequately tackled by the multitude of groups that they had already set up.
The speech by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) illustrated well why such a commission is necessary. That speech was emotive and expressed a certain point of view—one that is not, I am pleased to say, shared by the population as a whole. The fears and prejudices that the hon. Gentleman expressed were those that I hope the commission will work hard to dispel.
I hope that the commission will work within a statutory framework to set regulation, to license commercial companies and groups within the national health service that offer genetic tests and therapies, and to consider in depth some of the difficult problems that the debate can treat only superficially.
So far, I have dealt with issues that are arising now. We are at an interim stage, in which we can identify gene sequences and are beginning to find out the effects that some of them have. We can already develop tests for some of the common genetic disorders. The next step will take us on to a much more beneficial phase, when we shall be able to use genetic therapies to cure the diseases themselves. Until now, the pharmaceutical industry has often provided us with medicines that treat the symptoms rather than the diseases. Gene therapists, however, offer us the exciting possibilities of making changes to the genes that will cure the diseases altogether.
When the Select Committee visited the United States, we were shown examples of research that had been done to reduce cancerous brain tumours untreatable by other methods. We know that there is a genetic therapy available for cystic fibrosis, and others will quickly follow. Pharmaceutical companies are investing millions of pounds in those areas of research, and those advances represent real progress for the human race.
SmithKline Beecham sent us a brief for the debate, which pointed out that in the United States £60 billion a year is spent on the care and treatment of people with Alzheimer's disease. If we could find a genetic therapy for that disease, it would not only relieve much personal misery, but enable many people to lead productive lives for much longer—and, of course, save a huge amount of money for the national health service. That investment would be money well spent.
The exploitation of intellectual property rights needs to take place within the correct regulatory framework. That framework must give protection to industrialists who wish to exploit their ideas and inventions commercially, without being undercut by a competitor who has not spent the resources on research. The regulations must be strictly defined for that purpose, but when we draw rings round the patent, they must not be drawn so widely as to exclude others who wish to research in related but different areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) has recently spent a great deal of time studying the European directive, and because I felt that it was safe in his capable hands, I have not examined it in detail. There have been discussions in the European Parliament, the United States and elsewhere about the ethics of patenting life.
We must tread carefully in that area, because the issues are so sensitive, but we must take note of what the industrial and commercial companies say about their need 1461 to protect their intellectual property. It is a question of getting the balance right, and the Select Committee's suggestion provides the right balance. I hope that the European directive will meet the conditions that we set.
I would like to mention the human genome project, a major international collaboration that I am pleased is progressing smoothly. Like many others, I was alarmed when some American scientists got the idea that genetic codes might one day be valuable, and so began to take out patent applications to try to make money out of them. It was decided that it was not legal to patent a gene that did not have a known utility, and the patent applications were dropped.
We then saw the ingenuity of companies such as Human Genome Sciences, which tried to make its database of genetic sequences available to researchers on the basis that if a researcher uncovered a utility, the company would be given first refusal to exploit it. That practice, I am glad to say, met with strong disapproval from other pharmaceutical companies, and another company decided to make its gene database completely open without any precondition. That seems to have put paid to Human Genome Sciences' idea, and we are all pleased about that.
I hope that the European directive will do as the Committee suggested. We felt that a new genetic test or therapy should be patentable, as that is the only way in which commercial companies could protect their investments in research. The gene sequence on which the research was based would also be part of that patent. However, we also felt that another company—or the same company developing a different test or therapy based on the same gene sequence—should also be able to take out a patent without having to pay a licence fee to the first company. I very much hope that our colleagues in the European Parliament will consider our solution to the problem to be correct, as it offers the best opportunity to derive the maximum benefit from the new genetics.
Others have spoken about the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council inquiry, but I do not propose to do so. I wanted to concentrate first on human genetics and secondly on science policy. The difficulty that we are all facing today is that this is such a wide-ranging debate and it is perhaps becoming a little fragmented. When the White Paper "Realising our Potential" was published, I was a little sceptical about some of its aspects. But I welcomed it as the first step for many years by the Government to try to put a structural framework around our science policy. That was lacking, and I believe that a previous Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), whose ideas expressed in our manifesto at the previous election led to many of the reforms that have been introduced by the Government since then. I also welcome technology foresight.
Despite the Minister's encouraging words about all the good things that are happening, the science budget is under pressure from all quarters. It is worth pointing out that the OST is responsible for only £1.1 billion out of a total annual budget within the Government of £5.7 billion. It is therefore impossible for us to ignore the pressures on the budget.
Other hon. Members have mentioned that university funding for science—not only through the research councils, but through the higher education funding 1462 councils—is suffering badly. That funding provides the basic infrastructure for scientific research in universities, and it is used also to pay for overheads for specific research projects. Over a three-year period, those overheads have been transferred to the research councils. But what has happened to the HEFCs' budgets is catastrophic in terms of the proposed cuts in capital expenditure of about 50 per cent. over three years, and cuts in funding per student. That funding has been cut by one third in the past 10 years, according to figures produced by the Association of University Teachers.
What is the reaction of industrialists? SmithKline Beecham has said that too little is spent on science funding and that there is a lack of trained personnel in the United Kingdom. The company also said that the pharmaceutical industry finds it difficult to recruit research and development candidates in the United Kingdom who are well trained on modern equipment. Surely that is symptomatic of the fact that the modern equipment is not available in university research laboratories.
I am cynical enough to believe that the sole purpose of the prior options review was to reduce spending. The statistics in the forward look show that the Government's total spend has come down from £6.4 billion to £5.3 billion a year in the 12 years between 1985–86 to 1997–98. The prior options review is a way of reducing expenditure by privatisation—selling off research laboratories—and has nothing to do with preserving the quality of the science that the institutes produce.
On industrial and commercial spending on research and development, from the recently published research and development scoreboard, we can see that United Kingdom firms are doing badly compared with our international competitors. The New Scientist had a headline, "Britain slides down the R and D league table". The magazine showed that the top 300 companies in the world ploughed back 4.4 per cent. of sales revenue into research and development. The 18 British companies mentioned averaged only 2.5 per cent., which was well below the general average, and only Glaxo was in the top 50 in the global league table. That is surprising and worrying in view of the fact that British companies have increased their profits in the past year or so. One would expect that if they had the right attitude and policy towards research and development, some of that increase in profits would have gone into research spending and not into the shareholders' pockets.
I could say many other things, but I do not want to prolong my speech as other hon. Members have valuable contributions to make. I must, however, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South. Until he said that this was likely to be his last contribution to a debate on science, I had not appreciated that we might not hear him speak in the Chamber on this subject again as he is due to retire at the next general election. I pay tribute to the work that he has done and to his enormously valuable expertise, from which we members of the Science and Technology Committee have benefited. Perhaps I have not always agreed with my hon. Friend, but the argument has always been extremely civilised and probably much better informed from his point of view than from mine. He has made a marvellous contribution in recent Parliaments, and I am sure that other hon. Members will join me in wishing him well in the future and hoping that he will continue to contribute to the important work that he has done on science.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
I begin by associating myself wholeheartedly with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) about the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray). I first met him at a Labour party conference meeting about science. Our relationship began at that point and I was pleased that he acknowledged that I might have some contribution to make in developing science policy. I can honestly say that my membership of the Select Committee on Science and Technology can be attributed to his involvement and I very much enjoyed being a member of the Select Committee, which has done some excellent work.
As I am starting off with warm words, I must also say that I agreed wholeheartedly with the Minister when he welcomed the commissioning of the report from the Science Policy Research Unit by the Treasury. It is a significant step forward that the Treasury should be starting to consider the contribution that public funding of basic science can make to a successful economy. I hope that that belated recognition may make life easier for the Minister as he embarks on negotiations in the public spending round. Until now—and he did it again this week during Trade and Industry questions—he has had to argue that the Government's commitment to basic science is demonstrated by the fact that, in the next few years, there is a cash-flat budget, which means, in reality, that the science budget is scheduled for further cuts. I hope that, armed with the report from the Science Policy Research Unit, he may be able to do better in future spending rounds. I wish him luck in that.
That will impinge on the Government's response to the Select Committee report on the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. I hope that we will have an opportunity to debate that report and the Government response to it in full, so I do not propose to spend much time on it, but I point out that the report supports the argument for reversing the decline in Government support for research and development, which, sadly, as hon. Members have mentioned, means that Britain is now at the bottom of the G7 league in relation to expenditure on basic science.
Notwithstanding the report from the SPRU, there is other evidence to suggest how important such expenditure is. In Japan, and this is well recognised internationally, business investment in research and development has been well resourced. It is far higher than business investment in this country, to our regret. There is evidence, however, that Japanese firms have not got the best out of their business research and development because Japan lacks the basic science infrastructure that this country, fortunately, has built up over many years.
Far from having a cash-flat budget, the Japanese are planning to increase their science budget by 50 per cent. in the next few years, increasing their spending well above inflation and, interestingly, proposing large-scale expenditure on particle physics. There is nothing more basic than particle physics. It will have economic spin-offs, but, as far as we know, there are no obvious economic benefits from understanding more about how the universe was created or the structure of the atom. It creates that science infrastructure, trains well-educated scientists and excites public interest in science.
1464 The Japanese are recognising that. They are boosting their spending. There is every argument that we should follow suit and not allow the reverse trend to continue.
The report on human genetics is important. It is now 12 months since the Committee published it. It was welcomed with considerable acclaim. An editorial in the science journal Nature said:The British Parliament has been well-served by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.It said that the Committee's conclusions were "panic free" and its "arguments intelligent". It added that "the Government should listen."
Sadly, as we have heard in the debate, the Government did not immediately listen. There are welcome signs that they are beginning to listen and I hope that this debate will be the start of much more public interest in this sector of Government policy.
That quotation also demonstrates something that I have learnt in my short time in Parliament—that one of the most effective parts of the operation of Parliament is the Select Committees, in which we concentrate on educating ourselves, understanding the issues and generating a consensus, which generally means that there is unanimity on Committee reports. That was certainly the case for the report on human genetics. Conservative Members were able to go against the deregulation grain which seems to be engraved on the hearts of many Conservative Members and accept that if we are to develop the science of genetics and all its potential for human well-being, we must regulate it.
We heard the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) earlier. I have much to disagree with in what he says, but he expresses a view which has considerable support among Members of Parliament. I have here copies of early-day motions, some of which were tabled by the hon. Gentleman, on labelling of foods made using gene technology, gene technology and the threat to humanity, conservation of cocoa germ plasm and other issues relating to the development of genetics.
Perhaps most significant was an early-day motion signed by 106 hon. Members expressing support for the European Parliament in not agreeing to the directive on biotechnology. The fact that so many of our colleagues are concerned about the patenting of genetic material means that we must deal with those concerns. We have a new version of the directive and I very much hope that it will encompass the recommendations made by our Select Committee.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge explained, because it is tremendously important to encourage business to invest in genetic research, which has tremendous potential, the Committee agreed that human gene sequences should be patentable, but that the patent protection should be restricted to a particular application of that sequence. We said that if another discoverer came along with a separate application, he should also be eligible for a separate patent and should not have to pay royalties to the original holder. That proposal deals with the scope that should be allowed on the first patent of a gene. It is important that we do that if we are to generate public support and support among our colleagues in the House and in Europe for the patenting of human genetic material. Sadly, the Government did not agree that there should be specific provision to that effect.
1465 I hope that the Minister will reconsider, because there is widespread anxiety about genetics. There are scare stories about genetic determinism, an underclass, eugenics, designer babies and so on. The public mind tends to focus on those aspects of the science rather than the potential that it has to improve the lives of ordinary people, to save a great deal of money for our health service and to allow our companies to become world leaders in these technologies, with beneficial effects in terms of wealth creation in this country. That is why the recommendation to establish the Human Genetics Advisory Commission to examine all the ethical issues was crucial. The Government opposed that initially.
When we asked Ministers to come back and explain their reasons for rejecting our recommendation, I was interested to hear the Secretary of State for Health say that he was concerned that he would be setting up an unelected quango. That was a bit rich coming from the Secretary of State at the Department of Health, which has a plethora of such bodies which have by and large replaced organisations that formerly included elected representatives who could participate in taking decisions. But, ultimately, some common sense prevailed. Perhaps there was also a recognition in Committee that when the chief scientist—who was adamant that there were mechanisms within government for co-ordinating responses to questions raised in our report—was asked to define those mechanisms, he was unable to give an answer. Nevertheless, as a result of those further hearings, the Government have now said that they will set up an advisory commission. We always accepted that, in the initial stages, any such body could well have only advisory functions. That was largely because we did not want its setting up to be delayed and if legislation was required, that would have meant a delay.
Although we are worried about delays, we are also concerned about the lack of priority that the Government seem to have given to setting up such bodies. In order to see that, we have only to refer to the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, which was first announced by the previous Secretary of State for Health in 1994. It is only in the past few weeks that there has been an announcement on that committee's composition—it has taken two years even to set it up. I very much hope that the Minister will give an assurance today that it will not take as long as that to set up the new commission that has finally been accepted.
Thankfully, insurance is not such an important issue for people in this country as it is for those in countries such as America because we have a welfare state and a health service that treat people on the basis of need rather than ability to pay. But there are moves, which I regret, to require people to take out more personal insurance, so it is important that we address the subject.
As we have heard, the Committee said that the insurance industry should be given 12 months to come up with proposals. The Government did not agree and 12 months later we seem to have made little progress. Professor Peter Harper of the Institute of Medical Genetics at the university of Wales college of medicine said in a letter to the Association of British Insurers:I have to say that during the five years that I have been involved with this topic and trying to persuade the insurance industry to consider the issues seriously, I have not met any willingness within the industry to modify its position or to have any meaningful dialogue with myself or other professionals in medical genetics.1466 The only time that we seem to get a response from the insurance industry is when its position is highlighted in debates such as today's. There is also some consensus across the House that, ultimately, we may have to introduce legislation preventing discrimination on genetic grounds. In view of the laxity of the insurance industry's response, we may need to consider that—I hope that it will be one of the first issues that the commission considers.
There are similar considerations in relation to employment. I was pleased to note that in his opening speech, the Minister mentioned the need to look at discrimination against potential employees. There is little protection for people seeking to gain employment if they have a predisposition to a certain condition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has said, such information can be found merely by testing a hair taken from someone's shoulder.
One subject that has not been raised in today's debate involves the arrangements in the national health service for clinical genetic services. The Committee expressed anxiety that, because of the removal of the regional health authorities, the development of those specialist services might be placed in jeopardy because purchasers might not give them a high priority. The Government need to consider that, especially as they have not ruled out in their reply the possibility that such services be commissioned by GP fundholders.
The Committee had grave reservations about going down that path. We wanted the Government to set up a quality assurance scheme for national health services, very much along the lines of that for breast testing. I know that that does not fall within the Minister's responsibility, but it is an important issue and has resource implications for the development of those services.
The existence of the national health service is very beneficial in encouraging industry to invest in these areas. The fact that there is a national health service enables programmes to be developed with Government with proper safeguards. That is a great asset to the country in forging ahead in science. In this country we value the NHS highly, but we may not have valued it as a potential asset in relation to business development. I am baffled as to why we should not do so, given that our most successful industries are the pharmaceutical industries, which rely on demand from the health service, where they know that there will be a market for their products.
I welcome the tone of some of the Minister's remarks and I hope that he will take seriously the points made in the debate to the effect that we must generate public confidence. I hope that the commission will play an important role in that.
We cannot value highly enough the precious asset of our country's science base. I hope that the Minister and his Government will see themselves as safeguarding that asset, not allowing its decline.
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)
It is a pleasure to follow two of my colleagues on the Select Committee, my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones). I thank them for their excellent discipline in allowing me plenty of time to develop my comments on the Science and Technology Select Committee genetics report, and on science policy.
1467 I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge at the end of her speech about the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) to our science debates, and especially to the work of the Select Committee. I hope that it will not be his last speech in a major science debate.
I understood from what the Prime Minister said last night that the general election is likely to be held next spring—perhaps even in May—in which case we may well hold debates on prior options or our Natural Environment Research Council inquiry or science policy in general. The contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South to all our debates are extremely knowledgeable and well informed, and he is a heavyweight in the Select Committee. I echo the feelings of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that whenever we differ—as happens from time to time—we do so in the full knowledge that his factual base on those issues is often much stronger than mine.
I move on to our report on genetics. I found our 12-month study fascinating. I studied some genetics as part of my chemistry degree course when I was 20 or 21 and found it fascinating. During that course, I attended a lecture by Sir Francis Crick on his work of the early 1950s, elucidating the structure of DNA. That discovery is a great milestone in scientific history and Britain's contribution, particularly that of Cambridge's microbiology laboratory, has been significant. It was fascinating for me to revisit the subject 30 years on.
The progress that has been made, particularly on the human genome project, is incredible. The speed of elucidating the structures of DNA sequences is unbelievable. We realised back in the 1960s that there were 3 billion nucleotide units. In a sense, that is a bit like the Bible but times 100. It is a case of elucidating each of those initials right the way through, so I thought that it would take an eternity, but we are now well on the way to sequencing the whole of the human genome.
Part of my academic fascination is in looking at the nematode world, and at mouse, human and fish DNA. It fills me with humility to see that mouse and human DNA are so similar while fish DNA is superior to ours. I was startled to find that 90 per cent. of human DNA is junk and only 10 per cent. contains codes for useful genes. The other 90 per cent. is either redundant or fulfils some strange purpose—we do not yet understand why it exists—whereas 90 per cent. of fish DNA is useful. We tend to think of ourselves as the most evolved species and the cleverest by far, but that fact fills me with humility.
Throughout our work I have been impressed that Britain has such a good position in the league table on genetics research. On our visit to the National Institute of Health in Washington, we were told that, while the United States is well at the top of the world league and responsible for some 80 per cent. of all the international work on genetics, Britain takes second place and is responsible for some 10 per cent. of the work. So we certainly take the lead in Europe.
In terms of medical applications, this excellent debate has tended to concentrate on genetic defects and screening, and what can be offered in terms of choices, particularly for mothers who want to know whether their 1468 child will have a hereditary defect. I accept the comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) about the state of the science in 1996 but in 10 or 20 years' time we shall have the potential of developing gene therapies to help to ameliorate many of those conditions.
Complex questions surround genetic screening and counselling, such as how wide the provision is, and whether genetic tests should be available by post or with minimal counselling. That is why we proposed the establishment of a human genetics commission.
If we look 20 or 30 years ahead, we find within our genetic blueprint a predisposition to all sorts of diseases. I disagree with the hon. Member for Mossley Hill on this matter. Breast and colon cancer genes have been identified, and a strong familial component has been identified with schizophrenia. More generally, heart disease, obesity and diabetes have a strong genetic component and, as we learn more, they will become more predictable and individuals will be able to take preventive action. For example, if they know that they are predisposed to heart disease they can take more care in terms of weight, diet and exercise. That kind of knowledge of our own genetic blueprint can be helpful when we structure our life styles. That genetic information is potentially important and valuable in terms of human health.
However, that information is very much for the individual and it should not be available to insurance companies or to employers because it may lead to discrimination and a genetic underclass. I understand the complexity of the problems—this is part of the reason why the Committee wants a commission to look in detail at developments. In relation to insurance, we felt frustrated at the lack of focus by the Association of British Insurers. Professor Harper from Cardiff pointed out to the Committee the lack of focus and the lack of interest on the part of the insurance companies in detailed dialogue between them and the clinical geneticists.
There is a section in our report on adverse selection and on pooled insurance policies. I think that we have found sophisticated and possible answers to those questions, and they should be taken up by the commission and in discussions between the ABI and clinical geneticists. A number of hon. Members have referred to the possibility that in 20 years' time a lock of hair will be enough for an employer to post off in a matchbox and to predict who will be a good bet and who will be a bad bet and incur health problems if they are employed to the age of 60 or 65. This could lead to discrimination in employment. Matters of that kind should be looked at carefully.
Science holds great promise for mankind. In the 21st century, as we understand human illness and disease much more fundamentally in a chemical or molecular biological fashion, the drugs that we develop are much more sophisticated and better targeted. We are not developing the drugs blind, as has been the case in relation to HIV-AIDS and the development of AZT. Materials are being screened for possible use in the treatment of AIDS. A lot of that is not very well thought out, or cannot be, because of the state of science.
Within molecular biology and genetics there is the potential, in the next few decades, to design drugs much more effectively and to help to extend the range of diseases that can be cured. The Committee visited 1469 Maryland in the United States and saw a presentation where the so-called suicide gene was used to treat brain tumours and we saw some promising work in curing cancers.
Several hon. Members have referred to the Committee's discussions about patenting. Early in the inquiry, I was impressed by the evidence of Professor Martin Bobrow to the Committee. In reply to a question about patenting from my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South on 23 November 1994, he said:My view is that I am certainly not against patenting; I am against patenting the natural sequence which is discovered and which is part of my body and yours. I am certainly not against patenting of processes, diagnostic procedures, therapeutic modalities or any sort of derivative use".That paragraph served as my guiding light throughout the Committee's inquiry, and it remains my view on patenting. Gene sequences should not be patentable, but utility applications should. When we came to draft the report, we spent several hours examining the details of the evidence regarding patenting. The report's phraseology about patenting—it has been quoted several times today—is as follows:only a combination of a gene and a known utility which is novel and not obvious should be patentable in the context of that utility".My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak worked out those words very carefully and, following some disagreement in the Committee, we agreed unanimously to support them.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) and the Government will bear those words in mind when it is time to renegotiate the European Community directive. They embody the directive's target. I examined the directive for about an hour yesterday and I am concerned that it is somewhat contradictory. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South mentioned earlier, articles 3 and 4 are not definitive. I read the background notes to article 3 and they are partly contradictory.
We make it clear that gene sequences should not be patentable. However, when it comes to applications, which are important to industry—that is how companies make their money—we must draw the line between discovery and invention. That issue is well explored in the background notes to article 3, but some contradictions remain. I ask my hon. Friend to consider that issue in the context of the report and our phraseology about patenting and utilities.
§ Dr. Lynne Jones
Perhaps it is more important to consider the report's wording in relation to the attitude that is likely to prevail in the European Parliament on that issue. Many parliamentarians who were concerned about the drafting of the previous directive may have their fears allayed if our wording—or a similar combination of words—were used.
§ Mr. Williams
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The Committee is delighted that, following a second report, the Government have embraced the principle of establishing the Human Genetics Advisory Commission. People have serious anxieties about genetics, more so perhaps in Germany and other European countries than in Britain, but we have concerns in Britain too. The Select Committee became aware of those concerns during our inquiry.
1470 The comments made earlier by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill represent a strand of opinion. It is not a majority view, but it is a strong view and I share some of his reservations. I am hostile to the idea of germ line gene therapy—our report reflected that hostility—and I am sceptical about the agricultural implications, such as genetic engineering and genetically manipulated organisms. It is important that the hon. Gentleman's views be reflected in the composition of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission. As pointed out earlier, we want the majority of members to be lay people so that the commission carries public confidence. The more open the proceedings and minutes of the commission—its findings should be published simultaneously with submissions to the Government—the more confidence people will have that the public view will be properly reflected.
I found our inquiry on genetics fascinating and our report has been well received. I think it made an important contribution and I am delighted that the Government reconsidered their initial view after we published our second report and that the commission will be established as soon as possible. It should eventually become a statutory commission rather than purely advisory.
In my reading for this debate, I considered in some detail the research and development scoreboard that was published a few weeks ago. Many of the conclusions are disturbing and I shall mention two or three examples, mainly from the Financial Times. Among the top 300 companies in the world, investment in research and development in 1995 showed an increase of 5 per cent. in cash terms. The United Kingdom managed 4 per cent. while the United States forged ahead with 11 per cent. The United Kingdom increase was slightly ahead of Germany's 3 per cent., Japan and Switzerland saw zero growth and investment fell in Belgium, France and Italy. Our figure for that one year does not sound too bad because our investment rose by 4 per cent. and the average for the top 300 companies was 5 per cent., but the Financial Times commented:The UK scoreboard, published today by the Department of Trade and Industry, shows that British companies spent 4 per cent. more on R and D in 1995 than in 1994, while their sales rose by 9 per cent. and profits by 18 per cent.It is a historic sadness of British industry that profits are not reinvested in research and development.
The Financial Times also points out:In 1995, the world's top 300 companies devoted some 4.4 per cent. of sales to R and D—compared to an average of 2.5 per cent. for the … UK companies".In France, Germany, Japan and the United States, companies invest twice as much in research and development as a proportion of sales. The scoreboard examines various sectors in detail and, in the chemical sector, the top British chemical company—Imperial Chemical Industries or ICI—is 26th in the world investment league. In the electronics section, the top British electronics company is 21st in the world investment league. In engineering, our top company, Rolls-Royce, is 20th.
The performance of British companies is not quite so bad throughout the report. In vehicle engineering, Lucas Industries, our top company, is 21st in the world league table. Indeed, in some sectors, we do quite well. Unilever is top of the food companies, Shell Transport and Trading is second of all oil companies, BT is seventh in the world 1471 league of telecommunications companies, and in pharmaceuticals, Glaxo Wellcome is second, SmithKline Beecham fourth and Zeneca sixth. To tie in with my earlier comments on genetics, it is no coincidence that we are world beaters in pharmaceuticals because, as the Committee found throughout its work on genetics, there is high investment in research and development and a very good return. Taking the scoreboard as a whole, only 18 of the 300 companies listed are British. That shows the historical decline in manufacturing industry in this country.
As a scientist, I am very concerned about what is happening in Britain to science in higher education and the industrial sector. The Clerk to the Select Committee is very good at finding us no end of press releases, and included in them in the past couple of weeks was literature on the decision in Japan to which my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak has referred. In Japan, they are planning to increase funding for research in basic science by 60 per cent. by 2000—a 12 per cent. growth in the science budget every year for the next four years. What a wonderful environment to be in. I know that historically Japan has rather ignored science and perhaps lived off international basic science, but it has now seen its importance and intends to invest heavily in it.
I read recently that 75 per cent. of school leavers in the tiger economies of east Asia enter higher education—not 33 per cent. or 35 per cent. or whatever it is in Britain. It strikes me that Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and the rest have rediscovered what we seem to have abandoned since the 1950s and 1960s: the terrific importance of offering higher education to a wide range of the population—such as 75 per cent.—and the importance of science, research and development and science investment. Tomorrow's prosperity comes from investing heavily in today's science.
§ 2.2 pm
§ Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen)
It is a privilege and an honour to speak in this debate. It is a privilege because being asked by my hon. Friends to draw together the different strands of this detailed debate and present a summary on behalf of the Opposition is to be granted a rare opportunity that most of us have an ambition to realise when we are elected but not all of us get. It is an honour because I am sensible of the fact that I am surrounded by hon. Members who have made the study of science and its applications their life's work. I associate myself and my hon. Friends on the Front Bench with the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray). I include in those comments about scientists being present my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge, for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) and for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams).
I pay tribute to the Select Committee. As somebody who is not and would not claim to be a scientist, I found the lucidity and accessibility of the report on human genetics of great help in understanding the issues that have been debated.
The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), and my hon. Friends the Members for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) and for Cambridge all dealt with the importance of 1472 achieving the right framework for patenting. The Minister owes it to us to comment on that when he responds, because he did not mention it in his opening speech.
The issue of the membership of the testing committee and of the commission was raised by several hon. Members. They spoke of lay representation, and said that the commission, in particular, should be weighted heavily towards lay representatives rather than professors of ethics. Even Members such as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) and myself, or even my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), might be qualified to serve on such a commission.
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) talked about the need for a balance to be struck between what the Government can and cannot do. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) intervened earlier to ask whether regulation would be statutory or voluntary. My answer to him is that statutory regulation may be too inflexible to allow for good, well-founded and ethically sound use of human genetic research, and that the speedy development in that area needs a speedy response from the regulators. Parliament may be too slow to respond adequately to the demands of that industry. We shall have to return to that issue.
That does not mean that we are running away from the idea of regulation. Such activities must be carefully regulated, and setting up the commission will be an important step along that route. We must get the balance right between public trust in the work of the companies and scientists in the field, and the stifling of innovation that might result if the regulations are too rigid.
The Select Committee repeatedly returns to that subject in its report, saying that regulations need to be robust and well applied. It concludes that on the whole, the regulatory framework in the United Kingdom is good. None the less, as many hon. Members have said, the establishment of the new commission is to be welcomed.
I press the Minister to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride: which will be the lead Department of State in dealing with the commission? To which Department will it report? It is of overriding importance to establish the commission quickly, especially in view of the concerns expressed from both sides of the House today.
The Select Committee noted the Government's view that most of the important human disease genes are likely to be identified over the next five years. The huge range of information that will then be available to us needs to be dealt with sensitively, carefully and properly, in accordance with the range of concerns that have been expressed in the debate.
One of the commission's main objectives must be to foster public confidence, and public understanding of the scientific research on the subject, of its potential for enormous health benefits and of the United Kingdom's opportunity to capitalise on that. It is also important that we maintain our lead in Europe as a centre for innovation in biotechnology.
It is necessary to foster confidence, partly because public confidence, or lack of it, in the biotechnology industry can have a crucial effect on its success and its ability to grow. The knock-on effect on the knowledge and confidence of the financial institutions obviously has an impact on the availability of venture capital.
1473 The Bank of England's third report on finance for small firms, which was published in January, says that there is evidence that many high-technology small businesses in the United Kingdom are under-achieving in terms of innovation and subsequent growth. Providing management and marketing support, and corporate venturing, may be the way to satisfy the financial needs of such small firms.
Investment by large corporations in the equity of small nascent companies has not occurred in the United Kingdom to the same extent as it has in the United States. The Bank of England concludes that that difference is largely cultural, and calls upon policy makers to act as facilitators in encouraging the process.
In his opening speech the Minister said that he was worried that industry might not appreciate the importance of its role in fostering scientific innovation. He went on to quote from the press release accompanying the report that he published this morning—a press release whose message was, "British research in good shape".
The report discusses the relationship between publicly funded basic research and the United Kingdom's general economic performance. What is the Minister's response to the Select Committee's criticism that although overseas research and development in the United Kingdom may come in from Europe, United Kingdom investment in the industry often goes to the United States?
The report published today is a welcome tool to illustrate the creative tension that exists between academic and industrial research, and the academics involved in its production have suggested that the evidence is mixed as to whether new firms have been created on a significant scale as a result of the funding of basic research. Work on the topic has been based mainly on case studies of particular universities and fields of science. A previous review found little convincing evidence of major benefits from academic research in terms of generating spin-off companies.
Although it is certainly true that some universities are surrounded by a substantial number of firms—Cambridge is an obvious example of that—the growth rates of these companies is often low. All too frequently, academics do not make good entrepreneurs, and the effective exploitation of their technology usually requires that the ownership of the technology and its managerial control be taken out of their hands at an early stage.
The report refers to Europe, where biotechnology firms—of which Britain has the largest number—generally cluster in areas of academic excellence. However, most such firms in the UK have industrial and not academic founders, despite the fact that Britain has more star scientists in molecular biology than any other European country. Some of the best researchers in the world are working in the UK in our research institutes, universities arid hospitals, as many hon. Members have said. Our innovative biotechnology sector is currently hampered by a lack of venture capital funding and a generally cautious commercial environment. We are in danger of reaping the health benefits, but missing out on the industrial benefits that could accrue to the United Kingdom.
I am conscious that time is pressing, but I must say in conclusion that the Government have presided over the undermining of our scientific research base in the public sector, which will lead to further uncertainty in 1474 biotechnology industries. As a result of the Government's decision to slash capital spending on research and development, the Wellcome Trust has confirmed that it is to stop funding new capital projects. In the long run, that will cut perhaps a further £50 million a year or so from Britain's science base—doubling our losses. That money will go to research groups in other countries, strengthening their science bases and giving their companies the competitive advantage that we have thrown away. In the circumstances, the recent launch by the Department of Trade and Industry of a crusade for biotechnology in Britain is risible.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
I am grateful for the opportunity to return to the Dispatch Box to sum up this excellent debate. First, it is my pleasant duty to congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), who made her debut at the Dispatch Box with great skill, calmness and precision. For her sake, I hope that the shadow Cabinet list is still open because, in my judgment, she would make a fine candidate—although I do not wish to intervene in the internal affairs of the Labour party.
As the hon. Member for Broadgreen arrives at the Dispatch Box, we regret the departure of the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), who has contributed to many debates such as this over the years. We have occasionally had a chance to chat in the Lobby, and I have always found his words interesting. We have not necessarily always agreed, and I was astonished to learn that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) also has not always agreed with him. These are the sort of revelations that one gets in these debates, and that is one of the most exciting things of all.
Having listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), I will now eat fish with greater respect than I did previously. Fish is clearly not a junk food, according to its DNA structure. There is a great deal of talent on the Opposition Back Benches, and I had not realised the hon. Gentleman's background in chemistry and environmental sciences. I enjoyed a rather jolly party with the Royal Society of Chemistry this week, and it is clear that chemists relish their role in pulling together all sorts of disciplines to make sure that we are able to understand some of the great breakthroughs. That is putting a strain on university departments. The vertical segregation of disciplines is breaking down, particularly in science, into new arrangements. The Cruciform project of University college, London is an interesting example and there are many others.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen made an important point that no one else mentioned. I tried to raise it in my evidence to the Committee. There are benefits in knowing one's own genetic structure. If one knows that one is likely to suffer from a disease, one can alter one's life style and possibly mitigate the effects or postpone the disease. There are many aspects of science that we must consider, but that is a beneficial impact.
I was impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), which contained many thoughtful points, not least her encouragement of the Treasury. Of course, I cannot comment on anything connected with the Budget, which is not yet decided upon, but I hope that the Treasury reads the text of Hansard and her speech in particular before we finalise the public expenditure survey round.
1475 We are not the only country facing pressures on the science budget and, indeed, on all budgets. Japan is the honourable exception. There are good, domestic economic reasons why Japan is looking for ways to spend more money, not least connected with the position of the yen. Nevertheless, when I talked to the Japanese on a recent visit—their scientific adviser has been to this country twice recently—it was clear that they are beginning to spend a considerable amount of money, but they are coming here to learn how to spend it. The structure of science is extremely strong in this country. The flexibility in the way in which our institutions, research establishments and universities work has greatly intrigued the Japanese and we are watching that situation closely.
All the other G7 countries face budgetary constraints. Consider the difference in Germany, where the largesse of recent years has turned into a need to constrain. The Germans are talking to us about ways in which we may co-operate. As I will not have time to return to that matter, I must immediately pick up on the comments of the hon. Member for Motherwell, South about CERN. There is no doubt that we and the Germans have a common interest in ensuring that the CERN position is rectified. We cannot carry on as we are. It is absurd for us to have budgets that mean that we are effectively funding others to do research because we do not have enough left in our own budgets to carry out our national programmes, or to get involved nationally in some of the work at the large hadron collider. We should, therefore, take the opportunity presented to us because other countries are now becoming concerned about budgets and work closely with the Germans on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) was involved with the earlier discussions when he was briefly the Minister responsible for science. He understands the pressures and I noted carefully what he had to say.
Not surprisingly, a considerable amount of the discussion has focused on genetics. My opening remarks could be much broader because many documents are tagged for the debate, not least the forward look, which gives us an opportunity to discuss all elements of science. Now I shall concentrate on the issues raised in the debate.
First, it is understandable that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) mentioned the ethical questions. I am not going to differ with him about the importance of ethics in this debate. We might well differ on how we segregate aspects of decision making from it. He mentioned xenotransplantation, which is the use of organs and tissues from genetically modified animals for the treatment of humans and which is causing great concern. There are ethical questions about that.
The advisory group has been set up to advise the Secretary of State for Health on that issue. The group is led by Professor Ian Kennedy, who is professor of medical ethics at King's college, London, and its terms of reference are thatin the light of recent and potential developments in xenotransplantation, to review the acceptability of an ethical framework within which xenotransplantation may be undertaken and to make recommendations.That is to the Secretary of State for Health.
1476 The hon. Gentleman raised other matters, including the discussion on novel foods in the European Union and, in particular, genetically modified foods. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which advises the Ministers with responsibility for health and agriculture on safety, is active. No genetically modified food has been marketed in this country without the committee's clearance. I do not have time to go into it now, but I accept his genuine concern, although we might differ on certain aspects of how we bring ethics into the debate.
I wish to be emphatic on one matter, and I am glad that I share the views of the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) in saying this. By and large, the transformation of our horizons by the scientific developments that have come out of the genetic sequencing process, the human genome project and genetic analysis of many aspects of substances such as yeast, will benefit humankind. Because of that, we must recognise the hon. Member for Mossley Hill's ethical concerns and reconcile them as best we can. We must not, however, stop the progress with scientists who are minded to try to improve the quality of human life.
The hon. Members for East Kilbride and for Broadgreen rightly pressed me on specific points arising out of the Select Committee's genetics study. With the advisory commission, we will have to consider whether recommendations should turn into legislation. I will not pre-empt that. It will depend on what it recommends.
I would want to talk to the chairman, when he is appointed, about the terms of the publication of the commission's reports. We said up front that this should be transparent. If the process is to give the public greater confidence in what is happening, my instinct is to go in that direction, but, again, I should like to take up that matter with the chairman.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride mentioned the Genetics Interest Group. We watch its work closely and we understand and listen to its advice. At the end, we have to take it into consideration, but we have taken careful note of the work on care in old age, for example, and we will continue to do so.
Advisory commission members will be chosen on their merits. That is, in effect, set out in our response to the Select Committee. They will, however, represent between them informed opinion on developments in the science of human genetics, as well as social health, ethical and economic implications. The purpose is to take a broad perspective. I have listened to the comments of hon. Members about the balance between lay members and professionals. We have already said that we understand the reasons for that and we will go as far as we can to accommodate them and move as quickly as possible to ensure that the commission is appointed.
In view of its strategic role, the advisory commission will interest a number of Departments. I was pushed to clarify this point. Primarily, it will interest the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry, my own Department. Therefore, we have determined that the commission will report formally and jointly to Health and industry Ministers and that there will be a joint secretariat. Ministers' job will be to ensure that both Departments work closely together, but the secretariat will be based in the Office of Science and Technology and the secretary will be an OST official.
1477 I would not presume to take primary responsibility over the Department of Health because, as these things develop, clearly, mutual interests will be involved and it will depend to some extent on the issue we are discussing, but there is no doubt that my Department—which includes the chief scientific adviser—has, through the President of the Board of Trade, a transdepartmental interest. We will ensure that we carry out that responsibility.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned the importance of testing. I understand the concerns, which were discussed during my opening speech. Several comments have been made on insurance. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Selly Oak about certain aspects of what could occur in employment and interviews in terms of genetic testing. Mention has been made during the debate in the context of insurance of Professor Peter Harper of the college of medicine at the university of Wales in Cardiff, who is a specialist in clinical genetics. I can confirm what colleagues know—that he is a member of the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing. It is intriguing that the committee had its first meeting this morning. We shall await the outcome of that. It is difficult for the moment to see how widely it will decide to go at the early stage, but having set the committee up as a result of the recommendations of the Select Committee, I am delighted that it has had its first meeting.
I confirm to the House that I hope that now that we have agreed that the Human Genetics Advisory Commission will be created, it will be set up and working as quickly as possible. I cannot stress enough how important it is to reassure the public. I am profoundly supportive of the moves to increase the range of knowledge of genetics, but I realise that it raises considerable anxieties.
The question of patents has been raised by several hon. Members. The directive that is being discussed in the European Union is welcome, but I hope that the European Parliament will not tinker with it too much. I am not instinctively opposed to that institution, but sometimes Members of the European Parliament seem to lack responsibility in the way in which they consider such matters. I urge them to realise that biotechnology is an industry which is extremely sensitive to false moves in terms of regulation.
There is a long gestation period between original research and potential availability of products. If companies feel that they live in a hostile regulatory environment, it is possible for the capital behind the research and the research to move offshore from Europe. That has already occurred in Germany. Some of the German Lander are so worried about the matter that they are offering vast sums of money to maintain research in their universities. However, money itself—this is an interesting point for Opposition Members—is not sufficient if the risk calculation of regulation means that the company or the people involved in the research do not see how they will ever be able to move sufficiently far and fast in a stable climate.
The exemptions in United Kingdom law for research and compulsory licensing, which help to ensure that patents do not stifle legitimate research, are not affected by the draft directive.
The present legal requirements for novelty, inventive step and industrial applicability make it unlikely that patents will be gained for genes of unknown function—an anxiety that was raised. Patents can be refused on the 1478 ground of morality, but that can be justified only in clear cases and, in my judgment, the directive is not a place for discussion of moral issues. That is not to say that moral issues do not impinge, but if we try to achieve a directive that embraces moral issues, it will be a pretty rum piece of law to enforce. Therefore, we must try to segregate morality from other issues without discounting its importance.
I was pleased to see that George Poste, whom I mentioned earlier and who has been mentioned by others, stated that the biotechnology patenting directive was to be welcomed. In the Financial Times this morning, he said:Without patents there will be no cures. I welcome the re-affirmation of the importance of this issue at the Florence summit at which the Council of Ministers was asked to expedite adoption of the legal framework for biotechnological inventions.I heartily endorse that. We must give clear signals to industry if we are to get the best advances that we can.Human genetic research has been mentioned by several colleagues. I particularly listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who made an important speech and said in a letter to the Financial Times recently that the United Kingdom would have the most sophisticated system in the world for considering issues raised by genetics. I agree with that.
There have been one or two interestingly waspish comments to the effect that the Government came to that view rather late in the day. I accept that Governments need to think through such matters carefully. I have thought them through carefully, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We were much taken by the fact that the Committee rethought through some aspects of the subject and decided that an advisory commission, rather than a statutory body, was the right way forward. There was a tremendous meeting of minds and we have come up with the present framework. Given the committees that have not been mentioned today—such as the Interdepartmental Group on Genetic Modification Technology—as the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, said, it is the best system available.
There is no doubt that human genetics research is crucial. If we are to get the best out of it, we must give industry the greatest possible stimulus. The crusade for biotechnology shows that we can do that. Another part of the Government's policy is to ensure the excellence of science in this country.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.