Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Rt Rev Rt Hon Lord Habgood of Calverton (PAP 10)

  I write in response to the Public Administration's Select Committee's questionnaire, in my capacity as Chairman of the UK Xenotransplantation Interim Regulatory Authority. These are my personal views, as there will be no opportunity to discuss them with members of the Authority before your deadline. I believe, however, that they would agree in general terms with what I say.

  UKXIRA is a small expert committee, with nine members, set up by the Department of Health in 1997, to oversee and advise Ministers on all matters concerning what was then a promising new medical technology. Its formation had been recommended by an Advisory Group on the Ethics of Xenotransplantation which had reported earlier that year. After my own appointment as Chairman I attended a meeting of medical officers and advisers at the DoH to discuss the size and composition of the committee, and appointments were then made by Ministers in the light of this advice. Our aim was to create the expertise and experience, bearing in mind the need for balance in such matters as gender, ethnic origin, and nationality within the UK. To the best of my knowledge no political considerations played any part in the appointments process.

  I do not see how such a committee could have been set up other than by appointment, for the following reasons:

    (a)  There is no easily definable electorate.

    (b)  The relevant forms of expertise are relatively scarce.

    (c)  Many of the available experts had a commercial interest in the technology, and were therefore deemed to be ineligible for appointment.

    (d)  Election could not have produced the balance which was actually achieved.

  Members retire, but are eligible for reappointment, after a fixed term of office. So far there has only been one replacement, made under the Nolan rules, but this has not yet been ratified by the Ministers of Health in all four nations. For some Ministers it is clearly not a priority. The proposed appointment of an additional lay representative has been temporarily halted in view of the poor quality of the three hundred or so applicants.

My experience of this committee clearly relates to its highly specialised character. Its members receive very modest remuneration, but are willing to give time to it (and some have given a great deal of time in working groups and in the writing of reports), because they are interested in the subject, see it as relevant to some aspects of their professional work, and believe it is important as offering some hope to those who are seriously ill, as well as posing serious ethical problems. Its composition ensures that every members has a valuable contribution to make. Ministers have not interfered in its working, and have so far accepted its advice.

  Our relationships with the public are through a website and an annual open public meeting. Our regular meetings are not open to the public, but an edited version of our minutes is published on our website.

  If some forms of xenotransplantation were actually to be approved, it is likely that the profile of the committee would be raised, and there might be more public concern about its membership. Even under these circumstances, though, I do not see how election could serve any useful purpose. In fact it might be counter-productive, as there could well be large commercial interests anxious to have their own candidates elected. The present system of appointment offers the best chance of being able to give unbiassed expert advice to ministers, who then bear political responsibility for the final decisions.

  An independent appointments commission might be useful when the time comes to appoint a new Chairman. I doubt, though, whether a commission with a wide general remit could have enough knowledge of the types of expertise the committee needs, were it to be given responsibility for appointing all its members.

John Habgood

April 2002

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