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Assisted Dying: Legislation

Volume 778: debated on Monday 16 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill capacitous adults, with appropriate safeguards.

My Lords, the short Answer to the Question is no. Like previous Governments, we have always made it clear that such legislation is a matter for Parliament, not the Government. When the other House considered a Bill to legalise assisted dying in September 2015, it rejected it by 330 votes to 118.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he indicated, there has never been a Government-supported Bill on this issue. The Minister will be aware of Noel Conway, a terminally ill mentally capacitous patient who is taking his case to the High Court and, no doubt, ultimately to the Supreme Court. Noel is challenging the current law, which denies him his fundamental human right, when his suffering becomes unbearable, to have help to achieve a dignified death. Does the Minister agree with the 82% of the population and the 86% of disabled people who support Mr Conway and want a change in the law so that when their turn comes to face death, they can live their last months in peace, safe in the knowledge that if their suffering becomes unbearable, they can have professional help to end it? Will the Minister seek the support of his colleagues for an ethical Bill along these lines in the future?

My Lords, it remains the Government’s view that any change to the law in this area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide, rather than one for government policy. I am aware of the case of Noel Conway. As it is now in court, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the circumstances of that case.

My Lords, this subject has been debated in this House on many occasions and, as my noble and learned friend said, has been rejected. Should it ever be considered again, it is important that the medical profession be excluded. The majority of doctors do not wish to be associated with taking life. Their responsibility is to save lives. While it is possible that there are those who might volunteer to undertake such a task, it is important that it should not be legislated that the majority of doctors are required to undertake it.

I note what the noble Lord has said and understand the reasoning behind his observations. I can reiterate only that this Government do not intend at this time to legislate in respect of this matter.

My Lords, the Government may be aware that I have had to watch both my late wife and my father die a lingering death. Can I suggest that the Government need to accept responsibility for this matter? They should not duck the decision to give people the opportunity to make this important decision about how they die.

Again, I can understand the noble Lord’s interest and concern in respect of this matter but I would observe that Parliament has twice addressed this issue in the recent past and has determined not to relax the provisions of Section 2 of the Suicide Act.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the campaign to legalise assisted suicide or assisted dying is not supported by one single organisation for people with progressive conditions, including the motor neurone disease organisation and the MS Trust, the very people who would be the main beneficiaries of assisted dying, and that growing numbers of disabled people and their organisations are campaigning against such a Bill because they feel that it is desperately unsafe?

I entirely understand the noble Baroness’s observations in this context. The whole question of risk associated with such legislation was addressed by the Supreme Court when it opined in 2014 in the case of Nicklinson and Lamb. The President of the Supreme Court and Lord Sumption both observed that the data on risk were plainly way short of establishing that there was no risk in such legislation. Lord Sumption went on to observe that there were further societies engaged in this area which had clear reservations about the development of any legislation on this matter.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the CPS updated its policy in cases of assisted suicide in February 2010 and in October 2014. Whereas I well understand the reluctance to change any particular legislation, will the Minister consider in consultation with his colleagues and the CPS what further reforms are necessary in relation to the CPS policy on assisted dying?

My Lords, the matter of CPS policy must be left to the CPS to determine independently of Parliament. It is not for government to dictate what that policy, which is regularly reviewed, should be. For example, in the period from 2009 to 2016 the very large majority of cases referred to the CPS were not proceeded with in the context of prosecution.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have to be very chary of these surveys that support the subject in hand? For instance, one survey stated that 96% of the British people wished for a pain-free death. Does that not leave us wondering what the other 4% wanted?

My Lords, it may be that the other 4% were not referring to themselves. Nevertheless, it is of course important that any such surveys should be carried out rigorously and by reference to defined terms, otherwise their results can be misleading.

My Lords, are the Government concerned that in an overburdened health service with a large number of old people, there is a considerable risk to the attitudes of healthcare staff within the NHS?

My Lords, I do not believe that any challenges faced by our health staff in hospitals will alter their view as to issues of life and death. I do not believe that for one moment.

My Lords, the Supreme Court judgment in 2014 that the Minister quoted a moment ago, among other things, implied very strongly that the current law is incompatible with human rights legislation and hinted that Parliament should resolve this issue, otherwise the courts themselves would. If there is an incompatibility between the blanket ban on assisted dying and human rights legislation, should it not be resolved in Parliament rather than by judges?

My Lords, in the case of Nicklinson, the Supreme Court determined by a majority of seven to two that there should be no declaration of incompatibility with the convention on human rights. It did of course observe that this was a matter that should be looked at by Parliament, and since that judgment, it has been looked at by Parliament on two distinct and separate occasions. Parliament has expressed its views on this matter.