A Day At The House Of  Lords - Assisted Dying For The Terminally Ill Bill Debate - Coming soon!

The Place
The House of Lords is indeed a peculiar place - quaint, yet intimidating.  It has been operating since the 14th century, but the current building was opened in only 1841(?).  Before you enter there is a full frisking and searching of briefcases, airport style.  Once inside you cannot help but be struck by the vast and decorative building.  We arrived in time to see the mace being carried into the Chamber.  We few visitors had to line up in an awkward right-angular pattern.  The command was given, 'Hats off, strangers!' and out it came, borne by one man, preceded by another, both in black morning dress.

At about 10 o'clock the Lords began their business with Prayers - sadly, we were not allowed to hear them - wouldn't that have be a privilege and an insight?  Ten minutes later we were allowed into the Peeress's gallery, high above the noble Lords.  And there, apart for a short lunch break, we squatted on short, red leather seats with our knees jammed up against the brass railings for the next 8 or so hours - I took 14 pages of notes.  It was altogether absorbing and fascinating.  By the way, good lunches (cheap and nutritious) are to be had in the Terrace Restaurant, and while there you can also play spot the MP or peer.

The Debate
This was the third time that Lord Joffe had tried to get some form of euthanasia onto the Statute Book.  This time he had watered down his Bill to encompass only 'assisted suicide', which he maintains is different from euthanasia - we don't.

This was the second reading of his private members' Bill - the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.  The Lords do not often sit on Fridays, and when they do, they usually start at 2 pm.  But because some 90 peers wanted to speak in this debate, the proceedings were brought forward to 10 am.

The Proponents

The Opposition 

Lord Desai:  My Lords, we have not seen so many Bishops here since the debate on Sunday trading.  Obviously, death is the business of the Church and it does not want it to be hastened.  Religion relies on fear and the religious love suffering.  I am an atheist and I have no fear, certainly no fear of God or the afterlife.  I value my life, but I value it for the pleasure it gives me, and as soon as I cannot derive any pleasure, I want to be rid of it.  I have always liked the Bill because it gives me autonomy.

Lord Beaumont:
In addition to my crime fiction, I keep up my theological reading and I have found no theological or ethical objection to the Bill which I consider holds water.  I will therefore vote for it and I urge your Lordships to do likewise.

Lord Carlile:  I was taught when I was at school never to be intimidated by what was described at the time as an argumentum ad baculum.  The stick of the threat—the baculus of the threat—that this provision will be brought back if it is defeated today intimidates neither me nor anyone of my view not one jot.  I urge the House to ignore it.

The Result
On the Question, 'Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?', their Lordships divided: Contents, 148; Not-Contents, 100.  We had won the day!

The Future
During his summing-up speech, Joel Joffe had promised to bring the Bill, or something similar, back to the House again.  Political pundits wonder if that is a realistic possibility.  After all, this Bill had been debated for 21 hours, it had gone to a Select Committee, which had received hundreds of oral and written submissions, the Committee members had visited the Netherlands, Switzerland and Oregon, and it had cost untold thousands of taxpayers' money.  And still the vote had been substantially lost.  Would a 'new' Bill fare any differently?

That is not to say that the issue of euthanasia has disappeared - certainly not!  It will be back in some form, perhaps in the House of Commons next time, especially if an MP wins a high place in the Private Members' ballot.

As Baroness Finlay wrote to me, '...it will come back.  We need to work hard to win over public opinion.'  And Lord Alton wrote in a similar way, 'This is a  moment to feel some sense of satisfaction at the outcome, but it would be dangerous to rest on our laurels.  At so many different levels the battle for the sanctity of human life will have to continue.'

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