House of Lords meeting: how did it go?

 

Our 38 Degrees legal team, waiting to meet Baroness Jolly and Lord Marks

38 Degrees came face-to-face with a couple of key players in the House of Lords debate over the NHS last Thursday. Baroness Jolly is the Lib Dem lead spokesperson on health, and Lord Marks is a senior Lib Dem lawyer. They will be negotiating with the government Minister in the Lords, a Conservative called Lord Howe. They will also be influential figures among their Lib Dem colleagues. So they are definitely people worth trying to influence.

I attended the meeting along with three lawyers – Stephen Cragg, our barrister, Alice Goodenough, our solicitor, and Peter Roderick, a public interest lawyer who runs the website dutytoprovide.net

I explained that we were there on behalf of over 480,000 38 Degrees members who had signed the Save Our NHS petition. I also explained that the legal advice we were going to be talking about was paid for by thousands of small contributions from 38 Degrees members. That clearly had an impact: it’s because hundreds of thousands of us have worked together to show how much we care about the NHS that they were meeting with us in the first place.

I explained that we were running this campaign because thousands of 38 Degrees members have voted to make it a top priority, and that the scrapping of the Secretary of State’s “duty to provide” was a top concern of ours.

Baroness Jolly set out some criticisms of our approach, which echoed comments made in the Guardian by Lord Paul Tyler, another Lib Dem Lord who voted with the government last week. Thankfully, given how badly the tone of Lord Tyler’s remarks had gone down with 38 Degrees members, Baroness Jolly was more polite and the words “crass” and “mob” did not feature! As lots of 38 Degrees members pointed out after that article appeared, it’s always woth engaging with criticisms like these and considering how we can campaign together most effectively. But it’s also true that if we’re being effective we should expect to be ruffling some feathers amongst politicians.

The legal team paid for by 38 Degrees members did a lot of the talking. They set out our position on the “duty to provide”, explaining that 38 Degrees members do not want to see the Secretary of State’s legal duties scrapped or watered down. We went into some of the issues in quite a lot of depth – the points we covered are set out in full in this legal briefing prepared for the Lords in advance of their debate next Tuesday. We explained why the options currently on the table aren’t yet adequate to address our concerns. Baroness Jolly highlighted that the Conservative minister, Lord Howe, had said in his closing speech at Second Reading that he is willing to consider any amendments on this issue. I said that that is encouraging, but that 38 Degrees members weren’t going to go away until our problems are properly addressed, in black-and-white, within the legislation.

Baroness Jolly and Lord Marks seemed keen to emphasise that they don’t think the Bill is perfect and that they will be working within the government to improve it. They argued that the best way for them to make changes is by working behind the scenes rather than by forcing votes on the floor of the House of Lords. They pledged to pursue this strategy. I pointed out that we would only be reassured when we saw changes happening in practice and we’d only be able to judge the “behind-the-scenes” approach by results. In the meantime we would be keeping the pressure up.

Overall, it did seem like Baroness Jolly and Lord Marks recognised the widespread public concern about the government’s NHS plans. At some points, they even seemed to share our concerns. They said repeatedly that they would be pushing for changes “behind the scenes”, which makes it harder for us to know what’s really going on.

I made it clear that we’d be happy to have further meetings with them to provide more details or more legal evidence. They expressed a willingness to meet again in future, possibly next time with some more 38 Degrees members present. That feels like something we should pursue. It would be great if next time we had such a meeting it was possible to have more 38 Degrees members in the room rather than me having to attempt to speak for all of us my own.

To summarise it didn’t feel like we were coming up against a brick wall, but nor did it feel like an open door.  I certainly didn’t leave the meeting thinking that we had wasted our time by speaking to them. But I also definitely didn’t leave the meeting thinking we should call off our campaign because the Lib Dem Lords are 100% on board and we can leave it all to them. The meeting was useful both in communicating in detail some of our key concerns to key decision-makers, and in getting more of a sense of their strategy and their attitude to our campaign. Above all else, I came away with a powerful sense of just how critical it is for us 38 Degrees members to keep speaking up.