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

Report Stage Roundup

The Report Stage of the Medical Innovation Bill took place on Friday 12 December.

(Go to Parliament TV for other viewing options.)

The full transcript can be read here.

I will highlight just a few extracts.

Lord Winston:

I am disappointed that we are not defining “innovation”. That is important, because, clearly, these are issues which doctors will need to consider. It is clear from a large number of responses from doctors that there is very considerable confusion about the Bill. What is extraordinary is the number of bodies that show this confusion and say how right doctors are to be confused. Although the Royal College of Ophthalmologists is apparently worried about a particular drug—I bow to the knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi about this; I did not know that it was—the list of concerned bodies includes the Academy of Medical Sciences, of which I have the honour to be a fellow, the Academy for Healthcare Science, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians, of which I am also a fellow and therefore I have an interest, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Radiologists, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and, to some extent, the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the Association of Medical Research Charities, Action Against Medical Accidents, the Medical Defence Union and the Medical Protection Society. I know that it has been suggested, rather irrationally, that somehow the lawyers want to leave things as they are so that they can make more money but, in fact, the Medical Defence Union and the Medical Protection Society are most involved in litigation and they clearly want a reduction in litigation, which is why they are not in favour of the Bill.

Also concerned about the Bill are the British Pharmacological Society, the NHS Health Research Authority and the NHS Litigation Authority—I checked its website this morning to confirm that—Healthwatch and, rather importantly, Cancer Research UK, which raises about £700 million a year for the treatment of cancer in this country. Also concerned are the Motor Neurone Disease Association and, to some extent, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. They are mostly concerned about the confusion to doctors, but some would go further than that. They say that the Bill is unnecessary and, as I shall seek to explain, may endanger patient safety.

The reason why I tabled the two amendments about medical practitioners is that it is fair to say that, in future, the National Health Service will have to rely more and more on people who are graduates other than medical graduates. Therefore, the Bill should recognise that they will sometimes need to innovate. It may be worth clarifying their position at this stage.

Lord Saatchi:

To say that it was touching to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, would be a considerable understatement. We share the experience of witnessing a terrible event. However, I know that he will share with me the view that, although we have that experience in common, it has not led to an agreement between the two of us about the merit of the Bill, for which I am very sorry. I hope that, in the course of the wide-ranging discussions that he has happily said that we will have before Third Reading, we can arrive at a happy synthesis—perhaps above all for the reason of the two stories that we have to tell. We have a great deal in common.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath:

However, I am still left uneasy that a substantial body of medical opinion—noble Lords have read out the list of organisations—is concerned about the impact of the Bill. The noble Lord may well decide just to plough on. Clearly, we will have a Third Reading, which, I assume, will be in the new year because we could hardly have a Third Reading, say, next Wednesday because it would not give enough time for noble Lords to table amendments properly. That must at least put some doubt as to whether the Bill can get through the other place, particularly in view of the intervention of the chair of the Health Select Committee, although I may be wrong about that. However, even more importantly, what has become clear, in the light of the arguments that have come from medical bodies and clinicians at the forefront of innovation, is that we know that before the Bill comes into effect, various guidance will be issued by the Minister’s department and the General Medical Council—and probably by the defence organisations to their members. My assessment at the moment is that the Bill is unlikely to be used by doctors because of the advice that will come from these different bodies.

The point I wish to put to the noble Lord is this: the arguments that we have heard have been between lawyers and doctors. The lawyers—two distinguished noble and learned Lords have spoken—are saying that, by and large, the law is okay in relation to the Bill, and I fully accept that. However, doctors are saying that there will be greater confusion as a result of the Bill and, therefore, they will not use it in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, wants it to be used. There is no meeting of minds. The noble Lord has said that he will talk to my noble friend Lord Winston between now and Third Reading, which I very much welcome, but he surely has to engage again with the bodies he met with the Secretary of State to try to find a way through. We support what the noble Lord wants to do and the need for innovation, but my judgment at the moment is that even if he gets his Bill it will not be used, except by the kind of doctors my noble friend Lord Winston referred to—the kind we do not want to use the provisions.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for taking part in this short but interesting debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, about the conference that his noble friends suggest, that it is all well and good to have a conference after a Bill has been enacted, but in my judgment that is too late in relation to his Bill. He needs to engage with the professional medical bodies before the Bill goes to the other House; otherwise, he risks enacting a Bill, if he is able to do so, that will start with a huge defect—all the main medical bodies are opposed to it. I urge him to try to reach consensus with those bodies as the Bill goes through.

The question remains whether Lord Saatchi will, at this proposed meeting before the Third Reading, listen properly and fully comprehend the very many serious concerns raised by Lord Winston and Lord Hunt in this debate and those raised by Dr Sarah Wollaston and Dr Julian Huppert at the adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 09 December.

The Bill’s PR team have said absolutely nothing about November’s ‘round table‘ meeting where it was expected Lord Saatchi would at least have listened to those very same serious concerns. By what Lord Saatchi said at Report, he obviously has still not listened; we should perhaps not be too optimistic about a further meeting.