Questions have been raised in Parliament over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's (HFEA) decision to launch an internal investigation into its operations during the investigation of Mohamed Taranissi, the 'person responsible' for the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre (ARGC) in 2007. The HFEA made allegations that Mr Taranissi was operating without a licence but, faced with legal proceedings, it was forced to withdraw all allegations in 2008.
Mr Taranissi has criticised the HFEA for not holding an independent inquiry and instead deciding to conduct its own internal review. Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP and spokesman for science, asked the Secretary of State for Health how the decision to conduct an internal governance review was reached, what progress has been made and what changes have been implemented by the HFEA to prevent a recurrence of the events. Alan Doran, interim chief executive of the HFEA, has already admitted it went 'badly wrong' when investigating Mr Taranissi and described its performance as 'poor'.
Gillian Merron, Minister of State for public health at the Department of Health published a written answer to Dr Harris' questions on 29 January 2010. She explained that the decision to conduct an internal review was a matter for the HFEA alone and that the Department was 'not involved'. The review will involve a senior officer not involved with events at the time reviewing documentation held by the Authority and contacting those involved in the investigation of Mr Taranissi to contribute. Ms Merron also said that the HFEA has been 'undergoing an overall programme of change since 2008', including changes to its membership and senior management team, which established a new appeals committee, a new compliance and enforcement policy, and 'indicative sanctions guidance and a clear separation of functions between inspection of clinics and licensing'. She says the review will highlight whether further changes are necessary.
The HFEA has published the terms of reference for the internal governance review, described as 'to review the adequacy of the Authority's revised governance arrangements in relation to the threshold between administrative enforcement of our powers and the sphere of criminal law', on its website. The posting goes on to say that now that the police investigation has been concluded, it is 'the time to review the extent to which the changes we have made would be sufficient in the (admittedly rare) eventuality that similar decisions needed to be made in future'.
In response to questions raised by Dr Harris regarding the payment of legal fees by the Department of Health to the HFEA, Ms Merron clarified that £580,000 in 'grant-in-aid' was paid to the HFEA in 2008-09 'in respect of unforeseen expenditure incurred as a result of legal actions'. Although Ms Merron said that such allocations do not specify individual legal actions, she did say the payment was made in respect of proceedings brought by Mr Taranissi and that this has been the only payout of this kind since 2005-2006.