Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 10:32 am on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 10:32 am, 18th July 2014

My Lords, this Bill, as we already have heard, arouses great passions and considerable confusion. No doubt we shall hear many claims and counterclaims about the adequacies of the supposed safeguards in the Bill, but I think that at Second Reading it may be more useful for us to concentrate on what the Bill aims to do, for there remain fundamental confusions. I shall try to be brief.

First, the Bill does rather little to assist the dying. That noble purpose would require legislation that entitles all of us in our dying months, weeks and days to the necessary help and care, and pain relief, whether or not we are competent to choose. A Bill with those aims would have to address very large issues, above all the currently patchy availability of high-quality palliative care and incomplete availability of high-quality pain relief. This Bill proposes little to assist most of those who are dying. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that it is mistitled. This is not a Bill about assisting the dying.

Secondly, the Bill does little to support the choices of those who are dying. A Bill that centred on protecting the choice of those who are dying would concentrate on choices to refuse treatment, which can be, but so often are not, set out in advance directives, or choices about where to die. Do those who purport to care about the choices of the dying really have nothing to say about respecting or protecting the wholly uncontroversial choices of many who die on general wards, when they would have preferred to stay at home or in their nursing home with appropriate care and pain relief? Do they have nothing to say about choices that can be set out in advance directives? Seemingly so. The Bill supports only the choices of the few who might choose to commit suicide.

Thirdly, the Bill is not about altering the law on suicide. Suicide is not now a crime. It would be impossible to prosecute those who succeed. Attempted suicide used to be an offence, but it was decriminalised in the Suicide Act 1961. Fourthly, the Bill is about selectively decriminalising actions that, in the words of that Act,

“aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another”,

by defining exceptions to this provision. The offence of aiding and abetting suicide was amended in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, with greater emphasis on the element of intention.

So, we are dealing with a proposal to amend the law on aiding and abetting suicide. There are many good reasons, which I need hardly spell out, why we need legislation that makes it an offence to aid and abet another’s suicide. The question actually raised by the Bill is whether it is feasible or advisable to create an exemption for certain cases. The 1961 Act already provided that prosecution should not be automatic. In the wake of the Coroners and Justice Act, the Director of Public Prosecutions published a policy which sets out considerations for and against prosecution; and prosecutions are very few. However, this policy would be dislodged if the potential offence that warrants investigation or requires an inquest were abolished. The policy works because there is no immunity from investigation, from an inquest, or, if the facts of the case prove adverse, from prosecution. If there were no offence, none of these protections would remain. We shall have to see what case can be made for such a risky move.

Some of the Bill’s proponents have recently publicly recommended it as a modest proposal. I wonder whether they have recently read Swift’s great satirical essay that gave this notable phrase such long-lasting currency in our language.