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Lords suicide debate saves the day

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Censorship of written material is off the agenda – for now: and for that we may need to thank Lord Falconer’s intense interest in suicide.

This week in the House of Lords, an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, put forward by Baroness O’Cathain, was withdrawn at the last minute. This amendment was designed to make possession of extreme pornographic written material an offence, in much the same way as extreme pictures are now.

It was what is known as a "christmas tree" amendment, in the sense that it did not relate directly to the text of the bill, but used the Bill as a convenient hook on which to hang. It was the third in a series of such amendments due to be debated on Tuesday night: the first two were in respect of assisted suicide abroad, proposed by Lord Falconer, and genocide.

Such was the interest in the suicide amendment that debate dragged on well past the point when their Lordships usually adjourned for their supper. House business, which usually takes place at half seven, was delayed until twenty past eight, when a stampede of hungry Lords headed for their canteen. Debate on the Coroners’ Bill did not resume until an hour later.

Sadly for the Baroness, New Labour reforms to the way parliament works means that the Lords now shut up shop at 10 pm – and debate on amendments cannot carry on between sessions without prior agreement between parties. Although not the case in this instance, the streamlining of parliamentary business through excess guillotining of debate has been bitterly resisted by opposition parties, who claim that important legislation is now passed with little or no formal scrutiny.

The Baroness’ amendment was eventually called at three minutes to ten – at which point she appears to have decided it was not worth putting, and did not stand up to propose it.

This may not be quite such good news for those worried about the possible extension of censorship to possession of written material. By withdrawing the amendment when she did, the Baroness reserves the right to bring it back to the House at Report stage in October.

Typically, peers put forward amendments of this kind to test the water. Although the Baroness did not receive formal support from her own front bench, she will have carefully noted who did lend her support, as well as the reaction her amendment received informally from the government side of the House.

El Reg managed to have a brief word with the Baroness as she was leaving the House: she expressed herself pleased with the result, and our impression was that she felt that her amendment had helped to rally support around this issue.

She would not be drawn on her plans for the future. ®

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