Go-ahead for genetics watchdog

June 21, 1996

A Human Genetics Advisory Commission is to be set up by the Government to provide it with advice on the impact of genetics research on areas such as insurance, patents, health and employment.

The decision, announced this week, follows a protracted battle between the Government and the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, which in July 1995 recommended the setting up of a commission. In January the Government rejected the proposal but has had second thoughts after ministers were hauled in front of angry committee MPs to explain the decision.

The Government says in its latest response to the committee that the commission's work will include reviewing advances in genetics research; reporting on the social, ethical and economic impact of developments in the field and advising on ways to build up public understanding and confidence in the work.

The commission will report to ministers and maintain contact with non-government groups such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Commission members will be drawn from the science community, industry and public health sector. Members with experience of the media will also be included. The commission will have no statutory or regulatory powers but these might develop over time.

Jeremy Bray, Labour member of the select committee,welcomed the Government's decision. He said: "Human genetics is a fast-moving science which may have profound implication for society and individuals. The committee found that geneticists wish to share their concerns with the wider community and I think it is in that spirit that the Commission will be able to work most effectively."

Spencer Batiste, Conservative committee member, said: "Clearly we had to compromise a little on both sides. The Government for its part has realised the need for a body with strategic overview of the field while we have accepted that it will not have an immediate regulatory or statutory role. " Mr Batiste said that the commission would be the focus for state-of-the-art knowledge of genetics and would draw on the work of other committees.

Labour committee member Anne Campbell welcomed the Government's acceptance that it should take a stronger lead on issues relating to the use of genetic information by the insurance industry. The Government says in its response that it is discussing with the Association of British Insurers an industry-wide code of practice on the use of genetic data.

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