Lords looking at planned new powers to reorganise quangos tomorrow

Posted on November 22, 2010 by

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Tomorrow the Lords are looking in detail at the Public Bodies Bill – the Bill the government has introduced to give them the power to make changes to quangos without having to open up each act that originally created each quango. There is concern over the amount of power this will give government unchecked by parliament. This matters to medical research because two of the quangos marked for reorganisation – that could be reorganised under these new powers – are the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) which regulate ethically sensitive areas of research.

Background

The public bodies bill is intended to create a legal framework that will enable government to make changes to quangos, modifying their constitutions, funding arrangements or transferring their functions elsewhere, without opening up the original Act that created them.

This has an impact on medical research because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Human Tissue Authority (HTA) are both quangos regulating research which the government is planning to reorganise into one single regulator of research. If this Bill goes through, changes can be made to these quangos, and hence the regulation of research, by ministerial order rather than primary legislation (i.e. a Bill that will be debated in both Houses). These powers to amend primary legislation by order are often referred to as Henry VIII powers. See my previous post for more background.

The Lords Select Committee on the Constitution has looked at this bill and raised concerns over the powers it would give government ministers to make changes that currently would need to be  introduced as Bills and debated by parliament. The Committee concluded:

14.  The Public Bodies Bill [HL] is concerned with the design, powers and functions of a vast range of public bodies, the creation of many of which was the product of extensive parliamentary debate and deliberation. We fail to see why such parliamentary debate and deliberation should be denied to proposals now to abolish or to redesign such bodies.

What’s happened?

The Lords had a second reading of the bill on Tuesday 9 November

A lot of concern was expressed about the powers this bill gives the government

The debate was kicked off by Lord Taylor of Holbeach – a Conservative Lords whip and spokesperson for the Cabinet Office. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath had tabled an amendment calling for the bill to be referred to a select committee for more detailed scrutiny rather than the normal next step for a bill, being scrutinised by a Committee of the whole house. His amendment was not passed so the Bill is now headed to a committee of the whole house tomorrow – timetable here

As there are a lot of quangos that will be effected by this Bill, there were lots of peers down to speak and a lot of issues raised in the debate. However several raised the concerns over research.

Check out Baroness Warwick, Chair of the HTA at column 98 who among other things emphasised the important role of the HTA and HFEA in maintaining public confidence in the activity of clinicians and researchers in the areas they regulate (both deal with ethically sensitive areas – handling of human embryos and tissue) and warned that any changes should maintain this confidence.

The HTA has built up considerable professional expertise in relation to the sectors it regulates. This has helped to build the confidence of the public and professionals. Recent data show that this confidence continues to increase. This is largely due to the clear focus of the Human Tissue Authority in the highly specialised area of tissues and organs. Therefore, my first question to the Minister is this: how will the Government ensure that the clear focus on this “extraordinarily sensitive and complex” area-the Government’s own words-will be maintained in any transfer of responsibilities?

Lord Harries at column 111 touched on the extensive legislative process that led to the creation of the HFEA and concern that this bill would enable this to be changed without parliamentary scrutiny

Again, I can speak only from first-hand experience of the HFEA, which came about, as most of your Lordships know, as a result of the report that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, published in 1984. After days of parliamentary debate, it was established as part of the legal framework of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Then, again, after days of debate its existence was reaffirmed as part of the legal framework for work in this area that was provided for by the 2002-03 legislation. That is without including the Select Committee, days of debate on embryo research and other aspects of the work. If Parliament has thought this area so critical that it was worth weeks of its time to set up a regulatory body with very tight regulation in place, it hardly seems responsible to dismember that body with one quick snip and without serious consideration of the implications of so doing. As the Select Committee on the Constitution put it in paragraph 14 of its report, many of the bodies are,

“the product of extensive parliamentary debate and deliberation. We fail to see why such parliamentary debate and deliberation should be denied to proposals now to abolish or to redesign such bodies”.

Baroness Warnock at column 150 also reflected on the HFEA

Lastly on the particular issue, I ask for a stay of sentence on the HFEA. I would probably be expected to say that. I do not have time now to put forward a proper defence of this body. It is a highly specialist body that offers a form of protection against exploitation-this is what is most valuable about it-to a group of highly vulnerable people who are trying and failing to conceive. These people are liable to exploitation, which is why the regulatory and supervisory functions of the HFEA are so important. Apart from that, it has now become a unique research tool in a branch of medicine where research is still badly needed. As we have heard from other noble Lords, its database must be kept up and properly managed by a specialist body. I make a special plea for it: after all, it is one of my babies.

And Lord Hunt comments on the long debates that have been held in the Lords over stem cell research , emphasising that confidence in the standard of regulation was a key factor in the Lords supporting research using embyos stem cells, just before he pushes his amendment at column 180

We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. They spoke about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, as one example. It is an internationally respected organisation. Indeed, it was the respect in which the organisation was held which persuaded this House, after an eight-hour debate, to extend its remit to approve research in relation to stem cells. Why on earth do we undermine that work?

What next?

The Lords are debating this in a committee of the whole house tomorrow.

 

Posted in: Policy