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House of Lords debates amendments to Public Bodies Bill

16 May 2011
Appeared in BioNews 607

The UK's House of Lords has voted on an amendment to the Public Bodies Bill that, if passed, would have impeded the Government's power to abolish its fertility regulator. The amendment, which would have prevented the abolition of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) until the cost-effectiveness of such a move had been independently assessed, was narrowly defeated. There were 199 votes in favour of the amendment and 209 against. Two related amendments concerning the HFEA were also debated.

Previously, Labour Peer Glenys Thornton had proposed amendments to the Bill that would have protected the HFEA's powers from modification or transfer. She subsequently withdrew these, following assurances from Conservative Health Minister Frederick Howe. Crossbench Peer Ruth Deech, a former Chair of the HFEA, introduced this latest debate, saying: 'The HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) should remain untouched until a new research regulatory body is in place'. In the meantime: 'There should be a wholly independent external review of the HFEA'.

She said: 'I am seeking to preserve it from being shattered and to prevent lasting damage being caused'. She also argued: 'There is no practical benefit in abolishing the HFEA and handing its responsibilities over to the Care Quality Commission'. The Care Quality Commission regulates health and social care services in England.

Baroness Deech's arguments for the amendments were echoed by several Peers. Labour Peer Diana Warwick said: 'These amendments are necessary and will act as a safety framework for the Bill as it enters the other place and then goes onwards for external consultation'. (The 'other place' is the House of Commons.) She also urged the Government to consider conducting a full assessment of its plans for the HFEA.

The Bishop of Guildford, Christopher Hill, said the amendments 'would guarantee in one way or another that the enormously valuable work of the present ethics committee of the two bodies is continued'. Lord Hill is concerned about maintaining the special moral status of the human embryo.

IVF specialist Lord Robert Winston expressed his concerns that the HFEA had not tackled the high cost of IVF treatment. He said: 'One of the greatest ethical issues involved in this treatment is its lack of accessibility'. He went on to say: 'This privileged treatment is a shocking issue'.

Baroness Thornton responded to Lord Winston and other peers' concerns by saying: 'There is no guarantee that their concerns about the HFEA, which I am sure are legitimate, would be addressed if we left the Bill as it is without the reassurances'.

In response to the debate, Earl Howe said: 'There will be a full public consultation on our proposals this summer. Alongside that, we will publish an impact assessment, which will include a view about the cost-effectiveness of options for transferring functions'.

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