My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on bringing forward the Bill and securing this Second Reading debate. It is a great privilege to respond briefly on behalf of the Government. It is a reflection of the profound importance of the subject matter that so many Members of the House have attended and contributed to what has been an extraordinary debate.
Today is not the first occasion on which this House has debated this difficult and sensitive area of the criminal law, but it is, I think, the first occasion in this Parliament that we have had before us specific legislative proposals. The Bill would, if enacted, legalise assisted suicide for mentally competent terminally ill adults who are reasonably expected to die within six months. Wherever one stands on the desirability of legislative change, there can be no doubt that this would be a very significant step. Its significance has been recognised by most noble Lords, notwithstanding the description of the Bill as having modest provisions. It is possible to have modest provisions that are none the less significant.
The debate has been decorated by succinct yet powerful analysis, intensely moving personal testimony and a profound respect for opposing views, with very few discordant notes. In some quarters, the work of your Lordships’ House in the detailed scrutiny of legislation and debates on matters of real importance is insufficiently regarded. Today is a polite but firm response to those who would downgrade this House.
Today’s debate is also particularly timely, coming as it does within weeks of the Supreme Court handing down a landmark judgment in two cases which illustrate, all too clearly, the human predicament at the heart of the debate. Like Members of this House, the Supreme Court Justices were divided on some of the issues before the court, not least on whether Parliament is better qualified than the courts to assess the complex issues involved.
I shall set out the Government’s position on the Bill. As I explained in a letter to colleagues yesterday, the Government believe that any change in the law in this emotive area is an issue of individual conscience. In our view, it is rightly a matter for Parliament to decide rather than government policy. Taking a neutral position on an issue of conscience, though, is not the same as doing nothing. The Government must of course be concerned with the fitness for purpose of any legislation that may reach the statute book. That is not to suggest that the Government will seek to block the Bill at a later stage if the consensus of this House is that it should proceed; rather, we should seek to correct any drafting deficiencies and to ensure that the law would operate in the way that Parliament intended.
The debate on the Bill has raised a number of issues. Most noble Lords were concerned about the adequacy of the safeguards. Many pointed out that the Bill would not deal with the applicants in the Supreme Court case of Nicklinson and others, and the difficulty of predicting with any confidence life expectancy in the face of a diagnosis of serious illness. Noble Lords were also anxious about the so-called slippery slope. How slippery is it—or is it just an excuse for doing nothing? Some Peers were concerned that if the Bill were enacted there might not be adequate post-death inquiry to ensure that there had been compliance with the safeguards. Others stressed the difficulty in assessing mental capacity generally, particularly for the purposes specified in the Bill. Then there were those who thought that we should hesitate to legislate if the law, messy and uncertain as it may be, still worked well in practice. I sense the clear consensus of the House that the Bill should proceed to Committee, where these and other issues can be thoroughly discussed.
This has been a long debate with many contributions on both sides. As impressive as they were, I hope that noble Lords will allow me to break with the normal convention and not attempt to reflect all of them in my concluding remarks. There have been so many impressive speeches that I dare not mention even one. Rather, I conclude by praising all noble Lords for picking up the gauntlet thrown down by the Supreme Court. Parliament is now seized of the issue raised by the Bill, and this debate has illustrated clearly that it is very much up to the task.