Conservative peer Lord Maurice Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill must include allowing physicians treating long-term chronic conditions to prescribe off-label drug treatments which they believe to be in the best interests of their patients, the House of Lords has been told.

If it does not, “this Bill will have failed,” former Conservative chief whip Lord Blencathra, who suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), told the Lords, during a committee-stage debate on a range of proposed amendments to the Bill.

Lord Blencathra said that he is on “various cocktails of drugs,” most of which are approved in the UK but some which are not. “I am not taking illegal drugs but tablets and pills that have not been approved by [the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] but which I, unlike the vast majority of patients in this country, can acquire from abroad.”

While MS currently has no cure, a number of innovative treatments “are making life better,” he said, and he believes that he is typical of many MS patients who will try any innovative treatment.

He was discussing proposed Amendment 6 to the Bill, moved by Labour peer and fertility treatment pioneer Lord Winston, which seeks to include in its definition of “innovation” in medical treatment: - the use of a medical procedure, treatment, therapy, device or instrument which has not been subjected to a randomised clinical trial or equivalent clinical validation, or for which there is no published evidence for its risks or benefits in peer-review medical journals; - the prescription of a drug which has not been licensed in the UK or the European Union (EU); and - the prescription of a licensed drug for a treatment, condition or therapy not recommended by the manufacturer.

“I hope that if the Bill goes through and if the treatments mentioned in Amendment 6 are automatically included I will, one day soon, be able to try those drugs without having to acquire them from doctors in New York. I hope that would apply to many other patients in this country,” Lord Blencathra told the Lords.

The debate heard a good deal of criticism of the Bill’s current perceived lack of clarity, including wording that, said Labour peer Lord Turnberg, “leaves open to too great a degree the potential for harm by unorthodox, unregulated practitioners” of “vulnerable people, despite to try anything.”

Lord Turnberg proposed amendments which would clarify that innovative treatments should be carried out by registered medical practitioners only, and also that, initially, such innovations should be limited to patients with cancers “that are likely to kill them. After all, cancers are among the most high-profile cases where patients are constantly seeking new and better treatments and are willing to try almost anything,” he said.

Lord Winston was also critical. “I feel that the whole of this Bill will increase lack of clarity and promote uncertainty on the part of patients, which is something that really concerns me. I must also say that, as it stands, I believe that the Bill is quite dangerous,” he told the Lords.

- Last week, adoption of an amendment to the Bill requiring a doctor to obtain the agreement of another specialist before being able to prescribe an unlicensed medicine to a terminally-ill patient led to a statement from the Department of Health that it was now “minded” to support the legislation.