Health and Social Care Bill: Lords marathon begins

They're off! Their lordships have started their marathon debate on the second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill - which will conclude tomorrow, with a vote on how the bill should be considered in detail at committee stage.

Last week I posted about crossbench peers Lord Owen and Lord Hennessey's attempt to send sections of the bill to be scrutinised by a special select committee.

Lord Owen argues that the bill is now so fiendishly complicated, and so encrusted with amendments, that some sections of it simply cannot be sorted out by a process of adversarial amendment on the floor of the House.

The amending process in the Commons, he believes, made things worse. So, not only does he want a committee, he wants parliamentary counsel, the experts who actually draft bills, in attendance to work out new clauses which reflect the will of the committee. That, he says, is the way to sort out ultra-detailed issues around the precise accountability of the secretary of state for health's decisions and around the delegated powers in the bill.

After negotiation with Earl Howe, the health minister piloting the bill through the Lords, the amendment now requires the select committee to report before Christmas - which should calm fears that the whole idea is a ploy to delay the bill to the point where the end of the current parliamentary year is looming, thus giving the Lords leverage to insist on changes before the deadline arrives.

A December report by the committee would leave reasonable time for the issues it raised to be debated by the whole House and for any amendments to be considered by the Commons.

The vote on Owen-Hennessey amendment will be tomorrow, with the government still urging peers to reject it. The vote could be tight and the result may well depend on which way the Liberal Democrat peers jump. Many are unhappy with the bill as it stands.

Senior figures like Lady Shirley Williams have been calling for further scrutiny and further amendments - and Lady Williams has denounced the way the Commons failed to work through the whole bill in detail.

So will the Lib Dem rebels vote for Lord Owen's "double scrutiny" - or will they be restrained by the internal dealings of the coalition?

Lord Clement Jones, a peer close to the party leadership just rejected the Owen amendment. But Lord Owen has insisted that no health secretary can take the hands-off role envisaged in the bill, and only a select committee can come up with a nuanced solution which preserves political accountability for the NHS.

Watch this space.