The Sketch: Quick, call the medics - Lammy's mental capacity hangs in the balance

Simon Carr
Wednesday 15 December 2004 01:00

When parliamentary sadists compile their Anthology of Pain, David Lammy will have a chapter to himself.

When parliamentary sadists compile their Anthology of Pain, David Lammy will have a chapter to himself.

The deputy Speaker, Michael Lord, presided with great verve over astonishing scenes in the House yesterday. The disorder, the unruliness, the delirious confusion of the Mental Capacity debate ... we hadn't seen anything like it for a month, not since the Hunting Bill when late amendments threw the parliamentary juggernaut off its tracks.

Hunting matters to comparatively few people; the Mental Capacity Bill matters to everyone. The standard of the Government was contemptible. No, it was beneath contempt and beyond indignation. It was shifty, it was dishonest, it was both arrogant and oily, it was business as usual. The Bill has the power, not a few members fear, to let doctors deprive terminal patients of food and fluid until "death is brought to them" (the minister's phrase). Life is a terminal condition, so most of us - the lucky ones, at least - will wind up incapable of more or less everything, doing what we can to do as well as circumstances allow.

We may have made a living will asking not to be given medical treatment past a certain point. The trouble is, as Iain Duncan Smith told us, the state has defined food and water as "medical treatment" (I keep saying, don't I, how important it is to watch the words they use).

So there are issues of euthanasia that need clearing up - which Mr Lammy has conspicuously failed to do, either through cowardice, indolence or idiocy. Nothing can be ruled out. He got terrific rollicking right from the start. Quiet assurances had been given to members. Amendments had been promised. But nothing had materialised. No one wanted to listen to anything he had to say. When he did manage to be heard, Gerald Kaufman remarked: "If the minister can't make a better point than that he'd do better to remain seated."

It got much worse. Whips passed a letter round the dissidents, causing a commotion. Backbench eyes were hanging out like tulips. Kevin McNamara read out a part of the letter. It was astonishing. It was from the Lord Chancellor to an archbishop making specific undertakings with regard to the wording of the legislation.

Mr Lammy was making shrugging gestures. He'd not heard of the letter. But it was central to his Bill. The uproar grew over the next hour as members realised the contempt in which their proceedings were held by the Government. The wretched Lammy promised the letter would be available in the Vote Office before the vote was taken. It wasn't.

The Speaker was giving him instructions on how to conduct himself, his colleagues were besieging him, the Opposition was baying for his blood and the whips were taking his corpse apart bone by bone. But why? Mr Lammy left the chamber spreading his arms in bewilderment. Or crucifixion, perhaps.

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