Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat 5:02 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank those who have brought this Bill before us. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, who has been the hero of this cause for more years than it would be polite of me to mention. He is still with us and still giving us the benefit of his advice. We must also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for having taken on leadership of this cause. Like other noble Lords, I thank the extraordinary number of people who have written. I do not know about other noble Lords, but I expect all of us have had extraordinarily moving letters—not Cyclostyle letters with just a name at the beginning and a name at the end, but very particular, individual and moving letters. I am sure they have moved all of us and given us more wisdom and determination to scrutinise this Bill in subsequent readings to make sure that if it goes though, it goes though in the best possible form.

I should say very briefly that at the beginning of my legal career, a long time ago, I was a coroner’s officer for many years and sat occasionally as a coroner. I was also a family lawyer and worked for 10 years for the Samaritans, so one way or another I have seen quite a lot of the pressures of life, suicide and all the rest of it, and that very much affects my view now.

This is without question an epochal Bill and, because it is genuinely that, I suspect that the public have never been more interested in what we are talking about and the way we are talking about it. The fact that it is so fundamental a change brings out the cautious side in me and in many noble Lords.

The other thing that must be made clear is that there are no perfect answers. Quite a lot of the speeches today—and how wonderful they have been—have implied that there is a perfect answer one way or the other, but there is not. As a long-in-the-tooth lawyer, I can assure noble Lords that this is a heck of a messy terrain and there is no conceivable way of wrapping it up neatly so that it is waterproof and watertight. It is impossible. In the end you have to come down more on one side of the answer than on the other; more on safety and caution, perhaps—I do not know because it is not the right language. There is no competition in compassion either. I am sure that we have all been moved by the plight of people. I will not name those who have spoken, but we have heard some extraordinary examples of that plight this very day.

I would also like to say that whether or not one kills oneself is not an individual decision. It is surely one of those situations that John Donne would have been thinking of when he said:

“No man is an Island, entire of itself”.

There is no conceivable way that me killing myself is just for me. It is not just a question of the repercussions for one’s family, there are repercussions for society as well. I have to admit that I am very concerned about that because of the pressure that will inadvertently be brought to bear on vulnerable people if this measure goes through. It is absolutely certain to happen, and I believe that it will happen often. I do not think that we should pretend that by tinkering with the language we can overcome that problem because it is huge.

I want to say a brief word about the context in which we are discussing the Bill; it is one that is in marked contrast to Oregon. We are not a nice country state; we are an urbanised, mobile and materialist culture in which loneliness and distress are rampant. They play straight into the argument vis-à-vis pressure on individuals when they feel that they are offending their relatives, outliving their days, or whatever else it might be. I believe that the status quo is actually not bad. The DPP has made it clear that he deals with things personally; I think that we have had only one prosecution. We therefore should not assume that we can easily improve on that.

Finally, the onus in this great debate should surely be on the movers of the Bill to satisfy the House that the fears which have been expressed and the anxieties that are felt can be better dealt with by this legislation than by the status quo.