NHS reforms: How to buy time in the Lords

Shirley Williams agree to more backroom talks - for now
Shirley Williams agree to more backroom talks - for now

By Alex Stevenson

Wednesday afternoon's unexpected outbreak of consensus which swept across the Lords, infecting nearly almost all it touched, was a little unexpected. Instead of yet another coalition rebellion, the rebels have - for now - laid down their arms.

Shirley Williams and co are extremely concerned about the health and social care bill shifting responsibility for the NHS from the health secretary to an unelected quango. This is of great constitutional significance, they argue. The government seems less bothered.

I can't see how this is a party political issue - but that doesn't mean it's not important. It sounds like a dangerous precedent. "Yes, I'm the home secretary, but I'm not actually responsible for the police, am I?" Or: "I may be defence secretary, but defective army equipment's nothing to do with me." Or: "Why should I care about A-level results? I'm only the education secretary." Etc, etc.


This afternoon this point was supposed to be thrashed out by contentious, grumpy old peers. Instead, Baroness Williams and her co-conspirators have agreed to let the matter slide. They're going to let the Lords constitution committee and other legal eagles look into the matter closer.

The hiccup comes because of ambiguity over the rebel amendments. Lord Mackay of Clashfern's proposal that the secretary of state retains "ultimate responsibility to parliament" attracted particular concern, as it is apparently ambiguous.

"When there is more than one lawyer in the room there's usually more than one opinion," Baroness Williams complained. Lord Mackay replied: "On the other hand, lawyers are usually able, when they set their minds to, to reach an agreement."

He hoped they could fix the problem, but - just for the record - he meant that ultimate means, "in ordinary language, the buck stops here".

It looks very much as if the government has bought some time by flagging up these legal ambiguities. As with public sector pensions, it's back to the negotiating table - for now.

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