Let us imagine an ex-advertising man called Lord Scratchy. After, his old PR firm, Itchy and Scratchy helped the Tory party win elections, he has now been given a seat in the House of Lords. Still working in PR, with many large American Breweries using his skills, he now introduces a Private Members’ Bill into the Lords which he calls the Free Beer Bill.
In newspapers, he says that he has been stunned that he has had to pay around £5 for a pint and wants to see a day when beer is free. However, the Free Beer Bill does not mention Free Beer. Instead, it seeks to remove the right of pub customers to complain if their beer is off or has been short measured. Scratchy says that his remarkable insight into the pub business suggests that landlords live in fear of complaints and even legal action from customers and that freed from this fear they will be able to offer a wider range of beers and some of them, somehow, might even be free. Probably.
A few people who are listening point out that there is no evidence for any of this and his hopes for free beer are completely implausible.
The Government though are keen to keep Scratchy onside. He is a big donor to their party coffers and deserves a crack at getting this legislation through. Or at least they do not want to annoy him by appearing to block this. So, they set up a public consultation on the proposed Bill. About 160 responses are received from organisations like the Campaign for Real Ale, landlords associations, legal firms who specialise in pub business and charities. Almost all of them express their concern about the Bill, how it may lower standards in the industry, let in the unscrupulous, damage trust in the trade and create legal mayhem as lawyers try to sort out the chaos. But most respondents, perhaps fearful of Scratchy’s power, express their concern over the price of beer and hope that, with appropriate ammendments, beer may in fact become free one day.
Alongside this consultation, Scracthy has been paying his PR team to set up a website to collect signatures from the public. “Do you support Lord Scratchy’s Bill for Free Beer?” Sixteen thousand people immediately sign up to this noble campaign. Scracthy submits these signatures to the consultation and proclaims “Look, only a few misfits and vested interests have expressed doubts. Most are hoping the Bill can be made to work and the overwhelming majority of the public want this. Remeber, these are your voters. Do you want to be seen to be against Free Beer?”
And so the Bill begins its trundle through the Lords. Most Private Members Bills do not make it through to the statute books, so a skillfull game is required. The Lords that turn up to the debate are deferential and polite. They express their horror at the price of beer and congratulate Scratchy on his bold attempts to bring forward the day when beer will be free. A few more knowledgable peers, understanding the Bill is nonsense, attemp with utmost respect and politeness, to introduce a few ammendemts that may defang the worst excesses of the Bill. These are rejected as unecessary by an ever so polite Lord Scracthy and so the Bill trundles through on the nod, after going through the requisite motions in the Lords committees. It is not a done thing to oppose such things. The Lords are all honourable and the Bill has honourable intentions.
Outside parliament, concern is growing about the Bill. The Bill is absurd. It has one purpose – to remove all liability for bad beer from landlords. All a landlord has to do to free themselves from the scrutiny of Trading Standards and the courts is to ensure they have asked someone else behind the bar if the beer is alright today. They have no obligation to listen to the answer and there is no obligation to actually check if anything is actually wrong with the beer. A simple checkbox of asking another person, who may know nothing about beer, will release the landlord from all obligations. Get served a bad pint? Receive a short measure? Get overcharged? Tough. The landord has been responsible in ensuring everything is alright with the beer. Where once simple remedies to a problem pint existed, now the drinker is left out in the cold. Landlords, of course, were happy with the current situation. They priced into their business the occaisional bad pint and were always happy to try to put things right. Now a new breed of unscrupulous landords could exploit customers. Or breweries might no longer care about quality control.
The industry is alarmed. But few of the leaders will speak out and lead any opposition. After all, there are knighthoods and peerages at risk here. One hundred Michelin star restauranteurs write to the Times to express their horror. But Scracthy dismisses them as being elitist and out of touch. People want free beer. A few legal firms who specialise in the pub trade point out the absurdities and again they are dismissed as greedy vested interests who will lose out under the new Free Beer regime.
Lord Scratchy is delighted with the progress. His power connections have allowed him to recruit the Torygraph newspaper to be his official media partner for this Bill and they print a series of glowing articles proclaiming the imminent arrival of free beer. After the Bill passes the Lords, Scratchy proclaims his Bill has been thoroughly scrutinised and there can no longer be any honest opposition to this Bill. All that needs to happen now is for the Bill to slip through the Commons on a quiet Friday with a nod to procedure and without a vote. After all, why tie up precious Commons time? Everybody wants Free Beer. The Lords have done a fantastic job of honing and refining. Let’s get this through and everybody can get down the pub.
I thought you should know that Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill passed through its final reading in the Lords last week. It had its first reading in the House of Commons yesterday without a debate. It is difficult to find any professional body, academic or major charity who supports this Bill. It has one purpose: to remove the right of patients to seek redress in the courts if they are the victim of negligence or quackery. It applies to all treatments – not just terminal illnesses. All the doctor has to do to remove their liability is to ask another doctor their thoughts on the treatment. That other doctor does not need to see the patient, understand the treatment or even consent. The act of asking will be enough.
Lord Saatchi says this will free doctors to innovate and find a cure for cancer. It is not clear how this will happen.
One significant ammendment was added to Saatchi’s Bill in the Lords. It is going to require the GMC to keep a public register of all these ‘non-standard’ treatents. This was rather dumped on the GMC. At the moment there are major questions over this such a what is actually meant by a non-standard treatments (as doctors will say, there is no such thing as a standard patient). Also, there are obvious concerns about patient confidentiality and security. Someone will a rare enough disease will certainly be identifiable. It is also not clear how such a register will add to scientific knowledge – it will just be a hodge podge of anecdotes. And no doubt the unscrupulous quack doctor could record their ‘successes’ in there as more advertising.
The Bill still needs to go through the Commons. It could just get through on the nod. What will stop this is if just one MP objects and then the Bill will have to be scrutinised by the House. It will take a brave MP to do that. Given the short timeframe between now and the General Election, any objection could almosr certainly kill the Bill in this parliament. There will be some unhapy bunnies if that happens.
But this is an important Bill that all medical, legal and academic commenters have suggested will create legal chaos, is completely unecessary and cannot have its stated intentions of helping find a ‘cure for cancer’.
Full Commons scrutiny of the Bill is required. Full democratic oversight should be the minimum standard. Instead, this Bill could get through on patronage, power and PR.
The Medical Innovation Bill is bad for patients, will cause legal chaos for doctors and will harm medical research.
An MP needs to object. Support the Stop The Saatchi Bill campaign.