I have put my name down to speak on the Second Reading in the House of Lords on the Health and Social Care Bill next week. So have 98 colleagues. So far.
This must be some sort of record for any Bill (other than those dealing with House of Lords reform).
The level of interest demonstrates that there is widespread concern across the House about what the Government’s Bill will do to the NHS. Apart from the Government’s apologists on the Tory benches (and those LibDem coalition loyalists), there is a consensus that what is proposed is unnecessary, reckless, wasteful and bureaucratic.
The Government’s proposals were not in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto. Nor were they in the LibDem manifesto. They were not even in the Coalition Agreement.
There is absolutely no mandate for the changes proposed and they go against the promises made that there would be “no more top-down reorganisation of the NHS”.
The interest in the Second Reading debate has meant that the session is to start three and a half hours early on Tuesday and there is now going to be an overspill session on Wednesday morning.
There are not normally votes after Second Reading debates in the House of Lords. However, the Health Bill is so controversial that there could be a vote to kill the Bill at that stage.
Despite speculation, it is unlikely that an outright move to block the Bill will pass: the Conservative peers and most LibDem peers will vote as a block to prevent that happening and cross-bench peers may feel that it would be unconstitutional for the House of Lords to refuse to consider a Bill coming from the elected House.
However, the role of the House of Lords is to scrutinise legislation and there is a proposal from Lord Owen and Lord Hennessy to refer three sections of the Bill for detailed consideration by a Select Committee of the House that could call for evidence and hear witnesses. The rationale for this is that these are sections of the Bill that were not properly considered and that the sections concerned also raise fundamental constitutional principles in that they could potential weaken Ministerial accountability to Parliament on the NHS and would also make it more difficult for decisions to be challenged in the Courts. If passed, this might have the side effect of delaying the Bill into the next session of Parliament.
The vote on this proposition is likely to be much closer, but if it is to be passed at least eighty members of the House form the cross-benches (and Government rebels) will have to join Labour peers in supporting it.
There are signs of nervousness in the Department of Health and all peers have been invited to a meeting with Ministers and the Chief Executive of the NHS to “allow Peers to ask any final questions” at 7pm on Monday (such a late start for an all-peers Ministerial briefing is also pretty unprecedented in my opinion).
As Sir Alex Ferguson might say it’s squeaky bum time for Ministers and the coalition.