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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I support much of what the right hon. Gentleman says, which ties in with the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). However, because the Bill contains much that is good and that many hon. Members of all parties support, it is that much more important for the Under-Secretary to approach the Committee with an open mind, thus reassuring those who are deeply worried about several aspects of the Bill, especially definition, that have not been resolved, so that, on Third Reading, the House is united around an excellent measure.

Mr. Clarke: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope that he realises, as I develop my points, that I support the main thrust of his remarks.

It would be a tragedy if a good Bill, which I believe the measure to be, based on 15 years of discussion and the appointment of a scrutiny Committee of all parties and both Houses, were simply to be dismissed because of fears which, I am convinced, are unfounded. That does not mean that the fears have not been expressed; I will come to that in a moment. What we are dealing with, and what I hope to promote, is a Bill that has important principles and that is long overdue. The Minister—I am sure that colleagues on the Front Bench are listening—knows that, if the Bill is given a Second Reading, that represents a very early stage in the parliamentary process. I believe—I do not think that I need to plead for this response—that, in Committee, the points that have been made tonight, as well as other points that will be made in due course by hon. Members, the various voluntary organisations, carers, advocates and others, will be taken on board.

I will continue to argue for things that the House should recognise. I hope that the ministerial team responsible for the Bill will accept that, because of the
 
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perception of some members of the public, which has been clearly articulated by hon. Members, we may need to look at some aspects of the drafting of the Bill, not to alter the main thrust, but, for example, to clarify the point that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green made about deputies and power of attorney. However, vital though the issue of euthanasia is, we should still deal with other crucial issues in the Bill. Later, I hope to turn to many of the equally genuine concerns in that respect. For example, I welcome what has been said about advocacy, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble).

If we are going to focus almost exclusively on euthanasia, and my views on that are clear—I could not ever possibly support such a measure and I do not believe that the House would—we are entitled to recall the strong views of the disability organisations and of the churches. I do not believe that Archbishop Peter Smith, for example, would have said that, in his view, euthanasia is not embraced in the Bill—I am not quoting him precisely but that was certainly his view—if he did not feel, as I do, that society has a responsibility, in order to avoid people being tempted with euthanasia or self-assisted suicide, to ensure that the quality of life of our most vulnerable people, especially those who need mental health services and who have learning disabilities, is improved. Otherwise, the temptation for euthanasia and the rest may become all the greater.

Reference has been made to the Scottish Act. I repeat the point that I made earlier. I take the view that, thus far, that Act is perhaps better than the Bill but it developed by way of evolution, the kind of evolution that the House has already committed itself to undertaking. It improved as it went on. The Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament listened to people and an important consensus emerged, the like of which I hope will be possible with this Bill.

I have listened to the debate carefully and, like other right hon. and hon. Members, I have listened to my constituents. It is widely known that in my constituency a large number of people are Catholics. Of those who have written to me, and I will not claim that it is a large number, most are Catholics or people from Christian traditions who have strong views on these matters. They know that I respect those views.

One constituent sent me two letters. She happens to be a carer and is held in enormous esteem by my constituents. I refer to her as an indication of how opinions are changing not only outside the House but I hope, in due course, when we have that vital continual scrutiny, here.

My constituent is a young woman whose mother experiences Alzheimer's. In the first letter, she said:

the pro-life

We discussed that issue at length. I do not think that I was alone in assuring her that, far from the Bill ignoring those vital points, it takes them on board. It encourages
 
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people to spot abuses and to remove them, particularly in cases such as those to which she referred. We had a long discussion on Saturday—incidentally, it was not a one-way discussion; her views and criticisms of care in the community and how the health service is administered were clearly expressed and I would do an injustice to her if I did not make that plain—but on Saturday evening she put the second letter through my letter box. I remind the House what I said about public opinion and where I hope we are going in this matter. In it, she said:

that a pro-life organisation

There was no need whatever for her to apologise. As I have said, her views have been reflected in the debate, but what is clear is that I do not expect criticism from that constituent and many others when I explain that I voted for Second Reading, as I intend to do for the reasons that I have given: further scrutiny, a commitment to the rights of people with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, and an improvement in their standard of living. That means that I, too, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, will want to say something about advocacy.

The issue of independent advocacy is one on which I hope the Government are still very much in listening mode. As the Minister will know, the draft Bill was not popular with many people with a learning disability. Some learning disability groups said that it was so bad that it should be scrapped completely. Other groups said that there was still an opportunity to revise and to improve it. All learning disability groups agreed that the final Bill had to put much greater emphasis on independent advocacy.

Although I warmly welcome the inroads that the Government have made on that issue in terms of independent consultees, there is still concern among learning disability groups and others that the provisions on independent consultees have been brought forward principally to plug the Bournewood gap as cheaply as possible, rather than being a genuine attempt to provide an independent advocate for as many vulnerable people as possible who want one. I hope, and I have every reason to feel, that there will be a response and that Ministers will feel that the Bill is an opportunity to move advocacy forward. Some say, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green seemed to do, that such decisions ought not to be left to one person. That is probably right, but it is in the nature of things that a large number of people—medical professionals, advocates, families and carers—are very much involved in trying to reach the right decision for those with mental incapacity and, above all, in trying to respect their rights as the people and individuals whom they of course continue to be.

We were asked to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall conclude on this point. As the Bill makes its way through this House and, hopefully, through another place, it is important that we listen not just to Members
 
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of both Houses, but to the individuals outside them. I end by referring not to the important organisations that support the Bill, and which are not persuaded by the argument that it represents euthanasia, but by mentioning those who regard it as real progress for people who have suffered far too much for far too long. One man with experience of schizophrenia, and who was in the early stages of dementia, was reported to me as saying that this is a Bill of rights for him and for people like him. He feels that he will be at the heart of every decision made, and that the Bill is an indication of the care and treatment that society seeks to provide. If we end up with an Act that reflects the aspirations of that man and of the hundreds of thousands more like him, we will indeed have achieved a great deal, and the effort made in this House and in the other place will have been worth it.

7.42 pm


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