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

Never say you’re wrong

PR means never having to say you’re wrong

— Charles Prentiss, Absolute Power

The PR campaign for the Medical Innovation Bill grinds on.

Sir Michael Rawlins was on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme on 7th September, extolling what he felt were the virtues of the Saatchi Bill. As well as undermining his own argument by pointing out that:

We use lots of unlicensed drugs, for indications like in children, about half the drugs we use in children are not licensed for children, and if we didn’t do that we would be denying them curative treatments for things like leukaemia.

…thus neatly demonstrating that innovation is in fact ubiquitous, he also got into an argument with Dr Iain Brassington about the Bill:

We want to do this, and if Iain Brassington’s got a better idea for safeguards, please let us have it, because Maurice Saatchi is very keen to take all views into account.

Now hold on. Very keen to take all views into account? Is this the same Maurice Saatchi whose bill team have tried their best to airbrush the official Department of Health consultation out of history? Who didn’t wait for the results of that consultation (which demonstrated overwhelming opposition from medical, legal and patient organisations) before attempting to drive the Bill through Parliament? Who continues to claim that the law prevents innovation and that his Bill will find a cure for cancer? Who promised to take on board amendments from the DoH, but hasn’t waited for those amendments before publishing yet another new draft of the Bill?

Yes, you read that right. With all the crushing inevitability and misplaced enthusiasm of a key change in a Eurovision song, the Saatchi team have once again rewritten the Bill. This is now the fourth version, and it has been brilliantly eviscerated by Professor José Miola and by Nigel Poole QC.

We are in a depressingly familiar cycle now. The Saatchi campaign team publish a new draft, which they claim fixes all the problems of the previous draft and which fully protects patients. Critics point out that it does nothing of the sort. The Bill team airily wave away any and all concerns for a couple of months, before suddenly, out of the blue, publishing a new draft which they again claim addresses all criticisms. Repeat.

It didn’t need to be this way. Earlier this year, Lord Saatchi made a tour of medical organisations and conferences. One such conference was reported by Dr Archie Prentice, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, here.

Meetings of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges can be tedious and divisive but this one was remarkable for the colleagues’ unanimous, professional rebuttal of Lord Saatchi’s assertions.

He continues:

Lord Saatchi’s PR team have not produced any examples of inhibition of research and development for this reason. But “No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude” (Popper), so there has been no let-up in the propaganda pumped into the media.

Lord Saatchi also visited the Royal College of Surgeons. Professor Michael Baum has kindly given permission for the following correspondence detailing that visit to be reproduced here:

The irony contained in this polemic concerns the one and only time I met the good Lord. It was at the Royal College of Surgeons in February this year celebrating the 40th anniversary of the British Association of Surgical Oncology.

Lord Saatchi gave a talk on his bill before the coffee break and we met over coffee. I gave the next talk as the Ronald Raven eponymous lecture entitled “40 years of innovation in surgical oncology,” in which I described how surgical techniques have become less and less radical and on how multi-modality treatments including radiotherapy and adjuvant endocrine therapy had improved both length of life and quality of life for women with breast cancer over the last 40 years.

Sadly Lord Saatchi was far too busy and important to stay and hear me out.

His words are both ill-considered and disrespectful to all the patients who volunteered for these trials and the clinical scientists who gave up their chances of a lucrative private practice in order to devote their time to research.

Lord Saatchi is hugely fortunate to have direct access to speak with and get advice from the major medical organisations. That he squanders this opportunity is deeply regrettable. While he continues to fail to take proper account of the widespread opposition to this Bill, and the deep problems with what he is trying to do, we continue to miss the chance to address some of the genuine barriers to the development of new treatments.