Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:54 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Condon Lord Condon Crossbench 3:54 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, in the past when we have considered this issue in your Lordships’ House and, indeed, in the build-up to today’s Second Reading, I have intuitively felt that I should support reform. Surely it is the compassionate thing to do. Clearly, reform resonates with public opinion; its time has come. However, in the past and again today, I just cannot overcome the reservations that I feel, which prevent me from supporting the Bill in its present form.

My reservations and concerns are narrowly focused on how the Bill would work, if enacted, and more broadly focused on the wider implications for society as a whole. Like other noble Lords, I am concerned about the absence of detail of how the new arrangements, if enacted, will be monitored and validated. At the moment, the law works. It is not perfect by any means, but it works. It allows suicide and discourages assisted suicide. The absence of advance licensing or approval of assisted suicide deters improper influence for whatever motivation, yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, pointed out, the Director of Public Prosecutions has the scope to be compassionate and consider the public interest, taking all circumstances into account.

The Bill dramatically blurs that position. If enacted, the doctors considering the medical criteria in isolation may not be well placed to expose whether undue pressure has been exerted by family members or friends for whatever reason. “Doctor shopping” may well take place to find compliant doctors. Under the Bill, if a family member or friend alleged undue and improper influence, either before or after the death, the police would be placed in an impossible position, facing the dual criticism of either intrusive insensitivity in the new legal landscape or indifferent complacency, negligence and gullibility.

Even if I could overcome my specific concerns about the implications of the Bill, I would still have major concerns for society as a whole. Like other noble Lords, I cannot yet find a satisfactory answer to those who fear that the right to die will become a duty to die. I am persuaded by the moving testimony of so many people inside and outside your Lordships’ House that many sick, disabled and elderly people will feel diminished and downgraded by the Bill, if it becomes law. Once we decide that some lives are not worth living, I believe that there will be an inevitable, and probably irresistible, momentum to add other categories to the terminally ill in the list of those who can be assisted to die. Therefore, I cannot support the Bill in its current form. The recent Supreme Court decision may well have signposted a possible way forward—a judge-led approval process arrangement for the terminally ill facing imminent death who seek assisted dying. Such a system, with judicial involvement, would be required to satisfy more than just medical criteria and would provide greater safeguards against undue pressure and influence.

The Bill may not be the way forward unless we can dramatically improve it in Committee. A royal commission or similar endeavour may recommend a better balance between compassion for the terminally ill seeking assistance to end their lives while at the same time not damaging the lives of so many others who will fear that their lives are no longer valued and protected in the way that they were. As others have said, we owe it to society to find a way forward. There is momentum for change, but not necessarily with this Bill, unless we can significantly change it in Committee to provide better safeguards and wider reassurance.