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UK government defends proposal to abolish HFEA

1 April 2011
Appeared in BioNews 602

The proposed abolition of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was debated yet again in the UK House of Lords on 28 March. Labour peer Baroness Glenys Thornton proposed and withdrew the same amendment to save the HFEA from abolition that she had previously proposed and withdrawn on 9 March.

Baroness Thornton reproposed her amendment because she was unsatisfied with correspondence from health minister Earl Frederick Howe. He had persuaded her to withdraw her first amendment to the Public Bodies Bill by reassuring her the Government would transfer the HFEA's functions to its successor(s) in a coherent and transparent way. He promised to write to her and other concerned peers making the Government's position clear.

She criticised the government's 'pick-and-mix proposals' in her speech reproposing the amendment, arguing that it was unclear what form regulation will take after the HFEA is abolished. She also challenged the government's suggestion that abolishing public bodies will have little or no impact on public confidence or ethical concerns.

Baroness Thornton's amendment was seconded by crossbench peer Baroness Ruth Deech, herself a former Chair of the HFEA. Baroness Deech argued that those who support the government's proposal to abolish the HFEA 'consist largely of those who are impatient about the shackles that regulation imposes and wish to be free of them'. These people and organisations, she said, will not get their wish if the HFEA is abolished because 'they will have to deal with at least two departments or bodies in place of one, which can be guaranteed to be no quicker or cheaper'.

Labour peer Lord Norman Warner complained that, given the lack of detail in the government's proposals, 'it is asking quite a lot of Parliament to take it on trust that we should plonk a couple of organisations of some standing and good functioning in...the Bill and hope it all will all turn out okay eventually'. He argued that by 'tinkering' with regulation in this way, the government was 'opening Pandora's box'.

Earl Howe sought to allay the concerns of Baroness Thornton and others, promising that 'there will be extensive consultation later in the summer on where functions are best transferred and, subsequently, on the orders to effect the transfers'. He also warned of the risk to the ethical framework underlying fertility regulation if the government relies entirely on new primary legislation to abolish the HFEA, rather than including it in the list of arm's-length bodies to be abolished by the Public Bodies Bill.

Baroness Thornton ultimately withdrew her amendment again, but with the caveat that 'I do not think that we have reached a satisfactory and conclusive point in our discussions'. She warned that her concerns about the HFEA will be raised again in Parliament, if the government does not satisfactorily address them before the Public Bodies Bill receives its final reading.

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