Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Yesterday in the Lords: 7 July 2009

Welcome to a new, experimental feature, where I read Hansard so that you don't have to...

Yesterday's business started with the announcement of the death of Lord Blaker, a stalwart of the Conservative benches. Unfortunately, death was always going to be a spectre that haunted the day's events, with the main business of the day being the 5th day of the Committee stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Amendment 173, in the name of Lord Falconer, sought to make it possible to accompany someone overseas for the purposes of them committing suicide, an issue which has been the subject of much debate recently.

The genuine concern that loved ones risk prosecution merely for helping someone to a location where they can carry out their settled wish to die with as much dignity as possible was the focus of the amendment, and Lord Falconer spoke movingly yet cautiously in addressing what are deeply held reservations on the part of opponents of the amendment.

It was clearly going to be a clash of the lawyers, and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, another former Lord Chancellor, was quick to raise the issue of the sanctity of life. He also raised the issue of moral coercion of vulnerable people, the fear being that the elderly, especially those with potentially large estates, would be pressurised into committing suicide so as to ensure the maximum inheritance.

The Lords also has a goodly number of doctors, most of whom were opposed to the amendment in line with the stated stance of the British Medical Association.

If I had to pick one intervention, I would probably choose that of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, whose health is sufficently poor that she would potentially benefit from the amendment, yet she is determinedly opposed to it as a member of an organisation called Not Dead Yet UK (they have T-shirts, she advised fellow Peers).

She spoke of the fear that those with terminal illnesses experience, noting that not a single organisation of or for terminally ill people supported the amendment. The fear is that if the State were to sanction any person to assist another in the ending of that person's life, it might switch the mindset of doctors and those who would help the terminally ill to thinking that assisted suicide was in their best interests (the terminally ill, that is).

After a lengthy debate, the amendment fell by 194 votes to 141, with the Liberal Democrat Peers splitting 26 to 21 in favour on a free vote.

The early stages of the debate took place during a thunderstorm, causing Lord Mackay of Clashfern to claim, "I think that the thunder is giving emphasism", to which a voice from the benches replied, "God is angry.".

The thoughts of the Bishops of Exeter and Chichester on that point will remain a secret, I fear...

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