Stop the Saatchi Bill

Driven by an extraordinary two-year PR campaign on social media and a supportive newspaper partner, this all started as Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill, metamorphosed through several versions, and was resurrected under a new name by Chris Heaton-Harris, before finally clearing its last hurdle in the Lords this week to become the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Act. Pretty much the only thing they share is the word 'Innovation' in the title.

One day, it may be possible for politicians to ask the people who actually work in the medical field: what are the problems you face, and how can we help you overcome them?

One day, politicians may actually listen to the answers they receive, and thus try to tackle genuine problems rather than imagined ones.

One day, politicians, medics, researchers, lawyers, patient groups, charities, and the public, may work together to overcome the barriers to the development and provision of new treatments.

But it is not this day.

Read more: Not this day

End of the Road?

Has the Saatchi Bill, which has haunted medical groups and patient safety advocates for more than two years, finally run out of steam?

As you will surely recall, the Medical Innovation Bill (the “Saatchi Bill”), promoted by Lord Saatchi in the last Parliament, aimed to “promote innovation” in medicine by removing patient protections against negligent treatment. Almost universally opposed by medical, medico-legal and patient protection organisations as dangerous, misguided and irrelevant, the Bill ran out of debating time before the election, and has been resurrected in this Parliament as two bills. The first of these is the original Saatchi Bill with exactly the samewording as before, which Lord Saatchi has reintroduced in the House of Lords, and is currently on hold awaiting a resolution to pass it through the Lords in a single day, without proper debate.

The second form of the Bill is the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill, sponsored by Chris Heaton-Harris MP, which is moving forward, and is due for its Report stage in the Commons on 29th January 2016. This version is in two halves. The first half gives the Health Secretary the power to order the creation of a database of innovative treatments. Now, there are numerous potential pitfalls with the creation of databases: security, who has access, what is recorded, whether such a database would actually have any clinical value, and so on, but another issue with this section of the bill is that the Health Secretary already has the power to create databases, so it is questionable whether it has any real effect. At any rate, this part of the Bill is unlikely to kill anybody directly, though the risks of any innovative treatment it may encourage are brought home by the news of the recent clinical trial tragedy in France.

Sections 3 and 4 of the bill, however, are a good deal less benign, as they import Saatchi’s original bill, together with its destruction of patient protections, almost word-for-word. Saatchi’s campaign and their “one team” partners theDepartment of Health, along with their “media partner” the Daily Telegraph, have consistently pushed the idea that doctors cannot innovate for fear of the law, and if we just remove the law that protects patients from negligent treatment, doctors would suddenly be free to cure cancer. Expert opponents have consistently explained that this is simply not true, with seemingly little effect.

Until now.

A promise made

At the Bill’s Committee stage, Chris Heaton-Harris made the promise that, if agreement could not be reached over the contentious sections 3 and 4, he would drop them. And he has now followed through on that promise, tabling an amendment to kill those sections in a move that would, at a stroke, remove the patient protection concerns of the bill.

So, is the writing on the wall for the Saatchi Bill? Nigel Poole QC certainly thinks it is likely and, as an expert who knows the Bill as well as anybody, he should know.

But we’ve been here before. We’ve seen Saatchi lend his name to amendments that would help rein in his bill, only to have them shot down by the Department of Health. We’ve seen his campaign claim one thing and then do another. This is, after all, a Bill that Lord Saatchi told us nearly a year ago was dead. And yet here we still are. Why should we trust the assurances we are given now?

Firstly, Chris Heaton-Harris appears to be genuine in his wish to fix the problems with his Bill. While initially he didn’t appear to understand that, despite claims to the contrary by him and the Government in the House of Commons, the Bill doeschange the law of negligence, does adversely affect proper clinical research anddoes bear a striking resemblance to the original Saatchi Bill, he appears to be listening. He hasn’t ignored the opposition or called it dishonest, he hasn’t turned on the experts who had the temerity to point out his Bill wouldn’t work, he hasn’t claimed to be improving it while at the same time making it worse. And it would appear he is far more interested in the database provisions than the patient protection ones, so perhaps he wouldn’t mind too much if he lost the Saatchi bits. But he is not the only actor in this play.

First there is Lord Saatchi, who may not be happy with the version of his Bill that reaches the Lords, and who also has his own original version of the Bill waiting in the wings if Heaton-Harris fails. He might not stand idly by if he feels that Heaton-Harris has departed too far from his vision.

Then there is the Department of Health who, it turns out, have had a very close relationship with Saatchi and Heaton-Harris over the Bill’s history, and who have been actively assisting to a level that is surprising for what is, after all, only a Private Member’s Bill. They have spent a lot of time defending the Bill, and preserving its purity against diluting amendments.

It is to be hoped that, at this late stage, both Lord Saatchi and the Department of Health realise that to continue to defend the removal of patient protections would leave them completely isolated against unified opposition from the medical, medical protection, research and patient groups that have lined up to tell them what a mistake it would be to pass this Bill into law, and allow those contentious sections to be dropped. Until this happens, there is no cause for complacency.

We await developments with interest.