Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): It would be redundant and tedious for the House if I were to go on at length about the difficulties in which the Government have put us by their choice of the programme motion that the House has just passed. It is a matter of record that after the most exhaustive consideration in the other place, including three hours on Third Reading—when, as the Minister knows, the convention is to move and consider amendments—it has fallen to us to consider a huge range of Lords amendments, and amendments proposed thereto, in a mere hour. That has put the House in a difficult position.

I genuinely have not reached a final conclusion about my course of action at the end of the debate, so it would help me if the Minister could give the House two assurances. He needs some time to explain his position. First, will he tell the House straight that in his considered view there is no possibility of euthanasia by omission in any circumstances under the Bill? My second fundamental concern relates to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) when he spoke about his all-party amendment. Will it be possible to conclude a valid advance directive, on which there would be an implied obligation to act, by somebody with a suicidal motive? I am not legally informed, and it seems that there is a clash of legal opinion on the matter, but it is my understanding that, if somebody—as in any other case—sought to take suicidal action, it would invalidate such a decision. Furthermore, if somebody were to assist them in complying with that apparent advance directive, that would still be tantamount to assisting suicide and would be covered by clause 61. It is terribly important that the Minister clarify that.

Bearing in mind the downside—that unresolved issues in the Bill could lead to its fall and that there would be real drawbacks if it were aborted because of these continuing concerns—the Minister owes it to the House to get things absolutely straight so that we can consider his assurances and take appropriate action.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Lords
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1373
amendments. I shall centre my comments on amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 24, tabled in my name and that of many other Members.

I was present on Second Reading and privileged to sit on the Standing Committee that scrutinised the Bill. I am pleased that some of the concerns that we expressed in the Chamber and in Committee were accepted by the Lords and are reflected in their amendments. I am pleased that we have moved to written advance directives. That is immensely important and provides huge reassurance, but I am deeply concerned about our failure adequately to address advance directions and the admissions within that.

It is still possible for an individual to specify in an advance directive that they do not wish to receive food or water. That individual is essentially giving other individuals the right to kill them either through hunger or dehydration. Neither method of death is humane. We would not tolerate them for an animal, nor for any other people in society who are fit, able and capable of deciding for themselves, but it seems that we will tolerate those methods of death for the most vulnerable of all in our society.

For those reasons, I cannot agree to the Bill, which does not afford protection to people in that position. While people are incapacitated and in that state, they cannot stand for themselves, but others will. I personally would not want to stand by and see someone die of starvation. I would not want to see them die of dehydration. I would go to court to say, "If the Government have given licence to this individual to die using the method of starvation or dehydration, I want to challenge that because it is inhumane." It would not be right for me as a family member, an advocate, a deputy or a friend to stand by and watch that happen. If the Government have allowed that individual to exercise that right, why should they decide the means? Why should they decide the time? If that individual elects to die, why should we not allow them to do so in the manner of their choosing and at a time of their choosing? That is why, as the clauses that relate to advance directives have not been amended, it is effectively euthanasia by omission.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) that the House will have to deal with the issue again. Just as the Bland judgment brought us to this point with the Bill, we will be brought back and asked to codify the law.

Mr. George Howarth: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I want to continue.

We will be asked to codify the decisions made by the courts. Who could resist an argument that rules out death by starvation or dehydration? Certainly, I do not think that any hon. Member would want to see such a provision remain. That will be on the statute book and we will be given a clear choice: it is either that or death by lethal injection at a time of the individual's choosing. That is where we will end up. I do not want to go there—it is the wrong place to be. This is the wrong Bill to achieve that purpose. If the Houses of Parliament want to discuss euthanasia, let them do so openly. The Labour party is being whipped on this issue. I find that personally very objectionable. The Bill should not be whipped.
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1374

I may remain deeply concerned about the Bill and its impact. I do not doubt for a moment the numerous benefits associated with the Bill, and they are long awaited. I openly welcome and embrace many of the measures, but we have made a serious mistake. It is not too late for the Minister to accede, although I have received no indication that he will, so I await with interest the first judgments that we will receive from the courts. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society has been quiet, because it expects to go to court with this issue.

I will resist any further temptation to legalise euthanasia by omission and I ask colleagues and my hon. Friend the Minister to embrace the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), to try to take on board some of the deep reservations that we still have and to afford those individuals who depend on us most the sort of care and concern that we all have for them but have expressed in different ways this evening.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the way in which they have pursued their concerns about aspects of the Bill during its passage. I certainly echo the comments of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) about the adequacy of the time that we have tonight to do justice to those concerns. However, anyone who has read the proceedings of the other House's consideration of the Bill and the detailed exchanges of views that took place among those with legal and medical backgrounds cannot fail to have been impressed by the way in which the other place considered the legislation and diligently advanced the improvements to it that are before us tonight. The Bill has been significantly improved by that process.

7.45 pm

On Report, I added my name to several amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) about the question of purpose. Having read and studied the matters considered in the other place in some detail, the amendment that he has tabled tonight raises other concerns.

I was especially struck by an exchange on Report in the other place on 15 March. My noble friend Lord Carlile put seven points to the Government, two of which were referred to by the hon. Member for Daventry: whether the Bill could be stretched in such a way as to allow euthanasia—voluntary or otherwise—by the back door or through the front door, and whether it could allow assisted suicide and whether advance directives could allow someone with suicidal intent to use the Bill for that purpose. The answers to those questions are set out in great detail at column 1278 of the relevant Hansard, so I urge hon. Members who still have worries to study it. I hope that the Minister will be able to reaffirm what was said in the other place.

Advance decisions are important and clearly still cause concern. They cannot require doctors to do anything and would not require them to do anything that would aid and abet a suicide. English law is clear that no person can ask for assistance in committing suicide by refusing treatment, but the Bill puts into
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1375
statute the common-law right to refuse treatment. The important thing is that the Bill errs on the side of life. It protects doctors. If doctors had any doubt about the state of mind of individuals when they wrote their advance decisions or when they lost capacity, or if medicine had moved on so that things of which individuals were not aware became possible, doctors could step in and act to safeguard life. Surely we should celebrate that as a way in which the Bill has moved forward.

I was struck forcefully by an example cited in the other place about Jehovah's Witnesses, who, on the ground of strongly held convictions, refuse blood transfusions. They may do that while they have capacity, but if several of the amendments tabled tonight were accepted, they would not be able to have their views, wishes and values—their belief system—respected through the treatment that they received if they lost capacity. If they had a car crash, someone else could decide, against their belief, that they should have a blood transfusion. We are talking about the right of individuals to refuse treatment, or their personal autonomy. We must be careful when we encroach on people's autonomy, although I think that the Bill tries to avoid doing that by carefully constructing a framework to safeguard the individual.

Next Section IndexHome Page