Published: 01/07/2004, Volume II3, No. 5912 Page 8 9

The official inquiry into a series of errors at an NHS infertility centre that led to a white couple giving birth to mixed-race twins has said that it was hampered by a lack of co-operation from senior officials at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

In his independent review into four serious errors at the reproductive medicine unit at Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust, Professor Brian Toft was highly critical of the HFEA's 'culture of secrecy' which hindered licence committees from carrying out proper inspections of units licensed for infertility treatment.

In 2002 Professor Toft was commissioned by chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson to look into four adverse incidents which took place at the trust.

Many changes have already taken place both at the trust and within the HFEA in line with his recommendations.

But the report, released without fanfare on the DoH website last week, attacks the HFEA for initially failing to co-operate with the inquiry: '...the HFEA, in the first instance, did not provide the level of co-operation to be expected of a review of this nature and that led to delays in the work of the review panel.

'However, following a change in the administration of the HFEA a more constructive working relationship was established.'

It notes that when asked to give evidence to his review panel, both Ruth Deech, HFEA chair from 1994 to 2002, and Suzanne McCarthy, chief executive from 1996 to 2000, replied that they were 'not minded to attend' in person. Instead they referred the panel to written information and asked whether they could provide written answers to any subsequent questions.

Neither Ms Deech or Ms McCarthy were available for comment. Current HFEA chair Suzi Leather apologised for the errors, saying they had caused 'great emotional turmoil and pain' to the families concerned.

An HFEA spokeswoman said she could not comment on why Ms Deech, who was made a dame in 2002 and is now a BBC governor, nor Suzanne McCarthy, who next month takes over as chief executive of the Office for Rail Regulation, declined to give evidence.

However she added that one reason for the apparent lack of co-operation highlighted by Professor Toft was the strict duty of confidentiality under which HFEA staff operate.

'This is being looked at as part of a wider review of the HFEA legislation.As an organisation we are now much more transparent and open.'

While the report examined wider structural and operation issues that have ramifications for the wider world of reproductive medicine in the UK, it concluded that the errors in Leeds were 'a mixture of inadvertent human error and systems failure'.