by David Hills on Tuesday 26 January 2016 

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.

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