Listening but not learning?

Baroness Thornton

As a lifelong atheist I do know how it feels to believe your view is the right one even when you are in a minority in a world of religious believers. However Baroness Murphy shows a touching faith in the rightness of Governments which I did not even share when I was a Minister in Government.

I think Andrew Lansley is in very serious trouble with his Health and Social Care Bill. It took both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to announce the decision that the way to save his bill is to have a “natural break”. Announced on Monday, its aim is to “listen” to people’s “genuine” concerns. And all three – the PM, DPM and SoS went to a hospital in Surrey to announce the listening panel of experts they are now establishing. I confess, I am sceptical about this latest wheeze,  and I object most strongly on parliamentary grounds.

Listening  is what you do before legislation starts its passage through Parliament. It is called consultation – unfortunately in this case thousands of words, from a very large number of organisations have been sent to Andrew Lansley and he has chosen to mostly ignore them. Then there is pre-legislative scrutiny which serves Parliament and democratic processes very well. The Health Select Committee have been carrying this out as the bill has been progressing through its Parliamentary stages. But really a draft Bill for everyone to look at might have saved both time and possibly in the long run, Mr Lansley’s job.

Many pieces of legislation, particularly those which are complex and/or controversial have benefited enormously from pre-legislative scrutiny. I think a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament works very well with matters of great importance. I served on one of the first Joint Select Committees of both Houses looking at Local Government Reform. There have been Joint Committees to look at Gambling legislation, House of Lords Reform – and probably will be more of those, the Civil Contingency bill and others.

David Cameron should have been paying attention to what his zealous Health Secretary was up to, and in not doing so the Conservatives might pay the high price of the NHS becoming once again an issue on which people do not trust them.

17 comments for “Listening but not learning?

  1. Lord Blagger
    06/04/2011 at 4:47 pm

    How many times has the Lords had a open day for the public on any issues that they are dictating on?

    The dictionary definition of consultation. Something that should happen when you don’t get your own way.

  2. Dave H
    06/04/2011 at 5:55 pm

    They’re continuing the practice started by the previous government. Look at the chequered history of the CSF Bill which had its first reading in Parliament before the results of a consultation were published. Indeed, I believe the report on the consultation was published hours before the second reading. The select committee wasn’t too impressed by DCSF’s behaviour either, although nothing appears to have changed. The DfE has published some regulations (or is about to), having failed to consult very widely on them, with many individuals and, it turns out, many local authorities, not discovering the proposals until after the closing date for input. There is a serious flaw in those regulations, but it’ll get through because with the recess almost upon us, there won’t be time to organise objections in either House.

    I think we ought to have all MPs tested for deafness, given how few of them seem to listen at times. I’d also single out the education department, whatever its name is this week, for special treatment because of the debilitating effects of deafness and tunnel vision (this applies to previous incarnations, not just the present one)

  3. Gareth Howell
    06/04/2011 at 7:20 pm

    Am I not right in thinking that much of the select committee time is spent on “audits” of the health service?

    I can not imagine why I did not spend more time in Health Select committees, and the name of it, may have been the cause…. and the enormity of the problems!

  4. MilesJSD
    06/04/2011 at 7:28 pm

    Baroness Thornton may be in good hitorical company with a lesser-known Australian ‘statesperson’, Dorothy Green –

    whose core wisdom of
    “The ultimate Task of Government is to help people to be self-governable” –

    was overnight garotted by the Press into the headline

    “People Need To Be Ungovernable” – Green.


  5. Carl.H
    06/04/2011 at 8:28 pm

    Most commenters, here at least, agree that this bill is wrong but they also agree the NHS wasn’t right in the first place.

    Is there a party the people do trust ?

  6. jake____
    06/04/2011 at 9:02 pm

    “he has chosen to mostly ignore them”

    You mean the government didn’t listen to those it is meant to represent and who put them in power… honestly, how is this still a surprise to anyone?!

  7. Dave H
    07/04/2011 at 6:05 pm

    If the government is prepared to listen and modify its proposals then that’s good. Sometimes you do have to propose something in order to get useful feedback on what people really want (whatever your line of work). However, I remain to be convinced that whatever changes are made will actually be an improvement, even though improvement is sorely needed.

  8. baronessmurphy
    07/04/2011 at 6:44 pm

    Not a ‘touching faith in the rightness of Governments’ but the usual crossbencher’s feeling that there is good and bad most pieces of legislation and we should examine it dispassionately for the good of patients. I find a lot that will be very helpful to developing the NHS to improve quality of care and improve its sutainability. Whichever party has been in power in the past twenty years the direction for the NHS has followed global not local trends and this is probably right. Just as I never rubbished what the Labour Party was trying to do because their intentions were honourable, it seems to be to be important not to rubbish the Coalition’s ambitions for the NHS because their intentions are honourable too. There are many vested interests in keeping everything as it is and hoping the future demographic trends will go away.

    • jake____
      08/04/2011 at 11:13 am

      Honourable intentions don’t equate to good policy i.e. prohibition laws cause more harm than good, Cameron’s plan to balance the budget too fast causes considerable harm (whilst giving tax breaks to the richest companies). It is usually some form of ‘honourable intention’ aka ideology, that directly leads to bad policy. Intentions mean absolutely nothing if you ignore experienced voices and evidence. Please Baroness Murphy, be more critical of politicians intentions, demand that their ideas are back up by fact, science, evidence, whatever you wish to call it – or we just end up in yet another policy quagmire wishing we had listened in the first place. There are too many vested interests throughout the whole of politics, and obfuscating these with “honourable intentions” only makes matters worse…

      • Lord Blagger
        08/04/2011 at 3:43 pm

        Cameron’s plan to balance the budget too fast causes considerable harm


        Not balancing the budget (and even Cameron has no intention of doing this), causes even more harm. However, it comes later, and its larger because you’ve also got the interest on the debts.

        • jake____
          10/04/2011 at 2:14 pm

          Lord Blagger, maybe that wasn’t the best example but either way the decision as to how deep and how fast was based on ideology rather than evidence “There have been widespread claims that deficit-cutting actually reduces unemployment because it reassures consumers and businesses; but multiple studies of historical record, including one by the International Monetary Fund, have shown that this claim has no basis in reality.” (

          Regardless, my point still stands that “intentions” no matter how “honourable” should not make policy. Evidence, science and fact should.. lest we go back to burning ‘witches’ at the stake…

  9. MilesJSD
    08/04/2011 at 12:51 am

    Whilst duplicity is allowed by Governanc e to run rife in the English language, corruption of the human-spirit, mind, heart and physiology all around the World must follow.

    I am talking not just about whole sections of constitutions, Acts of Parliament, and Regulations enforcing those Laws,
    and about unnecessary ‘verbosity’,
    but about about serious definitive head-words and misnomers, that twist the mind and act like a tight wire tied tight around a young sapling, ‘garotting’ it as it tries to grow healthy:

    “National Health Service” is false and duplicitous:
    it is in fact the National Illnesses, Epidemics, Medications and Hospitals Service,
    and does little healthy-habits supporting and improving,
    and almost nil long-term sustain-worthy wellbeing building.

    “Select Committee” is a misnomer for “Scrutiny Committee”.

    “Debate” is a misnomer standing for “Competitive Hash-up of Essential Information
    necromanticly stirred together with
    Usurpery and Stifling of the democratic processes of
    cooperatively friendly Public Conversation,
    of focal Discussion,
    of Method III Needs & Hows recognition & egalitarian problem-solving, and
    of People-upwards commentary and question;
    by One-way Directive & Agenda-cornering dishonest verbal-competitions misleadingly called “debating” but by definition and the de-facto record resulting in one-sided ‘winner-takes-all’ and in the effectively wanton diminution or destruction of many peoples’ real Needs and of their affordable Hows.

    “…When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
    For I have more…”


    Therefore the noble Baroness Thornton is quite right, and ‘democraticly’ so, to support and report to us all about those Scrutiny-committees that have become, or are on their way to soon becoming, impartially comprised of representatives and advocates, elected egalitarianly by ability-and-expertise, from the whole Membership of both Houses ‘Lower’ & ‘Upper’,
    by the whole memberships of those Houses.

    At least,
    that helps us The Still-Gagged-People to sleep easier and trust parliament a bit more –
    but not ‘at last’ –

    for when thou hast done thou hast not done, for we have more.


  10. baronessmurphy
    10/04/2011 at 3:08 pm

    I can’t apologise for thinking that the Government’s intentions are pretty important. All Governments get it right sometimes and wrong at others, we all just hope the balance will be an overall improvement. But it is vital that politicians start with ideals and good intentions. And while you out there are always sceptical I haven’t found politicians more or less idealistic than other people and no one political party has all the answers. Jake, wouldn’t it be good if we were all geniuses? I agree that many policies have unpredicted consequences, but unwanted effects are not as easy to spot in advance as you suggest. I hear far more ‘fears and expected consequences’ from lobby groups which turn out to be wholly wrong.

    • jake____
      10/04/2011 at 5:02 pm

      Baroness Murphy, I do not mean to be all ‘doom and gloom’. I was merely trying to state that good intentions alone should not produce policy. Hoping that in the end the “balance” is an overall improvement goes some way to show how flawed the system is. History is not studied carefully enough, scientific warnings are not heeded, evidence suppressed and policy lines toed to the very end as an about-face is worse for politicians than implementing a strategy they know is flawed or will lead to problems. It is the good intentions themselves that lock people in to bad policy. A more robust system is required.

      I have absolutely no problem with government starting out with good intentions, I encourage it and no one should have to apologise if they are truly well-intentioned. However, the real crux of the problem is the ‘consultation’ process, the review process etc. where they know it won’t work or isn’t working. They just seem unable to go back on any policy.

      To me, one of the issues that highlights this most clearly is the prohibition of some drugs. Did you watch Lord Norton’s QSD? ( The government knows the current strategy doesn’t work but won’t review the policy or even talk about alternatives because they don’t “believe” anything else is the right choice. Their “intentions” are good in that they want to reduce crime, violence and drug addiction, something I’m sure we all want, but in the face of 50 years of evidence proving that prohibition cannot achieve those goals and has made things worse, especially compared to say legal regulation, they have worked policy into such a quagmire that they can’t back out of those initial good “intentions”.

      All I’m saying is that we, the people, should be more wary of politician’s good intentions, and the politician’s should be able to accept that although well-intentioned, their policy suggestion may actually be wrong… but maybe that’s too much to ask…? With nearly every policy implemented I’m sure there is some example, case study or data set they can reference to in Human history to ensure that policy is more than “hope”. If those making policy showed just a little bit more humility and a little less stubborn idealism… They write law that governs ~60million of our fellow citizens and should be held to account by far more than just their “intentions”.. as we pay dearly for their mistakes.

      • MilesJSD
        13/04/2011 at 6:56 pm

        Signs, symbols and connectives

        just testing to see if the sign for ‘approximately-equal-to’ is accessible to our comments –

        because ~ in formal-argumentation stands for the connective ’tilde’ meaning ‘it is not the case that’

        Well, I haven’t been able to find a sign for ‘approximately-equal-to’ ;

        nor for the connectives ‘implies that’ (hook) and ‘is implied that’ (reverse-hook);

        nor tribar ‘is the same as’ and slash-tribar ‘is not the same as’.

        Can some-one kindly advise in this, please ?

  11. Carl.H
    10/04/2011 at 10:58 pm

    “All Governments get it right sometimes and wrong at others”.

    Right and wrong for whom ?

    Now I always thought of Government as similar to parenting, there is no manual or right or wrong way. You do what you think is best and wait to get slated for it in the following years.

  12. ZAROVE
    13/04/2011 at 9:33 am

    Baroness Young, this may be off topic but, I do have to ask why you think you have no Religion?

    I actually said this to baroness Murphy and was promptly told how insulting I am. However, Imp not being insulting.

    What I am is being precise. Atheism simply means you reject Theism. It means you do not believe in any gods existence.

    While it may then be self evident to you that you have no Religion, this assumes “Religion” and “Theism” are Synonyms.

    They aren’t.

    Religion is simply a set of beliefs about the Fundamental nature of our existence. It is not the same thing as Theism. There are Atheistic Religions, such as Theravada Buddhism.

    I would simply point out that Objectivism, Ayn Rands Philosophy, and even Secular Humanism both are also Religions. They Present you with a way to understand the world, its Origins an nature, and develop your moral code. There is no distinction.

    Why bring this up?

    Because it will help you. (If you read this as it’s a bit old.)

    When looking at the world, its best not to get a false picture. Atheist often think they lack something others have. They lack Religion. The story also usually goes that they prefer Logic and Reason to Faith. This of course assumes Faith is the opposite of Reason. How Faith became belief without Evidence I don’t know but its root is the Latin Word Fidese, and it means Trust or Confidence, not belief without Evidence.

    Really your Atheism ( and I mean the whole of your beliefs, not merely a lack of belief in a god) is as much a religion, as much a confidence in how the world works, as is Christianity or Judaism.

    Irt is helpful in that it gives you a framework for interpreting your life and the events you see round about you.

    But it hinders you if you superimpose this onto others.

    Which brings us back to Murphy and her Faith in Government.

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