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Right to Die

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 14 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the constitutional implications of the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment in the case of R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2014] UKSC 38.

My Lords, the Government do not agree that this case raises constitutional issues. The issue in this case was whether the prohibition on assisted suicide in the Suicide Act 1961 was incompatible with the appellant’s right to respect for private and family life. Dismissing the appeal, the Supreme Court held that our courts could decide the question of compatibility but that it was not appropriate to do so then. The court encouraged Parliament to consider the issue further. Both Houses have since had the opportunity to do so.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but he will know that a majority of the Supreme Court justices in the Nicklinson case took the view that the current law is in breach of Article 8 of the human rights convention. They deferred making a declaration of incompatibility only to allow time for Parliament to pass a law to change the situation. Does the Minister accept that a Private Member’s Bill debated on Friday immediately after the Summer Recess was not an adequate response to the Supreme Court justices, and that it is now time for the Government, with Parliament, to pass legislation to allow help to be given to mentally competent terminally ill people who have a consistent wish to avoid unbearable suffering at the very end of their lives?

The Government recognise that strong views are held on this subject on both sides. It remains the Government’s view that any change in the law is an area for individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide rather than for government policy. The noble Baroness and the House will remember the lengthy, thorough and extremely illuminating debates we had last year or the year before in relation to the Private Member’s Bill proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Since then, there has been a Bill in the House of Commons which was defeated at Second Reading.

My Lords, social as well as medical factors can influence a decision to live, and greedy or uncaring relatives can easily influence that decision—we hear about that every day in the press and in care homes. Does the Minister agree that greater efforts should be made to show that we value all people, whatever their degree of sickness or disability, and that society must work towards better palliative care?

I am sure that all noble Lords would agree with what the noble Lord said, whatever their views about the issue.

My Lords, might one way forward be to incorporate into statutory form the guidelines of the DPP, reflecting as desirable the views of the Supreme Court? This would be desirable in itself and might also stand in the way of a declaration of incompatibility, which I would deem to be undesirable.

I am grateful for that suggestion. There are different views about whether it is appropriate for the Supreme Court to instruct Parliament to do anything. A lot of academic lawyers consider that Parliament is much better equipped to decide these issues. Judges and courts will inevitably consider the matter on a case-by-case basis as opposed to the polycentric view that Parliament will be able to bring to it. I respectfully submit that it is a matter for Parliament.

My Lords, there are significant issues about end of life: palliative care, which everyone wants to see better and more widespread; the assisted dying issues which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, referred to; and also how end-of-life decisions are taken with people who are dying, which is nothing to do with the assisted dying issue. With a new Government and with genuine concern about this issue, what would the Minister think about a royal commission or a similar body being set up to address the issues of end-of-life care, including assisted dying?

The noble and learned Lord will not be surprised that I am not able to give any announcement to the effect that there should be some sort of commission at this stage, but clearly there remains great concern. This is a very difficult issue. Polling indicates a move towards the approach exemplified by the noble and learned Lord’s Bill. No doubt any Government, of whatever hue, will have in mind what the public want.

Do the Government recognise that, apart from the defeat of the Bill in the House of Commons, the BMA has undertaken an extensive study of end-of-life care? I declare an interest as a former president of the BMA and as someone involved in palliative care. The study showed that doctors do not want to be involved in this because they see it as unsafe. A survey undertaken showed that only one in seven GPs is prepared to be involved in assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia and that, when the public heard more about what was involved, support decreased so that it became equipoised? Overall, there was objection from doctors, which was reinforced recently at the BMA annual representative meeting.

The House and I am aware of that and of the noble Baroness’s particular expertise in this area.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the commission on assisted dying chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Does the Minister see any contradiction between the Government taking no action about something that 82% of the public believe should happen and taking enormous action over a 52:48 split?

The terms of the European Union Referendum Act were much debated in this House and, no doubt, they will continue to be debated. As to polls, I am aware of the poll to which the noble Lord referred. There are other polls and views differ, as he is well aware.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that, in the evidence which was given to the Select Committee that looked into this for the House years ago, one of the witnesses said that the last thing he would like to be is in a place where public opinion determined the law?

It is a matter for Parliament. No doubt the expertise in this House and the House of Commons can be brought to bear on these issues.