In a new review of health-related ‘arms-length bodies’ or ALBs, UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has announced that several major health agencies are to be scrapped in an attempt to save money and reduce bureaucracy (see press release). The affected bodies include the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) and the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
It is not yet clear how all the functions currently served by these agencies will be fulfilled. A new research regulatory body is apparently to be established, incorporating some functions of the HFEA; other HFEA activities will be transferred to the Care Quality Commission, and the Health and Social Care Information Centre in the next few years. The HPA’s functions will fall within a new Public Health Service, whilst the HTA’s activities in licensing uses of human tissue will be divided between the MHRA and the Care Quality Commission.
With respect to the proposed new research regulatory body, functions are said to be subject to the outcome of the current Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) review of medical and science research regulation (see previous news), but there is suggested to be a ‘significant advantage’ in consolidating related research regulation currently overseen by the HTA, HFEA and the research and ethics functions of the National Patient Safety Agency, which is also to be disbanded. Patient safety oversight will rest with the National Commissioning Board.
The Government review states that new and consolidated ALBs will, where appropriate, ‘be expected to exploit commercial opportunities and maximise commercial discipline across the sector’. This charge could potentially be at odds with the normal function of research ethics and regulation, which is typically to protect the interests and sensibilities of patients and the wider public where they may be at odds with the scientific research aims or practices; Maximizing commercial opportunities could conflict directly with this, so it will be important for the priorities and responsibilities of a new regulator to be very clearly delineated to maintain public trust, whilst supporting scientific and medical research.