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End of the road for Saatchi’s innovation Bill?

The Bill may have been drafted with the best of intentions, but it would not have created the best law, says John van der Luit-Drummond

25 January 2016

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Welcome amendments to the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill (AMTIB) have signalled the end of the road for Lord Saatchi's Medical Innovation Bill, a law that would likely have done more harm than good for vulnerable patients.

Lord Saatchi's Bill - which, unlike most other private member's Bills, had the backing of government - was blocked from a Commons debate in the final days of the last parliament. The return of a Tory government (without those pesky Liberal Democrats in tow) after the general election, gave the advertising magnate's Bill a new lease of life. Well, at least in theory.

Saatchi's Bill has received widespread condemnation from both the medical and legal professions and from inside the Commons since its conception. The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) described it as 'unnecessary' and said it would lead to patients putting their lives in the hands of 'maverick' and 'over-ambitious' doctors, while its members warned the Bill would create more litigation. Ignoring evidence to the contrary, the Conservative peer and his supporters fought on leading to fears that - with government support - his Bill would become law this year.

In a twist to the tail, however, in the aftermath of the election, Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris introduced the AMTIB, which incorporated Saatchi's proposals. The website set up as the dedicated port of call for all things pro-medical innovation confirmed last October that the peer had handed over his Bill to the Tory MP.

Eagle-eyed practitioners noted that the Medical Innovation Bill was subsequently parachuted into clauses 3 and 4 of the AMTIB, the former of which stated: 'It is not negligent for a doctor to depart from the existing range of accepted medical treatments for a condition if the decision to do so is taken responsibly.'

The MP for Daventry told the Telegraph that his Bill would not allow the 'quackology' that peers were particularly concerned about while debating Saatchi's plans in the House of Lords. Yet this was not enough to quell the voices of dissent, and the reincarnated Bill has received as much criticism as its precursor.

A joint statement issued by the Royal College of Physicians in December, and on behalf of some of the country's leading medical associations, said the Bill would 'harm good innovation' by weakening patient protection.

'The AMTIB is based on the false premise that medical innovation is being stifled by a fear of litigation held by doctors. There is no evidence of this from the Medical Protection Society, Medical Defence Union, the General Medical Council (GMC) or our various memberships,' the statement continued. Far from a ringing endorsement for a law meant to help doctors and patients.

Writing in the Guardian, Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the Bill would move medicine into 'treacherous territory' and that while Heaton-Harris has sought to address concerns the result is 'muddled' and 'in parts contradictory'.

It seems, at last, that proponents of the Bill are starting to heed the warnings of the experts. In a move that will be welcomed by many, Heaton-Harris has announced the removal of clauses 3 and 4 from his Bill after being unable to reach agreement with the wording at committee stage.

Dr Anthony Barton, a medical practitioner, solicitor at the Medical Negligence Team, and joint editor of the newly published fifth edition of 'Clinical Negligence', told me: 'Chris Heaton-Harris MP has rightly dropped Lord Saatchi's misguided proposal from his AMTIB. It would have created a legal anomaly - preventing innovating doctors from being sued for negligence. There is scant evidence doctors are deterred from innovation by threat of litigation.'

Writing on his blog, Nigel Poole QC of Kings Chambers, said: 'If clauses 3 and 4 off AMTIB fall, surely Lord Saatchi will withdraw his own Bill. To do otherwise would be to waste more time and money on an unwanted and unworkable Bill that had already twice failed to make it through the Commons.'

Poole is right. It seems highly unlikely that Saatchi will relaunch his Bill now, even despite his unshakeable belief in its ability to cure cancer. The Bill may well have been drafted with the best of intentions, but it would not have created the best law. What happens with the remainder of Heaton-Harris's Bill is, however, less than clear. Will it die a death like its predecessor, or evolve into something quite different?

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk
 @JvdLD

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Clinical negligence