Fertility clinic watchdog faces privatisation

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

The Government has ordered a review of the public watchdog for embryology clinics and is considering privatising or contracting out the authority's role. It will also look at the scope for charging more fees for its work.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority believes the importance of its role was underlined by the row yesterday over the "sale" of human eggs.

The authority condemned the practice but found that it was unable to intervene in private arrangements between donors and patients, under which young women have been paid pounds 1,000 for their eggs.

The authority is looking at the possibility of using its powers to bar clinics from conducting the operations for transferring the eggs from donors to patients where a sale is involved.

The threat to raise more in fees is likely to dismay couples, who could face higher costs passed on to them by clinics.

The review has alarmed anti-abortion MPs, including David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, who obtained the terms of reference for the review team from the House of Commons library.

The authority, chaired by Ruth Deetch, principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, is strongly opposed to privatisation. The authority is planning to warn the review team, set up by the Department of Health, that privatisation would be threaten its legal responsibility of confidentiality to its patients.

"It would be difficult to envisage privatisation, not least because we hold so much information that by law must be kept confidential.

"By law, we cannot disclose to anyone who is not a member of the authority. There is an inherent difficulty with privatisation. We maintain a register of information about patients and donors. I would see considerable difficulty in contracting that out. It is why we are maintaining the register ourselves," said a spokesman for the authority.

The terms of reference for the review, carried out every five years, question whether the authority is needed, and whether the public body is the "best vehicle for meeting the Government's objectives in the issues of human fertilisation and embryology".

It will question whether the authority is meeting its aims and objectives, and its targets; the efficiency, effectiveness and economy of its operations, including its financial and management systems; the scope for increasing the proportion of its expenditure that is recovered from fees; the prospects for further simplifying and streamlining its procedures in keeping with the Government's deregulation initiatives; and whether there is scope for contracting out, privatisation or transferring all or part of the its function to another body.

The authority was set up 10 years ago after the report by the ethical committee chaired by Baroness Warnock.