The mitochondrial debate seems suspiciously short for a topic few MPs are experts on

News & Analysis

3rd February 2015

MPs are currently debating changing the law to allow mitochondrial donations. This is a very complex area that few people understand, and that raises strong emotions on both sides, from those who say this will prevent 150 children a year suffering from life-threatening illnesses to those who predict it will put the UK on course to be the first country that allows ‘designer babies’ and certainly allows ‘three-parent babies’.

You might therefore expect that MPs might want to spend a fair bit of time debating the legislation and discussing the ethical implications of it. But the Commons has been given just 90 minutes for this issue. At the start of the session, Tory MP David Burrowes (who opposes the change) made a point of order asking why the debate was so short when similar regulations had been given a debate lasting over three hours. Speaker Bercow explained that he was ‘very sympathetic to the honourable gentleman, but I fear… that I am unable to help him’ because it was down to ministers to extend the time for debate. Ministers had not applied for that, and backbenchers could not call for an extension either, he said.

‘The honourable gentleman knows my views about the importance of empowering backbenchers and I’ve never been much fussed about empowering ministers in any administration as the honourable gentleman knows, but the Speaker has to operate within the established procedures of the House.’

That MPs have time to discuss something before making up their mind to vote seems particularly important on a free vote, and even more important given this is a subject that few in the Commons can claim a great deal of expertise on. Dr Julian Huppert, who has already intervened in the debate to offer some important details on the proposals, claims to be the only scientist in the Commons, while this House of Commons library briefing note says that 1.4 per cent of MPs in the main parties in the Commons, are doctors (it doesn’t list scientists).

And there seems little justification for refusing to extend the debate, given the Commons isn’t exactly jam-packed with legislation at the moment. It’s almost as though ministers would rather MPs voted based on their assumptions rather than at the end of a debate where their views might be challenged.