The Dorries distraction

What is Nadine Dorries for?

Obviously she is very much for reducing the number of abortions. And, it would appear, is the willing purveyor of any amount of nonsense in pursuit of her objective. Today Channel 4’s Factcheck blog has her bang to rights. Dorries has made a number of apparently evidence-based claims in a newspaper article about the damaging effects of abortion. It turns out that the claims are less than scrupulous in their handling of the relevant evidence. Critics would no doubt say this isn’t the first time Dorries has been exposed in this way.

But in many ways being charged with abusing evidence is irrelevant. Dorries, one would surmise, isn’t really interested in the evidence one way or the other. My guess is she feels that deploying evidence is a way of giving an argument rooted in zealous religious belief a veneer of credibility and respectability. She’s just not very good at it.

More interesting is the vested interest argument being used against Marie Stopes and BPAS.

The argument has been trotted out across a wide range of media outlets over the last few days by Dorries and her supporters. Such organisations, it is alleged, have an incentive not to offer independent counselling but to steer pregnant women in the direction of an abortion because they make money from carrying out those abortions. Never mind that these are organisations bound by codes of professional ethics. Never mind that they are not-for-profit organisations. And never mind that Dorries and her supporters can offer no sliver of evidence that this supposed conflict of interest is a problem in practice. The argument continues to be rolled out at every opportunity. The strategy is from the “repeat it often enough and it must be true” school of debating.

The (moderately) clever thing here is that the pro-life advocates have managed to construct “vested interest” as being exclusively about money. As if that were the only type of vested interest there can be. It is equally clear that pro-life counselling organisations are not “independent” in the sense of being disinterested regarding the direction chosen by a pregnant woman. It’s just that their vested interest is in the spiritual realm rather than the realm of mammon.

When I ask what Dorries is for I am not thinking so much of the substance of these debates. I am thinking more of what purpose her intervention is serving at this point in time. It seems to me that the portion of the news agenda that is likely to be devoted to the Health Bill has been dominated by her amendment. Even though the amendment may not be selected and the Government has indicated that it will vote against it anyway. This is, frankly, an outrage.

The Government is reintroducing the Health Bill to the House next week. There are only two days allocated to debating a Bill that is widely condemned as a complete mess. There are grave concerns that what is proposed is unworkable and will turn out to be such a tangle that it will be more inefficient and more expensive than the current system. There are real concerns that the changes made following the ‘listening’ exercise earlier this year are largely cosmetic and obfuscatory – the core of the proposals is very little changed. There are suspicions that the proposals will allow the Health Secretary to wash his hands of responsibility for the whole system. There are concerns that the provisions are a Pandora’s Box which, once opened, will allow corporate interests to use competition law to force their way in to the system. The Government may claim that is not what it intended. But what they intend is not the primary issue if the law is badly constructed and badly drafted. That will open up the interstices necessary for the system to start unravelling.

Dorries own amendment is a classic of the genre. She claims that it will not result in pro-life organisations taking over counselling services. Rather it is intended to ensure that women have access to “independent” advice. But the way it is drafted in no way precludes pro-life organisations from taking on the counselling role. Bad drafting or disingenuous presentation? Who can tell. But the need for close and careful scrutiny is evident.

The outstanding questions about the NHS Bill are issues of the utmost seriousness requiring sustained attention. The fact that the Government has allowed only two days for the next stage of Parliamentary scrutiny is, in itself, highly questionable democratic practice. If the Dorries amendment gets selected one can envisage that it will render as laughable any suggestion that there has been effective Parliamentary scrutiny of an immense and complex bill.

Downing Street may now have come out against the Dorries amendment, but maybe she’s already served her purpose in putting up an effective news smokescreen for several crucial days.

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