Will Lord Saatchi try again?

One of the most intriguing parliamentary sagas of the last couple of years has been that of the Medical Innovation Bill, aka the Saatchi Bill.

The Conservative peer, Lord Saatchi, has been pushing for a change in the law to allow doctors more flexibility to depart from standard practice and to administer innovative treatments.

He argues that the law currently defines medical negligence as deviation from standard procedure. So any deviation from standard procedure by a doctor could result in a conviction for medical negligence. However, as innovation is deviation, non-deviation is non-innovation, Lord Saatchi argues, and this means medical science does not advance.

His attempt to change the law began with a Commons private member's bill in 2013, piloted by the Conservative backbencher Michael Ellis.... which was blocked by opponents, as controversial PMBs usually are.

Then he tried himself, introducing the bill in the House of Lords, where it came under considerable fire from such luminaries as Lord Winston, the fertility expert. Lord Saatchi made concessions to his critics and accepted a series of amendments, and got his bill through the Upper House. But then came the difficult bit...

As other peers had discovered before him, Lord Saatchi's bill might have cleared their Lordships' House, but that did not give it any priority at all for debate in the Commons. It was right at the end of the queue for debating time, along with a motley assortment of ten minute rule bills and presentation bills; and other legislative waifs and strays - and perhaps that was one reason why unconvinced opponents in the Lords were prepared to allow the bill through.

So how could it get to the wicket?

One option was to seek a formal second reading - if no-one shouted "object" when the title of the bill was read out at the end of the day's debates, it could go straight into committee.

Actually, if no objection came, it would then have been (theoretically) possible for a motion to be moved to take the committee stage consideration on the floor of the House, then and there, and with no amendments tabled, it could then have been rushed straight through to third reading in a matter of minutes, and sent off to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

To guard against that eventuality the bill's principle Commons opponents, the Health Committee Chair Dr Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative, and the Lib Dem Julian Huppert, organised a rota so one of them would always be present on a Friday to block that process with a well-timed shout of "Object!"

The second, and more plausible, route was to get government support for a motion to find extra debating time. This would have been a pretty unusual concession for business managers to make - but Lord Saatchi's bill team were optimistic that they get agreement that their bill was a special case and get the Commons sitting hours extended on a couple of Tuesday evenings.

That would have provided sufficient time to get the bill through its Commons consideration and into law, before the end of the Parliament.

Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin was handling the negotiations, and they thought they had the Lib Dem Health Minister, Norman Lamb, on-side, so no-one expected the Lib Dems to veto the extra time. But they did.

Or at least that's how Lord Saatchi's camp saw things. His opponents say his bill was only allowed through the Lords because the Wollaston-Huppert axis was certain to block it in the Commons...and they react with bemusement to the suggestion that Norman Lamb was ever on board.

They say they were never inclined to give the Saatchi Bill special treatment and some even suggest that the Conservative side of the government was happy to be supportive toward it precisely because they could rely on others to kill it, without their dabs ever appearing on the murder weapon.

So that's that. For now.

It seems highly unlikely that, having invested so much time and energy in this proposal, Lord Saatchi will just let it drop. But he may be getting rather tired of the private members' bill process. Maybe in the next Parliament he will try and attach an amendment to some suitable piece of legislation, thus avoiding the procedural hazards that beset private members legislation.

But having laboured so long for this measure, it seems hard to imagine he will now walk away.

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