Genetics reply angers MPs

January 19, 1996

The Government's response to a House of Commons report on opportunities and dangers posed by the fast-moving field of genetics has been slammed by MPs as "complacent and ignorant".

The MPs, all members of the Commons science and technology select committee which produced the report last July, are particularly put out by indications that the Government has not even understood the issues highlighted by the report.

Key recommendations in the Commons report, Human genetics: the science and its consequences, include the setting up of a Human Genetics Commission to oversee areas such as the reviewing and regulation of genetic medicines and gene patenting; approval of genetic screening programmes before they are introduced; monitoring of genetic disorders relevant to employment and the scrutiny of the effect of genetic medicine on the insurance market.

The Government's rejection of a commission, on the grounds that existing bodies already cover the majority of issues for which such a commission would have responsibility, has angered committee MPs.

Labour's Jeremy Bray said: "The failure to set up a genetics commission is very short-sighted. If you wait for problems to arise in areas such as genetic screening and clinical diagnostics it only serves to produce outrage. To think ad hoc committees will do the job of a genetic commission is absurd."

Conservative committee member Sir Gerard Vaughan said the Government's reply was "very complacent". He said: "They do not appear to have understood the issues at stake at all. The Government has, for example, completely fudged the issue of gene patenting; they have not dealt with the danger of undesirable research taking place. How do we stop it happening before it starts?

"I see this issue as having parallels with nuclear research. We need to be sure that everything is out in the open so that the public can decide to move to stop it if they want."

Labour's Anne Campbell, also chairman of the parliamentary scientific committee, is "dismayed" by the complacency indicated by the Government in its response. She added: "Indeed it is unclear whether members of the Government or its advisers have read our report - certainly they have not understood the implication of advances in genetic science."

Mrs Campbell also accused the Government of "brushing aside" the possibility of discrimination by employers gaining access to personal genetic data. She is not impressed by the Government's plan to set up a health department advisory body covering genetic testing arguing that it will never be able to cover the same ground as the human genetic commission recommended by the committee.

Conservative committee member Spencer Batiste said that although the Government response makes useful commitments and acknowledges the importance of genetics, the refusal to set up a genetic commission was unsatisfactory. "It's extremely important to have a strategic overview of the field. I do not believe the area can be treated on an ad hoc basis and I hope that this issue can be reconsidered by the Government because its response as it stands is really not adequate," he said.

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