Were you wondering where I’d gone? Well I’m back now from Central America and the Caribbean and mightily pleased I missed all that cold weather. I was in some remote spots and got news from Britain only intermittently. But the health bill figured in almost every bulletin. Turmoil, Coalition falling apart, political storms at Westminster, doctors and nurses noisily opposing the reforms and a beleaguered Andrew Lansley on the brink of being sacked. Or so ‘twas said.
So the moment I landed I got out Hansard on line and read through the debates in the Lords that I’d missed. No political storms, no significant challenge, Earl Howe working away negotiating some sensible changes and generously responding to amendments. Of the 6 votes so far, only the minor first amendment was lost by a 4 votes. The rest were won by the Government with a very comfortable majority, which means there were few Lib Dem or Conservative rebels (the maximum number of coalition rebels for any one vote was 4 and that occurred only once) and the crossbenchers largely supported the Coalition. The turn-outs were good.
The week I returned was recess but Earl Howe asked if he could meet me with the bill team that week. He’d been pondering over an amendment that Lord Warner and I had spoken to in Committee and were due to speak to again at Report. We wanted a mechanism to ensure that the Secretary of State could ensure that NHS monies could be transferred to Social Care, or Housing or indeed other organisations if it was in the best interest of patients. There are mechanisms in place at grass roots level but they are rarely, indeed insufficiently used. The bill team came up with the idea of inserting a Secretary of State’s direction to that effect in Schedule 4, which addressed my concerns perfectly, and I was able to table it in time for the debate on Monday. We also had a good discussion about how to achieve a satisfactory process to monitor and intervene in failing hospitals before they get to crisis point. By Wednesday Earl Howe had produced a mechanism which Lord Warner and I felt was an excellent solution.
So in spite of the media hype, in spite of the apparent opposition generated by sackfuls of misinformed briefings and letters, so far the Lords have been listening more carefully to the arguments in the Chamber than the barrage outside. This may not last…we are getting to some controversial bits of the Bill next week and after all the duty of the Opposition is to oppose.