Lord Bethell (Con)
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for an extremely powerful session on these amendments. I confess that I completely share the aspiration voiced by many noble Lords about Britain having the best possible legislation on life sciences in the world. As the Life Sciences Minister, that is a natural ambition, but it is also a real possibility, and it is what we are working towards at the department, and through the Bill. But I have severe reservations about whether this approach is the right mechanism, and I would like to address those directly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has tabled Amendment 2, which relates to the sunset clause, and with this amendment it would be convenient to speak to Amendments 26, 27, 39, 40 and 63. I will come to Amendment 2 shortly but, first, I cannot say that Amendment 26 is a big surprise. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, who authored it, indicated as much when he and other noble Lords discussed these matters after the excellent debate in Grand Committee. The intent of his amendment is to require the Government to publish draft legislation within three years—legislation that consolidates medicines and medical devices regulation. I understand the arguments made during Committee, and again here today, that the regulation could benefit from clarification and those arguments made on how secondary legislation could be used. The amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, go further. They would append a sunset clause after three years—I repeat, three years—requiring not draft legislation but passed legislation.
I start by addressing the timing put forward. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, asks for the Government to publish draft legislation within three years of Royal Assent. I assume that he intends this consolidation effort to include changes made under the delegated powers in the Bill, including policy that may be made to, for example, take forward a national falsified medicines scheme. The noble Baroness’s amendment would have the delegated powers lapse entirely, leaving us without the ability to amend or supplement the regulatory regimes at that point. In reality, three years between Royal Assent and draft legislation ready for publication that consolidates the existing legislation and includes any changes made under the Bill is just not long enough. Each change to the regulatory regimes will take time. Public consultation must be conducted and amending regulations must be laid, debated and so on. We do not intend—in fact, it would not be possible—to front-load policy changes into the first half of 2021, let alone 2021 at all.
Noble Lords have spoken to the importance of consultation. I say it would not just be the Government front-loading legislation; it would be about asking the affected sectors to engage with a lot of consultation very quickly and in parallel. That does not seem the right way to go about it at all. It inevitably means that the sorts of exciting policy changes that support our life sciences sector and protect patients will take an enormous amount of time to stand up. Developing and consulting on policy proposals that require legislative changes takes time, as does the drafting of any proposed legislation. Before getting to the point of drafting the legislation and so on, you need to have made an assessment of what it would be appropriate to consolidate —and that takes time.
The Human Medicines Regulations 2012 were the product of a consolidation exercise that required extensive consultation. Consultations were run while explanatory documents setting out changes so far, and so on, were all prepared before the regulations were made. Let me be clear on the timescale involved in that exercise. A concept paper was issued by the MHRA in 2009. There was an expectation that consolidating human medicines regulations, including looking at the Medicines Act 1968, would take around three years to complete. That concept paper was put out to consultation; a response was published and further consultation took place in 2010.
The first complete draft of the regulations was published in August 2010 and a number of specific consultations also run in that year. A further consultation, following the consultation on the draft regulations of August, was run between October 2011 and January 2012. Three years is the time it takes to do the comprehensive exercise that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, alludes to in his amendment, and that exercise did not involve making up new primary legislation in the first place: it resulted in the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. The noble Lord has extended his amendments to medical devices and veterinary medicines as well.
The noble Lord cannot mean us to start a review the day after this Act is given Royal Assent, with the intention of bringing forward proposals within three years. There would be no legislation made under the Act to assess. I cannot see an exercise of seeing what to consolidate and then preparing the drafting taking less than a year altogether. In fact, it would more likely take much longer if the consolidation is intended to be as far-reaching as the noble Lord and others have very powerfully indicated. Taken together, the noble Lord’s amendments would mean that the process would need to start by 2022, but not all the legislative change to be brought forward under the Bill’s powers would yet be made and in effect.
I anticipate that a consolidation exercise as proposed by the noble Lord would wish to consider the practical effects and operation of such a complex and comprehensive body of legislation. In order to do that, we would need time for the secondary legislation to be made to deliver policy. Industry then has to comply with revised regulatory changes and the MHRA needs to assess how it works. This does not, as the noble Lord may recognise, amount to a realistic exercise. We will not have all the pieces to assess before he asks us to conduct the assessment and also provide an alternative. Change takes time. The standstill period for medical devices, for example, lasts two and a half years, in recognition of this, so while some changes are likely to be made to the regulatory regimes within three years, some will not. When his proposal amounts to no more than a year of operable amending legislation to assess and consolidate—perhaps less—it is therefore impracticable.
This issue is compounded by the noble Baroness’s Amendments 2, 27 and 40, which would introduce a sunset clause to the regulation-making powers in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Bill, in effect creating a new cliff edge at the end of three years, after which the existing regulatory regimes cannot be updated. If what the noble Baroness seeks is similar to what the noble Lord, Lord Patel, seeks—an assessment of whether secondary legislation is the right place for the regulatory regimes—I say to her that the means simply do not fit the ends. Introducing a cliff edge in legislation is unhelpful. It forces legislation on to the timescale of a sunset clause. It does not allow for pandemics or for the consideration of new developments that arise and need to be addressed.
The noble Baroness’s amendments would further compress the timescale, stripping out another year. Working back from a sunset clause of three years’ time, we would need Royal Assent of a new Act by then. Let us be generous and provide for a year of parliamentary scrutiny. We began this Bill in February last year; it is January now and we must allow parliamentary drafters to do their job of translating policy intent into clauses. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord have both argued in favour of a very different drafting approach: let us give them, say, a year. While that may seem a long time, I suggest that many noble Lords have experienced the challenges of drafting amendments. There are questions about intent and about the choice of language, and these would apply to tens and possibly hundreds of clauses. Suddenly, that time is not very long at all. That then leaves us with a year from Royal Assent to begin the drafting process—not even the assessment process. All the problems I have already mentioned, including the inability to set up a regime to assess and not only pass legislation but implement that legislation, apply, but much more urgently.
We must also consider the impact on those who are being regulated. The arguments I advanced in Committee on the uncertainty that this would create for businesses, manufacturers and, importantly, patients apply very gravely but would become even more critical. In effect, we would be making regulation in 2021—potentially substantive, bold new regulation to protect patients from harm and ensure the highest standards of safety for medical devices—but we would also be saying that this would be immediately under review, and potentially completely rewritten within three years. The new policy to be delivered by these regulatory changes would not be able to come into force, be implemented and enforced before we would be back here again. I simply cannot think that this is good regulation.
I am sympathetic to the issue of how Parliament assesses our plans. There are, of course, avenues open to Parliament to consider whether it wishes to express a view to the Government on any particular topic. We have Select Committees to scrutinise government policy and we have provided for a reporting requirement in the Bill that gives Parliament the opportunity to reflect on the legislation we have made under the Bill in the first two years and any plans we have at that point to make further changes in response to concerns and proposals raised in relation to it. There are institutions such as the Law Commission that can be called upon to take a view on whether legislation is the right legislation, or too complex. However, if noble Lords want me to say, “In three years, we will have made changes under this Bill that are right to consolidate, and we will be in a position then to review and assess and produce something for Parliament to look at,” I simply cannot give them that assurance; nor can I say anything similar to the noble Baroness.
We need to make changes to the regulatory regimes and follow the full and thorough processes to do so, including public consultation and, most likely, draft affirmative amending regulations. We need to have them working, understood and operable by industry and the regulators. Getting that up and running is where I think we need to direct our resources, before we can think about reviews of how it works. To that end, I hope the noble Baroness understands why I am not able to concede here. I hope she feels able to withdraw her amendment and that the noble Lord will not feel compelled to press his.