Insurers' gene tests banned

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LIFE INSURANCE companies are to be forced by the Government to stop using the results of genetic tests to screen out people at risk of inherited diseases.

Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, has written to the industry warning that the Government will introduce legislation outlawing the controversial practice at the earliest opportunity if firms continue to flout a voluntary agreement not to use the tests.

Ministers are furious that insurers are using the results of genetic tests for life-threatening illnesses such as breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease to deny people cover or decide what premiums to charge their customers.

They believe the industry has broken a deal, struck last year, that companies would not use genetic screening until the tests had been formally approved by the Government's Genetics and Insurance Committee.

In his letter to the Association of British Insurers, Lord Sainsbury said the Government was quite prepared to introduce a statutory ban on insurers using information from genetic tests. He ordered the industry to produce an explanation by this Tuesday as to why companies were continuing to use the results of genetic screening before the tests had been approved. "We will then be in a position to make a decision on introducing legislation," he said. And he warned: "Once legislation is in motion it would be very difficult to stop it."

Lord Sainsbury and Tessa Jowell, the health minister, also expressed their concerns that the voluntary ban was not being observed at a meeting with the ABI in May.

Sources at the Department for Trade and Industry said the Government was already preparing legislation which would outlaw the practice and would implement it as a matter of urgency if insurers did not abide by the voluntary agreement immediately. One source said: "We have bent over backwards to keep the insurance industry on board over this but they have done very little to assuage public concerns. If they do not introduce a proper voluntary system then we will have to legislate."

The clampdown follows the revelation that the industry has continued to gather genetic information from prospective customers if they have undergone one of 10 tests for seven inherited disorders. A code of practice produced by the ABI - whose members control the pounds 13bn annual life insurance market - allows firms to ask for the result of a test if one has been taken, but not to order the customer to take a test.

Ministers are concerned that the tests are being used to assess insurance policies before they have been cleared as fair, accurate or valid by the Government's scientific advisers.

Critics also fear that the use of genetic tests to establish vulnerability to inherited disease could lead to a pool of "uninsurable" people who would either be unable to obtain cover or face exorbitant premiums. The National Consumer Council warned the tests could be used to "discriminate against people who are predisposed to particular illnesses".