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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The Minister will have noticed the non-partisan way in which Conservative Members have responded to his suggestions on greater protection for people who suffer mental incapacitation. Is he willing to consult and make representations to his colleagues in the Department of Health, so that a similar non-partisan approach is taken to my own private Member's Bill, which will be debated on Friday morning? I hope that my Bill receives a Second Reading--although that seems unlikely--as it proposes providing greater protection for people who suffer acute episodes of mental illness.

Mr. Hoon: Above all else, this is not a party political issue, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations on that matter. As the Under-Secretary of State for Health is in the Chamber, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's words will be taken into account.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): You, Madam Speaker, know that, a few years ago, I introduced the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill. There was much opposition to it not only outside but inside the House. The House is a conservative body, and it either does not accept changes in the law or takes a long time to make such changes. That has been the House's history. Similarly, people are not yet prepared to accept that individuals require freedom. Does my hon. Friend accept that--although we talk about many types of freedom in the House, and our new Government are prepared to give more freedom to the individual--voluntary euthanasia is the only freedom

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that is not available to any individual? However, the Green Paper is a step forward, and I fully support it. I welcome the initiative, and I hope that the House will accept it.

Mr. Hoon: I have made it clear that the Government are prepared to consult on almost every question in the Green Paper, save for the one of euthanasia.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Will the Minister take into account during the consultation period a situation in my constituency in which a family's application for British citizenship was successful, except for one member of the family? Under current rules, that family member was deemed not to be able to understand the British constitution, and was therefore not able to qualify as a British citizen. That is a monstrous situation, and it should be corrected through legislation which the Green Paper will make possible. Will he examine the matter?

Mr. Hoon: I have not heard of that situation, although I shall certainly examine it. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me or to a colleague in the Home Office, I am sure that, between us, we will be able to deal with that important matter.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, which I very much welcome. As a nurse of some 25 years' standing, I believe that the medical profession will be very pleased with some of the Green Paper's proposals. We often get caught up in discussions about quality of life and assisting people to die, but we often forget--among all the legal talk--the issue of the quality of death.

I hope that my hon. Friend receives in the consultations many responses from people who believe that we should not only think about the subject in legal terms but ensure

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that people are able to die in the way that they wish and do not have to be assisted by medical people. I know that the public will be pleased to have the issue cleared up.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations. I repeat the point I made a few moments ago. The important principle running through the Green Paper is that we should seek above all else to give effect to the intentions of individuals. Their intentions in relation to how they may choose to die are as important as how they may choose to live their lives.


Regional Development Agencies

Mr. Secretary Prescott, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Dr. John Cunningham, Mr. Secretary Smith, Mr. Richard Caborn and Angela Eagle, presented a Bill to make provision for regional development agencies in England; to make provision about the Development Commission and the Urban Regeneration Agency; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 100].


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(4) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Council Tax Benefit

Question agreed to.

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Doctor Assisted Dying

4.14 pm

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): I beg to move,

It is a rare occasion when the House debates death. I have been here for almost 30 years, and I can remember only two or three previous occasions. At any time, there are 300,000 terminally ill people in this country and there are fewer than 7,000 hospice beds. To give some idea of the size of the problem, 300,000 is roughly the population of Nottingham or Newcastle. It is important that on United Nations Human Rights Day, we take some time to debate the matter.

Those 300,000 people cannot lobby Parliament and they cannot come to our advice bureaux. They will not have a vote in the next election and there is no pressure group. Death will happen to all of us, but we shall not be here to tell others what it is like. It is always left to us to surmise how best we can help the terminally ill, and I am glad that we shall try to do that today.

It is significant that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department made a statement about a Green Paper today, but nothing he said covered my Bill. He made it clear that the Government were against euthanasia. My Bill, however, is not--I repeat not--concerned with euthanasia. The international definition of euthanasia is mercy killing. Under my Bill, nobody will kill anybody. It is important to recognise that distinction. Under my Bill, nobody will take a person's life.

Why am I introducing the Bill at this time? The House will remember that on 28 October, less than six weeks ago, a very brave woman called Annie Lindsell came to the High Court. She was suffering from motor neurone disease and she said that her wish was to live until Christmas. In the event that she could not help herself and because she was terrified of choking to death when there was nobody with her, she asked for her doctor to be given permission from the High Court to administer drugs, even though they would shorten her life.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): A very brave woman.

Mr. Ashton: She was a very brave woman, as my hon. Friend says. She would have been sitting here today if, unfortunately, she had not died two weeks ago.

The Attorney-General was astonished by the case, and he sent his official solicitor to the High Court to say that he could not understand why a patient should have to go to the court to ask for the necessary treatment. The cost of the case, I might add, was £30,000. Annie Lindsell made history. She was a wonderful woman of 47 who had originally expected to live for only three years after contracting motor neurone disease, but who lived for five years. She was determined to try to change history. She may well have done so, because the statement by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department may have opened debate on the subject for the first time.

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My other reason for introducing the Bill--I do not want to get personal about this, because every family has been through this sort of thing--is that I saw my mother dying over seven years. She had Parkinson's disease. In the last year of her life, she could hardly move. She could not turn over in bed, she could not talk or walk and she could barely eat. She was virtually living the life of a vegetable. I can remember her saying to me, "I'll be glad when my time comes." She said it not once, but quite a few times. My father nursed her as she withered away to four stone. He died first from a heart attack caused by the stress. She then stopped eating and followed him two months later. I decided then that I did not want to go in such circumstances. I have waited a long time to bring the Bill to the House. People should have the right at the end to say, "I want to depart. I've had enough."

The current situation is a doctor's dilemma. Drugs that alleviate pain, such as diamorphine in the case of Annie Lindsell, also shorten life. As the illness gets worse and creates more pain, more drugs have to be administered and the doses come closer to terminating life. Every doctor knows about that double effect.

There is a huge void in the law. When does it become legal to give more drugs to alleviate pain, even though that terminates life? Some doctors will assist patients who say that they want to die with dignity, but there is no law that says that they can. The patient has no legal right to choose and the doctor has no legal right to administer more drugs. Some doctors refuse for ethical or religious reasons. Some will give only enough drugs to alleviate pain, not enough to hasten death. One doctor in the north-east has admitted that he has shortened life, as have others elsewhere. He is being investigated by the Crown Prosecution Service. One of the reasons why Annie Lindsell went to court was so that her doctor would be covered.

The religious and ethical issues are very difficult. The British Medical Association decided, without balloting its members, that it did not want a change in the law for the time being. As it stands, the law can lead to unofficial euthanasia, but the patient has no choice--no chance of being given dignity to shorten their life by four or five weeks.

There is obviously a religious aspect to the issue. I have searched through the religious policies on the problem. The Catholic Church--this feeling was particularly strong across America--said:

A famous House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics came out against euthanasia a couple of years ago. However, it said that it

    "would have a generally permissive approach to the double effect of relieving pain and shortening life."

A social survey in 1996 showed that 82 per cent. of the population supported the measures in the Bill.

Obviously, there must be safeguards against abuse. Two doctors--a general practitioner and a specialist consultant on the illness--would have to sign a permission form. The patient would also have to be diagnosed terminally ill--that would not be available on request. The doctor could refuse, but would have to pass the patient on to another doctor. Every death under the system would be reported to the coroner's office for

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checking and investigation. A code of practice would be laid down by the Department of Health, to ensure that the issues were dealt with in an ethical manner. There would be a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment for abusing the system.

The Bill has been tested by some of the leading legal and medical professionals in the country. It would give absolute safeguards to any patient. A patient could cancel their request at any time.

I understand the religious objections. There are bound to be people of deep faith who believe that life should take its course. I respect their faith, but they do not have the right to take away the freedom of someone who does not share that faith. There are many people of different faiths with different beliefs. We are talking about a voluntary act. The Bill would give the right to a voluntary, merciful shortening of life, giving dignity to an inevitable death. I hope that the House will show mercy and approve it.

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