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Why Lord Forsyth’s attempt to hijack the Health and Care Bill is so dangerous

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LIKE many who’ve worked for decades in and around the Palace of Westminster, I have great respect for the achievements in high office of Lord (Michael) Forsyth of Drumlean, who is so popular that he is chair of the Conservative Peers Association. But what, oh what, is this highly respected Tory peer doing helping Leftist euthanasia obsessives in the Lords to introduce assisted dying by the back door? How is it that such a previously principled Conservative is not just pushing such an unethical ‘policy’ but subverting proper parliamentary practice to do so?

Lord Forsyth, with his new ‘progressive’ friends in the Upper Chamber, is trying to use the government’s flagship legislation, the Health and Care Bill, as a Trojan horse, or, to use a more timely analogy, as a host cell for a virus, to force the government to publish draft legislation to introduce assisted dying.

Having cleared the Commons, the Bill is about to finish its Committee Stage, during which Forsyth proposed an amendment. The purpose of the Committee stage of legislation, as anyone familiar with Parliamentary procedure knows, is well defined. It is when each line of a Bill is carefully considered. Amendments are sometimes put to votes as Members seek to improve draft legislation from their various perspectives: contested, often conflicting, attempts to push particular concerns through legislation, but all falling within a shared framework of relevance to the Bill under consideration.  

It is well understood, however, not least by the experienced Lord Forsyth, that no two Bills of the same substance should be brought forward in the same Parliamentary session. Indeed, paragraph 28:17 of Erskine May is transparent on this point. Given that Lord Forsyth’s amendment contains substantially similar provisions to Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill, which has already received Second Reading and awaits Committee Stage in this parliamentary session, it appears constitutionally improper for such an amendment to be tabled. It is clearly and undeniably seeking the same outcome as a Bill already under consideration.

That is why it has been so surprising to see this former Cabinet Minister and philanthropist attempting to subvert this process and hold the Government to ransom over a dangerous amendment to an essential piece of legislation. 

Worryingly, Forsyth’s Committee Stage amendment was just the start, as he has promised to bring it back for a vote at the upcoming Report stage, expected in late February, despite the Government’s clear opposition to this tactic.

During the recent Committee Stage debate, Lord Forsyth attempted to defend forcing the Government’s hand on a deeply sensitive matter of conscience by claiming his amendment would only instruct the Government to draft an assisted suicide bill rather than initiate any parliamentary proceedings.

This dubious defence of an amendment clearly designed to bypass the proper procedures of Private Members’ Bills has been expertly unpicked by the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern who clarified what they are: ‘All Bills are produced in draft; some are considered in draft in pre-legislative scrutiny.  A Bill has to be in draft at some stage, but the object of producing this Bill is not that it should remain in draft but that it should be considered.’

There is little doubt that Lord Forsyth’s attempt to seize control of the government’s legislative agenda is dangerous – dangerous to Governments today and in the future, dangerous to the Conservative Party in acrimoniously dividing its ranks unnecessarily, dangerous in risking delay to a key piece of legislation and dangerous for the lonely, the vulnerable and the sick approaching the end of their lives. 

A number of other Conservative peers voiced their strong opposition to such constitutional irregularity during the debate, including Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie who diplomatically described Lord Forsyth’s attempt as ‘the wrong amendment in the wrong Bill’.

Likewise, Baroness Stroud was surely right to question the intentions of Lord Forsyth in tabling an amendment that would force the Government to draft but not necessarily introduce a bill, when those aspects of legislative process are inextricably linked in practice. Indeed, as the Baroness suggested, it may well be the case that ‘he believes that the drafting of a Bill by government would confer legitimacy on an otherwise non-government policy’.

The amendment raises questions of far-reaching consequences. Attempting to project Government patronage over an assisted suicide bill that it does not support would be deeply dangerous for the integrity of parliamentary process and, in particular, of the Conservative Party. It would be a deceptive manoeuvre, deeply unbecoming of such a respected peer.

Misuse of parliamentary procedure in this way would be inappropriate for any Bill, yet it feels particularly distasteful in the case of assisted suicide. It is a deeply vexed question which provoked over a hundred contributions at the Second Reading of the Assisted Dying Bill last October, while the 200 amendments to the Bill since demonstrate the threat that such a change in the law poses to the elderly, the terminally ill, and those living with disabilities.

As the Government has consistently stated, it is their longstanding position that any change to law on assisted suicide is a decision for Parliament rather than for Government. Lord Forsyth’s amendment blurs these lines, which is no small problem for the matter of life and death.

Despite the Health Minister Syed Kamall’s response that ‘it would not be appropriate to include a commitment to bring forward new primary legislation in the Bill’, Lord Forsyth has declared his intention to retable his amendment at Report stage and divide the House on the question. 

The House of Lords must oppose this deeply divisive move that would sabotage the legislative process and endanger vulnerable people.

For the sake of the Government and future governments, for the constitution, and for respect for our democratic processes, Lord Forsyth should withdraw.

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Chris Whitehouse
Chris Whitehouse
Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency Whitehouse Communications.

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