Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Public Bodies Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 28th March 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Labour 10:15 pm, 28th March 2011

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Human Tissue Authority. I and my authority remain concerned about the impact of the Bill on public and professional confidence in the safe and ethical use of human tissue, as has already been raised by my noble friend. My first question to the Minister is to seek reassurance that the HTA's functions will not be divided. A division of our functions into three or possibly four different parcels would, in my view, risk undermining the legislation that the HTA was set up to implement, increase the regulatory burden on the sectors we regulate and damage public confidence that has been so hard won.

We must not forget that the HTA was established as a result of scandals at Alder Hey and Bristol Royal Infirmary. Those events caused profound grief among affected families, outrage amongst the public and a crisis of confidence. Those events are still recent. The Human Tissue Act, which set up the HTA and was subject to more than 100 of hours of parliamentary scrutiny, was passed in 2004. The HTA began regulating as recently as 2006. In a relatively short period, it has successfully turned around that crisis of confidence. When people know there is effective regulation, they are more confident in donating their tissue for medical research, their organs for transplant and their bodies for medical education and training. Increased public confidence should mean more donation; more donation should increase professional confidence, thereby creating a virtuous circle beneficial for all. More lives are saved; more people are given back their quality of life; and there is more research and surgical skills training for the benefit of the public.

The Government's arm's-length bodies review sets out proposals for transferring the HTA's functions across three or four different organisations. I fear that separating the HTA's functions would risk undermining the progress that has been made in building public and professional confidence. Leading thinkers have voiced profound concerns about dismantling the HTA. Senior legal academics have said in the Sunday Times:

"The proposals to abolish the Human Tissue Authority-HTA and the divisions of its functions among larger, non-specialist regulators-risk confusion and error in the implementation of the Human Tissue Act 2004, which in turn will erode public confidence".

In addition, earlier this month, senior consultant surgeons writing in the Guardiansaid that moves to break up the HTA would,

"undermine professional and public confidence in the area of medical consent", and urged,

"the government to think again and stop trying to operate on things that aren't broken".

I hope that the Minister will listen to these voices.

The Minister has said that the HTA's health-related functions should transfer to the Care Quality Commission. I am still not clear about the fate of the HTA's organ donation and research functions. The ALB review does not suggest a home for its organ donation approvals and suggests that its research functions should transfer to a single research regulator.

With regard to organs, the Human Tissue Act requires board approval of highly sensitive and ethically complex cases of organ donation from living people. If this were to be placed with the CQC, how would the Minister meet the statutory requirement that at least three authority board members who are specifically trained in this area review such cases?

With regard to research, the new regulator for health research will provide a potentially helpful way forward for streamlining medical research in the UK, simplifying life for researchers and increasing the quantity and quality of research. The Minister stated at Second Reading that the purpose of this Bill was to streamline the process of regulation and to reduce costs and bureaucracy. I do not see how the proposal to transfer the HTA's research functions to this new regulator would achieve simplification; nor do I believe the proposals would save money. The sectors that the HTA regulates are interrelated and interdependent, and although it regulates a separate research sector, the licensing framework also allows establishments in the post-mortem, patient treatment and anatomy sectors to store tissue for research as well as for other purposes.

I take the post-mortem sector as an example. The proposal would result in at least one-third of post-mortem establishments needing to be licensed by an additional regulator if they wished to store material for research. A similar proportion of establishments storing tissue for patient treatment would also need to be licensed by an additional regulator. The regulatory burden on an estimated 200 establishments would therefore increase, not decrease. So can the Minister explain what impact this proposal will have on the regulatory burden on these establishments? Can he explain who would be responsible for producing the statutory code of practice on consent and who would be responsible for ensuring consistently high standards if the HTA's functions were divided?

My noble friend Lady Thornton raised concerns about the ethical dimensions of the work being lost in the rush to amend the mechanical processes. I share these concerns. This is a complex ethical landscape. The HTA has the professional expertise to respond to emerging forms of communication such as Facebook and Twitter. These are now being used as conduits for patients looking for organ donors. We are launching consultation on this very issue in May, and this is a good example of how agile and sensitive the authority can be. Can the Minister assure me that the credibility that lay and professional board members bring to the HTA will not be lost in the Care Quality Commission, when the CQC has only a small number of commissioners? An advisory group has been mentioned. If that model is proposed, can the Minister say what guarantee there will be of its independence?

I apologise for raising so many issues at this late hour but there are many issues still to be resolved. In summing up, I say only that the reason the HTA was established has not gone away and there is still work to be done. My argument is not against the Government's intention to simplify the regulatory landscape; rather, I want to avoid putting at risk the substantial gains that the HTA has made by splitting its functions across a number of different organisations and losing the overall coherent approach which has been so successful in supporting public and professional confidence and ensuring that tissues and organs are used safely and ethically and with proper consent.

I have one final plea. David Thewlis and Stuart Taylor, both parents affected by the events at Alder Hey, brought it all home to me recently when they said:

"All the effort and soul searching that went into the establishing of the Human Tissue Authority cannot afford to be overthrown by abolishing the HTA and splitting its functions".

I urge noble Lords to take this on board when deliberating the future of the HTA.