All 1 contributions to the Assisted Dying Bill [HL] 2021-22 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Fri 22nd Oct 2021
Assisted Dying Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading

Assisted Dying Bill [HL]

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading
Friday 22nd October 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Assisted Dying Bill [HL] 2021-22 Read Hansard Text

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Assisted Dying Bill [HL] 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on bringing forward the Bill we have debated today. We have heard from many noble Lords this morning and this afternoon on both sides of the debate. There is plainly much on which noble Lords do not agree, but let me make three points at the outset which I hope will meet with broad—perhaps even unanimous—agreement.

First, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Davidson of Lundin Links on her maiden speech. She was limited in time today, but I look forward to hearing her speak often and, I hope, at greater length in the future. Secondly, I recognise the sincerity and commitment of all who have contributed to today’s debate. I feel privileged to have listened to such powerful and moving speeches on both sides of the argument, and to have the opportunity to respond briefly on behalf of the Government. Thirdly, I underline the point that this issue is ultimately a matter of conscience and one on which each Member of this House should vote—if we have a vote—and, certainly, take a position without regard to party affiliation or other grouping in this House.

I want to make two broad, substantive points in what I propose to be a shortish contribution. I hope the House will forgive me if, for obvious reasons, I do not on this occasion refer to individual contributions in a debate that is not on a government Bill. First, I want to explain why I am speaking for the Government today. Secondly, I want to set out the Government’s position.

As to the first point, I am responding to the debate because the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the criminal law in this area, found in the Suicide Act 1961, in England and Wales. Any change in the law to allow lawful assistance with suicide would, of course, have significant implications for other departments as well—the Department of Health and Social Care, for example, which would necessarily be responsible for the regulation of such lawful assistance—and, indeed, the Welsh Government. Essentially, however, what is being proposed is a change in the criminal law. As the law stands, there is no statutory exception to the offence of encouraging or assisting suicide under Section 2 of the 1961 Act. The Bill, therefore, would provide for an exception so that medical professionals in England and Wales could assist terminally ill people who fulfil the other terms of the legislation to self-administer medicines that would enable them to end their lives.

The current blanket ban has been challenged, unsuccessfully, through the courts on several occasions, including in the cases of Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb in 2014 and Noel Conway in 2017. Both Paul Lamb and Noel Conway died in June this year. It is right, I hope, to record on behalf of everyone in this House our deepest sympathy to their families. Their cases illustrated very clearly the very human predicament that lies at the heart of this difficult debate. Mr Lamb became quadriplegic following a car accident in 1990, and was incurably but not terminally ill. Mr Conway had been terminally ill with motor neurone disease. The case of Mr Conway, who would have benefited from this Bill, was heard by the Court of Appeal, presided over by Sir Terence Etherton, as he then was, as Master of the Rolls, from whom we have heard today in his more recent incarnation as a noble and learned Member of your Lordships’ House. I therefore summarise his court’s decision in his presence with some trepidation.

The Court of Appeal held unanimously that there is a real risk that a change in the law to legalise provision of assistance with suicide would have a serious detrimental effect on trust between doctors and patients. It also concluded that there is a rational connection between the prohibition in Section 2 of the 1961 Act and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and that prohibition serves to reinforce a moral view about the sanctity of life and to promote relations of full trust and confidence between doctors and their patients. That is the current legal position, and that is why I am responding to this debate on behalf of the Government.

So far as the position of the Government is concerned, I can sum it up in one word: neutrality. But I mean real neutrality. If the will of Parliament is that the law on assisting suicide should change, the Government would not stand in the way of such change but would seek to ensure that the law could be enforced in the way that Parliament intended. That would include, as I have discussed privately with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, reviewing the language in some parts of the Bill to ensure that it reflected what Parliament meant. Although I apprehend that I may not have gone quite as far as some contributors would have wanted me to go, including, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, I hope that that is at least a partial answer to the question that she posed.

It may seem obvious to us, but it might not be obvious to all those watching our proceedings—and we should be conscious of the interest that this debate has engendered outside the House—so I want to make it clear that the Government’s neutral position is certainly not an indication that we have no interest in the topic or do not care much one way or the other. Our neutrality is not a shrug of the shoulders; we are not uninterested in the outcome. Rather, as a Government we are disinterested as to the outcome. Precisely because the matter is so important, and is a matter of conscience, we take no partisan position. We are impartial and neutral.

The Government therefore remain of the view that any change to the law in this area is an issue of conscience for individual parliamentarians. We all have to make up our own minds, based on our background and all the other matters that will shape our conclusions. In that context, I reassure my noble and progressive friend Lord Leigh of Hurley that, when it comes to religion, we all by some miracle of cognitive geometry believe that we stand in the middle of the line.

We have heard some very moving and personal speeches today; I think that the word “sacred” was used, and I respectfully adopt it. We all have personal experiences in this area. I have been thinking of my younger sister Rina, of blessed memory, who died only last month. Therefore it is right, in the Government’s view, that it is a matter for Parliament to decide and not one for government policy so, if there is any vote today, these Benches will have a free vote. A vote here is called a Division, and obviously there is a division across the House, but I hope that we are united in wanting to protect the rights of vulnerable people from direct or indirect pressure to commit suicide. The central issue is, therefore, whether a blanket ban on assisting suicide is a necessary and proportionate way of achieving this.

I think everybody will agree that we have had a long and very good debate. It will become longer—but, I fear, no better—if I take up any more of your Lordships’ time. I will therefore conclude by assuring the House that the Government will reflect carefully on all that has been said here today, including the various points, suggestions and exhortations made across the House on the importance of palliative care. I respectfully thank all noble Lords for their heartfelt contributions to today’s debate, which, if I may say so as a relative newcomer here, has shown this House and Parliament at their best.