The Blog

No Ordinary Debate, No Ordinary Day in Parliament, No Ordinary Decision

Our challenge now is to ensure that the right solution to caring for our elderly and vulnerable, which is investing much more in palliative and holistic end of life care, is not just talked about but implemented.

As has been said many times since Friday's second reading debate on the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill, we saw Parliament at its finest then. I have not sat through a debate in which so many Members of Parliament have come determined to listen so intently or been so determined to weigh up seriously all the contributions of fellow Parliamentarians. Nor a debate where so many were clearly not only scouring their consciences, but also plumbing the depths of some of their most heartfelt experiences, both personal and professional. Too, it was clear that MPs had not only received, but also carefully read and were considering the many hundreds of emails, cards and letters from concerned constituents received prior to the debate. A great proportion of these were individually written - a far cry from the identikit duplicates organised by lobby groups we all too commonly receive. So many of these letters were relevant, detailed, reasoned, and yet also from the heart. Large numbers of MP colleagues had visited their local hospice, held public meetings, met with concerned disabled groups, or met concerned constituents at surgery in preparation for the debate to gain as much practical understanding of the issues involved and listen to those with direct and relevant experience.

And so as the morning progressed and colleagues spoke, you sensed from the gathering of contributions a collective determination to do all we could to understand the complexities of this subject: a wanting and willing to understand it in depth and hear all perspectives, before making a decision. A decision which would not be made merely by basing it on a simplistic single figure produced through a flawed and unrepresentative poll initiated by a well funded lobby group supporting the Bill. Our constituents, indeed the country, deserved far better than that.

Almost without exception, speeches were thoughtful, profound and moving (not always, however much we flatter ourselves, characteristics of our Parliamentary debates!).

Baroness Ilora Finlay, watching throughout from the Gallery, remarked afterwards that it was clear from the debate how in touch MPs are with the people they represent: from references to constituents ' experiences, their direct and personal knowledge of their local hospices and the respect MPs have for those who work in them.

We heard time and again of colleagues' personal experiences of final days with loved ones. And of days which were thought to be final - doctors having advised that death was imminent, only for the patient to recover and live for some considerable time longer - in one case, twenty years longer. It became clear that the stipulation in the Bill that an individual seeking help to commit suicide should be less than six months from death was impracticable, and so meaningless.

We listened respectfully to several Members with professional experience in the medical profession, including Dr Liam Fox, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Dr Phillipa Whitford, and cancer nurse Maria Caulfield, of the invidious position doctors would be placed in if this Bill were passed . Of the impossibility of their ascertaining, whether an individual has a 'settled ' and 'voluntary ' intent to end their life. Of having the unenviable task of endeavouring to look into their patients 'hearts and minds and still then not being able to discern the often subtle pressures upon them. As Dr Fox said, this Bill would overturn 2000 years of the Hippocratic oath; it would nullify a medic's core objective to 'do no harm'.

We heard from colleagues with backgrounds in the legal profession of the flawed nature of the Bill, of the need to be mindful to do justice especially for the most vulnerable in society, of the inadequacy of the so called safeguards in the Bill, of the involvement of a High Court Judge as adding nothing of protective value, of the very real likelihood that if passed it would open the door to further, broader legislation, as in the very few other countries that have bought this in.

We heard still other colleagues speak from a spiritual perspective - Caroline Spelman, Sir Edward Leigh, Stephen Brine. Of the importance of remembering that each life is of intrinsic value; that this should always be the kind of society we should aspire to be. That dependancy on others and interdependency with others are part and parcel of life from birth on, at different stages, for us all, with giving and receiving, dependence and service, an integral part of life's pattern, so that no one should feel that at a stage when they are dependent on others, they should consider ending their life prematurely.

No one in the Chamber said - as we so often hear - that 'this is one of the most serious issues we have ever discussed in this place'. That was obvious, as the quiet, restrained atmosphere, one of truly active listening, testified. This was indeed serious business, and we were taking it seriously. Absent was the usual party political bickering across the Chamber. So too were the all-too-common politicians' jabs or jibes. We were in this together, across the parties, no whips direction involved, and together we would be answerable for our decision. No one spoke for the sake of speaking. We were there primarily to listen. The House was moved when John Woodcock was called to speak, and responded by saying he had come not to speak but to listen to the entire debate, being genuinely undecided. Not the only such Member that day, and by some measure. Many who did speak had spent much time considering the issue and preparing; almost all made contributions of great value, whether seasoned Parliamentarians, or newbies . All were listened to by a House never seen in recent times so full on a Friday for a Private Members Bill - when contributors to debates can often be counted on the fingers of two hands. Cabinet Ministers came in and sat on the front bench, quietly listening.

And when towards the latter part of the debate, Ben Howlett spoke and said that he had come into the House that day intending to support the Bill, but "listening to speeches made by other Members... has completely changed my mind ", I for one believed he was not alone, and that others, many undecided at the outset, now felt the same. Of course, the Bill had its supporters, and the House listened to them as carefully as to any, not least Rob Marris, the Bill's promoter, and the former DPP, Keir Starmer, who had framed the guidelines which would be overturned if the Bill were, as he hoped, passed. But they were in the minority. As the debate drew to a close - and as, with an unprecedented eighty three members having put down to speak, the Deputy Speaker requested short speeches - speaker after speaker in a swift succession of two minute contributions voiced concerns about the Bill. The House had come to its collective decision. Indeed , when the votes were cast and counted, not only did it become clear that just under four hundred and fifty MPs had attended, on a Friday, to consider the issue, over half of current MPs had voted against it. No cause for triumphalism - there was none of the usual cheering at the result, and quite right too. The House quietly dispersed. Members had done their business and their duty, conscientiously and with dignity.

Our challenge now is to ensure that the right solution to caring for our elderly and vulnerable, which is investing much more in palliative and holistic end of life care, is not just talked about but implemented. Baroness Finlay has introduced a Private Members Bill into the Lords which currently awaits its second reading, The Access To Palliative Care Bill. This aims to ensure that high quality palliative care is properly resourced and available for all who need it. Passing that Bill would be our best legacy from Friday.

Fiona Bruce is the Conservative MP for Congleton, and the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group

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