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Professor Robert Winston: “IVF treatment is massively overcharged”

Labour peer Professor Robert Winston on his party’s implosion, the ‘crazy’ bid to ban legal highs and the future of the NHS

Hello, Lord Winston. Why can’t the Labour Party get up from its knees? I regret to say that the Labour Party – my party – let the country down. I wasn’t surprised by what happened in the election. I anticipated that result almost exactly. Three weeks before, I wrote my predictions in a sealed envelope. I slightly underestimated the Tory majority but only by eight seats. Frankly, I didn’t think we were fit to govern. We had not put up a credible leader. Whether or not we can claw back some of the political capital remains to be seen. I think it would have been much more responsible for Ed Miliband to remain as leader to allow dust to settle and the party to regroup. What happened is the worst possible outcome: a massive election loss and a rapidly cobbled-together leadership election. We might end up with the right leader but it’s a hell of a gamble.

Who would be your pick? I don’t know enough about two of the candidates to comment.

Would you have defied the party leadership in the welfare reforms vote? If I was an MP I would probably have voted with Harriet Harman but I can understand why new MPs felt they were not prepared to stand for it. Given the amount of child poverty in Britain, you can understand why they felt it was a matter of principle. But it’s risky for the party to have this kind of dissent. I wish Labour was prepared to involve its members in active discussion about what we now want rather than this closed-door policy-making. I find it very unsettling.

I wish Labour was prepared to involve its members in active discussion about what we now want rather than this closed-door policy-making

Some SNP MPs claimed they should be moved to the official opposition benches in the Commons… Ha! We are only a few weeks past a general election. The state opening of parliament was less than two months ago. There’s a lack of reality inside the House of Commons at the moment. The SNP are still a bit – how should I put this? – not confused, but there is still a bit of novelty about where they are.

Does Labour need its own Nicola Sturgeon? I think she is an amazing woman. I’m not sure I agree with her – in fact, I’m sure I don’t – but she is a very good politician and has shown herself to be a very effective leader. And she did, after all, produce an absolutely unprecedented victory for her side. But it’s early days.

You recently tweeted about the SNP’s “shocking influence on English politics”. Did you feel the wrath of the Cybernats? I probably regret making political comments by tweet. It’s a stupid thing to do because you can’t give the nuances, and they are all-important in politics. Having said that, I was pretty disappointed at the level of intellectual rigour over the issue of how the SNP already viewed its relationship with Britain. Also, I’m not entirely convinced that the Scottish economy is as robust as the SNP claim. I’m really unconvinced about North Sea oil, and when you start to look at other industries in Scotland there are severe deficiencies and the need for pretty strong support. Whatever people thought of the Better Together campaign, I do think the phrase “better together” is still right.

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How concerned are you about the future of the NHS? We’re facing a big black hole of many billions of pounds. No one will say how much exactly the shortfall is but it’s very considerable. Instead of there being a black hole financially, there will be a black hole medically – where there will be certain things that the NHS will find it difficult to commission or fulfil. Instead of the NHS being used as a political football, there is a need for a serious, honest debate about what we, as a public, want. There needs to be a consensus of opinion to arrive at what it is going to cost, how much we’re prepared to spend and what other ways we might foot some of the bill. Until that happens, the NHS is at risk.

In your half-century medical career, have you seen a greater threat to the health service? That’s an interesting question… Under Tony Blair there was a real feeling that we had to massively increase the spending, and he doubled the budget. I don’t think we need to double the budget now. I’m not saying that this is an unprecedented situation, that wouldn’t be fair.

It will criminalise more young people. It’s a form of prohibition

The Psychoactive Substances Bill, to ‘ban’ legal highs, currently going through the House of Lords, has been heavily criticised. Are they listening to expert advice on it? I have the strongest objection to this bill, I think it’s crazy. It’s a piece of populist nonsense. There is no evidence to suggest that it is going to stop the use of psychoactive drugs. It will criminalise more young people. It’s a form of prohibition, which historically has never worked. In America it led to more crime – anarchy in Chicago and New York. How do you define a psychoactive substance? Is chocolate psychoactive? And if you’re to ask which is more dangerous – smoking cannabis or smoking cigarettes – I think it’s pretty bloody clear. For young people, this will not be seen as intelligible. If you introduce law that is irrational, it will not be obeyed. When I chaired a select committee in the House of Lords in 2000 we recommended the decriminalisation of lots of these drugs, and cannabis was one such drug. We get very irrational when we talk about psychoactive drugs. It’s promulgating a popular view that we’re trying to protect children when actually we’re doing the reverse.

You have strong views on fertility treatment in the UK… It’s so obvious that the fees being charged are massively inflated. If you want to have your embryos stored after freezing them, it costs around £400 a year in many clinics. The cost of liquid nitrogen is around 19p per litre. It’s massive overcharging. The idea that you pay anything from £3,000 to £6,000 for a single IVF treatment, not including consultation fees or other investigations, is outrageous. There’s no question that private clinics are very, very profitable.

Professor Robert Winston’s new children’s book, Utterly Amazing Human Body (Dorling Kindersley, £14.99), is out on September 1. He speaks about it at Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 31

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