Hot flush over HRT

April 1, 2005

MPs must be cool and collected to debate human reproductive technology, says Robert Key

The scientific community has good reason to be puzzled by the unprecedented events surrounding the publication of last week's Commons Science and Technology Committee's report into human reproductive technologies and the law.

Like Parliament itself, select committees can operate smoothly only with goodwill on all sides and assiduous attendance. The most authoritative reports are consensual. On some committees divisions occur on party lines but this is rare.

Where there is deep division on philosophy or policy, it is normal for a minority report to be produced expressing the dissenting case.

Instead, in this instance, a draft of the majority report was leaked to the press and a bitter and unpleasant campaign of attrition was initiated against committee members, staff and distinguished academic and clinical special advisers.

So what went wrong with the HRT report? Three Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one Conservative were in favour, and four Labour and one Conservative were against. The sordid details may emerge in due course. In a nutshell, the committee has been plagued by absenteeism, Commons procedural inertia, personality clashes and an unwillingness to devote time to the few important evidence-taking visits away from Westminster.

What is not in question is that, for various reasons, the dissenters had sincere objections. But their response was incoherent.

As well as an online public consultation, we took evidence from a wide a spectrum of opinion, from the Roman Catholic Church to libertarian academics. Interestingly, in evidence sessions, the "dissenters" asked only 312 questions compared with 1,175 from the rest of us.

In January, the clerks produced the "Heads of Report" for our consideration. Concern was expressed that the tone was too pro-science and too libertarian. We all agreed.

The key paragraph was rewritten to affirm our belief in the consensual, gradualist "Warnock committee" approach. Some then claimed that the rest of the report did not reflect that alteration to their satisfaction. But they did not turn up to meetings to support changes.

They could (and in my view should) have written a minority report, but they said they were too busy and did not have time. Considering the first evidence session was on June 14 last year and the first meeting at which the conclusions of the inquiry were discussed was on December 8, 2004, the one argument that will not wash is that this report was either rushed or prejudiced by the imminence of a general election.

This has been a deep and thorough investigation. The 437 pages of evidence provide a mine of information for Parliament and for the Government as we prepare to overhaul the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. There are no definitively "right" answers to the complex ethical, moral and political questions involved.

We would have failed if we had flinched from addressing the most difficult, divisive and, to some, offensive real-life issues such as sex selection, eugenics, genetic modification, chimeras and hybrids and stem-cell research.

Parliament should do more than reflect public opinion. Select committees should delve deep into the real world, shine a torch into the obscure corners of science and technology and make sensible, practical recommendations - some for policy changes, some for more research, always for more open debate. This we have achieved.

In the next Parliament, the committee chairman should seek to initiate fewer reports - ten a year is too many.

The committee should spend less time in Westminster and more time with scientists and technologists.

After the election, there will be a better political balance. Only enthusiastic and dedicated members should apply. Normal service will then be resumed to Parliament, to the public and to the scientific community.

Robert Key MP is senior opposition member of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the Shadow Science Minister.

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