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Lord May of Oxford: My Lords, I apologise for missing the opening speeches as, at the time, I was in a plane, perhaps appropriately for this debate, nearer heaven.

There seem to be two general kinds of objection to the Bill. First, even with no objection in principle to assisted dying in extreme circumstances, there are many valid worries about its implementation. They range from the technical—how you handle the taxonomy of the variety of disorders, some mild, some very serious, brigaded under the heading of
 
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depression—to the societal, such as the pressures, subtle or maybe not so subtle, that may be put on dependent people.

Secondly, there is strong opposition in principle from those whose ideological—usually religious—beliefs would forbid assisted dying. If the volume of correspondence, much of which is apparently written to templates, is representative, very often objections of the second kind—objections in principle—masquerade as objections to practicalities, which in no way diminishes the importance of the practicalities.

I am particularly unhappy about the oft-repeated argument that what we really need is better palliative care. Of course we need better palliative care that is more widely, fairly and uniformly distributed. I believe that progress in that direction is much more important than this Bill.

But all that is somewhat beside the point. Assisted dying and palliative care are not alternatives; they are two separate, if interrelated, issues. The plain fact is that, for many, even the best palliative care of the future, never mind the imperfections of today, will often come to intersect eventually with a loss of autonomy, dignity and, indeed, a meaningful sense of self, such that some of us, probably always a small minority, may wish to choose an end.

In this House, we are often engaged in passionate debate about issues on which we try to weigh the interests of the individual against the interests of the community. The essential issue in this Bill is the individual right, in extremis and hedged with appropriate caveats, to make a decision about oneself. I believe that that is not a decision for a doctor or for the state to make. Even less is it a decision to be made based on religious views that I do not share.

While I recognise that there can be substantial problems in the detailed implementation of the purpose that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, seeks to serve, and while I have great respect for those for whom such concerns are paramount, ultimately I am in agreement with the spirit of the Bill, which is why I will vote for it.

4.12 pm

Lord Carter: My Lords, I will deal with only two issues: the perception of the Bill outside this House and the argument that, by voting on the Bill at Second Reading, we would somehow be defying the conventions of the House—an argument that seems to me to owe rather more to desperation than to concern for the priorities of the House, as I will show.

We know that every organisation of and for disabled people is opposed to the Bill. Disabled people are genuinely fearful of a change in society's attitude towards them if the Bill becomes law. That fear is shared by the very large number of people who are represented by the heaviest postbag that I have received on any Bill in my 20 years in the House, with not one letter in support of the Bill.

For reasons that I will explain, this Bill has absolutely no chance of becoming law this Session. However, those outside this House do not understand
 
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our procedures. If the Bill is unopposed at Second Reading, they will just see the headlines, "House of Lords supports euthanasia". Frankly, it is cruel to leave fearful people thinking that this Bill might become law, as they will so long as it remains on the parliamentary agenda.

When we debated the Select Committee report, I asked the Minister whether the Government would find time for the Bill. His reply was, as I expected, skilfully coded, but the inference was clear: there was very little chance of the Government finding time for the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, will remember that he wrote to me after the debate asking how I interpreted the Minister's answer. I replied, knowing the code well and from inquiries that I had made in this House and in another place, that there was very little chance of time being found for the Bill to become law.

What I then found completely baffling was the decision of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, to wait six months to ask for a Second Reading, thus ensuring that whatever slim chance there was of the Bill becoming law was effectively extinguished by his own choice of timetable. I cannot help wondering whether the six-month delay to Second Reading and the fact that the Bill has no chance of becoming law mean that we are unwittingly taking part in, far from a principled attempt to change the law on a highly controversial subject, a publicity campaign for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

Something has been made of the fact that the Select Committee recommended that the Bill should go to a Committee of the Whole House. That was, I understand, particularly to allow debate on whether voluntary euthanasia should be included in the Bill; we heard the reply of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, on that point. Would the Select Committee have recommended a Committee stage if it had known that the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, would choose a timetable that makes a Committee stage pointless in terms of the Bill becoming law? If the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, really wanted a Committee stage, why did he wait six months before asking for a Second Reading? I will willingly give way to the noble Lord or any other supporter of the Bill who would like to estimate just how many Fridays would be required for Committee, Report and Third Reading.

Lord Joffe: My Lords, I can explain the delay in asking for a Second Reading. I was given very few Fridays. My problem was that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, was not available on the days that I wished in March and earlier. In the end we chose 12 May—which, being my birthday, was hardly the date I would have wished to select—in order to meet the needs of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. In fairness, he told me initially—and there was correspondence between us—that, in his view, it was not essential that he should be at the Second Reading. However, it seemed to me that the
 
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chairman of our Select Committee should be given the courtesy of the opportunity to be present at the hearing on this Bill.

Lord Carter: My Lords, that does not answer my question. If the noble Lord had really wanted a Committee stage, why did he wait six months?

It has also been said that the Bill can be killed at Third Reading. It cannot. It can be killed only on a Motion that "This Bill do now pass", after all the amendments are considered on Third Reading. The House authorities have made absolutely clear that it is perfectly proper, and indeed principled, to oppose a Bill of this nature at Second Reading. Their advice is unequivocal. The Companion to the Standing Orders sets out very clearly the proper procedure for opposing a Bill at Second Reading, and that is being followed. The Companion also states:

This Bill is a public Bill and the argument for different treatment because it was introduced by a private Member is just plain wrong. The Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, is unusual but it is not unprecedented. It is fully within the conventions and precedents of the House to oppose a Bill at Second Reading.

For all the reasons that I have given, the perception outside the House is that the Bill might become law if it remains on the parliamentary agenda and the timetable chosen by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. I shall have no hesitation in voting "Content" if the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, divides the House. But the final decision is really for the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. He has certainly obtained the publicity he was seeking and was entitled to seek. He has done a signal service in bringing the question of palliative care right up the health agenda. Even at this late stage, I would urge him to recognise parliamentary reality and the fears of those outside this House by not moving the Motion to commit the Bill, and effectively to withdraw the Bill for this Session.

4.18 pm

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I am the 88th person to speak today. I am 88th because it is my responsibility to sum up on behalf of these Benches. That is rarely an easy job. Today it is particularly difficult because, like other parties in the House, some of our Members have very different views from others within our number. I put on record at the beginning of my speech that our party policy would be sympathetic to the Bill. However, the position of members of my party is that this is a matter of individual conscience on which parliamentarians may vote as they see fit.

Despite the unprecedented lobby campaign and the length of this debate, it is still possible not to have finally made up one's mind about the Bill or to have doubts about it. In the short time available to me, I wish to make a few points, one or two of which have not been made so far. My starting point for the Bill is the liberty and protection of individuals. I read every
 
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letter sent to me and all of them without exception, from whichever point of view they came, expressed one wish—the ability to be in control of what happens, even if that is only the power to refuse intervention of any kind. Where the letters differed—markedly differed, I suppose—was in the assumptions that people made about the context of the Bill.

Reading some of the letters, one would think that we live in a society that condones or unthinkingly accepts disadvantageous treatment of people from minorities, particularly those who are disabled or elderly. We do not. We live in a society in which the Mental Capacity Act is being implemented. Under that law, it is clear and unequivocal that medical practitioners, relatives and lawyers are required in their assessment of the best interests of an individual to ascertain any of his known wishes or feelings; in particular any written statements made by him when he had capacity. Under that Act, it is illegal for a medical practitioner or relative to make assumptions about a person's best interests on the basis of their disability, age or appearance. Moreover, if a medical practitioner has a reason to believe that an individual's best interests are not being served, they have a duty to continue treatment and to refer the matter to the courts.

Under that law, every person who has written to us saying that they would not wish to have an intervention under any circumstances should not face that prospect. The Mental Capacity Act and the Equality Act guarantee rights in the provision of goods and services, and, crucially, those goods and services involve medical services and treatment. Those Acts are important in setting down safeguards for individuals. Both are implementing the cultural change towards people with disabilities which some of us think is the hallmark of a decent society.

I mention that because the road to true equality for people with disabilities is long and hard. We should never give up working to see those people as individuals and to see them enjoy the rights that some of us take for granted. That is why I think that the comments this morning of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, were extremely helpful to noble Lords. The most reverend Primate's remarks, although well meant, were not helpful in that, in debates such as this, it is somewhat easy to drift into a mode of expression that reinforces discrimination against people with disabilities.


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