Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:20 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 5:20 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, no one who has sat through this debate could possibly imagine that there is not an immense amount of work to be done at the Committee stage. The complexity of the issue has become increasingly clear. The sincere and convincing convictions of people on both sides of the argument have been very forcefully expressed. Like many others, I have wavered on this issue. I have given it a great deal of thought and, indeed, it has caused me a certain amount of anguish. However, at the end of the day, two prevailing principles have swayed me firmly to support the Bill. First, if you believe in the right to life and that it must be protected at all costs, you cannot dodge the secondary question about what life is. If a person has reached a stage at which they say, “What I am going through and experiencing cannot be described as life, as I understand it”, how can those of us who believe in life, if it is to have any sense, meaning or fulfilment, possibly reject that request? That is one of the arguments.

I have toyed very much with the question of whether I should present my next argument. I regard myself as being at the social end of Christianity. My Christian values affect very much what I am about in life. To me, what is really important in those values is love. There have been honest and brave references to love—not just compassion, but love—in this debate. As someone who takes second place to no one in the argument about the importance of love in our society, I say to those in the Christian church who have come to a different view that it is because of how I understand love that I have come to the conclusion that the situations with which we are dealing will sometimes demand the action which this proposed legislation envisages.

We have to return to the front. We have all had a mass of correspondence from people on both sides of the argument and I have been very impressed by it. Noble Lords will know how, when you are getting such correspondence, one letter particularly hits you and stays with you. I want to read one letter that I received. It states:

“My uncle, a foreman toolmaker and a strapping six-footer who played football for the works team, developed cancer of the spine. He screamed until all his strength was gone, then he whimpered like a puppy. Twenty-four hours before he died his wife implored their GP to stop his pain. The GP replied: ‘I dare not give him any more morphine. It would kill him’. Twenty-four hours later the cancer had killed him”.

These are some of the harsh realities in the front line of what is happening. I have the privilege to be deeply involved in the work of Hospice at Home West Cumbria, of which I am president. I was having a conversation with the chairman last weekend about some of the issues we face and the things we want to do. I asked him about the Bill. He is a fine man, a doctor with years of wide experience and deeply committed. He said several things and I asked, “Can I quote you?”. He said, “Yes, of course you can”. He said, “First of all, the devil is in the detail”. That is why your Lordships’ scrutiny in Committee will be so important because, in the end, does the Bill really do what we want to do in the way we want to do it? “Secondly”, he said, “I am worried about this mental capacity issue. In terms of my experience, how certain are we that people have the mental capacity in their situation in order to make a rational decision?”.

In this debate, we should have been talking far more about palliative care. I have limitless regard for the quality of work being done in hospices across the country—the dedication, devotion and effective work by so many volunteers and staff. However, one of the things that is so crucial, which we have come to see in west Cumbria, is that part and parcel of the care for the patient is also the support work and counselling for the family. If we are taking this Bill seriously there has to be a real choice for the people about whom we are talking. That means: is there a convincing alternative that meets the situation? We all know that palliative care is patchy in this country. Some of it is very good and very advanced but it is not available to everybody on the scale it should be. That should be a priority, as should be the training of doctors who in the course of their work will spend an increasing proportion of their time dealing with the dying.