Is this the best way to improve a bill

Baroness Murphy


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, 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.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath


8 comments for “Is this the best way to improve a bill

  1. Twm O'r Nant
    23/11/2011 at 9:57 am

    I’m a ‘Farming Today’ person rather than a ‘Book at Bedtime’ type

    The one cause of my not being in parliament, except that in May/June when the weather gets warmer , and the chambers smellier, the one place i want to be in the middle of the day is out in the royal parks for my own pleasure.

    Baroness Jay is the worst offender at most things parliamentary, which is not surprising
    considering her parentage, an admiral of the fleet.(?)

  2. Patrick Leahy
    23/11/2011 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for this post Baroness Murphy, interesting to read. Do you think they are going to get through the Bill with seven more Committee days left, or do you think it’s quite likely they will need more days?

  3. Baroness Murphy
    Baroness Murphy
    23/11/2011 at 6:15 pm

    Patrick Leahy, we were discussing this issue this afternoon. The Whips Office have allocated a further day before Christmas and we (Ministers, Front Bench Opposition and backbenchers playing a regular part) examined whether we could compress some of the amendment groups so that speeches covered more than one amendment if the topics were related. It’s quite difficult as everyone wants a fair hearing and a good response from the Government. But like others I am trying NOT to speak unless there is a very specific point I don’t think others will cover; sometimes a self denying ordinance is the best policy. A good deal depends on whether the Opposition and Crossbenchers will agree to the timetable or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

  4. MilesJSD
    24/11/2011 at 2:54 am

    Your point “the chances of change are small – it’s tradition, don’t you know ”
    connects with the similar traditional blindness to the vital real-life differences between
    an “Illnesses-Medical-Treatment & Impairments-Social-Care Service and Bill”

    and true Individual-Health-Maintenance & Longterm Wellbeing-Building.

  5. Twm O'r Nant
    25/11/2011 at 8:15 am

    It may be that the requirements of a late night bill helped to concentrate the minds at 0200 in a similar way that it does to writers, and other early risers, an hour or two later.

    The hustle ‘n bustle of the day surely has an effect on the brain which reduces its clarity
    considerably? If your day ends when others are beginning theirs you must be so tired that however much silence there is,tiredness
    rules rather than clear thinking, unless of course you live nearby, sleep until 2300hrs, then nip in and say what you need to say, with the utmost conviction. Those who say “Aye”? The Ayes have it!

    I have my doubts. I suspect that the ONLY ones to think clearly, while the world sleeps, are those who get up before it, not those who get up at, or after, the end of it!

    Perhaps hyphens and gryphons are directly caused by noise.

  6. Gareth Howell
    04/01/2012 at 9:21 am

    La Barona mentioned Cloud technology as part of the Pathfinder initiative for the introduction of H&Sc Bill. This link claims that “Amazon” recognized the value of online saving of documents, but of course it has been in existence since 1999. The one limitation has been the continued use of land lines, and analog technology.

    With digital delivery and Mobile/cell connections, as well as landline ones, the art and science of saving documents online is moving ahead very fast, and should be of good value to the interaction of the new Health service computer technology.

    It probably has not been included yet.

    The advantage of multiple application programme use is obvious. Formatting and file/folder name changing can otherwise be a difficult, if not sometimes impossible chore

  7. Gareth Howell
    04/01/2012 at 9:35 am

    Wyoming is the first state to use a collection of cloud applications from Google for the entire executive branch of government. This allows data and applications to be accessed over the internet. The cloud system was fully functional Monday, June 27th 2011 where ten thousand employees officially converted to “Google Apps for Government”. The special government edition allows the staff to use desk to desk video conferencing and live connections, while other applications are used

    Didn’t they do well or, did the NHS not do it at all? Not even 10,000?

  8. Twm O'r Nant
    19/01/2012 at 8:53 am

    I thought i had got to the bottom of the Health bill changes , basically the commissioning of the new computerised system throughout the service, yet I came a cross something called inside Health on Radio 4, quite by chance on about monday this week, that made me wonder about how bad the standard of reporting is, and how inadequate the Pathfinder initiatives have been at the local GP surgery are.

    Those asked to discuss the subject did not once mention the subject and would not have had the vaguest idea of what it is.

    I was tempted to provide Baroness Murphy’s name for their delight, except that I know she has other useful things to do.

    The correspondent presenter might at least have approached one of the relevant committee members to give a proper explanation of it.

    If there are only a dozen or thirty people who know what the bill is about what chance
    is there of general public getting to know about ANY bill in parliament which affects nearly all of them quite considerably in the long run.

    Or does EVERYBODY just delegate the thinking , forget it, and get on with it, when it’s working!?

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