Dear Lord

An Open Letter to Lord Blencathra

22nd October 2014

Lord Blencathra: We must stop this medical negligence nonsense from going too far. At the moment, doctors can try out radical treatment, but if it doesn’t work then they face the danger that a bunch of lawyers will sue them. Now of course, one solution is to round up all the lawyers to conduct medical experiments (laughs), but I don’t suppose we can do that.

Lord Blencathra: Let’s put it this way: if the lawyers were around over a hundred years ago, Lister, Marie Curie, Jenner, they would never have made great medical breakthroughs, and the doctors would be suing Marie Curie’s relatives for allowing x-rays to be developed.

Interviewer: It sounds like you’d quite like to euthanise lawyers.

Lord Blencathra: Well, would not the country be a much better place?

Dear Lord Blencathra

I was shocked to hear you speak these words on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme with Eddie Mair yesterday, 21st October 2014, in an interview about Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill (The “Saatchi Bill”). I think you were mistaken about the claimed safeguards in the Bill (which are illusory), mistaken about the law (including the law on suicide), mistaken about how the Bill would affect the development of new treatments, mistaken even about informed consent for treatment. But I’d like to address the part that most shocked me, your comments about lawyers.

Corrupt. Venal. Untrustworthy. Only in it for themselves.

Lawyers are an easy target, aren’t they? Indeed, throughout the media campaign for the Saatchi Bill, its supporters have sought to cast opposition to the Bill as just a few lawyers trying to protect their fat pay cheques. Not only is this claim not true, given the widespread opposition to the Bill from across the medical, patient and (yes) legal professions, but I think you have crossed a line in your attack on this particular group of people.

I’ve met and spoken to several lawyers during the course of campaigning over the Saatchi Bill, and do you know what? They are human beings. Human beings who are trying to help. Yes, it surprised me too. I realise I’ve probably lost you there, but please bear with me and I’ll explain.

We may wish we lived in a world where lawyers weren’t needed. But we don’t live in that world, and blaming lawyers for that fact is no better than blaming doctors for the fact that people get ill. In a world where one person can harm another, we need laws to protect us and a legal system to apply those laws.

We should all, in a civilised society, have regard for and respect the rule of law, though one might wonder why any of us bother when even the people who make our laws show such disregard for it as you have displayed. Round up all the lawyers? Do you seriously not think it is important for us to have recourse to the law? Do you regard the law as irrelevant, or the right of access to it?

Here we find what the Medical Innovation Bill is really about. Not empowering patients, or giving them more options. It’s about taking away their rights and protections under the law. It’s about making doctors no longer responsible for their actions. You personally can choose to waive your protections, your right to redress, but what Lord Saatchi is doing in this Bill, with your support, is trying to deny that right to everybody else. This Bill can be applied to every “innovative” treatment, major or minor, whether there is an existing effective treatment or not. At a stroke, a whole swathe of off-label prescribing is put beyond the reach of the law. Because if it can be so applied, it will be; it is a Get Out Of Jail Free card that is too good to ignore. Consent is meaningless when a patient has to sign away their rights to get the treatment.

Lord Saatchi appears to hate the medical profession. You complement this with your hatred of the legal profession. The most charitable conclusion one could draw from this is that neither of you understand these professions nor how they work.

The challenge for the [medical professionals] of today is to get the correct balance between the curiosity (scientific interest in helping patients of the future) and the compassion (helping patients of the present) .
Professor Michael Baum*

Blundering into this difficult and delicate process, as Lord Saatchi has with this Bill, does a huge disservice to patients, the clinicians who treat them, and the researchers trying to help develop new and improved treatments.

Corrupt. Venal. Untrustworthy. Only in it for themselves.

It turns out that you can find failings in any group of people.

One should be careful about assuming that just because somebody receives payment for doing something, that they are only motivated by money. After all, one could make such a mistake about the £12000 a month contract you signed to lobby Parliament on behalf of the Cayman Islands government, or your expenses claims for improvements to the second house you then sold as if it were your first. This is the sort of unfortunate mistake that happens when well-meaning people operate without restraint and without any effective means to limit their actions. Under the circumstances, it’s probably just as well that your private member’s bill to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act did not pass.

When it comes to medical practice, it’s not just money at stake, it’s lives, as you know well. This is why doctors have to take responsibility for their actions, just as much as the rest of us, and to tinker with that responsibility imperils everybody. There are many reasons why new treatments may not be developed as fast as we like, many genuine barriers to innovation. This Bill addresses none of them, but instead exposes patients to great risk, with no safety net and with scant potential benefit.

Please, listen to the medical, patient and legal organisations and experts who overwhelmingly say that it is a bad idea.


Pages on the Saatchi Bill

An introduction (20th April 2014):

The Saatchi Bill – Stifling Innovation and Harming Patients

Dishonesty in the Saatchi Campaign (10th May 2014):

So Untrue It’s Not True

A list of comments on the bill by organisations and individuals (10th May 2014):

An Inexhaustively Incomplete (But Completely Exhausting) List of Saatchi Bill Comments

An article about one particular campaign supporter (12th May 2014):

Well Struck

A discussion of the bill and its shortcomings (Guardian Science blogs guest post) (22nd May 2014):

The Saatchi medical innovation bill will put patients at the mercy of quacks

A comment on the promotion of the latest draft (3rd June 2014):

La-la-la-la (not listening)

A view on lack of patient protection in the latest draft (5th June 2014):

No protection against quackery

A view on research shortcomings in the latest draft (10th June 2014):

Gambling With Lives

Comments on the consultation process (13th June 2014):

Selling the Sizzle

The continuing PR (12th September 2014)

Never Say You’re Wrong

An Open Letter to Lord Blencathra (22nd October 2014)

Dear Lord



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