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Access to Palliative Care and Treatment of Children Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:23 pm on 7th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Ribeiro Lord Ribeiro Conservative 1:23 pm, 7th February 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who has devoted a lifetime to the care of the dying. I thank her for initiating this important debate. It is a pleasure to be able to support this Bill.

As a surgeon, one of the most difficult tasks in cancer surgery was deciding how best to approach a patient on whom you have operated in the hope of achieving a cure, only to discover that their tumour is inoperable. One can buy time and offer radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but inevitably the cancer will win through and the patient will face an uncertain future.

I faced this dilemma in my first month as a surgical house officer when I did not know how to control a patient’s pain after surgery. In those days, we called it an open and shut laparotomy because of the inoperable cancer in the abdomen. Distraught by his suffering, which did not respond to the four-hourly doses of pethidine I prescribed, I turned to the ward sister for help. There was a pause. “Morphine”, she said. It eased the patient’s pain, and they died peacefully.

Dame Cicely Saunders founded the first St Christopher’s Hospice in south-west London in 1967 —the year I qualified. In 1958, she wrote:

“It appears that many patients feel deserted by their doctors at the end. Ideally the doctor should remain the centre of a team who work together to relieve where they cannot heal, to keep the patient’s own struggle within his compass and to bring hope and consolation to the end.”

We would all wish that hope and consolation for ourselves at the end, and that is precisely what the hospice movement has endeavoured to provide over the last 60 years.

As our population ages, more people are reaching an age where the demand on emergency services grows. It is estimated that in 2016 there were 1.6 million emergency admissions for people in the last years of their life. This is a huge burden on hospitals since they account for 30% of all admissions, costing the NHS £2.5 billion. Hospitals should be places for treating patients and, hopefully, curing them. They are not hospices for the care of patients needing terminal care. The provision of hospices nationally is such that many hospitals cannot avoid becoming hospices, for lack of these services.

We need more community-based care to support demand. The Bill is welcome, as it rightly asks for such care to be commissioned in the same way as other care, by the clinical commissioning groups—CCGs. Marie Curie, to which I am grateful for its briefing, estimates that without properly commissioned palliative care by CCGs, the cost of providing emergency admissions for patients in the last year of life is likely to increase by £1.6 million by 2041. We do not have the capacity to meet the extra beds required to support this need, particularly when innovations in medicine and surgery are designed to reduce patients’ length of stay, and while maintaining staffing levels is a continuing problem.

There is no clear national strategy for end-of-life care, and, despite the early pioneering work of Dame Cicely Saunders, hospitals are supported in the main by charities and the public, with the NHS providing about a third of the cost of adult hospices. I believe there are 200 hospices in the UK collectively caring for 225,000 people and their families per year, 80% of which is delivered in the patient’s home. It is time to provide a comprehensive nationwide service from which all can benefit, through the CCGs.

The Bill will ensure that access to hospice care is not determined by a postcode lottery where some areas are better provided for than others. It is important to recognise that many hospices will be running a deficit budget in 2019-20. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, observed, the Prime Minister’s announcement in August 2019 that £25 million will be made available to hospices and palliative care services in England is to be welcomed, but it is non-recurring. It will fix the roof while the sun is shining, but without sustainable funding it is unlikely to fix the roof long term.

A National Health Service which delivers care to all at the point of need should also be able to do so for those at the end of their lives through a better-funded and provided-for hospice service. Perhaps the phrase “from cradle to grave” should have renewed meaning as we all get older and the demand for end-of-life care increases. I believe that the Bill will go a long way to deliver these aims, and I am delighted that it has wide and strong support from the BMA, Marie Curie, Hospice UK and, I hope, your Lordships.

On Clause 2, which has been mentioned, earlier this week, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, I met Connie Yates and Chris Gard, who is here today. They are the parents of Charlie Gard. I was impressed by their quiet determination to avoid legal challenges in these cases which serve only to divide and entrench opinion. Their plea for mediation before litigation, put so eloquently by them on the “Victoria Derbyshire” programme yesterday, puts a human face on a problem that one must address to prevent others suffering the same fate. The BMA has raised concerns about Clause 2(4), believing that any medical treatment proposals put forward by any person holding parental responsibility for a child are in the child’s best interests. It believes that this may expose children with life-limiting illnesses to unproven or sub-optimal treatments. It is important to be clear where the balance of responsibility for treatment lies—with the doctors responsible for the child’s care or with the parents. I am sure that we will return to this thorny issue in Committee and I look forward to considering the amendment to be tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly.

With those reservations, I am pleased to give this Bill my full support and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for introducing it.