Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, will the Minister tell us the position of the McCartney case? Has the IRA now allowed its people to testify in court and, if not, what are the Government doing about it?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am afraid that I have no information that would enable me to answer the noble Baroness's question.

Business

3.6 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with permission, I have two brief business statements.

First, with the leave of the House, a Statement entitled "Iraq Update" will be repeated here by my noble friend Lord Drayson. As the House knows, there is a very long debate ahead of us, and we are planning to take that Statement immediately after the contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. It is impossible to guess precisely when that will be, but maybe the next short statement will give some indication of when we hope it might be. The House will know that there are 76 speakers down for the debate today. We have had a nice long break, so it is good to hit the ground running. If we are to finish by midnight—that is of course beyond when we would normally expect to finish, but we can have a certain flexibility after a break—and allowing for the Statement, which of course we could not plan for, everyone should keep their contribution to around six minutes.

I am sure that six minutes is not nearly as long as some of us would like. As a reminder, which I need to make on every occasion, I must say that, when the
 
10 Oct 2005 : Column 12
 
indicator comes up saying "six minutes", it means that the six minutes is up; it does not mean that it is time to think about winding up at some convenient time. I ask everyone to stick to that, and I am sure that we can all go home better informed after 76 contributions, with our minds clearly made up on this important issue.

Interception of Communications (Admissibility of Evidence) Bill [HL]

3.8 pm

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to permit the introduction of intercept evidence and evidence of communications data in certain criminal proceedings; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.—(Lord Lloyd of Berwick.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

3.9 pm

Lord Mackay of Clashfern rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the House take note of the report of the Select Committee that was appointed last year to examine a Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, known as the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.

I was privileged to chair the Select Committee, and I shall open by summarising the way in which the committee went about its work and the conclusions to which it came. All this is set out in the committee's report, which was presented on 4 April this year as House of Lords Paper 86. I hope that, in summarising the work that has been carried out, I will be able to provide an appropriate introduction for our debate today. I will focus only on the main issues.

The Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, which lapsed with the dissolution of Parliament in April this year, sought to provide medical assistance with suicide to adults who had been diagnosed as terminally ill with a few months to live, were suffering unbearably and wished to end their life prematurely. Effectively, it would have authorised a doctor to write a prescription for lethal medication that it would then be up to the patient to take—or not, should he or she have a change of heart. In the case of people whose physical condition was such that they could not use such medication, the Bill provided that a doctor might administer a lethal drug to the patient at his or her request.
 
10 Oct 2005 : Column 13
 

The issues with which the Select Committee had to grapple, being issues of life and death, are awesome and sensitive. They arouse strong emotions on the part of those who wish to see a change in the law and of those who feel that such a step would be dangerous. Clearly, opinion on the matter is divided in the country, and it was divided in the committee. It was not surprising, therefore, that we had some lively exchanges as we proceeded. I take this opportunity to place on the public record our appreciation of the time and effort that a large number of people, in this country and abroad, devoted to helping us understand their views on the issues involved. If I say that the committee saw over 140 witnesses in four countries and that it received over 60 submissions of written evidence and some 15,000 letters and other personal submissions from individuals, the House will appreciate the scale of the task and of the help that we received. We are also grateful for the help that we received from Foreign Office officials, the committee staff and specialist advisers.

We examined the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, from the standpoints of ethical principle and real-world practicality. We examined the philosophical or moral principles that underlay its provisions and the practical implications of carrying it out if it were to become law. In terms of principle, we gave close attention to the propositions that assistance with suicide or euthanasia were natural extensions of patient autonomy and that the existing rights of patients to refuse life-supporting treatment implied a corresponding right on the part of those who were terminally ill to receive, if they wished, medical assistance to end their life.

On the other hand, we examined the arguments that patient autonomy, although an important aspect of medicine, cannot override medical ethics—for example, a patient cannot insist on having surgery that is not considered to be in his best interest—and that there is a crucial difference between a patient deciding to die by refusing further treatment and asking a doctor to end his or her life. We did not find a consensus on the relative weightings to be given to the arguments, with some members arguing that patient autonomy should be paramount, and others that it could not justify weakening the law on intentional killing and assisting suicide.

On the practical side, we looked at allegations that doctors were already ending the lives of patients prematurely, though we found no reliable evidence of that. We considered whether advances in palliative care obviated the need for change in the law. We concluded that such care can do much more now than it could 30 years ago to reduce or even eliminate the suffering associated with terminal illness and that Britain was a world leader in that branch of medicine, though we were told that its availability was as yet unevenly spread over the country.

We considered whether there were good grounds for believing that changing the law to allow medical assistance with suicide or voluntary euthanasia was tantamount to stepping on to a slippery slope, with any new law becoming more widely applied than
 
10 Oct 2005 : Column 14
 
Parliament intended and with medical practice undergoing a subtle but significant shift as a result. As in so many areas of the debate, we heard arguments in both directions. On the one side, it was argued that there was no hard evidence of "slippery slopes" in countries that had legalised such acts or of people other than those for whom the law was designed being drawn into assistance with suicide or euthanasia through subtle external pressures; and, on the other side, it was argued that the Abortion Act 1967, which is perhaps the nearest parallel to a law of this nature, had produced an unintended situation of abortion on demand; that the Bill was seen, as the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, told us, as simply a first stage in relaxing the law; and that in Holland there were already pressures, three years after the passing of the law permitting euthanasia, to extend its provisions to new categories of people.

We looked also at the difficulties inherent in defining such qualifying conditions as "terminal illness", "unbearable suffering" and "mental competence" and concluded that, while a creditable attempt had been made in the Bill to produce workable definitions, the realities of medical prognosis, the problems of separating out depression from mental incapacity and the wholly subjective nature of "unbearable suffering", called for further work in those areas.

In the course of the inquiry, we visited the American state of Oregon, where only medical assistance with suicide has been legalised; the Netherlands, where both assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal and where the latter predominates in practice over the former; and Switzerland, where only assistance with suicide is legal, although it is not seen in a medical context and anyone can give assistance with suicide, provided that he or she does not act from selfish motives. In the course of those visits, we discovered that the death rate from assisted suicide is very much lower than the death rate from euthanasia. One in 714 deaths in Oregon in 2003 resulted from patients themselves taking lethal medication prescribed to them under the law. In Holland, one in 38 deaths resulted from assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia.

Finally, we commissioned a review of public opinion surveys that have been conducted over the past 10 to 20 years. It found that there appeared to be a groundswell of opinion in favour of a change in the law, although it added that the public opinion research that had been carried out was of a simplistic "either/or" or "yes/no" nature, with little or no attempt to explore the subtleties of the subject and with very little public understanding of the issues involved. Indeed, one of our objectives in presenting our report has been to try to elucidate this complex and emotive subject and to provide a basis for intelligent debate.

So what conclusions did we come to after all this work? As I said, there was no consensus in the committee on the acceptability of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. Therefore, bearing in mind that because a Dissolution of Parliament was in prospect the Bill would be unable to proceed, we agreed to present a report that summarised the
 
10 Oct 2005 : Column 15
 
evidence that we had heard in such a way as to avoid drawing conclusions and provided a readable and intelligible guide to the subject. In that way, we hoped to provide a basis for a reasoned debate in the House and for the development of informed opinion in the country as a whole. I hope that the House will agree that, although we did not succeed in coming to clear conclusions on the Bill itself, we succeeded in that respect at least.

As for the future, we recommended that the House should debate the subject again at an early opportunity in the light of our report, and that is why we are here today. We also felt that, in the event that another Bill was introduced, its author should take account of a number of concerns that had been raised with us in the course of our inquiry. The first and perhaps the most important is the need to draw a clear distinction between assistance with suicide and voluntary euthanasia. We recognised in our report that, while the most careful attention must be paid to the views of the professions that would be in the front line of implementing any change in the law, a decision on whether assistance with suicide or voluntary euthanasia should be legalised was one for society as a whole to take through its legislators in Parliament and that we should give due weight in that process to public opinion. However, we also recognised the corollary: there is a need to look behind the results of opinion polls in order to ascertain the extent to which the views expressed are based on informed opinion and, if we are to avoid the risk of damage to the ethics of a profession that is vital to all our needs and that is—not wholly, but largely—opposed to a change in the law, we must consider how best the implementation of any change might be managed. We also felt that the qualifying conditions that appeared in the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, would need to be revisited in any future Bill.

As a lawyer, I feel that I should say something about the existing law on the subject before I conclude. I must pay tribute to the advice that was given to the committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, who did so in his capacity as legal adviser to the House. The position may be summed up as follows: the law does not forbid suicide, although those institutions that have in their care persons with suicidal tendencies, such as prisons or hospitals, must take reasonable care to prevent them giving effect to those tendencies. However, the law forbids helping someone to take his or her own life and ending someone's life at his or her request, although the law is not implemented in such a way as to visit the maximum sentence on anyone who acts in that way. Every case that comes to notice is considered on its merits by the police and by the Director of Public Prosecutions to assess whether a crime has been committed, and, if so, whether the circumstances justify a prosecution. If a prosecution is successful, the court must consider whether a custodial sentence or some other sentence is called for. That flexibility in our law was recognised recently and commended by the European Court of Human Rights.
 
10 Oct 2005 : Column 16
 

In the circumstances, as chairman of the committee, I have refrained from expressing a personal opinion, either in the committee or in the House; and I do not propose to express any such opinion now. We have tried to produce a report on which all the committee could agree as a basis for today's debate.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill [HL] (Session 2004–05, HL Paper 86).—(Lord Mackay of Clashfern.)


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page