Bill will not introduce 'backdoor euthanasia'

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Indy Politics

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, led a climbdown last night after secret behind-the-scenes talks to make it clear that the Government's controversial Mental Capacity Bill will not allow euthanasia by the back door.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, led a climbdown last night after secret behind-the-scenes talks to make it clear that the Government's controversial Mental Capacity Bill will not allow euthanasia by the back door.

MPs said Downing Street ordered the retreat to avert a substantial rebellion against the Bill, which allows patients to sign "living wills" requiring doctors not to continue treatment if they are in a coma.

But Labour MPs opposed to the Bill accused ministers of creating a "wretched shambles". The Government bought off the rebels by slipping out an exchange of letters between Lord Falconer and a leading Roman Catholic Archbishop guaranteeing the Bill would be changed in the Lords to ensure it would not allow doctors to perform mercy-killing on terminally-ill patients.

A total of 34 Labour MPs still rebelled against the Bill but most concerned Labour MPs dropped their opposition after the letters circulated in the Commons chamber. An attempt by opponents to change the Bill was defeated by 297 votes to 203, a majority of 94.

Tory MPs furiously demanded copies of the letters and forced last-minute assurances from Lord Falconer's minister in the Commons, David Lammy. He was forced to read the letters into the record to persuade the rebel MPs to withdraw their opposition to the measure.

Kevin McNamara, one of the leading Labour rebels who dropped his objections to the Bill, said: "We have won." Labour MPs said Mr Lammy's handling of the retreat could damage his hopes of rapid promotion after the election. He is regarded as a rising star of New Labour, but he was accused of causing confusion by the former Labour minister, Frank Field, who was opposed to the Bill. "I just hope that when it comes to my end, people have a greater understanding of the issues than displayed in the Commons. It was a wretched shambles."

One senior Labour backbencher claimed Mr Lammy "would be out of his depth in a saucer of water".

The confusion over the exchange of letters between the Lord Chancellor and Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Cardiff, who has been negotiating on behalf of Catholics concerned about the Bill, arose following crisis talks on Monday night.

In his letter, the Archbishop said Lord Falconer had given an undertaking "to make explicit in the Mental Capacity Bill that the Bill does not authorise any decision where the motive is to kill, as distinct from relieving or preventing suffering or ending treatment where the patient is in an irreversible coma".

The letter also said the assurance would cover "an act or omission" which those opposed to the Bill said included the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration. Lord Falconer added: "Any decisions must be in the patient's best interests."

Claire Curtis-Thomas, the Labour MP for Crosby whose mother changed her mind after saying she wanted no treatment following a massive stroke, last night welcomed the Government's concessions. She said: "We think what we are going to see is an explicit commitment that food and water will not be withdrawn to bring about the death of a patient. But the devil will be in the detail."

Labour MPs warned that the Bill could still face a mauling in the Lords because the Bill seeks to embody the High Court ruling in the Tony Bland case, allowing life support to be switched off. Mr Lammy said that would not be affected by the concession he announced.

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