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My party will be on a free vote tonight, which I feel is entirely appropriate for an issue of conscience that affects so many people who have written to us or expressed their views in other ways. My personal sympathies are to a great extent with the Minister. He has experienced that before on previous legislation, and may not welcome it. My sympathies are towards getting on with legislation. As my hon. Friend just said, there are many good things in the Bill, and I am well aware that it is supported by the Making Decisions Alliance, which runs to almost 40 charities expert in the field that have to wrestle day to day with the practical problems. Like the Minister, I have no difficulty with the alliance, and indeed I appeared on one of its platforms at my own party conference, but I do not feel that the concerns that have been expressed to usnot exclusively about euthanasiacan be brushed aside, because they will require really adequate and searching explanations from Ministers, which, with respect, I do not believe we have had today.
We are unlikely to achieve that aim in a Committee stage programmed to finish before the end of this month, but I am given to understand, in the rather numinous way in which such matters emerge, that there may be the possibility of some modification of that programme. I say to the Minister, in all good conscience, that it will be much easier if we feel that we have had a good chance to go through all this. In that, I speak not only as a Front-Bench spokesman but on behalf of my Back-Bench colleagues and others throughout the House.
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These things cannot be brushed under the carpet. We have had 15 years to get this right, and I think that the Minister will have understood from our proceedings so far today that many people here, without a party political handle on it, do not feel that we have yet done so. If we can have at least 15 sittingsI pick the number only by analogy with the number of yearsto have a good go at this and get it right, we may all feel far more satisfied about it.
We will be looking for not only words, but visible action, to beef up the safeguards that are built into the Bill. From my lay perspective, I shall table many amendments to probe the issues, and I have no doubt that other amendments will emerge shortly, as they should. Ministers have a duty to the House to tackle such issues in good faiththey have sometimes not done so, but we should not go into that because our discussion is not partisanand until they are shown to be able to do that, I can best describe my attitude as one of constructive scepticism. I hope that the word "scepticism" will resonate in one or two places.
Mr. Boswell: In a sense, there is a fall-back position of using an objective test of best interest if a matter reaches litigation, but many people may filter it through their actions before that stage is reached, which is among the genuine concerns that must be explored.
Mr. Swayne: My hon. Friend will recall that when I asked the Minister about that principle, he said that the standards would be such that all sorts of peoplerelatives and the restwould be consulted about such things as their values. Does my hon. Friend agree that that, by any standard, is a subjective test of what is best for the patient, rather than an objective one?
Mr. Boswell: It is right that if one person consults someone else, two views will be expressed, and the inference is that one view may prevail. The worries that are being expressed address the fact that that view might be more detached from the reality of the person's interests. Such matters could ultimately be brokered through the court of protection, which will try to take an objective view, but the difficulty for the House is that that process must first be reached. Lives could be lost in extreme circumstances and interests could be prejudiced while the matter is resolved.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Given that the best interest of an incapacitated person is the overarching principle of the Bill, and that those who determine the best interests of such people merely have to take into consideration those people's wishes, beliefs and values, surely the Bill is inconsistent with the best interests of incapacitated people. Should not the previously expressed views of incapacitated people be paramount in decisions taken in their best interests?
I understand what my hon. Friend is driving at. We would all want that to happen whenever possible, although there might be extreme cases in which
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it could not. Perhaps I can resile from that point and tell the Minister that he will have to explain carefully in Committee how people's previously expressed views, which may or may not be consistent with their actual best interests at the time, will be handled.
It is important that I make it clear that my personal position remains one of constructive scepticism. I shall listen to the debate and the further exchanges that take place and I may well withhold my support from the Government tonight pending assurances being given in Committee. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I did not say that to get a cheer, but because we are considering serious issues. We must construct the right framework so that the Minister can do the right thing, if I may put it helpfully.
Mr. Clarke: Until the hon. Gentleman made his last point, I thought that he was making an especially measured speech, but if he is to probe in the way in which he rightly said that he would, if he is to ask questions in the way in which he is entitled, and if he is to put forward the views of his constituents, as one would expect, how can he do so if the Bill is denied its Second Reading?
Mr. Boswell: I do not believe that one should overplay one's hand, but with respect I have a feelingI may be entirely wrongthat if I were not to join the right hon. Gentleman in the Lobby tonight in support of the Bill, it might well receive a Second Reading anyway. If it does not, we will be sending a powerful message to the Government to think again, which might be beneficial in itself. A carry-over motion is already on the Order Paper. We need to sit down together, in a common endeavourin an effort to be more consensual, I agree with him on thatto get it right.
I share the Minister's view that the Bill does not permit euthanasia. If it did, I would oppose it, as would the Conservative party and, I am sure, the overwhelming majority of individual Conservatives. The Conservative party opposes euthanasia and so, incidentallyat least according to the view of Lord Goff in relation to the Bland casedoes the common law. It is not on the map and it should not be on the map.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con):
My hon. Friend mentions the Conservative party and speaks from the Front Bench. He also said that he does not think that there is euthanasia by omission. I have been in the House slightly longer than he hasalthough I have not served with such distinction, I hasten to addand in all those years, both in government and in opposition, the Conservative party has had a policy that is opposed to euthanasia by commission or omission. That is also the view of the current leader of our party, who supported my private Member's Bill. There seems to be some confusion.
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Mr. Boswell: I think that there is no confusion. The Conservative party is not in favour of euthanasia. As far as I know, no other responsible party in this place is in favour of euthanasia. The issue is, inevitably, the definition of the particular acts and the nature of the circumstances that precede them. The Joint Committee clearly supports the Minister's view, and that is a cogent consideration. As a result of its specific request, we have a declaratory clauseclause 58which is important.
However, I can hardly fail to be aware of the strength of deep and sincere feeling on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) identified that when he expressed his concerns about the Bland judgment in respect of artificial nutrition and hydration, which are intrusive procedures and treatments. There must be a debate in Committee on whether that is the right state of the law, but it is undoubtedly the current state of the law, and I am not disposed to follow others in changing it.
Other issues raise legitimate concerns about the interaction with decisions made in advancethe so-called living willsand the ability of a medical practitioner, acting independently, to take life and death decisions without reference to the court or members of the person's family. Those issues must be aired and must not be brushed aside by Ministers.
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