Time travel, life and death

The pace of the legislative programme is picking up – alongside the pace of the constitutional debate – and it was during the discussion of a bill that I was reminded of the long-term purpose of Official Reports. The Local Government and Regeneration Committee was continuing its scrutiny of the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, with an emphasis on taxi licensing in particular.

Kevin Woodburn from Edinburgh City Private Hire told the convener that he felt that there was a good deal of confusion about the differences between licensing for taxis and that for private hire vehicles, and that the original purpose of the distinction, which was made in the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, had been lost. Mr Woodburn made the point that if we

could go back in time and speak to the people who put the legislation in place originally, we could ask what was their purpose.

Well, being a repository of the intentions of legislators is precisely what Official Reports are for. We’re less exciting than a TARDIS, but we do the job. I searched our Westminster colleagues’ Millbank Systems website, and found little to comfort Mr Woodburn. As the debate on the bill began, Lord Ross of Marnock said:

But, on the question of taxis and hire cars, the working party suggested there should be two separate codes of licensing, clear-cut—one for the taxi and one for the hire car. So far as I can see, they are a bit muddled and mixed up.

On finding out that there’s nothing new under the sun, I’m never sure whether to be comforted or to despair. I hope that in 33 years’ time researchers will find that the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill is a model of clarity.

The Philosophy of Life and Death

Another bill that is under way is the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill. I’ve written before about the pleasure of hearing and reporting evidence given by experts in their field, and this week’s Health and Sport Committee meeting was a case in point. The committee was taking evidence on the ethics of the bill and one of our staff described the meeting as a particularly good philosophy tutorial.

The meeting began with a discussion of autonomy, moved on to the relationship between an autonomous person and the society they live in, and then the relationship between autonomy and dignity.

Dr Calum MacKellar from the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics said that:

“I was originally a scientist and know that, from a scientific perspective, everyone here is nothing but a pile of biological cells. That is all that we are, and it is all that we can prove that we are.

However, each of us believes that we are more than that and that we have value and worth. That is not down to autonomy; it is because each of us believes that we have value and worth that we respect the autonomy of others. In the history of humankind, there have been certain persons who had full autonomy but to whom the state refused to give value and worth. Autonomy cannot be the basis of inherent human dignity; it is only because of inherent human dignity that we respect the autonomy of others.”

Professor Graeme Laurie from the University of Edinburgh went back to the Parliament’s previous encounter with these issues, the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. He made the argument that:

Following up on the discussion about the relationship—or not—between autonomy and dignity, I remind the committee that the previous version of the bill referred to dignity. I was one of the people who argued very strongly against that, because I thought that it gave rise to exactly this kind of confusion. I just do not think that it is helpful as a legislative device; in fact, I think that it is problematic. One of the advances that have been made in this version of the bill is its focus on the notion of autonomy. It is exploring the issue—and it is inviting Scottish society to explore the issue—as an aspect of the respect agenda; it is all about the choices made by individuals who are able to make those choices.

There’s much more, but taking up the bill’s invitation to Scottish society, which is already engaged in a good deal of self-examination, is a good place from which to start the weekend.