We are about half way through the committee stages of the Health and Social Care Bill; yesterday afternoon and evening we ploughed through the 7th day of amendments, missing our target as usual by several groups of amendments because so many people want to speak. I spoke in the debate on amendment 103, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/111122-0002.htm#11112299000096 about how the Bill might encourage commissioning of more integrated health and social care and had intended to speak in the group 104, the last group after dinner, about the reconfiguration of hospital services. But by the time Lord Warner introduced the topic my eyelids were closing, my contribution looked superfluous and I decided it was time to go home. Part of the problem is personal…I’m a ‘Farming Today’ person rather than a ‘Book at Bedtime’ type. These evening sessions when one has been working all day seem to me to be largely unnecessary but like many working practices in the house which were devised for the convenience of Edwardian landowners the chances of change are small….it’s tradition, don’t you know?
I have doubts too about the bilateral political debate that colours all our exchanges. Committee debates are set up to enable us to go word by word, line by line through a Bill and challenge each provision. The Bill team of civil servants sits in the box to the left of the Minister ready with notes of reply as to why the Government doesn’t like or want the amendment that has been tabled. The mover of the amendment makes a speech about why such change is necessary and prays in aid his own experience, all his briefings from a wide range of organisations (in the Health and Social Care Bill these are the Kings Fund, The Nuffield Trust, the NHS Confederation and various professional, union, patient and local government groups). Other peers join in the debate after that, quite often making a speech which has only passing relevance to the amendment but proving to the constituency of organisations that make up the lobby that one has been listening! The confrontational style of debate seems ill suited to improving the final Act….the Government holds it ground and resists any amendments at Committee stage and the Opposition chisels away, sometimes voting on amendments of minor significance just to show they can. I was caught out yesterday when Lord Warner called an unpredicted vote on amendment 98 on the content of the mandate that the Secretary of State will give to the NHS National Commissioning Board. I spoke in support of the broad ideas behind the amendment but for me they were a way of probing Government on its intentions, not something to vote on.
And my final grouse this morning is about those peers who save what they are going to say until the Minister has almost finished his reply then pop up and say “Before the Minister sits down…” or even worse simply get to their feet and start talking….and launch into another speech designed to delay proceedings, as if they are too grand to contribute to the debate while the common herd of folk are debating and must reserve their own slot. I have a little list of peers who are doing this regularly in this Bill…Baroness Jay of Paddington, Lord Owen and Lord Davies of Stamford are the guilty parties. Debate content sometimes gets buried in poor manners, a great pity when what they say is often worth listening to. In contrast I admire very much the Opposition style of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath; never pulls his punches but does it in an unfailingly polite incisive way giving credit to speakers on all benches when he agrees with them.