Peers begin debating the NHS reform bill on Tuesday in the House of Lords. The big worry for the government is that they will vote for the Owen/Hennessy amendment, which would refer the bill to a separate committee for further consultation, delaying its passage by several months.
Earl Howe, a health minister, met Lord Owen yesterday as they tried to bash out a compromise, but the talks failed and Lords Owen and Hennessy tabled their amendment as planned, with one minor tweak: that the new committee should report by December 19, rather than next February.
The government is not taking this lightly. Earl Howe sent a letter to peers just 20 minutes before today’s debate started. The letter shows just how concerned minister are about the prospect of such a delay. Here are the key passages:
Over the last few days, I have engaged in discussions with Lord Owen in an endeavour to identify how such a procedure might be used to address his concerns without posing undue risk to the government’s plans for the NHS and to the passage of the bill. Unfortunately, it has not proved possible to reach agreement; the main reason for this being what I regard as the unacceptable risks to the bill’s timetable and the knock-on effect that this will have within the health service itself.
This.. potential for slippage in the timetable carries grave implications for the government’s ability to achieve royal assent for the bill by the end of the session. The bill cannot be carried over from this session to the next.
The House must have proper time to examine the bill but the proposal put forward by Lord Owen could result in delay, which could well prove fatal to it. This is not a risk that I believe this House should take.