In that December debate, I mentioned a friend who was suffering much more pain than my wife as the result of a long illness caused by a cancer which had returned years after surgery. She, too, wished for a peaceful end. She died not long after that debate, but would have preferred an earlier release.

Another friend also suffered badly from an incurable cancer which left her extremely weak, causing her to pass out and fall on a number of occasions, leading to her being rushed into hospital many miles from her home. At one stage, she was put on the Liverpool pathway, without being asked, only to be taken off it a day or two later and dying a couple of weeks after that. The Liverpool pathway has its supporters, but it also has its critics. Its use without the consent of the patient is surely a denial of individual choice. Even with the consent of the patient, it is difficult to argue that it is fundamentally different in substance and effect from what the Bill proposes.

We have heard many moving speeches today, and no one who heard the impassioned speeches of the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell, Lady Grey-Thompson, and Lady Masham, could fail to be moved by their arguments. Their active lives are the most eloquent testimony of the human spirit’s to attain fulfilment, notwithstanding physical impairments with which many of us would struggle to cope. I understand, but do not agree, with their concerns that the Bill would threaten the future of people with a disability; it is specifically addressed to terminal conditions.

Some of the other arguments against the Bill seemed to me also unconvincing. The numbers affected would not generate the significant financial savings to the National Health Service that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, suggested—even assuming that clinicians improperly took that factor into account. It seems to me that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, that its provisions bypass the need for an inquest into an inflicted death ignores the crucial point: that, under the Bill, death is self-inflicted following a detailed procedure, although I concede that we need to give further consideration to the details of that procedure.

Support for the principles enshrined in the Bill appears to be growing, even from some of those—such as Desmond Tutu, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey—whose commitment to their Christian faith is unchallengeable. Although, as we have heard, many of the professional bodies are opposed to the Bill, many individual physicians support it. Last December, I quoted the line from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, in which he expressed his aspiration,

“To cease upon the midnight with no pain”—

an aspiration which I suspect that we all share. Another line occurs slightly earlier, which might be thought to serve as a symbol of the Romantic movement, in which the poet speaks of being,

“half in love with easeful Death”.

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It is not necessary to subscribe to that morbid approach to recognise the legitimacy of the desire of a patient to end, with assistance and after due process, a life which is in any case drawing to a close but in circumstances which are, to the sufferer, unbearable.

Nothing in the Bill reduces the requirement to provide the best possible palliative care for those who need it, for as long as the patient requires it. However, I respectfully suggest to those who oppose the Bill that it would not be right to deny those for whom even the best palliative care is insufficient the mercy of an earlier release, if such is their wish. Ultimately, as my noble friend Lord Elder said, it should be a matter of choice—a choice about one’s own life and not, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, seemed to postulate, about the life of others.

I join all those who have spoken in favour of giving the Bill a Second Reading and going on to examine it in detail in Committee, where legitimate concerns about safeguards for both patients and medical and nursing staff can be explored. In that connection, and having regard to my wife’s experience as a counsellor, I suggest that consideration might be given to the potential role of counselling in the safeguarding process. We should definitely look at requiring parliamentary approval of a code of practice, as suggested by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Carlile. I also concur with the suggestion of the involvement of a judge that was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, supported again by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile.

Whichever way Members are inclined—and I make the tally of speeches for each side approximately equal, which gives a sense of how important this issue is and how much thought has been given to it—the House today has fulfilled its function well. We should now continue in that vein at the next stage, doing what your Lordships’ House does best: scrutinising and improving legislation that bears, in this case quite literally, on the life of the citizen.

7.37 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Faulks) (Con): My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on bringing forward the Bill and securing this Second Reading debate. It is a great privilege to respond briefly on behalf of the Government. It is a reflection of the profound importance of the subject matter that so many Members of the House have attended and contributed to what has been an extraordinary debate.

Today is not the first occasion on which this House has debated this difficult and sensitive area of the criminal law, but it is, I think, the first occasion in this Parliament that we have had before us specific legislative proposals. The Bill would, if enacted, legalise assisted suicide for mentally competent terminally ill adults who are reasonably expected to die within six months. Wherever one stands on the desirability of legislative change, there can be no doubt that this would be a very significant step. Its significance has been recognised by most noble Lords, notwithstanding the description of the Bill as having modest provisions. It is possible to have modest provisions that are none the less significant.

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The debate has been decorated by succinct yet powerful analysis, intensely moving personal testimony and a profound respect for opposing views, with very few discordant notes. In some quarters, the work of your Lordships’ House in the detailed scrutiny of legislation and debates on matters of real importance is insufficiently regarded. Today is a polite but firm response to those who would downgrade this House.

Today’s debate is also particularly timely, coming as it does within weeks of the Supreme Court handing down a landmark judgment in two cases which illustrate, all too clearly, the human predicament at the heart of the debate. Like Members of this House, the Supreme Court Justices were divided on some of the issues before the court, not least on whether Parliament is better qualified than the courts to assess the complex issues involved.

I shall set out the Government’s position on the Bill. As I explained in a letter to colleagues yesterday, the Government believe that any change in the law in this emotive area is an issue of individual conscience. In our view, it is rightly a matter for Parliament to decide rather than government policy. Taking a neutral position on an issue of conscience, though, is not the same as doing nothing. The Government must of course be concerned with the fitness for purpose of any legislation that may reach the statute book. That is not to suggest that the Government will seek to block the Bill at a later stage if the consensus of this House is that it should proceed; rather, we should seek to correct any drafting deficiencies and to ensure that the law would operate in the way that Parliament intended.

The debate on the Bill has raised a number of issues. Most noble Lords were concerned about the adequacy of the safeguards. Many pointed out that the Bill would not deal with the applicants in the Supreme Court case of Nicklinson and others, and the difficulty of predicting with any confidence life expectancy in the face of a diagnosis of serious illness. Noble Lords were also anxious about the so-called slippery slope. How slippery is it—or is it just an excuse for doing nothing? Some Peers were concerned that if the Bill were enacted there might not be adequate post-death inquiry to ensure that there had been compliance with

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the safeguards. Others stressed the difficulty in assessing mental capacity generally, particularly for the purposes specified in the Bill. Then there were those who thought that we should hesitate to legislate if the law, messy and uncertain as it may be, still worked well in practice. I sense the clear consensus of the House that the Bill should proceed to Committee, where these and other issues can be thoroughly discussed.

This has been a long debate with many contributions on both sides. As impressive as they were, I hope that noble Lords will allow me to break with the normal convention and not attempt to reflect all of them in my concluding remarks. There have been so many impressive speeches that I dare not mention even one. Rather, I conclude by praising all noble Lords for picking up the gauntlet thrown down by the Supreme Court. Parliament is now seized of the issue raised by the Bill, and this debate has illustrated clearly that it is very much up to the task.

7.42 pm

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, to the usual channels—the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and my noble friend Lord Bassam—I express my profound gratitude for arranging a remarkable debate, which has had 133 speakers in one day. The quality of the speeches has been second to none. To those who have expressed support for my Bill, I also express profound gratitude. To those who have opposed it, I express my gratitude for the total lack of venom and the constructiveness with which they have approached the issue.

Today, it is clear that this House is near unanimous in its view that Parliament must now grasp this issue and the Bill must go on to its third stage in this House—Committee. This is an historic day. I thank everyone in the House for the contribution that they have made. After nine hours and 43 minutes of debate, I shall say nothing more than: “I beg to move that this Bill do have a Second Reading”.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 7.44 pm.