Health Minister Earl Frederick Howe has made reassurances that the Government has no intention of revisiting the ethical safeguards in the UK's fertility, embryology and human tissue legislation in the proposed arm's-length body reform process.
Responding to amendments proposed by Baroness Thornton in the House of Lords to effectively put the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Human Tissue Authority (HTA) outside the scope of the Government's Public Bodies Bill, Earl Howe said the current ethical framework under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act and Human Tissue Act was 'necessary to maintain public confidence in these sensitive areas' and would remain untouched. He said that 'future arrangements to regulate tissue and embryos must adhere strictly to the provisions of the two relevant Acts'
Earl Howe explained the inclusion of the HFEA and HTA was necessary to avoid having to introduce further primary legislation. 'Without the inclusion of these bodies... we would have to provide for the transfer of their functions entirely within future primary legislation', he said. 'This would significantly increase the risk that the underlying ethical provisions of the HFE Act and the Human Tissue Act could be reopened for debate'.
Baroness Thornton tabled two amendments to remove the inclusion of the HFEA and HTA from the Bill saying that NHS restructuring proposals meant more time was needed to consider the future of the bodies. Although she admitted there was room for improvement in the work of the HFEA and HTA, Baroness Thornton said the bodies' work is of 'enormous scientific importance'.
She said the current proposals would mean 'both organisations would have their work and their regulation fragmented unnecessarily when they need to be left alone to get on with the jobs that they do very well' and called for a proper period of consultation and scrutiny to precede legislative measures to implement any changes.
Earl Howe also affirmed Government plans to consult on proposals to transfer all of the HFEA and HTA functions to other bodies in the summer before proposing draft orders under the Public Bodies Act, if it becomes law, to implement any such transfer.
Baroness Thornton agreed to withdraw the amendments saying more time was needed to consider Earl Howe's response before the report stage on 23 March, after which the Bill will receive a final reading before going to the House of Commons.
Baroness Thornton's amendments were supported by Lord Warner and Lord Willis of Knaresborough, with Lord Harries of Pentregarth also supporting the removal of the HFEA from the text of the Bill. Lord Warner was the minister responsible for reviewing the Department of Health's arm's-length bodies under the former Labour government in 2004 reducing their number by half. Lord Warner also proposed merging the HFEA and HTA into a single body.