The final motion is a suicidal split over ethics

April 15, 2005

Anna Fazackerley lifts the lid on the bitter division among MPs that threatens the future of science's watchdog

Before Ian Gibson went upstairs to his party last Monday, he knocked back a big glass of red wine. The outspoken Labour MP was throwing an end-of-term bash for the select committee he chairs - the famously loutish House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. It promised to be a revealing evening.

The room in a Westminster pub filled up quickly. Guests included research council heads and government chief scientists - who had themselves been grilled by Gibson's team. They could banter with the chair, but eyed him warily. A scathing report from this committee can do lasting harm to an organisation's reputation. Then there were the staff - clerks, assistants and specialist advisers - who, after churning out ten inquiry reports in a year, looked as if they needed a drink. Finally, there were the MPs who sit on the committee. Or rather, half of them.

Five had ignored their invitations, furious about last month's publication of a headline-grabbing report on human reproductive technologies and the law that they had refused to sign up to.

The chair did not try to cover this up. In his opening speech he told the room: "My committee is a 5* committee. But I only submit the research-active names. Some people were really involved and knew what was important. Others did not."

If anyone had not realised something was amiss, they did now. The committee was in the midst of a civil war.

The report that brought everything to a head was released after 18 months of evidence-taking. It concluded that a ban on human cloning had yet to be justified; it supported parents selecting the sex of their child; it called for an overhaul of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates embryo research; and it recommended "rational debate" about taboo issues such as the creation of human-animal hybrids. Unsurprisingly, it was covered on television, radio and in tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. For a committee that embraces publicity, this was quite a coup.

But another story went unaired - that of the wranglings that went on behind the scenes.

An early draft of the report was leaked to the press, and both MPs and committee staff complain privately of being victimised or insulted. Robert Key, the Shadow Science Minister who sits on the committee, says that in 23 years in Parliament he has never experienced such behaviour on a select committee. He adds: "I find the whole thing completely distasteful when it descends into personal attacks."

On March 7, the committee met for six hours. One week and 130 amendments later, it met for a final tough negotiating session.

Five members - Labour MPs Paul Farrelly, Geraldine Smith, Kate Hoey and Tony McSalter, and Conservative MP Bob Spink - wanted to take a more pro-life stance. Farrelly says: "When the draft was issued and I read some of the conclusions - not least the part about human-animal hybrids - my jaw dropped. There was no attempt by either the chair or the clerk to divine what might be acceptable to the rest of the committee."

Farrelly wanted a total rewrite, and in the meeting he told the other side that their attempts to rush through each of the "black conclusions" was like "a drunk in a dark alley stumbling from wall to wall".

Gibson counters: "I respected their view, but the meeting got nasty. I wanted to discuss the issues about embryos."

Nearly three hours in, the MPs took a break. Gibson says he was prepared for an all-night battle, but when the committee resumed, Labour's Brian Iddon called for the guillotine, a little-used procedure to end the debate in an hour.

Key approved of this: "It was perfectly obvious that their (the dissenters) technique was that one of the five would turn up to a meeting and oppose every sentence. Brian was upset by these tactics and proposed that we should set a timetable simply so we could get this done."

McWalter stormed out. Farrelly says: "They wanted to get the report out before Parliament was dissolved. My belief is that, after a year's inquiry, it was more important to get this right than to rush it." Because three dissenters had not turned up to the last meeting, he was left to register his "no" vote alone. The five rebels later issued a statement distancing themselves from the report, calling it "unbalanced", "light on ethics" and "too dismissive of public opinion and much of the evidence".

Gibson likens this in-fighting to undergraduate student politics. He laughs: "If you think I was not expecting an argument on this age-old question, you're nuts. It's religion versus science. It has been the same since Darwin debated Wilberforce."

But Key, who consulted his local bishop on the ethical issues he encountered during the inquiry, says this was more than that. "No one has ever accused me of being a libertarian. I'm a solid, middle-of-the-road Conservative," he insists.

Key and Evan Harris, the only Liberal Democrat on the committee, are angry that the report was blocked by MPs who missed many of the evidence sessions. Committee sources even claim that Farrelly "went off and did his own thing" when the team went to Rome for an official meeting with the Vatican.

Farrelly strongly denies this: "I had to draft a letter about constituency business to Gordon Brown. That is just nasty innuendo. Whoever is saying that should question whether they should be on the committee."

Harris says: "Those who had done the work feel strongly that we had heard more evidence than the others." Asked what he thought of the dissenters'

claim that the report went against 85 per cent of the evidence, he snaps:

"Bollocks." He adds: "To say this was scientists versus non-scientists is the wrong division. Those who supported the report were the ones who turned up to hear the evidence."

With such a strong emotional and political undercurrent, it is unsurprising that the end-of-term party was less than harmonious. For the moment, this does not matter. The committee put out its final report of the year last week, and it will not meet again in its current form.

Farrelly will not serve after the election, and Hoey, who wanted to leave after her first meeting but was kept on by the whips, will also drop out.

But the pressing question is whether this bitter and public dispute will do any lasting damage to a committee that is rumoured to be under review within Westminster. "This report was a big mistake when the committee is fighting for its existence," Farrelly says.

But Gibson remains unbowed. "The punters love to have MPs with sincerely different views standing shoulder to shoulder arguing," he says. "This committee is a hell of a lot of work, but we do important things and we get people thinking."

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