Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Peers 'seize assisted dying issue'

Lord Falconer faced a parliamentary marathon as they debate a fresh move to give people with terminal illness the right to die.

Parliament has seized the gauntlet of assisted dying from the courts, the Government said, as peers saw proposed new laws over their first hurdle.

Moving his Assisted Dying Bill to its next Parliamentary stage, Lord Falconer said approval of second reading was an "historic" moment after nearly 130 speeches were made in a marathon debate lasting almost 10 hours.

As it is an issue of individual conscience, Justice Minister Lord Faulks said the Government would leave Parliament to reach an ultimate verdict on the Bill but pledged ministers' attention to ensuring any new law would work effectively and as Parliament intended.

He said: "I praise 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 it is very much up to the task."

A titanic debate saw impassioned speeches both for and against the Bill, which would offer the chance of assisted dying to terminally ill patients deemed mentally capable and within six months of likely death.

Presenting the Bill, Lord Falconer said: "The current situation leaves the rich able to go to Switzerland, the majority reliant on amateur assistance, the compassionate treated like criminals.

"They hoard pills or put a plastic bag over their head when they are alone... It is time for a change in the law but only a very limited and safeguarded change.

"It would not lead to more death but to less suffering."

Among the peers backing the Bill was former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton, who insisted assisted dying is compatible with a Christian faith.

He said he "regretted enormously" the shock he had given friends with his recent change of heart on the issue but insisted he could not "repent of a position I believe more closely models and reflects God's mercy and love".

Crossbencher Baroness Greengross, who spent more than two decades as director general of Age Concern England, said older people wanted to continue to be treated as adults and not as "lesser individuals".

She said: "Without (the Bill), at its most basic, we are going to deny certain people who are terminally ill and become disabled the right that every other adult has in this country, the right to terminate their life."

Support also emerged from Lord Blair of Boughton, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who explained that family and friends of the dying were unnecessarily subject to a police investigation in assisted suicide cases.

Liberal Democrat Lord Avebury, who has a rare form of blood cancer, argued that tens of thousands of terminally ill people facing "weeks of torture" must be given a "means of escape".

Crossbencher Baroness Neuberger, who chaired a review into the Liverpool Care Pathway last year, told peers she would prefer to see an examining magistrate or a High Court judge - rather than health officials - scrutinise whether a person is of sound mind and clear they want to die and is not facing pressure from relatives or others.

And independent crossbench peer Baroness Murphy, who worked as a doctor among other health roles, added she was "proud to be associated" with the Bill.

She told peers: "There are many members of the medical profession who feel as I do that at the moment the provisions are fudged, it doesn't work, depends on regular 24-hour hypocrisy to deliver the care that we're currently obliged to pretend that we give."

Many peers on all sides of the political divide and none lined up against the Bill, protesting it lacked safeguards, would launch British law on to a slippery slope and was simply frightening to many disabled people who do not want the "right" to die.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Tebbit warned it would create the financial incentive for "vultures" to swarm over the sick and dying.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former lord advocate, asked: "Is it a compassionate thing to introduce a dying person to a regime that requires such strenuous decision-making?"

Paralympic gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson insisted supporters of the proposals needed to know it would not provide a "Hollywood death".

The independent crossbench peer said people needed to be told if the changes would result in Dignitas-style facilities around the country or allow them to die at home while surrounded by family.

She noted she was told this week "you must have wanted to kill yourself many times in your life", replying: "No I haven't."

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, who also uses a wheelchair having been born with spinal muscular atrophy, called the Bill "frightening".

She said it was aimed at her whether she wanted it or not, adding: "This Bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because in periods of greatest difficulty I know I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges life holds for me."

Tory peer Lord Elton began his opposition to the Bill by declaring he was 84 and had suffered from cancer since 1997.

He said: "I am in two senses in the frame for the provisions in this Bill and I thank Lord Falconer... for extending this to me and I have to say with the greatest courtesy I can, thank you but no thank you."

The Archbishop of York said a Royal Commission should be established to properly explore the issues surrounding the Bill.

John Sentamu insisted the Parliamentary process could not be rushed because it was "far too complex and sensitive" to be determined on the basis of "competing personal stories".

Labour peer Lord Winston used the occasion to speak about the experience of his mother, who suffered from brittle diabetes and was frequently in and out of hospital in the last years of her life.

In the end, he said, she passed away at home with her youngest grandson sitting beside her with "much more dignity" than a planned death would have afforded.

Peers did not divide on the Bill at second reading, as is convention for private members' bills in the upper house. While many peers spoke against the proposals, plans to wreck the Bill traditionally come to the fore at committee and report.

The next stage for the Bill is to be considered by the House of Lords in committee, likely to happen before Christmas. After, it must clear its report stage and third reading.

If it does complete passage in the Lords, the House of Commons will have the option to pick up the Bill - but this is not certain.

Even if Lord Falconer's Bill does reach MPs, the looming General Election in May 2015 makes it unlikely the Bill will ever become law in its current form.

Tory Cabinet minister Patrick McLoughlin said he was "not yet convinced that I would be prepared to support this Bill" and warned it "would be the start of a slippery road".

But appearing alongside him on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? Labour shadow cabinet minister Hilary Benn, whose father Tony died in March, said: "I am changing my mind on this issue. In the past I thought doctors have, over the years, eased the journey from life to death for some patients, giving morphine. I have worried about people being put under pressure.

"But let's be honest about this ... People in Britain do have the right to assisted dying as long as they have got a passport and money they can go to Switzerland.

"Quite rightly the Crown Prosecution Service have said 'we will not prosecute mums, dads, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, sons and daughters who go with their loved one.

"And if we are happy with that situation - and it is the case - then is it right to then say 'no we can't do it here'?"

He added that many people, including himself, had " been in circumstances where people that we love very deeply are dying".

"If a loved one said to us 'I really can't deal with this any more, I'm in pain, I want to be on my way, the question for me is could I look them in the eye and say 'no, I'm afraid you can't'."

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