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Ethics briefing
  1. Martin Davies,
  2. Sophie Brannan,
  3. Eleanor Chrispin,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather

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Reprieve for regulatory bodies

On 25 January 2013, the UK Government announced that it had decided against abolishing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Human Tissue Authority (HTA) as it had originally announced in 2010.1 This was the second aborted attempt to change the UK's regulatory mechanism for human embryos and tissues in less than a decade. In 2005, the Government had announced that it planned to merge the two bodies to form a Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE),2 only to reverse its decision two years later. On both occasions, the Government spent two years trying to persuade people of the benefit of its proposals, only to be persuaded itself by the contrary arguments.

In 2010, the coalition Government came to power promising to unleash ‘a bonfire of the quangos’ (public bodies, also referred to as ‘arms length bodies’). Among the 192 organisations highlighted for abolition were the HFEA and the HTA. The plan was to have one regulator for clinical practice (the Care Quality Commission (CQC)), and one for research (the Health Research Authority (HRA); the functions of the HFEA and HTA would be split between those two bodies, with some tasks transferred elsewhere, and the two bodies would be abolished. The Government passed wide-ranging legislation—the Public Bodies Act 2011—giving it the power to modify or abolish the organisations listed by secondary legislation. While on paper this may have appeared a sensible solution, as in 2007, the practical implications and the risks of such a change soon became apparent.

The CQC, which was to have taken on many of the functions, had itself been castigated for high-profile failings in its regulation of health and social care establishments. The Public Accounts Committee, for example, had concluded that the CQC had ‘failed to fulfil its core role effectively’ and …

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