As the UK government prepares to abolish a respected regulator of fertility treatment and research, two crossbench members of the country’s upper house have pledged to fight for its future.
Last year the UK’s coalition government announced that the HFEA would be thrown onto its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ along with a number of other arms-length bodies*.
The HFEA’s impending demise has not been welcomed by many scientists, who say it has done great work in regulating controversial areas such as human embryo research (see: UK embryo agency faces the axe). Today the authority unveiled what may be its swan song: a public consultation on sperm and egg donation which included the hot topic of whether compensation should be paid.
Richard Harries, a Crossbench member of the House of Lords who has formerly served as both Bishop of Oxford and a member of the HFEA’s ethics and law committee, today accused the government of trying to take on “Henry VIII powers” in abolishing a swathe of health quangos and bringing many of their functions closer to government **.
“I believe this is extremely foolish,” he said at a meeting organised by genetics research advocacy charity the Progress Educational Trust at London’s Royal Society. “It is being vigorously opposed in the House of Lords.”
He admitted that the HFEA did need to bring in a “lighter touch” but that he had “no evidence that the careful work it does would be preserved under another system”. A proper review of the authority is merited and might show that a slimmed down regulator could be cheaper and better, he said.
Another crossbench member of the Lords, John Walton, also backed the need for a lighter touch. He confessed to some guilt about the authority’s abolition, as he said he had sometimes used the term ‘quangocracy’ in Parliamentary debates: “But I did not include the HFEA.”
“I hope the HFEA will continue,” Walton said from the floor of the meeting. “We will do our best to see if it can do.”
Robin Lovell-Badge, one of the UK’s leading researchers and head of stem cell biology at the National Institute of Medical Research, also spoke in support of the agency. He also highlighted the HFEA’s international reputation, saying, “It is not viewed as perfect, but as something that is the best of its kind.”
Not everyone agreed. Alison Murdoch, head of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at Newcastle University and a long-time critic of some aspects of the HFEA, told the meeting the authority made things more difficult for practicing clinicians and researchers. Splitting its current tasks of regulating both research and the clinical practice of IVF would reflect the current situation where this treatment is now routine, she said.
* quasi-autonomous-nongovernmental bodies = quangos.
** Henry is famously associated with the 1539 Statute of Proclamations, which allowed him to make laws by proclamation.