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Royal Assent

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Brougham and Vaux): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance
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with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:

Constitutional Reform Act,

Income Tax (Trading and Other Income) Act,

Child Benefit Act,

Stipends (Cessation of Special Payments) Measure,

Care of Cathedrals (Amendment) Measure,

Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure.

Mental Capacity Bill

2.41 p.m.

Read a third time.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree moved Amendment No. 1:

"( ) No person, whether a healthcare professional or not, shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any way in the withholding or withdrawing from P of—
(a) any life-sustaining treatment, or
(b) nutrition or hydration, however provided,
where that person has a conscientious objection to withholding or withdrawing."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, at the conclusion of the earlier debate on this matter on 15 March, I had no intention of returning to this subject today. I accepted what was said, which was that the law already protects doctors and nurses who are forced to act against their conscience. I withdrew the amendment. But since then I have been deluged with information and comments from people outside this place who read the report of the debate on 15 March and contacted me.

Those people claim that much of what was said against my amendment was inaccurate. The Minister may have heard from one of those people, a consultant in the NHS, who told me that he is so upset by the denial of conscience in the Bill that he will resign if it goes through. The Minister is shaking her head. The doctor concerned, who takes a valuable part in the NHS as a consultant, is quite sincere and I have no doubt that he means every word he said.

As an experienced member of the medical profession, he would be aware that there is printed GMC and BMA guidance to the effect that doctors are entitled to have their personal beliefs respected and that conscientious objection is recognised. That was quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. But I am assured that the Bill introduces a new situation with new responsibilities and new aims. As it stands, there will be no protection for conscience in the Bill and no statutory protection for doctors or nurses who cannot, in conscience, comply with the decision of a patient or an attorney to refuse life-sustaining treatment or to withhold food.
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Another correspondent wrote that the right to conscientious objection is essential for the practice of medicine. It is essential for the protection of patients and as a safeguard for the continuing employment of doctors and nurses to avoid discrimination.

This is an important point for the medical profession, patients and the NHS. Several noble Lords followed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in his view that a person who has a conscientious objection to taking a course must locate someone who has no such objection and who will take the course. The more I thought about that, the stranger I thought it was. The right reverend Prelate apparently ordered a clergyman who had a conscientious objection to conducting a marriage to find someone else who would conduct the marriage. In my book, that is telling the clergyman that he must equivocate and ensure that the people who have asked him to act against what he believes, rightly or wrongly, to be immoral get what they want.

I am aware that parishioners have the right to marry in the parish in which they live. I do not argue with that at all. But what is wrong with a clergyman politely telling people that he has a moral objection to carrying out their request and asking them to seek out another priest? There are plenty about. The couple will easily find someone who will marry them, so they will get their wish. I have attended many marriages that were not conducted by the priest in charge of the parish but by a relative of the bride or bridegroom or by their old friend. It is not uncommon. My parents divorced when I was five and, when I was about nine, my mother decided to marry again. At that time, it was very difficult to find a clergyman who would marry divorced people in church. The clergyman who she asked would not do it, so she and her husband-to-be went out and found another clergyman who would marry them. I never heard her complain.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I did not hear the contribution of my noble friend the Bishop of Chelmsford, but he was probably referring to the fact that any parishioner has a right to be married in the parish church, even if he is not a member of the Church of England, indeed, even if he is not a member of the Christian faith. If a vicar is not prepared to conduct that marriage, the bishop has the responsibility to make sure that that marriage can take place because it is the law of the land. That is not the same as somebody who has been divorced wishing to be remarried in church. The law of the land does not require such a person to be married in the parish church. That is at the discretion of the vicar, having consulted the bishop.

I do not know whether that helps, but the Church of England has to obey the law of the land. If an individual's conscience does not allow him to do so, the bishop must make sure that some other minister will obey the law so that every citizen has his rights.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate. He made two points that are extremely helpful to me. I was not saying that my mother's situation applies here. I was
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trying to make the point that there were other priests. She could go and find someone else to marry her. I would not argue with the right reverend Prelate about the rights of people to be married in a certain church.

The right reverend Prelate then said something that I found enormously helpful and that I wish the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford had said. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said that he told the priest that he must find somebody else to carry out something that he did not find himself able to do. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark has just told the House that the bishop can do that and that is what I was going on to say; that surely it would be possible to ask the bishop to find someone and surely there would be a man or woman who took a different stance on the moral issue and who would undertake the task. So, I hope that that point is clear.

Similarly, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, it seems to me wrong to pretend that doctors will be permitted a conscience, when they can have one only if they transfer the patient to the care of others who do precisely what they are unprepared to do themselves. Like priests, doctors are not few and far between, even in hospitals.

The consultant caring for the patient surely might be able to ensure that another doctor or nurse took over from the doctor or nurse who could not in conscience act. I would find it terribly difficult to claim a conscientious objection about any course. However, surely all of us in this House can acknowledge that every one in this land, every citizen, has a perfect right to a conscience and not to be asked to act against his or her conscience.

I am told quite unequivocally that the right to a conscientious objection does not exist in statute law. I received that information after the debate on 15 March. Therefore, it is essential that a conscience clause is included in the Bill to safeguard vulnerable patients and the employment rights of doctors and nurses within the NHS. That is all I ask for.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, spoke against my conscience amendment. He said that healthcare professionals have the right to a conscientious objection under the Bill. I am assured that they will have no such right if it is taken away from them by statute, as this Bill will do. That is the point that is worrying me so much. If statute does not allow a right of conscientious objection and the courts think that that is contrary to the convention, then all they can do is to give a certificate of incompatibility. They cannot strike down an Act of Parliament. That is not my opinion but the opinion of a legal expert who wrote to me to express his concern about the Bill being passed with nothing to protect doctors and nurses as far as their consciences are concerned.

This person also assured me that my amendment would most certainly not overturn the Bland decision or decisions of that kind, nor the legal and ethical principles in it—as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said—since my amendment refers only to this Bill, not to the general power of the courts to make Bland-type orders.
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If I had not had so many involved and experienced people contact me, I would have been happy to let the matter lie. But why are these people so worried? Why does that consultant say that he will resign if the Bill goes through with no protection for conscience? What is so wrong about giving a specific protection for what is surely a basic human right? That is all I ask for. I have no wish to speak longer. I hope I have made my case. I have pleasure in begging to move the amendment.

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