Clause 10

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 3rd June 2008.

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Power to delegate and establish committees

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (Health)

Again, I just have a few questions for the Minister. Will she clarify the exact possible workings of clause 10, which deals with contracting out to, and the setting up of, committees? The clause gives the authority the power to delegate and establish committees, and there is concern over the accountability and transparency of the process. Will the Minister tell us her thoughts on which committees the HFEA thinks it might be appropriate to set up? To whom would it delegate and on what terms, and what would be the relationship between the committees and the HFEA?

I also understand that the committees can include people who are not members of the HFEA, thereby potentially linking back to some of our discussions on earlier clauses about the appropriateness, the qualifications and the relevance of some of the people who may serve on the committees. Will the Minister explain exactly why it is necessary for the authority to be able to set up the committees? What has not worked well in the HFEA to date that makes it necessary? Why is it necessary to be able to bring in outside people who are not members of the authority?

I would also like to make sure that clause 10 will not allow the authority to move away from decisions licensed by the senior level in the authority and from responsibility for the code of practice. I understand that the purpose—again, it would be helpful if the Minister confirmed this—is to speed up the decision-making process. There is clearly concern about the time that some licensing decisions take, but it is important to maintain transparency and accountability. Some clinics have serious concerns about licensing being renewed at a purely executive level, not an authority level. A confirmation is needed that the appeal process will remain in place, despite the powers to delegate down, and that it will remain the same structure and fall to the people on the appeal panel, not the people who made the original decisions.

The Minister will also be aware of the context. There has been judicial criticism of the former chief executive. I do not want to go into detail, but it may in part drive some of the concerns. Of course I understand that a process is needed for speeding up decision-making for granting licences, but it would be helpful if she would confirm whether delegation applies to all categories set out in the Bill for which the HFEA has responsibility, which include licensing, variation, suspension and revocation.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 5:30 pm, 3rd June 2008

The explanatory notes to clause 10 have, I regret to say, managed to confuse me. I should be grateful for clarification on two simple points. If the Minister can convince me, my mind will be at rest. I am not clear whether it is meant that staff will be able to take licensing decisions and develop the code of practice. That is what it seems to say. Can she also point us to the  measure in the Bill—if she cannot, could she tell us—what functions will still be able to be exercised only by members of the HFEA?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department of Health) (Public Health)

At present, the 1990 Act requires HFEA members to be involved in all licensing decisions. As hon. Members have said, there has been comment about whether that is overly restrictive on the speed with which decisions are taken, particularly with regard to what might be considered routine licence applications. Clause 10 provides that the authority can set up committees to which it can delegate any of its functions. It will give the HFEA the flexibility to determine how best to manage its licensing process. That may involve divisions between more routine decisions and decisions that are slightly more challenging or contentious.

The new provisions mean that there will no longer be a specific requirement for a licence committee to be set up, nor will any such committee be required to comprise only HFEA members. Under the new provisions, for instance, the delegation to any committee could include members as well as a member of staff.

Under the 1990 Act, the authority could not delegate any function relating to licensing in that way. The Bill ensures that the HFEA can delegate licensing decisions to staff, ensuring that such decisions can be made quickly and within a framework set by the authority. There will need to be an escalation procedure to ensure that difficult or more contentious decisions are taken with the appropriate authority under these delegated powers. Therefore, we are asking the HFEA to consider how to deal speedily with licence applications.

The provisions are sensible and provide flexibility so that the authority can speed up its decision making and meet requirements of better regulatory practice. That will help the authority respond proportionately to its functions, delegating when appropriate, which should speed up decision making and cut costs. We thought that this provision was sensible to modernise regulation and would be in keeping with the Bill. It was particularly necessary following the removal of the proposal to establish the regulatory authority for tissue and embryos. As we took that part of the regulation out, we needed to have something in this clause instead. The provision should help to speed up the matter, but it does not remove the responsibility of the entire authority for the decisions that are taken. It is a question whether—I am struggling for the words to describe this—there are less complicated decisions that could then be endorsed by the full Committee, but that could be considered more quickly. The question of the appeal process and everything that needs to be in place is there. That is the main requirement. Arrangements are continuing to be reviewed and put in place to ensure that the provision is robust.

I hope that members of the Committee will be reassured that this is a proportionate response to criticism of lack of speed in agreeing licences, particularly when they are straightforward. The provision recognises the full range of expertise in the authority, but none the less makes it clear that decision making has to be speeded up.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I should be grateful if the Minister would be so kind as to write to me in response to one of my points and share the letter with members of the Committee. I asked her what functions could be exercised only by the members and could not be delegated.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department of Health) (Public Health)

I am happy to do that. The members will still be responsible for all decisions, because there will need to be an endorsement. In that sense, there is no removal of power from the members of the board. As regards providing flexibility to the HFEA, I will be happy to write to all members of the Committee, through you, Mr. Gale, to explain the sort of things that we would want to interact to ensure that there is no loss of accountability, expertise and scrutiny in this area by the regulatory authority that we have put in place.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (Health)

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has, as always, hit the nail on the head. I am very grateful to the Minister for consenting to his request to circulate a clarification letter to the Committee. I think that there would be concerns if the HFEA was allowed to delegate the totality of functions, including licence suspension or revocation, without retaining control over the key ones. I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and also for agreeing to send us a letter, which we will look at closely.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department of Health) (Public Health)

I am more than happy to do that. This was a matter that the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee looked at when considering flexibility for the HFEA, although not necessarily in this area. I assure the hon. Members for Boston and Skegness and for Salisbury that the points that they have raised were precisely those that I and my officials, who will remain nameless, focused on. We wanted to ensure that the regulatory authority continued to discharge its statutory duties correctly. I happily undertake to get those details to members of the Committee as quickly as I can.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

For clarification, and in case anyone thinks I have had a brain storm, clause 11 was taken on the Floor of the House.