Inside Parliament: Lords show little mercy but the Prime Minister gets life support: Changes to euthanasia laws rejected - Baroness attacks 'small group' of disloyal Tories

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Changes in the law to permit voluntary euthanasia and mercy-killing were ruled out yesterday by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to the approval of church leaders and the Lords select committee on medical ethics.

'There are deep moral structures in our society which we tamper with at our peril,' the Archbishop of York, the Most Rev John Habgood, told peers during a debate on the committee's report. Society as a whole could be shaped in subtle ways by the manner of death . . . 'there is a line which we must not cross, no matter how sympathetic we might be towards the fears and wishes of some individual. If we cross it, we might erode the very foundations on which caring and tolerance are based.'

Dr Habgood said that to will one's death was the ultimate rejection. 'One of the limits on individual freedom must surely be against those actions which, in the long run, could undermine the sense of moral community on which individual morality must ultimately be based.'

The Lord Chancellor endorsed the committee's view that the intentional taking of life to relieve suffering should remain illegal but rejected its recommendation that the mandatory life sentence for murder should be ended for 'mercy killings'. He said: 'We do not believe that active intervention to end life should be excused on the basis of motives or the victim's consent. To do so would undermine the law's uncompromising stance on intentional killing and might bring with it many of the dangers associated with euthanasia.'

Euthanasia was a matter of principle on which society had a deep and inalienable interest. 'Legalising euthanasia would put the weak and vulnerable . . . at risk and in fear,' he said.

The Duke of Norfolk, president of the Catholic Union, welcomed the stand against euthanasia and said he was 'horrified' to read that in 1990 in Holland, the only country where it is openly practised, the lives of some 1,000 patients were terminated without their explicit consent.

Introducing the report, Lord Walton of Detchant, a former president of the British Medical Association, pointed out that a patient's right to refuse medical treatment was 'far removed' from the right to request assistance in dying. His committee had agreed that, in some terminal cases, doctors could give increasing doses of medication even if it shortened life. 'If the motive is to relieve pain and distress with no intention to kill, we regard this as being wholly acceptable in terms of medical practice and under the current law.'

Earlier, Baroness Chalker, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, delivered a scarcely veiled rebuke to those of her Tory colleagues who are endeavouring to switch off John Major's life- support system.

Replying to Lord Bonham-Carter, a Liberal Democrat, who talked of the Government behaving 'as if it were in the middle of a nervous breakdown', Lady Chalker said: 'There are a lot of people who are seeking to undermine Britain, to undermine the Government and particularly the Prime Minister, and the sooner it stops the better for Britain.'

The Question Time exchanges were opened by Lord Chalfont, a former Labour foreign minister long-since turned crossbencher, who asked if Britain's influence in Paris, Bonn and Washington was 'likely to be enhanced or otherwise' by controversy over a referendum on constitutional change in the European Union.

A passionate European, Lady Chalker had perhaps not been briefed on Downing Street's latest neutral line. 'I really do not believe the question of a referendum on European matters arises now, therefore it doesn't need any decision now.' She recalled last year's long debate during the passage of the Maastricht legislation, when peers firmly rejected the idea of a referendum. Many had wondered whatever question could be asked.

Lady Chalker said much of the 'deep division' to which the newspapers gave great prominence was caused by a very small group of people. 'If you examine what we are doing in foreign policy . . . you will see that the newspaper headlines, and those who seek to draw attention to their personal views on back benches or in other places, haven't read what is really going in foreign policy, which does add up to a very great success for Britain.'