The Government's IVF watchdog is failing fully to punish badly run fertility clinics, according to a critical official review that will do little restore confidence after a series of scandals at some of Britain's top centres.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is risking patient protection by not using the "full range of sanctions" available to it, partly because it is too close to the clinics it regulates, putting its "independence, objectivity and consistency" in jeopardy, a report published last week found.
Several high-profile blunders recently have exposed cracks in the way many of the country's 117 IVF centres are run. One couple's last hopes of having another child were shattered in 2007 after a Welsh centre mixed up their last frozen embryo with another patient's, while a London clinic's failure to screen sperm put its patients at risk of miscarriage or of giving birth to a child with serious health problems.
The HFEA, which regulates the multimillion-pound IVF sector, needs to make more unannounced inspections of clinics to get a "more accurate snapshot" of how well centres comply with guidelines, the review team said. Where there are serious breaches, the watchdog's process of applying sanctions is "long-winded ... [with an apparent] reluctance to utilise the full spectrum of sanctions for fear of negative impact on availability of treatment". The report urged the HFEA to use the "full range" of sanctions at its disposal, which include stripping a clinic of its operating licence, where necessary.
The HFEA has come in for heavy criticism this year. Professor Brian Toft, who conducted an official inquiry into an embryo mix-up in 2002 in which black twins were born to a white couple, called it "not fit for purpose".
Guy Forster, a solicitor at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, which has represented several couples who have suffered mix-ups, said: "We've been concerned with the quality of inspections and how rigorous they are. Inspections are there to root out problems, and they are just not doing that." He said if the watchdog took a "much firmer line with clinics [where there has been a problem], then other clinics would be much more likely to pay attention to the importance of risk management".
Despite two separate "near miss" incidents, IVF Wales, which is based in Cardiff, escaped censure the year before a blunder that robbed Paul Thomas and Deborah Hole of the chance of having another child, Mr Forster added. An investigation later blamed "inappropriate witnessing" for Deborah Hole's embryo being implanted in the wrong woman, who then took the morning-after pill. The hospital admitted liability in July this year after an investigation concluded safety procedures were not followed.
Although the HFEA has claimed to have overhauled its regulation guidelines, the review team said it had not seen "compelling evidence" to suggest the watchdog would achieve its aims. Alan Doran, the HFEA's chief executive, said: "We accept there are areas for improvement, some of which we have already started work on."Reuse content