IVF: How a generation of women is being denied the chance to give birth

IoS investigation: Ministers have 'cruelly' broken a pledge of free fertility treatment for all on the NHS
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Thousands of desperate couples are being denied the chance to have children because ministers are failing to enforce their pledge to give infertile women free IVF treatment on the NHS.

An Independent on Sunday investigation has found that only 40 per cent of the country's health trusts say they are offering free IVF treatment - more than two years after being ordered to do so by the then Secretary of State for Health, John Reid. This followed a pledge by Tony Blair to end the "postcode lottery" for fertility services by making free treatment universally available.

But there are still major regional differences in the availability of IVF treatments by hospitals, leading to accusations from MPs that the Prime Minister had misled women.

In some parts of England, hospitals offering free IVF on the NHS are defying official advice by heavily restricting access to the service, such as insisting that women are in their late 30s and have never bought IVF treatment privately. Those restrictions were last night branded "grossly unfair" by the senior Labour MP Kevin Barron, who chairs the Commons health select committee.

Mr Reid promised in February 2004 that women aged between 23 and 39 who had proven fertility problems, would receive one free cycle of IVF treatment by April 2005.

But one year after this deadline, that promise has been broken, with many NHS trusts claiming they are too short of money to fund free services.

MPs on an all-party parliamentary group are to hold an urgent meeting to discuss the "spiteful" and "nasty" treatment by the NHS of infertile couples, when they return to Parliament from their Easter break. The group is to urge MPs to lobby their local hospitals about the lack of fertility provision.

They are also demanding that Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, send guidance to hospitals in England to ensure all hospitals provide a minimum standard of IVF provision. Dari Taylor, the Labour MP for Stockton South, and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on infertility, said: "There is no universal application in IVF treatment happening at all. The distress being caused is monstrous. Women and couples deserve to be told the truth."

Four years ago, the Prime Minister promised couples could expect "the same level of high-quality services" on infertility treatment wherever they lived. Guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), the official agency which sets national guidelines on NHS treatments, state that all women between the ages of 23 and 39 who have experienced infertility problems should have up to three cycles of free IVF on the NHS.

Yet a survey by Nice has found that only 40 per cent of England's 400 primary care trusts have confirmed they offer free IVF treatment. Many of the trusts which failed to respond are suspected of failing to offer free treatment. MPs and fertility charities say that those hospitals which do provide free services are devising "hurdles" to limit the numbers getting free IVF treatment.

Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, has been contacted by dozens of desperate women denied IVF. "The situation is hideous," he said. "It's spiteful. I do think they are being really nasty about this."

Research by Sandra Gidley MP, a Liberal Democrat spokeswoman, established wide variations in eligibility. "Nice was introduced to stop the wide variations all over the country but it has spectacularly failed. Primary care trusts are making individual decisions," she said.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said ministers were sending a message to hospitals to provide at least one full cycle. But it said it was up to PCTs to "make their own decisions about which treatments to fund".