By Anne Williams
For a moment last March it seemed that people armed with nothing but knowledge, determination and a concern for the common good might actually have defeated wealth, power, privilege and vested interests.
Just before the end of the last parliament, and thanks in large measure to an arduous and seemingly hopeless campaign by a small band of concerned citizens, the Liberal Democrats quite bravely called a halt to the intended swift-as-lightning progress through the Commons of Lord Saatchi's medical innovation bill.
They had been persuaded that the bill should be subjected to greater scrutiny and debate, given the overwhelming opposition of the vast majority of medical professionals, legal experts, patient advocacy groups and respected charities,
"Fury as Lib Dems kill off Saatchi Bill" screamed the headline in the Telegraph, the bill's media partner. A press release regurgitated by the Press Association ensured similar coverage was duly churned out across the mainstream press.
"They have killed the medical innovation bill. It is dead," proclaimed Lord Saatchi.
And yet here it is again, barely three months later. Back from the dead and raring to go.
The bill's stated purpose is "to encourage responsible innovation in medical treatment" but there are serious concerns that it will undermine patient safety and genuine medical innovation. What's more, it's unnecessary. It is based on a false premise and does nothing to address any actual barrier to innovation. Pharmaceutical companies and the biotech industry in general are thrilled by it, but the Welsh Assembly has voted unanimously to reject the bill and oppose its application in Wales.
Its premise is twofold: first, that British medicine is not innovative. In fact, Britain is a world-leader in healthcare research and medical innovation. Secondly, Lord Saatchi has decided that innovation is stifled because doctors are afraid of being sued under clinical negligence law. The NHS Litigation Authority has not found a single case to back this up, nor has the Medical Defence Union or the Medical Protection Society. Even Lord Woolf, a former lord chief justice and ardent supporter of the bill, cannot cite a single case where a doctor has been sued for innovating.
The bill will be reintroduced in the House of Lords on next Monday. Lord Saatchi has given notice to the House that he will move: "That Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with…". If the Lords agree, it will proceed straight to the House of Commons, where it has the strong backing of the government and the support of the Labour party.
For the whole of last year, the bill's professional PR campaign made brilliant use of the 'brutal simplicity of thought' that is the trademarked motto of Lord Saatchi's global marketing company, and the key to all successful advertising.
Serious, rational public debate is rendered all but impossible: intelligent, knowledge-based opposition does not fit into the format of a sales pitch.
When the bill screeched to a halt in March, Andy Burnham, then-shadow health minister, expressed his disappointment that the Lib Dems had refused to rush the bill through the Commons, stating fatuously that it "is about opening up hope".
Spineless populism takes the extraordinary position that it's ok to pass a bad law because hope is nice – even when that hope is false and exploits the vulnerable.
It's in the realm of law that David Cameron has shown himself to be the true 'heir to Blair'. A snowballing number of inane or downright dangerous bills have been proposed and often passed, without regard to existing law, with no evidence that they are necessary or will achieve their stated aims – in fact, often with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He has conducted himself with something very like contempt for our constitutional arrangements and the very concept of law itself.
As Ian Dunt rightly points out in a piece examining yet another lamentable bill, legislation should be "a sober undertaking which demands responsibility and sincerity from those who write and vote on it".
MPs should bear these words in mind when Lord Saatchi's medical innovation bill reaches the Commons.
Almost none of them has any background in science or medicine. One of the few who does, Conservative MP and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston, has been valiant and outspoken in her opposition to the bill. She said:
"The medical innovation bill is fundamentally flawed in its premise, it is unnecessary, it removes essential protections for patients, and it increases the risks of their exposure to maverick doctors. I believe it will undermine not only patient safety but medical innovation."
It would be remiss of her fellow MPs to dismiss the deep concerns of the vast majority of medical and legal opinion and wave it on to the statute books with a shrug.
Anne Williams is a freelance journalist.
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