Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 2:08 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 2:08 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, this is an eloquent and emotional debate. It has to be emotional because, essentially, the decisions that we make in this debate are largely emotional ones. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, I do not think that this is a small Bill; it has massive implications. I have spoken before in your Lordships’ House about the experience of my mother. She was a brittle diabetic who, in the last six years of her life, was regularly admitted to hospital, often unconscious, in various degrees of decay. She was a brilliant woman, an amazing public speaker, a great mayor of a borough of London and an extraordinarily good thinker. But no one would have thought that had they seen her in bed in one of our local hospitals. She was never in a single hospital; she went to at least three during her diabetic episodes. What I am going to say about her experience under the National Health Service is not specifically directed at any one hospital, it is a universal experience, which is widely seen by many elderly people who cannot impress themselves on others in the ward.

In the four-bedded ward where she was last admitted, two patients were lying in their own excrement and urine for at least an hour, even though when I was visiting I pointed it out to the nursing staff. Food was supplied, but not actually fed to the patients who could not feed themselves. In my mother's case, she often missed her insulin as a diabetic and of course not having regular food did not help her diabetes. Drugs were frequently not given. But the key issue is shown very simply by a matter-of-fact thing that we see again and again with old people who are addressed invariably by their first name and not given respect in hospital as old people.

The problem is the attitude of staff, and attitudes such as this will get significantly worse with the increasing pressures that we are bound to have in healthcare in our National Health Service. No matter what the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has just said, you cannot regulate against attitude, nor can you regulate against the attitude of patients who feel increasing anxiety in hospital or when they are not well.

Perhaps I might indulge myself briefly to tell noble Lords about my mother's death. For the last two or three years of her life we decided absolutely, given that there was modest and not inadequate medical care, that we would leave her at home and see to her ourselves and rotate regularly being with her. There was a 40-minute moment before her death when my mobile phone rang and it was my youngest son, Benjamin, who was with my mother in her bedroom. He said, “Dad, I don't think Granny is very well”. “Tell me what is wrong”, I said. He said, “She’s not speaking”. I said, “It’s possible, Ben, that she might have died”. He said, “What do I do?”. I said, “Stay there. I will drive as fast as I can and will be with you in the next 30 to 40 minutes. Just stay with her. You’ve been immensely privileged and so has she because she loved you very much and you are the last person she saw and she is the first person you have seen in this situation”.

I got there, and my point is that we have been talking intensively in this debate about the dignity of a planned death. I do not believe in that planned death being dignified. There is much more dignity in many ways in being able to ensure that people wherever possible die with their relatives around them in an unplanned death in the way that my mother died, with her youngest grandson present.