HL Deb 11 December 1985 vol 469 cc288-318

8.10 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago when the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, then Mr. Harold Macmillan, was Prime Minister his Government decided that it should no longer be a crime to take your own life. In moving the Bill on behalf of the Government at that time Mr. Fletcher-Cooke had to face the opposition which naturally enough any progressive move must expect to encounter. To minimise that opposition he introduced a completely new offence—that of aiding or counselling or procuring the suicide of another, which carried a penalty of up to 14 years' imprisonment. There was no provision for any defence, so it became a new crime to assist in bringing about what was no longer a crime, except in Scotland. That is still the law.

In the course of time it was realised that to help another to leave this world was not necessarily a criminal act. Indeed, there were circumstances in which a reasonable person might regard it as brave and compassionate. Therefore, several attempts have been made to change the situation in which those who have to administer the law often feel compelled to apologise for it. These attempts over the years have all failed, perhaps because, with the best will in the world, they attempted too much. It is a fault with which I have much sympathy because I have always been prone to it myself. In this Bill I have learned my lesson; so much so that there will be those who no doubt will feel that I have not gone far enough.

Let me seek to justify my timidity. Bolder souls in the past have included my good and noble friend Lady Wootton, who made a very specific attempt in 1976. Noble Lords will be glad to know that our eminent and admirable colleague is on the mend from her accident and they will want to join me in wishing her well.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, these early attempts failed as a result of straying into the contentious field of what the popular papers call "mercy killing". This is normally dealt with in the Homicide Act rather than under the Suicide Act, which is the Act I am seeking to amend in this Bill. The Homicide Act is a quagmire and many well-intentioned efforts have disappeared in it without trace. All the same, public opinion is changing and I remind your Lordships that The Sunday Times, no less, gave outright and unequivocal support to voluntary euthanasia just a year ago, arising from the committal of Mrs. Charlotte Hough to nine months' imprisonment for assisting, or attempting to assist, an old friend to leave this earth when, for very good reasons, she urgently desired to go.

Nevertheless, I have resisted the temptation to go further and have not sought, neither shall I seek, to amend the Homicide Act. This Bill is confined to the Suicide Act 1961 and it does only two things. First, it provides the Director of Public Prosecutions with a reason not to subject a compassionate assister to the trials of prosecution and sentence if he judges that the defence provided for in the Bill would succeed. Secondly, it provides a compassionate judge and jury with justification to refrain from convicting in a case in which they might otherwise decide they have no alternative under the present statute.

It does those two things by its single operative clause which reads: It shall be a defence to any charge under this Act that the accused acted on behalf of the person who committed suicide and in so acting behaved reasonably and with compassion and in good faith". I repeat: on behalf of the person who committed suicide and in so acting behaved reasonably and with compassion and in good faith". It does not remove the offence, nor does it seek to do so. It simply provides a defence. That is all. Because that is all, it avoids the trap of placing, for example, a special responsibility upon doctors, many of whom I am sure would feel a dislike in being singled out—and, in earlier proposals, probably have felt such a dislike—for a duty or a responsibility which, although they may well act compassionately in practice, they have no wish to see spelled out in legislation.

The Bill does not seek to do those things. It may be that if your Lordships decide that I may proceed to a later stage, an attempt will be made to include amendments to the Homicide Act. If that were to occur, your Lordships would decide what to do about that at the appropriate time. It may be that if this Bill became law, a bolder soul might attempt a more difficult task later on. If that occurred, your Lordships would decide what to do about that at the time. What I ask your Lordships to consider this evening is something much less than that. We shall all be eager to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has to say on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

For myself, I have in mind only a single amendment to the Bill. It arises from an error. Since the 1961 Act refers to suicide, or an attempt to commit suicide, the Bill should do the same. Therefore, I shall propose an amendment to that effect, if your Lordships permit the Bill to proceed to a later stage.

I have no complaints about the way in which the existing law has been administered. Cases have been few—two or three a year. Sentences have often sought, it seems, to take into account precisely those considerations which my Bill says should be taken into account. They have done so despite the fact that existing legislation gives no encouragement to do so. In fact, it does not distinguish between an obvious crime committed for gain and an act prompted by the highest motives.

So why legislate?—because it is desirable that the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, judges and juries shall be given the support of the law in what they are already doing and because we should bring the law into line with existing practice before even contemplating changing it in a substantive way.

The time may not be far distant when such a change will be generally acceptable, but I am not urging it upon your Lordships tonight. We have all read such phrases as "Nobody could have heard what has been said in this court without feeling the deepest compassion", or, "This has been a harrowing and heartrending case." Some of us may even have uttered them. If your Lordships decide to pass this Bill, many such cases will not need to come to court, and if they do come to court, there will be better reason than hitherto for the compassionate view that the courts have often taken; that is, of course, if the court decides that such a view is appropriate in the particular case.

A couple of years—a couple of dozen years—have passed since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, supported in this House the Act which I now seek to amend, and I am enchanted to see him in his place tonight, though I freely confess to your Lordships that I do not know what he will say. It is my hope tonight that he will feel that my Bill finds a solution to a problem which has troubled many people and that it does so without the least danger of opening the way to murder. It does not even approach that way; it simply provides a defence for one who has clone what many of us hope we might have the courage to do if we were answering the plea of a friend or a relative. It also means that if we were in the position of asking for that assistance, we could do so without feeling that we were subjecting our reliever to a risk of up to 14 years' imprisonment. We might well try to suffer in silence, if we could be silent, rather than take that course.

In both Houses it was pointed out in 1961, and it has been argued since, that Scotland has done without Clause 2 of this Bill altogether, without any ill-effects so far as is known. Even now I do not want to go so far as Scotland has gone. As I say, this is a timid Bill which in no way changes the fundaments of the law. It simply brings the Suicide Act 1961 into line with what has been the desire and the practice of the courts in most of the cases which have been determined in the 24 years of its existence. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Jenkins of Putney.)

8.22 p.m.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at the end to insert ("this day six months").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I need hardly remind your Lordships that if it is carried it will have the effect of killing the Bill. I must admit to feeling rather beastly—or I shall be rather beastly—toward the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, who has presented his Bill with such lucid charm and with such evident confidence in its total harmlessness that I find it quite difficult to contemplate the awful task which I have set myself of totally contradicting almost everything that he has said. I hope he will forgive me. It is done in compassion and in good faith, I assure your Lordships.

I have told several people who have not met it about this Bill—say, a dozen or so, inside and outside this House—and I have read it or given it to them to read or paraphrased it to them over the telephone, giving one reading only and offering no comment of my own. With one exception, they expressed themselves appalled. The one exception was a distinguished lawyer who reserved his judgment for 24 hours and then, so far as I was able to understand, came down on my side.

My speech will not be very long, and from the sound of it I think you may be reassured that it will peter out pretty smartly. I will do my best—I hope I am audible. Perhaps I may make a small preliminary remark to give an indication of what is to come. If a person is to be accused under the Suicide Act, he will have a defence which forms the substance of the amendment that the noble Lord, has proposed. He is to be accused, or not, as the case may be, of assisting or abetting, or whatever it is, a suicide. Suicide is something which a person does on purpose. One cannot do it by accident or in a fit of absent-mindedness. The word, by definition, means a deliberate act.

So, someone is to be accused of assisting in this deliberate act and he will defend himself on the grounds set forth in the Bill. In order to do that, in order for him to be accused at all, in fact, it has to be established that the deceased person committed suicide; and in order to do that, it has also to be proved, by the definition I have just mentioned, that he meant to die, that it was his wish to die. How is the prosecution to establish that fact in the case of a man who is dead? Probably the only person who can be asked in most cases whether this particular person wished to die or not, is the man whom it is proposed to accuse of the killing. I think this is the sort of difficulty that we shall encounter as we discuss this Bill and it is worth remembering that fact in connection with what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said about the fundaments of the law being in no way changed by his amendment. I think that they would change very considerably.

Noble Lords will remember that in the past 16 years or so there have been two Bills of the same general class as this particular Bill falls into. They were the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill 1969—I am not implying that this is a euthanasia Bill; that is not my point exactly—and the Incurable Patients Bill 1975. Both those Bills were defeated on Second Reading by means of the process which is now being employed. In their different ways and for different purposes those Bills were drafted in such a way that they provided elaborate and carefully thought out safeguards against misuse.

The patients, or whoever they were, who were requesting euthanasia, or whatever it might be, were required to do something like signing a document in advance, laying down the circumstances in which they wished to be relieved from continuing a life which had become to them a matter of nothing but misery or despair. Then—this, in general, was the principle that was employed—when the time came that they were apparently in that condition, probably two doctors would be required to certify that the circumstances in which the patient now found himself were those that the patient had originally foreseen when he signed his declaration. This was done in order to safeguard the person from wrongly being allowed to die or being put to death against his will.

In this Bill there is not only no such attempt at any safeguard, but there is no acknowledgment—indeed, there is a contradiction on the part of the noble Lord himself; and he has said so—that there is the possibility of any danger arising to the patient, or the sufferer whether he is a patient or not. I think there is and I shall make so bold as to say now that this Bill, in my opinion, for all its tiny size, is probably one of the most deadly Bills that has ever been introduced into Parliament—and I shall show you why.

The noble Lord used the words "reasonably", "in compassion" and "in good faith". Let us imagine—it is very easy I think for almost anyone to imagine—a fairly typical situation of a kind of which we have all heard which arises fairly commonly. Let us imagine an unmarried daughter, living with her mother, herself in her middle or late thirties; her mother is ill, housebound, demanding, dependent entirely on her daughter, who, in the straitened circumstances which this family seem to enjoy, has no life of her own. She can scarcely go out. Her whole time is devoted to the needs of her mother, who puts great burdens upon her.

She sees her life fading away and all chances of leading any form of worthwhile life receding into the distance while her mother becomes more and more difficult but has a considerable span of life left ahead of her. About this she can do nothing. Then, lo and behold! suddenly in what I insist is my imaginary story, there comes upon the statute book and to her ears this Bill from her noble benefactor, the noble Lord. Lord Jenkins. The clouds roll away. She can acquire a drug—it is not difficult to do that—which will provide the happy dispatch for her mother.

She puts some of the pills into her aspirin bottle, she waits quietly until the old lady has taken them, and the old lady dies. She then takes all the pills and puts them back in their own bottle, puts them on the table by her mother's bed and rings the police. No longer does she have to wait, hoping that her subterfuge will work and that she will have deceived the law into thinking that her mother has committed suicide when she has not. On the contrary, she will send for the police and she will say, "My mother has committed suicide"; and they will ask, "How do you know?" She will say, "Look at these pills. I found them by her bedside. I know what they are. I bought them. I gave them to her myself. I assisted her to commit suicide. I killed her practically, with her help". That is not an unreasonable action. The question is, was it compassionate?

It is not difficult for an unfortunate woman in the state that this lady is in by this time to display a certain amount of emotion, whatever it may be; but compassion would not be difficult to counterfeit, especially if she had been known to the neighbours and the few people who saw her with her mother as someone who had devoted her life to her mother and was continuing to do so with total disregard for her own comfort, safety or future. They will speak of her compassion.

Then we come to the phrase, "in good faith". Your Lordships know as well as I do what that phrase means. I have not the slightest idea; it could mean anything at any moment. I have not the slightest doubt that this highly reasonable Bill was drafted by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, in compassion and in good faith, but look at what it can do! It is deadly. When I said that before, the noble Lord laughed; he does not laugh this time quite so freely. This is a deadly Bill, and it is deadly because of those three words. It is deadly for another reason, too.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, the noble Lord continually refers to the old lady as, "this unfortunate woman". That indeed must be true while she was alive, but why should we pity her when she goes to a happier place?

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

Because, my Lords, she has been murdered when she did not wish to be murdered. That is not a fate that I would wish on somebody else's mother.

Two former Bills have failed, largely for one reason. They came upon a stumbling block which lies in the way of this Bill also. It is, I believe, though of course I cannot swear to this, because I am talking about something that may be only in the future, a stumbling block that is unavoidable. It will never be escaped; and it is simply this. It is the circumstance that the deed destroys the evidence. Never can one refer to the person who is dead to discover whether he wanted to die or not. Therefore never can one discover Whether he committed suicide, as in the case of this Bill, and so never can one discover whether the person who did it was helping him to commit suicide or was committing murder. I know of no way round that difficulty. I am very much surprised that the noble Lord himself did not see it. I am sure that he did not or he would have done something about it, because it is an absolute stopper on the Bill.

I do not wish to go too far, but to my way of thinking the Bill for those reasons only—and I do not propose to adduce any more—is for its size about the most deadly Bill that has been introduced into Parliament. To me it is a black widow spider of a Bill, so small and so deadly that one does not see it coming but by the time you notice it somebody is probably dead. I beg to move the amendment.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at the end to insert ("this day six months").—(The Earl of Cork and Orrery.)

The Deputy Speaker (Earl Cathcart)

My Lords, the original Question was, That this Bill be now read a second time, since when an amendment has been moved to leave out "now" and at the end to insert "this day six months". The Question that I now therefore have put is, That this amendment be agreed to.

8.34 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, with this Bill, small as it is, we are treading on the edge of a complex and emotion-charged matter. It is a legislative minefield which I for one have long felt needed clearing up, but I have always been too cowardly to attempt it lest I should do more harm than good. It is for that reason that I am heartfelt in my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, for bringing the Bill before us; and above all I am thankful for the ingenuity of those who have drafted it in this way. It may be that it needs improving and that it can be improved, but I shall come to that later. I think that the basic idea is right.

As this Bill comes before us we start with the Suicide Act 1961, legislation passed by Parliament virtually without contention as being a long overdue and necessary change in statute law. Suicide has been decriminalised and we do not need to go back to that argument again. If we did of course we could have quite fun. Whether suicide is sinful or not is another matter. Of course it is in the sense that all human actions are tainted with sin. Whether it is always wrong is another matter. A society brought up to admire the self-sacrifice of Captain Oates would probably find that view difficult to hold.

We could possibly get intellectual pleasure by discussing the case of Major Robinson. Noble Lords may remember that he was deeply in debt and his life was insured by a policy which could be paid out even if he committed suicide. It was due to expire at three o'clock one afternoon. He took a taxi past St. James's Palace, told the taxi driver to look at the clock and shot himself through the head. It was an action judged to be criminal and therefore he could not benefit from it and nor could his creditors. But the judge in the case commented on the sense of honour and decency which had led him to take the action that he did. Such are the difficulties of working out the morals and ethics of these cases.

But the law has decriminalised suicide, and we also know that the law is a bit of an ass if it decriminalises suicide and yet makes it impossible for those who may most need it—those who are incapacitated and unable to do anything for themselves, even to end their lives; those who want out not on a whim but as a result of many months or even years of consideration and thought and who suddenly find at the last moment that there is no way.

This is no party matter, but I think that it is a matter in which your Lordships should try to find as much consensus as possible. Those of us who speak from Front Benches have a duty to try to explore that consensus. I sense that there may be reasonably wide agreement so far as I have gone. If it were possible to decriminalise the acts of those who are genuinely and only helping people who wish to be helped in that way, we should do it. I did not understand the noble Earl to speak against that contention.

Is it possible then to do this? Is it possible to draft a law? The noble Earl said he did not think that it was. I used to think that it was impossible, which is the main reason that I have always refused when I have been asked, as I have, to bring in a Bill on this matter.

I incline to think, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and his advisers are moving in the right direction towards drafting an amendment to the law that might fulfil that condition. The important thing seems to be that the onus of proof should be placed on the accused in such a situation. If that can be done, it does exactly what we are searching for. The person assisting the suicide has not only to have clean hands and a pure heart but he has to be able to prove his possession of them beyond the shadow of a doubt or risk 14 years in prison. It is not a risk that many of us would want to take without making sure that every intention of the deceased was proved beyond the faintest shadow of that doubt. I very much doubt whether the hypothetical lady whom the noble Earl has brought before us would fall within the confines of what a judge and jury who are quite rightly suspicious, and the DPP who is even more rightly suspicious, would find to be justifiable.

What anyone wishing to help in such a situation would have to do to enable them to satisfy the DPP, it seems to me, is to provide evidence that the lady, if she ever got into a situation like this, had wanted to end her own life by means of one of those declarations with any necessary requirements for attestation and for genuineness. She would have to put up as a defence that she had incontestable proof that the person concerned had wanted to die. There will be those who think that even under such circumstances it is not right to legalise assistance to suicides. To them I say, "Are you sure your case is logical?" or "Does it hark back to a feeling that all suicide is a sin?" If the former, you are right to oppose the Bill. If the latter, you are wrong, I think, to take the argument back before the passing of the Act.

As for me, I shall listen to the arguments. I am impressed by the case that the noble Earl has put forward. I do not believe, however, that I am impressed to the stage that I would not want to give the Bill a Second Reading. I think I am impressed to the stage where I would want to explore in Committee the possibility that the wording was not necessarily right. That, I think, is what I would urge on your Lordships this evening.

8.43 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ely

My Lords, I must apologise for speaking a second time from these Benches in one afternoon. I wish to make one point clear at the start. I rise to express unease about this brief but very significant proposed amendment to the Suicide Act 1961. It is an unease which I feel very deeply myself and which I have good reason to believe would be felt by my own fellow churchmen. But let me say at once that I am conscious that the motive from which the Bill springs is that which is incorporated in the wording of the noble Lord's Bill itself—in the word "compassion". We are invited to acknowledge the compassionate concern that might prompt someone to help a fellow human being to find their way out of the pain and grief of life as it has become for them by ending it themselves. Put in those terms, who would focus the issue more quickly for us than the doctor faced with such a plea from his patient? My point—I hope that I am not misunderstanding the matter—is that surely we cannot form a mind on this proposed amendment to the law without taking account of the whole of that complex and subtle moral question, euthanasia. I could foresee great concern not only in the medical profession but also among churchmen at the passing of this Bill.

I should perhaps indicate that I have a particular interest and responsibility here. I serve as chairman of the Hospital Chaplaincies Council of the General Synod of the Church of England, a body that has particular responsibilities towards hospital chaplains in the advising not only of them—they are people likely to be asked for their pastoral wisdom—but also in the advising of the medical profession when asked whether the Church has something to say upon such deep and urgent moral questions as this. At its best, I would venture to believe that the Church of England has a tradition of approaching questions or morality rather particularly in the terms which make an immediate appeal to us in this Bill. Reasonableness, compassion and good faith are the criteria to be appealed to.

May I be particular and say that 1975 was the year in which your Lordships' House, as we have been reminded, rejected decisively by 83 votes to 23 a Bill to look with much sympathy on the person moved to suicide. I shall not go into details. It was the 1975 Incurable Patients Bill. In that same year, the Board for Social Responsibility of the Church of England published the report of a working party on euthanasia. The report has no more authority than that. But it was the work of a distinguished body of doctors and moralists and included a legal chancellor. It was entitled. On Dying Well. It attempted explicitly to do justice to the case for voluntary euthanasia". So it took account of the case of the doctor who might be asked by someone to help them to end their life. It addressed itself inevitably to the legal situation about suicide since the Act of 1961 and complicity in suicide. It asked about possible legal changes. On that, it reached the following conclusions, It would of course be comparatively simple to amend still further the law relating to suicide and murder so that it would no longer be an offence either to assist another to commit suicide or to kill another at that other's request. It would be comparatively simple but many people think that it would be highly dangerous, so dangerous that it is unlikely to be proposed save under severe limitations". Whether the limitations that might be envisaged in this Bill would ever begin to be rigorous enough to give protection against the Bill's misuse is a question upon which one would surely want the most careful and rigorous advice. The report, having looked, as I have emphasised, most compassionately on arguments for change, concludes that a change in the law in this country to permit euthanasia would not be acceptable.

I lift out only two of the reasons given for that conclusion. May I try to put them in the form of the questions that we should apply to the particular proposal in this Bill? The first question to be applied along the thinking of the report that I have mentioned would be this: have you weighed whether your proposal, however well meant, would in fact have the effect, by the way that it was seen, of weakening that respect for human life which the present law helps to inculcate? In our present world it would be no kindness to our society or to any of us to risk something that might, by the way that it was seen in the law by the public, give the impression of weakening that respect for human life which the present law helps us to inculcate.

Secondly, to be particular, the question might be this: have you taken account of the pressure which such a provision in the law might put upon the infirm person, or the person who was grieved because he or she felt that they were being a burden on others and were useless, to ask someone else to help them ease themselves out of life? In a discussion on euthanasia I well remember that we once asked a charge nurse, "What do you do with someone in that extreme situation and condition?" "We nurse them," he said.

The compassionate-looking and no doubt compassionately intended provision of a defence is surely too wide and dangerous an opening of the door. Certainly it is not one with which we should proceed without much further thought.

8.52 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I feel that it is very difficult to follow the right reverend Prelate because he knows so much about the moral side as well as the problems of people and he has made a brilliant speech, if I may be allowed to say so.

As all your Lordships will be aware, nothing changes. The last such discussion that we had, which was on the Incurable Patients Bill, was in February 1976, very nearly 10 years ago. Oddly enough that was preceded on the Order Paper that afternoon by the Shops Bill, with regard to Sunday opening. I was present and had the pleasure of speaking that afternoon, and we had the benefit of an amendment couched in precisely the same words which was moved by my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery and as the right reverend Prelate said, he very convincingly won that debate by 85 votes to 23. That Bill was introduced by someone who is very dear to everybody in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger. I am so glad to know that she is so much better. I have the Hansard report of that debate in front of me. At col. 196 the noble Baroness said: It is not a Bill that legalises euthanasia, or what is often called mercy killing"— which is perhaps what we are considering this evening— It leaves totally unchanged the present law about homicide, so that any person, be he layman, doctor or nurse, who administers a legal dose deliberately and knowingly, or otherwise destroys the life of another person, is liable to a charge of murder—and will be liable under this Bill".—[Official Report, 12/2/76; col. 196.] Those were strong words, but I think they carried the day.

Noble Lords and certainly I myself would never dispute the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, brought this Bill to us this evening with the best possible motives. Unfortunately it is so wide and there are so many implications in it that sometimes it is very difficult to follow it through. I for one must certainly resist the Bill and agree very much with my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery who has presented the amendment particularly well this evening.

We all know elderly patients—I fear that I know several—with long illnesses who are being nursed, sometimes at home and sometimes in hospital, and this brings a great deal of unhappiness not only to them but also to their families and friends. Sometimes it is not possible to know whether they would wish to end their lives. This is where the wider implications arise because in my opinion if this section of the Suicide Act is amended, it will give a licence to kill to anyone and everyone who wishes to see the particular person out of the way. The murder—for that is what it could be—could be for personal gain, for money, for revenge, or for many other reasons. It could be committed by unscrupulous people who have axes to grind or scores to settle.

We live, unfortunately, in an age of social revolution in which the morals of the people of our society have changed considerably, I maintain, in the last 10 to 20 years. I am afraid that I have to say from my own knowledge that in the world today there are far more people who will try to end other people's lives—and not by gunfire. The noble Lord, referring to a hypothetical case, told us of somebody wishing to end somebody else's life; they can do it. The chemistry is possible and, unfortunately, an enormous number of people know how to do it. They could easily persuade somebody that they were old, that they were in the way, and that they should die, as the right reverend Prelate said. That, in my view, would be mercy killing. Whether that would stand in a court under this Bill is very unlikely because the Bill reads, It shall be a defence to any charge under this Act that the accused acted on behalf of the person who committed suicide and in so acting behaved reasonably and with compassion and in good faith.". It is the word "suicide" that worries me because nobody would know whether the person wanted to commit suicide or whether he or she had been killed quite deliberately. I am afraid that I have to go against the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, though, as I have said, I am sure that he has brought this Bill before the House tonight in good faith.

8.58 p.m.

Lord Denning

My Lords, the discussion this evening raises ethical, moral and legal questions of the first importance: euthanasia and mercy killing. May I deal with the legal side?

For centuries suicide was regarded as the most heinous crime known to our law, a man rushing into the presence of his Maker unasked. His body was staked to the crossroads with a stone on his head; his property was all forfeited to the Crown; and he was denied Christian burial. Your Lordships will all remember Ophelia and the gravediggers: Is she to be allowed Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation? That was our law for centuries. When I was first on the Bench, in cases of attempted suicide the usual sentence was six months' imrisonment. Later, when I was still there, we no longer sentenced attempted suicides to imprisonment. We realised that there was a case for compassion and treatment. We put them on probation, or the like, so there was no longer any punishment for suicide or attempted suicide.

As my noble friend has said—and I was engaged in that case in a major role—as a result of all that we had the debate (and I was here) in 1961, and how good it was to abolish from our law attempted suicide as a crime. That went. But then there was a danger unless we replaced it by something. We had to do that by amendment of the Act itself so that if anyone aids or abets, counsels or procures another to commit suicide, then he is guilty of a new offence, complicity. We could all see the dangers of complicity in suicide; the danger that a person who wanted to inherit property from another would therefore perhaps induce him to commit suicide.

We could also see the extreme other case of great pain, lingering illness, something to allay that anxiety and distress. Why should not a doctor be allowed perhaps to hasten the death? The law was well stated, and is still stated, in these words in the standard book of Smith and Hogan: The new crime of complicity in suicide is one which covers a variety of situations varying almost infinitely in moral culpability; from the person who encourages another to commit suicide in order to inherit his property, to that of a person who merely supplies a deadly drug to a suffering and dying patient who is anxious to accelerate the end". Then this is the important part: In order to achieve consistency in the bringing of prosecutions, this is made one of those issues in which the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is required. There is what the law provides to deal with what I may call the hard cases. The consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is required. He should not prosecute in the ordinary case of mercy killing, and I hope he will not. There was a difficulty in the past when prosecutions were launched perhaps by the chief constable or by the police. But now under our new Prosecution of Offenders Act the Director of Public Prosecutions takes it in hand himself—it is not the police any more—and furthermore under our latest Act he has to report to the Minister, to the Attorney-General, and to the public guidelines on the policy which he adopts in regard to prosecutions.

I anticipate, and hope, that in that way a policy will be evolved from case to case which he can report and from which it can be clear, and clear to the public, that, in cases such as my noble friend Lord Jenkins has mentioned, which really ought not to be regarded as criminal and certainly ought not to be prosecuted at all, there will be no prosecution. Therefore, in a sense, without any amendment such as my noble friend suggests, by this almost procedural means we can achieve the result which is desired.

However, that means not altering our present law. Let me tell you the dangers which underlie this amendment. Take the suicide pact. The law at the moment is that if one survives and the other is killed, the survivor is guilty of a crime. Now, in the very case that I take of a man and woman together agreeing to commit suicide, the man makes all the preparations, lays on the gas and turns it on, and the woman dies first. She may have turned on the tap, I do not know. The woman dies first. The man, deliberately or not, repents; he survives. At the moment, under our law, he is guilty of this very offence we are now considering, complicity in suicide.

I would suggest that that law should be retained. The man who agrees with a woman to commit suicide together, the woman dies, the man survives, surely that suicide pact ought to be condemned by the law, whereas as I read this suggested amendment he would have a get-out. He would allege that he was acting reasonably, and all that sort of thing. That is the one illustration I would take of the suicide pact.

The other thing that worries me is the effect of this amendment, if it is passed, on the publicity which can be issued by organisations such as Exit (they have been before the courts) issuing booklets explaining how people can commit suicide—how many tablets they should take, or what gas they should put on, or whatever—and thereby encouraging, inducing or persuading people to commit suicide. Those people at the moment may be caught as having complicity in the crime, but they might get out if this amendment were passed. In other words, from a lawyer's point of view, I see dangers in allowing this amending Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has so ably put forward to be brought into our law. I should have thought it would be better to leave the law as it stands with cases of mercy killing or euthanasia being dealt with each time on their merits, not coming before the judges unless they were proper cases and the new prosecution service would only prosecute when there was a proper case to do so.

We heard yesterday all about the European Convention on Human Rights. The first paragraph of Article 2 of that convention reads: Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.". In other words, no one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save by death sentence imposed by law. The convention does not say "save in the case of mercy killing or euthanasia". I wonder whether this amendment would not fall foul of the European Convention. I need not go into that because of the reasons I have mentioned. I feel it would be too dangerous to allow this amendment to be brought in, and for that reason I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery.

9.10 p.m.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I have in the distant past often had the privilege of speaking before the noble and learned Lord. Now for the first time I have the opportunity of speaking after him and disagreeing with him.

First, I think that the noble and learned Lord is stretching logic when he suggests that a preamble to a declaration of human rights includes a mistatement that killing people is contrary to human rights. I do not think it is anything in the world to do with suicide. The second point which I challenge him on is that he said that when he was a young man suicide was regarded as the second greatest crime after murder. I would challenge that.

Lord Denning

My Lords, not when I was a young man.

Lord Paget of Northampton

I am sorry, my Lords. The crime next to murder, as juries were constantly told, was abortion. Now abortion is state-subsidised. Ethics change with experience. We have to consider life as it develops. The need to bring unwanted children into an already overcrowded world has been recognised and our acceptance of crime changes.

I base my case overwhelming upon the question of human rights. Of all animal creation, man alone has been given the right, the privilege, to decide whether he lives or dies. That is man's decision given to him as it is given to none of the beasts. The ox, poor brute, lives because he must. Man lives because he chooses, and to deprive him of that choice is to me an invasion of human rights and I should like to see it taken to the Court of Human Rights.

Having said that, it drives me to say that it is very much the experience of people I have known and loved and who have died that it is not a question of human pain. Pain is terminal; pain can end. It is the moral deterioration involved—the loss of courage which goes through the decaying of the body; the indifference to the burdens that are being imposed upon the living and the loss of self-respect. The noble Earl gave us an example of the old woman who continued carrying on a life which was hopeless and the price of which was ruining her daughter's life. Would she really have taken that decision when she was compos mentis? Would she have started the relationship of having her life carried on by a daughter whose life was being destroyed in the process? That she went on accepting that can only be the result of a moral decay that comes from dying, and it is that to which I refer.

So far as I am concerned, I have not been particularly afraid of death; I have been very afraid of dying. Death to me, so long as I am compos mentis and can meet it, is no great terror. I do not want to decay. From many years ago, I have formed a pact with a friend, in which we have each promised, at the request of the other, to come and give the assistance requested. I can assure my friend that he need have no anxieties so far as I am concerned. Whether or not this law is in being will not make the slightest difference to me in that pact.

However from the other end of it, can one ask for it? Again, I have an escape hatch: a window which is high enough to be certain, and has bricks under it. I can do it myself. But I believe that unless I am going to "make" by doing it that day, it will be very unkind to the person who would do it. I should vastly prefer to be able to take the necessary pills and have somebody with me who assures me I am not going to have the indignity of coming back to life. That is how the present situation strikes me and I think strikes quite a lot of other people.

Am I wrong in this? Here I think perhaps I must put in a mild protest at being lectured on ethics by the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church is now a very minority sect. It has told us in a recent report that in the inner cities it is down to 1 per cent. I doubt whether it is much higher anywhere else. I think the number of practising Anglicans in this country at the moment is probably below the level of that of the Mohammedans, if one measures in terms of the number of churchgoers. I think it has very much lost its position because its ethic has been rejected. Indeed, one is sometimes suspicious of a Church which finds itself in a position in which, when it has to appoint new bishops, it has great difficulty in finding one who believes in God. I do not accept lectures on ethics from a Church which, in war and peace, has been wrong on almost every ethical issue which has emerged and changed. I refer to abortion as one of them.

I say that this is an ethical matter. I should be utterly ashamed of myself if I denied my assistance to a friend who had taken the choice and determined that life was no longer tolerable. I am certainly not going to accept, and I think few people will accept, the compulsion which is in the Act at the moment. What we are doing, and what my noble friend is suggesting we do, is really to bring the law into relation with reality.

9.19 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, my aim is to say why I am against this Bill. I propose to centre my remarks on the very real problem of the severely handicapped and the chronically sick, especially elderly people. Although I do not agree with the Bill's answer to the problem, I acknowledge that those who support the Bill are sincere in their desire to find a humane and compassionate answer to it. I just do not believe that they have found the right answer.

In the first place, the wording of the Bill is so vague and subjective that it would be open to gross misinterpretation. It would be taken by some as a charter for euthanasia and by others as a cloak for murder. However, my fundamental reason for disliking the Bill is that it treats God-given human life as if it were disposable. It would open the door to those who might feel it right to end the life of another person because that person had become a burden or even an inconvenience.

In doing so, it takes us further down the road which started with the Abortion Act of 1967, the Act itself, and, even more, the liberal interpretation of it by some doctors. That road leads, and indeed has already led, to acquiescence in the killing of handicapped newborn babies. We now have in this Bill the proposed erosion of the right to live, at the other end of the human life span. To see where that road can take us, we have only to look at Nazi Germany where handicapped people were disposed of as an official policy. Of course, by no means am I suggesting that anyone in your Lordships' House is advocating that state of affairs. May I for a moment speak at a more personal level? Statistically, some Members of your Lordships' House are going to become chronically ill in old age. If I become one of those, I do not want those looking after me to be tempted to put pressure on me to take my own life. Nor do I want to spend my time imagining that they are trying to find ways to help me to do so.

Rather, what our society has to do is to find other more positive ways to help the chronically sick and the handicapped. The hospice movement points out one way and the social services another. Both do invaluable work to ease the emotional and physical burden on families responsible for the aged and chronically ill. We must put this work in the forefront of our priorities; and of course it will be costly. To help those people to take their own lives, as this Bill in effect would permit, is a solution only of convenience and expediency. I hope that your Lordships will decisively reject it.

9.21 p.m.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has already mentioned the first point that I wish to bring up on this Bill. That concerns my noble friend Lord Broxbourne's Bill of yesterday. I think that the two are totally incompatible. My noble friend yesterday said that he cannot think that there can be any dissent from the importance of those rights and the desirability of protecting their enjoyment, when he was talking about the first part of Schedule 1 of his Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Bill. If I may quote from that Bill, it says: Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law". I realise that if this Bill we are now discussing becomes law, my noble friend's Bill of yesterday covers its provisions; and the two technically do not clash. But the spirit of each is fundamentally opposed to the other. I prefer the spirit in the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Bill that we agreed to yesterday.

There is one point that has not been covered this evening and that is that an attempted suicide is not always serious. It is very often only a cry for help. When someone cries for help, we go to their aid. When a man is in the sea and he is drowning, we pull him out; we do not hold him under. As I read this Bill, it is an invitation to hold the drowning man under the water and not to bring him out. I think it is quite wrong. I think that the noble Lord who has introduced the Bill intends to be compassionate, to help those in difficulty; but I do not think he is succeeding. I think he is running a very dangerous course. People recover from illness both physical and mental.

How often have we heard a person who is in some difficulty—and particularly a young person—a difficulty of no great importance, really, but which seems important to them at the time, say, "I wish I were dead!" If, when they say that, they clasp a pillow to their face and burst into tears, are we to put one hand on the pillow and the other on the back of their head and suffocate them? No, my Lords, we are not; we are going to give them comfort and courage to go on and face that difficulty. The overcoming of difficulties is part of life. The noble Lord, I am afraid, is offering a method of opting out without facing the difficulties.

We have also heard something about the difficulties for doctors. The modern hospice movement, both inside the institution and out in the home, is helping people to face dying in comfort and dignity—a great deal more comfort and a great deal more dignity than was present a few years ago. It is not an invitation to the doctor to give them a lethal dose for the sake of putting them out of their misery. It is not an invitation to prolong life in indignity and discomfort. The fact that some medicines may have the effect of shortening life does not mean to say that a doctor who is making someone comfortable is deliberately shortening that person's life. He is not: he is just trying to help.

There is also another problem here. A suicide that is not successful, whether helped or not, can very often lead, through physical or mental handicap caused by that attempt, to very many years of the most appalling discomfort and distress, not only for the individual whose suicide was attempted—and, if this Bill goes through, helped—and failed in this instance, but to family and friends. That is a point which I think the noble Lord has not taken on board.

There is also another point. I am not a lawyer but as I read this Bill I think anyone brought up before a court under the Suicide Act 1961 and pleading this particular Bill, should it become law, in his defence must physically prove his innocence. It is very difficult. I do not think this Bill helps in that respect at all. I am sorry: the noble Lord thinks it is funny but I do not. I think it is very serious.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me. I was trying to discover which side he was on. He appeared to be arguing in the opposite direction just now to the one which he is now pursuing.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I think not. I may not be making myself very clear, but I do not think this Bill is going to help someone. I believe that people will feel that they have a licence to help people commit suicide, but in fact they have not. It could well be a disguise for murder in certain cases; and that worries me very much about this Bill. I think I have said enough to make it clear that if there is a Division tonight I shall vote in favour of the amendment.

9.28 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I think that nearly all the points I wish to make have been made by previous speakers, but I will just say how much I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, about the vital importance of consent, about which this Bill says nothing. It does not even say anything about a request from the person who is to be assisted out of life. I found myself carried along, persuaded and in agreement with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, both on the legalities—the present ones and the probable future ones—of the situation and on the crucial importance of the European Convention on Human Rights, which we were discussing only last night.

I should like to ask the promoters of the Bill what consultations they had before bringing it to your Lordships' House. It seems to me that many people will be put at risk if the Bill were to become law, and some of those people are extremely vulnerable. I will start by mentioning young people under the age of 18. I think all parents know that adolescents are sometimes subject to quite violent swings of mood, swings which may bring on depression and suicidal feelings. Many parents have experienced threats of suicide from their children. I should therefore like to ask whether there were any consultations with organisations representing either parents or young people. Furthermore, it seems to me that the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill will both be at risk, and I wonder what consultations there were in that respect.

I have down at the moment on the Order Paper a Question for Written Answer inquiring about the number of suicides among prisoners. It is probable that there are far too many already and I fear that this Bill would encourage even more. Those who have experience of drug addiction and drug addicts advise me (though this is not my view) that the effect of the Bill would be to increase the risks among this group of the population.

I should also like to ask what consultations were had with representatives of religious opinion, for, by facilitating suicide, the Bill appears to flout the religious convictions and the consciences of many. What consultations were there with the medical profession, who are bound by their Hippocratic oath to preserve life and not to terminate it needlessly?

Personally, I believe that death should occur in the fullness of time. It should not be induced or accelerated. It is indeed an important part of life, a transition to a new life; or, as others may see it, a transition to nothingness. We all, I think, deserve help in dying. We need family support and also social help, medical care and spiritual aid.

As has already been mentioned, the hospice movement is leading the way in providing all these things, both in the homes of individual people and in purpose-built buildings. It is highly experienced in pain control and pain relief and enables people to die with the maximum of dignity. That, I believe, is the way forward and that is what should be more and more widely provided through the National Health Service. I suggest that this is a bad and possibly unnecessary Bill and I hope that your Lordships will reject it.

9.33 p.m.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, the matter under discussion today is difficult, delicate and in a sense distasteful. Nevertheless, I feel impelled to intervene in what I hope will be only a short speech, because I am conscious that I necessarily took up a good deal of your Lordships' time yesterday and I would not want to trespass on your good nature and tolerance. But I hope that when my noble friend comes to reply we shall have a more positive approach from the Government than we have yet had on this difficult matter.

On 23rd January last I raised at Question Time with Ministers the need for review, revision and rationalisation of the law relating to euthanasia. By coincidence it was the first matter which was televised live in your Lordships' House and perhaps for that reason it injected further caution into Ministers even beyond the caution customary of governments. This was repeated with his habitual charm of expression by the then Home Secretary in correspondence.

My noble friend Lord Elton said in this House: We do not believe that the general law should be framed in a way which might allow less scrupulous people to act for financial gain, from malice, or from other base motives against those rendered vulnerable by age or illness".—[Official Report, 23/1/85; col. 220.] My right honourable friend Mr. Leon Brittan said: It is essential that the law is tightly framed so as to cause no doubt as to the protection afforded to the aged or sick from others who may act from less altruistic motives, and to ensure that the unscrupulous cannot place those most vulnerable under pressure to agree to have their life ended". I am well aware of these considerations and I have no doubt of their great importance. Indeed, I proclaimed them in unmistakable terms, and referred in the House on 23rd January to, the paramount necessity of safeguards against abuse". Of course there should be sufficient and effective safeguards; and equally it should not be beyond the ingenuity of Ministers and draftsmen to devise them. If they have not done so, is it because they have not tried; or, if they have tried, is it because they have not tried hard enough? Ministers give me the impression of having been content with the easier, negative approach at the expense of the more difficult but more socially useful positive approach, of having been dominated by difficulties with insufficient regard to the constructive possibilities and potentialities. They see the possible abuses but have no, or no sufficient, regard to the proven cases of hardship and tragedy such as when a respected judge felt constrained under the existing law to send to prison someone whom in passing sentence he described as a "Christian and compassionate lady".

At the heart of this matter there is an apparent paradox. Whereas suicide ceased to be a crime 20 years ago, it is still a crime to assist another. The onus must surely be on the Government to justify that paradox, and if they cannot do so, the noble Lord is entitled to a second reading of this Bill which removes that anomaly.

The trouble with Section 2 of the 1961 Act is that it is cast in a peremptory and inflexible form. It strikes down without qualification anyone who aids and abets the suicide of another. There is no question of mens rea, there is no question of guilty intent, there is no question of improper motive. The proposed amendment of the noble Lord seeks to cure this defect and the language seems to me to be appropriate for this purpose. Liability to imprisonment will not attach to a person who shows that he, or she, acted reasonably, with compassion and in good faith.

Of course these are criteria which may be interpreted differently by different people; they are not to be measured mathematically by a yardstick. But this difficulty should not be exaggerated. The test of reasonableness is deeply entrenched in English law and is daily applied in many and varied contexts; likewise, the concept of good faith; and though the criterion of compassion is less usual, the jury, under the guidance of a wise and experienced judge, should have little difficulty in applying it.

Perhaps I may make a final reference to the attitude of the Church, the Christian aspect, to which so much reference has been made. I was very pleased yesterday to have the support of the Church in my Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Bill in the distinguished testimony of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford.

Reference has been made by my noble friend Lord Swinfen and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, to the human rights Bill. There is no conflict between what is in the convention and what is in the Bill. The convention is dealing with people being deprived of their lives against their will—involuntarily. What we are here concerned with is people being deprived of their lives at their own initiative—at their own will.

So there is no conflict. I must say that I was a little surprised to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, cite the convention on which he poured such eloquent scorn yesterday. I know that my old and distinguished friend will not mind me saying that there might be some temptation among noble Lords on hearing him now, and who heard him then, to ask: is Saul also among the prophets?

I, as the least of Anglicans, who have left undone those things that I ought to have done, and who has done those things that I ought not to have done, would not for a moment venture an opinion on this aspect in the presence of the prominent and powerful right reverend Prelates, whom we are pleased to see in the Chamber this evening. But I believe that I am at least entitled to ask them to identify any citations from the New Testament, in particular from the words of Our Lord, that amount to an express condemnation or prohibition either of suicide or of euthanasia. I am not aware of any. Nor do I know what passage Shakespeare had in mind when he put into Hamlet's mouth those poignant words: Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His Canon 'gainst self-slaughter!".

The Earl of Longford

My Lords—

Lord Broxbourne

Ah! The noble Earl intervenes.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, not if the noble Lord feels unhappy about my intervention. I was only going to say that the noble Lord is implying that anything not forbidden in the New Testament might be acceptable to Christians. But there are many things that come to mind. One will not find forbidden in the New Testament the more extreme forms of certain homosexual behaviour. Nor will one find abortion forbidden there. I say that only in passing.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, in the more than half a century that I have had the benefit of the noble Earl's friendship, since the days when I was trying to learn at Christ Church and he was a distinguished don, I heard him say many wise things; but not this, and not tonight.

After all, Christianity is a creed of comprehension and compassion, as in the words of St. Matthew, chapter 11, verse 28: Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest". "All", be it noted—not some; not the strong to the exclusion of the weak, not the well to the exclusion of the sick, not the righteous to the exclusion of the sinner, not the happy to the exclusion of the sad. No, it is an invitation to all. It seems to me that a modification of the law such as is here proposed can hardly be ruled out on the grounds of Christian teaching. The reasoning which led to the humanisation of the law in 1961 in regard to suicide itself should now equally apply to the further humanisation of the law in regard to assistance rendered in compassion and in good faith.

I would rather the Government had taken the initiative in this matter. I still hope that they will do so and review the law as I requested as long ago as January last. But in the absence of any such initiative and if there be no indication of it today I shall feel constrained to support this Bill if it comes to the Division Lobby.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, I was not in time to add my name to the list of speakers published. I apologise to your Lordships.

The right to live should also imply the right to opt out of life. If it is now no more a crime to end one's life is it not time that it should become a right to end one's life? From 1941 to 1944 I was in one of Hitler's concentration camps—Kaunas, in Lithuania. In the course of two-and-a-half-years 30,000 inhabitants died at the hands of the Nazis and tens of thousands were brought into that camp from outside to be killed systematically. I witnessed the fears. The greatest fear was not of being killed, it was not of being dead, but the manner of one's death, the timing of one's death, the power of decision leading to one's death and not having the ability to prepare for one's death. It was not dying, it was not death, but that. There was the fear of torture without escape, without limit as to its extent and without a limit on its time.

The most fervent prayer in the camp was to acquire the means to end one's life, to achieve the death of one's own choosing at the time of one's own choosing and in the manner of one's own choosing. This became the ultimate liberation and the greatest prize. To achieve this in the camp one was prepared for any sacrifice and to submit to any deprivation. Having it proved to be a great comfort. It did not encourage one to use it, and this is what I should like to bring to your Lordships' attention. Having the means of the decision to end one's life in one's own way did not encourage people to use it. It gave one strength to carry on fighting because one felt one had the means, ultimately, not to buy or extend survival at any price. It prevented the collapse of courage, as my noble friend Lord Paget so eloquently explained. It prevented the collapse of principle if one got caught and, under torture, feared one would betray one's friends.

These extraordinary circumstances I have witnessed, but cruelty and despair can be suffered not only at the hand of man but at the hand of nature in circumstances of illness, particularly terminal illness. Doctors and priests know more about that. But if the reaction in despair is similar to the one which I have seen and lived with, then is it not time not only to stop making the ending of one's life not a crime but to establish it as a right?

9.50 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I should like to support the case of my noble friend Lord Jenkins for the Second Reading of this Bill, and I shall venture to differ—not for the first time I am afraid—from the views expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery. I support my noble friend because I believe that the principle of the amendment to subsection (2) of the Suicide Act is right, and after all we are considering the principle of his Bill.

In his amendment the noble Lord seeks to draw a distinction which should be drawn, and such as the Director of Public Prosecutions would certainly draw, between someone who assists another to commit suicide out of self-interest or personal gain and someone whose assistance is entirely disinterested and motivated by a reasonable and compassionate concern for another's welfare. Modified in the way suggested by my, noble friend, subsection (2) of the Suicide Act will be in full force to cover the classic case of the unscrupulous relative who has designs on the estate of an elderly person, while it will no longer catch as well in the catch-all of "aid and abet" those acting reasonably—I quote the words of my noble friend—with compassion and in good faith, on behalf of someone asking for assistance when his or her life has become intolerable.

I am not for a moment of course saying that this is a Bill which might not be improved in Committee. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has himself suggested that this is the case. Indeed, I think there are several matters that might well be considered at a later stage of the Bill. Some of these were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. The need for consideration of amendments to this Bill is another reason, and I think it is a very valid reason, why the Bill should be allowed a Second Reading. For example, it may be that the words "on behalf of" do not express sufficiently clearly that the consent of the person considering a quick finish to an unbearable life is essential. I am sure that such is the intention of my noble friend. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, took the view that consent was omitted altogether from the terms of this amendment. Surely one way, and the easiest way, round this difficulty—

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will forgive me for interrupting him—and I apologise—but I am not quite clear whether he was trying to make the point that a request or a wish to be helped to commit suicide was essential or was not essential from the point of view of the law.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl but my hearing is not very good and I am afraid I could not follow exactly what he said. However I am sure that he is perfectly correct. Surely the best way of indicating the circumstances under which someone would not wish life to be prolonged is by means of a written statement executed while in a normal state of health and well in advance of serious illness or extreme old age.

That has the advantage over an oral request that it shows a settled choice which cannot be mistaken for a sudden impulse, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and which might happen in the case of an adolescent. A written statement or undertaking can be revoked at any time if the individual changes his mind. Although such instructions would have no mandatory effect in law, they could be used as evidence that the defendant had acted in accordance with the express wishes of the person seeking assistance.

It has been argued that modern medicine and nursing care can relieve terminal illness of pain, acute indignity and even acute discomfort so that nature should be allowed to take its course. That may be true of the best treatment in hospices for the dying, and references have been made to the treatment being given in these hospices. I have great admiration for Dame Cecily Saunders and the splendid work that she has done for the hospice movement. But it should not be forgotten that hospices are still available only for a privileged few. The majority of our large towns lack that specialised form of hospital treatment, and the great majority of our fellow men and women continue to die in the wards of general hospitals. One cannot see local authorities or the National Health Service setting up new hospices at a time like this, and the same financial constraints apply to voluntary bodies.

I am grateful, and I hope that others are too, to my noble friend for promoting this Bill. Whether it succeeds or not, it has stimulated thought about a subject in which we are all necessarily interested and on which conflicting opinions should be carefully expressed and weighed. I think that the principle of the Bill is right because it shields the merciful from a penalty that was intended for the evil-doer. I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading so that we can look at it more carefully in Committee.

9.57 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I must admit that when I got out of bed this morning I did not think that I should be involved this evening in such a dark part of life as suicide. The only reason that I am at the Dispatch Box this evening is that my noble friend Lord Mishcon has taken to his bed with 'flu. I know that we shall miss a valuable contribution to the debate, and many noble Lords will regret his absence, but none more than I.

My noble friend Lord Jenkins made a clear and compassionate case that those unfortunate people wishing to exercise their right within the law to take their own lives should be allowed legally to be assisted to do so. The logic is strong that if suicide is not a crime, nor can aiding someone to commit suicide be one. But logic in this case is perhaps not everything. Although it is true to say that tragic circumstances will re-occur in which it would be an act of kindness and courage to assist a suicide attempt, surely we could not risk the dangers of opening such a legal loophole. The law in this case has to presume the worst and be formulated accordingly. It must be remembered that the law as it is at present provides that a person convicted of aiding and abetting suicide can plead as a mitigating circumstance compassion for the sufferer.

My noble friend Lord Jenkins said that the Bill would stop aiding and abetting being an offence and it would become a defence. But enormous difficulties would be created in the courts for the prosecution should there be that new defence. Say, for example, that an elderly person, perhaps an elderly person suffering from senile dementia or some kind of mental impairment, was asked to sign a document which such a person took to be innocuous but which was, in fact, a suicide agreement. Should such a thing happen, first, it would be most unfortunate for that elderly person. But, also, how would the prosecution fight that case since the defence lawyers would have documentary evidence? Secondly, by creating this new defence, people would surely receive encouragement to become involved in assisting suicide attempts. Some might be those who, as my noble friend Lord Jenkins had in mind, would become involved through compassionate and benign motives. But, equally, there might be others whose motives were malign and not in any way compassionate.

My noble friend Lord Jenkins said that doctors had expressed dislike of being singled out for responsibility. I can perhaps say one word about euthanasia. In doing so, may I give an example of how the trust that should exist between a doctor and his patient might be impaired if the patient knew that the law permitted the doctor to give him a dose of a pain-relieving drug that happened to prove fatal.

I should like to quote a story that Lord Cohen, when president of the General Medical Council, was reputed to have told. It was recounted in part of a book called Morals and Medicine. This is what he said: With regard to euthanasia I should just like to tell you one story. There was a very distinguished professor who made his doctor promise that if he ever suffered from an incurable disease he would give him an injection to end his life. Well, alas, this distinguished professor did develop a very grave disease. And he then refused to have any injections whatsoever from the doctor lest it was the final one. This is one reason why I see very grave objections to the legalisation of euthanasia". I should like to conclude by saying that many noble Lords have referred to the very illogical side of the present law. Some have said that it was necessary that anomaly should exist. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and also the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, were convinced that humanisation of law was necessary and that it was important that my noble friend's Bill should go on to the Committee stage in order that we might explore different ways in which such a humanisation of the law could be brought about. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, also wished for some change to be made in order that genuine cases of a difficult, miserable and unhappy life might be brought to an end within the law.

There was great concern among other noble Lords who spoke in favour of the noble Earl's amendment that my noble friend's Bill was too wide and that the dangers of its misuse were very great. There was mention of the difficulty of providing evidence that the person who had been assisted in terminating his life had in fact wished to terminate his life. The deed would have destroyed the evidence, the noble Earl said. That was a fairly powerful argument.

However, I was also struck by the point made by the right reverend Prelate that such a change in the law might weaken respect for human life. Surely, all of us must see that with paramount respect. The right reverend Prelate felt that intolerable pressure might be put on those infirm people who already feel themselves to be a burden on other people's lives and who perhaps might think they should avail themselves of assistance in removing themselves as a burden on other people's lives. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, made the same point, and the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, made the point by which I was very struck—that many attempts at suicide are made by people who need help to go on living and it would seem irrational in their cases to help them to die. Therefore, although the objectives of the Bill of my noble friend Lord Jenkins seem entirely right, the dangers coming out of the loopholes provided by his Bill would seem also too great to justify such a change. Although, as my noble friend has pointed out to me—and I was going to do so myself—there is a free vote on this debate on our side of the House, in my case I shall be voting for the noble Earl's amendment.

10.6 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, for providing us with an opportunity to discuss this difficult, sensitive, and emotive subject. Many of your Lordships have sympathised with some of the concerns and intentions and indeed the compassion with which the noble Lord has introduced his Bill.

We are, I think, all aware of the distressing situation in which some people find themselves—which the noble Lord, Lord Paget, described with great personal feeling and conviction—that of seeing a deeply-loved friend or relative suffering but being unable to help. Many people must have considered, as he has, the possibility that they themselves may fall victim to, say, painful and incurable illness and have hoped that in that event their suffering will be short-lived. But, as my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery reminded us when he pointed to the, in his view, many weaknesses in the Bill, this is an area in which we must proceed with caution. I am sure that the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, are genuine and deeply felt. But I fear that the solution which the noble Lord proposes is misconceived.

As legislators, we must of course examine any proposal for changes in the law coolly and soberly and consider how even the best-intentioned proposals will apply in practice. This I think was the theme which the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, stressed just now. In my view, the Bill fails to measure up against that particular yardstick. For reasons that I shall explain, I fear that there will be very serious risks in amending the law in the direction which the noble Lord proposes. The danger is that if the law is amended to allow the weak and vulnerable to die at the hands of the compassionate and merciful it will also expose those who most need our protection to the risk of dying at the hands of the cruel and merciless.

Your Lordships know that on two occasions commissions have considered in the context of more extensive reviews whether "mercy killing" should be a separate offence, distinct, like infanticide, from murder or manslaughter. The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, which reported in 1953, was impressed by the arguments of those who said it would be impossible to define a category which could not be seriously abused—particularly as it might often prove extremely difficult to determine the motive for killing in such cases. The commission concluded that there should not be a separate offence of mercy killing.

The Criminal Law Revision Committee, in its report on Offences Against the Person, published in 1980, similarly recommended that there should not be an offence of mercy killing. The committee drew attention to the risk that such an offence might lessen the protection afforded to the weak and handicapped because the basis of a new offence would rest upon the defendant's evaluation of the condition of the victim.

As my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery said, Bills with a similar purpose were refused a Second Reading by your Lordships in 1969 by 61 votes to 40; and in 1976 by 85 votes to 23. Both reports, to which I have referred, revealed substantial difficulties and disadvantages in respect of a proposal essentially not very different from that which the noble Lord now advances. I have to tell the noble Lord that I am not in the least persuaded that those difficulties and disadvantages would in any sense be overcome by means of the rather different approach which his Bill incorporates. Therefore, I do not share Lord Beaumont's view, in which he was supported by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—and I hope I quote the noble Lord correctly—that the wording is not exactly right. I would say that the general opinion, and indeed the Government's opinion, is that the principle is wrong, let alone the matter of the safeguards. This was a view expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely when he described the need for safeguards and the difficulty of finding them.

That is perhaps the answer which I fear my noble friend Lord Broxbourne will not have wished me to have heard, since he suggested that perhaps the Government had not tried to set about drafting something to meet his concern. I am sorry to have to be dampening to my noble friend's enthusiasms two evenings running, and I do not want to intervene in his Scripture lesson to the right reverend Prelate or indeed to the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has described how the Bill would amend Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961. Section 2 makes it an offence with a maximum penalty on conviction on indictment of 14 years imprisonment to aid, abet, counsel or procure either the suicide of another or an attempt by another to commit suicide. The Bill will provide a defence for an accused person if he proves that he acted on behalf of the person who committed suicide and, in so acting, behaved reasonably and with compassion and in good faith.

As the noble Lord explained, the object of his Bill is to allow a person who has firmly made up his mind that he wishes to end his life to be helped to commit suicide without exposing the person assisting, who acts in good faith, to the risk of prosecution. There are some people in that situation who would find it difficult or impossible to end their lives without some form of outside assistance. Their feelings are understandable.

One can argue about whether it would be morally right to assist a person to die even in these circumstances, and I respect the views of those who believe that this would undermine the sanctity of life. There will be differences of view on that question. Be that as it may, I believe that a defence along the lines proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, although intended to be confined to those acting out of compassion and in good faith, could readily be exploited by the unscrupulous who stand to gain financially or act out of malice against those rendered vulnerable by suffering or age.

I am not even sure that, for the most part, the Bill would offer very much protection against conviction to those who the noble Lord seeks to assist. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, stressed, the Bill, entirely properly, places the onus of proof in this matter on the defendant. But it would not, of course, be sufficient for a defendant simply to assert in his defence that he acted reasonably, with compassion and in good faith; instead he must demonstrate this to the satisfaction of the court. I would venture to suggest that a person who assists in the suicide of another, for financial or other improper reasons, may well calculate in advance, perhaps over a period of several months, how to establish his defence. For example, he may extract a signed statement from the victim saying he wishes to die. But the person who acts from genuine compassion will have no such considerations in mind and may find difficulty in establishing a defence. He is unlikely, for example, to have troubled to provide himself with documentary or other evidence which could be deployed in court about the wishes of the deceased.

But the concerns are by no means only with the person who assists someone to commit suicide. We must also consider those who might be driven to take their own lives. They will include some of the most vulnerable people in our society; people who suffer from acute physical disability or pain, or even from depression. They are among those most in need of protection.

There is a grave danger that the Bill would place such people under an additional pressure if they knew that in certain circumstances assisted suicide was permitted. Such people could be placed under intense pressure by those who seek to persuade or cajole them to end their life—a point ably made by my noble friend Lady Macleod and by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. It is all too easy to imagine how an unscrupulous person who perhaps stood to gain financially or who simply wished to relieve himself of the burden of looking after an elderly or sick person might exert pressure with a view to securing agreement to their signing a suicide note.

Further, the risk goes wider still because the Bill would not apply only to people such as the terminally ill, their physicians and members of their family. It could extend also to anyone who assisted a person suffering from a temporary bout of depression to end his life; or who, knowing an adolescent's suicidal tendencies, provided him with large enough quanitites of drugs to kill himself, or, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has pointed out, to the survivor of a suicide pact who never intended to die. Surely an accomplice in such circumstances would not be morally blameless. It seems to me that such acts of participation could be disguised as aiding or abetting suicide by means of behaviour which was reasonable and compassionate, and which was undertaken in good faith.

The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, my noble friend Lord Swinfen, the noble Earl Lord Listowel, all raised the matter of hospices and pointed out how much they can do to help relieve the anxiety about that worrying "decay" which the noble Lord, Lord Paget, dreads. I share the views which they expressed. Some are run by the National Health Service, some by charities and some have the support of the health authorities. What a wonderful job they do—and I add to the wonderful job they do the job that is so well done by nurses and doctors elsewhere within the National Health Service. We all know that hard cases make bad law. This Bill is a good example. It has been suggested that it is incongruous and wrong to treat as criminal the participation in any act which is itself no longer criminal. But as I have sought to explain, the proposed remedy could have appalling consequences.

The Bill does not alter the law on murder or manslaughter. I understand why it has been drawn so narrowly and I do not propose that it should be widened. But I think it worth pointing out that the available information indicates that there have been only 10 convictions under the Suicide Act between 1980 and 1984. The noble Lord's target therefore is very narrow indeed. If the Bill were enacted, it would remain open for prosecutions to be brought for manslaughter; indeed, in some of the cases which I know have most concerned the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, the charge has been one of manslaughter.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, reminded us, after what for me was a fascinating legal history lesson on this subject, prosecution for an offence under the Suicide Act 1961 can be brought only by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Where there is a conviction under that Act or a conviction for manslaughter, it is open to the court to make use of the full range of disposals available to it. In passing sentence, the full circumstances can be taken into account. This, I suggest, is the best safeguard against abuse and the best assurance that the sentence will fit the crime.

This has been an anxious and a concerned debate. Of course I respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and those who support him with this Bill. I must tell your Lordships frankly, however, that I would have the gravest possible doubts about the wisdom of enacting it. To my mind to do so would be gravely irresponsible and utterly wrong.

We have a duty to safeguard the interests of those who are especially vulnerable through old age or illness, to whom the right reverend Prelate drew particular attention. We are all conscious of that duty and responsibility. But I fear that this Bill would weaken the protection afforded under the law to them, some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

10.18 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, this has been an interesting and, one might say, an important debate. There have been views expressed on all sides, of very different kinds. There have been different understandings of the Bill and, if I may say so, some misunderstandings of the Bill. I should have thought that after a debate like this, we should have at least one thing in common; that is, that your Lordships would not wish me now to reply in detail to all the points made in this debate, least of all the noble Lord, Lord Alport. However, I am under the guillotine. An amendment has been moved (and we are speaking to that amendment) as a result of which this Bill is being killed. What people have been saying about this Bill is, "This is a complex and difficult Bill but we do not intend you to have a Second Reading on it; we do not intend you to have a Committee stage on it; we do not intend you to go further on the matter but we do not want to look into these matters in detail". It would be unworthy of this House to say that.

I ask the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, not to press his amendment. I say that for this reason. I think that if we were to decide tonight that we should not travel through the Lobbies but that we should give the Bill a Second Reading, we could then proceed to Committee stage and consider the proposals that have been made, some by people who are opposed to the Bill and who have said, in the course of their speeches, that they would like to see an amendment to it. As I have listened to the debate, Members have persuaded me that there are perhaps some amendments which ought to be introduced. For example, ought we to exclude any possibility of minors being affected by the Bill? These considerations cannot arise unless we pass into a Committee stage. Therefore, my appeal to the noble Earl is to allow us to proceed to that stage and not to try to kill the Bill on Second Reading—which is not customary in this House.

I am bound to say, however, that I did not think an occasion would ever arise when I should prefer the company of my noble friend Lord Mishcon to that of my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs. One such occasion has arisen tonight, because I was discussing this matter with my noble friend Lord Mishcon, who was to reply from the Front Bench on this Bill. I am sorry to say that he is now in bed with 'flu, from which I hope he will soon recover. The last thing he said to me about it was, "There are some matters about your Bill that I do not like, but one thing of which I am absolutely sure is that we shall give you a Second Reading". We can then decide, at a later stage, whether we want to amend the Bill or whether we want, as we are perfectly capable of doing, to throw it out on Third Reading or on the proposition that it does not pass to the other place.

Thus I ask the noble Earl to let us examine these matters in the greater detail which they demand and which they deserve. Let us pass to Committee stage. Let us decide that we shall do that and not divide the House tonight.

10.23 p.m.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, I am quite certain that nobody wants me to make a detailed speech about other people's speeches. If I were to make a fully reasoned reply to the whole debate, all I should end up with would be a highly substandard paraphrase of that which has just been given so admirably by my noble friend the Minister, to whom I am enormously grateful for practically everything he has said.

I should like, if I may, to make a personal remark or two, though perhaps not so personal to begin with. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has reminded us, we have been debating all this time an amendment that has been moved by me. I have noted with some care exactly who has spoken for and who has spoken against this amendment. I find that several noble Lords have spoken in favour of the Bill but none of those noble Lords has actually mentioned anything in the amendment. That is rather curious. I think if people are going to defeat my amendment, I am entitled to know exactly what they have to complain about in it.

I have objected to the Bill entirely on the grounds of danger. Nobody, or almost nobody, has said that there is no such danger. As my noble friend Lord Glenarthur has just said, there are great dangers in this Bill. I have adduced the argument that this Bill, like others that have preceded it, is fraught with danger at almost every turn. I have said that I do not believe that a Bill of this kind can be drafted in such a way as to avoid the great stumbling block represented by the fact that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, quoted me as saying, evidence has been destroyed by the deed itself—the one reliable witness is dead.

The personal remark that I should like to make is this. The two former Bills which have been referred to throughout this debate—that is to say, the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill and the Incurable Patients Bill—were both defeated on Second Reading by amendments of exactly this kind. Both those amendments were, in fact, moved by me. I have not moved this one again today with any hope of being able to take home some suitably inscribed silver cup to put on my sideboard at having won the thing outright but because I see the same principle working against what I conceive to be the cause of justice in all three Bills. The danger is overwhelming.

There is no lack of compassion on my part. Several noble Lords have spoken favourably about the hospice movement. I have been for several years—and I was at the time of the Incurable Patients Bill—a member of the council of management of St. Christopher's Hospice at Sydenham, a great teaching hospice. I may therefore be acquitted of any lack of compassion. And I have never expressed in any of these debates, and I do not now express, any adverse opinion on either suicide or euthanasia. I take my stand entirely on the belief that, as my noble friend Lord Glenarthur has said, the principle of the Bill is wrong.

I wish to dissociate myself from any attack on the Anglican Church and its method of lecturing persons on ethics. I do not belong to it myself, but I would be very happy to listen to such lectures at any time. I hope that your Lordships will accompany me into the Division Lobby. I am bound to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, over this. I think that the "black widow" should go quietly to rest. I beg to move my amendment.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Strabolgi)

My Lords, the original Question was, That this Bill be now read a second time, since when an amendment has been moved to leave out ("now") and at the end to insert ("this day six months"). The Question is, That this amendment be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content"; to the contrary, "Not-Content".

10.27 p.m.

On Question, Whether the amendment to the Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 48; Not-Contents, 15.

Airedale, L. Lawrence, L.
Alport, L. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Attlee, E. Long, V.
Blease, L. Longford, E.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Brentford, V. McAlpine of Moffat, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Buckmaster, V. Macleod of Borve, B.
Coleraine, L. Mar, C.
Cork and Orrery, E. [Teller] Margadale, L.
Craigavon, V. Masham of Ilton, B.
Craigmyle, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Cranbrook, E. Napier and Ettrick, L.
Denham, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Denning, L. [Teller] Robertson of Oakridge, L.
Dormer, L. Sheffield, Bp.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Sherfield, L.
Ely, Bp. Sidmouth, V.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Simon, V.
Faithfull, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Glanusk, L. Strabolgi, L.
Glenarthur, L. Sudeley, L.
Hylton, L. Swinfen, L.
Lauderdale, E. Swinton, E.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Lockwood, B.
Broxbourne, L. NcNair, Ls.
David, B. Molloy, L.
Jeger, B. Paget of Northampton, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. [Teller] Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Kagan, L. Strathcarron, L.
Kilbracken, L. Underhill, L.
Listowel, E. [Teller]

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.