Consideration of assisted dying at Westminster

The Health and Care Bill completed its Report stage in the House of Lords on 16 March 2022, during which their Lordships considered Amendment 170 which related to assisted dying. Extracts from the debate are reproduced below; these contributions centred on constitutional issues rather than the merits of legislation on assisted dying. This was the fourth (and final) day of the report stage.


Lord Forsyth of Drumlean moved:

“170: After Clause 164, insert the following new Clause—

Assisted dying

(1) The Secretary of State must, within the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, lay before Parliament a draft Bill to permit terminally ill, mentally competent adults legally to end their own lives with medical assistance.(2) In preparing the draft Bill and any accompanying documents and in making arrangements to lay them before Parliament, the Secretary of State must take account of the need—(a) to respect that this is a matter of conscience, and(b) to enable Parliament to consider the issue.”

He continued:

“This amendment has nothing whatever to do with the rights and wrongs of assisted dying, and I apologise to colleagues who have received many letters and emails urging them to vote against it from people who have been told that it does. The amendment would simply enable a Private Member’s Bill on assisted dying to be properly considered by Parliament at a time when the courts and the vast majority of the public are crying out for this to be done”.

In supporting the Amendment, Baroness Meacher (CB), stated:

“As the noble Lord made clear, there is no realistic prospect of a Committee day for my Assisted Dying Bill. This makes the point that the current procedures limiting Private Members’ Bills to Fridays do not enable important legislation such as the Assisted Dying Bill to reach the statute book”.

Echoing this point, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said:

“This amendment has nothing whatever to do with the rights and wrongs of assisted dying…[it] would simply enable a Private Member’s Bill on assisted dying to be properly considered by Parliament at a time when the courts and the vast majority of the public are crying out for this to be done…Time and again, private Members’ legislation on assisted dying is destroyed in Committee after enjoying strong support at Second Reading. The Bill from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and, most recently, the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, suffered this fate”.

However, constitutional issues were raised by Lord Cormack (Con):

“My Lords, I oppose this amendment. Much as I admire my noble friend Lord Forsyth and fully understand the reasons why he has brought this before your Lordships’ House, it is not a good precedent to bind the Government in one Bill to introduce another a year or so hence. We should think very carefully about the constitutional issues.

An initiative of this sort should come from the elected House and not be imposed upon it by an unelected House. Much as we can admire the total sincerity of those who are committed to the principle of assisted suicide—I happen not to be of their number—it is very dangerous for us to begin in this House changing constitutional precedent by obliging government to introduce a Bill. Therefore, I urge your Lordships not to support this amendment”.

These concerns were supported by Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB), who said:

“My Lords, it would be perfectly possible for someone in the House of Commons to raise this issue and deal with it there. What concerns me—I pick up what the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Howarth, said—is that this seems to be a constitutional issue. I am not going to say a word about the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide or assisted dying. However, I shall just read a few words of the amendment. It asks us to agree that the “Secretary of State must, within the period of 12 months … lay before Parliament” not just the possibility of a Private Member’s Bill being given time, which was what was suggested earlier, but a draft Bill. That is telling the Government what legislation they have to pass.

This is a matter that transcends issues of compassion or whether one is on one side of the argument or the other, because what we in the Lords are telling the Commons is that they have to support us telling the Government to put forward a Bill with which they may not agree. But they do not have any choice if this amendment is passed”.

On division,  Amendment 170 failed with 145 Content and 179 Not Content.


Comment

The constitutional issue was noted by Humanists UK, who commented “The Government whipped against it despite previously stating assisted dying was an ‘issue of conscience’. It said it did so because it was concerned about the precedent that would have been set by a law requiring the Government to introduce another one”.

Humanists UK also noted that the amendment focused solely on permitting terminally ill, mentally competent adults to have an assisted death – Humanists UK also supports assisted dying for the incurably suffering…Prominent right to die campaigners who have led the fight for reform, such as Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb, would not have the right to die if a law for the terminally ill only was introduced.

They also noted that government seems unlikely to allow Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill enough time to pass through Parliament before it will automatically fall. That will happen at the end of the current session in May.

The Catholic Herald commented House of Lords throws out latest attempt to legalise assisted suicide, noting that this marked the 12th time since 1997 that proposals for assisted suicide have been rejected by Parliament.

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Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Consideration of assisted dying at Westminster" in Law & Religion UK, 18 March 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/03/18/consideration-of-assisted-dying-at-westminster/

 

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