Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
“PMQs is a disgrace,” people tell me. “They should behave like adults”. After busting the myth that it is only the men who bellow and heckle (every week, we see that the women are more than able to assert equality on that front ), I remind them that the session is only half an hour out of the whole of the Commons’s week.
And I then suggest that the critics in question watch BBC Parliament, and especially the Select Committees, to see the point for themselves. Select Committees are traditionally a haven of objectivity – in which party tribalism is left at the door, and policy is subjected to logical and commendably unbiased scrutiny. You will often see MPs (myself included) robustly criticising their own ministers and policy, and agreement being reached across party divides.
Yes, Select Committees have encompassed the best of Parliament – until now. Last week, a vote took place in the Health Select Committee which represented a watershed moment for it. It marked the momenet when party politics, subjectivity and emotion triumphed over the Committee’s duty – and this turn of events duly hit the natiional media.
The topic was a hot one: public spending in the health service. The sittings of witnesses took place, agreed without challenge from all committee members. Then, last week, came the session for the well-rehearsed process of working through the draft report, prepared by the Chair and the committee’s clerks, to thrash out points of disagreement (for there are often many) to reach a compromise. These discussions are often feisty – but heartening in how differences are eventually accommodated.
Agreement is often facilitated because, on a personal basis, committee members get on well. For example, I have enjoyed working alongside Barbara Keeley on her valuable work on the Physical Activity Commission, and working closely with Grahame Morris on changing the law for the protection of pubs, and enjoy a friendship with the other members of the committee, all of whom I like.
When it came to this report, one Labour member submitted a long list of amendments, many of which I thought very reasonable. The discussion then started – but instead of embarking on working through the report line by line, discussing these amendments, the conversation suddenly became anout whether we could agree a report at all. At this point, the conversation became unusually emotional and tangled.
Let me try to dismantle the tangle by summarising Labour members’ reasons for refusing even to try to work to agree a report: there were two main ones.
First, that the evidence was too reliant on one person, and that the parts of it included in the report were the wrong selection. So I personally invited the member concerned to suggest evidence that should be included – since it is important that evidence is balanced and unbiased. I suggested that the Clerks could assist in pulling evidence out of the substantial paperwork, if members could help by saying who gave the evidence omitted. However, the member said that now this was not the question, and that this measure should not now be taken.
Then the issue became the format of the report. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, so close to an election, the Chair and clerks had sensibly suggested that it be evidence-rich and commentary-short, and that the two be separated. However, Labour members said they wanted the usual format. To which the Conservative members readily agreed. But then it seemed that this was not actually the problem in either.
In fact, given that these two concerns had been met, it became rather unclear what the problem actually was. Bewilderingly, the member who had spent considerable time compiling their amendments became both very upset that they were not being gone through, while at the same time also refusing to go through these amendment in order to try to agree a report.
Eventually, matters were getting so emotional and illogical that a vote had to be taken – on whether to try to work through members’ amendments and concerns so that these could be incorporated into a report on which all could agree…or to trash the whole thing.
Given the time spent by witnesses, clerks and members on the report, and the widespread interest in the report – public spending in the NHS is, after all, a topic on which the opposition has much to say – it seemed unthinkable not to publish.
However, all the Labour members voted, unanimously, with the Liberal Democrat member abstaining, to not even attempt to try to reach an agreed report. And all three Conservative members voted to work to try to find a compromise. Because the Conservative Chair of the committee could only vote if there was a tie, and we were one Conservative Member down, Labour, and their logically unfounded argument won.
So why were the Labour members so adamant, against all logic and objective argument, not to publish the report? Well consider this. The factual, numerical evidence (to be distinguished from opinion, anecdote, and conjecture) that the committee received demonstrated the following:
1. Private provider involvement has actually slowed since 2005
2. No extra charges or top-ups have taken place in the NHS since 2010 – and none whatsoever are forecast.
3. Administration costs have fallen significantly since 2010
4. There is no evidence that TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) threatens the NHS.
A cynic might point out that these facts are all in direct conflict with Labour’s Armageddon narrative about the NHS – which, in the absence of any economic argument or sense anywhere else, they see as their one, single “weapon” as Ed Milliband referred to it, in the election.
No wonder, a cynic might say, that Labour was terrified that a select committee was poised to expose as false every line they’ve tried to spin to win. And their refusal to come to the table with factual counter-evidence suggests that there isn’t any.
But I wonder if we have realised what that vote not to try to agree a report actually means? It means that this Select Committee became no better than the chamber sometimes is. That vote meant that the entire function, validity and purpose of a select committee was destroyed – in that one vote. That is a tragedy not only for Parliament, but for any faith in an objective politics that should be concerned more for the people it serves than with electoral gain.
The NHS Confederation has now written an open letter to the select committee asking that, in the public interest, this report be published. Something important died in Parliament on that day last week, so I entreat my Labour friends and Committee Colleagues: let’s sit around that table again, and try to find an agreement this time, and resurrect faith in Select Committee scrutiny. The NHS is not a weapon – it’s a life-saving service, and the nation deserves it