Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 3:36 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, I am not a lawyer nor am I a medical professional. I have no strong religious faith and I have had no preconceived views on this Bill. I believe we should give it a Second Reading, first, because the Supreme Court has asked us to clarify the law and, secondly, because opinion polls show a large majority in favour of a change in the law. We have a duty to consider the Bill further at Committee stage when we can examine the detail.

My position is that in principle I believe individuals have a human right to exercise their own choice to end their own suffering. It is a right I would like for myself, to be taken with my family. But that human right for me does not mean that it must transcend the human rights of others to safety and security under the law. No person should feel threatened by any change in the law. As we consider the Bill, this issue should be paramount in our minds.

I have deep reservations about the Bill as it stands. The safeguards seem very weak. Surely it is not enough to have only the promise of an undefined code of practice to be issued by the Secretary of State. I think we run the risk of unintended consequences.

I shall raise some specific issues that we need to clarify. How will it be known that there is a reasonable expectation that an illness is terminal within six months? Why are only two doctors required? Who will select those doctors? How will it be known that a patient’s mental capacity is unimpaired, particularly if the doctors do not know the patient? How will it be known that a patient is making an informed decision free from pressure or coercion? And, crucially for me, why is there is no judge or examining magistrate involved in the case?

The President of the Supreme Court has said that a High Court judge should consider the evidence and be satisfied that a wish to die is,

“voluntary, clear, settled and informed”.

That is very different indeed from permitting assisted suicide within the NHS. Why does the Bill disregard this fundamental principle and leave all decision-making within the NHS? In any case, despite some notable individual exceptions, the medical profession has indicated its significant opposition to the Bill. The difficulty is that, without the support of the medical profession generally, it is hard to see how the Bill can proceed without very major changes. I agree with the BMA that legalising assisted dying could have a profound and detrimental effect on the doctor/patient relationship. I agree also that it is unacceptable to put vulnerable people in a position where they feel that they have to consider precipitating the end of their lives. In a loving and supportive family relationship, I know that appropriate safeguards may of course prove adequate, but the Bill as currently drafted needs radical revision in Committee.