"The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"
Aneurin Bevan

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Over to the Lords

So now the Lib Dems have voted. Four brave souls - who clearly value the NHS more than their chance to become a minister - voted against the Bill: Andrew George, Julian Huppert, Greg Mulholland and Adrian Sanders. Ten others could not get off their arses to oppose the bill and took the typical Lib Dem sitting-on-the-fence position of abstaining.

The strategy, so I am informed by Dr Evan Harris, is for the Lords to make the Bill better.

I have a lot of respect for the Lords. My brother is an academic and is an advisor to a Lords Select Committee and as part of this he regularly gives well attended lectures in Westminster. He tells me that the Lords show more enthusiasm for the subject than his soon-to-be-£9k-fee-paying-thanks-to-LibDems students do! I have written that I think this aspect of the Lords - mostly non-political experts - is unique and important and should be preserved. I have suggested that there are ways to remove political patronage that will make it more democratic and keep the experts in the Chamber.

However, the Lib Dem manifesto from last year says:

Liberal Democrats will: Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.
So, they want to create a clone of the House of Commons where all but 14 Lib Dems chose to sign the end of the NHS as we know it. Remember that there is only one scientist in the House of Commons, and that is Dr Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem rebel. There is a smattering of doctors, including Sarah Wollaston who told us there were serious accountability issues in the Bill, yet she still voted for it! The bullying by the political parties (which Wollaston has also written about) clearly keeps the MPs in check.

The chamber that Dr Harris wants to be the saviour of the NHS will be savaged by his party leader's plan to "reform" the Lords. Clegg's bill will reduce the membership of the upper house from 789 to 300, 80% of which would be elected by STV. This will mean that there would be space only for 60.5 experts [300 is about half of 650, so at the current rate of one scientist per 650 elected MPs, that would suggest about half an elected "lord" in the new chamber], a number that would be easily outvoted by the whipped politicians.

Harris puts a lot of confidence in Shirley Williams. I am not sure why. Yes, once she belatedly realised that there was an issue she has opposed the Health Bill, but I have never read anything from her that illustrates that she really understands the dangers. I agree with Roy Lilley, Lord Owen will make the most significant changes and he is likely to destroy any government argument. Harris, showing his political colours, prefers Williams to Owen because, well, Owen is now a crossbencher (not a member of a political party) and is exactly the sort of expert that Clegg wants removed from the House.

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