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Leaked letter 'proves' fertility watchdog faces last bark

24 September 2010
Appeared in BioNews 577

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.

Abolition of HFEA 'won't save anything'
BBC Today Programme |  24 September 2010
Leaked list suggests 180 quangos to be abolished
BBC News |  24 September 2010
Lisa Jardine of HFEA quango: 'We will hold the line'
BBC News |  24 September 2010
Quango cuts: 177 bodies to be scrapped under coalition plans
Daily Telegraph |  24 September 2010
Quango cuts: leak suggests 177 to go
Channel 4 |  24 September 2010
19 December 2011 - by Sandy Starr 
The Public Bodies Bill - which empowers the UK Government to transfer the functions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the country's regulator of fertility treatment and embryo research - has received Royal Assent and has become the Public Bodies Act. This Act represents the realisation in statute of the Coalition Government's longstanding plans for a 'bonfire of the quangos'...
6 December 2010 - by Ben Jones 
Lord Rees, outgoing President of the Royal Society, has raised concerns over the abolition of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) saying that it may affect the Government's ability to make well informed policy decisions...
18 October 2010 - by Matthew Smart 
Former members of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) have spoken against proposals to axe the UK’s fertility watchdog...
4 October 2010 - by John Parsons and Michael Savvas 
The Government is considering dismembering the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and dividing its responsibilities between the Care Quality Commission, a proposed new research regulator and possibly an expanded Health and Social Care Information Centre [1]. We believe that, although the HFEA is not perfect, such changes would be a retrograde step and should be resisted...
27 September 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
The UK Government's advisory body on new developments in human genetics faces an uncertain future after it appeared on a leaked list of 177 quangos facing Government review and abolition. Members of the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) received an email on Friday from the Department of Health (DH) apologising for the leak in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, but not contradicting its substance...
6 September 2010 - by Josephine Quintavalle 
The inaugural meeting of CORE in 1994 was entitled, 'Human Reproduction - Who Decides?' and the key speech was by an ex-HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) committee member, Professor Robert Snowden. Focus was specifically on assisted reproduction and the controversial issue of whether or not human embryos should...
23 August 2010 - by Professor Eric Blyth, Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, Dr Lucy Frith, Dr Caroline Jones and Dr Jennifer Speirs 
The UK government's review of Arm's Length Bodies (ALB) in the National Health Service has indicated that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has had its day as a free-standing regulatory body...
16 August 2010 - by Professor Alison Murdoch 
The UK's new government plans to divide the responsibilities of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) between different existing organisations to reduce the cost and burden of regulation. This would see the end of the HFEA as we know it...
2 August 2010 - by Dr Evan Harris 
In its quick review of Arm's Length Bodies, published last week, the Government announced the HFEA would be disbanded. The news was welcomed by some, criticised by others and the HFEA put out a fairly terse statement...
26 July 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
The UK's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), could be split up as the Government's 'bonfire of the quangos' continues....
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