Vetoing the Medical Innovation Bill may be the best thing the Lib Dems have done in this parliament

What is happening at The Telegraph? It’s a question many have uttered over recent weeks, ever since explosive revelations about the paper’s editorial policy were revealed by its ex-chief political commentator, Peter Oborne.

Criticism of the broadsheet’s lack of HSBC coverage was followed by it giving a ‘no apology’ statement, before launching a lengthy – and somewhat desperate – attack on its rivals, including the Guardian and The Times. Then, over the weekend, The Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, Christopher Hope, ran an exclusive, headlined ‘Fury as Lib Dems kill off Saatchi Bill’, on how the coalition’s junior partner had managed to veto plans to have the Medical Innovation Bill debated in the House of Commons before MPs break for the general election.

The Telegraph has long been a mouthpiece for Lord Saatchi to promote his controversial proposals, so it was of little surprise to read: “This is a grotesque insult to the House of Lords. The Liberal Democrats are saying that the House of Commons will never debate this Bill which has been sent to it and passed by the House of Lords,” (of course, the less said about how one of Saatchi’s greatest supporters, a former Lord Chief Justice, was completely unable to substantiate his arguments in the House of Lords, the better).

Dominic Nutt, a spokesman for Lord Saatchi’s campaign, recently explained to SJ readers how the Bill would stifle an explosion of NHS litigation. In The Telegraph he describes the Lib Dem’s decision as “[the] most illiberal undemocratic move by the so-called Liberal party, to deny elected MPs the right to debate and vote on a Bill supported by thousands of patients and voters”.

Well, if we are talking about the right of MPs to debate, should we discuss the National Assembly for Wales’ decision to implement the Medical Innovation Bill? Naught for the Bill, 54 against, and no abstentions.

Mark Drakeford, minister for health and social services in the Welsh government, wrote in January: “The Bill even with its amendments does not provide a positive influence for Welsh healthcare, and I remain of the view that the provisions within this Bill should not apply to Wales.”

But, after all, that is just Wales. What about the rest of the UK?

Voicing her opinion via social media over the weekend was Dr Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP for Totnes, former doctor, and chair of the Health Select Committee, who tweeted: “What is happening at The Telegraph? There is no ‘fury’, just widespread relief that Saatch Bill [was] blocked. The more interesting story behind the Saatch Bill is how on earth such a potentially damaging piece of legislation got so far.”

Wollaston is not alone. She has been joined in her condemnation of the proposed legislation by the Conservative MP and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer (APPGC), John Baron; Lib Dem MP and vice-chairman of the APPGC Paul Burstow; Labour MP and vice-chairman of APPGC, Grahame Morris MP; and Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw, who is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pancreatic Cancer.

In a joint statement the group said: “Parliamentary scrutiny demands evidence. There is no evidence that doctors are deterred from innovating by threat of litigation: nor is there case law where innovating doctors have been sued in negligence. Doctors can and do innovate – the response to the Ebola crisis is an excellent example.

“The common law is robust, flexible and pragmatic; it is suited to dealing with medical innovation. This Bill adds nothing to it, and may even be a threat to patient safety. As the saying goes, if it is not necessary to legislate, it is necessary not to legislate. More importantly, there is a duty not to pass bad law.”

Of course, some may be unaware of their response to the Saatchi Bill, seeing as it was buried half way down the ‘Letters to the editor’ section of The Telegraph.

Nutt’s criticism of the Lib Dems, while mentioning the Bill’s support by patients and voters, does not, crucially, mention the views of two very important professions.

The Medical Innovation Bill is not supported by any leading medical organisation or representative. In fact, many have spoken out against it. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Radiologists, the NHS Litigation Authority, the Medical Defence Union – the list goes on. Then there were the 100 leading cancer doctors who wrote to The Times in opposition to the Bill.

And then, of course, there is that ‘hive of scum and villainy’ – the legal profession. The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) president John Spencer recently said: “False claims that we do not yet have a cure for cancer because doctors are too afraid of litigation to innovate need rejecting along with the Bill. What really stifles innovation and research is a lack of resources and funding, not the law which has protected patients and doctors for 60 years.”

Despite some suggestions to the contrary – again from The Telegraph – lawyers are, by and large, not in this game for the money. Lawyers care about their clients and want to ensure they can seek redress when wronged. The Saatchi Bill, along with the government’s increase of court fees, could further restrict access to justice.

Maybe, in the not too distant future, we’ll see the following law firm advertisement:

‘Been injured and it wasn’t your fault? That’ll be £10,000 please. Has your life been ruined by irresponsible experimentation? Sorry can’t help you.’

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 3 March 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission