The UK's fertility regulator is on a Government 'hit list' of quangos facing abolition, according to a letter leaked this week. The letter, dated 26 August, supposedly from Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to other ministers lists the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) among 177 quangos due to be axed.
BioNews reported two months ago that the HFEA could be split up following the publication of a Government review of health Arm's Length Bodies (ALBs). 'There isn't anything new in this news story compared to two months ago and we'd like to reassure patients that they will continue to receive regulation', a HFEA spokesperson told BioNews.
Baroness Deech, former HFEA Chair, reiterated that the leaked letter was no surprise on Friday morning's BBC Today programme. 'It was trailed and it's aroused great dismay', she said.
HFEA Chair Lisa Jardine responded to news of the leaked letter on BBC News this afternoon saying the HFEA would 'hold the line' until someone took over its functions. 'We will keep doing that work until someone else takes over. Without that you're going to have things that the government fears and the public fears - things like human admixed embryos, which have human material in as well as animal material'.
The HFEA's functions will be split three ways when it's finally 'dismantled', Lisa Jardine told the BBC. 'It is proposed that our regulatory functions will go to a beefed-up Care Quality Commission (the health and social care regulator) and there should be a new regulatory body for science research', she said.
'The work we do on regulating licensing research based on embryonic tissue - anything that's based on human tissue - might go into this new body, but that would require primary legislation so we're looking at two, three years on that. Our information might go to the big government information bank, but I think that's a red herring because our information is so sensitive - parenting of donor-conceived children and all that'.
Baroness Deech also highlighted the importance of the HFEA's role and lamented the regulator's fate: 'This is one (quango) that deals with new life, new baby life and health and very important ethical and medical matters', she said.
'It only costs £5 million and it is not taxpayers' money, most of that £5 million comes from the patients', she said. 'By the time you've made fresh arrangements for, for example, protecting the database holding all the names of anonymous fathers and treatments, you won't save anything at all'.
'And at the same time, you'll be harming the worldwide reputation of the HFEA. The HFEA's guardianship has allowed the UK to become a world leader in stem cell research'.
'A Commons and Lords Scrutiny Committee looked at this issue three years ago and concluded we had to have a HFEA', she said. 'But it attracts jealousy and misunderstanding'.
'There's a certain swashbuckling faction of doctors who don't want anyone interfering. On the extreme right-wing as well, there's a faction who don't want any work on embryos at all'.
John Parsons, a retired gynaecologist who will write a comment piece for next week's BioNews about the HFEA's future, agreed with Baroness Deech. He told BioNews: 'I think the HFEA has been crucial in the development and acceptance of IVF in this country and it would be a terrible loss to the assisted conception sector'.
'I don't know why people have been so negative about it, but I guess doctors don't like people looking over their shoulder'.
BioNews has published several comment pieces about the demise of the HFEA in recent weeks, presenting different views about the merits of abolition and questioning whether it will happen at all.
The Cabinet Office has launched a leak inquiry following press coverage of the letter, according to a BBC News report, and says it regrets any 'uncertainty' caused to quango employees.