Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:56 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 9:56 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, in a debate in which allegations of religious prejudice have been flying around, I should begin with a declaration of an interest as a licensed lay minister in the diocese of Oxford—or, rather, I am allowed to so describe myself by application every two years, following my 70th birthday, to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford.

So much has been said, it is difficult not to repeat, but it seems to me that at the centre of this debate is the value of human life. Dying is an essential part of living. Getting it right, therefore, is a precious necessity. The value of life lies in the power to love and be loved; to love our neighbours as ourselves; to act as social animals; and to put others before ourselves.

The whole of society is a criss-cross of loving relationships, marred by relationships of hate and by circumstances that prevent the exercise of love. What is the function of the state in preserving the best for its citizens? Surely is it to preserve the most effective and freest expression of love between its members? One way to do that is to ease the path of someone out of suffering, and, if we put that question, of course the answer is yes. If we consider the circumstances surrounding the issue, however, the question is not so simple.

The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, made a speech quite different from any other. It seemed to me that most of us were talking from divisional or brigade headquarters, while he was talking from a foxhole on the front line. He had actually been in the room where these events were happening. That has the advantage that he can speak with passion and absolute knowledge, but it is not the place from which you can see how these events can be altered. For that, you have to be further away.

I join my noble friend Lord Cavendish in asking the Government to come clean on their attitude to this Bill. Eventually, if time is given to it in the other place by the Government—and that is the only way it will get on the statute book—it will be a government Bill in all but name, and the state will have said, "This is how we value human life".

If the state says that the ultimate decision must be to let people out of suffering at their own request, under certain limited provisions, it has said something about human life that has not been said before by any government in this country. That will change the attitude of our society to life, and it will do so at a time when the ratio of our population between those under 65 and those over is rapidly changing. There is a danger, therefore, as my noble friend has said, that the younger generation will see the older generations—of which most of us, I remind your Lordships, are members, although we should not argue from self-interest—as surplus to requirements and non-productive, and will say "Do help the old dears off this planet".

That will completely change the view that the younger generation has about life and what it is for. I am convinced that we are here to learn what love is and how to express it. If I may venture into realms that will offend those who do not like religious prejudice, we are being prepared to express love in a more perfect way after the event of death has taken place. If we curtail that, as is suggested, moving scenes of enormous value, such as that described by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, an hour or two ago, simply would not take place. I have seen enough of elderly people who are already concerned that they are a burden to society, to their friends or to their families when they are still able to get around on two sticks. That feeling of guilt ought not to be encouraged. They should be defended from it.

I ask the Government whether they are going to do that by allowing a Bill that will allow people to commit suicide by one name or another, or are they going to do it by addressing the scandalous imbalance in the provision of the palliative care that we are capable of providing but are not providing in equal amounts throughout the country? That is a crisis and should be treated as such—I am reassured to see the jocularly waving head of the noble Lord who is to answer. This must be a matter of concern to the Government because it will touch us all in this generation and it will touch many more in the next.