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Follow live updates as the assisted dying bill, introduced by former Labour cabinet minister Lord Falconer, gets its first significant debate in the House of Lords
Next to speak is the Labour peer, Lord Winston, perhaps best known for his science journalism and documentaries. He also describes a personal experience, that of his mother, who died at home with her family. He says NHS palliative care is insufficient but that the problem is one of staff attitude and heavy workload, which cannot be legislated for.
He is followed by crossbench peer Lord Aberdare, who makes an equally powerful counter argument by referring to his parents, who he says starved themselves to death. He suggests assisted dying in a context that avoided suspicion would have been preferable.
Conservative Lord Cavendish of Furness is the first peer to draw a comparison between Lord Falconer’s bill and the death penalty.
Speaking now is the current Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Rev Michael Hill. Although opposed to the bill, he is giving a very even handed speech. He is one of the few peers to have called for a royal commission to review the proposed legislation.
Baroness Warnock continues an unsurprising yet powerful recurring theme of peers objecting to the first-hand experience of being patronised and told they are “vulnerable”.
Following on from Baroness Cumberlege’s negativity:
Lord Rea brilliant follow up: “I have a more favourable view of the NHS. This is a humane Bill” #untiltheend
In one of the more extreme speeches so far, Conservative peer Baroness Cumberlege refers to the bill as gag of poison. She then describes hypothetical scandals such as more assisted deaths at weekends, when staff are stretched, and doctors – who she terms licensed killers – batch signing off on the deaths of multiple patients.
There is an active debate on Twitter but no clear dominance from either side of the debate, perhaps due to the confusing array of hashtags being used.
There seems to be more activity on the anti-bill hashtags #NotDeadYetUK and #UntilTheEnd, compared to the more neutral #AssistedDying. The #RightToDie feed seems equally split between those for and against that principle.
Baroness Tanny Grey-Thompson, a crossbench peer and former British paralympian, has an established stance against assisted suicide and euthanasia. She speaks now in support of current laws. She is focusing on the detail of what the bill proposes, warning that assisted suicide policy in practise could depend simply a person’s postcode. Equally, she does not shy away from emotive language – similar to the majority of her peers – saying:
We do not live in halcyon world where choice exists for everyone.
Baroness Tonge is a crossbencher and former Lib Dem MP with a track record of being out-spoken in parliament. She has been a vocal critic of Israeli policy in Palestinian Territories and of the teaching of creationism in schools. She is speaking today in favour of the bill.
She cites the example of someone who felt less able to care for a dying friend precisely because she could not assist them in dying. She concludes by saying of those seeking assisted suicide that:
It is not our decision it is theirs.
There are 129 peers due to gives their views on the bill today, with the sitting expected to run until 8pm.
Below is a snapshot of how the last 20 peers to speak have come down on either side of the debate.
Lord Elton, Conservative peer, starts on a very personally note, reminding the house that he is 84 years ago and has had cancer since 1997. The essence of his speech, he says, is:
Thank you but no thank you.
Former Director of Public Prosecution and Lib Dem peer, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, speaks against the bill. He affirms the current law, saying that it allows for discretionary judgements in cases against those who assist someone to die. Therefore, he believes, the bill is unnecessary and potentially dangerous if it stops deaths being investigated.
Crossbencher, Lord Tombs, uses his speech to shift the focus onto those assisting someone to die, emphasising that this bill seeks to protect such people. He highlights the lack of medical expertise of these people and of general practitioners themselves in terms of mental health and detailed family histories.
As a warning, he cites cases in Belgium where children have allegedly been refused cancer treatment in favour of euthanising drugs but does not state the source of his information.
Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which is said to be most comparable to the bill currently being debated in the Lords, was enacted in 1997. Below is a graph showing numbers of people who used the law over a 12 year period.
Baroness Meacher also refers to the Oregon bill in an attempt to allay the fear that people may want to die because they feel they are a burden to their family. She states that this concern has proved unfounded and is not a contributing factor to a person’s decision making.
Lord Baker of Dorking used his speech to remind the house of the relatively recent introduction of the concept of compassion to prosecutions against those who assist others to die. He uses this issue over the current law, which render prosecutions unlikely, to reach the conclusion that:
When a law cannot be enacted, it should really be changed.
Baroness Campbell of Surbiton is a chair of the British Council of Disabled People. She has muscular spinal atrophy. During her speech against the bill, she refers to her career campaigning for the rights of disabled people and a society that under values the amount disabled and terminally ill people have to contribute. Referring to the bill she says:
[It] offers no comfort to me. It frightens me.
Labour peer Lord Alli is a gay, observant Muslim and a multimillionaire, all of which distinguish him from the majority of speakers in this debate so far. He thanks Lord Falconer for introducing the bill.
Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and former MP. He is speaking in favour of a second reading of the bill. However, he is against the bill in spirit and justifies this by citing two peers with disabilities who will speak shortly.
The charity Christian Action Research and Education has released a poll showing figures that suggest public support for assisted suicide falls when practical considerations are taken in account.
It is worth noting that this charity has previously been associated with so-called ex-gay therapies, as reported here.
Lord Birt, former director general of the BBC and adviser to Tony Blair, begins his speech by invoking the idea of a free and secular society, before repeating the familiar framework by which assisted dying would play out, as envisaged by the bill. It has, he says, his unqualified support”.
Lord Brennan, Labour peer speaking against the bill, becomes the second peer in a row to reference today’s Guardian editorial:
Baroness OCathain, OBE speaking now. She sits on the Conservative benches in the Lords. She previously supported retaining the ban on same-sex adoption during the Blair government. She says is concerned about the effect of the bill on the population as a whole. She talks of receiving many moving and difficult letters, from which her main take away is:
Has anybody done anything about depression?
Lord McColl of Dulwich refutes the suggestion that the current law is a fudge, stating that it is in fact clear. He says it is the safeguards and wording of the proposed bill that pose a threat to terminally ill people.
Baron Blair of Boughton is using his speech to focus on the US state of Oregon, where a comparable bill has been passed into law. He quotes a report stating that there is no evidence of “a slippery slope to euthanasia”.
Outside the house, campaigners on both sides of the debate have gathered to demonstrate.
Lord Mawhinney, Conservative peer, born and raised in Belfast. He is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and former member of the General Synod but is focusing his speech on personal experience after his mother died last year due to dementia. He says he is determined to see the bill struck down.
Lord Avebury, the veteran Lib Dem member, is that rare creature a Buddhist peer. He uses his speech to cite the Buddhist notion of compassion for others as one of the reasons for backing the bill. On a more everyday note, he mentions that some polls put support for the measure at about 80%.
The debate is being shown live on the BBC Parliament channel.
Lord Norman Tebbit, the Tory former cabinet minister, says he worries such a bill would bring great pressure on the old, infirm or disabled to consider ending their lives so as to not be a financial burden on others. Noting the age of his fellow peers he refers to such individuals as, “they, or looking around this house maybe I should say we”.
Tebbit, of course, has for 30 years been the carer for his wife, Margaret, who was left severely disabled by the 1984 IRA bomb in Brighton. He ends:
This bill is a breeding ground for vultures, individual and corporaye. It creates too much financial incentive for the taking of life.
A number of peers have made a point currently being made by Lord Wigley, a relatively new Plaid Cymru member. The current legal fudge means those with the money to take a loved one to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland will not face prosecution. Why should the right to end life be reserved to the better off, he asks?
Baroness (Sally) Greengross, a crossbencher, tells the Lords she’s worked with older people for 40 years, and spent a period as an equalities and human rights commissioner.
Her argument is simple: everyone else has the right to end their life when they choose. Why should this right be denied purely to those who have become too infirm to administer the act themselves?
Next is the senior Labour peer, Baroness Jay, who supports the bill for both ethical and the latter her speciality constitutional reasons. It would, she says, be a “gross dereliction” for the upper house to not push forward the bill for further consideration.
Without parliamentary action, she says, the supreme court might end up decreeing two current parts of legislation on the issue incompatible, which would be a trigger for “very rapid, hasty legislation”.
Next to have their four minutes of time is John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.
He asserts the Anglican view that the bill should be opposed. Philosophically, he says, both Christians and other “thoughtful people” would find it “incredible” that people should be helped to die before their stated time.
Contemplating mortality is not about being prepared to die, it is about being prepared to live.
Lord Lester, the veteran barrister and Lib Dem peer, who has a long-standing interest in the issue, gives an understandably legalistic argument in favour of the bill, saying the “very narrowly drawn” measures will, for terminally ill people, “give them the certainty they deserve”.
As Lord Falconer said, it is not a slippery slope if parliament draws the lines
Next to speak is Lord Mackay, the veteran peer and Tory former Lord Chancellor. He opposes the bill, while welcoming the debate. Why is six months’ anticipated lifespan the arbitrary cutoff, he asks, among other worries.
He’s followed by Lord (Alf) Dubs of Labour, who supports Falconer and gives the house the first personal stories of the day. A friend of his had motor neurone disease and his family begged Dubs to back a law change to allow assisted suicide, he says. He then reads several letters from members of the public giving similar views.
Falconer concludes by saying the Lords’ work should be to craft a well-worked bill which would then be debated by the Commons. He says:
The time for royal commissions and select committees has past. Our work on this bill will affect so many lives… My lords, I believes the time has come to change.
The debate has started, and Lord Falconer is leading the peers through what his bill envisages.
He is, understandably, emphasising the safeguards of his proposed law. In any assisted death, he says, the actual administration of the fatal does must be administered by the patient. Anyway, he says, the current legal muddle is far worse:
The courts have said repeatedly the current law does not work.
Separately, we are at a crucial phase in the wider debate about euthanasia and assisted dying, not least due to high profile cases like Tony Nicklinson, a man with locked-in syndrome who died in 2012, six days after losing a landmark legal case over being allowed to end his life with the help of a doctor.
At the weekend the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, announced he had changed his view and now backed assisted dying. This is by no means official Anglican policy the current incumbent, Justin Welby, opposes this view, and the church is somewhat split but it is an indicator of changing attitudes.
It is one of the more contentious issues in modern ethics, let alone politics, and today we get a long and hopefully thorough airing of the various arguments connected to assisted dying.
Assisted dying is, in simple terms, helping those terminally ill or otherwise trapped in a physical state they feel unendurable to be able to choose how and when they die, notably through the assistance of doctors.