My Lords, I add my congratulations to the committee for the wonderful and thoughtful work that it has carried out. I have worked with older people for almost all my adult life. It took me many years to decide how I feel about the issue. In the end I feel very strongly that most of the older people I have known are very scared of the process of dying, not of being dead and not of death itself, and want an assurance that whatever happens they will not suffer intolerable pain and lack of dignity when they die.
We are not talking here about prolonging life or giving people life rather than killing them off, we are talking about people who are very near death; they are all dying. I think that the six-month period suggested in the Bill is too long for the prognosis of death. Perhaps it should be reduced.
We must recognise that part of the dignity of an older person's life is that, when they are mentally competent, they retain a degree of autonomy. We are talking about people who often in our society do not have their views listened to when they are alive and well, let alone when they die. People's fears about losing even more autonomy and the will to make decisions are very real. We are talking here about love and care at the end of life for as long as people are alive, not about killing people off. This is about how we treat people when they are still alive, and being alive is very important until you take your last breath. Luckily, in our society, because of medical and social care developments and advances, most people who die are older people, so this is terribly important. Of course, our respect for people must continue until the last moment of life.
We are talking about how we spend the remaining very short time that we have left to us. Death is inevitable; critical, intolerable pain is something that we all want to avoid. I am a tremendous admirer of the palliative care movement, of the doctors who practise palliative care, of the hospice movement and of our country's reputation in this field. My father died in a hospice. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the care that he received, as I have been in many other cases of people who have died in that way with good palliative care. We are here talking only about the few cases where palliative care does not work, where people suffer intolerable and dreadful pain and the only way to control that is to knock them out completely. I have difficulty saying that one is all right but the other is some sort of murder. That is untrue and rather hypocritical. We are here talking about good care.
Surely a dying person should not have to plead for his or her wishes to be carried out. Just knowing that, whatever happens, your wishes will be carried out so that you have control over those last moments of your life is very important. It is important that that person's wishes to die in the way that he or she wants are carried out because as competent adults we want to be respected, to say our farewells and to finish any outstanding business with which we need to deal.
I would like to talk about disability, the disability movement and the many Members of this House who are shining examples of the courage of many disabled people. Those who I have known have very much enriched my life. I admire people who manage to make a life, often while suffering terrible disabilities. The fact that many disabled people are undervalued and feel that the Bill would add to that undervaluing is something that I do not understand. I work with disabled people and believe that discrimination against them is unacceptable in whatever form we discover it. We must deal with that where it still exists. It is absolutely nothing to do with the Bill. We must deal with any forms of discrimination as such, not muddle them up with the Bill.
In fact, discrimination against disabled people is reflected if we do not let the Bill pass in some form because under English law an able-bodied person is not committing a crime if he or she commits suicide, but if a person needs a bit of help to take the appropriate medication, they are discriminated against because of their disability. So we deny disabled people the ability to take their own life as able-bodied people can under our legal system.
We must deal with abuse wherever it exists. It is another form of discrimination. I support the Bill and the decision of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, to restrict it to assisted dying and to drop the voluntary euthanasia part of the Bill at this stage.
Safeguards to stop abuse of any person who is dying, or anyone else, are essential. If further safeguards need to be built into the Bill, I know that the noble Lord will be very willing to incorporate them. I support that view. This is about how we die, not how we live. People's wishes—your wishes, my wishes, everyone's wishes—must be respected. This is about common humanity, not about killing people.