Down Syndrome Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:14 pm on 4th February 2022.

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 12:14 pm, 4th February 2022

Indeed. I would not even say it is the end of the beginning. It is on the way to being the end of the beginning, but this will be a perpetual battle. So long as medical science is able to make advances in genetics and immunology, this process will continue into the future and we will need to look at it. It is worth pointing out, to answer the hon. Lady’s question more directly, that we considered this in Committee. The Minister for Care and Mental Health, my hon. Friend Gillian Keegan, made it clear that in the guidance that will be issued, which I will come to in a moment, it is entirely possible to deal with the effects of other conditions that may have the same effects as those emanating from Down syndrome. In a way, yes, we are starting the process, and the way in which we change the Bill is absolutely key to that.

On Second Reading, I think it is fair to say, because we can be a little self-critical, that this was a well-meaning Bill that went as far as we could. However, I made it clear that one big issue was missing—the enforcement of rights. It is all very well to make available new provisions and rights in law, but if an individual or parent does not have the ability to enforce those rights, if there are no mechanisms or levels to pull to enable them to get the full benefit of what the legislation supposedly gives them, ultimately we are failing to achieve what we want. We discussed two major issues. I purposely left them out of the Bill on Second Reading because we were not ready. There is nothing worse than poorly-thought-out legislation that we have to come back and amend. It is far better to think the process through, get agreement on both sides of the House and with the Government, and then proceed on the basis of unanimity, as happened in Committee.

The changes were essentially twofold. The first was getting agreement from Ministers that they would issue guidance to local health and education bodies and planning authorities to ensure that healthcare, education and long-term care issues would be properly taken into account. That was a major step forward. Again, it answers the question of how we can broaden the effects of the Bill, even with measures that are not in the Bill. That means looking at other conditions that will face the same problems as created by Down’s syndrome. However, that agreement created its own parliamentary problem for us, because as those who listen to debates in the other place will know, guidance issued by Ministers that is not laid before Parliament creates a potential democratic deficit. That is why I think it was the first major step forward for the Bill in Committee when the Government agreed not simply that the Minister would issue guidance, or that that guidance could apply directly to the various bodies concerned—another important step in itself—but that that guidance would be laid before Parliament.

Up to that point, I had considered whether we needed to put a sunset clause in the Bill, to have it completely reviewed to see whether it worked in practice. The fact that the guidance will be laid before Parliament enables us to look in real time at what is happening, including parliamentary Committees looking at how the guidance actually works. That is a huge step forward. I think it is actually precedent-setting and turns this from a nice Bill into a cutting-edge and meaningful Bill. That is a huge achievement and one thing for which the Bill will be most remembered.