The first really big applause line in Ed Miliband’s Leader’s Speech this afternoon was his affirmation that he would be true to himself, his own instincts and values. And the big roar of approval came when he said:
“You know, I’m not Tony Blair.
I’m not Gordon Brown either.
Great men, who in their different ways, achieved great things.
I’m my own man.”
And then later he brought the Conference to its feet with a mid-speech standing ovation following a passage on the NHS:
“There is no greater public interest than our National Health Service.
Cherished by all of us. Founded by Labour. Saved by Labour. Today defended by Labour once again.
Why does Britain care so much for the NHS? Because, more than any other institution in our country, the values of the NHS are our values. It doesn’t matter who you are. Or what you earn. The NHS offers the highest quality care when we need it. ….
And when I look at everything this Tory Government is doing, it is the NHS that shocks me most.
Why? Because David Cameron told us he was different. You remember. The posters. The soundbites. David Cameron knew the British people did not trust the Tories with our NHS. So he told us he wasn’t the usual type of Tory. And he asked for your trust.
And then he got into Downing Street. And within a year – within a year – he’d gone back on every word he’d said.
No more top-down reorganisations? He betrayed your trust.
No more hospital closures? He betrayed your trust.
No more long waits? He betrayed your trust.
And the biggest betrayal of all? The values of the NHS. Britain’s values. The values he promised to protect. Betrayed.
Hospitals to be fined millions of pounds if they break the rules of David Cameron’s free-market healthcare system. The old values that have failed our economy now being imported to our most prized institution: the NHS.
Let me tell David Cameron this. It is the oldest truth in politics. He knows it and the public knows it.
YOU CAN’T TRUST THE TORIES WITH THE NHS.”
The Conference loved it. It is the sort of stuff that will reinvigorate the Party and the Party’s base.
And that after all is the first step to winning in 2015.
The Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords is the Baroness Anelay of St Johns and she was wearing her best Steel Magnolia visage this afternoon when she moved that the Welfare Reform Bill should be committed to a Grand Committee.
I should explain that committal to a Grand Committee means that the Committee Stage of a Bill is not taken in the Chamber on the floor of the House and that the detailed line by line consideration of the Bill takes place in a Lords’ Committee Room (usually the Moses Room – so named after the rather magnificent picture in it of Moses handing down the tablets of the law). Procedurally, it also means that there can be no votes on amendments during the Committee Stage and the Grand Committee procedure is usually only used for comparatively non-controversial or highly technical Bills.
However, the Welfare Reform Bill is hardly uncontroversial.
And Grand Committee proceedings are less high profile than sessions in the Chamber of the Lords.
But there is an equally important access point as Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, herself a wheelchair user, pointed out:
“My Lords, normally I would not come in on the next day after participating in a very lengthy and big debate the night before. I generally need 24 hours at home to recover. However, this morning I was woken by several phone calls from disabled people who told me of this proposal and urged me to come in to speak to you. I feel compelled to be here. I am deeply concerned at the noble Lord’s proposal. I had understood that the technical parts of the Bill would happen outside the Chamber—and we can live with that. However, the new proposal that takes us completely away from the Chamber unfortunately makes it tremendously difficult to have access, not just for disabled Peers to participate effectively—it is much easier in here—but for disabled people who are following this debate online or on the TV and who come here to brief us. It will be almost impossible for them to do this. Yes, a few can come into the room, but it will be more difficult.
Perhaps more importantly, not to be able to test the opinion of the House—I know it is not often done in Committee—on one of the most significant pieces of legislation for disabled people in my adult life is deeply disturbing. I ask the noble Baroness the Chief Whip please to reconsider.”
The problem for the Government is that they have got into a frightful mess with their legislative programme. Most of their Bills are deeply controversial and, despite having the longest Parliamentary Session since the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Government is running out of legislative days to deal with all of them before the Session ends next Spring and Bills that haven’t been through all their stages fall.
Negotiations through “the usual channels” between the Government and the Opposition on how to manage the Bill had broken down – the first time in at least a decade that it has not been possible to reach an agreement. As a result, the Chief Whip was bringing a motion to the House to refer the Bill to a Grand Committee that would have to be voted on, whereas normally such procedural questions are approved without dissent because there has been an agreement on the procedure to be followed.
During the course of the debate it transpired that there had been some serious negotiations. It had been agreed in principle that the Bill could be split into two parts with one part being considered on the floor of the House and the rest being considered in a Grand Committee – this in itself would have been pretty unusual. However, while the Government was prepared to concede four days of debate on the floor of the House before moving into Grand Committee for perhaps another twelve days of consideration there, the Opposition was seeking eight days on the floor of the House.
Most people would have thought that maybe a compromise might have been possible – like six days on the floor of the House.
However, the Government Chief Whip broke off negotiations, withdrew her offer and ploughed ahead with a proposal for the whole Bill to go into Grand Committee.
Her negotiation style is clearly based on that of a traditional mafiosi school: “If you don’t do as I say, the baby gets it”.
In this case, the baby did get it and the Government won the day with a majority of 52: 263 votes in favour (159 Conservatives, 74 LibDems and 30 Cross-benchers and others) and 211 against (167 Labour, 4 Bishops and 40 Cross-benchers and others).
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Last Thursday, the sweetly formidable Government Chief Whip in the Lords, Baroness Anelay of St Johns announced last Thursday that the House of Lords would be returning to work on 3rd October rather than 10th October this year after the Summer recess (ignoring the two week September sitting that will interrupt the recess). This will mean that Conservative Peers will have to make the choice between attending Parliament or the Tory Party Conference. She blamed this on the slow scrutiny of legislation by the House and, in particular, the particularly thorough process (led by many Labour Peers) of consideration given to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill or as she put it:
“This is a self-regulating House, with the implication that scrutiny of legislation cannot be curtailed except by the House itself. That is only right; it is one of the aspects of our work of which we have every reason to be proud. The corollary is that when the House chooses to dwell on a particular Bill, as it did on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-on which we spent 17 days in Committee, which is more than double the usual maximum for the largest Bills-more time must then be found elsewhere if the scrutiny of the other Bills in a Government’s legislative programme is not to suffer as a consequence.”
But it is not just the extra days. The House is sitting longer – often way beyond the normal 10pm cut off on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Indeed, she also announced that the House would sit four hours earlier than normal on one of the days this week to accommodate the number of Peers who wish to speak on the Government’s draft Bill on House of Lords abolition (106 at last count). And as it turned out the House sat from 11am until 10pm (three hours later than normal on a Thursday) on the day she made her announcement, so as to complete its sixth day of Committee Stage consideration of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.
Labour’s Chief Whip, Lord Steve Bassam, pointed out that, in fact, there was a “chaotic logjam” of Government Bills:
“The truth is-in saying this I apportion no blame to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay-that the Government are trying to force through a programme that is overlong, overprogrammed and overblown. In short, it is too long and they know it, and the House and the process of scrutiny are the sufferers. This is a crisis of timetabling, caused not by your Lordships’ rightful desire to scrutinise Bills but by political mismanagement, emanating from No. 10. This House has already had the farce of badly drafted Bills, such as the Public Bodies Bill, and still to come are the Armed Forces Bill, the Scotland Bill and the Office for Budget Responsibility Bill. We have been waiting for a health Bill that was promised to the House in May but will not be here until October or November at the earliest. We also have such complex Bills as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Protection of Freedoms Bill to come.
What assurances can the House have that, even with this extra week, we will complete our work without further incursions into Recess dates, longer nights and earlier starts? I also ask the noble Baroness to reconfirm all existing Recess dates, including those in February, and to do so with certainty. Will she also tell the House when it is intended that we shall have another Queen’s Speech, and when this Session-the longest any of us can remember-will end? How many more Bills do the Government expect to force through this House before the Session concludes? At my last count, we still had 16 in progress and another 12 or 13 to come, and had done only 16 so far. Just how many more Bills do the Government expect to bring?
May I perhaps give the Government a little advice before they embark on their next political programme? Will they ensure that, next time around, they have coherent, well worked-out Bills, and do not have more Bills in their programme than both Houses of Parliament can realistically manage and effectively scrutinise?
This a programme of legislation that has been poorly thought through, badly managed from the centre and forced on an increasingly reluctant Parliament in a timeframe that is wholly unrealistic. I urge the Government to think again about their programme, and to consult the House properly about their timetable and what they put in for the rest of the Session.”
Today, it emerged that the Government’s own coalition partners, the LibDems, are also keen on thorough scrutiny of legislation with the first day of the Committee Stage of the Localism Bill: the first six groups of amendments have all been put down by LibDem peers – the first of which being debated for an hour and a half trying to pin down what the Government’s definition of “localism” actually amounts to.
The reality is that the House of Lords is doing its job. The Government is trying to push through too much legislation and what is worse the Bills that are being put forward or are emerging from the House of Commons are badly-drafted, full of unintended consequences and frequently fail to do what it says on the tin.
If you are not too easily shocked, you can either read Andrew Lansley’s proposals for the NHS or you can watch this:
I see that Ken Livingstone has launched a petition designed to hold David Cameron and Boris Johnson to their promises on the NHS and in particular to:
* Protect Health Care services
* Stop precious NHS money being wasted on a big top-down reorganisation which is putting the NHS at risk
* Provide the real increase we were promised in NHS funding
You can sign by going to: http://www.campaignengineroom.org.uk/nhsos
I picked up a copy of the mammoth Health and Social Care Bill yesterday afternoon, but have yet to digest its 353 pages what with Parliamentary Voting and Constituency Bill grinding on through much of the night. However, I thought Paul Corrigan put his finger on the fundamental flaw in its central proposal:
I might have missed something overnight, but I expected to wake up this morning to hear the Government extolling the capacity of GPs to commission the nation’s health care. It is after all their policy.
Instead I wake up to hear the Health Protection Agency saying why, for a variety of very plausible reasons, GPs do not have the capacity to buy the nation’s flu vaccine – and why they are almost certainly going to have their duty to buy the nations flu vaccine taken away. In future it will be done by the DH.
There are certainly good arguments for this, but presumably the Government also believes that it’s a good idea for doctors with much better local knowledge to buy the vaccine and not faceless bureaucrats at the DH.
The arguments for GP commissioning of NHS care are the same arguments in favour of GPs commissioning the flu vaccine.
The arguments against GP commissioning of NHS care are the same arguments against GPs commissioning the flu vaccine.
Somehow the Government finds itself arguing against itself on the very morning when the press is full of the Bill.
To say the least this is very odd.”
I missed the article earlier this week in the British Medical Journal, in which Brian Deer sets out how the vaccine crisis sparked off by Dr Andrew Wakefield’s false claims about a link between the MMR vaccine, autism and bowel disease was intended to support secret businesses that were intended to make huge sums of money in Britain and America.
I would have expected this to attract a large amount of attention – particularly in those newspapers who covered Wakefield’s original claims in so much detail and carried on doing so even as they became increasingly discredited. So far – in an admittedly cursory glance – the only coverage I can find is in The Sun:
“DISGRACED doctor Andrew Wakefield plotted to make £28million a year from the MMR jab panic he triggered, it emerged last night.
Wakefield – struck off last year – aimed to set up secret businesses to cash in on fears that the triple inoculation was linked to autism.
The ex-surgeon thought he could make a fortune in clinics offering parents diagnostic tests for their children so they could possibly sue health authorities.
Wakefield, 53, hoped to make even more by supplying “replacement” vaccines. But he had not even completed his MMR research – later discredited by experts – when he met managers at a top medical school to discuss business ventures.”
This afternoon in Lords Question Time Lord Taverne asked the Government:
“what steps they are taking to discourage United Kingdom universities from offering Bachelor of Science degrees for courses in alternative medicines such as aromatherapy, reflexology and Chinese medicine?”
The following exchange then took place:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley): My Lords, universities decide what they should or should not teach. This is a key protection of academic freedom and helps to maintain the world-class reputation of our higher education institutions.
Lord Taverne: My Lords, with great respect, as lawyers used to say when they meant the opposite, will the Minister convey to his department that that is not an entirely satisfactory Answer? How can the Government justify supporting universities that show no regard for academic standards and offer science degrees in courses which teach that certain essential oils cure specific diseases, areas of the foot lead to pathways to certain inner organs, and health depends on the pattern of energy flows within the body? If the Government believe in evidence-based science, can they really remain indifferent to the fact that some of their funds are used to promote quackery and mumbo-jumbo and call it science?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I again remind my noble friend that it is very important to remember that universities are autonomous bodies and it is for them to make decisions about these matters. The Government have no power to intervene. I have some sympathy with the message that my noble friend is getting across but it would be wrong for the Government to intervene in these matters.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that the Government have differentially removed resources from universities on the basis of some of the courses concerned? Does the fact that resources are not being withdrawn from these Bachelor of Science courses suggest that the Government are endorsing the pseudo science that is implicit within them? If they are not endorsing that pseudo science, why are they allowing the funding to continue?
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is trying to take us back to a debate we had last week. Those matters have been dealt with. I am making clear that it is not for the Government to interfere. We offer guidance to HEFCE. The letter to HEFCE from Dr Vince Cable and David Willetts went out yesterday. That sets out the parameters for HEFCE to make the appropriate decisions about university funding, but it is not right that we should do that.
Lord Willis of Knaresborough: My Lords, given the legislation that went through this House last week, which will now see the taxpayer underwriting degree courses at £9,000 a year, does the Minister accept that the taxpayer should fund what is little less than quackery in universities such as Thames Valley which offer BSc honours courses in homeopathy?
Lord Krebs: My Lords, in choosing to fund these courses in universities, will HEFCE treat them as science, technology, engineering and medicine courses, in which case they will receive a higher allocation than if they were not treated as such?
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I do not know the answer to it but I will certainly make inquiries and write to him. Again, I reiterate the fundamental point that these are matters for HEFCE to decide, not the Government.
After a brief diversion, while a number of peers described their personal affection for chinese remedies, the Minister was pressed again:
“Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, the noble Lord says that it is at the discretion of HEFCE as to how university courses should be funded differentially. Is he actually saying to the House that it is a matter for HEFCE as to whether or not funding for the humanities and social sciences teaching is to be cut by 100 per cent?
Lord Henley: My Lords, we have offered guidance to HEFCE in the letter that I mentioned, which was published yesterday. I will make a copy available to the noble Lord. It is then for HEFCE to make its decisions.
So the Government have given “guidance” about funding but can’t say what it is ….
Colin Talbot at Whitehall Watch has some interesting predictions here.