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 Lord Willis of Knaresborough Lord Willis of Knaresborough Liberal Democrat 10:15 pm, 28th March 2011

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for missing her opening remarks in introducing the amendment.

The fact that so many noble Lords wish to speak to the amendment at this hour indicates that this is an issue of significance to your Lordships' House. In Committee, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay ended his remarks by saying that he had helped to give birth to the baby that was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority but that perhaps it was now time to let the child move out, or words to that effect. Before a child moves out into the world, it is important that a responsible parent-and I think that the House should regard itself as a responsible parent-knows that it is safe to do so. However, the reality is that during the passage of the Bill, and in particular during the Committee stage and in the clarification given since then, many questions asked on behalf of the HFEA and the HTA, as the noble Baroness has just indicated, have not been answered. That is regrettable. I think that the House accepts that what the Government are trying to do has a great deal of merit; it is just that it requires organisations to be properly set up before the functions are transferred.

As I have said on two previous occasions, I am not against what the Government are ultimately trying to do. However, before we get rid of two organisations in which the public have great confidence and whose operation is tried and tested, we should be absolutely clear about what will happen to their functions. Although the Minister has made tremendous attempts to satisfy inquiries from noble Lords on all sides of the House, I think that his letter of 22 March to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, raises more issues than it resolves. I am sure that the noble Lord will go through that letter in great detail and therefore I do not intend to do so. However, some of the comments in it indicate that two organisations appear to be in the running to inherit most of the functions of the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority -the Medical Research Agency and the Care Quality Commission. I was delighted that the Chancellor made it clear in his Statement last week that the Medical Research Agency is going to be set up but, as many noble Lords have said, that announcement was made literally only a week ago. We know nothing about the way in which the organisation will work, other than the report of the Academy of Medical Sciences suggesting that an agency overlooking the whole of medical research would be a good thing.

As for the Care Quality Commission, it is itself an organisation in its infancy and learning how to do its business. Indeed, there are significant complaints about the Care Quality Commission. That is not an overarching criticism. It is inevitable that when a new organisation sets itself up, particularly one that inherited so many problems from its predecessors, there will be difficulties, yet here we are, saying that we will lump another major piece of work with it.

In Committee, the Minister made it clear that the existing personnel would be transferred en bloc into the new organisations, yet in the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, there is no mention of key personnel being transferred into the Care Quality Commission. I understand that staff are seeking posts elsewhere. They will move out of the organisation. If we are not careful, there will be nothing to transfer and we will be looking for new personnel in these key posts. Will the Minister clarify that issue?

The new Medical Research Agency will not be set up until the latter part of this Parliament at the earliest. The Minister floated the idea that some of its functions could be transferred early using the Public Bodies Act-regulation and inspection of clinical services could go to the Care Quality Commission, for example. There is a further suggestion that all but the research functions of both the HTA and the HFEA could be transferred under the Public Bodies Act, as it will then be, with the final process completed following the setting up of the Medical Research Agency. Such hypothetical and confusing scenarios to break up two well-respected and well-worked regulators will do little for public confidence in either of these two areas. It will do little for clinician confidence and will certainly do nothing for research community confidence either. It is important that the agency is set up, properly staffed and has clear terms of reference agreed with both Houses of Parliament before we transfer these key functions to it.

One function that has been set out by the Academy of Medical Sciences, which is a clear pathway, is an ethical structure. We argued when we were looking at the draft Bill and your Lordships in this House argued during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that we ought to have some form of parliamentary ethics committee. At least the Academy of Medical Sciences has said that there ought to be an overarching ethics committee to look at both areas. But if clinical ethics are not dealt with by that organisation, who will deal with them? Where within the Care Quality Commission are the sort of important ethical considerations that are necessary if we are to transfer all these functions to that body?

I can see the attraction of a method of transfer of functions to avoid primary legislation. I understand why the Minister would want to go down that road, particularly given the enormously strong public scrutiny over legislation concerning the Human Tissue Authority and embryology and stem cells over the past five years, but the idea that if the scrutiny is only in both Houses of Parliament it will be less severe does not hold up. There are 200 new MPs in the other place who were not party to any of this legislation when it went through. It is highly optimistic to believe that there will not be very detailed scrutiny of any new arrangements. I suggest to the Minister in all humility that he accepts the amendment before us tonight or makes some provision to satisfy our concerns. He should seek a comprehensive solution to the problem that the Government have created for themselves. I for one-and, I suspect, many of your Lordships-would agree that there is a way forward from this. The Medical Research Agency is a good idea. There is a possibility of transferring some of the functions to the Care Quality Commission, but it needs to be done en bloc, rather than piecemeal, so that there is a danger of undermining two excellent regulators, which have public confidence, the confidence of most clinicians and the confidence of the research community.