The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was once again the topic of a debate in the House of Lords on 1 February 2011. Following the proposed abolition of the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), Baroness Glenys Thornton asked how the UK government will maintain public confidence and patient safety.
Baroness Thornton drew attention to that 'UK legislation on these matters is the envy and the blueprint for the world' and that more than 200 hours were spent scrutinising and debating the legislation that established the HFEA'. She said 'the public have learnt to trust the HFEA and, indeed, the HTA' and raised concerns regarding who would take on the role as 'a bulwark between the sensational headlines in the less responsible press and those who are working in the field' if either of these bodies were abolished, and questioned whether the Care Quality Commission (CQC) was suitable.
'I am not opposed to change and improvement and I am not opposed to these proposals for the sake of it. I support change to make organisations more effective…by changing regulatory functions or by testingto see whether functions could be performed more effectively elsewhere', said Baroness Thornton.
She added: 'I suggest that public confidence in this area is best established through the independence of the bodies that regulate - the HTA and the HFEA - and that the Government need to rethink their proposals'.
Baroness Thornton's concerns about how the ethical and safeguarding functions might satisfactorily be carried out if HFEA and HTA were abolished were echoed by several peers. Lord Willis of Knaresborough explained: 'it is the lack of clarity over what is proposed, the lack of any consultation on the proposals, and in particular the lack of any public involvement in these proposals that makes me concerned about the future functions of both the HTA and the HFEA'.
Baroness Ruth Deech, former chair of the HFEA, said that placing the regulation with the CQC is 'misguided' and there will be 'no improvement in public confidence'. She said the public will not be persuaded that embryos will be treated with respect and 'there will be bounds on embryo research if it is handed over to unknowns and not the accountable and expert figures of the HFEA'.
On the other hand, Lord Robert Winston felt it was rather 'delightful' to support the Minister and the government's position. He stated that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act was 'at the time an essential piece of legislation, which has now passed its day' and was 'no longer necessary'. 'The research that it regulates is not really suitable for regulation by the HFEA', he said.
In response to the debate, the Health Minister Earl Frederick Howe said a public consultation on the reallocation will take place over the summer. He said the plans 'do not represent any threat to patient safety, nor to the safeguards held within the legislative framework of provisions within the HFE Act and the Human Tissue Act'. Instead, he said, it is about 'streamlining the functions of the regulatory bodies concerned'.
'The burden of bureaucracy will be lessened overall for the NHS and other organisations', he explained.