Some people query the value of Private Members’ Bills on the grounds that relatively few make it to the statute book. My view is that they are extremely valuable for raising issues, getting them debated and, in so doing, testing the arguments for and against. Some of the issues covered by Private Members’ Bills attract far greater public interest than the normal run of Government Bills. They can thus serve an important safety valve function, letting people express their views, be it by e-mail, petition or demonstration, as well as putting pressure on Government. If there is clear support for a Bill, there is a case for returning to the issue and pursuing it, with a view to persuading Government to bring in a Bill of its own. The Assisted Dying Bill is a good example of a Bill attracting considerable interest. In recent times, I have had more letters on the Bill than on any Government measure. The Bill had its second day in committee last Friday. You can read the discussion on amendments here.
There was not time to get through all the amendments on Friday. Given that, the Bill will not make progress. Even if it got through the House, there would not be time for it in the Commons. However, the debate on the Bill has enabled the arguments to be heard. Significantly, there were two votes. The first, on whether to designate the measure as constituting ‘assistance with suicide’ was rejected by 179 votes to 106. The terminology may not seem crucial, but it was a means of testing support for, and opposition to, the Bill. A second vote was also won by supporters of the Bill, this time by 119 votes to 61. The breakdown of voting on the first amendment showed that most Labour, Liberal Democrat and cross-bench peers voted against the amendment, with Conservative peers basically split down the middle.
The importance of the votes was to show the degree of support for the Bill, which now appears considerably higher than when the Bill was first introduced several years ago by Lord Joffe. It provides an impetus for supporters to continue with their campaign and to press Government either to legislate on the issue or to provide time for debate on a Private Member’s Bill. After Friday’s debate, it is clear that there is a growing momentum favouring action.