The journey of my first private members’ bill

It was my fellow Welsh Labour member of parliament Kevin Brennan who first told me that I had been drawn in the ballot to put forward a private members’ bill. I was delighted. But when one of your predecessors is renowned backbench legislator Leo Abse, you know that the expectations upon your bill are going to be high.

Abse became MP for the then the constituency of Pontypool, now Torfaen, at a by-election in 1958, and served for 29 years. Over that time his reputation for passing backbench legislation became such that his fellow MPs would regularly come to him for advice if they were lucky enough to be drawn in the ballot.

Abse’s Sexual Offences Act of 1967 legalised consensual private homosexual acts between adults over the age of 21; he was also instrumental in the passage of the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, which liberalised the laws on marriage breakdown. Less well known is that Abse also completed the campaign of another crusading parliamentarian, Sidney Silverman, by working to ensure that capital punishment was permanently abolished. He also reformed the nation’s adoption laws. There is a strong case to be made for him as the most influential backbench MP of the twentieth century.

Yet, rather than being in awe of Abse’s achievements, the key for me was to learn from his earlier failure. In the 1959-64 parliament, Abse had failed to introduce a compromise measure in parliament on the issue of decriminalisation of homosexuality: ‘With the [Conservative] government hostile, there was no difficulty in ensuring that my bill was talked out’.(1) Crucially though, such a setback did not deter him.

Such difficulties were far from my mind in the first days after my name had been drawn in the ballot. The immediate task was choosing a bill to introduce. Hundreds were suggested to me, but I sought to choose one I thought would benefit my constituents and for which I had a personal passion.

My grandmother, Olwyn Thomas, had died of breast cancer just before my A level exams in 1998. She had inspired me to go into politics. Indeed, before being elected I signed up to be a breast cancer ambassador with Breast Cancer Now, a charity whose support was to prove invaluable. I therefore chose to table the off-patent drugs bill, a version of which had been introduced by former Welsh Conservative MP Jonathan Evans the previous year.

The bill is a UK-wide bill which seeks to create a duty on the government to make cheap drugs available when pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to do so. Currently, if a drug is shown to be useful for a new purpose after its original patent has expired, there is no financial incentive for a pharmaceutical company to sponsor it through the processes that are normally used to licence it, and to ensure its adoption on the NHS. Such off-patent treatments are usually available at low cost, but the current system is not set up to make them routinely available. Off-patent drugs are currently known to have beneficial uses for patients suffering with breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and parkinson’s, to name just three examples.

The second reading of the bill in the Commons on 6 November 2015 was a stark lesson for me in parliamentary procedure. The first bill on the order paper that day was the laudable but uncontroversial NHS (charitable trusts etc) bill, which ensured that the newly-created independent charity at Great Ormond Street Hospital could continue to receive Peter Pan royalties. Yet the debate on that bill was deliberately extended by some MPs to ensure that there was little time left for my own bill to be debated.

After the debate on my bill, the minister for community and social care, Alistair Burt MP, stood up and announced that he would finish the job of talking out the bill by speaking until the close of business at 2.30pm: ‘…I make it very clear that I will talk until then, because that is the procedure here’. (2)

That provoked a strong reaction both in the House and beyond. The bill had solid cross-party support and the backing of the medical community and charities, yet the minister was simply blocking it rather than letting it proceed to the next stage. The lesson from Abse’s experiences were clear: unless I could secure support from the government, the whole idea was finished.

Another health-related private members’ bill, the access to medical treatments (innovation) bill, was being piloted through the House by Conservative, Chris Heaton-Harris MP. This had passed second reading stage and was to be considered in committee on 16 December 2015. I managed to gain a place on the committee in order to press the issue, putting down amendments to the Bill which would have included measures on access to off-patent drugs.

I withdrew these in return for an undertaking from the minister for life sciences, George Freeman MP, that he would work with me to find a mutually acceptable way forward on off-patent drugs. There followed an intense few weeks of negotiation to find a solution, working with my cross-party supporters including Conservative Jo Churchill, the Scottish National party’s Philippa Whitford MP, Chris Heaton Harris MP, and the minister for life sciences.

To make progress, one part of the access to medical treatments (innovation) bill had to go. This was the controversial section which seemed to re-write the law on medical negligence. Having met with many senior clinicians during the course of my own bill I understood the depth of concern around this clause and knew that if it was included the bill would face strong opposition. Thankfully it was removed, leaving the second part of the bill, the creation of a database of innovative treatments – which my off-patent drugs measures could be combined with.

By the time the access to medical treatments (innovation) bill returned to the Commons on 29 January 2016, it looked like there was a way forward. The minister for life sciences confirmed:

I am delighted to say that the government are happy to support amendments 10 and 13. Amendment 10 would set out in the bill that its purpose specifically includes promoting access to the innovative use of licensed medicines outside their licensed indications. It puts four square at the heart of the bill the aims of the off-patent drugs bill, which was promoted by the hon. member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), and which, as hon. members across the House have commented, had a lot of in-principle support.(3)

In addition, the minister for life sciences made a number of important pledges on off-patent drugs which would build upon the measures in the bill. One key commitment was to ensure that new uses for repurposed drugs were included in the British National Formulary, an essential reference text for clinicians:

The amended Bill enjoyed safe passage through the House of Lords, assisted by a helpful speech from my immediate predecessor as MP for Torfaen, Paul Murphy, and, with royal assent on 23 March 2016, became the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Act 2016.

The journey to this point over the past nine months would have been very familiar to Leo Abse. Parliament has changed in many ways since his time, but in other ways its challenges remain the same. Leo Abse’s determination to meet those challenges remains an inspiration.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds MP is member of parliament for Torfaen. He tweets @NickTorfaenMP

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(1) Leo Abse,Private Member (London: Macdonald and Company (Publishers) Ltd, 1973, p.147)
(2) Hansard, column 1304
(3) Hansard, column 547

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Photo: Kiran Foster

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