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Mental Capacity Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 1st February 2005.

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Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop 3:45 pm, 1st February 2005

When the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, brought her Patients' Protection Bill before the House, I took her concerns very seriously and wrote to a number of medical organisations to see whether they had any evidence to support the kind of examples that she put before us. I have to say that, so far, they have not come back to me with any real evidence that supports some of the horrific stories that the noble Baroness recounted at that time. I find it difficult, therefore, to support the amendments in the noble Baroness's name, particularly because of the phrase "however administered", which seems to cut out any medical procedure that would legitimately withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration.

Of course there are degrees of discomfort or invasion in the way that water and other liquids are administered. Although I accept that not all administration of food and liquid artificially is invasive or burdensome, anybody who has read the Bland judgment and the description of the way in which Tony Bland received artificial hydration and nutrition cannot avoid the fact that it was a highly invasive, burdensome medical treatment.

I am afraid that I cannot support the noble Baroness's amendments but I am very sympathetic to those in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others. Amendment No. 98 includes the proper qualification:

"however provided, save where that provision would harm the person or otherwise be unduly burdensome to him".

I think that Members of the Committee are all agreed that that kind of phrase encapsulates the long tradition of both Catholic and Anglican moral theology on the subject and best medical treatment: there is no obligation to continue treatment if it is burdensome, invasive and futile. It is perfectly proper morally, medically and in every other way to withdraw nutrition and hydration if it falls into that category.

I do not know whether that amendment is really necessary, because it seems that its contents are totally congruous with the whole spirit of the Bill. Nevertheless, I was very concerned by what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about the reaction of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to that. I am very grateful to him for bringing it before the House. I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's response to the Joint Committee's criticism.